The quest memoir, poorly defined as a genre, is an ancient form with roots, most likely, in pre-literate times. Briefly, it is a narrative, told usually in the first person, of the progress of a quest. The protagonist sets out to find something or someone and, after the search is over, tells an audience what happened along the way. A peculiarity of the form is that failure often figures as a peril of the quest and, paradoxically, part of its successful outcome. This sounds more enigmatic than it is: a gatherer who sets out in search of yams and comes back with bush tomatoes has both failed and succeeded; so has a hunter who goes after kangaroo and comes back with nothing at all: each will still have a story to tell. The success/failure axis of the quest, and the uncertainty it presupposes, is one of the driving forces of narrative in this form of non-fiction; and the multiple outcomes it proposes make, often enough, for literature that is both flexible and engaging; sometimes very moving too.
Thus, the protagonist of a quest memoir does not necessarily find what s/he is looking for; but might find something else. The form is adaptable and capacious and requires of its reader absolute trust in the narrative voice. There is no place here, and no point to, the unreliable narrator. Self examination, however, is very much of the essence and in this respect quest memoir has strong affinities with memoir in its standard form; but has a different relation to time than either the standard memoir or its near cousin, autobiography. Although it can take the form of a chronological account, it does not need to and frequently does not. In sophisticated hands a quest memoir may more resemble a work of fiction; you may not ever know quite what is coming next and its time chart might look more like a mosaic or a collage than a progression.
Gabrielle Carey’s Moving Among Strangers is a quest memoir with just such a complex, mosaic, time structure. It is also a quest that in some respects fails to achieve its objective; but in that failure discovers other things. She tells her story with grace, delicacy and precision. And with a kind of circumspection that is, to use a by now almost obsolete word, mannerly. This quality, this reticence, is not simply characteristic of the writing in Moving Among Strangers, it is one of the themes of the book; and, inter alia, a virtue possessed by its principal subject, the writer Randolph Stow. Carey writes several times of the old virtues, of which reticence is one; others include simple good manners, respect for the privacy of others, quiet observation without the need to proclaim the results of that observation; and the ability to withhold judgment, not just for a year and a day but over the course of an entire lifetime. As the quest memoir might fail and yet thereby attain paradoxical success, these old virtues may be seen as a set of negatives which, to use a photographic metaphor, when properly developed show up as incontrovertible positives.
Gabrielle Carey has, as we say, always known there was some kind of family connection between her mother’s people and the Stows but has never investigated it fully—until now. The book opens with her mother beginning to die of cancer, a process that will take three weeks. A week into that brief period of exit, Carey brings her mother an anthology of Randolph Stow’s writing and is astonished when she, who has apparently ceased to be able to read, delivers a near perfect recitation of her favourite Stowe poem called, appropriately enough, ‘For One Dying’: Now, in that place where all birds cease to sing . . . Carey tries to persuade her mother to write to her old friend, then living in England, but she will not. In the end, the author writes herself and so initiates a brief correspondence which initiates the quest that animates the rest of the book: that is, a search for the hidden connections between her mother, Jean Carey, neé Ferguson, and her rather younger confrère, Randolph ‘Mick’ Stow.
It is not my intention to detail the stages of this quest, which is various and strange and leads the author far afield—to Western Australia, where she meets or re-meets multiple among her lost and/or forgotten relatives, from both sides of her family; and to England where, under an oak sapling in Wrabness Wood outside the village of Harwich in Suffolk, she visits Randolph Stow’s grave. For by this time, before they have had a chance to meet or even to talk upon the telephone, he too has died: one of the most poignant missed connections in this quest is a result of Carey’s failure to notice the telephone number written at the bottom of the page of one of Stow’s letters to her until it is too late to call. When she returns from the furthest of these pilgrimages, there is another death, the third, this time that of her older sister, with whom she has, somewhat fractiously, nursed their dying mother in the earliest stages of the book.
