Category Archives: Books

Gregory Day’s Words Are Eagles

Gregory Day, Words Are Eagles (Upswell 2022)

Decolonising is a very personal business. It cuts in close to our sense of self. … It will take new emotional skills our parents, and their parents, were unable to teach us.

(‘Serving up colonisation instead of care‘, Overland 247, page 24)

That’s Caitlin Prince, an occupational therapist who has spent most of her adult life living and working in remote Aboriginal communities. She argues that non-Indigenous individuals have intimately personal work to do; we must face and acknowledge intense emotional discomfort, and create safety for each other to do that, so as to make headway against our received and ingrained racism and colonialism.

The processes of personal decolonisation her article describes may seem worlds apart from anything in this collection of highly literary essays, but Gregory Day is engaged in a similar project.

In a brief foreword, ‘Where the Songs Are Made’, Day explains the collection’s title. In British writer Alan Garner’s novel Strandloper, an 18th century English castaway demonstrates writing to an Aboriginal elder, Nullamboin. The fictional Nullamboin recoils in horror: ‘”Then all will see without knowledge,” he cries, “without teaching, without dying into life! Weak men will sing! Boys will have eagles! All shall be mad!”‘ Day glosses this as referring to ‘the violent chaos that ensues from a carelessness caused by the lack of connection to the memorial contours and emotional topographies of place’. Written words ripped from their rightful places are eagles and must be treated warily.

So as the book opens it comes close to questioning whether it ought even to exist. (It comes even closer if you understand Garner/ Nullamboin to mean that the ‘violent chaos’ has a more radical cause: it comes from language being divorced from direct, embodied human contact: the written word is in itself dangerous.)

Approaching this dilemma from a number of angles in these essays is Day’s version of Prince’s personal decolonising.

Day has a deep, insistent commitment to place, specifically the part of south-west Victoria where he has lived all his life. He is best known for his Mangowak trilogy; ‘Mangowak’ is the Wadawurrung name for Airey’s Inlet on the Great Ocean Road, into which the Painkalac Creek flows. Two thirds of this collection of essays relate to that place in some way, many of them to its Wadawurrung heritage. In extremely productive tension with that commitment, the essays also evince a profound commitment to the English language, the written word, the literary traditions of his ancestral countries – England, Sicily and Ireland. (‘Evince’, incidentally, is a word he spends some time pondering. He uses it differently from me.) In what follows, I’ve included links to articles where I can find them online, sometimes as PDFs – sorry!

The collection proper kicks off with ‘The Watergaw‘. Winner of the 2021 Nature Conservancy Australia Nature Writing Prize, it’s a virtuoso piece. Starting from the sighting of a broken rainbow in rural Victoria, it goes to Scottish poet’s Hugh Macdiarmid’s ‘The watergaw‘ which relates to the same phenomenon. The broken rainbow takes on complex metaphorical meanings, and there follows meditation on place, colonisation, Celtic and Sicilian ancestry, the deaths of fathers, Day’s study of Wadawurrung language parallelling Macdiarmid’s writing in a version of Scots. Starting the collection with this essay throws the reader in at the deep end – it may strike you (as it did me on first reading) as convoluted and self-consciously, even self-indulgently, ‘literary’, but it’s a beautifully compressed weave of the themes that are developed more expansively in the essays that follow.

There’s a leisurely swim with a friend around the river bends at Airey’s Inlet / Mangowak, an exultant respite from the world dominated by smart phones (‘Summer on the Painkalac‘); a piece on the difficulty of naming the colour of soil turned up by roadworks near Anglesea (‘The Colours of the Ground’); a lyrical account of how Day’s ancestors came to the area (‘The Ocean Last Night‘); a reflection on what it means that colonial and more recent writings record 133 different spellings of ‘Wadawurrung’ (‘One True Note?‘); an engrossing account of the elements that went into the making of his novels (‘Otway Taenarum‘); reflections prompted by his experience teaching Wadawurrung language to schoolchildren, with the approval of local Elders (‘Being Here‘).

Though there are occasional mentions of a named Elder who has been Day’s mentor, the only First Nations person to be quoted directly in these essays is the fictional Nullamboin, the invention of a British writer. Even in the reprinted review articles that make up the final third of the book, no First Nations poets or novelists are addressed. This might seem to undermine, or at least make paradoxical, my reading of the essays as embodying a personal decolonising project. Maybe. But I’m sticking to my guns. As I read them, they take on the challenge without appropriating First Nations voices or forms, and without leaning on the writer’s relationships with First Nations people, but find their own way forward as part of what’s sometimes called place writing within the western tradition. As they used to say on Twitter, he’s doing his own research, not expecting First Nations people to do his emotional and intellectual labour for him.

For instance, the essay ‘Mere Scenery and Poles of Light’ (pp 69–94) enters imaginatively into the minds of four people who walked a lot: Paul Cézanne, J S Bach, William Buckley and David Unaipon. Of Cézanne:

The painter’s walks were not artist’s escapes or spiritual retreats but confrontations … It was while walking, while looking at giant cubes of stone spilt on cypressed ledges and the green moisture of gullies in the sea’s brisk shadow, that he best understood how to overcome our now dangerously attenuated sense of time and sylvan space.

Of Bach, who as a young man walked 250 mile to hear his hero Buxtehude play the organ:

With only the orchestra of bird, rain and tree in his ear, surely those walks, conducted for the twin catharses of music and freedom, were intrinsic to the sound that was slowly building within him, even at such a young and truant age.

Of Buckley, the Englishman who lived for decades with the Wadawurrung people:

Here was a European man honoured as a native, a man of fact not fiction, but fated through an almost sci-fi style misunderstanding to survive in sympathy with nature; a man who’d been taught, as we say now, to walk in both action and reflection, to both hunt and to sacralise the hunt, to live sustainably within the behests and laws of his adopted habitat. And how did it end for him? Where did walking take him to? Just to despair? Or also to that secret place where the author of all the songs resides?

Of David Unaipon:

Unaipon moved through the land as a divining rod, and he came with a forked message, one contained within the yarns of the bound and official Bible he held in his hand and the other a message in danger of being cauterised to silence by the white invasion: the knowledge of the spirit realm, where the song still dwelt, the pity and sympathy, the knowledge and laughter still flowing through the land.

And of himself:

I can see myself, the walker, as assemblage, with Buckley’s tattoo on my tongue, with the score of Bach’s English Suites written onto my skin, with a vision of the sea at Cézanne’s l’Estaque lifting me to the top of the climb. My whole body is transformed by the journey into a condition resembling the circular breathing of the didgeridoo player, or David Unaipon’s perpetual motion machine.

It’s a world away from the kind of cultural confrontations that meet a whitefella occupational therapist working in a remote Yolngu community. Maybe it’s more fanciful, more vulnerable to self-deception but maybe, also, it’s important work that makes a valuable contribution to our moment in history.


