Feature Poem with Judith Beveridge: Prawn Heads, Oil Rigs and Infidelity – Kuala Lumpur 1977

By and | 1 February 2014

‘Prawn Shells Oil Rigs and Infidelity – Kuala Lumpur 1977’ is a highly dramatic poem full of tension and suspense. The poet builds these elements into the poem through the astute use of short, sharp phrases which also deliver their punch through alliteration and vowel sounds. He sets the scene visually and viscerally, putting readers’ senses right in among the smells, the sounds, the heat, the dirt and grease of the oil rig. Phrases such as ‘They’re silver-palmed, thick-tongued, slick-skinned” and ‘The chili-fingered oil man’ deliver sonic power and imply much in a few words. The dramatic irony is also expertly achieved, as the reader becomes aware of exactly who it is having the affair, betraying ‘The chili-fingered oil man.’ This is a poem full of changing, slipping tones. The toughness of the oil rig workers and their vulnerability are finely articulated through the action and imagery. The poem’s language is tight and fresh, the emotions are not over-dramatised, the stanza constructions and lineation add to the tension, the narrative is beautifully paced, and the final image is evocative, resonant and surprising. – JB

Prawn Heads, Oil Rigs and Infidelity - Kuala Lumpur 1977

Fourteen on seven off, incessant 
equatorial days, heavy city sky, tarps dripping 
on stall counters. Prawn heads underfoot,

exo-crunch on concrete floors. Bare bulbs,
the bright lights dangling, threaded by mosquitoes.
Two rig workers lift steel tins of Anchor beer

and chew prawn flesh. They’re silver-palmed
thick-tongued, slick-skinned, the pernicious few
riding a state of expat grace. Woks steam,

surrounded by tins, tubs of grease
and ponds of chicken blood. Reedy men
in singlets sweat exhaling strands of smoke,

working the woks as ash falls through
their arms. The chili-fingered oil man
clutches a photo; bent, battered by his wallet;
a woman, shirtless, dark hair, haloed 
in a rattan chair. All he says is, look at her
how could you not trust her? His friend

doesn’t turn, nodding wordless sympathy; 
eyes on the wok-steam rising, disappearing.
The photo is thrust again, vigorously,

he looks, doesn’t speak, caught by
the hurry of mortality punching in his chest. 
Look at her, she won’t tell me who it is!

Blinkless, she stares from the photo 
divine as a gecko, tail part-shed, scaling a wall.
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