Friday, 30 August 2013

Michelle Cahill - Possum Poems

We’ve got a lot of possums in Australia, and many of them live in our cities in the suburbs.  People make a living as a ‘possum catcher’ trapping possums that have got into your ceiling and made themselves at home – they catch them and release them so they get into somebody else’s ceiling who then has to call the ‘possum catcher’.  So it’s not surprising that possums feature widely in Australian poetry.  I’ve written a poem about a possum.  That’s why I’m always interested when I come across another ‘possum poem’.  And here’s one that’s in a recent (2011) anthology I’m reading, Thirty Australian Poets, UQP.  The poem is called, ‘The Stinking Mantra’, by Michelle Cahill.  Michelle is Anglo-Indian, born in Kenya, went to school in London.  Seems to me the poem’s about a possum that gets electrocuted on power lines – fried, zapped – and the poet, instead of burying her (it was a female possum), she (the poet) leaves the carcass laying around the yard in summer heat until it gets fly blown.  And the poet spends a day reflecting on living substance that still has names that can be spoken compared to the dead possum that now cannot be expressed by name and whose name nobody knew.  There’s definitely something Indian-Vishnu in the name of the possum, minah birds and sprinkling wisteria blossoms.

The Stinking Mantra
Michelle Cahill (1969 -  )
I lay her under a camellia bush by the stone Buddha,
where a cherry blossom scattered its confetti karma,
where azaleas flourished and minah birds convened.
Her pelt had been tattooed by a powerline.  Night fell.
I almost forgot her because I was exhausted,
because I couldn’t sleep, bypassing all attendant
thought of mourning.  Outside the brushwood
stirred with native ghostings: her kind, not the shape
of hunger but death’s apprentice slipping through trees,
their wire fingers scuffed against sky.  The mist paused,
as if it were autumn, the trees were bare tightropes.
By daylight there were catkins, magpies broke the dawn,
the sky pinned back its rain.  Leaves were floating carp,
wisteria festooned desiccated gardens.  I walked past lilies
with elephant ears swaying in the sun, a stop sign pulled
out from the ground by schoolboys.  All this to slake me,
to dress my grief: these things with names to keep or to speak
as if articulation made of thought a substance.
Words, falling softly as feathers or pollen.  How many words
might a woman discern?  And what of a small marsupial
shocked by current, mid-climb, lit-up in free-fall?
What made me crush a blossom of wisteria to sprinkle
over the small, dead thing?  Away I went to read the day’s
diffuse paragraphs, to bluff my way through colouring-in,
a daughter’s grammar.  She ties toys with paperclip chains,
devices infinite to bind or to banish.  Cars flew by,
a truck with a skip-bin, birds scavenged from the tarmac.
Up close, the possum smelt like rancid butter.  I sat with
her and smoked, hearing nothing.  No pity, no slight
for what I’d named her, Sweet Shadow-Playing Funambulist.
What was the harm?  I might call her a crumpled stocking,
a ripple in the field, or a girl’s dismembered evidence.
The swing tempts her back.  Trucks pass rudely in the valley.
Soon her mouth began to fizz, filling with a residue
creamy as boot polish and everything pregnant with heat.
So the riddle of days, walking from doorstep to driveway
then back to school.  Disgusting, my daughter said.
For at last the maggots came, teeming in the possum’s
stopped, burned mouth.  The air smelt of stewed semen,
the tongue like a black orchid, half-severed, dangled
and torqued.  So the tongue swayed and in the fraying sleep
of my fatigue I could hear the quiet vowels, rising from
wisteria, from the hot ground, and falling back into silence.

There are definitely some questions I’ve got from this poem.  What in hell’s name is a ‘girl’s dismembered evidence’?  And what is the meaning to call a dead possum ‘a crumpled stocking’ or ‘a ripple in the field’?  Is it a newspaper you’re reading when you read, ‘the day’s diffuse paragraphs’?  What does, ‘a stop sign pulled out from the ground by schoolboys’ have to do with anything?  Is that why, ‘cars flew by’, and ‘a truck with a skip-bin’ flew by, and those ‘trucks pass rudely in the valley’?  How does the, ‘swing tempt her back’?  back from where?  And the most intriguing question of all, ‘how does the poet know what “stewed semen” smells like?
Sometimes I think you can try too hard.  But still, I like the poem because it’s about a possum, and I think I might discover more as I keep reading it.

