Dissociative Mythology
(Eleanor Rector)

Posted on April 6, 2018 by in Clozapine Clinic — The Frater Project

lie to me

tell me you always / knew my karst / topography, my limestone bones / tell me you seduced from me / the cyphers to my unbecoming / the combination to unlock my / sternum into a sinkhole / to turn my shudders / into seismic heaves / you always knew / the prosody of / my dissolution / how the
rhythms / of your reasons / create their own / morphology /

I burn sulfuric / bright rhymes and / and off-beat promises / I am the swift-smolder into sudden darkness / lend me your candlelight / my corrosion / a liability, but I / swear, the rubble / of my catacombs / is steady /

lie to me / tell me of convalescence / of awakening into prayers / into the forging / of new tongues / into the litany & supplications / into the subtle traces / of ritual & invocations / scarring my skin / I am begging for auscultation / for someone to listen to the hush-flow of my blood / to find my off-beat circadian rhythm / in time with their own /

tell me that this / fecund breath of mine / inspires seedlings / along my spine / tell me that these / exhalations can / sustain my limbs / through abscission / swear to the madness / of the moons that you know / how to rephrase inconsistencies as truth / how to twist insults into sustenance / how for someone to love me / every fervent inch / they too must bask in madness /

I am not evergreen / blame my deciduous / skin, shedding itself / to reveal stranger & stranger / blame my sacrifice / to imaginary gods / blame the first snowfall / with its silent crystalline / deceptions / blame the flamed rampage through my skeleton / the burning of my skin /

tell me I didn’t brave the winter / just to dig my own grave / tell me that / my spine is a mountain / range, that my forests / will keep me safe / lie to me / whisper that the weight is not mine to bear / blame the city / and the skyscrapers / beaten pavement and bloody streets / blame everything / but me, just teach me to grow evergreen /

tell me that my foliage is / only camouflage / and that this forest / fire was coincidence / I am not evergreen / I am lace-cloaked / liability, I am / cover-collapse into darkness / I am cavernous limestone cenotes / built from calcic calibrations / the remnants of a century / undersea / leftover bones eventually fusing / I am / begging for you / to lie to me / tell me that I can / become evergreen //

 

gestation

I was not born red-blood wild,
or maybe I was, thrust
from Zeus’ furious skies
the cast-off shocked demigod
spurned from stray thunderbolts,
his overwrought fingertips trembling
in the humid summer winds

maybe I was born fire
and cosmic clashes
maybe it was Dionysus
who started the slow-trickle
of red wine through my veins
maybe I am sewn from
May’s fickle rains
and angry clouds

maybe I was born red-blood wild,
fire galvanized in silence and
thunderstorms fed by the sea
maybe by now, Zeus has
forgiven me for transforming
flames into a quiet smolder
for tempering the echoes
by smothering them
in the cavern between
my thighs, for trying
to quiet his skies
when he gifted me
with his violent storms

 

accidental suicide note

I pray for rain – I pray for the
slow  trickle down, how salt-
water dilutes to brine, the
inevitable coalescence of sea
and sweat and silence

I pray for the  irrevocable baptism
of the skies, palms upturned, open
wide, waiting for manna from
heaven, or  Zeus’ thunderbolts or
for Baal to finally ignite his pyre,
waiting for the fire escape to
unhinge to guide my ascension
into the smog-filled heavens,
cement and breezeblock rooftops
fading into the skyline

I pray for the deluge and
desaturated early morning light,
how the weeping skies leave an
outline of my shivering skin,
fetal-curled and sighs stretching
over building edges stumbling
feet and numb fingers faltering
over buttons & zippers
shedding the burden of cotton
against flesh

I pray for transfiguration of being
shaken
in my marrow by the hollow bass &
bone vibrations drums echoing
thunder I pray for lungs not
asthmatic, able to breathe once
submerged I pray for the last surge
of electricity

I pray for rain – the sweet
sputter turning downpour  toes
curling over rooftop’s down-
drops
ten stories to my tower of
Babel I pray for rain and
heaving skies I pray for the
pirouette; the plunge  from
rooftops I pray for pavement
to break my fall
I pray, I pray

 

home is

I collected jawbones
wandered upon in thick
forests, teeth spilling over
and I prayed myself
Samson, strong enough
to tear down columns,
or at least not
abandon home
for the protection
of rivers and trees

I no longer stumble
upon skulls; I search
for their dirtied veneer,
like stained glass whispering
stories of paths travelled,
formina their own cartography
leading me to a
home I’ve never known

I still wake in the
middle of the night
aching to return and
surrender, to find myself
tethered to the red-brick
nightmare, to the floodwaters
and rising tides

home is red-faced stagnation,
it is the slow-dim dusk of
eternal summer
home is slammed doors like
fractured bones, like crumbling
walls, like tectonic plates
creating a mountain of
rubble where once
there had just been gardenias,
home is flat-lining for
two minutes and twenty seven
seconds just to be
electrocuted into resurrection

but then the electrocution
becomes bright-light fireworks
(like you, they are formed from
discarded books)
and then the scythe of
her tongue is an embrace
(besides, you make it so
difficult to be reaped)
and didn’t the sharp blade
of home feel like
love anyway?

I collected jawbones
fresh-cleaned of carrion,
placed them one
by one and searched
their topography
for any fissures
to lead me

directionless,
I’ll follow any line
that promises
a home

____________________________________________________________


Eleanor Claire
is a Chicago transplant from South Florida, still trying to get used to the seasons. You can see her other published works in Mad Hat Literary Journal, Black Heart Magazine, Courtship of Winds, The Cape Rock, and others.

Lifeguard (Grace Finlayson)

Posted on April 3, 2018 by in Lies To Live By

On Tuesday afternoon, two weeks into the summer holidays, I watched the old women swim laps of the 50-metre pool. Up and down the lanes they went, swimming freestyle and breaststroke and something that seemed like butterfly. Sometimes, when they reached the brick wall at the end of the lane, they clung to the edge of the pool and caught their breath. The air was warm and the sky was big and open. Mum never came to the pool, but I swam ten laps every day because she asked me to. Mum wanted me to be someone special, like Susie O’Neill, one of the Olympians who visited our school. ‘You’ve always been a water baby,’ Mum said.

*

On Wednesday morning, on the way to the pool, Mum and I were arguing.

‘I don’t want to go,’ I said. I smacked my hand against the window.

Mum gripped the gear stick. ‘Grow up,’ she said.

We slowed down behind a row of cars at the traffic lights. The indicator ticked. I breathed in and out. Mum checked the time on her watch, then pushed her sunglasses up onto her head. The lights changed and I slumped down in my seat.

‘We’ve talked about this already.’ Mum said. ‘The pool’s the best place for you this summer.’

‘But you can’t make me go.’

‘Well I’m not going to leave you out on the street.’

‘I’ll run away after you drop me off.’

‘No you will not,’ she said. ‘I’m getting sick of your smart-assed attitude.’

I sighed.

That summer, Monday to Friday, Mum dropped me off at 9am and picked me up after work. I was too old for the school holiday programme and Mum said I couldn’t be trusted at home on my own. As we pulled into the car park, I kicked Mum’s handbag that was sitting in the space under the seat.

‘You have to go now,’ she said.

‘You can’t make me,’ I said.

‘For god sake, it’s already after 9.’

‘So?’

‘Get out,’ she said.

I got out and slammed the door.

‘Fuck you,’ I said.

Mum wound down the car window.

‘Don’t you dare use that language with me!’ she yelled.

‘I’m just being myself,’ I said.

Mum revved the engine, lowered her glasses, and shook her head at me.

I walked up to the booth at the entrance and paid $3.75. I knew everything about the pool, like the secret place where older kids went to smoke and the storeroom that was never actually locked because Terry, the manager, lost the key. One day, when I was meant to be practicing my diving, I memorised the graffiti under all of the picnic tables. Almost everyone who worked at the pool was a teenager who went to the high school behind my house. Every day, the same boy with dyed blonde hair wrapped a yellow paper band around my wrist to show that I was allowed to be there. If you were under 16, your wristband was yellow. If you were older, it was red. I pushed through the turnstile and headed to the shady spot of grass that sloped down towards the diving boards.

Mum had been working as a decorator for almost a year. She spent a lot of time in empty houses, trying to make different rooms look more comfortable than they really were. She left sticky notes around the house with curtain measurements and the names of different carpet companies. Every year, on my birthday, she sat on the end of my bed and talked to me about making plans. She always said I had too much unmanaged energy.

At the pool that day, I was worried that Mum thought I really was going to run away. I thought she might call the pool office and describe me to the lifeguards and ask if they could see me swimming laps in the slow lane. Mum could be a bitch like that. She never let me do exactly what I wanted. At home, it sometimes felt like Mum was spying on me. She always came into my room when the door was closed and she’d go through my school bag when I wasn’t looking.

I stepped up onto the starting blocks and rolled my shoulders back. My bikini bottoms were too tight and my tank top was too big. The lifeguards were changing over. A tall teenage girl in red shorts climbed up onto the seat. Her name was Olivia.

I could swim, but I was still afraid of drowning. The lifeguards were always talking to their friends or drinking whole bottles of Gatorade in one go. Sometimes, while I was swimming, I messed up the rhythm of my breathing and swallowed so much water that I had to stop for air. The lifeguards never noticed. I always swam in an outside lane so that I could reach the edge of the pool if I needed.

