Author photo by Peter's son, Walter Bakowski

Monday, June 29, 2009

Portrait of blood

The thin armour

you give the newborn,

the midwife

washes away.

 

In playgrounds,

when the bullied fall,

you rush

to the hill of a bruise.

 

The shape of your engine room,

lovers carve into tree trunks.

 

In war

you blossom from

every wounded soldier and civilian.

In the field hospital

you glisten on

the gloved hands of surgeons

and each busy scalpel.  

 

You’re not to be trusted,

rummaging in the attic of our skulls,

studying the blueprints of our veins,

deciding where to place

your quick assassins,

clot and haemorrhage.

 

I hold my breath,

check my pulse,

as you make your rounds.


(from Beneath Our Armour)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Portrait of Verna Yan, crime fiction writer

Ten pages a day in longhand,

Verna’s new novel is going well.

 

Verna sits on a park bench overlooking the Pearl River.

There beneath its surface—                                                                                                        

fish, eels, crabs,

perhaps the revolver she dropped into it 

two decades ago.

 

She watches—                                                                                                                                        

a stray dog leave the shade of a tattered palm

to paw at a watermelon rind,

a couple dancing on an apartment terrace.

The tango music is loud,

the woman bends to the man’s lead,

his lips move closer to the lobe of her right ear.

They are kissing, not dancing.

The man is shirtless now.

Both fall to their knees,

roll away from view.

 

Verna returns

to her apartment,

to re-reading What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

by Raymond Carver,

stories about feelings expressed haltingly, violently or too late.

 

Verna looks at herself in the mirror, sees again—

that upper tooth chipped when she fell down the apartment stairs

on another blurred morning dedicated to drinking gin,                                                                       

a woman who shot her cheating husband

in a Coloane apartment twenty years ago.

Two bullets in his lying face—

a mess for the maid to find

when she came for more than the cleaning

each Wednesday.

 

Verna

moves towards her bedroom,

gets into bed,

thinking about the new character

who will appear in the next chapter.

She’s decided his name

and whom he’ll kill first.


(from Beneath Our Armour) 

Monday, June 15, 2009

Jose Anok, former prisoner of war, Hong Kong

Two Japanese soldiers tied me to the lamppost with rope.

Their commanding officer had a small mole on his right cheek.

He showed me the knife.

When he began I fainted.


Thirst. Dizziness. Buzzing flies.

My hand moved up to my right ear.

A hole. Congealed blood. I fainted again.

 

In the prison camp I begged a fellow prisoner to slash my throat.

“Not for a double ration of rice,” he said.

His name was Wang,

He and I became master rat-catchers,

cooked them on the blade of a shovel,

sucked each bone clean.

 

When the Japanese surrendered,

Wang returned to the mainland,

I remained in Hong Kong,

laboured unloading cargo

down on the waterfront.

 

Bought a gun off a seaman.

Many times I’ve stood in front of the hotel mirror,

the muzzle of the gun in my mouth.

 

Opium allows me

to briefly float free of my ribs.

 

I’ve written to my father,

told him I’ve met a kind woman,

been promoted to foreman.

The crafting of these lies

finds me opening the hotel drawer,

lifting out the gun again.

 

Last week,

I threw a brick through the window

of another Japanese restaurant.

 

I wait for the knock on the door.

I imagine the one handcuffing me,

a rookie,

the war, pages in a history book

he studied at high school.

 

In the cell,

I’ll look at

the walls,

the initials and dates

scratched there.


(from Beneath Our Armour) 

The Neon Hunger

Crime fiction poems chapbook published in Toronto. Goes for noir feel influenced by reading Block, Thompson, Westlake and Simenon. $7 post-free within Australia.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Macau, city of exiles

Wen stares into the bathroom mirror,

touches lightly his graying hair,                                                                                                          

the black eye patch that covers the hollow

made by a Japanese sniper’s bullet

in the Manchurian winter of 1939.


Blood-stained tufts of grass.                                                                                                               

Strong hands lifting him from the mud,

being strapped to the back of a horse,

how swiftly the ground moved beneath them.

