TRUTH IN THE CAGE (Mohammad Ali Maleki)

Posted on June 20, 2017 by in Discoursing Diaspora

A photograph, taken by Mohammad Ali Maleki, of his notebook on Manus Island

You can find my whole life in my poems like a letter to God —Mohammad Ali Maleki

Translated by Manus Island detainee Mansour Shoushtari 
Edited by Michele Seminara and Marilyn Beech

A Dream of Death

My dears, I know these are stories are old:
but please, I ask you, listen.

I was once young and happy, like you.
I used to jump from one wall to another—
I was so healthy and fresh.
I came to live in peace beside you.
I sought asylum in your country because of my bad luck.
But for a long time now I’ve felt alone in this place,
terrorised by bad memories.

I don’t know why they tortured me,
why they cut my wings and feathers.
They treated us all like animals, they put us in this cage—
What kind of help was that?
It’s as if they went to a feast and left us tied up,
like livestock, outside.

They played with my spirit and soul for years.
They played as if I were a piece
on a chessboard.
In the final moment of each game
I am always trapped.

I’ve lived with fear in this cage.
At night I have no peace because of nightmares.
The doctor said I had no choice:
so I took the pills he gave me
and sat by the fence
for hours.

And still I take the pills
and sit by the fence for hours.
At first my mind stops, then I dream.
My thoughts are killing me.
They take me to my death.
I see strange events in this camp
and in the other one.

Suicide and self-immolation are always on people’s minds here.
Once this was just in our imaginations—
But did you see that all those dreams have now came true?
You all know what’s going on
in the Manus and Nauru hells.
There are rapes, burnings and hangings.
Many have said goodbye to their lives.

Do you see what the mental pills do to us?
When you see or hear us, from far away,
you say, They are some crazy, stupid people!
Let me tell you, it’s all because of those pills;
it’s not our fault.

One day, like every day,
I took those pills: I had no choice.
I fell deep into a dream, was sunk there for hours…
In my dream I saw that I was dead.
They put me into a rotten coffin
and shrouded me in pale, second-hand linens
taken from the rubbish.

When they wrapped me in those linens, my soul stepped apart—
I was suspended in air.
They were carrying me to the far corners of the cemetery.
I wished I could have died beside my parents,
died in peace, in their embrace.
I looked for a familiar person to hold my coffin
but there were only strangers there damning and cursing me.
They did not care for what they held;
they did not cry.

We came to the exiled cemetery
and they threw me into a hole with hate.
There was a stony pillow under my head.
The shrouded linens were rotten on my body.
How terrible and frightening it was,
inside the grave.

I saw many animals make their way into my grave.
My soul saw how they ate my body:
they left nothing but some pieces of bone.
Just yesterday I had talked and laughed
but now it looked as if I had never even been human.
They threw soil on my coffin;
they didn’t put a headstone there.
They wrote no name and no address.
No one in the world knew who I was.

In my dream I screamed, Parents! Know I died!’
I saw my parents dressed in black, because of my death:
how deeply they cried out and wept.
Mum tore at her face until there was nothing left
undamaged and there were blood and tears
flowing down her face.

Her hair had already turned white from our separation,
even before my death.
My father had begged, Son, what kind of migration is this?
Now mum fainted from sorrow, whispering, I have no sign of his grave.
And tears flowed from Dad’s white eyelashes, as he cried,
It was our dream to see your wedding,
but we’ve heard of your death instead

I woke in horror, the dream heavy on my heart.
Wishing I had not hurt them by dying,
by failing to have that wedding day.

Understand, please: I wish to live healthily, like you,
to say goodbye to these damn pills.
For three years I’ve taken them
and now I’m deeply tired, hopeless and depressed.
How do I explain the hurt of this hard, bitter life?
I swear to God, every night I wish to die,
and every morning, I wish not to be alive.
Then because my thoughts are killing me
I have no choice but to take these damn pills!

Should I thank your government for this?
Is this the care you give to refugees?
That you make addicts here, and mental illness?
Only God can help us.
Put yourself in our families’ shoes for a second.
Put your children in our shoes too.
If this is rudeness, please forgiven me;
I make obeisance to you.
And I ask God to also forgive those who tortured us—
They know not what they d0.



I washed my hands with clean water
to erase the bad habits of my friends.
I escaped from my homelands and my home
so as not to be in touch with them anymore.
I travelled alone, on a dangerous path,
hoping to find some peace.

Now we gather here from different countries,
with different languages and cultures.
All the faces are strangers to me,
all the races—black, light and white.
I am comforted that in my estrangement
there are no old, familiar friends:
not knowing that these new people
are in fact the same friends with different faces.

These new friends form groups.
I watch to see how they behave.
There is a group that are very kind, like brothers,
who help when you are in need.
They always treat you fairly.

There are some who only pretend to be friends—
They’ll stab you in the back at once.
There are many who are silver tongued,
always busy backbiting others—
their tongues sting like snakes!

There’s a group who take your property,
always stretching out their hands.
They know how to pretend to be innocent
and how to beg and cry like a child.

There are some who are jealous,
always looking to compare.
You have to avoid these people
because they do not deserve friends.

Another group are the enemy,
always starting fights.
We know what they intend to do;
they just think to beat us down.

Then there are those who travel
from far away to help and support us.
This group are just like angels—
We kneel before them!

But there’s another group who come here,
because they want to have sex with us.
It’s another kind of slavery,
taking sexual advantage of the already enslaved.

Friends, don’t be upset with me—
I just have to tell you the truth.


Truth in the Cage

You, who we came to seek refuge from,
why do you treat us so badly?
The world won’t always be the same.
Like a ball rotating for millennia,
it never stays the same.

Before you, many others had power;
now they are no longer in power.
Death, as a form of justice, is no escape.
In death, only goodness remains,
but evil will not be forgotten.

You, who say we are illiterate
and accuse us of being uneducated terrorists—
Why do you judge us?
You call us whatever comes out of your mouth.
We brought three things with us when we were born:
discipline, mother wit and realisation.
You tried to take these away from us
but you couldn’t because they are congenital.
Realisation and mother wit aren’t related to literacy;
having these just means we are human.

If you see fault it’s because you’re looking
through the eyes of a wrongdoer.
You’ve taught us so many bad things here;
I hope God doesn’t forgive you for this.
You’ve taught people to become gamblers:
to keep busy they gamble day and night.
But we haven’t seen a winner, even once.
The gambler is always a loser.

You’re playing a bad gambling game with our lives.
Some people here have learnt how to smoke marijuana.
They’d never seen marijuana before!
Then you call these people addicted ones—
It is you who’ve turned these people into addicts.
They use drugs to hide from their depression,
then you say, These people are sick!
Who made them sick?
Many have gone crazy in here. Why?
Because you put their minds under pressure.
Men become crazy because their minds can’t go on.
They spend their time talking with themselves.

You’re killing us, and then you call it policy!
You say, These people are imprudent,
but think, why are they imprudent?
A long time in this detention camp has taken their wisdom away.
We’re unable to make right decisions now
because we can’t focus to think clearly.
It’s natural that this should happen, but not congenital.
Look how nervous, crazy and restless your guards are—
How can we possibly be calm in their presence?

Finally, you called us wrongdoers:
but it is you who brought us here illegally.
We didn’t know this place until you brought us here.
You’ve played with us all in different ways.
You’ve showed a bad face to the world—
but that isn’t our face.
The money and power are in your hands.
The law is in your hands.

I have nothing more to say to you.
Judge us by any means you like.
Be careful though, because what will you feel
when your time finally comes?



Mohammad Ali Maleki is an Iranian poet and avid gardener who has been living in detention on Manus Island for four years. His poem ‘The Strong Sunflower’ was the first work published on Verity La’s Discoursing Diaspora project. Since then, Mohammad’s writing has been published by Bluepepper and by the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group. He has been a featured poet on Rochford Street Review, and his poems and letters have been included in the Dear Prime Minister project and at the Denmark Festival of Voice.  His poem ‘Tears of Stone’ was shortlisted for the Red Room Company’s New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016 and received Special Commendation for extraordinary work in extreme circumstances.


“I’ve met so many who have lost so much. But they never lose their dreams for their children or their desire to better our world. They ask for little in return – only our support in their time of greatest need” — UN Secretary-General, António Guterres. 

Please consider signing the UN Refugee Agency’s With Refugees Petition asking governments to work together to do their fair share for refugees.



The Chrome Pony (Scout Fisher)

Posted on June 13, 2017 by in Out of Limbo

It’s easy to question your sexuality when you wake up for your morning piss and have to clean the glitter out of your foreskin. Or when sequined dresses give you a hard-on. Mum rang the other day to ask which shade of foundation best matched her peacock blue eyeliner. I told her shell-beige and then redefined my boundaries by masturbating over a Czech gangbang for the next two hours. I cleaned up with a pair of fishnet stockings.

My apartment is a clash between vaudevillian costume warehouse and hipster boutique. Feather boas wrestle with striped cardigans on my shagpile carpet, while in drawers and dressers secret wars are won and lost between fake nails, high heels, powders, lashes, brushes, sponges and ancient aftershave, two-dollar razors and stale socks. My greasy road bike has toe-clips, fixed gears and a shiny blue beehive wig in its basket. A poster of Alfred Kinsey hangs above my bed, his Scale reminding me of my own gradual slide. And then, of course, there is all the glitter.

Glitter spreads through apartments like stars spread through galaxies. It shimmers and glimmers, exposing darkness and foreign spaces. It is infinite. To attempt to rid your house of glitter is futile, there is no team you can call, no special formula sold for $9.95, no predatory species to introduce, all you can do is submit.

The apartment’s air is thick with stale smoke and the sweet smell of unfinished alcohol. I open the window and the room inhales a clean breath of air, and the debauchery and arguments of last night wash out with the breeze onto the street below.

A trail of black ants teems in through the window, persistent little fucks. I track them down the wall and drop to my knees as they traverse the carpet, joining in the search for their destination. They weave through the shagpile forest, then follow invisible chemical trails up a wooden leg and gather in circles on the kitchen table. The small workers harvest the sugary impressions left by overfilled cups and glasses while the bigger ones guard the perimeter of the group.

My phone shakes the table. It’s Lilly.

‘Heya,’ I say.

‘Where are you,’ she demands with a familiar tone that implies culpability; stern, yet with a twang.

‘At home. Where should I be?’

The answer with Lilly is always somewhere else.

‘It’s Saturday, you said you would take Dane to his game.’

‘Oh shit.’ My hand slips from under my head and hits the table, the ants scatter like diamantes. I know nothing about soccer and dread the two hours of forced palaver with the imbecilic soccer Dads. None of which are hot.

‘Why can’t you?’ I ask, as the ants reorganize into their roles.

‘We’ve had this planned for over a week, I have work,’ Lilly forces.

‘The female ant is always the worker, right?’

‘What are you talking about, John?’ I hear concern sink into her voice. ‘Have you been on another bender?’

Lilly jumps between conclusions like a rampant STI. ‘No, the ants are just back again,’ I reply.

‘Okay, well I think the workers are infertile, which means Dane — who is your child in case you’ve forgotten — disproves your “worker” theory. Maybe I’m the queen.’

‘I think I’m more qualified for that role, honey,’ I laugh. Then I become conscious of my finger twirling a strand of hair, and stop.

She laughs too. The shared mirth feels good, another coat of paint on the ugly wallpaper of our past.

‘Well, are you coming or not, kick off is in an hour.’

‘Yeah, yeah, wouldn’t miss it for the world. I can’t have him tonight though. I’ve got a show at the Pony.’

‘Okay, drop him off after.’

‘See you.’ I hang up and silence refills the room. It feels deeper than before, as if our conversation left a vacuum. Even the ants have disappeared; probably back to their nest, sharing the sweet plunder with the colony.


