Manus Island


Manus Island, part of the Bismarck Archipelago, to the north-east of Papua New Guinea. 100 km by 30 km, population 50,321 as of the 2011 census. Known for its sea cucumbers (served as bêche de mer), the endemic emerald green snail (now an endangered species), and for its copper and gold deposits. In global focus, more recently, for hosting an “offshore refugee processing centre” on behalf of the Australian government. Having closed in 2003, the centre was re-opened in November 2012. To learn more about the conditions inside the centre, visit the website of Australian NGO ChilOut (as in CHILdren OUT of detention), or click here to watch an investigative report that goes inside the centre (ABC).

atlasThe new Atlas poem below is part of a growing series on islands and peninsulas. Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, a cartographical and poetic Wunderkammer that has made my insomnia sweeter in these nights of breezeless heat, is certainly an influence, for its combination of geographical wonder, study of human nature, implicit denunciation of colonialism, and celebration of solitude. To my delight, I’ve just found out that there is a Wikipedia Companion Guide to Schalansky’s book.

As Schalansky explains in the prologue to her book, “Human beings travelling far and wide have turned into the very monsters they chased off the map”. This is also turning out to be one of the main themes of my Atlas island poems. I like to see islands as miniature contintents, where human creativity, drama and tragedy are magnified.

Note: Whereas Orcas Island and Map of Turkey were written simultaneously in Maltese and English, allowing the two languages to feed into each other as they went along, the Manus Island poem below was written in Maltese – based on research done in English -, and adapted into English afterwards. (Click here to read more about the Atlas project.)


Manus Island

PapustylaPulcherrima1Sea cucumber, recycling
the seabed nutrients, breaking down
the detritus, bacteria take care of the rest.
Delicacy of Chinese chefs,
it vomits in self-defence.
Emerald green snail,
its shell snatched
from the camouflage of the jungle
and sold as jewellery.
Mechanical digger, grubbing
for copper and gold
on behalf of an enterprise in London.
“The sampling and mapping work completed to date
confirms the significant potential
for large porphyry-type deposits.”

manus_map_blue_tnAn eight-year-old boy, lying on his belly,
who has barely learnt to spell
the words Hazara,
Rohingya, human being,

shrieking into the opening of his pain,
shrieking into the closure of the ocean.
On Manus Island, 20 extant
languages, and one extinct –
none of them his.
No matter. By the time the day
of his interview comes,
he may well have lost his voice.

The anaphylaxis has locked his eyes
and grown a lump out of his neck.
To keep him from hanging himself
a second time, they’ve tied him in a sack,
and there he is, no hands to sketch a dove,
no fingers to count the days, the years,
no feet to spin
like a top around the cage.

png-mapAustralia’s Pacific Solution:
send them to the other side
of the tail of the bird of paradise
to put our minds at peace.
Add water
until they dilute
and dissolve into inexistence.

“In Australia, this facility
couldn’t even serve as a dog kennel.
The owners would be jailed.”

losnegrosNot too far away, Queen Victoria’s
terrier, excised from the map,
is barking again.
From Christmas Island
to the airport on Los Negros,
the arrival of a pregnant woman,
her back arched like a wave
about to break,
and behind her
a parade of kids.

Delicacy of chefs,
the cucumber at the bottom of the sea
vomits in self-defence.


Manus Island

Ħjara tal-baħar, tirriċikla
n-nutrijenti tal-qiegħ, tiddekomponi
n-naqal, il-bqija f’idejn il-batterji.
Delikatezza tal-koki Ċiniżi,
tivvomta b’awtodifiża.
Bebbuxu aħdar żmerald,
qoxortu maħtufa
minn ġol-kamuflaġġ tal-ġungla
u mibjugħa ġojjell.
Magna tat-tħaffir, tagħżaq
għar-ram u għad-deheb
f’isem intrapriża ta’ Londra.
“The sampling and mapping work completed to date
confirms the significant potential
for large porphyry-type deposits.”

Tifel ta’ tmien snin, mimdud fuq żaqqu,
bilkemm għadu tgħallem
jispelli l-kliem Hazara,
Rohingya, essri uman,

jixher fil-ftuħ tal-uġigħ,
jixher fl-għeluq tal-oċean.
Fuq il-Gżira ta’ Manus, 20 lingwa
ħajja u oħra mitfija –
l-ebda waħda mhi tiegħu.
Ma jimportax. Sakemm jasal jum l-intervista,
aktarx ikun safa bla leħen.

Bl-anafilassi, għajnejh imsakkrin
u ma’ għonqu trabbiet boċċa.
Biex ma jerġax jitgħallaq
rabtuh fi xkora, u baqa’ hekk,
bla idejn biex iħażżeż il-ħamiem,
bla subgħajn biex jgħodd il-jiem, is-snin,
bla saqajn biex idur
durella mal-gaġġa.

Australia’s Pacific Solution:
ibgħathom ix-xaqliba l-oħra
ta’ denb l-għasfur tal-ġenna
ħa nserrħu moħħna.
Żidilhom l-ilma
ħa jiddilwixxu
sa jdubu fl-ineżistenza.

“Fl-Awstralja, dil-faċilità
lanqas għal kaxxa tal-kelb mhi tajba.
Kieku sid il-kelb jitfgħuh il-ħabs.”

Mhux wisq ‘il bogħod, it-terrier
tar-reġina Victoria, maqtugħ barra
mill-mappa, reġa’ qed jinbaħ.
Mill-Gżira tal-Milied
sal-ajruport fuq Los Negros,
il-wasla ta’ mara tqila,
daharha milwi, qisu mewġa
appik li tikser,
u warajha
parata tfal.

Delikatezza tal-koki,
il-ħjara ta’ qiegħ il-baħar
tivvomta b’awtodifiża.

Australia's Pacific Solution (via
Australia’s Pacific Solution (via

4 thoughts on “Manus Island

  1. kiwiskan says:

    This is so sad. I have been to PNG, and my brother honeymooned on Manus Island many years ago. We persist in wrecking all of our beautiful places…and people. Thank you for your poem


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