I knew Olivia, the lifeguard, because our mums used to be friends. Once, a few years ago, we went to their house for dinner. Our mums drank wine and we all watched a concert on TV that was being filmed live in Sydney. Olivia never said anything about that night so I thought she didn’t remember me. Last week, Olivia looked after me when I hurt my knee. I’d swum my laps and I was playing in the medium-sized pool that was for little kids. I jumped in and scraped my legs against the bottom of the pool because the water was too shallow. Olivia cleaned my scrape with iodine on a piece of cotton wool. She stuck two band-aids over the cut and told me to look after myself. At home that night I took the band-aids off and saw I had a bunch of tiny scabs, clustered together like a group of stars.

I swam three laps of freestyle. I’d trained myself to open my eyes underwater, even though it stung and it felt like all of the water was trying to rush inside me. The tiles around the pool were dark blue and everything underwater was hazy and endless. After nine laps I stopped and clung to the edge of the pool. I saw Bevan, a boy from school, over by the picnic tables. He was with his mum and his little brother, Darren.

Bevan married my friend Lauren only a few weeks earlier. We held the ceremony at lunchtime at the back of the soccer field. We stole confetti from the art room cupboard, and Bevan’s friend Sam brought a bottle of vanilla coke, which he shook and sprayed into the air like they do at the end of a Formula One race. Lauren didn’t ask me to be one of her bridesmaids. She said seven girls were already too many. I was in charge of the flower bouquet instead. I picked a bunch of daisies from the flowerbeds outside the staff room and I stuck them down with sticky tape to the top of a 30-centimetre ruler. When the bell rang at the end of lunch, Lauren threw the flowers into the air. Bevan moved towards her and stuck his tongue in her mouth. Lauren pulled away and made a face, but Bevan put his arms around her and kissed her again. Sam cheered and some of the bridesmaids laughed. Bevan once said I was frigid because I wouldn’t show him the colour of my undies on the bus to school camp. I was glad I wasn’t married to him.

At the pool, I watched Bevan, Darren, and their mum lay their towels on the grass. I pulled myself up out of the water and sat on the edge of the pool. I waved to Bevan when he looked in my direction, but he didn’t notice me. I slipped down into the deep end and swam my final lap, kicking off hard from the wall and staying under as long as I could. I didn’t like school, but I was counting down the weeks until I could go back and get out of this routine. For the rest of the day I lay on the grass and twisted my hair into tiny plaits.

When the lap pool closed at quarter to five, the lifeguards blew their whistles and came down off their seats. They wound up the lane ropes and pushed them into the store cupboard. I waited for Mum in the carpark. As I watched the traffic lights change, and a bird hop across the asphalt, Olivia came out of the turnstile. She was swinging a bunch of keys in her hand and chewing on the end of a lollipop. She leaned against the wall beside me and squinted her eyes towards the sun.

‘Do I know you?’ she said.

I stopped and looked up at her. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘You gave me those band-aids.’

‘Oh yeah,’ she said. ‘What’re you doing here?’

‘I’m waiting for my mum,’ I said.

Olivia twirled the lollipop in her mouth.

‘What about you?’ I asked.

‘My boyfriend is picking me up.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Cool.’

‘I’m hanging around to take some photos,’ Olivia said. ‘For my art portfolio.’

‘I thought you were a lifeguard.’

She laughed. ‘Only to save money,’ she said. ‘Next year I’m going to photography school. I’m going to make something of it. My granddad used to be a photographer for The Age.’

Mum’s car was coming around the corner. ‘What do you take photos of?’ I asked. Mum pulled up in front of us but I looked away, pretending I hadn’t seen her. I wanted to keep talking to Olivia.

Mum honked the horn. ‘I’ve got to go,’ I said.

I opened the passenger seat door. Mum was wearing bright red lipstick. As we drove home my towel made a damp patch on the car seat. For dinner, Mum made microwaved chicken and sweet potato. She stood in silence by the microwave, watching the container twirl. I wondered if Olivia was at home with her mum, or if her boyfriend took her out for dinner, or maybe they were alone together at his house.

*

The next day, the boy at the pool made my yellow band a bit too tight.

‘That hurts,’ I said. ‘Can you make it looser?’

‘Nope,’ he said.

I tried to swim my ten laps without any breaks. I didn’t want to see anyone from school. I was bored and exhausted, and the muscles in my thighs kept twitching randomly. In the afternoon, I waited in line at the canteen while two girls in front of me kept flicking water from their hair into my face without realising. They were whispering in each other’s ear. The Frosty Fruits always sold out on Fridays so you had to wait longer while people decided what they were going to buy instead.

I saw Olivia leave the office around the other side of the building and walk across the grass towards the exit. She had her wallet in her hand so she was probably going to buy her lunch from the shops across the road. I decided I wasn’t hungry anymore. I stepped out from the canteen line and watched Olivia walk further away. I went up to the door that said Staff Only. I turned the doorknob and went inside. The office was dark and messy. There was a desk and three walls of shelves and one small window. There were cardboard boxes of plastic cups, and stacks of coloured paper signs left over from the winter that said pool closed for the season. I saw the same orange box that Olivia had brought with her when she gave me the band-aids.

I got down on the floor and sat under the desk and closed my eyes. I just wanted to be inside for a little while. I could feel my heart beating fast and I breathed in and out to try to slow it down. When I opened my eyes, I saw a red PhotoReady packet poking over the edge of the desk above. Outside, the canteen lady was yelling.

‘You didn’t pay for that!’

‘He took my money, miss!’ a boy yelled back.

I pulled the photo packet down to me. I decided that if Olivia came back I’d tell her I was looking for band-aids again. Maybe I could cut my finger with some scissors to make it more believable, I thought. I took out the photos, one by one. I felt like a fortune teller with a deck of tarot cards. I lay the pictures down in rows on the carpet. Every photo was taken last week. I knew that because all of the pictures were of me. There was my face, turned to the side, looking into the water. There I was on the starting block, hugging my arms to my chest, deciding whether to jump. There I was climbing out of the lap pool, looking weak and tired. My hair was slick and my fingers were wrinkled. I felt like I was being pushed underwater.

I crawled under the desk again and pulled open Olivia’s sportsbag. I threw her towel over the chair and stuck my hand inside the bag. I found a tube of sunscreen leaking inside a zip-lock packet, a box of cough medicine, and two pairs of pink underwear. Then I found her camera, disposable, like the kind I took with me to camp. I looked through the little square viewfinder and everything felt far away.

I heard the sound of feet on the pavement outside the door and caught my breath. Olivia opened the door and saw me holding the camera in my hand.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ she said.

I shrugged.

‘Come with me.’

I followed her out the door, still holding onto her camera. She slammed the door behind us. I squinted my eyes because of the sun. It was hot and I was starting to sweat. The day was turning inside out.

‘Where are you taking me?’ I said.

Olivia led me around behind the building. There was a small ally way, between the brick wall and a barbwire fence. There were four garbage bins and an old hose. The smell of the rubbish was thick in the air and there were flies hanging around. We stopped walking and I leaned against the wall. I noticed Olivia had small sweat stains underneath each of her armpits. She crouched down in front of me so our faces were on the same level. Her skin was oily and her freckles were dark brown from spending so much time in the sun. Olivia opened her mouth and stared at me.

‘I don’t want you to tell anyone you saw those photos.’

‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘Promise me,’ she said.

I leaned in closer to her.

____________________________________________________________

image: a photo of Grace Finlayson
Grace Finlayson
is a writer from Canberra living in Toronto. Her short fiction has been published in Meanjin, Seizure, Scum Mag and elsewhere. You can follow her on twitter @gracefinlayson.

The Journey Back
(Gayle Kennedy)

Posted on March 30, 2018 by in Being Sure, Disrupt

One of my earliest memories (and one verified by mother and various relatives) is of me standing on a table surrounded by smiling people as I sang the old country song ‘I Want a Pardon for Daddy’. The faces are beaming, encouraging. The faces are black. My next memory is being trapped inside an iron lung that segues into a leafy garden and a little boy called Brian. Both of us are victims of polio. Neither of us can walk. We call each other Mummy and Daddy. We have created our own little world. We swim each day in a hydrotherapy pool filled with soothing emollients for the benefit of another little girl who has been burnt from head to toe. The little girl is allowed into our domain during those sessions. We are three little children who have no idea there are others in the world that are strong and able, with smooth skin undamaged by savage flames and limbs that obey the commands of their brains. We are spoilt and cosseted by the nurses, the orderlies, and the cook, Linda. The rehab hospital is our castle and we the rulers and already acquiring the mind skills we will need if we are to survive all that life has in store for the different, the damaged. We pay no heed to how others see us. All that matters is how we see us.

I see no other black faces over the 3 years I am in the rehab hospital. Everyone around me is white. There are no mirrors.  I am reflected solely in the faces of those around me. I never take the time to observe the colour of my skin. It is of no consequence in my world. I am for all intents and purposes the same colour as everyone else around me.

I sleep very little. My overactive imagination turns the shadows into monsters and the breathing of the children around me in the ward seems loud and threatening. I always end up whimpering and am soon gathered into the arms of a nurse who dries my tears and carries me to the nurses’ stations. I am fed buttered arrowroot biscuits and cold milk and entertain them with childish stories and remembered songs. I feel loved and safe.

