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.

One thought on “Week #72 Searching the Dead: a poem

  1. Hi SJ Finn

    This poem always reminds me of the short story/book ‘The Things They Carried’ by Tim O’Brien. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention. It’s a poem that stays with you. Cheers Carole

    On Tue, Dec 3, 2019 at 6:48 AM SJ Finn eating one piece of art at a time wrote:

    > SJ Finn posted: “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. ” >

    Like

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