Editor: Michael Arnold: email@example.com Post: brief, PO Box 102, Waimauku 0842, Waitakere City.
Ted Jenner Mike Johnson Jack Ross Will Christie KM Ross Nathan MacGregor Scott Hamilton Hamish Dewe John Geraets E Goodman & W Ao Uddipana Goswami Michael Arnold David Lyndon Brown Rogelio Guedea Doc Drumheller Janet Charman Brett Cross Michael Steven William Direen Richard von Sturmer Richard Taylor Graeme Perrin Brenda Ann Burke Janis Freegard Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán Alex Wild Jespersen Gabriel White
Spinning A Soft Endless Web Commuting to Waiheke In Love with the Chinese Novel Clotho on the Dancefloor - Wingettes Venusian Transit For Don Shooting the Gods - To Wiremu Tamihana Shanghai - Eleven Igatpuri, Dhamma Giri Translations of New Chinese Poetry Mother Goddess Kamakhya 瘾thrall White Room from Free Fall (Tr. Peter Broad and Sandra Merill) How to Tie a Knot Around the World Who do you See? Jerusalem - return Six Poems by Samuel Beckett 14.2-19.2 - Sam Johnson and the Widow from Fabulae from Eyelight Saltworks (extract) 9th work – Down South (i) Shift ending Coleoptera Honig from The Constant Losers Alphaghetti - The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis
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brief [ISSN 1175-9313] is published by the Writers Group. Subscription rates: $45 dollars for three issues post-free in Aotearoa. $70 for institutional addresses. $60 for Australia. $75 elsewhere. $17 for single issues and back-issues. Make cheques payable to: The Writers Group. Cover: One Tree Hill 一樹山 (2007) by Ben Ou 區本 www.xanga.com/benart Special thanks to the Chinese Painting and Calligraphy Arts Association of New Zealand brief
Spinning A Soft Endless Web A fault-line quake c. 9pm measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale 30 km E of Orewa scares nestlings into panic-stricken flight seconds before anyone in this house feels the turbulence. Lying on a bed, jet-lagged, having just arrived from the Rift Valley, here I am greeting the Pacific trench already. (21.2.07) . JAGGED FLASHES OF LIGHT ABOVE THE ROOVES IN WAIHI AZURE PACIFIC A LINE BREAKING INTO LACE INCESSANTLY EARS SO FULL OF CICADAS THEY SING IN YOUR PILLOW AT NIGHT A RESORT OUT OF SEASON ITS STREETS EMPTY BALD AND LICHENED ECHOING THE BREAKERS AND THE PLUMP OF DISTANT RAINSTORMS IN THE LATE SUMMER DUSK VOICES GRADUALLY EFFACED BY THE DARKENING SILENCE . The tiny moth with delta-winged semi-transparent appendages reappears, as if hatched out of my suitcase, and as ubiquitous in Ellerslie as it was in Malawi. And in Koraha St., a dwarf-like specimen of a pawpaw tree hides a shrunken set of ‘dugs’ under a miniature canopy of leaves. . At Day’s Bay in profile, the bony, angular form of a girl reading, oblivious of the family crossing the sand behind her. The light shimmering, violet. The year, 1899. : ‘she heard the silence spinning its soft, endless web’ (Katherine Mansfield) . The patterns on the ceilings in the bedrooms in Zomba, Malawi; geometric, orthographic, symmetrical projections created by the rain’s infiltrations; crosssections of outlandishly tropical gourds; Rorschach tests beneath which one slept and dreamt, teased, I remember…
. Culture shock begins with the return home from a foreign country, not with the arrival there. . ‘The sense of never having arrived at a place you keep wanting to leave.’ (Alan Loney) . An empty land drained of any significance for the European explorer, Australia seemed to produce nothing but dream-like narratives of repetition, events without closure. Contrast the dreaming of the Aborigine, for whom every corner and cranny in the land was full of significance. See Paul Carter, Living in a New Country (1992): ‘the glint of sunlight on bent grass, turning it into a field of scratched glass or gossamer and revealing someone’s recent passage.’ By 1850, European settlers were already becoming unnerved by the silence of New Zealand bush. Stoats, introduced to reduce the number of rabbits, scurried into the forests and found native birds more interesting prey. Originally introduced for the fur trade, the opossum now stands at an estimated population of 70 million. One hundred years later, some descendants of those first settlers are still spooked by the ‘emptiness’; others have adopted a more conciliatory attitude: ‘Charles Brasch saying we are alone, existentially full of angst, and Smithyman came out and said, “Hey! If you look at these hills which are crying for meaning, they are covered in pa sites!”’ (Scott Hamilton in Percutio 1 (2007). . ‘Driven by the Trades/To sleepy corner’ in a decrepit and decaying boarding house resonating with sounds from the girls’ school six doors down the road: buzzers and bells constantly ringing the changes as the students shuffle between adolescence and maturity, their ‘pubic clocks ticking’ (Updike) unheard. . SACRED HEART: CONSULT THE DRAWINGS IN THE CONDENSATION ON THE WINDOWS IN ROOM 21 WHERE PARABOLAS DESCRIBE AN ERECTION FATHER CHAMPAGNAT PURE WHITE SHOULDERS GLISTENING WITH DRIZZLE GAZES brief
BENIGNLY AT THE TONSURED LAWN THE PURSED LIPS OF RANGITOTO’S VULVA VISIBLE ABOVE THE ROOVES OF GLENDOWIE PRAY FOR US SINNERS NOW AND AT THE HOUR OF THE BREAKING OF OUR VOICES PRAY FOR US NOW . This High Street café at lunchtime is full of beautiful Asian waitresses bearing flat whites, the milk on the surface swirling into the configuration of a myrtle leaf or the breast feather of a dove. . Greenlane’s streetlamps, necks bent in prayer at the hour of the evening Angelus, the tall, gracefully arched feminine form towering above this male, as in Millet’s painting… Work-boots on guard outside three doors in the upstairs corridor of the boarding house: unrelieved sentinels, submissive, forlorn. . Loneliness and alienation in the city? But don’t people also live in cities to escape from people? .
Clothesline : Balmoral (29.9.07)
a set of baby’s nappies flapping against the nor’easter small wings flailing trapped in lime . Whispering angels trail vapours over Balmoral at sunset; the screams of squabbling archangels fret in the stratosphere as they begin their descent. And down to earth, a terrestrial representative at St. Lukes stares coyly from her modest frame, as from a fresco by Giotto, a wave of lustrous raven hair falling softly over the left hazel eye, just above a sun-dried wad of chewing gum. . 4
With Alan Loney in Mezzeâ€™s for three hours of conversation, he looking more like a bodhisattva than ever, balding with slight paunch and brindled beard, The mind like a clean slate shining, There let no dust cling ever (2.12.07) . A species dying every ten minutes? A language disappearing every two weeks? Will it ever end? Oh yes, thereâ€™ll be an end. Of course it will end. .
THIS FOSSIL AMMONITE FOR SALE IN DOMINION RD
IS THE EYE OF A CYCLONE PRESSED INTO SOFT STONE IS A FOUR HUNDRED MILLION YEAR OLD PERMIAN RINGWORM
A foretaste of (sinister) degradation: floaters and maculae in the left eye; erosion of the left molars, a persistent pain in the left hip. . A rectilinear grid of streets, essentially boulevards, tree-lined, with tramcars in the shape of the fuselage of the first Continental airliners; the tramcars chiming the stops with an ecclesiastical tone as if summoning the communicants to the host. Though dust-laden, the trees sparkle in the early morning sunlight in this most European of Australasian cities, but its outskirts reveal how it sits on its landscape - as an alien. Beyond the city, the grass is light brown fringed with eucalyptus; the red earth is cracked and parched. I could be looking into the heart of Africa. brief
Suburban gardens in Ashwood display ingenious methods of trapping dew: in one garden, a plastic bottle, with the base removed and the nozzle pointing downwards, was mounted above a slip of nasturtium. I have seen the same method used in the Negev Desert. Melbourne, 22.4.08 .
Teak slats filter dust and moonlight.
Ashwood’s slatted shutters wink at the maid in the moon.
A man or maid in the moon in the West; in Malawi, a rooster; in China, a hare and a toad and a cassia tree. It is we who change. The moon of course ‘es una/misma/en New York/y en Bogotá’ (‘the same thing in NY and in Bogota’ - Mexican poet, José Juan Tablada). And yet the moon is the West’s notorious image of mutability. In China, on the other hand, it represents permanence. The West sees appearance where the East sees essence. . A host of dwarves gradually infiltrating a fairground and taking it over; huge flying wing aircraft hovering over St. Kilda; caverns full of scarecrows and dressmaker’s dummies; vast department stores containing row upon row upon row of bolts of cloth and linoleum casting shadows that flicker with the regular flashes of neon light – to recapture the dreams of childhood? No thanks. . Anuta is an isolated Pacific atoll of only three hundred inhabitants where children are shared with the childless, a mirror is considered a luxury, and aropa (cf. aroha) is almost a palpable entity.
As this information came to me on the BBC World Service as background to whatever I was doing at the time, I am not sure that aropa is as close to the Maori as I remember it; was it a mirror or was it a looking glass that was considered a luxury? I am not sure that all – as opposed to a number of – children are shared with the childless; was the population 30 or was it 300? And was the name of the atoll really Anuta? And now I feel guilty about reducing an earthly paradise to a game of Chinese whispers. . They saw the garden, Filled with silence … .
‘and then such silence that gardens were bowed to the earth’ Mansfield)
. The enigma of a harsh guttural cough rising from deep in the throat and shuffling down the street at 6.15 am – like the god Morbus himself – and vanishing at daybreak. .
Shivering after dawn, Balmoral 6.32 am
And still watching this herring-bone cloud dissolve into patterns I might have smudged with a finger or are they tyre tracks pissed he failed to take the corner?
Commuting to Waiheke the deckhand throws the looped rope over the stanchion the pontoon lifts up and down waiting passengers rise and fall the stanchion turns and the wharf slides quietly out to sea another deckhand comes to the rescue the pontoon lifts up and down glossy upon the stones of the shore a thin line of foam the deckhand throws the looped rope over the stanchion late light slants from the peaks of Rangitoto across the stern a glass of wine, por favor waiting passengers rise and the stanchion turns and someone’s cellphone barks like a dog another plays Beethoven late light slants from the peaks of Rangitoto 8
the wharf slides quietly glossy upon the stones of the shore a thin line of foam across the stern a glass of wine, por favor the deckhand throws a looped rope someone barks into their cellphone someone else plays Beethoven a gull slips obediently across our frame of reference another deckhand comes to the rescue glossy upon the stones of the shore someone gives a big bored sigh someone else plays Beethoven across our frame of reference a glass of wine, por favor a gull slip-slides obediently a thin line of foam out to sea a gull comes to the rescue late light slants across our frame of rise and fall the deckhand throws the looped rope over the peaks of Rangitoto the wharf slides obedient passengers rise and
In Love with the Chinese Novel: A Voyage around the Hung Lou Meng
I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost. – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” pp. 47-48.1
I guess my love affair with the Chinese novel began the day I bought the first volume of A Dream of Red Mansions in a little junk shop a few doors down from my parents’ house in Mairangi Bay. The date on the flyleaf tells me that it was a few days before my seventeenth birthday. It was always a depressing place to visit. The owner, a thin, nervous, middleaged man, would spring up and ask you what you were looking for. Each time I’d reply that I’d come to check out the books. Each time he’d ask, “Any particular one?” even though his whole stock couldn’t have exceeded twenty or thirty titles, most of them Readers’ Digest Condensed Books and suchlike dross. Each time I’d respond, “Just browsing, thanks,” and he would subside. I felt very sorry for him. A lot of businesses had started up on that particular site, only to go under a few months later, dashing some poor sod’s hope of worldly independence. This man’s struggle was so desperate and prolonged, though, that one could only speculate what demons had driven him to invest his all in this sub-fusc bric-à-brac shop. It was blindingly obvious that he’d never make a go of it. And yet, having started, he had to persist. Anyway, on this particular occasion there actually was a book which looked interesting on his single set of shelves. It was priced at thirty cents, I recall – hardly a fortune to me even in those days. The cover was blue and red, with a Chinese character inscribed on it, and it had the most beautifully luminous 1 Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Ed. Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby. 1964 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), pp. 44-54. 10
pictures of Chinese ladies and gentlemen tipped into the text. Not exactly a bargain, though – the introduction made it plain that this was the first of three volumes. I took it home and started to read. Tsao Hsueh-Chin & Kao Ngo. A Dream of Red Mansions. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 3 vols. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978.
• … he saw a dozen or more large cupboards with paper strips pasted on their doors on which were written the names of different provinces. He was careful to look out for the one belonging to his own area and presently found one on which the paper strip said ‘Jinling, Twelve Beauties of, Main Register’. Bao-yu asked Disenchantment what this meant, and she explained that it was a register of the twelve most outstanding girls of his home province. – Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, Vol. 1, p.132.
Explaining the significance of the Hung Lou Meng in Chinese culture (or the Red Chamber Dream, The Dream of the Red Chamber, A Dream of Red Mansions, or even The Story of the Stone, to list a few of the titles English translators have given it), is a bit like trying to convey the weightiness of names like Dickens, Kafka or Tolstoy to someone completely unfamiliar with European literature. It’s a romance, yes – the hero Bao-yu must decide between the competing charms of the petulant but ethereal Dai-yu and the cheerful, practical Bao-chai – but it’s also a detailed analysis of the decline and fall of a great Chinese family, in its turn a mirror for the whole of Manchu culture. It was composed in the late 18th century – no-one is entirely sure by whom – and issued in a number of truncated and re-edited manuscripts and editions (the 80-chapter and 120-chapter versions being the two main subdivisions). What is certain is that the novel conceived by Cao Xueqin – the most probable candidate for authorship – was never published in the form he first brief
conceived it. If he completed it at all, that original conclusion is lost. The first eighty chapters of the text we have are thought to be mostly by him, the last forty may or may not be based on the notes and drafts he left behind – though many would prefer to attribute them to the novel’s editor Gao E. Strangely enough, it hardly seems to matter. So compelling is the world this master-novelist conjured up (principally as a tribute to the twelve beautiful women he most loved in his youth, as he himself tells us in the crucial fifth chapter of his story), that even the tamperings of over-zealous relatives, terrified by the story’s subversive tone, cannot dull its effect. I was interested, a few years ago, glancing down the list of titles in a book of essays by the Chinese poet Gu Cheng (so tragically celebrated for his own murder-suicide on Waiheke in 1993), to see that one of them was an attempt to contrast the relative “purity” of the novel’s two heroines Dai-yu and Bao-chai. Like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, the Hung Lou Meng’s characters have a tendency to arouse strong (and not exclusively literary) feelings in both students and casual readers. But I’m running ahead of my story. Kuhn, Franz, ed. Hung Lou Meng: The Dream of the Red Chamber – A Chinese Novel of the Early Ching Period. Trans. Isabel and Florence McHugh. 1958. New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1968. Tsao Hsueh-Chin. Dream of the Red Chamber. Trans. Chi-chen Wang. 1929. London: Vision Press, 1959.
In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pên, he chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork. – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” p. 51.
As I leafed through the exquisitely beautiful pages of this product of the master printers of the People’s Republic of China (who could issue even a cheap foreign-language edition of a classic with all the trappings of a deluxe edition: dust-jacket, sewn-in bookmark, and protective cardboard case), I realised that there was something a little familiar about some of these names: Pao-yu, Tai-yu, Pao-chai … For years I’d been simultaneously drawn to, and daunted by, a thick Penguin Classic entitled The Story of the Stone. It had a picture of a reedy-looking girl on the cover, playing a flute. The fact that it was announced as the first volume of five hardly inspired one to buy it. Now, when I picked it up, I found that the character’s names all matched – albeit in the Pinyin transliteration, rather than the more outdated Wade-Giles system still (then) in use in Mainland China. It was, in fact, another version of the novel I was already reading under the title A Dream of Red Mansions. Rather fuller and more fluently translated, it has to be said, but perhaps lacking just a little of the incommunicable mystique of the Chinese edition. Shortly afterwards I located the second volume of the Penguin translation, the Crab-Flower Club, which takes us to the heart of the childish, innocent world of the capricious, unworldly Bao-yu and his exquisite cousins and other female playmates. I was thus forced to make my way through the narrative in graduated leaps and bounds. Volume One of the Beijing version had taken me to chapter 40. This was now complemented by the 53 chapters in these two Penguin books: The Golden Age and The Crab-Flower Club. Then, one day, in a little shop off Lorne Street run by the China-New Zealand friendship society, I found all three volumes of the Yang translation and was able brief
to complete my set. Joy! Now I would be able to find out the upshot of Wang Xi-Feng’s political machinations, the fate of Bao-yu’s favourite maid Aroma, and the dénouements of a dozen other plotlines. The result was, I have to say, somewhat disappointing. As a non-expert and a non-Chinese speaker, of course I have no right to intervene in the debate, but all I can say is that if the last forty chapters of the Red Chamber Dream are by the same hand as the first eighty, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. There’s a pompous, perfunctory tone to them, a resolute refusal to fulfil earlier hints (notably in the music drama “A Dream of Golden Days” in chapter five) at the character’s eventual fates. There’s some powerful writing too, mind you – Dai-yu’s tearful, frustrating last days, for example, or the marital frustrations of Bao-chai – but they read to me more like a sequel than a piecing together of the original author’s drafts. I feel sure that his poetic soul would have conjured up something more transcendent as the conclusion to the great operatic structure of his life work. The appearance of volume three of David Hawke’s translation, The Warning Voice, came accordingly as a bit of an anticlimax. Most frustrating of all, though, was the long wait for volume four, issued eventually in a translation by John Minford, who completed this Penguin Classics edition of the whole novel in 1986. By then, however, my interests had moved on. Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone: A Chinese Novel by Cao Xueqin in Five Volumes. Trans. David Hawkes. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973-80. Vol. 1: The Golden Days (1973) Vol. 2: The Crab-Flower Club (1977) Vol. 3: The Warning Voice (1980) Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone (Also Known as The Dream of the Red Chamber): A Chinese Novel by Cao Xueqin in Five Volumes, edited by Gao E. Trans. John Minford. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982-86. Vol. 4: The Debt of Tears (1982) Vol. 5: The Dreamer Wakes (1986) 14
Since great vessels take years to produce, this earthenware pot of mine still serves some purpose; but though this fact has prolonged the life of my book, I am disheartened by this dearth of new writing. In a melancholy mood I have gone through these proofs, hoping that better scholars will soon produce a more authoritative book … [Night of November 25, 1930]. – Lu Hsun, A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, pp. ix-x.
My eldest brother Jim studied Chinese at Auckland University in the early 80s – until he chose to go off to Otago instead to do medicine. On the negative side, this gave him a pretext to pressure me into giving up my second-hand copy of Feng Meng-lung’s Stories from a Ming Collection, which he claimed was a set text for one of his courses (I still bristle slightly every time I see it sitting on his shelves). On the positive side, though, it meant that he had a large number of interesting books on Chinese literature. The most valuable of these, from my point of view, was C. T. Hsia’s The Classic Chinese Novel. I read and reread this, and for the first time got some sense of an agreed-upon canon for the traditional Chinese novel. Hsia confined his discussion to the following six representative works: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.
The Three Kingdoms [San-kuo-chih-yen-i] – c.1400 The Water Margin [Shui Hu Chuan] – late 14th century The Golden Lotus [Chin P’ing Mei] – late 16th century Journey to the West [Hsi-yu Chi] – c. 1592 The Scholars [Ju-lin wai-shih] – mid 18th century The Red Chamber Dream [Hung Lou Meng] – late 18th century
Now, rereading his book, I bristle slightly at Hsia’s denigrations of the Chinese authors’ “deficiencies” by comparison with the more dominant European novel tradition, but I can see that such a pioneering effort required him not to make too great claims for them. brief
Besides, the critical conventions of the Modernist literary establishment he was addressing, still struggling to come to terms with Proust and Woolf – let alone James Joyce – would soon be exploded by the game-playing fictions of John Barth and Donald Barthelme (on the Anglo-Saxon side), Jorge Luis Borges and the nouveau roman (on the continental). His book was published in 1968. In our own era of genre-bending, postmodernist fiction, the self-conscious artificialities of the Classical Chinese novel look curiously prescient. The really frustrating thing about Hsia’s work, though, was the shortage of reliable translations of the works he analysed in such tantalising detail. Short of devoting ten years of my life to mastering Chinese, how could I succeed in reading even these six masterworks in their complete form? Hsia listed as many translations (alas, generally also abridgements) as he could, but even now not all of them are available in satisfactory English versions. The Scholars was. I dutifully read it, but couldn’t really empathise with its satire on the Confucian examination system. Also, it lacked the features which attracted me most in these exotic, non-European fictions: the inordinate length, requiring volumes of translation and commentary (like a roman-fleuve), the hugely–detailed anatomies of a whole society (anticipating, if not outdoing, Zola and the Naturalists), the strange blend of supernatural and quotidian events (prefiguring Latin-American Magic Realism). But, then, of course, there was Monkey. Feng Meng-lung, ed. Stories from A Ming Collection. Trans. Cyril Birch. 1959. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1979. Yang, Shuhui & Yunqin, trans. Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection, compiled by Feng Menglong. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 2000. Hsia, C. T. The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction. 1968. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. 16
Lu Hsun. A Brief History of Chinese Fiction. 1923-24. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1957. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1982. Wu Ching-Tzu. The Scholars. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1957. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1973.
