OUTSIDERS, INSIDE OUT
(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.

‘Yes.’

‘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)

I
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.

II
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
                                    burned.

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.

III
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
                   eyes,

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

IV
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.
Songbirds
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.

V
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
tumbling
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
                                                  sledgehammers,
                                                  pickaxes,
                                                  crowbars.
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
mud-marked
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.

 

Pachinko Sunsets and Concrete Flamingos: poems by David Gilbey and Mark Roberts

Posted on February 19, 2016 by in Book Extracts, Events

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Australian Studies Conference, Hachioji, Tokyo (David Gilbey)

There are no seats on the shinkansen to Tokyo
so I stand for 300 kilometres, suspended,
at more than 200 kph,
clambering the rope ladder of my friend’s manuscript
from last night’s lasagne and saké
to fiction’s ever-present otherworld.

At the seminar Aust Lit is all kanji to me,
the familiar made suddenly strange.
Titles are stepping stones in a Buddhist garden.
The gods metamorphosed:
Patrick becomes a stone bridge, Judith a purple bonsai maple
and Saint Henry the pebbled stream.
‘Galah’ flies loudly and prettily through our minds.
‘Swagman’ is passed from hand to mouth
like a communion wafer, familiar as a Tim Tam.
I wait for Hope’s vision of Australian emptiness
and (sure as eggs) it comes
written in copperplate chalk
on the blackboard:
‘Vacunt’.

In the last session, Priscilla, Queen of Tokyo
rides out again on a fine moist Sunday morning
through a desert of Japanese advertising billboards.
Explorer narratives never looked so good:
Sturt, Leichhardt, Eyre – three wise drag queens
befrocked cocks on the rocks show the false is too true:
every line of mascara and cluster of sequins counts.
Character is destiny – or is it an androgynous angelic kite?
We all keep some ABBA shit in a bottle.
But, if we’re lucky, like Bernadette
we’ll find our Bill.


Museum (Mark Roberts)

There should be a label here directing my thoughts, a catalogue
to read while I make my way  to the underground platform —
here you have crossed an historically significant layer
or just to your right behind the tiled wall
are unknown bones possibly human. A history
dug up and reburied without thought.

This is an old station – a picture on the wall
shows it being built at the bottom of a hole.
There is a steam shovel, workers with picks
& lines of horses pulling wooden carts full of rock.
I have to step over the ghosts of men in hats
and lace up shoes to reach the platform,
but I feel them behind me still
as I sit on a wooden bench waiting.

I hold a book to hide my face and shut out the roar
I read of how:
the box heaved a little
and of how:
the cat took a long time to drown.

An old man sits next to me, he coughs
and blows smoke into my face.  “Chapell’s
heading for the axe, remember Lawry
you’re not too young to remember Lawry?”
I put my book
down
and ready myself to talk cricket
but he gets up and walks away.

My eyes wander, escaping to the objects
in the hollowed out station.
I attempt to categorise them
accountants, poets, shopgirls, factory workers —
there’s the elderly man in the safari suit
who I saw buy a loaf of bread in Oxford Street
15 minutes ago. He has lost his shopping bag.

My train pulls in and I meet the eyes
of an old woman leaning against the wall
on the opposite platform. She is wearing
a dress that was elegant once — postwar
but is now moth eaten. She looks at me
shrugs and disappears as the carriage stops.

I look back through a sooty window
as the train pulls out into the tunnel.
History is receding, there is darkness ahead.

 

* ‘Museum’ was first published in Southerly

Other poems by Mark Roberts on Verity La: ishmael and posthumous

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David Gilbey’s first poetry collection was Death & the Motorway (Interactive, 2008). Selections of his poems were included in Under the Rainbow (fourW press,1996) and the noise of exchange: Twelve Australian Poets (ASM Poetry, Macao). Some of his haibun have been collected in Downunder Japan and Forty Stories (2012 & 2010, Fine Line Press, NZ). David is a founder of Wagga Wagga Writers Writers, current President of Booranga Writers’ Centre and Editor of fourW: new writing. He is Adjunct Senior Lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University. Three times he has been a Visiting Professor of English at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University, in Sendai, Japan and has been a regular broadcaster/reviewer on ABC Riverina.

Mark Roberts was born in Sydney and has been active in the writing community since the early 1980s. He has been widely published in journals,  magazines and anthologies both in Australia and overseas. He co-founded the occasional literary journal P76 in 1982 and set up Rochford Street Press in the same year. In 2011 Mark founded the online cultural review journal Rochford Street Review and he is currently poetry editor for Social Alternatives journal. Concrete Flamingos is his first major collection of poetry.