After countless hours of physiotherapy, hydrotherapy and sheer bullying, Brian and I gradually learn to walk and are fitted with our callipers together. Little do we realise that this will mean that we will soon be separated, never to see each other again.

The day my life changed is deeply ingrained in my memory. I was up early as usual, breakfast, and then bath. But there was something different today. There seemed to be tears in the eyes of the nurses as they collected me for my bath. Today I was dressed in special new clothes. A little fawn coloured pinafore, pretty little blue jumper, new socks, my callipers polished, a ribbon for my hair. I was excited at the new clothes but also suspicious. Why the new clothes? Why the tears?  Why was Linda the cook fussing over me at this hour? I usually didn’t see her until later in the day. She grabbed me and held me as tight as she could. Her tears wet my face. I began to become alarmed. The head sister then told me that I was to meet my mummy and daddy today. Mummy & Daddy? What did they mean by that? Brian and I were Mummy and Daddy and I told them so in no uncertain terms. But they insisted that I was to meet my real mummy and daddy and they were taking me on a long journey. I was going home, they said.

‘But I’m already home,’ I said.

‘This is a hospital. You came here when you got sick. Your mummy and daddy are taking you back to your real home, the home you came from before you got sick,’ she said.

Eventually, confused and scared, I was taken into a room where there stood two people who seemed to be from another planet. They were introduced to me as my mummy and my daddy. I remember recoiling in horror as they handed me to the strange dark lady.

‘This is your real mummy,’ the nurse said in her most soothing voice. But I would have none of it.

I screamed, ‘She’s not my mummy! He’s not my daddy! They’re black!’

I remember tears streaming down their faces. How they must have hurt. I know now that it wasn’t their fault they couldn’t visit me. They were two people with no money, living in a society where if you were Aboriginal, you had to have permits to work and to travel. There was no independence for Aboriginal people back then. You had to have permission from the powers to be to do anything at all really. The circumstances back then meant there were no gentle introductions, no orientation days. There was no time for us to get to know each other. I was thrust into the arms of strangers with no warning and they in turn had no idea what to do with this screaming child who looked at them as though they were monsters. I was allowed to say goodbye to Brian who wept and screamed as much as I did when they finally managed to prise us apart. I still to this day think about Brian, Linda the Cook, and the little girl with the badly burnt body and wonder what became of them.

The strange couple carried me, still screaming, into a bustling, noisy, crowded Central Railway Station, desperately trying to ignore the suspicious stares of the strangers around them. All their soothing and stroking was to no avail. I continued to weep as we boarded the train. Eventually, with a shudder, it pulled out. We were passing through suburbs of poky backyards with thin, waving children and grey washing flapping on clotheslines that stood like drab sentinels in the yards that backed onto the train tracks in a late 1950’s Sydney.

Then we were in the countryside and my childish interest was piqued. Cows, sheep and horses grazed in green paddocks. I had only seen them in books before. I stopped crying long enough to ask if they were real. The two strange people grasped the chance to connect with me at last. Each animal was pointed out, given names. I calmed down and started to relax into the warmth of the dark-skinned lady who, now that I was not struggling and screaming, seemed so soft. Her eyes were big and brown and filled with tears. She stroked my hair and whispered, ‘we’re going home now baby girl’.

‘Back to the ward?’ I asked.

‘No baby girl, home to your real home. You have a baby brother and sister. They’re called Buddy and Lulla. You have a grandma and grandpa and cousins. There are horses and dogs. You’ll see. We’ll take good care of you.’

The journey seemed to take forever but the kind gentle lady held me. I became sleepy and nestled my head into her breast. Her blouse was damp from our intermingled tears. I finally slept.

The next morning the train pulled up at a small railway station in the middle of nowhere. There were a few ramshackle houses and what seemed to be vast expanses of red dirt. There were no trees, just scrub. I remember Connie Francis singing ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’, blaring out from the stationmaster’s radio. We walked away from the station and into an eerie silence. I began to think that these people really were aliens. They had taken me to some far-off planet and I whimpered in fear. Dad could see my distress and took me from Mum’s arms and hoisted me onto his shoulders. We continued across the red earth with its strange little trees. An emu darted past us and lying in the shade of the saltbush was a goanna. It was so hot and we seemed to walk for miles. Then all of a sudden, the sound of laughter and children’s voices seemed to float across on the wind. I could hear someone playing a guitar and singing ‘Mona Lisa’ as we walked into a clearing where stood huts made from scrap, tents and a caravan. Dogs and kids were running about, and all of those children and the adults were the same colour as the people who had brought me here: and, I soon realised, the same colour as me.

These people soon surrounded me. An old man with silver hair, a dark face and twinkling blue eyes took me from Mother’s arms and held me tight as he whispered, ‘My little Topsy is home at last’.

I was passed to Grandmother Edie, then uncles, aunts, cousins and finally introduced to little people who were my brother Buddy and sister Lulla.

My new home was a far cry from the huge, sterile, quiet hospital I was used to. A new caravan had been bought especially for my homecoming, and Dad had built me my own little toilet that he’d painted blue and pasted pink cabbage roses he’d cut from a magazine on the side. Somewhere between the hospital and my new home, something had shifted in my mind. I lapped up the love that was showered on me and soon forgot about the hospital. I came to love my family and later we moved to a bigger town with a river and paved streets. Dad bought a block of land and worked for the Department of Main Roads. I settled into my new life, but little did I realise that this was not the end of my treatment. This was not the end of tumult and upheaval. In a way it had only just begun.

For the next ten years, twice a year I was taken kicking and screaming from my mother’s arms for the seventeen-hour train journey to Sydney to a place called the Far West Children’s Home, for further treatment. The Far West Home in those days was a cold and forbidding place. The playground was all green concrete with high fences. No trees, no flowers, no grass, just a solitary hurdy gurdy. What was particularly sad was that it was directly across the road from Manly Beach.  You could smell the sea, the fairy floss, the toffee apples. You could watch the people laughing and having fun on their big day out. We soon learnt that if you pressed your nose against the wire people would sometimes take pity and slip bags of lollies to you. It wasn’t all dreadful. There were outings and visiting stars of the day to break up the monotony, but mostly we were all subjected to the same dreary routine every day. I think that’s why I have such a hatred of routine and why I’ve never really fitted into a conventional workforce with all its rules and its nine to five mentality. It was so different from home, with all the chaos of a big family. At home there was noise, animals, a river, grass, trees and when it rained the unbelievably beautiful smell of water on dry earth. At home I was black and went barefoot except for school and outings.  At the Far West I was unsure of just what colour I was and I wore those blasted callipers from six in the morning until seven at night.

My family still didn’t have the money to come and see me, and in a way I was grateful for that, because while I was there, I was able to adjust to my life as it was without the distraction and upheaval seeing them would have brought. I developed a rich and wonderful gift. I learnt how to block out pain with my mind and to adjust to my new circumstances. I developed the ability to be in the moment: where I was, was where I was. I became a chameleon. I developed a deeply rich inner life. I learnt to treasure solitude because alone I could be anyone I wanted to be. I could be anywhere I wanted to be. My legs may have been encased in callipers but in my mind they were strong and muscular. On my feet I wore delicate, silken, butter soft slippers and danced like the ballerinas I had seen in films and on the stage. Or I was barefoot and ran like the wind across vast expanses of beach and desert. I wasn’t tethered to the earth. Oh no! I flew like a bird and rode on magic carpets and looked with pity at the people below as they scurried across the earth, harried and worried and unable to see me smiling down on them. I leapt on strong stallions and rode bareback beside princes and warriors. I never saw myself as disabled. I was unaware of the pronounced limp. I was always so surprised when a child or a cruel adult pointed it out. I always looked around to see whom they were talking about. I may have been momentarily hurt, but never for long. There were too many adventures, romance and magic to conjure.

I remember lying on the ground cloud watching, seeing the vapour trails the jets left as they streaked across the deep blue sky. I would imagine the people in those planes, wonder at the places they’d been or where they were going. I wondered if I would ever be in one of those planes. I could not countenance a life where this was not possible. There were others who did not share my confidence. I remember my mother taking me to see the local doctor for my dreadful migraines. I was twelve. He said to my mother that they should start looking at getting me on a pension before I finished school. My mother said I went into a fury and shouted, ‘I don’t need a pension. I have a brain!’ She knew I would be all right from then on. Her and Dad did everything they could to see that I had the best possible education for they knew that would help me achieve any dreams I had. A scholarship to a prestigious girls’ school in Sydney gave me an entrée to a society with people who understood me. I made lifelong friends there and on leaving, found work easily.

It came as a wonderful surprise when I was a young adult that I too could have boyfriends and know the loving touch and embrace of men; that I could give and receive sexual pleasure. Men loved me, it didn’t seem to matter to them that I limped and they always seemed so surprised when I mentioned it and often looked puzzled at the very idea of me bringing it up. They saw the inner me. I lived a gloriously happy life for many years full of music, laughter, food and a myriad of friends, but a decision to go home to the country to live would change me. It was wonderful to be with my family and back in my country, where I met a man whom I thought was wonderful and got married. But I had married an allusion, for no sooner had the ring been slipped on my finger than he turned into a drunken, violent monster that stole my joy. I eventually gathered my resources and returned to Sydney but I was flat, emotionally denuded. People said I’d lost my glow. I kept up a front for a while, but the deep hurt and anger I felt about my dreadful marriage was suppressed as I dealt with Post-Polio Syndrome and the loss of mobility that finally put me in a wheelchair.

