a constant state of collapse

[Note: if you follow my blog for poetry posts, you can turn away now. This is personal.]

I have been struggling recently. Those five words are among the hardest to write, to say. Though I have admitted it before, and though this is neither the first or the last time it will happen, it somehow doesn’t get any easier. It’s been an especially weird period in my life, because on the face of it, it hasn’t been all that bad. I have made numerous strides in weaning myself off the soulless corporate tit and transitioning to a life paid for with my words. My writing (which is generally published by other corporations but these at least have some shred of soul, I’d like to think). Professionally, I’ve been doing well. Many poetry publications and a couple of prize shortlists this year is nothing to sneeze at, and I’ve still got work forthcoming in Meanjin, Going Down Swinging, Archer magazine and The Saturday Paper.

Personally, however, things have been pretty bleak and never more so than this week. I found out that my poem didn’t win the ACU Prize; my mother lost her tribunal hearing in regards to her housing so she has to find a new place to live in a few weeks’ time (whilst unemployed); one of my older cousins passed away; and my father is in the hospital. Over the course of the past few weeks, I also haven’t been paid for any of the work I’ve done, both the regular “real world” type and the freelancing writing kind, the strain of which is beginning to tell. The only reason I’m even mentioning the failure to win this prize is because, as everything was disintegrating around me, it gave me a sliver of hope I usually don’t indulge in that I would be able to fix things.

A sliver of hope that I might be able to swoop in and help my mother in a substantial way–not save the day completely, because she has never been a woman in need of saving, but help nonetheless. Everyone needs it at some point. Naturally, I ending up losing that chance, if I ever had it to begin with. Knowing that only two non-white poets have won prizes like these out of the last 120+ in this country means that I approach any shortlist with a mountain of cynicism in tow. Once more, my financial circumstances led me to a place of desperate hope and once more I was disappointed. It’s foolishness, really, allowing myself to fall for the same trap. But this isn’t about money, nor is it even about being able to help my mother, as important as I feel that is…

It’s about the fact that for weeks now I’ve quietly been preparing to tell my family directly about my bisexuality. My friends know, of course, and I’ve been open about it online so if any of my blood should happen to look up my name, it’s there to be seen, but I am tired of waiting now. I was praying the decision would go my mother’s way (as it should have, for long and complicated reasons I won’t go into now) and I was praying for the prize in case it didn’t, even though I am not a man given to prayer.

I was praying because if I didn’t have to worry about my mum’s circumstances, I’d be free to tell her about my sexuality. The only reason I can’t now is because once she knows I expect that she’ll never want to hear from me again, even if I was in a position to help her. She’s just that angry, that stubborn, that proud. Like me.

You might say, well, then it’s not your problem. If she turns her back on you, then it’s her own doing and none of yours. Except it doesn’t really work that way. She’s my mother. I will always love her, no matter her flaws, no matter our fractured and violent history. I have to do right by her even if she isn’t doing so by me. So I’m back to closing my mouth, and keeping the words I desperately need to say inside. Eventually, sometime over the next six weeks, I expect the money I am owed for the various works and writings I have done will trickle in, and I will be in a slightly better position, a position to help her. I will do that, as I am able, and then say my piece. If everything goes to plan, that tie will be cut, that weight lost, and I will finally be at ease.

After visiting my dad in hospital today–an experience worthy of its own post–I went to my great-uncle’s place. His son, 45 years of age, passed away recently. I’d never met my great-uncle or his wife prior to this point, but I walked into their little flat, into their grief, and his face lit up. He said, in broken English, ‘You, your father, same.’ Turning his hand this way and that. ‘Exactly same.’ He, like many of my Turkish relatives, seem unendingly delighted in my features, in the similarity they see there. His wife was much more reserved, she didn’t say anything other than to indicate where I could place the box of oranges. I was there with my own uncles (his nephews) to provide the two with enough boxes of fresh food to feed a village. ‘We have to take care of them,’ my uncle said. ‘If not us, then who, you know? They’re old.’

To give you an indication of the age range here, my uncle is 60, his hair silver to my great-uncle’s snow white. Despite that, he huffed his way up four flights of stairs, carrying boxes of food for the elderly couple. That sense of family, of being there for each other no matter what, nearly broke me tonight. As I was leaving, my great-uncle seized my hand and said, ‘Here, you come anytime. Here. Home. Always home, always welcome. OK?’

