Monday, December 21, 2009

glass cassowary

In early October, I visited the Government Museum in Chennai. I'd been looking at archeological artifacts and then came to the building with animal bones and taxidermy. I walked into the room with Foreign Animals written over the door and almost fell over when I saw this cassowary in a glass case. I was so shocked that even though I had bought a ticket for my camera as well I simply couldn't photograph the bird. In my last week in Chennai I went back specifically to do so. I had trouble getting it to work and then this image appeared before my eyes. It was as if the natural world were inviting the cassowary back into its arms.

glass cassowary dp301

where they land is all important

in the government museum in Chennai
a bird in a glass case

no ordinary bird this
it’s in the room marked

beside it a tapir
a cockatoo

all on its own
a cassowary in a glass case

encased in glass
a territory hardly big enough
to turn around in

let alone disperse seed
hold up the rainforest

nothing to eat
no shade
no where to go

bring back the birds
bring home their bones
the feathers
their poor stuffed carcasses

allow this bird to rot
in the humus of the forest

I stumble out backwards
something caught in my throat

This is how a live cassowary looks: a father and his chick.

Monday, December 14, 2009


For months I have watched women drawing kolam. On my last day in Chennai they sprouted from every gateway, they were small and quick, elaborate and delicate, ambitious and wonderful. I have seen multi-coloured ones but on this day they were all white - with one tiny visible exception.

kolam dp300

where they are drawn and when
is all important

early morning is auspicious
it sets the shape of the day

I watch as a watered driveway
scrubbed clean
has a few points of white grain sprinkled

the woman works quickly
she knows her design for the day
runs the powdered grain
from point to point

it is a mandala
a yantra
a sign

so that the forces of the universe
align themselves

with her intentions

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


This photo of S. Sowmya, a Carnatic singer, was taken at the Prajnya Concert on 27 Nov as part of the 16-Day Campaign Against Gender Violence. She and the other four musicians played fantastic music among which was at least one raga. I'm no expert in this area but I recognised this list of notes which appeared on screen at some point.

raga dp285

Sa Ti Ga Ma Pa Da Na Sa

the snake coils around the song tail in mouth the end in the beginning
one coil is a necklace of pearl tears and beaded breath dew settling
into the river running wild the long hair of her head like spiralled water
beside the river a deer stands listens for the illusion of one hand clapping
sniffs at the lotus in a still corner her four feet dancing in a tremble of petals
from her dance comes the drum roll the rattle of creation music from inside
crystallised into sickled moonstone in her head circling in time to the planet’s
breath the snake slithers scaly skin from earth to sky spine to crown

Sunday, November 29, 2009


These buffalo live just down the road from me. One day, early, I had such a surprise because eight of them were walking straight towards me. I didn't have my camera that day. But this week when I went out early, I went in search of them.

buffalo dp358

how days fall
this morning 5.30 too early for me but sleep was avoiding me
and pushed me out of bed

walk she said so I did
I walked to the river where the buffalo hang out– their horns
greeting the morning

I sit and watch
as a young steer gets pushy with the cow– old mothers who
humour him with heads

he’s leaning and shoving
and pushing with all his might and they just flick their heads
get bored and turn away

Thursday, November 26, 2009

aerial life

taurus dp 355

the tissu is hung
it wafts in the breeze
red like a great gash
it is soft and difficult
wrap yourself in it
roll it around your leg
fall into its arms
spin at the end
like a stellar top
the star Aldebaran
red Rohini
follow the sisters
in their flight
think yourself light
as helium float
your way to the top

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


My first weeks in Chennai were spent drawing Tamil letters. I managed to find a children's reading book with pictures. It was like learning to write all over again. Most days I had the book out working my way through. Like Sanskrit, when consonants and vowels combine the letters change shape. As well as that, to the untutored eye, some of the letters look exactly the same - and so I spent hours comparing and trying to remember. It's very strange how some letters take root immediately, while others keep on puzzling you. About five weeks after I arrived, one day it seemed to make sense. It wasn't every combination, but enough to get some words sounding in my brain. I realised on that day that the strange ear shaped design on the temples was Tamil for Om. The outer ear is the O sound the little inner ear is the mm. And the dot above the mm is a signal to end the word with the consonant. I don't know the precise meaning of the staff, but it is a sign of power.

Tamil dp302

how the letters land
might be an indicator

in Tamil
the letter on all the temples

is the same sound
aum om

in Tamil
it looks like

a giant ear
at the centre of the universe


to the music

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ancient dancers

This dancer is on a wall at Thanjavur, a world heritage listed site in Tamil Nadu. Here the names of dancers and poets and musicians are inscribed on the walls. In these days of fleeting online poetry and tiny print runs that sort of permanence is quite enticing.

dancers dp328

the dancers names are engraved in red stone
ancient as our dreams ancient like this language

of flowers seasons landscapes and mood
the woman dances and her girlfriend
asks who it is she is pining for
the girlfriend dances and the woman’s mother
tells her old stories of passion and heat
monsoon and desire rain and tears

the dancers names are engraved in stone
ancient as our dreams ancient like this language


I Anactoria dp350

when the herds are running the ground thrumming
sunlight scaling every beam of dust like a horde
on the move your finest poems are for me
that’s what I love best

when the sun strikes your coat roan with heat
we all stand dazzled by your beauty
and none of us will ever abandon you
you the brightest of us all

when the summer grass grows pale
and the longing strikes up again
I think of you standing always knowing
which way to go

your doubts are few your face dewy
in the morning light and your eyes
brown soft but your glance as sharp
as thorns

so Sappho let me follow you on this track
into that thicket by the river
let us stand flank by flank our love
our armour

Sunday, November 22, 2009


The cow in this carved rock at Mahabalipuram is so happy and sweet that I felt she needed a poem. Madhukara is a honey maker, a bee. So she brings sweetness to the world. But with a sting. Like the bittersweet taste of love that Sappho writes about.