A note on Upswell, publisher of Words Are Eagles. It’s a not-for-profit publishing house established in 2021 by Terri-ann White who previously was responsible for a brilliant line-up of nooks at UWA Publishing. As she says on the Upswell website:

I’ll publish a small number of distinctive books each year in, broadly, the areas of narrative nonfiction, fiction and poetry. I am interested in books that elude easy categorising and work somewhat against the grain of current trends. They are books that may have trouble finding a home in the contemporary Australian publishing sector.

This is the first Upswell title I’ve read, a gift from a friend who lives on the edge of Painkalac Creek. Long may Terri-ann White prosper, and the Painkalac flow.

Rick Remender’s Fear Agent 1 & 2

Rick Remender, Tony Moore, Jerome Opeña and others, Fear Agent, Final Edition Volume 1 (Image Comics 2018)
––––––––––– Volume 2 (Image Comics 2018)

Heath Hudson is an old-fashioned, hard-drinking, hard-fighting, constantly beaten-up hero. His adventures as told in the Fear Agent comics amount to one spectacular action scene after another, as at least three, no four, alien species battle each other with Earth’s inhabitants as appalling collateral damage. Heath’s ultra-masculinity – some would say ultra-toxic masculinity – comes up against the acerbic insights of the women he loves, and who almost plausibly love him. It’s a rip-roaring roller-coasting, swashbuckling space story (and yes, there are actual pirates). There’s romance, betrayal, monstrous revenge, guilt, heroism, sacrifice … and a lot of splatter.

The artwork, if you’re into this sort of thing, is brilliant. I often couldn’t tell what was happening, but usually on closer inspection it all made sense, though I wish I hadn’t looked so closely at some of the dismemberments.

Regular quotes from Samuel Clemens (never named as Mark Twain) hint at depths to Heath’s character that we otherwise don’t see because he is too busy saving everyone and being beat up. They also hint that Rick Rememder, Heath’s creator, may be more widely read than you first suspect.

The adventures in these two volumes first appeared in a series of monthly comics. Volume 1 comprises the contents of issues 1 to 10, which were published in 2005 and 2006. Volume 2 comprises issues 12 to 15, and 17 to 21 (Issues 11 and 16 evidently weren’t part of the longer story arcs.) Final Edition volumes 3 and 4 are out there somewhere waiting to play their part in our father–son gift-exchange system.

As with most comic collections, these pages are unnumbered, but here’s a scan of page 75 by my count. Sadly, it doesn’t include any of the grotesque alien life forms, but if you look closely you’ll see that no sooner has Heath pulled off an impossible rescue (of Mara, who is no slouch herself when it come to a fight) and allows himself a moment to gloat, than a terrible thing happens. (Spoiler: the harpoon thing that pierces him actually kills him, but luckily someone makes a clone from his dead body and he can continue almost as good as new. Equally extreme things may be happening to him at the end of the second volume. – only the third volume will tell.)

Pencils Tony Moore; Inks Sean Parsons & Mike Manley; Colors Lee Loughbridge

A film or TV show may be on the way. I’ll give it a miss, but I’m enjoying the comics, especially as I’ve got a particularly nasty non-Covid cold, and my immune system is being just as heroic and taking just as many hits as poor old Heath.

Summer reads 7: Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books

Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books, translated by Natasha Wimmer (Sort Of Books, 2004)

I took a number of physically small books away on our summer break, and have blogged about them as ‘Summer reads’. I was only dimly aware that they were all gifts – either from friends who thought I’d enjoy them or from publishers who hoped I’d blog about enjoying them.

So Many Books was the former kind of gift, and has its own opinion on books as gifts. An early chapter says that they ‘threaten the recipient with the task of responding to the questions “Have you read it yet? What did you think of it?”‘ and goes on:

In fact, the most uncommercial slogan in the world might be: ‘Give a book! It’s like giving an obligation.’

(‘An Embarrassment of Books’, page 13)

The obligation in this case was entirely enjoyable.

Gabriel Zaid is a Mexican poet and essayist. His Wikipedia entry lists a formidable number of essays on a broad range of topics. This little hardback, of the kind that sits on the front counter of a bookshop, is a series of short essays that revolve around the vast number of books published each year: the impossibility of any one person reading more than a tiny fraction of them; the way books, compared to movies or TV shows, are inexpensive to produce in small numbers so don’t have to be best-sellers to be viable; the relationship between ‘culture’ and ‘commerce’; the nature of reading; the way many people, especially academics and aspiring poets, want their writing to be published but tend not to read other people’s; why economies of scale apply to motor vehicles but not to books; and more.

So Many Books (which my fingers keep wanting to call Too Many Books, not necessarily what Zaid means) was published in Spanish as Los demasiados libros in 1996, and in Natasha Wimmer’s gorgeously smooth translation in 2003, before Amazon had completely dominated the book market, and before e-books and self-publishing really took off, so some of it is well out of date. But an update would require some tinkering at the edges of Zaid’s arguments rather than wholesale rethinking.

Regular readers of this blog will be able to tell that the book touches subjects close to my heart. Here’s Zaid on careful rewriting and copy-editing:

[A writer who] is a doctor, a lawyer, or an executive … can’t devote himself to rewriting a paragraph over and over, although the additional work might save his readers time. It is absurd for the writer to devote two hours to saving his reader a minute if the text is a note to his secretary. But if it is a book with twelve thousand readers, each minute represents a social benefit of two hundred hours in exchange for two, and the reward is one hundred times the cost. …

Of course, the cost of reading would be much reduced if authors and publishers respected readers’ time more, and if texts that had little to say, or were badly written or poorly edited, were never published.

(‘The Cost of Reading’, p 88–89)

Here he is being completely wrong about reading very slowly (see my series of blog posts on A la recherche du temps perdu, The Prelude, the Iliad, and now Middlemarch):

Is anything more certain to make a book completely unintelligible than reading it slowly enough? It’s like examining a mural from two centimetres away and scanning it at a rate of ten square centimetres every third day for a year, like a short-sighted slug. This doesn’t allow for the integration of the whole, for taking in the mural at a glance.

(‘Some Questions About the Circulation of Books’, p 72)

On bookshops:

To be angry because a book isn’t where you want it to be is to be angry at the randomness of fate.

(‘Constellations of Books’, p 110)

Early in my blogging life I wrestled with the word fortuitous in a number of posts. I’m pleased to report that Gabriel Zaid uses it in a way I find completely unproblematic:

In a good bookshop, supply and demand are fortuitous, but not chaotic: they have a physiognomy, a recognisable identity, like constellations. The probability of finding a particular book increases in relation to the clarity of the shop’s focus, the diligence and shrewdness of the bookseller, and the size of the business.

And from page 75, the opening of ‘The End of the Book’:

No experts in technological forecasting are predicting the end of fire or the wheel or the alphabet, inventions that are thousands of years old but have never been surpassed, despite being the products of underdeveloped peoples. And yet there are prophets who proclaim the death of the book. This prophecy is understood as an apocalyptic judgment: the overabundance of books oppresses humanity and in the end will provoke divine wrath. But as a technological judgment, it doesn’t withstand the slightest scrutiny.

