Two poems


    National Portrait Gallery, Canberra


At five, the doors click shut. Security

walks a final circuit and clocks off. The eyes

        of the prominent are lost in the middle distance


beyond office, sports field or studio. Hair and skin

of oil, watercolour, polymer, the reassurance

        of names everyone should know. Not ours –


we are without shelter, without conservation.

But they cannot keep us out. At dusk,

        white walls become grey, darken.


When it’s safe, someone gives the signal.

From the coal-black cloakroom chiming

        with empty hangers, through a broken


shutter at the gift shop, from underneath

the doors of an out-of-service toilet, we emerge,

        move through the gallery as smoke


or pheromones. In the dim cool,

minute cracks in the canvas, paper, plaster,

        open like pores to breathe us in.


Morning, the first visitor examines

each portrait, as if trying to remember

        or forget. Something about that black scar


of paint, the dishevelled bed in the background,

soft fold of belly-flesh, or the polished glass

        from which his own face gazes back.



When a line of determined ants carries away my nail clippings


I remember this pale skin will be taken by the sky

my knees are already dedicated to the cracked earth


lungs, possessed by the ghost gums along the railway line

my inner ear, by shivers and nothingness


these feet belong to some restless, prayerful abstraction

language waits to inherit my expressive fingers


shares in my larynx are held by everyone I love

my blood, though, is anyone’s


cloud-drift, mould-bloom, worm-hole, the waxing moon,

the cat’s sensitive chin – all hold interests in this flesh


my leaning tower of vertebrae can go to the highest bidder

these tear ducts, to the lowest


sometimes it seems lost property holds my tongue

but who owns these elbows? this nose? these lymph nodes?


some valves and tissues will be given to people waiting patiently in a line

my chest cavity has given itself to the song of shy birds


and these eyes, to the claim of your eyes 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 3, 2020 as "Two poems".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Andy Jackson writes about bodily difference. His most recent book, Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold, was shortlisted for the 2020 John Bray Poetry Award.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.