This poem was awarded Highly-Commended in the 2019 ACU Poetry Prize. The theme was SOLACE.
Last night on Mount Zion
what were we thinking when we clambered up
above the synagogue beside Dormition church
to a roof that sloped through history? Still flimsy
and white, in a pomegranate sky, the moon
was growing over domes and minarets and spires.
It was the eve of Tu B’Av’s holiday of love. Like children
on a picnic, we’d come to pray: maybe thirty, or so,
chittering grey heads, sombre young, an English Methodist,
a tubby side-curled man in black fedora, a mum of four
in purple hijab, a bony brown-robed monk,
Subcontinental clerics, and the rest of us, led
by a twirling-skirted woman in flat-heeled shoes
with the bouncy cheer of a kindergarten teacher.
The abbey bells reverberated in our chests, so rocked
around the yellow limestone walls that David in his tomb
below might well have stirred. (He’d have had a soldier’s
interest in the days’ events: of mortars fired over Gaza,
of Golan’s ruptured peace accord; he’d have understood
how tempers fray, but not foreseen this would be so near
Rachel’s Tomb; and he’d know – too well – how men
might conjure murder in god’s name.) What did we
imagine we’d achieve when friends from Hebron on
makeshift rugs bowed towards Mecca, raised open hands
in their Takbir Allahu, observed Rak’ha? Or when others
turned towards the Temple site to chant their Aleinu?
Or others, towards the setting sun, sang a gospel
spiritual somewhat out-of-tune? Had David heard,
his fingers might have tapped the rhythms of exuberance
but winced, at New World renderings of a psalm.
What did we hope for, together in a circle passing goodwill
hand to hand? What did we think when from below,
a band began to play? The courtyard wailed with Klezmer
strings and wind and keyboard. The abbey bells
arc-ed through our soles, rang metal in our skulls.
The moon by now had let her gold soprano loose.
So, there we were,
haunted by old East Europe in lament amid
jingle-jangle tambourines, clapping, chanting,
leather sandals’ click-slip-click on stone,
and the ricochet of clanging steel, against
distant sirens, car horns’ arrhythmic syncopation
in a circle on a roof upon Mount Zion wanting peace.
What could any person’s god hear through that din?
Not much, it seems, for when we woke this morning,
there were no surprises: only news of Syrian rockets
splashing down in Galilee. Of disturbances again
at Temple Mount. Of a fifteen-year-old Arab boy
lying in Beit Jala’s morgue.
Still, tonight, we’ll come again to Jaffa Gate. We’ll make
our motley way along the slippery limestone flagging,
grasp the rusted rail to climb the steps and take
our place for evening prayer upon the roof. We know
we will not change things, (though we might hope).
We do this, not to change the world, but so as
not to change ourselves… We’ll sing. We’ll dance.
We’ll greet each other, face to face, by name. Earth,
metal, fire, stone and wood: it’s flesh that brings us here
to assure ourselves we’re not impotent nor pawns, nor
complicit in the carnage; that we are decent folk in deed,
and song, dance, fellowship can stand for something
more – I’ll take the hand, so like my father’s
stiff old farmer’s-hand, of Abu from near Hebron and he
will smile and tell me that he knows me from some other place
as sun sets in the gullies life has carved into his face.
Against phosphorus, fire and mortars ours a feint manoeuvre.
Yet in its frail resistance, it brings some comfort.
…the first time you feel held, curved like a lute playing grief music…
Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
As you nuzzle at my breast, you hold me:
aching with too much joy to comprehend.
Waves lap across the rim of my dinghy
and stain me with their blue infinity.
The warm night-nesting of mother and babe
begins life’s journey of separation.
A fallen palm frond floating on the tide
rises and falls with the weight of its core.
The surprise of eye to eye connection,
recognition, held-ness, for a heart-beat.
Fireflies of inspiration twinkle
just ahead, close but far, the nub of things.
In the brush of closeness the grace of dance
unfolds within you in slowed-down wonder.
Held – not held back, held down, or held in place –
the thrumming rhythm of the lute’s curved bowl.
Everything becomes mystery: you seize
the depths of not-knowing, being at the edge.
Dreams write their visions into puffy clouds
that shift and drift to vapour with the dawn.
In a maestro’s hands, the lute’s curved belly,
no more a wooden silent thing, finds song.
