From the Archive: ‘Inheriting Colombo’, by Fiona Wright

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Image by Philippe Arpels. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

These poems originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #6.

Pettah

Packets of men’s underwear thrust in my face,
the happy plastic
of inflatable penguins, fat-cheeked dolls.
Spined fish dry on grey tarpaulins,
and piled red leather thongs
   grow stiff and stringy in the sun
   like the glutinous fried syrup
children chew
on long-haul buses.

The crannied streets
   stitch together stagnant roadblocks,
and tall and terraced houses
   lean backwards from the throng.
A sudden temple flexes.
Its sculpted walls
a mad and teeming mirroring of streets,
the coloured gods bloody and riotous,
   vengeful as memory.

Fruit sellers hang their washing, disembowelled
   from razor wire
and dice pineapple
for hungry students.

I can smell war in this city.
   The khaki jeeps creep through the bus queues.
A thin-fingered soldier
   invites me to hold his rifle,
and calls me beautiful.


Albino

At a food stall,
   eating beetroot curry with pink fingers
   he saw his first albino,

a small child,
   eyebrows like the down
in the centre of a coconut.

She hid her face
   from the sunburnt soldiers,
buried deep in her father’s dark knees.

At a bus stop, I see albino skin
   prickling pinker in the heat,
the sun griddling through earlobes;

fingertips in a lacery of veins.
   In the pulse and spill of people
women clutch thick-skinned umbrellas

And his pale limbs arrest my eyes.
   He startles when he sees me,
then his grin thins, and turns away.

Pink eyes.
We both are skinless
   in these streets.


Galle Rd

Ribboning between the rail line
   and the sea,
we head south.
The city frays along these edges.

Old men carve driftwood
   into curled awnings,
or bedheads coiled and knotted as their knucklebones.
Stacked, the sturdy dreams beneath them
   latent, not yet thought.

A tin boat, bluely moored
   in a tree’s branches.
Whole walls are missing, carved out
   from concrete homes.

A boy runs, waving, on a beachhead,
   and a whole village gathers in;
a silvered, sinewed net
     is waded into shore,
The fishermen pluck muscled legs
   like reedy birds,
their sarongs
     dipping on their thighs.

Street vendors lay stilled fish
     on wooden slabs
and under naked light bulbs.
The air tastes scaly and their skin
is petrol-coloured, sweating
   flies like tiny gemstones.

We head south, ribboning,

   as cows and goats gnaw
on coconut shells
thrown roadside from car windows.
The late rain prickles on my flesh,
and it grows dark so suddenly
   the headlights pick out lone stars
through the sharp lines of palms.


Fruit Stories

Banana.
Their Army wages were riper
than all they’d known before.

This soft, misshapen weaponry–
bananas, broad and muscled cartridges
on heavy stems,
spined pineapples,
thick-shelled mangosteen,
pomegranate, papaya, pellet-ridden as grenades.

The round juice of new words
   upon their tongues,
they sliced them thick in washing tubs,
a sticky sauce
   of condensed milk.

In the suburbs,
   families ate rice,
     and curried Spam.

Mango.
Even here, it smelt of Christmas mornings, caravans.
Its cardiac curve, cool skin.

I fetch the boy
   the thin man said, his rickety grin
propping up his lottery stall:
You are wanting mango, no?
   You wait, I fetch the boy.

The boy: a bare, strutted chest and boned machete,
   and skin creased as minutely
as a letter from home.

(And in these swollen afternoons,
it is his own spine that is curling,
his bony skull protrudes.
   He masticates the ending, often threefold.
As though the boy
   grows older still, each time.)

Coconut.
That year Mrs lived through a London winter,
worked double-shifts to stand nearer the industrial ovens,
won a street-side contest
   scraping overpriced coconuts.

The white flesh
   fell away; flaked snow.

The barbed arm of her coconut-scraping chair
uninvited and lecherous
beside my leg.
My small hands on a hirsute shell,
the curve too globular and perfect
to hold unfumblingly:
   I will make a no-use wife.

That afternoon,
my flesh flakes  under the buses’ practised and hazarding gazes.


Earth

Motorcycles slow to match my tread;
there are no footpaths
in this city.

My feet grow dessicant
on the mild toxicity of insect spray,
the scuffed polish of road dust.

These liquid mornings bend
on battered buses, plucked chickens
soften by the bus route.
My knees bruise
with the prints of male frustration.

I bring their shadows home, yellowing
in sickly gradients;
the dark dirt collapses
down my shower drain,
embanking somewhere else
as foreign soil.


Fiona Wright is a writer, editor and critic from Sydney. Her book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance won the 2016 Kibble Award and the Queensland Literary Award for non-fiction, and her poetry collection Knuckled won the 2012 Dame Mary Gilmore Award. She has recently completed a PhD at Western Sydney University’s Writing & Society Research Centre.