In the world before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. Heaven sought order, but the phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown. The four worlds formed again and yet again, as endless aeons wheeled and passed. Time and the pure essences of Heaven all worked upon a certain rock, old as creation. It became magically fertile. The first egg was named “Thought”. Tathagata Buddha, the Father Buddha said “With our thoughts, we make the world”. Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch. From it came a stone monkey. – Saiyūki [“Monkey”] – starring Masaaki Sakai, Toshiyuki Nishida,
Shiro Kishibe and Masako Natsume – (Japan: Nippon TV, 1978-80)
“The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!” Every Sunday we used to hurry home from our ritual family picnic to watch the latest installment in this absurd, intriguing, infuriating drama. It was never quite as good as it should have been (or as it one remembers it to have been), but the sheer oddity of that opening invocation, that little glimpse of the immense fecundity and inventiveness of Buddhist tradition, somehow made it add up to more than the sum of its parts. I think I knew that it was based on a novel. I may even already have read my brother’s copy of Arthur Waley’s 1942 abridgement. It was a attractive little Penguin classic, with an ivory sculpture of intertwined monkeys on the cover. Then, in Hong Kong in 1981, while visiting the garish Tiger Balm gardens. I saw the four travellers – Tripitaka and Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy – sculpted in bas-relief on one of the walls, and began to get some intimation of the immense pervasiveness of the legend (not just Wu Cheng-en’s novel) in Eastern culture: like a Chinese Pilgrim’s Progress, available in myriad forms for all levels of comprehension. brief
Later still, I acquired copies of the two complete English translations of Journey to the West: by W. J. F. Jenner (another of those evocative, beautifully illustrated Beijing Foreign Languages Press editions) in three volumes; and by Anthony C. Yu (more scholarly, with very full notes) in four, and began to see just how much one missed by reading an abridgement. It wasn’t that it was a good novel, exactly. Or not in conventional terms. Chapter after chapter repeated essentially the same scenario, with minimal variations in personnel: monster, victim, villagers, and so on. And yet that repetitiveness seemed to contribute something – and in a far more considered way than could be said of the equally episodic but frustratingly inconclusive TV series. Tripitaka’s journey to India to find the missing Buddhist scriptures could not be made to seem too easy. One of the points of the book (besides its lighthearted satire on religious shibboleths), I came to realise, was to put the reader through a similar ordeal. Only then could even the possibility of enlightenment be entertained. Not a good novel, then, but very possibly a great one. Wu Ch’êng-Ên. Monkey. Trans. Arthur Waley. 1942. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973. Wu Cheng’en. Journey to the West. Trans. W. J. F. Jenner. 1982. 3 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1990. The Journey to the West. Trans. Anthony C. Yu. 4 vols. 1977-1983. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, 1982, 1980, 1984.
Bao-yu, who was still bemused after his dream and not yet in full possession of his faculties, got out of bed and started to stretch himself and to adjust his clothes, assisted by Aroma. As she was doing up his trousers, her hand, chancing to stray over his thigh, came into contact with something cold and sticky which caused her to draw it back in alarm and ask him if he was all right. Instead of answering, he suddenly reddened and gave the hand a squeeze.
– Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, Vol. 1, p.149.
Visiting my brother in Dunedin one summer holidays meant that I got to meet his two flatmates Isaac and Julie, a Chinese couple from Singapore, who had come to New Zealand to study business. Julie told me how interested she’d been to see my brother’s copy of The Scholars. “No ‘Before Midnight’,” she specified, covering that part of the title of my latest purchase with her hand. I’d been trying to conceal the book from her in any case, as even a cursory examination would probably have revealed it to be extremely pornographic, albeit in a lighthearted, intentionally exaggerated way (the hero, a young libertine, is persuaded to undergo an operation which supplements his own manly appendage with that of a dog, thereby better equipping himself to satisfy the numerous ladies he encounters). The Before Midnight Scholar (also translated as The Carnal Prayer Mat, or Prayermat of Flesh) provided me with my first insights into the frank, yet still intensely moralistic world of Chinese sensuality. Julie’s self-confident, openhearted ways were pretty beguiling anyway. Later that summer, when my brother locked his keys in our rental car’s boot up by Mt Cook, I remember her enlisting half the people in the Motor camp to help us out, while Jim and I sulked in the background. Finally a couple of the middleaged men she’d recruited succeeded in prising up the backseat, allowing us to retrieve the keyring with a coathanger. Later still, when I visited Isaac and Julie in Singapore on my way to the UK, I was surprised to see her so subservient to her husband. All practical decisions seemed to be his department, despite her obviously (to me) greater intelligence and charm. Ah me. Their daughter Denise – known as “girr” – took up most of brief
their attention by then, anyway. Which brings me to the Chin P’ing Mei.
Li Yu. Jou Pu Tuan: The Before Midnight Scholar, or The Prayer-mat of Flesh. Ed. Franz Kuhn. 1959. Trans. Richard Martin. 1963. London: Corgi Books, 1974. Li Yu. The Carnal Prayer Mat. Trans. Patrick Hanan. 1990. Honolulu: University of Hawaí’i Press, 1996.
Bao-yu had long been attracted by Aroma’s somewhat coquettish charms and tugged at her purposefully; anxious to share with her the lesson he had learnt from Disenchantment. Aroma knew that when Grandmother Jia gave her to Bao-yu she had intended her to belong to him in the fullest possible sense, and so, having no good reason for refusing him, she allowed him, after a certain amount of coy resistance, to have his way with her. – Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, Vol. 1, p.150.
It was a pretty exciting day for me when I found a copy of Clement Egerton’s complete, four-volume translation of the Golden Lotus, reputed to be the longest and most detailed work of pornography in world literature, in a small bookshop in Lorne Street. The woman who owned the shop wanted $120 for it, which seemed a lot to me at the time, but I think I only ended up paying $60, as the shop was in the process of closing down. Egerton’s translation had first appeared in the 1930s, when publishers were more prudish than now, so his versions of the novel’s numerous sex scenes were printed in Latin. My copy of the 1972 reprint, however, translated all of these passages into English. So far so good, but the book’s immense, gloomy realism almost defeated me. Its effect, it has to be said, was more emetic than aphrodisiac. It wasn’t until years later, when I encountered David Tod Roy’s epic retranslation, The Plum in the 20
Golden Vase, that I began at last to understand the book’s true greatness. Roy, alas., died last year, with his task unachieved. He specialised in the Academic study of the book, apparently, and waited too long before beginning his actual translation. We’re left with the hope that someone else will take it up – a John Minford to his David Hawkes. In the case of the Penguin Story of the Stone, though, there was the logic of a book which fell naturally into two halves. With the Chin P’ing Mei we’re dealing with a single, albeit anonymous, mastercraftsman. The starting point of the novel is an incident from an earlier vernacular novel, The Water Margin, which describes the adultery of a young man-about-town, Hsi-men Ching, with Golden Lotus, the wife of a crippled tradesman. The two lovers conspire to poison her husband, but the murder is avenged by the cripple’s stalwart brother, who slices them into little pieces in his rage. The Water Margin’s two, rather crude, chapters devoted to this story have been expanded by this later master into an immense saga of a Chinese household’s rise and fall. Pornographic, to be sure – at any rate in European terms – but mainly just stunningly realistic. It’s easy to see how this book inspired the circumstantial detail of the Hung Lou Meng’s picture of everyday life in a great family, as well as the sardonic satire of Wu Ching-Tzu’s Scholars. Though it’s always been difficult to obtain in China, the Chin P’ing Mei is undoubtedly one of the world’s landmark works of fiction, especially given the fact that it was composed in the late 16th century, at around the same time as Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It will be nothing short of a scandal if Princeton University Press’s sumptuous complete version is allowed to remain a magnificent fragment. Egerton, Clement, trans. The Golden Lotus: A Translation, from the Chinese Original, of the Novel Chin P’ing Mei. 1939. 4 vols. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. Kuhn, Franz, ed. Chin P’ing Mei: The Adventurous History of Hsi Men and his Six Wives. Trans. Bernard Miall. 1939. London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1952.
Roy, David Tod, trans. The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei. 5 vols. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1993-?. Vol. 1: The Gathering (1993) Vol. 2: The Rivals (2001) Vol. 3: The Aphrodisiac (2006)
• He read with slow precision two versions of the same epic chapter. In the first, an army marches to a battle across a lonely mountain; the horror of the rocks and shadows makes the men undervalue their lives and they gain an easy victory. In the second, the same army traverses a palace where a great festival is taking place; the resplendent battle seems to them a continuation of the celebration and they win the victory. I listened with proper veneration to these ancient narratives, perhaps less admirable in themselves than the fact that they had been created by my blood and were being restored to me by a man of a remote empire ...
– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths.” p. 52.
Love. magic, fantasy – and war. Even though the Shui Hu Chuan is probably the most celebrated of the classic Chinese novels, translated by Nobel-prize-winner Pearl Buck as early as the 1930s (All Men are Brothers), and the inspiration for films and TV series in both English and Chinese, it took a long time to nerve myself to read it. Which version to start with, for one thing? Pearl Buck’s seemed rather difficult to follow, and the crabbed red volumes of J. H. Jackson’s Hong Kong version looked even more outdated. Once again, the Beijing Foreign Languages Press came to the rescue. It is, after all, the most “proletarian” of the classic Chinese novels, and was therefore held up for admiration even when the others were in eclipse during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Sydney Shapiro’s translation is competent and full. It’s a repetitive, picaresque tale, somewhat reminiscent of the Robin Hood stories in England. The band of 22
revolutionaries living in the Marshlands (though bloodthirsty and warlike) are made to seem more and more admirable as the narrative proceeds and the extent of the courtly corruption they’re fighting against is revealed. After their surrender and pardon by a well-meaning but ineffectual Emperor, the callous way these peerless warriors are wasted in pointless colonial campaigns shows, once again, the characteristic attitudes of authority towards the powerless. The Water Margin, then, can be legitimately be called a classic – not so much because of the elegance of its composition, but because of the universality of its message. Buck, Pearl, trans. All Men are Brothers [Shui Hu Chuan]. New York: The John Day Company, 1933. Shih Nai-an. Water Margin. Trans. J. H. Jackson. 2 vols. Hong Kong: The Commercial Press, 1963. Shi Nai’an & Luo Guanzhong. Outlaws of the Marsh. Trans. Sidney Shapiro. 3 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980. Weir, David. The Water Margin. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978. [based on the BBC TV series]
• No other work of this genre, in past times or present, has had such a deep and wideranging impact on Chinese society … The various episodes have been transmitted to every nook and cranny of Chinese society, either directly or indirectly by means of the theatre, songs and other channels of popular culture, and are known in every household in the land.
– Shi Changyu, “Introduction.” In Luo Guanzhong. Three Kingdoms, vol. 1, p.1.
If you took a poll of Chinese readers to find out which of the six traditional novels held most significance for them, many more (we’re told) would single out brief
the Sanguo Yanyi, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, than the Hung Lou Meng. Why? In his introduction to the recent complete English translation by Moss Roberts, Professor Shi Changyu fails to make the book seem particularly attractive: The heroic sweep of the novel, fixated as it is on describing the great events of history, leaves no room for descriptions of daily life not connected directly with the main action. Love and marriage, insofar as they are not tied in with political intrigues, are also outside the scope of the novel, as are detailed descriptions of physical surroundings and psychological motivations. [vol. 1, p. 16.]
No love, no physical descriptions, no psychology – it sounds like a definition of how not to write an effective, engaging novel.
Should Three Kingdoms even be called a novel? Most of its subject matter is factual (or at any rate repeated from earlier histories). It’s no accident that its first English translator, C. H. Brewitt-Taylor, described it as a “Romance.” I imagine the analogy he had in mind was with writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth or Sir Thomas Malory, who turned the extravagant fictions of the French Arthurian prose tradition into more-or-less sober chronicles. Three Kingdoms is certainly as fascinating to read as Malory. It’s far less mystical, though – more of a robust analysis of a fragmenting imperial system. Perhaps a better comparison might be with the Icelandic Family Sagas, those extraordinary 24
evocations of daily life in a barbarous backwater of Europe, combining careful detail with unflinching realism. “The style of Three Kingdoms., like that of its historical subject matter, is vigorous, robust, and tragic,” continues Professor Shi in the passage from his introduction quoted above. Certainly the subject matter of the novel is violence and disorder, but the pillars of its narrative turn out to be loyalty and wisdom. The three warriors who take the Peach Garden oath in the first chapter have their faith in one another tested in every conceivable way. Their arch-enemy Cao Cao takes a more realpolitik approach to the acquisition of power, and arguably achieves greater success. War and Peace is certainly a “novel” in a very different sense from Three Kingdoms. But the difference in genre should not blind one to the equally immense ambition, and achievement, of the earlier work. It’s the last of the six classic novels I read, the one I embarked on with most reluctance (Moss Robert’s translation runs to 2340 pages, in four paperback volumes), but also – in a sense – the most disarmingly modern. I can understand better now why the implications of its portrayal of the roots of power and stability in society have been debated for so many centuries, and why it’s hardly ever been out of print in all that time. Lo Kuan-Chung. San Kuo, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Trans. C. H. BrewittTaylor. 2 vols. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1925. Luo Guanzhong. Three Kingdoms. Trans. Moss Roberts. 1995. 4 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2001.
… my purpose is merely to record true feelings and actual events. Criticism of my writing will be like the shining of a bright light into a dirty mirror.
– Shen Fu, Six Records of a Floating Life, p.25.
Shen Fu’s poetic memoir, composed in the early nineteenth century, of his various lives as a magistrate’s secretary, a loving husband, a painter, and an unsuccessful tradesman, opens with a chapter entitled “The Joys of the Wedding Chamber.” In it he gives a bittersweet account of the vagaries of his courtship and marriage. The two young people begin with halting conversations about literature: One day Yün asked me, “Of all the ancient literary masters, who do you think is the best?” “… I could never give a complete list of all the talented writers there have been. Besides, which one you like depends upon which one you feel in sympathy with.” “It takes great knowledge and a heroic spirit to appreciate ancient literature,” said Yün. ”I fear a woman’s learning is not enough to master it. The only way we have of understanding it is through poetry, and I understand but a bit of that.” [p. 31]
Like Shen Fu, I’m forced to confess the pointlessness of compiling endless lists of Chinese novels and other prose works. There are, of course, a lot of them. Lu Hsun discusses far more than Hsia’s classic six in his Brief History of Chinese Fiction (though he includes short stories and myths as well). Like Yün, I also have to acknowledge my lack of learning and (no doubt) “heroic spirit.” Perhaps it’s that which has led me to concentrate, in this account of my own thirty-year love affair with that extraordinary phenomenon called the Chinese novel, on the romantic Red Chamber Dream rather than the swashbuckling Water Margin or Three Kingdoms. “Which one you like depends upon which one you feel in sympathy with.” I think it’s safe to say that if you don’t find yourself moved by any of Hsia’s classic six, then there’s little prospect of finding a Chinese novel that suits you better. To mention just two of the others I’ve come across personally, the 16thcentury Creation of the Gods is a blend of the historical realism of Three Kingdoms with the fantastic realism of Journey to the West. It may lack the analytical gravity of the first or the dreamlike inventiveness of the second, but it’s still an amusing read (especially in the half-text, half-cartoon form of the Singaporean version – 26
entitled, somewhat bafflingly, The Canonisation of Deities – which I bought on sale from the Auckland University Bookshop sometime in the early eighties). Flowers in the Mirror, an early nineteenth-century allegory a little in the spirit of Gulliver’s Travels (though fortunately it lacks Swift’s lacerating contempt for mankind), has its charms too, but its fields of warring flowers do tend to pale beside the depth and originality of the Hung Lou Meng. Gu Zhizhong, trans. Creation of the Gods. 2 vols. 1992. Beijing: New World Press, 1996. Low, C. C. & Associates, trans. Pictorial Stories of Chinese Classics: Canonization of Deities. 3 vols. Singapore: Canfonian Pte Ltd., 1989. Li Ju-Chen. Flowers in the Mirror. Trans. Lin Tai-Yi. London: Peter Owen, 1965. Shen Fu. Six Records of a Floating Life. Trans. Leonard Pratt & Chiang Su-Hui. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983. p.25.
• Which of us cares to hear the cuckoo’s sorry For waking us before the dawn’s first red? “Today perhaps the winter’s come,” you said, Wrapped-up and warm against the season’s flurry.
– Jack Ross, “Life in a Chinese Novel”2
For years, as each new class joined the Language School, I would try to talk to any Chinese students I had about their classic novels. A few of them had read the books at school, but I suspect that to most it was the equivalent of asking an average English-speaking adolescent their opinion of The Canterbury Tales or The Faerie Queene. Yet I don’t regret it. Perhaps the thing I really hoped to convey was respect: respect for a tradition which wasn’t (and could never be) mine, but which had given me so much. 2
Jack Ross, City of Strange Brunettes (Auckland: Pohutukawa Press, 1998), p. 86. brief
Perverse Bao-yu, with his contempt for all things masculine; delicate, peevish Dai-yu; lovely Bao-Chai – these names have meaning for me: they constitute complex lessons in how to live. That isn’t all, of course. Whether or not you’d classify yourself as particularly spiritual, Monkey (aka “Great Sage Equal of Heaven”) and his eccentric companions on the Journey to the West will do their best to set you on the road to Enlightenment. Three Kingdom’s Cao Cao and his opponents of the Peach Orchard Oath have a good deal to tell us all about the world of politics. Hsi Men and his harem of seductive, intriguing women will demonstrate the pitfalls (and attractions) of unbridled sensuality. I’ve never been very impressed by those critics who assume as a given the superiority of the European novel. True – like the nicotine in cigarettes – it’s never been successfully eradicated from a country once it’s taken hold. Wherever it goes, it tends to swallow up indigenous fictional forms. But what riches have been lost in the process? The Chinese novel is our chief witness to the fecundity of these might-havebeens. I’m the last one to underrate the Icelandic Sagas, the Monogatari of Japan (including the incomparable Genji), the frame-story collections of Persia and India, or the Classical Romance (Apuleius, Petronius and the Greeks). Over the years, I’ve taken pleasure in each of these complex literary traditions. But I still believe that the only group of fictions which can rival those produced during the great age of the European novel, the 19th Century of Balzac and Dostoyevsky, remain these six amazing Chinese works of genius. They seized hold of me when I was seventeen – at once and at first sight. Like Jean Genet with the Palestinians (as he tells it in his 1986 memoir Un Captif amoureux), what else can I call myself but a prisoner of love? Jack Ross
Clotho on the Dancefloor When perfection appears, cross yourself with both fists. My lady emissaries with hearts like giant squid and neat teeth, standing framed in a red doorway, like time lapse photography of rapids, so still and moving. We love to watch psychopathology in action - the cleft boundary splitting a moment open, lifting the fat back to show muscle where power operates He does not discriminate enough. The radiant flesh impresses scents into your memories even as we speak beside the industrialized river, the mallâ€™s big mouth a calculus of car parking swallowing your victories whole in the Xmas heat His teal tablecloth is dirty as an abstract artwork, burnt, stitched and stained absorbing the mess of existing day after night. Voluntary poverty is indulging in living off of the money stored up in bones. Honey bees go wild and the dark gardens lose interest. Cumulous cotton sheets strike out for better play conditions erase political contentment. You will choose what you donâ€™t know yet but being free you get to own up to all the possibilities that you create and kill off every minute.
Wingettes The voice of my addictions trails away this morning bored of the lack of recognition waiting low for a better moment. We all know our multiplying sides get into messes. You fight yourself for a long time, then head down Cuba St with a golf club, just going for windows. We turn to stone and crumble simultaneously. This is the age of aging. What riches have you laid up inside, for later? We have to watch our words dripping off the paintings failing to reach your thighs, misplacing their keys again shatter into a shape of safety glass. vanity, virility and words that stick onto your acts, interpreting shyness, overthinking, hesitation, stories of loss, the internal struggles that tire you so out you can’t go outside, so this protects you The truth is something else, nobody knows what, but a strong theory gives a sense of control which feels like empowerment This obsession releases you from the rest. Basket your eggs. There’s so much too much to sense let alone resist, and nobody else seems to notice.
