Arthur Phillip

Why is it dreams are like our history,

two parts pride and two parts shame?

First in the world with secret ballot,

slow to give murder a working name.

Can it be we’re still a dream

disrupting Arthur Phillip’s sleep.

Inside that eighteenth century head

we’re convicts, whipped, who will not weep

or ‘Native Aboriginees’

too primal to salute the king —

who greets us all with half a wave

and hopes that we’re not suffering.

Transported dreams bestowed the vote

and, later, all that kings can give —

but stories done with guns and flags

are where we find we still must live.

Out There

The stars out there between the towns

reach right down to the edges —

or hang as if thrown up by chance

and casually tethered.

It’s ‘bible-black’ — except for them.

There won’t be any moon.

They’re floating there like funeral flowers

across a dark lagoon.

I have no wish to count them off

or be their registrar.

I’ve seen what’s out there way beyond

the city lights and cars

that flow like complex sentences

too difficult to parse.

I love the carbon compromise,

the smell of coffee bars.

Three Magpies

Three magpies in a


swoop in near the ground.

We only hear the

swish of air;

there is no other sound

except the silent

cat pursued,

half-crouching on the run

and glancing back

as if it now

regrets the evil done.

A parked car offers

shelter as

three birds complete their curve.

The tom who thought

to rule the block

has somewhat lost his nerve.

The burnish on our

morning walk

assumes an extra sheen.

The cat, still under-

neath the car,

is worried what we’ve seen.

A Preference


Of winter we remember

glass — and sunlight

softening the shoulders.

Those days when we

went slushing home

will always be forgotten.


Spring, for all its

shoots and blooms,

is tumbled by the wind.

Wisteria is almost snow.

And roses, like a vain affair,

are quick to shed their clothes.


Why was it all so slow to go,

those leaves so patient in their trees,

the street-life full of midriffs,

the t-shirts shouting ‘Life’s a Bitch’?

The café of eternal life

has autumn at its edges.


Sixty-six in two weeks’ time,

I walk a street of elms —

half its yellow in the trees,

half it on the ground.

Remembering what’s still to come,

I set my preference down.


In all the glory of Linnaeus,

they’re swimming in their free verse world.

They’re like some catalogue of Whitman’s,

a triumph of the wide demotic:

the angelfish, the damselfish

and every sort of wrasse,

the surgeonfish, the triggerfish,

the flutemouths, snappers, fusiliers,

the cardinals, the goatfish,

the Bennet’s butterfly,

in widescreen and in technicolor

through every tremor of the spectrum;

the filefish and the parrotfish,

the clownfish with their whites and orange.

In all the reefs that still survive:

the pufferfish, the barracuda,

the jawfish on the bottom,

the anglerfish, the frogfish

in all their gothic splendour,

the seahorse, too, dealt straight from myth,

the hawkfish, gophies and the blennies,

the burrfish known as spiny puffer …

I saw them once, a small selection.

Unschooled in any Latin,

they swam beyond nomenclature,

rejoicing in their names.


A vacant face is in the hallway,

one I’ve not been told about.

It stares at my agnostic soul

as if it doubts my right to doubt.

I keep on talking to my hostess

and try to find the thread again.

She tells me it’s dementia,

her mother’s not in any pain.

Even so, the pain is there —

if not the mother’s, then the daughter’s.

We’re standing here like ancient Greeks

gathered at the final water.

Some Nights

for Kevin Hart

Some nights I envy God his poets,

their metaphors of cloud and moon,

their crises of the soul,

the way each tree, each stone, each pool

is never just itself.

Disinclined to find a term

like ‘grace’ in my thesaurus,

I will admit, when close to dawn,

a whiteness in between the words,

a grammar deeper than the signs

through which we’re meant to sense it.

The stars though, still, are what I need —

their different rates of dying,

the way their light survives them.

How is it that a jumbo jet

can lumber into air?

Why is it that they’re not enough,

the mysteries of physics?

