Dear Reader

Dear Reader,

I don’t have a poem today, and for that I am sorry. I feel like my chest is a minefield and sometime yesterday, I unwittingly stepped on one, and my everything has been scattered by the blast. My heart would give any veteran’s game knee a run for its money, as far as being utterly fucked on some days, then fine for stretches. There’s no explanation for it. Some days, it’s like shrapnel rattling around in my ribcage and with each move, with each thought, another small cut is sliced and I can’t stop the bleeding.

I spent most of yesterday in a breathless haze, panic clawing at my chest. Imaginary arguments choking my throat with the unsaid. I don’t know why I fear confrontation so much; nothing anyone has ever said could be as wounding as what I hurl at myself, be it through a figment’s mouth or my own thoughts. At about 8pm, I staggered out of the house and into the cool cloudy night, trying to breathe. I needed to go for a long walk. Long walks are my saviour, they always have been. I’m a tall guy, and there is very little that can frustrate me more than not being able to give my inner urgency voice through freedom of movement, through long strides that eat up the ground.

People always joke about seeing me out walking. My cousin will say, ‘I saw you Terminating your way up the street,’ and laugh, or someone will say I saw you walking up this highway, or ‘what do you mean you were walking in this neighbourhood at 3am? Are you crazy?’ With my family, this will usually devolve into an argument about how I should get a license already. They don’t understand that I need to walk, I need to be in a large open space, I need to be moving, because if I’m still for too long, all these thoughts and words and hurts will collide together and the detonation will leave me stunned and prone for days. Weeks, maybe.

So, I’m out on the street in Ashfield, it’s 8pm, it’s cloudy and cool and lovely. I’m thinking about New York, where I spent most of the past four months. I’m not thinking about the literary events, or the spread of lights, the infinity of colour, movies, celebrities, or crazy people I encountered, or lovely people, or whatever — I’m thinking of the walk I took every day, along the FDR by the East River. I was so serene in New York, so calm, so unaffected by the things I’m normally affected by and I didn’t know why, couldn’t explain to myself why I felt so good, despite my usual tiredness and inability to sleep, until now. Now I know.

If you haven’t been there, let me describe it: it’s basically a dedicated walkway that stretches miles. Not a sidewalk with constant stoppages and lights and traffic, but a walkway for people to stroll by the river and the parks, for cyclists and joggers too. On one side there are public basketball courts, athletic track rings, etc, and on the other is the ever-restless blue of the river. The bridges. I lived by East Broadway, right across from this walkway and every day, and sometimes the nights too, I would walk from there up to 18th St, then down and eventually to Union Sq, before heading back. A walk of about 8km, and I would do it twice some days. People often ask me what I was doing in New York and I feel so guilty, so ridiculous about this that I don’t often mention it, but aside from writing, all I would do is walk.

Walk so far without breaking, so far without needing to stop, my thoughts unfurling with music, a pleasant exhaustion seeping through my muscles — my god, it was wonderful. Forget fitness. Forget everything but the pleasure of thoughtlessness, the beauty of existing in a world of intuition and reaction. It is no wonder I wrote so much poetry along the banks of that river, or that it washed into so much of my writing; it saved me again and again and again, day in, night out, the Williamsburg Bridge arcing over to Brooklyn, its strung out Christmas lights gleaming like shiny baubles beneath the real brilliance of stars. When I think about how much I want to return to New York, so very much of it is because of that walk, that river, and how can I say that to anyone without sounding utterly mad?

Except to say that the restlessness of the river is the restlessness of my blood, except to say that when I am still, it is as if I have been log-jammed and the pressure is building, building, building and god, I need to move again before I suffocate. So I’m outside, it’s 8ish, it’s cool and cloudy and my nose is starting to run, but I’m doing the walk anyway because there’s no real alternative. I call this the Francis walk, oddly enough, because it’s the same path I take to my friend Francis’ house and that’s important purely because I’ve done the walk enough times that I don’t need to think about where my feet are going. My mind can float free, can rush and roar in the dark canopy of trees, can swerve into the tail-lights of the cars swishing by, can pause for a moment in the silhouette of the man on his porch looking out at the Arab guy swiftly walking by.