They sleepwalk the steps and drink themselves to joy at gigs and accept the humiliation of the city’s needs, the cheap talk, this romantic craving that wipes out the original so it can continue to exist. You shut your face and work on the sensibility of a tiny portion of the reclamation project guarded in our hearts, like a fortress or a zoo. Being a human is incredible. Being human is a crazy distance from everything that can’t imagine us. There’s nothing at all we can do except continue. Will Christie
Venusian Transit ‘Hi,’ she’d said. But not to me. ‘Hi… hi… hi,’ to the bundled relic on the floor, the struts and benches, the air so full of smells; to anything and anyone who’d listen. She was totally, definitively spaced. It’s hard to keep a chronology, when time slid, semi-liquid like glycerine in the dark waves of the harbour and the night’s light-prickled face; where any moment I might look out and see a different scene from what was precisely there. There was the moon, casting a row of reflections in the greasy wave tops that bobbed in and out, on and off, like nightmare coins. There was the dark grey air, which seemed to hold a myriad insects just smaller than the eye could detect, in seething clumps, in their billions and trillions. And a crude old sea-corroded hook my eye kept falling onto. Drilled deep into the splintery woodwork on the very edge of the opening to seaward, where one whole side was missing from the old ferry building. That was for my uncle. My hook in the city. Good old unc. … As for the girl, to me she was no more than a symptom of the slippery qualities of the passing hours, just too extravagant to be possible, and so I ignored her. A serendipitous dancer, dressed in a kind of brocade made up from all my unsolid fields of vision. ‘Hi… hi.’ ‘Hi yourself,’ my voice said. … But had that really happened? Or was I asleep? When she first appeared, it coincided with the first bright flare of a kerosene lamp on the floor not far in front of me, so that her generous skirts were irradiated and her face redrawn in light. She was edging gingerly around our brink to the outside world, the ledge where it was hardest to place a foot. The skirts had to be picked up and guided, like limp sails. Then she tottered the few feet into the miserable space where ones and twos of the homeless or derelict were skulking through the night hours. Stopped right in front of me. She began a sort of dance, halfway between a madman’s twitching and an elaborate mime, where she seemed to be relating to a roomful of invisible people. Occasionally stooped, turned, like a mechanical doll. All without theatricality, because she was unaware; all in the guttering light of the tramp’s kerosene flame which had dwindled to a slow burn. Her face was young, broad at the side of the cheeks, her eyebrows pencilled in, her mouth a single line. She was surely in her early twenties. The dress she wore must once have been expensive, in silk, not synthetic but 32
a kind of Grandmother-silk, with irregular slubs and a swimming sheen in the poor light; it was silvery-brown, like old gold transmuted in the waterfront reflections. Under that, I saw layers of microfibre peel at the throat and upper arms, each in a different colour. The pleats and tucks and laces here and there looked as if they’d been assembled from other garments over a period of years, un-native, in red and mauve and lime green; at the back of her tangled hair a hat was pinned like a precarious boat. I couldn’t help wondering what had brought someone like her to this low point of the city, to Nash Street on the waterfront. And whether she even had the slightest idea where she was. Naturally, it was none of my concern. The kerosene effect gave an extra tint to the compound of stinks, of decades-old fish and rebreathed wine and urine and decay, and I let my head fall back again and began another argument with my uncle, the one I’d never met. Woke later to the girl on the bench beside me, greeting everything in sight. It could have been that, in the shaded city-states my brain was wandering through, some prize or reward had been offered for finding out who or what she was. I’d detected a foreign note even in her ‘Hi’. ‘What brings you here?’ I tried. No answer. ‘My name’s Mick. What’s yours?’ Nothing. ‘I’m just here for the night, see. I was… well, I had to leave my place. Haven’t been in this city for long. … I’ve got another flat lined up, but it won’t be ready to move into till tomorrow afternoon.’ I noticed then that I was drawing too much attention from the rear spaces of the hall. That was where the peculiar customers resided, ‘the dandies’ I called them, colourfully dressed, in waistcoats and baggy pocketed trousers, sharp shoes, with quiffs or watchman’s caps. The girls in similar outfits but more colours, more elements, one with a cloak. There was a particular sharpjawed man who pulled a long thin something out of the folds of his jacket – unsheathed it – damascened steel (the light glinted on it), with which he proceeded to pick the fingernails of his right hand. Suddenly she said, ‘Have you ever seen a dino-zer-ial?’ German maybe? Hungarian? – I didn’t know what. Her cheek was a graduated bulge, nicest where the curves were steepest. ‘What’s that?’ She began to ramble, possibly making it up as she went along: brief
‘They’re fodder merchants. That is, of the animals. Lump things from place to place; such delicious fur.’ She stroked the bare part of her arm, which was pure white down to the bangles. ‘They’re purple, chestnutty purple, that’s how I imagine they are. I should say were.’ ‘… Did they change?’ ‘Well, they went back to their holes and very very slowly died away because well it was a kind of lymph thing coming out in a hard blotch not anywhere that you’d know of or me except I see it in my dreams I can see under the roots in caves the big briny crests and like a spine system all bony in the side of their necks all dying there for a hundred thousand years without any of us knowing.’ ‘God. That doesn’t sound good.’ ‘But it doesn’t touch us,’ she almost sang. ‘Nothing touches us.’ Those words hung there, audible to everyone. It was as if they were considering it, all the down-and-outs who’d fetched up that night in the big waiting area. Actually they were just keeping quiet, which for them was a survival skill. Even the dominators, the briny crests back in the deepest spaces of the hall, weren’t expressing themselves too much at that moment. I might have drowsed a bit. Saw tanks and licks of petrol flame. Unless that was later on. I remember telling my parents, no, I wasn’t going to sponge a night on an uncle I didn’t know, no effing way. No fugging effing… you know. Specially not when there was this perfect alternative, what had once been the ferry terminus on the waterfront, where (old Allie had told me) the cops hardly ever showed up. Reputed to be impossible to break into. Every night, there was a whole bunch of people who didn’t break in. She piped up, as if she thought I might have misunderstood her, ‘It wasn’t here. It wasn’t another planet. It was…’ she waved her hand vaguely. That hand was clearly illuminated: fine-boned and very dirty, with encrustations of costume jewellery. I asked her straight out, ‘Where are you from?’ She looked at me. Considered. Looked away again. ‘Venus.’ The sharp-chinned boy, the ruffian, had sauntered over from his homeland at the base of the hall. I couldn’t see the knife he carried. But it was present in the colours of him, the way he presented himself – he was more extravagantly dressed than I’d imagined. His hair was an elaborate frozen fountain. The bright chain across the front of his waistcoat, I could see, was made to look like barbed wire; he had a sort of protective strap at crotch level that put me 34
in mind of codpieces. What you have here – I cautioned myself – is a difference of firepower. Friends and a sharp knife versus fuck-all. ‘I couldn’t help hearin’ what you were sayin’.’ ‘Hi, hi, hi,’ the girl chanted. ‘Are you one? Those dinos?’ She laughed, at a point of the air a few centimetres to the left of his head. ‘That’s fun. We actually don’t know what we are.’ ‘Oh, I’ve got lots of fun. Fun all over the place.’ As her head circled, face turned momentarily in my direction, I could see how out-of-focus her eyes were. ‘We’re rigid up the back and can never ever touch our own elbows. You certainly can’t, the other one, I’m not sure.’ At that, the smart boy touched his left elbow with his right hand. ‘Look. And look here.’ He moved in closer, obviously going to touch her elbow too. I was already on my feet. Now I blundered in between them. ‘’Scuse me,’ I began at random. ‘Do you know where we can get some booze, this time o’ the night?’ Knife boy was not pleased, not at all. His jaw did a kind of inner articulation, rearranging plates of bone. ‘Oh fun. Oh, you’re real funny.’ The right hand, without the knife, changed direction and moved to the underside of my nose, where it performed a sudden and powerful upward flick. Well-practised. It stung like fuck. And nothing to do, nothing to do about it, because… ‘Wait on a sec,’ he said in a thoughtful tone, ‘I got somethin’ to discuss. I promise I’ll be back later.’ And he sauntered off. A variety of scenes had rushed through my head, each one more extreme than the last, regarding what I would have liked to do to him; all ending up with me, or an obviously-helpless inblown seabird, neatly spitted on a knife. I said to her as I sat down holding my nose, ‘There must be a better place to go.’ ‘Ancient ca-ca-ca-ca. Ha ha.’ But would they follow? Did I, we, really have anywhere to go? Far from cleansing the situation of that peculiar miasma of the night and wandering spirit, my sore nose and this plodding calculation only added an overlay, gaudy and implausible as all the rest, and as difficult to follow up with any conviction. brief
I grumbled, ‘You know something, you want to watch out. Those guys over there mean business, I wouldn’t be surprised.’ She started freely expressing herself, but in no language I’d ever heard. Glossolalia. It might even have been the language she’d been brought up speaking, but I doubted it; it was vacant, almost too fluent, and she repeated herself a lot. Then those words became the flickering of a buoy light, red on the slopping ocean, or some delicate pulse that underlay all the machinery of the body, and the order of things slid away again to allow for what was really happening. A multi-skeined array of logic curves, wending and descending. There was a way in which connections – difficultly – fixed themselves together at a cusp so that there was room for a thousand simultaneous lives. Sailing down the pathways of the sea – or was it my head? I remember feeling a pricking rash in my arms and legs. Seeing the hog-faces of the dandies pushed close to my face, sweet girl-faces as well, but with the skin beginning to rot off. Weirdly, we were all still present, I could see us sitting round the benches or squatting on the floor in the big ferry terminus. A row of transients, off to somewhere else. Keeping quiet out of duty. A Mr-Normal in an actual suit across the way from me, nearly at the brink of the sky and sea. A luminous goblin tending a jet of fire on the floor in front of me. Heaps of old clothes, adding stinks to the sluggish air. And I heard voices, ‘Hwa skula wi teujan bi tha junda?’ ‘O swe sidubu. Ist is that-chwaz-uh misselik?’ ‘At-beran ina du Marlin’s, e? Sotjan chwot in womba is.’ Voices that I almost convinced myself I could understand. ‘Set a point in his belly’? Wasn’t that the dandies, weren’t they talking about me? I whispered to Normal-man, in confidence, whether he didn’t think that could be Dutch or something? ‘Na, I know some Dutch,’ his face bulged balloonlike as he said. He was dirtier, less of a citizen than I’d thought; with a smudge at the edges of his mouth and an earring. He took a moment to think about it. ‘Seunded to me like it might be a corrupt forma Gothic? With a veuel shift.’ So: Gothic, was it? Or something of the sort. Fires were being lighted, they had me surrounded, and something with wings was flapping at the side of my hat and into the bushes out beyond the splintered wall at the end of the hall. They’d caught me, they had me down, and I felt a sharp jab just at the top of my buttocks. Fuckin’ buggin’ bastards… Something was saying 36
fiandizeAuntidwiwifidasikswaswe swimmaiinundmilumiukisdjup which was interesting, as if it wasn’t only words. I seemed to see him, riding one-handed over moorland in the dark, desperate for speed, feeling his strength drain out through his wound. I had a feeling of being tied in a dark sack. Something alien was washing through my veins, as I tried to urge the horse on over broken hillocks jupathaunibngrund; and remembered – burning bales on the edges of deserted ground, something I was coming back to. In velvet and taffeta, skirts of tussah silk. I woke (again; I seemed to have woken up a dozen times) to see her small frame spread out over an area of bench to the left of me, the silvery hip raised high. And there really was a normal-looking guy over the way from me, quite elderly, in a tweedy suit and a coat. I must have remembered him from waking life. I cast an eye towards the dandies, who were getting more active there in the back spaces. Might have found someone else to interfere with…? What happened next – but was it next? – I can only account for by an accident of chronology, a chronology I’ve already forgotten. I don’t know whether my dream really ended the way I’ve said. To tell something, you have to remake it, cutting the cloth as it falls. In any case, something made me need to talk to her more urgently, go so far as to shake her awake by a shoulder thin as a seagull’s bone, ‘Look. Look, we’ve got to get out of here. Come on. I know a place… it’s….’ Coughed; my throat was very dry. ‘I’ve got an uncle in this city, lives up on Kopapa Street. He’ll have to let us in just for one night. Come on, get up…’ I already had her standing; for a moment her huge skirt had folded awkwardly, giving me a flash I really didn’t want to see. The tramp with a lamp was awake and looking up at us. I was trying to steady her, only that. She wasn’t very steady at all. I was almost knocked sideways, then, when she came alive on me. ‘How many sexes are there?’ she asked. I could see a row of small white teeth. ‘How many sexes are there?’ I didn’t answer, I said nothing at all. Partly because it seemed to me a good question. ‘How many?’ she screamed. The normal-looking man on the bench opposite cleared his throat demurely. His voice was just the way it had sounded in the dream, brief
‘Teu. There are teu sexes.’ She broke off, in an abandoned spin that knocked the lamp. ‘Plus one, for you!’ Pointing. ‘And you! And you!…’ She was cackling as she turned and stabbed her finger. And now the inner hall was woken up as well; and mainly the girls, the natty vixens in their capes and jackets and bulging trousers who were white or Asiatic or Polynesian or a mixture were dancing all around her, setting up a sudden fluttering, a whirl of butterflies in the dark. Laughter was multiplied; the tramp swore, and burned his hand on his Coleman trying to snatch it up. There were androgynes in the mix, too slim to be girls; in the centre stroked and ruffled by passing hands and legs was that silken multicoloured girl from Venus, and what I was seeing I saw by the light of buoys or ships and the hovering target moon; heard voices clearly now in strains that crossed and drowned each other, ‘Wi skula bludjan thuk…’ ‘Skaal kukjan…’ ‘Tungquan fil thin.’ … ‘Ljuf unsar.’ The girl, I could see, was laughing, enjoying the dance. Had I got it wrong, were these old friends of hers? They were behaving like it. With a sharp-chinned smile, the boy who’d shown the knife was standing back and looking on in a proprietary way, his male friends motionless on his flank. I couldn’t work it out. It was hard to see anything clearly. And my stomach chose that moment to stage a revolt: I barely missed vomiting on the floor as I watched it, the girls and others mobbing and jostling her and her arms flung generally upwards, and that tight concatenation of bodies drifting with an invisible current further to the back, among more anonymous spectres, to the great dark holes in the wall that masked the inner rooms of the building. There was no way out from there. I knew that; or at least I was fairly sure. But then again, what did I know? I seemed to have misunderstood everything. Their cooing voices laying poison, words of an old and potent sorcery, they moved and groped and sang till every one of them was gone into the blackness, from which I could still hear shouts, chuckles, little cries. Then only rustling. The boys were clumsily climbing in after them. What? What was it, what had happened? Knife boy threw me a small salute, and followed the rest. And there I was. Well paid out. I couldn’t stay and I couldn’t go. My uncle’s? Spare me. … And I didn’t have a watch; I couldn’t tell how much of the night there was to go. K. M. Ross 38
For don’t you know My stomach Talks
For the will of the eagle Is as the ease the Sparrows become leaves
One night on A dark hill A dead baby Filled my leg And called me To a gate Where my Heart became A green flower Given to the Dark my feet Upon a slab of Steel my ears hear All around the grass Hisses for For my silver snake Love pan Has me again.
God made me a raven To find all the Bright glittery things That are worth finding God made me a weaver This is the nest web
You fall into once thru The pin hole abyss God changed me Into a sea bird Ocean to cross White pure
Because I’ve seen a terminator he’s Me and I’m hiding real still pretending to be a lizard Colour
Of Chutney And a fight
Walt w called me one day To go Over the hill Find the music he Whispers in my ear No care Because the stem of Grass in his teeth is all He had left from god Knows what had taken the rest Because the devil free sees god instantly If only I was there to see his face become god. Nathan MacGregor
Shooting the Gods Last night I saw my father for the first time in twenty years. That’s not so important. What’s important is that, one Saturday in 1987, I woke up early, and went outside to bowl leg-spinners at the carport’s brick wall. By the time my third delivery had been bat-padded through the hands of the grapefruit tree the wall was appealing against the light, and the pitch needed covering. By half-past eight the cattle stop was half-full and Mr Greegan was calling my mother to tell her not to drive me and the other country boys in the Papakura Junior Premiers to McLean Park. I grabbed the phone and invited myself over to Tom Greegan’s rumpus room. The cattle stop was overflowing as I rode out the gate. Halfway up the hill I was stopped by a phone wire lying over Pa Road. Mr Menzies’ Land Rover was parked on the other side of the wire; Mrs Menzies leaned out its window into the rain and shouted at me to go home. I waved and turned around, but I didn’t go home. I rode back around the bend, lifted my bike over the farm’s boundary fence, and began to ride along the old cattle race. I could see the Greegans’ farmhouse from the top of the first of the two ridges the strip of mud climbed. I was halfway up the second ridge when I remembered the slaughtering shed. It hadn’t been used for many years, but when I was a small child I had watched a cow wander into the red corrugated iron building, and had waited for hours for the creature to stumble out again. When the front door had finally wheezed open my father stepped out alone, and waved me away with a huge red hand. There was a bit of dirt beside the shed which Dad and the sharemilker had once used to bury a cow. The cow had died of some disease, and couldn’t be slaughtered, so there was nowhere for it to go, Dad said, except into the ground. I remember the sharemilker making a hole with his excavator so that Dad and a couple of farmhands could roll the cow in. One of the farmhands told me later that the sharemilker had started pushing the dirt in too soon, before the whole of the cow was in the ground. The creature was only buried up to its neck. It just sat there staring through the drizzle brief
at us with its big calm eyes. The sharemilker swore at the cow, then got back on his tractor and swung the excavator at its neck. The head came half off, so that one of the farmhands had to do the rest with the slasher we used for thistles. When I ran home, Mum told me never to go near the slaughtering shed again. I didn’t go near the shed for a long time, but I did tell standard three about the cow during Monday Morning News. Mr Purvis had smiled when I had volunteered for the first time to supply a news item, but he had stopped me before I finished, because Sonia Chiita had started crying into her desk. Mr Purvis explained to me afterwards that Sonia was a curry-muncher, and that curry-munchers believed that cows were Gods. It would have been better not to talk about the cow, even if Sonia had been sick that Monday, Mr Purvis added. Dad got angry when I told him I’d shared the story of the cow, and even angrier when I told him about curry-munchers and their cow-Gods. After Dad had moved onto the farm he had burned the painting of Mary that Mum had kept over the gas oven, and thrown my sister’s Dad’s rosary beads into our toy box. Back in England Dad had been to Grammar School, and he knew parts of books off by heart. After I told him about Sonia Chiita Dad stopped pouring the gravy, and poured himself a whiskey instead, and said that curry-munchers were even worse than Jews, and nearly as bad as Catholics. There were too many flaming Gods, he said, and they were all dead. Later that evening, when Mum was putting my sister to bed, Dad made me write down some of the words he had learned off by heart. We have interred countless Gods in the mass grave known as mythology, he said, leaning back in his armchair as I crouched beside the coughing fireplace and scribbled in my Maths book. Oswald Spender wrote that, Dad said. Os-wald Spen-der. That Saturday in 1987 I dropped my bike and walked through the rain towards the shed. I stopped outside for a few seconds, feeling the raindrops trickling like sweat down my brow and chin, then swung the door open and sagged backwards with fright. A huge cow sat staring at me through 42
calm dark eyes. One of the panels in the back wall of the shed wheezed open and closed in the wind, and the rain sounded like hail on the wrinkled roof. I stared back at the cow for a second, then slammed the door shut, ran back to my bike, and pedalled quickly home. Â Last night I dreamed I dropped my bike beside the race, and walked toward the shed across a paddock where cowpats floated in shallow pools of rainwater. Before I came close to the red corrugated iron, though, I had to stop and step quickly backwards from a small landslide of red mud. The opening was the length of three or four cricket pitches, and perhaps half as wide; as my eyes traced its edges it seemed to grow. At one end of the pit a row of figures stood with their backs to me. One of them had long silver hair; another wore a crude wooden crown; a third had ears as big as the man in the Mickey Mouse costume who handed out lollies at our school Calf Club Day. There was a sound like a tractor backfiring and the figures fell backwards, slowly and rather heavily, like actors performing a stunt that will be replayed at a higher speed. The deformed man rolled in my direction, until I could see the trunk that grew out of his face like the tube of a gas mask. Â I looked up, and saw Dad and the farmhands assembling another row of victims, and reloading their hunting rifles. Dad gave a tight little smile Â before beginning another countdown. The pit, which had seemed bare when I first examined it, was filled with hundreds of corpses. On either side of Ganesh, the Elephant God, I noticed Zeus, with his huge beard of decaying watercress, and Maui, who had a half-finished grin on his handsome face. There were others I could see clearly, but could not recognise. How many deities have I created and slaughtered? How many Gods and Goddesses have all of us interred, in the mass grave called mythology? Those are my questions, this morning. I did not think them in the dream. In the dream I continued to scan the pit, seeking out the huge calm eyes of the first God my father buried. Scott Hamilton brief
To Wiremu Tamihana ‘As General Cameron’s army pushed further south, Tamihana named the Mangatawhiri River as the aukati of the Waikato Kingdom, and warned that if it were crossed then war would begin in earnest’ Friend, it does not matter when you disappear: what matters is the fact that your absence remains. Your absence remains. I see you standing beside the water, tying your note to a plum stone, aiming your musket at the smoke where a forest takes cover, aiming your words at a toi toi rocket aimed out of the haze I see you firing, across the Mangatawhiri, that border narrow enough for a geriatric general to jump, that river running faster than a frightened horse. This is Wiremu Tamihana writing. Friends, do not cross the aukati, or there will be fire in the fern. 44
I see the wind unfurl your letter, as it clings to a toi toi’s hair: I see Cameron’s sentry squint at the strange words, at your handsome shambling script: I see him throw your warning into the fire. Friend, the fern is already fire - to the north the smoke is persistent as river fog. Twelve thousand soldiers attack the bush fern is fire, toi toi is fire, totara puriri tanekaha are fire: Kereopa’s wife Kereopa’s children will be fire, at Rangiaowhia, in a few months, a few fires’ time. Jump the aukati, friend, and you will see every frond of fern burns purposefully, like a page from a heretic’s book. Cameron’s army lays the Great South Road brief
with ash, with mud, with fistfuls of shingle. Bishop Selwyn walks behind, blessing the wounded, disposing of the dead with prayer, Christianising the ashes with oak saplings, lime seeds. Â Friend, it does not matter when this bank of fern, that stand of totara disappear, as long as the fact of their absence remains. Set fire to the fern, defend the aukati, withdraw through the smoke, stand at Rangiriri, fight to the last plum stone at Orakau, watch the British burn that church down at Rangiaowhia: the fact of your defeat will remain, a stubborn triumph. Â Do not worry, friend, about the future, the years that last too long. Even when a dam is laid like a trap between two hills, 46
so that this river dwindles to a creek, even when the creek’s tributaries are misled into fields of potatoes and maize, even when cattle are driven to the creek to drink, so that these banks crumble like the terraces at Orakau, even when an orchardist’s pipe lies like a fat black eel on the bed of the creek, draining its water as efficiently as lime, until the creek is only a meandering ditch, even when the creek is dug out and rerouted so that it runs straight beside a new fenceline, even when the ditch is filled with garbage and tarred over, so that the Mangatawhiri flows motionlessly, through a new suburb’s blueprint your border, our aukati will remain: the fact of its absence will remain. Note: the refrain in this poem is borrowed from Gunnar Ekelof’s poem-cycle Emgion. Scott Hamilton
Shanghai our backs, minds, like our streets, swayed with the force of acquiescence to French German English Japanese rapacity and crowded round the effluvia of the Huangpu studded with hairdressers that don’t cut hair, staffed with the cream of Anhui ‘virginity’, like our kitchens laundries bedrooms, contort. So much to revile and so little time.
