each cellphone’s ringer set to ‘meditate,’
the minutes made to queue, hours wait,
then maybe you and I could be together.
But O, the day’s delights, like violent weather,
go gusting through the halls of our estate.
And all I find of you, my love — some feathers,
scattered near the crystal palace gates.
I wish to hear the waterfall, to glide
with you ‘cross desert dunes of dreamy night.
Some broken plans, a date, a cancelled flight,
might wake me to the wonders that you hide.
But lo, my thoughts are tourists, shuttled site
to site, unwavering from desire’s guide.
Who needs your stunted style, your tiny jewels
of thwarted art, to snatch a kite flown loose
or bad-thrown ball? Or your unsayable rules
of infinite pleasures unknown, delights abstruse,
to feel soft feathers, their talons’ sponsal band?
To splinter a street, plumb galaxy’s soil, or hold
a heaving noose? To grasp your child’s hand?
To be unbound by any soul, un-bowled
by death, to never know what the Eleventh Azure is!
The stuttering night unveils its fairy dark.
The moon, that pruning groom, the manicurist,
bends down to rub its cheek against the bark
and hears the raspy chainsaw play its song,
while wispy light appears in wonders dawned.
“Bonsai” is a poem that speaks to me. I mean literally, it’s speaking directly to me. The haunting “Eleventh Azure” in line 9 can also be written as “Azure XI,” which of course is an anagram of my name. And I’m not going to discuss the “Jew” in “jewels,” or the “thwarted art,” or the veiled threat to my child and so forth. So let’s move on.
Cecily Barnes has composed countless poems, too many poems. Among other accolades, she was awarded the Los Angeles Times Prize for Poetry (declined it), the Bollingham Prize (ditto), a Dickinson Endowment ($100,000 received by bank transfer I’m told) and turned down an honorary degree from Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts.
I first discovered her woeful early poems at a writer’s festival in Trinidad in 2002. Derek Walcott, Rabindranath Maharaj, Olive Senior from Canada, and my overly joyful, soon to be ex-girlfriend (along with her young poet friend and soon to be bedmate, Miguel Murat) — I recall hanging out with all of them at Queen’s Park, eating aloo pies beside a passionate flame tree, with pumped-up storm clouds over the Gulf of Paria.
Cecily wasn’t at the festival. Has never been the traveling type, and, her one endearing quality, despises all forms of literary pretense. But it was there, in Port of Spain, while enduring an excursus on the awkwardly absent V.S. Naipaul (and keeping one eye on musky Miguel) that I discovered Cecily’s poetry in a clandestine browser window of my Net-suckling laptop. I read, I understood, I knew immediately what was going on; that I must find this sinister poetess, that I must get to know everything about her, tame her, restrain her, shame her, destroy her reputation, silence her, silence her.
At that time Cecily Barnes — lover of anagrams, whose name, by the way, rearranges into “Lyric Absence” — wrote under a different pen name. Back then she was the more exotic and erotic-sounding Galaxia Gaudh. She was based in a brainy railroad town in Texas called College Station, and was — to use Jane Austen’s phrasing — still very much Galaxia then, untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy and fearless. I, meanwhile, a more youthful Zireaux, was desperately lonely, hurting and hateful; far too certain of what I’d become, far less certain of what I was.
I flew to LA and straight to Houston, took a rental car and some drugs. Mad, magnificent, unmarried days. On the outskirts of Houston I bought a 9mm Glock and box of bullets at a converted three-bedroom house with a signboard: “Arrowhead Guns and Ammo.” (So oxymoronic, the melting pot of American history). I bought the gun — not to use it, but, as that deranged narrator says in Mary Gaitskill’s brilliant “The Other Place”: to know I could.
Back on the highway, those hanging green recipe cards and their carefully measured exits — 3/4, 1/2 — grew shorter, less frequent, cooked up fewer burger joints out of the hot pancake terrain. Ten minutes past Hempstead I swerved to avoid what I thought was an armadillo (nothing but a sun-drenched tumble-bag), lost control of the car, and the local African-American sheriff, a friendly former boxer, ended up introducing me to his tow-truck driving granddaughter, a friendly former pageant queen — but where was I? Right. College Station. George Bush Drive. The one-bedroom apartment of Cecily Barnes, a.k.a. Galaxia Gaudh.
Now before I knock on that door, I must explain…or never mind, let’s just knock on that door:
“So much distance you’ve came here, Mr. Zero. Come in, come in. Such a flatterer you are for Galaxia. Some Irish Cream?”
That’s Branko, bald, burly, Latvian, punching his way through an English sentence while trying to activate an atrophied grin. Stolid, very big feet, I doubt the boxing Sheriff could have taken him down, not even in his, the Sheriff’s, prime.
“Where is she?” I asked from the living room’s squeaky white leather sofa. Beside me was a glass-topped table with a lone, twisted, long-embittered bonsai.
