Neenish tarts, bus shelters, Wagga Wagga and me

Never thought I’d use these four ‘terms’ in the same sentence but there you go – if life was a Venn diagram, there are several shaded areas in which me and neenish tarts would intersect.

For those who’ve been living under a rock for the past century or so, a neenish tart (see picture above) is a delightful Antipodean invention featuring a pastry base, jam and cream filling and distinctive, two-coloured, almost-yin-and-yang-style icing. It’s the kind of cake you’ll find in any halfway decent country town bakery, and one that (courtesy of my mother’s fondness for them) I’ve developed a fair hankering for over the years. Matter of fact, I could murder a neenish tart right now.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Wagga Wagga. It must have been over a year ago that the Booranga Writers’ Centre in Wagga Wagga, Australia (publishers of the magazine FourW, in which I’ve had a few pieces published over the years) put out a call for poems to be displayed on bus shelters in the town. The call for works immeditely ‘piqued’ my interest, as we say in the industry, as I’d spent a fair bit of time in Wagga Wagga as a young grasshopper, either driving through or else strapped into a dentist’s chair.

While my memories of Wagga are not all fond, I wrote three poems and sent them off. The first one (brace-face) was about getting braces in Wagga Wagga. The second one (“Riverina”) was about playing Aussie Rules in Wagga. And the third poem, the one they accepted, was about a neenish tart. It’s called, surprisingly enough, ‘neenish tart’, and for the benefit of all non-residents of Wagga Wagga, I’ve pasted it below:

Neenish tart

There used to be this cafe around here
somewhere – maybe it’s still going, do
you know the one I mean? You could buy
a good neenish tart there, with inch-thick
pastry and an ooze of too-sweet jam. Then
there was cream they must have laced with
sugar and icing to die for. I used to live in a
town to the north of here, it doesn’t matter
which one. What matters is the neenish tart,
the one my mum used to buy me whenever
we drove through Wagga Wagga on our way
home from time trials or footy, it depended
on the season. That tart always tasted good.
I especially loved the icing, it reminded me of
yin and yang. I wonder if it’s still there. One day
I’ll come back and walk down the main street,
ask a few people if they remember the place.

                             Maybe you do?

The sentiments in this poem almost make me feel a little bit teary now – I remember the taste of that neenish tart as if it was yesterday. Recently, I got an email from Derek Motion, the director of Booranga, informing me that

” … the second groups of poems will be going up shortly in bus shelters around Wagga Wagga. We have been able to procure an extra 4 shelters to use for the project, so all 8 poems will be on display at the same time. To celebrate this event we’ve planned another event – a bus tour of all (or selected) shelters, featuring poetry readings on location, with wine / refreshments at the terminus. We will be holding this event on Saturday 14th April, with the bus departing from the Wagga Council Chambers at 2pm.”

While I unfortunately won’t be able to make it to the launch, the idea of a bus tour sounds like a great one and I really wish I could be there. As a kind of substitute, Derek sent me this photo of the bus shelter where my neenish tart poem is currently living.

It’s almost like being there, don’t you think?

Sunshine for Kim Dae-jung

on the day you died i heard helicopters
& jet planes flying over seoul's old head 
the sun was shining hot & burning down
teheran-ro & the steel streets of gangnam
were full of young girls holding umbrellas 
by the subway entrance a young man held
the hands of an older man who was writing
something on a small pad, both looking sad 
about something though I knew it wasn't 
you; & as I walked down the stairs into the 
subway station I watched girls coming up 
holding handbags over their behinds to
prevent the up-skirt glances & cameras
i'd recently read were on the increase ... 
i knew that you had just died & so how
could anybody here have that knowledge
but it made me sad in any case to think
about your long & amazing life & the life
of gwangju people that is so different from
that of the girl walking through gangnam 
wearing a face-mask not because of flu
but due to a recent visit to the face doctor
& it's not her fault & I don't know anything
about her life but i wonder what's the point
of all this though i don't expect an answer 
from her let alone anyone here i must find my 
own reasons for life & carrying on within me, 
i have to stop thinking about sad things like 
the photo of you and kim jong-il, hand in 
hand at last, while ko un looked on; i have
to believe in some sphere of freedom where
girls can walk around wearing short skirts
& holding umbrellas to protect their bleached
faces from the harmful old sun's gamma rays 
& boys do not have to do their twenty six 
months & old women don't have to live in 
basement apartments & crawl up the stairs
& no one tries to steal up-skirt glances at 
anyone & tawdry old mats covered with red
chillis spread out to dry can be left in the 
middle of the road; i have to believe in this
road & the reasons for walking alone at night
& so i write & think of you in the past tense 
& know that within hours of your death your
wikipedia entry had been changed to reflect 
the fact & then I knew you were really gone 
& it was all beyond dispute, & your life was no
longer an article that doesn't cite its sources
but rather a song free of kidnappers & enemies 
& crocodiles crying aloe vera tears yes forget
that it doesn't matter now, you'll join mr roh 
somewhere behind a waterfall & together you'll
wait for the rest of us to arrive (one by one like
days of summer filled with moving tears & hands

                        & sunshine 

Unrequited Love Letter

Dear You,

I’ve been meaning to write for ages. So many times I started off, barely reaching the end of my ‘salutation’ before giving up: “Dear Yo-” and so on. I wore the delete key thin with my maniacal backspacing, back-treading; I resorted to a global ‘find-and-replace’ to get rid of the last traces of you but still no luck.