In some respects, then, the book cannot help but become a meditation upon dying. And, concomitantly, a meditation upon what is lost to us with the death of those who are close to us, whom we have known or loved, admired or respected. Carey’s accomplishment here is two-fold: while on the one hand she expertly notes the gaps in memory that can never be filled, the personal information that was stored only in someone’s mind, and then imperfectly, the documentary traces that were too insignificant or too troubling to be preserved; on the other she uncovers a rich cast of living characters who by their palpable presence on the page, bring back much that seemed irretrievable and add more that was not known before. I refer here not only to the rediscovered extended family in WA but also to Stow’s friends in Suffolk who do so much to fill out his portrait.
That portrait is, for me, the central achievement of this book. Again, it is deft and economical, elegant and intricate: accomplished as much by omission as by inclusion. There’s a kind of tact involved here which is supremely important in this kind of writing: you are going to have to speculate but, by the same token, there are few things more tiresome than an author who speculates too much. Those texts infected with might-have-beens and would-have-beens, perhapses and of courses, only serve to erode the reader’s trust in the authorial voice. Here we have something almost opposite: it is Carey’s refusal to speculate that somehow allows Stow, that silent man, a voice. Here, again, it’s the negatives that develop a positive that is far more convincing than any speculative portrait might have been.
Her refusal to speculate also allows Stow to preserve his privacy, which was evidently of great importance to him as a man and as an author; he remains an enigma to the end. There were just eight novels, five of them written before their author turned forty; a handful of poems, again mostly written in the first half of his working life; a few other heterogeneous works, including libretti and children’s books. The latter part of his life, which was spent in England, living quietly in that part of the country from which his English ancestors came, produced just three books: the twinned Visitants and The Girl Green as Elderflower; and the last book, called The Suburbs of Hell, published in 1984. For the next quarter century, until his death in 2010, Stow published nothing.
Silence in a writer is provocative: witness the swirl of conjecture that still surrounds the author of The Catcher in the Rye. More recently, in the plethora of books that have come out to mark the centenary of the birth of William Burroughs, we have his own startling testimony: that he believed an evil spirit entered him at the time in the 1940s when he shot his wife dead; and that his literary career was a sustained attempt, ultimately successful, to exorcise this demon. Stow is a very different writer from Burroughs but it does seem that in his case, too, there was a need for the kind of exorcism that writing can accomplish; and when he had said what was in him to say, or what his daemon required of him, he was content simply to live. His conflicted relationship with his home country was certainly one of the engines of his writing and it is quite possible that it was only by leaving all that behind that he could attain a modicum of happiness in his personal life. Carey’s evocation of Stow’s last years, courtesy of his English friends, is exquisitely modulated and very moving, intimate even as it leaves Stow’s essential privacy intact.
Gabrielle Carey’s Moving Among Strangers is a relatively short book, beautifully designed and presented by the University of Queensland Press, in which the strangers of the title turn imperceptibly into friends or, at the very least, acquaintances; a quest which does not achieve its aim and yet somehow manages to illuminate its subject in such a way that we as readers feel, howsoever briefly, that the unknown may yet be known; an evocative, highly descriptive, journey to places as far apart as the dusty coasts of south western Australia are from the green shade of a Suffolk village; most of all, a foray to the edges of that undiscovered borne from which no traveller returns.
Near the end of the book is a section which is rather like the old rhyme ‘The House That Jack Built’, summarising the path of incident and co-incidence that made up her quest. Then, in a lovely paragraph that begins: This, then, is what I have learned about the dead . . . she writes her conclusion. There is a profound sense here that it is in conversation with the dead we most become ourselves: something that pre-literate peoples have always believed. I kept thinking of the words of a Warren Zevon song, from his late album, Life’ll Kill Ya, itself a kind of quest memoir, and written within sight of his own early death. The refrain suggests: we take that holyride ourselves to know. It is a holy ride that Carey takes and, on the evidence of the book’s ending, increased self-knowledge was a consequence; as well as an understanding of the beguiling phenomenon of the effervescence of elderflower wine. For readers there is something more: an insight into the mystery at the heart of a writer’s vocation.
MARTIN EDMOND is an author, poet, screenwriter who teaches at UWS. His awards include the Jessie Mackay Award and the Montana Book Award. He lives in Sydney.