This walk is no comparison to the New York walk. Firstly, the street is suburban, tree-ridden, and without much in the way of street-lights, so I’m forever stumbling out onto the road, afraid of walking into the various spiderwebs I know cling from branch to mailbox. Some of them are only in my mind. Most of them, in fact. That doesn’t stop me from rushing onto the road whenever sudden certainty erupts that I’m about to become ensnared in the easily torn web of a spider; I’m an arachnophobe and I should do more about this debilitating fear of the scuttling, eight-legged eight-eyed symbol of death, but I’m a coward at heart and I have too many other fears, too many other hurts I’m trying to deal with right now. I wonder what the drivers must think about me, safe and still in their boxes, as their headlights flare blindingly to identify the large shape that just entered their field of vision–like, what the fuck is he doing?

I wonder too, in those moments, if this is what the deer feels, if it glories in flexing its muscles, in being so fleet of foot or hoof or whatever, in flashing through foliage, leaping over obstacles, in coming as close to soaring as any land-bound wingless thing; if its heart stutters and stops on the black tarmac, the headlights twin suns, its everything whitened, blinded. And then, if it’s lucky enough, enjoys the resumption of flight. I staggered like a drunk man from one side of the road to the other, my choices based on whichever side had less traffic at the time, only occasionally retreating to the false comfort of the sidewalk. Luckily, it’s a long straight road and I can see for some way in either direction. I pass by schools and fields and roundabouts until I come to a highway in Canterbury and now, finally, here is a stretch without trees so I can walk it in a straight line without fear, without stopping very much, and I begin to breathe better.

Like now, in fact, writing this — I began twenty minutes ago, and in the furious dance of fingertips on keyboard, I gave my thoughts an outlet, I let the river flow its maddening flow and slowly, so agonisingly slowly, the constriction across my chest began to ease, to unfurl, and I can breathe now, I can slow down, I can pick up the patterns in the swirl of the water, the ink; I can liberate the debris. I know what’s happened this week because it’s happened before. Not just the tragedy at the cafe in Sydney, the resumption of fear-driven narratives re: Muslims, race, and refugees, not just the small idiotic household concerns I’ve been putting off, or the stresses about money and rent and getting a “real” job again that isn’t writing, that pays more than the occasional freelance piece. Not just these things, or the various work I’ve sent out into the ether, little pieces of myself I’m awaiting judgment on, but so much more than that, more than I can possibly articulate at this moment–

My grandfather’s death. That’s one thing. I was thinking about this year as a whole–I wrote about it recently for a comedy piece–and while discussing it with my friend, I said to him, this has actually been a really good year for me. After all, I’ve had several poems published, two short stories, numerous articles, and was shortlisted for a prize, to say nothing of visiting Turkey and New York. A great year is what I thought, despite how utterly tragedy-ridden the year has been as a whole for the rest of the world, and I realised at the moment I said it that I’d forgotten my grandfather. He passed away only six months or so ago and he’d passed from my memory too; I’m surprised I didn’t keel over then and there beneath the surge of grief and guilt.

I forgot my grandfather; I forgot his huge ears, which I’ve inherited, albeit on a smaller scale; I forgot the smell of tobacco that inevitably clouded him; I forgot his wiry frame, the way his very sparseness of body seemed to imply a focus, like he was efficiency personified; the way his thick rectangular glasses glinted in the light; the feel of his grizzled cheek beneath my lips as I kissed him hello; seeing him out in the garden, as often to be found in greenery as he was sitting in front of the TV watching various B-grade Western action flicks with avid avian interest, despite not understanding English. I forgot him, and I think that is unforgivable and no amount of walking can change that. That’s part of it, of course–a big part–but there’s some vague, indefinable thing that binds these moments, these wounds, these hurts together, that allows them to never die, but to just sit waiting beneath the thin veneer of my skin, ready to erupt at any given point in time and I am so tired of it. So very tired, despite my mind rushing, rushing, rushing, even now.

So I didn’t find a poem this week to share, nor have I written the things I meant to write, but I will go for a not-so-great-but-just-good-enough walk today and maybe, just maybe, my body will catch up with my mind and I will be wholly tired, instead of forever out-of-sync, and able to get some rest. Able to relax. Able, in that moment of unwinding relaxation, to read poetry, to let it sink into the sediment beneath my river or be the bridge I walk across to the other side, and then, able to share it with you. To give you a chance for the same. So, I am sorry for all of that, but at the very least, I am breathing easily at last and that is a start.

