[The New Australian Poetry, page 109]
THE BLOOD AQUARIUM
On one walk he ‘gave’ to me each tree we passed, with the
reservation that I was not to cut it down or do anything to it,
or prevent the previous owners from doing anything to it:
with those reservations it was henceforth mine.
Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir
They do not apprehend how being at variance it agrees with
itself; there is a back-stretched connection, as in the bow
and the lyre.
Pan Apolek’s scarf whirls the horizon inward,
he brittle and void inside its tightening belt.
The wet sky’s writhing flings scurf among the branches,
mist banners over churned soil.
The blind man’s fingers
caress an accordion like a skull.
Palette and paint flow into the mountain,
the mountain flows through the painter.
Toppling from high cliffs, he falls
into himself, and is eaten:
a starting point.
[The New Australian Poetry, page 110]
Han-shan: ‘The Cold Mountain’.
Sandalwood night smokes through liquid pines,
stars dissolve in water to a whitish powder.
The skin if heated can be broken with a blunt knife;
inside will be found
small galaxies drifting flat against the eyes
listen they can be either
stapled or glued together
calm a place of calmness
the infested body
is brittle as old paper
smells yellow as sandalwood,
nebulae rotate in grains across the cornea,
grit into words:
stars are serrated are bright heavy teeth
the skin can be broken can be cracked
says the I Ching keeping his back still so that
he no longer feels his body
he goes into the courtyard and does not see his people.
Keeping still is the mountain
(swansneck night inhales the brain
fading to gnarled negative
in the lightroom of smoke
leaf fingered night
inhales and flows) I was born,
says the defunct Aztec, on the mountain. No-one
becomes a mountain no-one
turns himself into a mountain
the mountain crumbles
Sentences coil out of a flux of blindworms,
arc out of flow to freeze
flow into words’ envenomed husk.
[The New Australian Poetry, page 111]
To extract cubes place tray under warm water,
then even a blunt knife will do.
The tension of the erect bowstring pertains to silence
that of the senses to Cold Mountain’s tigers.
Light rilling into the eyes unnoticed
skitters down the brain in mossdark shadows;
raddled in the guts of a fanged wanting
rivers beat at tunnels,
things drinking into these words
burst torrents against the skin, rainbows in froth
spattering seep to pagination
or the archer’s hand
slips, or relaxes.
Nolan once tipped up a Riverina landscape
to see if its lakes would drip to the warehouse floor.
Paddling and lapping, we consider fountains,
how, if they came together,
each pair of drops would meet and leap apart: salto,
and a third sphere dancing unseen between the others.
Peddling topologies of doubt, damp fingers
touch fountain and lip,
draw over a voluptuary tongue the graph
of curves immeasurably lost: though the tall-thighed typists
whinny and click still across the pavements
we prick over coffee to light’s gay acupuncture,
plot our own drowning
under the equivocal benedictions of the sun.
Han-shan: ‘The Cold Mountain’.
Pascal squats here, muttering for a duster,
and Evariste Galois bursts in the cold red dawn
and becomes an inkblot;
scanning we may, yes, plot the tangents of night
And in the thirtieth century before Christ
Fu Hsi invents the binary system;
[The New Australian Poetry, page 112]
shamans and rancid lamas
festoon their greasy scalps with the bones of thought
and waggle their heads at the moon and the snow.
The Sixty-Four Diagrams
invoke Maitreya, the Buddha who is to come.
Keeping still is the mountain, but there are modes of stillness,
as the flight of eagles silver against soaring thunder
or the fall from high places when the mountain drops.
Along the slippery ledges of the body
one sometimes finds abandoned middens
in old caves and scrapings, where only fragile ferns
or moss offer a foothold; fall
into a dream of green twilight forests
where every leaf is known in love and name.
Flux is a nounless language. Thinking ‘it moons’,
‘it saffrons’, words caper down the nerves
to burst in aureoles at the fingertips.
Lights out and the room swims.
Angler fish, Roman candle,
immortal crepuscular verb.