The essays are witty, instructive, thought-provoking, satirical and totally readable. If you stumble on them, possibly in someone else’s to-be-read pile or a street library, I encourage you to dip in.

And that’s a wrap for my Summer Reads.

Summer reads 6: Jane Gibian’s Beneath the Tree Line

Jane Gibian, Beneath the Tree Line: New Poems (Giramondo 2021)

When Jane Gibian read her poem ‘Leftovers from a Pirate Party’ at a Sydney Writers’ Festival event in 2017, she told us that it was made up of subject lines from freecycle emails. I was a frequent freecycler at the time and was delighted that she had found poetry there – the title of the poem being just one of the poem’s evocative lines.

‘Leftovers from a Pirate Party’ turns up in this book without a note on its sources, and it still works, evoking a wonderful variety of life, and detritus. You can read a version with some extraneous scanner-generated characters at this link. It’s in a section of the book devoted mainly to similar found poems – including ‘Seventeen titles on the New Books shelf: June–July 2019’ whose title a) tells the reader what to expect and b) reminds us that Jane Gibian works as a librarian. At first glance you’d think this playful section, mucking around with lists of found language, was in a different world from the rest of the book, which, as an Author’s Note (online at the Giramondo website, here) puts it elegantly, is ‘preoccupied with the natural world and our place in its increasingly precarious situation’. The note continues:

My thoughts and writing practice seem to be most active in places of wildness, preferably wilderness. Many of these poems engage directly with the natural environment through a range of approaches: human engagement – both fascination and despair – and the natural world itself, disinterested and unforgiving of us, one animal in a complex living web.

That’s far cry from, say, this from ‘Leftovers’:

RE-OFFER: Disposable diapers
for small cat/dog

Yet among the many things I love and respond to in this collection, there are a lot of lists: from signs of the changing seasons in ‘Each turn’, to observations while travelling and learning the language in Vietnam, to vestigial organs in the human body in ‘Vestigial’. One of the most powerful poems in the book, ‘Waiting’ (which you can read on the Cordite Poetry Review website), does the crucial work of helping the reader grasp the reality of the climate emergency largely by means of a list: parked cars, ‘a mizzle of rain’, newscasts, coral, a factoid about Mars, St Andrew’s Cross spiders, an approaching train. Of course, it’s much more than that, and when I came to the final lines (if that’s the right word for a prose poem) I had to go for a little walk:

in the five previous known extinctions of all life / coral was the first to die / your eyes meet again in the rear-vision mirror

The US poet William Carlos Williams had a famous slogan summarising the principles underlying Imagism: ‘No ideas but in things.’ Jane Gibian isn’t an imagist, and her poetry doesn’t avoid explicit statement of ideas. Maybe it’s more like: sometimes (often?), rather than spelling out your ideas you can give readers an image and let them have their own ideas.

‘Arid zone’ on page 74–75 is a terrific example of this kind of thing:

This isn’t a poem that demands close reading to be appreciated, but it’s worth pausing over.

It’s as much a list as ‘Leftovers from a Pirate Party’ – leftovers from a sustained drought, maybe.

My Latin teacher in secondary school might have called it a congeries, a heaping up, of sights seen from a car travelling across drought-stricken country. Strictly speaking, they’re not haiku or senryu, but they owe a lot to those forms (which are similar in number of syllables etc, but the senryu is more likely to include something about human foibles). The words in capitals at the start of each group of lines look as if they are subtitles, but they’re not. They are road signs, seen from the car just as the other images are, and listed with them more or less arbitrarily.

It’s worth noticing the way the poem sits on the page. The plentiful white space reinforces the sense that the poet is covering great distances, most of it in silence.

arid zone


CREST
desiccated leather sacks 
punctuating the desert highway 
once were cattle, 
whitened bones worn through 
the taut hides

Not just one corpse, and not the corpses of natural desert dwellers. This is country that usually sustains grazing cattle. We are witnessing the aridity of drought.

Notice how the line breaks work: twice in these five lines, you think you’ve come to end of a sentence, but it continues over the line – the leather sacks … once were cattle, and the bones have worn through … the taut hides. This slight syntactical ambiguity slows you down, as if your gaze has to linger on the passing sight a moment longer.

DIP
Careful Driving Techniques Are Advisable 
informs a buckled sign 
on the unsealed road;
we skipped the National Road Transport
Hall of Fame

This is the senryu-ish section. That is, it deals with human foibles rather than, like the haiku, with observations of nature and the seasons. Officialdom is helpless to deal with this natural disaster: it offers inane advice, allows signs and roads to deteriorate, and promotes a self-congratulatory view of the past.

FLOODWAY
whistling kites float above us 
and beside 130 km/hour traffic, 
a motionless eagle stands stern-eyed 
with a roadkill meal

This is the only road sign that relates to what follows it – and it does it with extreme irony.

You notice the counterpoints in these lines: movement in the first two lines vs motionlessness in the next two; floating kites vs speeding traffic; the whistling of the kites vs the implied roar of the traffic; our implied eyes seeing the kites vs the stern eyes of the eagle (watching us?); the traffic vs the roadkill; the eagle vs the unknown species of roadkill. I love the finality of the word ‘meal’. I’d be astonished if Jane Gibian had George Herbert in mind when she wrote this, but to my ear it has the same satisfying note of completion as the last line of his marvellous poem Love (III): ‘So I did sit and eat.’

GRID
an incongruous cow
lolls hotly in the scarce shade 
of a spindly leaved shrub

Why ‘incongruous’? It stands out as the only adjective in the poem that implies a judgement. It certainly slows the reader down because its meaning isn’t clear. I suppose a cow lolling in the shade of a tree is a normal sight in a green pasture, and even more normal if it’s part of a herd. A solitary cow in country that is scattered with corpses of cattle is incongruous because alive even more than because it’s alone.

The adjectives and adverbs – ‘incongruous’, ‘hotly’, ‘scarce’, ‘spindly leaved’ – are doing a lot of work in these three lines. Remove any one of them and the image changes substantially. That is also so if the shrub is ‘spindly’ rather than ‘spindly leaved’.

ROAD NARROWS
butterfly wing-dust
stuck to the windscreen

We’ve arrived, with the familiar image of a dirty windscreen after a long road trip. After all the looking (and in the case of the museum, not-looking) of the previous sections, our attention is drawn much closer to home. The car travellers aren’t uninvolved observers: we have been doing our share of damage, and our vision is partly obscured by the damage we’ve done. It’s not flies or beetles or cabbage moths (of which we saw a lot on our recent road trip), but butterflies. It would be pushing things to see butterflies here in their mediaeval status as symbols of the soul – it’s not that kind of poem. But butterflies are beautiful, fragile creatures, reduced to wing-dust that we must look through to see in front of us. At least, that’s where my mind goes: an idea that – for me – is in these things, is that there’s no such thing as an innocent observer.