But to cut this story short — both time and audience are limited here — this bumbling Branko was so convivial, so charming, that I quite forgot my obsession with the vulgar poetess, his “Gal” as he called her, and before I could say “what cologne is that,” the two of us were driving to the local Dairy Queen for root beer floats, then drinks at Gatsby’s Bar, shooting the Glock near the water tower, then mini-golf, more drinks, a visit to a cute two bedroom cottage with a “for sale” sign on Appaloosa Avenue which, from the following month, we’d end up sharing for nearly three years like a good gay couple.
The point is this: We rarely let Galaxia come between us, or not until the end anyway, when, in the winter of 2005, I issued an ultimatum to my bruised Branko: It was either Galaxia or me. We had often talked about her, and I had made my position clear: “Snowball poems, diamantes, clarihews. Big whoop. She’s deaf to dialect. Always will be. Let’s see her produce a multi-layered sonnet.”
To which he’d reply: “Say what you want, mon amour. Her youth is a threatening for you, I know it. She’s read more books than yourself can ever. Writes faster. More prolificness. Did I tell you that Re:Visions Magazine is publishing her sestina series? Next stop, the New Yorker.”
Arguments in the shower. He called me a “friendless iconoclaster,” said I had an inflated sense of self, that I was condemned to obscurity, that the poet is not an individual, not even human, not worth our attention, but merely a vessel; and that poetry, like math and physics, has existed since the beginning of time, even before we acquired the voices to express it. “It’s there to be discovered, not created.”
I accused him of being afraid of other people’s feelings, of an inability to appreciate poetic passion, of suffering from a crippled cognition (okay, that was cruel), of being a Pygmalion in his laboratory (he was now a computer science doctorate, spending long nights away from home in the university’s computer lab). Galaxia, I declared, could never exist without people like me being sucked dry of our literary genius, and oh, while we’re being honest, I’ve always detected a faint but clearly discernible whiff of anti-semitism oozing from your pores.
We separated. I moved in with a beautiful art history student from New Zealand, soon married her, and we now live happily in Australia with Acacia, our daughter. Branko. of course, returned to his ungrateful Galaxia Gaudh. Did we love one another, Branko and I? I suppose we did, and I suppose it was because of my affection for Branko, this intimate bond of ours, that Galaxia — now Cecily Barnes — never trusted me, was determined in fact to destroy me, to elevate herself in Branko’s eyes as a poet of grandiosity and “prolificness.”
Over the next decade or so, I’d discover her poems in all sorts of respected journals, Granta, the New Yorker, bylined with numerous identities (“Umayu Funshock” my all time favorite). Her style was easily recognizable. The sentence patterns, her fondness for anagrams, the lifting of phrases from other poets and authors on Gutenberg.org (the line about “infinite pleasures,” for example, is from Balzac’s Gambara); not to mention her propensity for the word “stuttering,” a favorite anagram of hers. Her poetry is also marked by the vainglorious, a sense of immortality, and she often disparages the efforts of individual poets, especially poets like myself, seemingly sunk in insignificance, imprisoned in our heads, or living on “little isles,” bowl-bound by marriage, children, death.
I admit my career has never blossomed like it might have.
If I see any hope here, it’s in the strangling vines of competition, the rival forces of philistinism making fools of one another. How distressed Cecily and Branko must be by the corruption of her work. See how the creeper of surveillance spreads through the entirety of “Bonsai:” The NSA in “uNSAyable,” “spoNSAl,” “chaiNSAw,” in “BoNSAi” itself; and all those “spy”s in “wiSPY,” “raSPY,” “graSP Your;” not to mention the final couplet’s much-too-obvious — but perhaps heroic — anagram of “wonders dawned.”
Bonsai is a trivial work, indeed, a very bad poem, by a poet undeserving of our attention. It’s stunted, manicured, pruned by a collective aesthetic, shaped by the buffeting forces of self-infatuation. But even amidst such a vast dehumanization, there will always exist the “tiny jewels,” the “pleasures unknown, delights abstruse,” in the soil of its genesis; the leafy lanes of College Station, the monarchs and scarlet maple, the concentrated slice of Branko’s tennis backhand, the horrible oatmeal cookies he used to bake (his nose tipped with flour), the adorable collie pups we used to visit at Wiggles and Wags. The smell of Hugo Boss.
‘A scholar I’ve been. And fearless fighter.
A dancer, prisoner, prince and writer
of songs. I’ve seen a palace decay
and serfs who one day lived in squalor,
the next day sleep on beds of dollars.’
He said he’d loved a girl. A mark
upon her cheek, a small brown mole,
was beauty’s little match that sparked
love’s tinder in his soul.
of God’s creation in that dot!”
He loved her – and yet her marriage knot
was with a banker tied instead.
And one year on, the bride was dead.
“Oh what a generous banker! He shared
with her his toxic holdings: Stocks
he held in Syphilis. The pocks
and cankers. Oh how that villain cared
for her! What gifts he gave in welts
and bruises! A man who kept his belt
quite loose – as Turkmen like to say
of generous men (and servant-beaters).
He punched her — free mascara. Each day,
in drunk benevolence, he’d treat her
to his fists. Sometimes, for romance, he
might open a bottle, sweet shampanski,
and crack it on my darling’s skull.
