Underground RoadUnderground Road by Sharon Kernot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an impressive first novel. The characters are well drawn. There is a mood of impending doom from early on, and Kernot builds tension right through the book. It is a gripping read, but also takes time to incorporate significant social commentary, without being ‘preachy’. The lives of the inhabitants of one street are intertwined, each facing different challenges: bullying, domestic violence, gambling, mental illness, adjustment to retirement. The characters are engaging and the reader is drawn into their world from page one.

Whilst it is set in contemporary Australia and has specific Australian references (Centrelink, Commodores, ‘pokies’ etc.), it might almost be any western country where people face similar challenges.

Highly recommended.

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foucheTuesday 14th June 2005 I don’t trust this town, perhaps because I am exhausted, and exhaustion makes me feel vulnerable. The people seem sly, unlike most Cubans I have met so far. They take less care of their dress than other Cubans. They know their town is a passing-through-place between Havana and Vinales. They mentally weigh the wallets of in-transit tourists, grieve the convertible pesos passing by on each bus, car, taxi and even bicycle. My bicycle leans against a wall under a verandah. I sit, propped against my bicycle, my stomach cramped, my legs weak. My exhaustion brought on by a 45 kms unintended detour on a rough and windy road. I am back in La Palma which I thought I had left behind me 3 hours ago. I flag down a taxi, a huge, ancient American limo. He says it will cost CUC$20 to Vinales. I don’t like him and I don’t like the fare. Despite my exhaustion, I say “no thanks”. Out of the resentful crowd a well dressed man appears: tweed jacket, tie, clean cut, mid-thirties.

He could be a Spanish teacher in an Adelaide high school. He sees my distress, offers to help me find a lift to Vinales, negotiates with a taxi driver to pick me up when he has finished his current fare. It will cost 10 CUC$.

We sit and talk for an hour. I notice that he scans the passers by every few minutes as if expecting an unwelcome visitor. He is a lecturer in Art at the university. This unattractive town has a university campus, part of the University of Pinar del Rio. His name is Tony. His English is excellent. He says Cuba is ‘morbid’. An Australian might say the place is ‘dead’ but he doesn’t mean it in the same way I don’t think. In his terms, I think he means that it is in the grip of a stultifying force. He tells me about Fouché . I have to ask him to explain. Fouché was Napoleon’s Minister of Police. It was Fouchés job to watch Napoleon’s opponents and rivals. But, Tony says, Napoleon did not trust Fouché , so he had people spy on Fouché , whilst Fouché  in turn was spying on everyone else. Cuba is the same, Tony says. We are probably being watched right now, and someone will be reporting to the authorities that on 14th June 2005, Tony Sarmiento spent an hour talking to a touring cyclist in La Palma and that they exchanged pieces of paper. The taxi arrives. Tony and the driver help squeeze my bicycle and panniers into the back of the small car, which already carries two other passengers, one from Norway, one from Germany,  and their luggage. We swap email addresses, shake hands. He walks off, looking over his shoulder.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2014

Saturday 11th June 2005

Queuing along a shadowy passageway leading down to the local ferry from Havana to Casablanca and Cojimar. My bike worth ten years wages to the Cubans pressed in around me. It’s claustrophobic. It’s humid. My paranoia is mounting. The queue shuffles forward. Even the locals are sweating.

One hand on my wallet. My thoughts of a stiletto knife and the ease with which one could be slipped between my ribs. My eyes drawn to the dark gap between ferry and quay, tailor made for a tourist’s body. My attention sought by a ragged man and his ragged wife in front of me. They are staring at my wallet and the Convertible Pesos * folded inside it. He gesticulates to me and then to his wife. She looks too old, surely, to be a prostitute, though she is probably younger than me.

I don’t understand his gap toothed Spanish. Can vaguely interprete “too much, too much”. Too much what? I have too much money for one person in a socialist country? I have too many possessions and those around me have too few?  I tighten my grip on my bike, push my wallet deeper into my pocket, keep edging forward towards the rough looking, swarthy Cuban collecting fares on the gangplank. The old man is getting more and more agitated, keeps pointing to his wife and to me. At last she reaches into her purse, pulls out 40 centavos, local currency, the ferry fare; gives it to me, to save me using a whole convertible peso, for which I would receive no change.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

* Cuba operates dual currencies: Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC$) are for tourist use, pegged to the US dollar and must be used to pay for accommodation and anywhere that tourists might shop – bars, restaurants, supermarkets,tourist buses. Local pesos are used day to day by Cubans, are only accepted in the local shops, street stalls, local transport etc. A CUC$ is worth about 25 times a local peso. Each peso is made up of 100 centavos. So the ferry fare of 40 centavos is about 1/60th of CUC$1

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2014

Angry Ma’am at Slam

Posted: November 20, 2014 in poetry
Tags: , , , ,

The ebullient Nigel Ford organised, for the second year, the excellent Goolwa Cup Poetry Slam last Sunday. There was a great turnout, a fantastic workshop by Robin ‘Archie’ Archbold and some top class performances in the slam.