An All-Admission Ride

I wrote an article recently about the tragedy which occurred a few days ago in Martin Place, and the heartwarming trend it inspired, I’ll Ride With You. While waiting for a response, and wondering whether it would be published, I realised I had still more to say, and that I wanted to share it on my own terms. Here is the resulting poem.

An All-Admission Ride

Come ride with me. Come into the dark.
Outside, men with guns write the headlines.

Take away the guns. Men with bruised fists write
the headlines; come ride with me.

Men with rape between their legs,
men with comet-bright careers and a trail of bodies

behind their lives. Not all men, some say. Enough men,
say the rest. Violence is its own gender

and it keeps breeding; on our buses, in our streets
our pubs our schools our homes our headlines.

Come ride with me, take my hand and hold it
when they spit Arab cunt at my face,

and go back to where ya came from
no matter where I came from, even hell, even here;

when they try to tear the hijab off my head,
to free me with force and hate, come ride with me

like the ghosts of Christmas past, watch
in whitened silence. Can you hear the impacts?

The bus stops. ‘The next station is Central.’
This is you: you vanish into the crowd.

The ride has ended, and my hand is empty,
grasping. My next step is shaky

with remembered loneliness, with familiar isolation.
I am the year 1950 every day, I am colour TV

breaking into the monochrome, I am Dorothy
in a land of wicked witches and wizards

and there are only so many buckets
of tweets to douse them with.

I wish there weren’t so many to begin with
but I am not disparaging your offer,

I am not rejecting your hand, or your tweet,
in fact, I am going one step further

and inviting you to ride within me:
step into my blood, come make a home of my skin.

Look out of these eyes and see with the face of terrorism,
a face you had no choice but to grow into,

a face molded by events outside your control.
One day a beardless boy, the next, a suspect –

this is a face others shy away from, a face
splashed beneath screaming headlines.

And still, still I would rather this face
than the face of any woman,

would rather this hate-inspiring face
than dealing with what every woman must.

The headlines. The violence. The despair
born of biology; the joy, too.

It is beyond me, and it isn’t. Despite their fates
I hear them say, come ride with me,

take my hand. Hold it. We will give you strength,
and I cannot comprehend their courage

just to go out in the day, except that they must know,
as I know, as we all know, that the ride is just the beginning

and that soon, soon we will no longer need it
and walk together unaided in the light of day.

Recent Publications & Other Things

Happy news this week! I have a few publications to talk about — and add to my nifty new Publications page, the existence of which wasn’t warranted until recently — starting with my electronic poem, ‘Definitions’, over at Overland Journal. I wrote this poem several months ago and honestly had forgotten it was out in the ether until I received the acceptance notice a few days ago. It’s a digital poem which, through Telescopic Text, invites you to explore the definition of love.

I wrote it in Canberra, while visiting a poet-friend to collaborate on a project, knowing from the outset that I had no idea what ‘love’ actually means, only that I had a multitude of ideas of what it could be. In thinking about it again today, I remembered what it was that drew me to using Telescopic Text in the first place — the idea that at any one definition, you can stop. You can end the poem when and where you choose to, you can say, ‘this is my love’, even knowing another definition may lie around the corner…or not. The same way you can and do decide on relationships, that this one is the one, even if another might be lying around the corner should you only have the courage to look…

When do you stop? When do you know? When, if ever, does love kill curiousity? Obviously, the stakes are removed when the question can be answered by the click of a button and not the destruction of a relationship, the dismissal of a love loved in full or even in part, but that is the effect I was trying to simulate, the question I was poking at. I’m happy to say the poem has a new lease on life and excellent home in Overland, among a great and eclectic company in this second Electronic Issue.

I also have a poem in publisher If:Book Australia’s recent book ‘Lost in Track Changes’, another project with digital origins, in which writers and artists were invited to remix each other’s words into new prompts, new stories, poems, art, in an effort to track the evolution of creativity. You can read more about the project here.

Lastly, but in no way least, my flash fiction piece, ‘The Horns of Christmas’, has been published by Tiny Owl Workshop in their Krampus Cracker project, wherein writers were invited to submit their take on the Krampus mythos and the winning submissions were paired with great illustrators. Needless to say, I can’t wait to get my hands on the final product and if you’re lucky enough to be in Brisbane, you can do so now!