Published in Empathy, Australian Catholic University Prize for Poetry Chapbook, 2018
Tanka is an ancient short form genre of poetry originating in China and popularised in the Heian period in Japan, making it about 1300 years old. It is a disciplined form, traditionally using limited syllables according to a pattern of line length; classic tanka is simple and unadorned drawing heavily on nature and the seasons; there is a turning point in the second part of the tanka (the “pivot”) which often places the first image against some human situation or image…a “sting in the tail”.
Here is an example of a tanka modelled on the classic Japanese form.
This one from a while ago, one of my early tanka. I was delighted to have it published, not only in Eucalypt 6 in 2009, but also in the National Library of Australia’s Little Book about Weather, 2010
weeping from ice lace
stirs the stream…
fretting my spirit
the tears you do not feel
Summer reminds me of the Hunter Valley and its vineyards. This tanka was published in 4th Haiku Pacific Rim Conference Anthology, September 2009
grape vines stretch
along a wire –
tied to sunshine
in a country
two hundred years away
The first day of spring down under reminds me of one of my tanka from Gemstones, a collection of tanka written in collaboration with Carmel Summers, Julie Thorndyke, Marilyn Humbert and Jan Foster from Australia, Patricia Prime from New Zealand, Luminita Suse from Canada and Claire Everett from UK.
on this first long walk
… wattle dusts off
its perfume, plum trees
shake out pink tuille
Tanka Prose is one of the many variants of the tanka genre, in which concise brief prose prompts a tanka poem. In the classic format, the tanka itself does not repeat the prose but links with its image/s and shifts the reflection somewhere else. I really enjoy writing tanka prose.
Sister Isabella is my husband’s father’s youngest sister. Whenever I visit India, I try to visit her in her convent in Puducherry, the former French territory a few hundred kilometres south of Chennai.
Sister Isabella welcomes me from deep within dark eyes, just as she has each time since we first met, nearly thirty years ago. A tiny woman, she looks up at me and holds my hand. On this hot South Indian day, she wears a brown woollen scarf around her neck. She is eager to hear family news: as usual, she knows far more than my husband and I. She smiles and asks us if we are happy, checks our religious observance, worries about a grandnephew who has not married, about my sister-in-law, my brother-in-law, my husband’s health. I watch her, a woman over ninety, take control of a conversation that jumps across three languages.
friends once gave me
fine champagne glasses
as a farewell gift –
the crystal sings
when I rub the rim
Sister Isabella’s home is a hospice for elderly destitute: the concrete cloisters gleam amid a series of courtyard gardens. Between hibiscus, roses, crotons, mango trees and coconuts, dirt paths are swept smooth.
from three stooped women
fills the cloisters
in the Hospice garden
trees bow down with ripened fruit
Sister Isabella fusses around, serving us cabbage, fish and rice. Then, when we are finished, she covers the food, turns off the fan, switches off the light and closes the door.
a brown speckled sparrow chirps
her body pulses
with her beating heart
My family and I arrive, unannounced from Sydney. Aunty is ninety-six and hospitalised. Our three children tower over the tiny bundle lying on her iron cot. She has not seen them since they were small. Her eyes light up and she calls me by name; then, each of the children, one by one. She laughs and recalls how our son as a twelve year old pedalled the Mother Superior in a rickshaw round the hospice garden. As we leave her in her hospital ward that day, I am unbearably sad.
Now, a few months later, I learn that Sister Isabella has died. I mourn even as I smile with her joy.
for a while
we kept two finches –
in the morning
surprised by sadness
before an empty cage
Published Haibun Today, Sept 2014
A year ago, I was beginning my walk along part of the Camino Frances across Spain towards Santiago de Compostela. Some of my reflections on that walk were recently published in Haibun Today.
