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Five poems

Ba Vi

The clouds are always there
ringing three peaks
busy with lightning &
thunder grumbling —
the place clouds are born
to water the fields
and forests of Vietnam.

You must be light as air
to receive a tree frog’s blessing
then take the path to the cloud pagoda
at the summit of Ba Vi
where a nun lives to tend the shrine
light incense sticks
and burn the ceremonial money
arrange flowers left by pilgrims
in offering to the clouds.

Quiet time, the forest watches over her
she meditates clouds until night —
sleeps on a cane mat before the sweet altar —
the clouds round Ba Vi swirl through the pagoda
wrap her in glowing vapour
make images of her cloud dreams
and if the clouds dream
they dream of her.

Sunrise, she gathers the flowers
left by day-tripping pilgrims
and throws them to the clouds.


I am shut out of mine own heart
because my love is far from me,
nor in the wonders have I part
that fill its hidden empery
                    — Christopher Brennan

Empery O empery flourish in the moonlight
stars across galaxy are great empery

tree shadow empery curtained for night
an open window lets in the world

where still things move
street moon beams

black and white at night inside
voice and voice whisper shout

bring peace, a stormy kind, day and night
a bird in the heart

a Mitsubishi song whistles its own tune
want one, want one, want one

and you do,
the chorus voices boom in the roof

just when the road starts
getting personal

there’s an old street lamp
a wild moon night

and beams of ghost light
come flooding down

empery, all empery.

Extreme Orient

A barge adrift the Perfumed River —
reclining beneath a parasol
is the courtesan Tigress waving her fan
— barge floats past village and pagoda,
houses and huts midst bodhi tree
coconut palm, flame flowers
bamboo forest, and flat green
leaves float in the green river
tangle roots and mangrove.
In the morning she bathed in the river.
Her black lacquer fan:
a butterfly’s deep-blue wings
unfold a painting of a courtesan
poised beneath her parasol
keeping the rain off
a barge adrift the Perfumed River.
The woman of the painting on the fan
fanning herself reposing on her divan
rocked by the river’s rice green water,
The farmers move water in the fields,
harvest love songs
to give the famous courtesan
who sees them with affection —
now she has her letters to attend,
the afternoon for reading and to practise English.
The rice rivers rock gently her divan.
Below deck is red silk and velvet bed,
a glass case shelving bottles of shampoo
from every country, freshly folded towels —
calendars signed by football stars
grace the chamber’s walls
and glowing with river’s love
her very odalisqueness —
she can sing the radio love tune
like a goddess, as strong as any warrior
lay serenely the river’s quiet, raindrop plash
the same scene painted on her black lacquer fan
as the fan she is painted on —
a courtesan beneath parasol reclining on a barge
rocked by the gentle river.
She sees pirates from the ocean
come up the river in the eyes of business men —
they sing from the banks of the Perfumed River
she is the one the tigers regard and carp swim after ,
her fan unfolds a silvery painting
of a lady with a fan who from her barge
watches farmers work the land.
It is hot and they toil
all morning — buffalo with moon
horns take a bath in mud — she
watches them from her divan —
the farmers and the buffalo —
she lets fall her fan
and painted on it is the picture,
a woman holding a fan
seated pleasingly on a barge
the rain falling harder on her parasol
and the river starting to flow
attending her letters, she will read in the afternoon
and watch on the land the eternity farmers dream —
her fan like a butterfly spreads its wings
to reveal a courtesan who lets fall her fan —
it keeps going, fan after fan a deep-blue butterfly
unfolding the painted scene — on the river a barge
where, shaded by a parasol is the woman
watching the same lovelorn men
harvest rice songs, the fan opens another
and another — fans within fans until the fan
where, in the picture above the courtesan
and the painted scenery
right up in the sky, an old spirit man
rides the clouds  in a bathtub,
and plays a harp sparking thunderbolts
— a mischievous being powerful in the hands
of a courtesan — twangs the lightning
as he steps cloud to cloud
painted on the next fan up,
all the way up, up through black lacquered fans
one after another opening,
fans growing as they approach the world
of the lady on her barge on the gently rocked divan.
When he meets her the sky blacks out
he is a cruel storm. Pray Mercy
bless us with goddess tears on the Perfumed
River — hold back your blessed typhoon.
The courtesan snaps shut her fan,
swarms of deep-blue butterflies and black moths
are drawn to her  light
the river waves rock gently her divan.
A barge adrift the Perfumed River —
reclining beneath a parasol
is the courtesan Tigress and her fan
— barge floats by village and pagoda,
houses and huts saluted by bodhi tree
coconut palm, flame flowers
bamboo forest, and flat green
leaves float in the green river
tangle roots and mangrove.
In the morning she bathed in the river.

