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.
Jen Webb lives in Canberra, and is the author of a number of works including the poetry collection, Proverbs from Sierra Leone (Five Islands Press, 2004).
Bête à chagrin
a thin morning, Canberra cold, and the cat
is sleeping outside, he’s dozing out there
dying in the sun, not knowing it, he thinks
perhaps how sunlight feels on skin, how birds’ wings
sound the air, he tastes the drugs on his tongue
this is the matter of his life
a life of feeling not thinking. Of being not might be
a human heart can’t be: I am want, he is satisfied with is
for him an easy death, for me old words
like chagrin come to mind, and I
must make the call, rule the line
he purrs again, I stroke his staring coat
he’s metaphor of course; all cats are, all loves
he blinks, dying in the sun
I can’t find the gap between want and ought
now might be shifts into will and don’t becomes yes
the sun the only bright spot on a hard-edged day
Outside Euclid’s box
the cyberworld has given up the fight: space is still solid,
time remains a mystery, the fundamentals still rule – that
geometry of one and three, time and space, that box our world
but you know, and I know, time is sometimes now, sometimes then
or when: outside Euclid’s box it folds like a paper crane, taut
surfaces hiding what Euclid could not know;
tug the paper wing and time is squeezed in here, stretched out there
the walls shift, the tremble takes its time, one wall falls, three
remain – height and length and width – they shudder
as space shifts like a tale; as there is folded onto then
as where is drawn out beyond what seemed to be its end –
the story arcs from me to you, time trembles, and space,
the walls fail: when does far away become
just here, or then become now? When
does that old arc thread
here to there, the line from then to now,
the story, the trembling tale?
So here we are again, back at the tipping point
poised between stop and go
Another Wednesday lifts its blinds to check the day.
Sun, again. Blue sky.
A flotilla of clouds heading this way
morning light of course on leaves.
Below the tree three birds stand, eyes on the sky
where the hawk takes his thermal ride
the little birds describe his flight
then freeze as he turns their way.
The tree falls still; even time hesitates: the clocks run
to and fro
confused by the unlikely sky
Janus scratches his head, looks to
and fro, defers the day
Cyril Wong is the author of eight collections of poetry and a short story collection. His work appears in journals around the world, including Atlanta Review, Fulcrum, Poetry International, Cimarron Review, Wascana Review, Dimsum, and Asia Literary Review. They have also been featured in the 2008 WW Norton Anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond, and Chinese Erotic Poems by Everyman’s Library. TIME magazine has written that “his work expands beyond simple sexuality…to embrace themes of love, alienation and human relationships of all kinds.”
I am on a bus full of school kids smelling of sweat
and hope. I still hope, don’t I? I get off at a stop
and my grandparents are standing beside the road.
Grandma holds a bag of fruits. Grandpa is
smiling, waiting to hold my arm. They are gone
when I look down at the phone ringing in my hand.
No one is on the other line. Two girls I used
to play with stroll past. One glances over,
tells the other, “The way he stares suggests
he has no direction.” A little boy runs on the street
as I am ready to cross. He yells my name or
a word I can no longer recognise.
I try my best to respond and he runs towards me,
his hands flying up as if caught in a breeze, circling
the air like mad birds. I catch him in my arms. He smiles
and tells me to put him down, saying, “You have to
let me go. I don’t ever want to be picked up
like that again. When I am running towards you,
turn and walk very quickly in the opposite direction.”
I put him down. He sprints off, laughing wildly.
I am already starting to miss him. I board
another bus and you are waiting in the backseat;
unlike me, your eyes seem to bear all the answers.
I sit beside you and you hold my hand, not caring
what anyone thinks. Then it is just me on the bus now,
since you and I were always one and the same.
Someone in front presses the bell, the present
calling me to rise from my seat, to step off this bus
and into a future for which I am unprepared,
where my name makes sense even when I no longer do.
I am about to have a buffet. But
when I try to get up, I am stuck
to my seat. An empty plate
in front of me grows brighter
and brighter. I could eat
the table cloth. I am so hungry
I forget I am here alone, so old
that no one outlived me. My belly
clenches like a fist but my body will
not rise to its feet. The other customers
finished eating, rising to leave.
As they squeeze past my table,
I lean back in my chair, sighing
loudly with contentment. Suddenly,
I am standing on my feet,
but I have to follow everyone out—
lunchtime is over. Those already outside,
talking among themselves beside the street,
are exclaiming about how full they are.
A fat couple smiles widely at me.
The husband tells me, “Today’s selection
was quite spectacular, wasn’t it?”
Nobody ate anything. They were sitting
before empty plates. I watch as they
hug and leave in pairs or groups.
I try to remember if I have always
lied about my hunger. With a heart-stopping
screech, a car brakes in the middle
of the road. A homeless, dirty-faced
man has collapsed in front of the vehicle,
clutching his stomach as he yells,
“Somebody help me, please! Somebody
feed me—I’m starving!” To which
none of us does nothing. Instead,
we slip back into walking fast,
barking into our phones. The driver
who stopped his car restarts his engine,
followed by the others behind him.
In an unremitting stream, they
run over the poor fool again and
again, until he may no longer make
a sound that anybody might hear
above the symphony of all that traffic.
We saw a bear, and my friend flew up a tree. I fell to the ground and played dead. Like in a dream, the bear bent down to sniff my chest, my neck, and whispered in my ear, “Trust no one who abandons you in your moment of need.” When I opened my eyes, the bear was gone, and my friend was beside me, asking what the bear had said. I drew out a gun and shot him in the head; not knowing why I did it, only that it felt good to do it. And dragged his body into the forest for god knows how long and for no particular reason. Perhaps I wanted to thank the bear for his warning. Perhaps I was searching for myself. The body was getting heavy. When I looked down upon it, I saw that I was lugging my own body behind me, while I had turned into a bear. Like in a dream, I did not seem to care. Instead I hauled my former self deeper into the woods. Hungry, I rested and chewed on it for food. Some birds passing overhead called out a word that could have been my name. When I was full, I went to sleep. When I awoke, I had no eyes left to open, for I had become part of the stillness floating like a web between the trees, catching a few leaves, that long syllable of the wind, running daylight through its delicate grasp, then letting it all go again.
In 2009 Stuart Barnes’s unpublished memoir, A Cold Decade was shortlisted for the Olvar Wood Fellowship Award; and his poem “Solomon” was shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize. He lives in Melbourne.
God’s grey waiting room
eyes like stray cats’
of rotting compost
patients spin between doctors
like coloured tops between children
tests specified on paper
in puzzling Latin
roll call: the nurse
hums a golden
oldie like a vampire
The men are perfect:
Sargasso Sea eyes,
shoulders square as Spanish villas,
chests like polished bronze breastplates.
They dance, they do not speak.
Perfection is a crime:
it cannot be forgiven.
The men are too perfect:
they are strange untouchables,
they slide over mortals
like oil over water.
Perfection is an anchor.
The men are imperfect:
they dance, but they do not dare,
and they do not think.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain writes and translates in French, English and Chinese. Her books include Water the Moon (Marick Press, 2010) and Silhouette/Shadow (co-authored with Gao Xingjian, Contours, 2007). Co-director of Vif éditions (www.vif-editions.com), an independent Parisian publishing house, and one of the editors at Cerise Press (www.cerisepress.com), she is also a zheng (ancient Chinese zither) concertist. Her CD, In One Take/Une seule prise (with Guo Gan, erhu) will be released in Europe this fall. Her translations of Hai Zi’s prose will be forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2012, and she is currently completing a French critical monograph on Gao Xingjian’s dramatic literature. She lives in Paris, France and New York. Visit www.fionasze.com
Rendez-vous at Pont des Arts
You’ll find me at Pont des Arts
where water remains water
till it moves between tolling bells
while your light feet carry speed,
you chase after disappearing bistros,
then find me at Pont des Arts.
In my bed on Rue de Seine,
we whisper and you touch my cheek,
charting out time with your fingers.
At my window on Rue de Seine,
I light a candle to look into your eyes
which find their way to Pont des Arts
without compass, without map,
as the bridge arches into time,
charting history across two banks.
Days connect years, years become places —
you travel over dreams or on bicycle.
Will I find you at Pont des Arts?
Moon crossing bridge in vanishing stars.
The sea under our bed
holds immensity for sleepless
hours that belong to last night.
I am moon fishing while
waiting for you to open
your eyes and cry for light.
Crawling in the sheets, I fear
burying you in my dreams where
your tears drop as water
trickling from the sky, and I am
that instant of devastating white.
My Grandmother Waters the Moon
Ingredients: 1 pound red azuki beans, lard,
sugar, salt, white sesame, walnuts, flour
First, she imagines an encrypted message,
longevity in Chinese characters,
ideograms of dashed bamboo and mandarin
ducks. Grains of red beans churn in her palm,
their voices a song of cascading waters.
Rinses every seed warm to her touch, a blender
crushing them until they are sand
soft enough to waltz once a finger dips in them.
Jump, of course they jump!
As she splatters them over steamy lard, little
fireworks in the greasy wok. Stirs until
a crimson bean paste foams. Let it cool.
Now, the mutation. Meander white dough
into miniature moons, pert peering hollows
waiting to be parched with spoonfuls
of bean paste. Throw sesame. Or slices of walnuts.
Just more dough is not enough to seal each moon
with mystery — molding her message on top
of each crust, she now gives it a mosaic look.
War strategy? Emperor Chu Yuan-chang
performed the same ritual. He who’d construct
a new dynasty, slipped espionage notes
inside mooncakes. Soldiers lacquered their lips
over them, tasting bitterness of each failed revolt.
In 1368, they drove the Mongols north,
back to their steppes. Here she is in 1980.
About histories, she is seldom wrong.
Time to transform the mooncakes golden —
oven heat for thirty minutes. Her discreet
signature before this last phase: watering
green tea over each chalked face. What is she
imagining again? That someday grasses
sprout with flowers on the moon?
All autumn she dreamt of stealing
that cupful of sky. A snack
to nibble for her granddaughter, the baby
me, wafts of caked fragrance
a lullaby, tucked in an apron, sleeping on her back.
Theophilus is a literature student in Raffles Institution, where he has the privilege of editing two school publications, and lives in denial that he be in Senior High before he knows it. He escapes by taking long and irrelevant walks; these occasionally translate themselves into photographs or poems, which he captures if he can.
I choose the longest path through
the afternoon, count blocks
radiating like stars. Those at the core
of each cluster are stained
a darker shade of sun, almost tooth-
yellow; theirs is not just an impression
of age. Newer sentinels guard each point
naked and imposing
while men slip between them,
scrub their flanks. Surfaces need
to be cleaned, smoothened:
time does the trick, but too slowly.
In the middle of nowhere is a
playground, one that still uses rubber tyres
for swings. They sway, spin gently
in the wind, mimic the somersaults
of children and fallen leaves. From afar
I hear the rattle of a pram, followed only
by a cawing of crows, then silence.
A silver of hair appears at the end of the path,
trundles slowly onwards. The pram is full
Later I sit to write
the floors above, all storeys
with characters scribbled tiredly
in each square. I picture fathers’ worn slippers
apart on cold doorsteps, mothers’
neatly arranged inside, half-lit marble.
Door-grilles swing open, shut, remain
closed, tessellate sunset, while doors
anchored to rubber door-stops
do not move. Beyond the reach
of evening’s fingers shadows flit
within these abodes, meet and part:
silhouettes miming the night,
except slower, with unhurried grace. Few lights
flicker on; our lamps are sacrilege
to movements so familiar,
and dancers quite blind.
Night falls at the same time
for everyone, two hours
past dinner, before midnight, between
dreams. Shutters tilt, catch moonlight,
close, become moist. There are
mornings where some are dry; unseeing eyes
crinkle and moisten in their wake.
These are not hard to imagine: faint
seasons and stories, they drift
naturally to fill this space
where I sit. It is warm
and spacious, even in the night, this
bed-rock of dreams, this void.
There were no witnesses;
no knife-threats, gun-
points; only a sharp
burning like she was falling
in love, followed
(gently, hazily) by nothing.
It happened on Sunday morning,
this theft. Couldn’t possibly have been
me, was still abroad. Later when I
checked, there was no wound.
She recalled no face, no
scar, no guttural voice. In fact
none of the details were clear,
or mattered. Only when I returned
Monday night did she recover words
enough to say (gently,
hazily) that she no longer knew
Strange, how we discuss death over dinner.
Nai-nai couches the passing of a loved one
as a walking away, as if someone
meant to join us for a meal
were caught up elsewhere. Aunty Fang
nods to herself; she was at the wake the night before,
and cannot forget how young the body looked.
Uncle Yang is his usual self, reserved,
but slightly quieter.
Father is last to hear the news. I watch him
mix regret with shock under his tongue,
shape a prayer waiting to be uttered.
He swallows a mouthful of rice, asks, how old?
Fifty-eight, nai-nai replies. She had cancer,
but was still active. So young! –
father exclaims; his voice has an edge
that brings new silence. Someone sighs,
can’t be helped. People
come, and quickly go.
Heads bob uncertainly, then in agreement,
as a bowl of fruit is placed amidst the unfinished dishes.
We each take a slice,
but delay clearing our plates. We have all
finished, but cannot bear to leave.
Cameron Lowe lives in Geelong. A collection of his poetry, Porch Music, will be published by Whitmore Press in 2010. He is currently a postgraduate student at The University of Melbourne.
Under such graceful instruction
the surge of coral roses
in the vase
releases the porcelain lady
to be all that she can be,
Autumn days sliding over
the quiet child’s angel face—
he who watches
and watches in the drifting light.
So the morning is shaped
with a certain wonder,
playing across green water,
seagulls ascending into a sky
of polished glass,
the quarter moon still hanging,
like a child’s charm,
over the silence of the house.
Bees have made this tree their home—
through the pale June sunlight
they come and go, their dancing
flight a performance of belief,
an unbidden faith leading
them back to the hive.
The bee, to be, does not need
to know the inner bark
of the tree can be lathered
into soap, nor that the people
of the Andes, in Chile,
use extracts from Soap Bark
to treat the sick.
Bees do not make poems
out of trees.
The day is beautiful
The church cars have gone—
this empty street needs you.
Clouds gather in the west,
bitumen drinks the sun
and everything is slow;
the dog deeply sleeping.
Tomorrow there are bills
to pay, a house to plaster,
but this stillness lingers
in the naked limbs of trees,
on the green and yellow grass.
This empty street needs you—
its sun-drenched gardens,
its music of cars.
Iain Britton’s first collection of poems – Hauled Head First into a Leviathan – Cinnamon Press (UK), was a Forward Prize nomination in 2008. His second collection Liquefaction was published by Interactive Press (Australia) in 2009. Recently Oystercatcher Press (UK) published his third collection.
Some poems can be accessed via such online magazines as Blackbox Manifold, Nthposition, Ouroboros Review, The Stride Magazine, Shadowtrain, Great Works (UK) Harvard Review, Drunken Boat, Free Verse, Scythe Literary Magazine, BlazeVOX (US) Jacket, Otoliths, Snorkel, foam:e, Cordite, Papertiger, The Retort Magazine (Aust) Poetry NZ and the International Exchange for Poetic Invention. A few forthcoming online publications in the UK & US: Markings, Cake Magazine, The International Literary Quarterly, phati’tude Literary Magazine, The Hamilton Stone Review.
A theme pouts
and a talismanic pendulum
ticks to and fro.
A black rose springs up
she touches my arm
speaks of doping herself up
lays eggs in my skin
curls up in the cup of my hand.
My role: to collect
wings abdomens cocoons
famous for their spirals
their twists and turns
They gulp at headlines.
A rare find (darkened by dust)
she reveals a truth
a clutching of hand on heart
a life form softened by sound.
Butterfly or Not
on your arm
the shadow of a butterfly
and looks to take off.
moistens the house
the thinly transparent
that go with your walk.
Old eyes like red-hooded fuchsias
hang from damp parts of your body.
I make a mental note
of what I need from the shop.
You bring blankets dolls the preserved bedroom of a mother
an icon stripped of glamour.
If quiet enough
I hear the unbuckling
of a costume
dry leaves taking your weight
the sound of a new programme
going to air.
I make a mental note of what you used to look like.
Stephen Edgar has published seven collections of poetry, the most recent being History of the Day (Black Pepper Publishing), which was awarded the William Baylebridge Memorial Prize for 2009. “The Fifth Element”, from which three sections appear in this issue of Mascara Literary Review, is one of three interlinked narrative poems at the heart of his next book, Eldershaw.
Photograph by Vicki Frerer
The Fifth Element
Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
December 1945. Isabel. Earth
Her tread, light as it is, disturbs a floorboard
And sends the footnote of a seismic shiver
Up through the kitchen table, registered
By a faint tinkling of the beads that weight
The doily on the milk jug she left out.
It’s probably gone off. Those words of his
Set up their tremor too among her thoughts,
The faintest ringing, practically too low
To be recorded in her consciousness,
At least until the day’s competing noises
Had quietened and left her clear. The moon,
As big, it seems, as earlier the sun
Which weighted down the sky’s opposing quarter,
Sheds the revers of that illumination,
As though she looked again at the same scene
The other way, as though the sky turned round
And showed her from behind its silver stitching.
She’s left him sleeping—Isabel assumes
That Evan’s sleeping—and slips quietly
Away through this interstice of the dark
To think it out. One more reversal, this,
It now occurs to her: four years ago,
She’d slipped out briefly on their wedding night
To say goodnight (at that hour?) to her mother,
Though really, if the truth were told, to pause
A little longer in that strained abeyance
Before the feared requirement of the flesh
That she must answer. Was it a mistake?
Marry in haste, repent at leisure. Not
The least of this war’s fateful dislocations
Was speeding sweethearts to the marriage bed
Who might have thought again, given more time.
But who can unsay love? And she would not
Have seen him off into that conflagration
From which he very well might come no more
With nothing but the memory of a wish
For what had never been to set beside
His everlasting absence. She at least
Could call herself his widow, no small thing
To salvage from the ruins of the world.
But there. He had survived. He did come back.
And she had met him at the Quay to end
The long hiatus between consummation
And married life, and they had come down here
To have a few days’ quietness alone,
The two of them, before their lives should start.
And maybe he had died in any case.
He seemed a body uninhabited.
Late in the afternoon on the veranda
They’d sat out looking at the gentle hills.
A little way below, where the land sloped down,
A stand of gum trees gathered to itself
Such greens as summer nourished, while, beyond,
The paddocks muzzily laid out their grasses,
Parched in the faded memory of colour
The heat had left them, shifting separately
And different ways as you looked here and there.
The air seemed thick with powder, not a dust,
But some particulation of the light
Applied across, or rather through the miles
Between here and the faint blue hazy sky,
In which the sun, a smouldering orange disc
Behind a screen, was sinking gradually
As though the air resisted its decline.
How beautiful she thought it. “I don’t know,”
He said at last, “it all looks dead to me.”
December 1978. Luke
The lassitude of Christmas makes a dull
And heavy progress through him like a drug.
Is it the season or the humid weight
Of air, or their perverse coincidence
That always settles on him when he visits?
Or is it that? His simply visiting,
Which, like the signal that a hypnotist
Implants, brings forth at once its cued behaviour?
“You can’t go home again.” Well, yes, and no.
He thinks of yesterday’s transparent rage
That Isabel and Evan stared straight through,
Oblivious. When Isabel recounted
How round at Angela’s Craig slapped their son
For some slight naughtiness not worth the notice—
More than one slap, and hard, which left him howling—
Evan, all indignation, had exploded
And called Craig all the names under the sun
For such brutal reproof. Jesus, Luke thought,
Look who is talking. He remembers well,
If Evan can’t, being summoned by his voice
Out to the dark street of a Sunday night
When, under television’s new enchantment,
He stayed too long a few doors down the road.
He stood beneath a street light, friendly-seeming,
And when Luke reached him, up his right hand rose
And down the strap flashed, curling like a whip
Around his legs—imagined more than seen,
Felt more than both—again, again, again,
To send him screaming home, where there was more
Considered application. Called to the bathroom
To have the red welts on his backside soothed
With ointment, in his terror he believed
More strokes were yet to come. Nor was that night
Uniquely memorable. Such violent
And such incontinent fury, where did they
Break out from when they took him? Who was he?
“What are you looking so self-righteous for?”
Evan barked savagely at Isabel
On one occasion when she glanced at him
Her pale unspeakable reproach. Those words,
They’re scored like strap marks in Luke’s memory.
To know all, as the old saw glibly has it,
Is to forgive all. Who can know so much?
Blocked by such banked-up anger and resentment,
Luke bit his tongue and let the moment pass.
Later he wanders up to the garage
Where Evan’s pottering. A peaceful and
Companionable mood rises between them
In idle conversation, punctuated
By silences that almost seem like touching
And say as much as words, especially
Since both of them know perfectly what subjects
May not be spoken of. “Here, hold this, mate.”
Luke grips the fishing rod and keeps it steady
While Evan winds the twine, eyelet by eyelet,
With single-minded care, one of those tasks
Of shared participation which enlarge
But don’t drag out the moment that they make.
Evan sings snatches of old prewar love songs—
Who can know so much?—in his expressive,
Beautiful and untutored baritone.
April 1945. Evan. Fire.
At some point in the flight, inevitably,
The Oxford would begin to sputter and stall,
No matter how precise were his instructions,
How clearly and methodically delivered,
How dire the consequences, should they not
Be followed faithfully. Up here in August,
The sky an excerpt from a pastoral
In watercolours, soft blue smudged with clouds,
And spread below, all stitched and hemmed with hedges,
And here and there the crocheted clumps of woodland,
Those meadows of unrealistic green,
So concentrated a viridian
You’d think that it would wash out in the rain
Like dye and stain the footpaths—floating here,
You wouldn’t know there was a war at all,
Not, certainly, a war that you were in
And might well die of, not so far away.
Amazing, with a little altitude,
How far his vision went—the width of England
All the way from the Wash to the Bristol Channel.
Too bad he could see across but not ahead.
And now the nose had dipped and down it went
In whining plummet, the white-faced trainee
In panic trying to regain control
Before that field, impossibly remote
From here, you’d think, reached up and through the glass.
Evan, who’d seen all this—oh, he’d lost count—
Dozens of times, was perfectly relaxed
And in good spirits. He secretly enjoyed
This part the best and usually turned,
As now, to tweak the trainee’s fear a notch,
And looked back ruefully with shaking head
At those exalted heights they’d fallen from,
Or down towards the cruel end that loomed
Below them. Judging to a nicety
The last safe moment, Evan snatched control
And pulled the plane up from its fatal dive.
That pastoral was over. In the war’s
Last months he does what until now he’s only
Been training others, and himself, to do.
What hand of destiny had chosen Bonn,
His favourite composer’s natal city,
For his first bombing mission? “Thus fate knocks
At the door,” Beethoven said of those four chords.
He played that mighty music in his head.
Hannover. Magdeburg. Each time a friend
Or more would disappear. Wiesbaden. Mainz.
At first you steel yourself not to return.
Eventually, though you don’t lose your fear,
You step aside, you step outside of it
And move in some dimension parallel
To life and sense and self. Each one of them
Was both unique and interchangeable,
Each death was every death. Stuttgart. Mannheim.
How tempting to persuade yourself that you
Are destined to survive. Don’t think of it.
Then fearful March. Berlin. Bremen. Erfurt.
Berlin. Berlin. Berlin. Berlin. Berlin.
The cold cramped cockpit and the juddering frame,
The searchlights calling you to come to them,
Scouring the sky for you, the rising fire
That seems to climb as high, the abrupt thud
Of guns that shake you sideways, and the fighters
That, thank Christ, a Mosquito can outrun.
And down there Germany, a starlit sky
As though the Milky Way has come to earth.
Each chosen city angry as a star
Burning with energy enough to make
Whole worlds. He doesn’t know, or cannot now
Allow himself to think, as one more night,
Delivered of his sole four-thousand-pounder,
He flies away, how that pure stellar heat
Is melting lives from bone and boiling blood,
Volatilizing screams from a thousand mouths,
Setting the corpses of Vesuvius
In charred arthritic postures underneath
The buildings burst around them—if they’re not
Calcined from history—sucking out the air
From cellars where the people cower, their lungs
Emptied and burnt out by the vanished breath.
Kelly lives in Perth, Western Australia. She has a BA Arts and a Postgraduate Diploma (Creative Writing) from Curtin University. Her poetry has been published in print and online journals. Her first collection of poetry, People from bones (with co-author, Bron Bateman) was released in the UK and Australia in June 2002 (Ragged Raven Press, UK.) Her poem, “Venus of Willendorf” was selected for the anthology, The Best Australian Poetry 2009.
A mule is the hybrid
result of the doomed pairing
of a male donkey and female horse.
The challenge for every mule
is to live a life with an uneven
amount of chromosomes.
Knowing beyond anything else
their legacy to this world
will never be borne of them,
but that their parents were revolutionaries.
Dance of the Seahorses
The parade has begun
his belly plump to exploding
water steed prickles
and prances before his maiden.
She takes his tail in hers, curls tight,
hangs on as they stretch
necks long and supple,
rising together in a rush of love-sick blood
to the idle surface.
Ever so deftly, he opens his pouch,
she delivers, releases and is gone.
At a distance the photo
appears like a parachute of red and yellow,
laid upon the ground with dancers, long and lean,
limbs quivering on the centre podium.
A closer inspection reveals stamens and pistols
and pollen thrumming in the breeze, keeping time.