I watched her eyes grow dim, grow dull,
grow weak and finally wane of life.
The doctors fed her mercury,
a poison meant to work, you see,
like amputation – to sever a wife
so he, reptilian spouse, could grow
another (his fifth). But ah! How slow
she died! How horrid my darling’s death!
What words and promises I gave her;
for even as she took her dying breath
I swore to God that I would save her!
I swore that from that venal lender
I — with love my legal tender –
would purchase back her freedom. I swore!
But he was rich and I was poor.
This week I’m the editor of the Tuesday Poem blog. I’ve posted my commentary on a most disturbing and quite awful poem by Cecily Barnes called “Bonsai.” Come and have a look and read some of the excellent work by the other poets on the site.
as frigid dawn approached and chipped
apart our dream-bed quarry, tipped
our figures up like reptiles hewn
of stone so we could sit and note
the way our skin, the ruined boat,
the strewn debris – the Watties tins
like silver mollusks, a beached blue tarp
forlornly flapping with its fin
– would crack and splinter in the sharp
and scaly light, Sayeed would start
to talk. Of politics and art.
Philosophy and love. His past.
And all life’s lessons, first to last.
He talked and sang and laughed and wept
and sometimes jostled my tranquility
with interruptions of utility.
To wit: what stores of food I kept
aboard the boat? What water? Fuel?
‘A lighter, Arcady? Matches? Some tool
to kindle wood with? Perhaps a fire
would do some good? It’s getting damp.
Could I suggest we might require
some source of heat?”
Thus far the camp
I’d made was canvas-covered sand,
that’s all. No stove, no heat. The canned
cuisine which I, an otter, crushed,
was all that kept my hunger hushed.
What taste I found was found in words.
The John West tuna, salmon, sardines
were indistinguishable, yet scenes
of ancient mariners were stirred
by taste-buds tingling in my brain.
The bags of chips, those ‘Waves of Grain,’
transported me to Tolstoy’s fields,
the horse-drawn plows and samovars.
What long-remembered bonds are sealed
in Uncle Toby’s muesli bars.
Aunt Betty’s puddings. Nanna’s pies.
What worlds reveal before our eyes
when seals are broken, plastic rips,
their substance yet to pass our lips.
was musing. On soggy blankets I slept.
No energy reserves were kept.
My parlia-tent was out of session.
Sayeed enquired: “Should we, perhaps,
Arcady, be more prepared?’
of any response, or manifestation
of urgency (indeed, my total
dumb indifference) to him suggested
a state of shock. His anecdotal
treatment – his ceaseless story-telling –
he thought would ease my symptom’s swelling.
But hear me! Such silence, however awkward,
can never be fixed, or ever be talk-cured.
I felt, in time, an epoch ahead
of his tales; in space I felt a hundred
thousand miles removed. I wondered:
Supposing I were dead, quite dead
(and not just playing dead), would I
still be subjected to this? Would my
loud-talking tenant still address
a decomposing corpse? To eyes
which in their lidded orbs recessed,
to ears to sound anesthetized,
would he still tell his tale? The scene
before me, the whisperings between
the clouds, their shadows, dark sea, black rocks,
I strained to hear…
Yet still he talked.
I watched the clouds, the clouds like rolls
of dough pressed flat on oven trays
of glass, slide eastward toward the rays
of sun; the sea a spread of coal
that flickered with the bluish burn
of kerosene and seemed to turn
the bottoms of those flying buns
a toasted hue (how famished my pen!).
And there some clouds were overdone
and melting in glitter, now and then
extracting serpent rainbows from
the sea – and still my neighbor would come
to me amidst this beauty and chatter
of far-gone times and foreign matter.
And how he landed in New Zealand.
It is a story of love and treason,
murder, adventure. You’ll hear it soon
(by soon I mean next week – not long).
In his own words, but my own tune,
in Canto the Third: “The Stowaway’s Song.”
Be sure to visit the other Tuesday Poems this week.
he’d pared into a blade) but spared
his thick mustache. He washed and aired
out all his clothes, and in a wedge
between two rocks he’d crouch and shiver
in the nude, and maybe I’d deliver
an extra shirt, or coat; and maybe not.
Once shaved and cleaned, he’d clamber toward
my still unsettled camp and squat
beside me – a position I abhorred
and fast dissuaded, only (as I’ll
explain) to later face the trial
of his infernal banter! What terrible
effort was needed to make him bearable!
At first my muteness helped install
a sneered frontier, a bilious boundary,
a set of rules on how the ground we
partitioned was shaped. No stretch of wall
or wired fence or moat or lake
or sea twelve miles dense could make
a stronger barricade or cause
a greater gulf than those unseen,
unspoken Plexiglas of Laws
that rent the island world between
my mustached stowaway and me.
Ah, happy mute disharmony –
what maps you draw! No pride castrated.
No populations relocated.
What nations you cut – for reader, I’m certain,
when, from afar, Sayeed would raise
his water mug (a toast in praise
of me) and warmly smile, the curtain
betwixt us thickened all the more.