I stopped wearing lipstick and started going out in trackie daks and t-shirts. I gave up my beloved Chanel No 5, lost interest in flirting and couldn’t pick up on the signals from interested men anymore. Eventually I took to sleeping incredibly long hours and sometimes felt so weighed down by life that the simple act of rolling over in bed became such a chore, I would lay there with my ear hurting but lacking the will to simply turn onto my other side. My mind with its infinite capacity for imagination and pleasure was failing me and became clouded in a miasmic fog that I couldn’t imagine my way out of. For the first time I could remember, I was tethered to the earth and became merely physical. It was a scary place to be. I sought help but could not relate to white psychology. The drugs I was prescribed didn’t help and drinking only exacerbated the intensely blue feelings I had. I knew I had to find my way back. The alternative was too devastating to contemplate. I needed to look deep inside and reclaim the once wild and free mind with its infinite capacity to find joy. I needed my emotional flying carpet again. I needed my silken, butter soft dancing shoes. They were still there: I was sure of that. I just had to dig through the wreckage to find them.

I started by dredging up all the anger and hatred I felt towards my husband. Although they were dark and murderous and filled with rage, I actually revelled in these intense feelings because they made me feel alive again. I then started to let them go, one by one. Each day I became lighter as I discarded the emotional detritus. Those feelings turned to pity and soon he became a feather-light, desiccated husk that I simply sent away upon the lightest of breezes. He could no longer hurt me.

I also had to deal with my feelings about the loss of my mobility, and come to terms with using a wheelchair. I could no longer sustain a full-time job, with the constant toil. I had to find new ways of making a living and of living in general. I decided to become a writer and stated my intentions out loud to my friends. I would not be able to hide. I entered competitions, pitting myself against other would-be writers and to my utter amazement I started winning. I submitted articles to various newspapers and journals, and they published them. I wrote a book and it was published and this took me all over Australia. I have since written five children’s books as well as many articles and short stories. I speak at conferences, I give writing workshops, and I teach children. My life is organised to suit my needs now and not the needs of others. I have a five-second commute from bed to my desk. I can wear my nightie to work if I so choose and my natural nocturnal ways rule. My friends say I keep rockstar hours and know never to call before noon.

I have my magic carpet and dancing shoes back. I can go anywhere I want. I am no longer anchored to earth by the past. I have my lipstick, Chanel No 5 and pretty dresses back. I have my blokes back. I have my life back.

The journey back to myself was complete when I flew to Europe and visited all the places I’d dreamed of as a child. Flying home after a wild and wonderful trip, mid-morning and a mere hour away from Sydney, the plane tracked over my hometown. I looked out the window and smiled. I was finally in the plane leaving vapour trails in the sky. I was the one returning from faraway lands. As I looked down at the rapidly disappearing speck of my childhood home, I wondered if there was another little girl looking up and dreaming of one day travelling on a plane that briefly left their ethereal signatures in the sky. I hoped there was.

____________________________________________________________

Gayle Kennedy is a member of the Wongaiibon clan of South West NSW. She was Indigenous Issues Editor/Writer for Streetwize Comics from 1995-1998. In 2005 her book of poetry Koori Girl Goes Shoppin was shortlisted for the David Unaipon Award. Gayle went on to win the award in 2006 with her book Me, Antman & Fleabag, which was shortlisted for a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and Deadly Award, and was also commended in the Kate Challis RAKA Award. Her children’s books for the Yarning Strong series were nominated for 2011 Deadly Award for Achievement in Literature. Gayle has presented at various writers festivals and NAIDOC events as well as speaking both nationally and internationally on her experience with polio and disability.

Oh Lucky Me (Jill Jones)

Posted on March 27, 2018 by in Heightened Talk

Inside me is stuff I’m not sure anyone can explain.
Each day another statistic dances
as a testament to clickbait and big Pharma.
So what are all my chemicals doing
my karma cancer, my noodling nodules,
my sex dreams and gigantic spools of lymphatic anguish?
Who has ever measured anguish?
Who has another theory of black bile?
Is my static any flashier than yours when I brush against
the steel knobs of machines or portals?
Will there be anything left
for vampires after work or zombie picnics?
Or lice, nits, jitters, even thoughts?
Are thoughts worth a candle?
If you put a candle to my ear, would you see the other side of me?
If you left me out in the rain would I melt? Maybe.
And here, where the world picks at itself
continually trips up or dribbles
because it’s inside and out from hang-nail to otolith.
Oh lucky me, I’m alive everywhere I look
as I spit myself along ground and wheeze up air
almost as if I belonged, in another system, another explanation
something that curves as it drops
and laughs as it rises.

____________________________________________________________

Photo by Annette Willis

Jill Jones’ most recent book is Brink (Five Islands Press, 2017). Her two previous books are The Beautiful Anxiety (Puncher & Wattmann, 2014) which won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry in 2015, and Breaking the Days (Whitmore Press, 2015) which won the Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize 2014 and was shortlisted for the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. A new book, Viva the Real, is due from UQP in 2018. Her work is represented in a number of major anthologies including the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, Contemporary Australian Poetry and The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry. In 2014 she was poet-in-residence at Stockholm University.

In the Palm of Her Hand
(Katie Monteleone)

Posted on March 20, 2018 by in Lies To Live By

Image: a child's, woman's and man's hand on top of one another

Megan is small. Megan is born six weeks early and Megan is small enough to rest in the palm of her mother’s hand. Megan is small enough to ride on her dog Powder’s back like a clinging beetle. Megan is small enough to slide behind the refrigerator to retrieve her lost ring-pop. Megan is small enough to sleep in her parents’ bed, especially when Dad decides to sleep at his office. She’s small enough to order off the ten-and-under menu even though she is eleven now.

Megan watches. Megan watches Dad hide a glass of beer on the pantry shelf next to the dog biscuits. Megan watches the school bus ramble to a stop and she thinks of a future of pink clouds when she’ll drive her own car. Megan watches Mrs. Pierce roll her eyes at Bobby Anderson when he shouts “pussy” at two boys down the hallway. She watches the rain like splashes of thin paint outside of her window and she tries on a sparkly blue dress for prom. She watches her inbox pop with another college rejection email. She watches the world float in a haze; she can’t remember what she drank last night, but it made her throat warm and her mind free.

Megan is free. Megan is free as she rides with the windows down even though it’s five degrees outside. Megan is free as she grills chicken in her tiny apartment and picks out a show on Netflix. Megan is free to go to dinner with Henry from the gym. Henry is tall. Henry has big eyes that linger. Henry has a mole on his right butt-cheek. Megan is free when she sneaks out at 3am on a Wednesday to listen to the crackle of the cars on the street. Megan is free when Henry falls asleep watching TV on the couch; she can finally read in the bedroom alone. Megan is free when Henry asks her to marry him and Megan says no.

Megan is tired. Megan is tired when she lugs little Ben’s soccer duffle bag to the car. Megan is tired when she sits in the lamp lit night writing down her thoughts. Megan is tired when she crawls into bed and Robert’s eyes flutter open. He wraps an arm around her waist and says finally; Megan tells him she is too tired. Megan is tired when there is no more deli meat for little Ben’s lunch. She is tired as she waits in the checkout line at Walmart at a quarter to midnight. She is tired when little Ben points out the way the skin sags on her arms.

Megan is small. Megan is small as she stands in a grassy tent to see Ben walking down the aisle in a dark blue tux. She is small as she lies in her room with the lights turned low at 8pm and she can almost smell the scent of Robert’s cigarettes still lingering somewhere. Megan is small as she packs away the coloring books that she planned to keep for the grandchildren she’ll never have. Ben won’t have kids with Martha, he tells her. Just a dog, maybe. Megan is small as she pulls the shades in the living room and waits for Thanksgiving to pass. She is too small to reach the shelf where the Christmas decorations are stored. Robert used to reach them. Megan is small as she stands in the middle of the snowy yard and breathes in air that feels full of ghosts. Megan is as small as a ghost. Megan is small enough to rest in the palm of her mother’s hand.

____________________________________________________________

image: a portrait of Katie Monteleone
Katie Monteleone
is a fiction writer, playwright, lyricist and director from Lenox, Massachusetts. She attended Colby College in Waterville, ME, where she double majored in English/Creative Writing and Theatre & Dance. Katie is passionate about all types of creative writing with a particular focus on writing musical theatre. Past works include Lemonade Stand (music and lyrics), Lost With You (book and lyrics), and Waiting for Words (lyrics). Katie is currently writing and directing a new audience-immersive play called How to Start Over that will premiere at Colby College in April 2018. Instagram: @katie_monteleone

Sarah T (Liam Ferney)

Posted on March 16, 2018 by in Heightened Talk

image: a man and woman kissing

I bring you back Cathay.
That’s what Cathy says
off the plane from Denpasar.
A bottle of Piper on my bed
waiting for you while you
outwait an Operations Manager’s
reallocation of resources,
hot & busy as HKG cargo.

This is how Saturday establishes itself
in the midst of an Instagram conceit
stretching the breadth
of a private school sports season.
& when Cathy clears customs
with Moses’ unbeaten strides
we cut the pleasantries,
get down to brass tacks.

