Nathan Curnow lives in Ballarat and is a past editor of Going Down Swinging. His work features in Best Australian Poems 2008, 2010 and 2013 (Black Inc) and has won a number of awards including the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize. His most recent collection, RADAR, is available through Walleah Press. Nathan has been twice short-listed in the Peter Porter Prize.
his rants make sense with ‘listening glue’
he is convinced he can poop a dove
he prophesies that a dragon will shake the building
separating the wheat from the chaff
murderers go to hell and play Cluedo forever
Salvation—harder than pissing on a frog
we dig him a moat and fill it with lions
‘hurple’ is the mantra of the month
he blesses each raid on the cannery outlet
gives us hair bracelets and Kalashnikovs
flexible parentage is the number one doctrine
everything consensual at first
how much sunshine to bleach a camel
tepanyaki is your mum—
his koans are unique and so expensive
they are impossible to forget
passing the time with games of wink murder
while he sleeps in his celestial vault
it is his destiny to ascend in a skybox we bought
with the life savings of non-believers
rejoicing when the famous clown becomes a convert
until we become wary of tricks up the sleeve
we patrol the stockpile and then the orchard
executing the voluntary penance
and when the guru returns trembling on stage
trying hard to poop one with wings
we see it all makes sense in his divine program
on guard for whoever smirks first
teenagers help their parents conduct them
in exchange for car keys and weed
but if they tire of quizzing the Ouija board
the pointer just keeps on moving
packed away the wooden heart slides faster
knocking against the sides of the box
some wrap it in blankets and stash it in a draw
some submerge it in the tropical fish tank
an anonymous narrator transcribes War and Peace
there comes the back story of the Cheshire Cat
and something is spelling quality mince matters
perhaps a butcher with undying remorse
this last parlour game this after-life rhythm
a constant tapping of fees and charges
Rosabelle-answer-tell-pray—believe believe believe
over and over from beneath the house
wedged in a locker at the Ever Fit gym
abandoned in a food court at an empty mall
the dead metronome counting down
some set it on fire to watch their flaming souls
posting premature messages from the grave
some never tire remaining stuck to the board
for answers that will come soon enough
as the family car pulls out throbbing with bass
denouncing the beats of the Angel of Death
the last players of hip hop middle fingering
the stereo uh yeah uh uh uh
David Malouf was born in Brisbane in 1934. Since ‘Interiors’ in Four Poets 1962, he has published poetry, novels and short stories, essays, opera libretto and a play, and he is widely translated. His novels include Ransom, The Great World (winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ prize and the Prix Femina Etranger), Remembering Babylon (shortlisted for the Booker Prize and winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award), An Imaginary Life, Conversations at Curlow Creek, Dream Stuff, Every Move You Make and his autobiographical classic 12 Edmondstone Street. His Collected Stories won the 2008 Australia-Asia Literary Award. His latest poetry collection is Earth Hour(UQP), while his compiled essays, A First Place are published by Knopf. He was awarded the Scottish Arts’ Council Muriel Spark International Fellowship and was the sixteenth Neustadt Laureate. He lives in Sydney.
Photograph: Conrad del Villar
One of those sovereign days that might seem never
intended for the dark: the sea’s breath deepens
from oyster-shell to inky, blue upon blue,
heaped water, crowded sky. This is the day,
we tell ourselves, that will not end, and stroll
enchanted through its moods as if we shared
its gift and were immortal, till something in us
snaps, a spring, a nerve. There is more to darkness
than nightfall. Caught reversed in a mirror’s lens,
we’re struck by the prospect of a counterworld
to so much stir, such colour; loved animal
forms, shy otherlings our bodies turn to
when we turn towards sleep; like us the backward
children of a green original anti
-Eden from which we’ve never been expelled.
Out of such and such and so much brick-a-brac.
Cut-glass atomises. An Evening in Paris
stain, circa ’53, on taffeta.
Four napkin-rings, initialled. Playing cards, one pack
with views of Venice, the other the Greek key pattern
that unlocked the attic door our house
in strict truth did not run to. A wrist
arched above early Chopin: bridge across water
to a lawn where finch and cricket take what’s given
as gospel, and even the domino I lost
in the long grass by the passion-vine
fits white-to-white, four voices in close canon.
Where in all this are the small, hot, free
-associating selves, a constellation
of shoes, sweat, teacups, charms, magnetic debris?
In the ghost of a fingerprint all
that touched us, all that we touched, still glowing actual.