I didn’t prepare anything special for the competition, but decided to take advantage of a large, captive audience, and to read my ‘adaptation’ of Billy Collins’s “Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes”. My version is called “Taking off Tony Abbott’s Clothes”.

I’ve performed this piece three or four times in Adelaide, and it has been well received. The audience cringes, and laughs uncomfortably and then picks up the political message of the poem. Goolwa (a lovely river / coastal town about 90kms south of Adelaide), however, is a different demographic – older, more conservative, in fact a Liberal (that’s Australian Conservative) stronghold.

So I should have foreseen that it might not be quite as receptive an audience, and should have known that conservatives tend (broad generalisation I know) not to have a great sense of humour.

At half time in the slam, I was confronted by an irate, older woman, and had the following exchange:

“That was truly disgusting” she says.

“Why thank you” I say (thinking that she was being complimentary!)

“We’re not all lefties down here” she says

“Clearly not” I say

“It’s disrespectful to the office of the Prime Minister” she says

“Not my Prime Minister” I say

 “I’m glad it got through to you” I say

“No it didn’t” she says

“Clearly it did” I say.

Woman storms off, dragging her adult son with her, muttering all the way out the door, and does not return for the second half.

I await her letter to the Victor Harbor Times, and her complaint to the Alexandrina Council. As a friend of mine said, “You haven’t made it as a poet until someone’s reported you to the local council.”

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2014

Pashtun Podcasting

Posted: November 12, 2014 in poetry, video
Tags: , , ,

Pashto Landay – Afghan Women Poets from Franco Pachtoune on Vimeo.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. I found an app called Stitcher, which you can load onto your smartphone. It allows you to search by topic and will return any matching podcasts it can find. You can then listen on your phone whilst out walking, running, at the gym or relaxing on the couch. I tend to listen whilst at the gym – lets me feel I’m getting some mental stimulation as well as a physical workout, takes the mind off the tedium and mostly blocks out the terrible piped music that they blast out (despite the fact that 90% of gym goers are, like me, listening to something else on their phones).

Anyway, the Poetry Foundation has a great series of podcasts and one in particular grabbed my attention. It was about a form of poetry handed down orally from generation to generation of Pashtun women. Anybody who thinks that Afghani women are timid, conservative things should listen to this. The poems, called ‘Landay’ are often bawdy, angry, rebellious and downright hilarious. The word ‘Landay’ can be translated as ‘a short, poisonous snake’ – which tells you that the poems can have a bite. For example:

You sold me to an old goat father
May God destroy your home, I was your daughter

and

You wound a fat turban around your bald head
To hide from me your age and that you are nearly dead

and

Slide your hand into my bra
Stroke a red and ripening pomegranate of Kandahar

The landay is a two-line poem, of 22 syllables. Though I think this applies to the original Pashto version, because the English translations are not necessarily 22 syllables. There is a detailed description of landays here.

The podcast I listened to was an interview with Eliza Griswold, who collaborated with photographer Seamus Murphy to document Afghan life through the prism of these landays. Above is a beautifully shot short film made by them, which provides great insight into the lives of Pashtun women.



Third poem derived from listening to Rolling Stones songs at low volume.
There’s an Islamic flavour to this one. As if Mick had become Mohammed.

Dissatisfaction

 

Shiny skinned and cherubic

A fat man wins first prize

in the baby show

 

Goats are astray

In the nation’s capital

Devouring stray pedestrians



Pressing prose is a chore

Counting words provocative

But I’m high on pagination

 

I’m clad in a PVC burka

An Islamic man turns up

In a hair shirt just for me

 

But he can’t be an Imam

‘cause his mosque don’t have

the right minarets for me

 

I’m driving at the world

I’m trying to dance

and I’m deep in debt

 

I’m trying on fake pearls

Hoping to charm the ladies

with my boozer’s cheek.