____________________________________________________________

image: portrait of Liam Ferney
Liam Ferney
‘s most recent collection, Content, was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award. His previous collections include Boom (Grande Parade Poets), Career (Vagabond Press) and Popular Mechanics (Interactive Press). He is a media manager, holder of the all-time games record for the New Farm Traktor Collective and convenor of the Saturday Readings in Brisbane.

Papi Pichón (Dimitri Reyes)

Posted on March 13, 2018 by in Discoursing Diaspora

Black and white image of pigeons and lamp post in Puerto Rico

papi pichón flies out of my library book and no one
hears him because he chirps at spanish-to-english

dictionary speed. all dismiss papi’s beautiful
wings    a sabre, a grindstone attached to his gold

plated breasts a picture of many beers emptied
across a flag on the wingspan of a flying rat.

sin vergüenza, he fluffs its feathers and juts
its pecker at an unknown roost slurring,   “Mira! Mira!

I got your stereotypical Boricua right here!”
pointing to its pigeon butt. if it had a crack

it’d be the faultline where carpetbaggers meet
the campo. the winning lotto ticket my grandmother

never scratched flutters out of the same book
and papi pichón gobbles it up. it’s been a long time

since we’ve seen real gold that is not the deceiving
yellow foil of a Publisher’s Clearing House sold dream.

it’s been longer since the puerto rican was “as smart as cuban.”
since coplas, décimas, y bombas fetishized Borinquen reinas

and creole babies. show me royalty, father pigeon,
before you go up in flames. before you are burnt

ash buried underneath more history where
Ricky Martin, JLO and others sit on your pile

of dust because you can still sing louder. fly me
to the antiquity that collected the dusts of gold

for your angels in Ponce and harvested coca
to make our heartbeats beat faster than our feet

stepping to the conga in Newark. papi pichón
wants me to follow him past Oscar López Rivera

during the puerto rican day parade. before the Bronx
burnings and commonwealth when we squawked like

coquís. before colorless. before oro. before
our sea of tierra learned to speak Spanish.

 

Listen to the poem

____________________________________________________________

image: portrait of Dimitri ReyesDimitri Reyes is a Puerto-Vegan educator, writer, artist, and community organiser from Newark, New Jersey. He is the recipient of the SLICE Magazine’s 2017 Bridging the Gap Award for Emerging Poets and a finalist for the Arcturus Poetry Prize by the Chicago Review of Books. Dimitri is a candidate in the Rutgers-Newark MFA program and his poetry is published or forthcoming in Entropy, Hawai’i Review, Acentos Review, Anomaly, Kweli, and others. He is also expanding the poetry community through his YouTube channel.

The Cry Room (Gaele Sobott)

Posted on March 9, 2018 by in Lies To Live By

Image: a mother holding a crying newborn baby

Image: a mother holding a crying newborn babyBirth

I just slipped out she said. Like a slip of the tongue, slipshod, a slip stitch forever unknitted. I was born. Slippery, sibilant, small in the scheme of everyday lives. Nothing stopped. There were no celebrations. I was born and everyone got on with their work in the power station, the briquette factory, the mine, a gaping, brown open-cut.

She hung the nappies and sheets on the line, coal dust settling on the whiter than whites, on the window sills and mantle pieces, on the froth of the men’s beer, in our lungs. I was two-months old. Thin and pale, she shivered, her breasts bulging red and hot above her shoulders, a painful mountain range of igneous rock. Mastitis the doctor said. Milk fever, once a reason for admitting women to the insane asylum.

He laughed with a fat, purple face and said, ‘Keep breastfeeding! Let the baby suck’.

Not having a bar of it, my mother put me straight on the bottle.

She laid me down to sleep, seething ready to explode because my father’s English friend from the Woodcraft Folk was Morris-dancing in the bathroom day and night, until he got a desk job at Maryvale Paper Mills. Then he moved out.

Irene, our neighbour, would throw me around like a football and babysit when my parents went to Hamish Gardner’s house for Communist Party meetings. Dad was a proud member of the Trades and Labour Council, a deputy rep for the Transport Workers Union. He drove the bright-yellow Euclids carting overburden from the coal deposit.

The women went to Party meetings but my mother would rather have been at the picture theatre with its curved façade and big clock embedded into beige bricks. In summer, they turned on the air conditioning. In winter, she could take off her shoes, rest her feet on hot-water warmers and watch Vincent Price murder people in The House of Wax, 3D technicolour on a panoramic screen.

She took me with her once when I was a baby and sat at the back of the auditorium in the soundproofed, glass-fronted, cry room to watch East of Eden. I slept and she cried. My mother would sit in the cry room. Often without me.

In the theatre, she always refused to stand for the national anthem.

At home, she took a failed dish of bread and butter pudding from the oven, cried, splattered it against the kitchen wall.

What does it mean to be born in a town purposely planned and built, then purposely demolished for the coal that lays beneath it?

My birthplace is an ever-expanding, dark and greedy hole in the ground. With heat and oxygen, the coal spontaneously combusts. Lignite dust bursts into flame at the drop of a match, a spark, a welding torch, a yellow flash igniting in mid-air. Volatile, toxic. Giant, cylindrical cooling towers, chimneys, steel girders, high wire fences, power lines.

My birthplace is Brayakaulung land, Gunaikurnai, cleared, windswept, foothills.

What does it mean to be born to land where the ancestors are denied, where they are brutalised? Do they know my footsteps, my birth spirit?

My blood ancestors, Polish, Italian, Scottish, do they know my footsteps, my birth spirit?

 

Birth

I walk the short corridors of a small hospital, Bamalete Lutheran. I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been. Seventy-four kilos. Twenty-four years old like my mother when she had me.

First baby. My father drove to Melbourne to collect his friend from England.

First baby. My daughter’s father is out with friends.

The walls are green gloss, the floor concrete, painted dark red, polished, worn where I walk.

I walk because the nurses tell me I should. Read the birth records open on the counter in front of me. Stillbirth. Don’t think about it. Float.

The nurses give me an enema, warm and wet, not painful.

Cow bells ring hollow and deep. The land is dry, gold, studded with small trees and shrubs. I’m on my back on the bed. The midwife checks dilation.

‘Don’t hyperventilate. Breathe normally’, she says.

I read about the breathing in a book. Neon light.

The doctor is at the end of the bed. A tall German woman telling me to push. Round pain, rhythmic, I float. From deep within the back of my head I float. My hip bones separate like a spatchcock cut with kitchen scissors, pressed flat on the white sheet, I rip, a goat bleats at the window.

Release.

My baby cries.

Ten fingers. Ten toes. She is big.

A big baby.

Relief.

We wait as my uterus presses down. A balloon shrivelling in on itself, contracting against the placenta, the temporary organ I have harboured, accepted and must now expel. Every process orchestrated by this new child in the room.

The midwife wants to sew the tear that extends from my vagina to my anus.

The placenta is ragged maroon not flat-cake perfect circle. We wait for more contractions. My skin smells damp, of freshly-cut grass, metallic.

The needle in and in and in and in.

Is it curved this needle?

Is it huge, with a big eye?

Black thread pulls through my tenderness. Pulls me back together, hurting. No pain killers.

The nurse tells me to get up and walk to the room.

I lie on my bed. My baby next to me in a Perspex cot. Sleep.

She cries. I take her. Sleep.

A nurse holds her to my breast. She sucks. Sleep.

I wake. It feels like I’m giving birth again. Waves of pain.

I tell the nurse.

She smiles, ‘The uterus contracting back to its pre-birth size. It’s nothing to worry about’.

I can’t float. The nurse brings tablets. They dull the pain. Sleep.

The light bulb hangs from the ceiling, stark and still. I sit up to look at my baby, eyes closed, her chest rising and falling rapidly, small lungs, heart, kidneys learning how to work in this world, outside me.

A spider, light brown and black, with very long front legs speeds across the wall above her cot.

My feet feel the cold of the concrete floor. Trembling, I take her wrapped in pastel yellow, blue and pink softness, and hug her close to my chest.

Indecision and anxiety prickle my skin. The spider waits for my next move. I bend over, clutching my baby with one arm, grab my shoe and throw it. The spider falls. I’m not sure if it’s dead. Part of a spindly leg sticks to the wall.

At home with my baby. I am frightened to hold her in water, to rub her skin with soap. My breast swells, lumpy, the ducts blocked.

The doctor gives me antibiotics for mastitis. I keep feeding.

She cries. Every night she cries.

I pull my hair, fighting the temptation to throw her across the room.

So tired.

We drive dark streets and she sleeps. Drive and cry. I am very thin. Mosetsi.

What does it mean to be born outside of marriage to a mother who wonders if the bleats of a goat are your first cries? What does it mean to be born to land that your mother came to as an adult? That your father’s mother came to as an adult? Bamalete land, Bangwaketsi land where your father and his father and all the fathers going back in time are deeply rooted in the sand, deeper than the roots of the shepherd’s tree?

Who knows the vibrations of your feet on the earth?

Who knows your birth spirit?

Who do you become?

 

Birth

I walk dusty streets beneath a dark-sky sliver of a moon but still I see my path. Walking, holding my daughter’s hand. My womb tenses again and again.

The telephone has been cut. No money to pay the bill. My husband is out somewhere with his friends.

