With a bit of a nudge from a friend (thank you, Nicole), I’m going to post a few poems…beginning with those that have been voice-recorded. The first one, Orpheus, in the Desert, was recorded for ABC radio in 2011 after winning the open poetry section of the Banjo Paterson Writing Awards. Very timely, as I’ve just sent off a poem for this year’s award, at the eleventh hour (entries close tomorrow)!
This was recorded over the phone, with one hour’s notice, on a single take…whew, more than few deep breaths taken beforehand. The ABC set it beautifully to music – a real treat.
For my non-Aussie friends, Banjo Paterson is honoured as a long-time local hero in his hometown, Orange (and Australia in general). He wrote verse prolifically in the late C19, most famously ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘The Man from Snowy River’.
I’ve had other poems win and place in this award, and will post them soon.
Here’s the audio file for Orpheus, in the Desert – scroll down the page to the first audio track:
Here’s the text version:
Orpheus, in the desert
Morning light, the first day of his crossing
red dirt striped to soft maroon
he walks into dry land, remembering
the precise curve of her cheek;
sees it everywhere, in rounded granite
at his back, in cumulus drifts banked
against days of azure, now softened
to pearl-shell dawn.
Sand ripples out to the cloud-line, as if
the ocean crept here in the night
and dried to dust, waves frozen in grit
until the next hard easterly should sweep
it’s sculptor’s hand across the land,
etch new dips and ridges, like the line
of her lips opened on breath; he thinks
of Styx and Acheron.
Night water, velvet under ferryman’s oar
but here riverbeds are empty, waiting
on melodies of rain, notes of droplets,
fast-stoked torrents, a finer music
than gold-strung wires beneath his touch.
Harp of his longings; in this country
artesian underworlds spread vast silence
over her reflection.
Sun rays scrape his knuckles, not soft
in the valley of silt and spinifex. Spirits
start to fade, tall wandjina, stately, graceful
in their floating strides; late evening
they’ll return, heads rimmed in constellations
Southern Cross at their fingertips, searching
he catches a glimpse of his love’s pale shape
among the ghosts.
Dark shadow on the sand, wedgetail
circles in the light, watchful amber eye
the colour of a harp’s polished curve. Heat draws
serpents from dark dreams, their scales
brown or yellow-striped, too close an echo
– that bite – her slender finger punctured
he still sees her tumble down the path, so deep
the well of Hades’ sleep.
In this land he might start fresh, change
his name, rewrite his travel-worn lament,
decide to call her ‘swallowtail’ or ‘xenica’
watch her new wings flash their gift, released
from the prison of his heart. Might file
for migrant status, invoke Aegean blue
and oracles, myth’s long, unwinding thread
washed by wider skies.
He stoops, scoops up sand, lets it trail
thin ribbons on the wind. Even here, rains
will fall, paint countless blooms
to dusk’s horizon, nectar bowls for her
uncurling tongue, southern land’s ambrosia.
His footstep’s rhythm sets the beat, hand describes
an arch of hills, plucks from sunbaked air
tendrils of sweet liberty.
I wove the tapestry below while writing a sequence of ‘Orpheus’ poems. The figures in the tapestry are based on those in a painting by Edmund Jeanes, Orpheus and his Muse, late C19.
I see shades of Orpheus in The Siaris Quartet, especially from the second novel, Reunion, onwards… (for those who know the myth…or who don’t…Orpheus lost his love Eurydice to a snakebite, and followed her soul into the Underworld, in an attempt to win her soul back from Hades’ keeping. A bargain was made for her release, but Orpheus failed to keep it).
In Siaris, this theme takes a gender reversal, and a rather different bargain, the long-term consequences of which I am currently sorting out in Book Four.