It is on our hands, it is in our mouths at every breath, how not
remember? Called back
to nights when we were wildlife, before kindling
or kine, we sit behind moonlit
glass in our McMansions, cool
millions at rehearsal
here for our rendezvous each with his own
We are feral
at heart, unhouseled creatures. Mind
is the maker, mad for light, for enlightenment, this late admission
of darkness the cost, and the silence
on our tongue as we count the hour down – the coin we bring,
long hoarded just for this – the extended cry of our first coming
to this ambulant, airy
Schatzkammer and midden, our green accommodating tomb.
Shy gifts that come to us from a world that may not
even know we’re here. Windfalls, scantlings.
Breaking a bough like breathy flute-notes, a row
of puffed white almond-blossom, the word in hiding
among newsprint that has other news to tell.
In a packed aisle at the supermarket, I catch
the eye of a wordless one-year-old, whale-blue,
unblinking. It looks right through me, recognising
what? Wisely mistrustful but unwisely
impulsive as we are, we take these givings
as ours and meant for us – why else so leap
to receive them? – and go home lighter
of step to the table set, the bed turned down, the book
laid open under the desk-lamp, pages astream
with light like angels’ wings, arched for take-off.
These poems appear in Earth Hour, first published in 2014 by University of Queensland Press, and reprinted here with permission.
The Making of Australian Consciousness
Looking down the long line of coast this morning, I see the first rays of the sun strike Mount Warning and am aware, as the light floods west, what a distance it is to the far side of our country ─ two time zones and more than 3000 kilometres away, yet how easily the whole landmass sits in my head. As an island or, as I sometimes think of it, a raft we have all scrambled aboard, a new float of lives in busy interaction: of assembly lines and highways, of ideals given body as executives and courts, of routine housekeeping arrangements and objects in passage from hand to hand. To comprehend the thing in all its action and variety and contradiction is a task for the imagination, yet this morning, as always, it is simply there, substantial and ordinary.
When Europeans first came to these shores one of the things they brought with them, as a kind of gift to the land itself, was something that could never previously have existed: a vision of the continent in its true form as an island, which was not just a way of seeing it, and seeing it whole, but of seeing how it fitted into the world, and this seems to have happened even before circumnavigation established that it actually was an island. No group of Aboriginal Australians, however ancient and deep their understanding of the land, can ever have seen the place in just this way.
It has made a difference. If Aborigines are a land-dreaming people, what we latecomers share is a sea-dreaming, to which the image of Australia as an island has from the beginning been central.
This is hardly surprising. Sydney, in its early days was first and foremost a seaport; all its dealings were with the sea. Our earliest productive industries were not wheat-growing or sheep-raising but whaling and sealing. It took us nearly thirty years to cross the first land barrier. Right up to the end of the nineteenth century our settlements were linked by coastal steamer, not by road or rail. In his sonnet ‘Australia’, Bernard O’Dowd speaks of Australia’s ‘virgin helpmate, Ocean’, as if the island continent were mystically married to its surrounding ocean as Venice was to the Adriatic.
As the off-shoot of a great naval power we felt at home with the sea. It was an element over which we had control; more, certainly, than we had at the beginning over the land. It was what we looked to for all our comings and goings, for all that was new ─ for news. And this sense of being at home with the sea made distances that might otherwise have been unimaginable seem shorter. It brought Britain and Europe closer than 10,000 miles on the globe might have suggested, and kept us tethered, for longer than we might otherwise have been, by sea-routes whose ports of call, in the days before air travel, constituted a litany of connection that every child of my generation knew by heart. Distance is not always a matter of miles. Measured in feelings it can redefine itself as closeness.
And this notion of an island continent, contained and containable, had other consequences.
Most nations establish themselves through a long series of border conflicts with neighbours. This is often the major thrust of their history. Think of the various wars between Germany and France, or Russia and Poland, or of British history before the Union of the Crowns.
Australia’s borders were a gift of nature. We did not have to fight for them. In our case, history and geography coincided, and we soon hit upon the idea that the single continent must one day be a single nation. What this means is that all our wars of conquest, all our sources of conflict, have been internal.
Conquest of space to begin with, in a series of daring explorations of the land, which were also acts of possession different from the one that made it ours merely in law. This was possession in the form of knowledge; by naming and mapping, by taking its spaces into our heads, and at last into our imagination and consciousness.
Conquest of every form of internal division and difference: conquest of the original possessors, for example, in a war more extensive than we have wanted to recognise. Later, there was the attempted resolution, through an act of Federation, of the fraternal division between the states; and, longer lasting and less amenable of solution, of the conflict, once Federation had been achieved, between the states and the Federal Government. Also, more darkly, suppression, in acts of law-making and social pressure and through subtle forms of exclusion, of all those whom we have, at one time or another, declared to be outsiders among us, and in their various ways alien, even when they were Australians like the rest.