    

The inside of a tent.

A face, a doctor in a bloody gown,

who apologized for the field hospital’s

lack of morphine.  

The doctor looked down at the dirt floor,

then at Wen,

“As well as your right eye,

you lost a finger to frostbite.”

 

After the war

Wen worked his way south.

Cut hair near the railway station in Tianjin,

repaired bicycles in Wuhan,

sold medicinal herbs in Guangzhou,

paid to have himself smuggled into Macau

on a fishing boat.

 

Wen sometimes plays cards with his widow neighbour,

Mrs Cheng.                                                                                                     

 

They talk about

the best place in Macau to sample eel,

their favourite Fado singers,

how strong and sweet they like their coffee.

 

They talk

of the past -

working in the fields alongside a parent or ox,

the first time either of them saw an aeroplane,

the proverbs a grandfather repeated.

 

Mrs Cheng and Wen

talk about

the Shanghai actress, Lotus Chang,

who owed five hundred masks,

her sailor lover who threw himself into the mouth

of a Javanese volcano.

 

The afternoon brings a cooling breeze.

Mrs Cheng offers Wen a second piece of Madeira cake.

He pats his stomach in protest, then accepts.

 

Both are quiet for a while,

each thinking of which card to play next.


(from Beneath Our Armour)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Times for drinking tea in China

When you’ve bargained well at the market

When you’ve cleared stones from a field

When sheltering from rain

When the horse you’ve tethered quietens

When resting by a riverbank

When a stream’s fish resist your baited hook and shining lures

When envious of a neighbour’s larger herd of goats.

When dreaming of leaving your village, never to return.

 

When the landlord visits

When remembering lean years, the selling of family heirlooms to buy food

When the midwife has left, her good work done

When a fox has been amongst your chickens

When a lost sheep is found, bleating in a ditch

When you’ve repaired your bicycle, brushed the dirt from your knees

When you’re the only one awake in the dormitory

When far from home.  

 

When thinking about what your parents taught you

When thinking about what you’re had to learn for yourself

When you’ve paid off a debt

When trying to understand a relative

When you’ve paced the room for too long

When discussing the afterlife

When the fog lifts from the path you’ve taken

When your tea canister is almost empty.


(from Beneath Our Armour)   

 

 

 

At Brunswick Heads, New South Wales, September 2006

The river is brown-hued, wide.

In its shallows small black fish appear,

hyphens of life,

pleasing barefoot children.

The river is pelican-ushered to the sea.                       .

 

The beach curves south to a crop of hills

where a white lighthouse stands,

its spiralling stairs now climbed

by camera-burdened tourists.

In the sky, there’s a small plane, silver-bellied, 

gone when you turned                                                                                                 

to a Ruth Rendell paperback.

 

This coastline asks you to name yourself,

fisherman, beachcomber, surfer, retiree,

to examine whether you’re more than that.

 

A gull,

eases from rock to sky,

becomes a speck and miracle

to a small boy, a sandcastle lord,

standing sandy-kneed, squinting.

 

The wind, the waves, play their games of give and take,

the horizon searches its deep pockets

for the makings of tomorrow’s weather.


(from Beneath Our Armour)

A cup of water, Suzhou, October 1945


The cup of water

accepts

rain

the wind

a leaf leaving its mother.

 

It has heard

husbands and generals give orders,

grandparents talk of gods and ancestors,

children conversing with a friend or sorcerer

whom no adult can see.

 

Set

on bench or table

 it hears

 the swish of a broom,

 a cat scratching at a closed door,

 the clock complaining

 that it’s only a clock,

 a button torn from a lover’s robe

 roll across a bedroom floor.

 

The cup of water is

 raised to the lips of

 a monk,

 a fisherman,

 a fortune teller,

 an orphan.

 

 The cup of water waits

 to be refilled,

 to be of use

 or forgotten.

 

 It waits for footsteps,

 the nearness of a hand.

 

 * This poem was commissioned by the Victorian Government as part of a gift to Jiangsu Province, China, honouring their sister-state friendship.