by Ken Bolton
REVIEWED BY RAE DEE JONES
For thirty years Ken Bolton has shown tenacious dedication to his chosen art. Apart from producing a series of volumes of poetry of unusual consistency, he also edited the magazine Magic Sam. When I read this recent volume after browsing through some of his earlier poetry I was struck by the remarkable invisible evolution in tone and content.
Take the typical first poem from his first volume, Blonde & French (Island Press, 1978):
Living brilliantly: outside –
the green/ so blue, & the green
is so bright & the wall it is clinging to
is totally in shadow but only just
because the 3 small horizontal lines /of
louvres/ have caught the midday sun,
though they jut out only a little, & shine
a brilliant white a painterly tour de force like
3 single white strokes of a loaded brush ….
Already there is the precision and ‘objectivity’ of language, while the verse is permeated with flat, po-faced irony. The poem hints at humour, but is too severe to allow it through. The images are light and deft while the tone advises the reader that there is much to be taken seriously. Even when describing desire:
I want an insanity
to enclose me :a quote/ from Robbe-Grillet’s
The House of Assignation: Lady Eva “he will
be driven mad if she continues to give in
to his phantasies” I want that – that particular
The quote from Robbe –Grillet effectively distances the reader, and perhaps the author, from comic (or romantic, or lustful) intensity.
Now read forward thirty two years to Circus, where we find a single long poem constructed seamlessly as a novel, with themes and characters acting independently of the person (but not the manner) of the author. While the blurb acknowledges his debt to Robbe-Grillet, the imagery is much less detached. A major link throughout the poem is the search by the Assistant Foreman of a small and rather seedy travelling circus for the forever missing last tent peg. There is always this missing peg! In the last verse, he succeeds. While the search goes on, there is a lot of character development and action, much of it hilarious. My favourite character is the thoughtful elephant, who is introduced while searching for a hypodermic in his body while contemplating the possibility of having AIDS:
He hums the great Dion di Mucci tune.
Thinks of Christopher Brennan, a man killed by a tram on his way home.
Rummages in his straw.
He raises his foot,
Looks for the syringe,
But cannot find it.
The singing elephant is a wonderful comic creation who ambles about, glumly addressing the big questions of …:
When I read that doggone letter, I
Sat right down and cried: She said now daddy I hate to leave you
But I’m in love with another guy –
Da-doot-doot doot,da doot-doot doot!
The elephant is a wonderful comic creation, who reminds me more of the cockroach Archie in the Don Marquis classic Archie and Mehitabel than Robbe-Grillet. Sexual activity is presented differently:
In the dancer’s caravan Regina Xo is naked astride a man. It is Giorgio Verzotti,
Should this be happening?! Moments later Olivia comes in.
Giorgio! She is glad to see him and soon is in the same position. See, she laughs,
Mine are much bigger than Regina’s. Regina smiles – she is making a pot of tea.
The humour is robust throughout, especially in the scenes where the strong man, Ulysse, dives into a water tank from great height:
He lived for danger, Andrea told Gina and Tomaz.
That modified tank, … Giorgio began. His dream
Was to dive in and disappear. It needed an awful lot of plumbing.
– Secret passages, side tanks …
Once he dived and much of the water had leaked away,
It took a long time to come out.
We thought the trick had worked
And he would ride up on his motorbike, smiling.
He was concussed. Julie Lautone looked in
And he was floating about on top.
Children were impressed.
Man of strength- Man of wonder.
Two characters are watching daytime television (which the elephant is also observing through a window, between their heads), a movie which could afford a wonderful opportunity for serious and slightly portentious observation. An old movie, featuring Gilbert Roland, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, about a circus. The conversation is as follows:
“One of Beckett’s favourite actors,” Attila remarks.
“Brecht, I think,” says Tomaz.
It is too stupid and they turn it off. Gina reads the men their star signs.
The elephant looks at a mouse near the caravan’s tyre.
But he does not really see it. He is thinking about Peter Lorre’s lines in Casablanca–
“Rick, Rick, you’ve got to save me!”
Then he laughs …
Ken Bolton’s poetry has evolved to the point where he has written a fine verse novel with strong absurdist elements and tight control over character, dialogue and timing. There are not many books of poetry that I could imagine being turned into a film. This is one. And it is definitely poetry.
by Cameron Lowe
ISBN 978 0 9757762 7 8
REVIEWED BY ANNA RYAN-PUNCH
Cameron Lowe’s first book of poetry, Porch Music, showcases his ability to deftly navigate both the natural and the surreal in this striking collection.
The book is divided into two sections. The first, Balloon Days, is a series of sometimes intensely personal poems, and highlights Lowe’s admirable talent for elevating the domestic to the unheimlich. These pared-back pieces are deceptively accessible, but can alter our gaze with a single word; push our perspective from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Easy is perhaps the most minimalist example of this. The poem opens with a very simple image, depicted monosyllabically: ‘You wake with her hand/on your back’. The following two couplets continue in this vein, but the final three lines transform this pure image: ‘her hand is a thing known/without turning,/a thing, a small easy thing.’ Great import is brought to a small moment, without the need to add further images.
Sardines takes disparate images and weaves them together in a unexpected and complementary fashion. It throws us from the abstract notion of an economics of emotion to the oddly olfactory image of sardines, and back again:
and let’s call that love
following a free market model
in which emotions float deregulated
like a tin of sardines in brine,
always ready on the counter
for a quick and easy sale, or
a sudden move in interest rates
that leaves us hopeless in denial.
The poem forms a neat, hard whole, juxtaposing ordinary images to create profound strangeness.
Counting is a more narrative poem than many in the collection. The initial taciturnity of the poem’s subject will be familiar to anyone with a reticent father or grandfather:
There were things learnt and taught of course,
outside things; to turn a sheep for crutching
and an ease with dogs, an understanding
that much in life is better left unsaid.
But the final stanza moves the poem into another realm:
…speaking of things left unspoken,
the shrill screaming of shells
in the jungle and the warm
welling blood, or our need,
deep in the night, to love.
There is admirable delicacy in this exploration of what lies behind stoicism; moving us as readers from comprehension to true understanding.
While Lowe’s skills in traversing the romantic and beautiful are a highlight, there is also a sly humour and practicality that curls through these poems. Lowe’s level-headed attitude locks onto the absurdity of the ordinary, and plaits humour and romance into something that is often as moving as it is funny.
Summer is perhaps my favourite example of this. It is essentially a love poem to summer channelled through that humble Australian symbol of the season – the barbequed snag: ‘The smell of sausage on the wind/from a distant backyard brings you erect’. We are displaced as readers by the evocative commercial images:
…wetsuits slide like quicksilvers
towards the waiting water, which viewed
through a screen is as beautiful as a bottle
of Coke and just as sweet.
The successful marriage of absurdity and truth in the final lines gives “Summer” a lovely tension between humour and beauty:
…As the day’s
heat softens into an evening there’s that
sausage again, adrift on the hot breeze,
whispering: it’s summer, it’s summer.
“Self-portrait” also displays Lowe’s trademark dry humour. But in this poem, it is less explicit; captured in surrealism (one of several poems that nicely anticipates the pieces in the second part of the book):
Note how my hairstyle resembles the 3rd Apostle
at Port Campbell – see
through heavy fog –
and how the moth circling the lamp becomes a dog
chewing an old bone then the telephone rings:
and I turn into a postcard,
my mouth shaped like a tourist’s smile
a sort of distant, disremembered quote.
The notions of appearance and façade in this poem are intriguingly rendered – a hairstyle appears as a rock formation; a spinning moth throws up an image of teeth gnawing; a fake grin becomes cardboard. The ordinary is once again extrapolated into the strange and new.
Like the title of the first section of the book, Lowe’s poems often rise like balloons. His brief pieces are imagistic in nature, filled with the ‘clear edges’ that Pound advocated. But Lowe’s touch is with the soft, rather than ‘hard light’ of imagism. The nature of light itself threads throughout the poems, as do images/landscapes associated with it: sea, summer, mirrors. While this lightness of touch accentuates the quiet power of the more successful pieces, it leaves others (eg. A Sunday, Another Sunday, Paling Fence) feeling a little slight. They remain as ‘images presented’: evocative, but stopping short of the full transformative exploration that characterises the better poems.
The first half of Porch Music is, admittedly, the ‘easier’ half. The second section, The Corrosive Littoral, is a series of poems based on paintings by Australian surrealist James Gleeson. While they stand alone as poems in their own right, I found it more revealing to look up each painting, and read the painting and poem in tandem, with the book held next to the screen. To flick our gaze back and forth creates a dialogue between painting and poem, a language which locates each within the other. The Corrosive Littoral poems are mostly prose poems; dense, highly imagistic and often playful. On occasion they read too much as a pure descriptive of the painting (eg. Spain); they can feel like a walk around the story of the canvas without elevating response into interpretation:
…And you, her lover
stood above her as she lay there, stood and walked and
passed her by. And leading you on, to distant
mountains shaped like a sleeping man, were the hooded
But the more successful poems in the Corrosive Littoral section are among the most striking in Porch Music. We inhabit the corrosive littoral throws up images reminiscent of From Here To Eternity:
Practice love on this beach in the old-fashioned way:
they’ll make a movie if the price is just right…
The painting is thus made familiar to us, and then Lowe makes it natural:
Under extremes, he
explains with clouds in his brain, the algebraic sum of
all things: in a cyclical process the answer returned is
always something or none. Even so, she whispers, we’re
Making the surreal into something personal is the achievement of this part of the book, and one that Lowe’s down-to-earth style is made for. In a way, The Corrosive Littoral is the reverse of the Balloon Days section of the book – the second half takes the unheimlich and makes it heimlich.