I Madhukara dp349

has the bee stung your lip?
where love stings there the hurt lies

let the dance take me in its swarm
rise like the sun in spring
the vines embrace me
flowers nod a jig in the breeze

on your body lines of ash
like the pattern of the dance
a dalliance of girls swaying

somewhere beneath the horizon
comes the sounds of a raga
each pada of the song
in the rhythm of the herd
hear the beat of the hooves

the dancers approach
a cloud of bodies
raising gusts of wind
cow dust is on your coat
cow dust in my breath

I am the rasa
I am the lover in the dance
my footsteps in yours
touching like wind breath

the dancer bristles
grass trembles on the river’s edge

Friday, November 20, 2009

Mahabalipuram minotaur

Five years ago I visited Mahabalipuram and wrote about it in my long poem, India Sutra (which is in The Butterfly Effect). It's strange to revisit a place - the things you do and don't remember. I didn't recall having seen this rock, but when I asked, locals said it had always been there. I imagined that it was unearthed by the tsunami. It was just my memory failing me!

Mahabalipuram dp331

playing ocean and boat
the moon is full
behind a blanket of cloud

sea pounds the beach
waiting for the fishermen
to push off into the surf

the dogs as before
lounge on the sand
curled like coils of net

the same hotel spruced up
beach restaurants
with coloured lights

even the sari-selling woman
is here still plying her trade
five years older some new designs

not much has changed
but on the beach
an unremembered rock

a cow’s head carved
and human hands
minotaur unearthed

labyrinth caved in
no sacred string needed
to lead you out

A few days after posting this I saw a similar image in a book I've been reading called, Devi: The Mother Goddess by Devdutt Pettanaik which is captioned 'Durga attacking the buffalo demon'. This image I've called Minotaur is probably also the buffalo demon. That's not so far from the Cretan story since Theseus could not have killed the Minotaur without Ariadne's thread. Here in India thread is also sacred. It all connects!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Shadow cow

The photo by Spider Redgold was taken in Kathmandu just before Divalli. Ths poem was my response.

shadow cow dp314

a cow and her shadow
walk a street in Kathmandu

the cow is painted
the shadow is plain

both are black
as the night sky

the shadow says
how come you’re so pretty today?

because it’s good luck on cow day
so my friend painted mandalas

on my backside
said the cow
and what about the garland of flowers

who gave you those?

asked the miffed shadow

the same friend said the cow
feeling sorry for her undecorated friend

tell you what said the cow
you can have the garland now

and at the end of the day
you can have the mandala too

when the sun went down
the shadow cow was happy to see

the painted cow had kept her word
there on her shadow back

were the glittering lights
of Deepavalli

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I Gongyla dp348

when winter ices my coat
when it strikes
the heart
whatever can you do–

she has made it public
her longing for me
she wants me to sing
my heart pain

she says Aphrodite
is hard hearted
her love searing

but all I want
is want

Monday, November 16, 2009

Best Australian Poems 2009

This poem is included in this year's anthology Best Australian Poems 2009 edited by Robert Adamson. It's being launched today in Sydney. It has previously been published in Melbourne's Age newspaper and in my collection, Earth's Breath. The photo was taken as Cyclone Larry raged outside our window on 20 March 2006.

Climate change: yugantameghaha

At the end of every cosmic cycle
at the end of a generation―yuganta-
meghaha¬―clouds congregate
gathering souls for the next yuga

cloud breath, soul mist
rasping winds, rattling bones
here come the galloping horses
humans astride their flanks

here come the thundering clouds
breaking the world apart
the Hercules moth climbs every building
rising upwards through 110 floors

scaling the earth to find the moon
that light in the sky through which
he might escape earth’s pull
and melt into the inferno of light.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

dancers at Hampi

One of the great things about going to Hampi - a World Heritage Site - was to see the fabulous carvings. Of all the archeological sites I've visited (and there have been quite a few!) it most reminded me of Crete, of the images on sealstones in the Museum of Iraklion where I have wandered several days.

I Mura dp343

I’m the singer in the group my song
follows Radha follows as she walks
the forest paths she revels in her body
breasts swaying to the dance of the bees

she’s playful almost drunk with dancing
protected by the bangles she wears
on her arms I sing the rainbow of her body
light fractured shining through skin’s prism

I’m a gopi too our bellies are like snake pits
muscles writhe and flex throb and dance
our days are by turns languid and dynamic
it’s not enchantment simply friendship

the language of the goddess is on my lips
as each day I tend her with song my words
hers I can’t say I’m always fair some days
my lips are scorched with jealousy

as she pays attention to this gopi or that
the seamstress the fruit picker the bread maker
the veena player we all want her gaze
I walk away flick my tail like an irritable tiger

Friday, November 13, 2009


Gaur (Bos gaurus) are the biggest bovines on earth. These four live in Bandipur National Park in Karnataka where I was lucky enough to see them. It's dusk and they were far off. How fantastic is it to see such rare and huge creatures. Like the elephant they are led by the oldest female in the herd. The name I've given to her means mother of the cows.

gaur dp 339

ancient as diamonds
gaur are statues against green

ridge their backs

a saddle between
where water gathers in the wet

the female line
the sloped hillside

mother of the gaur
stands like a giant fortress
at the base
inverting the mountain

early risers
greet the day
moaning low

at night
a multitude
of sickle moons

long-sighted eyes
horns almost a circle
pale summer grass

rufous coats shining
under a full harvest moon

left alone
their only fight
is with time
bulls eyeline
their rivals
if out weighed
they walk away out
horns still
reaching for the sky

but be fearful of Matagavaam
who’ll whistle up her team
circle the youngsters
and gore
even one with tiger courage

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Atthis dp321

Atthis is in the temple
they have painted her limbs
her forehead is floral

she likes this temple
on a hilltop where she watches
as dawn scrambles into day

at dusk she faces the other direction
when day lowers itself into night
this is the best season

the dewy grass is lush
buttercups are plentiful
the air cool and clear

since she became a temple cow
life has been easier
each day sixteen girls

clamour around her in the meadow
they fuss over her
stroke and brush her flanks

but she misses her friend
the ever-shrewd and delightful
milky-faced Sappho–they were separated

one day for no reason
and the stories that go around
about Sappho are unbelievable

Sappho thrived in the herd
she loved to lead them
lowing her musical tunes

and soon the young heifers
were prancing along behind
moaning and shaking their heads in time

plucking at tree branches as they went–
but she is gone
and these girls are her solace