So this is my ‘possum’ poem – also features a dead possum.
2010.  I don’t care what anybody says  -  I’ve driven country roads at night and on dusk and at dawn and I’ve come across many native animals on the road or beside the road, kangaroos, wombats, emu, camels, different sorts of marsupials — I know they could be out there and I’ve always been able to avoid butchering them with my car.  Likewise, in the city I’ve always been able to avoid ploughing into cats and dogs that run out.  So it really pisses me off when I hear people boasting how they ‘cleaned up’ some poor animal while driving.  To me, a lot of it is plain deliberate.

Road Rage 

8:30 pm
Walking my dog
down Lewers Street.
It’s quiet residential, zoned 50
when she alerts me
to an animal lump
laying in the middle of the road.
It’s a huge brush tail
laid there like a Davey Crocket hat
7 to 10 kilos, easy.
There’re puffs of grey fur
blown off and buffeting
as if still in the slipstream,
anchored bits of fairy floss
spun on the tips of blue metal tar,
not a mark on the body,
I stroke my hand
along the natural lay of fur
from the skull bone bristly covering
as I’ve done times before,
when other wild possum have taken my trust
for irresistible slices of apple,
leaning over the roof gable, gargoyle
eyes alive with escape,
and into the thick, warm pelt
that I would never have gotten away with,
for only those with the right mark
could enfold instinctively, warm wadding
in their hollowed out trees,
wild, wintry nights.
I use the tail
to carry her to the side of the road,
lay her on the footpath
where some neighbour
will hopefully bury it,
pause to look up the road, wondering
who did this?
I would like to know,
because I would walk up to them, and say
Ya fucking prick!
                                                                                        J. O. White

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Bruce Dawe - 'wood-eye'

Some blokes you come across seem to have one thing on their minds – sex; nothing else, everything’s to do with sex.  Their conversation is overloaded, overworked with continual sexual innuendo, connotation, clichés, jokes – and they’ll give a knowing wink as they work references like, ‘limp dick’, ‘big tits’ and ‘pussy’ into whatever it is you’re talking about.  A favourite Australian poet of mine, Bruce Dawe, captures this sort of character brilliantly in his poem, wood-eye.  It’s about a group of blokes who spend time together in hospital in a cancer ward.  One guy in the group has a compulsion to see sex in everything – ‘In Wood-eye’s world all roads led to Gomorrah’.  The title of the poem and the name given to the character is a play on a phrase “Wood-eye” uses in fantasising over having sex with the nursing sisters.  The phrase normally comes after somebody might ask a question, like, “Would you screw her?” – response, “Would I? Would I what!” (meaning, ‘yes I would’).  In the case of Dawe’s character fixated by sex, the question need not be asked, only implied.  ‘Wood-eye’ makes his statement and everybody knows what he means, “Would I? Would I what!”  Anyway, read the poem and see what you think of ‘Wood-eye’.

(Bruce Dawe, 1930 - )

No nursing-sister ever walked
into our ward but Wood-eye cocked an eye
(the good one, still unbandaged)
in our direction, lay there like a lamb
thinking his lion’s thoughts. Calm fingers took
like a professional sneak-thief his stirred pulse.
I’ve never seen a man whose libido’s red-light
as steadily burned in that last street
whose name nobody knows. In Wood-eye’s world
all roads led to Gommorrah where he practiced
as a sort of resident specialist on call
24 hours a day. No instrument
but had it’s phallic relevance: thermometer,
spatula, syringe were sign-posts on the way
to a consummation devoutly to be wished ….
‘Would I?’ he murmured, writhing on the rack
of unrealizable possibilities as some cool
sister exited: Oh Jesus, would I, what!’
So we called him ‘Wood-eye’. Something in his look
suggested that that eye-ball swivelling
in its carven socket, and that unseen eye
under the gauze-pad were like wooden things
intent on meaning more than just themselves
totems, you might say, to which we looked
for meaning while we hunched around the ward
or lay like anchorites on sheets that smelled
as clean as baker’s aprons. Wood-eye’s wit
flapped like a pennon on a distant hill. He was the ravaged,
he was mystery, the figure slouching off into the night,
into the gun-fire crackling like leaves,
coming back at dawn and saying nothing
or nothing with his lips that could drown out
the heavy music of his silences.
And if now I could know
his cancer cured, the bandages dispersed,
the hospital a fleeting memory,
the knives not feared, the sexy sisters gone
from his mind’s racing rink,
the need to grin upon a leaden fate,
all passed away, all passed,
                                       would I rejoice
until this sober skin
burst open like a grape from which might be stamped out
the final wine of love,
                              would I rejoice, then,
would I, would I what!