A standout poem in the second section is “Congratulations on the maintenance of an identity” (a play on Gleeson’s painting titled “Coagulations on the maintenance of an identity”). Notions of father, son, woman and child interplay throughout the poem to create an effect that not only leads us through the painting, but lifts it into something that raises goosebumps:
man there is a dream of blue sand and even though
long dead there the child still stands, holding a string to
the deep-diving moon that does not stop. Don’t cry Dad,
I said, seeing in his face my face and feeling the shame
of a father’s tears and the shame of having cause those
tears. Dad the moon doesn’t stop…
The notions of confusion between child and adult, woman and man, the ‘maintenance of identity’ in both are delicately layered in this poem.
Porch Music is a quietly complex collection – a book that understands the humorous divide between city and country, the oddity of domestic turning to exotic, and the easy slide from the organic to the strange. It is a book that is by turns accessible and difficult – a collection of consistency and contradiction.
ANNA RYAN-PUNCH is a Melbourne poet and reviewer. Her previous publications include poetry in Overland, Westerly, Island, The Age, Quadrant and Wet Ink.
by Susan Hawthorne
Reviewed by HEATHER TAYLOR JOHNSON
Let us begin with the cover: Cow could be framed and hung on a wall. It’s intricate and delicate depictions of cows set amid tapestries of bright and pale pinks, purples and blues attempt to prepare us for what’s inside – namely beautiful and intricate weavings of bovine tales – but one can never be prepared for something so encompassing, so bold and sensuous as this.
With ancient Greek and Sanskrit traditions as inspiration, Susan Hawthorne indulges in the cow. The cow is at once mother of the calf and mother of the Milky Way. This gives Hawthorne a lot to work with and, owing to an obvious large amount of research and an apparent immersion into the cultures’ spirituality, she delivers a most comprehensive and emotive ode to the gentle and stoic beast we, in the Western world, too often think of as commodities.
There are four ‘strings’ (or sections) to the book: ‘the philosophy cow’, ‘what the philosophers say’, ‘what the lovers say’ and ‘what Queenie says about the philosophy cow’. Some of the strings are further subdivided into the likes of ‘Queenie’s dilly bag’, ‘Queenie’s tongue’ and ‘Queenie’s loves’. Each segment balances out the last so succinctly and sets us up for the next so unassumingly that, as a whole, the structure is continual; it tells a story. Stirred by the Tamil Sangam tradition of akam, we are ultimately faced with a series of poetic monologues with titles like ‘what cows and calves say’, ‘what Sita says’, ‘what Io says,’ ‘what she says about tongues’, ‘what the linguist says’ , and so on. By circumnavigating the world and fusing the many names and places, and their stories, into one cow-philosophy, Hawthorne gives us an amalgamated mythology, and it comes off so clearly. There is love and there is language. There is longing and sensation. There is domesticity, history, land, and body. Each of these certainties flow beautifully not from one to the other, but from one into the other. One should not attempt this collection over a long period of random readings, as can be done with most books of poetry, but rather as one would attempt a novel: continuously.
In presenting her readers with a highly logical structure to an extremely wide-ranging collection of the history of the cow, Hawthorn thus gives us a history of the world:
I’m grazing near a human encampment
time has rolled in
on a day the length of all time
I give birth to the folding universe
my milk flows away through the night sky
galaxies spin and twirl form and unform
as the dance of creation and decreation proceeds
small creatures have come to look at me
they watch the white liquid spill on the ground
it flows like a river forming stars
my calf the size of the earth drinks and grows
stumps and stumbles testing new-found legs
kicks and kicks and the earth wobbles
in that kick she has found power.
The above is taken from the poem ‘what Queenie says’ and it not only exemplifies the importance of creation stories to Hawthorne’s work, but it also sets us up for a feminist perspective (‘in that kick she has found power’). I can’t imagine reading Hawthorne from anything other than a feminist perspective after my introduction to her in 2005 with The Butterfly Effect. That collection opened my eyes to academia in poetry, as Hawthorne successfully made excessive use of footnotes so that her research would not be swept away in a cursory reading. I still count the book among my favourites but Cow has mastered something that Butterfly could not. In Cow Hawthorne has taken the academic feminist out of the spotlight and put her in a less focused glow. In doing so I feel the academic feminist is now much stronger in the work because she can be found in the roots of the poetry, in the unseen foundations of the verse.
In ‘what Queenie says about the Catalogue of Cows’, for instance, one feels the intensity of sister-power:
this is how it begins
the poet says we roamed arcadia
spread out over the hills
and across the plains
wherever feed was plentiful
we travelled with our daughters
close by our side
the bullocks we sent off after a time
their existence more solitary
we were oracles
our pronouncements not to be messed with
our names were listed
Nicothoe Aellopus Ocypete
Harpys and Ocypus
Propontis Echinades Storphades
we were the turning ones
you can see it in our tracks across the land
Unlike in Butterfly, any notes on references to names, places and stories are found in the back of the book, rather than in footnotes at the bottom of each page. This takes away any urge to interrupt the reading of a poem to make full sense of the poem. For the above, the
notes section points out that ‘these names are listed in Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women’. So we’re learning something here about feminist folklore (the academic shines through) but what makes this poetry feel less forced as both academic and feminist is that the significant women of antiquity are not human; they are cows. In this Hawthorne has traversed the realm of the cerebral and captured something much more fleshy, albeit magical. The mother-cow as mother-earth as every-fabled-female-deity gives this spiritual journey complete grounding. If I am confused at any given point I think cow and female and I am back on track, because in this colourful world Susan Hawthorne has created, cow and female are everything.
Not only does she draw from Sanskrit and Greek mythology, but there are references to Australia, America, Spain and Lithuania, to name but a few. All traditions fit surprisingly organically into the totality of the story of the cow; however the abruptness of the sound of the German language caught me off guard in every use. Fortunately I don’t doubt Hawthorne’s need to include anything German (I wondered if she, herself, was German). It did, after all, give her a chance to address the Holocaust in the ‘history of the cow / history of the universe’ context, and even that connection is unsoiled: think genocide, think beef. My point is that Hawthorne shows no fear in her spiritual depiction of the cow as universal and essential. Yes, they are in Germany as well as in India as well as in Greece. They are on land as well as in water (Australia’s own dugong) as well as in the heavens. And, through her use of personification, they are us. I for one will never look at a cow the same (what more could the poet ask for?) Cow is so monumental in so many ways I’d be shocked if it doesn’t win at least one major poetry award for 2011.
The Domestic Sublime
by Chris Wallace-Crabbe
River Road Press
Audio CD Nov 2009
Reviewed by ANDREW CARRUTHERS
George Orwell’s defense of broadcasted poetry in his essay “Poetry and the Microphone” (1945) was, amongst the efforts of Marinetti and Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh (founders of Zaum), one of the more impassioned cases for shifting the balance from printed to oral forms in poetry in the first half of the Twentieth Century. In this convincing essay, Orwell was not claiming that the movement from literacy to orality was a backwards movement — some kind of necessary step back into a primitive world before literacy in order to solve its problems — but simply that the advantages of broadcast at that moment were too alluring to be dismissed. For Orwell: “By being set down at a microphone, especially if this happens at all regularly, the poet is brought into a new relationship with his work, not otherwise attainable in our time and country.” Given the circumstances (particularly the trials and fortunes of his BBC program Voice) Orwell’s radical argument in favour of spoken word poetry was not to view print as doomed or inferior, nor did he want to risk again mounting the “phonotext” (to use Garrett Stewart’s terminology) on the tyrant’s pedestal (he cites Doctor Goebbels as one lasting impediment to public approval of broadcasted poetry). Rather, sounded poetry sets up a paradox concerning the listener and broadcaster: “In broadcasting your audience is conjectural, but it is an audience of ONE. Millions may be listening, but each is listening alone, or as a member of a small group, and each has (or ought to have) the feeling that you are speaking to him individually.” On the paradoxical nature of the one and the many in broadcasting Orwell could not have been more percipient: spoken-word poetry brings to the relationship between the listener and the word a certain intimacy, an intimacy perhaps unmatched by print.
The River Road Press, started up by Carol Jenkins in 2007, is responsible for a series of releases of contemporary Australian recorded poetry, and Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s CD of recorded works The Domestic Sublime (River Road Press, 2009) is another in the series. Wallace-Crabbe has recorded his poetry before, and collaborated with composer Damien Ricketson (A Line Has Two, 2004). In The Domestic Sublime, the cadences of his voice move with measured rhythms and a becalming timbre, revealing a new intimacy to known words. Though we are not strictly in the domain of broadcasting here, the nature of the Compact Disc format is no different to other recorded/microphonic artefacts in that the conjectural audience is an audience of both many and one, and in this sense both a “domestic” and a “sublime” audience.
The disc’s title poem “The Domestic Sublime” (a suite of five poems) is in a way a coating as much as centrepiece. Neither at the extremes of psychopathology nor critique, the form everyday objects take here seem closest to that which the last line of Philip Larkin’s poem “Home Is So Sad” exhibits with regard to the poet’s deictic placement: “The music in the piano stool. That vase.” (Collected Poems, Faber, 2003). In Larkin’s line, the object speaks for the word, or like an object, the word stays still while the poet’s eye/ear is cast from object to object: the said deixis of the that. Similarly, in the suite “The Domestic Sublime,” the sound poem “Saucer” (and you will recognise it as a generic “sound poem” once you hear it) is littered with like-objects, whose chordal arrangement of “cup”/“mug,” and “plate”/”saucer” (spliced with “slip,” “splash,” “drip,” “slop” “tip” and other deictic/domestic indices) resembles a Wittgensteinian language-game. “Sad without a cup,” as the last line sounds, leaves the word trailing behind its object, the saucer without its cup, reading-out the meaning from the language that holds and contains it, turning the word from its object. If the cup and saucer can be transposed to the binary of word and sound, what we witness here is a turning and tuning of the word and its domestic object-associations to its pure, “sublime” sound. “Who first spotted the lack,” the slip between cup and lip, a slippage of meaning (or the lack in signification itself) is the kind of first line that almost has to be heard to be understood.
