Here we follow up on last issue’s poetry page ‘On the Written Word’ with a collection of poetry ‘On the Spoken Word’. We start with Roger Elkin’s evocative Ironies More than Orange, which effectively expresses the poetry to be felt in the patterns and rhythms of an EFL student’s speech. Meanwhile, in shadow: dwelling: Jessica Goodfellow examines the experience of expatriate limbo through her narrator’s incisive focus on the nuances of specific words.
And while on the topic of specific words, how could we not finish with a Dirty Word from Bruce McRae? Not a teacher in sight in this piece, but what teacher could not be entertained by the hyperbolic energy of its vivid, cartoon violence? Hence, a special dispensation for Uncle Elmer’s x-rated mouth!
Ironies More than Orange
Dong Minh Man Tells us about the Cu Chi tunnel system
He’s usually straight-faced, almost bland, as he negotiates
the pitfalls of English grammar, unaware of how the consonants
lay their traps for him, but, today, his face brightens into lantern:
eyes lively, eyebrows dancing, his mouth, lips, tongue
rehearsing the mantra he’s rehearsed from childhood:
The American they fire the babies
fire the children the woman
fire cows other animal
They fire the Buddha even
They burn the house the crop burn trees
Take their leaves their fruits burn them
The American they burn them
They bomb poison water poison the river
Spray chemical you know agent orange
flame napalm the ground all burn
Our family wasted gone still now born unformed
in the second third generation
But the trees leafs back again
The mangrove the rubber the bamboo
they grow their leaf they thick and strong
They fruit four season many fruit
Our people farmer by day soldier in night
They dig pit make swing-trap
American they step and swish it spin
They fall in bamboo spike kill him he die
Some soldier of our they live ten eleven year
under the ground dig deep three level
Dig tunnel tunnel very dark No no light
Have men and woman keep separate
Have like hospital you know under the ground
Have escape to keep safe
But all no stay alive they die
Our soldier secret know only three thing
walk without trace turn many leafs to hide
cook without smoke give morning mist be brother to the smoke
talk without speak teach fingers to walk words
Falling silent, his eyes deepen to grievances.
Forty years on, he understands the ironies that lie
in clichés such as actions speak louder than words
and the future’s bright, the future’s orange.
Dwelling in a foreign land, time is the only familiar
tableau, last locus. Even your shadow falls aslant here,
aping you strangely, or are you really hunched and scurrying
along the sidewalk? When did you grow so much
smaller? It is easy to become nostalgic. One easy thing.
Clearly time is not a landscape to make a home in.
Your beloved, in whose beloved city you now dwell,
agrees one of you has an advantage. But who? Remind
your beloved dwell, from Old English, meant to lead
astray, to wander. As ravel has twisted into unravel
and also its opposite. Meanwhile, your fingers twirl
a key ring. Abide, suggests your beloved, say you abide here,
remembering too late that abide echoes to endure,
to tolerate, to bear. Are all the words for holding still
so fraught? You both settle on reside, free
of overtones, swinging your legs over the balcony
that overlooks the park where you go sometimes
alone to feed the little yellow birds that remind you
of your childhood home. Neither you nor your beloved
suggests you claim to live here. Secretly you think
you dwell here, you are raveling, you are unraveling—
becoming opposite, and opposite’s opposite. Only
your shadow lives here, still having everything
it has always had. Because your body is its roof.
Because you are its home. Its homeless home.
A dirty word left Uncle Elmer’s mouth.
A nasty little word, not nice at all.
It flew around the house wildly,
ricocheting off the lampshades,
killing the parakeet, tearing mum’s new curtains,
leaving a filthy stain on every wall and knick-knack,
scratching paint, even cracking the fishbowl.
The dirty word bit Aunt Gladys on the lip.
It hit Davina in the temple, causing much concern.
My father said, “Elmer.”
“Yes Nelson.” My father said,
“I wish you wouldn’t swear in front of the children.”
The kids, meanwhile, were under the house,
playing with matches and porn.