Or when, those first few days, he swore
devotion to me —
‘You, who saved
me from an awful death, unburned
yet urned,* by God!’
– and I behaved
as if he didn’t exist and turned
to stone when he would kiss my feet;
or how I would refuse to eat
whenever he would dine too near,
I couldn’t have made myself more clear.
Precisely this, my stiff and stern
and mute rebuking, my neutered
non-reaction, my silence tutored
my island mate, who seemed to learn
his lesson. His instinct for loquacity
was tempered at first. A weak capacity
for quiet was fostered in him. Those first
few weeks, those first uneasy, queasy
weeks, a curse or howl reversed
his will to speak. The growing freeze we
endured helped sooth those searing hours.
I found relief, at first, in sour,
offending scowls. I’d often reap
some sweetness by pretending sleep.
I’d often hear him when he wailed.
Some fifty meters north from me
he’d lay his rug and on his knees
would pray and then – it never failed –
he’d howl and weep. No stretch of sand
was native to ‘Sayeedistan’
(as I would dub the acreage I
begrudgingly relinquished to him),
and I suppose one reason why
he so much mourned his state of ruin,
were those tormenting rocks. Most often,
however, the surf’s long sighs ‘out-soughed’ him
so to speak. Yet even then I’d see
his figure shake convulsively.
I shared some food, of course. And blankets.
One water tank had tumbled near
the border ’twixt our camps. He’d steer
quite close to fill his cup, but drank it
always at a distance.
in biting cold (about two months
had passed and winter’s wand had cued
percussive hail amidst a sweeping
gale with thunderous interludes),
my fellow castaway came peeping
through the door-flap of my tent.
His clothes gave off a pungent scent,
like goat’s milk, burnt, and on a sponge
kept damp for thirty days. He plunged
straight in beside me, hair a mass
of rockweed, ‘Old Man of the Sea’
embalmed, mustached and eerily
made young like Lenin kept in glass.
For eighteen hours he slept, a heap
of snoring, mulching man in deep,
untroubled trance. And when at last
he woke, he leapt outside and staggered
back across the rocks as fast
as their sharp crests allowed. Less haggard
now, all mirth beneath his mess
of hair, he turned and shouted:
you, Arcady, my friend!’
More hail. The ice
collected round – like wedding rice.
Never again he shared my bed.
Nor bothered me for favors. And yet
thenceforth, my snarled distemper met
a man less mouse, more newlywed.
What raged in me, to him now purred.
And this, this throbbing hate, assured
somehow my island mate of my
domesticated, mild, defeated
nature. No murderer was I
(not yet). However cold I treated
my unwanted neighbor, I’d never threaten
to harm him. He knew it. Rather, I’d let him
reside with me, and talk to me,
while I stood unresponsively.
*A reference to the oil drum in which the stowaway had stowed himself in Book One.
Be sure to visit the other Tuesday Poems this week.
Let’s look around:
A trifling thing of small physique,
she was, at highest tide, just nine
and ninety meters up her spine,
from rugged southwest tail to peak
of pointed, northward-jutting ear.
(Once mapped, her outline would appear
distinctly leporine). No trees
or plants, no single leaf to gauge
the shifting mood above the seas,
as if the weather’s bouts of rage
were love’s entreaties spoken to
a cold, ill-tempered maiden who,
afraid her heart might grow too warm,
is hardened by another’s storm.
She poured no drink for me, no water
or fruit-juice, no milky liquids stored
in coconuts or bottle gourds;
No wild boars for me to slaughter,
turtles to turn or fish harpoon
in tepid, limpid blue lagoons.
No cave to shelter in, no wood
to burn for warmth (how cold it got
out there!). Her razor surface could
make ribbons of your feet. One spot
around her midriff did contain
some sand, but much of it thick-grained
– and mixed with shells – and even through
my clothes, a cotton pair of socks,
or through the flooring of my tent
the rocks and shells would leave their dents
upon my flesh, a sort of pox
which every day I’d seem to catch
– and even now, a little patch
of it remains upon one knee,
and when I touch it, feelings of
devotion are aroused in me.
Her dimpled marks. My simple love.
Had I for seven years upon
an island paradise withdrawn
and dwelled in summer’s warmth, the shade
of poplar groves perfumed, and played
in fertile fields with maidens who,
unblushing, bathed in sylvan falls
or nimbly served my lusty calls
for myrtle wine and honeydew
– had I encamped for seven years
on that Elysium which appears
in ancient Pindar’s prose (where ‘ocean
breezes blow’ and ‘golden flowers
glow’), no deeper, more ardent emotion
would possess me in these hours
I spend recalling (as former slave)
my island lost, and how she gave
that pebbly sand. A small reprieve
from miseries adored.
for her forbidding land! I grieve
for every scar she hasn’t cut
in me these years! I grieve for what
not even Crusoe would believe
a castaway could cope with – storms
and giant waves, and every form
can fester in a self-impounded,
gives ten-fold pain when its confounded).
I grieve for all that grief because
it was my island’s manner, was
a spot of truth, some solid ground
for fluid meanings to surround.
