Adam Aitken is the author of four collections of poetry and a new book is forthcoming from Giramondo Publishing next year. He is currently living in Cambodia. (Photo by Juno Gemes)
Fin de Siècle
Between two climates she’d be waiting, the slender young émigré
so dark and delicate the wind passed right through her,
always there before you, the bright architect of love
who knew her way around the café chairs, the Latin lovers.
How she’d inspired that horizon, the penthouse, the tower.
Greek, French, Ukrainian, all of the above? No-one knew for sure
what drove her south one winter, a whim or a storm?
Her age or why she had promised to see you again,
or why she always promised, sighing, mood wracked,
hat wide-brimmed with daisies and gliding towards you
through the fun palace colonnades before sunset – no one knew
why she always promised to be there
under the whitewash crumbling that left its stain
on your waiter’s apron and in your hair, as if you had emerged
unscathed from its collapse, the blast driving you back,
grasping your last tip.
She would arrive after work (though no-one knew what she did),
complement your menu, then a final swim
before the chill shadows enclosed the beach.
Statues murmured in the dusky shadows, mascara dusk
and in the golden bracelet of a rockpool children sparkled
among their castles, before they flooded at high tide.
Were they her children? If so they could never be too careful
building their moats, before she moved to a bench in the sun.
The Latin lovers waved and she didn’t wave back.
She was the pleasure of the world passing, about to shake
her wings free of the disaster, and take off, and leave you
once again thinking this had been the best century ever
and you were haunted by what she could not forget,
already beyond your knowing, what she is and was.
That year they rode low in the water
on ballast of oaths and convicted emotions
moved on to springtime ports
past the Pig and Sows reef
and the ridiculously expensive prison
lost steerage in a lull of unconcern
and absent-minded fishing.
In those days an invasion
was a kind of plague jellyfish,
laid back remorae, or cold front
that blew in early, unseasonal.
Everyone was hitching rides.
When someone entered
new seasons of exchange– fluids, fire,
language and metal–
someone else exited.
They were what they made, and what they couldn’t
someone else did.
Another’s lack seemed
no more than their own.
All land codified
as the visible
scoured and clearfelled,
of the forever language.
At Rozelle Hospital
At Rozelle Hospital, his final destination
some quartermaster who’d cracked
on a sandstone pier
a worldly fish, a navy frigate in its port,
a tropic bird of seed.
Full sails, great promise,
a kind of escape
from a madder Captain.
King’s botanist inside
who made the book for all
with his names – each new flower and tree
and new stiff Latin, the whole evolutionary kit,
the iron bars of genealogy.
Doctor, I ask you: what inky blot liberates
or draws together us
between the covers of hand-bound books
when you want your name
a legacy to crown the sky?
Fig trees, for instance, just
appear between the stones, green
as immigrants or refugees
hidden by the dark?
Are they natives now by instant decree?
You wear their leafy heads, and see
yourself once again,
historical footnote, crazed misfit
scattered, afraid, frozen
in unseasonal rain.
Or are we wasted now, due to
lack of name or use: seedy fruit
scattered in the grass,
imports that multiplied?
What of the bigger machines, like
destiny, meaning, sanity?
The fork and divergences
of who we want to be?
on that ship
will catch the breeze,
“are war and peace
playing their little game over your dead body?”
If, Eastern Asian time, you arrive
at the cove
to begin your holiday,
small figures camp in ruined hills,
waiting to advance.
Luckily we have
a Western point of view:
all timetables and maps: each hill,
the coordinates to fame
the minefield, the track
to that strategically useless
hilltop village, a tour guide,
and parking for buses.
Now, the snipers (retired codgers
your great-great grandpa couldn’t kill)
fish on the quiet beach, sipping
hot mint tea.
The winning cavalry
ride scabrous donkeys
and for a nominal sum
escort you through the ruins.
Tides regroup like armies
and the opalescent waters
whet your Byronic taste
for filigreed pistols, severed heads,
slavegirls, broken columns.
Filling the boats with trench-bootie:
proven property, like heritage,
gorgeous sunsets, or the exact
scent of victory –
too subtle for my words.