I am the red, red stain. – Michael Dom
No matter what I make and unmake here
With these hands, there will always be that snake
And that tree where those four rivers water
The land where gold is found– fertility
Is earth and sky and every clay ribbon
That writhes like a ray of sunshine I saw once.
My mountainside is rain and smells like home,
Like kambang, coffee, marijuana buds
By marshy swampland, clay banks break against
The river Ba’e’s neck where I was naked
On top and down there when we ran the slope
And danced inside the water’s wriggling curve.
Assume for a second that there is a cult,
And the compound is marked by the fence
Marked by the river.
Public Motor Vehicle
Ferries down the main road.
There were robberies in the 90s,
Violent break-ins and assaults,
And an increased vigilance.
If I was a man
From Onamuna, twenty-five years
And you had everything, I’d steal too.
God of settlers
On his mountain of gold
Fuming at the lips.
And you are there you are too small to grasp
The threat of banishment
And your friends scattered
At the edges of the world,
You do not understand
The river churns with broken glass,
The town an invective against its own earth,
You one against it.
The meandering chisel lifting away splinters
Of clay from the water’s crumbling edge almost
Hungers to be cut apart and lodged
At the end of the world where Time, politely laughing,
Gathers silt to leave in someone’s pockets.
You can see the vestigial town slowly erupt
With held wrath– but for smoke in wake of mountain
Gardens, we might have approached unnoticed–
What can I say that hasn’t already been
Except that you should crawl the ditch yourself,
Feel the scrape of concrete on your hands,
See the earth suffocated of rain?
Soon and the bones of another place are here
And I am here and the river not too far off.
Turning the rot
They bundle their arms in a warm cave
Singing old songs
Well it is singing
I remember the garamut
The syncretic hills
And bones bones small and bearing
The kaukau still nascent
In the garden
We circled inside the fence’s grasp like prayer,
The hills all mostly clay so when it rained
The gravel would wash out the road and you
Could barely make it up. Morning, evening,
We made prints on the webbing inside it.
The stars out, we would see the southern cross
If the clouds weren’t out as well, the razor fence
Tall and menacing the kunai grass behind
That rolled up into the valley, the jaillights
Like stars and we wanted to fly there so bad.
My hands tire
I have lost the book
Where the words were written
A tree falls to the south, prostrate
Smoke trails to the north
The tree returns and returns
And its roots gnarl, wither
I am the larvae in the sago palm
The rat fur matted with glue
The mouth cancer
Processional banana leaf
The blank page
The ink stain
Across ocean waters
I am the voice in wilder nests
Over Aiyura, the funnel
A valley in a valley
Sun rays leaking
Behind Ramu river
Through Kassam Pass
I am the intersection
The road to Kainantu
The burning town
Light obscuring stars
Kunai grass obscuring
Security lights outside
Shoes on the power lines
Running from Yonki Dam
Villagers sold their land rights
A projector shows the Jisas
Film at the 5-mile hamlet
Powered by free electricity
Some older boys lainim mi Tairora
I scribble furiously, making up
For a tear I do not know yet
I am at the edge of town
Am quiet, waiting
For the sound of water
I am near the river
I am an unsewn gash
I am the cut in the fence
Lain as in people
As in tribe, village, family
As in same or sameness
Lain in the borrowed sense
A direction, an attention
A string of instants
The difference between
What is moving
And what isn’t
Lainim as in learn
As in grow
As in follow
Lainim as in teach
As in gift
As in share
Look, we’ve poured a little river, isn’t
The loveliest and best you’ve ever known
Lost– isn’t it wonderful to be lost?
In wet months, garden fabric quilts the hills
Around Aiyura valley, where my fence
Gouged eyeholes in syncretic soil like grants
Made to appease the wealthy foreign churched.
In drought, not suffocating from the taro
Smoke, I climb the mountain and pray for rain
On our missionary complex where the ash
Carries from the patchwork to stain our clothes.
A scorched garden is a prayer of equilibrium,
That atmosphere would fasten to the dust
And shower us with blessings in response–
After ritual crop fires, the sky would clear,
And the fence’s hatching framed Kainantu’s jail
Where it burned on the opposite ridge, quietly.
Isn’t wonderful– isn’t lost when the guilt
Of circumstance begins to owe its debts?
Forget the crumbling town, it’s wearing thin
As the guardlights on the fence will soon attest–
And the drainage bars are no match for erosion.
(The way the rock is keeping secrets for you
It might be a friend, but still– why there a fence
At all? Surely the steel holds no invective
Against passage, yet looms between the waters
And we will be hard pressed to crawl the sewage
Trench, but pressed hard under the bars, we go)
Write your name whatever way you know,
Here in the grass a whisper is enough
To find the clearing– whether a rotting stump
Remains, you’ll know it by the undergrowth.
Strain, the river’s low applause will sound
Like drums of vengeance, hum of an earthquake,
Hooves stamping out a valley in a valley,
Rapture cresting in with eastward storm.
How close you are depends how soon rain comes,
How foliage is catching the evening roar
And what passes, it’s not entirely clear
How fast the banks recede, but clear they do
Want closer– want to carry you away
To wherever waters go when they recede.
Soon, the river will cut horseshoe troughs
In the slope and make rapids from fence razors.
Where it gets loudest, listen for the silence–
See through the kunai barbs kids at the cliff
Diving again, again, never headfirst
But never scared of the stream’s restoring force.
(They were there and their footsteps will be there
Long after worn back down into the clay)
What I’ve inscribed here might be overgrown
With moss now and secretly isn’t much
Important, but I was listening very hardly,
And the spray paint was the color of kambang spit.
You’re welcome to go and leave a similar altar–
If only just for knowing similar place.
(I’ve gone out jumping with my clothes still on–
I expect you to be drenched, be like the river–
Carve out another puddle for no reason –
This poem is a kind of scripture for me. It grows out of a body of experience and an obsession with place. It transitions between and across modes of being and location, between and across its own forms and structures. Beyond this, it’s a testament to growing up in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea incidentally narrated by a closeted transfemme. What does it mean to witness multiple kinds of violence, to criticize them, to be party to them? Is there any solace under the tyranny of a fence?
For my own part, I lived in the eponymous town of Ukarumpa for the better part of fifteen years, from 2002 when I was three years old until I graduated high school. I spent months away in the Sepik due to my parents’ Bible translation work, and every fourth or fifth year in Illinois wooing church financial support. I was not out as queer, and had I realized this for myself while I lived there, I would likely have been expelled from the town’s autonomously governed community. But “Ukarumpa” is not for the town, it is for you, reader, who have possibly never walked its roads, swam the river Ba’e, or climbed its neighbouring mountain, seen the valley from both sides of the ridge. This is a landscape of exile, and we are momentarily here together.
It’s not necessary to understand every geographic facet of the Eastern Highlands, but kunai grass is a tall, sharp grass (Imperata cylindrica) endemic to those highlands. It will cut you after a long day on the mountain. Additionally, kambang translates literally to lime, but refers here to the practice of mixing lime with buai, also known as betelnut, and chewing the substance for a mild narcotic effect. Consuming buai in this manner will stain your teeth and spit blood red. It’s common in populated areas to see red kambang splatters on the ground or in the streets.
While the blank verse is largely structured after Robert Frost’s “Directive” and attempts to ask some of the same questions albeit from a different lifetime and geography, the section “Turning the rot” pays homage to W.S. Merwin’s “Bread at Midnight”.