I don’t know about you, but in the first verse I’m having a sly laugh at ‘Wood-eye’, thinking he’s absurd, not only for how he obviously thinks, but also because he continues to think that way despite the predicament he’s in, dying of cancer – like, be serious, give it a rest mate, you’re in hospital for christ sake!  But old ‘Wood-eye’s’ still ‘writhing on the rack of unrealiseable possibilities’.  Then in the second verse I get the feeling ‘Wood-eye’ is a bit of a hero in the eyes of the other fellas – ‘ ....... wit flapped like a pennon on a distant hill, ……he was mystery ……….coming back at dawn  ………….  the heavy music of his silences’.  I think he was a hero because of his refusal to give up – to give up his sexual desire.  Instead, to openly and boldly maintain his interest in lust, ‘if I’m still thinking about sex, then I must be still alive!’  It makes us wonder about the importance sex gives to the purpose and meaning of life.  The status of hero is confirmed in the last verse.  It almost seems Wood-eye’s humour, sexual innuendos, clichés helped the others to survive, while he himself died.

In each of my posts I try to give a poem that I’ve written, influenced by one of my favourite poets.  My poem in this post is, A Moment With Al.  The subject of the poem reminds me to be always observant of the simple situations in life.  This is my life.  It isn’t always exciting, active or profound – mostly it isn’t!  And that is what I am given to write.  So I stop to talk to an old guy at work and he tells me about this cancer operation he’s going in for.  I’m thinking of Dawe’s ‘Wood-eye’ when the old guy starts telling me that his doctor’s a good looking sort with silky, black hair and she touches him on the leg ……….. good on you Al, you’re still alive!

2012.   Sometimes we don’t fully appreciate that each person has life outside the gate.  And that life is very real and personal and a million miles from the game played out in the factory.
A Moment With Al
Walk through the gate
beneath the liquid amber trees,
their branches now gnarled fingers
held warming toward a feeble winter sun.
Stop and talk to old Al,
of rain and garden mulch
and the August winds
that will dry the ground out,
but Al tells me he won’t be preparing
his gardens for spring,
not this year,
he’s going into hospital
to have a cancer cut out of his chest.
He went and saw Stuey
to take long service leave
but Stuey said take it as sick leave,
that’s what it’s for.
Al thought that was kind
at a time when kindness was needed.
He’ll be away four weeks,
on the operating table two hours,
Charlestown private,
that he had trouble finding,
ended up parking in the council car-park
and searching on foot.
He told the receptionist of the trouble,
she said we’ve got a car-park
right here under the hospital,
at which, Al gives my arm
a knowing punch-line tap
from the back of his hand, car park!
I couldn’t even find the building
so I wouldn’t want to be trying
to find a fucking car-park!
I hoped the doctor
could find all the cancer.
He says the doctor’s a woman,
then quickly bloke-a-fies it by saying
her name’s Tinika, about 40, slim,
Al’s concentration during diagnosis
may not have been entirely steady, but
I guess he’ll be steady enough on the table.
                                                                      J. O. White

