Examples of poems
The following poems won the 2011 Wesley Michel Wright Prize.
The judges decided that “Rosanna Licari should receive the prize for her stunning poems, which were delightfully succinct, exhibited great poise in their diction, were often humorous, and had an affective power without sentimentality.”
The future as an island
Clouds sprawl over the backbone of the range,
muslin curtains blow over my head,
as cicadas drone with the ease of monks.
In the scrub, the trees are mute.
I have collected leaves in paper envelopes.
I pick up a book from the table
the pages are rippled dry. Stiff
from a downpour of summer rain.
A water stain forms part of a coastline
on the inside of the back cover.
From one perspective a jutting boldness
of continent, and from another, a peninsula
the future as an island.
In between the pages, his letter from the Cape.
He says the humidity has changed
me. I have merged with the stone lands,
become one of the hard people who
sleep in dry riverbeds, and
break sentiments over boulders.
Motives are impossible to decipher
between his commas and clauses.
I slide the letter back into the book.
A pebble rolls in my pocket.
Objects are infused by histories,
confine us to the past.
On the path under the eucalypts
leaves and bark find a place under my heels.
I lean against trunks, peel them like sunburn.
I write words in the bedroom air, drop them
in the centre of the floor,
carve effigies of his moods in bone.
I thread line through cicada wings,
hang them on pelmets,
put bird feathers on window sills,
arrange them seaward.
My mind fills with smoke from his Indonesian cigarettes,
strands of it float to the ranges.
The leaf envelopes are in the bottom of my bag.
Spilling tea on my book, the water stretches
into the future.
Birds pick through crab claws, shells, aged glass.
Light reflects and I read it as a sign.
The blue gaps between the branches are water.
In the arbour, the ibises forage for food,
reveal the fleshy underside of wings.
Their feathers lean seaward
cicadas mute the trees with drone.
Sea grass covers the beach and birds pick
through jellyfish, clam shells.
Bottle shards refract.
On the horizon the tide shifts over islands.
The Last Weeks of the War, Istria 1945
The Germans tell her to get
into the jeep.
Holding on to its cold, dusty sides,
Sofia looks back at the steel-grey
Adriatic and her brother,
as the jeep lurches onto the road.
He holds the lunch she’s brought him
wrapped in a worn, cotton napkin
against his chest.
Standing next to Pepi, his girlfriend,
who has accompanied her there.
Sofia tightens her grip.
The Germans are taking
her to Fiume.
The gaol door slams shut
as she looks at the toilet
in the corner and the old stone wall
facing her and the others,
all women. She is the youngest
in this group of forty. She fingers
the crucifix around her neck.
The cell smells
of human sweat and waste
but swallows swoop
into the courtyard
when the prisoners walk round
inside its walls once a day.
At midday after they soak
their bread with the remnants
of their watery soup,
the others stare at the serving
of pasta she gets in addition
because of her age.
For more food she lines up
with the adults to unpick rough,
burlap sacks in a musty room.
She’d hoped for meat. She gets
bread and jam.
The guard takes her by the arm,
out of the cell, and onto a truck
to sit among German soldiers
with tortoise-like helmets and rifles.
Non parlano italiano and
she doesn’t speak German.
They arrive at a hotel that
smells of lilacs and roses.
Flanked by two soldiers she pauses
in the lobby when she sees
the French windows and the honey-
coloured, parquet floor.
Sofia shares a velvet-draped room
with three other girls, and sees
the jade Adriatic from a small,
narrow balcony. No one talks.
Anyone could be a spy.
She dreams of her mother’s garden
She’s become a mula del FlaK
wears a blue uniform, goes to daily
lessons to learn German – Ich habe Angst
morse code – dit dit dit dah dah dah dit dit dit
and to study the highways
of the air.
She gets off the tram and something
makes her keep walking to the water’s edge.
This time she isn’t getting the tram
back to Portorosa.
A shoemaker with a limp asks her
where she is going, she tells him
she wants to get back to Fiume.