I walk to my mother’s house. She drives me, forty-five minutes to Bamalete Lutheran.

The nurses check dilation. Straight into the birthing room. The midwife guides the small head from between my legs. I split but not much. She is not a huge baby. Just right.

A June girl born in the desert cold, on a winter night. Many stars in a black sky.

I sleep.

I eat brown motogo porridge heaped with sugar.

I sleep.

My husband in the corridor talks loudly to a nurse, joking, ‘If it’s not a boy, I won’t bother going in’.

Holding my girl, delicate, dark eyes looking at me as she sucks. The uterus contracts with double the intensity. Cramping in hard, unrepentant beats.

His skin smells of stale, bitter brew.

He brings strawberries.

In the afternoon, my baby reacts. The strawberry seeds grow in my milk, grow on her skin, spotted-red welts.

I know how to wash this little one. How to put her to sleep but her sister pinches her. She howls, vulnerable, not understanding.

Hurt digs into my loneliness, into my tiredness. It becomes a rage I supress in slow, unending tears.

The doctor gives me antibiotics for the mastitis.

The little one continues to suck and as her eyes close, drowsy, her sister yells and slams the cupboard doors.

What does it mean to be born a girl when your father longs for a boy? Bamalete land, Bangwaketse land.

The land where you do not learn your father tongue?

What does it mean to be born second and in between because there is another one to come?

 

Birth

He started off as drops of blood, thorn in the side, sharp to the point of ectopic. Scans showed a peanut with a big heart throbbing life in the uterus, the right place for an embryo to be. He.

Gravida 3

Elderly Multigravida

A grey-haired doctor treats me with an arrogance I am well acquainted with. He makes arrangements for an amniocentesis test. I want more information. He ignores me. Raucous twitching scratches at my throat.

‘I will think about it’, I say.

Broken veins form an angry net across his nose and cheeks.

His lips are thin when he speaks, ‘You are no spring chicken! It’s imperative you check for Down Syndrome. It won’t take long, painless, perfectly harmless’.

‘I will think about it.’

He throws the form and his pen across the desk and huffs, ‘I advise very strongly that you do the test’.

I’m up, walking towards the door. He doesn’t see me out.

This father is a different man. From another land. He says, ‘Wait and see. We will love our baby whatever happens’.

I’m working as a bookkeeper, paying the salaries. We all have strict toilet and tea times, and a locker room where we leave our bags and put on overcoats and elasticised paper caps and paper shoes before padding across the factory floor. The women make wound dressings. Sometimes they sneak one into my pocket and I take it home, peel it open, stick it on my skin.

Morning sickness invades my existence, deep, persistent nausea. In the fourth month, it leaves. I feel free.

An oversize red jumper, stretchy black pants and black lace-up boots become my uniform. Baby grows within me.

A fart escapes climbing the stairs.

I wee myself at the table during Christmas dinner at our friends’ home.

Run my stretchy black pants under water and dry them on a towel.

No one realises.

The hostess proudly serves suckling pig. Slaughtered at three-weeks old. My baby’s father is sick at the thought. He cannot pretend he eats pork.

It’s difficult to find a comfortable sleeping position. Difficult to turn my body on the bed.

This baby is overdue. He likes it in the womb. I eat curry.

The father curls his body around mine from behind. We have sex three nights in a row.

I sit for almost three hours in the cinema watching The English Patient. None of it convinces this small being to screw headfirst, round and round down the birth canal.

The hospital is in a cold place especially for women. Hull Maternity.

A male nurse measures dilation.

He says, ‘You are doing very well. Opening up like a flower in spring’. The urge to scream at him is furious, kick him.

Recoil.

Think of his feelings.

I don’t want a male nurse.

My daughters are with me, two friends, the father. They hold my hand. Talk. Laugh. The midwife allows them in the birthing room. They hold their breath when I moan and grunt my animalness into the air. One friend grabs the gas and sucks on it. The other friend glares at her.

I have never had gas before. I wait. Stoic.

Entonox.

Bear down.

Give me some.

A nurse places the mask over my nose and mouth. I breath in and float.

Wait.

Push.

‘I can see the head. Nearly there. Push.’

Total length of labour five hours fifteen minutes.

Membranes to birth one hour seventeen minutes.

They hold him high. His legs curl towards his chest. I see huge testicles. He cries. My daughters laugh. The father holds his son.

Birth weight 4.139 kilos.

APGAR 9 at 1 minute, 9 at 5 minutes.

The midwife places this baby boy on my chest, my chin rests on his head. He is quiet. He is warm against my skin.

The father, the friends, the daughters are hungry. They go to eat pizza. Laughing as they walk down the corridor.

The midwife leaves. The nurses leave.

My child sleeps.

1st degree Perineal tear. Sutured by Ann Watson.

Blood Loss 250 mls.

Membranes complete but ragged.

I get up from the bed, legs shaking. Place a hand on the wall and manoeuvre to the door. Across the corridor to the bathroom. I stand in the shower, blood pouring onto a mosaic of small blue and white tiles.

Lonely.

Weak.

Hot water pounds my head and back.

I cry.

No sleep in the ward. There are ten mothers, ten babies. My baby sucks. The nurse is pleased. Contractions three times as strong. I cry. They give me painkillers.

Dulled light. Morning is on its way. I want to go home.

Discharged.

Mother is very tired, otherwise well.

The father drives to London to collect an uncle who stays with us. They play loud music and card games.

I lay on the bed on my back, arms and legs stretched out.

I stare at the ceiling. I cannot move. I cannot speak.

The father asks me what is wrong. My daughters are concerned. I hear them. I see them.

I cannot move.

I cannot speak.

They call the doctor.

I need rest.

The doctor tells me I am suffering from hysteria.

I have not recovered my tongue. I say nothing.

Antibiotics for the wrathful breast. Mastitis. Hot baths. My baby continues to suck.

The doctor says I must stop breast feeding.

I am too thin. Too tired.

He prescribes Prozac.

I thicken around the middle, around the brain. I am dulled down.

What does it mean to be born outside of marriage to an old mother who defies authority, hides her depression and throws away the medication? What does it mean to be born on a small wiggle of land that your mother and father came to as adults and will leave?

Who will know your footprint?

Who will know your birth spirit?

English is a dominator language.

Was there ever an English word for a woman who has just had a baby?

In the time when women had control of birth, was there a word?

When women cooked special food to ensure the mother’s recovery. When they made sure she got rest, when they shared the care of the newborn. Maybe then there was a word.

My mother often sits at the kitchen table staring out the glass doors at the sky. She says, ‘Aren’t the clouds beautiful. I’m very lucky to be able to watch the clouds’.

She says this many times a day.

The present and recent past crumble, her mind outstretched, hoping for memories. But they are mirages, dark, frightening gaps in her existence.

She is forced further and further back in time, seeking solid ground.

Walls are crumbling too. Inhibitions, restraints.

She is entirely inappropriate.

She voices her fears, her hates, past secrets, abuses.

She hugs me in a way I have never known. Shows love, simple, straight-forward, child-like love without resentment. It is strange but liberating to be loved in this way by my mother.

I begin. I learn. I understand.

My birth spirit.

*

This story was written in response to Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs of young women holding their newly born babies, exhibited in Nude: art from the Tate collection, Art Gallery of NSW, 5 Nov 2016 – 5 Feb 2017.

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Image: portrait of Gaele SobottGaele Sobott has published a range of acclaimed works including, Colour Me Blue and My Longest Round, co-authored with Wally Carr, the second edition forthcoming with Magabala Books. She identifies as a disabled artist and was selected for the first cohort of the Australia Council for the Arts 2014 Sync Leadership Program. In 2015 she was artist in residence at Google Australia. Gaele is the founding director of Outlandish Arts. She produced NoRMAL, a performance of stories by four artists on their experiences of disability, the Australian tour of Caroline Bowditch’s, Falling in Love with Frida, the Australia-UK creative development of Deaf Australian playwright Sofya Gollan’s play, MotherLode, in London, and Fools’ Gold, a series of poetry performances, workshops and critical discussion events involving artists who experience psychological and emotional distress. Gaele was commissioned to write Zaphora and Ali for Urban Theatre Projects’ Home Country staged by Sydney Festival 2017. She participated in the DADAA and Perth International Arts Festival Aesthetics of Access residency in March 2017 with Jenny Sealey MBE, Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company UK. She was also selected to take part in the two-week Jo Bannon Penetration and Performance residency in Adelaide in August 2017. Gaele facilitated the Access2Arts Embody project for disabled writers and is currently leading the Writing Me project. She has just completed a collection of short stories about life in an apartment building in Lakemba, Sydney, where she resides.

Calling Out Misogyny in the Auslit Scene (Kathryn Hummel)

Posted on March 6, 2018 by in Being Sure

I have the fortune and/or misfortune to be a cisgender woman, citizen of Australia and a writer. Variously combined, these elements have yielded some noteworthy experiences; made me a party to some singular conversations. Take, for example, the friendly lunchtime chat a few months ago, in which one writer friend refuted the criticism that our national poetry community was overly ‘white’, rattling off a list of leading contemporary poets that included Michelle Cahill, Eileen Chong and Samuel Wagan Watson. Taken aback, I had thought it self-evident to anyone participating that the Australian literary scene has, since Anglo-European colonisation, been dominated by a white male voice and gaze. The success of creative writing diverging from this prevalent discourse has been both exceptional and relatively recent, given the ‘decades of systematic exclusion’.

