new zealand electronic poetry centre

Bernadette Hall

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So, I have done faithfully the last task,
digging into the sand at Anderson’s Bay
where your sweetheart is buried.  
And in that little beige chamber, cool,
ridged from the trowel, I have faithfully
placed the shocking weight of you, now ash,
in an elegant olive green box.   Stroking down
the surface like a sheet.   So sheeted, sleep,
the sea at your feet where you swam a stylish
side-stroke once while on his back he bobbled
like a seal, potato toes held high ‘n’ dry
above the waterline.   I have always loved
big men .   Leaving the water to rise and well,
the weight of it, I weep white berries.  

The bones rise in my cheeks, a haggard mask,
the purity of grief.   And they all wash back,
the deaths.   The child sobbing rigid in her bed,
her need to touch just once again the wishbone
of the rabbit in his hot skin.   How he’d drum
a warning with his big back foot of danger
in the street when Aedh played his fatal harp.  
I was standing one day, you wouldn’t believe it,
right there in the garden, pegging steaming
socks on the line (yellow hips on the roses,
white fur frost on the shed) when I fell,
just like Alice, right through the earth’s dark
crust, no kidding, up to my knees in a perfectly
round tunnel he’d dug.   A final kindness.  

I’ve gone with you as far as I can in my replica
body.   In Australia last century, an aborigine,
I’d have gone even further in a seven pound white
clay cap and gashed my thigh, shark rip,
to stand beside you in the doorway.   How will I sustain
the loss of your disapproval?   With a tricky lilt
in Ogham script?   With combat breathing?   Hey,
I’m the kid out on a limb in the King Tree
with twists of dates ‘n’ cheese in greaseproof paper,
watching the big boys run on the bridge railing,
smoke fuchsia bark and curse policemen.
Waiting for you to call me in.
May Mary and Persephone spring the silence locked
upon your lips, the final, lovely shape of it.

To counter my cleverness, gifts in your own tongue:
the shimmy you’d warm on the candles of the gas heater
(from the Latin, camisia, through Old French, chemise,
a little undershirt with rubber buttons); a meagre
slice of pleasure was the size of Father Brown;
and we all have our own cross to bear.  
So here we are in Rosie O’ Grady’s bar
and the boozers bang their jars on the wooden tables
 weeping, ‘I wish I was back home in Derry’ who’d never,
I swear, even been there in the first place.
It’sagreatlife if you don’t weaken.   No gapers,
no gawpers, no church, no priest.   We knew what you didn’t
want and had to make up the rest.   Some bastard,
unbrave, has already stolen the flowers from your grave.

So, it’s all over bar the shouting
and now you’ve gone jaunting with my blitzkrieg aunt,
your older sister, holed up for years in a shack
with her fat orange cat.   A dab hand at scones,
finally she set her jaw, refusing even water.
There’s still a few photos to go through.   You
at eight loved deeplier darklier understood
straight-back dancing at the Ceilidh, long dark
hair way past your bum, bellissima;
at thirteen reading in the Kaiapoi garden,
of Deidre maybe, one of the three sad stories
of Ireland.   If you write about me, I’ll come back
to haunt you .   Look, it’s no wonder I keep on losing
and finding and losing my place in the book!

The hills tonight are jaunty with lights,
the ETA chip truck more lovely than a circus.
It’s nine months now, a womb-time,
and I’m hanging on to a jersey for the smell
of you (a cunning trick, my lord) appalled
that love should’ve left you in the firing-line.
‘God save King Billy!’ ‘God bless the Pope!’
Fight, you buggers, I hate peace!
The nanas softened after I was born.
It was the end of the war.   The train kept stopping
at Cromwell, at Clyde, the driver, the guards
all boozed out of their minds let bygones
be bygones forever .   You worried that I might arrive
before we got back home to Alexandra.

It gets harder and harder to get a grip on all
this.   Even the big houses are shifting,
here today and gone tomorrow, cut
in half, jacked up on a truck (the speculators
happy as a box of fluffy ducks) and carted
off to the country.   Stripped to the waist, the builders
are making a sound-house ‘I hear you call
my name’ (Madonna) all tuned in
to the same FM.   I’ve got to get
my tongue around it: politician, do-gooder,
safe-cracker, etcetera.   Daughter.
Traitor.   Daughter.   Actions speak louder
Than words and blood is thicker than water .
I’m still talking as you walk away.

‘You’d look after your own now, wouldn’t you,
if you had a man on the run.’   It’s Invercargill.
It’s little Coleman, and Irish Dominican,
ninety-four years old and her own
private line to the T.A.B.
How easily just between you, me and the gatepost
I enter conspiracy, the Black and Tans, the house
burnings, the Famine, the whole shebang   ‘… families
turned off the land, reduced to bleeding cows
for food as cartloads of Irish produce passed,
under guard, for English markets …’   We left
to get away from all that .   I’m jangling
the leitmotif, little cell of repeated
sound.   Digging over old ground.  

Out in the street the big boys sang,
‘Sister Stan, Sister Stan, Sister
Stan, the IRA hitman!’
You were our secret weapon, ‘I’ll be here
when you get back’ and ‘I’ll watch the hearth’  
dancing the cancan on the lino. O
amor ferox!   Snuggling my kids up
safe in your bed, sucking egg’n’cream
toffees, goggling at the box: ‘I hear
yer pretty good with a gun, Raid.’
‘Yeah!’ Kapow!   Kapow!   Ricochet!
For one mad moment I thought I could
put my body in the way, I thought
I could save you, child’s play.

You called me Little Bear after the girl
who saw the Lady in the grotto, after
the movie.   Oh, I am heavy with you,
shut down on a green seat on the hillside
above the Gardens, a duck alongside
cranking its little wooden clapper.   See,
this is your crooked finger turning the pages
for me ‘through light through dark
the journey is alternate’ —soft madrigal
of the blue gentian—‘we are privileged
in our sweet skins.’   Airy, my hair lifts,
drifting down the aisles of the blue cathedral,
listening for the music, shifting the blue furniture.  

From Still Talking, Wellington: Victoria UP, 1997
Bernadette Hall

Last updated 25 March, 2005