Regarding lettuce to the editor
(Northcote, April 2010)
With a heavy heart this letter I write
Forwarded by email without any spite
To advise of a decision that’s like a divorce
And that might very well end up in the courts.
Fought over each morning like dogs with a bone
Your paper to us was like bread in our home
Delivered on time as the gold crumpet rose
To feed hungry minds and titillate the nose.
But persons unknown and darkly mysterious
Are engaging in acts that have proved most injurious
Your paper they roll and wrap in thin plastic
That launched through the air is a missile most drastic.
Three times in succession without any cause
Your paper has flattened our handsome green coz
A drive-by shooting from an open car window
Forcing my wife to dive straight under her pillow.
It is I admit not easy to pardon
Those who grow lettuce in their empty front garden
To dig up their lawn is just asking for trouble
No wonder the mailman’s reduced it to rubble.
So through this brief missive I bid you adieu
And trust you don’t find my rudeness undue
But for the sake of our vegies and to mend our rage
I regret this must be the end of The Age.


A nativity
(Dili, March 2010)
The signs are all green and good
No mountain choirs or trumpets sounding
But a flooding wet season filling the wells of life
And fattening the tall fields of yellow corn
Just as her swelling peaks unbearably
And the countdown begins.
Five harvests on they read the signs calmly
And in the dark hours before the rising of the sun
Journey east to wait in a simple presepio
Not knowing what nature has in store for them
But grateful that the sweet fruit of their labour
Will soon be theirs to savour and enjoy.
After the bird’s call and with the star bright overhead
The thin shell of her body begins to crack
And yielding to the force within
Struggling like a nation to be free
Presents its secret to the waiting crowds
And gives our bairro its newest song.
Two malaes come bearing rice and soup
Gifts to strengthen and sustain the weak
But every birth is a virgin birth a woman’s work alone
And they find a mother not spent but swaddled in smiles
Flushed with the embers of afterglow
As though the sun itself had entered her.
Presepio is the Portuguese word used in Timor-Leste for the nativity mangers built by youth all over Dili at Christmas time. Here it is a reference to the maternity room in the Bairro Pite clinic.
Bairro is Portuguese for neighbourhood.
Malae is Timorese (Tetum) for foreigner.


Waiting for a taxi
(Darwin, April 2010)
It won’t be long, said the voice
To the man waiting on the ground
At the edge of infinity.
Up high the wind herds woolly clouds
Into vast unfenced pastures
Soggy with sunlight
Continents break up on coasts of bottomless blue
Surf swirls over deep dark valleys
And a bird flies freely.


A grumpy letter to Maisie’s violin
(Northcote, 14 October 1998)
To come straight to the point, I am very unhappy with you.
I’ll tell you why.
Maisie has played you most days – even more than Trish plays with Bessie, right?
She looks after you like a baby.
Rubs you with resin, tunes you, puts you down in your blue velvet bed.
Cradles you gently, like a little mother.
Sings to you and you sing back.
A perfect couple working in harmony (for the most part!).
Ok, you get irritated when she’s on the trumpet or the piano.
But that’s no reason to do what you did today.
Today, of all days, exam day, the high point of the year
You decided to play up.
I bought you new strings, the best, in Gertrude Street.
You have the best teacher in all of China.
You might think you’re pretty
With your sinous curves, long neck, big hips
And dark skinned complexion.
Usually I think you are.
But today, you look just fat and bumpy to me.
Was it Helen Boer that upset you?
Ok she does beat out the tempo making it harder to hear you
But you’ve got to learn to play second fiddle sometimes.
I know what you’re thinking!
That a poor workman blames his tools.
Well for once I am!
Otherwise how explain that you usually produce celestial sounds for Maisie
But today – of all days – you refused to obey and did your own thing.
You weren’t the one being examined you know.
No-one came like a doctor to a patient
And said, ‘Oh, poor thing!’, ‘she’s so uptight’, ‘so highly strung’, ‘so tense’,
Let’s prescribe rest and relaxation.
Ok. Ok. But for heaven’s sake, not today – exam day!
Am I being too tough?
Maybe I know that like Richmond you can play brilliantly all the season
Then, on the day, get the collywobbles and fluff it.
Even Patrick Rafter, who also likes his strings tight and plays tennis like a violinist,
Won the US Open one day, then lost in the first round the next.
Don’t fret. I know you’re not Stradivarius (more likely back street Shanghai).
But you’re not going to be sold or left under the bed.
You’re going to get another chance, and another, and another.
Until you finally surrender to Maisie’s touch and
Yield the key to unlock the beautiful voices trapped inside you
And make us cry helpless tears of joy and pleasure.


