a conversation with John Bartlett on my latest chapbooks
Q These two chapbooks have come out together but I understand came about differently. Can you tell us how they came to be and how both have been published at the same time?
A Mirage (A Journey into the Red Heart) takes you on a road trip from my home on the Surf Coast to Uluru and across Munga-Thirri National Park (formerly known as the Simpson Desert).
Returning recently from such a trip, I was asked to supply poetry for a video our son was making of our time away. I realised I had poems from previous travels both across the desert and also to Cape York. Several had been published in journals but I hadn’t thought of putting them in collections until then.
Unsettled (A Journey into the Far North) take you to Queensland and around the Whitsundays (‘drowned mountains’ once inhabited by the Ngaro people). It felt right somehow to present the chapbooks as separate entities. Stephen and Brenda (Ginninderra) seemed keen to take them on as a pair and so here they are.
Q Your earlier poetry, according to academic Maria Takolander has been described as “unsentimental and powerful elegies…giving urgent attention to the surprising and plangent condition of our lives.” Do you see the style of these current collections as similar or different? How has your style changed (or not)?
What poet can resist an elegy? I still try to avoid sentiment but it creeps in now and again. Maria was responding to my first collection, When I Saw Jimi, which reflects my teen years growing up in the Sixties in Britain. The poems seem confessional and emotional looking at them now, based around relationships and the influence of music.
Poems in Mirage and Unsettled focus on the spirit of place looking through the lens of a camera, trying to make sense of what I see and how our footprint manifests itself on the landscape.
Some are elegiac, some observational and reflective. Several refer to simple place names as my way of mapping the journey in my memory. I’m hoping to take the reader on a lively, provocative ride with short stops along the way.
Q How have poets fared in recent COVID-19 lockdowns? Do you see them as lost opportunities or have they been an opportunity for some to extend their writing?
You’d have to say there’s been a mixed response, depending on which lockdown, what time of year and where in the world you happened to be. The first lockdown was an opportunity for some of us to get manuscripts assembled and to join myriad poetry events via Zoom. It was clear that the cybersphere allowed poetry to go global and this was exciting. I’m sure this period spawned a host of lockdown poems and stories. Sadly, some independent journals crashed. They certainly struggled under the uncertainty. I know of one editor who had to call on writers to submit poems for the first time. And, as it drags on you can see vitality being sucked out of us as we realise how much connection with others, travel and new ideas feed our souls. We will see, won’t we
Q What inspires you in your writing?
Collaborations, mortality and looking out the window. I’m working with both a poet and a fiction writer on a sequence of ‘reply poems’ and a collection of short fictions. A small group of poets in Geelong gets me out of my comfort zone by setting regular challenges in forms of poetry I wouldn’t necessarily choose like sonnet, pantoum and haibun. The fellowship of other writers and kindred spirits is so enlivening, and of course reading – so much fresh, new talent out there. Not sure I’ve answered this question. Thematically, I seem obsessed by the way we manage relationships, the land, sea and sky.
Q How do you see the state of poetry in Australia at the moment?
For spoken word/ performance poets and Instagrammers it’s an international powerhouse of linguistic revelry and shared humanity. For poets seeking publication in print in journals or books, the market is tightening and it can be a bit of a slog.
Our online journals are alive and thriving. Editors know their stuff and are showcasing vibrant, diverse writers of quality. Some of our established journals, however, seem overwhelmed by dwindling subscribers, vast numbers of submissions and insufficient staff. Submissions can go unacknowledged and can take up to a year for a rejection or acceptance.
We still have a couple of publishers that support emerging poets but so many no longer accept full collections unless solicited, often not even then. Self-published poetry has always been scorned but you can see with the success of Instagram, Amazon and online platforms, it’s only a matter of time.
The Australian, of all places, shone a flicker of light on poetry when Sarah Holland-Batt produced a clever and thoughtful appraisal of a poem each Saturday. Now that’s gone. At least a small poem (hurrah) appears each week selected by Jaya Savige, but the average punter doesn’t warm to non-rhyming free verse readily. It remains baffled and fearful of it and longs for the rollicking days of Banjo and co. Many who do appreciate poetry do not buy it.
I see a trend towards prose poetry and competition-length poems that could do with a haircut. The short, quiet poem is not so revered anymore. We seem to need to shout to be heard like an angry teenager or dissident locked up for a long time. I’m as guilty as the next shouty poet. I see more accessible poetry and the confessional creeping in again. It’s a lively, eclectic scene.
Forensic reviews are thin on the ground. Our literary scene is a very small pond so reviewers are loath to cause ripples. Reviewers also receive paltry remuneration, if anything, for a piece of work that can take days of reading, research and reflection.
Reviewing could play a bigger part in Creative Writing courses, perhaps. I’d like to see Creative Reading courses to promote enquiry and thorough linguistic analysis of the old and new. I’d love to see editing come back as an art form.
