About Sunline Press

Drowning Ophelia by Roland Leach

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Poems in this collection have been previously published in Antipodes (USA), The Argument of Desire (Anthology of poetry edited by Dougan & Reils, Coal River Press), the Australian, Australian Review of Books, Imago, Let Dark Memory Bloom (Anthology of poetry edited by Paul Kavanagh, Coal River Press), LINQ, The New World Tattoo (Anthology of poetry edited by John Hawke, Coal River Press), The Rialto (England), Shorelines: Three Poets (FACP), Sudden Alchemy (Anthology of Tom Collins prize-winners), Ulitarra, Westerly, The Western Review, and the water medicine exhibition, presented by the John Curtin Gallery.

'drowning ophelia' won the 1995 Newcastle Prize; 'The East Timor Poems' was runner-up in the 1996 Newcastle Prize; 'Darwin's Pistols & Wallace' won the 1997 Josephine Ulrike Prize; 'Relic' won the 1993 Tom Collins Prize and 'The Photograph of My Father' won the 1999 Tom Collins Prize.

The author wishes to thank the Australia Council for the Poetry Grant which allowed him to travel to the Galapagos Islands, Easter Island and Peru during 1998. Title Page

1. drowning ophelia: the madness poems
2. To Clean A Fish
3. On the Realisation that Adolescence had Passed
4. darwin's pistols
5. On the Skelligs
6. The East Timor Poems
7. Offshore and Drifting
8. Wallace
9. my father's country
10. Ulysses
11. Stone Walls
12. a history of shipwrecks
13. Rainbow Lorikeets
14. Night/Day/Sea
15. Miscellaneous Details on Darwin Before he became Famous
16. The Raft of the Medusa
17. ronny
18. Stories of Flight
19. Report from Hospital
20. charon
21. My Own Private Guernica
22. scylla & charybdis
23. The Mathematician's Perfection
24. On the Reef


drowning ophelia: the madness poems

'Accursed be the sailors that brought this madman! Why did they not throw him into the sea.'( Tristan & Isolde)

1. My Incorrigible Great Aunt

She left her window open
for the boys to come to her
only fourteen and her mother
had caught her before

thought of an orchid's throat
and the wingspan of an eagle
before she chased the boy
through the window

didn' want a rampant flower as a daughter
her full petals
strewn across the floor
for all her sisters to see

when the doctor was called
she was sent screaming
to where incorrigible girls
were quietened during the day
and had their legs tied together
throughout the intimacy of night.

2. Asylum

The woman in the bed next to me
dreams of beings on the other side of the universe
chosen she is given unearthly powers
to rid the world of evil

She mutters to herself on cold days:
they can only be destroyed
by drowning dear,
their mouths filling with water
as they fall to the bottom,
dragged by their necks
with hessian bags full of the things
they had killed for

she tells me the contents of the bags:
there are some knives & guns,
but mostly the bags are full of attitudes,
their edges are rounded & seem harmless,
but are much heftier things that fall quickly

The woman sees herself
as the modern wife of Noah
she is nameless

it is always the wife of Noah
or Noah's wife
a body to hold his erection
a pod for his slimy seed

She has read the story many times
from the Gideon's in the drawer
the poor fools of nurses
think her religious:
She's always in the Bible
poor thing, there'll be a place
in heaven for her

She has given herself a name now
with her new powers
she refuses Noah as a husband
sending the old goat-fucker
hurtling into the water
with his pompous God

Is drowning a God also called deicide?

Her powers are great
she intends to bring back Cary Grant
to be her lover
and has marriage outlawed

You can see the happiness
on the woman's face
when she thinks of this
the atrophied muscles of her skin
break open like parting waters

***

Ingrid comes & goes
sometimes staying as long as 6 months
sitting up in bed
wearing her yellow helmet

she believes she lives in
a permanent danger zone

once an eighteen year old boy
just missed her
as he fell 10 storeys to his death

She always speaks to Friedrich
who is not allowed in the garden alone

he used to dig into the flower bed
with his hands
ruining the azaleas
searching for the bones of God

he believes that the bones
will be immaculate & huge

and plans to
reconstruct him
piece by piece

3. After the Op

After the lobotomy
the surgeon told her father:
She'll be alright. It worked.
Eight similar ops in the last fortnight
are all robots.

