Elke Papp

…(forever) followers!?…

are we a new race?
or to say it more politely
a new ethnicity?

or just a random mass of individuals (mostly female) living here living there
pushing those who belong to us or pulling them behind us
waiting for the one we belong to come home from work (work we usually don’t know a lot about in a place we usually don’t go a lot we usually get invited to once a year to get a place at a long table next to the one we followed)
like all the others all over the world do?
are we to be seen as a global phenomenon or as isolated individuals spread all over the globe
are we a side effect of the big effect that those we came with have on the city
or are we just freaks like those who we followed who can’t live within the frame their countries put them into
a minority (respected, cared for,….)
has anybody ever mentioned that we are the city?
that the streets would be empty if all of us had left at once?
we are legal aliens
most welcome!
to stay and to leave soon
are we a new globe trotting tribe
or are we just dancing the DNA-dance we are destinated to
following the one who feeds us
it is outrageous to call us the new diaspora
as nobody and nothing chased us out of our countries
beside the fear of losing the one who then perhaps still didn’t have to feed us if we didn’t follow him wherever to
being fed up having a long distance love for all of our lives and deciding to follow, have a family and be fed instead
we are no political refugees
we haven’t been threatened there where we come from
we are looking for a shelter though
why?
aren’t we just first class travelers?
do we and those we followed and are fed by belong to an own class?
looked up and down to…
some start to like us stay here
some don’t care as long as we don’t leave earlier than they do
to a new place where all of us have to find new friends anyway
are we friends one to each other?
some of us get tied to each other as if we’d stay together forever
some we only meet when they are already leaving
we learn their names and the name of the place they are moving to at once
some of them show us a place or tell us a phrase we will never forget
or even leave us something they have lived with for years but can’t take with them
lots of them are from a place we have never been to
we promise to visit them knowing we won’t be able to
with most of them we’ll stay in touch (only?) by pressing the send-message/mail-button
some want to leave and can’t
others don’t want to but have to
all of us suffer at some point
under being stuck whilst everybody seems to be moving on / up/ away
all depends on the one we depend on who depends on the ones who also depend on
lots of us change houses more than one time
our complaints are not ending (whether if it’s about the weather or about whatever!)
only the contracts  do
some came here just for a couple of years (just for the PhD or a post doc come on!) and are still here
being now one of those couples that came here just for a couple of years…

do we want to go back/home?
is the life we left waiting for us there where we left it?
or has it changed address anyway?

David Miller

Lit-Mag #40 – Expatriations:  The expat edition

Spiritual Letters (Series 5, #5)

Late one night, he began wandering unfamiliar back streets: and continued on and on, travelling enormous distances, even crossing oceans; though he only ever remembered walking. Far distant family and old friends met him on his way. Suddenly, a flock of ducks flew directly over my head, quacking loudly, as they swooped down towards the lake. Sitting outside a café, we talked about his child: four years old, she still couldn’t talk, nor walk – small for her age, she was carried, or wheeled in a pram. They’d arrived at Giza in the evening, going straight to the pyramids from their hotel; but the noise of the crowd, then the bright images, lights and amplified voices made the child scream, over and again. Forced out of art school for his small, highly realistic images of buildings when large abstract paintings were obligatory, he later studied the history of architecture. – I survived my exams with the aid of a water flask filled with vodka, he told me. Printed on your postcard, with a schematic drawing of a person: I’m lost. After driving through the desert for a day, we stayed at a Navajo hotel, the only non-Indians there, with stray dogs roaming outside and a scorpion in our bathroom. The following afternoon we reached a lake with snow, water running over rocks, and trees in leaf. A diamond setter in the daytime, he played violin at night in the clubs along Eighth Avenue, amongst other expatriates. This night, the door’s left open: for the passer-by, the wanderer, the erring traveller. After she’d taken me on a brief tour of the neighbourhood, we went back to her house, where I met her husband; but something, it struck me, seemed wrong between them. She went out to smoke a small cigar; I took a walk and then a taxi ride, slowly realising how large and strange the city was… and I wondered about leaving. Fountains and pools, even a man-made lake, had been incorporated into the architectural complexes. Stone dragons, red and dark blue railings, trees in blossom. Within the temple, three rooms full of stacked small wooden tablets, recording in Chinese the names of the dead, their districts and villages. She knew so much of the plants and birds and beasts around her, and loved the beautiful views over the sea of blue forest and real sea beyond… Falling ill at a friend’s, he stayed for a few days to recuperate. One afternoon they took a walk together, with one of his friend’s daughters and the family dog: up a muddy hillside, then past frangipanis, ferns, eucalyptus trees. – Sister, let’s go in, he said; they’d gone for a walk, and had been drawn by the sight of the basilica’s spires. Years later, he could recall the ascension window’s blues and reds, but not the cathedral gold windows; what she remembered, he would never know. He was taken aback during a sermon when his minister claimed she’d once glimpsed a ghost. As we left the station, we were caught up in a crowd surging towards the fireworks; even after the display, it was impossible for some while to disentangle ourselves. Two of the bridges had been closed off, and when we eventually reached a third and found it open, we were separated by the crowd and forced to go different ways. I often wonder if you miss your clarinet. Sometimes I see young people in Bourke Street playing and think of you; there are a lot of buskers in the city these days, sometimes so close together that it is just a meaningless din. I found myself staying back at the old family home, now my sister’s, and sinking into despondency at the windows that were falling in, the front door not locking, and she refusing to do anything to fix them. Dear adopted sister… thy history would furnish materials for one of the most interesting pernicious novels. You accused her of bribing a surgeon to operate on you as a child, so that you’d be left with a cleft palate. Doors in the floor and ceiling, or opening onto blank walls; a reservoir of water over a fireplace; a staircase ending at the ceiling.  When we were children, we had a cockatoo, a rosella and a crow, as well as dogs, cats and budgerigars. The cockatoo terrified us, and seemed to delight in it, chasing us around the yard while we screamed. Hearing me leave my room during the night, he covered himself in a sheet and hid in a closet to wait for my return. When he heard my footsteps, he opened the closet door, lifted his arms and walked towards me. …she is just outside the door raving at me. Unfortunately she is involving other people… she is making me out to be a monster. Returning from the hospital, she found that her daughter had taken all her cats to a shelter for strays. The journey led through a mountainous region where a dragon lived near a lake; if it was not propitiated, it would cause storms of snow, hail, wind. His efforts at proselytising were hindered by the interpreter appointed to him, alcoholic and uncooperative. There were two monastery buildings, but no monks lived in them. If a guest monk attempted to stay, the native people would drive him out with fire. A hospital famous for its eye clinic: in a place where blind pilgrims once prayed to be cured. You wrote about the quality of the white in her paintings, which she brought back from distant travels: to Japan, Egypt, India, Java, Australia… But it was her predilection for red – for painting red flowers – that I noticed. …then we went on, and soon entered the region of the doum palm. Birds also became more common, we had seen troops of pelicans, ibex, storks, and ducks, and now we had abundance of larks and water-wagtails, and lovely long-tailed green birds almost like parakeets, but smaller. She’d boiled water in an old black saucepan, and we drank tea together at a table made from a door. Across the street, my neighbours take turns sitting by the window, and smoking; their room’s dark, apart from the bright, shifting colours of the TV screen. Let the country with barbarous customs and smoking blood change into one where the people eat vegetables; and let the state where men kill be transformed into a kingdom where good works are encouraged. Many of the vagrants he went to interview had never seen anything like his bulky tape recorder and often mistook it for a musical instrument, thinking at first he was a busker. …he took my hand, and we began to go through rugged and winding places. At last with much breathing hard we came to the amphitheatre, and he led me into the midst of the arena. – Ah, you extraordinary illusionist! What have you come to show us this time with your occult arts? Then out came an Egyptian against me, of vicious appearance, together with his seconds, to fight with me. But another beautiful troop of young men declared for me, and anointed me with oil for the combat. He told his students that there were some things seemingly impossible to write about, such as his recurring dream of a mysterious route by which he travelled to see his mother, after meeting dear, long absent friends again. He would wake elated, and then remember that those he’d found once more in the dream were all dead.  In some cases a laurel crown in gilt, symbolizing their future happy state, has been added to portraits of both men and women… The composer said that birdsong was “God’s language”; he also affirmed the resurrection of the dead. The philosopher praised birdsong for its beauty, nothing more; while his religious philosophy, with its God who was forever in a state of becoming, had no room for any afterlife. With these Eyes the cathedral’s face is on the watch for the candelabra of heaven and the darkness of Lethe. – Lines from your writing have been appearing in my dreams. Often when I can’t sleep at night I wonder what you are doing, trying to picture you and your pursuits. Vespers are said here, and sung; Bach is played, jazz, too. Suffice to say there has been taken out of our limited garden one of the most perfect plants that ever was planted in mutability… Long after her death, he depicted his granddaughter in his final painting – a little girl amongst the animals of the Peaceable Kingdom, leopard, lion, sheep, wolf and ox. We played music, recited, sang to my mother’s memory.  – I like your shirt, I said, conscious that I’d never seen him wear one before; he admitted that it was his girlfriend’s, worn specially for the occasion. Walking by the lake, the trees illumined from below by yellow lights in the grass, he listened to the calls of the terns, cormorants, teals, mallards and grebes. Thy rose bush is very pretty and thy geranium will be beautiful. From the rooftop or windows, we enjoy every fleeting glimpse of spring growing in the park, or a grey sheet of rain advancing over the trees. For flowers are good both for the living, he wrote, and the dead. Beneath their feet: sun, moon and stars, and the signs of the zodiac, in the mosaic pavement. She wanted to go to the riverside to view the fireworks, and I went along to keep her company. The exploding lights that seemed to fall towards me and the booming noises brought on a panic attack, and I tried to leave; but the display ended, and I was caught in a dense, slowly moving crowd in the near-dark, and kept thinking I’d fall down. He smashed at the door of the synagogue with an axe until they let him in; taking a scroll from the Ark in his arms, he sang an ancient Castilian love song. At midnight, he rose from his bed and walked down to the sea, where he immersed himself according to a ritual. You sat every day by your dying friend’s bedside, in accord with his wish. It was,you wrote, a painful, a difficult death. We were ordered into the sea by the sports master, and I was swept beyond my depth in no time; he called to me to swim back; andI called out that I couldn’t, and then went under. I’d gone under three times, into a black tunnel of water, before two of the boys reached me. He collapsed in a tube train and was taken on a stretcher to street level; but he claimed to be all right and attempted to get up, and died of a heart attack. You walked to the hospital in a winter evening’s severe wind; and then lost yourself in the mostly deserted corridors, before eventually finding the ward. Your friend was sitting on the side of the bed, and you sat down beside him and listened to his obsessive recital of mistakes and missed opportunities. – I am praying to God, he said, but not to yours: to Osiris, Osiris. Every evening he prepared a meal, and always insisted, much later, on making a pudding – often after a good deal to drink. He would reject each one after a single taste, and throw it into the garden: for the birds to eat, he’d say. It had been a half-hearted, absurd attempt at suicide, an outburst of adolescent despair in which you’d forced yourself to drink disinfectant as if poison; however, the doctor insisted your mother should have you hospitalised. She asked you what you wanted, and then accordingly told him: No. Having spent the afternoon writing in cafés and searching amongst bookstalls, he headed towards home; reaching it, he realised it was no longer where he resided, but his home of many years ago. Confused, increasingly desperate, he asked passers-by to help him: for he no longer knew at all where he lived. After eating and drinking on the beach with friends at night, he decided, against their advice, to swim along the coast and cast a long string of fishing hooks. He never returned; his corpse was discovered the next morning. A forest of ancient chestnut trees, brooks everywhere, and wild goats gazing intensely at you. He enjoyed the company of sponge divers, the poorest of all – but he was also friends with the captains of the boats. He had to be carried from the ship and taken to an abbey where he was known to the monks, who nursed him until he was strong enough to continue the journey. From the harbour, yellow lights shine in the distance; fishing-tackle hanging from a white T-frame where he stops to rest, and white boats in the water. Muffled voices and faint music from a larger boat, in an otherwise still night. When it began raining, I turned to follow the path back again; the estuary and the island out in the distance were only dimly visible through the rainy mist. When he switched on the kitchen light, something darted across the worktop and ran towards the wall: it turned around, finding itself cornered; and he found himself looking at a field mouse, which sat looking back at him. Another night, he stayed up reading in the lounge and listening to the storm outside; the mouse suddenly scooted across the floor in front of him and dove under the gas fire. Testing for a detached retina, the doctor put drops into my eyes to dilate the pupils. Afterwards, I attempted to walk home, but had to keep to the shadows to avoid being blinded by the sunlight, even then struggling to see, and having to stop. He could hear the rivers protest as they were soiled by dirt washed into them, and could see blood seeping from the flesh of freshly cut fruits and vegetables. Late in the evening, heavy rain beats and pours at the windowpanes, while I sit drinking wine. Earlier: a helicopter circling overhead repeatedly; and the sound of breaking glass in the street. The raft went in out of the bright moonlight to pitch darkness, the roof of the cave so low that it seemed to be touching the top of the mast. Then, in the blackness, the rain and wind struck.