The Impudence of Man

The impudence of man: he pretends to be alone.

Elias Canetti

Nine words from Canetti

bring back a small Palermo clerk

circa 1910

in one of those Italian squares

de Chirico struck still;

they likewise introduce the light

to make its angles strange —

and whisper there is

something missing.

The clerk, with self-respecting hat

and hands jammed in his pockets,

whistles as he goes:

he has no problem with the shadows,

he smells the garlic over stones.

It’s noon — it’s time for roast tomatoes.

He has a wife and child at home.

Why should he pay obeisance

to one more wild man from the east

whose voice is filled with sand,

who claims that there’s a wrathful eye

or just a loving one

beside him as he speaks?

The tempers of Mount Etna

will give the lie to that.

He’s heard about the holy scholars —

theologies like scaffolding

around not very much.

There may be something missing but

it’s staying out of reach.

‘Impudent’ is not the word.

Aglio e pomodori,

the layers of his wife’s lasagne —

today they are enough.

Dancing by the Sea

Peace and Justice,

abstract nouns,

were meant to be together.

Transparent and

opaque by turn,

they love the salty weather.

How far back

does Justice go

and whose turn is it now?

The brawling boys

are in a queue —

the only question’s how

the local lad

will polish up

to ask her for a dance.

She’s delicate,

hard-pressed and rare;

he’ll have to take his chance

for both sharp sides

of Justice must

be honoured — then forgotten

as Peace, while waltzing

round the room,

wears only flimsy cotton.

And so our pair of

abstract nouns,

is dancing by the sea.

In bed together


they dream of you and me.


The sweat dries on

their bodies and

they’re languorously spent.

‘I shouldn’t tell you

but,’ she yawns,

‘you’ve lost the argument.

Waving guns

and gods and flags

can never be the answer.

No girl will ever

sleep with those,

however smooth the dancer.’

Young Justice doesn’t

quite know how

he got her into bed.

Who was it who

was following?

And who was it who led?

The boys back home

may spill their beer

and say he’s sold them out

but, now that he

has slept with Peace,

he knows what life’s about.

Their future may not

last the summer;

they have no guarantee.

A moon, though, pales

their bodies and

a breeze blows off the sea.


The Peoples of the Book

are cousins.

The Lord, their God,

is jealous, yes,

and goes by different names.

The sand blows through his revelations.

He speaks of cleanliness to men

as women wash the clothes.

He drums his fingers with impatience,

and talks like an accountant.

What else are covenants?

Adam’s sons divide when young,

hearing Eve in different tongues.

And still they’re saying, Cain to Abel,

‘Let us go into the fields’.

The God his peoples share is watchful —

but nods a little on his camel …

till shaken from his dreams by tribes

fighting over rocks and olives.

They all descend from Abraham

who would have slain his son when told.

The patriarchs, both then and now,

and all three Peoples of the Book

have found that stone will have its say …

a tilted sign, an epitaph,

chiselled in a desert script

the sand has worn away.


When their snipers kill one of us

we go to heaven as martyrs;

when we kill them they go to hell.

Abu Othman, Iraqi sniper, 2005

Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (There is no salvation outside the church)

Cyprian of Carthage


The infidels are roasting elsewhere;

their smell is sweet to heaven.

All outside the church will burn …

including that Iraqi sniper

who praises God each time he kills —

his victims drop straight through to hell.

High there in his minaret

he’s just a shellburst short of heaven.


The poetry of

fear and loathing,

how long’s it been around?

Between what once were

Eden’s rivers

it’s on the mobile phone:

the the panicked rifle

slanting down,

the man still on the floor,

the rhythm, the alliteration:

fucking faking, fucking faking —

and then the poet, under pressure,

trying it the other way —

faking fucking, faking fucking

as now one shot resolves it.

Well, he’s dead now —

the poem not quite

finished somehow.


What’s his sacred elevation,

this martyr in his rage —

as, courtesy a robot crane,

he’s hauled away offstage?