I hope you’ll forgive the ramble spruiking my small successes — as a writer and poet both, they’re just too rare not to celebrate. Hell, even this week as I hold up these three wins, I had to deal with three rejections which all came on the same day. That’s the nature of this particular path I’ve put myself on: constant hardship, with some lucky reprieves along the way. That’s what these are – just reprieves – small moments when I can take a full breath and remind myself I’m not totally insane for committing myself wholly to a fiscally unviable career. I say that like there was much of a choice. Of course, there wasn’t.

In any case, I can move on now to talking about things written by other people. Firstly, I want to take a moment to mention the book I’m reading: H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald is an absolutely gorgeous book. I don’t usually read non-fiction, but this book is something else entirely. The writing is sentence-by-sentence stunning. It is never not good, and almost always excellent. This book blends memoir, biography, and nature writing in a way I’ve never quite seen before, but even if I had, I’m sure it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as this poetic take on a woman’s grief. It is far and away the best book I’ve read this year, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Lastly, because this is a day I usually reserve for poetry or stories discoverable online, there is this important poetic take on the recent CIA torture report, Redaction by Brian Turner, an Iraq combat vet turned poet. Composed entirely with words taken from the report itself, it’s a small but potent cut through all the noise and headlines surrounding this report, and well worth reading. I’d be lying if I didn’t also say it’s just nice to see a poem take centre stage alongside the usual slew of think-pieces.

Here’s hoping your week has gone as well, if not better, than mine.

Thursday Poem: Personal by Tony Hoagland

This week’s poem is ‘Personal’ by Tony Hoagland, an award-winning American poet. I enjoyed this poem greatly when I read it a few days ago, but I had yet to decide between it and another of his poems (I always try to read more than one when I come across a poet I’ve not read before), and it wasn’t until this morning I settled on it.

This morning is important because of the recent decision in America of a grand jury to not indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death. It follows another decision just days ago to not indict the police officer who killed Mike Brown. And on. And on. The names are endless. The dominant narrative from entrenched powers, from the media and the government, is always this: don’t take it personally.

It’s not about you. It’s not about race/privilege/sexuality/gender. It’s not about the thing that it’s about. It’s just a thing that happened, regrettable, sure. But just a thing. Remove yourself from this narrative, distance yourself from the picture, sterilise your emotion, look at it as a camera lens looks at life – without humanity. The horrible thing is that this is a narrative we often internalise.

I keep telling myself not to read the news. Not to pay attention to what’s happening in Gaza. Not to take in too many of the stories in which people like me are attacked for who we are, for what we look like, for whom we love, and for no other reason. It hurts too much. I sink into the quagmire; I get stuck; I drown. I feel so much like I’m suffocating, like the world is spinning off its axis, like I’m screaming and no one can hear, or worse – that they can but are ignoring it.

It’s hard to ignore a story when it’s a life you’re living. Just three days ago I landed back home in Sydney, and for the first time, was taken through to a secondary Customs inspection area. An officer asked me dozens of questions, went through my phone, my laptop, my bags. It was the most thorough and most invasive procedure I’ve gone through to date, and it happened here at home. In the country I was born and raised in, the one place I didn’t expect it. The officer asked for evidence that I was a writer, as I’d said. I showed him some of the articles I’ve written for SBS Comedy.

He asked me to go back, ‘what was that one, it said Islamophobia?’ He’d seen an article I’d written called ‘Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism’, a piece in which I argued that Muslims and Jews over the past decade have been seen a dramatic upsurge in discrimination, and how odd it was that we didn’t bond over this, that a lot of it came from outside groups, from places in which we’re considered outsiders no matter whether we were born there. The article included a picture of myself and my Jewish housemate, one of my closest friends, holding up a sign saying ‘Arabs and Jews Refuse to be Enemies.’

Did it matter? Did he care? No. He’ll still pull aside the next Arab to walk through the airport, Australian citizen or not. In fact, the only other group of people in this secondary Customs area were an Arab family, two women in hijabs and their children, who ran about giggling, as yet blissfully unaware of the burden their skin carries. My point is this: I try not to take it personally. I do. It just never works. It never works and this piece by Tony Hoagland is a lovely, musical little poem which explores this idea — albeit from a slightly different angle. Today of all days, it resonates so strongly I am surprised I’m not shaking where I sit, and this is why it is this week’s choice.

