Elly McDonald

Writer


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Two NQP (Not Quite Poems)

Love letters from the council estate boys

1.
Lady in orange we like you
No real reason
Just your treble clef curves
Those playground heels
The way your hair foofs
Like a TV commercial come
To life
The bow’n’arrow smile
The narrowed eyes
That bag slung over your shoulder shouts
money

2.
You are my perfect woman.
Come out with me.
Here is my phone number.
I have a job.

Photo from UN Women FB

Death Sports

There are no excuses for us.
We are still the savage species
thrilling to
dog fights
bear baiting
cock fighting.
Death sports.
The fall of the fortunate
our enemies hacked to death.
Not even our enemies
The cats in the sack
ignite

We must know
the law is an ass.
We 
only believe
in the mob.

Artwork by Chen Hongzhi


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A few more poems I like, in no order

I find myself unable to work with WordPress Block editing. Apologies to the poets whose poems are not set out as they should be here.

Lee Herrick

Flight

The in-flight magazine crossword partially done,
a corner begun here, scratched out answers there,
one set of answers in pencil, another in the green.
The woman with the green ball point knew
the all-time hit king is Rose and the Siem Reap
treasure is Angkor Wat. The woman, perhaps en route
to hold her dying mother’s hand in Seattle, forgot
about death for ten minutes while remembering her
husband’s Cincinnati Reds hat while gardening after
the diagnosis. Her handwriting was so clean. Maybe
she was a surgeon. Maybe a painter. No. What painter
wouldn’t know 17 down, Diego’s love, five letters?
In a rush, her dying mother’s voice came back
to her, or maybe she was Chinese and her mother’s
imagined voice said, wo ai ni. At 30,000 feet,
you focus on 33 across, Asian American classic,
The Woman ________, when a stranger in the window
seat sees the clue, watches me write in W, and she says
Warrior, and for a moment you forget it is your favorite
memoir, and she reminds you of lilies or roses, Van Gogh
or stems with thorns, art galleries in romantic cities
where she is headed but you should not go. The flight
attendant grazes my shoulder. The crossword squares,
the letters, the chairs and aisles seem so tight in flight,
but there is nothing here but room, really.
Maybe the next passenger will know
what I do not: 64 down, five letters, Purpose.
And why do we remember what we do? We know
the buzz of Dickinson’s fly and the number of years
in Marquez’s solitude, but some things we will never
know, as it should be: why the body sometimes rumbles
like a plane hurtling over southern Oregon, how exactly
we fall in love, or if Frida and Maxine Hong
Kingston would have loved the same kind of tea.

Originally published in Daily Gramma, October 2016.

The Birds Outside My Window Sing During a Pandemic

What we need has always been inside of us.
For some—a few poets or farmers, perhaps—
it’s always near the surface. Others, it’s buried.
It was in our original design, though—pre-machine,
pre-border, pre-pandemic. I imagine it like the light
one might feel through the body before dying,
a warm calm, a slow breath, a sweet rush.
There is, by every measure, reason for fear,
concern, a concert in the balcony of anxiety
made of what has also always been inside of us:
a kind of knowing that everything could break.
But it hasn’t quite yet and probably won’t.
What I mean to say is, I had a daydream
and got lost inside of it. There were dozens
of birds for some reason, who sounded like
they were singing in different accents:
shelter in place, shelter in place.
You’re made of stars and grace.
Stars and grace. Stars—and grace.

Originally published in MiGoZine, March 2020.

Burlee Vang

To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse

The moon will shine for God
knows how long.
As if it still matters. As if someone

is trying to recall a dream.
Believe the brain is a cage of light
& rage. When it shuts off,

something else switches on.
There’s no better reason than now
to lock the doors, the windows.

Turn off the sprinklers
& porch light. Save the books
for fire. In darkness,

we learn to read
what moves along the horizon,
across the periphery of a gun scope—

the flicker of shadows,
the rustling of trash in the body
of cities long emptied.

Not a soul lives
in this house &
this house & this

house. Go on, stiffen
the heart, quicken
the blood. To live

in a world of flesh
& teeth, you must
learn to kill

what you love,
& love what can die.

Copyright © 2016 by Burlee Vang. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 20, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Jenny Xie

Square Cells

The screens plant bulbs
of tension inward, but hit no nerves.

River of speechless current.
My gaze faces the screen, laps up

blue-eyed policemen in bloom
and a fat fog fanning out by the inch

across cities in eastern China.
Refresh for a politician yawning

wolfish monosyllables.
In the bed of pixels, I can make out

truth and fiction taking turns,
one imitating the other.

My window faces stone and glass.
My screen faces my face.

The clean square cells of this city
contain so many faces.

Each brightened by a fear
which makes them commonplace.

Copyright © 2017 by Jenny Xie.

e.e. cummings

Amores (I)

your little voice 
                              Over the wires came leaping 
and i felt suddenly 
dizzy 
          With the jostling and shouting of merry flowers 
wee skipping high-heeled flames 
courtesied before my eyes 
                                                or twinkling over to my side 
Looked up 
with impertinently exquisite faces 
floating hands were laid upon me 
I was whirled and tossed into delicious dancing 
up 
Up 
with the pale important 
                                                stars and the Humorous 
                                                                                                moon 
dear girl 
How i was crazy how i cried when i heard 
                                                                              over time 
and tide and death 
leaping 
Sweetly 
               your voice

Jane Hirshfield

Like Others

In the end,
I was like others.
A person.

Sometimes embarrassed,
sometimes afraid.

When “Fire!” was shouted,
some ran toward it,
some away—

I neck-deep among them.

—2017

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Recipe For Happiness Khaborovsk Or Anyplace

“Poetry is a naked woman, a naked man, and the distance between them.”

One grand boulevard with trees 
with one grand cafe in sun 
with strong black coffee in very small cups. 

One not necessarily very beautiful 
man or woman who loves you. 

One fine day. 

Alexandra Teague

Adjectives of Order

That summer, she had a student who was obsessed 
with the order of adjectives. A soldier in the South 
Vietnamese army, he had been taken prisoner when 

Saigon fell. He wanted to know why the order 
could not be altered. The sweltering city streets shook
with rockets and helicopters. The city sweltering 

streets. On the dusty brown field of the chalkboard, 
she wrote: The mother took warm homemade bread 
from the oven. City is essential to streets as homemade 

is essential to bread . He copied this down, but 
he wanted to know if his brothers were lost  before 
older, if he worked security at a twenty-story modern

downtown bank or downtown twenty-story modern.
When he first arrived, he did not know enough English 
to order a sandwich. He asked her to explain each part 

of Lovely big rectangular old red English Catholic
leather Bible. Evaluation before size. Age before color. 
Nationality before religion. Time before length. Adding 

and, one could determine if two adjectives were equal. 
After Saigon fell, he had survived nine long years 
of torture. Nine and long. He knew no other way to say this.

From Mortal Geography by Alexandra Teague, Persea Books. Copyright © 2010 by Alexandra Teague.

Alexandra Teague

Late American Aubade

Man in a chicken suit, you’re the only one today 
not selling beauty: 5th Avenue star-struck with Christmas,
three-story diamonds and flocks of ballerinas pirouetting
clockworking gears as if the Industrial Revolution
were a life-sized music box of desires and we’ve just kept 
on winding. If. And Wish Upon. And shopping bag. And you
with your wind-ruffled feathers and flyers, pleading 
for our primitive hungers. That inelegant grease spot 
and crunch to remind us. The mannequins don’t 
even have bones. I’ll never have a purse nice enough
to hold a wallet worth the money to buy the purse
at Barney’s. And what does it matter? There are drumsticks.
I’m a vegetarian. You are no masked creature worth hugging
for a picture. No Minnie. No marble nymph of Beauty
in pigeon net outside the library:  old yet ever new eternal voice 
and inward word. As if we hear it clear in the gizzard: 
Beauty is God and love made real. You will be this beautiful
if. You are the rock in the crowd-raked garden of traffic,
just past the corner of jaguar-made-of-dazzle and flapper
reading Shakespeare bound in bardic sparkles. Your yellow,
a scant flag to claim us:  ordinary strange as holy chickens
in a gilded cage in Spain. Their ancestors, heralds 
of a miracle. A huge mechanical owl recites Madonna 
in a window Baz Luhrmann designed since February. 
It takes all year for a miracle with this many moving parts.
All of us in a rush to wait for the catastrophe of personality 
to seem beautiful again. As if this is the best we can hope for:  
seeming to ourselves—like panhandlers dressed as Buddhist 
monks the real monks are protesting. Asked for her secret, the model for Beauty said, The dimples on my back
have been more valuable to me than war bonds. Asked for proof, 
one orange-robed woman said, I can’t tell you where, but I do
have a temple. Beaked promise of later lunch, catastrophe
of unbeautiful feather, how can we eat the real you
that you are not? Which came first? The shell to hatch 
desire, or desire? Which skin holds my glittering temple?  

Copyright © 2016 by Alexandra Teague. “Late American Aubade” originally appeared in Cimarron Review. 

Yi Lei

A Single Woman’s Bedroom

translated by Tracy K. Smith & Changtai Bi

1. Mirror Trick

Of course you know her.
She is one and many,
A multitude flashing on, then off,
Watching out from the tidy blank
of her face. She is silent, speaking
With just her mind. She is flesh, a form,
but also flat, a mute screen.
What she offers you, by no means
Should you accept.  She belongs to no-one,
sitting like a ghost beyond her own reach.
And yet, she’s there—I mean me
Behind glass, as if the world has been cleaved,
Though something whole remains,
Roving, free, a voice with poise and pitch.
 She’s there—me—snug in the glass,
The little mirror on the bedside
Doing its one trick
A hundred times a day.
             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

2. Turkish Bath

The room is choked with nudes.
Once, a man tried to muscle in by mistake
Crying, “Turkish bath!” He had no idea
My door is always locked in this heat,
No idea that I am the sole guest and client,
The chief consort, that I cast my gaze
Of pity and absolute pride across
The length of my limbs—lithe, pristine—
The bells of my breasts singing,
The high bright note of my ass,
My shoulders a warm chord,
The chorus of muscle that rings
Ecstatic.  I am my own model.
I create, am created, my bed
Is heaped with photo albums,
Socks and slips scatted on a table.
A spray of winter jasmine wilts
In its glass vase, dim yellow, like
Despondent gold. Blossoms carpet
The floor, which is a patchwork
Of pillows. Pick a corner, sleep in peace.
             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

3. Curtain Habit

The curtain seals out the day.
Better that way to let my mind
See what it sees (every evil under the sun),
Or to kneel before the heart, quiet king,
Feeling brave and consummately free.
Better that way to let all that I want
And all I believe swarm me like bees,
Or ghosts, or a cloud of smoke someone
Blows, beckoning. I come. I cry out
In release. I give birth
To a battery of clever babies—triplets,
Quintuplets, so many all at once.
The curtain seals in my joy.
The curtain holds the razor out of reach,
Puts the pills on a shelf out of sight.
The curtain snuffs shut and I bask in the bounty
Of being alive. The music begins.
Love pools in every corner.
             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

4.  Self-Portrait

The camera snaps. Spits me out starkly ugly.
So I set out to paint the self within myself.
It takes twelve tubes, blended to a living tint,
Before I believe me. I name the mixture Color P.
The hair—curious, unlikely—is my favorite,
The same fluff of bangs tickling my niece’s face.
And my eyebrows are wide as hills. They swallow everything.
They are a feat.  They do not impress me as likely to age.
They are brimming with wisdom. Neither slavish nor stern.
Not magnificent, but not the kind made to crumple in shame.
Not prudish.  Unwilling to arch and beckon like a whore’s. 
They skitter away from certainties like alive or dead
My self-portrait hangs on the narrow wall,
And I kneel down to it every day. 

             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

5.  Impromptu Party

The little table is draped with a festive cloth, and
Light blurs out from a single lamp, making us fuzzy.

A sip of red wine, and I rise to my feet. We are
Dancing, my guests and I, like kids in a ballroom.

We don’t smile or even speak. 
We’ve had a lot to drink.

To a single woman, time is like a scrap of meat:
Nothing you can afford to give away. I want

To hold it in my lap, Time, that sneak, that thief already
Scheming to break free.  Please—I beg

Upon the magnificent extravagance of my beloved stilettos,
I want the world back.  I’ve been alive—could it be?—

Near a century. My face has closed up shop. 
My feet are a desolate country. 

For a single woman, youth is a feast that lasts
Only until it is gone.

             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

6.  Invitation

When it arrived, I was interrupted by relief,
Sitting in my rattan chair, feeling the wind ease in
Through the hole in my life.

I only said yes because of his dissertation. Friends,
Nothing more. We talked—he talked—about modernism,
Black humor. But always at a distance from reality.

Why didn’t he ask me anything?
Tender and petulant, he struck me as cute.
But at heart, only a very well-behaved boy.

He offers his arm. Elegant, decent, gallant.
But how can I prove myself a woman
If he is a child? What can come of that union?

Can any of us save ourselves? Save another?

             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

7. Sunday Alone

I don’t picnic on Sundays.
Parks are a sad song; I steer clear.
But I dug out all my sheet music,
I lolled about in the Turkish Bath
Singing from breakfast to tea.
With my hair, I sang Do
And my eyes, Re
And my ear sounded Mi
And my nose went after Fa
My face tilted back and out rose So
My mouth breathed La
My whole body birthed Ti
Like my cousin said, famously—
Music is the soul sighing.
Music pushes back against pain.
Solitude is great (but I don’t want
Greatness). My eyes slump
Against the walls. My hair
Hurls itself at the ceiling like a colony
Of bats.
             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

8.  Dialectic

I read materialist philosophy—
Material ispeerless.
But I’m creationless.
I don’t even procreate.
What use does the world have for me
Here beside my reams of cock-eyed drafts
That nick away at the mountain of
Art and philosophy?
             Firstly, Existentialism.
             Secondly, Dadaism.
             Thirdly, Positivism.
             Lastly, Surrealism.
Mostly, I think people live
For the sake of living.
Is living a feat?
What will last?
My chief function is obsolescence.
Still, I send out my stubborn breath
In every direction. I am determined
To commit myself to a marriage
Of connivance.
             You didn’t come to live with me.
 

