I introduced this poet to a group in Geelong recently and they were entranced by her vivid anthems of love and loss and her timeliness. I suspect she may not be well known in Australia so I hope I am spreading the word. She performs Girls are Coming out of the Woods in creative movement accompanied by traditional Indian instrumentals on a TED session. It’s marvellous. She wrote this collection before the Me Too movement in response to a friend’s murder and the rape of the young girl on a bus near Delhi in 2012. We read her poetry aloud revelling in the musicality, emotional punch and colour of it.
What was her earliest memory of poetry?
… I don’t remember poetry being a part of my life until I was an undergraduate at Queen’s University in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was reading Mark Doty, Mary Oliver, James Tate – and I think it had to do with encountering voices that were assured and bold and of the moment, and saying, really, there is nothing you cannot do in a poem. They entered my skin and set up tents. And then more poets joined the caravanserai. I still have those books. My nineteen-year-old self underlining the words, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” and the word YES in the margin. I’m still saying YES.
THE DAY WE WENT TO THE SEA
The day we went to the sea
mothers in Madras were mining
the Marina for missing children.
Thatch flew in the sky, prisoners
ran free, houses danced like danger
in the wind. I saw a woman hold
the tattered edge of the world
in her hand, look past the temple
which was still standing, as she was –
miraculously whole in the debris of gaudy
South Indian sun. When she moved
her other hand across her brow,
in a single arcing sweep of grace,
it was as if she alone could alter things,
bring us to the wordless safety of our beds.
The River of Girls
i.m. India’s missing girls
This is not really myth or secret.
This murmur in the mouth
of the mountain where the sound
of rain is born. This surging
past pilgrim town and village well.
This coin-thin vagina
and acid stain of bone.
This doctor with his rusty tools,
this street cleaner, this mother
laying down the bloody offerings
of birth. This is not the cry
of a beginning, or a river
buried in the bowels of the earth.
This is the sound of ten million girls
singing of a time in the universe
when they were born with tigers
breathing between their thighs;
when they set out for battle
with all three eyes on fire,
their golden breasts held high
like weapons to the sky.
The Art of Losing
It begins with the death
of the childhood pet –
the dog who refuses to eat
for days, the bird or fish
found sideways, dead.
And you think the hole
in the universe,
caused by the emission
of your grief, is so deep
it will never be rectified.
But it’s only the start
of an endless litany
the cruelty of school,
your first bastard boyfriend,
the neighbour’s son
going slowly mad.
You catch hold of losing,
and suddenly, it’s everywhere –
the beggars in the street,
the ravage of a distant war
in your sleep.
And when grandfather
hobbles up to the commode
to relieve himself like a girl
without bothering to shut
the door, you begin to realize
what it means to exist
in a world without.
People around you grow old
and die, and it’s explained
as a kind of going away –
to God, or rot, or to return
as an ant. And once again,
you’re expected to be calm
about the fact that you’ll never see
the dead again,
never hear them enter a room
or leave it,
never have them touch
the soft parting of your hair.
Let it be, your parents advise:
Wait till your favourite aunt
keels over in a shopping mall,
or the only boy you loved
drives off a cliff and survives,
but will never walk again.
That’ll really do you in,
make you want to slit your wrists
(in a metaphorical way, of course,
because you’re strong and know
that life is about surviving these things).
And almost all of it might
be bearable if it would just end
at this. But one day your parents
will sneak into the garden
to stand under the stars,
and fade, like the lawn,
into a mossy kind of grey.
And you must let them.
Not just that.
You must let them pass
into that wilderness
and understand that soon,
you’ll be called aside
to put away your paper wings,
to fall into that same oblivion
As if it were nothing.
Girls are coming out of the Woods
Girls are coming out of the woods,
wrapped in cloaks and hoods,
carrying iron bars and candles
and a multitude of scars, collected
on acres of premature grass and city
buses, in temples and bars. Girls
are coming out of the woods
with panties tied around their lips,
making such a noise, it’s impossible
to hear. Is the world speaking too?