Go ahead and check it out here.

Thursday Poems: Combustion by Sara Eliza Johnson

Firstly, let me just briefly promote the fact my poem ‘Birds of a Feather’ is up at Meanjin, one of Australia’s oldest and best literary journals. It’s not so easy for me to read now, having written it a year ago, but I’m still proud I got it out there, and people can read it now.

Okay, with that said, let’s celebrate another – and far more accomplished poem – Combustion by Sara Eliza Johnson. This is a delicate poem layered with powerful imagery which has stuck with me over the past few weeks. I love the sudden and jagged enjambment, the subtle dance of it moving across the page, the merging of detailed scientific information with the poetry of ordinary moments – peeling an orange, spreading honey on toast. In that sense, it is not unlike Tracy K. Smith’s work in Life on Mars.

I keep returning to this passage:

 if each atom
has a shadow—then the lilacs across the yard
are nebulae beginning to star.

Isn’t that just gorgeous? This gentle exploration of the interconnectedness of everything at an atomic level is nothing short of beautiful and odd, leading to unexpected places, a meeting of image and thought that twists and turns but always manages to adhere to the rich and resonant theme, to dig deeper.

In short, I highly recommend it and as ever, urge you to check it out for yourself.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

So, I’m reading this wonderful book by Emily St John Mandel, and I come across this page. This page explains why I do what I do, why I write, why I take risks, why I have invested and will continue to invest everything I can in art. This is from pg. 165, and I just had to share it.

“But anyway, I look around sometimes and I think – this will maybe sound weird – it’s like the corporate world’s full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not sure I quite –“

“I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that.”

“You don’t think he likes his job, then.”

“Correct,” she said, “but I don’t think he even realises it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”

I don’t ever want to sleepwalk through life. That’s what writing is for me – an effort to stay awake, to be present, to catalogue and explore and add to everything this world has to offer.

Thursday Lit: Two Movies by Danez Smith & Eykelboom by Brad Watson

Right, so first off, let’s all take a moment to celebrate the fact I’m actually on time this week. Shit, I’m positively early. Right on the heels of that (tiny) success, however, comes this failure: I couldn’t pick a poem or a short story to feature today, at least not a single one. It was a bumper week for reading and it seemed like every day I found something new to talk about, something wonderful or deep or dark or strange or all of those things.

So I’m going to mention a few of them. First up, I was stunned by Danez Smith’s poem ‘Two Movies’. It’s straight up fucking excellent, and while toward the end of it, I thought there were weaker sections — weak only in comparison to the brilliance and power of what came before — it recovers beautifully and the overall effect of it is still a resounding success. It begins like this:

PITCH FOR A MOVIE: LION KING IN THE HOOD

1. cast list

Mufasa & his absence played by every father ever

Simba played by the first boy you know who died too young

Sarabi played by the woman in church who has forgot the taste of praise
in favor of the earth that hold her boy captive

Nala played by the girl crying on the swing for her valentine who now date the dirt

Timon & Pumbaa played by Ray-Ray & Man-Man, the joy of not-dead friends

Zazu played by the ghost of James Baldwin

Rafiki played by a good uncle with a bad habit, his lust for rocks on his lips

Scar played by the world, the police, the law & its makers, the rope-colored hands

The extended riff on Disney, on the Lion King, is incredibly well handled. If you were looking to pick a film that occupies centre place in our generation’s childhood, you’d be hard pressed to find a better choice — the bright, joyously-coloured imagery of it plays out in your mind when you read the poem, only paired now with a totally different narrative, one which is too horribly real for too many people. He mines it for all its worth, and it turns out it’s worth a hell of a lot, a veritable treasure trove of cultural iconography that was merely waiting to be reclaimed; remember, this was a movie about African animals written by white people.

(Disclaimer: I love that damn movie, I’m just pointing out why it was such an effective choice for this poem.) I won’t say any more on that, though, because there’s a whole lot more to be said for the poem, which it goes on to say better than I ever could. Also, it bears mentioning that a few weeks ago I wrote a poem referencing the Lion King heavily, and after reading this one, I realised how pathetically I had done so. I may go and burn that poem now.