Eleven Walking through the rank darkness of Blockhouse Bay,
insular houses, intermittent streetlights,
under its unfamiliar stars,
beholden to poor stories that let us sleep
and not owning the slowly dawning truth that
whatever you do, the past never changes.
Igatpuri, Dhamma Giri (i) levels a simple conception leaves the mind at ease or so it thinks—sinks!— from level to level, or from ‘line to line’, where upward & downward have the same propensity, giving or wanting confidence—is it coincidence?— & ‘profundity’ proves itself a waylay for thought. Seres of words, manly minds, Jacques á Jacques, Frenchmen, spurred by the attenuated concerns of audiences, or patients, goofing it, turn wayward, wary of tripping. Not so here, where mind becomes recipient. Around the sheer rock that leads to the level summit, the villagers burn off the yellow grasses before the summer heat arrives: in the evening a red glow covers the hillside down to the Shanti Patan where the crows gather (ii) within not inside as ample as the trees along the Shanti Patan are ample, the crows diminish them: Black outweighs green, & green the uniform yellow of the ricefields over which I gaze. The villager in white kurta who walks home lacks the substance of the field. The train heard approaching the town bears the shape and colour the mind attributes. Sound assumes the colour of the black crow: let black crow be the colour of the water that forms a pond that the pipe feeds out over the ricefields out of which the whiteclad villager removes the water vessel from which the villagers tip water into their mouths during breaks in the day’s harvesting. Above him, on the long narrow walking track the metal vessels of several women returning to the village shine golden in the late sun. 50
Another file of women, chattering together, makes its way, tied bundles of branches on top of each cushioned head heavier and longer than the woman beneath, at once well poised and frolicsome. (iii) the moon, edged from its base, threatens to topple, the grouping crows grunt in the trees which turn from daytime green to evening black— compressing the moon’s brightness. Buddhadossa’s student, his bones discovered in the coastal cave, on the rock walls nibbana depicted in various colours & in the notebooks cryptic expostulations! Standing over the gardens at Tapovana, watering, or sitting cross-legged in the small dark cell of the gold-domed pagoda, hearing the chimes on the narrow spire above, where the crows occasionally gather, one understands that the universe is bolted firm and yet adrift. The mind fills with its contents— as elsewhere Mahasi Sayadaw has it: ‘When a name arises, a reality lies hidden; when a reality reveals itself a name disappears.’ (iv) (Mahabodhi) of the two the way of standstill—counts— one and a two measured in divers dimensions— like the bird—a mynah?—that sits high in the bodhi tree in the temple of that name where realization instigates itself & where we sit an hour at dusk— emits a cry with the in-breath & a cry with the out-breath— a raucous hermeneutic of breath, sound, or the moon ‘way up there’ which requires the earth as platform to be viewed— John Geraets brief
Translations of New Chinese Poetry In a world of globalization and continual cross-border conflict, cultural understanding is more and more an imperative. Literature offers immediate access to the fears, obsessions, attitudes, and assumptions of a culture. It’s a shame that this access is hindered by linguistic differences; in the case of Chinese and English, the dissimilarities can seem to form an insurmountable barrier. Or does the difference itself offer an opportunity? Translation, like any human relationship, is a sticky, contentious matter, subject to honest mistakes, market forces, cultural misapprehensions, carelessness, under-interpretation, overinterpretation, authorial browbeating, scholarly throttling, and laziness. The harder the task is—the fewer easy equivalents and simple solutions—the more creativity must go into the re-creation of a poem in the target language. If the pitfalls are even partially avoided, a new world springs from the creative process. And the world of Chinese literature is vibrant and internally inconsistent, as is contemporary Chinese culture in general—both reflecting and rejecting Western influence, clinging to tradition and fleeing from it, full of infighting as well as fruitful collaboration. Passionately expounded opinion and cutthroat competition are not only par for the course, but obligatory. The range of work that is produced in this diverse and internally fractious environment is exhilarating. There are political poets who flirt with censorship and poets who avoid any hint of a contentious topic. There are mountainand-river poets and those who won’t venture from the population-dense, nature-deprived cityscape that infects the Chinese coastline. There are poets who maintain their lineal ties to Buddhism and Daoism, and those who seem never to have had a religious thought. These poems, translated by myself and my translation partner, the Chinese poet, critic, and scholar Wang Ao, were selected to present a spectrum of literary achievement, from the simple lyrical beauty of He Xi’s short poem “Aphid”, to the elevated language and Buddhist subtext of Wang Xixi’s “A Clean Snow-White Poem”. Poetry, a form of intense self-confrontation and exposure, requires courage. As young women poets, Wang Xixi and He Xi face an additional barrier. Just as in the West, literary genius in China has historically been considered to be the province of men, and this attitude lingers. Women still tend to be categorized separately, as “women poets” (nüxing shiren), a term that is often used derogatorily. A case can be made that He Xi, who writes fiction as accomplished as her 52
poetry, evokes feminine associations with her delicate language in “Aphid”. It is her subtleness that draws the reader into the psyche of the insect. Compare her poem, for example, with the familiar Western poem it evokes, Blake’s “Oh Rose, Thou Art Sick!”, which takes a decidedly less empathetic tone toward its “invisible worm”. Wang Xixi takes another tack in dealing with the implicit limitations of the “woman poet” designation. Deliberately iconoclastic, she absorbs the language of an almost exclusively male canon, and writes with a unique melding of classical language and modern idiom. She also employs Buddhism, a religion of patriarchs and primarily male saints (with a few notable exceptions, such as Guanyin), for her own ends. By co-opting the bodhisattva Manjusri—often depicted brandishing the sword of enlightenment that cuts through ignorance and misunderstanding—she is entering into and actively re-envisioning an ancient tradition. Male poets aren’t exempt from anxiety, of course. When you’re running with the pack, the issue is how to distinguish yourself. Ershi Yue, who writes and edits for a top financial magazine in Beijing, accomplishes this in his poem “China” by approaching a topic that was once taboo. China, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 movie about the ordinary lives of peasants under Communist rule, was commissioned by the CCP and then denounced as subversive the moment it came out. The film wasn’t given a public screening in China until 2004, which gives a sense of how glacially the CCP can move even today. Ershi Yue’s poem evokes the complex experience of viewing the once-banned film. Professor Leng Shuang’s “Serenade”, in contrast, concerns itself with the external manifestations of our emotional lives. The poem also conjures a division that plagues the contemporary poetry scene in China, roughly described as a conflict between the proponents of “intellectual poetry” (zhishi fenzi shige) and those of “folk poetry” (minjian shige), although there are many other ways to describe this schism. Professor Leng, who teaches literature at the highly regarded Zhongyang Minzu University in Beijing, falls most naturally into the intellectual camp. Yet his speech-inflected verse and the ordinary objects—a candle, a door, a telephone—that lend heft and resonance to his metaphors give the poem a “folk” feel. His poem represents one of those valuable moments of overlap, an opportunity to loosen the categories that stifle if left unchallenged.
Eleanor Goodman (顾爱玲) brief
小夜曲 Serenade (for X. Y.) - Leng Shuang Blood flows so slowly in my veins it seems my heart is already a stone protruding from water, covered over with moss. A power outage. A candle stub leaves a tangerine on the paper, the edge shivering like the twilight’s toothache. Now, an unrepaired door falls asleep in the music hall and in the dreams of those who’ve left, an intermittent clapping. What my fingers touch is the night’s incomplete warm hunchback, or the disappeared conversation over the lifted receiver. 《中国》China - Ershi Yue I sit three rows from the back – in the projection room, not an empty seat. The darkness is reticent, a few hours ago, the place was still daylit like an empty avenue, without a single person. But now someone with a sewing machine is sewing shut the sky, like a crowd of actors pushing forward, pulling back – yet all I feel is the surging up of ocean waves behind me. 白雪干净诗 A Clean Snow-White Poem - 王兮兮Wang Xixi I know of a man to whom Manjusri presented a precious sword bestowing a lifetime of sorcerer’s powers he lives like a flower in the mirror a regal spirit with a noble mind a descendent of that class of propertied elite 54
he’s inherited an oceanic emptiness others can’t understand I’ve long observed him and after tossing and turning, my tendrils stretch forth I once contemplated whether on this dry consumptive land a bud can be opened as my ancestral grandfather told me the most desolate lands hide ten thousand liang a phoenix will burgeon from the curve of the earth If it isn’t like this someone enters a trance and in the eyes of others the self is scattered wild grasses once flourished here wildflowers suffered here now only a pagoda remains Some people say, to what end? it’s all scattered and has nothing to do with ecstasy a region without wind and water without flowers and birds will bring more hardship I believe although he’s lowly like this he’s still clean and white as snow 蚜虫 Aphid - 何兮He Xi The sort of insect that devours rose thorns, when its taste buds turn fragrant, its heart clings closer to heaven – what excites it isn’t the chewing but the passing through, the day grows darker: clouds like coral, the coral like cliffs. “Those empty spots, those spots that might be light, could it be the ting ting of my own teeth?”
trans. Eleanor Goodman and Wang Ao brief
Mother Goddess Kamakhya I The world will end In a deodhaniâ€™s dance Blood trickling from the corner of her mouth Black pigeon feather stuck to her chin. What is her prophecy today? No prophecy today, she only laughs. And somewhere in the background, A black goat bleats. The mother goddess loves blood. She drinks thirstily Goat-blood, pigeon-blood, bull-blood. And once a year, she menstruates. A great event: the only time her devotees Consider menstrual blood sacred. (You cannot worship a vagina And expect it will not menstruate.)
II There is a tortoise which has seen A hundred, five hundred xankarabdas now. Sunning the algae on its back, It dreams of a terrible goddess Fallen from the sky, A yoni on a phallic mountain. The birth of a noble generation And its gradual degeneration Later, the tortoise still suns itself And cringes, at the nightmarish vision Of a blood-bathed people. Its ancient limbs thrill at the sound Of taal, khol, dhol, mridanga. It has seen an eighty year old oja Dance two feet above the ground And a deodhani swing her torso Up, down, round and round. The bull calf â€™s lowing is drowned The kharga falls to the ground, And the mother goddess is sated.
III I, terrible goddess of Kamakhya, Have seen it all – Have seen the beginning Now bear the end. My little world will end With the last bleat of the lamb. Death – moss covered – Will live on Feed on Blood. I created this nightmare. *** Notes: deodhani: shaman; xankarabda: Assamese years; taal, khol, dhol, mridanga: Percussion instruments; oja: practitioner of the Ojapali art form, performed mostly on religious occasions; kharga: a huge blade; cutting instrument.] *** The legend is that the temple of the goddess Kamakhya was erected on the Nilachal hill in Assam at the place where her vagina fell when her decomposing body was being carried across the three worlds of Hindu mythology after her death by her inconsolable husband, Lord Shiva. She has been the patron goddess of the Assamese people for centuries now and who knows but that the political bloodletting taking place today in the valley below flows from the goddess’s own blood lust? *** Uddipana Goswami 58
WHITE ROOM This is not the story I intended to write. The story of Ray and Eleanor I had in mind wouldn’t develop properly on the page; it wouldn’t print. I tried to shift them to a foreign locale – to Budapest in fact, but they wouldn’t budge. I wanted to invoke Janos, the Gypsy hustler, but he wouldn’t come to the party either. It was like trying to photograph vampires. Now time is running out, the cops want to talk to me, so this will be an approximation of what may have happened. I first met Ray and Eleanor in the café where I hung out most evenings. It had recently been refurbished and was beginning to attract a more salubrious clientele. The drunks and junkies were slowly being ousted by minor media celebrities and soap stars vying for approbation. Ray and Eleanor were usually there by the time I arrived, always ensconced in the same booth by the window. The autumn sun slanting in through the wooden slats of the Venetians striped them with yellow light so that they looked like a pair of chimerical creatures engaged in a passionate, secret courtship. I watched them covertly in the mirror behind the bar as they gazed into each other’s face, his knees gripping hers under the table as he administered a series of kisses. And somehow I knew that I would become entangled, enmeshed in their desire. If I had succeeded in translocating Ray and Eleanor to Budapest I would have turned her into an American divorcée and him into a Hungarian expatriate, home for the holidays. His name would be Imray. He would have been fluent in that impenetrable language. We would have met in the Rose, a basement bar in the backstreets of Pest to which I would have been led by Janos, the hairy little hustler who would have picked me up on the Szent István korut and who would have seduced me in the lavatory of the Rose. Ray was powerfully built with a taurine neck, sloping shoulders and massive hands. He had deeply incised parentheses at the sides of his mouth and a perpetual tan. His greying hair was swept back over his collar. He wore faded denim shirts which matched perfectly his glacial eyes and which he left unbuttoned to reveal his sculptured chest, ornamented by a slender gold chain. I guessed he was in his mid forties. 64
Eleanor seemed to be slightly older than Ray. She had the ravenous look of the inveterate lady smoker. She had fashionably dishevelled blonde hair, an elegant figure and expensive clothes usually in caramel, camel or nicotine. Golden bracelets clattered at her wrist as she stirred her Bourbon and coke. Her fingers glittered with precious stones. She struck me as a woman with a taste for facials and manicures and perhaps a soupçon of discreet cosmetic tailoring. Early one evening when the café was almost deserted – the afternoon cappuccino drinkers had gone and the diners had not yet arrived – Ray caught my eye in the mirror. He smiled and beckoned me over. I was a bit tipsy and before I could stop myself, I blurted, “You two are so lovely. I’m sorry but I’ve been watching you... I just love you... both...together.” I was blushing. Eleanor took my hand and introduced them. Ray shifted to make room for me and, suddenly, I too was striped with light. Ray plied us with drinks, peeling off note after high denomination note from a roll in his back pocket, while they told me their story. I had no idea whether what they told me was true; I was so in their thrall that I didn’t care. Eleanor told me that she was embroiled in a litigious divorce suit, Ray was unhappily married to a jealous neurotic. They had to meet secretly on this side of the city where nobody knew them, arriving and departing in separate cars. “This is our little oasis,” said Eleanor through a veil of smoke. I imagined it was their Budapest. Eleanor told me she was a clairvoyant. She said she worked for a multinational investment corporation, predicting futures. Ray was equivocal about what he did. All he would say was that it involved spending a lot of time abroad. I asked them where they had met. Ray explained that it was at a hotel in Port Vila. His wife was laid up with a migraine and Eleanor’s husband - they referred to him as the Engineer - was busy at a conference. “I couldn’t take my eyes off this beautiful woman sitting at the bar,” he said. “She was like... magnetic.” “Of course I knew immediately,” said Eleanor, rattling her ice. “Well, I suppose you would,” I said. “Listen, just how much can you actually, um ... foresee?” “She’s the best, aren’t you babe?” Ray eased past me and went over to the bar for more drinks. He flatly refused my offer of money. While he was gone Eleanor grasped both of my hands. Her grip was uncomfortably brief
strong. She was looking at me intently with her feline green eyes. “Pain,” she said. “I see pain.” “Really?” Her rings were digging into my fingers. “In your aura,” she said. “What does it look like?” “A sort of dirty yellow. Like a dirty yellow halo.” “Has it happened or is it going to happen?” “It’s difficult to say,” Eleanor relaxed her grip. “It’s like a... continuum. Is there anything you would like to tell me?” I didn’t really want to mention the failed love affair that had deracinated me, that had sunk me in a quagmire of despair and sent me scuttling to the other side of the world. I couldn’t say that this was the reason for my vicarious participation in their romance. “Don’t worry,” said Eleanor. “It might just be a temporary aberration.” “What’s that babe?” Ray set the drinks down. “His aura’s a bit ... iffy.” Ray brushed the back of my neck with the knuckles of his hand and I flinched. It was almost as though I didn’t want him to be contaminated by my dirty halo. But then again, I reasoned, I hadn’t been touched for a while. He gave me a conciliatory pat on the shoulder. “Fancy a bite?” he said. Over dinner I told Eleanor and Ray about my trip to Budapest. “Romania, isn’t it? Eleanor asked. “The capital of Hungary, babe,” said Ray. “Why Hungary?” she said. I had to pause for a moment. You can’t really tell anyone the truth. You have to give a palatable approximation. I couldn’t say that the sound of the word Budapest had resonated since my childhood. I couldn’t say I had fallen in love with a little Hungarian refugee called Fritzi when I was ten years old. I couldn’t say that it had just occurred to me that I had really fallen in love with his tall, golden father who looked exactly like Ray. So I said, “I wanted to be far away. I wanted to be somewhere where nobody knew me, where I knew nobody.” Eleanor was watching me intently. “It’s a beautiful city,” said Ray. “Did you take the waters?” He explained to Eleanor: “It’s a spa town, babe - thermal pools.” I couldn’t tell them about being jerked off under the milky, protozoan waters of the Kerali Baths. About the columns of light descending through the 66
