Sonnet No 7: Three MoMA Guards

Not one, but three of the security staff at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) had me unsure where the art finished and the rest of life began. In two of the three cases I went back a second time, and saw that the exhibit was diminished by the absence of the guard who had been there the first time. I only visited the third room once, but the guard in question moved away and was replaced by someone who didn’t value-add in the same way.

Three Guards at MoMA: Gober, Gober, Dubuffet
Dolphin-sized, shaped from tobacco
sheafs, a fragile beached cheroot.
He’s on guard at its head. No whacko
Gets past his secret-service suit.
Wallpaper patterned with a lynching:
a thousand times a Black man hangs.
The guard is Black: without harangues
he sets us White art-lovers flinching.
Prints of dark beards, roots and gravel,
dig underground, compel, and revel
in earth, but then a high sweet tune
the guard hums lifts us to the moon.
Next day, there’s just an art brut star,
a pomo wall, a giant cigar.

The links will take you to images from the three environments referred to. (And yes, it hardly counts as a sonnet – can the volta ever come that late?)

Helen Garner’s House of Grief and my Sonnet 6

Helen Garner, This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial (Text 2014)

1922079200 This is the third of Helen Garner’s courtroom books, and it’s a much tougher read than I remember the others being. Maybe that’s because this one involves a man who drove into a dam in a car that also contained his three young sons, and swam free himself. In four court hearings he is committed and tried for murder, appeals successfully against the guilty verdict, and is tried again. The aim of the legal process is to determine his guilt or otherwise. The book would be as relentlessly painful no matter what the jury finally decided.

The book is beautifully written. It’s subtle, sharp and unremitting. It conveys brilliantly the theatre of the court. It’s brave too: Helen Garner doesn’t back off from offering her own readings, her own judgments, of the many courtroom participants – witnesses, lawyers, judges, journalists, family members of the accused and of the dead children, her own young companion Louise, a bumptious school student drop-in, and at the centre of it all the man himself. I found it gruelling, and ultimately very satisfying, even while it pins a huge question mark on the tail of the whole legal system: so much raking through people’s lives and relationships, so many people put through the horrendous ordeal of cross-examination (much worse here, it seems, than in standard TV fare) – surely there must be a better way than this single-minded quest to find where to apportion blame?

It’s probably central to Garner’s power as narrator and her persuasiveness as interpreter that she dramatises her own emotional responses, so that we’re always aware that this is one person’s perspective and that it’s a perspective with flesh on its bones. She constantly reminds us that the court is dealing with profoundly human events – in this case the violent death of three children. I love the following, for example:

Was there a form of madness called court fatigue? It would have mortified me to tell Louise about the crazy magical thinking that filled my waking mind and, at night, my dreams: if only Farquharson could be found not guilty, then the boys would not be dead. Cindy would drive home from the court and find them playing kick-to-kick in the yard, or sprawled in their socks on the couch, absorbed in the cartoon channel. Bailey would run to her with his arms out. They would call for something to eat. She would open the fridge and cheerfully start rattling the pots and pans. I could not wait to get home, to haul my grandsons away from their Lego and their light sabres, to squeeze them in my arms until they squirmed. Young boys! How can such wild, vital creatures die?How can this hilarious sweetness be snuffed out forever?

Moving on to my obligatory November rhyming:

Sonnet No 5: Magical thinking?
What magic could bestow on juries
the power to undo a crime?
Guilt still would be pursued by Furies,
innocence shine forth in time,
but history, by twelve’s decision,
would undergo benign revision –
the dead would live, the maimed be whole,
and peace suffuse the tortured soul.
Real courts, alas, aren’t made for healing.
Wounds heal elsewhere, if at all.
What magic thinking has us call
to public scrutiny dark feeling –
grief, hate, regret, long festered strife?
No verdict can restore a life.

This House of Grief is the seventh book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sonnet No 5: Regulations

One thing about visiting New York is the interesting conversations you have with very brief acquaintances. Today’s exercise in rhyme started out from one of them, and got distracted by the BIG signs in places that serve alcohol advising, among other things, that pregnant women should not drink alcohol, and ubiquitous illustrated instructions in the Heimlich manoeuvre. (After I’d done the first draft I realised that a wall poster in a Pain Quotidien showing how to eat a tartine was possibly meant as a parody of the mandatory Heimlich poster: I’m not alone in seeing a gleam of absurdity, even while recognising that lives may be saved by the posters.)

