2014 Val Vallis Award Winner: ‘Not Fox Nor Axe’

By , , and | 29 August 2014

QPFChloe 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.
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