Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Implausible Birds

Implausible Birds

by K. Robinson

The sort of vase described in
Ian McEwan's novel, Atonement.
A gift. A curse on me self-cast. A Sino-sin 
I signed with my intent, and all Verdun's 
exploding wealth now written in my skin;
my brain forever battered by those guns. 

Or was it a theft? Sometimes a man concussed 
would seem quite sound, so peaceful in repose. 
Inside - a soupy mess, his bones like dust 
dispersed by wind and in a river froze. 

Not so a vase. It's either cracked, uncracked. 
Cursed, uncursed. It has two states alone. 
I kept it whole. Its faculties intact. 
So what accounts this impulse to atone? 

The fact I stole? Or lied? Or that I killed 
a man who tried to stop me? I fear the scene  
that haunts my shelf - those Chinese chaps in frilled 
Chinoiserie. The birds of aquamarine. 

The lips of gold. That I preserved a thing 
which should have died. Gilded, implausible birds, 
enamelled curves, polished for a Polish king 
by German arcanists. But here's what's most absurd: 

It wasn't the wealth I wanted. It was - the ideal
A delicately painted past to cleanse 
a mind's decapitated truth. To heal  
the shattered self. To seal a happy end. 

Yet in those interlacing leaves, those men 
of quietness, that lone unravished bird,  
I see the way the artist's brush, this pen, 
to fix one world, must leave another blurred.

"Implausible Birds" is published here with permission from the author.

Editor: Zireaux

Not long before Australia heard the Siren call of Gallipoli, a federal undertaker was busy preparing a capital city that could entomb, memorialise, grow festivals of flowers upon the country’s war dead. They called the city Canberra.

It was two years before the outbreak of World War I when Australia’s Minister of Home Affairs, King O’Malley, held a series of conventions, committees, negotiations, referendums, and finally an international competition (with King himself supreme adjudicator) to design Canberra. The criteria? Gardens, ornamental waters, a sense of grandeur, and most of all, “symbols of nationalism.” Thus was my place of residence sprayed with the poeticide of an ideal, rendering it more or less artistically sterile for the next 100 years.

Canberra today is so painted and powdered, so primped in the finery of cultural vanity (visit the National Library Cafe, my reader, and hear the fancy people talk of “aboriginal affairs”) that the city was recently judged the “best place in the world to live” by the OECD. The OECD analysed 10 metrics in all - from income levels to safety to civic engagement and the environment. It must have overlooked Canberra’s $1 billion dollar asbestos scandal, or its pervasive high-class drug scene, its zombified job market, landlord cronyism, or some of the most unaffordable and poorly built homes on the planet. Its metrics didn’t include culture or diversity or immigration or art. And certainly not poetry. 

I say this affectionately, as a loyal resident, a faithful Canberra-phile. I’m holding up the mirror here, after all, not for the Emperor to examine his hideous nose, his triple-chin, the venal pallor from jaundiced internal organs. But rather, I want him to see, over his stately shoulder, the magical mischief-making of the servant children in the doorway — a band of unknown, uncertified, unrecognised waiflings. Poets. Youth. Youthful poets. They stop their enchanting play the moment the pompous old fellow turns around.

All this brings me to “Implausible Birds,” the work of a young Canberra poet which recently won a commendation in an ACT poetry competition. The poem appears to be a response to Ian McEwen’s remarkable novel, Atonement. The title, "Implausible Birds," is lifted directly from a description of the painted birds on an exquisite, beautifully-crafted, time-traveling vase that serves as a kind of cynosure to McEwan’s exquisite, beautifully-crafted, time-traveling story.  

In the novel we’re told the vase, with its "painted Chinese figures, ornate plants and implausible birds," was a family heirloom. It belonged to a deceased uncle who received it during World War I as a gift from the grateful inhabitants of a French town he had helped evacuate. So goes, anyway, the family legend. But “Implausible Birds,” the poem, questions the plausibility of this perhaps too fine and feathery story of war-time heroics (the uncle had written the tale in a letter home). The poet resurrects that uncle, inhabits his head, lets him reconsider the events. Was it really a gift? Maybe he stole it. Maybe he even killed for it. And if so, why would he do that? 

The answer: ’It wasn’t the wealth I wanted. It was - the ideal.’ 

King O’Malley, Canberra’s founding fraudster, was of that same generation. He would have appreciated that ideal - that desire for a fixed and cleansing perfection, an enamelled city with lips of gold and ceremonies to honour the dead (however implausible the depiction). Not a delicate vase for him, however - Cold Pastoral! - but monuments of cement that needn’t be protected or loved or kept unbroken through family affection; and so the parliamentary triangle brands it ideology amidst the beauty of Canberra’s hills today.

But the poets keep coming. Through Time’s unfolding accident precision is regained. Sharp, untamed, poetic visions scuttle through the cracks, as ants through the prolapsed soil of their nests. Blue-tongued lizards. The yellow plumage of the Cockatoos. The red-and-grey regalia of the Gang-gangs. And even a teenage poet in a city of such polished grandeur, of such purposeful geometry, can look beyond Gallipoli’s obscuring monolith and sense a single cracked and shell-shocked mind from a century before. 

As for Ms. Robinson's poetic future, my advice: Either stay and look more intently at Canberra than anyone has looked before. Or throw yourself to the traveling winds as soon as you can, never to return.
For more sharp, untamed, poetic visions, be sure to visit some of the posts in the sidebar. More information about Zireaux and his work can be found at www.ImmortalMuse.com.


Penelope said...

I read this poem as judge for the ACT Writers Centre Poetry Awards last year, and was impressed at the time. It was highly commended. So pleased to have a chance to read it again.

Thanks for posting Zireaux.

Helen Lowe said...

"I see the way the artist's brush, this pen,
to fix one world, must leave another blurred."

A wonderful conclusion to a very impressive poem.

Thank you for posting, Zireaux, and for the introduction to a new poet.

Helen McKinlay said...

I am fascinated by the intertwined stories in this post the novelist the poet the editor and that's not counting the subject of the poem. Wonderfully imaginative. Thank you all -both!

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