River

Now you are shallower than you seem
it is not authenticity I encounter

with its honesty and honour
but this coarseness that I cannot get through

my toes still probing when there is little water
reaching into the dryness that is old

thinking to discover a deeper, hidden flow

Plantation

I sat at my desk this evening, bereft and ashamed
It had been a hollow day
With nothing to show for it, and not
For want of inspiration. The dream
From which I had awakened
Lingered on in the morning, with acre upon
Rolling acre of my grandmother's coconut plantation about my pillow
And her lumbering cottage in a corner.
But when I got up words would not flow. Or,
They were all wrong. And I walked away. Even though
I was happy and laughing -- a child, there -- looking up
At a fruit my dad was trying to fall.
His mother too was watching then
Standing on her two bound feet, each one all of five inches long
That held up a large-ish figure. You see,
She belonged to a time when only girls with the daintiest shoes
Were regarded with respect. So, at the age of nine
My grandmother trained her bones and folded her feet in half.
This meant endless nights of tears and sleeplessness
Days of resolve and not giving up
Years of sheer physical strength.
I wish I myself were as strong, or a fraction like so.
So that on a day like this
Despite the stubborn dam I could keep at what I was doing.

Say, I did that in the way I've described
Keeping at it, at writing
Tenacious, patient, focused.
From there I'd have come to focus on the plantation
And from the plantation I could look up
And see the fruit my father was determined to yield
Beside his mother. My indefatigable grandmother.
The land, the trees, and cottage.

I wish I could do that
Without self-doubt
And feeling frustrated
For feeling frustrated.
I know it's time to renew myself
For I want to stand on small
But mighty feet and try to win
The fruit, however high, however awkward.

Libertas

Because the car-wash service
Is running off their feet
Collection for me is expected
Only in three hours, so

I walk down the street
Turn the corner to take myself
On this greyish November day
For a cup of tea at a cozy cafe
With brick walls and wooden floor.

Afterwards I cross the road to the
Local park where a football game's
Just kicked off -- parents 
Cheering them on from the sidelines --

Before a row of shops some hundred metres
Away catches my eye.
I try on an orange halter-neck
Linen dress, the tie on the nape
Flowing down the bareness of my back.

I take it to the checkout counter, then
Drop in at the next-door bookshop that's
Decked out with a
Wreath, Christmas lights and tree.

A mother and daughter are buying
For a new-Hemingway fan
Loading their basket with
A Moveable Feast, For Whom the Bells Toll,
The Complete Short Stories.

Leaving I stop for lunch
At a Tokyo-style 
hole-in-the-wall sushi joint
A noren half-curtain across the entrance
As I sit perched on a high chair
Facing the chef.

When I am driving home
In my sparkling car
I think to myself:
Freedom has never tasted
Sweeter than it does today.

Film review: Burning

Burning - Rotten Tomatoes

The geometry of yearning is elegantly plotted in Burning, a sensuous, complex, metaphysical thriller. While it is sometimes food for which the three central roles are hungry — the protagonist, at least, seems always to be eating — it is the lust for perverse gratification, for truth, intimacy, the meaning of life, and indeed living itself, that permeates the story. As one of the parts recounts a childhood incident of having fallen into a village dry-well, and looking up from its base, she alludes that her desires were reduced to a mere circle of the sky.

Burning is the sixth feature movie from the celebrated Korean director, Lee Chang-dong. An award-winning filmmaker, Lee is distinguished by works that dwell on mystery, on ambiguity, and the multiple layers of nuances beneath the surface-drama. People are not whom they appear to be; their assertions cannot be corroborated; or, what they say do not make apparent sense. As such, you find yourself grappling with the unreliability of characters, their perception of scenes, your own interpretation of events.

Burning is just such an epitome of Lee’s talent. While working odd-jobs in Seoul, Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), a recent graduate and aspiring novelist, bumps into a neighbour of his boyhood, Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo). The pair spend the day together, and come to be quickly familiar. When the young woman entrusts him with the task of feeding her cat during a planned-trip to Africa, Jongsu looks forward to a prospective romantic relationship.

Only, the object of his longing will return with a wealthy, suave, Gatsby-esque stranger, Ben (Steven Yeun ). Awkwardly, the trio begin an unlikely friendship, in which the love-sick writer becomes more and more suspicious of his rival’s motivations towards Haemi.