That early vision of wholeness produced a corresponding anxiety, the fear of fragmentation, and for too long the only answer we had to it was the imposition of a deadening conformity.
In time, the vision of the continent as a whole and unique in its separation from the rest of the world produced the idea that it should be kept separate, that only in isolation could its uniqueness ─and ours─ be preserved.
Many of the ideas that have shaped our life here, and many of the themes on which our history has been argued, settle around these notions of isolation and containment, of wholeness and the fear of fragmentation. But isolation can lead to stagnation as well as concentrated richness, and wholeness does not necessarily mean uniformity, though that is how we have generally taken it. Nor does diversity always lead to fragmentation.
As for the gift of those natural, indisputable borders, that too had a cost. It burdened us with the duty of defending them, and the fear, almost from the beginning, that they may not, in fact, be defendable.
Our first settlements outside Sydney, at Hobart in 1804 and Perth in the 1820’s, were made to forestall the possibility of French occupation (and it seems Napoleon did plan a diversionary invasion for 1804). Then, at the time of the Crimean War, it was the Russians we had to keep an eye on. The Russian fleet was just seven days sailing away at Vladivostok. And then, from the beginning of this century, the Japanese.
This fear of actual invaders, of being unable to defend our borders, led to a fear of other and less tangible forms of invasion. By people, ‘lesser breeds without the Law’, who might sully the purity of our stock. By alien forms of culture that might prejudice our attempt to be uniquely ourselves. By ideas, and all those other forms of influence, out there in the world beyond our coast, that might undermine our morals or in various other ways divide and unsettle us. All this has made little-islanders of us; has made us decide, from time to time, to close ourselves off from influence and change, and by settling in behind our ocean wall, freeze and stop what has been from the beginning, and continues to be, a unique and exciting experiment.
From The Boyer Lectures, 1998, first broadcast on ABC Radio, later published in A Spirit of Play, ABC Books, 1998 Published in A First Place, by Knopf, Random House, 2014
This extract is published in the chapter, titled, ‘A Spirit of Play’ page 124-129 from the collection of essays, A First Place, by Knopf, Random House, 2014
the armies and opium cored you
you spat out your children
like fireworks, sparks scampering
they bright and travel far
far enough to fade out of sight
blowfish mouth deflated
spider babies kiting on silk thread
land them softly softly
so they swell & full up
six strange sheets of earth
to the crinkled edge
long there over indigo water
cold roiling broth, the sea
sometimes as heavy
as bolts of dye-dipped cloth
they bright and travel far
mass of black-haired heads
lacquer bleached cliffs
and sallow beaches
they wear pigtails and tax
your boys, left wives and children behind
or were children, ahead of their age
chasing faraway time that can turn
to gold, if it all pans out right
they bright and travel far
tattoo steel scars right across
cut down carved up country
for thieves to ride hoofless
and make more rapid plunder
call the ocean to you
bid it carry your song
tell them boys, slow slow walk
soft your feet on foreign soil
hold tight to each other and jŭ tóu
hao jiu bu jian jia
they long time no see home
By Wendy Chin-Tanner
Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014
Reviewed by CYRIL WONG
Wendy Chin-Tanner’s poems in her debut full-length collection, Turn, returns with part-nostalgia and part-anguish to her Chinese-American childhood in New York City, while contrasting these memories with her current life. The ambivalences of the past and the future react against each other through the prism of parenthood in a dialectical way, producing a poetic synthesis of emotions and revelations for what it means to exist as a wife and mother in the present day. Pathetic fallacy is self-consciously utilised in projecting inward conflicts and almost unbearable emotions upon the natural world; the external becomes a mirror for the internal, providing a much-needed sense of catharsis as the mirror reveals how the personal can also be absorbed into the timelessly universal.
The book begins with a moving tribute-poem (“Tempest”) to the poet’s grandmother who “soothes … with the smell of her, / of Tiger Balm and something acid, / and female underneath”, a mother-figure tenderer than her immediate mother, at least in the poet’s articulation of memory. The past is perceived in terms of physical tactility that is never far from literal pain and with a corollary ability to selflessly withstand it, but also rich with the intimacies of unspoken female love. Such implicitly gendered demarcations are made clearer when the following poem (“In the Dutch House”) paints the grandfather as a man of darker contradictions, emotionally dependent on the forbearance of his wife but also abusive to both her and their children, forcing the poet to ask starkly: “What kind of man was this?”