My hangover creeps into the silence like a Trojan carrying a pounding headache.

If I’ve got the kid today I’ll need a clear head. His energy is both beautiful and overwhelming. It can get on top of you if you’re not prepared. The cure for any hangover is the three S’s: shit, shower and shave.

To save time I sit on the toilet while I work the electric razor over my chin and neck. Tiny hairs fall onto the porcelain seat, and eventually join the other nondescript scum that lines the floor.

In the shower I turn on both taps and push up against the cold tiles. The gas heater protests with clunks and rattles and then finally acquiesces. Warm water flows through the old iron pipes. The pressure swings between sharp needles and a dribble.

I soak up what water I can, lather soap over my body and face then scrub off last night’s skin. I shed the lipstick and mascara and sticky glue left from fake eyelashes. Pools of pink and blue eye shadow gather around my feet before disappearing through the drain. Manly thoughts resurface in my head.

Once dried, I walk over to the sliding wardrobe to decide the day’s attire. I pull open the male door and grab a pair of light blue jeans, an Adidas polo shirt and my fluoro orange trainers.

Inside my fridge are more condiments than food. In the back I find a Tupperware containing some old dumplings. I eat them while standing, skol a cup of water which tastes like bourbon and descend the two flights of stairs onto the street.

My apartment sits above a second-hand bookstore. It was once quietly dilapidated, another business withering into obsolescence in a town still shuddering after its steel industry collapsed. That was until the owner bought a coffee machine and hired a barista. Now I am forced to push through chairs and tables and people and their breakfasts every time I leave my apartment.

My car is parked in the industrial estate two blocks over. To park on my street now costs two dollars an hour and to acquire a permit from the council is $120. The industrial estate is free. Except for the broken window I had to have repaired last month.

It takes three attempts to turn the engine over and a heavy foot on the accelerator. In the rear vision mirror blue exhaust fumes drift out into the blue sky. The old green Corolla is one of this town’s many failing assets, slowly rolling towards its expiry date.

Lilly lives in the neighbouring suburb. She moved out nearly two years back and took Dane with her. Our break-up was what many would call civilized, though I doubt if that is possible. We smashed things, cried and shouted words that can never be withdrawn. Her name remains on the lease of my apartment and we are comfortable enough to share dresses and makeup, even though she completely lacks style.

I pull into the driveway of her two-bedroom home. A home the same as any other home on the street. White doors, blue roofs, shitty grass and mailboxes constantly full with letters addressed to Mr and Mrs Williams or Petersham or Fitzhenry, notifying them of the contention of their mainstream lives.

The car convulses as it stops. Dane shoots out of nowhere and appears next to my door. He is already dressed in his soccer uniform — blue shorts and blue shirt with a white seven on the back. I think seven is the number worn by his favourite player, some dark-skinned Spanish guy.

Dane looks quite professional in his red leather boots with studs, which I think were an expensive Christmas present, his long socks pulled up over his shin pads. I motion for him to stand back so that he won’t get hit by the door, and when he refuses to move I gently push it into him to create room to climb out.

‘How’s it going kiddo?’ I ask.

‘Dad!’ he shouts, and jumps onto my legs. ‘You’re late.’

‘I know, I’m sorry mate. I got caught in traffic,’ I lie, into his eager blue eyes.

‘That’s okay, kick off isn’t for another hour,’ he says.

I silently curse Lilly for rushing me without reason.

‘Big game today?’ I ask him.

‘Yup, if we win we get a place in the finals.’

‘Woah, that’s great,’ I reply, with as much enthusiasm as I can muster. Being a dad sometimes feels like an unavoidable cliché, just another costume to be worn. Once you have a child you are provided with these scripted conversations — from blockbuster movies, trash books, and other fathers — which, if accurately followed, get you recognized as a good dad.

‘Then you’ll receive a big trophy to add to your collection,’ I say.

‘Mum reckons I might win best and fairest this year,’ Dane replies, while standing on my feet. His studs start digging into my toes, reminding me of bruises left by a pair of red stilettos.

‘Where is your Mum?’ I ask, as I move him onto the grass.

I look up to see Lilly watching me from the doorway.

‘Hey, Lilly.’

‘Your car sounds like a tired prostitute with her last client of the night,’ she says.

‘Yeah, she has nearly earned her retirement,’ I reply.

‘Have you been checking the oil?’ Lilly asks, as she walks over, eyeing the car with a mix of disdain and pity.

‘I’m not really sure how,’ I reply, feeling unsteady as the gender seesaw shifts. Our hug is forced and lifeless, like two plastic dolls jammed together.

‘Well is the “check engine” light on?’ she asks.

‘Look, Lill, I don’t know what that is but I’m sure it’s fine. The car has survived this long.’

‘Well the engine sounds louder than usual. You know if you kept the oil topped up it would survive much longer.’

‘Don’t you have work?’ I protest.

‘Not for twenty minutes, it’s only a half day.’

Based on our stock of old arguments I predict the outcome of the conversation. Lilly turns into a bitch and then I lose, so I hasten the process.

‘Okay, fine, how do you do it?’

Lilly goes back inside to find some oil, leaving me with Dane.

They say kids look like their mums when they’re older and their dads when they’re young, but there’s little similarity between Dane and me. His hair is beach blonde and bounces and curls; mine is stone brown and sits flat against my face. His thin lips share nothing with my full lips. His chin is already more pronounced than my own.

‘So how is school?’ I ask him, reciting the lines.

‘I have three girlfriends,’ he boasts while fetching his soccer ball. He passes it to me.

‘Three, well done, what are their names?’ I ask. I mistime my kick and the ball shoots out onto the road.

He runs after it and passes it back over the gutter in a long arc. His coach claims he has the best leg on his team.

‘Rose, Clare and Stacey,’ he says, ‘but I think three is too many, I need to only have two.’

‘Oh no,’ I say, and kick the ball into the bushes this time, ‘but which girls will you keep?’

A frown creeps into his face. ‘I don’t know, I love them all.’

Lilly returns with a bottle of oil and an old rag. She opens the driver side door and fiddles with something under the steering wheel which causes the bonnet to pop up. Her movements are precise and methodical, as if filling a car with oil was somehow natural for her.

She walks around to the front and says to Dane, ‘Did you tell your dad about father’s day at school, yet?’

‘Not yet’ he replies, then turns to me. ‘Mrs Prior said everyone can bring their dads to school on Father’s Day. Will you come please?’

‘Sure thing,’ I say, with instant regret. I look over to Lilly for consolation but her head is busy under the bonnet.

‘Mrs Prior said our dads can tell the class about their jobs, so I told her my dad is a dancer, and she said she’s very excited to hear about your job.’

Even though I can’t see her, I know Lilly is smiling.

‘Did you tell Mrs Prior what type of dancing Daddy does?’ I ask.

‘No, I thought it would be more fun if it was a surprise,’ Dane says.

‘Alright, well maybe it’s best if we keep that a secret until Daddy decides to tell them, okay?’

‘Okay,’ he replies, and runs over to the bush in search of his ball.

I picture Dixxie Coxx performing for Dane’s grade three class, all dolled up — a sparkling beehive wig, drawn eyebrows and pink blush, my size 11 feet jammed into towering heels to accentuate my otherwise flat and hairy bum, which is barely concealed beneath a red sequin dress — while Mrs Prior, the kids and their stalwart dads, proudly dressed in uniforms of tool belts, police badges, ties and blazers, all shift uncomfortably on small plastic chairs in the dimmed light as I sing a tune from No Doubt, most likely Just a Girl, which I bring to life with a sexy dance routine. Thrusting my manicured hands, gyrating my padded hips, I wink at the neighbours and high-kick the air while wide eyes stare at the flat patch where my dick existed before it was taped between my butt cheeks, and Dane joins in on the chorus — take a good look at me, just your typical prototype — his naivety protecting him from the years of abuse to which he has just been condemned.

I jolt as Lilly slams the hood of the Corolla. ‘Should be alright for a few more months,’ she says, as she rubs her greasy hands on a rag.

‘Thank you,’ I force, shaking off my reverie.

Dane jumps into the car and shuts the door.

‘Guess it’s time to go,’ I say to Lilly as I get ready to leave. ‘I’ll drop him back after the game.’

‘Bye,’ she says.

I turn the ignition expecting a battle, but the car starts first time. I will never let Lilly know that she helped, I think as I reverse out of the driveway and head to the soccer fields.


Soccer dads are the bullies of the adult world. Before and after the match they congregate in packs around the canteen, masticating old Chiko Rolls and meaty pies while grumbling nonsense to one another. Phrases like — ‘He’s a good forward, but I think he would play better in midfield’, ‘The wife is giving me the shits at the moment’, or ‘The trip to Bali was nice, though the locals are a bit dodgy’ — get passed around like an old cum rag.

The whistle for kick-off is blown and I congratulate myself on eluding conversation up until now. I pull out a book and hide in its pages among the ambience of shouting dads, referee whistles and panting kids.


At half time I see Mick approaching me from the corner of my eye. Mick is the alpha of the soccer dads, a title most likely awarded because he shouts the loudest at his kid.

‘How’s it going, mate?’ he asks as he slaps my shoulder. Mick is one of those men that feels compelled to touch during conversation. The way his wife sulks around the canteen in those desperately low cut tops, it seems like he should spend more time groping her – there are plenty other men that would.

‘Dane is playing a ripper,’ he says.

‘Yeah he’s got a good leg on him.’ I repeat the coach’s phrase.

‘You bet, mate.’ Mick says. ‘You coming to the pub the sarvo?’

It is the soccer dad’s weekly ritual to drink beer at the local RSL after the game while their children eat deep-fried food and play in the playground.

‘I can’t, mate, I’ve got work tonight,’ I say, caught off guard without a prepared excuse, knowing it will lead to…

‘Yeah right, where do you work again?’

To which I respond ‘Oh, just at a club in the city.’ I nearly say honey at the end but cram the word back into my mouth.

‘Alright,’ Mick says, and the sound of the whistle draws him back to his spot on the sideline.

I return to my book.

Dane receives Man of the Match for the “great goal” he scored. He begs to catch a ride home with one of the other parents so he can go to the RSL and get hepatitis from the monkey bars while the dads drink mid-strength beer and argue over the game. The parent — I forget his name — offers to drop Dane at his mum’s afterwards, and I’m happy to oblige, knowing I will need some rest if I’m planning to rock the Pony tonight.

I give Dane a hug goodbye, though he seems distracted, eager to celebrate his success with his teammates. I never understood team sports growing up.

I drive home alone. Smooth jazz drifts out of the radio, bobbing and riffing with rolling patience, like a deep sigh of contentment. My eyelids grow heavy.

I park the car and walk the two blocks in a daze. The people sitting at the benches and tables outside my apartment look much the same as before — coffee, food and boredom — except they are now eating meaty bready things instead of eggs.

I tramp up the stairs to my bed, lie down and pass out.


When I wake up, I am disorientated by the darkness. As my brain struggles to identify the time I reach in all directions until my hand finds my phone — 7:00. Fuck.

I draw on that dream of Dixxie performing at Dane’s primary school for inspiration. I tuck my brown hair into the beehive wig and my saggy penis behind my bum (the most action he’s got in weeks). I glue on fake eyelashes that defy gravity. I slide my red sequin dress over padding I tailored out of an old couch cushion. High heels add height and curves. I spread colourful blush, mascara and eye shadow all over my face like a rainbow bukkake. Disguise the man, liberate the diva.

Femininity seeps into my body. My shoulders and neck loosen and my head assumes a bobble. My hands fall at the wrist while one knee bends, pushing out my arse. I stare into the stand-up mirror and my gorgeous eyes flicker back. My glittery lips pout and whisper silent secrets of seduction.