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


It never ceased to amaze me how huge the temples were. This one is the largest in Tamil Nadu.

five finger temple dp325

the temple of the Cholas
grows out of the plain
like five mountains
imitating the granite
rock that rises
on the horizon
the great rock is the
palm of earth’s hand
the gopuram its fingers

Monday, November 9, 2009

temple elephants

I saw this elephant in Hampi - and as we travelled around I saw many elephants in temples always with the same fiercely mixed reaction.

elephant dp335

the temple elephants’ trauma
is in their rocking
the shackles at their feet
clinking their captivity

but I rejoice seeing
painted elephants
mandalas on their
foreheads and trunks

and I am in despair
picking at my conscience
like an over ripe pimple
and at my own hypocrisy

Sunday, November 8, 2009


exile dp 316

there was a time when we were not exiles
a time when paradise was not some imagined garden
walled from our world
paradise was here and now

in that time and in that place
we long-horned four-footed ones
were honoured and rejected
just as often or rarely as anyone

our horns our feet our udders
were nothing special
but they were us

one day someone said
you lot – we looked around to see if we were that lot
yes said this person
you long-horned four-footed uddered ones
it is time for you to go
take with you your golden calves
for you are no longer welcome here

that was the day we were cast out exiled
from the place some now call paradise
the walls were high covered by thorns

soon after it got worse
not only were we no longer welcome
in spite of our usefulness
we were also spat upon
great gobs of spit spewed our way
landing if we were lucky at our feet
and if we were not the goo was in our hair and on our skin

then they sent the children out
from the garden behind the wall
to throw stones at us
you could see them looking with shining eyes
for the biggest missile
stones and rocks flung by young fingers

we tried to ignore it
walking on in silence
we lowed together
we tried to stop it
but one day one of us
in a fever of anger
lashed out gored him
the son of the most
important man
in the village

after that it was all out war
if we ventured through their village
took a short cut across their fields
if they saw our outline on the ridge
they came for us some of us were killed

some of us were captured
they tied us to the millstone
to the water wheel
and had us walking an eternity of circles
they yoked us to the cart
they whipped us
they took us to their battle fields
we hauled we carried we bled
we were abandoned when they fled

and then some of us escaped
we travelled in groups
some towards the rising sun
some towards the setting sun

you will find us in these places
at the edges of every known world
like it or not we are everywhere

Friday, November 6, 2009

Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

Have been travelling for nearly three weeks around Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. I was in Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram) nearly five years ago and had not remembered that the shore temple was full of cows. Imagine my surprise to find a whole herd of them waiting!

the herd dp332

at the temple a herd of cows
waiting for the sea to stop
its ceaseless waves
these cows sit stone-faced
crows leap from rump
to head and back again
the sea flows on
wave after wave

cow faces worn down
by seaspray smoothed
the angles no longer sharp
the temple is eroded
sand salt and water
these cows sit and wait
as eternity passes by
in the feathers of a crow

Sunday, October 18, 2009


stone dp312

who will throw
the first stone?
who will cheer
the stone throwers?

questions that resonate
through the ages

I have stoned
and been stoned
now I despise the throwers
of stones

I will not cheer
for another’s demise
it’s what
the manipulators rely on

those who think
they know better

to stand by
to watch a crucifixion
is to participate
in the crucifixion

hold the stone
raise it throw it
watch the blood come
watch the pain

bury your memory
become like all the rest

will you expect me to rescue
you next month next year
when the stone throwers
come for you?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Double dactyls and nonsense poetry

Several months before I came to Chennai (also called Madras) the Melbourne Poets Union put out a call for a double dactyl competition. I put this poem in and won the comp. Last week I visited the world headquarters of the Theosophical Society here in Chennai with its collection of ancient manuscripts and gardens full of ancient banyan trees. You feel like you are walking through a jungle of elephant legs. I went to Blavatsky Bungalow and it was like an architectural version of the banyan groves, all verandahs and pillars. I took a photo of Helena and so I felt it was time for this little poem to come out of hiding.

Double dactyl dp140
Horsical snorsical
Helena Blavatsky
Secret meetings

Held in Madras gardens
Her words in old Greek code
Our steeds fleeting

Saturday, October 10, 2009


In July I attended a Sanskrit Winter Refresher course in Canberra. During that week, in addition to classes we watched an animated film called Sita Sings the Blues made by Nina Paley. This film has Creative Commons, so if you can watch videos on your computer, you might want to look it up.

The photo has nothing to do with Sita, but it does hang in the Asian Studies Department at ANU. It's a Gujarati cow.

Sita dp220

Sita was no slouch just a woman in the tumult of emotion
she tried to help her man get a life – get out and about,
she said, why not follow that deer, dear. She needed time alone.

But it’s always been hard for women to get some solitude
and Sita was no different. Soon the rival king was coming round
asking for samosas with pickles and chutney and before she knew it

he had her tucked up in his flying chariot and was heading south.
She went just to see a bit of the country from the air, but Ravanna
had other ideas: he tried to woo her. But that wasn’t why she came.

A mountain from a molehill: before she knew it the scouts
were arriving on her doorstep, begging her to go home. But why
couldn’t he come and ask her himself? If she wasn’t important

enough for a visit, why bother? And so she stayed on at the
mountain resort with its beach views, elephants, peacocks,
evening dancing, temples and good intelligent conversation.

Ravanna too, didn’t get it. What was it with these men? Can’t they
tell the difference between great conversation and no desire for sex
(in the case of Ravanna) or great love, lust and passion but no wish

to give up on intellectual pursuits for housework, sitting pretty
and emotional deserts (in the case of Rama). All she wanted
was a balanced and fulfilling lifestyle. Was it really that hard?

And then came the war. It was unwarranted. Like Helen,
across the desert lands, there seemed no end to the bloodshed,
the fear, the escalating madness of war, hatred and destruction.