from Spiritual Letters (Series 1-5), forthcoming with Chax Press.

Kent MacCarter

Lit-Mag #40 – Expatriations:  The expat edition

The Burmese Option

In my best dream I have crossed the border
and my coins are wrong. Without the tongue
I gesture, sweat and wake aboard this boat
Richard Hugo, The Anacortes-Sydney Run

Unloading

New Zealand served itself for breakfast, although not rudely so. The freight ship I was cargo on loomed through the Bay of Plenty into the maw of Tauranga’s port. I yawned every bit as wide as the shipping lane appeared to be doing to accommodate the 800 feet of us: both events stank. Yet, everything – this thing, that thing, every thing – was brilliant. My virgin step in a new hemisphere had arrived.

I’d traversed the breadth of the Pacific Ocean aboard the MV Direct Tui – a container freighter 265m in length and 12 storeys tall. After a fortnight of liquid, reverberating machinery and an endless spigot of fish soup, I was welcomed back to firm soil by Mt. Maunganui lolling upright in its coastal bed of greenery. Kiwi FM began leaking into a boom box that was bolted onto the wall in my quarters about 24 hours before we arrived. The extended weather was declared to be glorious by accents that had magnificent diphthongs and slopes to my ear. I’d regained topography.

Sol and I were corralled in the ship’s state room for an hour to clear NZ customs. Sol was a freckled, Texas farm kid who had so far made his wages by drifting from dealership to dealership selling cars all around North America. “Time to expand, time to expand …” he repeated to me daily throughout our crossing. If he could clear a few hundred dollars on a hatchback, that would eek him through until the next sedan. The constellation his freckles formed was a distinct S shape, placed prominently on his right cheek. It did not require much imagination to draw parallel bars bisecting the figure to make it a dollar sign. Sol and I were two of the four paying passengers on the ship. A retired couple from Brisbane, Ruth and Lyle, completed the quartet of human cargo.

Leaving Chicago for a new life as far away as possible was a breeze. Locating a buyer for my sizable aquarium beforehand wasn’t. You’d think in a city that size it wouldn’t be much of an ask. So much time and effort I sunk into that tank. My trio of clown loaches colonised the upper reaches of that universe, sharing space with a loner of a fish. A pink-tailed chalceus. That fish was mesmerised by the constant orange and black juggle of those loaches playing in the water jetting out from the tank’s filtration flume. Maybe it hated them … or its confined situation. At any rate of fish conjecture, it wanted out of that tank badly. Two iridescent sharks prowled like a screen saver on the bottom left. Another two cichlids guarded the bottom right while a red-tailed shark oftentimes wove in and out of the other’s turf whenever it pleased. They only formed a unified school when I plopped frozen cubes of blood worms and brine shrimp into the tank for fish dinner. But only then. Now, there was nothing to do but give the aquarium away or sell on the cheap. It was on my penultimate day in Chicago that I managed to unload that whole fishy universe to a quiet woman from Wales for a couple hundred dollars. That was enough money to drive West with my parents until I reached the vast Intermodal Shipping Terminal in Long Beach, California.

A stevedore finishing up his graveyard shift was kind enough to drive Sol and I into Tauranga’s centre. It, too, still waking and yawning. We banged our van doors shut, entering our new world as if two helium balloons unclenched from the fist of a child. Our paths have not crossed since.

Hoops

Emil announced to me that the Direct Tui would soon slice into the northern edge of the Doldrums, an unthinkably huge area of South Pacific current that swirls in leisurely perpetuity. He explained that jetsam bobs out here for years if buoyant enough, never to wash ashore, as if in orbit around the centre of nothing at all.

I consulted our sailing trajectory on maps scattered atop a drafting table in the ship’s bridge. I’m a map harlot. And a shameless one at that. I’ll navigate the angles of maps for hours be they the most rudimentary of metro transit pictograms or what lay before me here in crisp, bell-peeling hosannas: time zones upon time zones of map to fritz out on. All of it a new medium. Ocean water. We’d recently slid into the boundaries of Micronesia. My lifelong fear of vortices niggled at me and I tried not to think of tornadoes, whirlpools and digitised galaxies in sci-fi flicks that spooked me so as a boy … or anything else that one might become permanently stuck in. Like the Doldrums.

All up, a fortnight of ocean water occurred in front, behind and to either side of me. Turbidity varied. Flying fish arched out and back into waves the entire distance. The first few days off the Californian coast featured gulls and terns curlicuing around the ship’s crane and forest of antennae sprouting off the numerous decks. Those birds were the only company external to the ship, its crew, the passengers and the containers.

No other liners’ stacks appeared chuffing down the horizon line. Not an overboard crate, cooler lid, flip-flop or jettisoned rag. No errant chunks of Styrofoam.  Not a single jet’s contrail chalking up sky the entire distance across the Pacific.

Zippo. Nothing. Nothing except … a basketball. A basketball, way out here in the Doldrums, seven days in on my crossing and bobbing right then and there just as orange as its first day of inflation. Dribbling through team after team of waves. Its orange and black colours rotated without pattern as it passed from crest to crest. My eyes locked onto that ball in the sea for as long as I could make it out in the ship’s wake.

I’d discovered that gazing out across swells of ocean surface was a quick hike into autohypnosis. My waking thoughts had calmed and settled from the mass exodus of Chicago, content to casually ‘be’ in the vacuous limbo that is day-and-night-and-into-day ocean crossing. But this was not a hokey Zen or quackery collapse. I did think of things, people and emotions. I checked the time on my wristwatch out of habit and was reassured to learn each occasion that time was progressing, even if slowed to a mosey. I stubbed my toe on a mooring cleat and it hurt. Badly. My head hadn’t been vacuumed out. I had geared-down into a cerebral crawl.

But that basketball jarred.

“Shit!”
“Fuck!”
“Shitfuckdamn!” A triple-expletive of wonder.
“A basketball!” I bellowed, jabbing my finger out into points at the passing object like a spaniel. Not another soul to witness such a eureka. I slid through days when spying a floating basketball was the top anecdote. The ball came within metres of the ship before it caromed off the waves carved up from the prow. Landing back into its habit.

That basketball was a full-stop. A full-stop trailing the unclosed ellipsis that was my departure from Chicago. From America. And from a life there that was leading only into an eddy, not in any knowable direction. That evening, I informed Emil that I’d seen a basketball floating off the starboard side and how exciting that was for me. He replied with a protracted gulp of tea. And nothing else.

Ringleader

Emil Buca didn’t exist.
He wasn’t in charge but he was, resolutely, the man in charge on the freight ship. This is as clear as I can capture and write about his presence on the Tui. Officially, his rank was directly south of the Captain and north of all the other officers. He had access to all doors, locked and unlocked, whenever he felt the whim to strut through them. Even the Captain was not awarded such privileged access to the ship’s bowels. Emil was skilled at emerging through doorways, commanding them and the rooms he plowed  into with his cutwater of bravado and polished boots. His was the first gaping palm I absorbed with my own, smaller version after entering my first room aboard the Tui. Quite the welcome-aboard handshake. Me, sitting timidly on a folding chair in a control room that resembled a Khrushchev-era fission reactor. Emil’s duties were countless. One was to brief new human cargo. His nostrils belched Marlboro smoke. ‘Do’s and ‘do not’s on the ship followed. Etiquette at large. Very large.

Though exactly my age at the time of twenty-nine years, he was twice my mass and triple the brawn. He strode only in the smudgy  liminal band of time that shuttled me from Chicago to Melbourne, in the space that spirited from a decent job in academic publishing to no job in academic poetry. I’d stepped into a fortnight intermission between one life and the foyer of another. Emil was the conductor orchestrating the vessel that escorted me across that vacuous space. His English was stern. Diagonal. Immaculate. Waterlogged with Balkan machismo. The stubble on his chin could sandpaper a petrified forest into your best piece of furniture. We never sang boozy songs together. Not like I did with the Burmese crewmen on many late nights. His ego wouldn’t allow it. I was doing this relocation because I could. Because I was not stuck. I’d evolved from stuck into unstuck, unlike that old fish that waited so patiently to escape my tank.

Emil wasn’t larger than life. He didn’t smoke cigarettes, he fellated them in a constant orgy. When it wasn’t spirits, wine, tea or coffee cooling his radiator, it was nothing at all. He spoke perfunctorily of a wife and two children back in Romania while devoting equal conversation to clandestine ‘ladyfriends’ in every Pacific port. Two fraus in Surabaya, a sheila in Manzanillo and a string of betty’s dotted like pearls along the East coast of America – a constellation of displaced sin in which he wilfully connected the dots to draft the shape of his ego. Corrosion will finish him in time; just like it got Detroit. Never did he say that the woman in Romania he spoke of was his wife.
That was Emil Buca.
These were his boom years. Up for promotion to captain after navigating one more circuit of all ports-of-call. A native of Bucharest, he’d cut his jib on the Caspian Sea, moving up fast in the shady ranks that hold the shipping industry together. Time to expand. Again.

The Burmese Option

The change was obvious and occurred during lunch. A difference, instantly distinguishable. The culprit? Soup. On the tenth day in, the Californian fruit and vegetables which replenished the galley’s larder when in port at Long Beach had been exhausted past dregs and their tinned understudies were pressed into service.

The five officers of various rank and the four passengers of equal non-rank all dined together in the Captain’s mess: three times per day, every day, mostly amidst a taciturn language barrier of silence. Scheduled mealtimes were the sole awkward angle of the voyage. All being of Eastern European heritage, the officers instructed the lone Burmese cook to prepare courses built from either pheasant, sausages, bouillabaisse, ham, onion, cheese, unidentified game birds, potatoes or any combo of the aforementioned. On Fridays we were served ice cream sundaes with hot fudge topping. The last of my three Fridays on the Tui saw the fudge downgraded to candy sprinkles.