I play my song and go through my routine. My arms flair out with rhythm and cadence, my hips swing and gyrate as I give the air around me an erotic lap dance and a definite hard-on. I become aware of each angle my body creates; like a calligraphy brush, I draw shapes of sex appeal with my reflection.

When the song finishes, I snap back into the moment. My skin tingles as if I’ve had an orgasm. I grab my handbag, blow a kiss to the mirror and my heels echo through the stairwell as I glide down to the street below.

The Chrome Pony is a twenty minute walk from my block. Depending on the time of night, and levels of drunkenness, either whistles or insults spurt out of the gross men I walk by. Some stop to take pictures, others for a phone number.

There was a period when I first started queening, where I drove to work to avoid the harassment. Now I dance in the attention — each passing comment feels like a flash of a fan’s camera, an ode to my rarity. Being straight is easy, but being bent is fun.

There is already a long line zig-zagging between the ropes outside the Pony. The punters are begging for a glimpse of our secret beauties. I sneak around the back into the alley, and hide my nose in my perfumed wrists to avoid the stench of acrid urine. I knock on the door and wait.

Mr. Rogers answers with a hug and kiss on the cheek.

‘Dixxie,’ he shouts. ‘You look fabulous.’

‘Aww, thanks baby,’ I blush, and strut past him into the backroom.

‘Your show starts in ten,’ he says, as he pours me a strong gin and tonic.

He hands the drink to me.

‘There’s a little blonde scout from the Glory here to take you away from me. Don’t get any ideas.’

The Glory is the most prestigious club in town — the Moulin Rouge of drag.

‘A girl?’ I quip, to hide my interest. ‘Since when did a fucking woman scout for drag queens?’

‘Girls can do everything boys can, Dixxie,’ he chides, and walks to the front of house, leaving me alone to prepare for the show.

I hear the crowd cheering for one of the young calves, probably Suzy Xtravaganza or Fanny Balding. They come in dressed as their favourite super-models — Miranda Kerr or Adriana Lima — buying their costumes instead of creating. No feathers or glitter or opulence. Those queens shed their capes for reality, and lose their power along the way.

The applause echoes through the walls and charges my body. From head to toe I can feel the adulation, the people cheering. It’s a physical high, a good high, an addictive high.

Finally I hear my introduction.

‘Ladies and Gentleman, tonight, our featured queen, the sassiest, sexiest, sauciest girl in town, the star rider of the Chrome Pony, and an all round feisty bitch, Dixxie Coxx.’

I channel the most womanly of women. Tina Turner, Coco Chanel and fucking Joan of Arc. I strut out onto the small uneven stage in the old, seedy bar and feel as if I am a princess receiving an Oscar. The lights dim and the cheers dissolve into silent anticipation. The song starts.

‘Strike a pose, strike a pose,’ Madonna sings, and the tingling begins.

I glide my arms to my left and right with precision.

‘Vogue, vogue, vogue.’ My lips and tongue roll over each word in total sync. Then the spotlight blasts into me and the drug hits my bloodstream.

‘Look around, everywhere you turn is heartache. It’s everywhere that you go.’

My mind surrenders to my X chromosome.  I give myself up to the goddesses. The body takes the reigns and guides my hips and legs and back. I drip sex and power and desire with every movement. I court the punters, seduce them; we share our hidden desires in a sexy conversation using the language of the body.

‘Oooh, you’ve got to let your body move to the music.’

The words come from deep inside me. The air thickens with excitement. My consciousness is freed. As I slide onto my back and raise one toned, perfect leg, we erupt in sweat and joy and pleasure, and reach a shared climax.

‘Vogue, vogue,’ Madonna sings, as I lay there in ecstasy, hovering in the space above my body.


After the show, the scout from the Glory approaches me in the back room. She has a nose ring and long blonde hair that sits either side of her milky cleavage. Her butch confidence reveals her sexuality. Whether it is the sensation from the show or her, I suddenly feel aroused — my penis gently tugs at its binding between my butt cheeks.

‘Hey, I’m Brigitte. I work for the Glory,’ she says, from between full lips. ‘That was hot.’

‘I’m glad you liked it, honey,’ I reply, and then stiffen my back and shift my weight off my right foot.

‘Would you be interested in dancing for us?’ she asks, and for a moment I think she says ‘me’.

‘Let’s talk,’ I reply.

We find a table and stools in a dark corner at the back of the pub. Two strawberry daiquiris arrive shortly after. Brigitte discusses the Glory — the pay rates, the wild nights, the sorority of queens — and all I can think about is fucking her. It’s like all my pent up masculinity has broken through a dam and is flooding my psyche. Her boobs, her lips, her legs. Her voice is a rope slowly pulling me into heterosexuality

‘Drag queens act like girls because girls aren’t allowed to act like girls anymore. If a girl was to perform as a queen does she would be labelled as a slut or a show-off,’ she says, clearly a feminist.

I drink another daiquiri and pretend to listen to her ranting.

‘It is only men that are truly allowed to enjoy a feminine sexuality,’ she claims.

Brigitte is naughty, a deviant. A deviant can spot a deviant. In the subtle stares, the crossing and uncrossing of legs, the smile upturned at one side. She is whispering sex, sex, sex.

I spend the next hour flirting with her, totally unconscious of wearing fake eyelashes and a wig. And when the bar closes I convince her to come home with me.

We hop out of the taxi, both aware of our plan after making out in the back seat for ten minutes. The front of the bookstore is empty, no furniture impedes us. We giggle up the staircase as our drunken bodies knock into the walls.

I kick my heels off at the front door and push my wig on the floor as she climbs onto my bed.

Kneeling on all fours, she works her jeans down to her ankles, exposing a round peachy arse. With one final throb my penis breaks free from its sticky tape shackles and bursts between my legs. I rip the tape off my foreskin, hike up my dress and stumble towards her awaiting bum.

I grab her hips as I thrust into her, my polished nails leaving red marks on her milky skin. Padding slips from under my dress while she moans and moans.

Our bodies slap into each other and our genitals become one, as the poster of Kinsey stares down at us, somehow smiling.




Scout Fisher both writes and teaches writing. Though he spends most days attempting to unfold his origami-shaped thoughts.

SHAPING THE FRACTURED SELF (editor: Heather Taylor Johnson)

Posted on June 6, 2017 by in Book Extracts, Heightened Talk

(Anne M Carson)

‘There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen

If I was ceramic I’d be kintsukuroi,
pottery which has been knocked,
dropped, broken into shards then
mended with gold or silver lacquer,
a delicate meander of liquid gold
flowing into the breach. Kintsukuroi
the word a whole world, evoking
the kind of place where mending
is valued more than the break,
where old is treasured more than
new, where putting things back
together is an art form, things more
beautiful for having been broken.


(Andy Jackson)

‘I would be giving in to a myth of sameness which I think can destroy us.’
– Audre Lorde

sometimes I wake into a quiet sadness
blood pooling in my mouth
bones on fire – this is the worst
and best thing that has ever happened to me

one morning I couldn’t walk
the white coats
gave me a chair – I became an adult
while they tried to work it out
the closest was marfanoid habitus
’til a sudden knife in the chest
gave me enough points for the full diagnosis
hearing it, I felt sick

I have mitral valve prolapse, regurgitation
multiple pulmonary nodules
I get short of breath and produce
excessive mucous (clearly I’m very attractive)
my joints are hypermobile
and dislocate (they go out more than I do)
I’m the walking rubber-band

comments and names at school
don’t cross your legs, you look disgusting
spider-woman, anorexic slut
other things I can’t write

doctors accused my parents of abuse
threatened me with feeding tubes
ironic, it was only all this pointing at my bones
that gave me an eating disorder

since I joined Chronic Illness Peer Support
they can’t shut me up
we go on camps, socials, talk about whatever we need to
I meet the most incredible people
and call them my friends
(my dog helps me enormously with my grief)

I’m so motivated people find me exhausting
started studying nursing
but they told me I was too unwell
cried so hard I broke a rib – now it’s psych

I haemorrhaged every day for eighteen months
clots bigger than my hand
doubled over in pain until I passed out
I think about my future a lot
imagine a husband, two golden retrievers
a blue house by the beach, veggie patch
all the people I will help
life is extraordinary and so are you

now look at this photo and tell me
you still want sameness


(Stuart Barnes)

after Gwen Harwood

I know them by their lips. I know the proverb
about immediacy. Many slip
and shatter on sheer concrete, the older, the glass.
They held the common cold in hieratic,

are octopus-suckers. I imagine them
thus, lying facedown on acupuncture tables.
I apprehend firebirds. Their fearsome vacuum
surfaces disturbance. Flying saucers

might inscribe similar discs of stillness
in cereal: formations of purple, rose:
thirteen moons, an earth, a sun in syzygy.
They order qi, are venerable remedy.

They never play hard to get. Foul deed, foul day they aren’t.
All bell, no whistle. Anti-insurrection.
A trance in sudsy buckets; rinsed, their lips
await others’ blue skin. Love, their love is blind.


What lies beneath my skin
(Rachael Mead) 

The ringing phone ratchets me into tension.
It is everything and nothing,
filling the place poetry used to be.
Management only works in practice
and right now I’m all about theory.
The circling around guilt’s drain.
The awareness of performance
– the inability to stop. The anger.
Everything turned inward.
I prefer silence and when I talk
it’s all repetition. I let the phone ring.

Fear of death drops away like a silk
dress slipping from its hanger. The
knife rack, the rafters are pregnant with
possibility. I know what to do.
Walk the dog. Sometimes, this is all.
The gum trees raise their lacy fists, a
level of defiance I find impossible.
The glitter of creek water,
the black field of stars.
I put myself in the path of wildness and
let it fill my long and hollow bones.


Her arms and legs are thin
(Fiona Wright)

for Pip Smith (and after T. S. Eliot)

Do I dare
Disturb the universe? Do I dare to eat a peach?
When I can’t see what remains
and in short, I am afraid
and I cannot know what stands within my reach;
and there is time yet for a hundred indecisions
and a hundred visions and revisions, every time
before the taking of a toast and cup of tea.

I sit in sawdust restaurants of insidious intent
and there is time yet for a hundred indecisions. I wait.
My glass hands lift and drop a question on my plate:
do I dare to eat a steak, the squid, a peach?
Have I the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
(And they say ‘But how her arms and legs are thin!’)
I lick my tongue instead into the corners of the evening.

In short, I am afraid. And though I have wept and fasted
(And they say ‘But how her arms and legs are thin!’)
Although I’ve measured out my life, checked every whim,
They try to fix me in a formulated phrase
and I don’t dare see what remains –
I’ve simply bitten off the matter with a smile.
(I know it never can be worth it, after all.)

And this is not what I meant
not it at all.

How can I spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways,
how can I dare to eat a peach
when I know I am no prophet?
They say ‘But how her arms and legs are thin!’
They say I’ll learn the moment of my greatness.
They try to fix me with a formulated phrase.
They say it could have all been worth it
but this is not what I meant.

This was never what I meant.
This is not it, not it at all.


Ten Things I Love to Hate About You
(Beth Spencer)

1.   Someone once described it as like walking across a room in the dark and no matter       which direction you go a board flies up and hits you in the face.

2.   Noticing, gradually – from the subtle clues amongst the cheery posts and triumphs        – the number of people in my Facebook feed who are living with a hidden illness.

3.  A change of government and the social terrain shifts; suddenly feeling like a        criminal again.

4.  The grief for all that never was. All the books, the friendships and loves, all the     children and grandchildren. All the students. All the clients. All the travels and        adventures. (Scaling inner mountains instead.)