9.  Downpour

Rain hacks at the earth like an insatiable man.
Disquiet, like passion, subsides instantly.
Six distinct desires mate, are later married.
At the moment, I want everything and nothing.
The rainstorm barricaded all the roads. Sandbags.
Isn’t there something gladdening about a dead-end?
I canceled my plans, my trysts, my escapes.
For a moment—I almost blinked and missed it—the storm
Stopped the clock that chases me. The clock of the heart, maybe.
It was an ecstasy so profound…
             “Ah, linger on, thou art so fair!”
I’d rather admit despair. And die.
                         You didn’t come to live with me.
 

10. Dream of Symbolism

I occupy the walls that surround me.
When did I become so rectilinear?
I had a rectilinear dream:
The rectilinear sky in Leo:
The head, for a while, shone brightest.
Next the tail.  After a while
It became a wild horse
Galloping into the distances of the universe,
Lasso dragging behind, tethered to nothing.
There are no roads in the black night that contains us.
Every step is a step into absence.
I don’t remember the last time I saw
A free soul. If she still exists, fire-eyed gypsy,
She’ll die young.
                         You didn’t come to live with me.
 

11. Birthday Candles

They are like heaps of stars.
My flat roof is like a private galaxy
That stretches on stubbornly forever.

The universe created us by chance,
Our birth, simple happenstance.
Should life be guarded or gambled?
Lodged in a vault or flung to the wind?

God announces: Happy Birthday.
Everyone raises a glass and giggles audibly.
Death gets clearer in the distance. Closer by a year.

Because all are afraid, none is afraid.
It’s pity how fast youth sputters and burns,
Its flame like the season’s last peony.
A bright misery.

                         You didn’t come to live with me.
 

12.  Cigarette

I lift it to my lips, supremely slim,
Igniting my desire to be a woman.
I appreciate the grace of the gesture,
Cosmopolitan, a shorthand for beauty,
The winding haze off the tip like the chaos of sex.
Loneliness can be sweet. I re-read the paper.
The ban on smoking underway
Has gotten a bonfire of support. A heated topic,
Though I find it inflammatory. Authority
Flings a struck match in our direction, then
Gasps when we flare into flame. Law:
A contest between low-lives and sophisticates,
Though only time knows who is who.
Tonight I want to commit a victimless crime.
                         You didn’t come to live with me.
 

13.  Thinking  

I spend all my spare time doing it.
I give it a name: walking indoors.
I imagine a life in which I possess
All that I lack. I fix what has failed.
What never was, I build and seize.
It’s impossible to think of everything,
Yet more and more I do. Thinking
What I am afraid to say keeps fear
And fear’s twin, rage, at bay. Law
Squints out from its burrow, jams
Its quiver with arrows. It shoots
Like it thinks: never straight. My thoughts
Escape. One day, they’ll emigrate
To a kingdom far-off and heady.
My visa’s in-process, though like anyone,
I worry it’s overpopulated already.
                         You didn’t come to live with me.

14.  Hope

This city of riches has fallen empty.
Small rooms like mine are easy to breech.
Watchmen pace, peer in, gazes hungry.
I come and go, always alone, heavy with worry.
My flesh forsakes itself. Strangers’ eyes
Drill into me till I bleed. I beg God:
Make me a ghost. Something invisible
Blocks every road. I wait night after night
With a hope beyond hope. If you come,
Will nation rise against nation? If you come,
Will the Yellow River drown its banks?
If you come, will the sky blacken and rage?
Will your coming decimate the harvest?
There is nothing I can do in the face of all I hate.
What I hate most is the person I’ve become.
                         You didn’t come to live with me.

Copyright © 2018 by Tracy K. Smith.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Please Call Me by My True Names

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving to be a bud on a Spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond. And I am the grass-snake that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands. And I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth. My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, nthe door of compassion.

Öykü Tekten

Mountain Language

the day after the mulberry tree fell on its belly, the army bombed a truck 
full of black umbrellas sent from russia against the tyranny of rain. they 
said, the black umbrellas are no longer allowed in the mountains. hats 
are. guns are. gods are. the trees are offensive to the sky. then 
they called our language mountain, then they pronounced it dead. 

we are in a dream, you said. undo the pain before you speak
against the gods with mouths full of rain. a tongue cut in half 
becomes sharper, you said. date your wound.

Copyright © 2020 by Öykü Tekten. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 21, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

Adrienne Rich

Twenty-One Love Poems [Poem III]

Since we’re not young, weeks have to do time
for years of missing each other. Yet only this odd warp
in time tells me we’re not young.
Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty,
my limbs streaming with a purer joy?
did I lean from any window over the city
listening for the future
as I listen here with nerves tuned for your ring?
And you, you move toward me with the same tempo.
Your eyes are everlasting, the green spark
of the blue-eyed grass of early summer,
the green-blue wild cress washed by the spring.
At twenty, yes: we thought we’d live forever.
At forty-five, I want to know even our limits.
I touch you knowing we weren’t born tomorrow,
and somehow, each of us will help the other live,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.

Poem III from “Twenty-One Love Poems,” from The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1978 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

December 26, 2020
Emilie Zoey Baker
I

On New Year’s Eve a small river of brown snakes crossed our path
What does this mean? my friends wondered
I said it means we have to stay wide awake this year, pay attention.

Animals are omens. 

II

We got a kitten during lockdown
and I taught him to walk on a lead
we named him Panko, a tiny crumb amid a PAN-demic of CO-vid 
I would push a harness over his crayon sun face,
then let him lick meat cream from my fingers.
Now he’s tethered, clipped to a lead whenever outdoors, to save the honeyeaters, rosellas, whipbirds, cockatoos and king parrots.  
We nicknamed him Clippy.
He comes in and out, making a cat’s cradle with the cord
we have to climb over it as if he’s woven intricate laser beams in a heist movie,
booby-trapped the doorway
Home Aloned us.  

The tomato plant near the doorway is wounded from his leash, a slow cut each day
like me on Twitter
like every night I say it will be a new day
but I wake up and think
I better check if the world has ended
log on to the junk feed and absorb everything

I have to pay attention.

III

I wake up covered in dream post-it notes 
the urgency of action in an actionless day
the news stapled into my stomach 
its metal claws piercing the sides
I kept wishing I’d suddenly change
but there have been way more aspirins than moons.
My belly got big so I named it King George 
because mediaeval royalty wasn’t taught to body-shame.  

The toilet paper part of lockdown feels so long ago now
the Tiger King part of lockdown
the faked dolphins in Venice part of lockdown
the Universal Declaration of Bunnings Rights part of lockdown
the done-all-of-Brighton part of lockdown
the cranberry juice and Fleetwood Mac part of lockdown
the aerial shots of hospital carparks part of lockdown
the marches, violence and justice part of lockdown

I’m world-sick. But the snakes insisted.  

The prime minister waving his Sharkies scarf while we couldn’t hug our friends
the prime minister offering leadership by holding a hammer (not a hose)
the unwanted handshakes turning into gormless grinning elbow bumps. 

The air in China suddenly full of clean-crystal hope, 
now again heavy with particles 
as black as Rudy Giuliani’s skull tears. 
Unprecedented times. I watch it unspool. 
The Moses-sized divides leave me thirsty
for unpresidented times.
Memes blaze 
catastrophes duplicate.
It all thumps through me like bass.  

IV

In the beginning I saw myself like a fossil in a rock placed back into a mountain
the imprinted ridges still there, clicking back like a battery
I stayed quiet as the stone around me.
Now I must prise myself out again.
I tried to cry an ocean so the tides might bring back what was there before, wash me up to my own feet
because only an ocean can dissolve a mountain.
I’m not sure who I have become or what I will do. 
This year is vibrating with such monolithic symbolism there’s little room for poetry.
Maybe making friends with a kitten is enough.

V

The Rockefeller Christmas owl was hunkered on a branch when they chopped her tree down and hauled it to the Rockefeller Centre.
There’s a photo of the owl placed in a box 
looking at us with eyes like angry amber biscuits.
They filled her tree with their city,
added coloured lights and winding tinsel streets 
and called her a “stowaway”.
“She wanted to see the Big Apple!”

Christmas reminds us we’re monsters,
shows up our Pac-Man consumerism.
Blowing up ancient caves, tearing down sacred trees for three minutes of highway.
Waving smirk and coal around in parliament. 

Decimating forests. 

Some cultures believe owls to be messengers for shamans to 
communicate with the spirit world
The Rockefeller Christmas owl “got her own” children’s book.

VI

At yoga the teacher let it slip there’s a serpent coiled at the bottom of our spines
then quickly took it back
you’re not supposed to know that yet
she said
but that’s not the sort of thing I can unknow  
I googled the hell out of it. 

The sickeningly symbolic river of macrocosmic snakes made their way into my spine. 
Now I can stay awake and finally close my eyes. 
Emilie Zoey Baker is an award-winning poet and spoken-word performer who has toured internationally including being a guest at Ubud Writers Festival, The Milosz Festival Poland and was the winner of the Berlin International Literature Festival’s poetry slam. She was a Fellow at the State Library of Victoria, poet-in-residence for Museums Victoria and coordinator for the National Australian Poetry Slam. She teaches poetry to both kids and adults and was core faculty for the spoken word program at Canada’s Banff Centre. 

Max Ritvo

Amuse-Bouche

It is rare that I
have to stop eating anything
because I have run out of it.

We, in the West, eat until we want
to eat something else,
or want to stop eating altogether.

The chef of a great kitchen
uses only small plates.

He puts a small plate in front of me,
knowing I will hunger on for it
even as the next plate is being
placed in front of me.

But each plate obliterates the last
until I no longer mourn the destroyed plate,

but only mewl for the next,
my voice flat with comfort and faith.

And the chef is God,
whose faithful want only the destruction
of His prior miracles to make way
for new ones.

From The Final Voicemails Milkweed Editions © 2018 by Max Ritvo.

William Reichard

In the Evening

The night air is filled 
with the scent of apples, 
and the moon is nearly full.

In the next room, Jim 
is reading; a small cat sleeps 
in the crook of his arm. 

The night singers are loud, 
proclaiming themselves 
every evening until they run

out of nights and die in
the cold, or burrow down into 
the mud to dream away the winter.

My office is awash in books
and photographs, and the sepia/pink
sunset stains all its light touches. 

I’ve never been a good traveler, 
but there are days, like this one,
when I’d pay anything to be in

another country, or standing on
the cold, grey moon, staring back
at the disaster we call our world. 

We crave change, but 
turn away from it. 
We drown in contradictions. 

Tonight, I’ll sleep 
blanketed in moonlight. 
In my dreams, I’ll have 

nothing to say about anything
important. I’ll simply live my life, 
and let the night singers live theirs,

until all of us are gone.
I won’t say a word, and let
silence speak in my stead.

Copyright © 2020 by William Reichard. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 19, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

Eileen Myles

Howl

a refrigerator
makes a lot
of sound
so does a bird
people are
always talking
full of love
& pain
we started
a fund
and the dogs
are needing
some money &
I don’t know how
to do
it & I’ll
learn from
one of them
Tom’s blue
shirt & glasses
are perfect.
My teeshirt
is good
my pen works
I breathe.

Copyright © 2020 by Eileen Myles. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 3, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

Tarfia Faizullah

Poem Full of Worry Ending with My Birth

I worry that my friends
will misunderstand my silence

as a lack of love, or interest, instead
of a tent city built for my own mind,

I worry I can no longer pretend
enough to get through another

year of pretending I know
that I understand time, though

I can see my own hands; sometimes,
I worry over how to dress in a world

where a white woman wearing
a scarf over her head is assumed

to be cold, whereas with my head
cloaked, I am an immediate symbol

of a war folks have been fighting
eons-deep before I was born, a meteor.

Copyright © 2018 by Tarfia Faizullah. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 10, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

Bei Dao

Ramallah

in Ramallah
the ancients play chess in the starry sky
the endgame flickers
a bird locked in a clock
jumps out to tell the time

in Ramallah
the sun climbs over the wall like an old man
and goes through the market
throwing mirror light on
a rusted copper plate

in Ramallah
gods drink water from earthen jars
a bow asks a string for directions
a boy sets out to inherit the ocean
from the edge of the sky

in Ramallah
seeds sown along the high noon
death blossoms outside my window
resisting, the tree takes on a hurricane’s
violent original shape

“Ramallah” by Bei Dao, from World Beat: International Poetry Now, copyright 2006 by Zhao Zhenkai, Translation © Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Ocean Vuong

Kissing in Vietnamese

My grandmother kisses
as if bombs are bursting in the backyard,
where mint and jasmine lace their perfumes
through the kitchen window,
as if somewhere, a body is falling apart
and flames are making their way back
through the intricacies of a young boy’s thigh,
as if to walk out the door, your torso
would dance from exit wounds.
When my grandmother kisses, there would be
no flashy smooching, no western music
of pursed lips, she kisses as if to breathe
you inside her, nose pressed to cheek
so that your scent is relearned
and your sweat pearls into drops of gold
inside her lungs, as if while she holds you
death also, is clutching your wrist.
My grandmother kisses as if history
never ended, as if somewhere
a body is still
falling apart.

Copyright © 2014 by Ocean Vuong. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database

Brenda Shaughnessy

One Love Story, Eight Takes

                                    Where you are tender, you speak your plural. 
                                    Roland Barthes 
                                               1

One version of the story is I wish you back—
that I used each evening evening out
what all day spent wrinkling.

I bought a dress that was so extravagantly feminine
you could see my ovaries through it.

This is how I thought I would seduce you.
This is how frantic I hollowed out.

                                                   2

Another way of telling it
is to hire some kind of gnarled

and symbolic troll to make
a tape recording.

Of plastic beads coming unglued
from a child’s jewelry box.

This might be an important sound,
like serotonin or mighty mitochondria,

so your body hears about
how you stole the ring made

from a glittery opiate
and the locket that held candy.

                                                    3

It’s only fair that I present yet another side,
as insidious as it is,

because two sides hold up nothing but each other.

A tentacled skepticism,
a suspended contempt,

such fancies and toxins form a third wall.

A mean way to end
and I never dreamed we meant it.

                                                    4

Another way of putting it is like
slathering jam on a scrape.

Do sweets soothe pain or simply make it stick?
Which is the worst! So much technology
and no fix for sticky if you can’t taste it.

