Elly McDonald

Writer


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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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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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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)


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The shark with my name on it

It’s edging
into the narrows
between the reef and rocky outcrops.
It inserts its proboscis
its probe
and smiles that smile that is not
a smile.
The shark with my name on it
quivers with instinctive
connective drive
Its pale planetary
eyes dilate.
Sensing my proximity
the shutters come down
nictitating membrane.
Better than an eye roll
a full body twist
a wink that says
silently
I’ve got your number.

shark_elly_mcdonald_writer


3 Comments

Untitled (2018)

I nursed my father in my arms as he died
spewing black blood.
Do you think any residue between me and you
means anything
alongside that?

I do a lot of death.
The ones who grow old
The people who don’t
Those who barely made it past the cradle.
I wait in the market in Damascus and
no one is unexpected.

I stand on a bridge and
sooner or later they all pass by.
I extend my hand and
welcome them.

Hello, I say.
I have a room prepared.


Leave a comment

After viewing Philippe Mora’s film Monsieur Mayonnaise (2016)

Monsieur Mayonnaise: Philippe Mora’s colour-saturated documentary/memoir/graphic novel/cartoon about how his parents Georges and Mirka survived the Holocaust to introduce European bohemian culture to post-War Melbourne, Australia.

And how Gunther Morawski became Georges Morand then Mora then Monsieur Mayonnaise then Georges Mora; or, how Gunther Morawski became a Resistance hero, father substitute to Jewish war orphans, people smuggler, and impersonator of Catholic nuns (in company with best mate Marcel Marceau).

Some of my responses:- with apologies to Philippe Mora and his family for details I’ve recalled wrongly or that should have been included but are not. I hope the Mora family will forgive me for borrowing some of their images and artwork for this blog.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to see Monsieur Mayonnaise this response might be best read AFTER viewing. On the other hand, it’s the Holocaust – you know how that unfolded. Don’t you?]

monsieur-mayonnaise-hitler-book-burning

Artwork by Philippe Mora for his graphic novel Monsieur Mayonnaise

One morning Leon Zelik left his Paris apartment to buy a newspaper. While he was out, soldiers arrived and took his wife and his three daughters, Mirka, Madeleine and Salome.

The women were herded onto a train along with 1000 other Jews, mostly women and children. They were terrified. As the train rattled along, Mme Zelik and Mirka, her eldest daughter, peered through the wooden slats of their crate-carriage, strained to identify signage at train stations they passed.

The mother had had the presence of mind to grab a sheet of paper, a pen and an envelope from their apartment as they were taken. Now, she wrote the names of each train station in sequence. She folded the page into the unstamped envelope, which she addressed to her husband, Leon Zelik, at their street address.

She directed Mirka to drop the sealed envelope through the crate cracks as the train slowed. Mirka was frightened it would blow back onto the tracks.

They were disembarked at a massive holding centre. Four days before their contingent were scheduled to be shunted to Auschwitz, guards came and released them. As Mirka looked back towards the camp she saw the other detainees crowded against the fences, the children big-eyed, watching the Zelik family retreat to freedom.

In later years Mirka said the big eyes in the faces of the doomed children were the genesis of the angel children she painted throughout her life. She said the guilt pained her. Telling this, she cried.

Someone had found the addressed envelope, stamped it, and mailed it to Leon in Paris. From the list of train stations, Leon worked out the camp where his family were held. He convinced a clothing manufacturer to request that the Zelik women be released on the grounds that the mother was a required worker manufacturing German army uniforms. A lie, but it worked.

In later years, Mirka thanked that anonymous person who found her mother’s letter, every day, life long.

Mme Zelik, Mirka, Madeleine and Salome were the only survivors of the Jewish detainees on that transport. I have/had a mental blank on The Mother’s name. Wiki says she’s “Celia (Suzanne)” but in his film Philippe Mora refers to her by what I think must be a Lithuanian petname or diminutive.

monsieur-mayonnaise-mirka-mora-with-angel-children

Mirka Mora with angel children

There’s a sequel: by chance Leon met a French farm worker, a Christian, who offered the Zelik family sanctuary. In his village was a house locked up while its owner was a prisoner of war. The Zeliks spent 2 1/2 years there. The Frenchman’s daughter says her father never questioned that providing sanctuary was the right – the only – thing to do.

