Andy Kissane is one of my favourite Australian poets. His style is often full-sentenced and slow winding, giving a sense of room. Syntax perfect, he intertwines visual aspects with sensitivities that are seemingly unemotive. It’s a hard line to maintain. But when pulled off, as he does, it accomplishes a full understanding of what’s at stake. Not that it’s harrowing. Just the opposite. Despite the serious and sometimes gruesome subject matter of his work, the gentle rhythm and sneakily benign ideas, leads the reader inside the poem and, once there, takes them through veils of gravitas until everything has been revealed, until the poem is rounded out. And not in a way that simplifies things. Rather in a way that holds those ideas and, by extension, the reader, still.
Searching the Dead
The bone-coloured branches of the rusty fig
twist and rise into a canopy of leaves that shuts
out the beating sun. It’s like standing in a limestone cave
and gazing up at limbs that resemble toned calves
and bulging biceps. As if the tree has been fashioned
out of human body parts miraculously glued together.
From a distance it appears sublime, but standing beneath it,
I can’t shift these images of haunches, thighs and elbows.
The human form, even when you’re not looking for it,
is everywhere. Five days out from Nui Dat, after the firefight
and the ambush, I went back into the rubber plantation
to search the pockets of the dead. They weren’t our dead,
our dead had been dusted off that morning, but here
were men who resembled us, soldiers who had been trained
to follow SOP, move carefully day and night, minimise risk.
Clothes now stretched tightly over bloated arms and legs,
feet cold and green, flies and gnats crowding around
their eyes, their mouths. Bodies washed clean by the rain,
a few with legs completely missing, one or two
without heads. We were searching for intelligence.
I found a gold American watch, sunglasses, a plastic comb,
a bag of uncooked rice, a lock of hair. Occasionally
what appeared to be a diary, filled with Vietnamese script,
a pressed flower fluttering down to the ground.
A cowrie shell bringing the news from the South China Sea.
In one man’s pockets a pair of lacy black knickers.
And photos wrapped in plastic to preserve them –
a girlfriend leaning against a motorbike, a couple posing
near a lake, a family in front of a shimmering pagoda.
Everything smeared with the same red dust that coated
my skin. There won’t be another photograph of this man
sitting with his children as he tucks into a steaming soup.
The rubber trees had been hit by bullets and dribbled
latex, as if they were crying. Johnno and Boffa
were digging a mass grave. I took my shirt off
so I could feel the sun on my back. I might have been
fielding at square leg, dreaming of the tea break.
When I opened a tin of tiger balm or laid down a pack
of playing cards, this shiver spread from my neck
to my shoulders. I was so aware of my body, how
it was greased and primed, how it wasn’t going to jam.
What I collected I put down by the base of the banyan tree,
the wood darker than this fig, soldiering on through
the hot afternoon, soaked with sweat. I was elated to be alive.
The work had to be done before we could move out.
I made a shrine to lives well lived, then went to find
some cool water to drink, some fresh air to breathe.