Petra White was born in Adelaide in 1975 and lives in Melbourne where she works as a public servant. Her books are The Incoming Tide (2007) and The Simplified World (2010), which won the Grace Leven prize.
On the headstone’s frame, her photo
in the veiny case
blooms and swells. Lines of weather
or sight, scratch across
her double-breasted coat, crab at her eyes
but her cheeks are flesh, the face
visible, a child’s gazing
up at God or the camera. Her coat
all buttoned and sealed up.
A child, finished or not.
A thought, fingered in the pocket, barely
formed before the lens
flashed her out of time and parents
buried her with prayers
for her future – and roses coy
toss out a careless petal,
a notice of resurrection,
vanish in a cough
of their own dust. She’s left
to rot in peace.
She hesitates. Turns slowly
in her grave and cannot
turn back. Above herself, she records
the sun’s persistent angle. Her blue eye
stares out the stone. What does God see?
Passing, she draws me in, and I stumble
as if in suddenly loose soil. Her seeing seeps
from its frames and breathes the visible air.
Even her faith must return to its element.
There was salvation:
prayered-in by a foliage of tongues,
that murmured with the beginnings
of prophesy, rustling swaying bodies,
shielded and made naked by their own closed eyes.
An old lady etched in sudden light,
her tongue knotting inside the cheek,
a prayer working up and down her face
like treadled thread; and on the platform,
above a packed array of shoulders, cuffs,
the elbowy pastor, smoothing his tattered grey suit
(waist-deep in ocean he baptised the cripple
who rose from his chair, legs growing back).
The hot sun, an uninvited sign,
crashed through the blood-red curtains
and circled with the dust. Then voices
as if from other bodies, other times,
burst out in a wordless torrent,
sailing them up above
that sin-sacked world:
We Have Built Our Ark!
She saw not the heavens but their heads
gleaming with the bulbs of new stories,
a sudden sea, surging round Noah’s prow –
and her life, all bundled in repentant prayer
passing his eye like a fleck of dust
or slant of rain, brief unsteerer.
Did Noah never snarl the hair
of a giraffe, grizzle for the world?
Cowled in a wooden womb, the species;
Shem and Ham and Japheth and unnamed wives.
Was it peaceful at the helm?
Or was his weathered, wind-slapped skull
still poked and mocked by people no longer real?
– who would not heed the flood
that seeped into their very rooms,
warped their wallpapers, unsettled
their dinner plates and floated their carrots away;
invaded their speaking mouths, inching above
the windows of their aquarium houses
– as anything but rain, brought on
by a hidden cloud, from which
like swimming dogs they ran,
in mortal fear of Weather.
Not even a little boy
stopped to believe he might rise, his eyes
constitute a hole, through which
whole trees could be withdrawn, histories
and deeds unravelled
within his seeing, to the needle-point
of never-having-been. That his memory too
would simultaneously vanish, and he
touch light by being light, with hands
more music than any music they could play.
God’s burn, sunlight veining a leaf:
could she, with an accidental turn
towards a world imaginable to Him,
shake Him with a wash of finite gaze?
With priseable cracks, her picture.
A young and unrebuked stone,
flowerless in a fraternity of weeds,
shouldering the wind-tunnel gasps
and sound-emptying bells of Lygon Street trams,
among blackbirds and frail, pink-clad widows
who bend, effortlessly between prayer
and three-cornered conversation.
a whispering wall, the unyielding vocal echo
of one who shouts though inaudible in the surge,
Get Thee Back, God! Thou Hast Made
Thy Bed, Now Lie In It!
But her silence grows, her
forgetting is steep. In a moment, her moment
will come. All He needs to recall her is a flash
of light, a thought, barely formed.
© Petra White
Her axolotl dips in his cage of water,
his polite uneraseable smile swanning
him upwards, the rubbery, tail-heavy dragon’s
body tilting down. The tiny golden
Aztec eyes, blind, lidlessly slumber
through the waters of his kitchen aquarium
like never-quite-sinking coins, or beacons adrift,
with scarcely the ghost of a reference
to the mythical flicker of the salamander
he genetically sidesteps, even surpasses
by his own more modern brand of indestructible
– his species kept alive by scientists
for a keen ability to regenerate:
his limbs, if lost, will soon resprout; even
some parts of the brain, if chewed off
by a sibling, grow back. Only the crude lungs
connect him to a world outside him;
once a day he noses the surface and breathes –
then free-falls back down into depths of swirling
grit. Ever larval, babyish red ragged
gills fronding wildly round a blunt head,
sealed by water in the jewel of himself,
he survived the pumping of his stomach
after gutsing seven lumps of gravel.
Descendant of the Aztec dog-god
Xolotl, who with mangled hands and feet
guided the dead to heaven, his once trans-
lucent form refuses catastrophe; more
than the ailing tabby, the timorous
and watchful high-heeled dog, or the rented
fireprone house, he guards our dangerous
childhood pledge to never change.