You should definitely go and read this much better one though, go get a taste of suffering and beauty and pain, the lived experience of too damn many. Bravo, Danez, for laying out this essential roadmap, brick by hurtful brick.

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Of the many great stories I read this week, I think Eykelboom by Brad Watson has to take the top spot. It shares the same landscape as last week’s choice, Rope by Joshua Harmon, actually; it makes a home in the darkness of children. But whereas Rope relied on mystery and, to a degree, whimsy–in so much as the girls’ lyrical wonderings always seemed to occupy a place sideways to reality, rather than directly embedded in it–Eykelboom is a more direct and brutal examination of the cruelty of boys and men.

It begins like this:

Where had they come from, the Eykelbooms? The boys suspected Indiana, Illinois. Some crude and faceless Yankee state. The Eykelbooms had emerged and emigrated from it. It was a tiny, deeply threatening invasion.

I do not mean to say this story lacked subtlety, by the by. It had that in spades, and mystery too, coming later in the musing of adults wondering about events in their childhood, if it had happened the way they recalled, or ended the way they assumed. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more accurate portrayal of boyhood–of this particular kind of boyhood, this particular kind of run-down life–and I say that as someone who lived an approximation of it. The violence, overt and not; the cruelty, consciously chosen and not; the brotherhood of trespassing, the intangible otherness of it stretching between boys, somehow more real than anything else… It’s all here in this fantastic portrayal of the amoral darkness central to adolescence.

This was a superb story. You’ll read it and realise you need to read everything else this man has written; I know I did. Go forth and enjoy!

Thursday Story: Rope by Joshua Harmon

No, you’re not mistaken, we have in fact crossed over into Friday and I am very late with this post. I see most of you have already checked in, so I’m very sorry for the delay. I was lying in bed, failing to sleep as ever, grappling with this horrible insomnia when I realised I’d forgotten to post something today.

Which is extra annoying as I’d planned to do something different this week, and this isn’t the best way to get started. Nonetheless, here we go. As you’ve no doubt deduced from the headline, I’ve decided to share a short story this week instead of a poem. This is because short stories are another of my passions, and in fact, of the two, is the elder — my first love, really. I also think there’s a lot of common ground with short stories and poetry, a lot of similar tools are used, and the same level of attention to detail, to craft and language, has to be employed.

Which brings me to ‘Rope’ by Joshua Harmon, who I was not at all surprised to see is also a poet. The story begins like this:

Our brother keeps a girl tied to a tree in the woods.

It’s an outstanding hook, a wonderful first sentence, and once it’s in you, it doesn’t let go. Its sparseness is all the more dramatic for its placement; the second sentence is an unwieldy thing, a full paragraph long on its own right. That second sentence doesn’t always work, at least not at the level the majority of this piece does – it’s overly long and sags a touch in the cluttered middle, but is still packed with detail and resonant rhythm, which is to say, the hallmark of poetry.

This is a deeply unsettling story about two sisters grappling with the unknown, with their own dark imaginings in a desolate setting on the edge of a forest — that great symbol of primal danger, of untamed wilds. You’re never quite sure how much of it is in their head, how much of it is real, and it’s a credit to Harmon that the suspense never lets up. Whenever there’s a risk of getting lost in the myriad other elements, the drama and tedium of humdrum life, he reels out the hook of that line about a girl tied to a tree in the woods, and it catches on the inside of your cheek, and he tightens the line and tightens the line and gradually brings you in.

To write great poetry, to write great stories, you first need to read them. In rare, beautiful cases, you get the best of both worlds at once.

This is one such case. Go and read it.

Thursday Poem: Aubade With Burning City by Ocean Vuong

Hello again! It’s Thursday (in America), and I’m back to talk poetry. It’s been a long day of editing and revising my own work and I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be able to find a poem to talk about (I haven’t had as much time for my own reading lately).

Enter Twitter. I see someone has linked to a poem, I follow it, read it, it’s okay – I click on, find another poem by another poet, and it’s better. I check that poet’s bibliography, find a title that jumps out at me, and bam, read one of the best poems I’ve read all year. Maybe ever. Not to hype it too much or anything, but I absolutely love it. And I love, too, how quickly I was able to find it. We have a habit of thinking things will be more difficult than they are, and when it comes to finding excellent poetry, I feel this is especially true. The truth of the matter is there is so much great poetry out there, it’s a wonder we’re not stumbling over it more often than we are.