A leaden air hung above every meal sitting, thickening into outright dread toward the end of my time on the ship. The steward, doubling as the head (and only) waiter, picked up on his radar my tempered grimace at the sight of another meal staring down undisclosed game bird. Another meal with a supporting cast of canned-pea performance and vacuum-sealed fruit-cup star power.

The steward bent over my shoulder. In controlled volume to prevent detection from the Captain, he enquired if I would prefer ‘The Burmese Option’.

I had assumed no choice was available. I had assumed I was stuck with the menu I was served or zip. I was white. Western. A paid passenger awarded the default privilege to dine with the officers in the officers’ mess. Without any questioning as to what The Burmese Option comprised of, I replied with an enthusiastic if muted affirmative.

I felt ashamed. Chokingly ashamed. It hadn’t dawned on me what, when and where the twenty-odd Burmese crew ate? The officers rarely interacted with them. When they did, it was theatre of barks and acquiescence. I smiled and greeted the Burmese crew on my meandering laps around the ship. It didn’t go unnoticed that they were never present for meals at the officer’s table, but I failed to process that base data any further. I did not extrapolate segregation further into its cancerous parts.

Emil’s first words to me during his initial briefing were, “You’re allowed to go into any area or room that’s not locked. If a door is locked, then you’re not allowed.” Why didn’t I stroll into the galley for a peek? It didn’t even have a door. His second words, after glowering through a few room-scans and gestating an affected pause were “and don’t touch any of these fucking instruments. Any.” And so I allowed that warning to guide my time on the ship more than it should have, missing the point instantly and diverging further from it as the days lapped past.

The Burmese Option presented itself to be an array of spicy curries and rice. Nothing froufrou or fusion. Simply proletarian grub from Asia. Sure, I delight in a pheasant dish as much as a Polish ship engineer does, but I demand entry levels of variety. Assumptions were made about me that angered. Assumptions that I flatly wouldn’t want to dive into a steamy bowl of Burmese Option. Wouldn’t want?! I felt a little better about my own shortcomings knowing that they’re universally possible. If you’re unaccustomed to a new newness, it’s likely you’ll fuck a few things up at the beginning without a stroke of malicious intent. Like I had done. Like the steward had.

Burmese Option came in many varieties and whims. My favourite, an orange and brown swirl of roast pumpkin and thick curry (borderline gravy) was knick-named The Tiger. It was almighty and arrestingly hot.

Missing

25 January 2004 pulled a runner on me. Perhaps it sank? I didn’t get to live it.

The Direct Tui was programmed to call in to a repeating itinerary of destinations: San Francisco to Long Beach, then Tauranga, New Zealand, on to Melbourne, then Sydney and, finally, back to San Francisco. Upon completing every other circuit, it would call in to either Suva, Fiji or Manzanillo, Mexico. I had boarded the express service.

The Tui had plied its unevenly shaped figure-eight for sixth months before I wandered aboard and would continue doing so for another six until the ship’s owners signed it up for a new career. Its registered home port was Monrovia, Liberia due to flimsy liability laws and similar fine print skulduggery.

The Tui had never once called in to its home port. It was built in South Korea.

At 30-hour intervals, the ship’s steward scuttled up the central stairwell in his pied, silken slippers to the officer’s deck and scribbled in what time of day it was on a dry-erase notice board. Never was it the same sequence of 24 hours for more than a day and a half. The steward was expert at erasing as were all the crew and officers. Some rued dearly this accidental skill in private moments of choppy conversation to me. They were homeless. Stateless. Erasing is ingrained in their lives. It’s an unsteady life to exist for a year in a constantly changing time calibration, never to return home for exhales and decompression. An experience cherry-on-topped with the hiccough that is the International Date Line – that technical allotment of ‘day’ added or subtracted like a tax or a rebate on existence.

This jumble of time occurred leisurely enough that it marooned the details of a modern, landlocked life upon an atoll of irrelevance. The frantic shackles of time, that horrid cliché, the mad rush of Chicagoan life and requirements to be ‘heres’, ‘theres’ or both in quick succession, all of which subsumed my days until now, jettisoned away like a rocket booster that had ignited me into a low orbit of passivity. Lunch was tidily served at noon every day, mirroring the swivel all the ship’s timepieces received in constant resetting. Noon got around, it did.

Steerage

I asked Antony, the Polish First Engineer, what was in the containers. He shrugged and I believed him. I enquired every Burmese crewman who knew a dollop of English if he knew what – exactly or inexactly – was in the hundreds of shipping containers.

None knew. Some of the containers? Practiced silence. Any at all? Crickets.

Late one night, I hit up Emil about the containers’ innards, hoping we might’ve bonded enough to loosen the slipknot on his lips. He claimed professionally rehearsed ignorance, though his reply was of the arms-akimbo sort. Indisputably, he was privy to the booty rollcall we hauled and was confident in me enough to fathom his bluff as bluff. Damned if he was going to pony up details though. I gave up and looked at the vessel’s speed gauge.

I realised minutes after this incident that I’d just cashed in my investment of four years in the Hyde Park neighbourhood of Chicago. Now, here I rode on a south-westerly aimed cargo ship pegged at 22.2 knots. This was the speed of my intermission.

I, along with the three other people logged as ‘passenger’ on the ship’s bill, was the answer to my own interrogation. People wishing voyage from shore A to shore B. Strictly transport, no nonsense. The reasons for going, irrelevant. Rent, meals, petrol, lodging, utility bills, the lot all taken care of in a singular presto-change-o voyage. The ship prowled the perimeter of a commercially-dictated polygon. I just needed the slow rope south it was to swing a ride on.

Six bits of freight were identifiable without question. Two bulldozers, two helicopters and, best of all observable cargo, two yachts. Each couple along for the ride in various states of dismantle, all too bulky for a shipping container, the yachts too puny to negotiate the distance on their own. One copter remembered its blade, the other’s was missing. Neither yacht had mounted boom or mast. Each dozer, having donned its plow as a hat, waited out the trip with heavy patience. I was afloat on a very choosy ark guided by a collectively evasive Noah. A Noah named Emil. Many of the containers had refrigeration units cooling the jets of whatever it was packaged inside. I wore long sleeves in my room because it, too, had an ambitious air-conditioning unit.

The Cut-Glass Bowl

I forget the name and title of the officer who claimed that he was a citizen of no country. He’d been mixed up in the shipping racket for so long that his native citizenship in an unnamed, virtually un-remembered Eastern Bloc nation had renounced him. Legally, on paper – whoever’s paper that might be – he didn’t exist at all. But he was as real as the rest of us way out there in the Pacific, having arms and legs and laughs and emotions. His game bird farts and outdated haircut were as fearsome as any other officer. He assisted me in stringing Christmas lights from the ship’s main exhaust stack to its monkey deck portico, an intimate space just big enough for all officers, crew and passengers to convene. He was here.

It is customary for a captain to ‘sponsor’ a celebration for his crew upon crossing the Equator in either direction. Steaks and seafood appeared out of nowhere on platters. I twinged upon realising that the steward must’ve held back sumptuous fare until this moment, seven days into the crossing. My gratitude that he did so cannot be captured in words.

At no point across the Pacific was there cloudless sky. The evening of our Equatorial crossing towered with cumulus and anvil-shaped billows ringing the full horizon hoop with spotless sky directly above the ship. Wine, beer and vodka occurred in spades. The Sun stooped lower, then lower still in the jagged clutch of clouds.

I witnessed a 360 degree sundown for the first and only time in my life. A sunset in technicolour. Colour not to be believed. Colour like you read about. In the east, wealthy blues and lavenders ran each other down. A glance to the west and the reds, oranges and yellows were loud as sinners in a pool-hall. I was thoroughly deafened by colour. My eyes, using all the short-term memory my body could boot up, hijacked perceptive energy from sound, taste, smell and touch to sustain this sightly Kapow! The slender umbilical of soot coiling upward into sky from the main exhaust stack was the only instance of black.
It was if it was the chain attached to a kaleidoscopic chandelier dangling from a ceiling I couldn’t discern. On occasion, booze talks wonders (if ineloquent ones), and I remember thinking exactly this description as it was happening before me then.

For much of the party, I drank with Antoni. He was an antique soul with a savoir-faire so avuncular that it felt like he’d helped me learn how to ride a bike without training wheels. Very comforting and not at all sinister in the ways an uncle trope can be spun. He was rounding his final oceanic lap before retirement to his cabin in Poland’s south. He sustained me in a barrage of booze shooters, ghastly in their heights of octane. Everybody got roaring pissed with everybody. Officers with crewmen. Estonians with Americans. Belarusians with Australians. Burmese with The Unspecified. Everybody aborad.

I jigged. The Burmese crew was in full-troupe force. Break-dancing, the limbo, souped-up waltzing, all manoeuvres from Rangoon proudly on display.

A boom-box throbbed. Ruth danced too. The only female on board unzipped her 82 years’ worth of life to reveal the coquettish pizzazz Lyle touted her to have exuded as teenager. And so here she was, the only dame in a sea of male, tearing it up in brown slacks, an orange blouse and with pearls bobbing just under her earlobes. Ruth had been a Queensland rodeo darling back in the day. A real pistolero. Acerbic of comment, she was. And was still being at the time. She tripped off a step during all the merriment, quite possibly breaking her ankle, but kept right on hoofing it up with all the drunken sailors and me.

We’d all converged from disparate haunts on the globe – way the goddamned hell out there – pointed somewhere in all that endless map.

Vahni Capildeo

Lit-Mag #40 – Expatriations:  The expat edition

Five Measures of Expatriation

I.        The Fan Museum

This used to be a private house in Scandinavia. It once belonged to a fan collector, who was a great traveller, and was not known to have lived there. There were no signposts to it, although it featured in some listings and I had picked up a brochure for it in a café where there were the most beautiful biscuit tins for sale that I have ever seen, with designs of apples, and a Happy Blonde Lady wig in some coffee-drinker’s shopping bag hung on the coat racks at the entrance, for this was summer. Place dissolved, as it tends to do: if the hedge had been less twiggy and the wrought iron more like weaponry, this approach to a stepped doorway via a modest paved path between wildly undimmed replaceable flowers could have been the way into a genteel dwelling in older Port of Spain. I shut up about this, as I tend to do.

(Becoming quieter and quieter so as not to appear to be living in the past: if your friend likes you his eyes will brighten and he will want to drag out fixed explanations of what for you felt like a fleeting reference to a permanent elsewhere that is continuously living and evolving within, in parallel to, and away from you. Call this the norm.)

There was a push-button doorbell but the door was on the latch so I pushed it and peeked in to a very blank hall that was not any tidier than a private house would be if one counted the ghosts of garden scissors and calling cards, stray reprimands and childish outbursts, that dropped dahlia-like into the faintly radiating silence. The ceilings were twice the height of my accustomed English rooms (ssh). A table of dieted elegance, offering more brochures, maintained its poise in an alcove to the right, unpersoned.

(I travel alone so as not to be quiet except by choice: an increase in wordlessness that is not pegged to explanation, like a national currency that has been floated in favour of independent devaluations.)

The doorway into the main space was without a door but blocked by a wrought iron trellis of the kind expected in a conservatory in a black and white film. I edged past it and straightened myself out. This manner of entrance positioned the visitor in such a way that the giant fan appeared side-on, though fully opened. Had I not known that this was the Fan Museum I could have thought that the fan in profile was a crack in a doorway to nowhere, for its side was ebony heavily covered in black lace, and the spread, the thickness of it did not appear. I walked round and looked first at one side, then at the other. It was embroidered with scarlet poppies, corn stalks and vine leaves, on a black background.