A nice man but busy
gloved hands full of God
and possible new commissions

Came out with only chinks of memory
little pieces of shrapnel
that were sometimes a blue dress on a seesaw
a spear through a cobbler's head
or mother propped up in bed

Came out and was no zombie
grew her hair back over her scars
just couldn't cry till she was forty
tried during Gone with the Wind
her girlfriend a mess of tissues

Didn't marry till she was too old for a child
couldn't pass on a head full of demons
listened to her mother:
Never tell anyone about yourself
don't give them a stick to beat you with

Did remember the day before the op
view from Heathcote across the water
yachts loose & white
like birds grown too heavy
with some flightless curse

Sixty three now
and writes for mental reform
survived a tumour
everyone so full of God's kindness
finding physical injury
easy to cry over

Sixty three now
forty years since she was committed
wears gold horseshoe earrings
and drinks cappuccinos on sidewalk cafes
wishes somedays that she had all her memory
but most days it doesn't matter.

4. drowning ophelia

collected flowers for her own grave
crowflowers, nettles & orchids
imagined them floating above her
a petal-flimsy lifebuoy
that came apart on touch

her beneath the water
just inches below the surface
someone saying it was only a brook,
a brook shallow & clear
no one saying that most drownings
are in less than 12 inches of water.

To Clean a Fish

To kill a fish is clean work,
the knife across the back of gills
and the head is off,
a slit along its line of stomach
and the entrails fall innocently.

There is hardly any blood,
no slaughterhouse smell
only the sea & salt in the air,
no howling squeals or terror in the eyes,
only the occasional swish of tail
as if the creature is compliant
with the natural order
and there seems no brutality done.

On the realisation that adolescense had passed

1
Twenty years since I stepped out into the moon
from Annie's window
when her parents arrived home early.
Thinking myself the world's first lover
as I hitch-hiked home along Marmion Ave
blowing lassoes of smoke into the night
dragging down stars with egotistical ease.

It was four years before I saw her again.
She took me up to her small room
above the Scarborough beach-front shops,
her hair cropped at the front & blonde,
the bed unmade in an untidy corner,
with a Hendrix poster above,
half-hanging like a torn bird.
It was my first lesson in time.

11

Twenty years and the wearing begins.

I kill myself a little every day,
everyone does - it cannot be helped.
Some ways are just quicker than others.
It is a small defiance.
A friend's methodist aunt
is still alive in her eighties,
proud of a life where
people could eat off her floors.

There are strategies to cope, of course -
the clean eating floors may be one after all.
There is defiance:
seeing its darkness coming across the sea
and standing on the beach
your middle finger raised to the sky.
Its opposite is prayer.
Or to work each day & get half-drunk each night
like the librarian poet.
Or finding appropriate metaphors to console:
the spirit released like a butterfly
from its cocoon of flesh.

Nothing original, but is there more to death
than inventing new ways to imagine it?
My father is 76 & hobbles each day
to the television screen.
When you're dead you're dead,
nothing you can do about it.
My mother will have none of this:
she wants to be reincarnated
as a thrush in a monastery garden.
She has built the surrounding wall already.

111

In a cemetery on the west coast of Ireland
you look straight into the sea
from the headstones & ruins of church.
I picked up a drakestone,
flecked & smoothed by time,
its edges only slightly sharper
when all the buried were alive.
They may have also crawled from windows
or at least wanted to,
and walked home with a swagger
smoking along a country lane.

From the cemetery you can dive
and swim to a small island,
a quarter mile off shore.
The water ice cold on your face,
your head turning to the side,
taking each slow breath as though it mattered.

darwin's pistols

when he left plymouth on the beagle
darwin took with him a commission
to prove that god created the world in six days
and a collection of new pistols he purchased for 50 pounds

he was to have settled into being a clergyman,
always enjoyed the first day of partridge season,
in the fields with his guns & dogs,
and before he grew into the portrait of himself,
as the stern & sullen man covered in a shawl,
he brandished his pistols at parties, shooting out the flames
of the candelabra with blanks when called upon

he was encouraged by captain fitzroy to buy an expensive set,
(who knew the worth of good pistols at the far ends of the earth),
they were smooth, curved table-pieces,
a gentleman's carved totem,
that rested easily in his hand,
like a favourite book

he had never intended to shoot god
just curious to know how fossils of fish could be found
high in the andes
how the finches of galapagos evolved thick parrot-beaks to
crack nuts on some islands,
while others had finer beaks chiselled down to catch insects across the thin strip of archipelago

and coming ashore at concepcion after the earthquake,
he stood amongst the city in ruins, the buckled streets,
feeling the insecurity of knowing that his solid earth
was a thin crust floating like an ice floe on hot lava,
and though fitzroy knew these disasters to be god's wrath
upon human wickedness
and locals spoke of an old indian woman who was a witch
revenging herself by plugging up the vents of volcanoes
darwin knew then
that if there had ever been a flood it was not from some cranky deity

he never intended to shoot himself a god,
standing on an island at the far end of the pacific
he had pointed his pistols into the blue sky,
a wild potshot but god's too big a target to miss,
and though not fatal it made him drag a leg on cold mornings
and who believes in a god with a limp

On the Skelligs

It was in the sixth century
when monks burdened with the thought of eternity,
paddled all these kilometres of sea
in their hide-covered currachs,
to find God in solitude.

