Anthony Lawrence’s most recent book of poems, Bark (UQP, 2008) was shortlisted for the Age Poetry Book of the Year and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award. A verse novella, The Welfare of My Enemy and a new collection of poems, The Unfairground are both forthcoming from UQP in 2011. He lives in Newcastle.
My father could whistle up a fox
with the bent lid of a jam tin.
Pursing his lips, he would blow the cries
of a wounded hare into cold Glen Innes hills.
Into a giant’s marble game of balancing granite;
the wind-peeled stones on the tablelands
of New England; a sound like a child
crying called the fox from its nest of skin and bones.
I was there the day my father flew
the eyes from a small red fox.
He fired, opened the shotgun over his knee,
and handed me two smoking shells.
It had come to us like any whistled dog,
leaving its padmarks in frosty grass.
That day it left its winter coat behind
with blood like rubies sown into the dripping hem.
Trapping on the Foggy
When I’m trapping on the Foggy,
fifteen miles off Catherine Hill Bay,
the world is good.
In the morning paper, a murder
in Leichhardt; someone’s fist
photographed under rubble in Mexico.
Out here, the blue wind makes calm
the most violent of days.
Daydreaming over my landline,
the ocean settles me, and I drift.
I watch the tankers come and go,
fixed heavily to their destinations.
It’s mostly routine, but once
a bronze whaler followed a trap
to the surface – it came out of the water
and laid its great head over the stern,
snapping in the air, tipping the runabout’s
nose to the sky. I looked into its eyes
and knew it wanted me.
I must have sent down a thousand traps,
each one with its lines of chicken gut
woven through the wire.
And with every trap, I release myself
slowly, descending through miles
of green, sun-shafted water, down
through the bubbles, in touch with everything.
I tip a barnacled ledge somewhere far below,
and wavering there, settle on the reef.
I finger the handline like a downcast kite,
translating each bite into possibilities.
These curious fish inspect the bait
like terriers, and when the snapper throw up
their luminous bodies, thrashing and curling
in the phosphorescent deep, I’m a child again,
staring into tidal pools, my hands bent
and pale in clear water, counting bright shells.
Just below the Falls
This is how it is, just below the falls,
with a fine spray of mist in my eyes
and a whipbird cracking into the trees.
I’m here because the poems are on the move again.
There will be no quiet stirrings of experience,
distilled by the years and ready for translation –
what’s approaching’s got its tail dragging in my blood.
It’s a fertile time, knowing that the love poem
and the elegy will be equally attended; knowing too
that the footprints I’ve left on previous encounters
with the falls will soon be gone, stamped out
like a shell’s flattened spiral into the stone.
It’s been coming on for days, entering my speech
and sleep, bringing news from the other side.
This is how it is, where the sandstone ledge
I’m standing on is breaking away, and the whipbird’s
ricochet is lost to water’s thunder.
Something will happen if I stand here long enough –
a poem will come or the ledge give way,
though I’m through with falling back on the notion
of the suffering artist – we all have our demons
to contend with in our time.
This is how it is, just below the falls,
where rainbows hang in a bloom of spray
and the poems come on in stages. Where the cycle ends,
the ledge falls down like dark, like heavy rain.
You wake and tell me that your dream was tidal –
the rattle of stones, the miles of salty wind
giving voice to trees and honeycombed caves.
You tell me quietly about the gentle rocking
motion of the waves, your warm body moving
slowly upon my body, advancing and receding.
And as I listen I remember that I too
had been dreaming, that possibly I had taken
leave of my body’s sleeping anchorage.
In the wide bays of each other’s arms
or sleeping alone, our places in the bed
still wear the positions we made as we turned,
seeking comfort or space in the dark.
No need to question how far we travel
when behind our eyes time and distance
disengage their symbols to flicker and collapse
like glass in the skylight of a kaleidoscope.
When I lean forward to kiss you, pine needles
fall from my hair. On my skin, a smear
of charcoal where fitfully I’d passed,
brushing burnt-out trees. And it seems
you were there beside me, flying over
the wreckage of week-old fires – in your hair
also, the evidence of pines, on your skin
the ash-grey stains.
Coming to rest,
we gathered ourselves into wakefulness, moving
again with moon-drawn water, our voices
returning from caves and forests. And silence
by morning’s pale-blue noise, our shadows
passed with belief in love beyond the tired
streets of light and work, our heartbeats
measured by the pulse of the waves, incoming
deep and regular. To sleep beside you
is to know the secret dark each other’s
dreaming has encountered – forests and caves,
where stalagmites and stalactites
grow towards each other like patient tongues.
Blonding (Jean François Gravelet), 1824–1897
Despite the legs, varicose like branches
veined with congealing sap,
the hands, gnarled and knotted with disuse,
I could still conjure a terrible height
from the verandah to the lawn,
do a softshoe along the railing
then walk the length of the drive,
pausing to dig the stones from my palms.
The life of an aerialist is no worse or less
potent because the body is grounding itself,
weighted to the marrow with decay.
It is only the tools of my high-risk trade
that have fallen to redundancy: the cable
on which I travelled above the falls
of North America, the long pole I held –
an eagle’s slow dark flapping –
they are warping and unravelling in the shed.