© Petra White
When the system crashes, and the screens,
beaches that saved them,
the office tilts like a ship.
of surprise, voices like children
who’d been playing in the shade,
shocked by sunlight,
flurry and subside.
shudders its seasons
of freeze and sweat;
furry square windows
seal in the boredom (a little man,
I’ve begun to suspect,
tweaks the levels each hour).
The quiet settles, doing nothing
settles, the sister of work.
The mind rises from its bubble,
and eyes unscrew from their
You rise and walk down the hall
like someone freed:
the woman who comes early
to work late sits darkly in her glass
as if waiting for a traffic light
to change, or an eclipse
in which nothing
is remembered, to end.
Time with nothing to smother it
creeps up like a mist from the river
and cuddles the office friendships,
emails caught mid-send, the million strands
of life rich as Pompeii.
Three women whisper in the kitchen.
Somebody laughs, someone else
cracks his finger joints.
Nobody stands and declares
All this was a dream, well, thank you, I’m off now!
Why should they? Over there a man,
pacing in his pod, has a deadline
as real to him as his wife.
So it starts again, you slip back
to your chair, the hard-drives
rev up in chorus, their
engines mingling with the rise-again joy
of humans working
with our without-purpose:
happy if we remember
whatever ten minutes before
fulfilled and/or consumed us.
time into money
that flits through our hands
faster than a solitary wren, faster than time;
houses, children, cars, dogs –
the self’s empire of proof,
menagerie of power, I am here.
Our time sold not hired,
our names as simulacra
show us up in our absence
on semi-partitions, brass-plated.
We forget, like monks, and serve
an abstract we must
not care too much for.
A prison of light, it dissolves
in the mind as you fork
home through traffic,
each former workplace that had you once
a sketchy edifice of neon,
you can’t quite remember
what was I there?
Our little day is rounded with
a commute and a sleep
a spend and a keep.
I am pleased to announce that Wayne Loy
joins the Networks &
Infrastructure Team to give cover
until Jill returns
from maternity leave. Wayne reports
to me alongside
Jill, April, and Tarquin Dobrowski
(in Sydney). Many
of you know Wayne already in his
I’m sure you’ll agree that he’s proved both
able and helpful.
I welcome him to the team and ask
your patience while he
learns many facets of his new role.
Out there they are bombed-to-nothing,
filed to one-sidedness, starved,
ejected by outrageous floods,
earthquakes with no sense
of timing or propriety,
but often a preference
for children in rickety schools.
Ears press down to speaking debris.
Is work a ‘necessary evil’?
Office workers lose approximately
two hours daily
reading news websites, ebaying,
chewing up email, fending off
fidgety distracted colleagues, scoffing
pink and yellow cupcakes.
Following on from the death of Bob Smithson
last Monday, Smithson employees world-
wide have been escalating messages of
sympathy, prayers and condolences, all of which
are moving and on a global basis I thank you personally.
Aptly described by one employee as ‘an icon of integrity, leadership, philanthropy and business acumen’, Bob Smithson will be
sadly missed. The family are currently progressing options
for a public honouring of Bob. A nine-minute webcast
of the funeral will stream to your inboxes on Thursday.
who chills everyone is suddenly
being terribly nice, baking cakes, everyone
is suspicious –
to put on a suit, walk upright –
to be in the world: flourish up and work,
as the parents, the toaster,
house not falling down,
the family itself spun whole by years
of making, desires tamed and made to flow
in single file.
Each day a threat
by human rage,
a mother in the garden
smashing the family pottery –
and Heidegger said
only when things break down do we begin to see.
The paramedics come into the cafe –
jaunty in their blue and red uniforms, their solid black
police boots. Two espresso, their phones on the table,
antennae like the half-listening ear of a dog, they
dangle from the emergency that hasn’t
yet happened, that is less than a hum in fine air, she
with bright auburn hair, laughing.
He sits back, arms folded, legs outstretched like a man
who has the whole morning newspaper before him.
Skill tugs at the muscles, drives
the bones, the mind keen,
the child perfecting her scales,
blocking the din.
The child understands the adults,
ignores them, thinks she is innocent,
making herself. She reads
the dictionary, the bible,
dinnerplates of language,
at school dwarfs herself
with long words.
she walks her book in the schoolyard, stalks
blind through netball.
The thing we work for (rarely
work for its own sake) vanishes;
work persists, then too is lost:
the black hole of energy burns
through hands and minds.
A heaven somewhere,
a palm tree, a beach, a child, an apartment,
the quiet hum of one’s power
of being that flexes around days,
carries futures, saying
world is made for me as I make it:
small enough to garden by hand, large
enough to outscope me,
for I must not lose surprise: this illusion
I with my labour can sustain.
Elevators dim-lit, dark-polished all day
by a woman from Bosnia, cheerful as Sisyphus,
who greets you with a suicidal smile, her trolley
of rank cleaning products makes her sneeze,
fills her eyes with red wires; she apologises, grins.