The track there veers through the fir cones,
balances on the sharp edge of morning,
skirts the streams frozen into fingers
and snow filtering through pine needles’ gauze.
The aquarium floats in cool green air
etching its images hard against glass walls.
Bulbous shapes fishing night’s abysses
trail points of light, drift across dreams,
bend out of shape and burst as the pressure ebbs:
nonchalant sneak thief, I saunter across the walkways,
amble past the tanks where light creaks
and siphon it off into my font. The fishtails whip
[The New Australian Poetry, page 113]
and curl against the sun. Flattening, they excite
the cracking of night’s last pale porcelain.
Dawn’s knife hacks at the sky’s belly
reddening cloudruns through the tanks; the guts
bubble through the blood aquarium.
Plate glass flows into filigrees of pine,
oxygen tubes squirm bleeding
across carmine snow.
fish and attendants, peanut wrappers
become rubber and liquid, stifle. Concrete plugs the senses,
forces the mouth open, sears the palate,
rasps at the back of the eyeballs; the tide rises.
Spiralling currents lash at pine-trunks.
Past Santorini and Krakatoa the whiskered hermits
paddle by, sulphurous, on mushrooms.
The observer gobbles blood and ink,
stone, scarlet stone, rubies and porphyry,
red stone for images and typeface
grinding runes in a blind language.
On a stained scrap written
the smell of some inevitable jasmine flower
buried in dawn?
a merry-go-round with claws.
An expression has meaning
only in the stream of life
when with the Galway foxhounds he would ride
and fling himself along the pentachord
of whistling’s orbit. The kite of his silence
hangs through a hole in air,
aspiring to the condition of music.
Hunted carrion bird, backyard abortionist,
scalpelling liquid droppings from the brain,
the stasis of the photographed sonata.
His eyes are washed pebbles.
[The New Australian Poetry, page 114]
Set apart end of this talking:
not Bercilak or a black gale,
crunch of snapping sea-rocks,
rather a multiple exposure. First
sheathed copper cuirass and greaves
a spidering figure of black iron
hulks moonskinned in mantis posture, blowtorching the brain:
the ritual suicide of a foreign race.
The mountain grasses
have sap like milk or semen,
they wave around rotting helmets
on the rock slabs, beaten by the sun’s brass shield.
Scavenging children gather tissues gone liquid
in small cooking pots.
Green poet soup:
‘Something he ate that disagreed with him.’
Conosco i segni dell’ antica fiamma.
Walking home one night, under a streetlamp,
I came upon a man without a nose.
What struck me, at the time, as sad
was that I was reminded of Gogol: so, I thought,
even your compassion stinks of libraries.
His eyes were quite gentle and puzzled as he just stood there
and I walked on nervously, although nothing had happened.
But what if his nose had just dropped off
a moment before, and he was cradling it in his handkerchief
uncertain whether to call the police or the doctor,
or whether to trust a passing stranger?
Perhaps as I looked at him, if I’d stayed,
his ears would have plopped into the gutter,
his toes skittered and bounced playfully across the damp street,
and, in short, all of him come unstuck.
What if all that was left,
hovering at eye level as he fell apart,
was a piece of notepaper
with something written on it in a foreign language?
[The New Australian Poetry, page 115]
And I went away without trying to read it
because the alley cats were munching his eyeballs?
Squatting in a black clearing flecked on the foothills
someone is trying to light a match.
there’s being in a bone-coloured room in a white house
at the convergence of several roads
with images of a kind of desperation
that may not even be one’s own; perhaps typing,
unawares, the uncreating word.
Or eaten from the inside
by all the manic net of the senses trawled
or the gangster mind spraying slugs and acid.
I wonder if the statistician’s fortunate ape
after the last page of the First Folio
knew itself as more than punctuation
emphasizing inaudible harmonies,
intonations of a forgotten speech.
Had Easter Island an epic poem?
[The New Australian Poetry, page 116]
of the jewelled world Gwalchmai, sun-hawk,
dreams of pterodactyls that stew in the mud
mulching livid gobbets in gaunt beaks.
