joanne burns

joanne burns is a Sydney poet. She has had many prose poems published, and is represented in The Indigo Book of Australian Prose Poems, Ginninderra Press 2011. Her most recent book is amphora, Giramondo Publishing 2011. She is working on a new poetry collection brush.



so you puff down the boulevarde
huffy and patriotic as the global
village idiot waving its torch
towards zeus your personal best,
o his koala eyes; you can piss
in your lycra if you really have
to, this being the chumpy age
of the celebrity sweatshirt
but remember
there’s no way you’ll be
issued a permit for
that chandelier hair of
yours to chill out in
this athlete free zone,
no tent on this phantom
beach is to be tampered
with we are already
somnambulists waiting for
the ufo charter to come
lurching through the waves

postcards from lounge lizard isle

interior decoration runs through her fingertips
like a frisson through a thigh, the way a design
concept flows through the whole envelope of an
apartment, loft style, art deco, or harbourside
highrise, the way lift out self enhancement runs
through the glossy print of a lifestyle magazine;
i can even source the cushions for you she enthuses,
like a soft toy research assistant or an iced vovo
on a tv tray, can transform that tacky 50s 60s
70s rented fibro summer holiday into a sheik’s tent
(say, araby), or a jilly in the cotswold theme
with a little bolt of pretty fabric: titania’s
(make that caliban’s) neo muslin chintzy dream

wind in the willows  

a soft time we had of it,
kippers and grilled tomatoes for
breakfast on fine willow patterned
plate, the sheffield rack with its
slices of crisp golden toast lined up
like loyal gurkhas, the silver
service tea vigorous and hot
in delicate bone china cups,
shimmering like wishing wells,
thick cut marmalade with its
royal seal of approval, the
newspapers, like visors or bedouin
tents to camouflage our faces – a
soft time we had of it; and ever faithful
rover to tease with the leather slipper game
if the news of the day was too tough; but now
the opium wars are just another perfume
marketing ploy like the south sea bubble
jacuzzi kit – no after dinner port in
the library picaresques; our cigarette
cases, sterling silver and gold carat plated,
with their faded monograms like gasping elegies
lie vacant, at the bottom of the south
china sea

(These poems are from footnotes of a hammock,  Five Islands Press, 2003)


the stranger

it waits on the street in front of the building. you feel its presence mostly when you arrive home rather than when you leave, where, as you step out onto the street a firm mechanism impels you forwards across the intersection and up the hill into the brisk diurnal stream. sometimes it clearly opposes you when you return and try to step inside the front door – it holds you there on the threshold, your finger fiddling on a lip as if you are trying to remember an ancient password, the answer to some elusive riddle, a hereditary code. you pause and turn around but there is nothing behind you nothing in front of you but a glass door decorated with the frosted nomenclature of ‘clairvaux’, a screwed up ball of junk mail spilling out from behind the left column of the portico, and a fine fracture in the worn marble top step. you stand and wait for the air’s temper to shift a little, to offer you some internal passage. today the door is suddenly opened from the inside by the rush of a tennis player in white fresh as a new movie, off to a twilight game. you proceed up the stairs carrying it with you. behind an ear.


perspex at noon

a tiny lull in the conversation
sorrow slips in camouflaged
after all the gossip anecdotal smudges:
celebrity bullfighters chocolate
frogs people who prefer to block
out the world with a pea in an
ear or two the quality of her
pesto sauce an absence of
cravats in harrods (didn’t
dodi wear the last
one in the tunnel of love);
no one says a word about
the recently departed there are
no vacant chairs alfresco the
idea of a walk along the beach
collapses as they pack up
the credit cards the table
lingers in the narrow air