Is it really asking, What does it mean
to give someone a proper resting? Girls are
coming out of the woods, lifting
their broken legs high, leaking secrets
from unfastened thighs, all the lies
whispered by strangers and swimming
coaches, and uncles, especially uncles,
who said spreading would be light
and easy, who put bullets in their chests
and fed their pretty faces to fire,
who sucked the mud clean
off their ribs, and decorated
their coffins with brier. Girls are coming
out of the woods, clearing the ground
to scatter their stories. Even those girls
found naked in ditches and wells,
those forgotten in neglected attics,
and buried in river beds like sediments
from a different century. They’ve crawled
their way out from behind curtains
of childhood, the silver-pink weight
of their bodies pushing against water,
against the sad, feathered tarnish
of remembrance. Girls are coming out
of the woods the way birds arrive
at morning windows – pecking
and humming, until all you can hear
is the smash of their miniscule hearts
against glass, the bright desperation
of sound – bashing, disappearing.
Girls are coming out of the woods.
They’re coming. They’re coming.
Utimately, we will lose each other
to something. I would hope for grand
circumstance — death or disaster.
But it might not be that way at all.
It might be that you walk out
one morning after making love
to buy cigarettes, and never return,
or I fall in love with another man.
It might be a slow drift into indifference.
Either way, we’ll have to learn
to bear the weight of the eventuality
that we will lose each other to something.
So why not begin now, while your head
rests like a perfect moon in my lap,
and the dogs on the beach are howling?
Why not reach for the seam in this South Indian
night and tear it, just a little, so the falling
can begin? Because later, when we cross
each other on the streets, and are forced
to look away, when we’ve thrown
the disregarded pieces of our togetherness
into bedroom drawers and the smell
of our bodies is disappearing like the sweet
decay of lilies — what will we call it,
when it’s no longer love?
End-of-Year Epiphany at the Holiday Inn
Softly, first, over egg bhurji and juice—
this country is losing her soul,
because a man in a wheelchair is beaten
for not standing to the national anthem,
because breakfast was once a noble affair,
not this litany of selfies. I know it’s ridiculous
to think countries have souls, that this one
could be feminine. I know I should have faith
in happiness and child wonders,
who will rid plastic from the earth. Oh yes,
I know the possibility of a person coming
to their knees at an airport, crying, Who am I,
is high, and most people will walk by
because time is always calling. We must believe
everything will be all right because people
are still having babies and taking them to the sea.
So what if a man is slaughtered and set alight
for love, for a slab of dead cow, for reasons
sacred? So what if the waters are rising,
and those seas will soon be upon us?
We must live in the moments we’re given.
Louder now, in the lobby of the Holiday Inn—
this country is losing her soul,
because politicians declare our daughters
safe as long as they’re parked at home,
and geniuses proclaim the national bird
so holy, it impregnates with tears.
I know I should be kinder on feedback forms.
I know you don’t really want to tell me how
to live unless you’re selling me something.
No one’s really listening unless you’re on TV.
But there are people who still grow heirloom rice,
who long for roses to assault the walls
of their homes because they believe in beauty
and her graces. And perhaps part of surviving
is to keep your knees soft, to bear grief
that the missing will always remain missing.
So when the new year arrives with the golden
light of a late Sunday morning, whispering how
everyone you love will be kept safe, you take
those promises deep into the pink
of your mouth, and you swallow.
Find the Poets
I arrived in a foreign land yesterday,
a land that has seen troubles,
(who hasn’t, you might say?)
with its scrubbed white houses
and blue seas, where everything was born,
and now, everything seems as if it could vanish.
I wanted to find out the truth
about how a great land like this
could allow ancient columns to crumble
and organ grinders to disappear.
Find the poets, my friend said.
If you want to know the truth, find the poets.
But friend, where do I find the poets?
In the soccer fields,
at the sea shore,
in the bars drinking?
Where do the poets live these days,
and what do they sing about?
