Chloe Wilson’s poem ‘Not Fox Nor Axe’ has won the 2014 Val Vallis Award. Part-travelogue, part-mosaic of memento mori, ‘Not Fox Nor Axe’ provokes the reader with an extravaganza of multi-layered detail as it elides historical and actual Central American experiences. The poem deftly assembles historic and contemporary views – its dizzying panorama of changing scenes are kept from spiralling too far into chaos by a series of recurring motifs, most notably that of chickens – of a world where the sublime and mythic jostle against the abject and violent with impressive force. And it is this force that forms the geology and climate of the poem, replete with Andean peeks and sea-level humidity. Chickens form the central economy of the poem, giving up their lives passively, ripped to shreds by a starved Cortes, and the metaphor the poem draws between fowl and the traumatised communities is both subtle and searing. The poem does not romanticise its subject, nor does it deign to elucidate any hard-fast ‘truth’ of the region – it’s wild, magical, yet also beautifully grounded, controlled and structured. It is pervaded by a sense of transience and mortality, but never cloying. Rather, it’s comical and energetic in its view of Central America as a place capable of both brutality and beauty – showcasing the duality of life and methods of extinguish – where bored guards fondle their guns in shopping centres, ‘howler monkeys rattl€ their bonus / throat bones at night’ and iguanas ‘hoar[d] sunlight in their skin.’ Tension created by presenting the ordinary and the extreme is palpable, creating lift toward the elevation this powerful poem archives.
– Sarah Holland-Batt, Judith Beveridge, and Kent MacCarter
Not Fox Nor Axe Central America, October-December 2013 This is for you – this rough assembly of memento mori: Mad Cortes, who curtseyed to his ships, then bent to kiss each with a lit torch. The subtle buzz of an unseen rattlesnake. Chickens boxed on buses, chickens swinging from a limp wrist, chickens at the roadside under the watchful eye of roosters, slick as pimps. Faith that the sun becomes a jaguar at night. Mud that slurps you in up to the ankle, the insects, the dengue roulette. The astute Montezuma thinking oh shit, or the Aztec equivalent, as the whole flotilla’s breadth arose on the horizon. A toothless man who licks guacamole off the back of his hand. Those Franciscans who swarmed in and made the best inquisitors; the ascetic life tends to attract pedants. Howler monkeys rattling their bonus throat bones at first light. A skull stuccoed in turquoise. The endless succession of the goriest of Christs – Christ mannequins in fright wigs, Christ with wounds the gospels never mention, Christ’s face frozen in surprise at that last silence from heaven. The beggars to whom you are instructed not to give: ignore that colostomy bag hanging out like cleavage – that leg, bloated like a bad potato, spongy to the touch. Chickens whose heads jerk up at the sound that rings when axe meets block. Chickens who listen to the patient fox, knocking on the henhouse door. The prisoners of war and too-perfect children arranged in the foetal position, then gifted to an irritable spirit by means of a blunt club. The pets kept in rusted cages – a white rabbit gnawing wire, a threadbare parrot screeching hola! hola! hola! The young nun who meets your gaze and holds it, her habit immaculate. The clap in the centre of a Mayan city, which brings its own sound back and back and back. Every night, the jaguar must swim the underworld’s black length, or else no sun will rise. A tarantula truck-flattened at the border. The planks which warped infants’ faces into god-masks. A girl who siphons gasoline like she’s sucking up a milkshake. A set of teeth with pits carved out for cabochons of jade, of onyx. A cathedral bell which rusts in stasis. Rain that comes hard when it comes at all. Plump iguanas splayed on ruins, hoarding sunlight in their skin. Bored guards, fondling semi-automatics at the doors of shopping centres. The rich who’d spill their blood at parties, and invite their friends to watch – a string of cactus spines through the tongue, a stingray barb piercing the outstretched foreskin with a pop. A bored child pissing on a Mayan altar. Those conquistadors eyeing Cortes; in the light thrown from the burning fleet, his skin shone gold like an idol. When Christ died the world went black, although this eclipse might have been a coincidence. Everywhere, the signs that promise pollo pollo pollo. Quetzalcoatl, razed and resurrected as St Thomas the Apostle. The fields thick with sugar cane, where almost anything could vanish. Those monks refinishing their tonsures, portholes for the huge eye of god to peek through. That street dog who’s just whelped, her vulva slack and swollen, swinging as she runs. Glamorous statue of Santa Lucia, who offers you her eyes on a platter. Any night the jaguar might fail, and plunge the whole world into darkness. Skulls of the sacrificed population calcified to the cave floor – see how they glitter like engagement rings. Chickens became substitutes for humans, and no one minds, no one holds the poultry sacred; chickens like glossy, animated wigs are slashed as they wriggle in panic. Starved Cortes ripped birds to shreds with his bare hands. Even Christ most likely preached through a mouthful of thigh meat. And us – my darling, what of us? Perhaps not fox nor axe, but something gives us chase – some distant Magdalena or Charles Quint to whom we should have paid homage, some hungry Chaac who bangs his bowl against the banquet table. So we wait. Our bodies regenerate for as long as they can. The jaguar shuts his eyes, and in the darkness, hear me whisper this: every cell I ever touched you with is dead.