I forwarded all of my emails to a really obscure (though free) Russian account I had set up, I think it was:

I even set myself a really difficult password prompt – what is your favourite number? I looked away while I banged the numbers in, just to be sure I’d never, ever remember it. Then I logged out, cleared my cache, underwent hypnotism and hung upside down for a few days, just to be sure no trace of a clue remained as to how to access the account, or you.

Not that you cared. If you ever even thought of me, I’m sure the only thing you would have thought was: why go to such ridiculous extremes when the contents of the emails themselves are burned on the back of your earlobes anyway, causing them to redden every time you think of me, which isn’t often – but often enough to fuck me up for good?

But all of this is probably yawn-inducing for you. Fair enough. It’s the story of my life, after all – not yours. From the moment we met I knew you would never feel about me the way I wanted you to. You would never reply to my emails, my texts and poems filled with cryptic messages for you to decipher.

I started attending spoken word events miles from my home just to have an opportunity to read those awful poems to an uncomprehending audience, and also I guess in the vain hope that you too had developed a taste for poetry performed in semi-rural venues.

That bit was wrong, at least, though I did get a good response from one of the venue’s owners, who immediately offered me a job on the late shift. I need someone like you to help me close up, he said. All you have to do is read out some of your poems at about 1am. Once the place is empty, you can help me clean up. Let’s face it, at $10 an hour, I was never going to get a better offer. Not from you, anyway.

You said you didn’t understand poetry. I’ve heard that cop-out so many times before. What’s not to understand? I love you, like I said in each and every one of those poems, and devastating as it was to see their effect on the late-night clientele of the sad-sack mountain tavern, that was nothing when compared with your brutal lack of recognition.

It was like I wasn’t even there screaming the words at you, like the poem itself was just hanging in the air, or else piped from a set of invisible speakers just above street level, that day you ran for the tram rather than stand and talk with me.

Do I have AIDS? What would you care! You and your homophobic friends, who needs you anyway! Because you know what? In my mind I do things to you that you might think were illegal, and you’d probably be right, if we were living in Saudi Arabia.

The things I do to you in my mind make those poems I screamed at you like I was throwing daggers at the back of your head sound like a fumbling teen romance. And the funny thing is that in my mind you’re begging for it. You can’t get enough of me. You’re the innocent one, shocked by my advances, devastated by my eventual rejection.

In desperation, you enrol in a CAE creative writing workshop, just to find the right words to throw back at me. But of course, in this scenario, I’ve stacked the class with bitter bush poets, and they tear your pathetic verses to pieces.

You respond by storming out of the class, hoping to catch the last train to a semi-rural tavern where you know of a small performance poetry reading, the open section of which you might just be lucky enough to catch.

I remain, of course, two thousand steps ahead of you, having contrived to cause the metropolitan transit authority’s service level to deteriorate so badly that no trains are running at all, anywhere. It’s all right, though. Just as you despair of ever getting home, I come along in my dream car and offer you a lift. You’re so happy to see me that you accept my proposition immediately.

Now that I have you where I want you, it almost seems unnecessary to write this letter after all. I mean, where once you dismissed me as a clinging and pathological no-hoper, now you’re all ears. You’re offering constructive and thoughtful feedback, and shyly showing me your delicate (though childish) haiku. It’s cute, it’s endearing.

You’re devouring the canon, immersed in erotic poetry. I’m spoon-feeding you Sappho, you’re swallowing the Aeniad whole. We come up for air once every week or so to attend a poetry reading, randomly selected from the thousands of events that seem to have been organised just so we could ignore them.

Just so we could say that we were attending and then cancel at the last minute, without telling anybody.

Does this sound familiar? In a sense it is. It’s the sound of what you could have had. It’s the sound of your right hand snapping off as a result of excessive self-stimulation. It’s the sound of a keyboard tapping away in an empty internet cafe. It’s the sound of all the poems you never wrote, the words you never emoted.

It’s the sound of an unrequited love letter being delivered to a house you left long ago, without so much as a forwarding address. Now I’m slipping through the mail slot to land on the floor of a hallway littered with newspapers and pizza delivery menus. It’s kind of peaceful. I think I might just stay here for a while.

Or maybe just forever.

Yours, etc.