I won’t recount Georges story here. I can’t get his story out of my mind, and have been telling it to almost everyone I meet. But every time I tell it, I cry, and the people I tell it to cry too.

Suffice to say there’s a 92 y.o man on film who says he became an eminent New York child psychiatrist because Mora and his Resistance colleagues saved his life, because Mora cared, and because he wanted to be like Mora: to save children. Even if it meant dressing up as a nun and trekking Jewish war orphans to the Swiss frontier, a la The Sound of Music. In company with the famous mime Marcel Marceau. (No, even in New York none of this is required of child psychiatrists. This is what French Resistance operative code-name Mora did.)

monsieur-mayonnaise-georges-mora-philippe-mora

Georges Mora clips his son Philippe’s hair

In Philippe Mora’s film he visits a museum memorializing child victims of the Holocaust deported from France (not the famous Holocaust Museum in the States – I googled but could not identify this museum). The interior walls seem to be lit with a low golden glow and have what appear to be timber vertical divides and, less prominent, horizontal divides, so that the walls suggest a panel of spaces for portraits or icons. Many of the spaces are filled by photographs of children who died, with their name and (I think) age. The spaces left empty are ones where no photograph has been located. I believe in this museum there are 6000 framed spaces.

Aesthetically it’s beautiful. Emotionally, it’s devastating.

monsieur-mayonnaise-hitler-and-mickey

Artwork by Philippe Mora for his graphic novel Monsieur Mayonnaise

My father shocked me today when he asked if pogroms predated Hitler. He seemed to think anti-Semitism started in post-WW1 Germany. I can only think this is cognitive slippage in old age and illness, as Dad, having been a child in the ’30s, went on to be a student of economics, politics and modern history.

Yet knowledge of modern history is vanishing, replaced by Hollywood distortions (Inglourious Basterds), denial, and a galloping cynicism that buys into conspiracy theories and a belief that everything we’ve been told is propaganda.

When I was 22, in 1983, I went to an adult education course where my classmates included 3 older women, post-WW2 Jewish refugees. Two spoke with heavy accents and the third, after 35 years in Australia, barely spoke English at all. Her friends explained she rarely ventured outside the Jewish emigre community.

I asked if they’d encountered anti-Semitism in their early years in Australia.

“Oh darling,” one woman laughed. “No. People here didn’t know what a Jew WAS.”

I suppose part of the problem is when we can’t admit our ignorance, and *think* we “know” the stranger.

Openness to learn is more important than ever. But in a media age, what media do we trust?

monsieur-mayonnaise-georges-mora

George Mora. Monsieur Mayonnaise.

My friend Donna says, “I was married into a Jewish family for 32 years. The matriarch pulled the address labels off of every magazine that came to the house (the goyim see the name and know that is a Jewish household), and no one talked about illnesses or diseases except in very hushed voices (the government takes the weak first)… that was not uncommon in the WWII generation, but they are slowly dying off, and the younger folks have no idea..”

“George Mora’s” two sons had no idea he was really Gunther Morawitz, German-born, medical student at Leipzig University, native German speaker, until his last years; and no idea why he wouldn’t step into a VW or Mercedes-Benz or use Krupp appliances.

When I was at school I had teachers who were Holocaust survivors. Exposure to first-hand witnesses is invaluable. We’re losing them.

Remembering snow (1986)

Rosa says

I remember snow

When I was a girl I lived

in Siberia

There was so much snow so

much

we skated on a river of ice

Mrs Cameron

born Roth

40,916: tattooed in blue

teaches art

forgets

she remembers.

Don’t ask.

But

Mrs Zabukovec

gypsy eyes

teaches German

born Bulgarian

she remembers

being 18

in Berlin

being 18

Russians

she remembers.

Don’t.