The house was narrow: in front of me I could see double glass doors, locked, to a courtyard. To either side were smaller halls with staircases turning steeply to the upper floors of this house that was narrow but winged.

I had a strong, irrational aversion to making a left or right turn. I looked around for a guide to the display, but saw only two identical mirrors in ornate gilt frames on the slightly rounded corners to the left, and a tall, spindly, gilded clock in the right corner, ticking so quietly as to add weight to the silence. The other corner, to the right, had a light patch on the caramel paint, and some protruding metal remains that looked as if a small cabinet had been affixed to the wall just too high for my comfort, at average adult Scandinavian reach. “Hello!” My voice reverted to a kind of Trinidadian that it had never used in Trinidad: a birdlike screech that would carry over a wrought metal gate (painted orange) across a yard with frizzle fowls and the odd goat.

I quickly went to the left. The room had no windows but two doors at the further corners. These were bolted and locked on the outside. In the middle was an item of furniture like two pine dressers back to back, with many drawers and one or two cupboard sections instead of shelves. I pulled open a hand-width drawer at waist height. Sealed fans were stacked in there like hairbrushes. I felt like an invader and shut it quickly. I reached up to the cabinet knob but decided against opening the door. I opened another drawer at waist height and took out the single fan that was in there. I could not tell if it was sealed or had simply dried shut. It was of light wood and dark lavender paper. Silver-white plum blossom flowered in my mind, but the fan would not open.

My hands started to hurt with the desire to touch or the recollection of touch. They developed a nervous disorder all their own. Something like cramp started to shoot up my arms. My throat and forehead felt hot. I walked around the cabinet and re-crossed the hall of the giant fan. The air seemed exceptionally still. Every one of those fans shut in the possibility of breeze. Every fan existed in the implication of stillness.

(A feeling like being cornered on a veranda in a house in Kingston in an area where the drug barons maintain their beautiful houses, cornered by nothing but the social impossibility of stepping into the street, for these areas boasted a winning safety.)

I went into the right-hand room. There was a bench with a green velvet seat and no fans, and nothing on those two walls. The bench was side on to the door and side on to a portrait facing the door. If life-sized, this portrait was of a tall man who had the shape but not the years of youth and who was turned three-quarters away. His back was bent and shaded across the shoulders as if by the habit of paying painstaking attention. This could have been his main form of love. Instead of getting up, I turned my head to look at the picture. The bench was, unusually, exactly the right height for me.

When it grew dark I thought that it might be time to take the latch off the front door and lock it. I have been laughed at for sleeping like a statue. (It is more yogic and less static; with the spine at full stretch, the lungs can excavate the air. (Ssh.)) Now sleep emerged from the borders of the body like a well-trained force whose first, long-ago, unworded battle was with their own tentativeness and who therefore show little hesitation advancing into alien terrain. First my feet folded one on to the other, soles partly touching; the seams of my legs twisted and relaxed, clasped into position like an enchanted dress gone back into a nutshell. My arms did the same and even my ribs felt as if semi-detached like a purring cat’s. I was shutting up. My eyelids shuttered. Under my tongue a word tucked itself like the head of a bird under its wing and my hair curtained the face like a blackout blind over the copper pagoda bird cage.

The sleep voice in my head was a clear murmur. What a coincidence, how productive of accidents it might have been if at that moment I had heard his name!

I was glad to visit the Museum of Fans.

 

II.       The God of Obstacles

Expatriation: my having had a patria, a fatherland, to leave, did not occur to me until I was forced to invent one. This was the result of questions. The questions were linked to my status elsewhere. Transferring between elsewheres, I had to lay claim to a somewhere, sometimes a made-up-on-the-spot somewhere. Gradually this Trinidad began to loom. Then it acquired detail. I never have returned home to it, though, not to the place that I have had to hear my own voice describe when in conversation with the Priests of the God of Obstacles, they who wield the passport stamps. This luxury of inattention, invention, and final mismatch…a ‘Trinidad’ being created that did not take my Trinidad away (my Trinidad takes itself away, in reality, over time)…that is expatriation, no? An exile, a migrant, a refugee, would have been in more of a hurry, would have been more driven out or driven towards, would have been seeking and finding not.

If the Schengen Agreement had been a person, it would have been old enough to join the army, drive, vote, marry, have a proper job, be punished in serious ways for serious offences, all this and also have a gap year before going to a carefully selected non-Oxbridge university, in its own countries. It would not have been nearly as old as I was, when I applied for a visa according to its rules. It was a whippersnapper. I would not have dated it. It was ordering me around.

Trips home to Trinidad folded neatly into trips home to the UK. My aeroplane was a double-headed snake belting across the Atlantic. Now, as a graduate student, I started to think about travelling. I had been going back home to Trinidad at every possible opportunity. My father, in Trinidad, was very ill, as he had been ever since I had known him. In my early twenties, I realized that this illness was not going to change except gradually to get worse. In some ways this realization was freedom. I started looking to cross other waters.

I had almost enough proof to satisfy the Schengen authorities that I could apply for a tourist visa: being in full-time education, the co-owner of a family house, and in a permanent relationship with a native-born UK citizen so blond, athletic and well-spoken in more than one language that he frequently was mistaken for a German. Almost enough proof.

Hopping off from Oxford to spend a spontaneous few days in Munich, I only had to book and pay for my flights and get my other half to wheedle a formal letter of invitation from the Stiftung Maximilianeum (he was on an exchange scheme there; they didn’t know me.) Oh yes, and just rustle up a few other documents, all perfectly reasonable: evidence of accommodation for the duration of the stay, declaration of ports of arrival and departure and borders to be crossed: before ringing the automated visa line and getting an appointment six weeks or so in advance of travel. Lastminute.com travellers, eat your hearts out! Who can complain when everything is planned? Proof sufficient had I given: it was no dream of mine to quit my DPhil at Christ Church to sell oranges in the streets of Europe or, perhaps, travel with a donkey, like R. L. Stevenson, or with a circus, like Robert Lax, or with a notebook, like a young man with a white shirt black poloneck recycled half-zip fleece and a flair for poetry. Thus was I saved from turning into a travel writer. Unease is relative.

Obtaining the visa was no great shakes. My other half accompanied me to the German Embassy’s hall-style waiting room. The Wielder of the Passport Stamps, plump with brown fondant hair, melted sweetly at our cross-cultural devotion. His many blushing nods embellished the ceremony of passport-stamping. He did not so much dismiss as bow away our case. This happy send-off carried me into the aloneness (I was alone most of the time) of being appreciably foreign (but in a nice way) in Munich. In the early mornings I took the air in the Englischer Garten. Large men with baying hounds bounded out of the mist and hollered greetings largely. I camped out on a guest bed in the Stiftung Maximilianeum, in a room stacked with nineteenth-century copies of the Pall Mall Gazette. Some mornings I limbered up with a swim in the basement pool of the Stiftung, which also housed the Bavarian Parliament. A single parliamentarian might be wallowing determinedly across it. Again there would be the greeting, this time something like “Well swum!” Without functional German and determined not to speak English, I tactlessly negotiated my way in French throughout streets and markets, and was given a handful of free postcards for no discernible reason at an art exhibition where the gallerist took a non-predatory shine to me. Whereas the Alice in Wonderland porters at the Oxford college where I read for my BA, MSt and DPhil with few exceptions challenged me at the college gate several times a week in a sudden fit of misperceiving me as a tourist (my floaty hot pink shirt was the trigger), the Parliamentary guard at the entrance to the Stiftung only failed to recognize me on one occasion. The minute I gave the Stiftung guard a big smile and pointed up at the window of the room where I was staying, he looked genuinely remorseful for running at me with his gun and shouting; he acknowledged our shared embarrassment with a shy All’s Clear.

In springtime I thought of travelling from Germany to Italy. My other half would be there on another exchange. With disbelief he witnessed my insistence on looking up the paperwork for such a land of sunlight. A fault line appeared in our communications. Why did he not understand? I was spontaneously attempting to cross a border! Being from a small island, I was historyless (perhaps three friends bothered to remember that I had a family background) yet I could not live up to anyone’s hope of finding a malleable girl dropped from the sky. Paperwork stuck to me, like the paper slippers shredded on the feet of a fairytale person setting off a highway of glass. I heaped myself for hours into the seats at the relevant building in Munich. Eventually, all was clear. This stamp was diamond-shaped.

Sick on the train with gin and disagreements till the air seemed yellow and accursed, I felt nightmarish unsurprise when the people with the printed list arrived in our carriage. They were checking passports. They were not sure that Trinidad was a country, though the visa itself looked all right. Some strange blindness seemed to strike them as they looked at the list. Trinidad was not on the first page; the second page had an apparent heaviness or stickiness, it would not more than half turn…What god of obstacles was moving in these officials? My then other half addressed them Germanly. I was curiously sidelined; eye contact was not made, verbal contact seemed not possible. In that moment of sidelining, the god of obstacles visited the passport controllers differently, and the name Trinidad manifested itself on their printout.

I tried to trace what shocked me in the momentary non-existence of my smaller island. To my horror, it was that I felt they should have heard of it because…because…I reposed a trust in cricket and football (games which for me fulfil two conditions of storybook romance: I admire but do not understand them) to put us on the map. I secretly did not credit our Nobel laureate(s) with making us known usefully, for example to people who checked lists in trains. I interrogated myself further and uncovered an amoral willingness to locate Trinidad geographically with reference either to tourism in Barbados or the American invasion of Grenada, possibly both, according to nothing more than what I could guess of my interlocutor’s likely interests. The important thing was to convince the list-holder that my country existed sufficiently to deserve to be looked up. How things have changed: nowadays a mention of Venezuela should be enough.

The god of obstacles stayed quiet during some years in which young Schengen and I politely ignored each other. Though having caused my British citizen too much perplexity for our attachment to endure, I was myself a British resident and had a real job at Girton College, Cambridge: I was spoken for, on letter-headed paper. I could queen it over your lists.

But the gods have a way of raising the game. This was in a year when, all my papers in order, I was about to leave Florence, independent and blithe. The young official who took my passport got a look of handsome stupidity. He scrutinized the flora and fauna that bedeck the Trinidad coat of arms. He burst out laughing, waving for a female colleague to come over. He pointed at my passport and muttered something to her. Now they both were laughing. (They looked so young.) It was half an hour before the plane was due to take off. No list of countries was in evidence.
In Italian that was vestigial, nervous, overcourteous, I asked what was the matter. Oh do not raise the question of the role of the decorative arts in border control situations, or, never judge a passport by its cover! That was, however, veritably the question. The stupid, handsome face stopped laughing. Hands gambled the passport open on random pages. The Wielders of the Stamps could not let me out of Italy. Why? Because I had a Schengen visa, yes, they could see that (it spreadeagled across a page), but I had no visa for the UK.
I gently moved the pages to show the permit that granted my right to residency in the UK. It did not cross my mind to try to explain the concept ‘Commonwealth’, though as a Commonwealth citizen I could anyway have entered the UK for a limited period without a visa. Two years’ University tutoring had taught me how to recognize pretend-reading pretty fast. These Wielders of the Stamps were just pretending to read the British residency permit.
Alas, the words were all they had: the British permit consisted of a meanly inked text, with no translation into another European Union language. Confusingly, the wording referred to ‘leave’ rather than ‘permission’, and ‘indefinite’ rather than ‘permanent’. Leave? Go? Was this something saying I should stay away from the UK for a while? Tradition, not marketing, certainly not machine translatability, must have been the force governing the choice of words.
Working in the airport of a major tourist destination not a million miles from Albion, the two young people appeared both unfamiliar with and utterly uncomprehending of this official sign. Worse yet, the stamp was lacking, was intrinsically unconvincing: it featured no coronet, no rolling waves, no rose, thistle, lion, unicorn, oak, beef, or albatross…I promptly affected dismay. What an ugly permit! How British, I cried disloyally; not a single picture! But do you mean you don’t know Trinidad? It is a beautiful island! You must visit! The beaches are brilliant, the sea is so blue! We are very friendly! We love visitors! Why have you never visited? But Italy is so beautiful too! Oh, I see I don’t know why there are no pictures for the permit but that is what the British have done!
I continued my Ministry of Tourism spiel in between rendering the meanly inked text word for word as best I could, till the Wielders of the Stamps stopped me. I sprinted on to the plane.
Did a deeper disloyalty reside in my touristification of Trinidad, which could make itself imaginable to my conversationalists only through me, or in my mock-criticism of my adoptive Britain, whose white-cliffed reputation could outface whatever I had to say?