What of the reading itself? To varying degrees the text remains a base for interpretation, a score to be read. A recording by a poet is still an interpretation of the text. In “Wanting to be a Sculptor”, the last line is modified (or de-gentrified) from “that would be the shot” (as it appeared in Whirling ), to “that’d be the shot”, and the effect is that the shift to the colloquial recasts the lines retroactively set before it. Before, there was the call:
to invent a ceramic language
to encourage silver and brass to dance
As a kind of material/iconic optics of desire, these lines are recast in the sense that the possibility of (mis)hearing the emphasis as “that would be the shot,” is eliminated, rendering the idiom more consciously vernacular than privately desirous of a material, ceramic language. Is such distanciation any surprise when one is being scrupulously listened to? Or is this a curiosity peculiar to subjectivity itself? Similarly, the last line of “The Bush” (originally in For Crying Out Loud  “fluted with scalloping surf/and every step a joke.”) finds its variant where “joke” is replaced by “quip”, again foregrounding the vernacular, the spoken, and in particular retaining the plosive consonance of step/quip. Modifying last lines is not sacrosanct in Wallace-Crabbe’s book. My personal favourite is Wallace-Crabbe’s reading of “An Die Musik”. The rhotic trill of “vib[r]ating” brings to the word a sonic immediacy. A sonic immediacy especially given that the word’s referential circuit onomatopoeically draws the listener into the world of the “phonotext” as if it were something not reducible to inscription (or that, if it was, the immediacy as such of the performed word outdid its predecessor in the stakes of performance). With the line “There’s always pathos to our comedy” Wallace-Crabbe voices an audible, knowing smile. It is worth reprinting the last stanza:
Listen. A texture delicate as lace
Repeats the long-gone master’s melody.
These ringing notes are all we know of grace
But repetition has its lovely place.
Tact, texture, text. Texture, here, is afflated, exhaled, delivered in refrain. An echo of death is audible too, recalling the line that read “riding the breath of death” from “The Speech of Birds” fifteen tracks earlier. Qualified earlier by the line “You can’t get back to the lawns of infancy”, repeating the wise advice of psychotheoretical systems, Wallace-Crabbe delivers tact by reassuring us in the refrain that to resist going “back to the lawns of infancy” ought not stricto sensu cancel out the place of repetition in poetry. For poetry’s relation to repetition — and in particular the psychoanalytic resonances of that relation — reflexively enter Crabbe’s poetic thinking. Thinking in the purest sense, for in a curious reversal of ekphrastic trajectory, what “one is often tempted to say” (from “Mozart On The Road”) enters the frame of its own saying. “Travel narrows the mind, one is often tempted to say,” as the phrase goes, thinks its phraseology. Or, the problem of the self, of subjectivity — surely familiar and yet always foreign territory to Wallace-Crabbe — are here conjured up as poetic sound-bites that put thinking and saying/poeticity together, while simultaneously drawing them apart. Indeed the issue of subjectivity, as Wallace-Crabbe puts it in his book Falling into Language (1990), involves an estrangement from self, an attempt to get outside the self to look at it:
One rides within oneself. Sometimes, too, one stands outside for a while, leans aside or flies aloft, trying to get a look at that self (112).
Intimacy for Wallace-Crabbe, then, is double-sided. To be “oneself” is to look at that self from outside, from the standpoint of the other, as in a mirror, to be at once inside and outside. Meaning, rather than being something that one finds ‘within oneself’ is, in the poem “We Being Ghosts Cannot Catch Hold Of Things”, personified as a “blind god/who limps through the actual world/seeking any attachment,/looking for good company.” Meaning resembles an outsider seeking contact, contract, company. And in “Stardust”:
Meaning is only a bundle of signs
That parallel and light the real,
But would they then be in the real?
Then signs are double wise at once,
Being inside and outside what they picture
If one follows the line that the real is that which cannot be symbolized, signified, assigned meaning, then the relation between meaning and the real is one of both insolubility and dependability. Reduced to a bundle of signs, meaning is both external and internal, of the real and external to the real. Considering the audition of words, meaning is both external and internal to the sounds words make. Transliteration would be the word. Elsewhere there is the sense that landscape, what lies outside the domestic, is something of an echo of the transliteration occurring between speech-act and sign, sound and sense. Such echoes can be heard in “Grasses,” where the Whitmanian trope of leaves (or Shelleyan apropos of “Ode to the West Wind”) makes its appearance alongside the “common urban transliteration of landscape” which, read within this context of recorded voice, puts the playing of language into a broadly metonymical embodiment of landscape as the text waiting to be sounded, read out, broadcast:
Sternly avoiding the asphalt, treading on grass
I pick my pernickety way across
this common urban transliteration of landscape,
the oddly broadcast parks and median-strips,
saluting the god of grass with the rub of my feet
What Wallace-Crabbe calls the “thought-voice” in “Mozart On The Road” may be something like an “inner voice,” the voice privy to the self, but also the voice of the other, the stranger who is writing, perhaps waiting to broadcast the self. Being before a microphone, being set down, prepared, perhaps even with the lines of a text-score set out before the poet, is to speak to or towards another archive of recordings. Another archive of course in the sense that the double bind of written and spoken literature, a bind that goes way back, perhaps before the self (“Before the self fully was, there were texts” [Falling into Language]), may reveal the self’s origins in writing. As the pre-symbolic subject speaks to an imaginary audience of one, and enters the world of spoken texts via a transliteration of sorts, as the poet broadcasts the parks and median-strips of an urban sublime, the Whitmanian troping of grass touches, as it were, Wallace-Crabbe’s poetic feet. To broadcast one’s voice out as a poet is to draw words, language, in toward a sonic immediacy, and as a consequence toward poetic intimacy. However “oddly broadcast” poetic space becomes under the jurisdiction of voice, certainly there is a case for taking up Orwell’s challenge to the poets — to open up their voices to a listening public — without inhibition. With projects like PennSound putting the sound back into poetry, the field is open for more poets to do the same. Correspondingly, the River Road Poetry Series is a copacetic venture that will give more listeners more of the voices in Australian poetry.
ANDREW CARRUTHERS is a current doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, his research area includes poetics, sound, rhetoric, and recording in American poetry from William Carlos Williams to David Antin.
New and Rediscovered
by Vicki Viidikas
REVIEWED BY MARTIN EDMOND
That Incorrigible Weapon: Vicki Viidikas, New and Rediscovered
A few years ago a friend who lives in Queensland asked me if I would mind having a look around the second hand bookshops in Sydney for the only one of Vicki Viidikas’ four books he didn’t own a copy of: Knabel, her third, published by Wild & Woolley in 1978. One very hot January day I stopped in at Gould’s in King Street, Newtown and spent an irritable half hour or so looking through the poetry section for a book I felt sure was there but could not find; I remember the black dust from the street that coats all the books on the lower shelves sticking to my sweating hands like a contagion. Some weeks later, on a whim, I called in again and this time found a copy in a matter of minutes.
When I took it to the desk to pay Bob Gould, sitting up on his high seat, began to reminisce. Such a fine writer, he said. So sad. Do you know, she came in here just a few weeks before she died, to sell some books? She was getting rid of her library in stages in order to finance her drug addiction … as he spoke, incongruously, he began taking rolls of banknotes from his pockets, presumably the day’s takings, and handing them up to a young acolyte standing at his shoulder. It seemed an apt illustration of the relationship between writers, books and money.
At this point I had not read any of Viidikas’ work and didn’t really look at Knabel either; just parcelled it up and sent it off to Rockhampton. I was however aware of a flavour, indeed an aura, around her memory—several older writers I knew, my Queensland friend among them, sometimes spoke of her, always with an oddly wistful tone in their voice. It wasn’t like they were recalling a companion or lover of their youth; rather it was if something unique and irreplaceable had gone out of the world when Viidikas died, aged fifty, in 1998. Now, a dozen or so years later, we have a selection of her work edited by Barry Scott and published in a handsome edition by Transit Lounge. And so it is possible to approach the question of what kind of writer she was.
The selection is substantial and includes material from all her books as well as about twenty previously uncollected pieces. It consists of poetry and prose and is ordered roughly chronologically (some pieces are clearly out of sequence), without making any particular distinction between her two main modes of writing: that is, free form poems and prose pieces which are usually short, even compressed, and at times resemble prose poems. There are also eight colour plates of naïve drawings and excerpts from two longer works: an unpublished novel called Kali and the Dung Beetle and a sequence entitled Prisoner Poems. The selection works well and the book can be read, as I read it, straight through from start to finish as if it were a kind of autobiography.
A peculiar sort of autobiography, however. Viidikas is not primarily interested in herself as much as in things seen and done; she is neither analytical or theoretical and nor is she disposed towards the drawing of conclusions—or, god forbid, morals. She instead sends despatches from the frontiers of experience, with the emphasis always upon the nature of the experience rather than the nature of the self who experiences. That is to say, she is an instinctive writer who is driven to write down things that happened to her, or that she made happen, as they happened. Many of the short prose pieces, for instance, are really character sketches of people she has known and some among them are unforgettable: individuals you will not meet anywhere else in Australian writing though you might still come across them in the street.