5.   The exhilaration that rises with hope from a new theory or treatment or diagnostic      piece of the puzzle. And then under the surface (forged by too often), bracing for        the crash.

6.  Writing lists of how things have improved, to remind myself. (Because it’s        necessary. The reminding. And it has. In a way.)

7.  Writing lists of strategies and actions for the bad days when it’s hard to even      remember (or move) to consult such lists. But then I do. And that search for the       small obscure window, pushing against and through (don’t cut yourself), and then        finding the next little window, and the next.

8.   Salvaging a long difficult day spent prostrate by writing one not-great but not-awful       poem just before midnight. (Yay.)

9.  Imagining the events and parties and gatherings looked forward to with joy (but      then not up to going) laid out end to end in one long glorious summer of love. A        beautiful able-bodied parallel world.

10.  Learning (and unlearning and learning again) to embrace the space I be. Because      maybe, in the constellation of the universe, every misshapen star, every strange       permutation, is desired by life itself to be experienced and added to the mix. The      force of everything demanding everything. Even this. Learning and unlearning,      and learning it again, and again. (And again.) Until the star becomes the centre        (and shines).


On the eternal nature of fresh beginnings
(Peter Boyle)

This body next to you, said the German expert on design, is your ideal self – what you climbed out of once and have since forgotten about. Like gills and dialogues with rainbows, like your life as a ruminant quadruped, it has been erased from your waking story. When the time is right you will step inside it and it will transport you. Do not look at the claws that dangle from its withered right arm – consider only its wings. Say to yourself the word ‘Perfection’. Be confident. All the stars of the universe were placed millennia ago far inside you.


Of course not all great art has its genesis in pain, and not all pain – not even a fraction – leads to the partial consolations of art. But if lancing an abscess is the surest way to healing, can poetry offer that same cleansing of emotional wounds? Shaping the Fractured Self showcases twenty-eight of Australia’s finest poets who happen to live with chronic illness and pain. The autobiographical short essays, in conjunction with the three poems from each of the poets, capture the body in trauma in its many and varied moods. Because those who live with chronic illness and pain experience shifts in their relationship to it on a yearly, monthly or daily basis, so do the words they use to describe it. Shaping the Fractured Self is available from UWAP. Poets will be reading from the book next Tuesday, 13 June at Sappho in Glebe. 

Heather Taylor Johnson is the editor of the anthology Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain (UWAP, 2017). She moved from the US to Australia in 1999 to begin a post graduate degree in Creative Writing. She received a PhD from the University of Adelaide and, while doing so, found a husband and had three children. Her first novel was Pursuing Love and Death (HarperCollins 2013) and her second is Jean Harley Was Here (UQP 2017). Her fourth book of poetry is Meanwhile, the Oak (Five Islands Press, 2016). She’s been writing reviews of poetry and fiction for various literary magazines for more than a decade and regularly reviews film for InDaily. She was the poetry editor for Wet Ink during the term of its publication and is currently the poetry editor for Transnational Literature. She’s co-edited two anthologies but Shaping the Fractured Self is her first solo effort.

Heather has lived with Meniere’s disease for almost half of her life and finds the illness keeps making its way into her writing. Having given a paper at Oxford on poetry-as-illness-narrative and having expanded her thesis to include lyric essays and novellas – the stuff of her current work-in-progress and something she will speak about at the NonfictioNow conference in Reykjavik – Heather is a passionate proponent of illness narrative.

A Sorry Memento, or Sorry Lamento (Teena McCarthy)

Posted on June 2, 2017 by in Black Wallaby (Ngana Banggarai): Emerging Indigenous Writers' Project

Teena McCarthy, ‘A Triple Gin on the Rocks’. Photography, ochres, organic house paint, charcoal. Location: my Grandmothers Country, Broken Hill, NSW, 2016

A Sorry Memento, or Sorry Lamento

Teena McCarthy, ‘Sorry, Sis’. Cardboard, ochre and soy wax with lavender oil, 2012.


The night bird sings
its mourning song.
The day beckons,
light through shadow.
It feels hollow
but sinks me
and a kind of weight follows
leaching into every crevice.
‘Don’t cry baby, please don’t cry.’

You were nothing but a promise.

Return to silence
to the quiet and calm
of the night tide
hitting the shore,
like a slap that’s been
worn before.




Portrait of Teen McCarthy by Bill Hope, ‘The Essence of a Woman’, 2013.

Graduating in 2014 from University of NSW Art and Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Distinction, Teena McCarthy has exhibited extensively for the past seven years. In 2011 she curated iNTervention Intervention, a protest exhibition about The Northern Territory Emergency Response Act. In 2014 McCarthy’s work was exhibited in Monuments to the Frontier Wars, curated by Damien Minton, who later invited her to appear in the Redfern Biennale 2015 and 2016. Djon Mundine OAM curated her in That I May be of Service – Motto of the Clan Foley, an exhibition about activist, actor, academic and original member of The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Dr Gary Foley, at The Rocks Discovery Museum(2014-15). McCarthy was selected finalist in The NSW Parliament Aboriginal Art Prize 2014 and 2015, and her commissions include the cover of UNSW Law Faculty’s Reconciliation Action Plan (2015), a painting which is now part of UNSW’s permanent collection. McCarthy was the featured artist in Old Lands – New Marks, an exhibition in Artlands Dubbo 16 curated by Djon Mundine OAM for Western Plains Cultural Centre, and she also featured as a performance and visual artist in the successful Contemporary Arts Festival in Kandos, Cementa 17, curated by Ann Finnegan. McCarthy recently exhibited in a group show, Summer Sojourns 17, at Simon Chan’s Art Atrium, Bondi, and all enquires regarding her work can be addressed to this gallery.

(Iraqi poets translated by Haider Catan and Tim Heffernan)

Posted on May 30, 2017 by in Book Extracts, Discoursing Diaspora

(edited by Ramon Loyola & Michele Seminara)

An Extract from Introduction to The Poetry in the Minefields
By Abdulrahman Almajedi, Iraqi journalist and poet living in the Netherlands

Organizers of poetry and drama festivals in Western countries may organize poetry readings on a lake or in a field, but have their poets read in the middle of a minefield? Or inside a destroyed nuclear reactor, surrounded by walls filled with radiation? Or in an ambulance?  Or in a hospital bed?

This may sound shocking, however this is what is happening today, in Iraq, organised by a valiant group of young poets — The Militia of Culture — who are using their poetics to fight against the transmission of the deadly semantics of the militia which has consumed the lifeblood of Iraq since 2003.  These poets organise ‘festivals’ in order to express what is no longer allowed to be talk about in Iraq — but these festivals take place in the middle of the numerous minefields still littering the country, amongst nuclear reactors still sending their deadly radiation across civilian neighborhoods, and surrounded by the trauma of bombs intended to maim and kill innocent women and children.

These painful poems have been neglected by the local media in Iraq, but now they are crossing the border and drawing the attention of Arab and European nations, confirming the role of literature as a powerful creative and political tool for expressing the nightmarish daily reality of death in Iraq.


(kadhem khanjar)

when the policeman checks you at the market, you feel like a terrorist.

when your eyes try to cross the barbed wire that separates the house and the street,
you pass like a terrorist.

whenever you walk near the concrete blocks leading to your work, you walk like a terrorist.

whenever you give the rent to the owner he treats you like a terrorist.

and when watching tv with your children, you see your terrorism in the mouths of others.

when you visit your brother in prison, the guards check your name on the wanted list and find that you are not a terrorist.

when you park your bike on the sidewalk, shop owners believe it is a bombed bicycle and that you are a terrorist.

when you go with your wife to see a doctor about fractures and they keep you waiting and waiting, like a terrorist.

when from terror you buy a bottle of whisky, creeping it under their eyes, you feel like a terrorist.

daily, swallowing tablets of terrorism—in the morning, the afternoon, at night—just as the pharmacist recommended.

Kadhem Khanjar

a bombed car
(kadhem khanjar)

wings for the cat on the fence of the power station.
wings for the fence.
wings for seven construction workers.
wings for the vegetable shopper.
wings for vegetables.
wings for the little girl’s legs on her way to school.
wings for her backpack.
wings for the skin of bus passengers.
wings for the bicycle and the cyclist and his bread.
wings for the asphalt and power poles and signboards.
wings for the eardrum.
wings for the urgent news.

bombed cars grant wings to everything.

Wissam Ali

6 pm / street 40
(wissan ali)

death’s fingers prick our feet and we are running like dancers carrying the shells
of bombed cars to get them to the survivors.

from your palm to the earth’s palm is a lake of dettol and gauze stained with blood.
i doubt my upper body, especially my mouth.

i was the last in line at the morgue where everyone returned to ice-filled eskies.

“both whisky and organs are served with ice.”

how will i be after three tons of explosives? and with which grin will i face the lord?
no guarantee, my face will not scare him. any geometric shape will take the coffin.
if i survive i will cheat everyone by buying jeans and the best dentist for my teeth.
i will still look strange but at least not the same as the one who liquefied above me.

bombs lick my body after the door finishes sucking my finger.

we are coffins strapped with safety belts.

Ahmed Diaa

i didn’t care about the bombing, as all survivors are casualties anyway
(ahmad diaa)

i      death

this silent bombing
tickles half of my hat.

ii     beheaders

it has not started yet
encapsulating tears,
becoming a ladder which the casualties climb.

iii    bullets

tears are war strings
so don’t hesitate to pick the head.

iv    continuers

from the cage of my ribs, i carved the meat from the bone
and the dream from the awakening.
This is how we learned slaughterhouses.

v     apprehension

a scar
the memory.

vi    claws

eyelids bleed tears, wallowing, coagulating above
a handful of dust.

vii   prisoners of war

stupid death is sweeping the place as the gates of paradise push back their heads.

viii  graves

our backs are riddled with bullets and the blind man sees
things with his ears.
the blind are walking inside the minefield and this old man
teaches me to sleep on the shoulder of dust.

ix    violation

i turn to water when i hear the ambulance scream.

x     barbarism

the officer releases convoys of the slaughtered soldiers
while receiving convoys of those who seek to die.

xi    primitive leukaemia

my feet are a thermometer
measuring the heat of the mine’s lips.

xii   tension

no escape from death
that’s what i was told
at the execution washing line.

Mohamed Karim

an 81 magazine
(mohamed karim)

25  in the body,
25  in the body,
25  in the body,
5  random shots,
fired from a kalashnikov’s mouth…!

Ahmed Jabbour

(ahmed jabbour)

by the name of allah,
by the name of bullets,
by the name of the wise,
by the name of the group,
by the name of the militias,
by the name of the gun muffler.
opening the factory of improvised explosive devices
in a country that has become a divided sewer.

Mazen Almaamouri

(mazen almaamouri)

in the street adjacent to osirak
i saw people coming out from the cancerous cells and the bellies of wires,
and the remnants of mutants
hung on the doors
adorning the houses with the colour of the new dawn.

scorched earth.
dead people sneak one by one
towards the last paper,
transparent as the colour of their skin,
its edges like remnants of meat flying over the graves and shoulders
of the cloaks that shroud mourning mothers
with scattered fragments and acid rain.

school clothes are torn on street’s wires.
the dead sneak toward the white paper
to absorb an old nectar dream.

i came out of the barrel of a cannon, i think it was russian-made.
it was cold and at its edges rust trembled at the sound of the shell.


when i was a fish,
i approached the sand—my scales began to soften,
my tail became two long legs and my eyes grew close to each other.
i grabbed the ground with two long hands,
because the world is the lavishness of the sea,
and so i’m the shit of a shark, old, but i breathe.


the cockroach tasted the stool of the corpse jammed into the sewer tunnel,
it tasted of bullets and the spice of gunpowder.
its joints constricted after its stomach decayed,
then the soldier’s boot fell and fled.


ants are coming out of the soldier’s pocket while he sits on the train bench.
the girl, sitting near the soldier, opens her mouth to breathe from the window
above the bench where the soldier is sitting.
people are moving rapidly toward the dim light far from the soldier and the girl—
they are diving into deep sleep.