Expatriate, I had acquired the confidence to hurtle into having to start over. It was a way of going on.

 

III.      Going Nowhere, Getting Somewhere

How was it that till questioned, till displaced in the attempt to answer, I had scarcely thought of myself as having a country, or indeed as having left a country? The answer lies peripherally in looming, in hinterland; primarily in the tongueless, palpitating interiority. Trinidad was. Trinidad is. In the same way, some confident speakers do not think of themselves as having an accent. They will say so: “I don’t have an accent! You have an accent!” In those accentless voices compass points spin, ochre and ultramarine flagella fling themselves identifiably towards this that or the other region. It is a motile version of that luxury, solidity, non-reflectivity that is the assumption of patria. So different is the expat from the refugee, who has her country on her back, or the migrant, who has countries at his back.

What would I have called home, before I began creating home? Before I had to learn to ravel up longitude, latitude, population, oil rigs, mobile phone masts, prayer flags, legality of fireworks, likely use of firearms, density and disappearance of forests, scarlet ibis, other stripes of scarlet, into a by-listeners-unvisited, communicable, substantial image of ‘Trinidad’?

Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. It is ineluctable, variegated and muscular. A flicker and drag emanates from the idea of it. Language seems capable of girding the oceanic earth, like the world-serpent of Norse legend. It is as if language places a shaping pressure upon our territories of habitation and voyage; thrashing, independent, threatening to rive our known world apart.

Yet thought is not bounded by language. At least, my experience of thinking does not appear so bound.

One day I lost the words wall and floor. There seemed no reason to conceive of a division. The skirting-board suddenly reduced itself to a nervous gentrification, a cover-up of some kind; nothing especially marked. The room was an inward-focused container. ‘Wall’, ‘floor’, even ‘ceiling’, ‘doorway’, ‘shutters’ started to flow smoothly, like a red ribbed tank top over a heaving ribcage. Room grew into quarter. Room became segment. Line yearned till it popped into curve. The imperfections of what had been built or installed: the ragged windowframe or peeling tile: had no power to reclaim human attention to ‘floor’ or ‘wall’ as such. Objects were tethered like astronauts and a timid fringe of disarrayed atmosphere was the immediate past that human activity kept restyling into present. The interiority of the room was in continuous flow. Wall, floor became usable words again in a sort of silence.

I had the sense to shut up about the languageless perception. Procedure for living.

Language is my home, I say; not one particular language.

 

IV.      Word by Word

Do you know that party or family game where each person says the first word that comes to mind, prompted by what the person before has just said? Outrages and banalities and brilliancy link up at high speed, a wedding dance of animated paperclips. I have not been able to play that game. It induces hesitation and something like a stammer. “Don’t think! You’re thinking!” – a telling-off from the party dictator. Often the uttered word would summon up another word in a totally inappropriate register or language; more often, several words at once, in a kind of bee dance; most often, no word at all: sounds and images surged up, and I searched to find something to keep the game going.  But this was not an expat phenomenon. This happened in Trinidad, too, before my move to the UK. Perhaps it was a hypersensitization to the fluidity and zigzagging of Trinidadian speech, where flowery translations of Sanskrit and the formality of the older Christian (mostly Catholic) liturgies naturally mix into the same track as the tricksy shrug and bread-and-curses everydayness of Spanish-French-Portuguese-Syrian-Chinese-Scottish-Irish-(English)? Was everyone else pretending to have one-word events in their brain, while secretly choosing from a retentissante horde?

Expatriate.
Exile.
Migrant.
Refugee.

 

V.       A Record of Illegitimate Reactions

A record of illegitimate reactions…If these words: expatriate, exile, migrant, refugee: turned up in the children’s game, what, on the instant, would be my wordless upsurge?

Refugee. Severity of the olive green cover of the J.S. Bach Preludes & Fugues book that was my master such long hours of my teens. Flight and the intricacy of flight and a scrambling to be heard and but a coming together in the end. Refugio. A cavern. Mary and Joseph, straw in a rough box? Promise of a place. Higher up than a stable and more difficult of access. A path to fall off, a lorry underside to grip to. The arrival another unpacking. The station, built or unbuilt, ever inadequate, dark and cavernous. People with fine features and ripped feet fetching water with difficulty to a place of non-recognition. Refugee should have been, in Trinidad, the Guyanese maids; the Asian East African doctors; the Sindhi shopowners, plumped under the new sun but with an unspoken…fear?…a having-feared behind eyes browner than mine, working the sharp-edged wordbatch WAR to WARES. A too-late identification. For they were not refugee, not to the mind of the child in the wordgame. Refugee had flight in it and fleeing to a huddle of wrongness; a translation into a community of incommunicability. There is brown and mid-blue, blister-purple, love-scarlet and a great deal of black in this word. There is the insistence on losing and finding, finding and not having, a home.
No, not that.

Migrant. Migrant geese or some such was where first I heard the word so as to note it, the word migrant actually not alone at origin, part of a phrase with white wings, and it is driven it is thoughtless it is magnetically on course steered by stars and obsessed with diving for food and likely to have secreted in its braincoils a chart for the way home. A cyclical, undependable word – a trait prettifying itself when observed by the other species whose skies it occupies – Migrant is all the birds of the air and I lack the balance to set off on a flight with a due destination and a warm or frosted prompting back. Migrant is cerulean and khaki and it has a lot to say for itself once encamped temporarily by a river that will do. All movement, this word. Out at elbows or tense-thighed: verbal. Absolute: adjectival. In the singular, it implies plurals: migrant isolate in so far as rising from or surrounded by settlers. The hunted, hunter, unconcerned.
No, not that.

Exile. Exile is Joseph. Exile is Moses. Exile is a boy or a man and sand and serpents. Exile is Sri Rãma. Exile is a pair of sandals on the throne for your brother will not rule in your place while you have been kept from your kingdom and have gone into the forest. Exile is an ancient song. Exile is melismatic. Exile is flattened in English. Exil in French is yet more clipped: exil is a short step from death; it is St.-Ex, St.-Exupéry crashed into the desert, or the pilot’s verray corporeal assumption into his beloved night, wind, sand and stars. Sable encore. Exile has a grain to it. Exilio, esilio is one to call from mountain tops. It is a maker of songs who can make vowels from objects, a ram’s horn, a conch shell; and I think he is male again, sinewy and unbathed for weeks on end without minding, expecting his songs to be transmitted, and when he arrives somewhere he will know how to make a fire and cook but someone else will bake the bread for him. Fire is in exile and the word burns me so I cannot use it; it is an hysterical word, I shall weep and do wrong to others in order to avenge somebody if I think hard enough about exile, a bed of scorched earth and somebody I was in love with in a dream. Exile, a constant series of disruptive transactions between resignation and prophecy. Exile is a Book of Books. Exile is a find by someone else and the bones chitter the story, so every interpretation, being late, is haunted and warped into footnotes around the song. Exile, renewer of membranes. A sweated blanket of footnotes and departed feet. I picked it up and its black and white pattern began bleeding most deeply into my appalled, osmotic hands.
No, not that.

Expatriate. Non depaysée, sin saber por qué ni por qué sé yo, unhousèd free condition. I arrive at the theme, which surely is a citation. I am incited to pluck out the heart of the mystery. I am transported on the instant to another century. Patria sings an Italian tenor. No expiry, please.

Tanya Alex Murray

Lit-Mag #37 
Myself & Others

True Accounts

The End Of Love

One year ago. Our last breakfast together. We sat at the counter, in the sleek modern kitchen of his sleek modern house. Outside, a flat white sun hammered down, eye-scorchingly bright, and it felt all wrong. It was 9 a.m, thirty degrees in the shade. In January.

Australia.

This whole country was wrong. Hot when it should be cold. Parched, no green anywhere, just shades of red. A bunch of loud, sporty white people clinging to a semi-verdant fringe; and a big, blank, red desert for the rest, inhabited only by invisible black people, rumoured to still be around there, somewhere. Probably getting drunk, according to the whites, if they ventured any opinion at all.

No wonder they got excited about that big rock in the middle. It was the only thing amounting to a view.

On a local scale: Adelaide. Main claim to fame: the first Australian city not founded by convicts. Oddly, this made it worse. It meant that Adelaide’s city fathers had chosen to come here.

Out of one impressively huge picture window, acre after acre of grid-squared, tin-roofed bungalows, rising to distant hills, where smoke wisped, and helicopters flitted; they had been fighting forest fires up there for a week now.

Out of another, the pocket Manhattan of Adelaide’s downtown business area, one square mile of not very commanding office blocks. It took twenty scorching minutes to walk there. In another twenty, you had seen everything, and wondered why you bothered.

It was three hundred miles from Adelaide to the next place of interest. And that was Melbourne.

Why had he abandoned me, and England, for this damned place, after twenty four years together?

Well, it was obvious, wasn’t it? He never had to explain himself to our friends. Just tell them the facts. They would nod, and sigh, and agree with him. Feeling sorry. For him.

How had he put it? Bluntly. David always did have a streak of ruthlessness. This was what had made him a success.

“Look, it’s simple. I’m a Gay man. I don’t want a relationship with a woman. Not even…”

Not even a freak like me.

I ‘filled him with horror’, he told me, once, in a rare access of truthfulness.

Never mind that we had lived together, and loved one another, and shared the adventure of our lives together, down all the years since we met in 1980. Just two horny, wide-eyed working class kids away from home for the first time then, out of our depth but paddling frantically in the scary, sexy waters of the GaySoc freshers’ disco, Strugglers Rest bar, Sussex University.

Ironically, the first thing we ever spoke about, the reason I summoned the courage to self-consciously shuffle my way onto the dance floor, to meet the first cool gaze of his beautiful blue eyes, was the thing that later destroyed us. In our beginning was our end.

Remember. It was the 1980s. Curly perms were in. Big flappy trousers. Make up on boys. New Romantics. And he looked the spit of someone I’d seen on telly. A grim slice-of-life documentary that scared the bejesus out of me, and for the first time put a name to the lack at the centre of me. ‘George & Julia’ it was called. A show about a rare, wonderful, sad thing. It was about a transsexual.

Weirdly, David was Julia’s doppelganger in those days, down to the bubble cut and curves. Operating on a principal of sympathetic magic, I concluded that if he looked like a transsexual, he probably was one…

…Magic, of course is a flawed belief system. And so it proved.

