Savage Night (Owl Song)

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Listen, that one voice
translating the night.
Suddenly, I too speak
from the owl’s dark mouth,
the way the night
speaks through holes
the trees bore into the stars,
those sky wounds.
A single voice, a lament of wings,
the lament that soars with dreams.
I had thought my life
like an impenetrable hour,
a warm stone held
in the palm of my silent heart,
until the owl came
to cry beyond my window,
that messenger,
crying the savage night.

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A Woman Guerrilla in Vietnam

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You did not make this war,
but it came to you anyway
and it has cleaved you into a woman of fury.
It was the steel men
disgorged from the bellies of their steel beasts,

who knew nothing of
the abundant tenderness of your terraced paradise,
they were the ones
who spread these black scars across the bright jungle,
and tore the villagers from their earth,
scattered their bones in the ruined dykes.
They inflicted the black scar in your youthful heart.

Once, you were the strong peasant child,
girl of the rice husk,
arms browned by the ancient years of a limpid sun,
those smooth pillars of Vietnam,
which held up the beautiful cities of Hue and Hanoi,
the poet scholars, the plaintive music of the gulf,
the ancient palaces cupped by an indulgent flower.

Now, you have the steeled body of the warrior,
and your strong arms have learned to
wield their own iron righteousness.
The jungle is your skin and the enemy cannot see you,

nor does he reckon with the violence of
your threatened womb.
You will avenge the child, the child not yet born,
the hope of your Vietnam.

Grace O’Malley

grace

From the beginning mutinous,
headstrong,
the earliest tale we know
is that she cut her hair short

and slept among the rough men,
a stowaway on her father’s ships
plying their Irish trade on the bright tables of Spain.

In Spain, the juice of the wild pomegranate
entered the blood of Grace O’Malley
and released its scent of grandeur.

Her father’s vast fleet became hers at eighteen,
and these ships the arteries of her
unquenchable soul,

raised waves and fears all along the Western coast,
and sunk barbs into foreign ambitions
over her savage and verdant realm.

When her husband died,
all the men swore fealty to her,
and the ferocious cliffs of Connacht
knelt on bended knees

and promised to die on her one Intractable wave.
It was just now that English power
fell like a dead horse on the free princes of Ireland,
and the Gaelic song was buried in the peat.

But for a while, still a little longer,
she thwarted them all,
kings and generals, men and horses,
sailed out, standing like an arbalest at her swift prow
to plunder the honeyed empire of hungers.

And she was a myth of the grey wave,
of the rebellion of the pale salt
and the ungovernable Irish heart.

Japanese Speech Contest

The miracle of speech,
sitting amidst these young voices,
hearts beating on their tongues,
and the need to say anything,

the flower’s need to bloom,
the body’s need to resist the open sky.

In this foreign language they falter,
breathlessly,
and I think of antelopes tottering
in muddy reeds,
lions in wait beyond us all.

I think of the first words we ever said,
when our world formed like a
fragile bowl,
those first, dangerous hatchling stutters,

the first time we stood on two rootless feet,
the first time we danced with the flow of others,
the first time we dug in
against the blue and baying tide.

Did we know then what they planned for us,
these declarations of independence,
the words of these young ones here,
painfully forming the contours of the heart,

these songs that lead us to the listening edge,
and demand we give form to our vaulting lives.

There is no Housing Crisis

Last night, it plunged as low as four,
boreal palms of air puckered my cheeks.
Gazing up, a cough-lozenge moon,
a radiant bas-relief of stars,
I could believe in something
that was almost an ideal,
a palpable purity just beyond reach.

Ah, smug stars, I thought,
in the winter you shimmer in arctic richness,
while I pile on extra sheets,
another jersey for good measure.
But I don’t dare switch on the heaters.
Since when did heat become
an extravagance
to thaw the toes of the well-heeled?

At least I am one of the luckier ones.
There’s a roof over my head,
four walls that stop
grim needles of wind at my door.
Tonight kids cough behind frosty car windows
in some shady domain,
a four bedroom home
downgraded to four seats and a steering wheel.

The government’s just sold off
another round of state houses,
euphemisms abound,
the buzzword on corpulent lips is market rationalization.
Well, the dead hand of the market
spreads its icy fingers wider over the city tonight.

Toasty speculators in suburban gold
dream of never-ending spiral staircases,
dreams that go up-up-up
to penthouses in the chandelier sky.
Outside in the streets,
old and young bodies,
(the euphemism is market inefficiencies)
roll over on their cardboard mattresses,
pull useless hats over their ears,
while the temperature drops like a guillotine.

When My Father Was A Fisherman

In the lean years,
there wasn’t much work to be got on land,
so my father took work on one of the trawlers
that fished up and down the mouth
of the Tasman Bay.

When he came ashore,
he was like something out of a
romantic sea tale,
tattered woolen hat and gumboots,

the reek of fish scales,
sleeves rolled up,
sunburnt tattoos of skulls and flames,
salt in the creases of his smile.

I thought of his fierce arms
hauling up schools of mackerel and orange roughy,
and the angry sea spittle
lashing at his leathery face.