It is a lonely place to find anything
and must have appeared
close to that edge of world
told by firelight
by aged men close to death.

The monks probably believed
that they could hear
the words of God
amongst the cries of gulls & waves,
near-sounds muffled by mists
watery tongues they were free to interpret.

Their beehive huts,
built in corbelled stone
still half stand.
It was here where they must have returned each night,
lifting their ankle length leines
and huddling inside,
attempting to find something in the darkness
as the sea slowly wore
smoothness into rock.

I have not looked for God much,
but believe it has to do with weathering:
the sharp edge arrogance
that must be broken down,
so everything, even death,
can flow calmly by.

High up the hillside
on the Skelligs
one can believe almost anything.


The East Timor Poems

1

the portuguese first came
in the sixteenth century
for our sandalwood

bringing with them
their white christ
debit books & the enmity of the dutch

and only leaving after 400 years
when we asked
them to stay

1942 - 1945

1

the australians brought misery
wrapped tapioca-leafed as a gift
very few raped our women
and they appeared kind
trying to pay us
for our chickens & pigs
with silver coins that we
melted into ear-rings

but when they were gone
our mountains were squares
of soft upturned earth

2

we made our girls
chew betal nut
to keep them safe
from the japs

but there were other dangers

one night they sent up a war chant
calling on their spirits for courage
then catching seven year old palmira
ripping her straight up from the navel
and disembowelling her
leaving her like a slaughtered young sow
for her family to sew up & clean for burial
and the heads
of my cousin joao & friends
lying in the courtyard
like soccer balls
left by children

3

an australian gave his mare, a pair of shorts
& a portuguese overcoat
to his creado to get him home quick

he never came back
they said the japs hung him

in rage he told his lieutenant:
let's go down and clean up
those little slanty shits
they knocked off me boong
and I want my mare back.

4

they made us watch
the chief of Soibada beaten
till he cried out
for the mother of Christ
the Lady of miracles
before they took me

when they beat you
it is only the first thuds
on a fresh strip of flesh
that you feel
then it is only the noise
pumb! pumb!

you must imagine you are a stone
a stranger separate from the body
that is somehow in your line of vision

they made our own men beat us
them trying to whisper sorry
as they went through the thin strips
of bamboo till given another

the body is a bruise
that swells thunderdark
the body fattens & chews
on the liquid released
till you only hear the thud
the pumb pumb
the swish of air
and the sounds become more terrifying

I tell them I will help
give them rice & corn
chickens, anything

you feel the pain as you heal
all those pieces returning
to where they were
the twist of raw skin on skin
but you are never cured.


Between the Wars
1

as a child
before the Indonesians
we played soccer
with green grapefruits
angling them between our ankles
shooting goals between sticks
before the fruit went soft


on the road
to our house on stilts
there were rows
of mandarins & mangoes
oranges & tamarinds
sweet in our mouths


when I was bitten by a green snake
my mother heated pawpaw leaves
over the fire
pouring its cures over my bite

the old people
still believed
in the spirits of the trees

the centre of our house
held a great basket
plaited in palm leaves
holding our store of rice
huge and like the weight
in a ship's ballast
balancing the fortunes of our family


1975 -

1

from the mountain
we heard the cat-scalding screams
when the napalm was dropped

in the village
where a hundred lived
there were no bodies for the voices

only yellow ash
yellow as infection
burnt into the ground

no bones or corpses
nothing for their friends
to mourn over nothing to bury
my brother saying if they can
do this it is the end of the world
the screams still in his head

2

a child's cry can be death in the valley
his mother's breastmilk dried for days
nipples hard & bleeding

a child's cry can be death
its strings on life rising from its mouth
hoping to lasso the sun

the others were silently glad
when its father struck
the small head with a flat rock

death appearing as a small purple spot

3

throughout the countryside
patches of bush were bulldozed
and covered in black asphalt

4

I return to the story
about the journalists in Balibo
who were knifed
their jeans stripped
legs tied together
& hung upside down
into an igniting fire

and no one ever knew
though everyone talked about it
no one ever complained
as if it didn’t happen
no official enquiry
no one for twenty years
saying a fucking word

5

the streets of Dili
smelt of bad meat & maggots
skulls of small heads
bones burnt dark by petrol
were assembled like grizzly scarecrows
instilling fear in flightless locals

on the wharf
timorese used for digging
the graves of dead indonesians
were lined up
their faces looking out to sea
& machine-gunned

a new shift came in
weighting down the bodies
with iron pipes tied with parachute ropes
pushing them off the wharf
not watching as they fell
like steel-jointed marionettes