At times, the two-and-a-half hour film feels a little drawn-out. Yet, in my post-movie reflections, I keep finding something new to admire, to contemplate, and question. Cryptic revelations and anecdotes may themselves be alarming, but the way they serve as metaphors is what makes Burning’s power grow and grow. Ben confides in Jongsu about a secret passion, but despite his frantic quest Jongsu fails to find evidence of the act. Or, does he? — and why does Jongsu dream that his much-younger self had been a stunned witness? How also does Haemi’s disappearance make him feel? And what is the true relationship between the two men?

Lee relishes the photography of contrasts: the bucolic and the city, affluence and poverty, innocence and ugliness. In none more so are these contrasts more manifest than one memorable scene where, under the influence of pot, Haemi launches into a semi-nude dance, that gives full expression to her deepest yearning for life’s significance, shot within a frame filled with an arrestingly beautiful sunset and unremitting lies.

At face value, Burning is about one man’s vengeance for the woman he loves. Thing is, countless possibilities float in. For more occasions than I can remember, I wondered if the entire show was taking place in Jongsu’s mind, if he and Ben are two sides of the same person, or whether it was his novel unfolding on the screen.

Now? Suffice to say I am convinced Lee has skewered us exquisitely with his story strategem: a philosophical yarn in which our identification with Jongsu turns out to be as illuminating as the circle of sky from the bottom of the well.

October

A(nother) day at home, so
the orange lounge pants,
the green table lamp, the
simple rhythm of 
my computer cursor
tapping her dainty finger

The sun, in its afternoon 
glory, slants through my
northern window, throwing 
itself off the wall mirror, that
sends shafts of primary colours
across the study

I watch the spectrum
shift and evolve
with the arc of time, conscious
of its brief life, conscious I am
wasting my day, with such minutiae
distractions of the mundane

like citrus pants
like this, and that
like the intercourse of glass and light
like all the hours
that bells have tolled, so ordinary
but loved

untitled

touching me where few have been
his voice warm, deep, masculine
has its own contours and texture;
in his smallest of laughs is
 a potent gesture that holds and envelops me

yet there is a mystery in his words
in which i see an inner man
grow gradually more transparent
whose magic peels me back
petal by petal like the sun opening a bud

i have never before encountered anything 
that matches the power of his perception 
for which reason i let its complexity
feel my mind like an archaeologist
a wall of hieroglyphics

it is hard to know
how he touches from that distance
only something in me
understands the caress of his voice
is safer than home

nothing, not even the wind on nakedness
reaches into such unreachable places

A Boring Weekend

                                                 So she sips on almond milk, warming her hands around the mug. Outside, the clouds are hurrying east, as they darken the earth and un-darken it in endless cycles. Her feet are cold and, setting the cup on the writing desk, she pulls on her socks. How nice it feels. Life is good.
   She takes another sip. Faraway in Afghanistan the Taliban is winning -- quickly. Farther off, in Haiti, the president has been assassinated. Closer, Indonesia is running out of oxygen. Then, there is the arts.
   She turns over the cover: this edition is three months old. For nearly 180 years, The Economist has fed fuel to thought, a friend, teacher, scientist for presumably the curious thinker. Book reviews -- often of worthy works. But, so perfectly do these analyses distil their essence, that inclination to read the paperbacks sags.
   She runs a finger down the contents page. Social justice and self-interests. Are these opposing ideas? Does one help the other? Which one comes first?
   Does Covid have the answers?
   Technology -- will we co-exist with artificial intelligence, like with plants? The planet -- more salmon or hydroelectic power?
   And meanwhile, the air is sliced apart, as Jeff Bezos heads for the clouds.
   Do we want our enterprises ruthless? Or do we want them visionary? Take Berkshire Hathaway. Take Microsoft. What defines success? Then there are the Big Techs and Big Pharmas. Can we reconcile both qualities?
   And what of our leaders? Does age persuade our voting preferences? Or gender? Class? Maybe persona.
   It is a dated but excellent magazine.
   Are you a voter? Take the case of Trump. Take the case of Macron. Take the case of Aung San Suu Kyi.
   Is Chinese capitalism, capitalism? Yes and no. Think Jack Ma.
   All things in moderation -- religion, also.
   There is art everywhere. Economist journalists write succinctly, are possessed of balance and clarity, and talk to the point.
   Meanwhile, Donald Rumsfeld dies of blood cancer. The Secretary of Defence who is remembered for his much-quoted conundrums -- notably the "unknown unknowns" -- has been saved the spectacle of Afghanistan's return to its former Islamic rulers.
   Nobody, at the time of print, knows that yet, either, even if suspicion is strong. Nor does America anticipate the flood of Haitian refugees at its borders. And Australia does not know the treachery of Delta.
   But they will.
   