I mean there’s no relief unless.
So I’m coming, all this excitement,

to your house. To a place where there’s no room for play.
It is possible you’ll lock me out and I’ll finally
focus on making mudcakes look solid in the rain.

                                                    5

In some cultures the story told is slightly different—
in that it is set in an aquarium and the audience participates

as various fish. The twist comes when it is revealed
that the most personally attractive fish have eyes

only on one side and repel each other like magnets.
The starfish is the size of an eraser and does as much damage.

Starfish, the eponymous and still unlikely hero, has
those five pink moving suckerpads

that allow endless permutations so no solid memory,
no recent history, nothing better, left unsaid.

                                                    6

The story exists even when there are no witnesses,
kissers, tellers. Because secrets secrete,

and these versions tend to be slapstick, as if in a candy
factory the chocolate belted down the conveyor too fast

or everyone turned sideways at the same time by accident.
This little tale tries so hard to be humorous,

wants so badly to win affection and to lodge.
Because nothing is truly forgotten and loved.

                                                    7

Three million Richards can’t be wrong.
So when they levy a critique of an undertaking which,

in their view, overtakes, I take it seriously.
They think one may start a tale off whingy

and wretched in a regular voice.
But when one strikes out whimsically,

as if meta-is-better, as if it isn’t you,
as if this story is happening to nobody

it is only who you are fooling that’s nobody.
The Richards believe you cannot

privately jettison into the sky, just for fun.
You must stack stories from the foundation up.

From the sad heart and the feet tired of supporting it.
Language is architecture, after all, not an air capsule,

not a hang glide. This is real life.
So don’t invite anyone to a house that hasn’t been built.

Because no one unbuilds meticulously
and meticulosity is what allows hearing.

Three million Richards make one point.
I hear it in order to make others. Mistake.

                                                    8

As it turns out, there is a wrong way to tell this story.
I was wrong to tell you how muti-true everything is,

when it would be truer to say nothing.
I’ve invented so much and prevented more.

But, I’d like to talk with you about other things,
in absolute quiet. In extreme context.

To see you again, isn’t love revision?
It could have gone so many ways.

This just one of the ways it went.
Tell me another.
Brenda Shaughnessy, “One Love Story, Eight Takes” from Human Dark with Sugar, Copper Canyon Press. Copyright © 2008 by Brenda Shaughnessy.  http://www.coppercanyonpress.org

Donna Stonecipher

The Ruins of Nostalgia 59 

We felt nostalgic for libraries, even though we were sitting in a library. We looked around the library lined with books and thought of other libraries we had sat in lined with books and then of all the libraries we would never sit in lined with books, some of which contained scenes set in libraries.   *   We felt nostalgic for post offices, even though we were standing in a post office. We studied the rows of stamps under glass and thought about how their tiny castles, poets, cars, and flowers would soon be sent off to all cardinal points. We rarely got paper letters anymore, so our visits to the post office were formal, pro forma.   *   We felt nostalgic for city parks, even though we were walking through a city park, in a city full of city parks in a country full of cities full of city parks, with their green benches, bedraggled bushes, and shabby pansies, cut into the city. (Were the city parks bits of nature showing through cutouts in the concrete, or was the concrete showing through cutouts in nature?)   *   We sat in a café drinking too much coffee and checking our feeds, wondering why we were more anxious about the future than anxiously awaiting it. Was the future showing through cutouts in the present, or were bits of the present showing through cutouts in a future we already found ourselves in, arrived in our café chairs like fizzled jetpacks? The café was in a former apothecary lined with dark wood shelves and glowing white porcelain jars labeled in gilded Latin, which for many years had sat empty. Had a person with an illness coming to fetch her weekly dose of meds from one of the jars once said to the city surrounding the shop, which was no longer this city, Stay, thou art so fair? Weren’t these the words that had sealed the bargainer’s doom? Sitting in our presumptive futures, must we let everything run through our hands—which were engineered to grab—into the past? In the library, in the post office, in the city park, in the café, in the apothecary… o give us the medicine, even if it is a pharmakon—which, as the pharmacist knows, either poisons or heals—just like nostalgia. Just like the ruins of nostalgia.

Copyright © 2020 by Donna Stonecipher. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 8, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

Suji Kwock Kim

Search Engine: Notes from the North Korean-Chinese-Russian Border

          By which a strip of land became a hole in time
                                                       —Durs Grünbein

Grandfather I cannot find, 
flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, 
what country do you belong to: 

where is your body buried, 
where did your soul go 
when the road led nowhere? 

Grandfather I’ll never know, 
the moment father last saw you 
rips open a wormhole 

that has no end: the hours 
became years, the years 
forever: and on the other side 

lies a memory of a memory 
or a dream of a dream of a dream 
of another life, where what happened 

never happened, what cannot come true 
comes true: and neither erases 
the other, or the other others, 

world after world, to infinity— 
If only I could cross the border 
and find you there, 

find you anywhere, 
as if you could tell me who he is, or was,  
or might have become:  

no bloodshot eyes, or broken 
bottles, or praying with cracked lips 
because the past is past and was is not is— 

Grandfather, stranger, 
give me back my father— 
or not back, not back, give me the father 

I might have had:                                  
there, in the country that no longer exists, 
on the other side of the war— 

Copyright © 2019 by Suji Kwock Kim. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 6, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Adrienne Rich

Diving into the Wreck

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

From Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1973 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright 1973 by Adrienne Rich.

Hsieh Ling-yun

Visiting Pai-an Pavilion

Beside this dike, I shake off the world's dust, 
enjoying walks alone near my brushwood house. 

A small stream gurgles down a rocky gorge. 
Mountains rise beyond the trees, 

kingfisher blue, almost beyond description, 
but reminding me of the fisherman's simple life. 

From a grassy bank, I listen 
as springtime fills my heart. 

Finches call and answer in the oaks. 
Deer cry out, then return to munching weeds. 

I remember men who knew a hundred sorrows, 
and the gratitude they felt for gifts. 

Joy and sorrow pass, each by each, 
failure at one moment, happy success the next. 

But not for me. I have chosen freedom 
from the world's cares. I chose simplicity.

From Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, translated and edited by Sam Hamill. Translation copyright © 2000 by Sam Hamill. Reprinted by permission of translator and publisher. All rights reserved.

Jane Hirshfield

The Bowl

If meat is put into the bowl, meat is eaten.

If rice is put into the bowl, it may be cooked.

If a shoe is put into the bowl,
the leather is chewed and chewed over,
a sentence that cannot be taken in or forgotten.

A day, if a day could feel, must feel like a bowl.
Wars, loves, trucks, betrayals, kindness,
it eats them.

Then the next day comes, spotless and hungry.

The bowl cannot be thrown away.
It cannot be broken.

It is calm, uneclipsable, rindless,
and, big though it seems, fits exactly in two human hands.

Hands with ten fingers,
fifty-four bones,
capacities strange to us almost past measure.
Scented—as the curve of the bowl is—
with cardamom, star anise, long pepper, cinnamon, hyssop.

—2014

from Ledger (Knopf, 2020); first appeared in Brick.

Franny Choi

Hangul Abecedarian 

Gathering sounds from each provincial
Nook and hilly village, the scholars
Discerned differences between
Long and short vowels, which phonemes,
Mumbled or dipthonged, would become
Brethren, linguistically speaking.
Speaking of taxonomy,
I’ve been busy categorizing what’s
Joseon, what’s American about each
Choice of diction or hill I might die on.
Killing my accent was only ever half the
Task, is what I mean. Q: When grief
Pushes its wet moons from me, is the sound
Historically accurate? or just a bit of feedback?

Copyright © 2020 by Franny Choi. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 20, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

Jane Mead

I Have Been Living

I have been living
closer to the ocean than I thought--
in a rocky cove thick with seaweed.

It pulls me down when I go wading.
Sometimes, to get back to land
takes everything that I have in me. 

Sometimes, to get back to land
is the worst thing a person can do. 
Meanwhile, we are dreaming: 

The body is innocent.
She has never hurt me.
What we love flutters in us. 

From House of Poured Out Waters © 2000 by Jane Mead.

Marilyn Chin

Sage #3

(This poem’s about looking for the sage and not finding her)

Some say she moved in with her ex-girlfriend in Taiwan
Some say she went to Florida to wrestle alligators

Some say she went to Peach Blossom Spring
To drink tea with Tao Qian

Miho says she’s living in Calexico with three cats
And a gerbil named Max

Some say she’s just a shadow of the Great Society
A parody
Of what might-have-been

Rhea saw her stark raving mad
Between 23rd and the Avenue of the Americas
Wrapped in a flag!

I swear I saw her floating in a motel pool
Topless, on a plastic manatee, palms up

What in hell was she thinking?

What is poetry? What are stars?
Whence comes the end of suffering?

Copyright © 2020 by Marilyn Chin. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 13, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

Conrad Aiken

from “1915: The Trenches”

II.

All night long we lie
Stupidly watching the smoke puff over the sky,
Stupidly watching the interminable stars
Come out again, peaceful and cold and high,
Swim into the smoke again, or melt in a flare of red…
All night long, all night long,
Hearing the terrible battle of guns,
We smoke our pipes, we think we shall soon be dead,
We sleep for a second, and wake again,
We dream we are filling pans and baking bread,
Or hoeing the witch-grass out of the wheat,
We dream we are turning lathes,
Or open our shops, in the early morning,
And look for a moment along the quiet street…
And we do not laugh, though it is strange
In a harrowing second of time
To traverse so many worlds, so many ages,
And come to this chaos again,
This vast symphonic dance of death,
This incoherent dust.

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on December 23, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

“1915: The Trenches” was published in Nocturne of a Remembered Spring and Other Poems (The Four Seas Company, 1917).

Jane Hirshfield

I wanted to be surprised.

To such a request, the world is obliging.

In just the past week, a rotund porcupine,
who seemed equally startled by me.

The man who swallowed a tiny microphone
to record the sounds of his body,
not considering beforehand how he might remove it.

A cabbage and mustard sandwich on marbled bread.

How easily the large spiders were caught with a clear plastic cup
surprised even them.

I don’t know why I was surprised every time love started or ended.
Or why each time a new fossil, Earth-like planet, or war.
Or that no one kept being there when the doorknob had clearly.

What should not have been so surprising:
my error after error, recognized when appearing on the faces of others.

What did not surprise enough:
my daily expectation that anything would continue,
and then that so much did continue, when so much did not.

Small rivulets still flowing downhill when it wasn’t raining.
A sister’s birthday.

Also, the stubborn, courteous persistence.
That even today please means please,
good morning is still understood as good morning,

and that when I wake up,
the window’s distant mountain remains a mountain,
the borrowed city around me is still a city, and standing.

Its alleys and markets, offices of dentists,
drug store, liquor store, Chevron.
Its library that charges—a happy surprise—no fine for overdue books:
Borges, Baldwin, Szymborska, Morrison, Cavafy.

—2018

from Ledger (Knopf, 2020); first appeared in The New Yorker.

Jane Hirshfield

On the Fifth Day

On the fifth day
the scientists who studied the rivers
were forbidden to speak
or to study the rivers.

The scientists who studied the air
were told not to speak of the air,
and the ones who worked for the farmers
were silenced,
and the ones who worked for the bees.

Someone, from deep in the Badlands,
began posting facts.

The facts were told not to speak
and were taken away.
The facts, surprised to be taken, were silent. 

Now it was only the rivers
that spoke of the rivers,
and only the wind that spoke of its bees,

while the unpausing factual buds of the fruit trees
continued to move toward their fruit.

The silence spoke loudly of silence,
and the rivers kept speaking 
of rivers, of boulders and air.

Bound to gravity, earless and tongueless,
the untested rivers kept speaking.

Bus drivers, shelf stockers,
code writers, machinists, accountants,
lab techs, cellists kept speaking.

They spoke, the fifth day,
of silence.

—2017

from Ledger (Knopf, 2020); first appeared in The Washington Post.

Charles Simic

Pigeons at Dawn

Extraordinary efforts are being made
To hide things from us, my friend.
Some stay up into the wee hours
To search their souls. 
Others undress each other in darkened rooms.

The creaky old elevator
Took us down to the icy cellar first
To show us a mop and a bucket
Before it deigned to ascend again
With a sigh of exasperation.

Under the vast, early-dawn sky
The city lay silent before us.
Everything on hold:
Rooftops and water towers,
Clouds and wisps of white smoke.

We must be patient, we told ourselves,
See if the pigeons will coo now
For the one who comes to her window
To feed them angel cake,
All but invisible, but for her slender arm.


Copyright © 2005 by Charles Simic. From My Noiseless Entourage, of Harcourt Inc.

C Dale Young

Melancholia

The whirring internal machine, its gears 
grinding not to a halt but to a pace that emits 
a low hum, a steady and almost imperceptible 
hum: the Greeks would not have seen it this way. 

Simply put, it was a result of black bile, 
the small fruit of the gall bladder perched 
under the liver somehow over-ripened 
and then becoming fetid. So the ancients 

would have us believe. But the overly-emotional 
and contrarian Romans saw it as a kind of mourning 
for one’s self. I trust the ancients but I have never  
given any of this credence because I cannot understand 

how one does this, mourn one’s self. 
Down by the shoreline—the Pacific  
wrestling with far more important  
philosophical issues—I recall the English notion 

of it being a wistfulness, something John Donne 
wore successfully as a fashion statement. 
But how does one wear wistfulness well 
unless one is a true believer?  

The humors within me are unbalanced,  
and I doubt they were ever really in balance 
to begin with, ever in that rare but beautiful 
thing the scientists call equilibrium. 

My gall bladder squeezes and wrenches,  
or so I imagine. I am wistful and morose 
and I am certain black bile is streaming  
through my body as I walk beside this seashore. 

The small birds scrambling away from the advancing  
surf; the sun climbing overhead shortening shadows;  
the sound of the waves hushing the cries of gulls:  
I have no idea where any of this ends up. 

To be balanced, to be without either 
peaks or troughs: do tell me what that is like… 
This contemplating, this mulling over, often leads  
to a moment a few weeks from now, 

the one in which everything suddenly shines 
with clarity, where my fingers race to put down  
the words, my fingers so quick on the keyboard  
it will seem like a god-damned miracle.