(These poems are from an illustrated history of dairies, Giramondo, 2007)



inside the hermetic bulb
how easily it opens to
the blade, that sharp
sweet sting, mouth and
veins ring with the wash
of mercurial juice from
sheening onion flesh; it
sustained the builders of
the pyramids greek athletes
knew it lightened the balance
of the blood its shapes echoed
eternal life so the egyptians understood:
the onion’s ancient history; but try to
get it in a third millennium sandwich
in a sydney cafe they look at you as if
you’re mad as if they are afraid of it and
anyhow the customers don’t want it; they’d
rather put coffee in a sandwich [toasted turkish]
or even nicorettes, why is onion getting such bad
raps; how the children of israel mourned the loss
of the onion when moses first led them into the
wilderness, just cakes of manna for dinner didn’t
please them then        soft mineral and vegetable
crunch into its pristine flesh sip on the exclamation
of its juice this ichor of the gods the mind sprints
alert as an archetype: the music of the onion
as available as breath



it’s always seemed a marshmallow word
‘poppet’ a kind of sloppy kiss word, sounding
alert but soft in affect: ‘my little poppet’; those
plastic beads of the fifties & sixties teenage girls could
make up their own necklaces and bracelets from
poppets, one bead’s round pin fitting into the next
one’s hole a sublimated copulation chain proteins have
been described as a chain of amino acids strung
together like poppet beads and the comic novelist
who commented on the popularity of his lectures on tess
of the d’urbervilles to undergraduates at sydney university
in the sixties said in an interview that in his youth he packed
poppet beads for his family’s business, thirty poppets a necklace;
wikipedia informs that poppet dolls are fertility symbols and
can be made of fruit, corn shafts, potato, that poppet dolls can
be used for ‘magick’; poppets also feature in the lexicon of ships
and lathes, the technology of objects not the craft of demonology;
in arthur miller’s crucible a poppet doll with a needle stuck
in its belly is discovered in the home of elizabeth proctor
after abigail is found screaming with a needle in her guts
screaming loud enough to make a bull weep says cheever
– was it rosary beads that lizzy proctor the good puritan needed
in the aftermath she certainly got shafted, ring a ring a rosey a
pocketful of posey, can poppets make good rosary beads may
the polysemic flower



i clipped on my custom made horse
and trotted up the south head road
like a casual centaur in search of a
moment, the lighthouse looked
too much like a brochure there on the cliff
with its white picket fence, and then the old house,
front to the ocean, back to the harbour, its
rumsmuggler history flaring the nostrils, a ninety year
old woman in the sandstone basement, damp and ancestral,
with her cockatoo general on too long a chain, watch
out for your toes; i clip-clop up to the rooms
of her nephew who believed in good fortune in a walnut
shell, i went to his ‘first night of television in australia’ party he
wrote a book on the subject, brian henderson glowed and
the harbour outside dark as a zoo; you could hear the corps
marching towards the shipwreck, my equine attachment
scratching the floorboards in time for a swim



on the verge of
discovering an
between cause & effect
a breeze lifts the thought
like the anachronistic dandelion
of childhood information & have you
noticed how much contemporary soap
has come to resemble confectionery
& is there a dental clinic called the tooth
fairy; tootle’s wheels always seemed
like lozenges of irish moss what is the relationship
between lungs and locomotives a question for poets engineers
or the medical fraternity, this word ‘fraternity’
think of a fence of weathered lattice that’s about to snap
leaving the timeless vine on the ground – i am the vine and you are
the branches – didn’t his words make such a pretty picture
how a poem needs stilts

(These poems are from amphora, Giramondo, 2011)



the email said the meaning was in the second room. she was sure of this. she stood in the foyer of the building. a circular space from which five or six corridors radiated. there was no one at the inquiry desk. brainzak tunes pulsed from tiny lights rosed into the ceiling. 

at a quick glance it seemed to her that none of the rooms were numbered. she tried to open the second door in each corridor but everyone was locked and no one responded to her knock. she would have to try all of the sixty doors to locate the meaning. and she did. without success. maybe she needed to clean her glasses. or maybe she needed to close her eyes. she tried the second option and walked towards the nearest corridor until she came to the door that felt right. when she opened her eyes the door suddenly fell backwards to reveal a wall sized screen image of a shipwrecked city behind a sign advising ‘meeting this way’. ithaca was rather disappointed at the absence of meaning but glad she could remember how to swim.


