Manly Art Gallery & Museum
Ekphrasis selected to be read in celebration of the artworks in the Gallery’s “Spirit of Nature” exhibition.
Curated by Michele Seminara
Kathryn Fry, K. A. Rees, Samuel Elliott, Anna Kerdijk Nicholson, Judy Johnson, Marie McMillan, Magdalena Ball,
Eileen Chong, Jill Carter-Hansen, Gareth Jenkins, Martin Langford, Ruth Nelson, Justine Poon,
Shale Preston, Peter Lach-Newinsky, Teena McCarthy, Mohammad Ali Maleki, Lorne Johnson & Anne Casey.
Archived in Pandora
from Meuse Press –
Swifts in the Sclerophyll Kathryn Fry
after Gill Burke’s 'The Nectar Eater'
You might wonder how those feathers
came to be: the streaks of red above
and below the beak, the cheek and crown
washed in blue, lemon splash here and
there, the remarkable greens, the long fit
of a scarlet-trimmed tail. As you might
consider the ruffle of stamens and rub
of nectar in robusta, maculata, gummifera
and other woodland trees, the grey box
and white, the blackbutt and ironbark.
Our evergreens. And you might suppose
when it first began, this blossoming of
purpose: the birds from across Bass Strait
to lean into flower after flower and lerp, over
winter. The sure, swift flights. You might stop
to simply be under the chatter and busyness.
Yet, most of all, you’ll know the price of this
feasting. How it can persist. Why it must.
Swamp Mahogany K. A. Rees
after Gill Burke’s ‘The Nectar Eater’
We are flying again. Across the Tasman
headphones jacked in—volume dialled
to eleven, ignoring the cabin crew as they mime
the brace position, how to inflate a life jacket
with a tube of plastic; how to blow a whistle
to attract attention if we plummet
into the Strait. This is only
one type of emergency: a thing broke, exploded
or gave up the ghost—expiration; immediate.
There are other emergencies too
grey to notice in the first misting of snow.
Despite our noise we are missing
each other, songs stretching out, echoing aloneness.
I’ve been in the trees, searching through stands
feathers stroking the skin of blue gum, the tickle
of white floral circles, honeyed buds within reach. Now,
the long return to the beaches, searching for trees:
Winter flowering Spotted Gum; Red Bloodwood
Ironbark. White Box. So few Swamp Mahogany.
Bandicoots were bastions Samuel Elliott
after Julia Sample’s ‘Once, high on the hill’
When the Bandicoots were only and all
Tones were sepia and
Lush when vegetation
Was a gilded green kingdom
Silence was golden and strident sounds
Were blissfully rare so was
On the hill
On the creatures that dwelled in its manifold embrace
Darkness was a friend
The shores were mighty and steep
The waves warbled
Carriers of the ocean’s brooding
But dry land was paradise
The dead of night was the heart of all life
A time of industry
Bandicoots were bastions
They supped no more that most
They returned more than they took
They grunted their contentment
Movers and shakers
Moving and turning over the
Rich heady fertile soil
Never mistreated always worshipped
Then an intruder
Darkened their dominion
Cleaving the virginal waters
Offloading a cargo of a scourge
Man many of man
Their hordes spread as their singular hand curled into a fist
That thudded the earth decimating
The Bandicoot people were eradicated
But not all
They the resourceful
Burrowed deep and prayed hard
For mankind’s reckoning
For the return of normalcy and the splendour of
Closure and certainty are still denied them
In this repurposed realm
Where the killer monster cats and dogs rove and reign and grow fat
On the unwary and the bereft
There are still the brave few Bandicoots
Holding subterranean parliament
For man to turn on man
Then when the dust settles
So too will the ground
Nature will breathe easy not bated
As the Bandicoots arise to rebuild
The grandmotherly night will take her eternal mantle again
Host endless new markets in her zenith
The harmonious babble will carry out as it used to way back when
Hushing the envious encroaching ocean
As the gentle hues repair the vista once
Elsewhere people have never felt you—but what are you? Anna Kerdijk Nicholson
after Elizabeth Harriott’s ‘GBF’
You are impact, rib-affecting, long term,
you feel rare, a bit poetic (worthy of sensitivity,
slightly out-of-place in society). In the corner house,
messy and shambolic, maybe they don’t care.