In the balcony

It's time to give the plants a drink.
In the balcony I pour water into 
soil, wait for excess to drain.
Day is giving way to dark:
a clear deep blue on the northern sky.
Above the jacaranda trees, a bird
sails home, an orange tissue
crumples the air.
Indoors are photographs of those I miss:
Mum posing in a kimono.
And there is Dad who would tickle the spaces
between my ribs as I spun on the floor --
tied to my body where his fingers held me
-- then flew apart.
Music flows from the heart
of the house to every room.
Things are just as I've left them.
Stew is simmering on the stove.
Salad servers stick out of 
the wooden bowl. Rainbow 
of vegetables tossed and relaxed.
I tilt the watering-can over the last pot of herbs,
the distant oak now full of night, as a star
presses his gentle face into the sky.
I want to go inside and smell my dinner.
I want to light my candles, while the earth
slows down to breathe, until they begin
to tell their good stories in soft low voices.

Book review: The Forgotten Waltz

A dose of sobering responsibility sinks into the central character — anti-heroine for some, heroine for others — of Anne Enright’s novel, The Forgotten Waltz.

While this might sound like a spoiler, for a story about adultery and easy love, it is no more than the author declares on the back cover: If it hadn’t been for the child, then none of this might have happened. She saw me kissing her father. She saw her father kissing me. The fact that a child got mixed up in it all made us feel that it mattered, that there was no going back.

It is 2009, and Dublin is seeing her first snows. Thirty-four year-old Gina Moynihan has been tasked with meeting Evie, her lover’s adolescent daughter, after school. Sean Vallely, the father, is delayed by the weather in another city. Although we will not read about this, nor have any idea about the relationship-dynamics involved until the latter part of the book, there are early signs things the way they have unfolded are not what Gina could have imagined.

Five years following an initial encounter in 2002, Gina, newly married, becomes irresistibly attracted to the family-man Sean who, more than fifteen years her senior, lives down the road from her sister. As the interest progresses to flirtation, and desire, then full-blown obsession, Enright chooses the names of songs as headings for her chapters: Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Everytime We Say Goodbye, Stop! In the Name of Love.

In the tumultuous seas of longing and misgivings, the author offers the pair a plethora of opportunities to shift course and salvage their separate matrimonies. But, despite their best effort, not for the lack of trying, both remain wilfully helpless to their irresistible passion: At the train station, I sat in the car and said to him, “No more”… By Mullinger I thought, if I did not see him soon again, that I would surely die.

This physiology of love develops against the backdrop of the Global Financial Crisis, in which Ireland’s economy, that is hitherto riding the surging waves of technology and real estate and open-market optimism, collapses into a free-fall, and crisis of confidence. Observations can be made on a delicate correlation between the fiscal trajectory and the evolution of the romantic affair.

By the time money in the country has dissipated like vapour, rupturing the dream of a fortune from selling her late-mother’s family-home, Gina realises the one for whom she has left her husband regards her as “secondary” — particularly to his child. It must be said, however, that Enright is never heavy-handed in drawing these parallels.

The time of snowy-white solitude Gina finds at her disposal, presently, when Sean is away, frames her reflections on the recent time with him, and her former marriage, and childhood, that, told in flashbacks, make us empathise with her one moment and loathe her the next. Confusion and guilt, endless attempts at self-assurance and quiet resignation inform her emotional journey. Finally, aimed at honouring her love, Gina resolves to gather a deeper understanding of Evie; for in spite of its melancholy-title, The Forgotten Waltz is a love-story, after all.

With writerly skill, Enright pays no respect to chronology in her story-telling. The narrative traverses with her mind to what place or year on which her thoughts decide to rest. Fragments about coping with Evie at home juxtapose with memories of her own father; shadows of her mother’s ghost jostle against Sean’s presence in the house.