Once started, she was no longer relevant to the discussion. She
tried negotiating. Nothing happening. She tried the cold shoulder
only to inflame the passions of Ravanna. She retreated, kept

out of sight. One day a great conflagration arose and there was
a river of blood. The palace burnt to the ground and Ravanna
lost his head. There was Rama, standing before her, his eyes cold

his heart–she wondered where it had gone. But there was nothing
else for it, she had to go to the place she had once called home.
Nothing had changed, she was still irrelevant in Rama’s list of duties.

She sat alone like an exiled Penelope waiting for the man she thought
she knew to return. Before long she noticed the early signs, she knew
what was to come well before her belly swelled. This time he evicted

her, sent her into exile. She was not much more alone, and here she could
get her life back together and stop waiting for someone to notice her.
She started a school for the study of language, people came from the lands

all around. They told stories, recited day-long epic poems, played music,
danced and painted. Finally life was good. She became revered among
the people of the lands nearby for her intelligence, her wit, her sense

of justice and fun. They also thought her beautiful, but this was one among
many fine attributes. Sita stayed in her own country, her children
flourished knowing only a little of their mother’s trials and tribulations.

Of their father, they knew only that he had been most interested in his
reputation among men. They learned that there was little future
and, like so many throughout history, their father remained unknown.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


The cows in my head have taken to listening to music.

fugue dp223
for Lara

she runs for her life the music following
haunting every waking moment the voices
of those others weaving the gaps
like the woof and warp of a song

a song half forgotten half remembered
her life has turned contrapuntal
amnesic episodic amnesic again
days lost in fog clouds hanging over her head

wrapping it round swathed in a cloth of sound
she has always been the minor relative
never the major nor the dominant
black sheep can be a tonic but her story

her exposition is always chased away
for the refugee there is no chord
to hang her world on it is disappeared
like the girl with a fugue of memory

her identity lost her subject dissociated
a kind of shame that no one will quite grasp
it is social death clearly warped she will not
attend the event after all no final entry

instead she will be the eternal counterpoint
the free one whose coda is a single jubilant voice

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

if this is god

I wrote this poem a few weeks back when I visited a temple here in Chennai. The young woman standing next to me was the daughter of one of the people who worked there. Tulasi is the herb basil; darshan is a seeing. Please note I use lower case g for god.

if this is god dp289

she said
the young woman standing next to me
do you want to see god?
it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss
god available to see
is this a darshan?
does god see me too?

we walk through the heavy black columns
a forest of elephant legs
pass an old man walking in circles around one column
has god already spoken to him?
told him to do this?
in penance?
or for blessings?

she beckons for me to follow
we enter a small alcove
beaten gold walls
a priest inside
he wafts a flame
puts a garland around
is it god’s shoulders?
places fruit in a shallow bowl
scoops water into the hands of devotees
follows it with a spray of tulasi

we leave and go to another grander alcove
god here is bigger
seems to have company
but again
a flame
a garland of flowers
a gift of water in a shallow hand

I am satisfied
if this is god

Saturday, October 3, 2009

anatomy of a cow pat

Sadly, I can't set this out as I want, so I hope it still works.

anatomy of a cow pat dp298

where they drop and when
is all important
consider this:

on the savannahs of Africa
and in the deserts too
a special follower evolves
the dung beetle

watch this little body
work like a Trojan to roll

that corner of
that dung heap across
that road

like Sysiphus
or ordinary housework
this is an endless task
the job of dissolution is fast

in tropical regions
India northern Australia

and battalions of insects
ensure the dung
is dissolved in a day

to make use of it for fuel
she must be quick
follow the cow
pick it up
dry it out

on the dry plains
of the western slopes
where the nature of
soil and brick merge

the cow pat sits
and sits
and sits

waiting for the children
to walk past
on the way home from school

they pick them up
toss them like ancient Frisbees
watch the universe spin

Thursday, October 1, 2009

quaking earth and tsunami

This poem is for my niece Louise who is living in Samoa and for her partner Charlene and her family. I know that Lou and Charlene are fine, but the devastation is terrible. This week has also seen the terrible winds and rain in Philippines and across to Cambodia and Vietnam as well as another earthquake in Sumatra, Indonesia. These are difficult times.

earth bones dp296
for Lou and Charlene

earth bones creak
and we all fall off
souls seeking nirvana
flung far

down here it seems
so much more mundane
as walls fall rooves cave in
bodies bob

drenched by mud
women walk their children
home from school
in chest high water

in one ocean an elbow
in another a knee
and breath takes the wave

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Over the last few weeks I've had the great good fortune to be involved in the production of Sanchari. A play written by Sumarthi Murty, directed by Mangai and performed by Ponni Arasu. It's been a great journey and when I heard it would tour to Bangalore I offered to be a roadie. I hope I fulfilled the needs. Watching a play in a language you don't know many times over is a fascinating experience. Watching it take shape and become a wonderful performance is something I never dreamt would happen while I was in India. Thanks to everyone for making me so welcome - and for the artistic thrills. I loved Sunday's performance in Bangalore from which the photos above are taken and the poem below inspired by.

sanchari dp293
for Sumathi Mangai and Ponni

a movement an echo of sleep as the music resounds
the tree is swallowed by the world snake who in its turn
is borne by that ancient wrinkled turtle
the sun rises over song a song that endures nine hundred years
biblical in its life span

the woman on stage is like a moving part in a Kandinsky painting
geometric colours shining against black
her dance a reminder of Oscar Schlemmer and his Bauhaus theories
these other worlds other lokas intersect across the planes

is she Persian this Kalyani is that a veil or just an ornament
she sings in Urdu and Farsi her rhythms like Greek rembetika
that segue into rap and indi pop
she puts away the veil the scarf the continuous river of connection
moves into the present

she chastises the audience her cloth blooms petals sagging
like an old rose soon revived her future assured
as a goddess that’s her in a glass case refuse her water
insist that she bloom whatever her circumstances
but the washing still has to be hung out on the line

the cloth blows in the wind draped and renewed
pegged and pulled taut the song becomes a dwelling place
nomadic existence va come says another leave behind your old life
I will make you more famous than you ever dreamt possible

and so the raga unravels twists travels and turns
the performer wrapped in music moving to its beat
she throws off tradition pauses lounges in it for a while
stands like a gypsy arms akimbo breaks into song
an Indian Piaf selling her voice

she sits waiting for the song to lift her carry her away
breath becomes sound and her hand lifts like a musical gesture
following the track of her voice but even this must transform
she unpegs the washing the river of song
redresses and asks have you seen my new mobile phone?