Joel Ephraims lives on the South-East Coast of NSW. He studies creative writing, philosophy, and literature at the University of Wollongong. In 2011 he won the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize and in 2013 his chapbook of poetry, Through The Forest was published as part of Australian Poetry and Express Media’s New Voices Series.
Vipassana Frog Pond after Meditation and Dawn
Dragonflies synch in misted dawn air
around mutated fingers of a dried dog turd white ash
tree; through the hyperbola your tea cup
spoon-end makes with the unseeablely starlight lipped sun.
Pond new birthed as a biologist stirred mid-dream,
usual as his motions vacuuming up fondue fountain crumbs.
Lilies lie green Pac-men recovering nonchalantly
from heavy drinking with mouths still open for ghosts.
Ripple of rain’s pear explosions programmed
by Blue Mountain weather intermittent in petroleum
tinctured water where larvae by gradations form.
All ghosts long eaten their eyes hover in room at bottom
unseen by orange fish mothers amongst their eggs.
Frogs reincarnated Pali teachers sing final chorus chants
echoing morning pond before Nirvana incognito;
Pac-men power pellet nourished drift over digesting sankharas.
On wooden tree walk rail your elbow crooked
player’s hand splayed toward clock and hushed breakfast hall… Anicca Anicca Anicca…
From where she was standing, on the backyard of the hospital, the only objects she could make out were the parts chosen by the dying light. Idlehorse carts, bamboo bushes deep in sleep, an abandoned pile of buckets. She walked on, into a garden that suddenly opened up, ending in a tight barricade of trees. She heard the slapping of wings as birds tried to sneak into pockets of warmth amid the leaves. She could hear the gentle snap of twigs and their descent to the ground. There was nobody around. Then she saw a flash of light, a strange sheen from the direction of the thicket of the trees. It refracted through the landscape infusing it with sadness. Strangely it was the colour blue.
Later, Amba would learn that Bhisma had never taken colours for granted. He would ask her endlessly about how she perceived different hues, listening intently to her descriptions, whether a poetic burst about a sunset or a reflection on a fruit as banal as the aubergine. When she finally understood the reason for this rich strangeness it would be too late: he would be long gone. For now, she walked toward that light. (181)
Colour is central, as we may ascertain from the English title of Laksmi Pamuntjak’s The Question of Red (Amber in the Indonesian edition). The novel was launched at the Ubud Festival in October last year and colour glows with symbolic resonance over the surface of the narrative. In the passage quoted above, Amba is walking towards a light, which in its portentousness, will be the occasion of irrevocable change. But if it is the colour blue which appears to signify the embodiment of love, it is the colour red which appropriates and dominates, a volatile red broadcasting the dangerous, unpredictable and bloody world of revolutionary Indonesia in the 1960’s. And it is red, with all these connotations as we will come to understand, which the colour-blind Bhisma is unable to perceive, which will separate the doomed lovers, Amba and Bhisma.
The Question of Red is in part a bildungsroman set in an era of political turbulence. A young girl, Amba, fulfils her dream to study at university, rejects her devoted suitor Salwa, and has a brief passionate love affair with Bhisma, a worldly doctor educated in Europe. Parallels are drawn, a little heavy handedly, with characters of similar names and destinies as in the classic tale of the Mahabharata. There appears to be no irony in the depiction of Amba’s father, Sudarminto, bestowing the fate of the name upon his daughter. The Question of Red tells the multi-vocal story of Amba and Bhisma’s love affair, which begins in a hospital in Kediri in East Java, and is played out in two short weeks, amidst the violent days surrounding the attempted coup and Suharto’s coming to power in 1966. Leaving the hospital Bhisma, who has left-wing sympathies, travels to Jogjakarta to treat a dangerously wounded revolutionary, accompanied by the apolitical Amba, a naïve student of literature at Universitas Gajah Mada. Significantly out of her depth and struggling to maintain the emotional thread to her lover, she is separated from him by the bombing of a protest rally they are attending, and never sees him again. Some years later, Bhisma is transported to the island of Buru, the notorious camp set up for political prisoners by the Suharto regime. When the novel begins Amba, now in her early sixties and having received a mysterious e-mail, travels there to discover his fate. The strength of The Question of Red lies very much in its evocation of place and mood. Changes in village life show traditional social structures being overtaken by new political agendas and a hardening of attitudes by an increasingly divided populace employing intense and heated rhetoric no matter what their political persuasion. Engaged to Salwa, but troubled by his undemonstrative devotion, Amba moves to Jogjakarta and at first her studies go well. Campus life is fondly described.