I need to say that I’ve barely touched on one aspect of this book. You can see Jane Gibian’s poems on line at PoemHunter, Jacket2 and Cordite Poetry Review, among other places.


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my copy of Beneath the Tree Line.

Summer reads 5: Claire Potter’s Acanthus

Claire Potter, Acanthus: New Poems (Giramondo 2022)

Anyone looking for a clear, accessible introduction to contemporary Australian poetry would have trouble finding better than Martin Duwell’s website Australian Poetry Review. Every month, he publishes an informed, thoughtful and helpful review of a recent poetry collection.

I went to his review Claire Potter’s Acanthus because I was despairing of my ability to write coherently about this book, even though I enjoyed it immensely. Reassuringly, his post begins by describing these poems as ‘simultaneously fascinating and challenging’. He quotes from the Author’s Note that accompanied his review copy (and which undoubtedly accompanied mine, but was lost when I packed for my summer away from home):

Many of the poems traverse the clarity of a dream-like state: diverting from an imaginary centre and meandering across strange ground. As with all poetry, fragments matter; figures and objects – as if on the level of the bee – are significant; unintelligible feelings turn into a blueprint language that errs and wanders in order to find a resting place. Nothing in the collection was fixed beforehand, you could say the writing took place in order to think a way through, think about certain things or events that at the time didn’t have any formal presence in my mind . . .

Duwell describes this as ‘a fascinating attempt to make sense of – or to make a whole out of – very disparate poems some of which are extremely strong’. He then goes on to his own fascinating discussion of the poems, with plenty of examples. For a general introduction to the riches of this collection, I recommend his essay.

Having talked about the poetry as challenging, which could be code for ‘unreadable’ but isn’t, it’s even more desirable than usual that I talk about one poem in detail. One that that grabbed and held my attention is ‘The Hidden Side to Love’ (page 25). It was published in the Summer 2016 issue of Meanjin, and you can read it without my commentary at this link. Here goes:

The Hidden Side to Love

All summer, the bees worked 
between bells of laburnum

sockets of foxglove, blades of lavender
-– they saw a task and rose to it

There’s nothing problematic or ‘challenging’ in this economical evocation of a garden scene. There’s a strong sense of place in many of the poems in this book. Claire Potter is from Western Australia and currently lives in London, and though this garden could be in Australia, the setting feels very English. I’m pretty ignorant about plants, and had to search images of laburnum and foxglove. ‘Bells’ and ‘sockets’ capture their appearance nicely. But why ‘blades’ of lavender, which I think of as puffy rather than sharp or straight-edged like a blade, even a blade of grass? It’s an unsettling note: I don’t think it leads anywhere, but it keeps the reader slightly on the alert.

I busy myself with the washing 
untwisting funnels of sock, boughs of jumper

rosettes of flannel

After the brief description of the bees in the garden, comes this sweet, straightforward metaphor. Bees rise to their task with the flowers; the poet/mother rises to hers in the house. ‘Bells’, ‘sockets’ and ‘blades’ had enough of a suggestion of domesticity to lay groundwork for this leap; now ‘funnels’ suggests a similarity of shape to the sockets of foxglove, and ‘the ‘boughs’ and ‘rosettes’ bring garden images into the house. This comparison of animal and human labour has a long tradition – I think of the famous poem found in the margin of a medieval manuscript (‘I and Pangur Ban, my cat – / ‘Tis a like task we are at’).

In spare moments I put words in the freezer 
reheat coffee, fill inkwells

I stir out hot dinners

Ah, it’s not just the housework. The bee-like work also includes words, ink, quiet time with a second cup of coffee. The transition isn’t clearcut, but almost dreamlike: one minute you’re putting, say, leftovers in the freezer, then you look down and they’ve turned into words. Putting words in the freezer could be a metaphor for taking the volatile medium of speech and freezing it into words on the page. Writing poetry is part of the work being compared to bees’ labour.

But the housework reasserts itself – dinners have to be cooked, and stirred, and by implication put on the table for someone to eat.

Passing along the hall sheaved in light
I imagine a nectarous meadow

I think of waxen wings brought thudding 
to the ground

I look down at my dress and see spikes of burdock 
thistles in plaits hanging to the ground

In the context of the quote from the Author’s Note above, you could say that the simple metaphor of the first six lines is an ‘imaginary centre’. Now the poem moves to a ‘dream-like state’: first ‘I imagine’, and ‘I think of’, then ‘I see’. In the course of these next six lines the poet has come to experience herself as a bee – a giant bee wearing a dress, but still in some dreamy way a bee. All isn’t rosy: bees can be ‘brought thudding / to the ground’. The poet-bee has burdock thistles clinging to her (I had to look them up: they’re spiky). If you had to imagine what the pollen that sticks to a bee’s legs would look like if magnified a thousand times, you could do worse than picturing a head of thistle. As far as I know, however, burdock thistles aren’t a danger to actual bees, but the poem is meandering (as per the Author’s Note), and this giant bee is encumbered by them. Or – if we tie this image back to what we know about actual bees – the stuff sticking to the poet-bee’s dress is somehow part of a greater purpose.

The import of the image of woman with thistles trailing from her dress as she walks down a brightly lit hallway is resolved in the next lines, but before it’s resolved the image has stood in surreal splendour..

Crayons, soldiers, ropes of daisy 
the couch, the doorknob, the stairs –

They all gather to me

So yes, these objects that demand the poet’s attention – children’s toys and other detritus, fixtures and places that need cleaning – cling to her, like pollen perhaps, or like something that will send her thudding to the ground. They are he real-world equivalents of the burdock thistles.

Until I stand and rub my hind legs emphatically 
until I disengage everything

to its proper place 

She’s a bee. She rubs her legs together, disengages the pollen and deposits it in the hive where it belongs. ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’

and emerge like a queen

This isn’t a biology lesson. A worker bees can’t become a queen. But a poet-bee can. There’s a sweet mock-heroic tone here: once you’ve got all the cleaning done and everything is in its place, you can have a moment of regal satisfaction. Roseanne Barr used to refer to her sitcom character as a domestic goddess. My first boss, the managing editor of a small publishing company, used to describe herself as managing a household as well as a company. These are achievements not to be dismissed or belittled. What in my younger days we used to call shit-work can actually be a source of great satisfaction, the achievement of beauty and order in one’s environment.

made anew from decades of trying

To hark back again to the Author’s Note, the poem has erred and wandered until it came to a resting place – and then it wobbles. The last line doesn’t negate the triumphant transformation into queenship, but it does apply the brakes a little. This cheerful point of view didn’t come automatically: it took years to arrive at.