Ali Taj Aldeen

the structure of fragmenting
(ali taj aldeen)

bones are rolling from the mouths of lizards whenever they throw the nets on us. one has vomited everything it has eaten in the last 2400 years, so it doesn’t leave any sidewalk without painting it the colour of its lust. then we find the streets have gathered their cloaks and they wait at the morgue, smoking their last pipe.

a second lizard comes out of the earth like a volcano with seven heads, dragging a trifork and inserting it into the stomachs of millions of shells emptied from the rust, staring, visiting my dreams, waking up with blood, dazzling with death, i wash my body with devastation and debris, the same devastation and debris i use to build my house located on the opposite side of the seventh gate of this world, close to the nail where manhood was hanged while those gathering were drinking wine. they fear every checkpoint on the entry to each city. cities are bombed everyday by the fingers of āyāt, before they are lit  by a thousand suns. suns that are shut by the sharia of single-celled algae, containing nothing but the rocks covered with black cloth in the morning.

Ali Thareb

from a paper left by a passenger in the bus
(ali thrab)

the body is not reflected in the saliva of the hungry people.
friends do not think of suicide.
a god does not develop without meaning.
a mother is standing by the clothes line
with a good heart.
another chance to escape from this moment.
a woman does not fall into the mouth of an animal.
a shadow becomes a tree,
climbing to escape from the land.
stepping toward his childhood
his mouth gone at once
into a whole apple.
all this for a man who would live.

because we do not have a weapon at home
renegades in the neighbourhood
hang their shoes on the door knob.
my father and i are fighting,
who will wear it first?

when i kiss my burned hand
i make fun of my futile flesh
and touch this lost life
as my fingers cry a distorted knowledge.

i want to annihilate newspapers
and complete life naked.
i just wish to sell lingerie
and for my mother to stop cooking her hand
for us every night.
i wish to defecate in our neighbour’s toilet,
and to fall from eyes that walk
and legs that see.

the dead angel i saw
in the house’s sewer
could flee on my bike
so i would not be frightened
of these rooms anymore.

the hook in the room’s ceiling
catches me whenever i disappear into sleep.

i was running in a coffin
when life finally visited.

(wissan ali)

i still burn in vain,
my song is over,
my dance has melted into wheezy footsteps.
insert your hand inside the knife to find my lost neck,
then hold the clouds softly
so as not to overlap the cries of my friends when they watch my head roll over
the bottom of the youtube screen.

the tie of the power pole,
rope gallows,
i refuse to be hung on it, i don’t want my face to touch the bar.

fragments looking for a toilet.
fragments settling in me.
bomb and car and gun muffler
packed with stones from the kidney of the lord.

Hasan Tahsin

the pages of sidewalk
(hasan tahsin)

browsing the pages of the sidewalk with my burnt fingers
i found tears,
then i watered the sand
and wished it could give birth to an eye to guard the earth.

tired, i walked,

and i saw bunches of burnt heads like black grapes.

i walked more and, hearing a whisper,
found my body sounded good and asked,
is there any person who can plant me to grow again?


The Poetry in the Minefields (in Arabic) can be purchased  from Amazon

View more footage of the poets reading here.


Haider Catan
, an Iraqi-born poet and academic, came to Australia to work on a research project in psycholinguistics and memory. Catan has enriched his experience of poetry in English by working with Wollongong poet Tim Heffernan. Their translations have been published by Red Room Company and Verity La.

Tim Heffernan is a Wollongong poet and recipient of the 2016 joanne burns microlit award. Tim was very proud to have his poem ‘Butterflies in Iraq’ published with Haider Catan’s ‘Purple Breeze’ in Out of Place, Spineless Wonders’ 2015 prose poetry and micofiction anthology. As well as joining together in translation we borrow from each other in our lives and our poetry





How to Knit a Human
(Anna Jacobson)

Posted on May 23, 2017 by in Clozapine Clinic — The Frater Project


I don’t wear a watch in hospital. I count time by meals.
A nurse hands me a Milky Way bar after ECT.
I hold it in my lap; look at the wrapper with its stars
and swirls. My wheelchair zooms down corridors
back to the ward. ‘I can walk’ I say.
‘This way will be quicker’ says the nurse.

Crinkle cut chips and Caramello koalas
are the foods I crave most when mad.
Instead nurses come with tiny paper cups, stand
over me as I swallow the wafer, the tablet, the liquid,
whichever one it is that night. I don’t know what to do
with the wafer. I stick it in my mouth and before I know it,
it dissolves on my tongue like fairy floss.



A nurse shines
a torch into my face to see
if I am sleeping.

I’m not.

The light disappears and with it—
the nurse’s torch glow grin.
Has my illness made up
the expression on his face?

My ward-memories
are few. My memories
have no soundtrack.
I do not hear
his footsteps retreating,
or the other patients sleeping.
I only see a demonic grin
in a dark ward.


How to Knit a Human

Loose threads replace my body.
Frays appear unseen over time.
Threads unravel— gripped and pulled
by hundreds of invisible pincers.

Now I knit myself back into a human.
It’s hard work relearning the steps.
I get into a rhythm. The pattern is complex—
I drop a few stitches.
The holes form the gaps in my memory.



Anna Jacobson is a Brisbane based poet, writer, and artist. Her poetry has been published in literary journals including CorditeRabbit, Australian Poetry Journal, Tincture and Foam:e. She is one of The Red Room Company’s commissioned poets for ‘Poetry Object 2017’. In 2016 she was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Young Writers and Publishers Award, the Scribe Nonfiction Prize and the University of Canberra Health Poetry Prize. She was shortlisted for the 2015 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Creative Writing) from QUT and is currently undertaking her Master of Philosophy (Creative Practice), specialising in poetry at QUT. Read more from Anna at website.

(Amanda Hickey)

Posted on May 19, 2017 by in Book Extracts, TWT (Travel Write Translation)

 (Edited by Kathryn Hummel)

Your own eyes are king.
—Estonian Proverb              

Sydney, 1991

I looked for her first in the garden where she would often be working—planting, weeding or watering. This time I found her in her little sewing room. It was a sun-trap with windows on three sides flooded with light. Perfect for finding the thinnest lost thread or a fine needle that dropped to the floor.

We soon got talking about current events and the sudden changes in Europe. She was nervous about what the Russians would do.

‘They’ll never let Latvia go. Never. I just can’t see it. But I’ve made up my mind. If it comes down to a fight, I will go back and help out.’

‘What? You’ll go back and join the independence movement? Don’t be silly…’

‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I may be in my seventies but I’m in good health and I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to in life…if I got killed now, what difference would it make?’

‘So you’re going become a guerilla fighter now?’

My mother, Vera, bent over the sewing machine and pushed her foot down on the pedal. The whirr of the machine underscored her set mouth. At that moment, with that determined steely look, it no longer seemed so preposterous and I could see her dressed in khaki clothes driving a vehicle down a distant road.

I dismissed her talk as ‘survivor guilt’. Among my second-generation Baltic friends, we talked about this a lot. Our parents partied hard; they had known real loss and sorrow so were determined to live life to the full. But there was guilt too for enjoying the kind of freedoms their Iron Curtain relatives could not. Some of my friends had gone back to their parents’ homelands and it was often a frustrating, soul-destroying experience. It was at a time when the Soviet bureaucracy insisted on travel permits between towns or cities. One girlfriend managed to get a visa to visit the capital city, but was denied permission to go any farther so was unable to visit the small town where her relatives lived.

Glasnost and perestroika, the political movements that democratized the Communist Party, changed everything. I had always wanted to visit Latvia, but was also intimidated by the prospect. Firstly, I couldn’t speak the language, and secondly, I had always dreamt about making that trip with Vera.

Her excuse was that she would never return whilst Latvia was occupied by the Soviets. It was a point of principle. And unlike other Latvians who returned to visit relatives, she was an orphan so there was no real reason to go back there.

Then on August 23 we watched the Baltic Way, one of the most extraordinary acts of nonviolent protest the world has ever seen. More than a million citizens of three small nations, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, came together and took each others’ hands, forming a human chain that traversed the three nations. It was a plea for national sovereignty and independence. A few months later in November, in the edit rooms of SBS TV where I worked, I watched the Berlin Wall come down.

When Latvia got its independence, I urged Vera, ‘What about now? Why wait?’

She would say, ‘What’s the point? They are all gone now. There is no-one left.’

My idea to travel there was resuscitated by Olev, an Estonian-Australian musician who was planning to tour Estonia with his techno-folk group, Kiri-uu. Estonian audiences wanted to hear how this contemporary Australian ensemble interpreted their ancient folk songs. ‘Why don’t you come with us?’ he asked me. And so a four-week trip to the Baltic States was quickly planned.

In turn, I proposed to Vera. ‘We could meet up at Riga. You know what they all say. It hasn’t lost its beauty.’

I thought a trip to her homeland would be good for her: it would bury a few of those ghosts from her past. No matter what angle I took, she found a new excuse not to go.

‘I would have to see all those ugly buildings that the Soviets have built in my beautiful Riga.’

‘And you don’t think that if someone had left Sydney forty years ago, they wouldn’t be horrified by all the ugly buildings that have now appeared on our skyline?’

I gave up trying to persuade her to come but in the lead up to my departure, my questions about her family and her past escalated. This irritated her.

For one, I desperately wanted to know where she had lived. I wanted to walk down that street and look up at her building. ‘Surely you must remember the name of the street?’ It seemed inconceivable that someone could forget the place where they lived as a child. By contrast I had grown up in half a dozen houses in six different streets and I remembered them all.

She shook her head, no. Yet it was a question with which I persisted. Then, just days before I was due to leave, she called me.

‘I remember now, it was Stabu Iela. Our apartment in Riga was on Stabu Iela.’

How many weeks and how many questions had it taken me to get this nugget? At last I had a street name…but what about a number? Again, she said, ‘No’—she could no longer remember the number.

Estonia, 1991

I entered Estonia from Finland. It was only short twenty-minute flight from Helsinki to Tallinn, the capital.  Then I was out in the baggage area, waiting for my luggage. The first suitcase appeared on the conveyer belt and a few more followed, but then it spluttered and died. Eventually it started up again, coughed up a few more boxes and bags before grinding to another halt. It started, hiccupped again and then died for a long, long while. Each time it got going, many travellers (I am sure they were Americans) started clapping. Yet even their enthusiastic cheering could not thwart the deathly stop-start rhythm of the luggage belt as it spat out suitcases three or four at a time. On the other side of the gate, Olev was waiting for me. He handed me a bunch of flowers—the usual greeting for friends and relatives arriving from abroad.

I am staying with Olev’s cousins—Peter and Tiiu—in their small house in the suburbs. They have given me Grandma’s room. I don’t see her because she has been temporarily relocated to stay with another sibling. I feel a bit guilty about this until I realise how much Peter and Tiiu enjoy having these overseas visitors boarding with them. Perhaps Peter also enjoys having a break from his mother-in-law.

I can’t understand any Estonian, but Olev is happy to translate the conversation swirling around us. Thousands of curious expatriate Balts have come back to their homeland or that of their parents’ and their reasons vary. Some are highly opportunistic, looking to get bargain property at rock-bottom prices. Others are looking to find lost relatives, to heal the wounds of the past or revive lost language skills, whilst for an idealistic few, it’s a way to make a small contribution to these newborn democracies. Breathing in the air of a newly independent democracy, full of expectation and promise, there are countless reasons to be here.