Overall, I see a dynamic and fast-flowing river of poetry that will find its own levels and that we’re not likely to drown, just yet.
And thank you for asking, John.
Safe inside your canvas dreaming
of the red track westward across the dunes
the lean shape-shifter with toes of a dancer
foxtrots the fringe Camp follower
nose to the north she takes the shape of
a desert grass spinifex dry
same pale yellow same drift as the wind
It’s then you daub the ochre the black
white for a star in the eye Insinuate
a dark shadow, minimal abstract perhaps
Next morning the palette licked clean
To Torrens Creek
He said the road was bony
I knew what he meant
Ruts are rib cages
of giant marsupials
Megasaurs that gulped
from torrents plunging
into inland seas the size
shrunken lakes & salt crusts
are busy preserving life forms
like your old grandmother
bottling fruit, boiling jams
that would amaze
anyone who knew or cared From Unsettled
Available here: https://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/chapbooks.html
…the release of this new pamphlet from the Picaro Poets series.
Songs of the Godforsaken
by Geelong poet
I found myself moved, amused and affected by the poems in this marvellous collection. You will be taken to that fiery night in Mallacoota, to the eye of a heron in a blackened landscape, to a back garden in London where a migrant’s life comes to a tragic end and to the Bourke Street Lotto. You will go to private sensual places.
John’s poems are sinewy and beautiful on the page. They have the sensuousness of the Baroque in form and style. Each poem skilfully crafted, the works artfully curated and confident.
There are confessional poems and poems that question, Will I surrender to the drug of memory, Is that how I will find my way home? and in the title ‘What would I say ‘ to the father for ‘not loving him enough’.
Some lines are arresting, God will always demand the sacrifice of small children. John’s experience with the church in a past life has made a lasting impression on him and infuses his work. It’s given him an evocative mastery of language. It may have given him a dry sense of humour. It’s certainly given him an ability to note injustice, joy, beauty in destruction, ugliness in ignorance, the power of transformation, and a yearning for what is denied— innumerable lovers. And in the last lines of the collection the question of his unfinished life makes for a dramatic finale.
Schubert’s symphony, his seventh,
Can its single, final note
surf the years, proclaiming
-‘who do you think you are
to escape unscathed?’
It is with loud clashing cymbals and a bottle of expensive champagne I smash the bow of this book and bless all who get lost in enchantment and awe between her lines!
She’s back again this year
in heels and nuptial plumes,
in pale eye liner
-the white-faced heron
thinking of survival
What rush of rapture
templates of dinosaurs
with songs that shiver
in the deep wells of the soul
the cracking ice
in Greenland, the rift,
the cleft, the split,
Despite the smell,
the stench, the stink
of burning forest,
I see you still,
by cross-thatched leaves,
your changing of the guard
with stilt-stepped stealth,
this private pact
this brooding hope
Shortlisted for the Ada Cambridge Poetry Prize, 2020
A Year of Masks
Anonymous, yet uniform
in our disguises, we
wear our false faces
crafted in the basements
of our outrage against
tear gas & elimination
On days the sun refused
huddled on the edges
of our nightmares,
lives burning, gasping in
smoke & suffocation
White-robed, masked Archangels
engrossed in ceremonies of ablution, we
ration out each breath
from hostile air, as if
breathing less might save us
Winter / the world
In that other room without pretences,
we mock our other selves
happy to dwell under the dark clouds
that herald every rain
surviving in some eternal
The disobedience of the Genitals
(“Oh Lord make me pure – but not yet.”)
In 400 AD, or thereabouts, Saint Augustine prayed
for a thirty year delay on his ejaculations, waxed
eloquent (&endlessly) on the “disobedience
of the genitals”, their unexpected ability,
their agility to leap into alacrity at
short notice, fig leaves, he knew
were not a short-term solution,
absolution a necessity,
better option, so
henceforth flesh &
spirit, like a firewood
log split in two,
egg’s yolk a
John Bartlett is the author of three novels, collections of his short stories and published non-fiction. His poetry has been published in a number of Australian and overseas journals. In June 2019 Melbourne Poets Union published his Chapbook The Arms of Men. Ginninderra Press has just published Songs of the Godforsaken as part of its Picaro Poets’ Chapbook series and will publish his full collection Awake at 3am later in the year. He was recently shortlisted for the Ada Cambridge Poetry Prize.
Bosnian boy sends postcard home
In this place I’m gagged
by the desert grit that gets
shaved off the salt lake.
I’m monster and shadow
sculpted by a mean north wind
Where is my castle?
Walking out on the flat
(what else?) I trip
over the bleached ribcage
of a dragon, it traps tumbleweed
and the skin of a brown snake.
Where is my horse?
After dark we sit in the yard,
our legs stick to the chairs.