Copyright © 2020 by C. Dale Young. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 13, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

Jennifer Tseng

Dear Nainai,

Every day you sink into her
To make room for me.
When I die, I sink into you,
When Xing dies, she sinks
Into me, her child dies &
Sinks into Xing & the Earth,
Who is always ravenous,
Swallows us.
I don’t know where you’re buried.
I don’t know your sons’ names,
Only their numbers & fates:
#2 was murdered, #3 went to jail, #4 hung himself, #5, who did the cooking & cleaning, is alive.
#1, my father, died of pancreatic cancer. Of bacon & lunch meat & Napoleons.
Your husband died young, of Double Happiness, unfiltered. 
You died of Time,
Of motherhood,
Of being the boss,
Of working in a sock factory,
Of an everyday ailment
For which there is no cure.
I am alone, like a number.
#1 writes me a letter:
My dearest Jenny,
Do you know Rigoberta Menchú, this name?
There were also silences about Chinese girls, Oriental women.
In field of literature, you must be strong enough to bear all these.
An ivory tower writer can never be successful.
You are almost living like a hermit.
Are you coming home soon?
He doesn’t mention you.
Perfect defect.
Hidden flaw in the cloth,
Yellow bead in the family regalia.
Bidden to be understory,
Silences, pored & poured over.
You are almost living.
You say hello to me quietly.
What is success? Meat? Pastries? 
Cigarettes? The cessation of
Communion with self?
I want to be eaten
By an ivory tower,
Devoured by the power
Of my own solitude.
We’re alone together.
I read the letter every day before death.
Where are you buried, Nainai?
I’m coming home soon.

Copyright © 2019 by Jennifer Tseng. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 25, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Nicole Sealey

The First Person Who Will Live to Be One Hundred and Fifty Years Old Has Already Been Born 

[For Petra]

Scientists say the average human
life gets three months longer every year.
By this math, death will be optional. Like a tie
or dessert or suffering. My mother asks
whether I’d want to live forever.
“I’d get bored,” I tell her. “But,” she says,
“there’s so much to do,” meaning
she believes there’s much she hasn’t done.
Thirty years ago she was the age I am now
but, unlike me, too industrious to think about
birds disappeared by rain. If only we had more
time or enough money to be kept on ice
until such a time science could bring us back.
Of late my mother has begun to think life
short-lived. I’m too young to convince her
otherwise. The one and only occasion
I was in the same room as the Mona Lisa,
it was encased in glass behind what I imagine
were velvet ropes. There’s far less between
ourselves and oblivion—skin that often defeats
its very purpose. Or maybe its purpose
isn’t protection at all, but rather to provide
a place, similar to a doctor’s waiting room,
in which to sit until our names are called.
Hold your questions until the end.
Mother, measure my wide-open arms—
we still have this much time to kill.

Copyright © 2017 by Nicole Sealey. Originally published in The Village Voice.


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The Devil and the Deep Water (2020) by Stuart Turton – a response

I loved Stuart Turton’s debut, his 2018 novel The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. I wrote a lengthy blog post in response.

His second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water, has me conflicted. I don’t ordinarily bother writing negative reviews, but I liked Evelyn Hardcastle so much I feel a need to hash out my thoughts on its follow-up.

If Evelyn Hardcastle was English country house murder mystery meets Philip K Dick, then this is, as the cover quote gushes, a “mashup of William Golding and Arthur Conan Doyle”. It showcases Turton’s strengths and exposes (what I see as) his shortcomings.

Turton works cross-genre. In that respect, I found myself comparing his works to the novels of David Mitchell, to Turton’s disadvantage. Nominally this novel is set in the 1630s, at the height of the Dutch East India Company’s power. In an Afterward, Turton states, with reason, that he does not write “historical fiction”. He says he’s done the historical research then chosen to dismiss what doesn’t interest him, tossed in deliberate anachronisms. He says readers can interpret his work according to their own understandings. Like a music hall magician, he plucks flowers from a top hat: everybody gets a bouquet. Let a thousand flowers of response bloom.

For Turton, the show, the performance, is all. Like The Devil’s master detective character, Sammy Pipps, he takes joy in the puzzle. It’s bravura dazzle that fizzles under closer inspection. Though I expect he’d argue closer inspection spoils the fun. The tale is an entertainment, a sleight of hand.

If taken this way, it works fine, though this one is bloody long (548 pages). 

And I have problems with this funhouse approach, beyond the investment of time and focus.

Firstly, his writing style – the way he strings words together – is pedestrian. With Evelyn Hardcastle, I thought that was a deliberate choice, a parody of early C20th British novelists such as, oh, John Buchan, maybe. Geoffrey Household. Agatha Christie. But here, it dawns on me that’s how he writes. Kinda Enid Blyton, Famous Five.

Secondly: His plotting is fantastical, a deliberate choice; can also be described as convoluted, and lacking integrity. With a plot this complex, it’s bizarre (to me) to learn from the Afterward that he blithely substituted a different resolution when his “wife pointed out that my original ending was rubbish”. You can build a house of cards that way, if you don’t mind it crashing. A novel?

Thirdly. History doesn’t matter if we choose to disregard history. But Turton draws on episodes from history here that IMHO do merit more considered handling. For the longest time it appears he’ll hang his plot on two real-life episodes from Imperialist, colonial history: the massacre by the Dutch East India Company of inhabitants of the Banda Islands (conquest 1609-1621); and the 1629 mutiny planned on the Dutch treasure ship the Batavia, the vessel’s shipwreck on an isolated archipelago, and the subsequent massacre of survivors by the mutineers.

Declaration of interest: my uncle, author Hugh Edwards, was co-leader of the maritime expedition that discovered the wreck of the Batavia. He subsequently wrote a prize-winning book on the subject, Island of Angry Ghosts (1966). As a child I was an extra in the dramatised documentary The Wreck of The Batavia, directed by Bruce Beresford (1972). I appear as a demonic cabin boy. My cousin played an angelic cabin boy who gets decapitated. The film rights to my uncle’s book are currently held by actor Russell Crowe.

Forty people died in the shipwreck when the Batavia sank. One hundred and fifteen survivors were then murdered. Five of the mutineers were ultimately hanged on site. Others were flogged, keel-hauled, dropped from the yard-arm, broken on the wheel.

The Banda Islands? There were about 15,000 inhabitants pre-conquest. By 1621, perhaps 1,000 remained. The others had been killed, starved, drowned, enslaved, deported by the Dutch.

As we say in Australia, ya wouldn’t read about it.

Sadly, we don’t read much about it in Turton’s novel. It’s part of the background, a red herring, a backdrop for Turton’s cheap tricks.

Spoiler? Spoiled it for me.

https://theconversation.com/picturing-the-unimaginable-a-new-look-at-the-wreck-of-the-batavia-84269

https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/tag/the-seven-deaths-of-evelyn-hardcastle/


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Esplanade (25 June 1978)

At night, in winter, in St Kilda
the bayside highway forms a halo. Cars
like comets blazing at and into me.
Walking into lights, the cold, the hard clean bayside night,
their energy recharges me.

Melbourne at night, a winter night, has no sunsets, no stars.
Instead, a rose-tinted, glass-panelled airport and
the traffic current.
There are no stars in the bay. The water reflects
the grey mist ripples, smothered night, that functions as a sky.

In winter, Melbourne nights are tones of grey on black and red and
amber aura light.
An empty Brighton crossroad, tusk-like railway lines.
Each street-light traps a sparkling mist,
electric dew.

Melbourne
is a cage. Held down by tram-wire steel-nets overhead,
this city is straitjacketed,
sedated in the luminous haze of clouded sky and mist and bay.
Bright lights gleaming, flashing meteor
prison bar tramlines, wire sky leveller, cutting down…

By day the Melbourne summer sky
is violet tinged, not azure.
I remember
night-time skies as light,
when dull red dust clouds billowed down
escaped the gully, loomed above the dry town
I once called my home.

Five years, I said, and so with sentence up
I am glad to be on schedule.
Facing into lights, the world, the hard clean unchained wind…
I never called Melbourne home.

Written age 17 on the day I formally dropped out of university.


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Reviews: Seven Years of Darkness by Jeong You-Jeong (translated by Kim Chi-young 2020), and The Only Child by Seo Mi-ae (translated by Jung Ye-won 2020)

Two Korean psychological thrillers.

They’re both best sellers in South Korea and well-reviewed internationally. They’re neither of them particularly demanding, nor ambitious beyond the thriller genre.

I enjoyed Seven Years of Darkness better simply because it gallivants along at a ripping pace and is entertainingly told, focusing on So-won (Sowon), at age 11, when he survived a catastrophe that wiped out his community and removed him from everyone he cared for, and at age 18, when the events of seven years before come home to roost.

So-won has three guardian angels, which is more than most of us, but he needs them. There is a moustache-twirlingly villainous antagonist, some flawed parents, and a cat named Ernie.

The classic K-drama (Korean TV series) trope of The Drowning Boy features prominently. I learned some interesting things about Korean underwater rescue scuba diving. I learned a bit about safety mechanisms for giant hydroelectric dams. Having read this book and viewed the French TV series Les Revenants I’ll pass on ever living downstream of a hydraulic dam, thank you.

The final sequences of Seven Years of Darkness were ludicrous but satisfying. There are worse ways to pass time.

Next: The Only Child. I don’t know whether to blame the Korean original or the translation for the somewhat leaden writing style. But The Only Child has its virtues.

The Only Child features several only-children as main characters. There is Yi Seon-kyeong, a lecturer in criminal psychology who is likened by herself and others to a Korean Clarice Starling (in reference to the FBI rookie profiler in The Silence of the Lambs). There is Yi Byeong-do, the Ted Bundy-like glamorous serial killer. There is Yun Ha-yeong, an 11 year-old whose near and dear drop dead with statistically improbable frequency. Don’t let her near pets.

The novel alternates between first-person as told by Byeong-do and third-person, mostly from the POVs of Seon-kyeong or Ha-yeong. It says something when this reader relates more sympathetically to an adult male who has murdered perhaps a score of women than to a neglected pubescent girl.

The author isn’t really all that fussed to keep us in suspense about whodunnit. She’s more interested in psychological development, the unfolding understandings of the main characters. The real suspense is in how the plot will pan out.

To my great pleasure, the ending is a direct homage to Alfred Hitchcock, to his original ending of his film Suspicion.

Was that a spoiler? Whoops.

Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.


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Review: The Disaster Tourist (2020) by Yun Ko-eun, translated from Korean by Lizzie Buehler

The Disaster Tourist is a short (185 pages) novel, a surreal satire translated from Korean in a crisp tone. I was about to say it’s deadpan and heartless -“The deaths were unadvertised disasters, unexpected by the travellers” – but instead I’ll say it’s angry. Funny, but angry. Appalling and appalled.

It makes me feel much better about not being able to travel. And much worse about previous holidays in other people’s misery.

The Disaster Tourist looks at the contemporary (pre-COVID) model of Third World tourism, specifically Pacific island tourism, and lays bare the commercial drivers and marketing strategies, in catastrophically exaggerated form.

The premise is this: A disaster occurs. Lives are lost. But a catastrophe is also an opportunity. A sensational disaster will attract foreign funding (foreign aid) and put an otherwise obscure location on the map (even as it wipes it off the map). Righteous tourists will come to put things right. They will come to experience authenticity, what life is really all about (death). They will come to rubber-neck: to gape, to tut-tut, to experience shock and awe.

If a community has nothing else to offer, being poor, not scenic, its indigenous culture beaten down or dismissed as unremarkable, might it not make sense to manufacture a disaster? To script a catastrophe? To create spectacle? Might that not also provide vested interests an opportunity to rewrite the narrative, to rebuild to design, eliminating or minimising undesirable elements?

Ko Yo-na – or Yona Ko, as the translation insists – is clinging precariously to a ten-year career designing and promoting “Disaster Tourist” travel packages. She’s on the out at work, possibly for reporting her manager for sexual harassment. Her resignation is not accepted. Instead, management proposes she tests out one of their holiday packages, as a guest (expenses paid by the company), writes a token report, then reports back at work refreshed after her “break”.

Yona chooses the Mui package: an island off the coast of Vietnam where an ethnic massacre occurred decades ago. It has sinkholes and a dormant volcano.

Things go terribly wrong for Yona, her own personal disaster tour. But even more terribly wrong is the context: Mui is run by a shadowy corporation known as Paul, and the mechanics of what Paul has planned for Mui’s people and its future is something most tourists would wish to shut their eyes to.

By the time Yona realises she is living within the constraints of a script – an actual script, written by an actual scriptwriter – she’s lost all control of her circumstances.

What is her assigned role? What is the role of Luck? And what of the crocodiles?

The Disaster Tourist recalls for me Amy Tan’s novel Saving Fish From Drowning, and some of J.G. Ballard’s satire. Also the 1998 film Wag the Dog, and its precursor The Mouse That Roared (1959).

Did I enjoy reading it? Not hugely. It was hard and cold, like a pebble. Like a pebble in my shoe, it disturbed my comfort.


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Review: Severance (2018) by Ling Ma

Alfred Hitchcock said his films at essence addressed mundane issues, dressed up in a plot to make them entertaining. Reductively, Rear Window is about a man who can’t decide whether to marry his girlfriend. (This is separate from the McGuffin, a different concept. But layers within layers, like a Russian doll.)

In Severance, Ling Ma interweaves a post-apocalyptic narrative with the tale of a Chinese-American immigrant millennial making her way in New York.

At one level, Severance is about a woman conflicted over breaking up with her boyfriend when he leaves the Big Smoke. Leaving New York would mean leaving her career. Her mother lost her career accompanying her husband from China to the U.S. What is the value of a life without a career, without participation in the workforce and consumer culture?

Leaving New York City would mean leaving a place: a place of significance, a place that provides Candace with identity. She’s left places before – Fujian, in China, and Salt Lake City. She’s acutely conscious of identity dislocation. New York is her carapace. She wants to hunker down.

I suspect it’s no accident the central character in Severance is named Candance. Ling Ma peppers her narrative with brand names and pop culture references. When we think of a single woman in New York, we might think of Candace Bushnell, writer of Sex and the City.