But what’s love got to do with it? I think of Kahlil Gibran’s phrase, ‘Work is love made visible.’ (Link to his poem ‘On Work’ here.) The tone of this poem is long way from Gibran’s. For a start, this work is visible only to the person doing it. Other people are implied: someone wore the clothes she sorts, eats the food she prepares, plays with the toys she puts away. These others – presumably a partner and children – aren’t visible to the reader when the work is being done, and by implication the work is invisible to them, hidden. The old feminist slogan, ‘A woman’s work is never done, or honoured or paid for,’ comes to mind. The poem manages to hold Gibran’s epigram and the feminist slogan in place at the same time, neither negating the other.

There’s so much more in this book. But that’s what I’ve got capacity for today.


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my copy of Acanthus

Middlemarch: Progress report 3

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 28 to partway through chapter 35

Reading five pages of Middlemarch each morning, which I’ve now been doing it for two months, is a joy.

This month, as usual, it turned up in other reading. In Claire Potter’s book Acanthus there’s a short poem ‘Middlemarch in the Kitchen’. I don’t think the poem says anything about Middlemarch specifically – it just happens to be the book the poet is reading in the lighted kitchen, instead of the grass and the trees’. But it’s a little sign that Middlemarch is everywhere.

I have been away fro home since the last week of December, and I didn’t bring my borrowed copy of Middlemarch away with me, as it would have risked damage to this beautiful object.

The parts I did read since my last progress report told mainly of the death of Peter Featherstone and the general disappointment generated by his will. In the younger generation, Lydgate has proposed to Rosamond, not without a degree of manipulation on her part; Fred has not benefited from his uncle’s death and so all hope of marriage to Mary seems lost; Dorothea is unhappily resigned to a life of misery with Mr Casaubon, but Will is back in town. Intrigue and hypocrisy continue to be the order of the day among their elders. George Eliot’s pleasure in her creations continues to shine in every sentence.

Here’s something from the last page I read before packing for Victoria. Mrs Bulstrode, has raised the subject of her niece Rosamond’s betrothal to Lydgate – having a vague sense that this inappropriate match is partly due to her ostentatiously pious husband having given Lydgate a boost in the town’s social life:

‘I am sure we are bound to pray for that thoughtless girl – brought up as she has been,’ said Mrs Bulstrode, wishing to rouse her husband’s feelings.
‘Truly, my dear,’ said Mr Bulstrode, assentingly. ‘Those who are not of this world can do little else to arrest the errors of the obstinately worldly. That is what we must accustom ourselves to recognise with regard to your brother’s family. I could have wished that Mr Lydgate had not entered into such a union; but my relations with him are limited to that use of his gifts for God’s purposes which is taught us by the divine government under each dispensation.’
Mrs Bulstrode said no more, attributing some dissatisfaction which she felt to her own want of spirituality. She believed that her husband was one of those men whose memoirs should be written when they died.

(page 397)

‘Those who are not of this world,’ he says, meaning himself, who is of course one of the wealthiest men in town and much given to power games. And we know that ‘the use of his gifts for God’s purposes’ refers to Bulstrode’s having installed Lydgate as the only chaplain in the new hospital, thereby excluding any clergyman who might be critical of Bulstrode, The reader wants to give him a good shaking.

Maybe George Eliot’s irony is a little heavy, but I just love that ‘assentingly’: Bulstrode doesn’t have to disagree with his wife in order to reject outright her implied request for an intervention. Mrs Bulstrode’s backing off is one of GE’s myriad examples what we now call internalised sexism – but in case you’re inclined to think her belief, all evidence to the contrary, in her husband’s spiritual superiority is a mere comic invention, I remind you that just this morning former Australian Prime Minister was quoted as describing the recently deceased George Pell as ‘a saint of our time’.

Summer reads 4: Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied

Javier Zamora, Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon Press 2017)

In the 1990s when Javier Zamora was nine years old, he made his way unaccompanied from El Salvador, evading US border protection, to meet up with his parents who had fled to the US to escape political persecution. He is co-founder of Undocupoets, a group that lobbied to increase opportunity for undocumented writers in the US.

This is his first published book. It’s a collection of poems that revolve around of his harrowing solo journey, including its before and after, not as a linear narrative but mostly in the way memories arise piecemeal: a moment of terror in the desert; recollections of his beloved abuela (grandmother), who he’s unlikely ever to see again; fragments first person narratives from his mother, his father and others; an address to the then newly elected President Trump; moments of longing for his home in El Salvador … I’m not trying to be a smart-arse, but the book is a poetic documentation of the process of becoming what is known in the USA as an undocumented person. In the present time of the poems, he still lives with the possibility of la Migra bursting into his life.

That little boy was unaccompanied when he made his way to the US, but the poetry is alive with relationships. That is, he never lost the sense that there were people who cared about him deeply – the terror was that he might never see them again.

The author photo on the back cover shows a smiling young man, apparently relaxed and confident: Look, he could be saying, I have come through. One poem in the collection, ‘Exiliados’, has that feeling. It appears toward the end of the book, and gathers tremendous emotional force from all that has gone before:

Exiliados
for Monica Sok

The title and dedication do a lot of work. Like most of the Spanish words that pepper the poems, ‘Exiliados’ is easily understood by the non-Spanish speaker. Zamora does us the courtesy of not providing a glossary, leaving us to deal with it if we don’t know his mother language – his own linguistic upheaval is central to the story, and any difficulty we have can only help grasp it. The dedication is to a person whose name comes from a non-English speaking culture. You don’t need to know any more about Monica Sok to get the poem completely, but as it happens she is a Cambodian-American poet whose book A Nail the Evening Hangs On was published in 2020 by the same company that published Unaccompanied. Before we reach the first line, we know that the poem is addressed from one exile to another – exiles at least in the sense that they come from elsewhere and don’t belong to the mainstream white culture.

We didn't hold typhoons or tropics in our hands.
xxxI didn't reach across the table on our first date
xxxxxxat Cornelia Street Café.

Neither the tropics of El Salvador nor the typhoons of Cambodia are present at this meeting. Both people have left their homes behind. Other poems in the book name places in El Salvador, and when one of those places is unfamiliar to me I feel that that is no surprise to the poet. Here by contrast, when he names the Cornelia Street Cafe, it feels like a name-drop. And sure enough, the cafe has its own Wikipedia entry informing us that it has been voted one of the best places to listen to jazz music. Sadly, and perhaps fittingly in the context of so much pecariousness, the cafe closed down in 2018, after this book was published. But the point here is to establish that the meeting is happening in hip Manhattan.

It’s a date, but the speaker is tentative. His hands, like the hands of the other person, can’t bring his past life to the table. Nor can they reach out to make contact.

xxxxxat Cornelia Street Café. In my humid pockets,

my fists were old tennis balls thrown to the stray dog
xxxof love bouncing toward the Hudson down
xxxxxxto South Ferry.