In his golden halo
flapping through citrus groves, backward
where the swamp creeps up on him along the shadows
grapnelling his taildown’s sweep and rush
with trellises of baobab and magnolia
and giant ferns squatting in the sunlight,
0 mud bubbles finely where the swift curve
of his wingtips brushes over air glaze
into slate with a toothed screech.
Early morning on the Cold Mountain;
fog skeins the frosted grass
and the archeologists are scrambling up the cliff face
with tape-measures and little hammers.
Eyes blearing through salt mist
they gavotte upwards, tapping each other’s heads
or sketching their own eyes on ruled notepaper.
Someone cracks a cloudbank:
sand ruffle by basalt seas:
the mountain slides, twitching.
The peak flops over,
the stone archaeopteryx
sunning itself under a transparent umbrella
is betrayed by a toothy grin
in a toothpaste earthquake.
Click and buzz, the fossickers pop off;
and the knight in the enker grene
whiderwardeso-ever he wolde.
The shield with its endless knot
clumps down and squashes the lot.
[The New Australian Poetry, page 117]
throw peaches or grapefruit through the window.
When the pubs close
swollen faces pass like leprous asteroids.
They’d knock on the window if it were closed;
air, I’ve found, is the best obstacle.
Air makes thick, rich glass: at some point in the house
light filtered through our many curtains meets
unseen in a dance of colours; so, turned in lamplight,
we live in an old bottle.
Just before dawn one glimpses the cellarmen:
little knots of cut glass statues
huddling and whispering in the dusty wind,
tinkling in vans’ headlights
in these concentric, faded vaults
in the stomach of the mountain we fell in to.
When it drizzles pepsin the lady down the road
clutches her grey hair, scuttling
between the garbage can and her carnations.
But, floating under a blood-coloured light bulb,
we mull into punch the rendered tissues of our keepers,
toast glass in glasses shot with streaks of red.
I think of hawks snapping in the invisible sky
with a frightened mutation of pity.
[The New Australian Poetry, page 118]
‘I think I would look better’, it might say,
‘in basic black.’
And in the night’s night
we swing on the clapper of a black bell, tolling
impossible polyphonies of burnished fish
into the squittering plasma that surrounds us.
We’re played on a xylophone of coral.
Until deferential morning sidles up:
‘The sort of place I had in mind’ (coughing discreetly)
‘is not unlike that depicted
on a packet of Alpine: the colours are more or less right
and “fresh filtration” conveys, I feel,
something of the appropriate idea.’
The Celestial Stag
according to Jorge Luis Borges
inhabits deep tunnels in Manchuria.
It is so named
because of its ambition
to rise to the surface
and the sky,
upon doing which
it turns immediately into a foul odour.
This is recounted in a volume entitled
The Book of Imaginary Beings.
‘Green and gold came together
in a dancing instant of white light.
All the air grained with pollen,
the flowers translucent, moss whispering through my fingers,
the moon arching like a stroked kitten
as in the peace of this small room
from which I can see neither moon nor flowers
[The New Australian Poetry, page 119]
I stroke violet petals of air;
the fuzz bees left covers my eyelids.
Hair incandescent with a sprinkling of meteors
some time I could
feel over my naked feet
the stir and rustle of the dancing water
that is more than water, in the cool silver stream
that weaves in separate strands
its thin music on a fragile mountain
hidden in jasmine-scented clouds.
Hidden in a point of light, the mountain
where the rivers were written by Corelli.’
Shut down shop, hang the willow-pattern,
cage its bouncing monks with rough slats.
Put your head on a potter’s wheel,
spin life backwards in clay rivulets,
sink into fine china. Grass grows
pale blue, the colour of baptism:
shuffle the hill people, strung on a stalk:
press them into the clay as the wheel whirls faster,
until all the figures coalesce
at the consistency of a cooked eye;
this is what is known as the science of optics.
Roll them into a ball, turn round in a circle
looking at the horizon. And I became quite dizzy
with turning, looking for just the slightest indentation
in the sky’s perfect hemisphere.
Only a bird hung silent above me,
too far to distinguish colour or kind.
There are holes ripped in the paper plain,
already my ankles have gone through the surface.