We drink lemonade from
glass bottles and duck fruit bats
hanging from the trees like traitors.
You talk, mama,
about the last time you went to
the snow on the hills outside Sarajevo.
Six of you piled onto an old ladder,
swooshing down the icy road,
dervishes fighting the crusade.
I was sub-zero years old,
scrunched inside your belly with
my eyes shut.
If I’d known you were
there that day I’d have cut you
you open with my sword,
climbed over your parapet
and disappeared into the
mountains, at home in the cold,
with tata and the warlords.
First published in When I Saw Jimi, Indigo Dreams
Sequestering the Feeling of Grass
Once a year I cross oceans of manatee
waterweed, frogbit—the sort of grass that
cowers under the weight of us.
I go to pull weeds from the base
of my father’s tree. He hates weeds.
Weeds squat in cracked paths
like travellers and their big-eyed children,
spread unruly between geraniums,
choke drains carried by the delinquent
pigeon that tips the bird bath for the hell of it.
It never occurred to him or any of us
that the grass he so assiduously mowed
would scream at the sight of roiling blades,
that the divine smell of his tight- clipped lawn,
in lines of a bowling green,
was sending out hormones of fear—
warnings, not memories of afternoons
in September when I’d come home spiked
with hay, damp patches on my jeans.
I wanted to ask if you could see
the wing shadowing our growing up,
if you could bear that we weren’t tidy
or musical, as dark cells seeded
a requiem in the marrow of your glassy bones.
If you could find a kind chaos
playing your flute, arrangements
that sometimes broke rules.
I never got to tell you that somewhere deep,
not green at all, but dry as your throat
on the last night, I feel the pain of grass
cut too short, the dying a slow brown death—
the smell of it.
First published in Shearsman, UK.
The first time I saw it
was from the hop-on hop-off bus
glimpsing Strawberry Fields
as we headed for 9/11 & the Soup Nazi
I looked for Yoko carrying a shopping bag
and was disappointed
This time I walked through Central Park
dodging nannies, yummies
doing exercises holding prams
on a mosaic mandala shrine
with the title of his song inlaid
In twenty thirteen, early autumn,
winter nowhere on the horizon
it was impossible to imagine a psycho
with a gun taking his wonked brain
for a blood-splattered run,
letting it right off the leash,
making yesterday history.
A John lookalike was playing
his twangy thang
A blackbird flew out of it
First appeared in Cordite Review
i. in which the cartographer explains himself
You might say
my job is not
to lose myself exactly
but to imagine
what loss might feel like –
the sudden creeping pace,
the consultation with trees and blue
fences and whatever else
might prove a landmark.
My job is to imagine the widening
of the unfamiliar and also
the widening ache of it;
to anticipate the ironic
question: how did we find
ourselves here? My job is
to untangle the tangled,
to unworry the concerned,
to guide you out from cul-de-sacs
into which you may have wrongly turned.
ii. in which the rastaman disagrees
The rastaman has another reasoning.
He says – now that man’s job is never straight-
forward or easy. Him work is to make thin and crushable
all that is big and as real as ourselves; is to make flat
all that is high and rolling; is to make invisible and wutliss
plenty things that poor people cyaa do without – like board
houses, and the corner shop from which Miss Katie sell
her famous peanut porridge. And then again
the mapmaker’s work is to make visible
all them things that shoulda never exist in the first place
like the conquest of pirates, like borders,
like the viral spread of governments
The cartographer says
What I do is science. I show
the earth as it is, without bias.
I never fall in love. I never get involved
with the muddy affairs of land.
Too much passion unsteadies the hand.
I aim to show the full
of a place in just a glance.
The rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?
Photo from citynews.com
John Murphy, editor of The Lake, asked me to write a tribute to Les Murray which appeared in the July issue. http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/poetry-archive/les-murray/
A poem is the product of the dreaming mind, the rational mind and the dancing mind according to Les Murray whose poetry, controversial philosophies and life values spring from his massive intellect and curiosity, his love of the Australian bush and his early experience of penury and emotional violence. By ‘bush’ I mean countryside, landscape, the place of his formative years in Bunyah, New South Wales.
From a line of Scottish farmer settlers Murray’s attachment to the land and feelings of being an outsider infuse his work. His own story he likens to Greek tragedy. The loss of his mother when he was twelve after complications following an ectopic pregnancy forced him to live with the paralysing grief of his father and to assume the role of carer. There was a lifetime of brawling between his father and grandfather after the death of his uncle when felling a tree. As a bright boy of large stature and reportedly gauche he was ridiculed in school. Murray speaks openly of his torment but it didn’t stop him engaging forcefully with the world. He celebrated life, railed against the avant-garde, social injustice and the exclusion of the vulnerable and non-conformist.
