The alkali cleansing

In this forest I smell
the leaves, always the leaves,
their eucalyptus breath
But not today

Today I smell, dark but not dirty,
the alkali cleansing
of charcoal and ash

I hear not beaks, not bright feathers, only
the baritone wind
and my soft alto heart

I taste not smoke, not now, but fire-dust
surrounded and spent
in the wet film on my tongue

Rain is coming
I smell the negative charge
Rain is coming
Rain is coming and I feel
the fire-sprung seeds
making ready

(First published in Fire, Margaret River Press 2013)


She said ‘They put me
in a prison, took away
my name, gave me a number
instead. For a year
I was there, called by a number,
answering to a number,
giving a number
when they asked my

My eyes were wet
as she bravely made her speech.
A young woman. I can’t remember
whether she was Tamil, Afghan,
or what. I can’t remember
whether it was her who spoke
about travelling on a boat
across the open sea, with people
getting sick
and dying.

I came here on a ‘boat’, too.
A luxury liner.

One rainy English day
my parents saw a billboard.
Come to Australia! Sunshine, opportunity!
Ten pounds passage—the government
paid the rest.

We stayed one week
in a migrant hostel. The photo shows a cabin
with curtains at the windows.
My mother shy on the wooden steps,
sunshine on her pale cheek,
babies on her lap.

The shire of Bunbury needed a labourer.
For three months we lived in lodgings
on the main street, near the beach.

The next job came with a house.
A front garden, a backyard.
My dad heaved logs into the boilers
of the last steam pump
on the Goldfields water scheme.
The photo shows him shirtless,
all taut muscle.
There were shit jobs then, too

but in the pub
the blokes called him ‘mate’
and the local families
invited us to their parties.

‘They locked me
in a prison, took away
my name, gave me
a number.’

I’m old enough to have gone to school
in an all-white class.
At uni the white students hardly mixed
with the ones from South-East Asia.
We called them ‘choges’.
We said it to name
what we couldn’t speak:
the newness, the fascination,

the fear.

Even now, whenever I meet
a person whose language
is different to mine, whose idea of fashion
is different to mine, whose idea of God
might be different to mine, whose idea of breakfast
might be different to mine, whose manners
are different to the ones my mother showed me

I’m afraid. The stupid reptile
at the base of my brain
is scared that this
unfamiliar creature
might want my eyes
as a snack

but that day, they were wet
as the gentle young woman spoke.

‘They locked me up.
They took away my name.
They gave me a number
instead, for a year.’

She didn’t give this ‘they’ a name.

She was talking about

(First published in Uneven Floor)

say something

If I
want to speak
here, it seems I must wear
this colourful suit
they have given me. They say
it looks good on me,
makes me appear more
interesting. But

it’s too small:
my shoulders are too broad,
my arms reach well beyond the cuffs,
my hips are too wide,
I can hardly bend my knees
and everyone can see
my Achilles tendons.

Also, I’m afraid of getting stuck in it.

I long to tear it off,
shrug on my own
plain garments, go

But this is the only Speakers Corner in town
and there are people
unheard —
because they have no clothes,
or because they’re caged —
so please beware of popping buttons
as I say something

for them.

(First published in Performance Poets, Fremantle Press 2013)

Trauma teddies

The ambulance comes. My son —
soft hair, round face, big eyes —
gets a choice of bears: blue or yellow,
both hand-knitted, character-faced, hug-sized.
After some deliberation, he chooses blue,
names him Bluey, cuddles him
during the prodding and questioning
and afterwards brings him home.
It’s all the people
in their ones and twos
who are not ashamed
to give a damn.

Earning the minimum wage, fundraising
for the children’s hospital, I phone
Mrs Whieldon, alone
in her unit.
I ask for a hundred dollars
or eighty or fifty or
whatever she can manage. She says,
sorry, I’m a pensioner—
but I make quilts
for the hospital. I think
of a seven-year-old wired and tubed
in strange-smelling rooms,
finally relaxing under a grandmotherly patchwork.
It’s all the people
in their ones and twos,
the old ladies who have no
money, never
have, never
will, never
wanted to.

Mrs Weston, in another unit,
tells me how happy she is
that her hip-bone was recycled
for kids with spina bifida.
I think, that’s her excuse to say No,
but she gives twenty dollars and says
it’ll have to go on her credit card
this week.
I take the number.
The supervisor’s watching
the clock. I don’t ask Mrs Weston
how her hip feels —
but maybe she’d rather
not think about it. Better to think
about the children in the hospital.

Mrs Whieldon talks
about her friend, Betty,
who knits.
When the hospital ran
out of trauma teddies, Betty
knitted forty-nine.
It’s all the people
in their ones and twos.

(First published in Creatrix)