Culture binds them all together, but history will always divide. We see some expats buying up amber necklaces at ridiculously cheap prices and then sauntering back to stay at the most expensive hotel in town. It barely meets with their Western standards of hotel service. They can’t complain too loudly as the rates are so low.

Olev calls the visiting expats “Outsiders—Inside-Out.”

‘What do you mean?’ I ask.

‘They look Estonian on the outside, but are outsiders on the inside.’

My hosts, Peter and Tiiu, laugh and agree with that description. These newfound blood brothers from the West with their patronising ways can be infuriating.

We sit in the faded lounge room and, over cups of hot coffee, chat about the new Estonia. Tiiu brings in a freshly baked cake and a bowl of linden berries. I eat them by the handful and think, ‘Berry season. The perfect time to be here.’ I am in heaven.

She returns to the kitchen and continues working—pickling home-grown gherkins and preserving the rest of the linden berries. Battling decades of shortages, everyone is careful with money and possessions. A lot of foodstuffs are expensive, so as much as they can, they supplement their diet with home-grown produce.

The following day, Olev and his musical partner, Coralie are to give a concert. We are ready to go, but have to wait a little while for Tiiu. She is bringing in the washing from the clothesline, sighing she cannot afford to lose any more clothes. Thieving is common and even clothes on the washing line cannot be left unattended.

There are two versions of the truth here. One is the state version and the second you hear whispered by people who are old enough to remember what it used to be like. So fifty years on, the people here are convinced there are still two versions of the truth. At Kiri-uu’s first concert, I meet a young man who has this profound sense of disbelief. Did I know, for example, that Freddy Mercury still lives? I tell him, no, he died of AIDS. He smiles knowingly—‘This death, you see, is another conspiracy. He still lives.’ We could not dislodge him from that belief.

One day we take a trip up to north-eastern Estonia to see not the beauty of its coastline, but the environmental degradation in Kunda caused by the Soviet-era cement factory. The vegetation in the surrounding countryside is all gray and even the few workers walking around the town’s lonely streets look ghostly, covered as they are in concrete dust.

But there is warmth from the locals who are grateful that tourists from the West are finally coming to explore this region.  My two weeks in Estonia prepares me a little for the last leg of my trip and what I can expect to find in Latvia. As we travel down through Estonia, Olev promises me that I will see the landscape change before my eyes.

‘Estonia is much more Scandinavian—it has a bit of tundra about it. But Latvian forests are denser with their tangled fir and birch, they are the places for fairies and trolls.’

The band’s roadie is behind the wheel, his foot on the accelerator. When we arrive I try to offer him some money for the petrol but he shrugs it off and says it isn’t necessary—he filled up at work. They may be free of the Communist yoke, but they are still following “in for a penny, in for a pound” principle. And who could blame them? They are all underpaid and have long lived with so many restrictions, gnawing away at a system that ties their hands behind their backs is an act of rebellion.

Riga, Latvia, 1991

‘You don’t speak Russian. That’s a worry. But never mind, we’ll find you a good cheap hotel,’ says Olev. He tracks down the Hotel Viktorija and coincidentally it’s on Stabu Iela.

‘My mother’s street!’ I gasp. Divine providence must be behind this trip. Riga is often dubbed the ‘Paris of the North’ but Stabu Iela lacks the grandeur of some of the city’s well-planned boulevards. The buildings here are late nineteenth or early 20th century and all are dingy, dirty, dark grey-brown in desperate need of a wash. But it’s well located and from here I can walk to the streets that hold some of the most stunning Art Nouveau architecture in Europe (there are already Germans grouped together on walking tours just for this purpose). There is one beautiful Art Nouveau building on Stabu Iela which is not on the tourist map for it has a dark past that many want to forget. It was the base of the Soviet secret police and during the Soviet occupation hundreds of Latvian nationalists were tortured and killed there. The building is now empty and the city is reluctant to do anything with it. Turning it into a museum will only offend Latvia’s Russian citizens (who now make up half the population) and even some Latvians wonder if it’s worth turning one of their country’s more traumatic places into a memorial.

It’s week three of my trip. I look around at my shabby room with its worn, grubby furniture and ugly, checked-patterned wallpaper and I am already planning my escape. I wander outside, stopping at a kiosk to buy a can of lemonade. Before long, I get the distinct feeling I am being followed. I am. They are only a couple of adolescents, but it rattles me. I wonder if I am imagining it, but suddenly they make a move towards me. Will they produce a knife? I expect the worst, but in halting English they make their demand.

‘Can we have your can?’

‘What, the lemonade?’ I query.


‘But it’s finished,’ I counter.

‘We know,’ they reply, ‘we just want the can’. They seem thrilled to bits when I hand them my empty vessel. Junk food is still rare and exotic. The upside is that everyone here—well, those under 30—is slim. Young Australians once looked like that too, I sigh to myself.

For dinner at a restaurant I plan to tuck into the local fare of schnitzel, potato salad, coffee and torte. It’s the kind of meal that Vera often used to cook: my default comfort food. The waiter is tall, blonde and lanky. Taking my order, he stands a little too close to me. He keeps looking over his shoulder nervously, so much so, it’s making me anxious. Am I being followed again, I wonder? Then he leans toward me and whispers conspiratorially, ‘Russian Caviar? Only fifty American dollars for you’. He’s hiding a giant tin underneath his oversized napkin. Has he pilfered it? I shake my head, not because I am afraid to break some Latvian law, but I hate the thought of caviar—how the eggs are ripped out of pregnant sturgeon. Perhaps disappointed that I am not as gluttonous as he’d hoped, he wanders off and before I have finished my main course, he’s back with another offer. It’s a book about Riga’s architecture. Maybe he’s pegged me as a dilettante. I buy it. It will be useful as a guidebook.

As evening comes down, I return to my hotel. The room is only on the third floor but the lift chugs slowly up, as if climbing one decrepit step at a time. I make a mental note to use the stairs next time before the clanking lift jogs my memory bank.

Poland, 1974

Hel. Some years before, my mother, father and I had taken a driving holiday through Poland. The purpose was obscure. My father announced one day he wanted to go to ‘Hell and back’ (partly because my mother was always telling him to go there), so that he could tell his friends where he’d been. The village of Hell, or should I correctly say ‘Hel’, is just a handful of dwellings, situated on a long spit of land that sticks out in the Baltic Sea. The long finger of land eventually leads to the border of Kaliningrad, a small Russian province which during the Soviet era was heavily militarised. On the borders of Hel, I sat on the sea strand and found a piece of amber washed up on the shore. The area is famous for the quantity of amber found here yet that small piece seemed magical to me.

Jokes aside, the main reason for the trip was just to see what life was really like in a communist country.

Warsaw. A Soviet-built lift. There five of us: the Polish lift operator, two beribboned Soviet apparatchiks, Vera and me. One of the Soviet officers orders the lift operator to take them to a particular floor. The Pole shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head, making it clear that he can’t understand Russian.

‘How can you not speak Russian?’ the Soviet official barks. ‘This is pathetic! Poland is a satellite of the Soviet state and, look at you, not even making an effort to learn basic Russian! What backward people you Poles are!’ The Soviet goes on in this vein, making the poor man shrink into his uniform.

The lift operator blinks nervously, feeling the anger of his words, if not the content.

‘Excuse me,’ says Vera in perfect Russian. She has heard every word. ‘What floor did you want?’

‘Ah, number five, thank you.’

She turns to the lift operator, smiles reassuringly, switches tongues and says in fluent Polish, ‘Number five for these clowns’.

Now that the lift is moving, the apparatchik smiles warmly at Vera, grateful she had solved the impasse. But his smile only fires her up and she starts to dress him down.

‘What gives you the right to expect your language to be spoken by everyone in Poland?’ she challenges. ‘Moscow may hold the balance of power and control the policies made by the Polish government, but you must remember—you are a guest in this country. And if anyone should make an effort it is you! Why aren’t you speaking Polish? And when you are a visitor, you should mind your manners! Does being a member of the party also give you the right to be rude to every worker? That poor man is only doing his job and you abuse him for it! So much for looking after the workers!’

I only grasp a word or two of this exchange, but what I do see is the shock on the Soviet’s face, as if he had had his face slapped. The Polish lift operator also pales in discomfort.

I think: ‘This could get ugly’.

But right on cue the lift comes to a stop and Vera sweeps out, stage left, to our rooms down the corridor.

‘The nerve of those goons,’ she says. ‘Treating that poor Pole as if he was some slave.’

Vera is still telling my father what had happened in the lift when there is a knock on the door. We open it and there are three Polish members of the hotel staff. The one on the right has a bottle of French champagne, the one on the left has a large bouquet of flowers and the middle one says in English, ‘Here is a token of our appreciation for standing up to our other houseguests who are not our favourite customers’.

Latvia, 1991

Riga. There was a happy ending back then and now I longed for another. But back in my room at the Hotel Viktorija, I try to lock my door and the lock is broken. Anyone can walk in at anytime. Then my first truly paranoid thought: is this deliberate? I heave an armchair against the door.

I had been warned by fellow travellers about untrustworthy characters in Riga that loitered anywhere tourists could be found: sharks and opportunists, con men and carpetbaggers. Eastern Europe was the new frontier. ‘Be careful of mafia men—they’ll be wearing tracksuits and Adidas shoes, and hanging around hotel foyers,’ I had been told. With that thought firmly planted in my head, I saw mafia men everywhere, all of whom I thought were determined to fleece me of my hard-earned Australian dollars.

I climb into bed and try to sleep. The walls are paper-thin—a Russian couple is talking heatedly next-door and the thoughts in my own brain are also becoming rattled, distorted and frenzied. Who knows I am here? Is Latvia really free? Perhaps KGB agents will burst through that door and arrest me. What’s to stop them? What would I do? I drift off to sleep.

About two in the morning, I wake with a start. Someone is in my room. The chair is being moved. Rigid with terror, I try to collect my thoughts. I look at the shadows around the room, searching for movement. I hear furniture scraping along the floors and raised voices again, but it’s all happening next door. Tensions have escalated. The Russians are yelling at each other now. They are physical too. So close, as if my bed is wedged between them.

I used to laugh with my friends about our refugee parents with their petty Cold War paranoia—why couldn’t they just get over it? But here, on this first trip, my very first night in Latvia, there are beads of sweat on my forehead and my heart is racing. Decades have passed, regimes have changed but I am convinced I will be arrested. What kind of emotional memories are trapped inside my DNA?

She’s not with me, but I turn to my mother for comfort. What would she say right now? I can hear her quoting the Latvian philosopher Janis Kulins: ‘If you are unhappy about something, just wait four weeks and by that time, you will have become used to it’.

Roll on week four.



Amanda Hickey has worked with words all her adult life across many mediums – documentaries, journalism, blogging, short films and creative writing. She is also a teacher and gives Storytelling workshops to Not-for-Profits. Her first documentary (Writer & Director) on heart surgeon Victor Chang, won an award for SBS TV. Her latest documentary (Producer, second unit Director) – We Are Many – was long listed for an Academy Award and is currently available on I-Tunes.

Amanda writes for her own blog, reviews for Verity La, and is currently finishing a nonfiction book on a WW2 Australian soldier that will be published later this year.  She is also working on a memoir, from which ‘Outsiders, Inside Out’ is excerpted.

Amanda is conducting an Intuitive Writing Workshop this coming Saturday 20 May. Details and bookings here.