ancient pierced dome; the lapping and eddying; the muffled conversations; phantom men materialising and vaporizing in the steam; torsos, faces, hands; the moustachioed pasha grunting and puffing on a cigar while an impassive youth fucked him underwater; the identical twins languidly reposing on a stone bench the apotheosis of their own beauty. The next time I saw Ray he was sitting at the bar gazing at his blinking cellphone. He grinned at me and signalled to the barman “Where’s Eleanor?” I said. “Still getting dolled up. It’s her birthday. We’re hitting the town. She asked me to come and get you.” I began to demur. I hardly knew these people and the last time I saw them they had regaled me lavishly with drink and food. “I’m not really dressed for... “ “ Listen, Sonny-Jim, you’re coming. You don’t want to disappoint Eleanor do you? Not on her birthday.” For some reason it was the Sonny-Jim that persuaded me. “Well, at least let me get her something. A little present.” “You’re it, babe.” said Ray, scrutinizing me with his steel blue eyes. Ray got into the back of the taxi with me and draped his arm over the back of the seat. Our thighs were touching. He was wearing a citric cologne that hovered above the salty, feral odour of armpit and groin. I eased towards the window and put the cheap bouquet I had bought on the seat between us. “So, tell me again what it is you do,” I said. Ray was silent for a while. “I guess you could say I cover the hotspots. Srebrenica, Mogadishu... Baghdad.” “So you’re a journalist?” “In a manner of speaking. Did I tell you Eleanor and I have moved in together? We’ve bought an apartment. Down by the station.” Eleanor was wrapped in an unflattering apricot silk kimono, she was wearing fishnet stockings and stilettos and hadn’t finished applying her makeup. In the fierce afternoon light she looked sallow and washed out, like a tired hooker. She looked blankly at the chrysanthemums and tossed them onto the sofa. “Let’s get you dressed, babe,” said Ray. “Pour yourself a drink.” He indicated the Stolichnaya bottle on the sink. Eleanor tottered slightly as he led her brief
to the bedroom. The apartment was not what I expected. I’d have thought that Eleanor would have frou-froued the place up a bit but the stark white room was cramped and grim. The only furniture was the torn leather sofa, a sideboard and a glass coffee table covered in sticky rings. A pair of heavy black brocade curtains was roughly strung up at the tall window. When I went to the fridge for ice it contained only half a lemon and three or four vials of what looked like cough mixture. I could hear Ray and Eleanor bickering in the next room. The old brick Victorian railway station glowed in the setting sun. It looked like a bunker, or an antique nuclear reactor, a source of heat. The colonnade of stately Phoenix palms glinted metallically. I heard the gulp of the hydraulics of a bus down in the street, the yelp of an electronic key. I was suddenly consumed with panic. The apartment seemed to be humming, the whole building seemed to be vibrating with electricity. All the appliances – hundreds of televisions, radios, dishwashers, refrigerators, computers, air-conditioners creating a pernicious white static, fizzing away, just below the threshold of perception. I stepped back from the window. On the sideboard there was a framed photograph of Ray and Eleanor flanking a swarthy, laughing boy. They had their arms around his shoulders and were eyeing each other above his head. The photo had been taken somewhere bright and hot. “Damascus,” said Ray. I hadn’t heard them come in. “Or was it Petra? He was our guide. What was his name, babe?” “Mustapha. Or Ali. Something Arab.” Eleanor was pouring a drink, topping it up with one of the vials from the fridge. She was wearing a clinging crimson dress cut low at the back and a complicated gold necklace. “One for the road?” said Ray. “I’ll just use your toilet,” I said. “Not that door,” Eleanor barked as I went to leave the room. “The one on the left.” I didn’t see Ray and Eleanor again after that awful night. Well, I did see Eleanor once playing the poker machine at the far end of a gloomy bar. I didn’t speak to her. And then Ray’s photo appeared in the newspaper. He was one of a gang of mercenaries being held hostage in Kandahar. 68
I had joked with my friends about being feted at the glamorous restaurant on the waterfront by the clairvoyant and her handsome lover. About how they had plied me with French champagne. How she had kissed me, her tongue pressing at my teeth. His meaty hand massaging my thigh and then my crotch. What I couldn’t tell my friends was that no amount of wine could have quelled my disquiet at what I had seen in their apartment. The ensuite bathroom had two doors, one to the living room and another to what I presumed was a second bedroom. After washing my hands and combing my hair, out of curiosity I opened the other door. The room was in darkness. It reeked of sweat and a strong citric smell, like an amplified version of Ray’s cologne. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I could make out a bed. The boy was asleep, naked and glistening with perspiration. His torso and legs were covered in a pelt of black hair, his shoulders and throat dappled with welts. One of his wrists was handcuffed to the headboard. I stood there looking at him for a long while, listening to him breathing in and out. Then I refilled his water glass from the tap in the bathroom and gently closed the door on him. I’m writing this with the pen Janos gave me after I sucked him off in the lavatory of the Rose Café in Budapest, Hungary. After we took off all our clothes, including our watches, and after I showered him with Forints, dropping the money onto his hairy little body as he lay grinning, spread-eagled on the cool green tiles. “Zu viel, zu viel” he said, in his makeshift German. Too much. There are some things you can’t tell anybody, things that won’t translate. Language seems too blunt a code. But they remain, percolating in the synaptic broth, illumined by shafts of memory, defying interpretation. Who can say how reliable this account is; whether it fits the criteria of credibility? Sometimes I wonder about Ray and Eleanor – where they are and what they’re up to, if they still exist. If they ever existed. David Lyndon Brown
from ‘Free Fall’
Translated by Peter Broad and Sandra Merill
HOMAGE TO FRANCISCO TARIO Seeking among his words other words distinct from his time: other words less worn out than a fork or a woman’s thigh: words to express the reality of the future: the imagination of the child to come: seeking among the pages of the improbable the certainty of his days: a woman and a man who meet thanks to the encounter between one phrase and another: a drop of water that falls on the gaze turned into a stone: a little girl who in the next paragraph takes on the transparency of a ghost: seeking among his books the surprise of others: the indifference of the present: and thus to move from one chapter to another, going and coming through one’s own circles, until you arrive at the end of that interminable novel. ROUND TRIP RIDE I have arrived home after a bicycle ride with my son. Like every afternoon, we rode through the cobblestone streets of the neighborhood, here and there greeting the trees, the gardens, the dogs, and the children we met on the way. My son enjoys the bicycle rides more than anyone, especially when we climb steep hills or enter steep terrain. While my being can’t resist the temptation to think about the future, household debts, lost friends, my work commitments, things I have to do tomorrow, his is poured completely into the landscape that he is discovering at every turn. It’s curious to see how our movements, so different, so distant, come together for a second on the same path, and how in a moment of carelessness the soul of my son is fused and confused with mine as if fate didn’t want to deny me the unrepeatable opportunity of living twice. GOD AND ME Beneath the waters of the sea I thought about God. I felt him for the first time in my breathing. Before that I had seen him during that trip I took to Prague, among the bridges
full of bicycles and women playing the violin. I had also seen him in the stands in the Obregon market, or in the gardens, or one time in the alleys of the Jewish Quarter. I had never felt him in my breathing, held in my thought beneath the waters of the sea. And what if God were as mortal as I, and he worked teaching at the university, and he was concerned with imminent death?, and what if I were the God to whom God prays in the early morning, and the God of whom God asks relief or hope or perhaps strength to go on?, and what if I couldn’t hear him or love him because in reality I don’t have ears to hear him nor love to love him? I thought about all this beneath the waters of the sea, reconciled in my dust, while I felt him or he felt me in his breathing. HOMAGE TO ALFONSO MICHEL I stood absorbed by a small picture that was almost at the end of the gallery. The picture had no title nor was it dated, but it showed a woman in a dress with a black hat leaning her left elbow on a bar table. The woman, in an attitude of contemplation or of waiting, of losses and desolation, reminded me of those afternoons when I went down to the bar of that Parisian hotel to drink a little vodka on the rocks and to smoke Delicados cigarettes, the last ones I had left from the stock I had been careful to take with me the day I decided to cross the Atlantic. The woman in the picture captivated me. Her face was familiar to me. Where had I seen it before? When I left the show, and I walked down the street, the face of the woman stayed in my memory, it grew as I advanced, its features got clearer and clearer, as if fate or desire were making me discover her name, that terrible name by which –I knew it– I swore I would never be intimidated. THE MAN WHO FORGOT THE WAYS OF LIVING They sentenced him to fifteen years of prison for fraud and deception, robbery, and some other crime I won’t remember. He defended himself, because his daughter, who was all that he had, abandoned him halfway through the trial, and the lawyers –even the public defenders– asked him for what he didn’t have. I took several ministerial
statements and amended declarations from him. We chatted a lot. We got along so well that I –surreptitiously– gave him my copies of the penal code and my law books that afternoon when I realized that what I wanted to do was to go out every morning and wander aimlessly. Days, and maybe years, passed. I went to travel around Europe, and he continued in his humble, windowless cell. I had not been back for long when, surprisingly and pleasantly, I ran into him one afternoon in the street. He looked at me without recognizing me. His steps, strangely, were slower than those of the rest of the pedestrians. I looked at him fondly and thought about his fortune. As if it were destiny, I have continued to run into him. I have seen him on a bench near the bridge over the river, alone, smoking. Or on a back street, leaning on a lamppost, observing the sky. Or in a food stand in the market, rolling a tortilla, drinking a mug of atole. I have been trying to approach him, but I have understood that it would be useless, that in reality he doesn’t want to recognize me, or he doesn’t want to recognize himself, or perhaps he only wants to forget how hard it is to go to the mirror every morning only to realize the he continues to be a man. THE DATE One afternoon, when they kissed each other goodbye on the cheek, he decided to follow her. He went after her along streets and avenues until, on the corner of Lázaro Cárdenas, she stopped. A man whose features he couldn’t make out got in the car. He wanted to go back, but his desire to finish the thing once and for all made him go on. His wife stopped the car at the house where they lived when they were newlyweds, and which they were fixing up some now in order to rent it. He couldn’t help feeling crestfallen and cowardly. He thought about his children and all that they had built in almost fifteen years of marriage. He thought about the nights of waiting, the vacations in Valaparaiso, the diamond ring he had just given her. If it weren’t for the fact that the one crossing the threshold on his wife’s arm was himself, he certainly would have died of grief then and there. Rogelio Guedea
How to tie a knot around the world Inaccurate maps sometimes helped in discovery. The great geographer Ptolemy (AD 90-168) thought Europe and Asia stretched more than halfway round the globe, rather than the ten percent they actually cover. Ptolemy’s figures held for 13 centuries. Even today political maps reflect the world the way we want it to look. China’s map of India does not agree with India’s map of India; China’s helps itself to more of the Himalayas. Ecuador’s map shows Ecuador to be about twice the size of the territory it actually governs.
Pictures of a flat world, drawing pins following trade routes of the South Pacific.
A whole tribe in an amphibious boat, such a hostile encounter, pacified by alcohol, tobacco and guns.
When we return home we’ll hire a cartographer to decipher our journals mapping out fictitious continents.
Searching for spices and perfumes, we are blown north, off course and rediscover the Americas. Upon arrival we are ambushed by the native white skin savages flying over the surface of a swamp.
who do you see?
a new girl lives on the Maungaturoto stream at the back of the shoe factory her parents run our talk walks us home
how often does this happen? sheâ€™s another femme her family take off never see her again
still mist Point Chevalier beach horizonless
back drop shags
in wingspan wetsuits pose on rocks
replete centerfolds full body shots
the ball thrown dogs not keen to swim turn cold
gaze at their leaders determining what
they really mean jump in seasons go faster
another school friend bales out for Paris knocks
at the door weâ€™re a year older he shrugs off the Napoleonic great coat
that signals the style of winter heâ€™s flown and in our lounge summer gloom tousles a prodigal perm
recounts the ways he didnâ€™t expect to live
like this but here he is un homme
words absorb their re-immersion those less buoyant dive deep
next idiom Wellington you can be yourself there he says
people are later we girls murmur to each other
boys we like are going queer
it must be something in the water
at the creek hidden in tall grass an electric fence
discharges the heading dog shrieks runs straight for the home place
ignores every kind thing the farmer calls after
‘our wretched ideas are as water and have been poured into the nearest and most convenient receptacles.’ et tu J.? dragging frayed trousers across the Queen’s court polished unobsequious hunting tongue-out, two-dimensional large worn beast racing priest pressing in with its hooves blunt razor marks forehead homeless gathering beneath overpass watery conscience saving through winter, broken features flooded embankment twisting coiled phone lead in her fingers take off shoes head straight upstairs peasant moon is shining endlessly on garden through bedroom window, rays you could stroll up to someone worth meeting worth hearing, lie with someone worth the movement
Napoleon a gateway, blue sea of St Helena discards itself in low white sky, half-nude woman draped in red plumes poised to blow a serpent saxophone nodding in homage (while Napoleon stares) at a gauche totem crossing Mars on narrow canals of emptiness wide mid-western desert swallowing our insignificance insects stripping in the fecund night sun rose on the dusty township population filled the avenues, arcades; sense of redemption, war concluded, though the eldersâ€™ suspicions remained, that in the hunt for water on the infertile plains we would somehow sneak up behind ourselves pushing spears through the backs of our own skulls, spelled us asleep with her subtle return to what is not, Napoleon the soulless lizard annihilates us both eyes straight ahead on a mystical science we have not to realise, gateway to the blue slow sea of St Helena discarding itself in low white sky
Versions of Six Poems by Samuel Beckett (for Jack Ross, maverick translator) ‘musique de l’indifférence’ the music of indifference heart fire air sand lover’s collapse in silence covering their voices and I understand myself now by keeping quiet
‘vive morte ma seule saison’ long dead my lonely season white lilies chrysanthemums bare nests abandoned April silt flaking beneath grey-frosted days of beauty
‘la mouche’ opening the scene the window is empty except her belly on the ground beside strapped cases black aerials linked to panicking sails clawed feet sucked by empty mouths enormity of the sweltering blue firmament underneath my thumb she is powerless to overwhelm the serene sky and water
‘à elle l’acte calme’ in her calm manner the pores learned of sex good child the attention of too many regrets too much lengthy absence the service of the presence the few blue rags covering the face finally the dead heart everything the late merciful rain constantly falling every night in August on her heart empty of love
‘jusque dans la caverne ciel et sol’ until in the cavernous sky and soil the old voices one by one become crosses in graveyards and the same light falls slowly on the long raped plains of Enna magnificent capillaries will burst and the same will never be spared in the distance arriving slowly the adorable void of uncertainty the still mouth of shadow
‘Rue de Vargirard’ in the middle I declutch and gaping ingenuously the marble slabs displayed in light and in shadow I restart fortified one negative accepted Michael Steven
14.2-19.2 14. 2 A day like that. Grey. White. Yellow day. Sleep in these, curl up there. The woman had me go downstairs and up for nothing. Something about a box to collect. There was no box to collect. She’s imagining things again. Half-blind though I am I saw none – I could have wasted my time trying to read. The man too, to find what was not there, moving on, the caretaker man, 15 years in the job, the place. I asked him, and had he? He hadn’t, hadn’t seen any. Tenants like me, like her, come and go, he was thinking, I would soon be gone. I was another tenant like me, like her, like them, forgetting to feed dogs and wash themselves, dying in heatwaves, imagining boxes to collect, forgetting to change out of their clothes, the old single ones, mistreating their dogs, shivering lumps of fear, forgetting they are watching the telly, lumps of liver, numb wrinkles and portholes, and the sofa telling their tale, their age, with its frayed edges and rhyming odours. A late postian partisan compiled and revelatory in his slept-ins, found to have shingly tubes, lumpy, cyst-ridden, farced and farcical, one-kidneyed, squeeze-bladdered, urined wet but cold in his blanket. He found the place, the better. 18.2 Writing the date at the top of the page one day ahead so as to escape the one that began this morning. That one overleaped intact at time of destroying — at some point day passes into night — the destroyer leaps. Why imagine that tomorrow he will turn creator? 18.2 Here it is, aware of the blueness of this pen which was never other than the right weight, a marble blue and there, the heavy green of a neat glasses case. Senses and tools sharp for povetry (not an error if are hearing this silently through the eye). Much is neater this night. Beginning of a waking in the closing of his eyes, approach of dawn for the ending of his phrastics. Approximations of approx. associations of approxes of assocs of phrastics, poorly, neatly mangled… 19.2 [No entry]
Sam Johnson and the Widow
Samuel Johnson refuted Berkeley’s theory that we occupy an ideal plane by kicking a stone and saying (to Boswell), “I refute it thus!” I think… if we are ideal, we, and our universe are not “merely” ideal, but incomprehensibly ideal, and if we are being dreamed, that doesn’t prevent us from treating our perceptions of the material universe as axiomatic. Being dreamed needn’t prevent us from having or “getting” a life, or from generating a further material or immaterial plane by apprehending or dreaming again a reality or immateriality that might endure though it appear to vanish when our consciousness is commanded by other matters—a reality or a dream to which we may return, one which we may never finish.
Cold, brooding or failing to find a verbal-grammatical solution oneself, it is always good to chat with strangers. Just yesterday I was speaking to an elderly woman at the bus stop who was complaining that here ([Dunedin, New Zealand, 2007] ‘we should have all the seasons”. She was unhappy because the autumn hadn’t yet been cold enough. The bulbs, she said, need a good frost on them before flowering. It set me thinking that two makes for a warmer winter, though I did not say it, as she was probably a widow. Perhaps winter is the most intimate season of all, even when it lasts only for a day and a night. This happens at some latitudes; it happens in a novel I will never finish.