Historical to mythological figures from Hua Mulan to Persephone become the subjects of subsequent poems, which attempt to undermine easy stereotyping inherent in earlier gendered demarcations. For example, Persephone’s mother becomes culpable for not hindering her daughter’s fate at the hands of Death because his “stench” rejuvenated the earth. The poet, in a personally revealing and psychologically revelatory piece, points out that in her own life, she has been afraid to let her own mother witness her labour, alluding to the lineage of “bitterness” (both emotional and viscerally physical), symbolised by “foam bricks” of cotton pads wet with blood, that inexorably connects mother to daughter (“Mother”). The female experiences of vaginal blood-letting to childbirth, the complex psychological and physical consequences that accompany such landmark events, are portrayed as sources of pained ambivalences: such experiences are simultaneously shameful, even traumatic, but paradoxically, they also provide reasons for celebration. Couched in lyrical descriptions of meaningful physicalities and a growing awareness of future loss, the poet paints a more straightforward and affectionate moment as regards her father: “my fingers tried to read / the patterns in the tracks running up his arms … his temples showing only a dusting of white; // snow freshly fallen onto soil” (“Father”).
A celebratory note rings out between the sexes later in a moment of copulation, when the poet describes the sex act in almost cartoony ways: “Our hips bucked, and the confetti from your / cock burst … a tickertape parade / celebrating inside … our victory, rising so high above / you and me and everything we knew” (“Veteran”). A childlike wonder and innocence comes through in spite (or because) of obvious consummation, in which the poet abandons a previously “female” condition of pain layered with joy for a more transcendental form of “high” beyond dichotomies of gender. But it is through childbirth that the poet finds a clearer, celebratory link between past and present, as mediated through passionately gritty language: “pubic bone yawning wide / open like a rusted gate that could not close” (“Saying Yes”). The poet finally understands what it means to be a mother, like her mother and grandmother before her: “you do not forget the pain … and you imagine that you could sail / up like balloons over what had ruined you, / the wrong beginnings, the wrong turns” (“Saying Yes”). Whatever mistake she has made, or which has been done to her, in the context of her childhood and later adulthood, have in a sense prepared her for her role as a parent in the present moment.
But the poet is also determined to locate the eternal that exists beyond, but which also incorporates, the intensely personal and the complicated knot of intimate relationships. In one poem, she writes that “we are no longer as / we were that winter … the river beneath its sea / of silent glass seethes … The steady live rush carries on” (“On the Thamespath”). Then in a later poem about recognising signs to remember a dead relative, she recalls being told “how matter could be neither created nor destroyed, and, since the universe was breathing … like sand dissolving … it was possible for particles to behave as waves, / waves as particles, joined in space and time” (“Signs and Symbols”). The universe mirrors the changes and the complexities of our emotional to physical risings and fallings exactly, but more than that, there is a timelessness beyond our narrow conceptions of time, an eternity of ever-lasting change, a “live rush” that carries on in spite of our thoughts or actions; with nothing truly lost since we remain inextricably and literally “joined in space and time”. As the poet writes in the end, in spite of past regrets and previous betrayals, all we are left with, then, after acknowledging our places within the infinite, is our capacity to love: “The wheel / turns and we love again / not in spite of death but because” (The Wheel”).
CYRIL WONG has been called a confessional poet, according to The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, based on “the brutally candid sexuality in his poetry, along with a barely submerged anxiety over the fragility of human connection and a relentless self-querying”. He is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of poetry collections such as Unmarked Treasure, Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light and After You. He has also published Let Me Tell You Something About That Night, a collection of strange tales, and a novel, The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza. Cyril has served as a mentor under the Creative Arts Programme and the Mentor Access Project, as well as a judge for the Golden Point Awards in Singapore. A past recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Literature, he completed his doctoral degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore in 2012. His poems have been anthologised in Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W. W. Norton 2008) and Chinese Erotic Poems (Everyman’s Library 2007), amongst various journals and publications across the world.
Ron Pretty’s eighth book of poetry, What the Afternoon Knows, was published in 2013. An updated edition of Creating Poetry will be published later this year. He spent six months in Rome in 2012, on a residency granted by the Australia Council.
She could not speak to her mother
when they met. She had just turned
twenty one, but had never seen this
small dark woman until then, except
in photos. Harris sat beside her, his smile
inviting them to break the silence.
He would translate, he said, if only
they had something to say. Mother and
daughter looked at one another, tears
on their cheeks. Tell her, she said to Harris,
tell her I did not know where she’d gone,
which country she went to. I used to
watch the planes fly over, she said,
and wonder where they were going,
and if she was on them. Alana
– for that was the daughter’s name –
reached out to her without a word.
She took her hand. Visanthi,
the mother said, that was your name.
And still it is, the daughter cried.
Tell her, she said through her tears,
tell her that’s what it is. Star sapphires
falling as tears, and a second mother,
in her pale silence watching
Alana Visanthi there in that room,
Sri Lankan sun streaming in where
mother and daughter are holding hands
having no language except its loss.
