for Samuel Wagan Watson
There's a man with dreadlocks playing the didgeridoo
in the Piazza di Santa Maria, and everyone is listening.
Kids sit by the fountain swapping smokes for laughs,
tourists lick gelati as they pass illicit markets,
belts, handbags, sunglasses, all made in _____________,
the place scratched off. Nuns halt, then the Carabinieri,
white gloves, black steel-capped boots glistening.
The crowd hems the young musician in,
faces glazed with wonder: from where could this
strange music have come? Surely not this hemisphere.
A drone as deep as yet unexcavated ruins, far older
even than the Forum: Armani, Ray-Ban, Dolce
& Gabbana, all sink at once into equivalence.
He doesn't do the kangaroo, the mosquito or
the speeding Holden. Just the one dark warm lush hum,
the clean energy of circular breathing, lungs
and instrument the sum, familiar as the accordion
yet strange, as though not for money, nor just for fun,
but for reasons unknowable—some vast, unhurried Om.
I want to bolt up the stairs of the fountain
and claim that sound as the sound of my home—
but stop when I recall how rarely I slow to hear
the truer player busking in King George Square.
Memory kinks my measured walk into a lurch.
My stomach fills with fire. Far above cold stars wheel
around the spire of Rome's oldest Christian church.
Sundials shark through
cool zaffre, finning
you long to sleep
but your pulse, nomadic
the humming coastline
of your skin, thunders
heel to thumb,
taut as stretched vellum.
I do, and feel
and know again
the drum, the single low
frequency you share
with neap tides
in the frenzied air, as
thumb to palm we strum
akin to calm.
In summer she kept lances of wild aloe
in the fridge door, cool spears wound
loose in paper towels to sop up the sap.
With the fine point of a filleting knife
she flensed the thorns, then flicked
her wrist to unzip the hunter green skin.
Today we etched her initials in a wedge
before unpeeling it, so it bled up
through her name like succulent graffiti.
Enzymes catalyze the milk to resin.
How she loved the sun, loved being
rinsed by the cymbal crash of hydrogen.
Tonight we will return to the windbitten dune
she sleeps on, supine as a beach bean;
and try again to decipher the glyph, scripted
by the tip of a trailing spinifex seedhead;
and notice the way her cheek seems embossed
on the dune's edge, as though drawn
by another ocean, deep beneath the crust.
Just now I thought I heard you say
my name in the familiar way
only a child knows, the warm flint
of an urgent reprimand, maternal.
I was in that liminal space, lamp off,
day's bright splinter almost extracted,
when from across that other border
your voice - your voice - the timbre,
scratching the inner walls of my skull,
that used to make me stop quick smart
before the roar of crosstown traffic.
How I wanted to demolish that wall,
retrieve the warm rubble of your breath.
How I shuddered like a bulldozer in winter.
Veteran marksmen speak of the ballet,
each victim's unique fouetté,
the way the head jerks back, the shoulder
tilts and the sinews fondu,
into and through an invisible chair
like an abandoned marionette.
I get off when blood puffs into mist
from bodies dancing face-down in the dust.
Notice how my pointillistic rat-a-tat
evokes the delicate riverscapes of Seurat.
Not comfortable with that? Think me cold,
unhinged, highfalutin? Fine. You choose
the language that best describes my shootin'
if not the precious language of fine art.
Why not do something useful: tell me how
it feels to have my thermal spider inch
across your neckhairs in the dark. Ticklish?
Want me to stop? Then get on your knees
and do the caterpillar to my gunship hip-hop.
Thanks for your concern, but if you haven't got
the stones you can piss off back to Europe.
I've been. It's not so different. I've seen
entire families slump with church fatigue
in Notre Dame, apostles strafe to safety
around the apse, like soldiers in Halo
or Doom. And let's not forget Rome,
where pilgrims sniping bulletproof pietàs
bump into one another, apologise
but gaze elsewhere, framing, framing.
Every tourist knows how to zoom
a scope and pull the trigger on a woman
even as she graphs the dismal calculus
of Christ upon his axis. Hypocrites.
In the event of an airstrike, they could
reconstruct their church from the photos taken
of it in the past hour. Ever thought it strange
how in English we say take? Once, outside
Tikrit a local kid asked me to make,
make a photo of her by the ruins of Seleucia.
Amid your whir of pixellated saints, clicking
into focus, you can dwell on her request,
wonder if the slippage suggests a diagnosis.