She remembers

long rows of blossoms, white-clustered blossoms

so white so

much breaks

down

 

remembering snow

monsieur-mayonnaise-mirka-mora

 

 


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Statement of poetics (1985)

Poetry and Gender: Statements and Essays in Australian Women’s Poetry and Poetics – editors Davids Brooks and Brenda Walker, St Lucia University of Queensland, 1989, p.57/58

It’s very strange to re-read this after 30 years. I remember I was asked to write a Statement of Poetics for this study early in 1985, in my first term enrolled in English at the University of Sydney. I had no idea what a “Statement of poetics” should be. I knew nothing about gender theory in Literature. I took my draft to my Term 1 tutor, who as it happened was an aspiring creative writer too. She didn’t like me and she did not like my draft. I remember her wrinkling her nose. I also remember that when the writer Helen Garner visited that term, my tutor and a number of students joined Helen for a drink, and I hoped my tutor might introduce us. Of course I should have simply introduced myself. A short while after, Helen contacted me, by handwritten note, requesting a copy of my poetry book, Other People (and other poems). I was thrilled by her interest, and I told her I’d been present that evening at Sydney Uni. Helen wrote back saying it’s frustrating how often people she hoped to meet tell her they’d been somewhere in her proximity but had been too shy to introduce themselves.

The other thing I note is my bullshit. My poems did not have an “male/female, overtly sexual context”? My relationships with women and family were “more complex than my relationships with men”? I wrote “most often about female friendships”? No. No and no. Fact is most of my poems were autobiographical, and most concerned a particular male/female relationship, and I was embarrassed to own that. For the record: Other People (and other poems) was memoir. You know who you are.

Nearly all my poems are records of conflict; I write as a means of clarifying emotion.

The only reader I initially had in mind was me; for years I never considered poems of mine might be publishable. I was writing highly-codified, deceptively simple lines that read like printed lyrics to songs. The music was built-in: I relied on rhythm, and rhythm is still the lynchpin of my style. I actually regard some of my poems as songs for the inner-ear, though I’m aware that rhythms that seem to me insistent are not always obvious, comfortable or even apparent to some readers.

Repetition is another hallmark of my style. I like to play with a word, and its puns and variations and rhymes, in such a way that several meanings may be suggested. Punctuation in my poetry is a guide suggesting mental pauses like musical rests of varying value. I seldom use conventional punctuation, believing it forces too narrow a reading. Ideally, multiple meanings should bounce off each phrase. Lines often have a particular meaning taken by themselves that adds another dimension to their sense in the context of the whole sentence or verse. I like that. I think of it as texture, as verbal cross-weaving. It’s also an intellectual game, a form of self-amusement like a cryptic crossword. I once wrote a six-line poem in which the lines and phrases could be read in any sequence and still convey sense.

However, until quite recently it never occurred to me these games might be accepted as ‘real’ poetry. Real poetry, I thought, was based on metaphor. More abstract, more structurally complex and more dense, real poetry was rife with adjectives. My poetry became very wordy, which in itself I don’t consider a fault – writing is, after all, about words – so long as the words are used to effect. I do think, though, that in poems written during this phase I was cramming in too much, too clumsily.

Because I feel strongly about their subjects, my poems often have an impulsive, obsessive quality. Where poetry is concerned, I’m just not interesting in exploring anything but the politics of personal relationships. The relationships I have with other women and with my family have proved more complex than my relationships with men, so I write most often about female friendships, current and past. These ‘friendships’ have often been problematic, ambivalent; the poems are correspondingly ambiguous. (Some poems that may appear to address a man in fact involve a woman.)

Up until now, stalemated power-struggles have been the dominant recurring theme, and the image of the doppelganger stalks through much of my work. The doppelganger reflects a too-close identification with my perceived (female) ‘Enemy’: almost an exchange of identity. The doppelganger might be the Enemy as Self.

The doppelganger stares back from mirrors. Frequent references to mirrors in my poems are not intentional symbolism, but now I’ve become aware of them I’m sure they relate to a childhood conviction that mirrors are the bridge between the land of the living and a phantasm zone. Quite a few poems of mine are re-lived nightmares, or slip midway into nightmare sequences.

A sense of displacement, of dislocation, is also something I’m increasingly aware of as an element in my writing. The poems’ subjects are usually an Outsider – or an outcast, a misfit who’d choose to be accepted. More often than not, the Outsider’s survival is in jeopardy. The context is hostile, unknowable: strangers, people not recognised, mistaken identity and identity exchange recur.

These recurring elements have not been consciously endowed with significance, and I don’t fully understand their implications. Explicit meaning is not a high priority; my poems are not plotted in advance. When I sit down to write, all I usually have is a mood demanding expression. I may have a character, a specific situation and perhaps a key phrase or metaphor, but for the most part the first draft resembles automatic writing. I write till the words take on some kind of form, and then I examine what may have emerged. Invariably these days it requires re-working, but the first draft is the model.