However, political strife both distracts and impedes her studies. To break the impasse, she takes the rash step of journeying to strife-torn Kediri to help out in the hospital office where she meets Bhisma. Bhisma has been working in the hospital where victims of communal conflict are brought in daily, and he has been treating patients of every political colour. But the properties of colour, the question of colour for him “can be a problem …I have to guess the colour by its light. I can’t tell if the berets worn by the soldiers who come to the hospital are red or green!” (227) Fundamentally, colour-blindness leaves Bhisma exposed, both politically and personally, as it compromises his capacity to clearly read signs of danger. It was on the third day of October when news came through that PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia) leader Aidit had fled to Jogjakarta. At this point, Bhisma and Amba are drawn into the conflict.
The scenes in Jogjakarta are particularly well-drawn by Pamuntjak, as she conveys the volatility and crisis-charged behaviour of the revolutionaries. She also convincingly portrays the action of people attempting to retain some kind of normalcy through this situation. Bhisma takes Amba to an artist colony which he considers ‘safe’, a place raided by soldiers a few days later. Amba, desperately clinging to her love for Bhisma, Is shown choosing clothes as if she is going to a party, deciding on a red blouse as a suitable item to wear to the ill-fated rally, a choice which has tragic consequences for both of them.
The novel portrays locations vividly and incorporates key historical events without weighing down the narrative. With much sensitivity, Pamuntjak describes the response of a local man, Samuel, to Buru post-prison:
It is the afternoon. Amba and Samuel are sitting on the stone seats beneath an assembly of trees in a schoolyard in the village of Walgan … He [Samuel] sees anew how pretty the school is. Banana trees line the outer walls, while inside the courtyard is hedged by a row of duku and turi, and a durian tree. The sense of prison has gone, now its fences and borders resemble nothing of the Buru that raised Samuel. But at the back, where pinang, aren and tall grass spill out uncontrollably far into idle land, the school suddenly looks endangered and vulnerable, for there it is no longer sheltered under a signage, no longer fenced in. (64)
The scene suggests the absence of Bhisma, the silence emanating from many untold stories and the crisis to which Samuel is a witness. Pamuntjak is at her best conveying place, from village life to Jogjakarta, from Buru to the Jakarta art world.
Being a large rather unwieldy novel encompassing many time-frames and a large number of characters and settings, the book’s main difficulty lies with characterisation, a difficulty which could have been effectively addressed with astute editing. The narrative would have sparkled with the elimination of certain sub-plots; for example, the story of Samuel merely diffuses rather than encapsulates the intensity of Amba’s search for Bhisma. In the English version reviewed here there is also a problem with register, with the occasional colloquialism and anachronism having a jarring effect. In regard to characterisation, it is difficult to reconcile the early portrait of Amba with the woman viewed by Samuel, and pointedly, by Amba and Bhisma’s daughter, Srikandi, with the shift from interiority to appraisal being quite unsuccessful. The depiction of Amba growing up as a mild rebel in a fairly conventional family of wise father, thwarted mother and empty-headed sisters is followed by an extended piece delineating her insecurities in relationship to Bhisma, and this lengthy piece works against the image of her as a strong and independent woman, the version which the reader is supposed to accept. The reduction of this depiction of insecurity would have strengthened the novel considerably. The idealisation of male figures in Amba’s life is also something of a weakness, a problem that is somewhat addressed through the forthright character of Srikandi. There are also unexplained absences in the plot. It is not clear why Bhisma did not attempt to find Amba in the years following the coup, and for Amba to excuse her lack of action as due to a sense of unworthiness, is rather exasperating as issome of the second-guessing going on with various plot tie-ups. These deficiencies significantly reduce the impact of Bhisma’s Buru letters to Amba.
