Week #72 Searching the Dead: a poem

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.

Gently pleasing, his words reveal harsh truths about real life. Searching the Dead is a great example. Here and here, you can find others.

 

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.

Week #71 Facts about Deer: a poem

Sometimes a piece of art just won’t let you forget about it. Facts about Deer is one of those pieces for me. I first read it in Narrative Magazine in 2016 and, as I said, it’s been coming back to me ever since – a poem so conscious of itself and yet so intriguing. A poem seemingly about death but also about choice and decision-making and secrets. This poem, while melodious, shudders with a brittle undercurrent. It’s a poem that pulls at meaning and brings a story to light. It uncovers a personality.

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram has written other poems. You can find out more about her work here and here.

Facts about Deer

Because this is still a poem with an animal in it
and I am still trying—I might say “it offers you
its meaty heart, with no lasting conditions.”

If you’ve seen a struck deer thrash its life out
on the shoulder, a burner that clicks
without flaming, you know how they seize to death.

Who cares what I think, but I wished just then
to have a knife. I wished I knew a little about guns
and to own one or to know something sorcerous.

Because nothing but blood tastes like blood, I’ve cut
myself for its coppery flavor. Only God knows
I’m good. My mother says I’ve no scruples, the way

I make no claims to being a permanent person,
how my move from husband to ex-husband came on
a wave of expediency and self-promotion. If you’ve gone

to the store and left behind a life—the kind that comes
with seating, spare change jars, someone’s green thumb
—then you know how I angered at the woman

shrieking behind the wheel of her cracked Escape,
phone to face, doe spasming on the shoulder.
Someone should knuckle up and kill this deer. A roadway

in America and there’s no policeman on hand to squash
a neck? It’s early evening & the sky’s poetically
blameless gray fills your throat with the thick despair

so familiar to the heavily indebted. Mountaineers know
you can’t save anyone on good will, that high altitude
is minus morality. So, Confessionalism. Or,

Two Truths and a Lie: I married a man I met
on an airplane. I killed that deer. I have no patience
for even the most cherubic of children.

Week #70 The Horror of Delores Roach: a fiction podcast

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I have, by now, listened to a fair number of podcasts. My favourites are the fictional ones. Like radio plays of old, they open a theatrical world that’s present and artistic and exceptional, all at once. Possibly due to the high cost in making these kinds of productions, there are few of them, relatively speaking, around. Gimlet Media however, have made at least three, all of which are worth a listen: Homecoming, Sandra and The Horror of Delores Roach.

The Horror of Delores Roach is one of their first productions and, not to put too fine a point on it, surprising does not quite cover how unexpected and bold, how touching and macabre, how devilish and humorous Delores’s tale is. Extremely well produced, the outrageous and, at times, political sway of the story deserves real-life consideration. This podcast stands out for its gumption alone. It is edible in oh-so-many ways.

Week #67 Golden Boys: a novel

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Despite the fact that not much happens in Sonya Hartnett’s Golden Boys so much is going on that you could say this book carries its weight in its undercarriage. First you must look and then look again while the carriage moves you with its astute language, its great character depictions and its spellbindingly good metaphors. It is a novel to read for its words alone, and yet, and yet, there’s so much more.

Opening an eye on a family’s arrival into a neighbourhood, it is the children who will uncover the intricacies of such a landing. The adults, on the other hand, are cushioned by experience and the lack of need to bend towards others.

Hartnett shows us what that is like. The children’s hopes and fears, their rising awareness of the world they’ve been born into and the adults at the helm of that world. Golden Boys is not so much about what parents do – although there is enough said about that in the text – as what they don’t do: their lack of action, their poor decisions, their bad behaviour.

Set in a time (mid-80’s in suburban Australia) when men forgave everything in each other and, if not forgave, then downplayed, and women were their husband’s working attachés, the ubiquitous nuclear family (some may posit not much has changed) was a frightening and unrelenting knot for children. For all the ways that adults ingratiated themselves or lauded over children, with nothing properly discussed, the children in Golden Boys navigate the perils and joys with a spirit not yet tarnished and utterly unique to each of them.

This book taught me about a child’s inner life and made me so aware of something I’ve always said to parents who have come to me in my professional capacity as a Family Therapist: Children hear and see everything that you do.

