The old rugged cross

When the spirit has been broken
and there’s no place to go
When you look around the world
wondering what went wrong
When your heart is shattered and
torn no patch ever big enough to help it mend.
No bandaid to help it heal.

When tears roll down your face

cascading like a roaring river
When the spirit has been broken
and there’s no place to go
you wonder what went wrong
to make your life too much to bear

They say a person is only given
in one lifetime what they can endure
That the will to live and the spirit will get stronger

The old rugged cross sits high on my shoulders
I feel my hands nailed blood oozing
I feel tarred and feathered
Tattered and torn
When the spirit has been broken
and there’s no place to go.

I want the world to stop and let me off.

Kerry Reed-Gilbert

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The Undiscovered Country

When an exasperated soul
tears itself from its own body
Minos condemns it to the seventh abyss.
It falls into the forest, lands nowhere special -
wherever Fortune casts it, and there
it germinates, like a dropped grain of spelt.
...
The leaves here are not green, but some colour
drained of light; the branches not lithe, but gnarled,
knotted to each other, bearing no fruit but poison thorns.

From Dante, Inferno, Canto XIII

Waking here, it seems I have taken root
in a stand of coastal trees, of a kind I have seen sometimes
by tidal rivers, where the air smells bad.

Each of us has tiny needles for leaves
our bark is almost black
the wind scrapes us against each other, and we moan.

Our ground is grey sand, pitted
with an impossible number of ant-holes.
We block so much light nothing else grows but ivy,

escaped from some place it would be more welcome.
Mosquitoes rise from the river in the evening
to sing in our ears like tinnitus

(our ears which we have lost) -
somehow it has been arranged that we can still hear
that which is unpleasant -

and the harpies are real, yes,
but they remind me of choughs,
red-eyed, wheezing pack-birds

they perch, tear at our leaves,
feed bits of us to their chicks.
We feel their claws and beaks as if we still had skin.

I never once loved my body.
At first I hardly noticed it
then later - when it bled every month

when my breasts swelled, intruded themselves,
complicated my every move - it felt more
like a punishment, a humiliating

costume into which I had been sewn.
Too big, too floppy, too pale, too slow.
Sometimes I tried to take control

to starve it, cut it, knock it out with drink.
Later I simply bore it as a burden
as one does. I can barely believe

I had the gall to get out,
to rip the seams and shed it to the floor.
I will be a long time growing in this grey sand, a long time

missing every fleshy inch, every organ,
regretting my frenzied exit.
No coming back from that.

On the last day, we will be sent
to find our bodies again. We are to drag them
back here, through the ants and the ivy,

to hoist them on these black branches.
Others are permitted to wear theirs once more -
coats fetched from a cloak-room -

but we have forfeited that right. Mine will be dangling
just there, turning slowly in the bad air
from the river. Every so often I will meet her eye

(with my eyes, which I have lost). Somehow
it has been arranged that I will always see
that which is unpleasant.

Melinda Smith


Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno describes the second ring of the seventh circle of hell, where suicides are condemned to grow without their human bodies, as stunted thorn trees. The epigraph to 'The Undiscovered Country' is my (re-ordered) translation of the following stanzas:

Non fronda verde, ma di color fosco;
non rami schietti, ma nodosi e ‘nvolti;
non pomi véran, ma stecchi con tòsco.
...
Quando si parte l’anima feroce
Dal corpo ond’ ella stessa s’è disvelta,
Minòs la manda a la settima foce.
Cade in la selva, e non l’è parte scelta;
ma là dove fortuna la balestra,
quivi germoglia come gran di spelta.

 

I also consulted the translation by Robert and Jean Hollander (Anchor Books, 2000).

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submergence

I was all angle once
sharp and schist-like
a spiked rock dragon-back
arching into air

too late you learn    the long
wash of days    given grist enough
finds your fissures
chafes them    wide

these days   knowing    I wade
in a rising tide    of blonde    of bland
when my time comes
I will degrade    with particulate    grace

           become    the merest    dimple
                      in a    cheek    of beach
                                smooth and    silted
                                           with my own    crushed    dust

Melinda Smith

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What you get when you search for silence

(poem composed of Hansard search results from November 1962)

one of his colleagues has gone into a significant silence
to silence us, but this is having no effect

listen in silence
spoken and heard in silence

the Prime Minister has observed an unusual silence on this matter. There was an old Australian play, written many years ago, called “The Silence of Dean Maitland”
The honourable member talked about the silence of Dean Maitland. The silence of Arthur Calwell is the more remarkable aspect of this matter

I received a certain amount of ridicule, and a certain amount of scorn by silence
there is a period of awful silence while research is carried out, and the soldier continues
out of the silence into which he has preferred to enter

I am also conscious of the silence,
that there was silence. That is the answer about the £10,000.