Krystel said, I am happy with my mother,
my family here; I have no need to go
seeking for that distant other on that island
I have no wish to see. You do not feel
there’s something missing, her lover asks,
his pale hand caressing her straight black hair.
A long time ago her infant self was flown
out of penury into suburban class.
She’s never been back to see the village
she was plucked from; she loves her parents
who brought her home, happy they’d never
have to face again the heat, the beggars
on every corner, the guns at every checkpoint.
This is my home, she tells him, I have no other.
She will not tell him how she dreams, some nights,
of elephants wading a stream, a road side stall
selling papaya flecked with lemon, a cripple
begging under a figtree. The dreams recur,
but she has decided her life is here; she wants
only her mother and a lover who holds her
in his strong white arms as he kisses
and kisses again the warm dark skin of her face.
Born and raised in Singapore, Jonathan has worked and lived in Berlin and London. He once bungee-jumped and climbed a volcano to reason out the meaning of life. He is currently cobbling together his first collection of short stories. His stories have appeared in The Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, The Literary Yard (India), New Asian Writing, BananaWriters and Fat City Review.
Given Another Life
Five minutes to three in the early hours of the morning, Adinda sat upright on her bed, wiped the sweat staining her forehead with the back of her small bandaged left hand. Clutching the glass of water beside her bed, she took a sip tentatively, waiting. At exactly three, she took the cell phone beside the glass of water, dialed the number she now remembered by heart. She did not put the number on speed dial because she wanted the pleasure of punching in the numbers on her phone in the dark. It took a while for the connection to get through; a number for Singapore. Ten rings on, a familiar female voice barking down on the end of the line filled her ears. Without saying a word, Adinda breathed down hard in response. That was when she then hung up, feeling good that justice has been served.
The first couple of nights the voice on the end of the line – jarred with bewilderment – bellowed exasperatedly, “Hello hello, who is it?” Adinda held her silence. Then came the familiar note of annoyance – flaring in the voice each time she did not carry out the tasks to her satisfaction – bridged to a not-too-distant past where Adinda has sought to make a better life for herself and her family; now it was all broken and her future had become dimmer than before she set foot in Singapore.
By the time the calls persisted for the ninety-seventh time – a day short of her entire stay in Singapore – Adinda broke the silence and spoke: “Why you do this to me? Why you made my life susah?”
. . .
Given another life, Adinda would not want to be where she was. Easing the curtain to one side, she took in the muggy haze outside. Even without opening the window, she could smell the stiffness of the air sufficiently up her nostrils.
“It was the smell from your home lah,” her madam’s mother-in-law said.
She missed the sarcasm at first, but learnt later that the smog blanketing the island emanated from her homeland. She marveled at how the fires raging in the part of her world were suffocating those living miles away.
High over the city-state hundreds of windows embroidered life stories of which one of it was now her own in the flat she would have to call home for the next two years. As she wondered hard how things were back home, in the same breath of thought as she stole time to stare out of the windows was a curiosity to find out what went behind those windows opposite hers that she cleaned daily; a morning chore before she prepared breakfast for Sir and Madam and their toddler son. Given another life, would these people want to be where they were? Then she thought about herself, would she want to be where she was?
Adinda wasn’t sure life was any better in the city-state with the constant frowns that creased Sir and Madam’s faces as they returned home after work. Back home as evening fell, her good neighbour and friend Ainul would sit with her chatting outside their homes, taking in the bustle of villagers coming and going, exchanging hellos and words with other neighbours passing by, looking up at the stars stitching their brilliance in the skies. Here, Adinda soon learnt that Sir and Madam retreated behind the shut door, the curtains drawn as hundreds of windows, not dissimilar to theirs, were torched with lights, the whiteness shone through the darkness with dissonance as the night fell.
In her homecoming, Ainul’s fruits of labour in full display – modern goodies, money to rebuild her dilapidated, rotting wooden house into something sturdier – awed Adinda. She pictured in her mind the kind of life that could possibly lie ahead of her in the city-state. More so, the better life she could have in her own homecoming, to deal with her immediate wants: to patch the leaking roof over their heads, to fill sacks of rice in the lumbung, no longer to endure hunger.
What scared her were stories of fellow maids falling to deaths from the high-rise flats while extending themselves perilously out on the ledge to clean the windows. Thankfully, her Madam had specifically forbidden her to climb out on to the ledge. Her madam said: “Just clean the inside can already.”