But not before he had taken the semi-rent boychick I’d been, the sexually experienced, emotionally crippled hustler I thought I was, and opened me up, seducing me with gifts of macaroni cheese, and other things I couldn’t cook, (which was pretty much everything). He fed me, made me laugh, and, eventually, made me love.

So for love, I spent the next quarter century burying my strangeness. I very nearly got away with it, too.

Until, one day, while he was away on business, I found myself on the Downs, belt in hand, testing tree branches for one that could take my weight.

Something had to change. It turned out to be me.

I tell people: “David took it well; He moved to Australia…”

It usually gets a laugh.

…So now it’s the last day of my first visit after my change. My flight leaves in a couple of hours.

David has a new boyfriend now, Desmond, a man apparently intent on keeping his cock, something for which David is clearly grateful. Desmond, out of deference to my feelings, is not here this morning.

It’s just the two of us. The radio is on. Leonard Cohen, ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’.

David, never one for lyrics, catches only the waltzy beat.

“Let’s dance,” he says. “Now you’re a girl, it’s allowed.”

It used to be a joke between us. Back when I was trying, so hard, to be a boy, I never danced, not even when drunk, which was often.

He gathers me in his arms, and holds me close, and we stumble through a sort of waltz, on the polished wooden floor of his shiny, me-less home.

And I’m glad he holds me close, because I’m remembering all the other times he held me. Not dancing, just holding me: watching old movies on the sofa on a wet Sunday afternoon; at the end of a shitty working day; next to me in our bed. His arms, around me.

I feel his male strength, the promise of security, that turned out to be a lie after all, and I bury my face in his shoulder, and stifle my sobs, as the music plays, and Leonard sings:

“Show me slowly what I only know the limits of,
Dance me to the end of love.”

Finally, after all this time.

We’re dancing.

 

I don’t need a friend in Australia.

I don’t need a friend in Australia.

Ten thousand miles is too far to reach out and touch a warm hand, after a hard day in a cold country.

What I need is:
A soft body next to mine, a hug, a kiss and a kind word;
Not this emptiness on the sofa, or in my bed;
Not this echoing silence in my home.

I don’t need a friend at all.

What I need is:
The lover I had, the soulmate, the companion, the teller of tales; the man who went on adventures with me, and made with me an adventure of the whole world, and everything in it.
I need the sharer of rocking chairs and good wine.
I need the man I was meant to grow old with, and die with.

Instead, you offer me a friend in Australia.

A dwindled-down, degraded thing, one friend among many.
As if the third of my life I gave you, the best and freshest of it, could be traded in so cheaply, for something so small.

I fear our stilted conversations now, by phone or webcam; my frozen smile the mirror of your own.

We skate cautiously on fragile filigrees of chat about nothing, over ice-chasms of silence and regret; sensing always your new boyfriend, lurking just out of shot.

So, please, don’t call me any more.

I don’t need a friend in Australia.

– To David, on your birthday, Brighton, UK, Jan 2007

Kris T Kahn

Travel & Transitioning

Bidding

Travelling, you realise that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents…
– Italo Calvino

Any progression, whether by aeroplane or steam engine, deserves a sense of reflection.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that the two words are not quite as dissonant as one might expect, despite their not fulfilling the demanding rigours of poetic form.  When I pass through the tunnel, when all goes black, it is the moment before everything else—it is the moment before language in which I learn that touch (sheltered by shadow) is the primary instinct.  It is the moment in which I mourn you most for the fingers on my own hands are nothing like the calloused ones on yours; the touch is an anachronism, it does not work because we did not work.

At least this is what the sudden delve into blackness tells me.

The sudden lamp-posts emerging; the flicker of life in gas vapours along the sidelines of the track.  There was none of this; there was none of that.  I think of where I once was (wherever it is I happen to be coming from, returning from) and where I belong—which is not the same as my destination but which, things being as they are, I must name as such.

How can I name something as my own when you are no longer mine?

The unsaid cry echoes through the aeroplane or the train, its cabins bustling with what-ifs as though whatever I might cry out in the darkness—those things I cannot say in the light of morning with another body beside me; those things I cannot say to you in the light of day as the dead must always have their rest—seems contagious.  The others, if there happen to be any others, shudder and jolt.  It is not because of the captain or the driver.  There is actually a sudden shift of air; no one can breathe—the sense of drowning becomes close, closer, until we all realise that we’ve moved.

Moving does not imply anything involving possessions.  It is not the scuffling of furniture—this is yours and this is mine—along the already-cracked wainscoting.  Moving is not moving at all, and the aeroplane and the steam engine know this as well as you and I.

Moving is remaining stationary, keeping you harboured in the safety of a travel valise.  Moving is sensing danger, keeping you quiet from my oppressive lover.  Moving is keeping the ashes close to me in case I happen upon a body of water that resembles the one you saw in flames.

There will be no other.  I am not sure what you want me to do but I am absolutely certain of what it is you need.  And so I go on.  The cities change their names, their languages, their symbols, so that everything looks hieroglyphic—except for the sensation of touch: my fingers on your cheap pine box.  My heart wrapped somewhere in that plastic bag even though I carry it through tunnels—of night and of day—to do your bidding.

I always will.  And you will it so.  The sense of place determines how I feel but I promise you, wherever you are, that it is never different from the first moment.  No.  I swear.

Julia Carpenter

Man, Woman, Knife

Softly now, quiet. You don’t want to wake her. She always complained when you woke her, she hated that. Sometimes she would call the police when you made a noise outside her window. But that was only when she was alone. When she had that thug with her she would send him out. What a big tough man he thought he was. Standing there in his silky boxer shorts and puffed out chest, yelling ‘come out here, you fucking pervert. Come and fight like a man.’ What would he know about being a man? He doesn’t satisfy her. He satisfies himself, and it’s all over in three minutes. Who is he to question your manhood? I bet his mother bought him those damn boxer shorts.

You know she’s alone tonight. You’ve already arranged that. Now you just have to surprise her. She loves suprises, but I don’t think she’s going to like this one. You once cared what she liked, what she didn’t like. Not anymore. She hurt you, betrayed you. She needs to know, she needs to feel what she’s done to you. You have to show her.

* * *

The blade seems out of place lying next to her flesh. You wonder what you ever saw in her. She’s so pale, so vulnerable, so weak. Her soft skin, barely visible amongst the tangle of blood and white sheets makes the knife look so much sharper, deadlier than it did lying motionless amongst the clutter of the kitchen drawer. It is no longer simply a utensil, a piece of cutlery, but an instrument of destruction; the force that filled the gap between you and this once living being. Staring at it now, it represents so much with its shiny edge, blurred by crimson. You see everything in that knife; the love, the desire that rapidly turned to hatred and the greed for revenge. As you pick the knife up and wipe her clean with the corner of the bed sheet, you think how she deserves a name. A beautiful name. Victoria, yes. Call her Victoria. Victoria slipped so bravely through the flesh; so boldly, so carelessly. Even the bones, the so-called strength of the human body, meant nothing to Victoria. She has come from the dark depths of the kitchen to complete your bidding better than you could have ever imagined. She has ridded of the soft weak mass, the vermin that plagued you.

‘Victoria …,’ you whisper, as she plunges into your heart.

Dieter Sperl

when the landscape ceases

the door is dripping it is damp the tongue is exhausted for seconds only wheezing the tongue hanging out with all these fingers and teeth and ears in a wheezing to dawn like this until the body ripped open on the floor the heart in its beating in a passionate new year’s beginning the chin is in the armpit the finger moves out only flashes like each pulse-beat in this dripping and pouring from all the hair the tongue cuts across the field the bodies and faces turned thrown to the ground to the ground and lain there the forearms only a few body-parts like now thrown limited to a few body-parts from all pores everywhere it pours from all the hair no beginning at all on to the ground like this without any fever always somewhere else long since the folds between a finger wheezings over the calendar in a snowstorm through the screaming on the corridor to creep out in the clapping of the crowd out of the last garden gnome when the fork into the face of a piece of meat on a morning like today to wake up like this on a morning like this to go out like this

the street is empty still take another ten breaths today wolves and fish populate these senses there in the middle of a thick forest you follow the tracks stand still you follow the tracks with the scent on several branches at the same time like this in this wheezing near the ground to follow until the breath is perceptible the breath perceptible the pleasure stays long on the ground men kneel on this ground and hold their heads in the grass they lament the death perhaps they are lamenting themselves no trembling now the glistening sun and fast shadows in front of eyes a stone is thrown against the sun such a wheezing the later twitching of the faces what’s been suppressed grows long pushing until it strikes us in the face and is already gone as soon as it struck us the fingers in the soft neck in the crevices long seconds only this sun which stands open there a telephone conversation early in a morning a bird goes past infiltrated by february by ants insects they run so fast

there are no more images there the train goes irregularly slowly something is flying never mind aquarius and autumn on these fingers so near that the salt the salt on the fingertips begins to jump the cracks for example here in laughter behind the horizon for a forest assembled the family bent forwards wheezed on to the ground on a station lies a fir-tree branch on a yellow line like this left over from a christmas from the last one probably that pushed itself forward into the new year on this skin there these senses the station manager waves from his camera no more waiting now no waiting at all only a dying and a living that was hardly noticed hardly noticed in the natural shadow-play of the trees a cat runs across the street don’t come back

thirty-eight feet with ears standing upright alone in summer in packs in winter when they are hungry in general they rest during the hottest hours of the day running fast as if blurred two old people are wearing leather gloves a buzzard is sitting on a cable around him only this white winter landscape only at the end does it begin to change into hills when the head is twisted quite far round wheezing just above the ground long lines in white mountain landscapes only this wheezing an old child is defying his birthday his tongue is friendly leather gloves with the fingers cut off and all other forms of gloves smoke rises up two birds beneath a bridge there will have to be a lot of animals there the trees group together or they appear as trunks a separate population of spruce and scots pine with size thirty-four rubber boots on the ice-rink in the forest slid there run there jumped over the wooden side fallen on your bottom hit the ice half with your hands half with the back of your head the ice is bleeding between the hairs our next stop the old faces often get quite hard before they implode the old faces as long as it’s still possible with a board hung in the wind when again we’re beaten from these heartbeats these heartbeats nothing fights against them in order to announce our fear as well when individual people when individual people are struck dead or their death’s hushed up or they departed early the dead win their feelings back through their living representatives when they are addressed thousands of culprits millions of culprits have lived in one family it’s only another forty minutes now thirty minutes another few minutes a wheeze tongue hanging out