I looked for them in the streets of Athens,
at the flea market and by the train station,
I thought one of them might have sold me a pair of sandals.
But he did not speak to me of poetry,
only of his struggles, of how his house was taken from him
along with his shiny dreams of the future,
of all the dangers his children must now be brave enough to face.
Find the poets, my friend said.
They will not speak of the things you and I speak about.
They will not speak of economic integration
or fiscal consolidation.
They could not tell you anything about the burden of adjustment.
But they could sit you down
and tell you how poems are born in silence
and sometimes, in moments of great noise,
of how they arrive like the rain,
unexpectedly cracking open the sky.
They will talk of love, of course,
as if it were the only thing that mattered,
about chestnut trees and mountain tops,
and how much they miss their dead fathers.
They will talk as they have been talking
for centuries, about holding the throat of life,
till all the sunsets and lies are choked out,
till only the bones of truth remain.
The poets, my friend, are where they have always been—
living in paper houses without countries,
along rivers and in forests that are disappearing.
And while you and I go on with life
remembering and forgetting,
the poets remain: singing, singing
At The Rodin Museum
Rilke is following me everywhere
With his tailor-made suits
And vegetarian smile.
He says because I’m young,
I’m always beginning,
And cannot know love.
He sees how I’m a giant piece
Of glass again, trying
To catch the sun
In remote corners of rooms,
Mountain tops, uncertain
Places of light.
He speaks of the cruelty
Of hospitals, the stillness
Takes me through bodies
And arms and legs
Of such extravagant size,
The ancient sky burrows in
With all the dead words
We carry and cannot use.
He holds up mirrors
From which our reflections fall —
Where we lose ourselves
For the sake of the other,
And the others still to come.
I agree to turn my skin inside out,
to reinvent every lost word, to burnish,
to steal, to do what I must
in order to singe your lungs.
I will forgo happiness
stab myself repeatedly,
and lower my head into countless ovens.
I will fade backwards into the future
and tell you what I see.
If it is bleak, I will lie
so that you may live
seized with wonder.
If it is miraculous I will
send messages in your dreams,
and they will flicker
as a silvered cottage in the woods,
choked with vines of moonflower.
Don’t kill me, Reader.
This neck has been working for years
to harden itself against the axe.
This body, meagre as it is,
has lost so many limbs to wars, so many
eyes and hearts to romance. But love me,
and I will follow you everywhere –
to the dusty corners of childhood,
to every downfall and resurrection.
Till your skin becomes my skin.
Let us be twins, our blood
thumping after each other
like thunder and lightning.
And when you put your soft head
down to rest, dear Reader,
I promise to always be there,
humming in the dungeons
of your auditory canals—
an immortal mosquito,
hastening you towards fury,
Toshina was born in Madras to a Welsh mother and Gujarati father. She received an Eric Gregory Award in 2001. Her first poetry collection, Countries of the Body, won the 2006 Forward Poetry Prize for best first collection. Her poetry collection, Everything Begins Elsewhere was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2013. Her most recent book of poetry, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, was published by Harper Collins, India and Bloodaxe, UK in 2017.
(With thanks to Wiki and various blogs and online journals for this information).
This poem appeared in Helen Ivory’s 12 Days of Christmas (Ink Sweat and Tears) in 2015. A new one is about to appear any day. Follow the range of Christmas poems telling it slant, here:http://www.inksweatandtears.co.uk/ Thanks Helen and Kate.
When temporal lobes
ignite like Christmas lights
down High Street
she is upright in a bentwood chair
Can’t see or hear
Not a sound
Normally susceptible to suspense
/Can’t seem to shake it/
Never expecting a good thing
to come of it
the crate of her skull
a pulse of epiphanous bliss
She thinks in tongues
of a thousand angels Gabriel
Couldn’t imagine a suicide
bomber or serial killer
Knows everything about us
Some days she takes little walks
past hospital wards with white views
a clipped, aching feel about them /to us/
carrying out her marvellous plan
over crumpled pages, musical scores
Child of the cosmos
Jesus lives! /for five minutes/
What I admire in Burns’ Milkman is everything, including the superb reading by Brid Brennan who owns the text in its myriad eddies and shifts. In this Man Booker Prize winner of 2018 psychic cruelty, physical brutality and family ‘doings’ are observed in a wry, intelligent and nimble voice.