The Lumen Seed (Judith Crispin)

Posted on May 16, 2017 by in Book Extracts

The Lumen Seed opens onto an apocalyptic scene. A hardwood mulga tree, reaching for the sky, holds a placard: “The Lord’s Return is Near”. In Coober Pedy, a curved handmade house rendered in warm mid-tones is edged with the sign “Welcome to Nowhere”. Dusty desert roadscapes unfold into the giant sacred stones of Karlu Karlu. An emu wanders nonchalantly into a gas station. We’re in Emu Dreaming Country now, meeting Crispin’s traveling friends. — Juno Gemes, Foreword: Five Minutes to Midnight, The Lumen Seed

Photo: Judith Crispin. Eemie at the UFO Roadhouse (Wycliffe Well NT, Dec 2015)

Yeah, it make me real sad and cry for my country. Because God bin Judith Crispin put me there, God put my people there. Why someone could move us, because of his power, because of his idea? Cutting off God’s power, God’s idea here, God’s word, God’s light. . .and that is the true. Cut off like this electric wire, if you cut him off, like that. — Jerry Jangala, Warlpiri Elder, The Lumen Seed

Photo: Judith Crispin. Jerry Jangala (Emu Waterhole, Tanami Desert NT, Dec 2015)

It was in Lajamanu that I encountered stories of the giant invisible snakes we share the country with. Tales of rainbow snakes, the Warnayarra, underpin all Australian Aboriginal cultures. These early extraterrestrials emerged from meteors at impact sites like Wolfe Creek Crater. They live in the waterways, in rivers and creeks, and the ridges and mountain ranges are records of where they have passed. According to Warlpiri culture, the Warnayarra gave people their language, and they can rise up to protect the country in times of dire need. In the 1950s, when the UK dropped eighteen nuclear and thermonuclear weapons on Maralinga in South Australia, it is said to have been Warnayarra snakes who propelled the atomic cloud back to the military base at Woomera, killing all the children under five. The sentience of landscape is the heart of these Jukurrpa (Dreaming) stories about Warnayarra snakes. My journey began in the center of Australia’s Anglophile government, Canberra, and ended at Wolfe Creek Crater, birthplace of the serpent. Judith Crispin, Introduction, The Lumen Seed

Photo: Judith Crispin. Wolfe Creek Crater (Tanami Track WA, June 2015)


Five Threnodies for Maralinga

    The mushroom cloud dispersed rapidly. For a few seconds it took
 the intriguing shape of an aboriginal face silhouetted over Australia,
then it eddied 1500ft high, and was blown away to the north-east . . .
           (Douglas Wilkie, the Courier-Mail, Brisbane, October 16, 1953)

Es atmet mich, it breathes me,
this cremated  field,
whose pulmonary veins were fused
by atomic blasts.
It is breathing slowly
like a heart, or an animal dying
and in the periodicity of its own blood
is become sternklang,
the language of stars.

In the 1950s, Robert Menzies
surrendered this desert to men who look down
from  flag-draped podiums
and parliamentary stairs.
They built bombing ranges that
from outer space resemble
occult sigils.
Es atmet uns, it is not in the nature of demons
to refuse such invitations.

Low on the horizon
a greasy cloud makes whispering noises
as it advances
erasing the mulgas.

Sun glints from its surface
like something solid.

And its interior is the muscle
of a snake, coiling recoiling—
it dislocates its jaw
and spews blackened birds
into the desert,
                                  Wedgetailed eagles
                                  with their eyes burned out.

Soldiers club them from air
with axe handles—
some of them are crying.

Do you remember?
These rivers, these mallee and paper daisies.
We took it all away.

A summer of aeroplanes,
of air excited
by radios: public, private, and military.

Ten year old Yami Lester played on Emu Field,
that day when all birds vanished,
when nothing in that grassland breathed.
And turning,

by instinct, stopping
he pressed knuckles into his eyes
a split second before the flash and double boom
roared toward him like a crashing road-train.

And traveling in that sound,
                                    a blue-white diamond,
                                    a second sun
passing through the bones of his hands,

left x-ray impressions
of blood and skin,
the intricate network of nerves,
and his eyes

It was black when the pressure wave hit
a feeling of being underwater,
and then the air sucked back,
billowing out his body like sheets on a line.

He didn’t see the rain
that smelled of chemicals and fell
in dense heavy drops
but he heard its tattoo

and distantly, from the direction of houses,
his mother screaming.

When they came to Juldil Kapi,
called Juldi, called Ooldea Soak,
the United Aborigines Mission,
in Jeeps and covered trucks
they looked like moon men.

Soldiers everywhere,
the older ladies recalled.
Guns. We all cry, cry, cryin’.

Time enough to pack a dilly bag
of clothes, a framed photograph,
a child’s favorite toy,
before the trucks rolled out,
leaving mission buildings to heat
and swallowing dunes.

And she, between soldiers,
on those hard troopie seats,
secretly fingers a stone
held deep in the pockets of her skirt—
nulu stone, she thinks, last fragment
of the meteor.
Its dust colors her skin.

A hundred kilometers to the south
departing helicopters drop leaflets
written in English
warning Aboriginal people
to not walk north.

But here on the savannah,
groups of figures separate in spinifex.

And later, when sky pressed toward them
like a wall, they laid their bodies
over their children
and rose again coated in tar.

Soldiers found them sleeping
in the Marcoo bomb crater.
They gave them showers
and scrubbed their fingernails.
But in the months that followed

their women gave birth
                   to dead babies, to babies
                   without lungs, babies without

and their men speared kangaroos
they couldn’t cook
because they were yellow inside.

A marquee stood on Emu Field
among fruit trees, with chairs and tables
for politicians and members of the press.
They served lemonade
and plates of sandwiches.
flitted in the eaves of a grandstand,
purpose-built for compelling views
of the mushroom cloud.

And after the last bus,
when the marquee was packed away
and only uniformed men flashed binoculars
on the grandstand,
they ordered their soldiers
to crawl
on all fours through atomic  elds.

Their bodies drag the dust.

On a clear day, you could see their backs lifting
though layers of mist
like elephants bathing in the Ganges.

And those who flew Lincolns into fallout
came back without throats—
coincidence, the English courts explained,
we all smoked back then . . .

But I want to know what happened to my grandfather—
dead before fifty from multiple cancers.
                 They gave peerages to nuclear scientists
                 and to soldiers, melanomas
                 and the chance to buy an unofficial medallion
                 for thirty dollars.

And I want to know what happened to my uncle—
dead before sixty from heart attack and stroke.
                 Cells transform into other cells,
                 like the songbirds of Emu field
                 whose calls were the silver
                 of shaken metal fragments.

I want to know if I’m going to live—
You’re young, the surgeon said, for this kind of cancer.
But he couldn’t tell me
                 how people become dust,
                 how sand becomes glass,
                 or how Menzies could send soldiers into atomic mist,
                 and still hold the word God in his mouth.

At Woomera,
seventy-five identical graves
remember babies lost to the predation
of atomic clouds.

Their epitaphs are brief—
                  Michael Clarke Jones
                  died 24 August 1952,
                  aged eight and a half hours.

No one has been here for a long time.

Weeds struggle.
A military vehicle passes,
heading east toward the rocket range.

In the west, Woomera township
is a grid of air force housing.
Land Cruisers fill neat driveways,
lawns are trimmed,
blinds closed.

And no one ever steps out for milk,
no one walks a dog.

I photograph each headstone,
stooping sometimes to straighten a plastic posy,
a tilted ceramic bear.

Wind presses a faded greeting card
to the metal fence.
A matchbox car beside a small boy’s grave
is blue.

There are nineteen stones without toys or flowers,
for stillborns named only “baby”—
                  Baby Spencer,
                  Baby Dowling,
                  Baby Stone.

Don’t look at me
                  Baby Gower
                  Baby Roads
from a soldier’s gunny bag
with your eyes too white, too open
like the eyes of poisoned fish
in the Pilbara’s poisoned surf.

Was it night when they came?
those soldiers who emptied the graves?

A secret harvest
of twenty-two thousand children
whose bones were crushed
for Strontium-90 tests in the UK.
Their parents were never told.

The ground here is hard.
Centuries of heat-fueled wind
have baked clay to shale.
To open a grave you’d need
It would not be gentle.

I see them starlit,
Shadow-striped by the wire fence,
they draw a baby boy from earth—
pale as a frog
and he wears my grandson’s face.

I don’t want to tell him
our bombs unleashed a serpent
older than names,
that hung over the neonatal ward,
above the cots of Woomera,
and the gaze of its lidless eye
returned them all to namelessness.

My grandson,
I don’t know what world will be left to you.

Photo: Judith Crispin. Lily Nungarrayi Yirringali (Tanami Desert NT, November 2014)


Judith Crispin
returned to Australia in 2011 after living and working in Germany for several years. Since that time she has driven the 8000 km round trip from her home in Canberra to the remote community of Lajamanu many times and established a close relationship with the Warlpiri community there. Crispin has a background in music composition, poetry and photography. She is currently working with Warlpiri elders to create Kurdiji 1.0, a community based app which aims to reduce the high rates of suicide among young Indigenous Australians by using technology to help reconnect them with stories, ceremonies and law.

Kurdiji is currently crowdfunding. Please donate if you can and help spread the word on Facebook and Twitter. The Lumen Seed can be purchased from Daylight Press.


CATCHING UP WITH A COMMUNICATIVE UNIVERSE: Michelle Cahill’s Letter to Pessoa (Angela Serrano)

Posted on May 9, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

Letter to Pessoa is Michelle Cahill’s debut collection of short fiction. The stories are told from a single, often first-person perspective, with many written in an epistolary format. The narrators are from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, often educated, articulate, sensual souls who think about books and theory and sex and love. They don’t have racism at the forefront of their consciousness; however, by presenting the world through the eyes of diverse narrators, these stories do nevertheless subvert the dominant, monocultural view.

In addition to advocating for greater acceptance of avant-garde work by writers of colour, Cahill has had a long and successful career as an award-winning published poet, and it shows in her prose. For instance, here is an excerpt from the title story:

‘Church bells gag. Beyond the rooftops the sky crushes me with its vivid blue. The old man at reception nods sympathetically. He guesses I have my suicidal hours. Aren’t we ever restless? Rebellious clerks for whom the streets are never desolate, littered with cigarette butts and last night’s pardon … Speechlessly, the city has its way with me.’

It is a remarkably lyrical description of the mundane act of leaving one’s hotel room and exploring the urban landscape. Observe the attribution of intent to strangers and the features of the landscape. There is a sense of self-aware self-absorption here. Everything seems to literally speak to the narrator; in this and all the other stories, the universe is communicative. German-American poet Lisel Mueller in her poem ‘Monet Refuses the Operation’ wrote ‘I do not wish to return to a universe of objects that do not know each other’. [1] Mueller’s poem has the Impressionist painter Monet refusing to treat his cataracts because blurry vision allowed him to see the way colours and objects blended and bled into each other, always interacting, never strictly isolated from each other as common perceptions of boundaries and distance would have it. In Cahill’s fiction, objects are actors. ‘Dust blinds’, ‘light burns holes’, ‘orchids stretch their strong, sweet tentacles’. Each glance and gesture is meaningful, and the narrators are confident of their ability to decode the implicit. This is not a detached and unfeeling universe; it is a universe that gets up close and personal.

The universe speaks not just through the living but through the dead. ‘Letter to Derrida’ had me imagining the handsome French-Algerian philosopher as being as intimately near to the letter-writer as a heart is to a heartbeat:

‘By sheer coincidence we passed between dusty shelves of the Archives Husserl at the École Normale Supérieure. Only to find we were star-crossed and you not quite mid-sentence, paraphrasing Heidegger … whilst citing Hegel in the service of Aristotle, so far inside the performance of translation that wherever we found ourselves that day was a place curbed and vanishing, a fact we relished though it would remain forever unresolved … You once told me there are traces of us in everything.’