Despite these problems with plot and characterisation, The Question of Red is at its best in presenting the days prior to the Indonesian holocaust of 1966, and in its sense of the personal tragedies it brought to so many, when the country’s dream of freedom and independence lost all colour and was reduced to ashes. It is from this perspective that we can view a scene late in the book when Srikandi, daughter of colour-blind Bhisma, at her exhibition opening, is asked why there is so much red in her work:
I grew up with red you see, it has been the colour of my life. I learned at school, of course, that red meant one thing: Communism, and I understood how that made us all fear it… At home as a child I grew up with the most glorious shades of red – ruby, scarlet, vermillion, puce, carmine, claret, burgundy, crimson, magenta, damask, garnet, maroon, and I knew the power of each of those names. And for that I have my mother to thank. She was a warrior, someone who was not afraid of anything.” (332/3)
JENNIFER MACKENZIE is the author of Borobudur (Transit Lounge 2009) reprinted in Indonesia as Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, Jakarta 2012)
Beibei Chen is currently a Ph.D candidate, who came to Australia in 2011 to study in the English department of UNSW at Canberra. She is interested in representations of history, memory and identity in Chinese Australians fictions. She spends her spare time writing essays and poetry related to life stories of Asians in Australia. She has a passion for representing diversity of life, dreams and memory.
Two Sharp, Sydney, Darkening, Conflicting, Yearning, Struggling and twisting. Neither did I have strong ‘Aussie’ coffee; Nor walk to the hill growing a gumtree. I suspect myself being sick. Lost my soul, Spelt “scapegoat” wrong into “space-goat” People laughed. I cried for home.
He came from the unlocked backyard door, And straight to my kitchen, When I was standing still in the rented roof, Suddenly prepared to salute: For he is the general of this foreign land, I am the stranger who is prepared to intrude.
Michelle Cahill lives in Sydney. Her fiction appears in Antipodes, Etchings, Southerly, Meanjin, TEXT, Alien Shores (Brass Monkey, 2012) and Escape (Spineless Wonders, 2011).She is the recipient of a Developing Writer’s grant from the Australia Council and has received prizes in fiction and poetry.
~Photograph by Nicholas Walton-Healey
Letter to Pessoa
When I open my eyes Aleandro has left, his bed sheet folded. For a moment I’m in Santa Monica. The whirring fan, the garish pink walls seem vaguely familiar. Alcohol settles like a carpet of snow falling softly in my head. On the desk next to your Selected, there’s a note, saying “Thanks” with no address. Not even a number.
It’s so humid my wristwatch could be melting as in Dali’s famed masterpiece but the dream is my own and the mattress is hard against my back. I rub my eyes. I’ve missed the last bus. (Should mention that I met him at a tapas bar, El-Xampaynet. And fell for his champagne curls, his unmannered charm.)
Resisting waves of nausea I stand. Pull on jeans. Check face in a piece of mirror stuck above the sink. Try for a clean shave.
Estrella is in the courtyard. She is busy stacking boxes of Fontvella, the floor cluttered with piles of dirty clothes and cylinders of gas. Fuse wires spread like vines across the cracked plaster. I can hear the squeak of the pulley used to hoist laundry up to the terrace.
Church bells gag. Beyond the rooftops the sky crushes me with its vivid blue. The old man at reception nods sympathetically. He guesses I have my suicidal hours. Aren’t we ever-restless? Rebellious clerks for whom the streets are never desolate, littered with cigarette butts and last night’s pardon.
Two blocks away a bar is open.
Coffee rouses me. The owner looks weary. He starts carving the jamon in thick slices. Strings of garlic and the chintzy jingle of a radio tell me it’s time to find your whereabouts, to leave this stinking city behind. An old man thumbs through the classifieds. The smell of his Rex mingles with the odour of stale piss, the floor trashed with butts and greasy smudges.
