À la mode in Hunters Hill

Louis Joubert

Louise Joubert, Joubert folder, Hunters Hill Museum

One of the characters who features quite regularly in this blog is Didier-Numa Joubert, a Franco-Australian merchant who made his fortune in the mid-1800s through trade of all types (legal and not-so-legal). This poem imagines a conversation between his daughter Louise, whose portrait I saw in the archives of the Hunters Hill museum, and a friend at the Joubert house in Hunters Hill. It reflects on the material trappings and lifestyle afforded certain sectors of white colonial society and how this was enjoyed at the great expense of others.

 

À la mode in Hunters Hill

Is it silk?

Incredulous look

Mais naturellement!

Hand stitched

delicate detail

embroidered yoke

ample sleeve

teasing flounce

rustling skirts

gently graze

the ankles of

la belle

Mademoiselle

Louise

 

Tortoiseshell buttons

left unfastened

reflecting amber light

tracking

mapping

tacking down

to snake around

her bourgeois breasts

showing

a rather daring

swathe

of luminescent

white

 

Beautiful dress

my dear

a stand out

in this English

colony

it’s French….

n’est-ce pas?

Mais oui!

No one sews

such sophistication

in the

antipodes!

 

A trunk

brimming

on Papa’s order

arrived

last week

in Sydney town

full of hats

and gloves

and undergarments

and the most exquisite

Parisian gowns

 

Taking in

the sumptuous vista

sun caressing

sparkling waters

crisscrossed

by the foliage

of a flourishing

flame tree

the two ladies

on the colonial verandah

slowly sip

their China

tea

 

Coconut palms

perform

a wilted waltz

in the stifling

breeze

while bent

brown backs

toil

under

the oppressive

summer

heat

 

What brings them here

these bronzed youths

from their homes

in the South Seas?

They are

the exploited workers

the unpaid builders

of Papa’s Paradise

a sandstone

Sydney suburb

founded on

trade

tenacity

luck

and plunder

and a slice of

slavery

 

© Karin Speedy 2016

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Flame tree in Hunters Hill, photo credit: Karin Speedy

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Malabar Woman

Sometimes we can be quite surprised by the seething raft of connections and currents running through our work and which can touch us in our everyday lives. Quite by chance, one of my friends had posted on Facebook the very famous poem À une Malabaraise by icon of French poetry, Charles Baudelaire, just as I was writing a paper on the forced migration of Malabar workers from La Réunion to New Caledonia. It hit a nerve. It infuriated me. The gaze of this young, white, Frenchman, however full of spleen and revolution he may have been, upon the body of the Malabar (Indian) woman seemed such a textbook example of a certain type of leery colonialism, that I immediately had to respond. If he had been standing in front of me, I would have slapped his smarmy face. Instead, I wrote this poem. Yes, yes, I know he was critiquing France by trying to say it didn’t hold a candle to (a perfectly exoticised) Reunion Island. Still, if he were here, this is what I would say to him over a glass or ten of absinthe

 

Malabar Woman
Baudelaire
you pervy bastard
objectifying
exoticizing
eroticizing
velvet-eyed
wide-hipped
dark-skinned
Beauty

She whose bare feet
caress the dirt
as she saunters
sensuously
toward the market
her delicate arms
laden with fruits
of the tropical
persuasion
hurrying home
to that benevolent
Master

Is it you
in your dreams?
Does she light
your pipe?
Chase away
those pesky
mosquitoes
that so torment one
in the colonies?
Does she sing to you
in a low
throaty voice
thrilling
in its
Otherness?
Do you visit her
in her hut
as she lies
vulnerable
on her mat?
Oh Baudelaire
you really aren’t
that romantic
are you?
Painting such a cliché
dredged from
a white man
Fantasy

And then once you
have had your
exotic
erotic
poetic
moment
with she of the
flimsy
filmy
go on
you might as well say it
transparent
sari
you cast her off
like a used hanky
to fall into
some eager
Sailor’s
arms
And you imagine
a foul
fetid
future
for the girl who once
kept her Master
in fresh water
and his house
smelling of sweet
perfume

You relocate
dislocate
suffocate
incarcerate
the flesh
of your belle
Malabaraise
You decorate her eye
with nostalgia
for her life
in her natural
habitat
fulfilling
her natural
role
subservient
servant
of
Empire

But her body
now for sale
on the grey streets
of Paris
was never free
will never be free
at home
or in exile

She is Beauty
she is coolie woman
she is the subject/object
trapped
in your poem

Let her be
Baudelaire
let her be

©Karin Speedy 2016