The poems, which seem rather more extempore, like the prose usually bear a strong trace of their occasion and those occasions are frequently, though not always, traumatic. The focus upon experience rather than self makes of these apparently confessional pieces something more like reportage; yet it is reportage that does not deny the full participation of the self: an analogy might perhaps be found in the work of Herbert Huncke, who also put himself in the way of extreme situations and then wrote up the results. Like Huncke, Viidikas casts a cold eye on life, on death and the complications that ensue in the passage from one to the other; and if the lack of self pity, even of self regard, is both bracing and disconcerting, it has also the paradoxical effect of making us feel we know what it was like to be her without a concomitant sense of knowing what it would have been like to know her.
This entails, I think, another paradox: the self that negotiates these experiences, this brave, reckless, honest, insouciant, hyper-aware voyager, discloses herself primarily as wound or, less surely, scar. Self as wound is not the intent of the writer but a consequence of her writing; and because she is not analytical, the effect is of a vulnerability that is pure, intense and unannealed. Therefore it is not a surprise to find her, in the latter stages of the book, describing the country of addiction from the point of view of an insider, a long-term resident, and ultimately someone who will find it impossible to leave. There are many kinds of addict and many reasons why people become addicted; one, certainly, is that heroin is a great salve of mental pain.
Viidikas seems gradually have fallen silent; her last book, India Ink, came out in 1984, fourteen years before her death, and she did not publish much in magazines in those later years either. However, it would be a mistake to let that encroaching silence shadow the earlier work: she is one of those rare writers whose every utterance is worthy of attention; or, to put it another way, she did not write unless she had something to say. Her major themes—they way or ways in which men and women relate, especially sexually; the nature of religious or other kinds of rhapsodic experience; the exotic as it appears to the committed traveller—do not date and hence her dispatches from the frontiers she explored or transgressed remain vivid and contemporary.
Her longish story of an affair with a young Cretan man, for instance, told with unflinching honesty, could stand as a paradigm of all such encounters and includes, at its climax, a haunting insight into the effect the violence of men has upon the affections of women. Similarly, her hair-raising account of a night out in the environs of Bangkok, trying to buy marijuana, is a narrative which could easily have ended in a murder—her own—and thus gives insight into encounters that may not have finished so well. Her Indian experiences, which were extensive, have a dynamic that oscillates between revelation and disenchantment and I wondered if the unpublished Kali and the Dung Beetle, which must on the evidence of the extract given here shed more light on this aspect of her consciousness, will ever come out in full.
Of course certain kinds of religious experience do also bring the pilgrim to a place of silence, a nirvana that might bear some superficial resemblance to the muted trance of the addict; in both states the fealty to experience that leaves such a strong trace through Viidikas’ writing is replaced by something that may not require a witness or indeed witnessing. Even as skilled and committed writer as Viidikas might long for a cessation of the effort of composition as well as an end to the necessity of wrenching from the world material that may then be composed. The last poem in the book, Lust, written just two months before her death, is a kind of renunciation of the sexual adventuring anatomised in the rest of the book; when she writes Who will bring back the beauty / the ecstasy, the mystery / of creation? you know that she (the last spinster) no longer considers that a task she can fulfil.
I did wonder what the books were that Vicki Viidikas sold to Gould’s around the time of the composition of Lust; but, having told me the bare bones of the anecdote, the bookseller would not say any more. He took my dollars, handed them up to the young fellow at his elbow and turned his mind to other things. Kerry Leves, in the introduction to this selection, does list some favourite writers, mostly European: Akhmatova, Djuna Barnes, Baudelaire, Beckett, Cavafy, Cendrars, Éluard, Grass, Herbert, Holub, Popa, Prévert . . . but not Rilke and not Rimbaud either. Nevertheless Viidikas’ densely compacted, highly allusive, linguistically inventive prose poems do sometimes recall Illuminations; as her courage, her despair and her silence echo the doomed Rimbaldian trajectory.
Letter to an Unknown Prisoner, a late piece (1990), begins: Today was almost impossible to begin, with no sleep, all night tossing like bunkers on a great ship, far out on the Arabian Ocean . . . ; and ends: Freedom, to unlock denial; freedom, that incorrigible weapon. A weapon that she seems to have used, both in writing and in life, in every possible manner she could devise; and then with great generosity reported openly, skilfully, truthfully and beautifully upon the results.
MARTIN EDMOND is an author, poet, screenwriter and fiction editor for Mascara Literary Review. His awards include the Jessie Mackay Award and the Montana Book Award. He lives in Sydney.
Among the regulars
by Andy Jackson
Reviewed by DEBBIE LIM
An online piece by the Academy of American Poets suggests that poems about the body ‘are often poems of celebration and awe, poems that delight in the body’s mysteries, its “dream of flesh”’.1
In Andy Jackson’s ‘Among the Regulars’ the body is far from romanticised. Instead, the body – specifically the ‘irregular’ or ‘different’ body – is viewed as a battle zone that divides the self. In ‘A Passing Thought’, the poet concludes: ‘This body / is no sanctuary – it is here the war is fought and won, / before I can even decide which side I’d rather be on.’
Jackson, who has Marfan syndrome, takes the body (sometimes his own, sometimes those of others) as his immediate subject in this powerful first full-length collection. However, this is essentially a book about marginalisation and its impact on the experiencing of self. It is both personal and political, employing subjective experience to question the status quo. While the poems are often introspective they cast an equally acute look back at the world.
Often the speaker is placed within a specific social situation. In ‘No Shelter’, for example, the poet describes being targeted by hooligans while walking home:
Floating home from a poetry reading, fog and who I am
closing in as I walk forward, I am still visible.
A mostly full stubbie of beer, VB I suspect,
thrown from a slow car, swoops over my shoulder.
Typical of the collection, the language is beautifully cadenced yet grounded by a conversational tone and everyday details. The poems play out within unremarkable settings: backyards, pubs, hospital rooms, parties, swimming pools. But in Jackson’s poetry, the real drama takes place internally. He has a particular skill for capturing the crucial detail that belies deeper social tensions. For example: ‘a hairline crack dives across a wall’, ‘a Study Bible’s width away from my wife’, ‘a nurse’s ‘uniform opens an inch, / briefly exposing a hint of the sensitive flesh / of our different positions, how cold it can be.’
‘Among the Regulars’ contains three numbered sections. The first and third comprise a substantial number of poems presumably based on events from the poet’s life. In the second section, many poems are dedicated to or inspired by real-life people, most of them unconventional by way of their bodies. These include someone born with androgen insensitivity syndrome, a Melbourne video performance artist, and Justin Fashanu (Britain’s first black footballer to be paid a million pounds and who later came out as gay).
These poems inspired by others are fascinating portraits. However, ultimately I felt more often moved during the first and third sections, and felt these sections also contained the strongest individual poems. Nevertheless, I enjoyed these people-poems for their reach and shift of perspective
One such poem was ‘All is Not as it Seems’, dedicated to Ilizane Broks, born with androgen insensitivity syndrome. The condition means genetic males have outwardly female physical characteristics. However, often it’s not until puberty that the syndrome is diagnosed:
It’s too soon to ask you which box you’d tick,
which cubicle you’d rather use. Now, the mind
is a humming stillness, the body ambiguous.
Your soft wings hide the outline of wings.
At the verge of thirteen, your toes grip the edge.
Beneath your feet, a wind you dare not predict.
I also enjoyed the territory of ‘Strange Friendship’, a poem about the awkward and unspoken boundaries of male friendship:
The clinking of pool balls is an ambient sound,
the crack and sigh of another crude attempt.
I want to tell you how strange this friendship seems,
to ask you where your grief is, as if in your composure
you are being dishonest, but I fear this might be
the stone thrown into the clear face we’ve made.
Friendship between young Australian males is not a typical poetic subject. Taking place on a couch in a pub ‘where a certain absence / of intimacy’s the done thing’, the narrator yearns for a more honest connection with his friend. The final line undercuts the open-hearted disclosure with a comic ironic twist, as the narrator suggests: ‘I reckon I’ll get another. You want one?’
But for me, Jackson shows his strengths best in poems such as, ‘Nothing Personal’, ‘Quasimodo’, ‘Hairline’, ‘The Embrace’ and ‘Labourers’, from the first section, and ‘Secessionist’, ‘Breath’, ‘Metaphor’ and ‘The Embalmer’s Art’ from the third. These display a compelling voice that is incisive, complex and affecting.
Emotionally, it is a confronting collection. As I read, I felt admiration for its accomplishment while simultaneously cringing. The poems conjure those painful experiences of non-belonging that everyone has had and (mostly) buries as deep down as possible. Not so Jackson whose poems replay such events in aching close-up. In ‘Hairline’, for example, the poet recounts a childhood incident with his brother:
In the wake of what you said as if I wasn’t here,
it is so quiet I can hear my chest swell with breath
then shrink. A hairline crack dives across a wall.
Cobwebs wave in the breeze and paint flakes fall.
Mum attempts to patch the gap with diplomatic talk,
but the air won’t go back outside. So that’s it –
you want to know if this pain of yours is a sign
your spine will curve like a treeless leaf,
turn into mine. […]
Sometimes poems with a polished style can seem emotionally distant, as though the original impetus has been refined away. The poems in this collection, however, retain an immediacy that pushes under your skin. Perhaps this is partly generated by the intense focus on the physical; the reader is riveted into the poem like a self into its body. At times, the close perspective felt almost claustrophobic. Jackson uses William Carlos Williams’s adage ‘No ideas but in things’ to great effect. He also knows that attending to ‘things’ can be a powerfully subtle way of conveying emotion.
A handful of poems verged into prosiness and as a result felt flat or strained. ‘Beneath the Surface’, ‘Severance’ and ‘Opening Night’ were examples of those that, for me, did not quite lift off the page. Also, ‘Comfortable’ and ‘Cells, Dying’ seemed to lack the richness of characterisation and detail needed to make these poems fully convincing.