Flâneur, you made me dream of Lisboa. Of theosophy, of black and white mosaic tiles, of slaves and cool Atlantic breezes. Of Afro jazz, pastel facades and Alfonso Pereira. Or perhaps it was the poems of Álvaro de Campos. I’ve wondered if they were fabrications or if he lived in you? What ships left the rat-infested harbours transporting poets? What ships are docked within us?
Old radio plays a sevillanas, the guys at the bar are drinking cerveza, the coffee wakes me up. Then she strides in. The Countess of El Raval come without her chariot. Dressed in a flimsy blue dress, with her daughter, a three-legged dog and a fat man wearing bifocals. Her eyes are piercing, her face sharp though I can tell that once she would have been pretty. She’s waving her arms, still high, gnawing her pastry voraciously. Joking with the men at the counter. I can’t get over the mad glint in her eyes as her head spins and she feeds the dog a chunk of bread. Or the wide gap between her teeth when she smiles or the click of her heels. What voice speaks through her? What would you make of her in your song book of poets? Seafarer, ambassador of taverns, if I could read your marginalia, peruse your trunk stuffed with verses, chronicles and odes, uncensored. If I could hypertext as Pessoa to Pessoa of the Countess of El Ravel, or find in Portuguese the precise cipher.
Circumstance is drab, a deadweight lessened by drama. It could be five minutes later, it could be twenty though it happens approximately that the Duchess arrives. A fat platinum blonde she is wearing a fake tiara and so much eyeshadow her eyes are blue balloons like stingers. The bartender becomes angry, beads of sweat on his brow. He serves her swiftly before retreating to the scullery. But the men line up, talking while staring through her gaping dress.
How does one purge of this excess? I write as myself in the half-light, allowing a swarm of feelings and observations to grow. My epistles are tactless though the concubine retreats in me. She is mostly febrile, an impulsive raconteur, conversing with herself.
I’ll wait for you in Bar Trindade on Coelho da Rocha. Perhaps you’ll enter carrying under your arm a leather suitcase. You’ll order a 2, 4, 8 and the waiter will bring matches, cigarettes and brandy. He will fill your empty bottle. Perhaps you will observe my profile, my gaze and all of us will converse through one medium. Or you will drink alone until you leave staggering into an evening of sparrows and dust. What happens isn’t certain. All that we have are fragments of the mirror. Cold and sharp in their edges but precise and dazzling when the light sweeps back into them and we see outside of time.
They say you write in English and in French, sometimes in Edwardian cafés. I believe so. The wind speaks to you saying silence is everything. You dream like an argument without feeling. You are two singing in time; you are a double pain which I already know, weary as I am of climbing these stairs to the fifth floor of a building in Rhonda de San Pedro. Maria Gonzales with the heavy accent asks me to come back in an hour. Waiting on a Consul’s initials.
‘I’m so sorry’ she purrs with a flirtatious smile, behind the counter of the dark room. (Her honey-blonde hair pinned, her details imprinted on a card I’ll keep for a few days in my back-pocket.)
So what if there are postponements? Delays should not concern me—genius of dreams. I’ll never be anything. I sit in a café, drink a green glass tea and read Álvaro de Campos’ “Tobacconists”. Tomorrow evening we could meet among the ministries in Martinho da Arcada. Strangers like us belong to the street: we ebb and flow with the crowd, we rise with the evening as the heat swells slowly by degrees. The straight guys lunch in cafeterias under the shade of trees and umbrellas, watching the pretty signorinas parade. I’m starting to feel jaded but my bags are packed. A train leaves this evening for Lisboa Oriente.
Passengers hurl their baggage into racks. Young and tough and cheap, we display all the talents that Dali would despise. We reek of sweat. The guard stamps my ticket. A shrill whistle reins-in the day. Now my journey begins and I’m reminded of your best heteronyms. So many minds and sundry, the petitions of your shadow portraits. Not one could erase Aleandro or the genteel women of Barcelona, who seem like the dreams I know are not dreams. Their voices unravel and speak over me, and in my thoughts as I begin to write them….