Sonnet No 5: Regulations
When young he drove a horse and carriage
in Central Park. They were good times,
long before the current barrage
of regulation. Now it’s a crime
to take a horse out into traffic.
Though he don’t claim they were seraphic
no one would have done that then
– the horse would suffer! They were men
who didn’t need to the law to tell ‘em
right from wrong. Now everywhere
signs say Must Not, Should, No, Beware.
From Bowling Green to outer Pelham
each cafe, subway, park and lawn
will soon instruct us how to yawn.

Brooklyn Yawp, November poem No 4

Last night – 10 November here – I took the Subway to Brooklyn for an event that had caught my eye in Time Out New York: the Brooklyn Poets Yawp. (For the benefit of those who know even less about poetry than I do, Walt Whitman referred to his poetry as his ‘barbaric yawp’.)

The first hour of the Yawp is a poetry workshop led by Jason Koo, poet and poetry teacher who must be doing it for love because he only charges $5 at the door and various categories aren’t asked to pay at all. The second hour is an open mic.

Typically I piked on the open mic, but I stayed for the whole thing and had a great time.

In the workshop Jason invited us to try our hands at seduction poems. We read poems by Marvell, Donne and two modern ports, listened to a number of versions of ‘My Funny Valentine’ and scribbled for 15 minutes. Even though what I wrote wasn’t a sonnet, and believe it or not my November sonnets generally take a lot longer than 15 minutes to write, I was quite pleased with my seduction poem and now will inflict it on you.

But first, I ought to acknowledge how much I enjoyed the open mic hour, not least for the family feeling among the 30 or so people there and Jason’s smooth, genial, kind but not too kind MCing. Not necessarily the best poem but the most daring was a verbatim reading of the text of a Viagra ad currently showing on New York TV.

No 4: Seduction Poem
When did it happen,
this line on your face,
This deep straight line down your cheek?
Did it just appear one day when we weren’t watching?
Is it a line from some future poem?
An elegy?
Let me trace it with a finger
and my lips.
So much has happened when we weren’t watching,
so many messages from after all.
Lips now thinner, hair turned grey,
and where did the thin me go?

What will have happened next?

But should we care?
How does it happen that each time we touch
it’s all new?

Sonnet No 3: Slam night at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe

Running well behind schedule on the sonnets. Sorry, will do better. Meanwhile, I’m not making this up:

Sonnet No 3: Slam Night at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe
We’re in line with a White IT consultant
who boasts two Matisse cut-out tattoos.
Someone’s shot dead in a car – the resultant
crime scene tape, marks the zone for clues.
In the street cops with Glocks are scoping a murder.
In the line a featured spoken-worder
waits. A Black poet says it’s droll
cops are called when words get out of control
in minority mouths. But speak not lightly
of poets and law. Inside the cafe
with wit and charm and rage they say
unsayable things, and say them nightly.
This may be where a new world starts
as words like bullets pierce our hearts.

Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses and my No 2 scribble

Mary Oliver, Blue Horses (Penguin 2014)

20141106-122028.jpg In his justly-praised eulogy for Gough Whitlam, Noel Pearson repeatedly used the phrase ‘this old man’ as a term of high honour. Like Diana Athill, Dorothy Hewett, Jennifer Maiden and any number of others, Mary Oliver makes me wish passionately that we could say ‘this old woman’ and have it understood to indicate esteem.

This is old-woman poetry. Oliver isn’t out to prove anything. This is frm ‘I don’t want to be demure or respectable’:

I’m not trying to be wise, that would be foolish.
I’m just chattering.

She’s not even out to offer obvious value for money. For $28 you get 78 pages and almost ever second page is blank. But every word feels just right. The poems are personal and deeply felt, but nothing personal in a way that would be embarrassing to read on a poster on a bus. Most of them feel as if they have been around forever, or at least should have been. The recurring mode is celebration – of a new love, of connection to living things, of rhyme, of yoga lessons, of life and even of sickness and death, though in their cases it’s more a mature reconciliation than actual celebration. She stops short of being religious, as in ‘Angels’:

I don’t care how many angels can
dance on the head of a pin. It’s
enough to know that for some people
they exist, and that they dance.