Friday, September 25, 2009


Two nights ago I was invited to see a dancer perform a traditional temple dance done by women. This dance form is called nangiar kootu. Kapila Venu, the dancer has the most amazing muscle control over those tiny muscles that mostly we don't even notice. She has great ability for stillness. Thanks to Archana Ramaswamy for inviting me - and the great bike ride through Chennai!

Putna dp289

the world can be lost or made in the blinking of an eye
so Kapila Venu tells us in her nangiar koothu a dance
of moments of moments between moments
in the lift of an eyebrow disaster brews
her hand moves each move telling a story
there are more stories in between
a Russian doll of gestures
Putna’s tale is not a pretty one
she’s been asked to kill every boy in the land
by King Kamsa in an echo of that other king
never the maternal type Putna
goes about her task until
until she comes upon Krsna
that playful god who in his baby form
strings her along
nearby a cow suckles her calf
and Putna contemplates the unthinkable
to feed this child instead of killing him
fear fills her fear of King Kamsa
not known for feelings of generosity
more likely to lop her head if she does this
she pauses she watches the cow
indecision wracks her
you can see it in the twinging muscles of her face
each one separated out
her eyes moving from compassion to fear
fear to overwhelming love
she has the audience mesmerised
still and listening to the muscles move
will she won’t she will love win or hatred
poor Putna gives her hand to love
there’s a moment of complete exhilaration
but women in epic and in opera die young
Putna for all her consuming hatred
is killed in her moment of love
by a baby
her milk her life sucked from her by Krsna
her end agonising
Krsna meantime grows up to play with his brother

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Maruts and dust storms

I'm posting this poem from Earth's Breath for all those people in Sydney. I grew up in rural NSW and we had these on a frequent enough basis for us to have a system in place when a dust storm appeared on the horizon. For anyone outside Australia, the colour of Sydney in the pictures that come up if you Google Sydney dust storm are absolutely the right colour for an Australian dust storm. I don't think everything strange should be attributed to climate change. Even if there is no record of dust storms reaching Sydney (and I haven't checked this) I would be very surprised if one could use the word NEVER.

Maruts: storm demons

Afterwards, like new lovers telling stories
we talk of all the storms we’ve ever
witnessed, all the storms
that have snatched at our lives. Stories make
sense of our new state of existence
in the post-cyclone world.

I tell you how dust storms coloured
my childhood, the blue sky died
to dark, then red with dust.
We ran to every window: bolt shut
pull down the blinds, tie in a
figure-of-eight, our mother calling
out each place, Is this checked?
What of that? The doors closed
with dust-jamming snakes.
A cold wind runs over the roof
blasting us, and later we roam the house
drawing stick figures in the dust.

You trump me. Tell me of the
sandstorm in Tunisia, getting caught
out in it, not listening closely enough
to the locals’ warnings. Ant-watching
you miss all the signs until it’s
almost too late. Diving into
the car, you plug every gap, every millimetre
but still the sand comes in. You say
It’s the roar of the wind that is the same.

I remember the snowstorm on
Mt Kosciusko. It is nearly summer and
we leave the resort after lunch
dressed only in shorts and T-shirts, walking
compassless, we follow the snowpoles
losing our place on the map, not really
knowing our course. Unplanned, late
afternoon we stumble on Seaman’s Shack
a stone hut above the treeline. In falling
dark, I go in search of firewood
finding a single fallen pole. We cook
eat half-warmed food and pull the
sleeping bags over our heads. At midnight
the roar comes, the wind blizzarding
the walls. We lie with our bodies
curling the stovelegs, our ears filled with
the resounding echo of storm demons.

With each storm story, another
ricochets through our brains, our
startled synapses in overload. The
flood of ’74, the fires, the snowstorms
in your home country. You say
it’s like being in a washing machine
tumbled, thrown, strewn driftwood.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I stood in awe at this temple this morning. The sheer complexity of all those stories. I've been walking around Chennai for more than a month now, have passed the Kapaleeswarar Temple many times on foot, bus and auto-rickshaw, but getting close was unexpectedly overwhelming. The little pink cows are lower down and you feel like patting them, I'll save them for another day.

Parvathi dp288
for Chris

Shiva is such a softy his temple is filled
with small pink cows with blunt golden
horns and a cheeky smile their mouths
also soft put your hand in feel it

like cows amid traffic these bovines
keep their cool five stories up on a ledge
surrounded by a world Hieronymus
Bosch might have conjured they graze on

all those people to judge all that grass to eat
there are dragons and elephants demons
and devas the judgemental and the forgiving
the flippant and the playful hooded cobras too

it’s Parvathi I’ve come to see dressed in red
her right hand raised in blessing I’ve come
with flowers of fruit hand them in hope
that Yama is too busy to notice me

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Durga Puja

It's festival time again across the subcontinent. The festivals on now are Eid, a day of celebration at the end of Ramadan. It is also the beginning of Navaratri a nine-day (often extended to ten) or literally nine-night festival (from the Sanskrit) in celebration of goddesses. The first three days are for Durga (also known as Kali), the second three days for Lakshmi, and the final three days for Sarasvati. The Kali temple on my way to T. Nagar this morning was filled with people offering flowers and other devotions.

The following poem was written after a month-long trip to Bangladesh in 2005. This is a revised version of the original poem. I took the above photo about a month ago at a local temple in Kotturpuram, Chennai.

Durga Puja

It’s a human struggle–this rising of the soul but in the rising a host of players.
On these few days rivers meet–Ramadan, Durga Puja and my own post-christian
pagan soul. Kali is no slouch and Durga’s lion will eat our lamb for Sunday lunch.
She could be your own black Madonna from Switzerland swathed in that blue gown.
Imagine her interceding on behalf of Elephant Man, the braceleted Ganesh!