Autumn Royal is a poet and PhD candidate at Deakin University. Autumn’s writing has appeared in publications such as Antipodes, Cordite, Rabbit, and Verity La.
I saw my heart on the airport terminal floor,
and gasped at how my misunderstanding bled
into fibres scarred by shoes and suitcase wheels.
My organ’s meatiness was too raw to keep in mind,
so I bought a New Idea predicting my horoscope for 20__.
I rolled up the magazine and squeezed,
hoping for a meaning to drip from the gloss.
Saba Vasefi is a poet, a documentary filmmaker and human rights activist. She was a lecturer in Tehran, Shahid Beheshti University. She became a member of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters. She also worked as a reporter for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. She was twice a judge for the Sedigheh Dolatabadi Book Prize for best literature on women’s issues. She was expelled from the University after 4 years of teaching due to her activism. Her documentary film about child execution in Iran ”Don’t Bury My Heart” has been screened for the BBC, United Nation, Amnesty International, The Copenhagen International Film Festival, SOAS university, University of Oslo, Dendy Opera Quays cinema and Seen & Heard Film Festival. She has published poems, research papers, articles, reports, interviews and multimedia about executions, censorship, and women and children’s rights. Her multimedia piece, “Shirin, A Soloist in the Silence Room” was screened in Geneva for the UN. She has also had work published in the anthology “Confronting the Clash: The Suppressed Voices of Iran. She was director of First Sydney International Women’s Poetry Festival (Woman Scream). Currently; she is completing a postgraduate degree in documentary at The Australian Film TV and Radio School (AFTRS).
Translated by Sheema Kalbasi
It is not without reason
that I no longer miss
Like the tea stirred in the cup
Haze dances around my temple
flock by flock
And the shameless
Scream their pain loud
It is still I
who expands like blood from
ripened enough to be picked from
The more the wheel turns around
the more confused I become
Like a reptile crawling handless and
Tell me where in this rotten hole I
should give birth to my daughter
So that the titmice paint her dress
With ruby grapes
Now that in the long famine
I swallow rationed moldy bread
Where on earth should I entrust
lest my imprisonment arrest the
motion of the Heaven
In the long term prison of life
Where is safe
For this out of circle baby
Who goes round and round
To find a face
Branded with slap fingerprints
Deb Matthews-Zott has published two collections of poetry, Shadow Selves (2003) and Slow Notes (2008). She runs the Australian Poets’ Exchange Facebook Group, which has a membership of over 800, and is convener of SPIN (Southern Poets and Musicians Interactive Network). ‘The Weir’ and ‘The Pug Hole’ are from her verse novel in progress, ‘An Adelaide Boy’.By day she is a Librarian.
The Weir – Changing
Generations of Adelaide boys
have fished and swum at the Torrens Weir.
There’s a photo at the State Library
of five boys playing in shallow water
on the other side of the sluice gates
before they were installed.
It’s taken in the early 1900s
and the boys are all naked,
without any shame.
Was it different then?
or did the men with secret desires
always lurk there in bushes and change sheds
awaiting their prey.
One summer I was taken by surprise
in the old stone building, cool and damp
reeking of urine and keeping the shouts of play
at a distance.
Paralysed, I clenched my whole body, aware of my skin
the tug at my swim trunks. Thick fingers trembling
over early pubic hair. The fight or flight response letting me down
as bearded lips brushed me there, thrill of tongue, trembling thighs
a sick chill in my stomach, being drawn in, afraid, confused, but
somehow pleasant, heart lurching, unsure how to move away,
to end. Creak of old wooden door, the slackening of a spider web,
a fly caught in sticky silk, to be devoured. The world of boys burst in,
innocent, the flick of towels, push and shove of rough play, breaking
the act, in a flurry of escape. Utterly changed.
The Pug Hole
From Port Road, Welland, to the brickworks
at Hindmarsh, was only a 3K bike ride.
Off the main road, just beyond the river
the pug hole was an adventure playground,
where we’d spend all day clambering down
into the cocoon of clay, with deep pockets
of water, sprouting reeds, and a cache of
rusted rotting junk we transformed for play.