The Information Superhighway

is a sewer pipe from America

it’s staying home forever
and falling in love with a computer.

It’s the story of Hardware Man & Software Girl
setting off together on a kitchen adventure.

It’s staying home forever:
push a button & a remote controlled custard pie
flies in the video compere’s eyes.
“Interactive” is when you get
to spit back.

My house is a city state.
Outdoors there’s a weird fog
I don’t want to go out in.
Forests are flattened to fuel
computer factories,
the trees are routed once & for all.

When the last tiger in the wild died
the tigers in the zoo just vanished

One Year Sentence

Dog tired deep into the morning
awake first thing after a restless night
when snatches of dreams where there were words
that might have been right for the sentence
there’s no getting past it — that one sentence
the sentence that’s been driving you mad for the last
year or so when you get up every morning
and go down to the basement study
switch on the computer
and see how the sentence is going —
it’ll be a great sentence
and will lead to somewhere
more interesting that’s if the sentence
ever gets finished, it’s at a new drafting stage —
there was the time the computer crashed
and the file with the sentence disappeared
all day, all night re-writing the sentence
(sometimes sitting in the backyard at dusk jotting notes
or a trip to the coast where the ocean can give
something of its energy), the sentence returned
to be worked on then down to the basement study
cleaning up, making the work place
just right to get cracking on the sentence
the headache from worrying about the sentence
should help you concentrate on writing —
once that one sentence is right the rest of
the book will almost write itself
and the opening sentence will illuminate
like a door opening in the morning;
there’s no getting past it — that one sentence
never seems nearer to being finished —
in the morning you get up after a restless night
wrestling with a verb
and go down to the basement study
switch on the computer
and see how the sentence is going —
it’ll be a great sentence when it’s done
and will lead to somewhere
more interesting that is, if the sentence
ever gets finished, it’s at another drafting stage
the trees will know what happens next
how later the day will grow more
solemn and serene.

S.K. Kelen, Macau, 2005

S.K. Kelen, Macau, 2005
photo by Carol Archer

S. K. Kelen’s poems have been appearing in journals, newspapers and on radio since 1973 when he won the Poetry Australia Farmers Poetry Prize for Australians under 18. Kelen teaches creative writing and poetry and lives mostly in Canberra. In 1996 Kelen was Visiting Professor of Writing at the University of South Dakota; in 1998 was Asialink Writer-in-residence in Vietnam; and was the recipient of the ACT Chief Minister’s Creative Arts Fellowship for 2000 and the 2001 Capital Arts Patrons Award.

His volumes of poetry include The Gods Ash Their Cigarettes, (Makar Press, 1978), To the Heart of the World’s Electricity, (Senor, 1980), Atomic Ballet, (Hale & Iremonger, 1991), Dingo Sky, (HarperCollins/ Angu&Robertson, 1993), Trans-Sumatran Highway and other poems, (Polonius, 1995), Dragon Rising,(The Gioi, 1998), Shimmerings,(Five Islands Press, 2000), Goddess of Mercy (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2002).

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