Michelle Cahill is Goan-Anglo-Indian writer who lives with her family and two minilop rabbits in Sydney. Her poems and short stories have recently appeared in Southerly, Poetry Review (UK), Cordite, Prosopisia and Fox Chase Review (USA). Vishvarūpa, her most recent collection is published by 5Islands Press. For a sequence of her poems she received the Val Vallis Award, and she was highly commended in the Blake Poetry Prize.
The Fire Eaters
Agni, did you come from lightning, sticky lava,
from dry, incendiary leaves or the sun’s hot coals?
Long ago, in the middle Pleistocene, our fingers rubbed fire
our compact homo sapien jaws ate warm flesh.
Worshippers, we stood up straight, to grip your spear.
How did we germinate these fields? Bonfires slaked you,
from the alchemy of brimstone and chalcedony sparks.
So temples shattered, so firearms and explosives broke
the great sleeping Buddhas of Ghandhara. We live in hope—
your seven tongues draw fire, dividing symbiotic flames
from air. Gums blister, lips kiss the burning world
goodbye, high on vapours, on singed skin and keratin.
The centuries drag. Our cartels breach the Orinocco,
the salt domes and Babylonian Mosques, unsympathetic
to prehistoric algae, the plankton time asphyxiates. Viscera
are stripped from tidy fossil beds, our pipelines carve
your thermal subjects. Nothing much survives: daughters turn
against fathers. Refineries melt, nuclear plants leak
apologetic isotopes. Yet, sunset converts our gestures
to atonement prepared from rice, cow dung, clarified ghee.
And somewhere with Promethean guile, a man wakes his lover
from her apartment as a light snow dusts the city streets.
In his arms, a two-litre soda bottle filled with gasoline,
on the pavement, a dropped cigarette ignites your flint.
I have not found your idol in any temple, Lord.
Your one thousand eyes elude me in sleep, your
net of pearls shimmering like pins, a flower sutra.
Yet how the Vedic skies praise your light.
Spear fisherman and hunter, each knot you tie
interweaving memory, a reef with a rosebud.
Bowlines and clove hitches are your fetters, all
the lace and twine of this world, the emptiness
it frames, uncharted. Your past might be a silk road
of gold, hemp, musk, caravans loaded with spice,
slaves traded. In my conjuring there are far colonies,
papyrus treaties, gold coins, pierced and printed
with your cognate deities: Thor of old Norse, Zeus,
whose thunder you whet, Bacchus, the soma-drinking
foreigner. Zoroastrian or Armenian, your polyglot
perplexes linguists with a strange loop of origin.
Like Escher’s Drawing Hands you are a paradox
to muzzle me. Water nymphs grace your cloud court,
a half-horse, a man with a bird’s wing, his fibula
inscribed with runes. Even the jade and dewpond
are small miracles, selfless things inventing selves.