But these criticisms seem petty cast against the book’s strengths. The best poems go beyond being technically successful works on the page; they also reach out with a complex humanity. This is a poetry in which seemingly contradictory attributes are embodied. Lyric beauty combines with an unflinching gaze, self-assuredness with vulnerability, awareness of minute bodily gesture with existentialist questionings.
The vivid sensual image is a signature feature of Jackson’s poetry. Here are a few examples: ‘that patch of schoolyard asphalt / freckled with blood like the breaking of rain.’, ‘The thin white frames of schoolgirls rise like lighthouses.’, ‘A million things are hidden in this bass clef shape’, ‘the vehicle / that will make a jigsaw puzzle of your face’. Such phrases are visually arresting but also have an effortless music and are rich with psychological implication.
If the poems in the first section establish the poet’s entrapment in his body, and those in the second extend to the experience of others, then the poems in the final section seem connected by the notion of the self’s separation. Many of these are about death, division, or a crucial life-segmenting moment.
‘Secessionist’ (which won the Rosemary Dobson Prize in 2008) is one such poem. Perhaps my favourite of the collection, it is visceral and masterfully controlled, combining a sense of the surreal with an almost savage economy. In it, the speaker describes the hellish existence of living with his estranged twin, who shares his body (seemingly like the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng):
I feel a breath at my neck and wake. A dream
only a stranger’s brain could make jolts me back
into my body. Who else roams these bones?
The morning sun cannot melt him away.
He throws back the sheets as I reach for the snooze,
my brain a dead leg he drags through the day.
Tautly paced, the poem culminates with the speaker plotting to kill his other half: ‘And tonight, as he slips / into sleep, a molecular frequency keeps me awake, / sharpening this knife.’ The ending gains greater pathos from the implicit knowledge that murdering the twin also entails suicide. The question being asked might be: How far will we go to escape the pain of our (bodily) selves?
The image of conjoined twins – two identities vying within one body – seems a fitting metaphor for Jackson’s vision of the self. It’s an image of the self in conflict, its dual (duelling?) entities: self versus body, self versus society, and ultimately, self versus itself. Perhaps even the self in time (past battling future) is yet another conflict. But while it’s essentially a portrait of division and alienation, it’s also one that asks us to consider the multiplicity of identity. Interestingly, this twin imagery is reflected in the book’s cover artwork: two white resin heads sculpted in the poet’s likeness sit nestled together in a bird nest.
Another central recurring image is that of gaps (and cracks, silences, holes and vents). In ‘The Direction of Vents’, a woman walks up to an old tree in a park and wraps her arms around it: ‘…perhaps she has opened / a vent in her skin, wider than the nib of this pen / that lets things out, not in.’ The vent seems to represent a means of personal release.
But perhaps it is the final poem that offers the clearest insight to the significance of gaps in the collection. ‘The Embalmer’s Art’ is an unsettling elegy spoken by an embalmer who takes us behind the scenes of his vocation. Here are the last three stanzas:
Every line looks how the family expects –
precise, seamless, unremarkably human. Yet
the gaps are beyond repair and leak. Under
each clean surface, tiny lives swarm and feed.
I evoke a face with the eyes shut, the frozen
unknowable dream. This is our recurring theme,
that in grieving there are some curtains
we don’t want thrown open, this skin
a net composed of yearning, and of holes.
Here, the gaps suggest the irreparable distance between the self and others – a space through which emotional pain flows to the surface. They are the holes in the body’s theatre curtain that expose the vulnerable authentic self.
One of the most memorable poems for me in the collection was ‘Breath’. Dedicated to the poet’s partner, it reads as one of those seemingly effortless works conceived when life’s chaotic points momentarily align. Here it is in full:
I ache to speak without a mouth, make the page
a pale limb dotted with life’s subtle buds.
The world and its molecules turn without this strife.
I have thought myself into knots, my intensity-twin.
There is a language of body, a grammar of gaps.
That day bowed down with the weight of our tongues,
your room a womb for the selves we’ll become.
And now, adrift in the silence of Pärt, an absence
both Rothkos know, I think of you and weep
with joy, even though the continent is shrinking.
My skin is a map of welts from pinching myself.
Go to our room! You say, as the streetlight blinks,
and take that brace of language off, your heron-ness –
for a while, I will cushion your mind with my breath.
Perhaps breath – of the self yet unbounded by it – is one way of spanning those gaps, and transcending the body, albeit briefly. This is a radiant sonnet which forms a rare still point in the book.
‘Among the Regulars’ is a distinctive, impressive and thought-provoking collection. By asking the reader to step into the body of another, it challenges us to consider the impact of assumptions of ‘normality’ on the individual. Ultimately though, it is the presence of Jackson himself breathing through the lines which makes this such a moving work.
1. Academy of American Poets. www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/18999
DEBBIE LIM lives in Sydney. She received the Rosemary Dobson Prize in 2009. Her chapbook Beastly Eye will be published by Vagabond Press in 2012.
Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work
by Edwidge Danticat
Princeton University Press, 2010
Reviewed by MICHELLE CAHILL
What does it mean to create dangerously and what compels the immigrant writer to abandon the reflections of a poetic or fictional imagination to risk arrest, failure, deportment, death, or at the very least being isolated and ignored by the literary mainstream? In a lecture given by Albert Camus, from which Edwidge Danticat borrows the title of her recent collection of essays, the Algerian-born writer/philosopher addresses the ethical and aesthetic considerations imposed by frontiers of all kinds, and by the “crudest implications of history.” It’s hard for us in the comfort zone of the antipodes to imagine a country of such humanitarian oppression as Haiti with its history of Spanish and French colonists, slave rebellion, US interventions and enforced dictators, its natural and biological disasters. What was once the ‘Pearl of the Antilles,’ one of the richest outposts of French colonialism bears a history of complex social, political and economic mutilations, which for decades writers and artists of differing persuasions have attempted to reframe. In this slim volume, Danticat upholds and celebrates this tradition of revolt against silence by readers and writers of littérature engagée, to quote Sartre’s term, and she does this with understated elegance moving between radical history, anthropology, memoir, philosophy, moving with subtlety between the real and the surreal.
As an immigrant writer, I’m intrigued by the concept of writing as an act of risk, playing out the impossibility of contact with its subject through the slippages between fiction and non-fiction in the fractured topography of diasporic narratives. If I came to Danticat’s book for further knowledge and for inspiration, I was captivated from the opening essay with its themes of urgency and sacrifice. A chilling account follows of the public execution of Marcel Nouma and Louis Drouin in Port au Prince on November 12, 1964. Both men were writers, political activists and members of Jeune Haiti, a group attempting to overthrow “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Rather than burdening the reader with literary reportage of the officially recorded scene, Danticat focuses her lens, filtering the perspective into the present tense. Her emphasis on simple detail creates an immediate and vulnerable portrait of the assassinated patriots:
Numa, the taller and thinner of the two, stands erect, in perfect profile, barely leaning against the square piece of wood behind him. Drouin, who wears brow-line eyeglasses, looks down into the film camera that is taping the final moments. Drouin looks as though he is fighting back tears as he stands there, strapped to the pole, slightly slanted. Drouin’s arms are shorter that Numa’s and the rope appears looser on Drouin.
A choice between exile and execution existed for these renegades, both of whom, being from middle-class Haitian families had begun comfortable and successful lives in the US. This kind of alternative between separation, silence and activism, is familiar to Danticat. She describes it aptly as one of her creation myths, a moment captured in history, which her father’s generation extolled as political martyrdom.
Such a symbolic act of defiance resonates long after the firing squad have completed their task. In the poetically titled essay, “Acheiropoietos,” we learn how an adolescent Daniel Morel witnessed the event. After walking past a photographic studio near his father’s bakery the following morning, Morel noticed enlargements of Drouin’s and Numa’s corpses. Morel, now an acclaimed photojournalist, cites the event as being the causal influence behind his work.
“I’d immediately wanted to be a photographer so that I could document Haitian history,” he’d said that day….”
Like many artist émigrés, Morel has suffered both in his homeland and abroad for making visible the subaltern face of Haiti’s dispossessed. Sensitive to this precarious balance, Danticat weaves poetry and philosophical meditations with biographical details of the photographer’s personal tragedies. She turns her lens to the artist as subject, while probing a more universal fear of how it might feel to be misread, mis-seen (missing?) or misunderstood. Danticat has been exposed to censure from family as well as from the wider Haitian communities for using the singularity of a narrator’s voice to dissect private afflictions or to make emblematic a nation’s complex cultural and political grievances. In her work she shares the almost-parasitic experience of those who leave a country-in-crisis for better prospects. While she returns to memorialise, to make sense of the past, others, like her uncle Joseph and her Tante Ilyana, stay behind, to document the atrocities, to maintain the physical legacy of their ancestral home.
A sense of torn loyalties and survivor-guilt becomes apparent in many of these essays as they sketch a family tree of deceased relatives: uncles and cousins brutally imprisoned or deported by the US Department of Homeland Security. Precise and metaphoric prose infuses with the beautiful and the courageous, the guapa of Creole and Vodou beliefs. Danticat explores the divisions that arise when one is cast lòt bò dlo, across the seas, or anba dlo, under the water, where the spirits are reborn. The skilful restraint she exercises never permits a tone of self-pity or sentimentality to enter the writing so that the impact of the book is all the more potent. A cultural memory in which killings, death, and disease are so mundane, so ignored by the outside world, transcends the conservative status of realism in Danticat’s capable hands.