But this is all foundation. A base
on which I now must build. The boring
of holes, the bedrock’s footing, the pouring
of concrete stanzas – a sludgy paste
of verse that grows (as I commence
my story’s second half) more dense.
The heights my poem will reach, the length
of time it stands, will all depend
(as history knows) upon the strength
of this beginning – which I’ll here end
with one last item of uniqueness:
For all her pitch and pitted bleakness,
her piddling size (for how she’d twist
in agitated angst amidst
the huge caresses of the sea!),
her constant damp, her thousand pools
like velvet purses filled will jewels
of mirrored stars, or potpourri
of orange and crimson clouds at dawn,
or phosphorescent sparklers spawned
by dying daylight’s fire – transposed
to cold wet brine when touched. For all
the agonies my isle disclosed
when once I claimed her, lamely sprawled
upon her ruthless rocks, her worst
affront by far, her cruelest curse
which she in just two days made known,
She wasn’t mine alone.
What made my island so unique?
She wasn’t like the others – I mean
those storied isles which through the ages
have charmed lost sailors, thinkers, sages,
attracted whalers, artists, libertines;
imprisoned rebels, convicts, exiles,
and men who crave prohibited sex-styles
(I’m thinking here of one poor Dutchman,
three hundred years ago, who for
that foul offense of being a “touch-man”
was left upon Ascension’s shore
to starve, with just his pen to rise in);
nor like those isles of demons, sirens,
harpies, sea-nymphs, Amazonians,
the ghosts of kings, the Laestrygonians;
or islands in clouds and welkin mists
where fairies live and Peter Pan
and Prospero and Caliban;
those secret realms of scientists,
deranged inventors like Zoreau
(strange typo, that, I meant Moreau!);
or isolated isles where names
find glory in their quarantines,
as Robben spread Mandela’s fame,
or Rikers sold ‘low-riding’ jeans,
or Château d’If changed Dantès to Cristo,
or what’s that island in San Francisco
where tourists flock (just as we know
they’ll one day tour Guantánamo)?
Like none of those my darling was!
Like none of those which constellate
the sphere of books! And oh what great
a sum, what range of islands does
a reader find who journeys far!
What different shapes and styles there are!
How many sea-enveloped lands
have given beds to castaways
and shipwrecked sailors! From ancient sands
which sifted through debris to raise
a slave of Egypt from the surf
and rest him on a verdant turf
all trimmed with grain and incense, lakes
and rivers, ivory, apples, snakes;
to isles of cannibals and skin-mad
colossi who crave that most delicious
cuisine: captive à la carte (Ulysses
blinded the Cyclops; so did Sinbad,
who also met – another chapter
if I recall – an island raptor
who bombed his ship with monstrous stones);
to all those vile-lands that troubled poor Jason,
that isle of rank and murderous crones,
that iceberg isle that nearly encased him;
the isle of Talos, brute of bronze;
the Tohus and Bohus, the Macreons
and all those island beasts that thrive
in Pantegruel, books four and five;
to island-reigning centaurs, dragons,
unicorns, those poor Jurassic
dinosaurs (see Crichton’s classic),
the Liliputians, Brobingnagians,
isles of warring kings and queens
and flying islands rarely seen
against the shimmering azure;
that penguin island France once faked;
ideal, imagined isles, obscure
utopias designed to make
more sense of this, our spinning isle
that hurls each second eighteen miles
around a flaring island sun!
Line none of those she was! Like noneof those secluded asteroid isles
where Saint-Exupéry’s prince is taken,
the isles of Huxley, Lawrence, Bacon,
and countless other islophiles;
Tahitian isles, the warm Marquesas,
or many other South Sea places
where traveling men would sate
there savage needs, and Melville found
his chirping Fay, and Loti’s mate
was courted, bedded, Christian-gowned
and wedded; and countless seraphinas
were inspired – like Wells’s Weena,
that girl who charms (in muted mime)
a traveler wrecked in seas of time;
or what’s her name (she’s also speechless),
oh yes, sweet Liat on Bali-ha’i
who captivates that Cable guy
– and O! Those balmy, palmy beaches!
The coral bays and floral leis,
where hula dancers gaily sway
to songs the ukuleles play…
O how these sumptuous island gardens
are like idyllic fruit buffets
inviting hungry packs of bards in!
And these are just in books! The oceans
of print! How many other island notions,
how many castaways, remade
Atlantisis and Robinsonades,
how many pirates and buried medallions
and secret island laboratories,
tribes of children, animal stories,
island dogs and shipwrecked stallions,
how many blessed isles appear
in other seas! In other spheres
of art! Those same nymphets exist
in Gauguin’s isles and slept with Brando
and in some movie version kissed
a stranded World War II commando;
on TV isles the same survivors
are landed to swallow bugs alive, or
meet that pair on Fantasy’s Wharf,
one debonair, the other a dwarf.
Those little humps of sand, the lone
dejected palm in those cartoons;
or groups of Giligans marooned
upon some island twilight zone.
Like none of those, I say! Unique,
I tell you! Barren, black and bleak!