Riddle me this: I don't give a shit. You say
you've seen the footage on the web
but that can't tell you what it's like to be there.
You forget we like to call it theatre.
You need to harden up. Oh, go on then, grope in
the darkness of your purse for ibuprofen.
after William Dobell's ‘The Strapper' (1941)
Camouflaged against the smug mahogany
of the Red Lion in Westminster,
the sitting member drains his knockoff Stella—
beyond the bronze Churchill disingenuous
tourists mumble hymns for free
entry to the abbey—and wonders
whether in Australia, like the constellations,
everything is upside down: a world replete
with Swift's Houyhnhnms, where beasts scold
men—centaurs gripping Lapiths by the throat—
rather than the other way around.
It's said their beer is best served icy cold.
Glancing like Orpheus at the underground,
something in him clicks like a starting gate
when the riders are finally set: how being
clenched between the buttocks of a thoroughbred
could be a kind of noble anonymity.
In such a place, one might take the features
of their betters—equine face, parted mane,
shoulders sloping gracefully beneath
a shiny coat—and, despite the yahoos reveling
in their fetters, or perhaps because of them,
come also to love the raw heat
of being flogged toward the post;
or if not, enough at least to stay in it
to the last, for the will to not diminish,
to leap out of the ground and take it by a nose
in a controversial photo finish—
and see off the protest at the weigh-in.
I have come to expect
too much of the ocean.
The tide is out again
researching the month.
Somewhere to the north
lies a heart-shaped reef -
here, a scarab mid-hegira
from its burning island home
clutches in death
a charred Banksia leaf,
bloated and afloat only because
of its legs' grim marriage
with the leaf's serrated edge.
And now I recognise
in its tough, unprisable grip,
the grasp and clutch and grab
and quip of everyone
who's ever known
what it means to not let
go the only thing to come
their way amid the salt scrim
and vicious sprint of the wind.
A union, then, with leaves and other
small commuters on the gust
of some apparent consequence;
for, what we seek to hold to
when the world has
loosed its hold on us
may be what prevents us
from never having been.
Could it be the wind discloses
what we cannot relinquish,
even in death, then carries us
from our hearths to foreign beaches,
there to hit upon what each we must,
what it means to be alone, at last -
even if only another island in the bay?
Sadness comes in a wave:
the ocean has no stake
in this, betrays no particular desire,
nor any to remember -
perhaps begrudging each our tiny fire.
Ripeness was a semitone below
the bone clef of the elbow
keying the rain-slicked
cyclone fence: the firm, saclike rind
of a warped minim, golden
drupe note for which we longed.
Stone fruit are fine tutors.
This one unseals a sensual nose hit.
At dusk they go lambent
like chunks of bent gloam.
Sucked, their fibrous pith
is birth-pouf —
punk oblong pits
belonging in a goblin's pot,
infused with rich static
and the fresh electric scratchiti
of summer lightning. It's fortune
gave us this softer unit,
surely. Edgewise the frangipani
made a rain-gap fin
for heads rife with fire
in the shade of the mango belt.
Dense night is a needs thing.
You were lured
in a luminous canoe
said to have once ruled
a lunar ocean.
The 2 am soda pour
of stars is all but silent;
only listen —
sedater than a sauropod
in the bone epics
it spills all the moon spice,
releasing a sap odour
us to a vaster scale
of road opus.
A carousel of oral cues,
these spinning sonic coins.
A slide show of old wishes.
He wakes at ten, opens up a can of tinned peaches
and hacks at the succulent halves with a fork taken
from the dish-rack, the only clean utensil left
after a week of neglecting the washing up.
Pushing past split fly-screens in tatters after
making the mistake of feeding next-door's cat,
he flicks some of the syrup at a largish ant crawling
along a frond and four varieties of flies swarm
in like a squadron heeding the sticky reveille.
Some of the syrup hits a spun leaf so that
a spider worries for its sack, stumbles forth,
forelegs raised to attack the assailant, mimicker
of the elements, which it is unable to locate, aimless
in defence. He finds himself inspired each time
a Christmas beetle's wings close incorrectly.
The cat bears gifts: chewed cockroaches beckon
from its jaws. After lunch, ants scamper over crumbs,
march toward a crack, drown, fall off the stainless
splashback. Now the sun's warm paws reach in
through the kitchen window, toying with each web
as at a fraying hem. The sink fills with this predatory
warmth: it is the day drowns them, he is blameless.