From ‘Fabulae’ The Latin word for chair is cathedra, and the place where the chair is housed is called a cathedral. In fact, all over the world you will always find a gathering of many chairs and benches inside the local cathedral. But whatever you do, having made your entrance, don’t sit down and don’t pray out loud. You should stand motionless and remain silent out of respect for the chairs. This is their sacred space, they are the original occupants, and you are just a stranger passing through. ~ A clear night in the countryside. One by one the houses free themselves from their lawns and fields and rise into the sky. They spread out like comets, heading for the far reaches of the universe. Each has a light on, and if you were to look quickly through a telescope you would see a young woman washing dishes in her kitchen, a boy sitting in front of his computer screen, an old man in a dressing gown standing on a verandah. After a few minutes, the houses are no more than distant stars, their lights still flickering against the immense blackness of space. ~ Early in the evening and an invisible giant is shifting blocks of light around the city. I walk past the Golden Dragon restaurant. Are there more Chinese restaurants in existence than electric guitars? Probably not. But if you count all the restaurants in China, then I’m not so sure. A serrated sheet of water flows over the edge of a fountain. If I were to cup my hands and drink from the fountain, would I be able to forget? Would my personal history, all my pains and accumulations, simply dissolve? On an old wall I study the feather-like imprints left behind by stripped away branches of ivy. Light from a mirrored building flares up in the background and then fades. The invisible giant is still at work. Step by step, it feels as if I’m following dragon veins under the footpath; thick, crimson cables which twist and turn through the city’s subsoil and clay. As the veins vibrate, I sense the beginning of a song. The words have yet to form, but the melody is already there. A ghost melody, pigeon-grey, barely audible amid the flickering of my thoughts and the rumble of traffic. ~ He looked at the circle of water lying in the palm of his hand. It was transparent and sparkled in the sunlight. Concentrating hard, he gave his full attention to the shimmering liquid... and before his eyes the water turned into glass. He made this discovery at the beach when he was seven years old. Nobody ever learnt of his special ability, although several people later remarked to his mother about the intensity of his gaze. It wasn’t until the age of fourteen that he could transform 82
fresh water into glass (for some reason it was easier with salt water). However, no matter how fiercely he concentrated, the amount was always limited to the palm of his hand. It was true that he failed many times, but the result of his successful efforts was a growing collection of small lenses. He kept these lenses in a cardboard box at the back of his wardrobe. During his darker moments, he thought of them as his “tears”. And in time each lens became harder to produce as he grew older and more accustomed to the ways of the world. ~ What if Ophelia returned from the river, to the amazement of the court, with strands of reed threaded through her hair, saying how the current did nothing but support her; how she heard the crackling of insects diminish as she passed beneath a bridge; how there were farmers working in the fields who never knew she was floating by; how the clouds formed one astonishing expanse of white; how a deer looked up from drinking in the shadows; how a bell tolled in the distance as if on a boat far out at sea. . . . What if Ophelia came back from the river, with droplets of water still clinging to her forehead, and just stood before Hamlet, silent, filled with a strange power. ~ From the study of fault lines and tectonic plates, we know that mountains are not the fixed and permanent features of our landscape we once believed them to be, but rather constantly moving entities, either arising from or slipping back into the ocean. As one geologist has stated, in terms of the earth’s history mountains are rather ephemeral things. When looked upon with the eye of the universe, they’re literally here today and gone tomorrow. And what is true of mountains also applies, with greater force, to houses; houses are always in motion, shifting their positions, crossing from suburb to suburb and from town to town. If you were to step out on your roof, you could study this migration, you could see that the houses around you are walking towards the horizon. It is true that they travel very slowly as each has its own load to carry. Every so often, one pauses to readjust the weight of a table or a bookcase before setting off again. ~ During the funeral, the oval mirror above the organ trembles each time the organist presses the keys. The elderly mourners, reflected in the glass, also tremble as they sit in their wooden pews, their eyes fixed on the coffin placed beside the altar. With the swelling of the music, it appears as if this white-haired group of men and women, confined by the mirror, are being shaken out of their bodies and into another dimension where everything is shifting and uncertain. Richard von Sturmer brief
From ‘Eyelight’ The Interview with the Richard Taylor Richard Taylor 1) “I suppose we could start with some general probing – your back ground etc I mean you haven’t always been a…” R.T 223) “ A what? A bastard…?! Eh!?? ” R.T. 44) “Come on Richard!” R.T 20) “Or come one?” R.T. 1) “But that’s an interesting response –after all we can’t all be elephants or hats now – can we?” “I mean – you were born in Auckland – in Remuera in fact in 48. Can you fill us in a little on your “journey” thence to hence? No?” R.T. 24) “No.” R.T. 200) “But I can!! ‘Bags to lick the spoon Mummy! Sue and Gill and Dennis won’t let me!!’ (Bags bags bags!!!)…” R.T. 233444) “Noise. Useless noise. Cat.” R.T. 2222) “Meoww!!” R.T. 1) ” But I want some … some continuity here… did - were you - one of these people - with a “mission” to write – to be a poet??” R.T. 45) “Heil Hitler!!” R.T. 80 “I interview me – I can fill you in – the others are stupid or psychos.” R.T. 221) “Do you hate them? These “others” ?” R.T. 33) “Of course I fucking bloody well do! And I hate everyone in the world – they rob me of my power – I want power [power power power and blood and death.]” R.T. 33) “And sex and slime.” R.T. 1) “Why slime? Why talk of slime? Who are we anyway where?? When what?” R.T. Aleph Null 1) “Percolates inprecision into a coroallary of stanite coroallas coronae carseerers gets out you chicken head bitch face in tercede infull deep dip ploggle cringing holee hope…” R.T.5) “I we mean – this Blog you post here so infrequently –now as young fellow –were weyou 8 or 9 or older but we read Dickens (started with Pickwick Papers) and followed Snodgrass and the adventures of the Pickwick Club – then you read most the other novels…then a lot of Somerset Maugham, Ryder Haggard…” R.T. 86) “ Bags ! He gets shot with silver six shooters by Hopalong Cassidy!! Whip whooo whirlry!” 84
R.T. 80) “ Boom!! ----- ‘mem you mem you when you half my height?’” R.T. 222) “Percolates.” R.T.33) “Power!! The beast - the lion dog was at my throat – maybe it was from Balzac’s story – fuck it – but I acted it all out I fought the lion me-man. After I wanted to kill the enemy mens.” R.T. 35) “Of course you did dear. We all love you…” R.T. 8) “Then there were the days I read about astronomy and science -particularly biochemistry or about DNA etc and microbes etc and I wanted to be scientist and cure cancer...” R.T.1) “That’s interesting isn’t it the twin desire for power and to help - to help or hurt like fight or flight - there is perhaps a link there - something to do with Freud...” R.T. 9) “Or fraud, get Fraud Squad in there’s a lot of James Froid petering around who’s a fraid of Virginias’s vaginas or W. Joyce’s woof woolly woof woof’s cold beer or a child’s Kaltennnen joy - who is schillerodenn sangfroidle - without blood or joy or Joyceless in Gazza with Bazza...Nein!??” R.T.11) “Shut up bitch!” R.T. 17) “HOW do you know. Who are weyouheitsheimherthemtheythose?” R.T. 80) “ Licks and loves.” R.T. 2) “What? Who are you?” R.T. 75) “What happened to the dead man - did you can him?” R.T. 200) “I called slaters “jambers” ... Brucey had many many slaters in that box back of his house and there was a lake, and the Catholic boys they had hundreds of tadpoles, your one grew tale and then legs!! Then you took it down to streme - Dada said it would swim win away and be happy...” R.T. 201) “Tiddley tiddly taddy pollees - tiddley tiddley taddies!!” R.T199) “Coouckales arnd Mooosckles!! Twwo a three a penny hot brown booums!!” R.T. 198) “Bums! Big black bums! “ R.T 11) “That’s all old stuff - you have to deal with NOW - you’re sixty now -approaching death... and decay and entropic… entropic something...” R.T. 200) “And those boys were cruel to their father who was in Russia in the war and gave him biscuits that had fallen on the floor and they laughed...the night their house caught fire the stove and burned and the firemen gods came and then one for their mummydaddies had a heart attacks and the the other died soon later... she must have gone “Oooh!” like that... and old Macey, remember he invented the “everlasting game”...???????????????” brief
………….. further Heidegger’s call for an investigation into “pure thinking” R.T 6A) “Is god an emmett?” R.T. 7) “little God or Big god?” R.T 6A) “I no know... all I know is that I ‘know that I know that I nothing know’” R.T. 10) “Isn’t it all so exciting!!” R.T. 60) “Orgasm in a KaoAsm. In a Kaddam Addam Kaaoassm asm”R.T 21) “ Biblic black and blind.” R.T. 4) “ A kaoasm?! Not a kaolin kaoasm? Putt. Put. Pot. Transforms...something edges into the light...” R.T. 35) “ Recall the Head - and how you loved the leopard in the desert ‘bearded like the pard’” R.T X) “Balzac blazes with Boylan’s blazac oh so blindy black.” [Noises at this point rising to cresendo of sorts]. R.T.1) “But I hear you’ve been reading ‘Nightwood’ by Djuna Barnes, ‘The Book of Nothing’ by John Barrow (maths, the Aleph Null, Cantor, zero, and cosmology etc), two plays by O’Casey, and Albee (it’s his year I see), some Henry James stories, ‘Sons and Lovers’ by Lawrence, Selima Hills’ long poem, ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘Three Tales’, and the Temptations of St Antony’ by Flaubert...” R.T 5) “His Penelope was Flaubert... he fished by obstinate isles thinking about criculating Circe traffic and ignoring sundials and masses of pig-fish infanta bearing sea bearing unbearably into glory; with the spreading and accelerating sneer of shiningTime unwillingly to school with shining faces mourning the morning’s mornings at his back as nursing mothers point knowing fingers at the sky’s great grimace and the age demands there’s nothing in it why should the acceleranting and Elephanting eagle shit its arse down down the Deutchsland wings bores of spores of melancholy rifles who slither toveley lovely dovelly down down the in the room of the doomed womb where whirls the wicked white water from the abstract micksickle ecstasy of the hermetic cataracting caterwauling skies like so many indigo Icarae.... “ RGone is the dark warmth .T. 5ABC) “ HO! I thought of all that infinity years before i was born - so there!” R.T. 50) “Absolute twaddle - bilgewater.” R.T. 60) “ ‘Off with his head!’” R.T.1) “And now your tackling Robin Hyde’s ‘Wednesday’s Children’ again and I 86
see that you earlier in the year read most of Ibsen’s plays (in the meantime re-reading ‘Ulyssees’) and you have Roger Horrock’s book about Len Lye...” R.T.3) “I” discovered Lye by accident when I went into town one day - took a sickie in about 1985 and saw an exhibition - saw his awesome “universe” and heard it booming and his photo collages on film etc (the Brakhage stuff - the “mystical” life force things etc R.T.1) “And you felt somehow dissatisfied etc? “just” a family man and a Lineman etc?”R.T.3) “Yes...hmmm....the need to create .... but the engineering lead into all sorts of strange areas...my main reading I recall had only really been (since circa 1969 when I read a lot of political stuff) ..was I recal, reading the auto bio of Sargeson and wishing I could be a writer... but it remained a dream only at that stage and I wasn’t strong on it...”
but I am not interested IN THE “just now” in the poem’s meaning (meaning is problematic in any case) interested here in the look of the totality of his work as worked through and I then transform it - as things constantly do in life - in fact I went “berserk” with it almost in R.T11) “Listen to the wankers!! “ the need to create” !! Fuck me!! ...” R.T 33A) “‘The snot green sea’” R.T.11) “Fuck -what about the tits on the bum of the arse eh?? Hmm!!?? Eh???!!!” R.T 10) “Gosh!!” R.T1) “And I wondered if you wanted to comment on where your reanding was taking you so to speak - ha ha ha he he he he he heee !!! [sudden ucncontrollable titter from Richard 1 at this point] - and is EYELIGHT - mean how are we prceedig -you sem tohavesomewhat abndeoned meaning and order in EYELIGHTis The Infinite Poem taking over ....” R.T 7) The I.P is always there - waiting toget us...”
but I am not interested IN THE “ just now” in the poem’s meaning R.T 1) “Fascinating...” Richard Taylor
Saltworks (extract) 9th work – Down South (i) ….time warp betake betake thus passed the willy day a sun yes still summer a bake the tense the shifting horizon the blocks losing themselves the mornings breaking and swift carriage beyond and we boot it for miles free fall if you will courage if you will my prissy pains if you will and some wizened joker sitting under his last shreds of canvas lean-to the grease and his form not the wiser but eyes again the soiled fingers again and Jock lad can’t resist the wink of him I’ve bought so many of these types they reach with success they give they repeat and many’s the hard cold ground somewhere yet to share their paradise what to sell sir and we confront as he reaches under his low plank table and brings forth two perfect tea pots a china unscathed by chaos by journey and by the buggery of time as a form with soft and gradual curves appertaining spout the feet gold glazed but otherwise infinite white depth two to choose from my son one an oolong and the other an oopak both black both thick both blood both brewed an hour ago your power and vast pickmeup free of pain straight tone minus the pleasure the sense the ever present self and some time yet again the long reach into pocket for silky coin no not even that can I give but the old bastard gave me the cuppa anyway and it was quite undrinkable anyway and they are off yes a glance over the shoulder and yes the old man was gone only left was the musik of his shadow growing a beat a fine movement the train again to Le Havre and here the reunion with the ship Belinda story told now that Jock and Jinxo were picked up by some crazy ol’duck in a Rolls Royce and she took them home to her hotel where they all had a wild time drinking the finest of booze and her getting them to abuse her body in which ever way pleased them and whatever other interesting prestigious feats they could use to pump the story up to impress and gain admiration from the crew who were supposed to give them that working passage on their ship however not resulting in anything more than a few packs of smokes and some good scotch and a meal and once more out on their arses they never promised them anything standing ovation or grimy blowing to bits half worn days already where the sinuses burn from something foul within and the clarity not quite and the breaks ah to be sure that’s a let down and yet a sun to be kept shining as the day goers function and there is system and connection and this being a fortification of sorts but less the presence as we still be standing on the outside form mould the tense hope frail groans a sob not wanting to let us in no sir ah find our own way yes the time to sweep daydreams aside it was gather our skirts and do the only thing possible in this situation or more’s yet the New Zealand pie you know a famous Stevensens square with the jellied cold gravy and one lump of steak meat and plenty of pepper and that secure weighty feeling it gave when you carried it in the crisp white paper bag with the serrated top mmmmm such was gusto the lunch in the school play ground or a wander down the main street and to yes know who every fucker was and what they were doing or more’s the Sunday dismal after a loose shower of rain hitchhiking now down through France after the latest brainstorm to go to the south and pick grapes and earn enough to pay for two tickets home some absurdity some diffuse movement some irritating feeling of the waste the futility the mice in a maze bump thump here and there and no feel of structure or sense slow progress the unknowing times when our vision crossed and when our glance touched fraction the bond infinite the blame an intangible hope of happiness still there at the end of the rainbow eh BROTHER Jinx you arsehole hear it too four days on the road since Rotterdam and no food and nights spent on the cold ground under hedges and trees of the fields before us rolling rolling in illusion of permanence and belonging smell warm wind an afternoon come the lightness of their footsteps only shattered after sinking of the sun a cold blink from the star of my alien tied up the looking’s and listening the yonder felt the draft and a wonder pressing pressing my sapien ground trip melodrama of the kind the break a life or two and on retro ‘tis nothing more than a quick laugh and I’m washing this all over him as night I use your poets eye I use an ego turnpike I use and settling gentle I’ll cause you remaining a slave to my swipe the bearing of your tiny pitter patter a mouthful before the out and up… Graeme Perrin
Shift ending The wind has died. It is a sweet treat. Bread baking street cleaning the young walking coupled. Drunks, but not as many as youâ€™d think. Big men dropping raw meat outside locked doors of Burger King. Now church bells (5) a cyclist not going very fast in orange fluro jacket. Tui! Tui! (always 2). Falling up the hill into the light. Brenda Ann Burke
the insect order containing beetles and weevils
I She was a most outlandish woman – on that we were all agreed – with a penchant for hats made from the elytra2 of certain brightly coloured beetle species. I would watch her at it, painstakingly gluing them on to a gauze cap. I made sure she didn’t see me, concealing myself in the branches of a large pohutukawa3 outside her sitting room. She worked by candle light and every so often fitted a gold pince-nez over her nose, through which to view her handiwork. She was a foreigner, of that we were certain. 2 3
the tough front wings of beetles that protect the hind wings (singular: elytron) Metrosideros excelsa
II We had it on good authority that the beetles were imported illegally from Latvia. Investigating officers from the Department of Conservation and MAF4 were standing by. There was, of course, the risk of disease, and we had a hunch the beetles were endangered. If you’d heard the way she laughed, you’d understand. There was a rumour her father was a Finnish prince. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, not Fisheries.
III Did she think she was better than us, with her magnificent metallic beetle hats? Did she think she could get away with it? IV We had prepared our testimony months before the arrest: her obsessive church attendance, her lipstick an overly glamorous shade of scarlet. If she hadn’t disappeared the night before the trial, she wouldn’t have stood a chance. With all those wings, someone suggested, perhaps she simply flew off. Ha ha. (That is, of course, impossible.) V We suspected Harbinger, the fireman. He’d been seen looking at her a fraction too long. We’ve kept a close eye on him since. One day a beetle wing will drop from his helmet and he’ll be done for.5 5
Done for. Janis Freegard
Honig Our love sweet, brought to temple for High Holy Days, dipped honey into apple and feed you, something else your mouth waters, swallows, arms wrapped round—date vuelta, papi, date, dame, dámelo, dame— this queer synagogue, so white. Feed me. A book neither of us can read, always losing our place. Dulce. Ashkenazi asphyxia, a dyke who does not know how to shut up. Something to parch our hunger, feed our thirst. Tengo hambre, papi, tengo sed. Durst und Hunger, und vielleicht mehr, weiß ich nicht. Weiß. Ich. Nicht. Gracias, mijo, gracias. Agua, after blessing. A thin wafer, tired knees, Latin (services), oil that could be used for food, or heating one’s home. What we give up for Lent, better life in América. Vatican II. Chocolate. What we are truly looking forward to—that night. Prayers from a kneeling position. I supplicate. Suffocate. You are my breath, votive after donation, lit, and lying (beneath you), my greatest sins, I have nothing to tell the priest. I let someone go in before me, close the door for them, listen, I have not been to confession since I came out of the closet. The blessing of the throat. New confirmation name. Eight good, long years. Before the year of white, move further into the religion, a time when I am still eating meat. Before Oakland and grad school, our last supper, over hummus and tabouli, time away from your white lover, my female one. Valencia pre-dot.com. I believe you ordered the lamb. You tap my head against the thin wall of the kitchen. We are two Catholic boys in search of something deeper. Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán
EDUCATIONZ PLZ The footpath’s thick with school kids from the local primary, walking home in tight packs with their wide brimmed red hats. Walking Bus, they call it. Seems sad, all this safety, you prob can’t even stop off at the dairy. If primary school kids care about soft stubble and cask wine sweat, they may be taking note of our Frankie right now. The Walking Bus drivers, volunteer mums and various other bored and benevolent souls, certainly are. CHARLENE Who’s this panda-eyed circus disaster of a young man, with his dirty pink shoes and a shoddy old t-shirt shouting the thrills of the 1990 Commonwealth Games? Toting his satchel full of soggy refill and library books like they’re going to get him a job or something? And his Asian mate in a fedora and a cowboy shirt. Only just on their way to school now. KAREN Must be a couple, they certainly look queer. The little ethnic one must be the ‘girl’, you reckon? Aw yeah, the ‘man’, well I guess he is a man so I need not say it in that funny tone, look how he’s storming along not listening to his friend there. Strong and silent. Imagine them in bed together. Ooh, stop it, Charlene. The red hat kids aren’t listening to this. They’re talking about Lego and honeysuckles. Some of the Year 5 girls are asking everyone if they know what an erection is. An intimidating clique of red hat girls scurry past and Frankie overhears them conducting their erection quiz. A girl with unbrushed hair blushes, blusters. It’s a building! Did you hear that?
Frankie’s not actually sure which is funnier, sadder, more noteworthy: the worldly kids or the wordy one who still doesn’t know what they’re talking about? He’s also doing a good job of diverting conversation away from how his day’s been so far. Jimmy likes asking that. He even means it. Jimmy’s on to Frankie, though. Almost. That parcel that was waiting for you in the letterbox, is it from your exboyfriend in Wellington? Yeah. Frankie hopes this path of deception won’t require any acting skills. He’s gone completely fukkin crazy, started sending back all the stuff that reminds him of me, what a psycho aye? (Well, it happened on Shortland St once.) No need to bother Jimmy with the horrible details of how Simon never counted as a boyfriend, and never had any of Frankie’s stuff in the first place except possibly a $2 Shop toothbrush shaped like a cob of corn. DOES ANYBODY STILL SELL CORN COB TOOTHBRUSHES? (write in with info or said toothbrush) That sucks. Just throw it out, man, you don’t need that sort of crap. He could just hug Jimmy right now, and plant a big kiss in his hair if he wasn’t wearing that trilby hat from Glassons. (Feels stink to lie to him, but where the hell would I start with the truth?) Jimmy’s hair probably smells delicious. It shines gently like the lawns of the 94
renovated villa next door and the bottles all around the bathroom look quite flash indeed. And to think I nearly forgot to ask – would you like the stamp? You know it. The electronic sign at the bus stop has deluded itself into believing the 258 is delayed, the 267 is due and there’ll be a 250 in 36 minutes. English 210 in ten minutes. Too much maths. BUS STOP COMMUNIQUE OF TODAY: someone’s drawn cocks and balls in all the dancers’ mouths on the bus stop placard of Dancing with the Stars. Someone else has sellotaped up a flyer about a Free Tibet protest. Frankie’s trying to read some poetry theory from a book that he has to return today, but it’s not proving easy. Too many cocks and balls and Tibet and Samoa and tapes and poetry and stalker enemies and tapes.
Frankie! Getting on?
He fumbles in the dark damp unknown of his satchel for change and a bookmark and oh my fukkin god that’s where the letter went. DAMN. Alex Wild Jespersen brief
Alphaghetti - The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis by Jack Ross Gabriel White
The first time Jack Ross told me about his novel The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis we were walking along Pakiri beach. While Jack drew the outline of the novel it merged, for me, with our bleached, windswept surroundings. Curiously, Jack didn’t mention the book’s coastal imagery, though it must have crossed his mind. In retrospect, this casual absorption of the story into the dazzling, limbo space of Pakiri is an image that sums up the novel’s resolutely dissolute form and its obsession with amnesia, disorientation and temporal suspension. 1. Fish ‘n’ Chips - Are you okay? the voice comes into focus with the rest of his surroundings black to red to green to blinding dazzle he opens his eyes, revealing them to the sun there’s something gritty under his back blue & white & yellow his head is tilted back he doesn’t appear to be wearing … anything he’s on a beach The fictional author of The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis has amnesia. Just the sort of cliché Jack Ross relishes. Nausicäa, he thinks I’m on that beach Odysseus, washed up by the sea Poignantly, the intellectual shell of the pseudo-author’s encyclopedic mind remains intact. He notes mechanically that the comparison with Odysseus doesn’t quite fit. In other parts of his notebook he will dwell on Apuleius’s spiritual autobiography Metamorphoses, popularly known as ‘The Golden Ass’, which culminates with the awakening of Lucius on the shores of Cenchreae when he is redeemed by the goddess Isis. While the original Lucius is transformed into an ass, Ross’s ‘Lucius’ loses his memory. As with Lucius, the transformation does not annihilate the soul but suspends it. In Metamorphoses Lucius, like Odysseus, recounts his own ordeal from beyond it as a straightforward narrative. But in the case of The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis 96
the character’s ordeal is bound up in the book itself, which is an account from inside amnesia. The effect of this is that both the character and the story become an elastic material to be shaped. Accordingly, characters and stories can overlap or evaporate. Yet in spite of the belligerently anarchic results, the semblance of a plot and a dislodged hero, ‘the writer’, persists. The defunct navigational term “periplum” is one way to explain the novel’s approach. The word was used by Ezra Pound to illustrate the idea of a personal navigation of history and myth through a multiple hero.1 The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis offers us less a hero than a kind of tabula rasa. There are no heroics, no prevailing voices, just a tenuous stasis between personae, stories and other disparate elements that are radically and cryptically interspersed. Ross himself seems to feature directly, recounting with excruciating intimacy an unsuccessful love affair, though in the circumstances his book creates, nothing is assuredly factual.2 Outwardly, Ross’ amnesiac retains the semblance of a mature, educated member of society and is thus only inwardly a tabula rasa. On this inward level we might better imagine him as an innocent Pinocchio3 inclined to assimilate any notion of humanness. Where Am I? - Cuttings, the subtitle of one half of the book, is a kind of summary of the modern occultist’s library, offering dubious insights into the mysteries of the human soul. Extracted from a book entitled Egypt or Atlantis?, one particular entry diagrammatically illustrates a supposed Egyptian concept of man as consisting of five parts.4 Such an alien view of the human subject, formed in effectively unknowable conditions, would perplex even the most susceptible modern mind. But relieved of personal experience, the tabula rasa is freer than any “I” to assimilate whatever divine truth it may contain. With the exception a few pages on the ‘edge’ of the book, the whole novel is presented as the amnesiac’s notebook. Clues of how the notebook works are given intermittently: How do you recover your past if you have retrograde amnesia? Write down, blindly, everything that comes into your head check it back for clues How do hold onto the present if you have anterograde amnesia? List the things that strike you link them up to preserve your train of thought 1 Moreover, the focus on amnesia in this, the middle book of the trilogy, belongs with Ross’s general interest in the notion of parataxis, pioneered once again by Pound. Amnesia is a condition that ‘makes new’, an interesting spin on Pound’s axiom “make it new”. In this way it is possible to see amnesia as a transformative agent Ross is using to radically renew the Novel. 2 Throughout the REM (Random Excess Memory) trilogy, a riotous multiplicity masks or silhouettes a proto-persona, someone (an author) Ross is deliberately imagining himself to be. This proto-persona in turn adopts other personae. 3 Like Lucius, Pinocchio is transformed into a donkey. 4 These parts, according to the entry, are the Ka, the “etheric double”, the Ba, the “immaterial soul” (“symbolized by Isis”), the Saha, or “oversoul” (“containing the fourteen dismembered pieces of Osiris”), the Name, or “flesh” and the Shadow, or “nemesis”.