Melinda Smith

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Hammam

(translated from a Persian ghazal by Rabi’a Balkhi)

I am back, locked up in this love again,
all my daring escapes end here.

Love is a broad shoreless sea
tell me, o wise ones, who swims it and lives?

To take love all the way
you must embrace every horror;

adore ugliness like a fair face;
make sweet delight of poison.

I bucked like an unbroken mare; I did not know:
the harder you pull, the tighter the rope.

Melinda Smith


Semi-legendary Persian poet Rabi’a Balkhi رابعه بلخی is reputed to have lived at the same time as the poet Rudaki, in the early-to-mid 900s, in Balkh (in what is now northern Afghanistan, at the time part of the Samanid Persian empire). She is supposedly the first female poet to write in the Persian language. Her tragic story is well known in the Khorasan provinces of today's Iran and Afghanistan: her tomb is still a site of pilgrimage, and Afghanistan’s first ever feature film (Rabi’a Balkhi, released in 1965) was about her. She was murdered by her brother, a provincial governor, for falling in love with one of his slaves. Her brother had her throat cut and imprisoned her in a bath-house to bleed to death. Hammam (‘bath-house’) is my title for an untitled ghazal by her. This is her most anthologised poem: according to the legend it was written in her own blood on the tiles of the bath-house as she lay dying. With many thanks to Omid Behbahani and her husband Mr Tahami for their generous assistance with the translation, and to Dr Hashem and Mina Etminan for putting me in touch with them. I have also referred to other translations by Inamul Haq Kausar, Manouchehr Saadat Noury, and Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis with Sheila R. Canby.

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some trees

spotted gum
tall classy lady
cradling a listing turpentine

(shaggy old top-heavy
barrel-chested nuisance)
she props him

takes the strain
holds her own line almost true
that’s what you get

when you get
married in a windstorm
but the wind always changes

strands you in strange attitudes
let him slide girl
next big storm

he’ll take you both down
and if the weather holds
those bastards can live

five hundred years
drop him
like a rotten branch

Melinda Smith

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After the Grand Canyon

18 October 2014

 

It’s an accident
of composition: sun, sky, bird.
White orb on storm grey
punctuated by a raven –
but which composes which,
and which is accidental?
Is it the sun
a hole
sucking in a bird,
or Icarus about
to singe the sun?
Against the grey
both soft and sinister,
anything is possible.
Look: barely a thumbspan
between
sun and bird
before the answer is given.
Enough to fit
the fingerprint of god.

Merlinda Bobis

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The colour of eyes

For Banduk Marika, Aboriginal artist

1. After your story of the funeral, August 1991

Black, Banduk, is the colour of eyes
like night shrunk
when grandma tidies after grief.
Perhaps she could not spill
to stain the room.

Black, Banduk,
this quaver fisted
in her throat –
it has no moon,
it aches with too much swallowing.
There is no voice
to bruise the air.

You think
she wills it neat?

Tonight she smooths the black
from trembling.
She promises,
‘This dark will keep.’

She is too frugal
when she can not weep.

 

2. On seeing your prints defying margins

Black that could not spill
to stain the room.

How tiny, how contained
like frugal woodblock prints
assigning loss a space.

But whose eyes
assign loss and
space – or colour?

Mine, the gallery’s,
the press’, the Parliament’s?
No. You leap

your art, your Country
beyond the frame
beyond the page.

Merlinda Bobis

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Lucy afloat

After the scattering of ashes
Pulpit Rock, 26 November 2014

And then the light
on these layers of grief,
grit, glow
that make a rock.

From blinding white
to ochre soft, then rust
and pink
running into each other —
who knows which colour came first
or if the glow came
before the grit
before the grief?

Not even the rock knows
the secrets of its chronology.

It is we who look
who think we know
or wish to know
as we stand on it
to steady our feet,
steady our own running
into each other
and into grief
or grit
or glow.

Merlinda Bobis

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An argument in glass

For Jenni Kemarre Martiniello,
Aboriginal glassmaker

As you hold me,
you think your fingers know
I’m glass magic,
this slip and slide on cool satin,
then suddenly I’m water
and an eternity of greens —
O song of sea flowers,
you make drowning
beautiful.
Or so you say.

But what of other shades
or shadows?

From umber to gumnut brown,
we are the ancient corals
that you presume are dead.
But look: our eyes are open,
our mouths are open.
Do not forget us.
Do not resist us.
We are the dead that refuse to die
surging through
the eternal greens underwater:
emerald, seaweed, pine, juniper,
moss, crocodile, olive, lime,
chartreuse with tufts of yellow
like light flickering
and red
like blood insisting,
We are here.

Look deeply.
I’m glass magic
only when you see us.

Merlinda Bobis

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