The last woman in the world who knows how to spin sea silk lives in Sardinia. Byssus mussels, four fish long, cling to the seabed by beard, secreted threads of silken saliva; 100 dives for 30 grams. Harvest it, preen it, soak it in a secret brew of spices — the result is so fine a pair of gloves can be folded up to fit into half a walnut shell. The woman sings into the spices: the cloth then illumes like gold. Plastic and Shell petrol are choking the mussels to death, these molluscs spoken of in the Bible, described by ancient Chinese wayfarers. Dive deep for the song of the ocean, says the woman. It cannot be bought, only gifted.
In Semporna, I’ve met Sama boys
who compression dive for pearls or
to fish-scare skipjack into nets —
they clamp their mouths over green garden hose
and dive down through a strata of blue on
dark blue, bubble-clad, sons and fathers and
uncles, the pressure on their skinny frames
so heavy they chance death.
Laughter over a cigarette.
A simple broth must do.
The hose, it glows, chugs diesel-tainted
breath from surface to poverty of light.
Bubbles, the bends swell joints to madness.
Their hair, it sways,
black as silt, as sable,
each fibre so delicate
it brushes the water
but leaves no mark.
They did not tell me if they heard any song.
FUCK / BATMAN
(from Killernova) after Inua Ellams
The truth is parts of us welcomed \ the prophet of oblivion \ its thousand rapturous faces \ the flapping beat of its leathery wings \ its messianic cape \ an accelerant of armageddon \ its balled-up breath plummeting down \ crumpling the traffic jams of our silent screaming \ a weight unknown \ we had always known \ The truth is parts of us secretly rejoiced \ that we could finally drop our masks \ relinquish the facade of civility \ and welcome the end of days \ The wild children wore pasta necklaces \ hunted with sardine cans beaten into shanks \ and streamed toilet paper across the emptied cities \ The grandfathers listening to radio broadcasts \ sanitised their hands with night-brewed moonshine \ and came to different conclusions \ The grandmothers grew parsley and shot Zoom bombers \ There were voices swooping in the skies above the streets \ We sat on our windowsills and drank ink \ singing lockdown nocturnes \ cabin fever-dreaming \ unscrambling our future from a mess of blinding stars \ We looked for patterns and rearranged history \ We made jigsaw pictures of places we might never visit again \ There is Mount Kinabalu and the Tamparuli Bridge \ Here is Semporna with yellow and pink coral \ There are the reefs that will breathe again \ Here are turtles and their quiet hymns \ We grew madder yet clearer headed with each day \ We cried and laughed and cried again \ We chiselled our faces to suit our moods \ and settled on perverse Joker smiles \ We melted all the votive candles we had lit in tribute to our pasts \ and recast them as clear crayons \ to create the myths of our tomorrows
I AM A HOMELAND
Tanah — earth. Air — water (sea). Tanah air — homeland.
Aku tanah air.
I am a homeland
weighted to the ocean floor by a moral conundrum.
On the waking edge between forested life and
limitless sleep, sand is scalloped like an ear —
it hears, listens, fizzes, rustles. Hold breath like
confession, sayang, now let go in rhythm.
Inhale — I am singular.
Exhale — I appear in many places.
South, south-west, the pirate winds go through my slatted
bones, bind me in smoke, romanticism fattens and bloats
around the liver, realpolitik an electroshock to the heart,
coins sink upwards out of my pores and stories are engraved
in my blood; durian husks and potato skins on these shores.
Inhale — I am yearning.
Exhale — I am inconsequence.
I hear them call me an illegitimate kingdom — drunk Muslim,
snake-oil trade port, banana republic, middle-class mirage.
An empty plot where the rivers commingle. Orchids and torch
ginger, my garlands have started to rot, the plastic fish mounted
on the wall is singing its last poorly penned jingle.
Inhale — I am fraud.
Exhale — I am truth.
North, north-east. I am a land of disorder. My
existence — resistance — to admin and trade companies,
cannons and capital. Colonisers fuck me with mechanical
dicks to extract my hidden glint. Drill down into my flesh
and there lie the oil wells that will set the forest aflame.
Inhale — I am anger.
Exhale — I am acceptance.
At times I am glacial peak and polar ice caps, but hard shards,
sharp from chiselling, melt and become the rising tide, the eagle’s
swoop swells to tempest, typhoon, cyclonic midnight marauder.
There never has been, never will be a force of nature like me, the
monsoonal flow state over the loose leaf. Bruce Lee —
— be like water.
Inhale — I am cliché.
Exhale — I am ambiguity
impossible to bear it seems, these days. The
words tanah and air are combined in me, ocean and
earth, land people, sea people, once warring factions,
but two parts combined into a necessary whole.
The tide reverses, often. I am no one thing.
Cobalt divined from beneath those waves, the same colour,
foamy, horse-headed, surging at the side of the boat, white mane
shredding away in steady beats of bubble and spray, the tiny
ripples beyond a topography, shuddering ridges and valleys, deep
blue black on the swell and silver at the fringes, sun high up and the
ocean singing light back to itself, run hands at the side of the boat
and it is warm as amniotic fluid or arak held in the mouth.
Look! That’s Pulau Run. To control the world’s nutmeg trade,
the Dutch bartered Manhattan to the English for that little island.
The couple didn’t stop to see it, this forgotten El Dorado,
just a kilometre long and lost in blue embrace. They continued
on to another island. When they arrived, they booked a cooking
course and a boat tour, then settled into the converted colonial
manor and, fuelled by nutmeg soup and fresh tuna fishballs,
candlenut-lathered eggplant and cake, made love with the
vehemence of those who know the final port is just beyond the
horizon. They stood on the grand balcony and smoked kretek,
felt the cool tiles on their feet, took selfies with the rosé dusk and
dead volcano behind them — a little world, a world of their
projection, just for a moment — shadow puppets acting out an epic.
Behind them, below, were the ruins of a Dutch fort — buried by
a thousand greens — and kids playing football, where they later
found out a massacre had once occurred — the attempted
extermination of a race, all for spice.
Butter and flour the pan, sayang. Beat in the sugar and butter,
fold in the egg. Set it in stages — test it for doneness.
The layers will not appear until it is sliced — there are many,
so many it hurts. Sprinkle on top, as a garnish, for taste, a little nutmeg.