There will be a Sydney launch of Pachinko Sunset and Concrete Flamingos on Saturday 27 February, 2.30pm, at the Friend in Hand Hotel (58 Cowper St, Glebe). Pachinko Sunset will be launched by Peter Kirkpatrick and Concrete Flamingos will be launched by Anna Couani. Clean Skin Poems, by Lauren Williams, will also be launched by Ron Pretty on the day.

Group launches/readings of the 2016 Island Press publicationsPachinko Sunset, Concrete Flamingos, Clean Skin Poems and Engraft (by Michele Seminara)—will also take place in Wagga Wagga (Saturday 5 March, 2pm, at Wagga Wagga City Library) and in Melbourne (Saturday 19 March, 2pm, at the Dan O’Connell Hotel, 225 Canning St, Carlton).

You can purchase Pachinko Sunset from Island Press or by contacting David Gilbey at dgilbey@csu.edu.au.

You can purchase Concrete Flamingos from Island Press or via Rochford Street Press Bookshop.

Matt & Tess in the Wild Weather: Poems by Les Wicks

Posted on January 29, 2016 by in Book Extracts, Heightened Talk

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Matt in The Wild Weather

My Summer sits in silence.
She wears this pet name like I
have the power to give it, Tess
is rolling familiar smoke I query
if all this is certain to be seasonal.

She giggles when I put on Creedence
Who’ll Stop the Rain, reckon we’ll make out but
she’s thinking. Worst weather in 10 years
means half the city’s on a sickie. All over facebook –
Dace’s photo at the drowning ocean pool
(we all love cute animals & sick bastards with a grin).
How much longer will she be mine,
there’s howling everywhere today.

I promise to her
in stutter silence
that everything I don’t care about
isn’t her. Is this a guy thing?
Are our bones too angry,
our tendons in knots?
I keep control nowadays (pledge) I’m like
an acerbic cockatoo. I have dug
& swept
& bailed today. This downpour
fits me like a shackle.
I just want to say…

 

Tess in the Wild Weather

Events aren’t chaos, I wear
my complexities beneath a smile, that smile
is all the makeup I need because I make & hope
for up. Listen to Sigur Ros, find yourself
right where you came from, completely changed.

Outside the blackbutts grizzle in a gale.
Envy the collective mobilisation of leaf litter
the way it builds its gutter dams,
that ludicrous obduracy
of this momentary resistance.
I open the baggie, its brittle verdancy promises
a little with great honesty.
Two Ikea lamps, Indian cushions a
caliginous buzz of life in a dry corner.

You worry too much.
I worry too little. We are
a match.

Have to believe
that a beast will always soothe the broken child.
Perhaps power is a construct, there
are more storms coming that will sweep such constructs
off swimming to the sea.
If this is all nonsense
there is coffee & love known in this world.

Roll another one, I’ve developed
a taste for inclemency.

 

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Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication in over 300 different magazines, anthologies & newspapers across 24 countries in 12 languages. His 13th book of poetry is Getting By    Not Fitting In (Island, 2016).

Les’s workshops are among the best known in the country. For upcoming Melbourne and Sydney opportunities visit his website.

cover final - front pageThese poems are from Les’s recently published book, Getting By   Not Fitting In. Dire and funny as every life lived, this book prowls around gender, narrative and landscape before pouncing on the journey of Matt and Tess. Nobody quite fits in amidst the quotidian, atrocity, wonder and arrangements.

Getting By  Not Fitting In is being launched by distinguished poet Chris Mansell at Friend in Hand Hotel, 58 Cowper St, Glebe, on Saturday 5th February, 2:30pm. For details ring 9580 4542.

If you can’t attend the launch but would like to purchase a book contact leswicks@hotmail.com to order via paypal, direct credit or cheque. Alternately, you can order direct from Island at 29 Park Rd, Woodford NSW 2778 (http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm).

Some commentary on Les Wicks’ previous books:

“…the mixture of prawn-on-the-barbie, stale beer and thongs suburban, with a sophisticated lyricism and openness to nature… harvesting poetic truffles; line after line seems to have arrived entire.”  — John Watson

“…visual and tonal senses, shown through a series of relentless escapes and endscapes, create a striking depiction of the poet’s perceptions and observations.”
— Matthew Hall