6

when your world falls away
when the warm flesh is stripped
from its bones
your spine crushed and
grounded into white pepper
when there is no blood
left to run
and the land is taken yet again

then I ask
for the people in camps
the rebels in the mountains
I ask the great ones
who talk of human rights & sovereignty
who bother to save
kuwait & afghanistan haiti & granada
why there is only silence

Offshore and Drifting

You always said you loved the sea.
That afternoon before the storm
making a run for the mainland from Rottnest,
with waves heaving mid-ocean
and the steel thud of the hull
hitting the bottom of troughs
then rising up again
and you with your red mouth wide open
laughing in your drenched clothes.

A soft morning in summer
anchored beyond the reef in a safe spot
till a six-foot wave was born
out of some twist of swell,
breaking just to our left,
as we swore that waves never broke out this far,
but you said that there were
no safe places, no certainty.

I still remember you,
it was not that long ago.
I am alone two miles offshore
in a boat drifting slowly
across a glass slick of sea,
heaving the words overboard,
watching the letters fall like anchors
to the uncertainty of an ocean floor.


Wallace

skin trader

wallace was labelled a mere skin trader
by the royal society at first
a man who had not been to oxford
without the right connections
a man who had daring no doubt
and it was pleasing to see the working classes
interested in the higher arts
but how much confidence could you have
in a naturalist who skinned & sold birds

returning home from the amazon
his ship caught fire and sunk
from the longboat he watched
the sails catch like rice paper
heard his monkeys screeching
as they flew from spar to spar
and thought he could hear the slow
smouldering of his diaries
the jungle cries & wet nights
rising in grey syllabics
till there was only the silence
of a scorpion beneath a makeshift pillow

four years' work almost gone
except his one remaining diary
that he held in a tin box
and was enough of a naturalist
to admire the blue flash of dolphins in the lee-wake
looking to the sky for new species of sea-bird
while the crew no doubt thought him mad

finally returned to england
he came ashore at deal carrying his tin box
going to bed with swollen ankles

aru

for the buginese of celebes
the islands of aru were at the edge of the world
those who returned were holy men
who were honoured in telling their stories
of winds & pirates & wild men
birds that trailed their feathered tails across the land
and on some nights when the moon
seemed tangled in the trees
told of the sea's hollow sounds
as it tumbled endlessly off the earth

they sailed their praus
a thousand miles on prevailing winds
knowing they had to wait six months
for the monsoons to return them home
sailing south of new guinea & north of australia
to a place of fiercesome papuans
collecting taipangs & beche de mer
birds of paradise whose sway of tail
brought gold in europe
for rich collectors with a penchant
for the remains of beauty
that could be framed on walls
admired as if the owners had themselves
a fine fan dragging from their suited tails

evolution

evolution is essentially about extinction
those who make it or not
and instead of divine whimsy
wallace hoped as he came on a prau to aru
that somewhere on these islands
the secret would unfold
like a peacock's tail


the ark

noah built his arc 300 cubits long
a small miracle for the times
especially for a 600 year old man
and it seemed big enough
for every creature god had made
till one day men driven
by the smell of spice & the glint of gold
re-mapped the world

they all came back with tales:
columbus told of macaws, manatees & iguanas,
peccaries, hispaniola & hutias
pigafetta reported monkeys that looked like lions
only yellow and more beautiful
& then there were armadillos, toucans
sloths & vicunas
all who had failed to make the original ark

god it seemed had been far busier
than anyone had thought


peacock's tail

why else would a peacock's tail
its blue & green plumes
dozens of eyes staring heavenward
be created if not the pleasure & gaze
of men?

special creation

it seemed god big on omnipotence hadn't got it quite right
so the old testament had to be re-scribed, re-read & re-invented
till the theologians came up with special creation
bettadine for a bullet wound some might say but it lasted a hundred years
where god had set forth all his creatures in just the right places:
polar bears white woolled for the arctic, kangaroos for the bounding
wastelands of australia, leopards spotted for the shaded south american
undergrowth and it seemed they knew not to go elsewhere
and that never the twain should meet


wallace's feet

wallaces feet swelled like eggplant
darkening & peeling away in sores
he thought he could smell
their disintegration: like the smell
of rotting wood & mangrove swamps
before the monsoons

after days trapped in his tent
with his rotting feet
he had time to think of god's
allocation of creatures
and knew it had more to do
with rising water than any divine hand

he anointed his feet in the river
washed them dry with his own hands
and hobbled aboard the next prau to macassar


dear mr darwin
' then one day darwin received a manuscript in the mail from a young, obscure naturalist named wallace - and to darwin's horror, contained his own precious concept, a concept he had not quite refined.'
dear mr darwin

