Poetry by Jacqui Malins

WIZARD OF WHITEBRIDGE

My mother’s father, tall, a flourish of white hair 

and bizarre repertoire of snake oil and coffee enemas.

Vibrating massage table, appliances for stretching the spine

chiropractic wall charts, acupuncture needles.

Two grey vinyl lounge chairs his waiting room, where my sister and I

would swing our legs and leaf through People magazines

while he saw patients who came looking for cures 

remedies and the laying-on of hands. 

They found them too – they told us at his funeral.

Behind the curtained consulting rooms 

a workshop scented with oil, concrete 

liniment, shelves to the ceiling stacked 

with jars and margarine containers 

tin cans filled with nails and nuts and bolts

bits and pieces for clever tinkering.

Metal lathe a shrine to which he sacrificed 

the tip of one finger. Engineer of

model trains big enough to ride.

Behind, again, a contained wasteland 

of long grass, one gigantic aloe vera 

a low corrugated iron lean-to.

He had to crawl in. 

I only ever saw him haul out timber

but the big boys next door told me 

he used it to imprison children.

He died four years after being struck.

Strove against the stroke for two

then worked to finish its job with too much strength 

too little dexterity to go quickly.

They cleared out his shed and found a coffin.

Home-made. Fortunately empty. Built, they surmised

to prove how outrageous the price of undertakers.

He was already cremated.

SESTINA FOR FIRE AND DROUGHT

The whole world is this atheist’s temple

and now I fear its death

but I am not ready to take up my shovel

to dig its grave, huddle

for small comfort like sheep

farewell the last birds.

Mud around the shrinking dam preserves birds’

footprints. They come to worship at this damp temple

alongside flocks of dusty sheep.

Some didn’t make it. Death

caught them, they lie rotting behind the living huddle

and the dirt is dried too hard to shovel.

Firefighters wield hoses, shovel 

firebreaks, smother outbreaks. Birds

fly ahead of the front, animals and people huddle.

They don’t want to be burnt offerings at this temple

to placate the forces we’ve ignored, but death

can’t be avoided. Farmers cry for their sheep.

So many carcasses of desiccated sheep

they bring in mechanical shovel

dig a pit to contain the death.

Before they bury them, the carrion birds

benefit, a small comfort. There is no temple

here for the grief-struck to huddle.

Heat and wind shift, a cold front. People huddle

into themselves, pull on jumpers made of sheep

or fibres drawn from plastic bottles. Thoughts, prayers from hilltop temple

are futile, and this southerly might shovel

new fuel onto the fire. The birds

are still, wait to see if this change means life or death.

We know it must come one day, death

but we can choose, in part, how soon and for who. Huddle

close, discuss how we will meet these times. Birds

depend on us, and bees, and fish, people, trees, sheep

too. What will you do? Pick up your shovel

and suffrage to build tomb or temple?

A world without birds would be death

to the spirit, whether or not you subscribe to a temple. Come, huddle

as conspirators, not sheep. It’s a builder’s tool, that shovel.

About the contributor

Jacqui Malins is author of Cavorting with Time (Recent Works Press, 2018), she features at festivals and poetry events, and created poetry shows ‘Words in Flight’ and ‘Cavorting with Time’. She co-founded and organises Mother Tongue Multilingual Poetry events (Canberra). (Photo credit Zach Polis)

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