My favourite paragraph:

In Jonathan’s apartment, we used to watch single-woman-in-Manhattan movies, a subgenre of New York movies. There was Picture Perfect, An Unmarried Woman, Sex and the City. The single heroine, usually white, romantic in her solitude. In those movies, there is nearly always this power-walk shot, in which she is shown striding down some Manhattan street, possibly leaving work during rush hour at dusk, the traffic blaring all around and the buildings rising before her. The city was empowering. Even if a woman doesn’t have anything, the movie seemed to say, at least there is the city. The city was posited as the ultimate consolation.

This paragraph seems to me to prefigure the ending (and “The End”, as the pandemic is termed).

Candace spends much of her time in her early months in Manhattan just walking the streets, taking photographs, posting her photos in a blog as NY_ghost. Similarly in her last months.

The subgenre of the single-woman-roaming-Manhattan gets spliced with the post-apocalypse dystopia genre, so Candace is also Will Smith in I Am Legend and Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later, the isolated survivor, the wandering civis post-civilisation. She becomes an urban ghost.

So to my mind this is a novel about place and identity. In the face of apocalypse, various characters are tied to place: Bob the crazy would-be New Order leader drawn to the mall of his childhood; Ashley the former fashion student drawn to her childhood home, specifically her wardrobe; Eddie the NY taxi driver forever bound to his cab. Candace, initially, encloistered in her office, before she realises the working life is redundant, an idea whose time has ended. As her boyfriend knew.

Severance is also, among other things, a critique of consumption and capitalism. In its post-apocalyptic dystopia, infected people – ” the fevered” – mindlessly, endlessly re-enact meaningless rituals from their former lives until their bodies give out, while the handful of survivors go on pillaging “stalks”.

The further I read the more I appreciated how ambitious Ling Ma has been here – it’s not just a post-pandemic dystopia, or a millennial generation satire, or a critique of consumption and capitalism, or a study in cultural dislocation, or an investigation of memory, the place of the past, the past of place, the role of routines and ritual… it’s all that, conveyed in beautiful – sensitive, intelligent, funny, chilling – writing.

What makes life worth living? Is it work? Is it place? Is it people we love?

My second favourite paragraph, an email to Candace from a colleague in China:

You are good at what you do. In these sad, uncertain times, however, it is important to be with people you love. I do not know the details of the epidemic in New York, but my suggestion to you: Leave. Spend time with your family.

Candace no longer has family.

When I ask myself, if Candace were to become fevered, as some of the seeming “survivors” do, what ritual or routine that defined her identity would she loop till death?

My guess: walking. She’d walk city streets till she dropped.

Even if a woman doesn’t have anything, at least there is the city.

At desk. On deck.


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Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins (2020) – The Hunger Games prequel

Kudos to Suzanne Collins for ignoring commercial imperatives and writing a Hunger Games prequel the fans will hate, not filmable as a blockbuster. Though it could make a terrific art-house film.

This prequel is set 63 years prior to the first of The Hunger Games trilogy: 517 pages thrashing out the Hobbes vs Locke Enlightenment philosophers’ debate – human darkness vs human optimism – through the making of a dictator, the unmaking of a man. I’ll attempt this blog post without spoilers. The biggest ‘spoiler’ is a given: Coryo Snow, a boy of promise, must in the end be Coriolanus Snow, the sociopath tyrant.

My sister and I both hated that sentimental, golden glow epilogue tacked onto the end of The Hunger Games film trilogy. We saw it as a betrayal of the novels.

“The point,” I glowered, “Is that heroes, if they survive, are maimed for life, irrevocably damaged.”

“No,” said my sister, who always knows best. “The point is that heroes become monsters. Heroes are killers. They can’t escape that.”

Coriolanus ‘Coryo’ Snow is the ‘hero’ of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a title explicitly referring to the Americana murder ballad tradition. He’s a ‘hero’ who over the course of his narrative becomes an anti-hero and ultimately, long before The Hunger Games trilogy kicks in, an antagonist.

In the C17th, philosopher John Locke contended that human beings are born into the common condition of humanity (which for him, encompassed a concept of human rights), but that each individual is born a “blank slate”, with the capacity to make moral choices that determine the kind of human they become: self-authored. Thomas Hobbes, in contrast, argued that human nature is base, brutish, a reactive amygdala wired to fear, aggression, violence, self-preservation: self-interested (no, Hobbes did not pre-empt neuroscience, my amygdala reference is anachronistic).

The Hunger Games is a battlefield where the ideas of Locke versus Hobbes play out. In Collins’ Hunger Games novels, every person fights through their own Hunger Games, in their own arena. The slogan is “May the odds be ever in your favour”. But when the game is skewed, and the odds are never in your favour, the outcome can only be Hobbesian.

The boy Coryo Snow starts, as all Hunger Games contestants do, with a set of resources (weapons), and a set of deficits. Coriolanus is the 18 year-old son of a dead war hero, from a patrician family whose antebellum wealth was immense. Their fortune was based on munitions, with manufacturing and research bases in District 13, nuked out of existence during the war.

Coryo was an 8 year-old orphan when the rebels were defeated. His people, in the Capitol, were ostensibly the ‘victors’, but his cohort grew up under blanket bombing, with constant gruesome death, starvation, even cannibalism. They endured their own “hunger games”, desperately trying to stay alive on the thinnest gruels, sparsely dished out. Even 10 years post-war, the streets are blocked by rubble, the poor still go hungry (very hungry), and the final year students at the Capitol’s elite Academy bear a huge weight of expectation to revive the Capitol’s prosperity. They also carry an immense legacy of bitterness.

Coryo has social capital (he is part of the elite), but no actual money. If the Snow family is to recover what he sees as their rightful place, he must attend university. If he is to attend university, he will need scholarships. He is battling for The Prize. The final year of schooling is an arena in itself.

Coryo’s personal capital (resources) include an exceptionally astute strategic mind. He grasps situations quickly, with clarity, and can formulate swift, effective responses. Excellent survival skills. But if you see things with clarity, and can see where they’re headed, and what it takes to survive is an unethical action, or actions, are you morally culpable? Is it more worthy to act in line with idealist morality and die?

What if the idealists by their actions endanger others, people who owe them nothing (unless altruism is a human absolute)?

Or: is seeing situations with clarity and acting pragmatically, in one’s own self-interest, the definition of sociopathy?

Coryo’s personal capital also includes charm. He’s an actor. He is constantly alert to the impression on others his behaviours make. Is he irrevocably two-faced, to be condemned, or is that good sense? What consequences follow being too honest, too open?

It’s important to register that although this novel is not told in the first-person, directly in Coryo’s voice, everything is presented from his perspective. That’s terrific, in that Coryo is awake to most of the information salient to his survival. But it is a self-justifying perspective. And he has pronounced blind spots.

Given how astute he is, and how obvious some of the information he filters out is to a reader, what determines these blind spots? Is it simply that he doesn’t want to see some things? Is this guilt? Or, again, is it sociopathy: he screens out distasteful data that serves his survival?

He’s certainly obsessive.

It’s fair to say Coryo is deaf to poetry and does not understand music. That’s a shame, as the person he believes he loves is a poet and musician. We have no access to who that person is beyond the poetry and music they articulate, because Coryo is stumbling blind there.

What he does know is this: ‘She’s onstage. You’re onstage. This is the show.’

The Capitol’s chief of weaponries research tells him, “You’re good at games. One day you’ll be a Gamemaker.”

The thought had never crossed his mind. […I]t didn’t seem like much of a job. Or like it required any particular skill, tossing kids and weapons in an arena and letting them fight it out. He supposed they had to organise the reapings and film the Games, but he hoped for a more challenging career. “I’ve got a great deal to learn before I can even think of that,” he said modestly.

Coriolanus is nothing if not a fast learner.

That’s his dilemma: what is he – nothing, or a fast learner?

Afternote: A 1799 poem by William Wordsworth is a key device in this narrative. It’s worth noting Wordsworth started out as a youthful radical liberal and aged into a conservative. I think there’s a point there.

The_Ballad_of_Songbirds_and_Snakes_Elly_McDonald

 

 

 


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Review: Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah (2013) translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2020)

I knew nothing about this novel when I opened the first page and for much of the following 152 pages I still felt I knew almost nothing.

Yet when I finished page 152 I was in love with this text. I kept reading and re-reading the final pages. I didn’t want it to end.

I read Untold Night and Day in 50 page chunks (yes, I’m obsessed with the numbers). To me it reads like a prose poem, so 50 pages was as much as I could take in at a time.

After the first 50 pages, I read Deborah Smith’s Translator’s Notes, at the end, which I found helpful:

Bae’s oppositions are emphatically not binaries. Her books are filled with repetition, mirroring, echoing, overlapping […] Simultaneously is another thread-word studding the text.

Many years ago, when I was a poet, an editor described my poems as “games of rhythm and repetition”, which was apt. I came to enjoy the circularity of Bae’s world in Untold Night and Day, and the chunks of repetition.

The quotes on the book jacket are similarly apt:

“As cryptic and compelling as a fever dream […] a vivid and disorientating exploration of identity, artifice and compulsion” – Sharlene Tao

“I loved its uncanny beauty, its startling occurrences. As it unravels you feel […] yourself unravelling too” – Daisy Johnson

“Haunting and poetic […] holds the reader in a suspended state, allowing us to explore the tension of the threshold” – Chloe Aridjis

Untold Night and Day is filled with oppressive heat and damp, small concrete rooms, dank alleys, circling traffic, recurrences, identity switches, blocks to communication, temporal distortions…

Very early on, I recognised the figure of a girl in a coarse white hanbok (traditional dress), wearing woven hemp sandals, with her hair tied back in a low pony-tail, as a figure from the Korean spirit world: the young girl ghost, or supernatural entity.

The main female character is called Ayami (and sometimes other names). Bae has explained that “According to Siberian shamanism [the forebear of Korean shamanism], ayami is the name for the spirit that enters the shaman’s body and communicates matters of the other world to them.”

But Deborah Smith rightly points out that Untold Night and Day does not proclaim or labor its “Koreanness”. She quotes the self-mocking Korean joke rejecting Other-ing: “Oh, let me go put on some hanbok.

So it’s contemporary experimental literary writing, rather than a hanbok tale.

What strikes me, reading during COVID-19 uncertainty and a wave of job losses and business failures, is that the narrative commences with two central characters being made redundant.

Ayami could be a spirit guide escorting a man to another world. Or they could both be casualties, on a more mundane level:

“Ayami [comforted him] for a long time, as though the repetitive gesture might conjure a shamanic power – the only way of keeping together, in the same place and time, two human beings in the process of disintegrating.”

Untold_Night_and_Day_Bae_Suah


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Re-blogs: Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata (trans Ginny Tabley Takemori 2018) – Literally Literary blog by Xi Chen; The Nakano Thrift Shop (2017) by Hiromi Kawakami trans Allison Markin Powell – LA Review of Books review by M W Larson

Convenience_Store_Woman_Sayaka_Murata

This is not the cover art of the edition I read #1: the edition I read had quotes from reviewers suggesting Convenience Store Woman is “irresistibly quirky”, “hilarious”, “intoxicating”, “exhilarating… funny”.
I loved it, but I found it dark and disquieting.

I hadn’t been reading for a while and felt the need to ease my way back in via very short novels.  These two – Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, and The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami – are both written in simple, deadpan styles that make for fast reads, the Murata novel in a somewhat mechanical tone suited to its themes, the Kawakami novel delicate, sometimes verging on twee. They’re linked thematically, both being told in the first person by young women narrators who work in retail, and both addressing sexual behaviours, relationship options, relationship to employments.

Both present contemporary young Japanese people shying away from sexual relations and intimacy, instead seeking identity in service transactions, workplace routines, and (at least in Kawakami) objects imbued with emotional significance.

Although I have visited Japan, and although I have a decades-long interest in East Asian arts and cultures, I am very far from being equipped to report meaningfully on these narratives. Instead, after organising my own thoughts I sought out reviews that opened up the narratives for me.

There is nothing I can write that could better present these two texts than the two reviews linked here. I thank both Xi Chen and MW Larson.

What I will say: Reading Convenience Store Woman, I occasionally laughed wryly, with some discomfort; reading The Nakano Thrift Shop, I quite often laughed out loud, screenshotting pages to text to my sister. Ultimately, The Nakano Thrift Shop was a feel-good light read. I couldn’t say that of Convenience Store Woman, but it spoke to me more strongly.

Convenience Store Woman as read by Xi Chen: https://medium.com/literally-literary/sayaka-muratas-parable-of-alienation-25a188337adb

The Nakano Thrift Shop as read by MW Larson: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-anxiety-of-intimacy-in-hiromi-kawakamis-the-nakano-thrift-shop/

The_Nakano_Thrift_Shop_Hiromi_Kawakami

This is not the cover art of the edition I read #2: the edition I read had an image of a hip bright young thing leaping onto a commuter train.
I loved the narrator, but she struck me as much more introvert than that image.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Reviews: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (2007, trans Deborah Smith); I am Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo (2016, trans Jamie Chang) – translated from Korean

The_Vegetarian_Han_Kang

I had formed the impression from publicity I’d seen that The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, was a novel about patriarchy pushing back when one woman attempts to make a relatively mild assertion of will: woman goes vegetarian, male state goes mad.

I suppose the first section, at least, of this book, can be read that way. Woman does indeed go vegetarian. Male relatives do indeed get mad.

But there are other things going on here. British novelist Ian McEwan sums it up well, describing The Vegetarian as “a novel of sexuality and madness”. Mostly madness, for me.

The narrative unfolds through three sections, from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband; her brother-in-law; and her sister. I found the final section, the sister’s perspective, most compelling.

In keeping with a feminist reading, neither of the two men have any interest in Yeong-hye’s personhood. She’s an object, for both. The book’s opening line is “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” The husband (“Mr Cheong”) goes on to innumerate the many ways Yeong-hye seemed to him entirely ordinary, and why this very ordinariness qualified her to be his wife. (In short: inadequate man seeks woman he can disregard.) He only ever refers to her as “my wife”.

Her brother-in-law, in contrast, sees Yeong-hye as distinct, even unique, and exotic.  For him, she embodies sexuality. Vitality.

Both men are projecting like crazy. (“Crazy” being a technical term.)

In her marriage, Yeong-hye goes mad. Pointedly, her husband reports this in terms of her ceasing to dedicate her being to his service. He has no feelings of concern or compassion. Instead he feels revulsion.