I hope my work reads as distinctively female. Its focus on relationships in other than a male/female, overtly sexual context and its concern with inter-personal nuances are not, to my mind, typical of male writing. For me, poetry is close focus. I believe there are infinite kinds of feeling, forming all degrees of human bonding: variation on feeling seems to me a subject demanding close examination.

Elly_McDonald_Writer Ian Greene headshot 1985

Headshot taken for inclusion in poetry anthology 1985 (pic: Ian Greene)


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Be Alright (1986)

She and he
are sitting in a public place. They’re smiling. They’re
talking. Her fingers rest on his forearm and
their profiles overlap. They might
be kissing, but in fact
they’re talking. They’re smiling, and it’s all
alright

She and he
stand watching, observing themselves from the foreground.
A shared smile, turned inwards
her hand on his shoulder, long-held
hopes in her touch. See? She turns to him
softly – in this dream
they might be kissing. They might in fact
be talking, be smiling – they might both
be alright


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Pet (1986)

An image of a girl, smiling

A whitebread girl with small milkteeth

Sharp like a cat’s.

A narrow-faced woman with thin lips

A wide-stretched grin

Fixed. Pinched. Anxious eyes

Mistrustful, guarded – slanted slits under

Claw-slash brows

He loves her. He loves her long-limbed

Awkwardness, her stiff-necked

Elegance – the memory of how

She loved her cats.

Love. Memory. Shrill cries on the wind.

He takes in stray

Women and dreams

Of spilt milk.

woman with cat

 

WESTERLY, No.2, JUNE, 1987 77


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In Another Place (1986)

One of us is standing, studying sea waters

I can’t

tell which one of us it is, but I know

the sea is green, and monstrous, and greedy –

it grasps slime-slicked rocks and hugs them

smothers them, swallows them whole

The person who watches (who is part

of me)

is compelled and repelled, alternately – a

subjugated rock

a seething cold sea

 

One of us is crouched, glaring into desert

face cloaked and eyes blinded, I can’t

say who, but I know it’s another

other of my own

an envious drifter

with needs, with held-grudges

a being of nerve ends

a scorpion camouflaged by heat-holding sand

like a remnant of cultures shattered

forgotten

fragmented, unforgiving

 

defiantly unhealed


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For Steve (2012)

Time was, you set the rhythm.

You kept the beat.

Singing, all the time, your head

Nodding to a melody line,

Your feet forcing out that beat.

You kept

The best memories, the ones that made me

Laugh. And smile. And grow pensive.

And now

I cry for you. Cry me a river, jazzman.

Let that river run through

A cavern, where the beat boys

Burst into the night.

Take me to that river.


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Practice Talk (1986)

He is learning English.

He likes to practice.

 

– So tell me what your life is like

here

asks the passenger.

He practices talking.

 

– My life is very filled

he says

his life is full.

 

He drives this cab: all days

most hours.

He studies.

He works hard and he

is learning.

Family?

 

No family.

There is no

since he was 15.

 

His passenger asks

– Was it hard?

 

– getting out?

he waded down

a river he swam

at night: smell

 

bodies

bits of bodies

like bouillabaisse

and mines

and he

did not know how

or where

to turn or which direction

and the delta was a swamp

clogged with flesh and he trod

and wished

 

for moonlight and the sea and

for his uncle:

who was dead

among bodies somewhere

 

else

and now

he is here.

He is learning.

Not so hard.

 


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Remembering Snow (1986)

Rosa says

I remember snow

When I was a girl I lived

in Siberia

There was so much snow so

much

we skated on a river of ice

Mrs Cameron

born Roth

40,916: tattooed in blue

teaches art

forgets

she remembers.

Don’t ask.

But

Mrs Zabukovec

gypsy eyes

teaches German

born Bulgarian

she remembers

being 18

in Berlin

being 18

Russians

she remembers.

Don’t.

She remembers

long rows of blossoms, white-clustered blossoms

so white so

much breaks

down

 

remembering snow


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Gorgeous One (1986)

Timelessly entwined like

a celtic brooch, golden

gleaming curves and a fierce

sensuality

warm against our skin we can’t

deny this

touching moving stirring breathing

passion and the pulse

You

are the gorgeous one

she teases, she turns

deny this

this

her limbs, spread

make sense of the universe