Gender, race, class, ability, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation all differently intersect and inform the focus of this article: Australian women writers encountering sexism and misogyny within their professional domain. No doubt my discussion has been influenced by last year’s revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein et al., though any conscious comparison is loose, with sexual harassment only one weft in the often less tangible warp of a wider functioning misogyny. ‘It’s tempting to think,’ muses James Poniewozik over the screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace, ‘of this series…as especially timely, with today’s revelations of sexual abuse in places of power. But to say that would suggest that there have been moments when these ideas would not be timely’. Writing this article coincides with an evaluation of my annual dip into the Auslit scene as I leave, once again, for more open, variegated landscapes where my job isn’t as value-laden, or is differently value-laden. In the purest, rarest scenario, this involves moving through places with such well-timed velocity that you’re accepted as a creative practitioner before the name of your agent, current publisher, latest publication, history of accolades—or indeed, demographic categories—registers or matters.

The ‘underrepresentation of women is real, and has continued over time,’ states Julianne Lamond in her examination of the historic and contemporary literary value of Australian women writers. Echoing Cunningham’s ‘brisk [statistical] jog through’ of the gender-based distribution of major Australian fiction prizes up to 2011, Lamond concludes that there ‘is a bias at work here, but it is a bias that is embedded in the structure of our thinking about literary value, seriousness, importance, about gender difference, reading and writing’. It is a bias that intersects the concerns of different groups within Australian literature, such as Michelle Cahill’s observation of the ‘naming and labels’ applied to CALD women writers and their work:

Whether women writers are Aboriginal, Anglo-Indian, Burghers, Eurasians, Malaysian-Singaporean or Afro-Caribbean Australians, their genetic complexities seem to require naming only if they are different from ‘whiteness.’

While not specifically addressing gender, Evelyn Araluen expands on the burdens related to such labels, explaining that CALD writers ‘are expected to write with sustainable difference, while providing a language to describe and understand experience for those who are without that language’.

If Cunningham, Lamond, Anne Jamison and Jane Sullivan do not explore the bias they identify by offering up subjective examples of its impact and the playing out of its underlying power structure, others do. Cahill intertwines her identification as a woman of ‘multiple heritage’ in her writing on gender and race; Benjamin Law, examining the debate over gender differentials in literary prizes, recounts that

In the book world, I’ve…heard writers, editors, critics and publishers complain that female writers don’t write about the ‘big picture’ enough, as [if] families or interior lives aren’t part of something panoramic and worldly.

In her discussion of sexual harassment in Australian theatre, Alison Croggan points out the insidiousness of this behaviour across other sectors of the arts—including literature:

Being a young poet…I can’t even remember how many sleazy men I encountered, although the prominent poet and editor who wanted to meet me in his hotel room and made a pass at me after he published a poem of mine when I was sixteen (sixteen!) stands out. I heard, many years later, that this was a regular occurrence with this man.

Elsewhere, Natalie Kon-Yu and Enza Gandolfo describe one example of ‘embedded misogyny’ at the juncture of creative writing and academia, noting the ‘most disturbing’ outcome was that so many conference attendees ‘just sat there, mute, polite, civil’ while a male plenary speaker addressed ‘three artistic fields in such a way to erase women’s contributions entirely’. Describing her experiences as a ‘biracial, bisexual’ poet within the Australian slam scene, Eleanor Jackson writes

…my softer feminine voice never seemed as authoritative; sometimes I was the only woman on a bill; sometimes I felt shouted down by louder, typically, male voices; and even I wasn’t naïve enough to ignore that audiences (both men and women) preferred work that was less political, less ranty, less mouthy from women. Perhaps most distressing for me personally, was that I still felt acutely aware…that my attractiveness (or otherwise) as a woman could, in fact, be a key determinant of whether or not people thought the writing was good.

Melody Paloma’s ‘call to action’ for establishing arts community-based procedures to deal with sexual harassment and assault connects to her involvement in ‘a process that detailed three incidents of sexual harassment perpetrated by a fellow poet’ and the ‘exhausting’ effort of jointly reporting the man to ‘his employer…individual publications, publishers, festivals and organisations’ without guidance from existent policy.

Nothing much surprises me about the content of these articles: whenever I return to Australia with the refreshed perspective significant absence affords, what stands out most is this country’s conservatism, as well as its high ratio of blondes. After reading, I made a rapid list of times I have witnessed or experienced instances of sexism and misogyny in the Auslit scene, ranging from male colleagues’ diminishment of women’s writing to defining the role women writers should occupy. Upon hearing that an essay of mine was forthcoming in a particular journal, two separate male writers immediately put down its reputation; another, unable to grasp my name despite numerous encounters, once desperately introduced me as ‘a very fine poet’; yet another, who evidently does not consider me anything like, asked me how I made a living. A male reviewer described my first poetry collection as repeatedly exploring ‘the frustration of unresolved relationships’—I’m not sure on what basis, but it seems an apt enough theme for women’s poetry. When I was offered a slot in a high-brow literary reading following the publication of this book, a writer friend commented that if he was a ‘young, attractive woman’, he might be put on the bill too. As said young, attractive woman (now somewhat older and altered—whither my career?) I have been the target of too much of what Rosamond Lehmann memorably describes as ‘feeble pawing’ from men in the Auslit community to recount. Most recently, amid a bustling literary event crowd, a male writer friend advised that I ‘should be nicer to people’, which I took as being akin to telling me to smile.

There are, of course, a number of possible rebuttals to all these examples; myriad excuses to be made for these men, their comments and actions. Some examples of dismissal, exclusion, condescension and sheer blundering wrong-footedness by men in the literary community were not, I decided on revision of my list, demonstrably sexist or misogynistic. And, of course, I am only too aware that by articulating these incidents, I leave myself open to accusations of humourless whining; hypersensitivity; victimisation; misandry; biased misinterpretation; overreaction; ingratitude; hard-faced bitchiness, and an inability to handle just criticism. Yet I am also aware that this positioning is another outcome of the sexism towards and subjugation of those identifying as women, working to undermine our self-confidence and our claims to legitimate experiences and reasonable perspectives. Striving for conciliatory abstracts like ‘second-guessing’, ‘benefit of doubt’ and ‘fair-mindedness’ is part of fulfilling an expectation to be ‘the better person’—or perhaps adhering to an upbringing as a ‘nice girl’: never challenging; always demurring. All too often, women remain silent about needle pricks that, throughout a career or lifetime, have the accumulatively damaging effect of being stabbed with a butcher’s knife.

I regularly choose to leave Australia and its literary scene to inhabit countries and experience cultures where misogyny and patriarchy are supposedly more deeply entrenched. This helps to keep my perspective around issues like sexism sharp when confronted by its different forms at home and overseas; allows me to take advantage of my short-lived awareness before it becomes dimmed by complacency, and try, through interrogation, to become less immured and immune. There is a reason why a friend describes me as an ‘escape artist’—privileged in my mobility, I nevertheless find I need the distance to be able to keep returning, and keep writing. Although detrimental and fragmenting in other ways, my itinerant habit may even be an instinctual search for a way to become genderless, perhaps even category-less.

If this is what my intermittent experience of the Auslit scene has yielded, what is it like for those who are more prominent, deeply engaged, or spend much of their time in it? I sent an ad hoc email to fifteen female colleagues of various backgrounds, identities and ages to ask what, if any, instances of sexism and misogyny they’d witnessed or experienced within the Australian literary community. Some didn’t reply. Others couldn’t recall any circumstances they had come across or that had personally affected them. One respondent, describing herself as ‘remarkably lucky’ in avoiding sexism and ‘abuse’, added that she knew of women colleagues who hadn’t been so fortunate, but could not ethically relay their experiences second-hand. Another replied that while she had heard ‘a great deal of anecdotal evidence’ about misogyny in the Auslit scene, she had no personal experiences to relate—ending with the resonant point that

sexism and misogyny are so ubiquitous that much of it flows past me unnoticed as a survival tactic. If I let it penetrate I’d be in a permanent state of incendiary rage.

Similarly, another writer replied that since she had ‘certainly’ seen and been subjected to sexism in other contexts ‘(well, yes, I’m a woman…)’, it seemed ‘hard to believe that I haven’t even witnessed any misogynous events’ within the writing community.

Other writers did have incidents to relate. One described hearing a recent research paper examining the sexism of elite writer’s residencies that do not offer child care facilities, thereby deterring (predominantly female) applicants with children. Another recalled offering her services as a reviewer to the male editor of a leading Australian literary journal, pointing out that ‘he had approximately 99% male reviewers’ in the latest issue (statistics that are not uncommon in the Auslit scene). The editor’s reply? ‘He said he would like to publish more women but “it takes time,” which I thought was pretty extraordinary. Do we have to wait for all the male reviewers to die?’ The same writer, sitting on the judging panel of a literary prize not long ago, revealed that she ‘had to argue quite hard to get women’s life-writing (which was outstanding that year) included in the shortlist’. Eventually the prize was awarded to a memoir by a female author that would not otherwise have been a contender, based on the choices of the other two ‘(one male, one female)’ judges. Following another literary award ceremony, where the major prize was won by the female author of a young adult book, one respondent related a conversation shared with male writer colleagues:

…the male author said, ‘I mean she looked real nice in her little pink dress,’ and raised his eyes, smiling, and then the other man did too and they shared a little laugh. ‘But come on, she’s going to beat Robert Dessaix?’ That pissed me off. I didn’t say anything. I felt insignificant.