The amnesiac writer has forgotten his life prior to the onset of amnesia (retrograde amnesia) and is also unable to remember subsequent events (anterograde amnesia). His book deals separately with each kind of amnesia in two unaligned though related compilations entitled Who Am I? - Automatic writing and Where am I? – Cuttings. The compilations progress in opposite and inverted directions (you have to turn the book upside-down to read it in the opposite direction).5 The way the book is picked up theoretically decides the order of reading. But as soon as this binary selection is made, the texts devolve anyway into a multiplicity of possible orders. The astute, or willing, reader will appreciate that this state of apparent disorder is a premise of the book, i.e. reflective of its fictional maker’s condition. Getting a picture of this condition demands almost an act of surrender. The reader who submits may sense a transient affinity with the amnesiac, turning the same pages the amnesiac turns, reading the same words he reads. The amnesiac in turn is perusing a stranger’s bookshelves, cutting and pasting as he goes, absorbing this odd-tasting but pungent cocktail of texts, symbols and pictures into his mind, in perpetual search of who and where he is. Any feeling of affinity though is eternally undone by the writer’s unresolved condition of amnesia. Our noses seem to be continuously rubbed in the character’s brute struggle to generate memories via an incomplete text. In one direction, under the title Where am I? - Cuttings this struggle takes the form of convoluted lines of reference which are generally governed by a Table of Synapses provided at the front.
5 Nights with Giordano Bruno, the first book of the REM trilogy, similarly uses verso pages for “diagrams, fragments of text, engravings etc.” and recto for “more-or-less straightforward, albeit disjointed, narrative”. (see Game for One Player, an appendix written after publication, available in the online version of the book).
The cuttings use an arbitrary listing system, seemingly to record a subjective thought process. This exercise resembles the listing-and-linking methods, mentioned above, of the anterograde amnesiac, while the retrograde stream of the novel is a series of temporal (prose) encounters rather than ‘synaptic’ cuttings. These use automatic writing among other techniques. The sensation of disorientation or abandon is relentlessly pursued like some holy grail. One diary excerpt commemorates being momentarily lost in the Rimutaka ranges and mentions a discussion about ‘learning how to get lost’. The descriptions of sexual abandonment and hysteria are another way of pointing towards this hunger for rapturous oblivion.6 On the subject of “hunger”, in the cutting entitled Cannibal Worms, we learn of an experiment in memory encoding involving worms in a maze. Worms are fed through a maze and upon finding their way out are fed to other worms. The cannibal worms conquer the maze quicker. This deterministic process of recollection and navigation by cannibalism is akin to the blind reading and writing processes forming the amnesiac’s notebook. In spite of their reliance on deterministic procedures, both Where am I? - Cuttings and Who Am I? - Automatic writing seem to be concerned, perhaps desperately so, with cutting through the inhibiting machinery of language to express and reabsorb the raw processes of thought. Particularly in Who Am I? - Automatic writing, this idea seems to have been linked with the ancient mnemonic techniques of notae and imagines agentes. The notae technique involves underscoring or highlighting key words in a text. We imagine the writer making these notae as he checks back for clues. According to Frances Yates, notae may invoke specific thoughts in the reader, a series of words for example.7 What is invoked may indeed have a thoroughly arbitrary relationship with the word itself as it appears in the text. Imagines agentes are strong, often quite strange images, stored in the memory, that can excite highly detailed recollections.8 The imagery of the book is certainly intense and wild and is conceivably providing its fictional author with an artificial memory. Again, the book’s bizarre scenarios may be ways to capture fragments of personal memory not necessarily stated in the text itself. While the amnesiac writer worms through the text, here and there catching glimpses of himself, he seems to align himself with Hermetic philosophers of the Renaissance like Giordano Bruno, the radical Magus and fantasy hero of the previous book in the trilogy, Nights with Giordano Bruno (2000). Another Magus figure with whom 6 The chapter entitled The Great Hunger in Nights with Giordano Bruno describes a nocturnal joyride northward. It makes a very literal connection between driving and satiation. 7 See Yates, The Art of Memory, 1974, pp. 51- 55 8 For a detailing of Latin sources and terms for the art of memory see Yates, 1974, pp. 1–26.
the writer indirectly communes is Guillo Camillo, who sought sparks of divinity in magical combinations of words: “…in Egypt there were such excellent makers of statues that when they had bought some statue to the perfect proportions it was found to be animated with an angelic spirit… Similar to such statues, I find a composition of words, the office of which is to hold all the words in a proportion grateful to the ear… Which words as soon as they are put into their proportion are found when produced to be as it were animated by a harmony.”9 Camillo seems here to be describing a state of linguistic ecstasy functioning outside of the constative plane of language, as linguists put it, on a magically enhanced performative plane. Perhaps the amnesiac writer’s search for a profound or ‘platonic’ state of bewilderment, is akin to the quest of the Magus. With his mnemonic tools such as notae and imagines agentes he possibly seeks magic properties in language to cope with or cure his amnesia. Perhaps in all that rupturing of language in its multifarious modes he hears an inaudible music.10 The cuttings are arranged according to the Latin alphabetical sequence and grouped in threes under each letter - three headings on three pages, i.e. Cannibal worms, Cicero, Critias. Thus there are three times twenty-four headings, each on a separate page. Three times twenty-four is seventy-two, a central number in Judaic-based religions. Each page of Where am I? - Cuttings will contain a predetermined number of signposts, which link particular words and symbols embedded in the cuttings to a general heading elsewhere. The synaptic system imposes a regimented and elaborate sort of alphabetic dance in which some kind of Kabalistic code might conceivably be discerned. The following version of the Table of Synapses uses only the first letter of each heading and bold letters to highlight its logic. 1. S Z - A 2. A - C H 3. C - P W / H - B O 4. P - P E R / W - N P L / B - S T V / O - G A B 5. P - F M I N / E - Z Y X T / R – K U D K / N – G Y E S / P – D N I F / L – L H O R / S – Y H E L (Q) / T – (Q) Q K R W / V - D C M C / G – F O G Q / A –ATV M / B – B W X F 9 Yates, 1974, p. 159. Also See Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, 1991, chapters 1 – 3, which recount Ficino’s Pimander and Asclepius, the translations of the Corpus Hermitcum - the texts from which this Renaissance knowledge of the ‘Egyptian statues’ was largely derived. 10 Nights with Giordano Bruno refers extensively to Kepler’s concept of the music of the spheres and also an obscure form of bag piping music known as Piobaireachd. Yates, in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, describes “Orphic magic” as a simple kind of monodic music used by Ficino to reproduce the notes emitted by the planetary spheres, an aural technique of drawing down magical stellar influences. (Yates, 1991, p. 78) Yates also discusses Renaissance attempts at reviving ‘orphic effects’ in music in a study of the Joyeuse Magnificences (Yates, Astrea – The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century, 1977, pp. 153-167).
6. F M I N Z Y X T K D U K G Y E S - X / D N I F L H O R Y H E L Q Q K R W – S / D C M C FO G QATV M B W X F – Z 7. X (S) – S / (S) Z – Z The table is co-governed by the number 49. Its synaptic links are arranged in sets placed in seven rows (the square root of 49 is 7). The number of links per set graduates logically from 1 to 49 then back to one. The importance of the numbers seven and forty-nine aligns it both with Lullism, important in the previous work in the trilogy, and also with Camillo’s famous Memory Theatre. Lull’s astral science deterministically interrogated the universe according to a fixed series of letters interacting through moving rotae and was not a memory system per se. Camillo’s more classically inspired Memory Theatre was a simplified semicircular Virtruvian theatre, only reversed, with the ‘spectator’, or Magus, in the arena and the ‘spectacle’ in the stalls. The stalls consisted of 49 places separated by gangways radiating up seven levels in seven rows from seven imaginary pillars of Solomon’s House of Wisdom. Thus the whole system was anchored fancifully in this legendary Judaic temple, with the podium of the philosopher as the pulpit / altar. The Theatre was essentially a scaffold used to verbally extemporize around ideas stored mnemonically in special images called impressa representing types of knowledge that were conceived to stem successively from one of seven planetary sources.11 There is scant record of what these receptacles actually looked like, though, according to Frances Yates, they were probably made of wood and may have had drawers of some kind containing writings.12 For Camillo, the Theatre approximated a divine order through which a Magus could orally synthesize every branch of knowledge to eventually yield a kind of beatific and panoptic vision of reality, as from a height.13 Camillo believed a Magus could mentally ascend from the inferior world to a superior causative level. His Theatre was a private arena for spectacular cogitation where the Magus held a preeminent but utterly remote position. This gloriously conscious actor in God’s theatre was vulnerable to a lack of oxygen, perhaps destined to withdraw from the world.14 Ross’s amnesiac is certainly withdrawn, but unlike Camillo’s Magus, he is debarred from holding any sense of certainty or self-unity. Unless, that is, his notebook does succeed in enabling him to contemplate himself as if from above, which seems doubtful. His existence is swamped with humiliating, cross-crossing, causally 11 The seven basic images of his theatre were the planetary Gods and Goddesses Diana (the moon), Mercury, Venus, Apollo (the sun), Mars Jupiter and Saturn. 12 See Yates, 1974, p. 144. 13 “…in order to understand the things of the lower world it is necessary to ascend to superior things, from whence, looking down from on high, we may have a more certain knowledge of the inferior things.” (Yates, 1974, p. 143, from L’Idea del Theatro, pp 11-12) 14 Yates, in her works discussing Renaissance revival of chivalry, relates Hermeticism to the theme of the knight who retires in dignity as a hermit (Yates, Astrea – The Imperial theme in the Sixteenth Century, 1975, p. 106). The hero of The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis is, in a certain sense, a disarmed hermit briefly recalling his former knightly self in the clash of texts. Metamorphoses also follows this pattern, with Lucius emerging as a hermit from his vivid ordeal.
interrelated ‘inferior’ effects, a state which parallels Lucius’s magical entrapment within the body of an ‘irrational’ animal. The whole thrust of his notebook seems to suggest a flight from control rather than a pursuit of it. The amnesiac writer does not seek to control his terrestrial reality by ascending, but to return to himself from remote space. As if to further undermine the situation, the contents of the notebook assault ascetic strivings to beatific visions such as Lull’s and Camillo’s with sacrilegious profanity. In one cutting, a pornographic extract from Sisters 29 (11) (2004), pp. 7-8, a mother recounts spying on her daughter “Penny” having sex with a stranger. The following note is glibly attached: “Penelope was Odysseus’s wife, famed for staying faithful & resisting all suitors during his twenty years of exile”. This sarcasm about the chastity of Penelope is reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses, but it is equally in the manner of Apuleius whose Metamorphoses is a deliberate contamination of orthodox poetic and philosophic traditions of the time. The debased style of the story mirrors Lucius’s painful plunge into an ‘inferior’ state, a divine punishment, and a canonical instance of salvation through profanation. The original purpose of the so-called Roman novel, at least in surviving examples of it, was to provocatively oppose the exalted tone of the epic poem with bawdy subject matter and the accessibility of prose. Here in a nutshell is the underlying, subtly comical, objective of Ross’ project. His idiot-savant ‘novelist’ inevitably defiles the niceties of genre, but in doing so perversely redeems it. The incomprehensibility and rampant irreverence of the amnesiac’s pseudo-kabalistic pursuit almost certainly owes something to Giordano Bruno, the martyr figure of Hermetic philosophy who, incidentally, was a great fan of The Golden Ass (Apuleius, who was evidently some sort of magician, was wrongly believed at the time to have been the Latin translator of the Asclepius, a primary text of the Hermetic tradition). In The Art of Memory, Yates presents a diagram of the ‘secret’ combinatory system “excavated” by her from Bruno’s Shadows. The diagram consists of minutely segmented concentric circles for which she offers the following apology: “On these divisions there are inscriptions which will, I am afraid, hardly be legible. This does not matter for we shall never understand this thing in detail. The plan is only intended to give some idea of the general layout of the system, and also some idea of its appalling complexity.”15 Ross’s cuttings and the method applied to them certainly give an impression of “appalling complexity” and give the impression of an anxious and irreverent intelligence, reminiscent of Bruno. Bruno, the unrepentant heretic, might even have condoned Ross’ debasement of the removed, Christian worldview of his own mentors, Lull and Camillo. 15
Yates, 1974, p. 212, also Pl. 11.
It is as if the amnesiac-author of The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis is haunted by the restless fiery spirit of Bruno (perhaps to a lesser extent than the insomniac author16 of Nights with Giordano Bruno). And wherever the spirit of Bruno lurks there will be some residue of the enigmatic Lull, possibly washed up on the west coast of Twentyfirst Century Auckland after being shipwrecked off Pisa at the dawn of the Fourteenth Century. In Nights with Giordano Bruno, the concentric wheels of Lull’s arcane art merge mysteriously with modern provincial Auckland as at the planetarium by One Tree Hill.
16 The proto-personae of each book of the trilogy suffer respectively from insomnia, amnesia and, in the final book, Emo, hysterical blindness or “conversion disorder”.
The use of banal Auckland sites as hallucinatory loci for esoteric cogitation recalls Bruno’s escapades through Elizabethan London in Cena de la Ceneri which draw a rich and bawdy portrait of the central city whilst a self-caricature expounds on heliocentricity. In The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis, Ross merges various coastal parts of the North Island and Auckland’s outlying suburbia with various terra incognita of the Mediterranian: Ogygia, Ithaka, Atlantis, Phaeacia. The back blurb playfully confuses Auckland with Atlantis as described in the Critias: “Auckland’s triple-ringed harbours and sun-dappled streets provide an unexpected backdrop to the Imaginary Museum of Atlantis”. The Manukau Heads can be the Pillars of Hercules, The Hauraki Gulf the Mediterranean, the Tasman the Atlantic, Bethell’s beach a shore of Phaeacia, Poley bay the inlet at which Odysseus makes his discrete return to Ithaka. More ironic Joycian allusions of course, though executed through very different mechanisms and upon a very different time and place. The effect on a resident of the same locality is particularly surreal, which I will illustrate with an anecdote: I was having fish and chips one day in Devonport by the seaside. On the newspaper from which I was eating I found an article about a high-profile Auckland lawyer whose body had washed up just up the coast at Narrow Neck. There were a few theories as to how he had drowned, but it was thought that he had gone into the water somewhere around North Head, coincidently where I’d just been walking. The hero of The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis also washes up or awakens on the beach like Robinson Crusoe, Odysseus or Lucius. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the shore awakening I found myself thinking of from the novel. It was the Table of Synapses, its web of currents, endlessly dragging the reader out of their cozy place in the text, exposing them completely, then redepositing them. This silent web can be visualised as a narrative element, a wine dark sea across which the reader and character voyage. The table begins and ends with Amnesia, emptiness reflecting itself, emptying itself, enclosing the whole in a void. The answer Where am I? - Cuttings gives to its question is not actually “nowhere”, but somewhere between Amnesia and Amnesia, somewhere between North Head and Narrow Neck. 2. The Raft of the Medusa Who Am I? - Automatic writing, the counter-compilation of the book, starts with the writer stepping off a ferry at Devonport (“thriftless shops” gives that away to a local). Settling down on a public bench, he begins reading a notebook he finds in his pocket. We read thereafter with him. Thus the entire text is figuratively anchored in an engrossed ‘reading’ posture. The writer-compiler of the notebook has clearly become 104
separated from whatever reality may be contained in the things he is about to read, and so he at least begins reading with the same interested-disinterest as any reader might. In his other pocket however, he has found a pencil, and the urgent words “READ ME” make his reaction to the book a creative and personal one from the outset.17 This prologue, written in the third person,18 speaks of “irredeemable” things, a wave, a girl. This itself presents the act of reading and writing as substitutes for remembrance – of redemption through a text. 19 The 21 automatic writing sessions of Who am I? – Automatic writing have taken place on mornings, probably soon after waking, over a September. They alternate between three stories, which are as follows. 1. The framing story of the writer’s shore awakening and subsequent experiences as a guest of Annie. 2. An erotic fantasy story about the last days of the lost continent of Lemuria. 3. A disjunctive and sexually explicit account of the escapades of Keiko, Tela, Sabra and ‘Atlanteans’ Micael and Shasta. The second and third stories are secondary in that they are seemingly fantasies originating from the bookshelves mentioned in the writer / Annie story. Interspersed through these 21 sessions are numerous boxed texts of varying lengths. Some of these seem to come from an earlier diary - apparently from 2003, since one excerpt is written on “Monday, 17th March”, the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Boxed texts and automatic writings are arranged into six general sets. These are not titled in the printed version of the novel, but in the online version are more helpfully presented under the following headings: Lemuria, including automatic writings set in Lemuria and several boxed texts. 20 17 We read his pencilled notes in typed form, tellingly transcribed and dislocated. 18 The notes which track the writer’s encounters are also generally written in third person. There is of course no first person as such, no “I”, until the question “Who am I?” is answered. And it never is answered. The use of third person might be a clue that the book is in fact something other than an amnesiac’s diary, as will be discussed presently. 19 At the other end of the novel - on the corresponding page preceding Where am I?- Cuttings – is a loose page of an unsigned letter. Whereas the prologue to Who am I? leads us into the novel through the idea of the amnesia, this letter takes us in through the Atlantis theme. The two framing questions of the novel are thus accompanied by two pieces that signal separately the framing themes. Two quotations from Heroditus perform a similar role. 20 Lemuria is a hypothetical lost continent in the Indian ocean, named after the lemur species of Madagascar. Lemurs are named after the lemures, ghosts of the restless dead, for which in Roman religion there was a nocturnal festival called Lemuria. Ross makes references to both Lemurias.