The reader begins, ever so palpably, to perceive the spirit of the dead, undying, as living hope for the future of this beleaguered nation. Danticat acknowledges the cultural influence of Marxist–surrealist and Negritude writers like Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and Camus in the underground staging of plays, and in clandestine book clubs, which formed a literature of resistance during the Duvalier regime. Yet what she describes as the pleasures and dangers of reading or writing could not be compared to the fear of being tortured, killed, or living in a time or place when that could happen.
Elements of amnesia as well as cultural anamnesis are shown to characterise the “dyaspora” experience. Forgetting can be an anaesthetic, a way of protecting a country from its past horrors, its internal corruptions, Danticat suggests in “Daughters of Memory,” but the immigrant writer, is twice removed from home and past.
It is as if we had been forced to step under the notorious forgetting trees, the sabliyes, that our slave ancestors were told would remove their past from their heads and dull their desire to return home. We know we must pass under the trees, but we hold our breath and cross our fingers and toes and hope that the forgetting will not penetrate too deeply into our brains.
For Danticat’s generation the erasures of language and enforced Francophone education had effectively suppressed Haitian literature, yet she suggests, there exists a memory of amnesia in the public and private executions of the Tontons Macoutes. Many of the essays broach deeply disturbing topics with remarkable tact, a kind of seduction by which we are convinced. In the essay which commemorates Haiti’s Bicentennial, Danticat makes seamless if necessary comparisons between overthrown president Aristide and revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, between the speeches of Negro liberty and the contradictions of Thomas Jefferson’s racist declarations, which could not “reconcile dealing with one group of Africans as leaders and another as chattel.”(98) Danticat’s prose seems informed by Sartre’s notions of there being an engagement between writing and society:
One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy. When one is threatened, the other is too. And it is not enough to defend them with the pen. A day comes when the pen is forced to stop and the writer must then take up arms. Thus however you might have come to it, whatever the opinions you might have professed, literature throws you into battle.
(What is Literature)
Resisting historical reality, Danticat writes as if for the freedom of sight, her voice unburdened by modernist agendas. The Vodou ceremony of Independence marked by machetes and pig blood, and Jefferson’s crude claim of “cannibalism,” appear as bizarre historical facts. As butter is made from water, what “we have come to know as magical realism, lives and thrives in past and present Haiti,” (103) Danticat asserts, reminding us of Alejo Carpentier’s discovery of the real maravilloso during his trip to the island. I am reminded, too, of the French poet and Antillean anthropologist, Michel Leiris, whose writing explores the function of danger in subjectivity through tauromachic tropes. For Leiris the bullfight, represents not merely personal mutilations but the agonies of the Spanish Civil War. This dance between the shadow of the bull’s horn and the shadow of recovery from its psychological wounds is akin to a transition Danticat negotiates from fiction to essay and memoir in her two most recent books, Create Dangerously and Brother I’m Dying.
Risks are taken in the poetic motifs, which segue her prose, the flow of tropes resisting a dominant discourse. Danticat speaks in near-whispers of writing against hope, as if one is summoned or driven by acheiropoietos; she cites the artist being briefly possessed by a trance as if he or she were merely a vessel for the chwal, the Vodou horseman. She evokes alternative spatial experiences but the writing remains grounded in unbiased descriptions of personal tragedies and injustice. A cultural memory is intuited to the ghost of the Brooklyn-born, Haitian-Peurto-Rican artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of an overdose. Through his story, Danticat fictionalises the seldom-voiced identity of a mixed-ancestry migrant, by re-imagining his syncretic origins, his complex threads of cultural and artistic heritage. Yet she returns to Alèrte Bélance, a victim of the 1991 terror gangs, her own tortured words. She refrains from any summary or interpretation of what the mutilated amputee speaks. I found this chapter, “I Speak Out” to be the most harrowing prose I have read in a long time.
Danticat questions her authority to speak about the Haiti earthquake. The essay, “Our Guernica” embodies her experience of returning home to engage a self that is compelled to glance, albeit briefly, beyond the grave. She writes with a humanistic responsibility to record and reframe disastrous historical realities. Her anguish, her guilt, the self-exploitation of her writing are clearly evoked for the reader. But in this chapter she describes being gripped by the sudden fear of death. Perspective shifts are finely attuned, averting any lapse into sensational or spectator reportage. In Port-au-Prince, the muse has altered. On visiting her cousin Maxo’s grave, in the rubble of a half-collapsing church she becomes aware of the hazard to herself. Panicked, she forgets her intention to leave behind a favourite book, Genet’s Les Nègres. These subjective confessions describe fragmentation and fear yet they read as unclouded. Danticat farewells her country with fragile hope, flying back to the safety of Miami but what is experienced and described is an intimate suspension between living and dying; between the fear of dying and the fear of not being able to die.
Danticat’s essays and her memoir are highly finessed and subtle. She breaches the vertiginous fault lines between the real and the surreal, between writing and archeiropoietos, between lòt bò dlo, and anba dlo. Create Dangerously celebrates love, physical beauty, painting, music and literature of a country that defies its economic oppression and invisibility, its manipulation by media stereotypes. It asks us to consider art and literature as vehicles for authenticity and self-expression, however dangerous that might be. This achievement is effortless and utterly compelling, with not one syllable or sentiment below guapa. Under the radar of humanitarian organisations the US deportations to Haiti and the death toll from cholera, with its high infant mortality, continue to rise. Danticat brings this torn world closer to our own as she questions: “How is the world reflected in a dead man’s eyes?”
Camus, Albert. Create Dangerously, a lecture delivered at the University of Uppsala, 1957, reprinted in Resistance, Rebellion and Death (New York: Vintage International, 1995)
Danticat, Edwidge. Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010)
Sartre, Jean-Paul, What is Literature? (New York, Philosophical Society, 1949) p 65
MICHELLE CAHILL writes poetry, fiction and essays. Her work appears in Southerly, Jacket and Pennsylvania Literary Journal. She serves as editor for Mascara Literary Review. Vishvarūpa is her forthcoming collection of poetry.
The Mary Smokes Boys
by Patick Holland
Transit Lounge, 2010
Reviewed by PETER MATHEWS
Patrick Holland’s second novel The Mary Smokes Boys (Transit Lounge, 2010) has received almost unequivocal praise so far from other reviewers. While Holland does have the potential to become an important writer in the future, it must also be acknowledged that this development is still very much a work in process. One striking feature of this book, as other reviewers have pointed out, is Holland’s intimate knowledge of its geographical setting, which is reflected in his ability to write in poetic detail about the landscape of rural Queensland. This skill derives from the longstanding insight that authors write best about subjects that fall within their range of experience, and Holland, hailing from this part of the country, is able to draw dexterously from his first-hand knowledge of the places he depicts. In employing this strategy, Holland places his work in the recognizable domain of Gothic literature – the blurb on the back of the book compares this novel to Emily Brontë’s nineteenth-century classic Wuthering Heights – a genre that has found an influential new life in contemporary fiction in both American (Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy) and Australian literature, as represented by such established luminaries as Rodney Hall and Tim Winton.
Like other reviewers, I found Holland to be at his best when he is describing the beauty and rawness of the landscape. Particularly admirable are the scenes in which he attempts to convey the desolate nature of his setting, especially its utter indifference to its human occupants. In these passages there is a strange sense of sublime peace that pervades the otherwise anxious protagonist, Grey North:
Grey was alone. He swam upstream and sank into the pool beneath the cradling spotted gum root and rested his arms and let the water crash over him. He laughed to himself at this inconsequential, late-night-creek-swimming small-town life. At such times all thoughts of leaving or anything else belong to that still-distant place called the future left him alone. The world still moved slowly at Mary Smokes Creek. At the creek you took in the infinite and nameless changes in the hours, and moving at the same speed as the earth there was not that whiplash of time and the death feeling that came with hours lost unwittingly in degrees of waking sleep. At Mary Smokes Creek there was time for everything, and no desire to do anything at all. (69)
There is a pristine, existential yearning in these passages that feels both authentic and emotionally moving. Here, Grey swims upstream – symbolizing his broader struggles in life – but in his solitude he finds peace and rest. It is in these moments that the reader catches a passing glimpse of Holland’s greater potential.
Unfortunately, The Mary Smokes Boys does not fully live up to this promise, and its flaws are due, in large part, to the weakness of its characters. The novel is a coming-of-age story, a Bildungsroman in which we see the development of its protagonist, Grey North, from a young boy who has just lost his mother to a young man trying to cope with the reality of life in a small town. It has become a staple of postmodern fiction to depict characters that are incapable of transcendence, from Bret Easton Ellis’s grotesquely irredeemable Patrick Bateman in American Psycho to the incorrigibly flawed cast of characters that appear in Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap. But there is a qualitative difference between these other novels, which satirize the hypocrisy behind the social rhetoric of self-improvement, and the deadly seriousness of Holland’s story, in which Grey repeatedly bemoans the misery of life in Mary Smokes without taking a single genuine step to escape or improve it. For a character imbued by the author with such emotional sensitivity, Grey’s capacity for insight and maturity is strangely limited.