Old corroded tins were threaded with wire
for catching tadpoles in murky puddles.
Abandoned car bodies, afloat in deep
wells of oily water, became pirate ships
as we straddled them, and fought each other
with sticks, constantly shifting our weight
to keep the wrecks from sinking into the mire.
It wasn’t unusual then for a boy
to carry a slug gun or .22, slung across his back,
and to fire at bottles or tins lined up at a distance.
There were holes all over Hindmarsh and Brompton
which, having given up their clay for bricks
became dumping grounds for waste
and a rich source of amusement
or childrens’ imaginations.
The watery fissures were muddy but slicked
with slippery rainbows. When you stopped to notice,
the smell was a mixture of dead animal, iron, and rotten socks.
When it was time to ride back home
we carried the swampy scent of the pug hole
on our clothes,
to our mothers’ ire and disgust.
sean burn’s third and latest full volume of poetry is that a bruise or a tattoo? (isbn 9781848612945)
was published by shearsman press, autumn 2013. www.shearsman.com/pages/books/catalog/2013/burn.html
thru first smoke days ov
autumn this havana
violin swinging like
leaves singed slowburning slowburn in smoke ov this
stripping the live
violins ov staccato teas
the spent fuel the hard
edge ov lullaby incense
signals bad girl dis integrate
stitching time yr blue
chord-calling yr striding yr
crush-seek see-sawing the now
sz – foundmap ov budapest. my icarus hands in exile / circus madonna fighting on an empty cock street / dream ov a sycamore / collection ov pharmacy / when hearts meet performance / wandering street playing chess / wandering street playing leaves / motive entitled autumn / country accident sweeping golgotha downtown / towing the feeding trough upriver / jumping over the patriot ship w/out show / satiric priest dancing water / latrine lovers reflected / forced march to the font / girls private war / street writing a mobilization letter / wandering spring : sleeping snow : kiss-cooking underneath / officer stripped ov his commune at beginning ov the badge / backwards feeding eternal tender touch ov the small town judge selling the hospital mass market / march hand waiting for two wounded april comrades / dont throw stones at each other : dont throw each other at stones – image-whispering / swineherd rippled in a cockerel glass / cd it possibly be said / cd it possibly / everything can be traced back to everything / everything can be traced back / even the smallest / everything can be / documentarist / cubist / surrealist / absurdist / dadaist / da da da
MTC Cronin has published eighteen books (poetry, prose poems and essays) including a collection jointly written with the Australian poet Peter Boyle. Several of her books have appeared in translation including her 2001 book, Talking to Neruda’s Questions, which has been translated into Spanish, Italian and Swedish. Early 2009 saw the publication of Squeezing Desire Through a Sieve ~ Micro-Essays on Judgement & Justice (Puncher & Wattmann, Sydney) and Irrigations (of the Human Heart) ~ Fictional Essays on the Poetics of Living, Art & Love (Ravenna Press, USA). Her work has won and been shortlisted for many major literary awards, both internationally and in her native Australia. Cronin has studied arts, law, literature and creative writing and after working for the decade of the nineties in law, began teaching writing in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. She currently lives, with her partner and three daughters, on a biodynamic farm in Conondale in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland of Queensland. Her latest poetry collection, The World Last Night [Metaphors for Death], was published in late 2012 by University of Queensland Press. A new collection – The Law of Poetry – is forthcoming through Puncher & Wattmann.
Every day, crucify what you know.
Watch the stone practising what it knows
of bulls and men.
When the dream begins to fall, don’t catch it.
Console the words which have lost other words.
Learn how to wholly speak
for the voice that speaks in shards`
but hints at love.
Move! And then move again!
The distance from your mother’s womb
is measured by adding what is now clear
to a bowl of yellow peaches.
Show me something perfect!
Learn the inside of your heart.
Be shaken by infinity awake.
Break poison like bread.
The cradle of history is filled with rocks which were all gathered yesterday.
The tomb of history is surrounded by mourners whispering in the ears of tomorrow.