Camino: A Tanka Diary
still three days
before I leave
outside my door
white pear blossom
Getting to Sarria
In Pamplona, we wake around 4.30 and take the first bus to Obanos. The driver sets us down at a cross road. We clip on our backpacks, adjust our trekking poles and begin our walk towards the village. An elderly woman gestures towards the yellow arrow that marks the Camino. We walk past fields of blackened sunflowers, vegetable patches filled with towering stands of beans, kale, cabbage, tomato and lettuce to the next village. At the end of the early-morning streets we find the picturesque bridge after which Puente La Reina is named. We meet other pilgrims, eat bocadillos of ham and cheese, wait for the bus to Burgos.
past dry stone walls
the click of trekking sticks—
a thousand years old
The cathedral in Burgos testifies to the faith of other times. It is monumental. Away from the massive gilt reredos, I find a sculpture of my namesake, a familial group of infant, mother and grandmother. Cold winds blow across the plaza where a travel-worn pilgrim in bronze rests permanently on a bench.
secure for centuries
behind ancient walls
opens its gates
to a world of seekers
At 8.00 next morning, we pass through the old city walls under the Arco de San Martin. A woman leans from an upper window to point out the way. On through parkland near the Monasterio de las Hueglas Realas, a Cistercian monastery of women founded in the 12th Century, past the university and into the countryside.
looking for direction
from those who know the way—
About half way to the village of Tardajos, I stop worrying about being in time to catch the bus back to Burgos. I start to enter into the solitude I have been seeking. We miss the bus, so retrace our steps over the 12 kilometres back to the city. We pass a thin grey-haired woman walking alone towards Tardajos. Her steps are slow and awkward as if recovering from stroke. We pause on a bridge over a stream, black with reeds, for conversation with a Canadian family.
In Burgos, the buses to Leon, where we have accommodation for the night, are booked out. However, there is one train at 6.15. We are just in time to buy tickets.
wanders back and forth—
wind-song in poplars,
blackberries by the roadside,
gentle greetings from pilgrims
It is cold and still dark when we rise next morning and seek out the cathedral. Bright flowerboxes hang from the official buildings in the old city. Streets are being washed, chilling our feet. We meet a downcast pilgrim whose walking shoes, complete with orthotics, have gone missing overnight. We spend time with him as he sets off slowly in worn sneakers and then warm ourselves with churros and hot chocolate.
From Leon, we journey on to the old Celtic town of Sarria…
Read more…at http://haibuntoday.com/ht102/TP_Benjamin_Camino.html
Published in Haibun Today, Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor, Volume 10, Number 2, June 2016.
the morning after
the lawyer’s phone call drags him
sour into waking from the endless you-tube
of his trying to forget
the steel bench burning buttocks cold,
his blubbering to the man he loathed
because he needed him, to come
at midnight, to the lock-up;
to forget the fresh-ironed copper
To read more, see ZineWest2016, http://nwg-inc.com/word/?page_id=172
Grease and Grace
I wrote this following a recent visit to some friends from way-back…a delightful visit.
As a young man, my husband rode a Royal Enfield 350cc motorbike known as a Bullet: a single cylinder, four stroke, 17 HP, four-speed, air-cooled Indian icon of the roads. With a top speed of 110 kilometres per hour, the Bullet was part of our courtship and became our family vehicle. Bullets have a distinctive pulsing exhaust thump, so I usually heard my husband return home 300 metres before he rode into view.
he takes me
to meet his family –
I hang on
wind in my eyes
and six metres of sari
Thirty years later, on one of our regular trips back to Chennai, we visit an old college friend of my husband’s: a fine leather craftsman and an exceptional photographer who, having turned sixty, has just invested everything into restoring and selling Enfield Bullets. His wife greets us on a gloomy wet evening at a narrow entrance. She guides us under a dripping roof along planks placed above pooled water.
The workroom-cum-showroom is filled with motorbikes – all Bullets – in various stages of repair and re-construction. We pull up chairs, chat and take tea and cake from a table cluttered with tools and paraphernalia.
disassembled chrome bits
from a chassis –
rear-view mirrors reflect
a jigsaw dream
My husband’s friend and his wife have difficulty finding mechanics with sufficient specialisation for their business; they both spend long days at the workshop. The man eats his cake with hands engrained with grease; enthuses about being able to indulge his passion for the Bullet; is cheerful about his lack of business acumen. His wife shrugs at the “showroom” her husband has turned into a work-pit; at the fact they live in a partially constructed home. She is dressed in loose top and long pants, her hair caught up in a soft twist. Her skin is flawless, without make-up. She is charming, elegant and radiant.
drips through cracks
into a dark pool
rainbowed with oil
a single lotus
India, October 2015
Published in Skylark, 4:1, Summer 2016