I nodded and smiled, wanting so much to give in to the ache of belonging, but unable to do so. That deliriously comfortable notion of home is the reason I haven’t been direct with my family all these years. That is the nature of this struggle — it’s finding the courage to accept being cast-off and finding or building a new home in those who stick by you. I could talk about a whole range of other issues plaguing my life, but I have laid bare the crux of it and already I feel better for it. I do have some income due soon, as mentioned, and some work lined up; my life feels like it’s disintegrating, yes, but it seems always to be in a state of collapse and I have survived it before, I will survive it again; and I am always, always aware of my own privilege in still having a home and food, in being a man–even a brown bisexual one–in relation to the rest of this wracked, broken world. So, even now, even in the midst of this, I find room for gratitude, as I think we always must.

It’s only a permanent impermanent home that I lack, a family I can trust in full.  There are worse things to face, I suppose.

Thursday Poem: 38 by Layli Long Soldier

I do not know how to introduce this poem. In fact, I’m not even sure how to talk about it at all, to provide my usual preamble. I’ve decided, then, to take my tack from the work itself and state things simply and plainly. This is called “38” and it is by Layli Long Soldier. It is a poem about the Dakota 38, men who were executed by hanging on the order of President Lincoln for their part in the Sioux Uprising. It is as much non-fiction as it is poetic, no matter the lengths Layli disavows the latter element, the creative license she has taken.

In my last Thursday Poem entry, I spoke about Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’, and poetry of witness, the expression she coined. How it was an example of the power of reportage, of the basic bleached language of journalism employed with brutal impact. Even her form, the prose poem, the block of text, was a way of disavowing the very act of poeticising a moment of significance, a moment of horror – political, social, domestic. In 38, Layli takes a different approach. Her sentences are spare and clean and separate, divided by plenty of white space, so it could easily be mistaken for a poem at first glance. It may look the part, she is saying, but it is altogether different to what you are expecting. The form is a lie.

It begins:

Here, the sentence will be respected.

I will compose each sentence with care by minding what the rules of writing dictate.

For example, all sentences will begin with capital letters.

That’s an ambiguous enough opening, which we’ll get back to in a little bit, but immediately the poet is telling us to pay attention to the language being employed – her focus is clinical to an almost comical degree. Language matters. This looks like a poem but it is not.

You may like to know, I do not consider this a “creative piece.”

More than that, the poet is actively commenting on her process as she goes. She is taking you along for the ride, so to speak, almost as a reflexive act to preempt guilt — look, I am not doing this for art, she seems to say, look, see my thoughts as I go. See the lie, if lie there is. Many artists feel this way, wary of turning pain into art, be it historical or personal or a mesh of both. Generally, I’d say it’s always a good idea to interrogate your motivations for tackling a certain subject, and this is as good a way as any of dealing with that – incorporating it into the work. However, I do think this act of meta-writing is taken a little too far at times, but the moments when it is pulled off to great affect make it all worthwhile. Consider:

The hanging took place on December 26th, 1862—the day after Christmas.

This was the same week that President Lincoln signed The Emancipation Proclamation.

In the preceding sentence, I italicize “same week” for emphasis.

(I had to bold it, since block quotes italicise everything, but you get the point). Here, that meta-commentary provided by the last sentence is seemingly pointless. Later in the poem, however, we get the pay-off to this set-up:

The Dakota people were starving.

The Dakota people starved.

In the preceding sentence, the word “starved” does not need italics for emphasis.

You know, it is somewhat ironic, given the self-analysis employed within the poem, that I am couching it within my own examination. Nonetheless, I think both our points come across. Hers, with the unexpected twist that commentary can provide, giving added depth to a line, forcing you to return to it and read it again. Mine, that although some elements of it can seem unnecessary, Layli is supremely aware of what she’s doing.

These amended and broken treaties are often referred to as The Minnesota Treaties.

The word Minnesota comes from mni which means water; sota which means turbid.

Synonyms for turbid include muddy, unclear, cloudy, confused and smoky.

Everything is in the language we use.

So, let me return to the opening line, and the meaning of this poem, the intersection of form and function. Remember, the poem opens: “Here, the sentence will be respected.” In direct contrast to the many broken treaties referenced in the poem, and indeed in history – here, her language matters. In direct contrast to the legalese and the deliberately convoluted nonsense employed in contracts, here, her words are simple. Her meaning plain. She will tell you what she is doing and why, as she does so.

It reminds me, in fact, of an Indigenous author I interviewed recently. She was talking about governments and said that – in response to their fickleness and the seeming whimsy that saw laws change constantly and old agreements get thrown out – Indigenous elders always had the same response: ‘Our law is strong.’ Meaning, unchanged. Meaning, what we say matters. This poem, every word and every line, shouts this aloud.