Witnessing Yeong-hye’s madness, her brother-in-law goes mad. He conflates his madness with “art”. He feels he’s come alive. The comedown is – how shall I say? – deflating.

In the final section, Yeong-hye is certifiably mad and confined to a secure psychiatric ward. Her sister is the only family remaining by her side, figuratively and in fact. Her sister meditates on the nature of madness, its origins, and concludes that only a fine string ties us to sanity. Any one of us could untie that string and be ”absorbed” by our dark dreams.

When Yeong-hye is asked why she rejects meat, she can only say, in a perverse of echo of Martin Luther King, “I had a dream”. As someone who watches Korean TV drama, I recognise this notion of “What is your dream?” as a catechism of aspiration. What do you want for your life? What is your ambition?

What Yeong-hye had (and has) is not a dream but a night terror. Her only apparent desire is to disappear into a forest, to join the plant world. This is her survival strategy, even if it kills her.

Yeong-hye’s older sister recognises she too pursued a survival strategy. In her case, she adopted the persona of the sane one, the capable, conscientious older sister. She had cosmetic surgery (double eyelids), promoted a pleasing demeanour, and built a business selling cosmetics. None of that ensures her psychic survival.

The most troubling character, for me, is the older sister’s young son. With the adults gone mad, he is abandoned. Who will protect his survival?

I_Am_Kim_JiYoung_Born_1982

The Vegetarian begs comparison with Cho Nam-joo’s controversial 2016 Korean novel, I am Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Cho Nam-joo is a former TV scriptwriter who took a career break after having a child. She wrote her book fast, apparently in just two weeks, using elements of her own experiences. Footnote sociological research citations firmly anchor anecdote and individual composite in statistics and legislation.

The novel is presented as a case study – a psychiatric case study, as we come to realise. Stylistically it’s a very straightforward, not to say clinical, read. By stepping us through Kim Ji-young’s life history, Cho shows the ways a female in Korea is disadvantaged from birth relative to her male peers.

Inevitably, the book prompted a backlash of ‘Whataboutism’, intergenerational beefs and male resentments, as did the film adaptation.

I lent the novel to my mother, born 1934, knowing some of Kim Ji-young’s workplace experiences mirrored hers. My mother read it, handed it back, commented wryly, “All women, all over the world.”

Like Yeong-hye, Kim Ji-young (a common name, a kind of Jane Doe) goes mad. As at the novel’s conclusion, her prognosis does not look good. The male psychiatrist who is purportedly writing her case study reflects privately on how her story relates to his own experience. He, like Ji-young’s husband, is a caring and intelligent man. He believes his desire to help is sincere.

The sting in the tail? Even recognising the structural and systemic inequities that resulted in his patient’s breakdown, as his attention moves elsewhere, the male authority figure disregards what he might have learned. Instead of being a change agent, he perpetuates the way things are.


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Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994 trans 2020) – translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

The_Memory_Police_Yoko_Ogawa

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa, was published in Japanese in 1994, then in 2019 in an English translation by Stephen Snyder (nominated for the International Booker 2020).

It’s a bleak, Kafkaesque piece of speculative fiction, or allegory, or dark folk tale.

A novelist, writing in the first person, recounts how on the island where she lives, over a period of 15+ years, there has been a series of “disappearances”: the population wakes up some days with a shared sense of loss, that something from their familiar lives has ceased to exist, has been erased.

The objects of these disappearances don’t physically cease to be manifest, or become physically invisible. Instead, they remain as tangible presences, at least initially, but they cease to have meaning – their associations, their functions, are lost to recall, and eventually the very concept of those objects ceases to exist for most people, except in occasional flashes of semi-recollection.

To aid in this process, to make this process efficient, a fascist squad called the Memory Police ensures people dispose of the tangible physical remains of these objects promptly. Retaining relics of disappeared objects is forbidden, policed by house to house searches. Individuals who retain memories, who are not subject to the collective amnesia and do not collude in erasure, are frogmarched away by the Memory Police and themselves “disappeared”. As are those who attempt to hide those who remember.

At first, the objects the novelist notes as having disappeared are objects of joy: ribbons, perfume, gemstones, millinery, roses, music boxes, boiled sweets, fruit. So at first I was thinking this might be an allegory about loss of pleasure, of anhedonia (loss of joy). I was thinking in terms of depression, especially as the novelist telling the story appears to be suffering from imminent writer’s block: her novel in progress starts out as a tale of a typist who loses her voice but is still able to communicate with her lover (her typing instructor) via typewriter, until her typewriter breaks down.

The narrator-novelist within The Memory Police has a close professional relationship with her long-time editor, who has nursed her previous three novels through to publication. She learns her editor is one of the few who retains memory of the disappeared objects, and her immediate thought is that she must hide him to protect him, and also to protect her writing project.

Typewriters themselves are however obviously a “disappeared” artefact in our contemporary world, so the novel seems to be asking us to consider what, in our lifetimes, has “disappeared” and been erased. In the way that the category “hats”, and therefore the concept “millinery”, has been disappeared within The Memory Police, whole categories of consumer goods and therefore work skills and workplaces have become redundant in real life, often all but forgotten.

Some reviewers have broadened that thought to consider how elements of our natural environments are disappearing: animals, plants whole eco-chains.

Other reviewers home in on cultural erasure: cultures where language and traditional practices are banned, forcibly suppressed, resulting in actual absolute or incremental erasure of cultural identity.

There is also a layer of gender-based allegory. The narrator within The Memory Police feels her way through her narratives through her fingers, through typing, and sometimes her stories takes unforeseen turns. Her work-in-progress switches from being a gentle love story, with a supportive lover, to a Bluebeard-like contemporary horror story of captivity, domination, perversion and erasure of a woman’s will, faculties and ultimately existence.

The perverted parallelism of the novel-within-the-novel vis-à-vis the narrative that is The Memory Police is troubling. In the novel-within-the-novel the captive is the female first-person narrator, the malevolent entity is her male lover/abuser. In the actual novel, the person imprisoned is the writer’s male editor, and his story is told from the female narrator-novelist’s perspective. Is her version, in which she is his ‘savior’, self-serving? We have no direct access to how he really feels about being removed from his wife and his newborn, never-seen son. The editor has been persuaded by his novelist that it is in his best interests to abandon his wife and newborn and instead focus solely on assisting her stalled manuscript through to completion. He is always represented as grateful and acquiescent – but he’s dependent on his novelist for food and sanctuary. How do we, as readers, feel about the writer and her editor as lovers, given the typing teacher enacts the role ‘lover’ towards his typist captive?

The captive in the novel-within-the-novel is imprisoned in a turret (like Rapunzel). The captive in the main narrative is imprisoned in a too-small cavity between house storeys (‘stories’), beneath a trapdoor. Is this gendered symbolism: the woman imprisoned in a tower by a man; the man imprisoned in a dark enclosed space by a woman?

The ‘love’ story elements were, to me, disturbing. (I kept thinking of John Fowles’ novel, The Collector.)

The novelist-narrator has, on the face of it, a less disquieting relationship with a surrogate father, an older man who assists (aids and abets) her. He doesn’t have a name, and nor does the editor: they are “the old man” and “R” respectively. But then, the narrator has no name, either.

There are layers. Ultimately, I read The Memory Police as an allegory about mortality, ageing, and death – at its most blunt, as an allegory of dementia.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

Life on the island diminishes through a series of small losses, loss of small joys; the loss of staples (food types, loss of appetite, as the remaining foods are increasingly unappealing); the loss of time and seasons, when “calendars” disappear, resulting in endless snow, snow that buries all it covers; loss of story-telling, of narratives, when “novels” disappear; then increasingly intimate losses. How does one adapt to the felt-loss of body parts – of a left leg, a right arm?

Once loss has progressed that far, how is it policed? If people retain the awareness of what was a left leg, but have no recall of its function, have lost any sense of relatedness, instead recognising the “disappeared” limb at best as a “tumour”, how is that policed? Can left legs be physically disposed of, the way rose petals can be? Can left legs be set free, as caged birds can be?

What will be the ultimate loss? What, at the last, will be left, will disappear?

I referred to “perverted parallelism” but in fact the relationship between the novel-within-the-novel and the main narrative is a chiasmus (if I remember Lit 101 Poetry correctly). It’s not parallel lines, it’s a ‘X’ cross-shape.

The first thing lost by the typist-victim in the novel-within-the-novel is her voice. More accurately, her voice is taken from her, as happens in totalitarian states and patriarchies, and as happens with writer’s block. But in the main narrative, the last element of the narrator’s being to be erased is voice. As her voice ends, so does the text.

As her voice evaporates, her editor climbs out of the cavity between floorboards.

He emerges to a ruined world, but he does not look back.

The_Memory_Police_by_Yoko_Ogawa


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A few favourite poems, alphabetical by poet’s family name

Cento Between the Ending and the End
by Cameron Awkward-Rich

Sometimes you don’t die
when you’re supposed to
& now I have a choice
repair a world or build
a new one inside my body
a white door opens
into a place queerly brimming
gold light so velvet-gold
it is like the world
hasn’t happened
when I call out
all my friends are there
everyone we love
is still alive gathered
at the lakeside
like constellations
my honeyed kin
honeyed light
beneath the sky
a garden blue stalks
white buds the moon’s
marble glow the fire
distant & flickering
the body whole bright-
winged brimming
with the hours
of the day beautiful
nameless planet. Oh
friends, my friends—
bloom how you must, wild
until we are free.

Copyright © 2018 by Cameron Awkward-Rich. Originally published in in Poem-a-Day on August 30, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

son/daughter
by Kai Conradi

In a dream my dad fell

from the top of a steep white mountain

down into a blue crevasse
like the space between two waves
where the light shines through just enough
to tell you
you will miss this life dearly.

The falling took years.

I could hear him moving through air and then finally nothing.

In another dream my dad was an angel

his see-through body dangling in the air

floating above me face shimmery like tinfoil

and I cried and cried when he told me

I can’t come back to earth now not ever.

When my dad told me

You will always be my daughter

maybe it was like that.

Will I be allowed to come back to earth

and be your son?

Source: Poetry (January 2019)

Emily Dickinson

I’m Nobody. Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell. they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog _
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

The Embrace
by Mark Doty

You weren’t well or really ill yet either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation, which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.

I didn’t for a moment doubt you were dead.
I knew that to be true still, even in the dream.
You’d been out—at work maybe?—
having a good day, almost energetic.

We seemed to be moving from some old house
where we’d lived, boxes everywhere, things
in disarray: that was the story of my dream,
but even asleep I was shocked out of the narrative

by your face, the physical fact of your face:
inches from mine, smooth-shaven, loving, alert.
Why so difficult, remembering the actual look
of you? Without a photograph, without strain?

So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face,
your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth
and clarity of —warm brown tea—we held
each other for the time the dream allowed.

Bless you. You came back, so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again.

From Sweet Machine, published by HarperCollins. Copyright © 1998 by Mark Doty. 

Autobiography of Eve
by Ansel Elkins

Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
My own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake–
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.

Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.

I leapt
to freedom.

Copyright © 2015 by Ansel Elkins.

The Colonel
by Carolyn Forché

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

May 1978

All lines from “The Colonel” from The Country Between Us by Carolyn Forché, Copyright (c) 1981 by Carolyn Forché. Originally appeared in Women’s International Resource Exchange. (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1981)

Grace
by Sarah Gambito

You won’t
kill me
because I
will not
oblige you
by dying.

I hold all
my hands
under
the cherry
trees.

Clusters of
shyest
pinks
joining
hands.

Laced
like this,

diadem
like this,

we live the
past/
present/
future/
all at once

and even now.

Wouldn’t we tear
seas,
cities,
money
to get to
each other?

The public
garden—

the books
of its leaves,

the leaves
of its books—

denotes privilege,
entitlement
gorgeous belief

that we’ll meet
again and
again
holding

this
feelingtone
of
flowers

Source: Poetry (July/August 2019)

Poof
by Amy Gerstler

Here on my lap, in a small plastic bag,
my share of your ashes. Let me not squander
them. Your family blindsided me with this gift.
We want to honor your bond they said at the end
of your service, which took place, as you’d
arranged, in a restaurant at the harbor,
an old two-story boathouse made of dark
wood. Some of us sat on the balcony, on black
leather bar stools, staring at rows of docked boats.
Both your husbands showed up and got along.
And of course your impossibly handsome son.
After lunch, a slideshow and testimonials,
your family left to toss their share of you
onto the ocean, along with some flowers.

You were the girlfriend I practiced kissing
with in sixth grade during zero-sleep
sleepovers. You were the pretty one.
In middle school I lived on diet Coke and
your sexual reconnaissance reports. In this
telling of our story your father never hits
you or calls you a whore. Always gentle
with me, he taught me to ride a bike after
everyone said I was too klutzy to learn.
In this version we’re not afraid of our bodies.
In this fiction, birth control is easy to obtain,
and never fails. You still dive under a stall
divider in a restroom at the beach to free me
after I get too drunk to unlock the door. You still
reveal the esoteric mysteries of tampons. You
still learn Farsi and French from boyfriends
as your life ignites. In high school I still guide you
safely out of the stadium when you start yelling
that the football looks amazing as it shatters
into a million shimmering pieces, as you
loudly admit that you just dropped acid.

We lived to be sixty. Then poof, you vanished.
I can’t snort you, or dump you out over my head,
coating myself in your dust like some hapless cartoon
character who’s just blown herself up, yet remains
unscathed, as is the way in cartoons. In this version,
I remain in place for a while. Did you have a good
journey? I’m still lagging behind, barking up all
the wrong trees, whipping out my scimitar far
in advance of what the occasion demands. As I
drive home from your memorial, you fizz in
my head like a distant radio station. What
can I do to bridge this chasm between us?
In this fiction, I roll down the window, drive
uncharacteristically fast. I tear your baggie
open with my teeth and release you at 85
miles an hour, music cranked up full blast.

Copyright © 2019 by Amy Gerstler. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 21, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Failing and Flying
by Jack Gilbert

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

Copyright © 2005 Jack Gilbert. From Refusing Heaven, 2005, Alfred A. Knopf. 