in the mood    i-x    a mood in progress      


on the shelf a ball of pale string never unrolled in a venture an adventure sitting tight and neat as the day of its purchase. can this string unwind and travel forth like the trail of a cautious pilgrim or sleuth attached to home base just in case. it would become such a tangle to wind back to its original shape. would it be worth it. this intrusion on its beauty. its pristinity. would the shelf want it. covered in the muck of the world. would you.


a will sat near the window under a paper weight. it had sat there so long it had faded in the light. it had lived much longer than it had expected in those distant days when it had been drawn up. it longed for a light wind to lift it . to give it the will and muscle of a weight lifter. the paper weight was so heavy the will sometimes struggled for breath through its dusty skin. sometimes when the sun burnt through the glass of the window it prayed for its own execution.


the mood lighting knew it was an anachronism. who wanted a room illuminated by all that moody business. it had gone the way of water beds. down the drain. there was enough screenglow to authenticate domestic comfort. and a complementary darkness was embraced. after all mood was a pedantic concept. it was preferable to be enhanced by your surroundings. and stay there.


light spraying through the morning’s shutters like a peacock. a restored moment. the memo pad hectic with telephone numbers. emails carp with duty’s jingles. these colours streaming through your sparse eyelids. you smell them like a pram.


no writing remaining on the exponential wall. a fertility of keener scribble. marking time. a gala of concern. keeping itself to itself. repetition and all its luxurious nerves. only to be guessed at. glib translation takes it on the chin. hi reader. who are you. scrape that primer off your back. the inside of the wall itches for your chaperoned essays. the sea scrolls behind you like another dead pastry.


the chimney on the roof. how long since warm smoke from a lounge room fire rose through it. does its eye glare upwards for answers. does it care. does it need to. television aerials cling to it for all their worth. carting trash of the hot world down below. waiting rooms filled with impatience. 


today i praise disposability, diablo of the ecological lexicon. that liberator from poetryscapeology limited. where a simple cup [china clay porcelain] becomes a repository of meaning, enduring the weight of so much memory, so much association, that you cannot lift it to your lips and drink. a one object museum of redolence. you can only admire it from a distance. when you’re in the mood, a dozen breaths away, without thirst. people write poems about cups like this. swoon poems. poems that confuse the sentimental with the sacred. here i have a stack of disposable white cups. one drink cups. and then they go into the bin on their journey to lethe’s landfill. you squeeze them as you dispense with them. they crackle with light relief. glad to be departing for deep caves of earth. where sleeping cups are let lie. and the tea leaves little stain.


i feel like writing. on and on i go. so many false starts, repetitions, extra details. the body grows, skin stretches to fit the words. all those abrasive punctuation marks, confusion of meanings, awkward grammars and clamorous syllables. the underworld of language. my head aches with the load. i feel like writing yet i don’t look like writing. do i like writing. not likely or i wouldn’t be writing this. but what else is there to do when you only have two hands and eyes that have mislaid the world. through the drinking straw i hear the insects swarming.


it was a small message. too small to write down. its language was unfamiliar to me but i knew what it meant. if that’s all i knew i knew that. had known it since my knees hit the floor. had heard it inside the grass. ticking. tenacious. you wouldn’t want to write it down. the soil knew how to cut a long story short.


so often we wash away the evidence. evidence you might say. evidence of ourselves. we hang it up to dry. and then we wrap it round our bodies once again. it gathers so much of our absorbent selves we cannot allow it hang too long upon the rack. for the warm intimacies we have shared to turn rank. is this why we are tempted to abandon it wet and crumpled on the tiles. out of fear not squander.

and so we lift the lid of the machine; engage the suds and their cathartic whirls. our towels must be fresh. soft and empty vessels compliant with our ignorant ambiguous desires.