Poem

Maxine Beneba Clarke
Breath

the night before school starts,

                  our swimmer-tans fading,

 

we cheat, with gozleme,

from the woolworths fridge:

 

fry it golden, and crispy

on the heavy skillet

 

with slices of lemon,

       to acid through guilt

 

add three small fistfuls

of cherry tomatoes:

      quick-picked from the garden,

stunted, but sweet

 

           ooooh, i like these, says my daughter,

(splint hugging left pinky,

    from a hard fractured catch

at pool volleyball)

              they’re teeny-tiny:

        much lollier than shop ones

              so red-red-shiny

 

they burst on your tongue

 

my son’s never liked them,

              and why should we argue?

he pushed aside, quarantined,

with his fork

 

small terracotta stains

bruise his plate, where they rolled

 

days ago,

        when rain arrived,

 

 

the sky bled water

   the colour of rust

 

rushing down the drains,

      temporarily dousing

 

washing plants

and sidewalks

 

         iron-oxide

 

 

and ash

 

 

the night before school starts,

my hands are unsteady:

i slice my finger,

                  and fumble a glass

 

 

 

 

     think

           what will be left

           of the world,

                     for you kids?

 

but say

       can you believe it?

       grade four,

                and grade nine!

 

 

 

 

the morning that school starts,

      my heart’s heavy-tired

 

summer combusted,

        

   all ember

                  and flame

 

brew virus,

      and drone strike,

felled copters from smoke-skies

 

 

there seemed almost nowhere

that death did not roam

 

 

running eager hands

            over all it ached for:

thin, trembling fingers

 

    as blond

 

                 as bone

 

 

koalas drank from plastic;

magpies echoed sirens;

kids cowered in the ocean,

              t-shirts snagging on piers

 

 

              is your hat in your bag?

cutting sandwich, diagonal

        do you remember where your new classroom is?

 

and a warm hand in mine,

              that seems smaller, somehow

 

 

                           at the school gates, i realise

 

                                             i am holding my breath

Maxine Beneba Clarke is The Saturday Paper’s poet laureate, and the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil. She is a winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry.