Peter Boyle lives in Sydney. His first three collections of poetry Coming home from the world(1994), The Blue Cloud of Crying (1997), and What the painter saw in our faces (2001) have received several awards including the New South Wales Premier’s Award, the South Australian Festival award and the National Book Council Award. His latest collection of poetry, Museum of Space, published in 2004 by University of Queensland Press, was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Award. A chapbook Reading Borges was published by Picaro Press in December 2007. The Apocrypha of William O’Shaunessy, fictive translations of imagined classical texts, is due out from Vagabond Press in May 2009. Since 2001 he has also worked on collaborative poems with Australian poet M.T.C. Cronin. A first collection of these collaborative poems, How Does a Man Who Is Dead Re-invent His Body? The Belated Love Poems of Thean Morris Caelli, is forthcoming later this year from Shearsman Press (UK). His translations from French and Spanish poetry include The Trees: selected poems of Eugenio Montejo (Salt Publishing, 2004), as well as translations of Federico García Lorca, Luis Cernuda, César Vallejo, Pierre Reverdy, René Char and Yves Bonnefoy. In 2004 he was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Award for translation.
Poems from The Apocrypha of William O’Shaunessy
Book III, VII
Half an arm’s length above me
mosquitoes tracing a zigzag pattern,
more beautiful than stars.
I watch the grey swarm’s
inexplicable drawing –
tiny masters of life and death,
(Erycthemios, Knowings, Book IV)
Book III, IX
three women, an old man
with a cart, two children.
two women, two men,
a young boy with a dog.
two years passed.
Flies zigzag on the air;
a stone lies
where it has always lain;
in a green space between silences.
Today, looking down on the plain
where three roads meet,
a white dove settled
on my shoulder.
There is only
Rain falls on dark roads.
Behind rough white walls
tears are endless.
In salt brine
olives best preserve
their sharp pure hunger.
Just above the level of the trees
two lightning bugs flicker their passage.
In the garden a single candle
shows me the path to the sky.
In the outer spaces of the world
the pure light awaits.
(Irene Philologos, A poetic journal of ten years in Boeotia)
Book III, XI
“The blue snail”
It does not offer
where it has dragged
its own sky
everything it touches
Over a stone bridge
all feet leave their own
residue of mud.
The vendors of bread and sweet pastries
stalls laden with beads and perfumes
mansions of the rich
sinking yearly deeper into the city’s
And before me
the white butterfly confused by the wind’s messages
the plum tree opening its fragrance of coolness.
(The Green Book of Ebtesum)
Book IV, XXX
The blind horse knows the scent of the world.
Walk with it slowly.
Rest your hand on its mane
so you may know that nothing is endless.
There was a river that restored the tracks it erased.
There was a pebble not touched by any journeys
left behind for you alone
forgotten in the hands of the sky.
Book V, VI
Among the Mountain People II
And it was a tiny hand reaching out of the soup,
the tender grasping cry of a flying fox
whose bones the old men were crunching –
and the bitter chill was still
around the oil-doused cauldron.
The fire blazed its monumental resistance to night.
How they laughed, the women,
seeing our startled gaze,
our lips dropped in disbelief –
they knew that even children of the forest rafters
don’t begrudge the passage of their still budding flesh
into thin broth.
This gliding that goes on when the last skin dissolves,
the tenderness of wild faces.
(Iannarchus, Poems written while travelling with the embassy of Antoninus to the Silk Kingdom)
Book II, XXVII
To the north
scatter the beads of water
gently scoop tufts of wheat
let the wind trickle
To the east
scatter the grains of dawn
may your hands be open
let where the sun is
“Shame on my head
on my eyes
Shame on my lips and tongue
Shame on my hands
on my walking
Shame of the seed
and of destiny.”
Again dip slowly your hand
into the grain sack
scatter what lives
what will live
“Grain of grains
dew of sea
fire that rises from mist
accept our shame”
lightly sprinkle the water
To the south
stand firm that the realms
of Four Heavens
may see you
scatter the grains
let the ghosts
know of your presence
scatter the dew of water
let the beads of water
rest on the lips of all people
let the thirst of the living
and the thirst of the dead
wait for the silence
to give you permission
To the west
eyeing the west as an equal
eyeing the west as a mother
eyeing the west as your child
scatter the grain
scatter the bright joy of water
kneel do not speak
wait for the light that rises and sets
to touch you
wait for the winds that come
from the lands of all the dead
to filter around your ears
wait for their voices to enter you
wait till their voices speak
wait till the words
are fierce and tender
wait till the words
tear at the sinews of pain
till the words slice
through forehead and skull
till the heart is open to all words
the earth is struggling to say
wait till their voices
wait till the silence steadies you
“I give back
I give back
I give back”
(Dawn Ritual of Purification for families and descendants of those who participate in slaughter,
to be used by all visitors who enter the Holy City of Kitezh)
Book III, XVII
He is coming,
the great poet of African silences.
Water is in his steps,
the great torrent
of water crashing though rocks,
water that slips and glides
through the locked fingers of children
dreaming of sunlight.
He speaks the soft rain of all seasons,
he speaks the fragrance of fruit,
the drawers and porters of water,
the skilled craftsmen
who shape and guide water
to accomplish all the longings of men.
He speaks the unspoken abundance,
the full granary’s ease, the floor laid out
for the ritual greeting,
In his speech lives the woman whose soft voice
tames all beasts,
who feeds doves and scorpions alike.
He knows the secret name smoke carries in its own language.
He understands night and speaks its infinite epithets –
he knows the twelve words for waiting,
the three hundred diminutives of sad.
And through his voice
flows great calm
and the five tones that unite
thunder and raindrop.
His voice is the child at five
and the woman at eighty.
He comes to renew our world.
(Thrasymenes, poet and archon of the Greek colony of Phos in Mauretania)
Book III, XXV
Nausicaa: You have come from far, and love
is a stranger’s right. But first
speak to me of the journey, of what news you bear
of places known only to exile.
For from strangers all seek a name or a word,
a presence, a gift brought back.
Osiris: Many wonders mark the earth.
Small fish that climb the sky and race across water –
I have seen their wingbeats dazzle the sailors at noon.
Or an old man bent above a blue lute
out of India, I’ve watched his worn hands
making the horizon at midday tremble,
settling the shape of sunset in lands
where the water-craftsmen dwell.
Beauty is the one word uttered by earth –
it is beauty I bring you.
(Fragment from “The handmaidens of Persephone” by Xeuxis of Anagoge)
Anthony Lawrence’s most recent book of poems, Bark (UQP, 2008) was shortlisted for the Age Poetry Book of the Year and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award. A verse novella, The Welfare of My Enemy and a new collection of poems, The Unfairground are both forthcoming from UQP in 2011. He lives in Newcastle.
My father could whistle up a fox
with the bent lid of a jam tin.
Pursing his lips, he would blow the cries
of a wounded hare into cold Glen Innes hills.
Into a giant’s marble game of balancing granite;
the wind-peeled stones on the tablelands
of New England; a sound like a child
crying called the fox from its nest of skin and bones.
I was there the day my father flew
the eyes from a small red fox.
He fired, opened the shotgun over his knee,
and handed me two smoking shells.
It had come to us like any whistled dog,
leaving its padmarks in frosty grass.
That day it left its winter coat behind
with blood like rubies sown into the dripping hem.
Trapping on the Foggy
When I’m trapping on the Foggy,
fifteen miles off Catherine Hill Bay,
the world is good.
In the morning paper, a murder
in Leichhardt; someone’s fist
photographed under rubble in Mexico.
Out here, the blue wind makes calm
the most violent of days.
Daydreaming over my landline,
the ocean settles me, and I drift.
I watch the tankers come and go,
fixed heavily to their destinations.
It’s mostly routine, but once
a bronze whaler followed a trap
to the surface – it came out of the water
and laid its great head over the stern,
snapping in the air, tipping the runabout’s
nose to the sky. I looked into its eyes
and knew it wanted me.
I must have sent down a thousand traps,
each one with its lines of chicken gut
woven through the wire.
And with every trap, I release myself
slowly, descending through miles
of green, sun-shafted water, down
through the bubbles, in touch with everything.
I tip a barnacled ledge somewhere far below,
and wavering there, settle on the reef.
I finger the handline like a downcast kite,
translating each bite into possibilities.
These curious fish inspect the bait
like terriers, and when the snapper throw up
their luminous bodies, thrashing and curling
in the phosphorescent deep, I’m a child again,
staring into tidal pools, my hands bent
and pale in clear water, counting bright shells.
Just below the Falls
This is how it is, just below the falls,
with a fine spray of mist in my eyes
and a whipbird cracking into the trees.
I’m here because the poems are on the move again.
There will be no quiet stirrings of experience,
distilled by the years and ready for translation –
what’s approaching’s got its tail dragging in my blood.
It’s a fertile time, knowing that the love poem
and the elegy will be equally attended; knowing too
that the footprints I’ve left on previous encounters
with the falls will soon be gone, stamped out
like a shell’s flattened spiral into the stone.
It’s been coming on for days, entering my speech
and sleep, bringing news from the other side.
This is how it is, where the sandstone ledge
I’m standing on is breaking away, and the whipbird’s
ricochet is lost to water’s thunder.
Something will happen if I stand here long enough –
a poem will come or the ledge give way,
though I’m through with falling back on the notion
of the suffering artist – we all have our demons
to contend with in our time.
This is how it is, just below the falls,
where rainbows hang in a bloom of spray
and the poems come on in stages. Where the cycle ends,
the ledge falls down like dark, like heavy rain.
You wake and tell me that your dream was tidal –
the rattle of stones, the miles of salty wind
giving voice to trees and honeycombed caves.
You tell me quietly about the gentle rocking
motion of the waves, your warm body moving
slowly upon my body, advancing and receding.
And as I listen I remember that I too
had been dreaming, that possibly I had taken
leave of my body’s sleeping anchorage.
In the wide bays of each other’s arms
or sleeping alone, our places in the bed
still wear the positions we made as we turned,
seeking comfort or space in the dark.
No need to question how far we travel
when behind our eyes time and distance
disengage their symbols to flicker and collapse
like glass in the skylight of a kaleidoscope.
When I lean forward to kiss you, pine needles
fall from my hair. On my skin, a smear
of charcoal where fitfully I’d passed,
brushing burnt-out trees. And it seems
you were there beside me, flying over
the wreckage of week-old fires – in your hair
also, the evidence of pines, on your skin
the ash-grey stains.
Coming to rest,
we gathered ourselves into wakefulness, moving
again with moon-drawn water, our voices
returning from caves and forests. And silence
by morning’s pale-blue noise, our shadows
passed with belief in love beyond the tired
streets of light and work, our heartbeats
measured by the pulse of the waves, incoming
deep and regular. To sleep beside you
is to know the secret dark each other’s
dreaming has encountered – forests and caves,
where stalagmites and stalactites
grow towards each other like patient tongues.
Blonding (Jean François Gravelet), 1824–1897
Despite the legs, varicose like branches
veined with congealing sap,
the hands, gnarled and knotted with disuse,
I could still conjure a terrible height
from the verandah to the lawn,
do a softshoe along the railing
then walk the length of the drive,
pausing to dig the stones from my palms.
The life of an aerialist is no worse or less
potent because the body is grounding itself,
weighted to the marrow with decay.
It is only the tools of my high-risk trade
that have fallen to redundancy: the cable
on which I travelled above the falls
of North America, the long pole I held –
an eagle’s slow dark flapping –
they are warping and unravelling in the shed.
My retirement from the windy meridians
of balance and applause has refined
a discipline displaced by youth for the brief
flirtations I made with death and acclamation.
I’ve not forgotten the surreal heliography
of a thousand upturned eyes and cameras,
or the collective gasp from a crowd of mouths
as I wheeled a barrow stacked with knives
towards Niagara’s roaring vanishing-point.
Once the wind rocked the barrow violently,
and knives flashed like slender-bodied salmon
falling back from an unsuccessful spawning.
These days I walk the wire in the high
and silent air of meditation. I can twirl
a blue umbrella, or wheel a box of blades
above the falls for hours – the cheers
and the mist still around me as I rise
then step away into the shadow of an elm.
I’ve returned in recent years to stand alone
at night behind the safety rail.
They’ve lit the falls with spotlights,
now white thunder is a rainbow veil,
with Beethoven’s Sixth coming awkwardly
like muted weeping through the spray.
I rarely discuss my time in the air.
Talk is a tripwire on memory’s corroding line.
Though, when asked to remember
the most difficult walk I’ve made I tell
a story about my father. One night he came
staggering home through the rain into death,
his heart and balance quartered. I met him
at the gate, then carried him inside.
He was breathing hard the words I would later
speak like prayer above the water and the crowds:
I’ve been trying for years
to heal the private wounds of my life.
The Syllables in Your Name
I finger the Rosary beads I found
in a country church
after lighting a candle
under Gothic spires, dark
with thoughts of prayers for you.
Reasons for our separation
come through remembering candleflame
that lit the feet
of a slumped and wing-attended Christ,
shadows blue as snow, and now
the click of beads, but mostly
I mouth the syllables in your name.
Today the string came apart,
and there was a sound you’d expect
scattering beads to make.
Sympathetic hands came forward
with beads to a man who had
yet to complete the Rosary.
With a passive vocabulary, I thanked,
moved off and disappointed them.
In the generous shadow of a column,
as a man swept last night’s rain
from the floor of the Pantheon,
I threaded beads
onto the twist of purple wool I’d found
where Nigerians stand selling
handbags and cartons of cigarettes.
When each bead could be numbered and praised,
I mouthed, like a mantra over the reasons
for our separation, the syllables in your name.
These poems appear in New and Selected Poems, (University of Queensland Press, 1989)
Scars and Their Origins
For the lesson in how to harness martial energy,
I did not have to study the sea-
facing towers and blades on a wind farm,
or replay footage of a cheetah ending its run
when the wildebeest moved out of range,
or hear a street-fighter who found God
talk of devotion as paying homage
to the tissue of scars and their origins, no,
I learned how to listen and when to distance
myself from the moment, and where I once
went to school on the immediate
and the external, now all I have to do
is remember how you wept and turned away
from the open lesions of my anger.
In the Shadows of a Rockspill
darken your hands
in a seepage of the gathering dark
and then move off into something new
like the eyelid of a sleeping lizard
sealed with the blue rivets of ticks
or a flourish of air
in the path of the owl you disturbed
All this will appear to you
as you travel
attentive or unapproachable
under the hard veneer of your life
saying I will remember this
or you will be captive to the constant
awful noise of reclusiveness
which is not solitude or absence
but simply another place you have entered
in order to leave
These poems appear in Bark, (University of Queensland Press, 2008)
The storm is isolated, black, and comes in fast
breaking lines across a torn embroidery of foam.
I stand looking out from a shelled water table
over stones the wash has kelped and waved aside.
At first it’s like unspooling celluloid, under-
exposed in hard, projected light:
an incoming tide of shapes
that merge to seed a furrow
where the sea’s dark pelt and raining wind combine –
a closing front, loud with acoustic whips of air
as angled wings snap past and lift away.
I will not move, though fear has not disabled me.
It is the upright, spell-bound grace of being
where instinct drives a self-repairing wall
of light and shade.
The precision that keeps a wing-tip
just above the waves keeps me from harm.
Grounded they will rest, feed, then make arrangements
for another touring season.
When the last birds have swept aside
their lapsed itineraries, and climbed wet air
to oversee the underworld of burrows
they claimed years ago: the rank, game-reeking cavities
beneath headland grass, I will leave.
Can the scent and texture of our skin be changed
by such encounters?
Stepping over pools where anemones bloom
like tidal resurrections of red flowers
I put my hand to the sun
to see lit blood illuminate the webbing.
Climbing high, I listen
for the sounds of welcome and arrival.
When amazement breaks the filters
our senses wear in uneventful light
we move beyond the place
where memory harvests meaning.
I move and I am changed, then changed again
by the telling of it.
At a high open window, working with rags
to buff the brass Buddha she used to weight paper
a woman is frozen by fright and alarm.
When he slipped from her grip and fell, he glanced
off the head of the man who comes
each day, his face and hands painted silver
to stand on a box to make money.
A black and tan kelpie is first on the scene
followed by a rodeo clown
wearing overalls, makeup and dust, then a girl
whose white tasselled boots had been worn down
from being worn out.
The standing man was lying on his side
unconscious or worse, surrounded by coins.
The Buddha was sitting upright in the gutter
and apart from a scratch on his shoulder
he was fine.
Not since locals bashed act from the word actor
had an inland city seen such street theatre.
Stephen Edgar has published seven collections of poetry, the most recent being History of the Day, published by Black Pepper Publishing in May 2009. His book Lost in the Foreground won the Grace Leven Poetry Prize and William Baylebridge Memorial Prize for 2003. He won the inaugural Australian Book Review Poetry Prize in 2005 for his poem “Man on the Moon” and in 2006 was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for excellence in literature. Edgar was born in Sydney in 1951 and grew up and was educated there. In the early seventies he lived in London and, on returning to Australia in 1974, moved to Hobart where he lived until late 2005. He currently lives in Sydney again. He attended the University of Tasmania, studying Classics and English. For many years he worked in libraries but for the past twenty years has made his living mostly from editing, indexing and proofreading.
(Photograph by Vicki Frerer)
Like gazing at some other family
In a fogged window pane,
Or in a mottled mirror that has lost
Flakes of its silver tain:
The four boys head and tail in the one bed,
Their breath turning the room’s
Frigid midwinter to a dreaming kitchen,
With its fug of steam and fumes.
Does such a place exist? Where might it be?
How get to here from there?
But there they are, there we are, clambering down
The bank, our thin legs bare,
Barefoot (it’s hard to credit) in that cold.
My sook-soft soles revealed,
I’m piggybacked by one of my cousins over
The thorns that mine the field,
Till we reach the dingy creek to fish up yabbies
On strings of sodden meat,
And lug back home our squirming bucketful—
Which of course no one will eat.
Over it goes, then, in the yard; we watch
Them spill and clatter away
Through grass and fence and blackberries, back to
Their soupy deep. One day
We ranged the paddocks—to the quarry (was it?)
Across the railway line,
And tightropewalked the daring empty tracks,
Or, listening for a sign,
We’d place an ear down on the sun-cold metal
And think we heard the humming,
That charged vibration borne from far away
Of what was coming.
How formal and polite,
How grave they look, burdened with earnest thoughts,
In all these set-up sepia stills,
Almost as if, embarrassed and contrite
To be caught practising their fatal skills,
They’d stepped aside from slaughter for these other shots.
The American Civil War,
The first war captured by the photograph
In real time. Even the dead
Seem somehow decorous, less to deplore
The sump of blood to which their duty bled
Than to apologize, humbled, in our behalf.
We know how otherwise
It was. They knew it then. The gauche onset
Of murderously clumsy troops,
Dismemberment by cannon, the blown cries
Through powder smoke, mayhem of scattered groups
In close engagement’s pointblank aim and bayonet.
How far from then we’ve come.
The beauties of the Baghdad night still stun
Me: a blue screen where guns and jets
Unloose the lightnings of imperium—
Intense enough to challenge a minaret’s
Aquamarine mosaic in the blinded sun
At noon—and smart bombs fall
Through walls to wipe the city street by street.
Morning, and in the camera’s light
The formal corpses ripen. Who can recall
By day precisely what they watched last night?
Or find the unknown soldier in a field of wheat?
Being surplus, like the killed,
Millions of those old plates were simply dumped.
And in a modern version of ‘swords
To ploughshares’, many were reused to build
Greenhouses, ranged and set in place as wards
Above the rife tomatoes as they blushed and plumped,
While, through the daily sun’s
Pictorial walls and roofs, the long, desired,
Leaf-fattening light fell down, to pore
Upon the portraits of these veterans
Until their ordered histories of the war
Were wiped to just clear glass and what the crops transpired.
(These poems appeared in Lost In The Foreground, Duffy and Snellgrove, 2003)
You can’t see it from here,
But caught up in its business to begem
Some ripple-silvered bay or the crests of trees,
Or just a golf course with its dewed veneer,
The day unfolds its golden auguries
On a charmed sky. A secular congregation
Is out already to revere
The lit east with a helpless expectation.
It’s like a Hopper painting:
A row of figures sitting mute in the sun,
Which by a plantlike, heliotropic action
Their faces and their thoughts are orienting
Towards, almost as one.
And, gazing on that source of benefaction,
They contemplate and inwardly affirm
What lies in store for their acquainting
At the expiration of a certain term.
And even as they stare,
Appraising what the morning rays appoint,
The light that photocopies her crow’s-feet,
The grey encroachments in his thinning hair,
That stiffening hip joint,
Has swept past as though history were complete.
Back in the bedrooms of this white hotel
Their things, wiser than they, declare
No contest in these fancies. Where it fell
An empty shirtsleeve throws
A purely formal gesture of despair
Across a bed, while nothing will arouse
From lank indifference the pantihose
Haunting a sidelong chair,
The disembodied presence of slip and blouse.
Those traveller’s cheques, laid out in a fat wad,
Half signed away, only propose
Their outlays for the briefest period.
The day’s lucid ascent
Has charmed its way in here, it’s true, but lacks
Suspension of disbelief that those outside
Contribute, their frank willingness to invent.
On their reclining backs
They count up the instalments, smile squint-eyed
Into a rushing solar past their sight
Will never stay, far too intent
On what’s to come to see it for the light.
English as a Foreign Language
One day in bed I read Cavafy
In Greek—her favourite: “Ithaca”—
And in return I won the trophy
Of her admiring Ah!
And I was flattered to astonish
That way. It wasn’t much to do.
She put in a request for Spanish
Bedtime recitals too,
Hoping that she might thereby sharpen
Her skills in the language she loved best.
In the event it didn’t happen,
Like most things she’d suggest.
And Pushkin too, a modest portion,
But that was pushing it too far,
Though I taught her “I love you” in Russian:
That’s ya lyublyú tebyá,
A lover’s commonplace avowal,
But rather difficult to sound
In Russian; it can be a trial
To get your tongue around.
But she repeated those words over
And over till she had them pat.
In English, though—well, she could never
Quite manage to say that.
(These poems appeared in Other Summers, Black Pepper, 2006)
I think of you on whom
Shifting between the light and gloom,
Displays in some far room
Its hollow globe.
Small metal worlds are these,
And independent gravities,
Attracting as they please,
Or so you feel,
With their grey weight and sheen.
Were hers. But she, oh she has been
And will no more be seen
By night or day.
They were long lost inside
Of an old jewel box, denied
Adorning: to be eyed,
To be enjoyed.
They had no hooks or rings,
Eyelets: unpolished, useless things
With dormant glimmerings
To be awoken.
I give them then to you.
And yours: all ownings in these two
Now mended spheres accrue,
Blend and combine;
All of the properties,
Pleasure, desires and memories
That nothing will appease,
Inhere in these brief globes,
Rocking, dependent from your lobes,
A gravity which probes
Darkness and light.
Playing to the Gallery
The last scene, and the two protagonists
Go through their studied pantomime in the park,
Obeying all the script’s instructions, playing
For time as though time hung upon it, playing
To that gallery of sun-bedevilled windows
Warping along a wall across the street:
Site of their judges—none of whom, they know,
Is really there. All the performances
Assume an audience—even of one—
To applaud, to laugh, to weep, or silently
Observe with admiration what they share
By faith alone. The scene inside the church,
The bedroom scene, the labour ward, and the other,
Later scenes, in which that chill locale
Will bring to bear the comprehensive weight
Of its resources. Or the scene beneath
The acid drops of starlight and the moon’s
Bland irony. Wait; listen, when they cease,
For what succeeds their final pause.
Far inland, bulks of stone well-versed in sunset
Perform their purple passages on cue;
The ponderous Pacific solemnly
Repeats its monologue on rock; wind, wind,
Playing for time, recites impartially
Leaves, grasses, patterns on the random water
Across the bay, or the daily rubbish, lofting
Like a kite above the telegraph wires
A solitary delinquent plastic bag,
As though it pleased some connoisseur of light,
As though it changed the history of this day.
In the open gallery which adjoins
The station, the installed art of the sun
Projects each day’s obsessive stripes and bars
Of light and shadow over the parked cars,
Each pattern as it’s done undone,
Highlighting and obscuring a few coins
Beside this gearshift; on that dash
An almost empty pack of gum; the Ruth
Rendell abandoned on a passenger seat,
Curling beneath the calculus of heat
And time, a comb with one bent tooth
For bookmark; here an ashtray stuffed with ash
And lip-kissed butts of cigarettes;
The mud-caked boots and other walking gear
Jumbled in the back of a four-wheel drive.
Although each morning many cars arrive
Which every evening disappear,
On these few each day’s sun rises and sets.
Elsewhere a list is being compiled
By the grey process of officialdom,
Phonecalls are tallied and the absentees
Accounted for, the tracked-down families,
For whom photographers will come,
Summoned by sobs, bruised eyes, a blank-faced child.
Elsewhere the helicopter sways,
Casting its shadow over what remains,
Like a raptor idling in its famished weight.
Like scavengers small figures investigate
What residue the wreck retains
Of those who have gone home by other ways.
Those Hours Which Grew to Be Years
(The lynching of Frank Embree, 22 July 1899)
Take him away,
Airbrush him out,
And all these men who stand about
In the clean light of day,
Seem called by duty and with pride
To some urgent address,
Some clear appeal
And honest citizen could not
Refuse to hear and feel.
Who hold their pose,
They fix unflinching eyes in rows
On the unflinching lens.
But there he stands,
His body stripped
And scored with the judicial script
Of whips, his handcuffed hands
Held to conceal
The private place,
His face upheld, composed to face
The lens, and all that’s real.
[ 2: Meridian
It may be nothing but the tree’s
Rubbing against itself below,
But through the leaves
There is a creaking in the breeze,
A bulk that briefly jerks and heaves
To and fro.]
And still they do not look at him
Where he hangs high
Suspended from a maple limb,
But eye to eye
About his blanket-covered thighs
And their raw stripes,
Rehearse, recount, particularize
With lighted pipes.
And nor will he take note of them,
Looks up beyond the hanging stem
As to inspect
Some far-off singularity
Posed in the sky’s
Flecked blue, if such were there to see,
And with his eyes.
The Grand Hotel
for Les Murray
Apart from that, though, I recall
Something you said about the place:
That you could never see it all,
It seems to propagate with space;
Always another stair to climb,
Always another corridor
With other rooms to count like time,
The end of which is always more;
A sort of Tardis made immense
That somehow manages to flout
The laws of sense and common sense
By being larger in than out,
The three dimensions’ mean constriction
Opened, unfolded and unpacked:
A building out of science fiction.
Or, come to think of it, science fact.
For don’t they say if we could shatter
Their shackled forces we should find
Dimensions at the heart of matter,
Immensities wound up, that mind
Cannot conceive? That’s some hotel,
And just the place to take to heart
And contemplate the parallel
World that this world is made by art,
Whose finite limits charge and prime
The senses they unpack, and store
Dimensions beyond space and time,
The end of which is always more.
(These poems appear in History Of The Day, Black Pepper, 2009)
Let Me Forget
You run your eyes across the glossy
Lithography of paradise: the sand’s
White gold, the opaline transparent blue
You’ll soon be lolling in, a sky unmarred
And constant to the limits of the view—
All in your hands.
You take the tickets, pass your credit card.
Behind that door, like Cavaradossi,
If you could hear above your heart’s content,
Blindfold and bound,
A stranger fastened to an implement
Appeals for mercy with the world’s worst sound.
Your wife has bought the extra virgin
Inflected with a subtle trace of lime,
The milk-fed veal, as tender as herself,
The chicken livers, the King Island cream—
It seems a pity to omit a shelf—
The chives, the thyme;
And there’s her shopping voucher to redeem.
Behind that door, it is no surgeon
Who makes the live incision, or instils
Into the eyes
Of some mute animal the caustic mils,
Or monitors its functions as it dies.
So home you both go, your attention
Diverted now towards the holiday
In prospect, now the meal tonight, your friends,
Problems with Chloe, and the arbitrage
Absorbing you at work, on which depends
The tax you’ll pay.
You park the Merc before the locked garage.
Behind that door, past comprehension,
Beyond imagining, the universe;
The laws upon
Whose unknown code the selves that you rehearse
From day to day are based; oblivion.
So much you’ve failed to see or mention.
But you’ve no guilt to own to or dispel.
Each day you take
This anaesthetic and it keeps you well
To face the day you could not face awake.
Judith Beveridge has published four books of poetry: The Domesticity of Giraffes (Black Lightning Press, 1987), Accidental Grace (UQP, 1996), Wolf Notes (Giramondo Publishing 2003), Storm and Honey (Giramondo Publishing 2009). She has won many awards for her poetry including the NSW Premier’s Award, The Victorian Premier’s Award and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award. In 2005 she was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for excellence in literature. She is currently the poetry editor for Meanjin and teaches poetry writing at postgraduate level at the University of Sydney.
Then the path wound down
to a browner place, to a river
where rain-grey herons slender as rushes
drifted off like camp-smoke.
I’ve only seen their colour
in a few opals baked deep in clay country.
When they stared, it was as if
their eyes carried on
One stood so peacefully
as if it saw and heard the single
far off, crystal note;
slender, rag-thin bird we called
blue Gotama. We crumbled a mushroom—
all we could call
sacred, yet common:
but they looked past all hungers.
So we trod quietly back,
left them sitting above the long
brown earthworm of the river
and our pile of useless
vegetable soil. They were
beautiful as blue veins in the wrists of monks
fasting for perfection.
On the headland to the lighthouse,
a brown detour of caterpillars
crimped end-to-end across the road.
Poke away the pilot and the line
would break up, rioting,
fingering for the scent.
Put him back, they’d straighten.
You could imagine them humming
their queue numbers.
I’ve only seen such blind following
in the patient, dull dole queues,
or old photos of the Doukhobors,
the world’s first march of naked people.
I watched over the line for hours
warding off birds whose wings, getting close,
were like the beating of spoons
in deep bowls. I put a finger to the ground
and soft prickles pushed over,
a warm chain of hair.
This strange sect, wrapped in the sun
like their one benefit blanket
marched in brotherhood and exile.
Later, a group of boys
(their junta-minds set on torture)
picked off the leader.
Each creature contorted,
shut into its tight burr.
I could only stand like a quiet picket
and watch the rough panic.
I remember them, those caterpillars,
pacifists following their vegetable passion—
lying down in the road and dying
when they could no longer touch each other.
Occasions of Snails
They slide out of the light
leave a chrome stain through shade on the brickpath.
Their excreta are milled like censer ash
as they wander aisles, scented paths,
crawl over ageing grasses,
bask in warm mud like the terribly poor.
They wander the earth
as if looking for St Francis of Assisi.
So many anonymous buds—
a bucketful from the lettuces and roses.
The colour of autumn’s loose litter—
they are aimless, evicted,
itinerant for the velvet luxury
of the orchid and lily.
The evening is cool, a cricket’s call
fills the ground like a slow cistern.
I bend close to the earth, watch a tiny snail
rock in the crib of a leaf.
A trail just visible where spiders are tooling lace.
It works the abrupt edge.
It is a couturier cutting away.
It will quickly feather this leaf.
As a child I squinted for their script.
I searched the vast twin prayeryards
of sunshine and wind.
I watched for their headlines
as if they were notices for the arrivals
and departures of angels;
as if they were the proof—
beautiful and brief—of anonymous flights
scrawled across the house-walls, down ditches,
on uncut grasses, on a splintery fence;
as if they were the tinsels of a local moon.
Now I am a gardener.
I make their landscapes deadly.
I make Golgothas in the garden.
And I have laid my poisons—
the mockery of diced stems.
I have pressed them to the earth.
I have trowelled them into the soil.
I have riveted their pastel to the bricks.
I have denied them soft altars, plush roads,
these trackers of unattainable softness,
these evacuees of needle-thin tracks
who never look back on their painstaking silver.
But look how they go—
beseeching the deities Gloss
and Lightheadedness; how they stroll
amongst mucilage and essences
as if in mystical consortium
with nasturtium and rose—
how they find the sane bewilderment
of a child wandering in her garden
with a rose in her head.
She curses her brothers
who drop them on cactuses,
turn them into sludge
and laugh them into sad weak bubbles.
Still, she remembers the hiss
of so many tossed into the ash.
Those winkled from their sockets by twigs.
Sometimes, when I hold them,
when they are immured
and smelling of lavender;
when they turn their dibbled heads
from my palms, I remember
those soldered paths
and this world’s exotic itinerary.
Again, I track their rubbled passages
(to the roses, to the compost).
They have crawled into eggshells
as if into temples, as if into light.
How to Love Bats
Begin in a cave.
Listen to the floor boil with rodents, insects.
Weep for the pups that have fallen. Later,
you’ll fly the narrow passages of those bones, but for now—
open your mouth, out will fly names
like Pipistrelle, Desmodus, Tadarida. Then,
listen for a frequency
lower than the seep of water, higher
than an ice planet hibernating
beyond a glacier of Time.
Visit op shops. Hide in their closets.
Breathe in the scales and dust
of clothes left hanging. To the underwear
and to the crumpled black silks—well,
give them your imagination
and plenty of line, also a night of gentle wind.
By now your fingers should have
touched petals open. You should have been dreaming
each night of anthers and of giving
to their furred beauty
your nectar-loving tongue. But also,
your tongue should have been practising the cold
of a slippery, frog-filled pond.
Go down on your elbows and knees.
You’ll need a speleologist’s desire for rebirth
and a miner’s paranoia of gases—
but try to find within yourself
the scent of a bat-loving flower.
Read books on pogroms. Never trust an owl.
Its face is the biography of propaganda.
Never trust a hawk. See its solutions
in the fur and bones of regurgitated pellets.
And have you considered the smoke
Yet from a moving train? You can start
half an hour before sunset,
but make sure the journey is long, uninterrupted
and that you never discover
the faces of those trans-Siberian exiles.
Spend time in the folds of curtains.
Seek out boarding-school cloakrooms.
Practise the gymnastics of wet umbrellas.
floating yet, thought-light,
without a keel on your breastbone?
Then, meditate on your bones as piccolos,
on mastering the thermals
beyond the tremolo; reverberations
beyond the lexical.
at describing the spectacles of the echo—
but don’t watch dark clouds
passing across the moon. This may lead you
to fetishes and cults that worship false gods
by lapping up bowls of blood from a tomb.
Practise echo-locating aerodromes,
stamens. Send out rippling octaves
into the fossils of dank caves—
then edit these soundtracks
with a metronome of dripping rocks, heartbeats
and with a continuous, high-scaled wondering
about the evolution of your own mind.
But look, I must tell you—these instructions
are no manual. Months of practice
may still only win you appreciation
of the acoustical moth,
hatred of the hawk and owl. You may need
to observe further the floating black host
through the hills.
Something’s dead in that stand of trees.
Vultures circle and swoop.
Flies fresh from the herds
hum around my head.
I watch the maggots rise, cooking up.
Ants in tiny rows keep convoying
Even the moon can’t keep itself clean:
soap soiled by a dung-collector’s hands.
The carcass is a spotted deer’s.
Only yesterday, perhaps,
it was grazing among the trees,
its hide so much the colour of the trunks,
it would seem to be hardly there.
How many years have I journeyed?
Time. So much its own colour.
Death in every stand of trees.
In the Forest
So long in this forest—I hardly remember
my home. Though sometimes when I see
the pink reach of lotuses—I remember
the underside of my mother’s hands.
And sometimes, when I see a scorpion
jack up the green stinger of its tail,
do I think of my father’s lithe thumb,
gesturing. Sometimes the wing of an
insect, weighing no more than two
layers of lacquer, will make me count
how often I saw Yasodhara’s face
under the sky’s veneer. I’ve seen so
many lives born outside of reason; little
antennas poking through their cocoons.
Now, a praying mantis strokes the air
with a casual feeler, then tenses its legs
against the weather. How long will it sit
folded in upon itself, brave petitioner?
All day I bow to these creatures—
those who wait their cycles out more
devoutly than moons. But sometimes,
watching a butterfly emerge, I sense
my own eyelids flutter in the strange
puparium of a dream. O, I don’t know
if I’ll ever wake, changed, transformed,
able to lift on viridescent wings.
But as I watch, I feel my mind enter
a vast space in which everything
connects; and a grasshopper on a blade
of grass listens intently with its knees.
At dusk she walks to the lake. On shore
a few egrets are pinpointing themselves
in the mud. Swallows gather the insect lint
off the velvet reed-heads and fly up through
the drapery of willows. It is still hot.
Those clouds look like drawn-out lengths
of wool untwilled by clippers. The egrets
are poised now—moons just off the wane—
and she thinks, too, how their necks are
curved like fingernails held out for manicure.
She walks the track that’s a draft of the lake
and gazes at where light nurses the wounded
capillaries of a scribbly gum. A heron on one leg
has the settled look of a compass, though soon,
in flight, it will have the gracility of silk
when it’s wound away. She has always loved
the walks here, the egrets stepping from
the lute music of their composure, the mallards
shaking their tails into the chiffon wakes,
the herons fletching their beaks with moths
or grasshoppers, the ibis scything the rushes
or poking at their ash-soft tail feathers.
Soon the pelicans will sail in, fill and filter
the pink. Far off, she can see where tannin
has seeped from the melaleucas, a burgundy
stain slow as her days spent amongst tiles and
formica. She’s glad now she’s watching water
shift into the orange-tipped branches of a
she-oak, a wren flick its notes towards the wand
of another’s twitching tail. There’s an oriole
trilling at the sun, a coveted berry, a few
cicadas still rattling their castanets. She loves
those casuarinas, far off, combed and groomed,
trailing their branches: a troupe of orang-utans
with all that loping, russet hair; and when
the wind gets into them, there’s a sound as if
seeds were being sorted, or feet shuffled amongst
the quiet gusts of maracas. Soon the lights on
the opposite shore will come on like little
electric fig seeds and she will walk back
listening to frogs croak in the rushes, the bush
fill with the slow cisterns of crickets, her head
with the quiet amplitude of—Keats perhaps,
or a breeze consigning ripples to the bank;
the sun, an emblazoned lifebuoy, still afloat.
We heard the creaking clutch of the crank
as they drew it up by cable and wheel
and hung it sleek as a hull from the roof.
Grennan jammed open the great jaws
and we saw how the upper jaw hung from
the skull. We flinched at the stench of blood
that dripped on the fishhouse floor, and
even Davey – when Grennan reached in
past the scowl and the steel prop for the
stump – just about passed out. The limb’s
skin had already blanched, a sight none
of us could stomach, and we retched
though Grennan, cool, began cutting off
the flesh in knots, slashing off the flesh
in strips; and then Davey, flensing and
flanching, opened up the stomach and
the steaming bowels. Gulls circled like
ghouls. Still they taunt us with their cries
and our hearts still burn inside us when
we remember, how Grennan with a tool
took out what was left of the child.
I’m sorting out the hooks in Grennan’s big old tackle box.
I pick one from the box. It has a sliced
shank, a rolled-in sports point, a wide gape and long bite.
I like the ones too whose points lie offset from their shanks
and those with sinkers like fisheyes
moulded onto them. This hook with a corroded point
and rusting suicide barb I name wild-beaked bait-giver.
This hook looks like the neck
of a little egret when the wind lifts a wisp of feathers
from its nape. This hook has a kinked shank and sickle
curve, so I call it ibis leaning
over the shallows. These two forged-silver, light-wired
bait-holders brazed together beautifully I call greenshanks
in flight. I know Grennan and Davey
would think I’m silly naming these old hooks, but what
else is there to do when you’re stuck in a boathouse, no fish
running, when the hooks’ real names
Sproat, Sneck, Big Bend, Model 20R are just not poetry.
I have always loved the word guitar
David St. John
I have never been bumped in a saddle as a horse springs
from one diagonal to another,
a two-beat gait light and balanced
as the four-beats per stride become the hair-blowing,
exhilaration of the gallop.
And I have never counted the slow four-beat pace
of distinct, successive hoofbeats
in such an order as to be called The Walk.
Or learned capriole, piaffe, croupade in a riding school,
nor heard the lingo of outback cattle-cutters
spat out with their whip-ends and phlegm.
I have never stepped my hands over the flanks
of a spotted mare, nor ridden a Cleveland Bay
carriage horse, or a Yorkshire coach horse,
a French Percheron with its musical snicker,
or a little Connemara, its face buried
in broomcorn, or in a bin of Wexford apples.
I have never called a horse Dancer, Seabiscuit, Ned,
Nellie, Trigger or Chester, or made clicking noises
with my tongue during the fifty kilometres
to town with a baulking gelding and a green
quartertop buggy. Nor stood in a field while
an old nag worked every acre
only stopping to release difficult knobs of manure
and swat flies with her tail. And though I have
waited for jockeys at the backs of stables
in the mist and rain, for the soft feel of their riding silks
and saddles, for the cool smoke of their growth-stunting
cigarettes, for the names of the yearlings
and mares they whisper along with the names
of horse-owning millionaires – ah, more, more even
than them – I have always loved the word appaloosa.