While the inability of Grey to take greater hold of his destiny may be interpreted as a strategic decision on Holland’s part, a deliberate means of exploring the regressive psychology that restricts Grey’s growth into a well-balanced adult, there is no getting around the fact that one of the novel’s most glaring problems is Holland’s failure to invent characters that change and develop in the course of the story. Too often his characters strike a single, uncomplicated note that leaves no room for surprise or reversal. The major characters in the novel are painted in stark, black and white tones, especially Grey’s mother, who is portrayed as a remarkable woman, superbly talented at everything she puts her hand to:
Her father had taught her to speak Irish. She would have amazed her old aunts in that distant country she would never see. She played Bach’s fugues and sang the canticles of Hildegard von Bingen. An Ursuline nun who trained in music at the Brisbane Conservatorium had taught her. Sister Marie Hauswald said no one in Mary Smokes knew how well the girl’s voice carried the great prayers. (25)
The problem with this portrayal is not that she is a good woman, but the way in which Holland overplays these good qualities – Irene North not only learns Irish, but is fluent enough to amaze her Irish relatives were she ever to meet them; she is not only musically gifted, she is the greatest singer in Mary Smokes; her compassion, knowing no bounds, extends to caring selflessly for “Ook” Eccleston, the troubled offspring of an affair between the North’s former neighbor and an indigenous woman; she displays her unrelenting devotion to her children, which culminates in her death while giving birth to her daughter, who is also named Irene in her memory. Simply put, Grey’s mother is depicted as being so saintly that she is not believable as a real human being. This impression is reinforced by her husband, Bill North, Grey’s father, a worthless alcoholic who, in a mirror image of his wife’s fine qualities, fails to possess a single redeeming feature. The novel desperately needs a point of contrast to the predictability of its characters, and it is Grey’s failure to step into this role, even when his instincts tell him that effective action needs to be taken, that made his behavior throughout the novel seem childish and unsympathetic to me.
Such one-dimensional characters also hamstring the plot of The Mary Smokes Boys, which moves from one minor crisis to the next in an episodic manner. Because of the novel’s lack of character development, Holland has to rely primarily on external events to drive the narrative forward. Thus, the novel opens with the death of Grey’s mother while giving birth to his sister, Irene, then meanders through Grey’s wayward youth, the foolish gambling of Bill North that lands the family into trouble, and the fleecing of Grey’s nemesis August Tanner, bringing the narrative through a full circle of revenge and heartbreak. There is nothing organic about the story’s construction, and it is because of this artificiality that the reader is left with no real deep sense of tragedy, only pathos.
For all these shortcomings, there is undoubtedly a germ of potential in Holland’s writing, but for it to flower it must be tempered by an emotional restraint that mirrors the economy of his prose. While there is certainly room for a Hardy-esque reexamination of life in rural Australia in contemporary literature, the tone of disavowed sentimentality that characterizes so much of this story left me feeling cold and disconnected from the characters. What the novel sorely needed was a larger moment, if not of transcendence, then at least of genuine self-awareness on the part of its protagonist that he is trapped in a pattern of psychic regression, a note of contrast to the relentless nihilism that surrounds him on all sides. Without that moment, all the novel’s impressively lyrical passages about the universe’s sublime purposelessness, rather than providing a profound meditation on the brevity of human life, ring somewhat hollow.
PETER MATHEWS is an Assistant Professor of English at Hanyang University in Seoul, South Korea.
Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969 and moved to the United States when she was twelve. She is the author of two novels, two collections of stories, two books for young adults, and two nonfiction books, one of which, Brother, I’m Dying, was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. In 2009, she received a MacArthur Fellowship. Her most recent collection of essays is Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work. She is the editor for Haiti Noir.
from Brother, I’m Dying
Listening to my father, I remembered a time when I used to dream of smuggling him words. I was eight years old and Bob and I were living in Haiti with his oldest brother, my uncle Joseph, and his wife. And since they didn’t have a telephone at home—few Haitian families did then—and access to the call centres was costly, we had no choice but to write letters. Every other month, my father would mail a half-page, three-paragraph missive addressed to my uncle. Scribbled in his miniscule scrawl, sometimes on plain white paper, other times on lined, hole-punched notebook pages still showing bits of fringe from the spiral binding, my father’s letters were composed in stilted French, with the first paragraph offering news of his and my mother’s health, the second detailing how to spend the money they had wired for food, lodging and school expenses for Bob and myself, the third section concluding abruptly after reassuring us that we’d be hearing from him again before long.
Later I would discover in a first-year college composition class that his letters had been written in a diamond sequence, the Aristotelian Poetics of correspondence, requiring an opening greeting, a middle detail or request, and a brief farewell at the end. The letter-writing process had been such an agonising chore for my father, one that he’d hurried through while assembling our survival money, that this specific epistolary formula, which he followed unconsciously, had offered him a comforting way of disciplining his emotions.
“I was no writer,” he later told me. “What I wanted to tell you and your brother was too big for any piece of paper and a small envelope.”
Whatever restraint my father showed in his letters was easily compensated for by Uncle Joseph’s reactions to them. First there was the public reading in my uncle’s sparsely furnished pink living room, in front of Tante Denise, Bob and me. This was done so there would be no misunderstanding as to how the money my parents sent for me and my brother would be spent. Usually my uncle would read the letters out loud, pausing now and then to ask my help with my father’s penmanship, a kindness, I thought; a way to include me a step further. It soon became obvious, however, that my father’s handwriting was a as clear to me as my own, so I eventually acquired the job of deciphering his letters.
Along with this task came a few minutes of preparation for the reading and thus a few intimate moments with my father’s letters, not only the words and phrases, which did not vary greatly from month to month, but the vowels and syllables, their tilts and slants, which did. Because he wrote so little, I would try to guess his thoughts and moods from the dotting of his i’s and the crossing of his t’s, from whether there were actual periods at the ends of his sentences or just faint dots where the tip of his pen had simply landed. Did commas split his streamlined phrases, or were they staccato, like someone speaking too rapidly, out of breath?
For the family readings, I recited my father’s letters in a monotone, honouring what I interpreted as a secret between us, that the impersonal style of his letters was due as much to his lack of faith in words and their ability to accurately reproduce his emotions as to his caution with Bob’s and my feelings, avoiding too-happy news that might add to the anguish of separation, too-sad news that might worry us, and any hint of judgement or disapproval for my aunt and uncle, which they could have interpreted as suggestions that they were mistreating us. The dispassionate letters were his way of avoiding a minefield, one he could have set off from a distance without being able to comfort the victims.
Given all this anxiety, I’m amazed my father wrote at all. The regularity, the consistency of his correspondence now feels like an act of valor. In contrast, my replies, though less routine—Uncle Joseph did most of the writing—were both painstakingly upbeat and suppliant. In my letters, I bragged about my good grades and requested, as a reward for them, an American doll at Christmas, a typewriter or sewing machine for my birthday, a pair of “real” gold earrings for Easter. But the things I truly wanted I was afraid to ask for, like when I would finally see him and my mother again. However, since my uncle read and corrected all my letters for faulty grammar and spelling, I wrote for his eyes more than my father’s, hoping that even after the vigorous editing, my father would still decode the longing in my childish cursive slopes and arches, which were so much like his own.
The words that both my father and I wanted to exchange we never did. These letters were not approved, in his case by him, in my case by my uncle. No matter what the reason, we have always been equally paralysed by the fear of breaking each other’s heart. This is why I could never ask the question Bob did. I also could never tell my father that I’d learned from the doctor that he was dying. Even when they mattered less, there were things he and I were too afraid to say.
A few days after the family meeting, my father called my uncle Joseph in Haiti, to see how he was doing. It was Thursday, July 15, 2004, the fifty-first birthday of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s twice-elected and twice-deposed president. Having been removed from power in February 2004 through a joint political action by France, Canada and the United States, Aristide was now spending his birthday in exile in South Africa. However, the residents of Bel Air, the neighbourhood where I grew up and where my uncle Joseph still lived, had not forgotten him. Joining other Aristide supporters, they’d marched, nearly three thousand of them, through the Haitian capital to call for his return. The march had been mostly peaceful, except that, according to the television news reports that my father and I had watched together that evening, two policemen had been shot. My father called my uncle, just as he always did whenever something like this was happening in Haiti. He was sitting up in bed, his head propped on two firm pillows, his face angled toward the bedroom window, which allowed him a slanted view of a neighbourhood street lamp.
“Are you sure he’s sleeping?” my father asked whoever had answered the phone at my uncle’s house in Bel Air.
My father cupped the phone with one hand, pushed his face toward me and whispered “Maxo.”
I gathered he was talking to Uncle Joseph’s son, Maxo, who had left Haiti in the early 1970’s to attend college in New York, then had returned in 1995. Though I had spent most of my childhood with Maxo’s son Nick, I did not know Maxo as well.
“Don’t you think it’s time your father moved out of Bel Air?” my father asked Maxo.
As he hung up, he seemed disappointed that he hadn’t been able to speak to Uncle Joseph. Over the years, this had been a touchy subject between my father and uncle: my father wanting my uncle to move to another part, any other part, of Haiti and my uncle refusing to even consider it. I now imagined my father longing to tell his brother to leave Bel Air, but this time not for the reasons he usually offered—the constant demonstrations, the police raids and gang wars that caused him to constantly worry—but because my father was dying and he wanted his oldest brother to be safe.
I write these things now, some as I witnessed them and today remember them, others from official documents, as well as the borrowed recollections of family members. But the gist of them was told to me over the years, in part by my uncle Joseph, in part by my father. Some were told offhand, quickly. Others, in greater detail. What I learned from my father and uncle, I learned out of sequence and in fragments. This is an attempt at cohesiveness, and at re-creating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back at the same time. I am writing this only because they can’t.
—- Citation: Brother, I’m Dying, Scribe Publications, copyright 2007, page 21-26
from Create Dangerously:The Immigrant Artist At Work
Twenty-three days after the earthquake, my first trip to Haiti is brief, too brief. A friend finds a last-minute cancellation on a relief plane. Another agrees to help my husband look after our young girls in Miami.
I arrive in Port-au-Prince at an airport with cracked walls and broken windows. The fields around the runway are packed with American military helicopters and planes. Past a card table manned by three Haitian immigration officers, a group of young American soldiers idle, cradling what seem like machine guns. Through an arrangement between the Haitian and the U.S. governments, the American military as leader in the relief effort, has taken over Toussaint L’Ouverture Airport.