It’s Northern Ireland in the Seventies, although this is never stated outright, and the narrator, middle sister, is accused of having an affair with the milkman, a paramilitary heavyweight who is stalking her.
‘But I had not been having an affair with the milkman. I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me.’
We are carried in a breathless monologue as she navigates her way through sex, innuendo, the vagaries of a bookish family and coupling, hence her maybe boyfriend, at a time when menace lurks around every corner.
The quest of middle sister for agency and security in a community under pressure at its gossipy, sex-crazed worst renders her face expressionless. But even this ‘nullity’ becomes treacherous because she needs to show something, but what? Characters have no names but are Somebody McSomebodies, wee sisters, third brother-in-law. This device works magically by taking us nowhere and everywhere.
The wee sisters are a show of their own. They are cartoon characters in their nerdishness demanding readings of the classics; the comic relief in a Shakespearean tragedy. But some scenes are desperately sad. The father on his death-bed remembering his serial rapist is one. The mound of dogs and the cat stories are others. The ciel bleu episode with the French teacher is uplifting and breathes hope into a society that has lost its imagination. Burns is a skilled raconteur in full, lyrical Irishness.
The mention of icons like Kate Bush and Freddie Mercury root the narrative in time and are the kind of pop stars who divide fans and signal social divisions in a place where religion can be assumed by your name alone. While the narrative might appear to loop and meander it cleverly builds with subtle segues as the milkman creeps further and further into the foreground and the maybe boyfriend further and further away.
Burns is laugh-out-loud funny at times. She adopts a stream of consciousness seasoned with the absurd in the traditions of Joyce in parts of Ulysees, and Beckett but with precise punctuation and qualities of her own in her special language play. Her ‘Fuck-off-ly’ and five ways to describe one idea adds to the humour. The mystique around the milkman is another clever device. Such an everyday, trusted carrier of succour to the people is instead a spy, a stalker, a predator and nobody has ever seen him with a bottle of milk in his hand.
‘He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. He didn’t take milk orders.There was no milk about him.’
A proper milkman who turns up later in the book is the hero, but bringing grief to the family in an unexpected and hilarious episode.
Burns reminds us of the oppressor ‘over the water’, ‘over the road’ of the fight over a flag. Whispers become accepted truths, batons and prejudices are pulled from under the bed to become weapons of torture to beat ‘the other’. ‘Others’ are girls who read while walking, gays, sexually active unmarried females, unmarried females, boys who cook, anyone who dwells beyond the pales. And I thought there was only one.
Her writing, in the way of Mantel, Atwood and O’Connor, is sardonic and breathtaking but her voice is thoroughly her own. She adopts a way of extreme-explaining and use of hyperbole to expose folly and hypocrisy through faux seriousness.
‘He made lewd remarks about me….–my quainte, my tail, my contry, my box, my jar, my contrariness, my monosyllable…’
She mashes the vernacular, the Latinate, the syntax of the 19th century, (‘I did not like the 20th century’), coined words and the profane in fearless lexical ribbons, all compelling.
Burns is in love with language and she makes us fall in love with language and shows us that the beauty and idiosyncrasies of language need to be fought for when everything else can be lost.
Her achievement is made more poignant learning that she was crippled with back pain in drafting the end of this thrilling ride, eating out of a food bank and claiming benefits once the manuscript was completed and published.
Just when we think we’ve seen and heard everything there is to read and hear about the Sorrows, just when Brexit threatens to secure a hard border once again, when another journalist is murdered, a wife beaten to death, dissenter incarcerated; then the milkman comes knocking. Look, he’s on the doorstep.