She scales her never-done job, a moonwalker
trailing her cargo through the semi-mirrored
obsidian tangle of offices, herself glowing back at her.
You ride up with her, pin-prick halogen lights,
mirrored walls you vanish into, she polishes.
Through a fifth-floor window you can watch
the new tallest building in Melbourne being built
one gold brick at a time.
The city sprawls
in late-mid-morning, the workers
housed inside their work: time
is everywhere engaged.
The office a portal,
point of stillness from which the world extends;
a kind of sublime.
On the seventh floor the company director
muses on his monthly
email to all staff.
Three slabs of sky behind him, he faces
the fourth wall.
The football season is upon us
and business too progresses . . .
© Petra White
Woman and Dog
A woman and a dog walked all day
beside the non-moving canal.
People who walk dogs displace themselves:
the dog sniffs and leads, harnesses
a human soul, spirit and flesh
willing or not. It’s human-dog eyes
cradle the walkable world – a happy place –
a brimming here-and-yet. The canal
neither followed nor lagged behind.
There was the simplified world, on either side, green
fields and red houses. There was the little pub
they always got to.
So long they trudged, two bodies and one
soul, so many miles,
the paws began to bleed.
Little flecks of ruby blood glittered the black
rubbery pads, as if the dog was inking out
all the sadness of the woman.
And the woman, being just strong enough
gathered up the dog (not a small one)
and carried it all the way home, wherever that was.
© Petra White
The fattest eternity is childhood,
minutes stuffed with waiting
and the just-there world
deferred to an afterlife of joy
where magically we outgrow
what could tell us what to do:
we sat cross-legged on the floor, quiet
as the glad-wrapped biscuits on the supper-table,
a summer school night boiling over
with nightmare prayers
in somebody’s Adelaide living room
fed air by a cooler on rollers,
our pastor bellowing at the helm,
hell’s ore in his flame-cheeks.
Gorby, Reagan and Thatcher went
chasing round his head with bombs:
explode the world and bring
the roaring-back of God-the-parent!
The grown-ups stamped their thonged
and sandalled feet on the carpet:
the mortgages and what they worked for,
the chip pan bubbling every night at six,
the hand-me-downs all forced to fit
oh take it Satan, it’s all yours . . .
Any day we’d be whooshed up to heaven;
and the kids at school, their parents,
sucked up and funnelled
into Hell’s gated suburb, far out
where no public transport would travel.
But my brother and I were saving up
for a trampoline: it’s coming required
every cent of our faith
that we might allowed to remain
in the human world a bit longer,
to have it and jump on it: to believe
in the leaden feet sunk in the cool summer grass,
the springy canopy shooting us up
above the apple trees, all day and well into dusk,
touching heaven with our hair,
our tongues, our fingertips, then somersaulting,
shrieking and tumbling
back down into the miracle, or whatever
it was: the thing not yet taken, the present-tense
cast off by the adults for the kids to play with.
© Petra White
ODE TO COLERIDGE
On the toughness of the physical soul
Feeling around in the human,
as if inside a sack, soul fends for itself,
fends off, prunes, cultivates,
makes itself up, says
‘is this right?’
(and tries to be reasonably consistent)
tending itself, lurches like Sisyphus
into forwardness, backwardness,
urges itself to form a comma,
something next, next,
please move along now, please,
same again thanks,
Those Dialogues of Soul and Body
seem bureaucratically polite.
The one complains of being chained by the other,
much like the married,
each certain of its own bounds.
What is darkness,
where does it come from?
Heavy as our fleshload,
Here comes the train in the tunnel
(a cold blasty wind comes first and stiffens us)
will you step in front of it by some
some trees, blue blue blue
a three-legged dog
running as if on four,
a pet pigeon on the windowsill,
feet planted on the tired old clay of its own shit,
or a lone goat, tethered to a field it eats tidy,
skies and delicious rain
there on brain’s doorstep.
Wordsworth climbed Mt Snowdon,
setting off at couching-time to meet
the climbing sun
‘forehead bent Earthward, as if in opposition set
against an enemy’.
grimly, grimily out of primordial self,
bearing what can’t be left,
skull’s cargo, hellbent thoughts.
What does he want?
To survive, a wandering human,
by some ‘fit converse with the spiritual world’.
Nature his accomplice.
To climb a mountain is to climb himself.
His childhood is a looming rock,
silently glided towards
by the man remembering,
the child approaching,
then one or the other or both
oaring away in terror.
He cannot know who stole the boat.
‘There was a boy’,
he mutters to himself.
Nothing much happens.
The naked moon
pleases with a tricky light, the mist
rears up and writhes
its ‘ocean’ about his shoes.
His mind, greedy,
opens its trap.
Magician, he breathes free
the soul he keeps chained
like an animal inside him.
© Petra White
These poems were previously published in the collections The Incoming Tide (John Leonard Press, 2007) and The Simplified World (John Leonard Press, 2010). My sincere thanks to Petra for sending me these fantastic poems and allowing me to republish them on here.