Is he halfway up to Heaven?

Is he almost there?

Does Allah’s hand reach down to him

across the savage air?

Will all those promises be kept?

Is there some further test?

Does Allah want the half blown-up

who failed but did their best?

Waking later with the wounded,

the chaos of their sounds,

his soul is one small fleck of debris

floating slowly down.


We need the gods

to raise the green

when winter’s almost done.

We need the gods

to guarantee

spring’s tilt towards the sun.

We need the gods

to teach us how

to recognise the cruel

and help with our

rapprochements when

our tempers start to cool.

We need the gods

to promise that

we never really die,

that some essential

part of us

will soar into the sky.

We need the gods

to tell us what

we’re certain they would say,

how heretics

and infidels

must burn if they should stray.

We need them, too,

beside us as

our breath is thinning out.

I love the sad,

agnostic god

who taught me how to doubt.

My Mother and the Minarets

Nearly 92 by now,

my mother’s frisky on the phone

though anxious all the same.

Everything she says is mantra;

television’s just a blur;

its soundtrack sets her off:

“Born in war and married in war;

it looks as if I’ll die in war.”

Muslims, she’s convinced,

desire our empty spaces,

they’re on their boats for Australie

How long, she asks, until a mullah

says: “No worries, mate”?

She’s never seen a chador

around her beef-and-dairy town

whose main street these days anyway

is well beyond her reach.

The wash-up’s done by texture only;

the fridge is full of use-bys.

Her cleaner and her Meals on Wheels

corrugate the week.

The TV rattles in its corner,

up too loud despite an ear

more accurate than mine.

It’s Arabic that sets her off:

“Muslim, jihad, hejab, burqa”,

breeders on their leaky boats,

prolific and seditious …

like Catholics in her childhood.

She’s on the phone again forthwith

(my number’s there in outsize print)

insisting I should find the words

that very soon might have us all

bristling in the high north-west

with .303s and long low tides,

ready for the minarets

dividing the horizon.


‘The Americans, I fear, have lost their innocence,’

I heard the London poet,Peter Porter, say

citing Henry James’ corrupted heroines —

and something in Saigon gone wrong along the way.

Slavery, I thought, might just have made a welt …

or prairie schooners westwards as Jesus went astray.

‘Their innocence has vanished,’ I wish that I had said,

‘but nothing can destroy a true naïveté.’


It’s like a quattrocento painting,

the episode unknown,

some fragment from a vanished gospel.

A white-robed man is borne towards us

shoulder-high by seven more

dressed in what they wore that morning

expecting nothing worse than hunger.

The painter’s frame is dense with gesture,

one arm curved against the sky,

another raised in shock or protest.

Their faces are the timeless ones

old masters always use,

each one with its silent shout —

though one, we see, has tied

a sweatshirt round his nose and mouth

to clarify his breathing.

The colours are composed and careful —

blue shirt to the bottom right,

the sweatshirt’s high and sudden yellow,

that whiteness in the sky.

Top right there’s an edge of stone

ragged like some Roman ruin.

The man in white’s a deposition,

slanted from an unseen cross,

except he’s bald — and still alive.

The face is calm, and half-forgiving.

His feet are pale and bare.

The white he wears suggests the sacred

as does the crimson down his chest,

a vestment with some extra meaning,

until we see, at second glance,

the richness in that redness is

the sunlight in his blood.

‘Down with Beauty!’ ‘Long Live Death!’

‘Down with Beauty!’ ‘Long Live Death!’

Two gods share a single breath.

Their warriors can all agree

on how to circumscribe the free

and are themselves in turn confined

by being of the same small mind.

A Muslim and a Catholic phrase

may equally distress our days;

the latter from the Spanish war,

the former sure the hip’s a whore.

‘Down with Beauty!’ ‘Down with Life!’

All throats are naked to the knife.

As holy men sweep up the dead

their two gods shake a single head.

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