she has sunspots on her reddish-fair skin when the landscape ceases she begins to follow to pursue the rapid trail of footsteps yes she has sunspots when she has left the landscapes behind her a few cuts above the knee it only rained once in five days to start off like this with these feet on the ground scattered between the heaps of rubbish in the sky slow rainships cruise the rumble of an aeroplane comes later several days until clouds hear the drums going on many a sunday to wheeze like this alone over the ground still another thirty minutes a few seconds now gulls screech behind the curtain through the curtain when they cast in lights movement between the dogs sit in the forest and stay between the leaves lie until it’s morning rapid wingbeats cold wind on your ears but a certain a certain very slow rumble is closely interwoven with the spring you can perhaps hear the steps in the glass if you could only hear better the steps in the glass with your coat open as if they were dancing the fishes before lively rainy days quite near where they’re at home and the sounds of grinding from the dismantling section they hang at night over the suburbs as if they were dancing from the side into the holding stack in the smell of hot hotplates you put off your happiness to a day in the midday heat no animal in sight only a car is standing there abandoned with a yawning abyss your feet in empty space so that the bodies between the trees begin quite suddenly to tremble the hands on the hunt then on the hunt then to do something daily to wheeze tongue hanging out two wolves are running fast entangled in the snow to the point of being totally surprised veiled women often in black children playing as any pulse-beat fragile the gaze wanders over pine forests and hill-ranges the lush meadows can hardly be held up by its own body-weight it’s just above the ground only a crawler lane keeps the ground in order there are two legs four legs they rush over the ground just above the ground all the flotsam that comes from the land and from time far behind the hills there where the horizon begins nowhere no waiting far and wide this sun the screeching of the gulls beneath a sunday the wrist two muscles for this winter lie waiting for battle or fortune then the animals sound as if from silence as if from talking there the mouth laughs the children stand in the rain at the front door under the roof it’s been raining for hours two hours their mother comes with her shopping bag and umbrella in her hand not a very loud day despite the rain no real memory but the rain the rain so unceasing has no end in sight the children are not waiting for the rain to stop it doesn’t stop it won’t stop any more wheezing at the front door under the porch it’s raining and lightning with dirty and grazed knees where were the girls where were they she’s wearing black boots and looking out of the window only the rain really clap hands in their collection through the gap between window and curtain where the child heckles on all fours four feet it’s four feet running over the carpet into this gap in a midday heat outside in front of the house behind the house madcap rushed running headlong between the clothes-poles always a lot of heat and wet to the skin fallen in this heavy rain thirty eight feet rushing from the dust into the rain from the glowing heat from midday into the downpour into a cloudburst the heavens are bursting it’s raining from all feet down at the front door where were the girls where were they on that day outside in the weather with their clothes totally soaking only this wheezing this lessening wheezing over the years the wheezing lessens at this front door it’s quieter there’s more spoken about the future assumes proportions a well-ordered day makes its appearance the fingers get older to walk with a torn-off sun-hanger walk more quickly then more slowly there are two legs they push forwards then backwards then four legs near the ground another twenty minutes still another twenty minutes the days are overcast infection occurred long ago the child hasn’t got a temperature to come like this out of such a morning with plenty of fresh air if they are warmly wrapped up to come out like this especially when they have a cold just compare that the body is there the earth is there something has changed the windspeed for a few minutes there’s just sun and dirt on your finger tips a light breeze is here five days have passed then a bird then a second one all at once almost every view is oriented on the line of the horizon often stunned for long seconds only chapped fingers the only movements the year has given away colour after colour

drink as fast as a wolf drink as fast as a dog feet and fingers look for holds only just above the ground beneath a pile of stones beneath a layer of freshly fallen snow look out of the window just here the settlement begins on the shelf lie knitting the school exercise books of the daughters and jeans waiting to be shortened there are four square metres all round the house at the entrance five square metres of meadow with simple flowers with a check pattern the shirt is ironed the blouse is ironed the photos of their daughters in the living room on a sideboard the daughter as a five-year-old the daughter as a thirteen-year-old the other daughter a few years afterwards only a very few years the other daughter as a nurse what did she look like as a fifteen-year-old what did she look like when she was still going to primary school as a seven-year-old and then as a twenty-year-old what must they have looked like the two daughters so that they didn’t have to go to the factory like insects that fly up they sleep facing forward and in summer there are many of them

here at all the rivers and flooded areas there the thunder ceases and no hail and no rain falls on to the earth any more on a morning like this there are twenty minutes still twenty minutes just above the earth follow the shadow-lines of the high clouds sometimes the fire also gets out of control and you can hear a noise you can hear this noise there are men and women they last a certain time they are at home over there among themselves just as they are here on the street above the ground when they wheeze up and down the feet yearn for nothing the hands yearn for nothing the sky enters our experience burning sweat runs abandoned from a face these few evenings in summer on which you were able to sit under the stars outside these evenings somewhere rain far away in front of a shop on a country road a soup with cheese swimming in it the houses step nearer there are early noises coming from the street or from the mountains early noises from a kitchen when they were washed up to press forward like this at our feet

on a sideboard are the photos of their daughters the photos of their sons a young woman is kicking a chestnut against a tree very many fallen and cut down trees a child is using a branch to draw on the ground far behind a crow is landing an elderly married couple is creeping over the meadow a man with a hat is approaching on a bicycle an old mercedes with people just as old stables on the right side with one rear leg the skewbald mare is scratching itself on its ears permanently birds fly high in the sky once again the horse scratches itself with its rear leg a woman claps her hands several times one child explains to another one that you should only feed a horse with your bare hands another twenty minutes the celebrations have been in full swing for a long time

there are words for monday words for tuesday rain and heat or rain and autumn you’re walking in the sun now you’re walking in the sun tomorrow no longer to wait for anything

over there fifty people are being swept under the table it doesn’t take a week three days perhaps twenty minutes there were two feet four feet they went with their desires to survive they went home on their way there they stopped still hanging in their names there are two feet wheezing over the ground the washing hung in the wind just above the ground wooden fences that you can smell but september still hasn’t been sailed through yet a few accords animals close by only step by step now only step by step now before the sun disappears she doesn’t leave the house very often any more she mustn’t fall ill any more either there’s no-one else there on a shop car park cows are sunning themselves perhaps a few seconds or fewer

the whole body clings to the ground as far as possible crawling over it slowly and effortlessly it is warm here only the trees tower upwards a body runs along a straight otherwise no living thing was to be seen the rotations of the hands in many variations until the salad with the hot potatoes until the salad has disappeared as it were only the empty bowl with vinegar is left standing in the middle of the table until it’s taken away until the plates are likewise taken away remember this the empty table with four hands with eight hands depending still listen simultaneously without a signal without anyone clapping their hands listen to the chairs being put away pushed back from the table then disperse only the voices left that go like drums in the early afternoon the wind opened into a spring into a stone

there are two feet they’re running quickly beneath the clouds up and down a flat expanse there are four people a woman a girl then a dog stepped on a dandelion in a second one there they’re running straight over this meadow to wheeze the scream of a painted child no real illumination no real joy but what then this keeping on a lead of the whole body to go out on a day like this with your mouth gaping open

count to four count to five before they’re quite born with violent nose-bleeds a water pistol is working on an old ruined wall again and again seconds go through my head in my september in my october the tv appearance of a donkey twelve days have passed perhaps ten days away over a fence over a metal fence an avenue on which many black horses are running time of rain with the water time of flowers with the wooden steps which lead up to the street with the wheezing a twitching of the eye breaks out of the eye a man is lying stripped to the waist on a wooden bench it’s march outside or april much too cold still or may behind the church spire there’s only a light breeze if you approach him he won’t notice many clouds are moving across a clear sky without indicating any direction there are images of a little town on a day like this you don’t need to notice anything go barefoot over the meadow go barefoot a cat lies lazily on the warm wall of the church with its feet stretched out why do you want to sleep you can’t feel any memory in your hands and so in the end you don’t hit any birds whatsoever

the sparse rays of the sun have been seen for days the sun returning now is especially welcomed by the children in the schools and nurseries sun festivals are celebrated and colourful pictures painted twenty-four hours make a day then the years then the years from the sky birds fall we simply join them a strand of hair out of the eye streaming cat over there at night crow big bird people on the street find the tempo in which they are hunted the fast flying up of the birds not to wait for anything any else don’t wait for anything else step by step the speaking of the river

break off step by step the speaking of the river it smells of rain the wet grass smells of rain to do something in this way to wheeze with the wind in his eyes the stranger falls into the sleep from which he will awaken only years later like the people from the house opposite they’re looking out of their windows again then no-one will be looking again for days on end fall asleep on a park bench in a sun only this light breeze and freckles which stretch to the horizon tear at the body again and again outbreaks of time and laughter no foot-prints there’s no path prepared with these steps on the face no path viewed from the distance a small figure disappears between restlessly dancing wheat-fields nearby the light refracts into the last piece of country road with the search for hidden fish and arrows in the corners of the rooms in the corners of the clouds cheerful whistles drawn on a gateau wooden fences one moment from a distance of ten metres when you’re sad when you sit on a tree from a distance of eleven metres orange-segments which keep a circle warm when you hop over kerbs heaven and hell in the a morning you don’t listen to the screaming like lightning as if thrown to the ground the forearms the stomach the feet to hear the wheezing only just above the ground to wheeze only just above the ground washing fluttering when the wind then when the wind comes in the wind hangs itself on the washing a man with his birds in a park in guangzhou 1998

to look like this at the water like every pulse-beat no pulse here then it’s quiet then it’s quiet here no pulse only talk into my mouth when you make soup when you look at a star into the very highest rain a car smaller than an ant smaller than a pin with six cameras positioned at the window what’s happening in the street staying up and waking up on a park bench in a sun fall asleep march outside still far too cold to lie on the benches in the same places on the slope behind the house wooden steps that lead up to the highway into the handkerchief on such a day on a day like this there’s a voice which is knocking a river which is flowing past there’s a forest here the summer if falling on the field the stones are bringing snow into the bird-year with a noise on the tongue not for a needle even only a scratch to fall through it with your hands

there’s a time to be contented there’s no time for this one day one year perhaps later there are four feet then only two feet on a morning like this like this to creep out walk out the air rushes into the room when you open the window where the sun falls apart like this on to the ground on to the street it’s behind the house there are steps running up wooden steps there are two feet no-one comes too late only one child then there are two there are two girls they have to make their way on foot on the highway three kilometres four kilometres they walk wrapped up in their thick coats they have woollen hats on their heads and footprints the sun strikes the ground the animals are now a gust of wind the girls are walking it is a summer on the road dust whirls when they wheeze just above the road they can hear the noise of the gravel in their noses they can hear the dust with their hands they sketch their wishes in the air many wishes for later on this highway they were invented these wishes stamped in laughter in crying in a nursery in a bedroom then they cut with these tears this air is a bird tossed upwards just like now thousands of mothers one day one year perhaps later you walk through one life through two lives there are eight feet they are still wheezing eight feet wheezing up on the highway tall brushwood the yellow lines down the middle lead the eyes until you turn off they’re hot days stagnant water completely broken up insects crawling into something birds of summer only smoking on the hill in front of the house