Moving on to my own November task, I was struck by the poem ‘The Mangroves’, in which the speaker, who is living ‘in a warm place’ realised she has trouble loving mangroves the way she loves the black oaks and the pines of her cooler home. It’s not Oliver’s doing that oaks and pines are ‘normal’ to mainstream English literature and mangroves are exotic, but the idea of normal is inevitably there, so:

Sonnet No 2: In response to Mary Oliver’s ‘The Mangroves’
It’s fall, November, New York City.
Leaves fall, just like they do in song,
in movies, poems and all those pretty
paintings from Art History. Long
we’ve read bare ruined choirs
follow on bright autumn’s fires.
I’m coming over all Mackellar,
a not-your-field-and-coppice feller.
My heart belongs to smooth angophora,
to leaves that glisten all year round,
to roots four feet above the ground
and messy pneumatophora.
All trees are lovely when you look –
less so those growing by the book.

Travelling with the Art Student

OK, so we’ve been away from home for just over a week, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much art in so short a time. Such is life when shared with an Art Student. Here’s a partial list of the artists we’ve seen so far, in Los Angeles and New York, with many more to come.

Continue reading

More of Swapna Dutta’s Juneli, plus my Sonnet No 1

Swapna Dutta, Juneli at Avila’s (©1992, CinnamonTeal Publishing 2014)
——, An Exciting Term (©1992, CinnamonTeal Publishing 2014)

1ja 1et Swapna Dutta’s serial about a girl named Juneli who goes to boarding school was first published in the English-language Indian children’s magazineChildren’s World between 1978 and 1985. The serial proved very popular with young readers, and in the early 1990s HarperCollins published three Juneli books. This year the stories have found another lease of life as CinnamonTeal brings them out in three ebooks. All three books include the illustrations that Swapna’s daughter Sawan, then still a teenager, drew for the HarperCollins books, and the cover images are also Sawan’s (which were not used as covers of the print edition).

When I wrote a blog post about the first book, Juneli’s First Term, I hope I communicated how charmed I was by Juneli’s benign experience of boarding school. That benign quality continues in these books. There are scrapes and japes, mysteries and adventures in a setting that owes equal amounts to the pre–Harry Potter boarding school genre and Swapna’s own childhood experience at an English-speaking boarding school run for Indian girls by Carmelite nuns. Juneli now knows the ropes and has earned the respect and affection of most of her classmates, and the not-quite-enmity of a couple of snobbish malcontents. A kitchen mishap from the first book is a continuing source of embarrassment and comedy, and now we hold our breath each time there is a cooking exercise.

If you have a taste for boarding-schools stories or if you’re looking for a gift for a young person with such a taste, and want to add a little Indian flavour to your/their reading, I recommend these three little books.You can buy them from They are very reasonably priced by Australian standards. (I received complimentary copies, and Swapna is a friend.)

Moving right along: for the last few years I have set myself the task of writing 14 sonnets for the blog in November. Here goes with Sonnet No 1 for 2014, inspired by the Juneli books, along with Sugata Mistra’s wonderful TED talks maintaining that schools are an obsolete tool of empire, and Matilda the Musical which I’ve just seen on Broadway with its monstrous Miss Trunchbull, who couldn’t be more different from Juneli’s kind Mother Benedicta.

Sonnet No 1
Knead memories to make art. Punch, pull
fold, punch again, let stand, then bake.
So Dahl’s tormentor became Trunchbull,
real nuns did Swapna’s teachers make.
Both real schools served empire’s agenda.
Both fictions, one harsh, one most tender,
resist. Matilda, Juneli,
are naughty as they need to be.
In school, by monster or sweet mother
we’re taught to play our ordained parts,
ignore the whispers of our hearts,
but if we reach for one another,
each one giving what she has,
that may be good enough for jazz.

Amira Hass’s Drinking the Sea at Gaza

Amira Hass, Drinking the Sea at Gaza (1996, English translation @Metropolitan Books 1999; Owl Books 2000)

0805057404Amira Hass is a rarity: a Jewish Israeli journalist who lives full-time among Palestinians. She went to live in Gaza in 1993 and moved to Ramallah on the West Bank in 1997. She writes for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. Drinking the Sea at Gaza is rooted in her daily witnessing and sharing of the lives of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. It deals with the period from the Oslo Accords (1993–1995) and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, followed by the general elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (1996), with flashbacks to 1948, 1967 and the first Intifada (1987–1991), and an occasional footnote on changes between the Hebrew and English publications.