More New York place names, references to humdrum Manhattan life where people throw dogs to balls and no one lives in fear of armed men in white vans. It’s romcom territory. His fists are sweating in his pockets at the prospect of love, but he’s too much the stray dog to be sure of his welcome.

xxxxxxto South Ferry. We didn't hold hands in that cold

October wind, but the waves witnessed our promise 
xxxto return to my cratered-deforested homeland,
xxxxxxand you to your parents', sometime in the future.

Two exiles, two New York poets, they speak of their homelands and the promise to return.

Then, us in the subway at 2 a.m. Oh the things I dreamed:
xxxa kiss to the back of your neck, collarbone, belly button, there
xxxxxxto kneel and bow my head, then return to the mole

next to your lips and taste your latitude together.
xxxInstead, I went home, you touched my cheek, 
xxxxxxit was enough.

What was a meeting of minds is now embodied, a moment of desire. (I don’t understand ‘latitude’, but I don’t care!) We don’t know if this was the first date that led to an intimate relationship, or if this touch on the cheek is as far as the romantic possibilities of the relationship have gone. Unlike a romcom, the poem isn’t concerned about that. Like many other poems in this collection, it focuses tightly on the moment.

In the first lines, hands were busy doing nothing – not holding places or origin, not reaching out, staying in pockets like old tennis balls that love might find, definitely not holding each other as their owners walked in the cold October wind. Now at last, the woman’s hand has made contact, and ‘it was enough’.

xxxxxxit was enough. I stood, remembering what it's like

to stand on desert dirt wishing stars would fall 
xxxas rain, on that huge dark country ahead of me.

‘The Future is dark,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in 1915 after a bout of depression, ‘which is the best way the future can be, I think.’ That’s how I read the ‘huge dark country’ here. When the nine-year-old arrived in the USA, and the future could have held anything. Now a young woman touches a young man’s cheek at 2 o’clock in the morning after they’ve talked for hours, and he feels the same sense of a vast unknown ahead, full of promise and possible danger.

This is a book that puts flesh on the bones of the continuing US headlines about the Mexican border, and especially the stories of unaccompanied children caged under President Trump. I don’t know if there has been anything quite like it about asylum seekers in Australia.

Summer reads 3: Tracy Ryan’s Rose Interior

Tracy Ryan, Rose Interior: New Poems (Giramondo 2021)

There’s a lot to love in this book from Western Australian poet and novelist Tracy Ryan.

A note on the Giramondo website describes it well:

The poems in Rose Interior move between the inside and outside of everything they touch, from the domestic scene, both cosy and claustrophobic, to the social and ecological settings we must all answer for. Poems from Ireland, Switzerland and Australia consider life at home in the personal sense: through the body, childhood memories and family houses, ‘a room within a dream’. Wherever home lies, it’s always on borrowed time.

It’s the domesticity that most appeals to me – that and the occasional poems about ageing. In particular, as a recent adopter of hearing aids I love ‘Soft of Hearing’, which begin with this brilliant description of what has also been my experience:

The hard edges went
longer ago than you know
as if the crusts of syllables
were trimmed off for your ageing

ears to swallow only
what's soft.

And it only gets better from there.

There are profound poems about bereavement. There’s ‘Ghost Story’, which I take to be about age related cognitive decline:

Sometimes I catch the other me,
elves to shoemaker, who's already
filled the pot with water as I just
turned to do

And I could go on picking out lines to quote. The book is divided into three sections, the third of which is eighteen poems on aspects of the Covid pandemic. With a light enough touch, they bring profound thoughtfulness to home education, zoom backgrounds, bread-making, and other standard Covid themes. To pick one beautifully accessible poem, here’s ‘Post Storm, Still Pandemic’:

In the book, this poem follows ‘Storm in Pandemic’, whose title is a good description of its content. When you read it in that context, this poem’s title is likewise a good summary of the content: the storm is past, but there’s still a pandemic.

Post Storm, Still Pandemic
Afraid to look outside in case it shatters 
illusions we've come through this. Blinks, 
but power stayed on, the roof has held.
Out there is turmoil, noise, last bluster, yet 
worst has passed. 

It’s probably worth mentioning at the start the apparently effortless way (definitely effortless for the reader) that the poem works with a basic line of five beats, not quite iambic pentameter, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, keeping a conversational tone and drawing no attention to its technique.

The first line captures that moment when a severe storm is over, but you can’t quite believe it. The line break after ‘shatters’ creates a fine moment of ambiguity. The reader wonders: In case what shatters? then the new line reveals that the verb is transitive, and non-literal – only illusions are shattered, not windows or indeed the whole world. Then the common phrase ‘we emerge, blinking, into the light’ is evoked by the single word ‘Blinks’, and one by one the elements of normal life are found to be in working order.You almost don’t notice the book’s central motifs of inside and outside, of home being ‘on borrowed time’.

worst has passed. At night, so blurred, 
I couldn't tell wind from rain, bad 
synaesthesia, all colours tossed together 
to make dark. Night was a tunnel, only one 
way through.

I like the way this description of the disturbed night manages to include in just four lines the slightly esoteric notion of synaesthesia (something perceived by one sense being experienced as another), a little colour theory, and the image of time as a tunnel. The density of tropes is a kind of analogue for the eventfulness of the night.

way through. City still stricken, our guilt.
How can we rest and write while others dread?
They tussle with neighbours who haven't 
cleared away or tied things down: Your fence 
is in my pool. Here with gaping space 
between us, it's more like this, direct 
interface: is there a tree on the house, how 
did small ones fare in burrow or nest, what 
in the world is left? 

A change of perspective. The poem’s speaker lives in the country – Tracy Ryan’s bio tells us that she grew up in the outer suburbs of Perth and now lives in the wheatbelt. Here she counts her blessings, but not without first acknowledging a pang of something like survivor guilt. City – and suburb – dwellers are so much worse off, at the mercy of improvident neighbours in a severe storm. (I relate to this as a couple of years ago a tree that fell from my yard narrowly missed a neighbour’s rotary clothes line.) In the country, such relatively petty inter-human quarrels aren’t a thing. One’s response is more direct to the thing itself: damage to property, and – another broadening of perspective – concern for the other animals and the environment in general. (Tracy Ryan and her husband John Kinsella have a blog called Mutually Said: Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist: I love the way, here and elsewhere in the book, the poet’s principled positions – in this case caring for non-human animals – appear with no hint of moralism or proselytising.)

in the world is left? On Reunion Island, back 
with the 1918 flu, they say, after the first ravages 
a cyclone came and washed it all away, 
common disaster chasing off a worse. 

The perspective broadens again, in space to the far side of the Indian Ocean, and in time to the last great pandemic. This is the first time the Covid-19 pandemic has appeared in this poem, however obliquely. Given the drama of the storm we have forgotten it for a moment.

common disaster chasing off a worse. I hover 
here on the far side of the same ocean,  
wish for truth in it, the notion of harsh  
weather as unexpected cleansing.