In this case, the poem sending me into hyperbolic raptures is Aubade With Burning City by Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese-American poet. I can’t reproduce it here because to do so would rob it of its movement, its dance across the page, and his use of enjambment is so stunning, and adds so much texture to the piece, that I just can’t bring myself to do that. You should absolutely click on that link and go over to the Poetry Foundation, however, to read this poem, which has its setting in Vietnam. The background to the piece is set up immediately:

South Vietnam, April 29, 1975: Armed Forces Radio played Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a code to begin Operation Frequent Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon.

You can see immediately what an incredible backdrop this is over which to project a poem, but it’s worth mentioning as well that its richness, its uniqueness, poses a challenge too, in that what follows must be truly sensational to rise above it – to be every bit as memorable as this moment in history. It’s a challenge easily met by Vuong, whose lyricism is nothing short of dazzling.

Lyrics of the song “White Christmas” drift through the staggered stanzas, the words which fall like snow, like debris scattered across a field of battle, and add a surreal touch to the absolutely fantastic imagery Vuong employs so masterfully, again and again. If this were all the poem managed to achieve — striking images and absurdism laced with lyrics — it would still be worth noting, but that it manages to also tell an evocative story, to bring the place, the moment, to life, is what really elevates this work to another level.

I could talk about it all day, honestly, and I so very much want to share its many outstanding lines, but I can’t be certain WordPress won’t mangle them, and I dare not risk such a tragedy. But enough rambling — go and read it!

It’s a poem I’ll be reading again and again for years to come, and if you read it, too, I’m confident you’ll say the same. It really is that good.

Thursday Poem: After Making Love We Hear Footsteps

Before I get started, I have a few things to mention – the first being that a poem of mine will be published in the Lost in Track Changes book put together by the wonderful folk over at If:Book Australia. I wrote about their project here, and I’m happy to say one of my poetic remixes is going to be included in their print edition. I also write comedic articles for SBS Comedy, which I don’t talk about often here, but the latest piece I have up is about Halloween, and specifically, the hilariously awesome folklore behind the jack-o-lantern: check it out!

With that out of the way, let’s talk poetry! This week, as I’m sure many of you are aware, American poet Galway Kinnell passed away. I follow a great deal of poets and poetry journals and organisations on Twitter, so for a while, his passing was inescapable for me. Sadly, I had not read any of his work, so I figured it was more than time for me to start. There’s a fair amount of it to be found online, and of those I’ve read, I keep returning to this small, simple poem titled After Making Love We Hear Footsteps.

It’s markedly different from the others I’ve found, like Another Night in the Ruins or The Bear or Flower Herding On Mount Monadnock, which exquisitely build poems into the landscape and are so very much concerned with place, with being and now. There is an unabashed lyricism in his detailing of nature, as in from Another Night:

Wind tears itself hollow
in the eaves of these ruins, ghost-flute
of snowdrifts
that build out there in the dark:
upside-down ravines
into which night sweeps
our cast wings, our ink-spattered feathers.

Or in Flower Herding:

There is something joyous in the elegies
Of birds. They seem
Caught up in a formal delight,
Though the mourning dove whistles of despair.

Though I haven’t read his other work, I imagine this gorgeous intersection of self/nature/poetry continues throughout his bibliography. Perhaps that’s why this poem in particular stands out to me: it’s so small in scope, so intimate a portrait, a moment of adulthood, of parenthood so perfectly sketched it caught my breath. I’ve read it numerous times now, and always the second stanza brings the poem to a full and satisfying conclusion, brings out the beauty in what could all too easily have been nothing more than an awkward situation. Here it is, After Making Love We Hear Footsteps:

For I can snore like a bullhorn
or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run—as now, we lie together,
after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,
familiar touch of the long-married,
and he appears—in his baseball pajamas, it happens,
the neck opening so small he has to screw them on—
and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,
his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.

In the half darkness we look at each other
and smile
and touch arms across this little, startlingly muscled body—
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.

I should mention, you can click on through to the Poetry Foundation to hear an audio recording of the poem, too. Maybe it’s the incredible sap in me, I don’t know, but I just adore those last four lines.

They’re beautiful, don’t you think?