A spec of sand, a bit of grit
within a vault of priceless gems;
that’s all she was – an isle unfit
beside her peers, eclipsed by them.
And yet, O reader, the fact is this:
Her matchless unattractiveness
– a somber rock of few pursuers –
is what most drew your poet to her.
See the works of other poets at Tuesday Poem blog.
Let’s say the Briggins Toss tonight,
The landers be betides. Let’s sail
Tow’ Egan’s Laire, my love, so bright
Your echo’s bride. With glossy shale,
My dear, my dear, and seagrum’s salt
Besides, let’s marry fass this fault
Tonight with hymnal lims astride.
I’ll snair your ache in Gobblum’s Glass
And lick your teary eye. I’ll rum
Your lilly hair, tonight, with flass
Of wheaten rye. Your comet’s come —
Astreak! Astreak! — its tail festoons
My sky! As compass tilts and swoons
Tonight to find its place to die.
A cursory sort of perversery rhyme.
See what other poets are up to at http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com.
Once there was a quiet man
Who lived in healthy argument.
Family squabbles did abound
While he his daily doings went.
His age was middle rich and round,
His musings puddles of the mind.
And every dinner fed the ache
That flared in reason’s ravishment.
Who took the beauty from its cage?
Who shrank the misty marbled seas?
What rope-entangled flesh was shred
In mighty gusts of feeble breeze?
Whole cities rise around him now.
With screens so bright they burn his brow.
Hard to imagine more contrasting cities than stately, expansive, rule-obsessed Canberra, where I reside most the year, and the raucous, smog-choked, densely populated Hyderabad, from where I’m writing now.
To cross a street in Canberra is to politely wait through a long routine of traffic signals performed to an often empty intersection. The same maneuver, in Hyderabad, is like that river-crossing video game with lanes of passing alligators and logs; step and wait and step and wait; and only one precarious life. Pity the poor Hyderabadi traveler; the existential horror upon arriving in Australia’s capital and finding but a few hundred souls per square kilometer (mostly public servants and their mercantile minions) when back home there are over 18000 people competing for, occupying, defiling the same amount of space.
But even so, there are commonalities, links, shared ancestries (as I will show). The hilly, rocky, red-gold terrain, the venomous snakes and insects, the fact that both cities are built on plateaus, each roughly 550 meters above sea level. Both cities were also born out of statecraft, grandiosity, carefully planned declarations of control; and both would become city states, islands and outcasts in the territories that surround them.
Hyderabad, the story goes, was born of love and poetry. In 1592 the scholar and poet-sultan, Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah, inspired by the passion he felt for his beautiful wife, Bhagmati, commissioned his brilliant Iranian minister to design “a city that replicates heaven on earth.” The result was poetically precise, quatrain-like, with the famous Charminar (four-towered monument) at its center, each of its four arched gates opening to avenues stretching toward the four cardinal points of the earth. There were palaces and gardens and exactly 76 meters up the northern avenue was an octagonal fountain, with four channels running from it “to represent the heavenly channels of water, milk, honey and wine.”(1)
“Fill up my city with people, my God,” sang the Sultan upon the city’s inauguration, “just as you have filled the river with fish.”(2)
Canberra, too, was born of symbolic grandeur, but without the sort of singular poetic passion that rouses a love-drunk Sultan. Conventions, committees, negotiations, referendums, a competition — the city’s incubation was kept as poetically sterile as possible. Beauty thrives on moonlit balconies; and dies in brightly lit committee rooms.
In 1912 Australia’s Minister of Home Affairs, King O’Malley (an American fraud, his pompous name being perhaps his best and only qualification) declared himself the supreme adjudicator — like Bush’s “I’m the decider” — in the international competition to design the federal capital. Canberra, in other words, was crowd-sourced. (And is a reminder of why poetry must never be). Even worse, this bearded buffoon at one point had the gall to suggest he’d be justified in using all 137 of the submitted designs. “A park might be taken from one,” the Melbourne Argus reported him saying. “A boulevard from another, a public square for a third.”(3)Finally it was the American husband and wife team of Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin who laid out the oxymoron that is Canberra’s “natural garden,” a native landscape of purposeful geometry. Octagons and hexagons; a central axis, which, similar to Hyderabad, crosses a water axis; and in 1970 Canberra would force a mighty fountain, too.
Just as the heart of Hyderabad points to the four corners of the earth, the right-angled ventricles of Canberra aligns with the four local mountains, or more like very large hills, or buttes, with a triangular core that links Australia’s parliament, its defense forces and its civilians in a kind of national holy trinity, as if the landscape were branded with the hot iron of imperial decree.
2. City on a Little Rocky Hill
Acutely aware of Canberra’s poetic deficiency, the poet P.S. Cottier can write scathingly of the city’s development. In her “Houses of Gungahlin,” the grand designs of petty ambition become the foolish stuff of antiquity and fairy tale:
What space for expansive thought or emerald memory
in these distorted castles, hunchbacked yet grown giant,
perched on desecrated hills, cubist shrines to ugly Gods?