I first heard Murray reading his poetry at an event in Melbourne in 2010. He was supporting Poetry Idol, the stirrings of performance and slam poetry in Australia. By then his poetry was on book lists in schools and he was deemed a ‘National Treasure’ though I’m sure he must have laughed or winced about that. He was certainly a superhero in contemporary Australian literature and recognised internationally as one of the best contemporary poets writing in English.
Ted Hughes put him forward for the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry which he won in 1998. At the presentation ceremony he cut a fine figure in a sharp suit looking a bit like Alfred Hitchcock, smiling at the queen, she smiling back.
His work has been translated into several languages and has also won The Petrarch Prize (2005), the TS Eliot Award (1997) and a swag of Australian awards. He published thirty collections of poetry, two verse novels, essays and collections of prose and has edited several poetry anthologies and performed the role of poetry editor for Quadrant from 1989-2018.
That night in Melbourne I remembered thinking he had the soft moon face of my grandfather and the cosy home-knit that made him look like the old man up the road. He didn’t seem to bother much about performing or slamming that night. He read quietly and quickly. I remember feeling disappointed, wishing he would slow down and speak out. I wanted to relish his hawk eye for detail, the profane and pedestrian mashed together in a fresh patterning often harking back to Hopkins as in the poem ‘Performance’.
I starred that night, I shone:
I was footwork and firework in one,
a rocket that wriggled up and shot
darkness with a parasol of brilliants
and a peewee descant on a flung bit;
I was busters of glitter-bombs expanding
to mantle and aurora from a crown,
I was fouettés, falls of blazing paint,
para-flares spot-welding cloudy heaven,
loose gold off fierce toeholds of white,
a finale red-tongued as a haka leap:
that too was a butt of all right!
As usual after any triumph, I was
of course, inconsolable.
from Subhuman Redneck Poems, 1996
In an interview with Robert Haas, at the 2011 Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam he begins the session with a reading. It’s hard to know where the poems begin and end. His reading is rushed and mumbled but after a lively Q and A he reads again and the difference in execution is palpable. It seems that in telling only a small part of his life story he gains the confidence to speak with marked animation and commitment.
He was reading his animal poems from Translations from the Natural World which came out of his depression and debilitating panic attacks. He ‘ventriloquises’ some of the creatures admitting to a form of catharsis in the writing of these poems. His sense of humour and the unexpected is shot through his work.
Us all on sore cement was we.
Not warmed then with glares. Not glutting mush
Under that pole the lightning’s tied to.
No farrow-shit in milk to make us randy.
Us back in cool god-shit.
Murray’s candid disclosures in interviews are compelling and disarming. In the middle of what seems to be a regular anecdote he becomes lyrical and fanciful, alluding to a Greek god or German philosopher. His responses frequently punctuated by that laugh, bordering on a giggle and a sharp intake of breath. Some of his comments leave the interviewer speechless. He is never predictable and while he felt that Australian poetry should eschew the post-modern his own poetry is often experimental and veers into the mythical and wickedly outlandish.
In the sixties and seventies Murray upset many people in the literary world with his conservative politics and scorn for the intellectual cliques that cluster around universities. His critiques of academia and what he perceived as political bias in the distribution of literary funds he expressed with clarity and élan, a chip perhaps resting lightly and sometimes not so lightly on his broad shoulder.
It seems as though he was treated with suspicion by peers when he was invited by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard to help rewrite part of the constitution. At the same time his early political movement is said to have been a forerunner of the Greens and Democrats.
Murray was a nuanced, complex character as well as a wonderful raconteur and critic, frequently possessed by anxiety when, after receiving harsh criticism of his own work, which has been referred to by some as patchy and even doggerel, was then reluctant to critique others.
Since his death several young poets have spoken of the encouragement and mentoring that Murray gave them if he felt their work showed promise. He was generous in his time in fostering new talent.
I have heard him speak highly of certain fellow poets and more recently of his friend and fellow recipient of The TS Eliot Award, Pascale Petit. He became her mentor saying, ‘ ‘No other British poet I am aware of can match the powerful mythic imagination of Pascale Petit.’ And Pascale, writing on hearing of his death said of Murray, ‘…a great, great poet. A world treasure. A gift to the earth and to his readers…His quality of sprawl and trance unmatched.’
In 1989 he returned to his beloved Bunyah with his wife, writer and musician Valerie Morelli, and remained there until his last months in a nursing home in Tarree, NSW in 2019. He is survived by Valerie and their five children.
At one stage in his discussion with Haas he says that Australia is now bereft of eccentrics. He posits that this country is ignored because its heartbreaks are trivial compared to those of the rest of the world. We lack rivers of blood, he says, in so many words. Les Murray – ‘contrarian bastard’ laments Thomas Keneally, ‘You’ve reduced us to your poetry.’
Image from the Western Suburbs Weekly
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).