My retirement from the windy meridians
of balance and applause has refined
a discipline displaced by youth for the brief
flirtations I made with death and acclamation.
I’ve not forgotten the surreal heliography
of a thousand upturned eyes and cameras,
or the collective gasp from a crowd of mouths
as I wheeled a barrow stacked with knives
towards Niagara’s roaring vanishing-point.
Once the wind rocked the barrow violently,
and knives flashed like slender-bodied salmon
falling back from an unsuccessful spawning.
These days I walk the wire in the high
and silent air of meditation. I can twirl
a blue umbrella, or wheel a box of blades
above the falls for hours – the cheers
and the mist still around me as I rise
then step away into the shadow of an elm.
I’ve returned in recent years to stand alone
at night behind the safety rail.
They’ve lit the falls with spotlights,
now white thunder is a rainbow veil,
with Beethoven’s Sixth coming awkwardly
like muted weeping through the spray.
I rarely discuss my time in the air.
Talk is a tripwire on memory’s corroding line.
Though, when asked to remember
the most difficult walk I’ve made I tell
a story about my father. One night he came
staggering home through the rain into death,
his heart and balance quartered. I met him
at the gate, then carried him inside.
He was breathing hard the words I would later
speak like prayer above the water and the crowds:
I’ve been trying for years
to heal the private wounds of my life.
The Syllables in Your Name
I finger the Rosary beads I found
in a country church
after lighting a candle
under Gothic spires, dark
with thoughts of prayers for you.
Reasons for our separation
come through remembering candleflame
that lit the feet
of a slumped and wing-attended Christ,
shadows blue as snow, and now
the click of beads, but mostly
I mouth the syllables in your name.
Today the string came apart,
and there was a sound you’d expect
scattering beads to make.
Sympathetic hands came forward
with beads to a man who had
yet to complete the Rosary.
With a passive vocabulary, I thanked,
moved off and disappointed them.
In the generous shadow of a column,
as a man swept last night’s rain
from the floor of the Pantheon,
I threaded beads
onto the twist of purple wool I’d found
where Nigerians stand selling
handbags and cartons of cigarettes.
When each bead could be numbered and praised,
I mouthed, like a mantra over the reasons
for our separation, the syllables in your name.
These poems appear in New and Selected Poems, (University of Queensland Press, 1989)
Scars and Their Origins
For the lesson in how to harness martial energy,
I did not have to study the sea-
facing towers and blades on a wind farm,
or replay footage of a cheetah ending its run
when the wildebeest moved out of range,
or hear a street-fighter who found God
talk of devotion as paying homage
to the tissue of scars and their origins, no,
I learned how to listen and when to distance
myself from the moment, and where I once
went to school on the immediate
and the external, now all I have to do
is remember how you wept and turned away
from the open lesions of my anger.
In the Shadows of a Rockspill
darken your hands
in a seepage of the gathering dark
and then move off into something new
like the eyelid of a sleeping lizard
sealed with the blue rivets of ticks
or a flourish of air
in the path of the owl you disturbed
All this will appear to you
as you travel
attentive or unapproachable
under the hard veneer of your life
saying I will remember this
or you will be captive to the constant
awful noise of reclusiveness
which is not solitude or absence
but simply another place you have entered
in order to leave
These poems appear in Bark, (University of Queensland Press, 2008)
The storm is isolated, black, and comes in fast
breaking lines across a torn embroidery of foam.
I stand looking out from a shelled water table
over stones the wash has kelped and waved aside.
At first it’s like unspooling celluloid, under-
exposed in hard, projected light:
an incoming tide of shapes
that merge to seed a furrow
where the sea’s dark pelt and raining wind combine –
a closing front, loud with acoustic whips of air
as angled wings snap past and lift away.
I will not move, though fear has not disabled me.
It is the upright, spell-bound grace of being
where instinct drives a self-repairing wall
of light and shade.
The precision that keeps a wing-tip
just above the waves keeps me from harm.
Grounded they will rest, feed, then make arrangements
for another touring season.
When the last birds have swept aside
their lapsed itineraries, and climbed wet air
to oversee the underworld of burrows
they claimed years ago: the rank, game-reeking cavities
beneath headland grass, I will leave.
Can the scent and texture of our skin be changed
by such encounters?
Stepping over pools where anemones bloom
like tidal resurrections of red flowers
I put my hand to the sun
to see lit blood illuminate the webbing.
Climbing high, I listen
for the sounds of welcome and arrival.
When amazement breaks the filters
our senses wear in uneventful light
we move beyond the place
where memory harvests meaning.
I move and I am changed, then changed again
by the telling of it.
At a high open window, working with rags
to buff the brass Buddha she used to weight paper
a woman is frozen by fright and alarm.
When he slipped from her grip and fell, he glanced
off the head of the man who comes
each day, his face and hands painted silver
to stand on a box to make money.
A black and tan kelpie is first on the scene
followed by a rodeo clown
wearing overalls, makeup and dust, then a girl
whose white tasselled boots had been worn down
from being worn out.
The standing man was lying on his side
unconscious or worse, surrounded by coins.
The Buddha was sitting upright in the gutter
and apart from a scratch on his shoulder
he was fine.
Not since locals bashed act from the word actor
had an inland city seen such street theatre.