It’s a Disco Durga, a multimedia event–Myer Window meets Durga Puja.
The stage is set, a proscenium arch of pantomime figures. The mannequin,
blue Krishna, gives an oration before heading to his early morning chores,
raising the sun, milking the cows, rounding up life. The stage is a waterfall
of milk. Is this a story of milk and honey? Romance between Krishna and Parvati?

No it’s a story of blood, of betrayal and murder, of protection rackets. Enter
stage left, Buffalo Demon (BD) a Zapata moustache scarring his upper lip.
A winged cobra slung across his shoulders. Enter stage right livid Kali
doing a haka. Kali lops BD’s head. Help! Help! he cries, I’ve been killed!
BD retaliates slashing at heads as if they are weeds. Battle frenzy escalates.

A giant maw opens stage rear spitting bloodied torsos. Kali, fed up, ends it all.
She cleaves BD in half. It’s a Mediaeval Mumma play with paisley peacock
reminding me of colonial days, gin-and-tonic evenings. We wend our way back
pass shrines of devotion, smoking incense, fruit-filled platters, the holy man,
praying women, the sacrificed goat, the whiff of its spilled blood still in the air.

How high did our souls rise tonight?

Saturday, September 19, 2009


This poem is a companion to the poem Amba which I posted in August. The dancer is N. Srikanth.

Arjuna dp267

volte face of Amba the archer Arjuna becomes a girl
while Amba the girl becomes an archer
these are tales of twisted destinies
where people and gods intermingle
the sexes flow across the now-static boundaries
sky and sea cannot be separated
hills and clouds are mistaken for one another
the world is in flux and history
is yet to be made
here is Arjuna doing his level best to make it
to be remembered because the god-child
spoke to him so eloquently
but first he must shed his disguise
his woman’s attire with the muscles showing through
he laments that it’s a waste
to spend so much time as a woman
what use is it I’m good at archery not wiles
meanwhile he flicks a finger turns his wrist
and sticks out one hip in a grimace of imitation
he’s been married if sharing your bride
with four right hands and four left hands
can count as matrimony
bows and arrows are his passion
even beating old Indra of the rainbow
his archery always on display in the sky
Arjuna is fretting for battle and like all men
in serried ranks casting their eye
across the same vision on the other side
his innards turn to water
the war machine never stands still
Arjuna is roused to battle fury
the men around in awe even before he begins
none knowing if they’ll see the light of the next day

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Liverpool Plains

A few months ago I saw on TV a program about the proposed mining of Liverpool Plains in New South Wales. It is rich farming land and underneath it runs a coal seam. Today, sitting in a conference on climate change I was reminded of my poem, and so I'm posting it here. I know, I have veered away from cows for the moment but it's all connected. Indeed, the use of cow dung in India to keep the soil in good shape is not far off these same issues.

armour dp225

she dreams of making armour for the earth
a helmet to prevent the drillers from beginning
a breastplate so they cannot cut open her heart
greaves to stop the underground lines
breaking through to the water table

it confounds her that anyone would want
to mine Liverpool Plains
to make the earth a corpse to strip
back the muscle layer by layer
to let light in under all that rich deep earth
to groom her for profit burn coal embers
in the asthmatic air the heat increasing
to burn away everything for the emptiness
of waterdrained lungdrained flatlands

Let them eat coal not food.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Everything, you promised everything

I had fun in Manila, but shopping is hell.

everything dp277

The rain is falling puddling the doorway to hell. You step around the puddles in your bright pink shoes. Is it heaven with St Petra at the gate, or is it hell with its teeth showing?

Beside the door a guard white shirt blue trousers fake gold badges of authority on her breast.

Where you going? she asks. I don’t know, you say. Supermarket? Yes maybe, you reply. You go mall, you not come in, not open. You go supermarket. Yes, supermarket, you say in this cold anteroom of denied options.

You show me bag, she says. You show. You open bag. You open. She pokes at it with her demonic prod, looks inside.

You go supermarket this way, she says pointing to the travelator descending into this underground maw of hell.

You pass the other people in your rush to descend, find the supermarket, then wander out into the darkened limbo between the shops selling every gizmo under the sun.

It’s 9.40 am and nothing else is open so you turn to the neon brightness of the supermarket, go looking for the glass replacement for the coffee plunger.

You ask, show them the shiny metal skeleton of the small glassless object you depend on to start the day.

You go up, third floor, department store, not here, he says. Where is that? you ask and he waves his hand vaguely up and out.

You wander between the aisles and aisles of packaged coloured product and then into the fresh foods area where fruits and vegetables are cling wrapped under organic signs.

Your stomach is not responding well, your nose twitching, every sense moving toward overload. You almost run to exit this underworld, to return to life. You don't look back.

Outside the supermarket you find a lift going nowhere until after 10 am, you’ve finally grasped that while hell is open 24 hours, heaven has it easier and opens late. With time to kill you set off up the stairs.

Standing at the top of the stairs you see through the windows of McDonalds where faces are filling themselves. A man approaches, says something, you say, No thank you, to his offer of junk food.

He persists, repeats his sentence, No thank you, and again NO THANK YOU, through gritted teeth. You turn to the stairwell, look down at hell's entrance, notice by the railing a woman with a walkie talkie.

You turn, see the man you’d thought was offering McDonalds see that he too communicates between realms with a walkie talkie. Then the plainclothes man approaches you, directs you to a chair, Over there. Wait.

Your puzzled look prompts, Not open, from him and a touch of his watch. As you turn toward the chair you see the bulging crowd of the clamouring dead at the main entrance, guards holding them back.

You sit, watch from purgatory as the last cleaner sweeps the floor lights flicker rollerdoors open and all the things on sale burst into visibility.

It’s open M’am, says a passing guard. You rise and join the swelling crowd moving toward the department store.

If this is heaven, I’m not coming. Plastered smiles greet you the escalators pump people upwards to the celestial realms and blasting from the speakers a jingle.

Welcome to SM stores
We have everything
Welcome to SM stores
We have everything

Rising through the layers of clouds to the transparent zone of kitchens and glassware you are filled with hope for success. You look you trawl the shelves no plunger of any shape or size no glass replacement.

You ask at the counter. The woman all celestial smiles says, No glass for these, maybe we have whole item. You follow. But no, no plungers of any kind. Quietly you say, So you don’t have everything?