He points to his house in the lane.
She walks in that direction after he leaves
but then she hides and waits.
Hai visito la mula del FlaK?
He asks his wife when he returns.
There are no Germans.
Sofia comes out from her spot
under some stairs.
They’ll get her to a safe house.
Part of the letter to her mother reads
non sono coi tedeschi, sono in una casa.
The woman slips it into her shirt pocket
and promises to deliver it.
A few days later, some dirty, young men rush
past Sofia and into the cottage with news −
the Americans have liberated Trieste.
Sofia stands at the aquamarine
shore and can’t remember
how many trucks it took
to get from Croc
or how much
bread and water
or how many
people she met
as she passed rasping vehicles
filled with partisans
or prisoners of war.
if she’s lucky
she only needs
one more ride.
Hunters and collectors
1. The core of the science
When the damp of the Even made it necessary to send my Plants and books on board I made a small excursion in order to shoot any thing I could meet with and found a large quantity of Quails, much resembling our English ones, of which I might have killd as many almost as I pleasd had I given my time up to it, but my business was to kill variety and not too many individuals of any one species. ~ Sir Joseph Banks, 3 May 1770, Botany Bay
To collect you have to
To have: to own, to possess.
Nearness can be relied on.
To collect you have to
To know: to acquaint, to experience.
What can be named, can outgrow fear.
To collect you have to
To regenerate: to renew, to rebirth.
Life ignites through endings.
2. Banksia serrata
Our collection of Plants was now grown so immensly large that it was necessary that some extrordinary care should be taken of them least they should spoil in the books. I therefore devoted this day to that business and carried all the drying paper, near 200 Quires of which the larger part was full, ashore and spreading them upon a sail in the sun kept them in this manner exposd the whole day, often turning them and sometimes turning the Quires in which were plants inside out. ~ Sir Joseph Banks, 3 May 1770, Botany Bay
The sailmaker gives Banks and
Parkinson a sceptical look
as a group of sailors spreads a perfectly good piece
of canvas on the sand.
Banks arranges the specimen-filled
paper on the sail
and throughout the day
walks round and between the rows
touching, checking, considering
with the mien of a midwife.
Parkinson picks up a plant
feels the woody stem, the serrated leaves
that scratch the skin.
And the yellowy spike, the flower?
a vase cleaner,
not a relative of the rose.
Parkinson knows nothing of the plant’s other secrets −
not destroyed by fire
the spike matures into the seed cone
then opens with the heat of flames.
3. King parrots
One of our midshipmen stragling by himself a long way from any one else met by accident with a very old man and woman and some children: they were setting under a tree and neither party saw the other till they were close together. ~ Sir Joseph Banks, 4 May 1770, Botany Bay
He bends over and brushes the grass
from his boots,
his calico sack filled with parrots
slips from his shoulder.
He looks up.
An old woman
motions the children
to her side. She is quite
He has come too far.
against rocks that jut from wet
sand like heads.
‘Indians’ slam stone knives
into oysters clamped
The midshipman feels cold,
takes the dead birds
from the sack,
and sets them
at the woman’s feet.
The blood-stained feathers
touch her skin.
He steps back into the scrub.
Variations in travel
1. Before my flight you left lilies in my study
In full bloom they strutted through the room and seduced the postcards from my wall. The Chinese Empress fell first – the scent of the Orient filling her mind with jade beads and the gossip of dragons. The tangerine pollen stained her hands. She lay across the dictionary for weeks and found the ‘l’ in love is used twice in luckless. Your apologies haunt the airport lounges and tarmac boardings. But Rome grips me. The god, Janus, looks ahead and behind. Your grand gestures fall short of small kindnesses. In the distant piazza an old woman showers birds with crumbs.