Atlantis, the automatic writings about Keiko et al. Antiterra, assorted clippings tending to present uncanny landscapes. 21 Priapus, boxed confessional diary entries tending to fixate on the writer’s penis. Perpetua, an account a sacrificial ritual in Nimes, 3rd Century AD. Nausicäa, the automatic writings about the writer and Annie. Once again there are seventy-two pages - the texts are after all on the reverse sides of Where am I – Cuttings. Each separate part is identified in a list of twenty-four titles at the front.22 Whereas the cuttings are arranged under clear alphabetically-ordered headings, these texts are only circuitously attached to their titles, given only at the front. It is easy to lose the thread, especially as page numbers have been deliberately omitted. The sequence is further confused as stories are interrupted mid-flow by others, either new texts or ones continuing from earlier on. The mangled effect is analogous to a busy network of roads suddenly stripped bare of any indicative demarcations. Thus, what initially promises to be a more straightforward read than Where am I – Cuttings, soon forces one to resort once again to intuitive navigation, to the periplum. Both the synaptic operations and the attempts at automatic writing trace and retrace a pathetically rigid weave, a retarded approximation of the weaving ways of thought. In contrast with the linearity of language, a spontaneous mind tends to take short cuts - to montage - seldom completing any ‘statement’ once a thought has been transmitted. But in the infant-like state of amnesia portrayed so directly in the text, we confront a mind which is forced to affect synaptic formations by writing. Writing has stepped in to do what the brain ought to do spontaneously. One of the signs of a healthy mind, however, is that it busts the seams of language. Consequently, it is at points in the book where sense appears to breakdown, that we might suspect that some hope of a return to wholeness gleams for the amnesiac writer. Ross’ handicapping of his reader is clearly a pointed examination of his character’s predicament that calls into question the authority of clinical observation. But this questioning of science is equally a radical reconsideration of art, and specifically the art of writing, since the book is provocatively presented as a novel. Even the idea of this seemingly dissembled assortment being “a novel” seems to have been slotted 21 “Antiterra” undoubtedly refers to the parallel planet which provides the setting in Nabokov’s science fiction novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. 22 As pointed out before, twenty-four times three is seventy-two and is the number of letters in the Latin alphabet.
in like a ‘cutting’. The real author is camouflaged behind a plethora of dislocated texts and deliberately misleading reader cues. Provided with only the most formulaic characterisation and virtually no conventional scaffolding, the reader endures an undressing similar to that of the amnesiac in his Homeric shore awakening scene. This framing scene of the book is the moment the writer meets his ward Annie, whose book collection apparently supplies much of the material of the novel. The back blurb of the novel reports that this mostly consists of “New Age texts about the mysteries of the unseen world, the supernatural, Atlantis”. A recluse of the outer suburbs, Annie exists on the fringe, a blithe and bland spirit. Her mediocrity and occultist inclinations make her like Fotis, the servant girl who leads Lucius astray in Metamorphoses. The writer’s first sight of Annie: Looking up he half expects to see the girl that blonde metallic girl but it isn’t her the face leaning over his is dark dark hair, bronze sun-tanned skin it seems to hold concern for him her voice sounds earnest The use of “blonde metallic” for the mystery girl and “dark hair, bronze” for Annie likens both to statues.23 Nausicäa and Odysseus are brought to the writer’s mind, but the vibrancy of the imagery is more akin to the vision Lucius has of shining Isis in Metamorphoses. The bottle of H2go Annie is holding appears fleetingly like some symbolic attribute. In fact, all her attributes: her loose, shoulder length hair, her ‘muumuu-like’ garment (loose-fitting, Hawaiian) do set her up as a kind of nymph. As the trustee of the archives out of which the book is constructed, Annie is clearly placed in the role of muse. The word “museum”, as we learn in the book, means Temple of the Muses. Annie embodies the whole disjunctive reading process of the novel, which explores in language the same sense of loosened, drifting plains of meaning she exudes. Like Odysseus and Nausicäa, the relationship between the writer and Annie is presented at the surface as a chaste one. Annie’s sisterly attachment to the writer is spurred by a dubious longing for her lost brother Michael24 to whom he bears a resemblance. Beneath the surface then, as with Odysseus and Nausicäa, or Lucius and Fotis, incestuous attraction plays a role. 23 Lucius falls for Fotis on account of her hair and worships her as a living statue. “She snatched away the plates and dishes, pulled off every stitch of clothing, untied her hair and tossed it into a happy disorder with a shake of her head. There she stood, transformed into a living statue: the Love-goddess rising from the sea.” (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, trans Graves, 1954, p. 59) 24 A certain Michael, featured in the diary excerpt cited above, is the originator of the idea of ‘learning how to get lost’. A Micael features as an Atlantean who participates in an orgy with his sister.
Having checked he has no clothes no possessions left in a little pile above the tideline Annie drapes him her towel The little pile of abandoned possessions and the ceremonious draping of the naked writer are images with a ceremonial quality that connote the sacred air of the relationship. Later, the writer borrows some “fairly unisex though far too small overalls & T-shirt” from Annie, a prelude to his adoption of her books as a costume for self-recognition. Like a child raiding the parental wardrobe, the writer absorbs and assembles combinations of impossible incongruity, reproducing pornography, confession, conspiracy theories and techniques like automatic writing in a consciously ‘ill-fitting’ way. The key to the book’s many contrasting references to dressing and undressing is the Odysseus / Nausicäa encounter. Nausicäa requisitions laundry for the naked Odysseus, symbolizing his rebirth through her. In the culminating sequence of the novel, significantly entitled Sky-clad, the writer attends a New Age rite. There he removes his clothes, becomes unconscious and wakens once more to the sight of Annie.25 Thus the Nausicäa theme completes the circle of the story, though on this occasion we seem to move cathartically into darker, Bacchanalian territory. He observes with a shudder that her nails are caked black dirt, mould, corruption? those red stains on her body are they wine, or blood? What’s held there cupped inside her hand he neither sees nor knows “What’s held there” remains a gory mystery. It might be the cure to or the cause of the writer’s amnesia, but it seems that he prefers it to be left unexplained. The muse or ‘museum’ theme in the novel works as a complimentary conglomeration of stories and ideas to the Atlantis theme. Like the fluctuating conceptions of the muse, the Atlantis myth is eternally renewed by new theories of its location, time and character. While the novel is presented as an amnesiac’s notebook, it is clearly a sampler of occultism and especially a repertory for ‘Atlantiana’. The amnesiac, whom 25 In Metamorphoses Osiris orders an impoverished Lucius to pay for his initiation into that god’s sacred mysteries by selling his robe. (Apuleius,trans. Graves, 1954 p. 291)
I have earlier described as a kind of robotic walking encyclopaedia, is perhaps even a Frankensteinish figurehead for a parochial cult. The notebook would be the handbook to this cult, its characters and scenarios serving to weave an enigmatic mythology and other arcane ideas into a New Age myth.26 The oldest original written source for the Atlantis legend is of course Plato, though it is likely he was drawing from a pre-existing story.27 Both Atlantis and the catastrophe that destroys it are dark forces that serve to highlight Plato’s utopian vision of the State, founded on reverence for abstract ideals and not terror of military or cosmic power. Like several of Plato’s parables and analogies, the Atlantis story is so captivating that it has transcended his purposes taking on a life of its own. Sensing our looming political, economic and ecological catharsis, we ourselves cannot but be stirred by the story. Of course, this occultist take on Plato, though the Atlantis myth, Hermeticism and so on, is deliberately subversive. Another of Plato’s works that features in the novel is The Symposium. It emphasizes the manly exuberance and hedonism surrounding the stoical figure of Socrates, summed up in the contradictory intimacy of Socrates and Alcibaides. In Where am I – Cuttings, Ross pronounces this aspect of The Symposium in the table of ten contrasts alongside other suggestive fragments.
26 One which posits Atlantis as Zealandia, that long sunken continent beneath the Land of the Long White Cloud. 27 The story is developed in two separate dialogues, The Timaeus, a monologue on cosmology and science, and The Critias, an incomplete dialogue that was probably intended as the second of a trilogy of which Timaeus was the first. It contains many curious details, including, in Timaeus, what appear to be intimations of the existence of the American continent.
The eventual mistreatment of the pair gives their very human relationship a political edge: Athena’s complimentary sons Alcibiades and Socrates28 both condemned to death by their fellow citizens. Athens invites the wrath of its patroness. Is this why the footnote at the bottom of the page directs us to the book’s double horizon, Amnesia? The other cutting on this page connects the exile of Alcibiades from Athens with a symbolic emasculation of the city, signaling the Goddess’s retribution. It would seem that the writer consciously or unconsciously draws a connection between this symbolic emasculation and his amnesia. Several excruciating confessional passages about male impotency treatment and other references to emasculation perhaps allude to his mnemonic impotency. “…I was lead to a bed and questioned by a succession of nurses, doctors, form fillerins, etc. The same humiliating story to rehearse each time. Luckily the erection began to subside as I sat there by the bed (“luckily” because I had absolutely no desire to have needle inserted in my cock to drain out excess blood…) The Chinese surgical registrar – Call me Chen – contented himself with icepacks and some heavy handed squeezing of the offending member through clammy plastic gloves.” The writer’s priapic seizure resembles Lucius’ comical transformation into an ass as does the self-mocking style of this account. A humorous connection with the statues of 28
A young knight and an old hermit in the language of Chivalry.
Hermes is easily made, but this disastrous attempt at self-animation is also a reversal of the magical animation supposedly achieved by Egyptian sculptors as recounted above by Camillo. At times, the writer’s purgatorial struggle with amnesia in The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis seems to point towards a more general human struggle against intellectual impotence.29 At least in this book, liberation is anything but a reasonable aim. It is a perpetual thrusting away from rationality, from “hope”, into irrationality. The dislocated state of everything is the premise of a game whereby the reader fills the gaps, forms meaning, associates. The kiss was long, deep and [ When Tela [ her nipples were pressing hard against her [ “God!” Tela breathed, her hand on Sabra’s [ “I’ve missed [ Sabra caressed Tela’s [ lifting it to her mouth and sucking one of Telas’s [ her tongue caressing the long [ “Oh, don’t start that [ I want you so [ Sabra laughed and settled [ happy to be with her Atlantean friend [ Tela drove them away from the [ towards her new [ On the [ Tela pointed out places and suggested things that they could [ including a nude beach she’d found along the [ “A nude beach?” Sabra [ looking at Tela’s [ “[
] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ]
What happens in those square parentheses is wonderfully free of syntax, wonderfully “nude”, farcically disrupting and renewing the prose. In their dislodged state, the neighboring fragments may be freely woven into the novel’s other narratives and themes. Who will they meet at the nude beach? Perhaps the writer and Annie, or Odysseus and Nausicäa? The deletions, imposed in such an arbitrary manner, also seem to mock the selective operations of a censor who targets specific obscenities. The issue of censorship is directly addressed in a cutting entitled Notice of Seizure of Goods under Customs 29 Wittgenstein famously spoke of a “bewitchment” of the intelligence stemming from a fundamental misunderstanding in Western philosophy of the nature of language, authored in his eyes by Plato. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1973, p. 47e,111)
and Excise Act 1996. The important word is “seizure”. Like a museum specimen, a suspect item is seized and isolated. The item specified is a publication entitled La Metamorphose de Lucius. According to the notice, “This publication contains a cartoon story depicting sexual activity between adults. A scene in the story depicts a male turning into a donkey and then having intercourse with a female.” Once again, the clinical language used by officials is quoted mockingly. The detention of a Roman classic at the New Zealand border is not resolved but further complicated by the fact that this is indeed a rather questionable rendition of the original, as another cutting reveals. Metamorphoses is a victorious degradation of other works, but is also an expression of a highly educated and aristocratic sensibility. It’s degeneration into vulgar smut would hardly have surprised or worried Apuleius who was sophisticated enough to have invented his own variety of burlesque. Perhaps the point of Metamorphoses is this educated-intuited distinction between authentic and inauthentic poetry, where equal weight is placed on imagination and experience. Lucius learns that without instinctive awe the eloquent and enlightened mind succumbs to seizure. Detained in a state of nature, he returns a better man for knowing his animal side. Likewise, the position of the amnesiac writer is, in spite of everything, presented optimistically. Suspended outside the loop of time, he strives, sensibly enough, to reenter it. If his arid and jaded perception is a symptom of his amnesia, his amnesia stands for a broader desolation from which this novel does not offer any quick relief. Bleak though this is, there is something fortifying in his persistence, sense of wonder even, amidst the disarray. Like Metamorphoses, the book insists on recapturing a sense of self and place through a rejuvenated sense of awe. Stranded in the ephemeral, the amnesiac writer constructs a raft from what comes to hand, unpalatable as it may be. The island of Atlantis, ridiculous and impossible, but which has endured in the human imagination for millennia, is a fittingly hazy point of orientation for his idiosyncratic voyage. I will finish with a few remarks about the outer presentation of the book. It is curious that the novel’s construction as two inverted compilations is not followed through in its cover design. The conventional front and back cover format has perhaps been retained in order to present the book unequivocally as a “novel”. In a way though, this is more, not less equivocal. Even with two inverted front covers the idea of a “novel” would be not so much endangered as extended, provided they bore the same title, The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis. My suggestions for cover images would be:
1. An identikit portrait of Jack Ross, subtitled Who am I? – Automatic writing.
2. For Where am I – Cuttings, I am less certain. Something in the vein of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa? Louis John Steele and Charles F Goldies’ The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand (1898), might be a little too perfect, certainly too culturally and historically laden.
Let us say that this image points, as it were, in the right direction. Like popular mythologies such as Atlantis, the Raft of the Medusa, is one of those icons that has
spawned enough references and pastiches to become a sub-genre.30 The imagery, themes and bombastic romanticism that inspired Goldie and Steele’s faux pas31 beg to be cast back upon the open sea of this very twenty-first century castaway story. References Apuleius, (1954) The Golden Ass, trans. Graves, R. London: Penguin Books. Crawford, J. (2007) Possibilities at Play, pp 180-182 Landfall 214 Open house, ed. Ross, J., Dunedin: Otago University Press. Joyce, J. (2000). Ulysses. London: Penguin Books Ltd. Plato (1983). The Symposium, trans. Hamilton, W. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. Ross, J. (2000). Nights with Giordano Bruno. Wellington: Bumper Books. Online version of Nights with Giordano Bruno: http://nightswithgiordanobruno.blogspot.com/ Ross, J. (2006). The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis. Auckland: Titus Books. Online version of The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis: http://ofatlantis.blogspot.com/ Ross, J. (2008). Emo. Auckland: Titus Books Online version of Emo: http://ave-eva.blogspot.com/ Wittgenstein, L. (1973). Philosophical Investigations (G.E. Anscombe, Trans.). London: Blackwell. Yates, F. A. (1975). Astrea – The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. Yates, F. A. (1991, paperback edition). Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Yates, F. A. (1966). The Art of Memory. London: Pimlico. Yates, F. A. (1974, paperback edition). The Art of Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Plates The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand (1898) Louis John Steele and Charles F Goldie. Auckland City Art Gallery collection. Other plates from The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis (2006), Titus Books. Gabriel White 30 Think of the cover of the Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, 1985, and also John Reynolds 1992 version. 31 The legend goes that Goldie was cursed for painting this work, a lesson in the manner of Metamorphoses on the dangers of over extending one’s reach in deep matters. Goldie atoned himself somewhat with a late work, The Story of the Arawa Canoe (1938). Painted on a tobacco box I understand, this serene scene of an old woman quietly imparting the story to a child is remarkable reversal of The Arrival.
brief 37 features work from the following contributors: Ted Jenner spent ten years teaching the Classics in Malawi. He now lives in Meadowbank. His collection of poetry Writers in Residence and Other Captive Fauna is due for release by Titus Books. Mike Johnson is a poet, novelist and short-story writer. His work has been widely anthologised and he has won several awards including the Buckland Award for Literary Excellence. Jack Ross’s latest novel EMO was published by Titus Books in mid-2008. He is the author of two previous novels, two books of short fiction, and several volumes of poetry. He has also edited a number of books and journals, including (with Jan Kemp) the trilogy of audio / text anthologies Classic, Contemporary and New NZ Poets in Performance (AUP, 2006-8). His blog The Imaginary Museum can be accessed at http:// mairangibay.blogspot.com/. Will Christie is a solo parent now living in Wellington. Her collection of poetry Luce Cannon is available from Titus Books. KM Ross is based in Edinburgh and has his first novel Falling Through the Architect available from The Writers Group. He also runs Crywolf books ‘an online outlet for alternative writing’ at http://www.crywolf.books.org/ Nathan MacGregor lives on the North Shore where he pursues his interests in Eastern religion, painting, and cycling. Scott Hamilton is a hardened political activist, poet, and reviewer, who runs a prolific blog at http://www.readingthemaps.blogspot.com/ Hamish Dewe is back. John Geraets is Currently travelling in India. Has published four books of poems and is a past editor of brief. E Goodman writes fiction, poetry, and literary criticism, and translates from Chinese. She has lived and worked in Shanghai and Beijing. She received her Masters in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2003. Her website can be found at http:// www.eleanorgoodman.com/
Wang Ao received his Ph.D. in Chinese Literature from Yale University in 2008. He is currently Visiting Professor at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. Professor Wang is the author of several books of poetry, including The Quatrains and the Romance (2007), winner of the prestigious Anne Kao Poetry Prize. He is also a translator of contemporary Chinese poetry and of English poetry, including Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium, and a translator of major literary critics in English and Chinese. Ershi Yue was born Wu Miao in 1976 in Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province. He studied fashion design at Shijiazhuang Normal University. He now works as an editor and essayist in Beijing. His book of poetry Double Planetoid and Curl-up will be published in 2009. He Xi, a poet and novelist, was born in Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province. She received her BA from Wuhan University. Her work has been widely published by major literary journals in China. Leng Shuang was born in 1973 in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. He received his Ph.D. in Chinese literature from Beijing University in 2006, and since then has taught at Zhongyang Minzu University in Beijing. His book of selected poems, Mirage, was published in 2008. Wang Xixi was born in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. She emigrated to the United States at thirteen, returning to China after college. She is fluent in Chinese and English, and has worked for several international media companies. Her poetry is influenced by the Beat Poets, Western mysticism, and Zen Buddhism. Uddipana Goswami is from Assam in Northeast India, where militarization and insurgent crossfire define the lives of people and where civilian and human rights are the worst sufferers. Her poetry is a reaction to this environment. She edits the Assamese section of Muse India, the literary e-journal. Details at www.jajabori-mon.blogspot. com. Michael Arnold has spent much of the last decade in China. His writing betrays his enthusiasms for written Chinese and language in general, and dwells on the peculiar alienation of the Foreigner. David Lyndon Brown’s poetry and short stories have been published in the UK, Canada and New Zealand. He has won several literary prizes and many of his stories have been broadcast on National Radio. His anthology Calling the Fish and Other Stories was published in 2001 by the University of Otago Press to critical acclaim. His crepuscular novella, Marked Men, the dark secret of NZ literature, was published by Titus Books in 2007. Skin Hunger, a collection of Brown’s poetry, will be released by Titus in 116
May 2009. He is a natural blond. Rogelio Guedea is a lawyer from the University of Colima and has a PhD in Arts from the University of Córdoba (Spain). He was the recipient of a grant from the Colima Council of Arts and Culture twice and director of the collection of poetry El pez de fuego. He is currently a columnist for two Mexican newspapers and coordinator of the Spanish Programme at the University of Otago. Janet Charman won the 2008 Montana poetry prize for her last book, Cold Snack, AUP, 2007. She lives and writes in Auckland. Brett Cross is co-founder of Titus Books. He currently lives in Waitakere City. Michael Steven runs the publishing imprint Soapbox Press and keeps a blog at: http://www.insurgentcountry.blogspot.com Doc Drumheller was born in Charleston, South Carolina and has lived in New Zealand for more than half his life. He has worked in award winning groups for theatre and music and has published five collections of poetry. He currently teaches creative writing at the School for Young Writers. In 2007 he participated in the 12th Havana International Poetry Festival, where he was asked to represent New Zealand on the International Board of Poets in Defence of Humanity. He lives in the port town of Lyttelton, where he practices puppetry, music, poetry and edits and publishes the literary journal Catalyst. William Direen recently completed an eleven-date tour of NZ with fellow musicians, writers and film-makers. He is now working up a new repertoire of prose-poems and songs. Richard von Sturmer is based in Auckland where he teaches at the Auckland Zen Centre. Richard Taylor’s submission in this issue is a section from the random or “exploded” (mixing also the “personal and the ‘theoretical’) sections, or series of posts in his blog EYELIGHT which he asked to be “filtered” or transformed as much as or as little, or completely or not at all, as was desired by the editor (or anyone else) - thus to enhance the inevitable changing process that (Richard 2 at least) feels increases in all “publications of any text”. Graeme Perrin is a Kiwi living permanently in Denmark who writes much on the subject of “home” and “away”. His blog can be found at http://www.myspace.com/ saltsongs. brief
Brenda Ann Burke lives and writes in Wellington. Canadian-born, her poetry has been published in anthologies and journals. Janis Freegard is one of three poets featured in AUP New Poets 3 (Auckland University Press, 2008). She lives in a weta colony in Wellington. Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán is the author of Antes y después del Bronx: Lenapehoking, appearing in publications in Europe, the Américas, and Pacific. He is completing Yerbabuena/Mala yerba, All My Roots Need Rain: mixed blood poetry & prose. Alex Wild Jespersen is always in Auckland, where she studies, writes, puts on radio shows, stares at potplants and works behind library desks. Her first novel, ‘The Constant Losers’, was written last year under the guidance of the University of Auckland’s Master of Creative Writing programme. Gabriel White was born in 1971 and lives in Auckland. He has worked as a musician, writer, performer, visual artist and video maker. His most recent video work has been The World Blank series, which includes Aucklantis and Tongdo Fantasia. In the 90’s he was a member of the experimental music group Spacesuit.