vienna, end of february 99

version: Friday, 24 May, 2002, 4:37:24 PM

Dieter Sperl

Letters from Vienna

Whenever I had set about it as a sixteen-year-old, when as a twenty-year-old, now as a thirty-two-year-old, so when I was a seventeen-year-old, when as a seventeen-year-old I had got to know someone, a woman, a child, a man, a warm expanse, or moments of a taut movement, absently lying in the sun, or just parts, individual parts, an individual part, jet of water, when something fell into me, took me with it, a desire set itself free, a desire which set me free, for hours perhaps only minutes, perhaps there was no desire, I don’t know, never known where it came from, why it came, a strand of hair perhaps, perhaps there was no desire at all, but what then, I wrote a letter in my head, I went through streets, through a wood, I wrote a letter in my head, whenever it was a love story, perhaps it was never a love story, always something else, I don’t know, just like now, I don’t know, people don’t write letters like this, people don’t write letters like this, even now people don’t write letters like this, come in the children in the train compartment call to their mother who is outside the compartment smoking a cigarette, come in or you won’t come with us, hunt with hounds periods of being in love, perhaps, give yourself up, you had to betray the rules, and not occupy any more room, simply break off, simply break off now, three further cats say there is water, this radical claim to completeness is shattered, I don’t ask, where does it come from otherwise, a fascistic line, I don’t ask where does it come from otherwise, where do these catatonic effects come from, on this summer’s morning I can’t listen to any more music, it’s an attack of affection for this world, at a table with plants on it, walk to a mountain, when we hadn’t noticed each other, walk along a mountain, everything as if all at once, what a body, which then draws me to just in front of this world, what a body, and when I then went to the front of the house, we were looking in the same direction, the window opens, the difference throws us into our own monologue, and with my feet frozen into the ground, so much time between the noises, I said to the doctor, and raindrops between the wind, a car driving up, I don’t know, cold on my temples, cold on my skin, raindrops like ice crystals all over my body, you creep through the grass like a Red Indian, suddenly the drops tear through the trees, the drops tear because I’m not even nearby, other realities speak quite normally, as if I had caught a letter between these drops, between the crystals, caught a letter, but what is the difference actually between people who live on their experiences and those who live for life, at the beginning there are intensities, then time comes along and takes us with it, then fears come along and take us with them, we are permanently making compromises to bear it, as a child I was always sad when it stopped raining, looked into the puddles of water, out of the window, between the curtains, with my head between the curtains, dragged across a table for just a few minutes, so infatuated with this absence, I don’t know, I’m only imagining it, when all traces have been torn up, and brush the first snow out of the window, then go hunting, then go hunting, when it breaks out, as pain, it then breaks out again and again, with the fur boots, like a joke, then hurled against the wall, with these frozen fingers, fallen back like this, a seventeen-year-old beginning a letter, like a thirteen-year-old, or later as a twenty-year-old, I never began this letter, this letter never needed to be written, because you would like to say something which reaches beyond itself and actually stupidly enough stayed at home, only here, only here, never look for the answers who you are and where you are, this body, which is painful perhaps, you’d like to be so far away here and now, these desires which grow out of physical attacks, and what they end in, these fingers, when we change our position in the morning, take our first steps and take stock of ourselves, in the smallest movement, like storm clouds brewing, always to say now, although you’ve already lost yourself with those earnest movements which only make us look ridiculous.

as the saying goes

to give your sheep or your cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him.
shunryu suzuki

then whenever there’s a light or there isn’t a light or the darkness on your head the cars driving or the lights the lights which they cast in behind the curtain through the curtain when they cast in lights movement between the dogs sit in the forest and stay between the leaves lie until it’s morning rapid wingbeats of a magpie cold wind on your ears but a certain a certain very slow rumble is closely interwoven with the spring you can perhaps hear the steps in the glass if you could only hear better the steps in the glass between the plants and the stones just towards morning past the bird on the roadsides it was always winter then or autumn never summer with your coat open no longer right in the head as the saying goes everything forgotten perhaps a few seconds or less perhaps you only imagine it now one voice now another that was your childhood they’ve given it up no questions not even any more questions the old conversations when they come and force themselves into the here and now how are things they ask just as how things are we answer when they come and ask us in me in the plants and animals in this october as if they were dancing the fishes before lively rainy days quite near where they’re at home and the sounds of grinding from the dismantling section they hang at night over the suburbs as if they were dancing from the side into the holding stack in the smell of hot hotplates you put off your happiness to a day in a sun outside the city just towards morning to tear off farther and farther away on so many car journeys at night when it was raining above all at night when it was raining with your head pressed to the window the wipers in your head feeling the lights of the cars driving by before it had become sunday in the car in the morning on the way to work in the traffic jam before the car finally got warm before it finally got warm in the car you were usually already there on the tennis court in the midday heat only the bodies they’re still running no animal in sight only a car is standing there abandoned you don’t know you only imagine it with a yawning abyss your feet in empty space someone is screaming someone is having convulsions in my chair until the days are almost exhausted the faces behind the houses along the walls on this morning people are going round so close is it the strong wind when something makes the body vibrate when things get noticed everything almost dies out after a day such weak traces and flies under your palms that the bodies between the trees from day to day quite suddenly begin to flutter the hands on the hunt then on the hunt then to question to look to question on and on to continue like this on and on when steps suddenly move into a corner death follows another christmas never comes never comes push the pram through the countryside on and on to question to continue like this on and on the heart flickers on the screen go to another town sitting down in the sun be overlooked in streaming rains and push the pram through the neighbourhood start a file of what you’ve done wrong something like memory and dream or the clouds then towards morning all the appearances which are being spoken do an about-turn and come towards you step by step there is no reason to do something every day to wheeze tongue hanging out to grow up like this what’s been contained for so long when it forces itself with superior strength it suddenly forces itself out everything lies out in the open and plunges down into the staircase on my head cactuses are growing two dogs are running fast entangled in the snow to the point of being totally surprised blue window-openings veiled women often in black children playing almost everything grows here like each pulse-beat the minutes or seconds then one keyword then another girls show off their dolls after they’ve been beheaded always long since somewhere else each pulse-beat marry or not have children aiming straight for the goal without a break to force forward like this at our feet now one childhood now another a few steps a few steps still acceptable long seconds only sun and dirt limited to a few parts of the body only the flamingos leave behind their attitude to the rain in the night I had built a bird cage without moving a finger tongue hanging out when we come to perch in front of the mountain of work tongue hanging out with whole heart and body on the tennis court behind the house father’s superior at work a tall man with a black beard and affected movements is playing against a small boy but he’s stuffed himself so much that he’s pulling strips of peppers out of his mouth and throwing them in the rubbish bin with stimulated hands caught up in such weather with all this hair just a few hours now one birth now another at this hour this place now and no reason to reach a particular state tongue hanging out

Translated by Gordon Burgess.

Thomas White

Love and Pain

Sacrifices Of Love

„[T]here was no meaning
anywhere outside their
own hearts“
Graham Greene

They were unashamed lovers,
Like ancient Aztec priests
Ripping out each other’s
Hearts: burnt offerings to gods
Who lord over riotous feasts,
Scavenged by passion-hungry mobs.
But jealousy was the still sharper knife
That finally brought some peace
To the moans of the lovers‘ sacrifice.
Splattered temples of their souls
Are now the refuge of sad beasts
Who mildly graze in a world gone cold.

The Incredible Shrinking Bohemian

At times like these – of too many coffees, of too many discarded illusions – Bill Kroth’s memory conjured up fragments of the 50s‘ horror flick, The Incredible Shrinking man. What vaguely floated back to him was the ultimate loser, a man who somehow, Bill can’t remember exactly why or how, was touched with nuclear fall-out and who thus poisoned shrank absurdly into a ridiculous gesticulating little figure, harassed by a gargantuan house cat, finally doing battle against a mammoth spider in the basement of his own house – a sort of pseudo-Kafka-style „Metamorphosis‘ for the early Nuclear Age. Bill smiled slightly at his clever literary talents.

A bit of a self-fancied film buff-historian, frustrated script writer and philosophy major drop-out – a man of huge ambitions but the author of a rather brief resume – he wondered if there had been any effort to remake this film to conform to the tastes of the modern audience. His mind is instantly filled with a thousand and one scenarios he could submit to contests or producers. First there is himself – reduced to the size of a match stick – taking up brave arms against the cockroach infestations of this Eastern Suburb café – a darkly comedic script which would yet contain a timely and trendy (a box office necessity) warning against a bioengineering technology run amok. (His protagonist and main character – but maybe not use himself, a business-type might be more appropriate – answers a false ad seeking „subjects“ for a new treatment for chronic bad breath. Instead he wakes up as the New Shrinking Man – the offspring of a ghastly genetic experiment gone terribly wrong). An even wider more self-satisfied grin crosses his face: Wow! This story „has legs“ and they are NOT short. Bill chuckles at the thought of his anti- hero constantly losing height, buying new suits every 3 or 4 months, finally getting sacked because his body cannot rise above his desk thuspreventing his manager from noting whether Bill is even performing his assigned duties, perhaps a landmark industrial relations action or workers‘ compo claim follows, a bit of social/political satire would find its perfect venue in these scenes. Then sadly, but still humorously, the day of reckoning: His heretofore loyal wife declares that she is finally leaving him. His sex organ has diminished to the size of a „pin prick“. (Smugly, Bill almost laughs out loud at his own cleverness). Even desperate promises from the shrunken man that one day (and soon) he can offer unique sexual satisfactions such as crawling between her legs and tickling her clit madly do not suffice. Bill envisions the final scenes: The New Shrunken Man barely keeping his head above the towering threads of the pile carpet watches his wife’s ocean-liner sized high heeled shoes bound gently across the soft fabric desert of the living room toward the skyscraper of the front door, the door knob a huge brass alien moon in the morning light, her long, gaily –pinkish fingernails approaching it like the pointed heads of missiles, leaving him behind in this vast universe of a house vulnerable to everything from a vacuum cleaner to vengeful household pests…

„More coffee?“, a tarted up waitress disturbs him some what brusquely, interrupting what Bill has now convinced himself is the nascent design for a mega-million blockbuster…

Bill does not reply: he merely glares down at his minuscule glass of (now cold) latte he has been sipping for, seemingly, an hour. It is getting harder and harder, he silently fumes, to find a café to be an artist in. All so predictable – and so bloody depressing. Fat cat real estate agents move in after getting wind of a trendy area: then they drive up the rents after which your old cheap café or pub is tarted up, and charges you a small bomb like, he thinks ruefully, your reliable old girlfriend suddenly charging you for a date or sex. This waitress has no doubt been trained to sell, not serve: a glass of latte, a dish of prawns, even her body: it makes no difference… After these reflections (which he quickly footnotes with a mental note of self-congratulation), he replies: „NO, I am right, thanks“. Slightly wincing, then steeling herself as if coming to attention, she throws out a distinct „fuck you“ look: immediately she retires to the service bar area where, instantly forgetting the previous exchange, she attends intensely to her painted, chipped nails while occasionally pausing to perfunctorily flirt with the kitchen boy whose own attention seems more drawn to a bowl of something he is stirring than to her episodic, watery blue glances.

God how great it is to have an interesting mental life, Bill complacently reflects, as he surveys the local help. They’re just, no doubt, bored, poor buggers. It is boredom really, he concludes, not money that makes the world go round – money is just the drug that feeds the emptiness – again he glances at the waitress and kitchen boy who still evidence no great passion nor profound thought – of many stale, dull lives. Contented now that he has banished, at least in his soul and heart where it really counts, the encroaching Philistine hoards, Bill Kroth, independent intellectual, shifts his bearded visage eagerly toward his sheet of notes, written in his trademark, unintelligible scrawl, and begins to scribble furiously. Some jealous (ex-)friends once described his creative writings as „Kroth’s Froth“. No more you fuckers, he curses angrily as he bears down on his pen as if it were a drill hungry for oil: I will show them.

Untutored In Humanity’s Greater Pain

Somewhere in this neighbourhood
they are murdering children,
from all those shrill squeaks
and pipes it must be with
the edge of a knife.

To comfort myself, I fancy
COMPASSIONATE murders
quick as a snort, a clean hit
that cuts the ageing short;
maybe a dwarf

untutored in humanity’s
greater pain with only
a truncated knowledge
of larger slaughters
in his compressed frame.

The purple squiggle
of his tattooed biceps
moves up and down
as he methodically
slices his little victims‘ necks.

He is anxious to emphasise
that he selects only according
to size: since he barely feels
any pain at what he sees
(reasons he)

„My victims will feel even less
if they are shorter than me“.