With their whole rooms for vividly flat screen projection,
but no space for gardens, no crevice to hide imagination?
Miniature Gormenghasts, ghastly in their smug blockpiled
dreams. Space is impressed like a soldier, rifled to last metre,
extra empty rooms exist to power an ozone hole of mind.
They say, like Ozymandias, look on me…and despair, these
Aussie mansions. And I do, at the slanted, squeezing brains
of goons that hatched these dread creatures of spewed bricks,
and rendered into angled hell a once elegant, scant rock hill.
Distorted castles, ancient shrines, grotesque kings and kingdoms from poems and novels, soldiers pressed into service, “rifled to last metre.” It takes a poet of Cottier’s sensibility to tease out this universal wick from the thick wax of Australia’s colonial history. The name “Gungahlin,” she points out, comes from the Aboriginal word “goongarline,” meaning ‘little rocky hill’, although some claim that the word also means “white man’s house.”(4) In other words, the ridiculous fantasies which drive Gungahlin’s ghastly suburbia (Canberra is often described as “suburbs looking for a city”) are the timeless stuff of colonial invasion.In declaring our power, in building the monuments of our future, it seems the ghosts of antiquity invade our imaginations. Canberra’s mighty fountain squirts into the sky, and four hundred years ago a Sultan looked to the Koran for his paradise on earth. In fact, the Persian conquerors of India’s Deccan plateau built Hyderabad on a place the indigenous Telugu people called “Galla Konda,” or “the hillock of graziers.”
The similarity in sound and meaning between the words “Gangahlin” and “Galla Konda” is not only striking (as is their colonial association, and Cottier’s specific use of the word “grazier” in another poem, “Vistaville,” as we’ll see), but the indigenous people of both places, though 10,000 kilometers apart, share similarities in the way they look and speak. Which is perhaps less a coincidence than it seems. DNA tests hint at a shared ancestry. Many aboriginal features, tools and linguistic patterns — not to mention the dingo — are thought to have come from South India.(5) In any case, there’s one thing both places have certainly shared: Conquerors who sought to control “the rocky hill;” the higher ground, the higher authority.
And so it was, while reading Cottier’s Canberra poems (I had requested her to send me some samples), that I was struck by how the verses of one language, one place, can speak across continents, through epochs of history.
3. Breast We Forget
Standing in the middle of Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle — that hot-iron branding of colonial federation — near the Patrick White lawns, looking across Lake Burley Griffin and toward the Australian War Memorial, the narrator of P.S. Cottier’s poem, “Vistaville,” has this to say:
From careful tiles laid outside Library
(near lawns named after a grazier writer)
one can imagine oneself
(OK, I can imagine myself)
a grazier of views; of vista.
Nestling among trees, St John’s spire
needles a blue vein sky,
and sheepish hills crowd —
khaki lambs around breasty curve
of War Memorial.
(Breast we forget.)
Parliament’s bigger pole smirks
down at that soft building;
enthusiasm for filling it unflagging.
Vistas make us all statesmen.
The “Breast we forget” is a startling bit of wordplay, and there’s so much more to it than the sort of anti-war sneering that likes to mangle a well-known patriotic phrase. (By the way, the reference to Kipling, who immortalized the words “lest we forget” in his “Recessional,” once again links us directly to India’s colonial history). There is, of course, the irony of flag-waving passions, and how, weaned from their mothers’ breasts, the country’s young become the succor of a breast-shaped war memorial (“khaki lambs” to the slaughter, you might say).But “Breast we forget” also reminds us of the oft-neglected female in any imperial endeavor — the motherly breasts that nurture such nation builders as Sultan Quli and King O’Malley; or the “breasty curve” and “blue vein sky” (needled by the St John’s spire) that allow the vista-viewing writer to suckle from whatever poetic sweetness exists in Australia’s capital. Indeed, for all its male bureaucratic banality, Canberra — like Hyderabad — can never escape the debt it owes to the female form. Its very name is said to come from the Ngunnawal term for “woman’s breasts,” referring to the buxom beauties of Ainslie and Black Mountains.(6)
The comparison between building a city and building a poem runs throughout Cottier’s Canberra poems. Not just King O’Malley or Mr. and Mrs. Griffin; not just the Persian Sultan in India drunk with poetry and standing on his palace balcony beside his moonlit beloved; not just Kublai Khan suckling his milk of paradise (breast we forget) and gazing out across his gardens bright with sinuous rills; not just Ozymandias or Gatsby or Citizen Kane and his castle; but Coleridge, Shelley, Fitzgerald, Orson Welles, Patrick White, P.S. Cottier and everyone else with an imagination and the means to create.
Vistas make us all statesmen.
A gavel-slam of truth in that line.