I’d like to see, while I have time,
where that bird has got to: but everything has become a funnel
and only a scream curves down
from the place high above where the bird is drowning
in the purity of the air that shapes it.
A needle pokes through the top of the sky,
[The New Australian Poetry, page 120]
the conical sky, the sky shaped like the inside of a mountain.
And a little old Chinese leaps worriedly
out of his plate, and with his palsied hands
tears up pieces of paper, chews them, spits up the pulp,
frantically building up small heaps covered with tigers.
He falls through. No, there he is,
so high one can hardly see him,
vanishing into the funnel’s mouth.
The boys are waiting round the corner; time to shut down for the day.
And the quarry, pinned in a sapless tussock,
feels itself shredding around the arrowhead,
nerves twisting from the sharp intimacy of steel.
With the bowstring’s twang and release, the archer
flows over the abrading ground into the victim’s eye.
Clasped together they watch the sun go dim.
On the Zeeland shore a whale rots, waiting for Dürer.
Saffron shrouds the foaming cliffs,
golden bells underneath await their cracking; and every twig
of the dour trees near the snowline
turns into a flute, rolling the sun along
until he splashes drunken among the islands.
My curtain has stepped aside.
In the street are the throb of trucks, and children running,
and what I think are sparrows pecking around the hubcaps.
No offence taken, none intended:
a brightly coloured interval in air
why should I punctuate air’s own provenance?
The spray of winefalls patters against the fish tanks
in a clearing where wooden statues genuflect
although dazzled by white light from the broken glass.
Around their rooted feet sift sheets of paper,
drenched and illegible. Someone has tacked up:
‘Danger. The fish have escaped from the blood aquarium.’
[The New Australian Poetry, page 121]
The statues in the Parthenon used to be painted.
Painter and painting move
from jewelled ikons to sketches in wash and pen.
Brushing myself in
I try, still, not to tear the paper;
eating oneself is unseemly
and all these words have teeth like hungry rivers.
Other people have amber beads on strings
with wrought-silver clasps. Do you hear? —
you’re not the only pebble on the beach,
lounging wry there among inert shells.
No work of art: neat silverpoint quarter-smile,
glissando of skin-coloured stone
curved into spring-onion head,
long Paul Klee face.
All right. A small achievement
in the palm of my hand
not quite amused.
You should be on the end of a pencil.
Pebble pregnant with the fear
that there never was a Cheshire Cat — our smiles
our wrinkles: have we been framed?
Ah, but I could tease archeologists with you
pretending you’re Cycladic
(so much younger than you are)
I have come reluctantly to the conclusion
that, sexual dimorphism is, in chickens, a fake.
Actually, by turns fluffy scrawny and stout,
[The New Australian Poetry, page 122]
they contrive continually — in posse
or in fact —
until, the menopause supervening
and all their creative powers quite dried up,
kindly Nature allows them
(by way of a pension)
to look finally like Governors-General.
Small chill reflections
roll around striking each other with steel clicks:
migraine marbles, blotting-paper pinball
The wind recapitulates the ancient
when all the duck-shaped jugs of Thera
spilled into pumice-patterned green.
It’s blown the castle off the hill
and the nude poppies
were at last able to be assumed
into bronze necklaces
no-one ever found, under Pelasgian walls
patched through and through
almost equally elusive rumoured sheepfolds.
[The New Australian Poetry, page 123]
A sky this size coordinates
better with Riemann’s view of space.
Such a curvature is unarguable
even now as it contracts, contracts
(and me inside)
— as to embracing it, however,
something less ample, less Junonian, frankly —
Under white midwinter sun the air’s bleached fabric is stamped
with a repeating pattern of black-and-grey-striped cats and still-wet golden berries.
[The New Australian Poetry, page 124]
A little up
And Gide said, of fish, that ‘they die
belly-upward, and float
to the surface; it is
their way of falling.’
Before dawn the fishing boats
float into floating mist that certainly conceals
little prospect of a light descent
from reportable middle regions in solid air,
freeze there, hunch
back under cover, steel
sea, boats, fish, a single liquid
falling, slow horizontal rain, through the dark bedroom.
