Ian Irvine (also writing as Ian Hobson) is an Australian-based poet, writer and academic. His work has featured in many publications, both in Australian and overseas, and his poetry has appeared in two national anthologies. He is the author of three books and currently coordinates the Writing and Editing program at BRIT, Bendigo. He has also taught social theory and history at La Trobe University (Bendigo) and in 1999 was awarded his PhD for work on chronic ennui in European literature, philosophy and psychology. He lives with his partner, Sue, and their children on a bush block not far from Bendigo. His poem “If You Eat a Pomegranate” is dedicated to our feature poet Thanh Thao.


Soft Breeze of a Temporal Implosion

After the bus trip:
        light-green peaks, rice
        plateaus and quiet water

As good a place as any  
        to reconstruct the countries
of the past.

And  there is nothing generalist
        about the H’mong children
        dancing the narrow street below,
the German tourists, pleasantly
        drunk on the hotel’s upper

We’re sandwiched,
as always,
        between the present
and the impalpability of memory –
I muse:
        Indonesia 1994:
        3,300 rupee to the dollar.
        Vietnam 2007:
        16,000 dong to the dollar.
This impulse to quantify comforts
                    the illusion of time
        as something solid.

Like the Dao coin I wear as
        a necklace, the seller said ‘1820, Sir.’
Its shape is strange, like
        a man without arms, ‘an ancient
        unit of exchange’ before the
        coming of the French.
The guide whispered:
        ‘A fake.’ But the shape
and the smooth-rust brown surface,
        are all that matter to me
        at four dollars US.

And the practicalities of spirit –
those women at the pagoda.
At the entrance –
        dark rocks and lush
        miniature trees.
Inside –
        incense-drenched fruit,
        a giant cauldron-urn, and
just above the entrance –
        multicoloured lanterns.

They loaded us up with free fruit
        and hugged our children.

Such calmness
        like the men in the white-domed mosques of Java –
        bowing, praying whilst
out on the street,
        similar densities of
        do-it-yourself technology.

I was thirty then, musical, reciprocating
        love – and we’re still together
walking the town of Sapa,
negotiating maps, as always
                   will to will,
appreciating the flower-banked
lake, exchanging gifts, raving
        about the view, caressing  
        and enjoying the local food.

A pleasant time-warp, like a lost map
        to an old intensity of being
Making love in a grass hut in
central Sumatra – her soft
        tanned skin, our
       mutual freedom.

And then the day with icing:
as if outside time, and
        abnegating the difficulties
        of culture shock,
our daughter
        her first poem.


Hospital Cave and the Superpower

The old man is 76 years old
        still wears the khaki hat and shirt
        of the North Vietnamese army.

He lives less than a kilometre
        from the place that defined
        his life. He’s
fit and stout and funny not at all

like the devil promised us by LBJ. Carries a
       flashlight and knows
       every inch of this
underground labyrinth.

During the war hundreds of people –
        soldiers, surgeons and farmers –
took shelter in this cave. These days
it’s deserted, just damp concrete
        floors and walls beneath
        an eroded lime-rock ceiling.

When the Americans bombed and
        bombed the island the locals
        would crowd in here:
did it feel like
        waiting for the superpower?

He shows us the ‘reception’
        the doctors’ sleeping quarters
the medical rooms proper to the left and
right of a long corridor, until we arrive
at the ‘lunch-room’. Here
he drops his flashlight, introduces
        himself again in Vietnamese
and asks (commands) us to sing
        “Vietnam-Ho Chi Minh”
        “Vietnam-Ho Chi Minh”

He lets me record the performance
        and suddenly
all the war before me, cold chills.
        Tonnes and tonnes of bombs
Agent Orange, vast networks of tunnels
        in the South, the Tet Offensive, the
        fall of Saigon.

I’ve met some Aussie Vets
seen them join the Anzac day throng
still tentative-as young boys
        they met their reality match
        in quiet Vietnamese determined to
        end colonialism once and for all.

Here, just 70 miles from the Chinese border,
       I begin to understand.

The digital video is blurry in the cave
        (all sorts of shadows)
as the tourists sing and clap (nervously) the echoes
        are immense, like 1969, like 200 people
        singing, like injured farmers, like jets
prowling the paradise skies – and before us
        this old soldier
        like a phantom,
38 years among ghosts.


If You Eat a Pomegranate

For Thanh Thao

If, after eating a pomegranate underground,
        you manage to return to the surface
it is said  that you will have acquired
         the ability to see ghosts.

Perhaps I’ve consumed such a fruit
by accident. Things have been strange
for over a month now – began with my
memories of that sunrise crossing
the DMZ:
        The sun coming up
        and all those people on the roads
        in the rice paddies, or hanging around
        the gravestones or houses.

I’m  no longer certain who was alive
        and who was dead. As though
another layer of memory-repressed
        at the time – has invaded
the ‘realism’ of what I
        thought I remembered.

The problem: supposing all memory
        collapses like this? What
will stop this tendency invading my
        day time consciousness?

And the train,
        as I recall it now, moving slowly,
            far too slowly
along the tracks,
        as though the dead
            had engineered some kind of
deceleration – so I could see them,
        so I could begin to hear them speak.
Though for the moment
        the protection of glass

Who knows where this is headed.

It is said that a spell three times spoken –
        especially if by the caster, the
recipient, and an unbiased intermediary –
        is certain to work.

Leaning forward across the table
he asked me something in Vietnamese:
        ‘Why do you think I continue
        to write poetry
        at my age?’

Despite clear translation
I had no answer, said:
          ‘I don’t know your work
          well enough to say.’

Eventually he replied in Vietnamese – and
after this was translated, I heard:
        ‘For those who are unable to speak’
But she wished for further clarity, said:
        ‘He says he writes for those
        who have no voice … who are
        no longer with us.’

Startled, I asked –
as though struggling to absorb the future –
        ‘For those who died – for the dead?’
She nodded, said:
        ‘Yes, for the dead.’

the table went
very quiet.