2. Summer found me on a night train somewhere between Spain and France
The couchette was packed with retirees. I couldn’t sleep. There was a man in the compartment. I realised then I believed in the segregation of the sexes and spent the night on a bed of metallic thuds. Before daylight only the elderly had risen and gathered along the corridor, waiting, patient as migrating penguins. I was still dressing and was last off the train. The Parisian police questioned me and searched my shoulder bag for drugs. They held up a dirty towel, underwear, a souvenir from Barcelona.. At the station I bought a croissant to clear the bone in my throat.
3. Valley mists uncovered the shoulders of mountains
That winter at the Hydro Majestic I worked for the old spinster who kept her Pekingese in a playpen next to her desk. She smelled of cheese. At night you and I talked of aliens and flying saucers. I went to work at the country club where the morning cook tapped his fingers on tables and the manager steadied her day on a continuous glass of scotch. On one breakfast shift I heard the meows of a kitten. I climbed through the kitchen window and found a steel-grey mass peppered with flea eggs. Later I ran into the cook’s area to rescue burning toast. When he saw me all he could say was: Outta me kitchen. I left the country club, pet under my arm. It disappeared after a few days. Maybe with the flying saucers. And the only alien I saw was me in a cold mirror.
4. Looking over your shoulder
I think of those narrow streets in Kyoto where children led me to temple entrances and shrines. They were unafraid to speak with a stranger. I’d missed Basho’s grave but in the mountain temples I heard the wooden floorboards speak. My fascination with the language kept me walking backwards and forwards. The attendant stiffened then told me to stop. I didn’t have enough words to explain that the timber was talking. Near one rock garden was written: I only learn to be content. You look frightened when I tell you I don’t know anything anymore.
5. April, and I’m uncontactable at the cabin
From the verges of the road, the wallabies thud into the scrub past a tree still decorated with silver Christmas tinsel. The asphalt is smeared with fur and dark pink flesh. A sky is stretched and pasted onto blue. The day meanders through pages and pages of books into a night where grey light fidgets with my thoughts. Nine notes from Gymnopédie No.1 turn over in my head and insomnia writes this poem in the dark. Last summer, facing west before dusk, I waited for the bands of light to slip along the tree bark and fall to the forest floor. They diffused, then gathered, forming a core that rose as gold mist.
The following poem, Uncle Pepi was published in Quadrant.
The sound of twigs breaking along the path out the back alerts him that there’s something wrong. This time the trap door in his mother’s cellar doesn’t help him,
he’s at his aunt’s chopping firewood. A German soldier takes him by each arm. They drive him to Icici to work for them. In gestures more than talk, he tries to explain
that he’s not an electrician but it’s no good and one of them points his gun muzzle at the aerial searchlight that won’t work. Pepi understands that he has to do a good job.
He begins fidgeting with the button on his shirt as he looks at a cow that grazes daily along the roadside. He’s worried and consoles himself with the thought that at
least his sister and girlfriend will bring him lunch. He figures out how the contraption works and after two failed attempts at getting a spare part from Fiume and
Trieste, where they send him in a jeep filled with young soldiers and machine guns, the Germans try Torino then finally Berlin. With the spare part in place, Pepi asks for
oil and when he goes to get the bucket, it’s empty. In a sweat, he looks round and sees the cow nearby licking its lips. The oil is smeared on her snout and ears. He
rushes to the captain, says moo moo and mimes the cow lapping. Three of the soldiers wrestle the cow down and the captain takes a knife from his belt, and slits the
animal’s belly. It jolts as if electrocuted, blood and oil ooze onto the grass. The smell of guts makes Pepi gag. The captain smiles and nods, then orders another bucket of
oil. Pepi gets back to work muttering a quick prayer to the Virgin Mary. Drawing breath, he flicks the switch and the light beam appears.
Two photographs: Notes
The following poem, Two photographs: notes, was broadcast by PoeticA, ABC radio in 2011 National Poetry Week, 3 September.
1. Immovable Feast
The table laden as in a Seicento painting
but no exotic oranges or plumed pheasants on silver trays.
