MOST DAYS WENT BY LIKE THE HELICAL COILS OF THE SUN
Most days went by like the helical coils of the sun
slowly crushing the life out of you, a ton of chronic anaconda,
swallowing you heart first, not the occasional
lightning strike of a rattlesnake shaking its tail at you
like dice it was keeping warm for a left-handed throw.
Childhood horrors I’ve spent the last forty years
trying to shine like a star in the eye of as if
I were trying to stare down a snakepit to see
which one of us would turn to stone first, me
with my silver bullet, bright shield, and winged horse,
my boyish notion of heroic redemption,
or Medusa loose in the aviary of my voice.
A strange stillness overtakes me in the false dawn
of anticipating my mother’s death, knowing
it must come soon enough, an astronomical catastrophe
to a species already struggling for its life.
And as then, so now, I’m impotent to help
this woman from Queensland who
shipwrecked herself like an island on the moon
we could all live around like fish taking shelter
in the niches of the Great Barrier Reef
she turned her body into, though she had been
beautiful and wild once, an artist, a dancer,
playing strip poker with American cooks
docked in Sydney Harbour in World War II
for a bit of extra food. And seldom lost.
No garden of Eden in my life, but she had Brisbane
as she remembered it more and more as the years went by,
a place to return to, sanctuary for a burdened heart,
all mangoes and passion fruit and bougainvillea,
low hanging fruits of the earth ripe for the picking
as we had the apples, plums and pears
of the abandoned orchards of Victoria
swept by field fires of Plantagenet broom.
A welfare litter of five we came upon food in those days
like birds to overgrown gardens or fish
that nibbled at the drowned when the tide came in.
My mother practised survival like a Zen discipline.
Even when we were wearing our hunting masks
she taught us all to laugh at the crazy things
we had to do to live and say, Paddy, you should
write a book one day and I guess I’ve being doing that
for the last fifty years. And it still isn’t finished yet.
If all the seas were ink, and all the trees were pens,
dusk after dusk, morning into morning, it never ends.
I keep gleaning those gardens, searching
the acres of book-sized stovewood doomed to burn
like the Library of Alexandria, checking out
the back alleys, the back doors, the nightsky
liberating its stars above the condemned houses
smelling of the salacious mildew of beached mattresses
rotting on the floor like washed up whales
dying under their own weight as if they had
their anacondas too in the form of deep sea squid, looking
for words, always words, they pay me for in beer bottles,
words that might make a difference somehow,
though it’s always a toss-up between snake eyes and hope,
to inadvertently help someone get through the rest of the month
and, who knows, maybe a little extra to spend on themselves
like a new pair of shoes that fit, without feeling guilty about it
as my make-do mother always did until she couldn’t walk any more
because she had bunions on her feet the size of gibbous moons.
The palette of the rainbow she put down has reappeared
like a moondog in me, and insufficient in my own eyes,
for not foraging more loaves and fishes to break with her
than I should have, given what I do for a living, trying,
this late February night knows how hard I’ve tried,
to write something so compassionately sincere and compelling
it would bring tears to your eyes as you laugh out loud
at the spontaneous improvement in the quality of anyone’s life
as a standard of the earthly excellence I pursue like a calling
to celebrate even this harvest of shadows and eclipses
in the empty hands of an eldest son’s love of his mother
like chaff in the grain, magpies and kookaburras
in the gum trees of Brisbane, little Edens like fireflies
in every moment I’ve hung on this southern excruciation
of jewels in the ore of the underworld, Aussie enough
to bluff a pair of deuces like snake-eyes
into a royal flush that takes the table and keeps
the clothes on our backs like the feathers and scales
of the best we found in the heart of the worst,
blessed by what we cursed, and could not live without.