in bed with the fever
falling in & out of cold fits
I remembered malthus & his population checks
and in the half-daze of fever
it seemed so simple that all creatures
had these same checks -
a process of natural selection
where those removed from these checks
must be on the whole inferior
and would die out when the fitter appeared

please read my manuscript
and see what you think
I hope it doesn't appear too aberrant
just wild theorising in jungles
ten thousand miles from home

darwin at home

he watched as the candle flame
caught the corners of the letter
for a moment feeling his hand
move to put out the igniting paper
then watched as it darkened
it reminded him of how
a small sail might burn
the outlines of ink blending
into the surrounding darkness
as if wallace had sent a letter of silence

later darwin would tell friends
that he received the letter much later
but it had been mislaid
its origin lost in all those loose papers
that cluttered his desk.

my father's country

my father dreamed of heading back to the bush,
as if he'd turn into some former self that he was pleased to live with,
as if a turn off the road would have done it all for him,
given back what that bitch life had tricked him out of,
but i don't hear all these stories till later when he's half-gone with
dementia, looking grey & dribbling white lizards of saliva,
and he tells me about his best roo-dog slit from throat to arse by the claws
of some big roo & him stitching him up with a chaff-bag needle & fishing line,
me old dad taught us boys to be men, we'd never go without food
if we ever got lost, and i'm thinking he's lost now on this small bed,
lost on this 6 by 3 softness, but he makes me shake his hand as i leave,
gripping it like it doesn't matter if it kills him, showing he's still a man
even after the prostate op & the incontinence.

by his bedside i think that it would have been better had he died
years ago, maybe propped up at the bar at the castle, or even a honourable
heartattack in a brawl, like he belonged to one of those tribes that had
to be beaten to death when its darkness approached, dying with his fists
raised so evil spirits wouldn't escape with his weakened soul,
he would have liked it that way, knowing the mortician had to fix him up
as if he was a cuts-doctor at the side of a boxing ring, it would be a man's death
not the propped up remains who looks out on tame jacarandas, the family
coming to see him, all saying feeling better dad?

perhaps saturday arvos arn't too bad for him, like they always have been,
he's seated up in a chair and my sister & husband are leaning forward on
the bed watching tv and yippyio has just won the derby and some mad punter
had lost a hundred grand on marble halls who had just gone down by a head,
and now there's the footy and geelong & the western bulldogs are fighting
out a thriller, libba's just got one in the eye and it's closed up already,
and maybe for a hour the blood is pumping again, the aching knee joints
are forgotten & he might be thinking that's it's alright leaving the fights
to the younger blokes, knowing that with all their injuries they're not going to be any better when they're 78, and in the end there's not much you can do about it.

Ulysses

'Longing they say, because desire is so full of endless distances' (Robert Hass)

1

Ulysses had sat on the cliffs
eyes wet with memories
mourning his far-off wife
but always returned each night
to his lovely Calypso

Like the Greeks of the time he knew how to live:
brandished his sword in battle & bed
cried sorrow but never guilt
and would have thought the young Tristan a twot
for keeping his second Isolde chaste
and dying forever in love with a shadow


2

Yet he was determined to leave
and built a raft of cephalonian pine
tied with catgut & rawhide
letting calypso send him breezes
so he could go home


3

calypso sang as she wove gold on the loom
the smell of cedar & sandalwood on the fire
and around the entrance to the hollow cave
sea-crows & falcons perched in alder & poplar
and the scent of cypress longed into air

And still Ulysses longed for distances,
groaning and grieving over a wine-dark sea
(though he kept this to the daylight hours),
imagining his time-worn penelope fulfilling every dream,
inventing her each day anew, while all these things
waited softly in the hollow cave.


4

She could have given him a young body
free from death, but some (mostly tragic heroes)
prefer the thrash of waves, the rock-cliff edges,
the sight of themselves returning, to strip off
their disguise and say I have returned from beyond,
and give up all for that moment of recognition,
like the wan adventureless Narcissus
finding himself in his reflection.


Stone Walls

Stone walls make sense. They keep mountains
from falling, terrace the hillside, keep ambivalent gods dry,
they have a fascination with endurance. Along the trail to
Machu Picchu they have been carved to withstand earthquakes &
give their children eternity, it is a huge ask but the stones
are sombre, they know the serious nature of their task.