If that’s all it did, it would still be an excellent poem. If all it did were teach us about a moment in history too often overlooked, it would still be an excellent poem. That it does this, and is emotionally evocative as well, unfolding at last in those truly spectacular last lines, makes it a remarkable poem and well worth your time.

Go. Read it.

These Laughing Gods

A year on from Robin Williams’ passing, and the hole he left has yet to be filled. Re-posting this tribute because it’s a good time to remind yourself to look out for your friends and loved ones who may be struggling much harder than you realise–and to look out for yourself, as well. If you are depressed, don’t hesitate to seek help. There’s always someone out there who cares, always another reason to draw breath, always a little bit of light glimmering somewhere in the dark.

Scratch That

I think we all fall a little in love with the funny ones.

You know the ones; a smile blooms on your face just by thinking of them. Like your body has bookmarked their joy, and said, look, this is how they make you feel. Store this beauty, store this secret magic, let it line your eyes. You build it up inside with every laugh leaving behind an echo, a residue. This is why sometimes, even when they say something that isn’t particularly funny, you’ll find yourself braying at the moon like a drunk donkey, while others sit with a polite grin frozen on their faces. Didn’t you guys hear that one?

Robin Williams – the outstanding comic and brilliant actor, the man, the husband, the father, the genie – passed away today. This will not surprise you, I am sure; his death has hit the world with a seismic…

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Thursday Poem: The Colonel by Carolyn Forché

This week’s entry is a famous poem, “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché. I actually think I’ve read it before, a year or two ago perhaps, as one of the striking images toward the end had the resonance of familiarity, a kind of echo that said you know this already. 

Forché’s opening gambit addresses this idea of prior knowledge in the opening line:

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house.

There is so very much to love about this sensational poem, this model of efficiency, but all of it comes back to this opening. The assumption that you already know the story sets the tone – one of confession and anticipation – then follows it with the physical scene, which immediately layers it with an ominous foreshadowing. Five little words: I was in his house. And you shudder, because we as a culture and a society know that spells worry, that spells violence – we know that story too well. In a sense, even though you likely come to the poem not actually knowing what the first line refers to, you find out as I did, that really you do, and this idea of what we’re conscious of hearing and what we choose not to remember plays out throughout the poem.

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house.

Earlier, I used the word ‘confession’, but although that is implied by the first line, the more accurate term which is borne out by the style of the poem is reportage. This is a report, a statement, almost as if given in court, and this is very deliberate, coming from the poet who coined the term ‘poetry of witness.’ It helps that the story itself is a true one, this is non-fiction, but the journalistic element is only one of many skilfully employed here.

Note the short declarative lines, fleshing out innocuous domestic details to relieve the tension built in that first sentence, which then returns three lines later: ‘a pistol on the cushion beside him.’ It is a delicate dance, the weaving of tension, and Forché executes the steps perfectly. She never quite lets you forget it, though the reel of short precise details propels you so quickly along that it slides easily into the background. Then, of course, there is that gorgeous little line, and possibly my favourite of the lot: ‘the moon swung bare on its black cord over the house.’ The immediacy with which that brings to mind an image of a dinky black and white film, one we have all seen, is stunning. Just because she has adopted a plain reporting aesthetic does not mean she is incapable of peppering the scene with adroit descriptions, with beautiful imagery.

…The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves.

After several more excellent lines bringing the scene to life, we come to it here, the tension slowly ratcheting upward with as simple a moment as the colonel telling the parrot to shut up – it comes not just from the act itself as the revelation of his military status. Then, the grocery sack, another layer of domesticity and in it, the horror. It is the absence of horror, however, which is so striking in the scene, the ordinariness of the moment to him, and in the description. ‘They were like dried peach halves.’ That’s the line that rung bells in my head, that said you know this, and I did. There’s a lot to love, to admire about this exquisite poem but like all great poems, it is exemplified in the ending:

He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

Here, we come back to the idea of what we’ve heard prior to reading the poem, to what we know, consciously and subconsciously. To how we turn away, how we engage in a collective forgetting. Some of us, even disembodied and on the floor, still hear it, still witness it, and some of us have our ears pressed to the floor. Crucially, there is no judgment, just as there was no tangible horror, no emotive words, and it makes all the difference.

There is a lot of circuity in poetry, and it is a very popular belief that the ending should mirror the beginning, but I wouldn’t recommend it, personally — there is a risk of it being too neat, too contrived, and if you aim for it, that is often how it will turn out. I prefer a little ugliness, a rough cut, but then too there are times when it all comes together with a synergy as complete as this, and you just have to bow your head and say bravo (if the poem isn’t yours) and thank fuck, if it is.