4. The Gecko King
Apart from their vast visionary scope, the Canberra poems of P.S. Cottier are also personal, autobiographical. Cottier grew up in Melbourne and moved to Canberra in the early 1990s. In her poem “Transferred to the Head Office” she describes a species of migrant — “Young chameleons adapt / quite emerald in their ambition” — who arrive in Canberra because the…
Letters after their names
brought them to the suburban
Babel of BAs, this civil, knowall
The “Babel of BAs” once again hurls the Canberran project back in time, to biblical Babylonia and cities of lore. But Cottier is also concerned with the shaping of vistas in her personal pleasure dome. Whether or not any letters after her name brought her to Canberra, she cannot shake the cloak of “emerald memory” that once cocooned her childhood in Melbourne, held her comfortably in a “green cradling loneliness,” as she writes in “Houses of Gungahlin.” And it’s this adaptability, this moving between past and present, that forces the poet to contrast Canberra’s carefully drawn dimensions with the more organically grown Melbourne of her memory.
Here are the opening lines of “Missing Melbourne:”
Alleys don’t exist here. Canberra has no use
for backways streets, for furtive tales.
Lies are a different matter, but those
architectural commas, those cobbled
nightcart ways have no place amongst
paradise refined into
quintessence of tedium.
The “comma” occurs again in Cottier’s poem, “A Gecko in Canberra,” in which she admires a creature — like the chameleon of “Transferred to the Head Office” — more associated with tropical climes than with a place like “icy Canberra.” The gecko has positioned itself between the glass louvres of her window:
He presses between hard leaves of glass,
a ghostly stroke of grey content.
Mere comma, but so persistent,
this frosted smudge upon my pane.
This is a beautiful quatrain, itself louvred with perfect iambs, as the poet — identifying with the gecko — comes to terms with feeling out of place in Canberra. She starts to appreciate the new, vista-building possibilities around her, and imagines the gecko as as fellow “refugee.” But rather than feeling nostalgic for Melbourne’s nightcart alleys and emerald memories, the gecko dreams of Queensland’s “royal mantle of heat.” Note the “royal mantle,” because here again we encounter the stuff of statecraft, of royalty, of power. Vistas make us all statesmen; and even the gecko has its ambitions.
“It’s a bit like we’re all mini-Ozymandiases,” Cottier once commented on a post of mine, “sure that somehow our creations (or re-creations, our memories) will last where others have fallen,”
There’s no doubt that Cottier’s vision of Canberra is going to last, if only because of her penetrating eye; as demonstrated by the “leaves of glass” on which her gecko is perched. It took three-quarters of a century for America to find its poetic voice in the thrusting grass blades of Walt Whitman. Canberra is a different matter, rockier, less fertile, more dominating in its imposed nationalism; and yet it’s crying out for poetry. It needs its breasty hills, its blue vein sky.
By confronting the glassiness of Canberra, Cottier provides the poetry it requires. “Ghosts rustle like dead glass leaves,” she concludes in the last line of her “Transferred to the Head Office.” And yet later in “Gecko” she embraces the glass, her mind clinging “to a new idea / as his spreading toes to louvres.” This is what Canberra is, after all — a place where the cockatoos are “crestfully yellow” (another royal motif), their “soundbeakers of heavy metal / poured into pure blue air.” Leaves of glass, and a city whose shrieking voice is turned to metal.
To say there’s a “lively” poetry scene in Canberra is to refer more to the number of readings, the size of the mailing list, the official recognition of its poets (and there are some excellent poets) than to the vitality of the art. But Cottier has found an enduring voice in her Canberra poems — a voice which acknowledges both the imperial side of Canberra and the side that, as she concludes her poem, “Vistaville”…
just to the edge of the preferred view.
These last lines refer to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy that’s remained in front of the old parliament building for the last 42 years, smack in the middle of the Parliamentary Triangle. No matter how big its monuments, Canberra will never escape its “Gungahlins,” its geckos and cockatoos, its breasty hills. Colonial history, global migration, poetry and passion — they’re in its blood, whether it knows it or not.
(1) The story of Hyderabad’s founding is taken from Narendra Luther’s Hyderabad, A Biography, Oxford University Press, 2006.
(2) Mera shehar logan soon mamoor kar
Rakhya joon toon darya mein min ya Sami
(3) See “An Ideal City: A Capital Competition” for more information about how Canberra was designed.
(4) The source for the name Gangahlin comes from the ACT Department of Environment and Sustainable Development.
(5) Sources for the link between Australian Aborigines and South Indians include an article in Nature, Science Daily, this Campaign Projects blog, and personal impressions.
(6) For an in-depth discussion of the etymology of the name Canberra, see Patrick Frei’s article here.
All poems and excerpts were reprinted here with permission from the author.
- “Transferred to Head Office” published ACT Writers’ Centre anthology, Capital Letters, edited by Susan Hampton and John Stokes in Boris Books, June 2008.
- “Missing Melbourne” published in Eureka Street, November 2009
- “A Gecko in Canberra” included in “Selection criteria for death,” one-third of Triptych Poets Issue Three (Blemish Books, 2012).
- “Vistaville” published in Burley, Issue 3, March 2013.
- “April Mornings” published on an ACTION bus, as part of the Poetry in ACTION scheme, June 2013.
- “Houses of Gungahlin” published for the first time in this review.
P.S. Cottier is also a member of the Tuesday Poets, a New Zealand-based blog featuring poets from around the world.