And we’re back to the first person singular, in this place, facing – by wishing not to face – the difficulties and dangers of the present. The notion of harsh weather as unexpected cleansing (such a resonant phrase) isn’t always mistaken, but it may have been in Réunion in 1919, and certainly would have been in Western Australia in 2021. The poem knows this, acknowledges that it’s a false hope even while acknowledging its appeal. My mind leaps to the way some of us thought the Covid pandemic itself, harsh as it was, might provide an unexpected opportunity for states and corporations to put aside short-sighted self-interest and rise to the challenge of the climate emergency – another disaster chasing off a worse. But nah!

There are many poems in this book that I hope to read over and again.


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my copy of Rose Interior.

Summer reads 2: The Gleaner Song Lin

Song Lin, The Gleaner Song, translated by Dong Li (Giramondo 2021)

Song Lin (宋琳) was a campus poet in Beijing in the 1980s, and was active in the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, for which he was imprisoned for a year. On his release he married a French woman, and in 1991 went to live in Paris. After spending time in France, Singapore and Argentina, he returned to China in 2003, and now lives in Yunnan province. He has published many books of poetry and prose, including two bilingual French-Chinese volumes, and currently edits the poetry journal Jintian (Today), which ran for nine issues in the late 1970s before being censored, and was revived in 1999.

The Gleaner Song had its beginnings when Song Lin was on a long walk in the countryside of upstate New York with the young Chinese-born poet-translator Dong Li. Describing that walk in his introduction, Dong Li writes:

I saw his eyes light up as a deer leapt from the wild into a wide-open field. As the evening hues shifted farther into the forest, his line of sight followed the deer until it vanished into the night. We talked about the deer, and later he asked me to translate a poem that he had written to record the occasion.

That translation was to become the final poem in this book. It’s preceded by poems spanning four decades and as many continents, incorporating classic Chinese forms and elements of western modernism. Mostly I found it a difficult book, but in interesting ways.

To talk about the difficulty, and why it’s worth dealing with, I want to have a closer look at one poem, ‘Notes from South Xinjiang’. You can read the whole poem, without my commentary, on the Cordite Poetry Review website, where it was published in February 2022.

The rest of this blog post gets a bit detailed. A short version: the poem is a number of brief observations and reflections during a visit to South Xinjiang, the southern part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China, much of which is taken up by the Taklamakan Desert, and most of whose population are Uyghur. It is a prose poem made up of 23 short numbered paragraphs. On a first reading, probably in bed at night, I enjoyed the sense of a mind at play in a new place, but I knew there was a lot I hadn’t understood. Here is what I found when I reread the poem with the internet open beside me:

Notes from South Xinjiang

1. The reckless god reads the braille of the desert.

The poem announces at the start that its subject is a desert. The gist of this first paragraph is clear enough: the shapes made by the wind on desert sands can look like braille, but it would be reckless to read a meaning into them – which by implication is what the poet, godlike, may be about to attempt. But is ‘the reckless god’ someone from ancient Chinese tradition, and would I read the poem differently if I knew? That question remains unanswered.

2. One night in Kupa, I received a telegram from Mars: there were traces of water.

I looked up ‘Kupa’ and found a river in Croatia. But there is a town called Kuqa (or Kuche) on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, so I’m pretty sure that’s where the poet was. Wikipedia gives a long list of variants but ‘Kupa’ is not one of them. Who can blame a copy editor for not picking up what is almost certainly a transcription error, but mistakes like this add a layer of difficulty for the uninformed reader. So the poet is on the edge of the desert which he imagines as Mars-like. There may even be a suggestion that Mars has water where this desert does not. Certainly in photographs it looks vast and dry.

3. Dead rivers look like twisted mummies in the gallery of the sky.

I parse this to mean the dead rivers as seen from the sky – that is, in the gallery of images held in the sky rather than a gallery of images of the sky, which was my first reading. A map of the region shows a network of rivers, with a note to say they are ‘usually’ dry.

Why mummies? It’s not an obvious visual likeness, but it turns out that 4000-year-old mummies have been found in this area. This is the poem’s first oblique reference to the region’s ancient history

4. Language, dust of dust, flies on the long, long road.

I don’t know if the ambiguity of ‘flies’ – is language as insignificant as insects or does it fly away? – is something that happened in the translation, but either way it works well: human activity, especially language, is dwarfed by the desert. This paragraph introduces human activity more explicitly, and specifically the idea of the road, which is taken up the next five paragraphs.

5. An oar stands before the boat-shaped coffin. Sailors of the desert sea, tell me, what kind of sail do you dream of?
6. Business caravans head east, and west. The sun bakes eyebrows, beards, and crusty flatbreads.
7. Go. Once you lie down, you run the risk of being air-dried.
8. From one invisible border to another, I count those disappeared countries.
9. A silkworm once dreamed of Rome; or rather, Rome once dreamed of a silkworm.

These six paragraphs reflect on past human travel in the desert. Paragraph 5: the mummies from 4000 years ago had boat-shaped coffins. Paragraphs 6 and 7 refer to conditions endured by caravans of any era. Paragraph 8: perhaps the poet knows what those disappeared countries are, where those borders were – I don’t, but neither of us needs to know that for the line to work. Paragraph 9 is a lovely evocation of the history of the Silk Roads which passed through this region, skirting the desert (according to this map).

10. Breeze in the dense forest, homonym of silk and porcelain.

This paragraph is an example of what must be a nightmare for translators. It makes no sense as a stand-alone sentence in English. Really, all one can take from it is that some words in a Chinese language sound the same as others. Maybe in the original it’s an elegant pun, or a cute but inconsequential observation. As I can’t read or speak Chinese, I have no way of knowing, and I can’t see how a translator could do other than what Dong Li has done here: translation is impossible. (In other poems, Dong Li explains linguistic play in a footnote, but that’s a bit like explaining the mechanics of a joke – it still doesn’t make you laugh.)

From here on the poem bristles with specific historical and cultural references. It’s as if the poet is wandering abut the region, making random, elegant notes about things he sees. He also, incidentally, challenges the ignorant reader to do a bit of work. Or from another perspective, he points to a number of doors that open on vistas of new knowledge.

11. The Han princess Liu Xijun – Sappho of Wusun country – was married to a vast and endless homesickness.

Song Lin gives his western readers a small hand by comparing Liu Xijun to Sappho, the earliest woman poet in the western tradition. Liu Xijun wrote one of the earliest poems in Chinese written by a woman. Wusun country, as far as I can tell, was a little to the north of South Xinjiang, but near enough. Liu Xijun’s poem includes the lines, ‘Living here, I long for my land, and my heart aches / Wishing I could be a yellow swan, and return to my old home.’

Having paid homage to traditional Han culture, the poem now moves on to religion:

12. Under the statue of Kumarajiva, I thought: perhaps his intelligible translation saved Buddhism.
13. On their pilgrimage to Chang'an, the three Buddhist masters walked in the opposite direction to the three wise men.