An awful lot has happened in the Gaza Strip since Hass wrote this book, including the second Intifada (2000–2006), the withdrawal of the Israeli army and dismantling of Israeli Settlements (2005), the election of Hamas (2006), the blockade (2007–) and armed conflict involving rockets, air attacks, land invasions, targeted assassinations, demolition of homes, and constantly violated ceasefires. So the books political narratives are historical rather than current news, the statistics on the economy are way out of date, and the living conditions of the people have almost certainly changed, and not for the better.

But the strength of the book lies in its intimacy. However formidable it is as journalism – marshalling statistics, providing context, arguing a position, constructing lucid narratives – it absolutely shines as a multifaceted portrait of people who have endured and resisted dispossession, armed occupation, economic oppression, neglect, wilful misunderstanding and betrayal. Hass has been described as an Israeli-bashing journalist, but on the strength of this book that’s rubbish. What she does is attempt to communicate an understanding of Palestinian points of view: suicide bombings are nightmarish, but the extraordinary hardship caused to ordinary people when the Gaza Strip is ‘hermetically sealed’ in response is monstrous. She writes about her friends.

Gazans include three main groupings, each with its own perspectives: refugees, people who were already living there before the great influx of refugees in 1948, and Palestinians who returned from exile after the Oslo Accords in the mid 1990s. Hass’s sympathies lie firmly with the refugees. There is also, of course, great political diversity: Fatah, preparing to govern and then backing Yasir Arafat (with reservations: Hass is not a fan); Hamas, at the time of this book gaining strength as the main Islamist party; the secular left, small but insightful. Older men who have spent time in Israeli prisons have a greater understanding of and sometimes sympathy for Israelis than the young, some of whom know them only as stereotypical oppressors (a little boy who followed some Israeli soldiers around tells an adult questioner he is trying to see their tails). Women are largely absent for public life: Hass, a Jew, mostly deals with men as a journalist, and her chapter on women is made up largely of pieces written by Gazan women contacts.

An unexpected quality of the book is its humour – Hass herself has a sardonic edge, and she has a good ear for the illuminating jokes of her Gazan friends.

The chapter ‘It is written in the holy Quran’ is a wonderful antidote to the notion that Islam is a dangerous monolithic hive mind. In a discussion of Muslim diversity is a neat example of religion-based humour. Hass was getting into a lift with a male acquaintance when another man, known to them both, joined them as the door was closing, and said, ‘I’m Satan.’ When Hass showed her lack of understanding, they explained that a verse in the Quran says that when a man and a woman are alone together Satan is between them.

Another chapter begins with a teasing exchange between drivers in a traffic snarl. The men, both from the same refugee camp, mock each other on the basis of generations-old jokes between the villages their parents were driven from in 1948. And so we are introduced to a very bitter–very sweet culture of remembrance. The yearning for lost country is not just a political motivator. It also sustains people who have been trapped in refugee camps for half a century.

Even when dealing with the torture of political prisoners in Israeli prisons, there are unexpected flashes of laughter. This, from a man named Abu Majed, is probably my favourite moment in the book:

One of his interrogators was rather overweight. As the man was jumping on him and squeezing his testicles, trying to get him to squeal on his comrades, Abu Majed managed to gasp, ‘They must be paying you double for your fat ass.’ Incredibly, the interrogator bent over with laughter and left the room.

Hass describes that as an unexpected moment of contact. That’s not a bad description of the book itself. In the context of so much that is written about the intractability of the Israeli–Palestinian entanglement, here is someone attempting to build a bridge of understanding. She writes:

If more Israelis with good intentions would actually come to Gaza and talk to people directly, I am convinced that they would have a better understanding of [attitudes described in the Israeli press as] ‘fundamentalism’ and a better grasp of the true face of the Oslo Accords. But Israelis are not allowed into Gaza unless they come to meet with Palestinian Authority leaders as part of an official delegation.

We can be very glad that at least one Israeli has managed ‘talk to people directly’, and has given us a chance to do so by proxy through this book.