These infinitely various mirrorings attest,
in all their shadings and elisions, perspective-shifts,
outrush and inflow of colour, cathexes of light,
the singular unacknowledged virtues of never washing the window.
4 The evidence
It isn’t as though there’d been no warning.
The clues were literally everywhere, we kept stumbling
over the evidence; really, the ploys
of misdirection should have been all too apparent.
[The New Australian Poetry, page 125]
Why, for instance, did that triple rainbow
salt its tail in urchin-speckled offshore
searocks, for a sly moment, and then snap back
into church like a guerilla hatband? The Minoan bowl
of translucent rose-glass, figured with cloudy octopi and squid,
who clapped it down on top of the White Mountains
and snipped off the curls of seaweed, the parched
articulations of foothill cactus and thyme?
Where did they come from, those T’ang illuminati-in-exile
with their scrolls and inkpots? Rain indeed.
And the flag of bees? The snow in the roofed market
scribbling sententiae all over the melons?
— I need hardly mention the shotguns cycling tandem up the ravine,
the goats that kept dropping out of fig trees,
the grandmother who turned into a sickle.
But there’s no use denying it,
by the time the wind danced off with the breakwater
we’d all been completely taken in. And even now,
look, again everyone is gathered, staring and pointing.
O the ineptitude! — Somewhere else a quite unpeopled miracle occurs.
It has been less than satisfactory.
The chickens, fortunately, are too much chickens
to remember how yesterday I nearly brained them,
as they fuddled around in the garbage pit,
with a half-gallon retsina bottle.
If those chickens did catch on
I wouldn’t give much for our chances.
And when I suddenly found myself
heaving, among other things, into that same pit
a florid authoritative rat —
when the landlord’s small daughter tottered in
with a wilted radish,
wanting, I knew from experience,
[The New Australian Poetry, page 126]
to operate in exchange upon the typewriter —
when the landlord threatened to cut our friend’s feet off
and so we left, giving them
little gilt Qantas kangaroos.
There is no need to talk about the light.
The solid mountains blow about the gate,
young cats and yellow frogs in the rosemary
are still, meticulous. (Our tree
promised mulberries, but three weeks late.)
An owl nearby ticks night.
We’ve climbed very slowly up the hill
where the asphodel flower like quotations
from a poem we never quite understood.
The beach was crosshatched with driftwood,
stippled with reeds. There are other creations
round us; first drafts of spiders on the sill.
In this bay within a bay times drift through the pines:
the watering-lady in the garden floats
breaststroke out of lumps of marble or walls
frescoed under whitewash. When the owl calls
she vanishes, leaving stout black petticoats
nodding over the roses, pruning vines.
repels all contumely. When then are you yourself
thus transparent-soft, mousevelvet
[The New Australian Poetry, page 127]
quivering on my coat? You rely on trust?
surely your hairdresser could recommend also
a health studio?
When they cut down the plane trees in the square
the owl moved into one of our pines.
But small elegant bodgie [Note 1] birds come and wake him up
and josh him in blank daylight. Ah where now is the old club,
worn armchair and definite cigar
far above the traffic,
light pouring down the wet black streets?
The frogs still hop, awkward and if they’ve time,
into weed-patches, building-lots and bathrooms.
Our houses are built on gauzy traceries
of silhouetted frogs. You can scan them,
as they sink gradually into what we call asphalt.
The frog prince married a tractor wheel;
their fairy tale is altogether different.
8 The benefactors: Mr. Achillopoulos’ Mercantile School
(Mt Pelion, Thessaly)
Suddenly the bus whizzed onto the sliding glaze
of perhaps the last surviving green-figure amphora
(traditional centaur workmanship) of the lost school of Pelion.
Needle pointed with a pox of fog-pits
or vindictively pricked by dead demented lapiths, patterned
with the unmistakable knotting of plane
and horse-chestnut trees, figure
on ground of wet slate and shale. Horsehair in pores of sooty marble,
arrow-poison veining the forest floor.