Week #68 Fusion: a novel

Fusion Kate RichardsI couldn’t stop at reading Kate Richard’s first book, Madness: a memoir, and began immediately I’d finished, to read her second book, Fusion, a novel, that I would say, despite the closeness of the characters, is about isolation.

So close, indeed impossible to be closer, conjoint twins, Sea and Serene, and their cousin, Wren, must deal with, not only physical isolation but a mewling pestering emotional isolation that first Wren and then the twins must unlock themselves from. For Wren it takes the experience of meeting someone to open the doors so he can walk past what has cautioned him against relationships. For the twins it requires an emotional separation from each other – to become two instead of one – before, as individuals, they can contemplate having a friendship with one another and others.

Repetition and poetic prose are used to make the score, by which I mean the text, bend and slip and pull the reader along. The sense of each character’s pain and sensitivity is like a spiky blanket that cloaks and irritates, rises and rests, jabs and soothes. Fusion is an aria about human need and survival. It teaches the reader about courage.

Week #67 Manhattan: a photographic series

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The first time I travelled to New York City I was struck by its contrary qualities. There’s a generosity among the harshness, a beauty, especially on Manhattan Island, despite the intensity. The attractiveness emanates from the architecture and manifests on the pavements. It resonates in the people, in their industry and their effort, and spreads through the small parks and large central garden. It travels along the grid of the city’s streets and climbs into the theatres and bars.

This duality of endeavour and largess is what the street photographer, Alan Schaller, loves to picture: the movement and vivacity of a city that holds ugliness with pride and energy with varied amounts of glue and glitter.

Homegrown and old-fashioned at times, Manhattan, simply put, has style. And it is this that Schaller’s black and white shots capture. There’s a softness to them that appears to be informed by the city itself. You can find it in other photographs Schaller has taken in other places, so, you could say, that along with a never-ending supply of subject-matter, the city has influenced Schaller’s eye by giving him the same generous position it displays. While managing to be objective, the stills have a softness that adds to their attraction. And, as the same gentleness imbues the angles of this city, subject and photo are inextricably joined.

Of course, Alan Schaller’s work goes beyond the crowded island. Cheek out more of his shots here and here.

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Week #66 A View from the Bridge: a play

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Arthur Miller‘s plays are often about men. He told stories of their power and their demise both through circumstance and a lack of insight into themselves. He depicted men’s breakdowns and broken relationships, the persecutions they enforced and their inner struggles to be good. Most importantly, Miller teased out the impact that their actions had on others.

Wonderfully rendered in a performance at the Melbourne Theatre Company, A View from the Bridge is not Miller’s most famous play, but quintessential in his canon as he mines the crises of masculinity he saw in his male characters. Set in the 1950s near the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, the drama sets out the events that occur when illegal immigrants arrive from Italy to be housed secretively by a couple, Eddie and Beatrice, who have brought up Beatrice’s orphaned niece, Catherine, as their child.

As the play unfolds, Eddie’s struggle to control his attraction to Catherine, now seventeen-years-old, reveals itself. When Catherine falls for one of the Italian arrivals, jealousy flares in Eddie. His desperation not to lose her causes him to do something he would never normally do. Against all his prior beliefs and values, against every previous trait of loyalty and honour and his anti-establishment view, he alerts the authorities about the “illegals”, Beatrice’s cousins, who are living in his small apartment. It is a betrayal the gritty, hard-working Eddie would never normally commit, an act he knows will mean ostracism from his community and a fall from grace with his wife, Beatrice.

It’s this, the reaches we will go in order to fulfil our desires, especially when they are unconscious because we find the facts around them abhorrent, that, for me, A View from the Bridge is about. Blindness to oneself is a common phenomenon. But what we do when we are in that state, varies. Certainly, what we can’t tolerate in ourselves we will subvert into action, action that, depending on our level of denial, can go against our beliefs and values, and can even hurt us. Rage and high emotion do not assist to analysis what’s happening, to uncover why we are doing what we are.

Of course, in A View from the Bridge, drama is afoot, and in the tradition of the theatre of ancient Rome, and what followed in the Greek tragedies and in Shakespeare’s high dramas, it ends with ultimate demise.

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