Poems by Michael Brennan
After the circus
What sun will set here? Over sweet-wrappers and ticket stubs
littering back-lots where they upped stumps, over ground compacted
by slavish tread — here and back, and back and here — over the absent feet
of jeering laughing lost souls looking for a brighter boisterous light,
not this incomplete darkness, this half-light, evenfall, where you trip over
a tent peg and the fat clerk of your big toe turns black with morning.
Lingering amid the fairy lights’ candied glow hoisted on shooting galleries,
absorbed by laughing clowns, blind heads turning this way to that,
you watch noisome crowds, a-bye, long down gone, diminish and appear.
Mercilessly their hands feed the clowns, eyes on the main bet, the
big prize stuffed with cotton waste, the mechanics secreted away
under chipped paint colourful like the skin on the strongman’s arms
where an anchor drops into tides rising and falling muscled below.
You, slovenly kin of the carnival, watcher, gaper, groper, stay-at-home,
malingerer, do you feel the slow snarl of dismay, listening to the organ
grind out promises off-key, the tune familiar, run over effortlessly,
while you jump about amused, getting two bobs worth? You sit
beneath thick canvas, mesmerised by tumblers and contortionists,
by the mad jumping monkey dressed as Napoleon riding a mule’s back.
You listen to the three-fingered violinist fumble notes, a crippled crab
scuttle of her fingerboard burst with music, hollowed and thrown out.
You touch the hilt the sword-swallower offers and feel heartbeat on steel
slid cleanly from throat to chest. Needlessly you feel closer, as your muted
and caged dreams pound away. The retinue seems endless, well tried, clowns
falling out of the car’s doors, the boot, a tired hilarity, dashing the front rows
in buckets of confetti and water, fire jumping from the tip of a finger into air,
juggled amid knives, noise and dark. The bearded lady sings an aria, a rake
of a man walks over broken glass, suspends a dwarf from his testicles on chain,
made of silk, another slips skewers through cheek and tongue, his eyes zeroed
into horizon. You watch sequined tops stuffed with breasts, feathers tickling
so that the crowd gasps, wheezes and guffaws but you hold your breath, waiting
for some truth to sink in. Later, huddled between trailers, your drunk tongue
forces its way between words. The Chinese fortune-teller’s wet lips part,
and you’re left to draw on prophecies, the strange language of your future.
Behind it all the generator’s whirr and clatter and the crowd, laughing, belching,
heaving up clouds of sticky sweetness and smoke, sweat pouring out of light,
and the sun rising slowly over the now-empty lot where each thing remembered
slips away except the ring-master’s crooked beak, roman angles strung out in
limelight, and the steady gaze of the knife-thrower suspended mid-air of afterward,
a dim forgetting you press against as you trundle broken-toed up the road.
The river was filled with bones
from the neighbourhood’s family pets.
All sorts of bones: dog, cat, mouse.
There was even the dusty rib cage
of Mr Perkins, that old nag
the Irish twins saved from the knackery
and kept in their loungeroom
on the tenth floor.
They used to bring Mr Perkins
down in the lift and ride him
along Seven Mile Beach.
No one remembered when
the bones started to collect.
Some say it was after the last rains.
No one can remember when
they were either. Sometimes
it almost seems ridiculous
that water could fall from the sky.
Mavis, the town’s one-time spinster,
claims to have the last wet season
on video, but Joey found out
that was just a lure. One afternoon,
we pushed that dingbat Timmy
down the bank into the bones.
You could hear his big clumsy feet
cracking like fireworks
as a white cloud drifted up
wherever he went shrieking about.
He came back with the twisted vertebrae
of what looked like a big brown snake
or black snake, we couldn’t tell which.
It reminded me of a book I’d read,
how during some war somewhere
they interrogated prisoners
by skinning them alive.
That riverbank made me think
there was a lost soldier in town
after a couple of answers.
I figured he lived under Brodie’s place,
in the basement where Brodie’s Mum
kept the dressmaker’s doll
and the family photos of the kid
that went missing.
‘You Yangs 1’
The way spirit tracks, in brushstrokes or words, you’d have Buckley’s
of getting it right, sensing how out here light does not fall. Waves of images
fill you so there’s nothing but to paint, though you don’t like it, this country
that’s in you, the red dust coating everything in one place or the granite now,
beneath your feet an island, quartz and feldspar cooled beneath an ocean
millions of years departed before your arrival. The wattle an edged blur in distance,
melancholy of the sheoaks weird, almost human with arms languorous,
supine to a brutality of light that in another language might be what is.
Gusts gathering yellow sands, slow erosion, there is no foreground, no back,
harlequin mistletoe, cherry ballart, the rock before you holding light
sings like everything else here, a silence you seek out the heart of.
So you work ten canvases at once though there’s no focal point, no cathedral
to wash time across, to track the changing planes of day, to assure meaning, only
what is built out of winds and dust and rock and song now half-heard, half-dead,
unlearnt names scattered on a map. The idea of elsewhere you leave behind
or end up like one of those figures in a landscape pointing the way ahead,
to something picturesque beyond the frame, the perspective warped
by some new Eden, some ancient Arcadia waiting to be plundered, a lie
like the emptiness gathered and named and transported here to build on.
Your eyes trace the scrub, manna gums and yellow gums scrimshawing
landscape, red gums sketch out a vertical line like a man practicing his whole life
to say a single word, finding his bearings in a place he can only come to slowly.
Crossing the lava, basalt, time uncovers you, uncovers land, an aspect of light
so what you abstract is not self, not place, not moment but all these spoken
by marks, scars in a greater shared immensity, a flat dun coloured space,
a stillness where the delusions of horizon have been erased, skins
peeled back, as if death could be cast off, its flesh left to dry in sun, and time
curved on itself, a husk. You watch in tongues of light, listening with eyes,
unearthing spirit amongst boneseed and sundew, perhaps love,
in daubs of skyless light, learning country, speaking it as it speaks you.
‘After the circus’ and ‘Lost Soldier’ were published in Language Habits, Vagabond Press, 2008, and ‘You Yangs 1’ was published in Best Australian Poems 2010, Black Inc.