‘… the wrong discipline… disciplined…
[The New Australian Poetry, page 128]
A stork booms in the high wind.
“Have mercy, Lord, for we have sinned.”’
tree, good for hanging a dozen bishops, encircled
by seven wooden benches void
of their old men, sweeps shale (now brown with coffee-grounds
and wild-mulberry juice) paving the chill
silent village square, and mossfur on slate roofing
the dissolved cottages of woodcutters
down in the horse-chestnuts where the village hides.
Brambles and roses clog the door
and vacant niche intended for
the statue of the Governor.
All the old men were
forked into the cobbles they’d crammed upright
for mules’ grip (still the hooves like running children
suddenly lost in a green stick-insect, and timber
or cocoons cascading) entering
an altogether new taxonomy. From grey-green fretworks of sky
the plane tree fountains down in
Chinks in the shale are round with rain.
The old men visit once again
the church at the end of Donkeyshit Lane.
But squeeze under the portcullis of white roses
that spill from eyeholes in the grass-snakes’
and cornflowers’ habitat, and skip the stinging nettles
and the illusive niche between mirror staircases
receding to a horizon in the pineal eye, scratch on slate.
Where the blackboards have all fallen through the rotten floor
nouns in the ossuary-chapel, verbs
trapped in plane leaves. The process:
[The New Australian Poetry, page 129]
Candlewax and lamp-oil spatters.
Priests mutter, the cantor chatters.
They will all rise as mad as hatters.
Mr Socrates Achillopoulos, the Benefactor,
parsed into landscape circa 1909, finds himself compounding
syntactical trunk-murders down every damp trail,
the topology police hot after his flow.
Everywhere springs labelled Undrinkable, or clotted
with a fat paste of leaves (under a tap
a black-and-yellow ladybird swims in a tin can
like a tiny galley after a lost battle.)
— the ceiling drips a pool of staph
the temperature’s shot off the graph
there’s gangrene sauce on the pilaf —
Claustrophobia on the outside of a vase? Nonsense,
cheap tricks of perspective and inversion, words
that can’t be faced unless they’re vases
or fishtanks or frescoes — and after all
they’re so easy. ‘It’s only nerves.’
Earthenware, splotched with fake primaries
or strewn with twilight differentials of green on green,
walls, it doesn’t matter. The lie’s a continuity of trees
without reference to the footsteps receding
into leaves, into paint……
Outside, three kittens chasing a gecko leap
onto the jumbled ancestors, asleep
in their tin boxes, scrabble in the heap
of promises dug into wood and stone
each assuring to each alone
transfiguration in the bone.
Long ago the notorious geometry toxin
stretched their lives into a pattern of such surfaces
as jugs, pots, a village-square and a sun
green as breakers, a transformational
grammar of horse-chestnuts. The naming of parts:
[The New Australian Poetry, page 130]
dactylic plane leaves, ‘Old Handy’ ‘dead
of weddings’, church wall and green vase,
all the dismal perquisites of love.
Chestnut leaves block the dry spout.
The kittens tumble the tins about.
Slate and sky shut evening out.
Cheiron and Mr Achillopoulos are equally
scattered. Incredible. And we saw in a flash
— it seemed so simply apprehensible —
hidden tilted villages with no sky but plane leaves
falling away over the curve of the world
past woods and belltowers. Poured
with the shake of a hand into another sphere
of knife-edge cobbles and jammed taps; falling
at last forever away from the sun.
Leviathan looms out of the narthex wall.
The whore straddles her beast. Worms crawl
over the blackening damp. Souls fall and fall.
 ‘bodgie’ is Australian slang; typically, since say 1960, meaning 2. BODGIE: noun, 1. something (or occasionally someone) fake, false, worthless. Frequently as adjective. 2. an Australian male youth, especially of the 1950s, distinguished by his conformity to certain fashions of dress and loutish behaviour; analogous to the British ‘teddy boy’. Female of the species, widgie. (From Frederick Ludowyk, ‘Aussie Words: Bodgie’ at http://andc.anu.edu.au/ozwords/Nov%202002/Bodgie.html)