The stones hear the antics of the Urubamba below
roaring like young louts coming home from the football.
It has no time for these screams in the night, the self-indulgence
of a spoilt child. The stone walls remain silent & fixed,
looking down at the shape-shifting of the river
who is always going somewhere else. Perched on the hills
like blank faces they muse on the reckless fluidity of water
that knows nothing of the responsibilities of stone.

a history of shipwrecks

young ulysses shipwrecked himself
in the thighs of an enchantress,
waking up each morning
as if it was his first day on the island
the first day after the night before
where he laid on lotus flowers
entering her like the sea
and drowning in her wetness
to rise again in sunlight
holding his mouth to hers
as if he could not breathe the air

Rainbow Lorikeets

The rainbow lorikeets are squealing in the norfolk
pines, they are delicate birds on their own, who flutter their
wings like hummingbirds, pick & preen like aunts,
but in flocks they are larrikin birds who screech and squeal,
believing that the sun will not set if not for their bullying.

As if to some unseen order they lift as one:
a movement instinctual, with perfect timing,
rising in a parabola of flight,
then looping back in a matter of seconds
to their place in the trees to scream again.

Beneath the norfolk pines I watch as the last few waves
break across the coming darkness, breathing in the
salt, the gift of swell, and at some point the lorikeets
know they have won, they have beaten the sun
into submission again and there is a silence,
like a small death that is always remorse with the onset of evening.


Night/ Day/ Sea

And when the morning comes
as sharp as sea

the scar of night
forgets its wound

and boys and girls
come out to day

wearing nursery rhymes
yellow and green

and yellow and green they dance their day
in feels of blue they do not say

sayings for us in do-less greys
in words we learn, in words we use

and to night we move
must move must move

sharp as stars
as night to sea


Miscellaneous Details on Darwin Before he became Famous

1. The Soldier

Soon after his mother’s death
he had seen a horse led to an open grave,
boots & carbine hanging from the empty saddle.
It was years later before he learnt that a good pair
of boots and gun could save you from the grave,
at the time he had just felt his loss,
death opening before him
as a hole in the ground,
a place where we were all heading
as warned by scriptures.

Eight years old when the cavalryman
from the 15th Hussars stepped into the silence
and raised his rifle, and the boy wondered
why he was aiming into an empty sky.

2. Taxidermy & Dreams

He learnt how to stuff animals
from a freed black slave
who had come from Guyana
and as he learnt the tricks of stuffing
Darwin listened to his stories
of South America and rain forests,

dreaming macaws and waking hot
in his cold Edinburgh room,
writing home to his sisters that he was learning
to stuff birds & dream from a blackamoor.

3. Advice

He often thought about home
but Fitzroy told him to forget visions
of green fields & nice little wives
or else you would go mad
like the previous captain of the Beagle.

4. Cigar

He was a man who liked his cigar,
liked to ride and hunt
and at night crouched around the fire
he felt what it was like to be a gaucho.
In his later years sitting in his chair
with a shawl across him
he remembered these nights
when he ate roasted game and drank mattee
lying beneath the stars
blowing lassoes of smoke-rings into the darkness.

5. Tapadas

In Lima he couldn't keep his eyes off the tapadas,
young women of elegance in tight gowns,
a sight better than a hundred old churches,
who took small white steps in their silk stockings,
and wore a black silk veil fixed behind the waist
so that when it was swept over their heads
and held by the hands before the face,
it allowed only one eye to remain uncovered,
so dark and glittering that it was enough.


6 . Flowers

On his return he remembered
his old love, Fanny,
now married (unhappily he heard)
and pregnant with a third
in a castle on the Welsh Hills
and sent her flowers.

The Raft of The Medusa

1

They watched the pinnace draw away
its oars like thin wings
cursing obscenities before turning in reverie
to the man who held the cut rope like an eel,
expecting its frayed head to turn & snap,
silently looking towards a disappearing boat
that now seemed a great bird resting between flights.


2

Gericault decided his painting would be that moment
when a ship appeared on the horizon.
Arms that had held screaming heads beneath water
now reached out as if to touch a miracle,
expecting a hand to heave them onto deck,
or perhaps merely pointing to an apparition,
a legendary death-ship that had finally arrived.
That moment when hope is mixed with memory.

3

The hardest part is always being reunited with the living,
those that had never seen the dark edge where night & day are one,
where murder is a quick flick of a knife, the simple co-ordination of hand & arm,
the pressure of hands keeping a body from rising for air.
And there were those other hands bloody that had been passed around,
presumed a delicacy, a hunger that had appeared untainted at the time,
that now only came alive when re-invented as taboos
with the thought of returning.