Copyright Mike Hopkins 2014

Any excuse to mention Robin Trower, who was NOT one of the Rolling Stones, but is, in my opinion, a great guitarist. Here is his great song “Too Rolling Stoned”:

Like many rock and pop songs, the lyrics are somewhat opaque. For instance:

“A stitch in time / Helps to unfold me /Circus starts at eight so don’t be late”

Which sort of justifies the opacity of these ‘poems’ derived from listening to Rolling Stones songs at low volume. This one’s based on “Paint it Black”

Paint it Black

I’ve been a force fed thing
A pin cushion for you

Heaving in the sack
My stealer’s race is up

I’ll vomit rum and snot from high
onto a sea of plaintiff hacks

Hunting the parking zone
Cliff side nooks are for sale

Icy steeples turning red
And stick men looking gay

I flaunt it on my back
A hook inside my vest

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2014

Adelaide Oval Stones Concert (ABC)

 

The Rolling Stones have been in Adelaide. I didn’t go to the concert at the Adelaide Oval, but friends who went say it was brilliant.

In a podcast recently, I heard a poem which was the result of listening to a song at very low volume, and writing down what the poet thought they heard.  So I decided to try it on a few Rolling Stones classics. The initial results are quite weird, so I thought I’d post some examples over the next week or so. This is raw material. I intend to cull it and maybe turn the pieces into a single ‘poem’ if that’s what it can claim to be.

The first one is based on “Honky Tonk Woman”


Honky Tonk Woman



Arm in arm we enter

a harmonium scene

a dentist plies me

with steak and kidney pie

 

we plateaued, evenings, nights

sucked croissant soldiers

lusting for pink

tossing rhymes

 

I was a long conquered human

looking for a long conquered muse


later, inner blues

sated with chilli pork

my cousin shoots up

to some kind of high


our ladies came in

covering their noses

threw red roses

from colder climes


I was a long conquered human

looking, looking, looking for a long conquered muse


 Copyright Mike Hopkins 2014

 

 

Adriaen_Brouwer_004

Arriving back in Adelaide Saturday before last, having flown for nearly 24 hours, what I should have done is have a quiet week: give myself time to get over the jet lag and the exertions of a month of socialising with friends and family in Ireland and England.

Instead, I went out on the Sunday night to hear three of my favourite Adelaide poets, Rachael Mead, Alison Flett and Heather Taylor-Johnson, collectively known as “Edit when Sober”. They were guest poets at Spoke n Slurred at the excellent James Place pub in Adelaide.

I should have known that it wouldn’t be a quiet night. I think my worst hangovers in recent times have been incurred whilst socialising with the EwS women; plus Spoke n Slurred is nearly always a raucous night. Needless to say, my recovery from jet lag was seriously delayed by a Monday hangover.

However, on Wednesday, I had the pleasure of meeting up with the same three EwS women to see “Reaching for the Moon”, a film about the great American poet Elizabeth Bishop. One of the first poems to really ‘grab’ me, when I got back into poetry in recent years, was Bishop’s “One Art” (“the art of losing isn’t hard to master”). Bishop was, for a significant part of her life, alcoholic. According to William Boyd, she was a binge drinker, even resorting to eau de cologne when the booze ran out.

So having immersed myself in Bishop and alcohol, it seemed appropriate to write “The Art of Boozing”. I hope Elizabeth would approve. Maybe not. As often happens with a good (or bad) idea, someone else has already had it, and I found an existing interpretation at Pamela’s Musings. But undeterred, I persisted with my own take on it, which I think is sufficiently different:

Elizabeth Bishop

The Art of Boozing

(With apologies to Elizabeth Bishop)

Being drunk, it seems life has more lustre;

the sober self is duller, too content.

The art of boozing isn’t hard to master.

 

So practice drinking farther, drinking faster:

spirits, beers in pubs you’ve always meant

to visit. Hear the clink of glass, the laughter.

 

I sank a priceless wine. And look! My last, or

next-to-last, of three aged whiskies went.

The art of boozing isn’t hard to master.

 

I drank at work, I called the boss a bastard.

Jobless now, I’ll drink the next week’s rent.

Destitute, but it is no disaster.

 

- Drinking with you (you tolerate my bluster,

my follies) I cannot lie. It’s patent:

the art of boozing’s not too hard to master.

So drink a toast (your round): “To getting plastered”.

-

 Copyright Mike Hopkins 2014

rippswirl

 

I am guest poet spot at the SPIN gig next Wednesday, 4th June 2014.

SPIN is a monthly poetry and music open mic night at the Ripple & Swirl Cafe, 14 The Esplanade, Christies Beach, on the first Wednesday of the month from 6.30pm – 9.00pm.

Admission is $5.00 / $4.00 concession

There is also an open mic. for poets and musicians.

Food is available by pre-order if required and the venue is licensed.

Further details are available at the  SPIN Facebook page  or contact the SPIN organisers by email: spinopenmic@gmail.com

 

Christies Beach