Wait
by Galway Kinnell

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become interesting.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again;
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. The desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a little and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

Copyright © 1980 by Galway Kinnell. From Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (Mariner Books, 1980), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

I Ask My Mother to Sing
by Li-Young Lee

She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and sway like a boat.

I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.

But I love to hear it sung;
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.

Both women have begun to cry.
But neither stops her song.

From Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., http://www.boaeditions.org.

From Blossoms
by Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Li-Young Lee, “From Blossoms” from Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., boaeditions.org.

The Hour and What Is Dead
by Li-Young Lee

Tonight my brother, in heavy boots, is walking
through bare rooms over my head,
opening and closing doors.
What could he be looking for in an empty house?
What could he possibly need there in heaven?
Does he remember his earth, his birthplace set to torches?
His love for me feels like spilled water
running back to its vessel.

At this hour, what is dead is restless
and what is living is burning.

Someone tell him he should sleep now.

My father keeps a light on by our bed
and readies for our journey.
He mends ten holes in the knees
of five pairs of boy’s pants.
His love for me is like sewing:
various colors and too much thread,
the stitching uneven. But the needle pierces
clean through with each stroke of his hand.

At this hour, what is dead is worried
and what is living is fugitive.

Someone tell him he should sleep now.

God, that old furnace, keeps talking
with his mouth of teeth,
a beard stained at feasts, and his breath
of gasoline, airplane, human ash.
His love for me feels like fire,
feels like doves, feels like river-water.

At this hour, what is dead is helpless, kind
and helpless. While the Lord lives.

Someone tell the Lord to leave me alone.
I’ve had enough of his love
that feels like burning and flight and running away.

Nucleation
by Sally Wen Mao

The harvesting of pearls, the very process, is a continuous systematic violation of flesh: insert the mantle tissue of a foreign creature into the oyster shell and wait for its insides to react. This is called nucleation. Panicked, the oyster produces nacre. Trapped in the nacre, the invasive agent—the parasite or mantle tissue—is subsumed by the pearl.

To domesticate, then, is to force-feed. Mikimoto, in his dreams, wanted a string of pearls to glow around the neck of every woman in the world. Like the bioluminescent waters of his youth, a deep-sea dive, the pearls became warm upon touch, upon being worn.

Women wear the trauma of other creatures around their necks, in an attempt to put a pall on their own. Adorn the self to be adored. What if we fail? What if we are failures at love? A man once called me “adorable” on a date at a museum. It was hailing outside, and we were wandering through the Death and Transcendence wing. I looked into a woman’s tomb, its mother-of-pearl inlays. A limp body looked back, into the gap around my neck. I had no 
amulet, I had no protection.

Source: Poetry (April 2020)

Occidentalism
by Sally Wen Mao

A man celebrates erstwhile conquests,
his book locked in a silo, still in print.

I scribble, make Sharpie lines, deface
its text like it defaces me. Outside, grain

fields whisper. Marble lions are silent
yet silver-tongued, with excellent teeth.

In this life I have worshipped so many lies.
Then I workshop them, make them better.

An East India Company, an opium trade,
a war, a treaty, a concession, an occupation,

a man parting the veil covering a woman’s
face, his nails prying her lips open. I love

the fragility of a porcelain bowl. How easy
it is, to shatter chinoiserie, like the Han

dynasty urn Ai Weiwei dropped in 1995.
If only recovering the silenced history

is as simple as smashing its container: book,
bowl, celadon spoon. Such objects cross

borders the way our bodies never could.
Instead, we’re left with history, its blonde

dust. That bowl is unbreakable. All its ghosts
still shudder through us like small breaths.

The tome of hegemony lives on, circulates
in our libraries, in our bloodstreams. One day,

a girl like me may come across it on a shelf,
pick it up, read about all the ways her body

is a thing. And I won’t be there to protect
her, to cross the text out and say: go ahead—
rewrite this.

Sally Wen Mao, “Occidentalism” from Oculus. Copyright © 2019 by Sally Wen Mao. Graywolf Press, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

Resurrection
by Sally Wen Mao

In the autumn I moved to New York,

I recognized her face all over the subway

stations—pearls around her throat, she poses

for her immigration papers. In 1924, the only

Americans required to carry identity cards

were ethnically Chinese—the first photo IDs,

red targets on the head of every man, woman,

child, infant, movie star. Like pallbearers,

they lined up to get their pictures taken: full-face

view, direct camera gaze, no smiles, ears showing,

in silver gelatin. A rogue’s gallery of Chinese

exclusion. The subway poster doesn’t name

her—though it does mention her ethnicity,

and the name of the New-York Historical

Society exhibition: Exclusion/Inclusion.

Soon, when I felt alone in this city, her face

would peer at me from behind seats, turnstiles,

heads, and headphones, and I swear she wore

a smile only I could see. Sometimes my face

aligned with hers, and we would rush past

the bewildered lives before us—hers, gone

the year my mother was born, and mine,

a belt of ghosts trailing after my scent.

In the same aboveground train, in the same

city where slain umbrellas travel across

the Hudson River, we live and live.

I’ve left my landline so ghosts can’t dial me

at midnight with the hunger of hunters

anymore. I’m so hungry I gnaw at light.

It tunnels from the shadows, an exhausting

hope. I know this hunger tormented her too.

It haunted her through her years in L.A., Paris,

and New York, the parties she went to, people

she met—Paul Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston,

Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein. It haunts

her expression still, on the 6 train, Grand

Central station, an echo chamber behind

her eyes. But dear universe: if I can recognize

her face under this tunnel of endless shadows

against the luminance of all that is extinct

and oncoming, then I am not a stranger here.

Sally Wen Mao, “Resurrection” from Oculus.  Copyright © 2019 by Sally Wen Mao.  Graywolf Press, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

 

Thanks
by W.S. Merlin

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

 

Notebook, 1981
by Eileen Myles

I was so willing to pull a page out of my notebook, a day, several bright days and live them as if I was only alive, thirsty, timeless, young enough, to do this one more time, to dare to have nothing so much to lose and to feel that potential dying of the self in the light as the only thing I thought that was spiritual, possible and because I had no other way to call that mind, I called it poetry, but it was flesh and time and bread and friends frightened and free enough to want to have another day that way, tear another page.

Excerpted from Evolution. Copyright © 2018 by Eileen Myles. Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. 

“Have Made Earth as the Mirror of Heaven”
by Alice Notley

my name is Alice Elizabeth, so am I
Allie Sheedy of the movie Short Circuits thus angry
or Elizabeth McGovern self-controlled?
This question is posited
on a television screen where I can’t quite identify
the actress shown—which is she?

I am Allie and I will continue to rant.
____________________

My voice rises in real life often—
because I am ‘passionate’ … that’s
a convenient word.
____________________

I’m still in the forest, darkening
wishing I were ‘nicer.’

Hardwood says, You should stand up soon
I’ll help you
I say, I have cramps
I say, I’m using my period, to get pissed off and to Know.
____________________

I dreamed, last night, about an immense Dead Seal
below the surface of the water in a harbor

pull the curtain down.
For months you would not break the spell
for eternities you have not done so, citing economic
exigencies; the whole thing is a mess.
I might rather be dead
than doing what it takes to keep the seal under water
whale-sized

E is for seal. For spell. For suppression.
____________________

To take part in you is to die
is why one dies
Have I said this before?
____________________

I am Alp the Dizzy.
____________________

The dead seal isn’t a person, it’s poetry the seal
the hallmark
of selfhood, dead grotesquely large and richly hardening.

“Hardwood it was someone like you
you drowned the seal”

“No I’m making both you and it ‘hard.’ ”
____________________

And I’m still in the forest.
____________________

And I’m still in the forest

Money’s more the real live poetry
abstract symbolic imaginary
trade your life for it and trade it for your life
so you’ll have something ‘to do’

Sink the whale
and sleep all day in the real world, up and functioning
more fully imagined and dreamed, in society’s
than in your own, imagination?

I’m standing
I’m standing up Hard
I keep being Hardwood myself, dark and hard.
____________________

Initiating a new ‘broken symmetry’ (spinning to the
Left, like a newborn neutrino)
so that we can have a new consciousness …
am I doing that? Yes I think so.
____________________

The forest contains a French restaurant
every meter or so …
difficult to fast in this dream vision.
We’re a very unpopular group today
We’ve shot off another great bomb
and we’ve shot down a terrorist,
an Arab, young, before
we even found out what he “knew.”
____________________

Tell me something beautiful, bitter
because we are somehow bitter, forever,
a taste included in origin, in love, in you.
So I don’t have to be cloyed.

… soul’s waters are reticent
sly swamps.
It had nothing in it,
that swamp; because I didn’t know how to look for
the parts of its obvious whole—death is
minute, flavorful parts—which are said to spin
as I’m said to walk, moving while else
mostly unconscious of that.
____________________

In the new consciousness

Alice Notley, “Have Made Earth as the Mirror of Heaven” from Disobedience. Copyright © 2001 by Alice Notley. Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

‘Wild Geese’, from Dream Work (1986) by Mary Oliver.

Kindness
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Red Brocade
by Naomi Shihab Nye

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.

Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.

Copyright © by Naomi Shihab Nye.

i swear to god i will solve the rack man case just give me two weeks
by Harry Reid

give me something to wail on
i want instant justice like fly-spray

this train carriage is a court-room
& i’m the judge, handing down

25 to life for the man wearing btk glasses
& getting off at south kensington

at home my kitchen’s a crime scene
i’m the sheriff of the group chat like

cooking dinner i’m mad at 70’s america
do the fucking dishes guys
& take the bins out it’s wednesday

cooking dinner i’m mad at 70s america
like what the fuck were you doing

letting rodney alcala on the dating game
right in the middle of his murder spree

& how come cheryl was the only one
who thought he was a total creep?

i wash up like forensically
leave a fork in the sink like a calling card

fall asleep listening
for footsteps outside my window

watching a documentary
on the hillside strangers

think about paving the driveway with gravel
so i can hear when anyone approaches

wake up & put tiny numbered markers
all throughout the house

march my housemate around the living room
showing him where he missed with the vacuum

he hates it but he lets me
keep these little rituals

like taping off my bedroom
when i need some time alone

or microscopically examining
all the hair in the shower

so i know no-one has broken in
& used all my shampoo

it’s only because i can’t walk
through the park anymore

without my phone in one hand
& my keys in the other

so i’ll keep gary ridgway’s 48 life sentences
in my pocket for good luck

light a candle for every one
of dudley kyzer’s 10,000 years

go home & thank god
i don’t live in california

from six gay bushrangers

What Kind of Times Are These
by Adrienne Rich

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

Adrienne Rich, “What Kind of Times are These” from Collected Poems: 1950-2012. Copyright © 2016 by The Adrienne Rich Literary Trust. Copyright © 1995 Adrienne Rich.
Source: Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1995)

Last on Earth
by Mary Ruefle

It is said that many have been cured of madness by drinking
of the spring in the orchard of this convent, but I
doubt it, for it is a very pleasant place and a surfeit
of pleasantries often leads directly to madness.
I do not have much experience of madness (once
a sister ran naked down the hall) but I have tasted
the water and it is clear and fresh, there is nothing
unpleasant about it. The Abbess said of a certain man
he is a drink of water—meaning he was a bore—
but I want to meet that man, he would be as welcome
in my life as Jesus in the orchard here, though the fat
old Abbess might shoo him away. I would be so glad
to have him drink, to serve him with a round of little glasses
on a painted tray, like the ‘cocktail parties’
in the secular world, and I the hostess, turning her cheek
to be kissed in the fray. I would wear white clothes and
my headdress, and he might carry a scythe and cut
the morning glories, or simply sit and sun his nose.
But they have taken my Lord away, lodged Him in the earth
somewhere, call Him leaves, vines, breeze, bird.
It cannot be true. Looking for Him in these things
condemns us to a lifetime of imbecile activity.
He has a face, arms, legs, a navel. He is a man,
for He is everything I am not. How can it be
otherwise? Before I leave the spring, I lean
over it and weep. I spit upon the flowers. I stumble
up the hill. We are somewhere below the Tserna Gota—
meaning the Black Mountain—and when I reach the top
I count the villages—there are two—where we
are the last on earth to think of Him as having a head.
Here, too, is the source of the spring, and crows
with lethargic dispositions circle and circle the spot.

Mary Ruefle, “Last on Earth” from Post Meridian. Copyright © 2000 by Mary Ruefle. 
Source: Post Meridian (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000)

The Wife of Mission Rock
by Mary Ruefle

Nothing curves at sea,
and the men there die abruptly,
in imitation of the fact, except
when the ship rises higher than necessary
and then they must drop suddenly
but for a long time,
so that their deaths appear natural
in the end, and the women sweeping the coutyards
pause, thinking the dust
to be the cause of a specific dryness
in the mouth. They leave half of a
pastry to harden on a plate.
They leave all of the lemons and figs
in bowls. They leave fuschia
splattered on the stone steps leading
down to the bay. They carry their brooms
with them, keep sweeping the air,
cleaning it back to the sea.
They sweep the sand from the shore,
feet standing in neat little rows of foam.
Each at the edge of something when
the foghorns remind them:
they will not clearly remember it,
they will not altogether forget it.
They will wait for something to emerge,
like a man at sea carving his children
from soap. One woman will start the rumor
that the sea is deeper than necessary:
Tell her, when has anyone ever come back
for one day’s effort on earth?

Mary Ruefle, “The Wife of Mission Rock” from Life Without Speaking, published by University of Alabama Press. Copyright © 1982 by Mary Ruefle. 

The Letter
by Mary Ruefle

Beloved, men in thick green coats came crunching
through the snow, the insignia on their shoulders
of uncertain origin, a country I could not be sure of,
a salute so terrifying I heard myself lying to avoid
arrest, and was arrested along with Jocko, whose tear
had snapped off, a tiny icicle he put in his mouth.
We were taken to the ice prison, a palace encrusted
with hoarfrost, its dome lit from within, Jocko admired
the wiring, he kicked the walls to test the strength
of his new boots. A television stood in a block of ice,
its blue image still moving like a liquid center.
You asked for my innermost thoughts. I wonder will I
ever see a grape again? When I think of the vineyard
where we met in October—when you dropped a cluster
custom insisted you be kissed by a stranger—how after
the harvest we plunged into a stream so icy our palms
turned pink. It seemed our future was sealed. Everyone
said so. It is quiet here. Not closing our ranks
weakens us hugely. The snowflakes fall in a featureless
bath. I am the stranger who kissed you. On sunny days
each tree is a glittering chandelier. The power of
mindless beauty! Jocko told a joke and has been dead
since May. A bullethole in his forehead the officers
call a third eye. For a month I milked a barnful of
cows. It is a lot like cleansing a chandelier. Wipe
and polish, wipe and polish, round and round you go.
I have lost my spectacles. Is the book I was reading
still open by the side of our bed? Treat it as a bookmark
saving my place in our story.