Your booming hum comes from the wetter land.
I wonder if the school kids at the bus
or the tradies feel you. I text my friend when
I think I’ve found you on the Internet.
I don’t quite know what it is, this me and you
thing. It’s certainly not you, most disruptive,
unidentifiable, physically present sound.
Round here, the luscious reeds are nearly gone.
I guess you’re not in the alpaca paddock
or in with the swings and trampoline.
I also guess you’re ex-spawn—and static,
if your constant sonorities prove the place.
I want corroboration that some other person
has woken and looked at the speckled blackness
in a new place and found your resonance
in their throat, in their being.
Brittle Midge Orchid Judy Johnson
after Rebecca Baird’s ‘Bauer’s Midge Orchid’
Perhaps he saw in you his own redemption.
Ferdinand Bauer: the Leonardo of Natural History painting.
In his lifetime he remained un-lauded. Barely published
He left no portraits behind. No diaries of his journeys
to chart the floral and faunal minutiae
of his newly discovered world.
At best, a handful of letters remain
and they are guarded. No way to read the man behind the man.
It is as though, as artist,
he desired his acts of replication, if they must include him
to do so, not in a realm above his subjects
but instead in the measure
of just another
environmental curiosity: a shy creature read only by the tracks
that his brush left behind.
As artist aboard Investigator, Bauer circumnavigated Australia
with Matthew Flinders.
There is that half-true cliche that no man is
an island, but the other half is that an island
eventually erodes the most diffident of men, exposing the stark cliffs,
battering waves of his loneliness.
After Flinders’ ship was condemned,
Bauer stayed behind in Port Jackson, an aging bachelor,
longing to pick up the faint scent
of his last chance at happiness.
Instead he found you, and in you, his true reflection.
You were the last plant he collected and painted in 1805
just before he sailed home, alone, to England.
Like a wife, you took his surname: baueri.
He called you Brittle Midge, for your fragility and for
the diminutive flies who were your pollinators.
He raised you above
the obscurity of your retiring nature, as he never quite
managed to raise himself.
I think of both of you:
elusive, clinging to the margins. Neither of you haunting
the habitats of showy blooms
—those other native orchids who brazenly jut from rocks
on sandstone peaks
or else find a high perch in the fork of a tree.
The artists who push themselves forward for posterity—
You were both more at home in leaf-litter’s camouflage.
Back in London,
I imagine Bauer dreaming
that your single cylindrical leaf,
wrapped tightly around your stem
and the cloak he gathered snug to his body
in Winter, as he wandered the banks of the Thames
were one and the same.
He would have known back then what it was
that would make you endangered.
Your impossibly fussy,
incurably romantic habit,
so like his own,
of waiting year after year
to be stimulated into flower
by the perfumed intoxication
of the perfect texture of droplets
in the exact volume
of autumn rain.
He must also have realised, the world does not cater
for the likes of you two.
It was enough that you took his name as your name
(no woman ever did).
And in return he took the tiny, perfect red bloom
a miniature replica of his secret heart.
