Andrew Slattery is a Communications graduate from The University of Newcastle. His poems have appeared in literary journals, newspapers, magazines throughout Australia, Europe, North America and Asia. His awards include the Henry Kendall Poetry Award, the Roland Robinson Literary Award, and the Val Vallis Poetry Award. He lives in Berlin.
The River Winter
It’s no use counting water with time
if it’s going to freeze up every year,
solid from bank to bank, the river set
flush with the surrounding plains
of ground snow. And don’t rely on heat –
the sun is an alloy of silica and static blue.
Floating branches have stilled
and now shadow the surface
like the underveins of a cloud.
The river is an allegory, better than most –
universal and exacting; an ice-tray; die-cast
in element season; depth indeterminate.
A group of deer stroll across the river,
seeming not to raise their knees, but to skate
the surface, to maintain a share of weight.
The river turns like a worn claw.
The river is a box of jammed water;
neither flowing nor permanent.
The babydeer trips on a rift where a stream
moves contra to the main riverline;
where meltwater slows and forms along the pelt
of seamed ice. The deer holds to its hoary legs,
steadies the cardinal point of its mind and shifts
orderly across this neither land nor water.
Before dawn, little girls play with knives,
walk over the grass still grey with damp
before a sun swells the ground and all
the living in it. Two girls out with paring knives,
at dawn – you’d think a play duel was afoot!
Every Saturday before breakfast, two girls out
with an undertaking to collect the dead,
or those close to it. After Dad sprayed
the night before. “Off me vines yer little bastards!”
He’d long-lobbied to kill them en masse.
“Bloody pests!” as he swivels his bald-mad eyes,
a persistent “pink pink pink…,” a thin “peeeeeeee”
and a low “tuc tuc tuc” send him running
down the grape rows with his rifle
shooting black rocks or any spot on his eye
that puts a blackbird in his mind. So most are dead
by dawn if the spray has got to their hearts.
The girls are civil mystics and farewell
the last star to blip off the sky.
Before dawn it’s as still as a seed;
everything sharp clicks the air. Like the snakes
which have been out all night, slimming along
the trellis channels under the vines, the girls
have exacted their process. They pick off
any beetles around wounds and openings,
lift off the wing bars, the upper-tail covers
and unclip the wishbone from their shoulders.
See the way the tendon lifts like a string
from the underside; the way their thumbs fit
neat in the cupola bone behind the eyes.
In winter, they hear the blackbirds
quietly “singing to themselves.”
This is their sub-song. They marvel
at tinybird architecture and how such quiet things
once made sky circles. The blackbird plays
a boxwood flute. When they find the air sac
it’s better than a boring chicken’s wishbone –
you can push the sac and see
if there’s any song left in it. The stitchbird’s
glomera bone brings luck in fives. They peel back
the duffled barbs, remove the pinions and fold
the wing back under the body, tie it with string
and clean their hands on the dewy watergrass.
They’re planning a whole day for the blacks
nested in the upland mangrove nooks
to listen for tacit coos in cavities and lowed stumps.
They imagine dismantling the head of an owl
and locating the hoots in its standing frame.
Or to the sea – the steep cliff sucks the grey sea
up against its chest, the young nested against the cliffs,
out of reach from the rats. For today, they are done,
they fondle the oddments deep in their pockets
and follow the horse-path home. At night they lie
on the blue grass. Around their ankles
are amulets made from birdfeet tied end to end,
scratching their skin “tuc tuc tuc.” If they hold
the tiny birdskulls up to any-shaped moon, look
through the eye sockets and there’s always
a round moon. The great distance between stars
contains the eye. They will grow up to farm the stars,
not in clean rows but thrown up like random seeds.
You can sharpen a tailbone to its quill-end
to draw a white bird on the night, or hold
longer wingbones up to the stars like a scaffolding
to the spotted flue; join them horizontal
as if collecting the universe in armature.