Skeleton with Flowering Branches
So I look a bit spaced, man,
as if I might have stopped off
on the way to meet my maker
to down a few tequila slammers
and hum along to a bandoleon
wheezing out some bittersweet lament.
Does my jaunty demeanour offend
your sense of propriety? Death
takes us all in different ways.
I like to think that I improve
on the bare bones of grief.
A bird pecks at my knuckles.
A cactus sprouts from my scapulae.
My pelvis hosts a gaudy bouquet.
An ant as big as the empty socket
of my eye, crawls across my skull.
I grin. But of course. With a lizard
caressing my ribs, I shimmy,
I shuffle, I kick up the dust.
Look around. Wouldn’t you admit
I’ve more life about me than most?
Long and dark it was, a monastery table
with drawers below, for bibles. Father
had done some work for the abbé,
fixing prayer stools, fitting kitchen units.
The table came into our home
as a gift or bargain: the monastery
was modernising or closing down.
About such acquisitions, Mother was vague.
We kids, eight in all, each had our place,
our drawer. The biggest boys, almost men,
sat next to Father; the baby girls stayed close
to Mother. We inbetweens were squeezed.
into the middle space. After grace, to clear
one’s plate of kidneys, liver, tripe, of heart
or tongue or trotter – whatever father’s pay
that week would stretch to – was de rigeur.
Yet, while Mother fetched potatoes
from the stove and Father was deep
in communion with his glass of ordinaire,
we did our deals: Will you eat my liver?
Can I take your tripe, your trotters?
Switch plates now! We kept a mental tally:
who owed whom a treat, whose turn
it was to gorge, whose to fast.
But trade relies on goodwill, not impasse
and there were days no deals were struck:
worse, a brother kicked your shins; a sister
dug an elbow in your ribs; there was no way
but the bible drawer to avoid consumption.
The snag: if you forgot to ditch the evidence
sooner or later your sins would come to light –
that rancid heart, that foetid tongue.
Sunset. Possum tracks in the soft red dirt. A lizard, a snake.
Spinifex: each blade of grass a scalpel. Cork trees, charred
by the last bush fire, japanned on a red silk sky.
Stone circle in the dirt - no spectacle, no Uluru:
a marker only in the dry red dirt - of a gathering, an event;
an enactment of ritual, a handing down, handing over.
History covers its tracks, lives with the lizard, the snake,
beneath a rock, below the surface of the dry red dirt,
only makes its presence known to those who tread barefoot.
Face down in campfire ash, a doll's head: a free gift;
spitting image of some big-shot whitefella off the TV.
A marker only in the soft grey ash - of a gathering, an event.
Mad Hatter Syndrome
It wasn’t only carroting furs
or steaming felt hats into shape
which made his hair and teeth fall out
and caused him to mumble and lurch
through town, leaning on an empty pram;
it wasn’t only the mercury fumes
seeping through his skin and lungs;
it wasn’t only that he had to mask
his symptoms or be out of a job,
or that he needed clean air and sunshine
but couldn’t take the time off work;
it wasn’t only that fashion demanded
a man of the moment must wear a hat –
it was also lying awake at night,
seeing the slow cortège of forebears
tremble through his own delirium
and knowing that raving jitter
of wage slaves was his only inheritance.
We always try to be as accurate as possible,
knowing well the danger of approximations,
estimates, how incremental miscalculations
can mess up the stats and create, in the final reckoning,
an unacceptable margin of error. We go out of our way
to avoid such sloppiness. Our men and women
are rigorous in their duties, tread carefully
where few would follow: bombsites, minefields,
toxic ponds. Understandable that rescue operations
get all the credit. A baby buried in rubble
but found alive is just cause for celebration.
Sadly, our discoveries bring only grief: more souls
to mourn. Yet there’s something to be said
for what can be simply totalled: seventeen,
three hundred and forty seven, five thousand
and twenty two. Newshounds prefer to round
our figures up or down. This irks us, immeasurably.
But the real problem lies with those who won’t add up
neatly, who come to us as little more than clues:
a toe, a tongue, a liver. Sometimes we’re lucky,
can piece them together like grim jigsaws
but more often the parts are in such a sorry state
that we reach a point when we too must dispense
with numerical precision. This, we’d like to stress,
is the hardest task; assessing the uncountables.
A shilpit bodie noo, a skinbane mannie,
decrepit relic fi some Hoose o Horrors,
hingin in a box ower graun ti be yir deid-kist.
A draught bestirs yir shanks: yi gie a weary jig.
Yi're missin a fit, an airm, an aw yon flesh
yi sinned agin yir ain wi. If yi did. An if
yi didny, an if, kis yi hudny ony space
fur the bairns tae courie doon thirsels,
they lay atween thir mither an thir faither,
an if the warm braith o yir eldest dochter
on yir neck, made yi tak her fur yir bidie-in,
yi wir aye ower beat by then fur mair’n a cuddle,
an if, forby, the kirk jist hud a muckle drouth for sin -
onieweys, yi swung for it. Yi’re swingin still.
Yir sins o turpitude or poverty, an whit
they brocht – the raip, the spade, the saw –
hae made yi gey weel-kent amang chirurgeons.
They've split yi intae aa yir pairts then pit yi
(maistly) back thegither. They've kent yir liver
inside oot, yir hert, yir spleen, yir cerebellum,
but nane o aa they learned bodies hud onie inklin
o whit made yi dae the things yi did. Or didny.