(here the letter breaks off)

Mary Ruefle, “The Letter” from Post Meridian. Copyright © 2000 by Mary Ruefle.
Source: Post Meridian (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000)

Blood Soup
by Mary Ruefle

The last time I saw father alive he was using
a black umbrella, closed, to beat off some pigeons
hanging outside the marble portals of a museum.
We were visitors, walking very slowly, so father
could stoop and examine everything. We had not been
in the museum, but were resting on its steps.
We saw it all—the fountains, the statues, the parks
and the post office. Cities are made of such things.
Once we encountered a wedding coming out of the cathedral
and were caught in a shower of rice; as the bride
flicked her veiled head father licked his little finger
and in this way saved a grain. On the next block
he announced he was going to heaven. But first let’s
go back to the hotel and rest, he said: I want my mint.
Those were practically his last words. And what did I want
more than anything in the world? Probably the ancient Polish
recipe for blood soup, which was finally told to me
in an empty deli in a deserted mill town in western Massachusetts
by the owner’s mother, who was alone one day when I burst
in and demanded a bowl. But, she said, lacing her fingers
around a jar of morello cherries, it requires one cup of
new blood drawn from the goose whose neck you’ve just wrung
to put in the pot, and where in these days can I find
anything as fresh as that? I had lost track of my life
before, but nothing prepared me for the onslaught of
wayfarer’s bliss when she continued to list, one
by one, the impossible ingredients I needed to live.
We sat at the greasy table far into the night, while
snow fell on the locked doors of the church next door,
dedicated to St. Stanislas, which was rumored to be
beautiful inside, and contain the remains of his beloved head.

Mary Ruefle, “Blood Soup” from Among the Musk OX People: Poems. Copyright © 2002 by Mary Ruefle. (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2002)

little city
by Sara Saleh

little city, on your scorched days Rania and I pool our

khamsmiyehs, buy Bonjus from baqqal abu Fadi, sell them

for triple the price, “dollar law samaht”, this country has us

believing we are so clever, so entrepreneurial, them

neighborhood kids should be grateful, “khalto, look at

us, don’t we make you

proud?”

little city, on your anxious nights we gather in

balconies, lighthouse beacons with little-to-no

light, wreathed in smoke, we wait, we

sit, we speak, we speak over each

other, “ya 3layeh inshaAllah”, no one

actually wants to hear the answers,

I can’t afford to trust the morning,

I am still learning to believe it when it

comes.

little city, we want to sing, want to giggle silly over

boys and simple things, but you have different

plans, young men on tanks cuss loudly, young

men on tanks whistle at us, eyes open

empty, this dark, this shatter,

we tell them we have God, but

I don’t think they believe

us.

little city, we climb to the top of the steeple

stairs, quiet and quieter, past jasmine

bushes, past bullet holes, confetti

of ‘86, no one bothers with

plaster, is it any wonder we don’t have

mothers and fathers, how long will you

hate yourself into something we can

love?

little city, trying to forget

little city, how did you survive,

what did they call you…

before Syria, before Israel, before France, before

Ottoman…

before, before…

little city, what becomes of history

if there remain no artists to write of it?

your pages are long, your patience

longer.

From bil 3arabi: 6 poems

Fairouz
by Sara Saleh

Fairouz …

The last one of us has left home…

Fairouz sings, “Oh wind, if you please, take me home …”

What does it mean to lose a person, to lose a country?

Whenever I write about mama and baba, I use ellipses,

I am not fond of endings, and we are a people

of kan zaman and kan ya ma kan…

“Upon the rumble of the bus that was carrying us from the village

of Hamlaya to the village of Tannourine, I remembered you,

and I remember your eyes”

Friday lunch we drape boney fish and

spiced potatoes on the table, fighting over

who is to blame for this mess, Amreeka, amo

says or we brought it on ourselves or some other or …

We stay seated for hours, with our oversized

plates and our oversized grief …

“The people have asked me about you, my darling

They’ve written letters and the wind took them

It’s not easy for me to sing, my darling”

We both come from a wartime where

there is only one hospital, and many shrines

to watch over our dead, their bodies inside out,

which is to say, we only know how to love inside out …

So many times I sent word when you were an island,

unsure if it reached you, my darling, and what if

we are not meant to survive everything?

Fairouz sings, and we are reminded,

every love letter is also an elegy …

“Until When, God?”

“Our land is being reborn”

The man on the TV says, burn the mosques,

burn the textbooks, burn our tender,

this city turns our curses to prayers,

our disciples to the wretched …

“My voice, keep flying,

whirlwind inside the conscience of people,

tell them what’s happening,

so that maybe their conscience wakes up.”

Sing to them, we are a free people …

And sing. and sing. And sing. And …

From bil 3arabi: 6 poems

Advice to a Prophet
by Richard Wilbur

When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,
Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.
Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?—
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone’s face?
Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,
If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip
On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken
In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.
Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.

Richard Wilbur, “Advice to a Prophet” from Collected Poems 1943-2004. Copyright © 2004 by Richard Wilbur. FB post by the Poetry Foundation 27 January 2019

Gone is Gone
by Mark Wunderlich

for Lucie Brock-Broido

I was there at the edge of Never,
of Once Been, bearing the night’s hide

stretched across the night sky,
awake with myself disappointing myself,

armed, legged & torsoed in the bed,
my head occupied by enemy forces,

mind not lost entire, but wandering
off the marked path ill-advisedly. This March

Lucie upped and died, and the funny show
of her smoky-throated world began to fade.

I didn’t know how much of me was made
by her, but now I know that this spooky art

in which we staple a thing
to our best sketch of a thing was done

under her direction, and here I am
at 4 AM, scratching a green pen over a notebook

bound in red leather in October.
It’s too warm for a fire. She’d hate that.

And the cats appear here only as apparitions
I glimpse sleeping in a chair, then

Wohin bist du entschwunden? I wise up,
know their likenesses are only inked

on my shoulder’s skin, their chipped ash poured
in twin cinerary jars downstairs. Gone

is gone, said the goose to the shrunken boy
in the mean-spirited Swedish children’s book

I love. I shouldn’t be writing this
at this age or any other. She mothered

a part of me that needed that, lit
a spirit-lantern to spin shapes inside

my obituary head, even though—
I’m nearly certain now—she’s dead.

Copyright © 2019 by Mark Wunderlich. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 23, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Say Grace

by Emily Jungmin Yoon

In my country our shamans were women
and our gods multiple until white people brought
an ecstasy of rosaries and our cities today
glow with crosses like graveyards. As a child
in Sunday school I was told I’d go to hell
if I didn’t believe in God. Our teacher was a woman
whose daughters wanted to be nuns and I asked
What about babies and what about Buddha, and she said
They’re in hell too and so I memorized prayers
and recited them in front of women
I did not believe in. Deliver us from evil.
O sweet Virgin Mary, amen. O sweet. O sweet.
In this country, which calls itself Christian,
what is sweeter than hearing Have mercy
on us. From those who serve different gods. O
clement, O loving, O God, O God, amidst ruins,
amidst waters, fleeing, fleeing. Deliver us from evil.
O sweet, O sweet. In this country,
point at the moon, at the stars, point at the way the lake lies,
with a hand full of feathers,
and they will look at the feathers. And kill you for it.
If a word for religion they don’t believe in is magic
so be it, let us have magic. Let us have
our own mothers and scarves, our spirits,
our shamans and our sacred books. Let us keep
our stars to ourselves and we shall pray
to no one. Let us eat
what makes us holy.

Source: Poetry (November 2017)

An Ordinary Misfortune [“She is girl. She is gravel.”]
by Emily Jungmin Yoon

She is girl. She is gravel. She is grabbed. She is grabbed like handfuls of gravel. Gravel grated by water. Her village is full of gravel fields. It is 1950. She is girl. She is grabbed. She is not my grandmother, though my grandmother is girl. My grandmother’s father closes the gates. Against American soldiers, though they jump over stone walls. To a girl who is not my grandmother. The girl is gravel grabbed. Her language is gravel because it means nothing. Hands full of girl. Fields full of gravel. Korea is gravel and graves. Girl is girl and she will never be a grandmother. She will be girl, girl is gravel and history will skip her like stone over water. Oh girl, oh glory. Girl.

Emily Jungmin Yoon, “An Ordinary Misfortune [”She is girl. She is gravel.”]” from A Cruelty Special to Our Species. Copyright © 2018 by Emily Jungmin Yoon. The Ecco Press (HarperCollins Publishers).

What Carries Us
by Emily Jungmin Yoon

First, there was the horse.

Imagine creatures as majestic,
standing. All their lives they stand, withholding.

Imagine being tamed. Learning to be still,
to be speed. Imagine birds as large

as horses. We would be flying, grabbing
a majestic creature by its collar.

In cylinders of metal, we are four-legged
beast-lives of liminal spaces.

One time I was so tired of flying I wondered
if I will spend all my life packing then unpacking.

A complaint of privilege. We are such spending
creatures. And when I say we are beasts,

is that a metaphor? Metaphor, according to Papastergiadis,
is also transportation, between absence and presence,

“articulating action.” Its “very process,”
in times of extremity, is “akin to prophecy.”

I like the idea of transportation
as articulation, that the end of metaphor is a kind

of arrival, like getting off the train at an unknown stop.

So when I say we are beasts, perhaps what I mean
to do is remember that predators

have forward-facing eyes, and we do
grab others by the collar, and we do fly

in metal, in preparation for the kill.

What I want to do is slow down time.

Imagine love as a horse.

Think about us—a distance
apart only a flying thing could connect us—

standing and pacing, tamed and watching,

then finally with each other, laughing
as if to collapse, unbridled as wild horses.

In this era of brevity in this era of metal in this
era of abbreviation, yes, I’m trying to make you

think of me longer. Yes, this whole time,

the bird, the train, the whole thing
about metaphor, I said to say this,

that this is what carries us, the slow
consideration of what each other is, can be.

And first, there was the horse.

Source: Poetry (April 2020)

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” from The Complete Poems 1926-1979. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, http://us.macmillan.com/fsg. All rights reserved.

Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: The Complete Poems 1926-1979 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983)


1 Comment

Six Flying Dragons (Korea, 2015) and Tree With Deep Roots (Korea, 2011) – spoiler-free

All the virtues of adventure costume drama with the added value of surprise.

Incredible sets, costumes, gorgeous young actors, swashbuckling action sequences, revenge, romance… and the whole way through I was trying to imagine how Korean audiences, knowing the framework of historical fact, would be interpreting characters and events.

Then when I realised I was watching the two shows in reverse order – Six Flying Dragons is a prequel to Tree With Deep Roots, made by the same team – I realised Korean viewers watching SFD would already know the fates of key characters, removing elements of suspense I found excruciating, but adding poignancy.

The entire political history of Korea would inform Koreans’ understandings of these dramas. I don’t have that. So my responses are naive, in the sense of… uneducated.

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The FB diary:

“… starts off playing like a kids’ adventure yarn then turns into an examination of political morality, dissidents, the nature of power, the nature of courage, wrapped up in an origin story of the [medieval] kingdom of Joseon (Korea). (The actual founding of the Joseon dynasty differs in marked ways from the hero tale of Six Flying Dragons.)

“This is gathering in power episode by episode and the climactic sequences in Ep4 – the music! – are killing me.

“Some parts so far are so pertinent to what’s happening in Hong Kong but the political parable is encompassing.”

“Rock stars. Amazing. I think I prefer it to GoT.

“12 episodes into Six Flying Dragons and it’s striking to contrast its female characters with how women were presented on GoT.

“Not many female characters in SFD, but those there are, are strong and complex, and respected: a woman spy master, a woman master spy, a peasant village leader, a peasant family matriarch, a resourceful peasant in a player troupe, a very young political ‘genius’ (so described by her father’s retainer).

“There’s a dorm-full of women spy-assassins but no overt prostitution, no femme fatale, no fallen women, no nudity. No conniving queen. The only sex has been one implied rape, off camera.

“Plus one young woman who appears to have an orgasm when the [much higher status] man who is patiently courting her assists her in fitting her first real pair of shoes. But I’d lose it too if I were that particular young woman and that particular young man was fondling my feet.”

“Things are turning very bleak in the last 10 episodes of Six Flying Dragons.

“The essential questions: What constitutes a righteous action? Does loyalty to an ideology take precedence over loyalty to loved ones? Capitalism vs Communism?

“Does a person become evil by performing evil acts or were they evil already?

“And the perennial: Who will live? Who will die violently?”

“Traumatised by Ep48 of Six Flying Dragons then cried the whole way through Ep50, the finale. [And kept on crying for 24 hours.]

” ‘We are stronger when we have someone to protect.’ ”

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“In my quest to become an overnight expert in Early Joseon I have done a deep dive into art history books, Wiki and Korean film and TV series beyond Six Flying Dragons.

Tree With Deep Roots picks up in time where SFD left off. I was going to say it presents a very different interpretation of King Taejong/Yi Bang-won but actually, the characterisation has a certain continuity, for obvious historical reasons. From this perspective, it makes SFD a romantic origins story.

“TWDR a.k.a. Deep Rooted Tree (a nice ironic pun) is more Alexandre Dumas.

“I also tried the popular Netflix series Kingdom, which has the apt conceit of making a Joseon king a raving zombie. I applaud the idea – the entertaining Inspector K: Secret of the Living Dead turned Joseon nobles into vampires – but I couldn’t cope beyond the first ten minutes.

“However (Korean: honne), I am not surprised Kingdom has just been renewed for a second season. Maybe I’ll work my way up to it.”

Tree With Deep Roots turns out to be a conspiracy thriller about… literacy?

“Could you stake your life the pen is mightier than the sword, that debate trumps torture, that a good man can survive wielding power?

“Would you?”

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Seoul Broadcasting System