It is one of those books where there is a reason to every word. The imagery is vivid and hefty with meaning.: The [hotel] room was impossible to find. I had to walk miles of corridor, go up in one lift, and down in a different one…Apparently it was all easy to find from the outside.

Enright constructs a desultory and remarkably precise psychological drama in which outside events constantly echo inner scenes. It is a tender, humane, and visceral work that leaves an unmistakeable scent of sycamore in the air.

(Digital) Theatre review: The Mermaid

Social defiance swims through The Mermaid, a play produced and performed by a cast of teenagers at the La Mama. The mermaid is turning 15, and she finds herself increasingly intrigued by the world up on-shore. Humans, she learns, despite dying young, have souls that go on for eternity. Mer-people, by contrast, live for 300 years, upon which their spirits become seaweed, that once cut down are lost forever.

Izzy Roberts-Orr’s text is well-researched, and, given its desultory nature, deftly managed. The piece is divided into sections, each introduced with narration (by the performers in turn) that makes references to, amongst a host of random facts, 1837 — the year Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid was released, –1989 — when Disney produced its feature animation, — and the much-violated sculpture of the mythological character in Copenhagen today.

Ingeniously, Cassandra Fumi’s production is staged in a dry, sunken pool, where the actors dance and caper and sing. In the small theatre, seating tightly encircles the glittering space (magically lit by Rachel Burke), with the effect of making the live audience on my digital screen look like more mer-citizens.

Through their reimagining of this epic fairy-tale, the theatre-makers show us how they embrace the story’s particular elements while questioning others. By including performers of different skin tones and gender-types and cultural backgrounds, the drama demonstrates that hybridity explored in the fable no doubt resonates with the current society. The unfettered twisting of its plot, however, emphasises in no uncertain way that “the damsel in distress” stereotype has long since evolved out of existence. Mentions of Taylor Swift, Zoom stock prices, climate change protests provide further definition to this century’s youth-community.

Sure, the recorded form of the act is most likely its diluted version; we do not get to experience the energy and verve of proximity. But, this is a thoughtful little piece showcasing the intricacy and identity and zeitgeist of the generation, delivered with a dazzlingly original touch.

(Digital) Theatre review: Berlin

If you are going to stage a romantic thriller do it in the Sumner; better still, film, and turn it digital. The intimate confines of the Southbank theatre, not least our screen constraints, are perfectly suited for the sort of dangerous, intriguing, and sexy interplay that pheromonal busyness often engenders. And the blistering performances in Iain Sinclair’s production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s play rivet your eyes on the action, as history and philosophy and emotions converge with devastating consequences.

The sexually-attracted pair are Tom (Michael Wahr) and Charlotte (Grace Cummings). He is an Australian law-school dropout newly arrived in Berlin to find himself. She is a published poet who works in a bar, where this night Tom issues carnal signals in her direction.

Despite an initial lukewarm response Charlotte invites the lonesome stranger into her loft apartment that, sensual in Christina Smith’s set design, is where we meet them. They drink beer and flirt and recite poetry: “I want my conscience to be true before you,” repeats Tom, after his female companion, as she reels off Rilke halfway up the stairs to her resting-lair. In a heart-to-heart moment, there is a touching exchange of tragic stories in each of their lives, which leads to an exploration into some pretty fascinating metaphysical concepts.

Following a night of heady passion, though, a series of mysterious calls to Tom’s cellphone, and to the lodging’s intercom system — plus his frantic urgings for her to flee overseas with him — raise Charlotte’s suspicion. As she probes and he evades, they find themselves over the course of the drama debating the political and socio-cultural legacy of Germany’s troubled past. Should the nation be in a permanent state of contrition? Does this perpetual remembering not mean murdering the victims again and again? When will the quest for justice end? The stronger her polemic, however, the farther Charlotte’s new beau seems to pull away.

As always, Murray-Smith’s writing is fabulous: fast, ferocious, and at times brilliantly funny. What holds it back is the implausibility of the plot that, after starting out in the most credible way, twists, then descends into the unconvincing. It feels like an elaborate device to play out the writer’s own thoughtful, unanswered, inquiry. But the acting is first-rate and highly charged. With the chemistry scorching between them, Cummings’ Charlotte is seductive one moment, and distraught incredulity the next, while Wahr gives Tom a memorable journey. Ultimately, Berlin is a work that provides us with fine fodder upon which to chew during this period of isolation and struggle.