Top Billing Marie McMillan
after Marguerite De Fondaumiere’s ‘Our soul has flown away’
Our bodies some artists have painted,
extolled breasts, curves, nipples and arms,
the crack bifurcating cheeks’ dimpled,
not to mention l’origine du monde*
Avian creatures some artists have painted,
some in trees or sabulous habitat,
extolled crests, their feathers, their plumage
variegated or multi-coloured,
speckled eggs, nests an’ legs short an’ slight
‘Top billing’, I gave
for extolling beccus so hefty and broad,
so puissant when pecking and probing,
mandibles there in arabesque curved
Simple, striking an’ sickled Sandpiper,
from treeless Siberian tracts,
has visited our shores of Pittwater
eye keenly invigilating
molluscs, biofilm or mites,
not to mention preening or probing,
when not feeding or pondering leaving
While I, ‘neath the arch of your beak,
so keratinous and audacious,
see the oval of infinity
* a painting by Gustave Courbet
orchid inventory Magdalena Ball
after Rebecca Baird’s Bauer’s ‘Midge Orchid’
it’s always a matter of scale
incremental changes remain invisible
until it’s too late, blind embossed
the image of an orchid receding
a body in motion
so easily unhinged
it’s always been a matter of when
fleshy terrestrial sister
I feel the brush
stems, stalks, bracts
against my face
unhinged by the lightest wind
by growth, progress, heat, and of course
hunger, the ever-present danger
your beauty a curse
it’s a matter of urgency
size doesn’t indicate importance
or the speed of decline
sound is slipping back
a Doppler shift
birdsong altered into silence
dry sclerophyll forest, moss over sandstone
the abstracted impression of what
you once were
Sweet truth Eileen Chong
after Wendy Morrison’s ‘Salt’
I push a fingertip along the rail:
salt. My hair stiff and obedient
in the weighted air. Salt blooms
within the kiln; eats away at steel.
The long march, the spinning wheel.
The wife who would look: a crystallised
pillar. Blocks of currency dissolving.
Rake the ponds of salt, let them shrivel
for the harvest. Pink like a stain that won’t
come clean. The magic salt grinder fallen
from the captain’s ship, sunk to the bottom
of a salted sea. Were it so simple,
this knowledge that we are all but salt—
Sweat and tears. Sweetness and truth.
To The Barking Owl Jill Carter–Hansen
after Negin Maddock’s ‘The Barking Owl’
Could there be any doubt about that call at night-
your call - when creatures pause and freeze in fright?
Your talons tightly clutch that ancient bough
prepared - to thrust you forward and down
towards your prey, as evening lengthens
on a closing wing of light.
Your prey - I pray for them sometime,
those creatures - that your golden orbs of sight, magnify
to fit within your expectations and your appetite.
With powerful wings prepared, you wait the time to strike,
assessing subtle movements far below.
Those soundless wings - their feathers lightly fringed -
defy the normal turbulence of air, so quiet - superbly spread,
a promised shroud descending on your prey,
delivered by a ghost whose talons pierce
a sugar-glider on her maiden flight.
The final mea culpa of the day.
That sacrifice - that gift dropped in your nest
while, resting there, your pleading brood
and faithful partner waits.
She checks the distribution of the meal.
She checks the feathered pattern on your breast,
each season reassured you’ll stay together,
until that final rest.
The Shadowing Gareth Jenkins
after Bernadette Facer’s ‘Coping with salt’
Because I am reading Irradiated Cities
Little Boy and Fat Man
conjure atomic plumes
like bolls of cotton,
strands of wool.
Look how shadowed background
looks like a body's shadow
from that day,
when suddenly only shadows remained,
minus the bodies to make them.
Because of 'make' my mind goes to 'grace' then quickly to 'grease'
but of course the heat
that was nothing like any heat previously known
would have done away with all that and the bodies that held it.
In the night, those that survived the shadowing
called for water
and in the bottom right corner you can see the dark run off.
A beauty in these margins:
the sluice marks
of right to left ink drag,
topographical bottom left
sound wave valley and crest,
new shoots lifting from the top edge,
the organic delicacy
Look how the plumes look like bolls of cotton
and my mind in Wilcannia
steaming around Steamer's Point.
Remember the one that sunk?
And the stories they told of the sinking:
that thing down there in the deep hollow
elbow of the river,
I dare not name.
Because that was 100 years ago,
when water still ran in the Darling,
it is wool, not cotton
that washes ashore from the sinking steamer,
woven into a thick fat plait
falling from a dark neck
shadowed by one last scene
top right: black crust of sky cracked by lit column,
momentary fission of atoms
silent from behind cockpit glass
from within war room
leather recliner crystal decanter
refracting polished mahogany
in depleting afternoon light.