Kumarajiva’s statue is in Kuqa. He was a Buddhist monk of the 4th and 5th centuries of the current era, who translated many Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese. His translations are still in use today.

Chang’an is the ancient name for Xi’an: I don’t know the story of the three Buddhist masters who – I’m guessing – travelled through South Xinjiang. The reference to the three wise men is another example of Song Lin’s cross-cultural awareness. I read him as suggesting an equivalence between the foundation of Christianity and the bringing of Buddhism to China.

14. If Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty knew that the Ferghana horse was a horse with a disease, would the history of Ferghana be re-written?

At about 100 CE, China imported huge numbers of horses from Ferghana in central Asia, roughly contemporary Uzbekistan, coerced by an army sent there by Emperor Wu. The horses remained popular for the next thousand years. They were said to sweat blood, which – according to Wikipedia – modern authorities believe was caused by the activity of parasites.

15. The donors depicted on the murals have thin eyebrows.
16. Stupa - navigation system of the desert.
17. What a pity! Gan Ying saw the sea but did not know which one he saw.

Paragraphs 15 and 16 are mercifully straightforward, though I don’t know if thin eyebrows have particular meaning in Chinese iconography.

Gan Yin was a diplomat who travelled west in 97 CE in search of Rome, but only got as far the ‘the western sea’, which – according to Wikipedia – could have been the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea or the Persian Gulf.

18. Petals of the mandala – one five-baht coin after another.
19. The auricle of the crescent rises on the ruins where Xuanzang preached.

Paragraph 18 doesn’t need any extra research.

Xuanzang was a key Buddhist teacher of the 7th century CE. The ancient novel that was the basis of television’s Monkey Magic was a fictionalised version of his journeys. He visited Kuche (now Kuqa) in 630 CE. The crescent of Islam, compared here to an ear, has risen where once actual ears heard him preach.

20. In the dark labyrinth of the karez, flowing water looks for bright vineyards.

This is a beautifully concise evocation of the Turfan Karez System, which consists of 5000 kilometres of wells and underwater channels around Turpan, on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. It’s tentatively listed as a World Heritage site.

21. Migration – from Sanskrit to Charian, Uighur to Chinese; over battlefields and millennia of forgetting, Maitrisimit flies into my vision like a phoenix.

Oh dear, I couldn’t find ‘Charian’ online, but Tocharian languages were spoken in South Xinjiang from 400 to 1200 CE. The paragraph should begin ‘Migration – from Sanskrrit to Tocharian’. (Does this mean no one actually managed to read the poem thoroughly when the book was in production?) So the migration described follows the flow of languages that have succeeded each other over the millennia.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Maitrisimit’, full name ‘Maitrisimit nom bitig’ is an Old Uyghur translation of the Tocharian text of a Buddhist drama, which itself (departing from Wikipedia here) is probably from a Sanskrit original. The way the text survives the extinction of language after language is captured in the image of the phoenix (not necessarily a reference to western mythologies, as China too has a phoenix).

This is the poem’s first mention of the Uyghurs, and possibly suggests – ‘Uighur to Chinese’ – that their culture is in the process of being wiped out. Given the necessarily oblique way Chinese poetry has addressed political matters over the last half century, it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to see this as a disguised protest.

22. Another Uighur muqam: alas the musailaisi wine, the ice-cold beauty, come quickly and rub out my burning desire for you!

The poet has visited the statue of Kumarajiva, some murals, a statue of a Ferghana horse, and so on. Now he relaxes at a musical performance, a Uyghur muqam, drinking musailaisi, traditional Uyghur wine. I’m pretty sure his address to the wine echoes centuries of conventional drinking songs and poems. If there is a protest at the treatment of the Uyghurs, it is thoroughly disguised, but still visible to reader who want to see it.

23. In Kashgar, Shen Wei said to me: there are people wherever poplars grow.

As you’d expect, Kashgar is another city in South Xinjiang. Shin Wei is a poet, younger than Song Lin, who lives in South Xinjiang. So the poem ends on a note of collegiality among poets (an almost Jennifer-Maidenish note). I have no idea what Shen Wei’s remark means. In English the sound play between ‘people’ and ‘poplars’ creates a kind of resonance, and the original Chinese may have a similar play, but that’s a guess.

In the end, I have to resign myself to the reality that not everything in a poem can be translated, and be grateful for as much as does make it across the barriers of language and culture.


I am grateful to the Giiramondo Publishing Company for my copy of The Gleaner Song.

Summer reads 1: Mario Vargas Llosa in praise of reading and fiction

Mario Vargas Llosa, In Praise of Reading and Fiction: The Nobel Lecture, translated by Edith Grossman (Farrrar Straus & Giroux 2011)

I’m away from home for a couple of weeks over the summer, and I’ve packed a swag of physically small books from my overloaded to-be-read shelf. Some of these have already turned out to be unreadable. I’ll donate them to a Street Library without further comment. Others bring much pleasure, even delight.

I don’t have a lot to say about this beautiful little front-counter book. It’s Mario Vargas LLosa’s lecture accepting the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, translated into honey-smooth English by Edith Grossman. It was probably a gift close to its date of publication.

Vargas Llosa speaks of his early love of reading, of his identification with his native Peru even though he had lived most of his life elsewhere, of his early Marxism and his reasons for abandoning it, and above all of the importance of story-telling and the reading of fiction. What Roger Ebert said about movies, that they are a machine that generates empathy, Varga’s Llosa says here, beautifully and at more length, about novels. There’s a lot that’s quotable. Here’s one moment where he acknowledges some self-doubt:

At times I wondered whether writing was not a solipsistic luxury in countries like mine, where there were so few readers, so many people who were poor and illiterate, so much injustice, and where culture was a privilege of the few. These doubts, however, never stifled my calling, and I always kept writing even during those periods when earning a living absorbed most of my time. I believe I did the right thing, since if, for literature to flourish, it was first necessary for a society to achieve high culture, freedom, prosperity, and justice, it never would have existed. But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, to the desires and longings it inspires, and to our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilisation is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanise life with their fables.

(Page 7)

I love that, and think on aggregate it’s true, but I do wonder about the consciousness shaped by writers like the man who produced phenomenally popular The Da Vinci Code or the woman who wrote Atlas Shrugged. I suppose Mario Vargas Llosa would say those books aren’t literature. But then wasn’t one of the ‘monsters of Serbia’ a Shakespeare scholar? Still, a Nobel lecture isn’t the place for such quibbles, and those of us who are addicted to reading can think with some justification that it’s a good thing. Perhaps the lecture is an example of what he means: a beautiful fantasy of a world where reading makes the world more human.

Still on my shelf at home is another gift, a collection of 20 earlier Nobel lectures, which includes a number of writers whose work I know: Harold Pinter, Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Dario Fo (who once called my older son a bambino terribile), Seamus Heaney, Wole Soyinka … I guess I’ll dip into it when I need a shot of hope.