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".
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