Her Madam’s mother-in-law was the demanding one. She would give Adinda a makeshift stick made of half-cut bamboo pole with a cloth tied around it, asked her to extend herself out of the windows to clean the outer panels. Arching her hand against the window panels as she extended her body outwards, Adinda tried to suppress the giddiness rising up her head, resisting to either look upwards or worse, downwards, keeping her eyes peeled over to the hundreds of windows on the opposite block. She wondered at the obsession of having the squeaky-shiny cleaned windows that served little purpose since the curtains were drawn shut most of the time. Was she just being punished because the soot from the forest fires burning back home had stained the windows?
. . .
Before she had the maid, Lynn Tan reminded herself not to be too fastidious, cut some slack with her maid. Besides, however remote history has seemed for her generation, the forefathers settling on the island were coolies and labourers seeking a better life. Lynn reasoned there were no grounds for her to get upset over trivialities with her new maid, brushing aside horrid stories she gleaned from friends about maids who slacked, stole things, or worse took things into their heads and did silly things like falling to their deaths performing seemingly harmless chores, or hooking up with a man.
Given another life, Lynn wouldn’t want to get a maid at all. Having someone else living in their midst was the last thing she wished for. As it was, being out and about working long hours five days a week, she wanted the freedom and quiet in the evenings and weekends to move around in her home. The slightest noises intruding upon her shook her with annoyance: the closing and opening of wardrobe doors as the maid placed the folded laundry back; the clattering of the plates and cutlery as the maid washed them; the dull plodding sound of footsteps as the maid padded heavily across the floor to pick toys up. Her presence was everywhere; Lynn did not like it at all.
But a year into taking care of her newborn, Lynn was exhausted by the never-ending regime of diaper-change, the unreasonably shrillness of her newborn crying, the dull routine that trapped her in the flat. No longer was she able to steal time in between lunches to do up her toes or hair, get a dress or a pair of high-heels, catch up with gossips over lunch before heading back to the office. Work in itself wasn’t always pleasurable but it offered pleasant distractions, moving her mood along the way, in a spectrum that was unavailable to the life with a newborn at home.
After her newborn was hospitalised for weeks with a viral infection, after her mother-in-law’s insinuation that she shouldn’t have brought the boy out to shopping just because she was bored, after her husband’s rationalisation that she might feel better ditching the role of a stay-home-mum, Lynn decided to hire a maid. The arrangement was that her mother-in-law watch over the maid who in turn take care of the daily needs of the boy – plus – to complete all the household chores as humanly possible each day. In the search for the perfect maid, Lynn and her husband stated specifically that they wanted someone who was good with toddlers, able to cook simple meals, clean and tidy, hardworking, strong but pleasant-looking, without body odour, for that matter, no unpleasant traits or habits of any kind. No mention was made on whether the ideal maid was one who could tolerate their nonsense or that of their mother-in-law’s antics.
Nodding her head knowingly, the maid agent reassuring Lynn and her husband that they had just the perfect maid for them, said: “Just look here ah. This folder contains some of the best maids we have from Indonesia. You smart. Cheaper to have them than Filipino maids. Also, they don’t ask for rest day every week. One month rest one day, can already.”
“Isn’t that against the law?” Her husband, always the law-abiding kind asked.
“Get the maid to agree can already. Not against the law lah. Also, some maids don’t want off. Want to earn more money, send home mah.”
. . .
Adinda had a fitful sleep the night before she was sent off to Singapore. She dreamt about how clean Singapore was that the pavement could be eaten off if she was too hungry. She was on all fours, licking the pavement that tasted like roasted pine nuts, the air sticky with cotton candy, the sun warming a toast of rendang curry. Then it began to rain in her dreams. The skies opened up: rags after rags of damp fell, some slapping on her head, shoulder, body with a disapproving thud. Soon she found herself unable to move any step forward, stuck in the rags piling high up as the skies gave no sign of letting up. That humid morning as Adinda left her dreams, woke up soaking wet with sweat on her back and forehead, she was lost to the future lurking ahead.
The circumstances were such that no one in her family dissuaded her to work in Singapore. She won’t be the first or the last in her village to set foot in the city-state to work as a maid. Other than her friend Ainul, she could recount at least a dozen others from her village who had worked in the city-state. She considered Jakarta. But the idea of being somewhere foreign, good money, clean and modern that she has heard so much of, excited and scared her at the same time. She was terrified by the prospect of living somewhere perched high up without the grounds beneath her feet, terrified by the unknown life that was to become part of her for two long years.
To raise money for her passageway to Singapore, her family pawned whatever little valuables they had, borrowed from their relatives too. Grateful, Adinda promised herself that once she was able to pay off the loan owed to the agent, she would start to remit as much of her wages as she could back home. She knew the first ten months would be tough in Singapore, getting little more than thirty dollars each month from her employer, the rest going to the agent for the fees in bringing her to Singapore.