The Line Martin Langford
after Gill Burke’s ‘The Nectar Eater’
We need to draw a line — a line of pipes —
against those who think they’ve a right to complain
if their tap-water smokes, or refuses to flow.
Who are these people?
And what makes them think the stuff’s theirs?
And we need to draw a line — in five-storey blue —
against those who gabble and squawk
about room for the bird with the splotchy red mush.
What is this? Coast-views for cocky?
When we’re not allowed near that blade-ready, high-margin scrub?
We need to draw a line — a line of conveyor-belts —
against those who whinge about sea-levels rising —
Who bought there! Who knew how to read!
And even for those who have lived there for five generations —
Ownership’s no guarantee against natural events!
We need to draw a line — a line of transmission-wires —
hard, high and long: against those
who threaten the hum of a smooth-running grid:
planting unsightly, vertiginous, sickness-inducing, bird-splattering fans
on our personal hills — our proprietary views.
And we need to draw a line:
a line of jocks — each with a weird need
to nuzzle the ears of the strong —
a line of conspiracy-theories and blunt, bare-faced claims —
against those who still believe evidence:
a moist line of private anxieties;
a line of raw memories, pegged out with photos of kids;
a line of resentments, of sour gobs of knowledge;
of lost loves — the sweetness and wreckage of beds —
a line of the needy, who will not — who can’t afford — ever —
to weigh — or to budge.
Honeycomb and Salt Ruth Nelson
after Wendy Morrison's ‘Salt’
I see myself reflected in the waters of Wendy —
A child on holiday at the beach,
climbing on rock shelves, through the tunnel, dark and a little frightening.
What is obvious is the mingling of yellow and blue-green; the
of water over rock’s honeycombed weathering; the saltiness
as the sea bites your mouth. The urgency of its flavour.
I remember a boy shaking his thin country body as he spat —
It’s salty! Who put the salt in?
I think of a school friend driving west today
with a trailer full of food and supplies
to where farmers haven’t planted their winter crop
because there’s no moisture in the soil. None at all.
Out there, men shoot themselves after they shoot their cattle
and women have thick forearms, from holding up so much over so many years.
I remember someone in the playground saying —
From a geological perspective, the Earth will be fine.
Then we all looked at our babies, oblivious to the dirt and salt.
Coping with salt Justine Poon
after Bernadette Facer’s ‘Coping with salt’
the channels all converge here.
from the air a tightening
weave of river delta and dense
like the atomic bloom
of your stems in close up,
furred with salt.
your leaves a spine of succulent tongues
entwined at the edge of the land,
snaring feet and sheltering small animals
beneath an unruly lattice
that holds down the salt breath
where the liminal zone exhales.
but it is becoming too much —
like human tastes, there are degrees
to which you welcome the jolt
of brittle crystalline minerals
leaching into your bones.
we can dissect the disaster in slow motion,
parse out the parts that are dying
in the hope that knowledge
will fight the retreat of your wild domain.
hold the image close —
remember, death comes
cell by cell.
Sound pictures Shale Preston
after Rosanna Jurisevic’s ‘Large Eared Pied Bat’
I make sound pictures
As I fly
The pulses I send out
Through my nose and mouth
Return after a slight delay
To a point just in front of
My splendid ears
If there is nothing much about
The pulses slow
And the images are indistinct
But when insects come into my orbit
The pulses quicken into shimmering dioramas
I like to fly around the street lights
To catch the ones who find themselves
Beguiled by the light
And I particularly enjoy
The mezzo-staccato point
Of my sound articulation
Just before I catch the large ones
In my brilliant, expansive wings
I am not shy to underscore my attributes
Far better to impress you with the majesty of my gifts
Than to speak of my fear of losing the hollow of the old tree
That affords me the warmth of my kind
For it too will go
In the interests
Of the strange imperatives
That appear to guide the instincts
Of your kind
Glossy Black Cockatoo Peter Lach-Newinsky
after Avrille Ciccone’s ‘Birds of a Feather’
Still my dignity towers skywards
from this fire continent, my colours
red as flames, black as embers, seven
feathers falling in a flurry of loss,
the slow sad joy of my call stranded,
unheard inside glass tractors, screens,
dailyness, distraction from bone-deep
knowledge that we all inter-are.
