Jan Owen’s fifth book Timedancing  was published by Five Islands Press in 2002. Her Collected Poems is forthcoming with John Leonard Press. 




Listening to Bartok

From a distance, this half breath,
played in hesitation as by a child
tasting tomorrow’s saddest rhyme,
is ‘almost’ posing for ‘enough’.
The girl has learnt how want
elides get: this shuddery slow kiss
over her skin’s moist silk ambivalence.
She casts off doubt like a classic gown
for music’s shift. No moon.

Thyme and oregano crushed as in a book
exhale a double scent like irony
which guarantees nothing,
warning too soon the game is spent.
Lemon verbena is taking their weight,
ants trekking his arm, grit prickling her back.
From the starry overleap of night
only Saturn leans down.

The lines of a face arise within
and travel for a lifetime:
dry riverbeds, cliffs, endless dunes,
valleys of pomegranates and figs.
Swansdown is bringing them home
with ylang-ylang, almonds and apricot wine,
horizon playing horizon out
like a skipping game till extravagance
spills its hoard, all cost deferred.

Must a promise back away from its own mirage?
Dark is no antidote.
The lame night-watchman lurching by
has stroked her thigh three times.
Above: the Horse-head Nebula stretched out easy,
130 million light-years, nose to throat.

He slaps the sweat of his neck,
the tiny intimate bite of an ant,
and the borrowed music slips back into its den.
But the gist of shimmer’s payload
is grist in the mill, Shrove Tuesday:
such small eternities – C sharp, G minor,
quarter notes from the oud.

And the least tlink of a pebble
will swear time’s round.
Left hand plays a sombre tune.
The kernels float in their syrupy wine
like ancient embryos. Or dark souls levitating.
Deliciously bitter, and all they knew of love.


Walking Alone

At night in the jacaranda suburbs,
over the wavy pavers
faking Escher under their purple season,
I pass a lit white wall where shadow and I
make a transient couple. If I say to him
Pattern is also obsession at bay,
he’ll reply: Your habits recrossing
their own predictable paths
are neither a soothing of edge nor a safety net.
I rent upstairs on a street of anti-doubt,
valiantly wrought iron gates, orderly borders,
twin lions and urns. Symmetry rules.

Between the spill of lamps,
crisp footstep-clicks are company
when shadow is cancelled out.
Darkness, like divinity, casts none,
but welcomes in the light:
Damayanta seeking Nala
concealed in the circle of gods
all bearing his face and form
knew him in the blink of an eye
by sweat and dust, and by the shadow he cast.
I meet no camouflaged gods,
but these spent bugles of jacaranda
come from that fading place where gratitude
chooses mortal being over heaven.

Only shadow knows your secret shapes.
To own it well is trust’s defence,
denying it makes massacre:
at best, your unlearnt life is on the line;
at worst, quiet queues are musicked
into the death cathedrals.

And here, for destination, are the roses’
memory scent, four hundred names
gilding the stone arch to the park.
The same two cannons flank the lawn
as when my brother and I played
war on the slippery-dip barrels −
Ack-ack-boom, you’re dead. My turn!
Over the road, the Christmas pine’s decked out,
and St Augustine’s battlements
flash red and green, the season’s spiritual traffic lights.
The cypress mopoke tolls his lugubrious name.

Turning back, I pass three men and a bottle
knocking off work at an outside table.
Further down, on the floor of a closed café,
someone is huddled between two chairs.
Then fashions, skimpy in orange and blue,
the Fairy Boutique and the quilt shop,
antique and liquor store,
Videoland lit up, Mitre 10 dimmed down.
And here’s my street
with its stepping-stones of yellow light.
Past twenty-four’s magnolia
in full flower like a roost of souls,
to the last dark stretch where shadow and I must part,
slipping back easily into our warm shared night.