Friday, 9 August 2013

Shakespeare - now entertain conjecture of a time

Like most everybody else, I’m caught up in the birth of the royal baby, Prince George – a time for reflection on a myriad of things, what with our elections coming up and the push that will come from parties to become republic or stay with the monarchy.  My wife looks at the news clips, and pines, “what a shame Diana couldn’t be there, they loved their mum,” as she transfers the love and value of her own family.  While I find my thoughts dwell on privilege, duty, ancient tradition, royalty and other lives played out in English monarchs, some of whom were proper bastards.  But then a couple of days ago I’m watching a BBC documentary on Prince Harry, about his role in the army throughout Iraq and in Afghanistan.  I was quite taken by this picture of a modern Royal, an ordinary young man, but a man in a position of influence and he comes across as being a decent sort of bloke.  I admired his obvious liking and acceptance among the troops and his relaxed leadership qualities.  And that then took me to Henry the Fifth, the only play I’m familiar with from William Shakespeare.  Henry V was one of my studies at school, but I know nothing from that.  It’s only now that I understand, wanting to understand, and I discover a language that is so polished and beautiful.  When I read my favourite acts of Shakespeare I feel we are losing our ability to express the elegant English language – well, among the people I know, anyway!  For this post I have to tell you how much I love reciting, ‘Now entertain conjecture of a time’, from the play Henry V.  The act imagines the scene in the camp of the English army on the night before battle with the French at Agincourt in 1415.  King ‘Harry’ reminds me of how I think our modern young ‘Harry’ would be.

Now entertain conjecture of a time
(William Shakespeare 1564 - 1616)

Now entertain conjecture of a time
When creeping murmur and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe.
From camp to camp, through the foul womb of night,
The hum of either army stilly sounds,
That the fix’d sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other’s watch:
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees the other’s umber’d face:
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night’s dull ear; and from the tents
The armourers, accomplishing the knights,
With busy hammers, closing rivets up,
Give dreadful note of preparation.
The country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll,
And the third hour of drowsy morning name,
Proud of their numbers, and secure in soul,
The confident and over-lusty French
Do the low-rated English play at dice;
And chide the cripple tardy-gaited night
Who, like a foul and ugly witch, doth limp
So tediously away.  The poor condemned English,
Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires
Sit patiently, and inly ruminate
The morning’s danger, and their gesture sad
Investing lank-lean cheeks and war-worn coats
Presenteth them unto the gazing moon
So many horrid ghosts.  O! now, who will behold
The royal captain of this ruin’d band
Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent,
Let him cry ‘Praise and glory on his head!’
For forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
Nor doth he dedicate one jot of colour
Unto the weary and all-watched night;
But freshly looks and overbears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largess universal, like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear.  Then mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.
And so our scene must to the battle fly;
Where, - O for pity, - we shall much disgrace,
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill dispos’d in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt.
I defy anybody, having read Now entertain conjecture of a time, who then denies any feeling of being taken to the very midst of those English soldiers on the night before their struggle in the battle of Agincourt.  For me, the expression in the poem reflects a gentleness that captures King Henry’s true character and also matches the mood found in the depth of night and early morn.
I’ve trolled back through some of my early work to find something that touches on the feeling of ‘Harry’ walking among his troops.  The closest I come is, Battlegroup.  It’s a feeling more than a poem that I wrote in a quiet, early morning moment.  The pulse is the gentleness before the sheer destruction of battle.
1987.  On HMAS Canberra exercising with a US Navy battle group.  We are coming into position to commence a refuelling run on a tanker - USS Passumpsic. It's pre dawn.  The sky is still dark.  Other ships are stationed all about us.  We move up into position and start refueling.  The feeling is one of powerful technology.  There is comfort and protection from the dark and the cool of the morning in the purposeful progress of these huge pieces of steel gliding easily on the sea.


Early morning light,
out in the Pacific,
steaming south -
south east into a pink cloudy sky,
a light swell rolls us,
alongside ‘Passumpsic”,
embellicled by black,
looped fuelling hoses,
diesels loud in a racing thump
from her high funnel,
orange floods wash a warm glow
over enclosed tank decks,
contrasted with,
striking blue police lamps
picking out station markers,
away astern where ‘Midway’ surrounds herself
with other ships,
a block of dark angles and mastheads,
jewelled with red warning beacons,
blink, blink of aircraft lights,
as helicopters lift from the mass and glide along the sea,
going about the business of war.
                                                        J. O. White