But seeing her neigbours returned home, laden with goodies and modern appliances from Singapore, it strengthened the resolve in her to go out there to make a better life. She pictured herself returning home with the latest handheld game for her adik, a wardrobe of nice clothes for her kakak, a brand new Yamaha motorbike for her abang, a good quality TV for her ailing orangtua already in their seventies always squinting their eyes to see what’s on the TV. Sitting in the newly renovated home, she would regale her siblings and parents of life in the city-state, of the people there, of their secrets, of their success, of the modern conveniences that someday somehow it would come to their village, slowly but surely.
. . .
“You clean like that, not clean. Must clean like that.” Impatience rising up the mother-in-law’s voice as she snatched the mop from Adinda’s hand and demonstrated to her.
Then she ranted on again: “Thought they teach you how to clean before you come Singapore. Did Ma’am show you how to clean the floor? She didn’t scold you?”
As the weeks followed, Adinda was quick to realise that the reassuring smiles that welcomed her soon ceased to bracket their faces, the voice grew harder, harsher each time she did something wrong, or what they thought was wrong.
When the bowl slipped out of her hand – crashing on to the floor, sending the half-eaten rice all over the corner where she sat on a high stool to eat her dinner in the kitchen – Adinda went to bed that evening hungry. Slipping into the toilet to relieve herself when everyone in the household was asleep, she drank from the tap to dull her hunger, the wound stitched between her left thumb and index finger glistened in the dark as she unwrapped her bandage to take a closer look.
“You are very stupid. Why use your hands to pick up the broken bowl. Use the broom to sweep it up,” her Madam’s voice quivered in anger, as she stood with her in the A&E at Changi hospital to get her wounds treated.
. . .
“Just send her back lah,” her mother-in-law said the next day. “If your boy is near her, he could have got hurt also. Lucky. I can cope with the boy on my own. Now your this one stupid, cannot do things properly.”
Since the maid came into the picture, Lynn was annoyed that her mother-in-law and even her husband presumably made her the custodian of the maid. Any fault with her, any complaints about her clumsiness, her inefficient cleaning that left ant trails, the inability of coaxing her boy to take naps, rested squarely on her shoulders: teach her, manage her, tell her. Lynn was sick to be the one telling the maid what to do.
“Why can’t your mum just tell her properly what to do,” Lynn said to her husband.
“Mum doesn’t speak much English or Malay. How to communicate. She needs you to instruct the maid,” her husband replied, conveniently brushing aside any responsibility.
That evening when the decision was made to send her home, Lynn felt heavy in her heart. But she acquiesced, hoping to put to rest her mother-in-law’s non-stop complaints about the maid. The inconvenience of a maid was perhaps too much to manage, as if life hasn’t put enough on the plate.
One morning in the following week while she was getting ready to clean the windows, wetting the cloth to tie on the bamboo stick, Adinda was asked to pack her belongings stuffed in the storeroom, where she also slept. The Madam’s mother-in-law then quickly did a thorough check ruffling through her personal stuff. “Just to make sure she didn’t steal anything,” she said to Lynn, ignoring Adinda who stood by and watched on clueless.
At the airport, her Madam pressed two fifty-dollar notes into her small hands, and said: “Use it to get something you like inside.” It was the first time that she came into touch with so much money since coming to Singapore.
“For me? Thank you, Madam,” Adinda said gratefully, resolved that she would bring home and show her family how a fifty Singapore dollar note was like. Then she asked, “Why am I going home?”
“We’re going on a holiday. You balik kampong first,” said Madam’s mother-in-law, her face crowded with a disapproving glare.
. . .
“Why? You send me back to agent I can still work in Singapore. Why you send me home? You lie. Why?”
On the other side, Lynn uttered little more than a sorry – one that sounded tired than sincere. Since the maid left, she had to face up to the music of coaxing her son to sleep, a task she never had been good at. Despite her mother-in-law’s assurances to help out, Lynn came home mostly to unwashed laundry or dishes – the menial tasks that were once forgotten and relegated to Adinda – she had to take it upon herself to do it.
“Stop calling, Adinda,” Lynn begged. “I’m sorry, as I said.”
It was barely past three in the ungodly hours of the morning when Adinda let out a loud sob on the end of the line. The ninety-eighth call, the number of days she was in the city-state. Long after she hung up, the sob stubbornly sat, ringing restively deep in the air.
William Byrne is a South Australian poet in his twenties. He has always lived in rural and coastal townships, excluding an urban interlude for university study for degrees in architecture and design.
Water dries so fast
on my fore and index fingers
once I leave the chiesa,
that foreign place of incensed marble.
as soon as I see the sun
and basking in it, the smooth shoulders
of the lane’s cobblestones. I trip
in my penance, later, while seated
in the brassed café
as my lips part for vermouth.