4

Gericault got himself a workroom in a hospital
so he could be close to dead bodies, wanted to capture
the texture of death, the nuances of decaying flesh,
the stare of eyes. He sketched out the human lines,
spending days without sleep till he carried the smell
of death on him like a sailor's tattoo.
He wanted to get the hands right, knew how to get the sea
to rise like thick custard, the sky to appear like a sufferer of repeated
bashings, but the hands had to rise in forlorn hope,
like a drowner who wants to be saved, but looks towards
the surface with only a glance of nostalgia.


ronny

ronny burnt it up real fast, the latenight blitzos, smacking out on red & greens, rohypnol when it came through,
days lost on end, when waking was more a dream, like some street-wise butterfly out of lao tzu,
his arms peppered in black holes as if he was a galactic nightmare sucking in space in some dead universe,
& dad a doc who he stole from, who didn't like odd number sons & nose-rings, who wondered what he did wrong,
thinking death as sharp, a knife point, a tear of shark teeth, (till his first son sucked a exhaust pipe)
& ronny thought he wouldn't go that way, no way, he'd slug it out with life and admitted himself to graylands

where he changed his name to kurt after the seattle grunge king, dyed his hair blonde and played his music on headphones,
trying to find in his words a hidden secret, the password from the labyrinth, to stop mid-song & emerge from a street sewer
and find spring all yellow & green, and when that didn't work he tried for a complete transfusion in case it was in the blood,
but they wouldn't give it, sayin 'hey isn't your real name ronny', he shook his head & said no, he's a dead man now'
as if he was the resurrection gone wrong, as if someone got the dates mixed, & he was paying for it in someone else's skin,

taking to the streets again, shouting at cars & an acetylene sky 'Where did you sleep last night?', looking as if he would cry,
and no one answering of course, till a hit one night took him up a wrong street, and some people are just mean-sons-of-bitches,
not liking losers singing & asking where they had slept,

and his dad the doc nodding, knowing he had it coming, as if he had been right all the time, knowing death as sharp as a knife,
even if it was just a piece of old metal off a building site filed to a point, stuck inside ribs.

Stories of Flight

There are stories told
of birds sought by young women
for their secret of flight

they appear without warning
from hidden lives
on some strange phase of moon

and freeing themselves from branches
they fill the alchemy of night
with wings woven between earth & sky

on such rare sightings
the young women have been known
to throw open their rags of arms
and rise like a longing.

Report from Hospital

each night
my mother brings me
schweppes orange and comics

i do not long for her
6 o'clock visits
her silent company

but feel sweat seep
above my shell
my head on stalks

periscoping back and forth
to the door
if 5 minutes late

nurses carry me on their backs
to the loo
beyond the white linoleum

they hurry back when i call
then lie me back
in my soft coffin

i saw my face in a mirror today
it has grown soft as oyster flesh
as white as nurses

i dream of shark
ripping my flesh
piece by piece

i dream of leaping from bed
back to sunburnt days of
brown skin and the smell of fish

a priest comes and
i think i am
to die soon

he puts down his bible
and reads marine boy
from coloured pages


then leaves
taking his unsayable god
and death away
but i live through
a broken night
to surface in the morning

i share my birthday
with the girl in the next bed
and we talk of yesterday's death

some young girl
we didn't know
till the drowning blue curtain

was drawn around her bed
and aqualungs of air
were rushed in

she is gone now
six years to heaven
i heard an old lady say

my mother has arrived
she is coming
past the white double-doors

schweppes orange and comics
pinned to her breast


charon

the charon
of the hood & rudder-oar
did not see himself
with any grand title
he just carried
the cargo of flesh
hostages to the next life

each morning
he cleaned the bow rail
of mutton-bird shit
before doing a trip or two
oaring himself into a sweat
then spoiling himself sometimes
with a pastry

he knew the river
like the darkness he carried within him
and knew most thought him bleak & humourless
never taking an interest
with their personal lives
never caring of the greatness
some said they had achieved

there had once been the coinless man
who had offered him a book
saying it held all the secrets
things that would make him
hang up his rudder-oar
and stray off sidepaths
where there was no river

he had agreed
in a rare whimsical moment
taking him across
before opening the soft embroided cover
fingering his way through the pages

he knew he would never
be tricked again
remembering as he watched the book
fall through the dark water
like a small anchor.

My Own Private Guernica

I am in the top right hand corner,
the head tilted back so far
that it appears like an ostrich with goitre,
the stubs of jointless fingers
reach for the small lit window,
but my eyes stare backwards,
tear-shaped and lidless,
beyond the borders of the frame.

I have always wanted the other side of the edge,
like a character wishing itself flesh.
Here I am the static corner-piece.
I have been admired from a distance
by those, catalogue in hand,
wanting a quick fix of culture,
but most end up discussing the symbolism
of the bull & the horse's mouth,
the horizontal incisors pointed like tips of missiles
aimed on a fulcrum of tongue to the left wall.
I have heard a thousand possible metaphors
and one who said the painting bled on holy days.