Inside you are screaming, But you promised eternal life, you said you had everything everything everything.

Descending into disconsolation you return to the supermarket disoriented by this torture of sound and lights uncertainty and despair. You stumble into the cyberzone no longer dark buzzing with zombied youth.

For a moment you are lost then recall the travelator rise up the smooth ascent to the doorway where you were searched exit into the freshness of rain the relief of silence the stillness of monotoned walls.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Draupadi again

I've been mulling over the story of Draupadi since the performances I saw a couple of weeks back. Here is my poetic response to the final performance. The dancer is Sheejith Krishna in the role of Krishna.

Draupadi’s Krishna dp268

even before Krishna is on stage
I am worrying about Draupadi again
she’s the lynch pin of the story

let me set it out
a woman has married an eligible young man
a famous archer
as she’s arriving at his house after the betrothal
his mother Kunti in ignorance of the ‘prize’
tells her five boys to share it
only when Draupadi enters does Kunti realise
that she has condemned her to five husbands
when gods decree such things
there is no escape
Draupadi bonds with all five
takes on their interests and passions
becomes the most important person in the household
after her mother-in-law

then the gambling begins
it’s the eldest brother who gets them into this scrape
and he has a problem a gambling problem
he bets everything
his land his people his cattle his houses
his brothers himself and finally

she is in her room taking time out
because she’s bleeding
she is fetched
dragged by her hair into the assembly
her sari is being torn
her body exposed
to a roomful of men
none of them moves
none of them protests
none of the five brothers
not a one

Draupadi in desperation calls on Krishna
gods have a bigger view
and he creates a deception
so that Draupadi’s sari never unwinds
like the magic casket that never empties

my worry about Draupadi
is that she is never redeemed

think of this
a child is neglected abused abandoned
even if we can do nothing
we feel we should
we feel guilt sorrow
and inside we pledge something
we try to make it impossible for this to recur

a man called the son of god
is betrayed abandoned by his disciples
then worshipped

a woman
is betrayed in a game of chance
publicly humiliated
her mother-in-law has the greatest feeling for her
and Draupadi is then abandoned by the storyteller
only appearing in her role as wife to the five brothers
now forced into exile

Draupadi is a kind of Christ
but on some level she is blamed for her
betrayal humiliation and abandonment

Friday, September 4, 2009

The tortoise and the mountain

The word giri in Sanskrit has many meanings and these meanings are the source of this poem. The dictionary is a marvelous source of associative thinking.

giri dp269

a tortoise swallowed a mountain
having thought that the mountain was slow and steady
like her good self

the tortoise was shocked to discover
that many hidden things go on in mountains
this particular mountain was in eight parts

it seemed to the tortoise who was learned in mathematics
that it was an infinity of mountains
because on every slope in every ravine

on peaks and in the deepest caves
there were multitudes of mountains inside mountains
each of these contained yet more mountains

in fractal form
not only that but each of these multitudinous mountains
hosted different kinds of creatures

in one a small girl played with a ball
in another a man curled like a ball his eyes blinded by some unknown disease
in yet another a mouse crawled up the rocky slope

a rope climber without a rope
a cloud hung over another mountain in conversation with trees
and there was more much more

but by now the venerable tortoise was getting bored
and regurgitated the lot
she deposited this ball on the peak of the nearest mountain
and let it roll

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sarama and the sun cow

This poem draws on a story from the Rg Veda (10/108/1-11). Sarama, the messenger dog is sent off in search of the stolen cow. For more on this story see Bibek Deboy. 2008. Sarama and Her Children: The dog in Indian myth. New Delhi: Penguin. pp. 69-77.

Sarama and the sun cow dp252

the sun cow has gone on holiday to stay with her sister-
in-law in the mountains there in the deepest caves beside
the river Rasa she slept she slept because she had worked
for too long for too many she slept because she was
tired of being at the beck and call of everyone from
toddler to grandparent and all the old aunties and various
hangers-on she went to stay in the mountains because
the cave was herself that dark interior unexplored
in the cracks of time and then he had to spoil it all
he accused her sister-in-law of being demonic selfish
of abducting the sun cow and leaving the earth those
poor helpless ones in darkness he bribed Sarama
the house dog with promises of all that she could eat
and sent her on a grand search she sniffed and tracked
and swam raging rivers in search of the sun cow
and found her scent again on the bank of the Rasa
River following her nose she came to her side nudged
her flank and said he wants you to come home
the sun cow says stay sister here in this quiet place
is heaven no one to ask you for another drink of milk
no one to make you carry all the shopping home no one
to insist you raise the sun and carry the world all day
every day but Sarama had her orders and so she went
home alone he rages about those demons stealing
his sun cow his world his light he beats Sarama who
quivers and wishes she had stayed he forces her to show
him the way and then he can’t contain himself he kills
his sister and her demon friends he abducts the sun cow
who is raging and kicking and goring him between
the ribs the river still flows the old caves are empty
the sun cow is at her daily work holding things together

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Here is a small poem about the masks that sit beside the doorways. I have a peacock, mayura in Sanskrit, appropriate because the masks are said to keep away the evil eye.

peacock dp249

enter my door but before you do
you’ll be eyed Mayura sits wings
outspread many eyed this bird
is my protection with feathers
shimmering optics and iridescence
without Mayura the rains would
not come the river would not flow
Saraswati would go underground
again this feathered gaze a precise
antidote to the wandering evil eye

Monday, August 31, 2009


Tonight at the Bharata Natyam Festival I saw two very different interpretations of the Draupadi story. I've included two photos of two artists. R. Rohini (the photo with pink tinge) is an actress; Shreelatha Vinod is a Bharata Natyam dancer.