Disrupted, displaced, applauded,
shall I close my ancient feathers like
some final fan among the last casuarinas?
Yet perhaps through your dreams
my flight may still drop down gravity
like a wave of black light shining
a spiralling way down through the maze
of compassion, anger, grief, some dark
sense of planet plastic bereft of birdcall,
the silence, the space, the soul I sing.
A Single Black Cockatoo Teena McCarthy
after Avrille Ciccone’s ‘Birds of a Feather’
A poem for Janice aka JBird, 1958-2004
While we stood boiling the billy,
the river whispering
and you declaring
your last will and testament,
your imminent death
a single black cockatoo
flew overhead —
stopped us in our tracks.
We held our breath
as it swooped above
crying out loud as if it knew
that all I could do
was love and comfort you,
my friend of twenty years.
I suggested you head north to Kakadu,
follow the bird
to a place in the sun,
with green trees, pandanas
leaves and crocodiles lurking below.
Later, I was happy to hear
you’d found joy in the Top End; not knowing
it was also where you’d meet your end…
Travelling to our old lookout spot
searching for signs of you
at this moment
a single black cockatoo
again flies overhead —
signaling what — life or death?
Either way, it’s a sight I’ll never forget.
And when the world is quiet,
I look to the sky and smile
story of me and you
and that single, black cockatoo.
Parrot Mohammad Ali Maleki
after Gill Burke’s ‘The Nectar Eater’
I went to the jungle —
It was serene and green,
beautiful and fresh.
The sun was playing in the trees;
it was a scene from nature’s heart.
Deep in the jungle
butterflies danced on flowers,
birds ate from berry bushes
and sang sweet and joyful
messages to their friends.
But I also heard the moan of a bird
from inside a flock of noisy parrots.
I moved closer and saw that one parrot
had fallen to the ground —
It had fine features, rare and brightly coloured.
Feeling pity, I brought it home,
feeding it medicine day and night
until it was strong enough to be set free.
Then I returned my pretty parrot to the wild.
After a few months I visited the jungle
but couldn’t find her anywhere.
Tired and worried, I started home…
when a voice from behind me said Hi.
I saw no one but felt something on my shoulder —
My parrot with some of her young!
She had learned to say hello.
Dear Friends, come —
Let us help this next generation of birds to survive.
Don’t you know that as we rely upon her,
Mother Nature relies upon us?
Red Crowned Toadlets Lorne Johnson
after Helen Clare’s ‘The Red Crowned Toadlet’
When everything was imploding
in our shrinking Pymble apartment,
and we’d both turned ourselves
into Namibian sandstorms,
I’d take lengthy nighttime walks
in delicate summer rain,
through a wide Ku-ring-gai gully
below a shale-capped sandstone ridge
festooned with boronia, fern and banksia,
close to where, in the early twenties,
a returned World War One veteran
built miniature stone pyramids,
a miniature sphinx. The rain
would produce what sounded like
an old Cuban musician slowly scraping
a wooden guiro — really chirruping toadlets,
under leaf litter. I’d carefully dig
them up, cup them in a warm torch-lit hand;
they were grubby red, black and white
humbug-jewels the size of my thumb nail;
still, calm, with delicate throat membranes
pulsating, pulsating, pulsating,
and tiny eyes as dark as scarabs
pinned to a pharaoh’s bandages.
after Ruth Thompson’s ‘Remnant Community’
high on a branch
on a soaring crown
in a grove of trees between
sunbeam starburst leaves
that twists and turns
but goes nowhere
far above the middle of
everything that is all
cicadas calling to prayer
the crash of a branch
in the out there somewhere
a memory infused in cells
falling to earth
immersed engorged dispersed
echo of all that is everything
cycling through dirt to rise
to a branch on a soaring crown
in a grove of trees somewhere
MEUSE PRESS publishes this collection.
All work © the authors.