Would I be more famous if I climbed away ?
The thick hairless arms dragging my head
across the frame, to huddle on the marble floor,
to tell them the head of the bull is just a head of a bull.
Or are the staring eyes,
the hands on chin and useless chat an illusion?
And would it just be one great falling,
like those imagined by those early sailors,

This picture is not my own.
I do not like the amputees:
the legs, arms, heads,
not a torso in sight.
It is why I am in the corner.
I am bodiless.
I imagine there is a body waiting
on the other side of the window,
ready to attach itself to me
like that perfect lover we all hope for.
But I am scared to climb further
into the picture.
There might be just white canvas
and no entry back.
Outside the frame there is
at least one hand.

The others stare with fish eyes
towards the globe of light mid-picture.
I don't know if they're happy,
but they have their small god to wish upon
till the filament withers
and cracks in darkness,
besides they're only fucking heads after all.
I have arms and though they are no more
than planks of 4 by 2, they can reach.
It is my curse says the head of the horse.
He thinks he is the centre of the artist's dream.

With arms I am Eve and Prometheus.
Outside the painting I would find
the hand that left me without a body.
I do not ask for anything,
not even a body.
With one hand I would grasp the other,
bending back the stiffness of thumb and three fingers,
leaving the middle finger raised to the sky.

Scylla & Charybdis

She had thought that there was usually a greek myth
for every occasion if one bothered. Caught between scylla & charybdis
she felt the outer rim of the whirlpool and knew the choices.
To be devoured by the six-headed scylla, her dark mouth,
red as a massacre, or to be swallowed and thrown up again
knowing it would all happen again tomorrow.

She had once hoped for an island beyond the vortex,
the light-house keeper, who would be her lover, with
his steady circle of light revealing the entrance of the bay.
Then knew there were also freudian explanations
for most things, if one bothered.

And why not the whirlpool? There were worse fates.
The wild dizziness of the whirlpool kept one busy,
not thinking of other fates, and there was always
the ecstasy of drowning, to be drawn downwards
as if there was direction in life after all. Once again
it only mattered if you bothered.

It was the not bothering that bothered her. She
had tried cultivating a sombre melancholy, had
sincerely wondered if god was a roman catholic
or an atheist, pondered the event horizon
at the beginning of the universe,
but all this could never matter if she could,
like she did one night years before sitting on the water's
edge, had blown smoke into the sky blurring the stars
and for that moment knowing yes, in small letters.

It had never happened again.


The Mathematician's Perfection

'perfection is terrible, it cannot have children' Sylvia Plath

She dreamed about the square root of two,
nothing obscene, just the endless gathering
of numbers behind the decimal
that flowed to infinity.
Which was another thing that kept her awake.

She accepted infinity
like the stars
but the square root of two,
like pi were bound,
there was seemingly an answer, an end:
the perfection of the circle
its circumference closed and finite,
a perfect ring or a noose,
depending on your intentions.

She loved the irrationals,
those wild unexplained numbers
and when younger had imagined god
in a wizard’s cape cursing over a broken slide rule,
though she had upgraded him
to sitting lost on the internet

She was not a swearing woman herself
but when mad with her husband
often told him to go and find the root of negative two
and later took him back into her arms,
wrapping herself around him,
like a parabola around an axis,
reassuring him that some things
simply did not have an answer
and in an act of love
told him that her oneness & his oneness
when squared were one, just like their square root.


On the Reef (Easter Saturday 1997)

I’m standing on a small reef called Voodoos
(all reefs have their private names to surfers),
with the sea a blue slick of glass,
standing in twelve inches of water on a whitened shelf.
The breakfast crowd at the beach cafe may believe I am walking on water,
it is a simple deception.

Today there are no waves
and I am by myself on the beach
in the rain & thunder & lightning,
the Leeuwin anchored a half-mile offshore,
and if I stare out to the horizon
it could be any Easter Saturday in the last two hundred years,
the sailing ship an apparition, an omen, from the other side of life,
saying this is what your future brings,
but for the moment it is this easter saturday,
without threats of resurrection or conquest,
an easterly making the sea a pool
where you notice each raindrop fall
& there is this very moment as I stand on the reef,
breathing in and exhaling as if it is some release,
as if I had just made love
(which I have in a way),
as I do everyday of my life
entering the sea like a lover,
losing myself in its weightlessness.

Some days you can just lie on your back,
close your eyes,
tilting your head back & breathing,
and if you dare, if it is possible,
let yourself dissolve into the sea
feeling a self (the one you keep contained, its shape the lineaments
of things you value, the self that is hard & fixed like oyster shell)
return to the sea knowing it had once started here.
I keep this to myself and just say I like getting wet .

These things can only be transient
and we must return to land,
feeling the gravity,
its jarring compromise,
a despair that you may resurrect as a longing.

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