It is difficult to recognise traces of ourselves in stories about revolting situations. ‘Chasing Nabokov’ is about an Economics student who tumbles into an affair with a Russian writer forty years her senior. The story appears to be about the young woman’s reckless pursuit of, and passionate devotion to, an unattractive, married, significantly older man dismissed from his previous university teaching job because of alleged paedophilia:

‘I knocked on his door and waited, feeling disconsolate and submissive. He opened the door and grabbed my hand … We hardly spoke, our mouths wet with hunger. Like a beautiful piece of prose being read with renewed inspiration, we made love in a room with worn carpets … I had forgotten the urgency of our delirious lies.’

However, not unlike the narrator in Yoko Ogawa’s masterful and similarly themed novel Hotel Iris, this Lolita figure is always reflexive, never unaware of the capriciousness of contingency and the fleeting character of even the most torrid romances. Her perspective, her opportunity to have a voice in this literary space, matters. Just as importantly, she has much to say about silly longings, and how love makes callow youths of us all.

Some of Cahill’s stories feature more politically charged situations. Even in these, the material is handled with similar grace and nuance – less shout, while still being full of substance. ‘The Sadhu’, for instance, is about a Nepalese-Australian woman and Irish man’s visit to a charismatic sadhu who has impregnated an Italian enlightenment seeker. ‘Sleep Has No Home’ is about a Muslim girl experiencing the first-hand effects of the failure of governance and diplomacy on her family and on her body. The narrator in ‘Biscuit’ is a west Nairobi-born cat who also happens to be a cancer survivor, exploring a society collapsing from within.

In these stories, and others in the collection, race and global inequality could very well take starring roles. Instead, Cahill’s psychological portraits treat the characters’ suffering as a universal injury. The reader doesn’t have to be of a particular ethnic background to ‘get it’. At the same time, there is no glib attempt to be ‘colour-blind’. ‘Ethnic’ names and settings abound in this work. It is a different way of working with the reality of racialisation and racism in English-language literature.

Michelle Cahill

This, to me, reads as a way of saying that not unlike ancient Greek myths and European fairy tales, stories by non-white writers about non-white characters can speak across cultures and generations. As a young Australian woman of colour, I daresay this is a good thing, in an Australia where people of colour are often regarded as having nothing important to say about anything that isn’t directly race and racism-related (and sometimes not even then). Literary nonfiction, poetry and fiction about racism’s harmful and enduring impact on the lives of people of colour contribute compelling reasons for readers to work towards immediate changes in behaviour and policy, not to mention enhancing the potential of literary language for describing subaltern experiences. However, limiting the range of Australian POC writing to racialised experiences, and to those alone, benefits no one. Good, anti-racist writing about living in Australia whilst non-white can, should, but doesn’t always have to be about experiences of persecution by white Australians. It doesn’t have to give the white Australian elephant in the POC living room the power of being the standard against which every little joy or worry is weighed. If we are to accept and live by a commitment to intersectional understandings of social inequality, we are also committing to a recognition that even racialised peoples know that their lives do not solely revolve around what white people can do to them. The following passage from Ghassan Hage’s (2014) review of Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s novel The Tribe expresses this thinking beautifully:

‘Anti-racists need to strike a balance between acknowledging the power of racism to negatively affect peoples’ lives and, at the same time, not giving too much power to racism in a way that boosts the racists’ exaggerated sense of self-importance… The racialised can, sometimes heroically, carve for themselves what I have called ‘resilient’ spaces. That is, spaces where people live their lives with a sense of normality without being constantly haunted by the representations produced by the dominant culture about them… [not adopting] the usual defensive position of the ‘constantly worrying about what the dominant culture is going to say about this’ posture. This is in itself a very important form of anti-racism.’ (Italics mine)

This fiction collection showcases far more than Cahill’s ability to inhabit the viewpoints of a diverse range of characters, or craft beautiful narrative paragraphs. Letter to Pessoa contains moving stories about the intersections of not just multiple layers of identity, but of thought and sense, the sublime and the profane, grand universals and intimate particulars. Without any didactic statements, Letter to Pessoa contributes to the anti-racist advocacy a compelling demonstration of an Australian woman’s ambitious, sweeping literary and intellectual vision beyond firefighting, gesturing towards more inclusive ideas of canon-worthy, standard-setting greatness. It is a remarkable first fiction collection; I hope it won’t be the last.


Letter to Pessoa
Michelle Cahill
Giramondo Publishing, 2016
216 pages, $24.95

Hage, G. (2014). ‘Writing Arab-Australian Universes’Overland Literary Journal. Viewed April 9, 2017
Mueller, L. (1996). ‘Monet Refuses the Operation’, from Second Language, Louisiana State University Press. Viewed April 9, 2017
Ogawa, Y. (2010). Hotel Iris, trans. S Snyder, Picador, New York

[1]  Mueller, L. (1996). ‘Monet Refuses the Operation’, from Second Language, Louisiana State University Press. Viewed April 9, 2017


Angela Serrano
is a 2017 Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Overland, Archer, Peril, Pencilled In, and elsewhere. She is a millennial Filipino-Australian Melbourne writer, a hot-blooded yogi, and a soprano in training. Find her on Twitter @angelita_serra and on her website.

(Nathanael O’Reilly)

Posted on May 2, 2017 by in Heightened Talk


We spent a summer late
last century in the former
USSR at the confluence

of the Tiza and Rika rivers
living in a Transcarpathian
valley with the mafia

the unemployed and the future
our students guided us
around town, to the castle

ruins, Gorodskoy park
the outdoor markets
and the plains of blood

accompanied us to neighbouring
villages, towns and cities
Rokosovo, Velyatyn, and Uzhgorod

we shot vodka with our principal
students’ parents, government officials
and gangsters, afraid to offend

our students competed for turns
to sweep the classroom floor
clean the blackboard, read aloud

take us swimming after classes
have coffee with us in cafes
serve us dinner in their homes


we arrived by train at the Hungarian-
Ukrainian border in the darkness
met our driver on the platform

loaded our luggage into his ancient
van and took our seats beside
curtain-covered windows

for the drive from Chop to Khust
through the unknown over potholes
to a pumping techno soundtrack

disoriented and alien, we arrived
in town near midnight, met hosts
who insisted on measuring us

before unloading, eating and drinking
declared our unusual Western height
qualified us for double rations


reading a novel in Gorodskoy
park I was approached
by local gangsters who took

up positions in front and behind
pistols tucked conspicuously
into tracksuit pants waistbands

demanded to know my business
and nationality before deciding
I was harmless, the leader

making homophobic jokes
in English about his comrade
my faggot buddy doesn’t understand

before inviting me to their bar
where we played pool in the basement
drank pivo with the local boss


local gang members climbed
our dark stairwell, pounded
on our steel door, demanded

in urgent fragmented English
that we come outside
hand over our passports

inside we stood silently
still against cracked walls
waiting for danger to fade


every weekday morning we walked
to school, past government offices
empty storefronts, crumbling

Soviet-built apartment blocks
past Romanian gypsies siting
in the dirt begging for kopeks

across the Mlynovytsya river
past groups of kids yelling
Hey, fuck you buddy! 

Hey, suck my dick, buddy!
mimicking Hollywood
bad-guy rhetoric

collecting our students
in ones and twos as we walked
we arrived at school in a gang


on scorching hot afternoons
our students took us to the Tisa
served us packed picnic lunches

cooked pig fat on sticks over fires
lit in the sand, ganged up
and threw us in the river

jumped with us off the abandoned
railway bridge into dangerous water
vying for our admiration

the teenage girls wore tiny bikinis
the teenage boys wore speedos
called us gypsies for wearing shorts

exhausted after swimming
we sat cross-legged on the sand
in a circle while Sasha played

Nirvana covers on his battered
acoustic guitar and the girls
sang mournful folk songs


on the road to Lviv
miles from the nearest village
we passed a Babushka

head covered in traditional
fashion, sitting on the ground
beside an upturned bucket

a lone cabbage perched atop
patiently waiting in the heat
to make the day’s final sale


we walked unpaved dusty streets
occasionally passed by a vehicle
a local riding in an engineless

Lada or Volga towed by a donkey
or a tracksuit-clad mafia man
driving a late-model BMW


the majority of the town’s men
unemployed filled their days
drinking vodka outside cafes

until they passed out with heads
and arms on tables or fell sideways
from plastic chairs onto concrete

the town’s women went to market
haggled over the price of bread
cabbage and potatoes, desperate

to save precious gryvnya
and kopeks, unable to afford
luxuries like meat or fruit


late at night we wandered home
from cafes and friends’ apartments
down narrow brick-paved streets

past abandoned Soviet army trucks
across the Khustet’s river
through the square where Father

Lenin’s statue stood, past the war
memorial, onion-domed
icon-filled Orthodox churches

concrete-block houses under construction
grassless front yards full of precious
cabbages, potatoes and onions


students’ parents took us in
to their homes, told us tales
of their lives under Soviet rule

showed us family albums of holidays
to Odessa and Chornomosk
kids frolicking on Black Sea sand

taught us their post-independence
mantra: under communism, we had jobs,
we had money, but there was nothing

to buy – now we have no jobs
we have no money
and there’s still nothing to buy!


on the train to Solotvyno we followed
the Ukrainian-Romanian border
southeast, barbed wire always

within view outside the right-hand
train windows, soldiers gripping machine
guns in guard towers watching over

the border, ready to kill if necessary
identically-dressed peasants working
the fields either side of the border


at Solotvyno we walked from the station
through unpaved village streets
browsed stores selling icons

purchased wooden jewellery, crosses
necklaces, bracelets and blouses
before arriving at the salt lakes

we floated on our backs in dark water
slathered each other in black mud
erased each other’s identities


on Voloshyna, Lvivska and Ivana Franka
students, friends and acquaintances
crossed the street to shake hands

men and boys kissed us
on the cheeks declaring affection
signalling their importance

as buddies of the Australianski
and Canadianski, local television
reporters stopped us on Karpatskoyi

to conduct interviews
Who are you? Why are you here?
Do you like our country?


on my twenty-fourth birthday
my students decorated
our classroom with banners

before my arrival, sang
Happy Birthday in English,
presented me with a gift

they purchased collectively:
a plastic mantel-piece-sized
Swiss clock replica

upon my departure
the clock was confiscated
at the Hungarian border

along with landscape paintings
gifts from students and parents
all declared National Treasures

by Ukrainian customs officials
too precious for export, worth
a few gryvnya on the black market


on the road to Lviv we passed
an abandoned nuclear power plant
ten times the size of any American mall

a VISA billboard between the road
and a wheat field proclaimed

defying reality and our experience
an advance party advocate for capitalism
convenience and Westernization



Nathanael O’Reilly was born and raised in Australia. He has travelled on five continents and spent extended periods in England, Ireland, Germany, Ukraine and the United States, where he currently resides. His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies in nine countries, including Antipodes, Australian Love Poems, Cordite, FourW, LiNQ, Mascara, Postcolonial Text, Prosopisia, Red River Review, Snorkel, Social Alternatives, Tincture, Transnational Literature and Verity La. O’Reilly is the recipient of an Emerging Writers Grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. He is the author of Preparations for Departure (UWAP Poetry, 2017), Distance (Picaro Press, 2014; Ginninderra Press, 2015) and the chapbooks Cult (Ginninderra Press, 2016), Suburban Exile (Picaro Press, 2011) and Symptoms of Homesickness (Picaro Press, 2010).

‘Transcarpathia’ appears in Nathanael’s new book, Preparations for Departure, which has just been released by UWA Publishing. The book will be launched on May 23rd in Wagga by Lachlan Brown. Nat will also be reading in Griffith on May 25th and running the Booranga Workshop on May 20th as part of his duties as Writer-in-Residence at Booranga Writers’ Centre, where he’ll be in residence for the second half of May.