Outside the airport, my friend Jhon Charles, a painter, and my husband’s uncle, whom we call Tonton Jean, are waiting for me. A small man, Tonton Jean still cuts a striking figure with the dark motorcycle helmet he wears everywhere now to protect himself from falling debris. Jhon and Tonton Jean are standing behind a barricade near where the Americans have set up a Customs and Border Protection operation at the airport.
Whose borders are they protecting? I wonder. I soon get my answer. People with Haitian passports are not being allowed to enter the airport.
Maxo’s oldest son, Nick, who now lives in Canada, is also in Haiti. He arrived a few days before I did to pay his respects and see what he could do for his brothers and sisters, who had been pulled, some of them wounded, from the rubble of the family house in Bel Air. When I arrive in Port-au-Prince, Nick is at the General Hospital with two of his siblings, getting them follow-up care.
One of the boys, thirteen-year-old Maxime, has already lost a toe to gangrene. Nick was told that his eight-year-old-sister, Monica, might need to have her foot amputated, but the American doctors who are taking care of her in a tent clinic in the yard of Port-au-Prince’s main hospital think that they may be able to save her foot. This makes Monica luckier than a lot of other people I see hobbling on crutches all over Port-au-Prince, their newly amputated limbs covered bys shirt or blouse sleeves or pant legs carefully folded and pinned with large safety pins.
I am heading to the hospital to see Nick and the children when I get my first view of the areas surrounding my old neighbourhood. Every other structure, it seems, is completely or partially destroyed. The school I attended as a girl is no more. The national cathedral, where my entire school was brought to attend mass every Friday, has collapsed. The house of the young teacher who tutored me when I fell behind in school has caved in, with most of her family members inside. The Lycée Petion, where generations of Haitian men had been educated, is gone. The Centre d’Art, which had nurtured thousands of Haitian artists, is barely standing. The Sainte-Trinité Church, where a group of famous Haitian artists had painted a stunning series of murals depicting the life of Christ, has crumbled, leaving only a section of lacerated wall, where a wounded Christ seems to be ascending toward an open sky. Grand Rue, downtown Port-au-Prince’s main thoroughfare, looks as though it had been bombed for several consecutive days. Standing in the middle of it reminds me of film I had seen of a destroyed Hiroshima. With its gorgeous white domes either tipped over or caved in, the national palace is the biggest symbol of the Haitian government’s monumental loss of human and structural capital. Around the national palace has sprung up a massive tent city, filled with a patchwork of makeshift tents, actual tents, and semipermanent-looking corrugated tin structures, identical to those in dozens of other refugee camps all over the capital. The statues and monuments of the unknown maroon, a symbol of Haiti’s freedom from slavery, of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Henri Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and even a more recent massive globelike sculpture commissioned by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to commemorate Haiti’s bicentennial in 2004—these monuments and symbols around the national palace are still standing; however, their platforms now serve as perches from which people bathe and children play.
Outside the nursing and midwifery schools near the General Hospital are piles of human remains freshly pulled from the rubble. Dense rings of flies surround them. The remains are stuck together in two large balls. I wonder out loud whether all these nursing and midwifery students had been embracing one another when the ceiling collapsed on top of them, their arms and legs crisscrossed and intertwined. My friend Jhon Charles corrects me.
“These are all body parts,” he says, “legs and arms that were pulled out the rubble and placed on the side of the road, where they dried further and melded together.” Sticking to several of the flesh-depleted legs are pieces of yellowed cloth-skirts, I realize, which many of the women must have been wearing.
Across the street from the remains, people line up to watch. One woman pleads with the crowd to repent. “Call on Jesus! He is all we have left.”
“We are nothing,” another man says, while holding a rag up against his nose. “Look at this, we are nothing.”
Jhon is a lively thirty-four-year old who under normal circumstances has an easy laugh. He has been drawing and painting since he was a boy, using up leftover materials from his artist father. Later he attended Haiti’s National School of the Arts, and has been painting and teaching art in secondary schools since he graduated. Even though he is at the beginning of his career, he has already participated in group shows in Port-au-Prince, New York, Miami, and Caracas, Venezuela. Jhon grew up in Carrefour, where Tonton Jean also lives. The epicenter of the earthquake was near Carrefour. A week after the earthquake, my husband and I were still trying to locate Jean and Tonton Jean. Their cell phones were not working and, besides, they were both very busy. Tonton Jean was pulling people out of the rubble and Jhon was teaching the traumatized children in the tent city near his house to draw.
In the tent clinic at the general hospital, I find Maxo’s son Maxime, sleeping on a bench near where Maxime’s sister Monica is attached to an antibiotic drip. All around Monica, wounded adults and children lie on their sides or backs on military cots. Most of the adults have vacant stares, while the children look around half-curious, examining each new person who walks in. I try to imagine what it must have been like in this tent and others like it during those first days after the earthquake, when, Tonton Jean tells me, people were showing up at the little clinic across the street from his house in Carrefour, without noses and ears or arms and legs.
In the tent clinic I say hello to Monica. She looks up at me and blinks but otherwise does not react. Her eyes are dimmed and it appears that she may still be in shock. To watch your house and neighbourhood, your city crumble, then to watch your father die, and then nearly to die yourself, all before your tenth birthday, seems like an insurmountable obstacle for any child.
Even before this tragedy, Monica was a shy girl. When I saw here during my visits to Haiti, she would speak to me only when she was told what to say. The same was true when I spoke to her on the phone. Now in the tent clinic, I gave her in the middle of her head, where her hair has been shaved in an uneven line to place a bandage where a piece of cement had split open her scalp.
Before I leave the tent hospital, the blonde young American doctor who is taking care of Monica gives her a yellow smiley-face sticker.
“She’s my brave little soldier,” the doctor says.
I thank her in English.
“You speak English very well,” she says, before moving to the severely dehydrated baby in the next cot.
My next family stop is in Delmas, to see my Tante Zi. Though it had not collapsed, her house, perched on a hill above a busy street, is too cracked to be habitable, so she is staying in a large tent city in an open field nearby. We had talked often after the earthquake, and her biggest fear was of being caught out there in the rain. I had pleaded with her to go to La Plaine, where we had other family members, but she did not want to leave her damaged house, fearing that it might be vandalized or razed while she was gone.
When I reach Tante Zi’s house, some of the family members from La Plaine, including NC, are there too. We are too afraid to go inside the house, so we all gather on the sidewalk out front, which is lined with tents and improvised showers. It astounds me how much more of Haitian life now takes place outside, the most intimate interactions casually unfolding before our eyes: a girl sitting between her boyfriend’s legs on a car hood, a woman bathing her elderly mother with a bowl and a bucket. These are things we might have seen before, but now they are reproduced in some variation in front of dozens of shattered or nearly shattered houses on almost every street.
I hug NC and Tante Zi and six of my other cousins and four of their children. They tell me about the others. The cousin with the broken back may possibly be airlifted out of the country. The others from La Plaine were still sleeping outside their house but through a contract in Port-au-Prince they had gotten some water. Everyone had received the money the family had put together and wired them for food. Through all this, we hold and cradle one another, and while I hand them the tents and tarp they had requested, I start repeating something I hear Tonton Jean say each time he runs into a friend.
“I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad bagay la-the thing-left you alive so I can see you.”
Bagay la, this thing that different people are calling different things, this thing that at that moment has no official name. This thing that my musician/hotelier friend Richard Morse calls Samson on his Twitter updates that Tonton Jean now and then calls Ti Roro, that Jhon calls Ti Rasta, that a few people calling in to a radio program are calling Goudougoudou.
“I am glad Goudougoudou left you alive so I can see you,” I say.
They laugh and their laughter fills me with more hope than the moment deserves. But this is really all I have come for. I have come to embrace them, the living, and I have come to honour the dead.
They show me their scrapes and bruises and I hug them some more, until my body aches. I take pictures for the rest of the family. I know everyone will be astounded by how well they look, how beautiful and well put together in their impeccable clothes. I love them so much. I am so proud of them. Still I ask myself how long they can live the way they are living, out in the open, waiting.
Two of them have tourist visas to Canada and the United States, but they stay because they cannot leave the others, who are mostly children. NC does not have a visa. She wants a student visa, to continue her accounting studies abroad. She hands me a manila envelope filled with documents, her birth certificate, her report cards, her school papers. She gives them to me for safekeeping, but also so I can see what I can do to get her out of the country.
NC, like many of my family members in Haiti, has always overestimated my ability to do things like this, to get people out of bad situations. I hope at that moment that she is right. I hope I can help. I have sometimes succeeded in helping, but mostly I have failed. Case in point: my elderly uncle died trying to enter the United States. I could not save him.
Citation: From the essay, ‘Our Guernica,’ which first appeared in Create Dangerously, Princeton University Press copyright 2010, pp. 162-169
Michael Sharkey has taught writing and literature in many universities in Australia and abroad for the past thirty years, and has published over a dozen collections of poems. He lives in Armidale, NSW, and travels between Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia.
John on Patmos
(Hartman Schedel, Poland 1440-1514: Queensland Gallery)
Real estate is wound up here:
where a path spills down to the sea;
no magnificos’ villas encroach:
the fish are allowed to be free.
An eagle, head bent like a quizzical heron’s,
keeps watch as the writer,
inkwell in hand
sits by a Matisse palm tree.
Above, remote, a child on her lap,
a woman’s enthroned on a cloud:
the writer sees no strangeness there;
his head and eyes are bowed
toward the text upon his lap
where stranger things appear:
the world in flames and children
weeping as it disappears.
Dreams grow refined
but hardly appear to get better:
the plot is the same:
the window or door
that silently opens
and two hooded figures
come in through the dark
of the room
to the side of the bed:
the dead siblings or parents
or children approach once again
to steal sweetness from sleep.