Leith Morton’s translations of Masayo Koike, Shuntarō Tanikawa & Rin Ishigaki

Leith Morton (selector and translator), Poems of Masayo Koike, Shuntarō Tanikawa & Rin Ishigaki (Vagabond Press 2013)

Vagabond_Asia_Pacific_Series_Japan1Indonesian writer and translator Maggie Tiojakin said recently on the ABC’s Books and Arts Daily that in translating Kipling’s Just So Stories she had to negotiate between wanting people to understand Kipling’s playful language or just enjoy the sound of it. Having opted for understanding, she worried that she had ruined Kipling’s work.

People enjoyed her Elephant’s Child anyhow, so all was well, but a similar dilemma faces any translator where the sound and look of the words matters. This includes most poetry, particularly when translated into European languages from languages like Chinese and Japanese that are written in characters: a simple word-by-word transition just doesn’t do it. The difficulty – and the joy of the challenge – are charmingly illustrated by the web page Matsuo Bashô: Frog Haiku (Thirty-one Translations and One Commentary); likewise by Robert Okaji’s annotated translations from Chinese (thanks for the tip, Will).

Inevitably then, in a book like this one, presenting three Japanese poets in translation, there’s a sense that one is reading the poems at one remove: they really are at one remove. The translator, Leith Morton, discusses some of the challenges in his preface, at one point expressing the hope that ‘the many textual pleasures … available to [a] Japanese audience can be gestured towards in translation’. He succeeds admirably, but it’s still frustrating to read gestures towards other people’s pleasures. But then when I came back to the book a couple of weeks after my first reading, its pleasures had miraculously become much more immediate.

The first of these three poets, Masayo Koike, is the youngest and possibly the most accessible to readers who, like me, have slender acquaintance with Japanese literary forms. There are wonderful haiku-like moments, like this in ‘The Ashtray and the Girl’:

The end of summer
In the middle of the road
Lying on its back a Brown Baker cicada

A number of her poems are remarkable for their ease with bodily functions: ‘A Short Poem about Daybreak’ begins:

America, in a toilet in Santa Fe
I was urinating softly for a long long time
In the whole world
I felt as if there was only this sound and myself

In ‘Bathhouse’ the speaker looks at other women’s bodies, ‘Naked backs, hips and backsides / Private parts / … The many hollows of the female body / Water gathering there / Dripping down’ ; ‘Penis from Heaven’ (a title that must put Leith Morton in line for some kind of award!) recalls an intimate, sexual moment from a film with no hint of prurience or transgression.

The second poet, Shuntarō Tanikawa, is, according to Leith Morton’s preface, generally acknowledged to be the most famous poet in Japan today. Urination features in his section of the book as well, most notably in ‘Peeing’, which I read as a cheerful anti-war poem. There are a number of fine poems about poetry and writing. Possibly because I read the book while my mother-in-law was dying, his poem that most struck me was ‘My Father’s Death’. This is in a number of parts, the first of which might almost have been called ‘The Day Father Died’ in homage to Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ – it is preoccupied with minutiae, except for the stark description of the dead body:

his mouth with the false teeth removed was open and his face had turned into a Noh mask of an old man, he was already dead. His face was cold but his hands and feet were still warm.

If you get a chance read this whole poem – it moves on to concentrated meditation, to the speech Tanukawa gave at his father’s funeral, to a beautifully captured moment of memory and realisation a month later.

Rin Ishigaki (1920–2004) doesn’t have any piddling, but she does have a bathhouse poem, ‘At the Bathhouse’. Perhaps as she was of an earlier generation than Koike, she takes the bodies of the women for granted and takes as her starting point the one yen pieces that women receive as change when they enter the bath – a humble coins that

Soak to their fill in hot water
And are splashed with soap.

The heart of this poem, and possibly of Ishigaki’s section of the book, is in the later lines:

What a blessing to be of no value
In monetary terms.

That is to say, many of the poems are about humility – about poverty, deprivation and economic oppression, but also about humility, and a kind of surprised appreciation of small unvalued things. The point where I fell in thrall to Ishigaki was in the poem ‘Sadness’. Here’s the whole poem (note – I’m 67):

I am 65.
Recently I fell over and broke my right wrist.
They told me at the hospital that
After it heals it will not be the same as it was before.
I rubbed my arm crying.
I’m sorry’
Both of them
Died some time ago and are no longer here
This body I received from them.Even now I am still a child.
Not an old woman.

This is the third book I’ve read in Vagabond Press’s admirable Asia-Pacific Writing series. The others (which I blogged about here and here) were translated from Chinese.