Tuol Sleng girl
(Cambodia, March 2009)
Coming to this place from a prison in East Timor, a sacred site,
I expect to relate and understand
But dumbstruck I have nothing for you, only questions
No flowers, no words, no tribute, no healing
Only cold questions – for which there can be no answer
From this pit of hell best left shrouded in awful silence.
Why is your photo here in this gallery of the damned?
What was it about you they feared?
With your peasant face, bobbed hair and bee-stung lips
You don’t look like one of the new people, the bourgeoisie, to me
Or were you one of them, the enemy within,
A threat because of what you’d seen and knew?
I looked for you amongst the handful who survived
But you were not there.
Is this photo all that is left? Is there nobody to remember you?
A ma or pa (Loung Ung’s words) who cries your name
And searches for you in the forest of the missing?
Or are they too all gone leaving only us to remember for them?
Education corrupted they said, so, laughing I suppose,
They enrolled you in this school and appointed headmaster Duch
To tutor you using red ink and pens of sharp metal
To pick your brains clean of impurities
But, slow learner, you failed every test
And graduated with only a certificate of death.
Don’t you have a name? Is the number 9 all that is left
Of your black-pyjama identity for me and all who look
On you in angry silence to know you by?
How did you die? Slowly I fear.
Is your left eye closed because of bruising?
Or couldn’t you bear to look your tormentor in the eye?
Duch’s trial, now underway, cannot compare with yours.
Your professor has a name, is fed, represented, treated humanely
And protected behind bullet-proof glass in the court room.
He will be spared the death sentence passed on you.
Asking for forgiveness can he still hear you sobbing for mercy
Nameless number 9?
Walking free amongst the living we interrogate each other.
Where was I then? Why didn’t I know? What did we do?
Number 9: what should we do to make up to you?

The Tuol Sleng museum, also known as S-21, is a former high school in Phnom Penh that was used by the Khmer Rouge as a detention centre during the Pol Pot regime 1975-1979. A striking feature of the museum is the absence of commentary: what happened is left to speak for itself and for visitors to draw their own conclusions.
Loung Ung survived Cambodia’s genocide and is the author of the haunting First They Killed My Father.
Comrade Duch, a former schoolteacher, was in charge of Tuol Sleng and responsible for the torture and deaths of at least 12,000 detainees. In July 2010, a UN-backed Cambodian court sentenced Duch, 67, to 35 years gaol for crimes against humanity.


Oh mangosteen
(Bali, January 2010)
On this smorgasbord of fruits you are the cinderella
Hard like a rock
Skin the worn leather of an armchair
Empty of colour to stir the juices
And easily passed over
In favour of your appetising sisters
Not least the golden mango
Lying soft-skinned in the half-light.
A Javanese burnished by the same sun
Demonstrates how to conquer you
Crushing you between clenched hands
He splits open your thick shell
Forcing you to surrender and reveal
Beneath layers of bruised purple
A wet white pearl
Sheltering shyly in your deep.
Eyes widen in astonishment at the find
A bounty hunter in luck
Weary Melchior sighting that new-born child
A student stumbling on the answer
In hushed cries we thrill
Then lift you to our smiling lips
To taste your creamy flesh
And flutter at your sweet delights, again and again.


(Dili, October 2009)
All day every day she sits on her drab verandah
Dreaming of country in the tall green hills
But fine tuned to the music of people
The twitter of the children playing
The greeting of the malaes who come and go.
Seated, she is queen of her swept courtyard
Bathed in purple reflected from her wall
Majestic beneath cool banana fronds
That hang like coats of arms above her head
Crowned with a coil of coloured cloth.
Standing, she is from her throne deposed
No longer regal but a subject bowed in supplication
Her back locked at right angles like a rusted hinge
Dropped from the company of the upright
A bird condemned to pecking at the ground.
Powerful forces shaped this human bonsai
Wind and water bent her to their will
Work and worry bound her tight like wire
Stunting her forever like a peasant planting rice
A woman crippled by her heavy load.
But like the moon and the stars that only look down
She smiles gently on what she sees
Pinched and pruned in acts of random violence
Her hands reach out like branches
A penjor stooped in loving benediction.
Avo is Timorese (Tetum) for grandmother.
Malae is Timorese (Tetum) for foreigner.
Penjor is the Balinese word for an intricately decorated pole made to celebrate galungan, the Hindu festival which celebrates the triumph of virtue (dharma) over evil (adharma). Penjor are placed at the edge of the road and hang in blessing over everyone who passes beneath.