Draupadi dp266

when dharma is mixed with revenge it’s a shame job
Draupadi born out of hatred is found on a mountain
her clothes in shreds her mind wandering
her mouth moves but the sounds are strangled
before they can form words

she had accepted fate when it delivered
the five-fingers-equals-one-hand marriage
she shared their ambitions and fears
she learnt archery and all about cows
and horses to encourage her sons

but she cannot forget that awful day
when her body was the crime
they dragged her to the assembly
she tried to cover herself they teased
and shame ran like blood

that five-fingered hand was deep in its pocket
it was not lifted instead it was fingering
the future with new gambles and she
was the booty her freedom lost
her dignity thrown out with the dice

Draupadi sits on that mountain the wind
running through her she sings a high lament
her pitch out of the range of speech
each time she tries to utter words the wind
snatches them from the edge of her lips

her god-brother comes to sit next to her
she argues through the wind-blown words
she says you gods are unfair my shame
cannot be spoken turn the world upside down
so the powerless can speak their truths

but the winds comes from all directions
the fill her mouth with air and whistle
into the god-brother’s ear and when he turns
to look at her to catch what she is saying
he can see only the silent moon against ice

Sunday, August 30, 2009


paksha dp175

moon wing floats overhead in the dark
of the lunar month
fish fin swims by beneath the water’s edge
in the moon’s bright tide
cow flank is a night feather against my shoulder
smelling of straw and chaff
party factions are armies’ phalanxes
still smoking in noisy backrooms
every proposition is an equation to be argued
by show-off peacocks spreading feathers
her hands articulate like wingbones
when she dances
an elephant will dance and cry when the moon’s
wings are clipped

Saturday, August 29, 2009


The story of Amba comes from the Mahabharata. This week in Chennai a dance festival is being held based on stories from this great epic. Pani Thee / Frozen Fire was written and directed by feminist playwright Mangai and danced in traditional village style called Koothu Isai Natakam by Usha Rani who is a folk artist. The performance was filled with great energy. The photos are of Usha Rani. The second image is from near the beginning where she is on the battlefield and she has just begun to discard the heavy battledress. The top image is of her when she has in a way regained her self.

amba’s revenge dp262

the gods and people dance
while the gods dance the world
in and out of existence
like bees creating and destroying a hive
the people dance stories of love and war
of dharma and betrayal
the dancer transforms
shifting body
changing the temper of the dance

this girl has set her mind to the future
she knows security when she sees it
and she’s here today to choose her future
but fate in the shape of blundering Bhishma
has set a different course
like a game of chance
her life is won in a throw of the die
but she’s no shrinker in the face of fate
she confronts him says not happy
I want the other one

Bhishma seems the proper gentleman
provides an escort sends her to the one she’s chosen
but men are fickle and Salva will not be her salvation
he says Bhishma beat me hands down and
you were the prize
back you go girlie
and so she does
but by now Bhishma’s got himself in a pickle
he’s vowed celibacy
Amba feels like she’s being pulled from pillar to post and back again
and her will just gets stronger and stronger

she retires to the forest
she has supporters but nothing helps
only obsessing day in day out about Bhishma’s future
it is clear she wants him dead
Bhishma’s mother Ganga
that great river
hears the rumours gets in early with her curse
being the mother of all rivers has its benefits
she curses Amba to be born with the woman river in one side of her
but the other would be a paltry forest river of rocks and sand and dried mud

Amba is set to see this revenge through several lifetimes
doing penance to help her reach her goal
one day she is granted a god-boon
clear as light she says
I want him dead and I want him dead by my hands
and a new course is set

Amba transformed in the fire of passion
gets a new body a new life
this girl grows up a tomboy
they encourage her in sports and games and archery
at which she excels
they call her Shikhandi
she out runs out smarts out strategises
this is an old life reborn with purpose

when war comes with Bhishma standing on enemy lines
Shikhandi dresses for battle
she wears her biggest shoulders
she puts on battledress
crowns her head with the tallest headdress
she shines like no other warrior on the field
Bhishma recognises her
scorns her says I’m not fighting a woman
just because she’s put on her brother’s battledress
and he lowers his guard
and his weapons

whereupon Shikhandi shoots arrow
after arrow
after arrow
and when she hears him say
as he lies pierced by her arrows
it was that man behind you who shot these arrows into me
not some girl in dress-ups
she strikes him again with furious arrows

it’s all a great play to you Bhishma the invincible
but you have met your match in me
so convinced were you that I was just a woman
no man has trained as hard
no man could pierce you with his eyes
no man could see your vulnerability
your over-weaning pride and belief in masculinity
your time is over now
I will discard these vestments of processioning power
this armour of splendour
I will discard the accoutrements of masculinity
and watch the waning power of men
a passing yuga
a mere transit

instead I will reclaim the simple life
wrap my body in a single length of cloth
take off to the forest with her by my side
the best part of this great charade

the gods and people dance
while the gods dance the world
in and out of existence
like bees creating and destroying a hive
the people dance stories of love and war
of dharma and betrayal
the dancer transforms
shifting body
changing the temper of the dance

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Cassowaries in far north Queensland are under threat from developers, increasing traffic and deforestation. I thought it time to put up this poem from my book, Earth's Breath. They are magnificent birds and this photo is of a father and his chick. Yes the fathers do the rearing. Maybe we need to begin evolution again!

Casuarius casuarius johnsonii

no wabu, no wuju, no gunduy
no forest, no food, no cassowary

―Djiru saying.

A girl goes into the forest
the forest is a rainforest
her guide is a cassowary
the cassowary knows her way through the forest
she knows all the fruits of the forest
she is mistress of the forest
the fruits are red blue orange green and yellow
the girl must collect the fruit

Along comes a big wind
a wind that lifts and
twists the trees round and round
so that their trunks are spiralled
the wind hauls trees out of the earth
and throws them every which way
the girl shelters under the heavy black feathers
of the cassowary which pin her to the ground

When the big wind has passed
the girl is disoriented
she no longer knows which way is up
she hardly knows which is east or west
which is sun which is moon
clouds scud across the sky
but they have lost their shapes
no longer are there stories in the clouds
just loss

The cassowary tries to comfort the girl
at first there is plenty of fruit
fallen fruit native plum lilly pilly quandong
the girl wanders behind disconsolately
from time to time she nibbles at the rotting flesh
but it soon sours
the bitter seed takes over from the soft flesh

As the days pass
the cassowary must wander further and further afield
she ventures into places she’s never been before
followed by the girl
soon the fruit is nowhere to be found
the two sit down to wait for windfall
quietly they drop into sleep
quietly they die