Again I see Rome’s dark shoulders
then her leather heels and passing souls,
then half smoked cicca,
their pale ghosts hanging in the streets,
then smooth, tanned Roman fingers.
Chiesa water dries so fast on my fingers.
The vermouth is also dry.
In my old car, tyres wet, we spoke
black over green like a Rothko painting,
the young crops startled in our headlamps,
their fronds thrashing in the yellow glow.
You too were startled when I turned the headlamps off,
even though we had pulled up aside the field.
The lamps were deadened, yet the radio hailed
in a distant AM. Ice crystals formed on the window,
shading thinly the edge of the screen.
Beyond the glass, grey clouds brushed past the moon
rising on the curved horizon beyond
wheat past further than sight from two sets of eyes could see.
Afterwards, we drove to a town
at the edge of the wheat, leaving the earth
on the side of the road where we parked
a dry-ish print framed in rain craters
and shallow puddles bleeding into its soft sides.
We laughed so hard that night as we spoke and tried to see.
Dimitra has a Bachelor of Performance Studies from the University of Western Sydney – Theatre Nepean, and a Master of Letters in Creative Writing from University of Sydney. She’s had poems published in Australian Poetry’s Members’ Anthology, Meanjin, and Southerly. In 2012 she won the Australian Society of Author’s Ray Koppe Young Writers Residency.
After I’ve spent the night being someone else, and going home –
wriggling out of that alien face like an old skin – I like to walk
all the way to the end of the platform. You know, how it tapers
to that thin wharf of concrete? With the one fluorescent light
on its high pole, and the sign that says, Staff Only Beyond This Point.
From here, you can just make out the glitter of the next station.
At this time, no-one will walk the distance through the dark to get here –
the platform’s lights are sparse, dull beads on the night’s chain.
Across the tracks the fence hangs slackly, a gaping jaw. Stillness
clings to everything like frost. A woman’s laugh, the clink
of glasses – the city’s noises are padded here; a siren wails
like a half-asleep child. Then a whip of wire, a spring-loaded lash.
The train pulls up, groaning in its metal.
It’s dusk, and I’m listening to an old
Indian devotional, the woman’s voice is a coil
of plum honey. As the sun slips down the empty
western sky, the tiles of houses are silvered
in light. At some angles the sun
is forked by newly budded branches. I’ve stared too long
at its gold-lash pinwheel, the quills of starfire.
When I turn my gaze away, its brightness clings
to my pupils, and I think: she’s singing about love.
Her voice winds, and slides, and slips upwards,
and falls, honeycombing through the notes.
But it’s the sun she’s singing about, waking the buds
with white fire, hard as crystal.
Luke Fischer is a Sydney-based poet and scholar. His publications include the poetry collection Paths of Flight (Black Pepper, 2013), a monograph on Rilke and phenomenology (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2015) and a book of bedtime stories (The Blue Forest, 2014), as well as poems, translations and articles in Australian and international journals. He won the 2012 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize and was commended in the 2013 FAW Anne Elder Award for a first book of poems. In 2008 he was awarded a PhD in philosophy from the University of Sydney. He has held post-doctoral fellowships and taught at universities in the U.S. and Germany.
|WANDRERS NACHTLIED II|
Über allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch.
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
––Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
Wenn es Abend wird,
Verlässt dich leise ein blaues Antlitz.
Ein kleiner Vogel singt im Tamarindenbaum.
Ein sanfter Mönch
Faltet die erstorbenen Hände.
Ein weisser Engel sucht Marien heim.
Ein nächtiger Kranz
Von Veilchen, Korn und purpurnen Trauben
Ist das Jahr des Schauenden.
Zu deinen Füssen
Öffnen sich die Gräber der Toten,
Wenn du die Stirne in die silbernen Hände legst.
An deinem Mund der herbstliche Mond,
Trunken von Mohnsaft dunkler Gesang;
Die leise tönt in vergilbtem Gestein.
––Georg Trakl (1887-1914)
das sanfte Hinüber
––Rose Ausländer (1901-1988)
|WANDERER’S NIGHTSONG II
Over every hill,
In all the canopies
You can feel
Barely a breath.
The birds in the forest keep silent.
Wait a while and
You too will rest.
When the evening comes
A blue face quietly leaves you.
A small bird sings in the tamarind tree.
A gentle monk
Folds the lifeless hands.
A white angel distresses Mary.
A nightly wreath
Of violets, grain and purple grapes
Is the year of one who sees.
At your feet
Graves of the dead open up,
When you lay your brow in silver hands.
Upon your mouth
Silently dwells the autumn moon,
Dark song drunk on poppy-sap;
That quietly sounds in yellowed stone.
the gentle transfer