This is my last blog post for a while. I’m heading north to the UK to see my 93 year- old mother and to catch up with friends. I just wanted to update you since I haven’t been very active lately.
I’ve been busy offblog editing a chapbook for Melbourne Poets Union, (Lyn Chatham’s Artisan due out soon), running a workshop to promote Tango writing, launching a children’s book and author-hosting for Geelong Library. I’ve also been writing quite a bit after a long hiatus. Publishing a book does this to me. I lose the will for quite a while. Now I’m back.
Some of my favourite writers and singers have come out of Canada. I’m thinking Joni Mitchell, Tim O’Brien, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje just for starters. My father was stationed in Banff during WWII and he loved the place and the people. A few girlfriends and I road-tripped up to Nova Scotia three years ago where I failed to find a moose but found the graveyard of the Titanic and drafted some Maritimes inspired poems. Four of them have found a home in an established literary journal The Antigonish Review. This is my first time in a Canadian journal so very encouraged by that. Canadian journals are well supported by the government so a surprising number pay. We don’t write poetry for the money but we like to feel appreciated. Here’s a guide to Canadian literary journals. Many accept Canadian writers only.
I’ve been asked to be Feature Poet for Damson Poets in Preston, Lancashire at the end of September. (A Hopper inspired image of their previous venue). I’ve been there once before at the invitation of my collaborator, Terry Quinn, who organises this and gets between 20-30 people attending which is brilliant for a relatively small place. We’re working on our second collection of reply poems.
And lastly, almost…I have two poems coming up in the next issue of the beautifully named online journal Not Very Quiet. Hoping to get the launch in Canberra in October on the way back from Sydney.
When I heard that two of my poems had been selected for this special issue of Southerly I was over the moon. David is known and admired for his elegant and heartfelt writings and for his views on animal cruelty and human excess. What is not as well appreciated is his generosity in fostering Australian writers.
It was David who selected one of my earliest poems for The Best Australian Poetry (UQP) in 2008. I was so naive and inexperienced that I had no idea what this meant. A couple of years later he chose another of my poems for the Bunyip issue of Southerly. So, when my debut collection was to be published three years later, I remembered that David had chosen my poems and so I did a daring thing; I asked him if he would mind looking through my manuscript and writing a few sentences.
He came back to me so promptly and with the best recommendation I could have hoped for. He was so positive and thoughtful in his comments. He also gave me a recommendation for my second book, Kiss of the Viking, a pamphlet published by Poetry Salzburg.
I shall always have David to thank for his encouragement, his kindness and generosity. David Brooks played a significant role in building my confidence as a writer. This gave me permission to journey into the world of poetry, and although I’ve never met him, I would like to thank him and wish him a very happy and well deserved celebration of his expertise and service to Southerly, but above all, his unsung kindness to emerging and aspiring writers.
I’m very happy to report that I’ve been granted a two-week residency in the Booranga Cottage next year. I’ll be presenting a workshop on Eco Poetry and also delivering a public reading or lecture. I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s poetic forays into wild places for inspiration. This image is from the Living Desert and Sculptures outside Broken Hill. They’re eroding very rapidly and becoming part of the sandscape.
I have a few projects on the go so will use the time to work a couple of collaborations, one with Terry Quinn in the UK and one with Avril Bradley, here in Australia. I also have a lot of poems that need sorting into collections or pamphlets.
Booranga serves its members and the local community through hosting Writers-in-Residence at the Booranga facility located on the CSU Campus in Wagga Wagga, and through the publication of its annual anthology fourW. We also support local and visiting writers with venues, book launches and reading events.
Visiting Writers-in-Residence give readings, facilitate workshops and are available to mentor local writers, while working on their own projects and enjoying the picturesque grounds around the Booranga Cottage on CSU’s Wagga Wagga Campus. To apply for one of our four annual paid Residencies, please complete the application form, provide the supporting documents listed and email to: email@example.com. Applications for the following year close on 31 May each year.