Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 14, 2021

Aflame, by Subhash Jaireth

There are three parts to this slim volume from Subhash Jaireth. The first is a prose piece called ‘Moscow—1974: Oratorio in Two Voices’.  This is a curious title because an oratorio has a large cast of orchestra, choir and soloists, but unlike an opera it’s performed without costumes or scenery.  This prose oratorio seems to be a lament for a very special friendship.

In brief half page episodes, the reader discovers Moscow under the Soviets,  when one could have a casual conversation with someone who had driven his tank all the way to Berlin, when a nurse sharing a photo could reveal that one of the people in it was killed aged 19 by a roadside mine.  Where one might play a violin polonaise by Schubert on a tram and receive a carnation in thanks.  Where Kuznetskii Most, is recalled as the street where Mayakovskii begged the fallen horse to get on its feet.  

Vladimir Mayakovskii, Triumphal Square, Moscow (Source: Izi Travel)*

(Which sends me on a Google search about this futurist poet, discovering a monumental piece of Soviet statuary to Mayakovskii erected despite his conflicted relationship with the Soviets, and probably carved from the rubble of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral demolished by the Soviets in 1931.  (Since rebuilt.  The Spouse and I visited it when we were in Russia in 2012).  I also found an excruciating translation of the poem about the horse!)

Where this couple are afflicted by the same sickness the name of which is ChagallWhere the famous Tsar-Kolokol bell, forever silent, leads one voice to say:

We are damaged like the bell, you say, and point to the large bronzy wound gaping at us without mercy or remorse.

The Gift of Friendship (1906) by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (Wikipedia)

This is a meeting of the minds, such a rare and special phenomenon when it happens… a gift of friendship referenced in an allusion to a painting by the Lithuanian painter, composer and writer Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis. This section concludes with a resolution to say no more.

No compulsion to remember or forget.  Let the unsaid remain unasked, untranslated, untouched.

The next part consists of improvisations on the theme of ageing, ignited by Japanese Haiku.  TBH, haiku rarely moves me.  This one, by Kobayashi Issa, is in a piece entitled ‘Ngambri (Black Mountain), Walking with Kobayashi Issa’s Snail:

o snail
ever so slowly climb
Mount Fuji.

Maybe I’m missing something, but it doesn’t strike me as in any way profound that a snail would take a while to climb Japan’s highest mountain.  But Jaireth is a poet and he responds to it with finesse, making something of it that had eluded me: he climbs Black Mountain in Canberra, a mere pimple on a flat landscape yet he walks it slowly, like the way I read a poem I want to love.  He does this too with another seemingly banal haiku in ‘Bardo of Becoming’:

Walk barefoot, he says, my friend, a proud barkindji man.  Walk like mugga, the snake or bunuring, the lizard.  Walk as if you are your feet, and your feet your ears to hear the land whisper to you and your forebears who live in you.  Walk to clear the way for your children to walk hoping in them you’ll find a niche to endure.

I liked ‘Bardo of Dying’ too, for its poignant memory of walking in a crowded bazaar clutching his mother’s hand, a walk replaced as their roles were reversed, now holding her skinny arm helping her walk on the street in the hot summer night watched by an indifferent moon hidden behind dust.  

Despite the allusions that pervade these pieces, they are quintessentially Australian.  ‘Banksia Ericifolia: A Vase’ begins like this:

The banksia, yes, the banksia in the garden is as old as I am, although I am not sure if it feels like me the weight of time sitting like a jokey-gnome whipping me to carry it along for how long only it, the devil, knows.

‘Sarah with Flaming Auburn Hair’ is a poignant vignette evoking one who relies on another to nudge his mind to find the words he has lost his way to. 

Aflame concludes with poetry dedicated to Tibetan monks, alluding to the self-immolation protests against the incorporation of Tibet into China.  These poems begin with anguish that it’s not possible relinquish the hatred, and nightmarish memories rise to a crescendo when the harvest brings soldiers / in lorries with red flags / guns bullets and bombs. He hears his mother’s voice telling him to let go the fear / the fear you fear and / it will set you free /of me and of your / mind muddles / like the muddy water / agitated   anxious   unquiet.

But he can’t let go, he can’t.  And though he chants the Buddhist mantras, and he carves a Buddha praying in silence / to receive just a morsel / of compassion for the soldier, his eyes remain aflame with hate. Like a noose around his neck, his hatred festers and he can’t forgive.   These poems conclude with the horror of self-immolation.

I’m enchanted, BTW, by the logo for the Life Before Man poetry imprint at Gazebo books.  I collect fossils, and I have a trilobite in my collection, and that’s the image for this imprint.  Trilobites had eyes…they had vision.

Author: Subhash Jaireth
Title: Aflame
Cover image: detail from Bait, 2019 by Phil Day
Publisher: Life Before Man, Gazebo Books, 2021
ISBN: 9780648901167, pbk., 134 pages (unnumbered)
Review copy courtesy of the author

Aflame is available from the publisher’s website, here and good bookshops everywhere.

*Image credits:


  1. I don’t read much poetry. I don’t know when I stopped as years ago I read quite a bit. You always seem to find interesting things. Maybe I need to look harder. 😍


    • TBH I find a lot of contemporary poetry either incomprehensible or inane or boring because the poet isn’t saying anything fresh. I receive a bit of it from publishers who take no notice of what’s in my review policy, and nearly all of it makes its way to the OpShop.
      But Subhash writes about things that are important to me, in ways that I understand.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmm… intrigued why you chose to read this, Lisa. It seems a bit too esoteric for me!


    • I’ve reviewed a few books by Subhash, and I’ve liked them all. After the last one, which was a series of meditations on works of art in Australian galleries, he offered to send me this one, and I said yes please.
      I’ve never met him, but I think he would be an interesting dinner party guest because he likes art and travel like my friends do, and he cares about issues like the occupation of Tibet.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a strange and fascinating book! And since I *love* Mayakovsky I may have to check it out!


  4. I used to run up Black Mountain when I stayed at my grandparents’ in Canberra. These days I’d be lucky to make like the snail.
    I’m about to post a piece on ageing – I think Subhash might say it better.


    • My friends and I have gloomy conversations about it all the time… what are we going to do when we’re too old to #InsertFavouriteThingToDo…


  5. I’m lucky to have a trilobite too, though not a fossil collector in general. Mr BIP loves haiku. I actually do like the snail one…I’d just never thought of such an extensive adventure for a snail before. Hee


  6. I had a lovely little one, only I did too good a job of enthusing my students about fossils and one of ’em stole it! Its replacement is not so beautiful…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] Aflame, by Subhash Jaireth […]


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