My mother wore her fear
in the strained, tired lines of her eyes,
this is the last time, she said,
after this, you’ll get a job in
the tobacco season,

promise me.
But she was a fisherman’s wife,
and he was proud of the living
he snatched from the teeth of a
capricious sea.

The captain was a real sea dog,
a missing tooth, a glass eye,
an anchor tattoo on his fist.
He was rolling drunk most of the time
and there was a sharpening in my mother’s voice
when he came round to drink with dad.

On good days he led his boat to
Eldorado,
but on bad ones he floundered
in used up hunting grounds,
where the big boats had greedily fed.

On good days
we were down the fish and chip shop,
dad hanging his tattoos out the car window,
on display,
thumping the door to ZZ Tops,
like local bogan royalty.
But too many bad days

and mum was at the neighbour’s
begging bread and sugar,
my sister and I would go off to the school bus
in mended crutches and mended knees,
skipping the cracks in our world.

And then the day came
when the Salvation Army people
pulled up at our house.
They handed mum and dad
brown paper bags,

a bounteous and bitter charity
of cans, bread, sugar and biscuits.
My little brother snatched up the ice cream,
bare-bum, ran out back with his catch,
my sister emptied a box of raisins in her mouth,
and whistled through it like a flute.

Mum was crying and wouldn’t look
the delivery man in the face
as she pushed a choked thank you from her lips.
Dad just stood there, fists clenched,
lips tight as wires,
and I shrank back inside,
cause I knew what he was thinking.

These were the lean years,
the nineties,
when the safety net was hauled up for good,
when my family got fed
if we could catch a break from the sea.

Sonata

I have always been fascinated by,
no, drawn to hermetic worlds,
realms which possess a strange independence
of reality,
yet can, if but for the briefest of moments,
invade our everyday, accepted existence,
set up impossible citadels in its midst
and parade their own more perfect versions of life,
like peacocks strutting about some staid and
too familiar garden.
This is why
at a very young and impressionable age
I was drawn to classical music.
Within the duration of each song,
an impossibly delicate and beautiful world
asserted itself,
an image of perfection that
mocked the world’s all too common ugliness.
And, of course, such an irrational insistence
that existence could be so painfully sweet,
must at length succumb to the
undeniable logic of the real world;
nothing can be without decay.
There is no such world.
Yet in its very fragility, classical music,
the music of Bach, of Mozart,
found its most potent form of revolt;
because it dared to exist, irrationally
against the collapsing tide,
the world that our rotting bones accept.
Until I was twenty years old,
such sealed off worlds only existed
in books, art, music,
worlds pristinely locked between two covers,
two numbers in time, within a gilt frame,
until the winter of my twentieth year.

When I was twenty years old I fell in love
for the first time in my life.
Like me, she believed in impossible worlds.
But it must not be imagined that
either of us were ever consciously aware of this.
It was simply something there,
in the poetry we both adored,
the music we shared,
the brief electric moments we both divined
instinctively;
a black cat guarding a temple gate,
an unpremeditated act,
a dance under a neon sign,
a purple world the size of a street corner
that existed only once and never again.
Within a very short time of our first meeting
we were both utterly lost to the outside world,
lost to friends, to study,
even to the too bright sunshine of harsh winter days.
We both lived in a dormitory and had, at first,
only made casual visits to each other’s rooms.
We would talk into the night,
deep nights, like miners after another’s secrets.
Our hermetically sealed world would appear,
and the night outside was then like two giant palms
cupped over our fevered voices.
Soon she had moved permanently into my
small room,
a bed, a desk, a walled hemisphere
that became the extent of our knowledge of the world.
Around this time, we stopped attending classes,
or seeing other people.
We ventured out of our burrow only to gather
necessities,
in the middle of the night,
beneath the cupped palms of night.
But strangely, within this proscribed world,
the universe of our bodies gained immense latitudes,
it was enough to explore our fears,
fierce archipelagos,
traversed from headland to wild headland.
Beneath an emaciated lamplight
we lived centuries in anger and love,
lust and boredom, hatred and exhaustion.
The more disheveled her love became,
the more I found that I needed her.
One night she said she hated me,
and I flung myself beneath a cold July moon.
I walked until a frigid solitude had entered every bone.
When I returned, hours later,
I found her sitting on my bed,
smiling,
in an orange glow that came from
somewhere outside my bedroom window.
She had sat there alone in the dark,
blissfully burning the brief wick of her love.
Of course it couldn’t last.
We were doomed from the beginning,
in our childish defiance of the real world.
It had gone on all the while,
threads had slowly entered our realm of
forgetfulness,
pried open the silken box,
and entwined themselves around our limbs.
It was about this time that she left my room,
at first little forays into the alien morning,
then longer and longer sojourns,
into the intoxicating danger,
the newness of the reality we had denied.

Our brief world of perfection was over,
defiant, unreasonable continents
of bodies, hours and silences,
a richness that still suffuses me
with its beauty and melancholy,
the way a sonata lingers on the wide open windows,
on the naked branches of a tree beyond,
against a piercing blue sky that could be her heart.