With specific reference to the Australian poetry scene, a woman who has escaped much of its ‘pervasive (& racially inflected) sexism’ was nevertheless one of three women writers sexually harassed in similar ways by the same male poet during the same evening at a recent literary event. Another writer confided that she has been ‘hit on pretty strongly’ and made to ‘feel uncomfortable’ within her writing community: after a poetry performance one night, a male poet who ‘didn’t want to take no for an answer’ managed to ‘force himself into my home and touch my leg’ before backing down ‘in the end’. Deeming the experience ‘quite traumatic’ in retrospect, the writer added: ‘I just feel like the general pattern is the problem’.

What I notice about these replies is the overwhelmingly matter-of-fact tone—with the odd twinge of wit or archness or deflation—in which they are related, as well as the doubt many respondents expressed over whether their narratives could be counted as ‘relevant’ examples. Since misogyny is so variously defined, it’s of little surprise that it can be difficult to discern, particularly when internalised across genders and bound up with other forms of discrimination. When I discussed the topic of this article with a male writer friend, he reflected that the quantitative presence of women in the Auslit scene served to counter, in his eyes, incidents of sexist and misogynistic behaviour—though Cunningham’s article, as well as subsequent studies, suggest that the visibility of women doesn’t necessarily signify they are the ones in the inner sanctum, making decisions and holding power. Women, including myself with my long-running shtick about the multifaceted charms of a certain unattainable female poetry editor, also demonstrate this insidious, internalised misogyny. My literary prize-judging email respondent, discussing a non-fiction contender who had written ‘a brilliant book…about a normal woman having a normal baby’, confessed the ‘rather chilling thing’ was that she too thought reductively of the subject matter until she ‘woke up to what was happening’. Another email respondent wrote that when she used to facilitate writing classes,

there were always more women in courses than men because women felt they needed to learn and men felt they didn’t need help…[A]lways women would underestimate their ability and put themselves in the beginners level when they were more advanced and men would overestimate their ability and put themselves in masterclasses when they were actually complete beginners. It was infuriating.

At a poetry event in the middle of last year, a woman I’d never met before commented that she had first seen me in the university bar wearing a short skirt and talking with two men. Overhearing this, a female friend, also a writer, remarked: ‘That sounds like our Kat!’ I laughed; we all laughed.

More than mere anecdotes, different women’s experiences of misogyny and sexism in the Australian literary scene exist. What, then, do we do with them? Particularly as writers, the pen (for what it’s worth) is in our hands. Do we employ it—and to what end? Are articles like this one, where data is less than stringently gathered and those involved remain (deliberately) unidentified, just one instalment of a perpetual, toothless illustration? Croggan insists that ‘we do have a language. We can name this behaviour. And people have been working…on actions to combat this problem’. I wonder if one of the ‘tools’ of recognition Croggan alludes to will take the form of an unofficial verbal initiation for every writer new to the Auslit scene, wherein senior colleagues whisper warnings that, unless you fancy getting groped, not to stand too close to [insert name of one of several male writers here]. This seems more efficient than a trial and error approach with outcomes isolated to the individual. Accordingly, Cahill promotes interceptionality, in the form of widespread social media and other written communication, to ‘unmask entitlement and inaugurate dialogue’ around institutional racism and to demarcate the spaces of ‘absence’ and ‘resistance’ CALD writers of any gender do/not inhabit. Jackson describes her ‘queer approach’ to resistance as persistently ‘taking up space’ as a ‘woman with a sexuality and an ethnicity’ in order to contribute to ‘erasing the kind of shame that has been appended’ to certain minority categories. Paloma, pondering ‘what might change actually look like?’, is in the process of formulating ‘with fellow female artists and arts workers’ a set of guidelines for arts organisations to follow when called upon to respond to ‘incidences of sexual harassment and assault’.

Yet I am doubtful of the unfettered success of praxis, whether it concerns the implementation of policy or of theory, given Paul Mitchell’s comment that ‘a friend who’d served at a high political level told me…he’d never seen any group whose decisions were as political as the Australian poetry community’. More than that, I suspect the purging of issues like misogyny from the Auslit scene will be complex, not only given its patriarchal foundations but its self-aggrandizing view of intellectual-artistic enlightenment; its reluctance to acknowledge the undesirable influences that pervade it—favouring instead, in the words of Sunil Badami, ‘assimilative myths in which differences are smothered or repressed’. Those problems, we writers declare from the pinnacle of our idealised liberal conceit, are for other people.

More and more I am drawn to what a radical feminist bisexual brown migrant psychologist-lawyer friend of mine believes will solve most of world’s conundrums: ‘Destroy the categories’. This is because, despite the length of my skirts and the expiry date of my passport, I am growing more serious and even more tired. Not even tired: I’m post-fatigued by reactionary ideology to do with gender and other inherited or acquired aspects of identity, and I know I’m not the only one. Sexism and misogyny are among many facets of identity politics that aren’t just passé, but damaging—to individuals and to their overlapping communities. Instead of participating in and perpetuating this damage, I’d prefer to know, not just believe, that the work writers do, the research we engage in, the poems and essays and stories we write and read aloud with appropriate feeling, are flowing into a community that shows them the respect of being the product of someone’s creativity, intellect and critical analysis. I would like to know that Australian writers are contributing to a literature that doesn’t just belong to an exclusive few—figurative descendants of those who long ago established a structure and are so busy keeping it mainstreamed that new voices, alternative voices, challenging and uncomfortable and unwanted voices, are being raised but unheard, or quickly suppressed.

It is an ideal tentatively grasped and almost embarrassing in its earnestness that writing, as with any art form, exists to comment on our social and political contexts but also to illuminate and express ideas to which humanity might collectively aspire. In her acceptance speech of the 2016 Stella Prize, Charlotte Wood admitted:

It often feels to me that we have entered a new dark age—an age in which science is rejected in favour of greed and superstition, in which our planet is in desperate need of rescue; an age in which bigotry and religion are inseparable, and presidential candidates promise to punish women for controlling their own bodies. I feel that in the midst of this gloom we need art more than ever. Art is a candle flame in the darkness.

At other times, I am not convinced that even art can dispel the gloom. Too many narratives, no less important than those widely distributed, go unacknowledged simply because they or their authors are not of a marketable literary/political/linguistic/social category. ‘Consider,’ muses Cahill, ‘how many CALD women writers with vibrant, intelligent voices have suffered from stifling stereotypes and restricted readings of their work, if they are lucky enough to be published!’ But then, Australian literature is not a meritocracy, as we all pretend not to know.

The danger of relying on anonymous readings—on meritocracy—writes Law, ‘is assuming one actually exists’. Rather than assume any longer, I’d rather consider that, as writers evoking the very best of our vocation, our education is ongoing: that it is as important to be consciously thoughtful of different positionings within our community as it is to display a flamboyant command of language. ‘Encouraging and applauding the success of women might become an elegant and subversive act of cultural freedom,’ said 2017 Stella Prize winner Heather Rose.

This, it seems to me, is an ingeniously-framed challenge.

I gratefully acknowledge the contribution of friends and colleagues who spent time discussing ‘misogyny in the Auslit scene’ in person and via phone and email; who read drafts and gave feedback, and who allowed me to cite their stories in this article.

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Dr Kathryn Hummel is the author of Poems from Here (Hobart: Walleah Press), The Bangalore Set (Bangalore: Kena Artists’ Initiative), The Body That Holds (Adelaide: Little Windows Press), splashback (Sydney: Stale Objects dePress) and the forthcoming Lamentville (Singapore: Math Paper Press). Uncollected, her digital media/poetry, non-fiction, fiction and scholarly research has been published and presented worldwide. Winner of the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Dorothy Porter Award for poetry (2013), Kathryn’s writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (2013), The Atlas Review’s Open Non-Fiction Chapbook competition (2016) and was shortlisted for the 2017 Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize. Kathryn holds a PhD for studies in narrative ethnography and lives intermittently in South Asia. Her activities can be tracked @ kathrynhummel.com.

Measure (Eileen Chong)

Posted on March 2, 2018 by in Heightened Talk

image: a candle, writing book and penEverything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.

North American Time’, Adrienne Rich

The innocence of cornflowers —
a dimpled, wheel-thrown cup.

Glazed on the inside. My hand
takes its pleasure from the rough.

Words: fallen soldiers on a page.
They come and they go. Memory

as surprising as a laden donkey
picking its way towards the church

at the top of a hill. On this island
even the cats sleep with one eye open.

The dark: the wind, the sea. These
cold hours measured by candlelight.

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image: portrait of Eileen Chong

image: Charlene Winfred Photography

Eileen Chong is a poet who lives and works in Sydney, Australia. Her publications include Burning Rice (Australian Poetry, 2012), Peony (Pitt Street Poetry, 2014), Painting Red Orchids (Pitt Street Poetry, 2016), Another Language (George Braziller, 2017), The Uncommon Feast (Recent Work Press, 2018), and Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry, forthcoming 2018). Her books have shortlisted for the Anne Elder Award, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and twice for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. www.eileenchong.com.au