This display was more mundane:
roast chicken, vegetables, bread and compulsory cake
and mother would slide in the plastic, floral centrepiece.
We were also arranged
but round the table,
hair and clothes inspected.
She would direct us to face the camera
and, of course, smile
looking out to the ones that were left behind
see, see, better than in the old country.
2. Second Row
That’s me, in the second row with the unfashionable hair,
dreaming of being like them: tuckshop money,
sleepover parties, make up, magazines on how to talk to boys.
I went to the swim club only once and flapped like a wet moth.
That’s Margaret Mary, in the last row. The one with the long hair.
The friend who always praised herself and her family.
She told me not to say anything but
I hadn’t noticed her brother’s sunken chest.
One day I gave her a note for Geoffrey from Marist Brothers.
She returned with the news that before he read it,
he took it by the corner and said let the grease drip off.
I said nothing about him saying it or her telling me.
Nothing. Mother still tells me she regrets
not putting an extra ‘s’ in my name.
As if Rosanna wasn’t different enough.
Robert Lowell is a poet who made an impression on me. Here I reference back to one of his poems.
Today neither Mother’s story
nor Lowell’s ‘Sailing Home from Rapallo’
brings the azure
of the Gulf of Genoa to mind.
I remember squatting on a balcony floor,
a doll under my arm, as my fingers
trace the grout slowly.
A circle of vermillion flares into petals
of yellow and white. These coloured tesserae,
a contrast to the dull sea of roof tiles below.
A train rattles in the distance and then Rapallo
fades from my memory.
Mother tells me Zio and Zia lived
in a small attic near the centre. Adamo
zigzagged the streets, delivering meat
door-to-door on a bicycle.
When we visited, I called for Daria
as I clambered up the steps of the tenement,
holding Mother’s hand.
the balcony was the best thing
about the place.
Memory is made of fragments or perhaps
lies in the interstices?
But I try to make meaning of the pieces,
and rack through tile shards in this half-light of doubt.
Now do I wish that our freinds in England could by the assistance of some magical spying glass take a peep at our situation: Dr Solander setts at the Cabbin table describing, myself at my Bureau Journalizing, between us hangs a large bunch of sea weed, upon the table lays the wood and barnacles; they would see that notwisthstanding our different occupations our lips move very often, and without being conjurors might guess that we were talking about what we should see upon the land which there is now no doubt we shall see very soon. ~ Sir Joseph Banks, 3rd October 1769
Everything in the air and water matters.
The birds, the fish, the seaweed
and pieces of wood that bump against the hull.
You’ve left the Southern Seas
where the women mark their finger and toe joints
with the figure Z.
All the Tahitians cover their arms and legs
with crescents, circles and squares.
Cook records the latitude and longitude,
describing conditions as
‘Little wind and some times Calm.’
At the cabin table you examine
botanical specimens, talk
about the tattow on your arm.
Years later, Charles Davy asks
you in a letter:
‘I should be so much obliged to you
for an exact copy of the characters
stain’d upon your arm.’
No one has found your reply.
What’s left on your skin after the fragrance
of coconut oil and a woman’s breath
merge with the night?
Did the priest design a pattern
for an adventurer ‘passing through’ or incise
a map of the stars to be read
under the Milky Way’s light?
Lines written after lunch
The last poem was anthologised and is a favourite.
1. I’ve thought of you since the first days of summer
Nightly, I watch the fan turn
against a white ceiling,
moves the candle flame and
the soft wax forms beads
on my bedside table.
I want to end this day
still as a sun-wearied wall.
The ocean lies miles away.
I dreamed briefly this morning:
somewhere before a glimpse of foliage drizzled with
light, and somewhere before touching flight feathers,
I stepped out of my sandals on to soft grass near you.
The swallows on the wires brush against an afternoon
raw with mock orange, geranium leaves, and
the strange letters tattooed on the inside of your arm.
© 2010 Rosanna Licari. All of the poems are published in An Absence of Saints, University of QLD Press, 2010.