Emma LewEmma Lew

Working Note

What I try for in my poems is an effect similar to an experience I had years ago while visiting a touring exhibition of American Pop Art. I was standing up close in front of a painting of a long, low building that was rising out of a background of lurid yellow-green. The style was unfamiliar among the Warhols and Oldenburgs, so I wasn’t giving it careful attention. But I remember being jolted out of my numb gaze when I noticed a small patch of flame and smoke over on the far right-hand side of the roof. This serene, unassuming building was actually on fire—the horror and absurdity of it! An instant of tremendous surprise and disorientation, at once disturbing and thrilling; a feeling of being violently reawoken that was delicious and compelling. I didn’t think to look for the artist’s name at the time, and only years later discovered it to be Ed Ruscha. The search itself, though, somehow also became part of that long, mysterious moment.











Falconer’s Dawn

What is the motive of light?
Birds rise like night from the soil,
beautiful wing-made murmur fading,
the intake of breath
so slight and slurred.

From my maps
the lake is nameless.
The moon seems too heavy,
stumbling in cloud.
Birds have moved into my arms
and are flourishing.
The glistening, brittle
world is mine.

Birds fly as the threnody pours.
Let them come twice
past my outstretched hand.
Let them tangle and list
and submerge
as day throws down
its berries and pearl.



                  Find some truly hard people.

Leagues apart, and in what latitudes together,
in the most forlorn regions of the oceanic city,
and here moving softly through the listening crowd,
we came and we came and we left our machines
at night, and everywhere hidden wires had only
to be touched. Class hatred had then just dawned.
Cables of denial sped. I remember how the tolling
of a bell would flood, the insurrection surely
cutting my face. Some high official was thrown
into the river, and this became the meshing
of the wheels, and when lightning struck that part
of the old palace, all the theatres were deceived,
or deceived themselves. We were the hired
and the depraved, thin and dark and unjust,
prepared to burst in that ray of light when it came,
hearing nothing and scribbling until the stupid lamp
began to smoke. Everyday we had to thieve
and dive and take the lifted hand of destiny
for a dream. The mud seemed a merciful provision,
the village did its best to teach us fear. Or was it
the darkness of expectation and secret emissaries
who had come the same way? We were shadowy
in our own eyes as well, denouncing only
when silence failed. Depots, arsenals – we could
dare those raids with new extremes of shivering
force, and death was just a tremor far down,
the master who lies in the heart of the serf.
What we were whispering became the clamour,
so the cargo of the ship was unseen and not
thought of, and we had been carrying
impeccable papers, fine ardour among us
on our straight path. My wound sparkles
at these memories: how victory was so often
a collapse, how the pines ran past our sledges
like soldiers, and the wind was always pressing
on the earth. The very themes were existence
and did not dissolve, for the true mind does not
need a body for its life, like the bombs, which
we knew must come, spoiling the small pleasures
they dispensed.



I have not had fortune but I have seen the resplendent moths
of Daghestan. I have travelled through clusters of their castles
and found them wingless, lain deep, like the oak apple.
And in Angola I have seen hundreds of butterflies grieving.
I have seen butterflies swerve like the fiddle and the bow.
I once heard a boy sing on the deck of a Black Sea steamer,
There is a small and fragile bug!
                                                                                 The respiration,
the pulses of the heart, the beating that bursts the lid of the shell.
In sago I found the weevil itself, and I smelled the perfumes
of the males. Often I’ve dreamt of the wasp’s tumbled journey,
the mosquito’s guilt and thrift, how the ant slipped down
to haunt the grass, how the hornet left only the skin of my fruit.
For insects have a beauty that hurts, and that may even darken
the sky. They drum with their bellies upon the twig. They have
learned to cleanse their blood with light. I have seen a mantis
of a delicate mauve impaled on the flea’s single spine. I have
known the mere segmented grub, and I have shared the earth
with lice. In the forests of the Congo, I recorded the stickiness
of swarms. O unforgettable flies of Palestine! O cicadas of Spain
in the year I was born!


Riot Eve

I haven’t, thank God, become a perpetrator.
I never caused the death of others, though I must utter these words.
I hold myself back, as the shrewd son of my father.
I see it like this: a lion will attack a gazelle.

We have one life. Why spend it being feebly decent?
We see but one night; we contain others.
I ask myself if this path and all those terrible detours were really necessary.
There is a reason for everything, and our catastrophe.

Imagine then that a father returns and doesn’t speak about any of this.
He carries me on his shoulders during the long walk in the forest.
Imagine a man – so polite, so clean;
his swiftness, his warmth, his murderous ideas.

Look, nothing in this world is perfect.
This is the condition, now growing darker.
History has shown us: the Black Death, the Borgias...
I await the real wooden anger that shapes me.

The gardens have roared for days.
The wind bends the trees. It is like a sign.
I hear of a palace rising.
It is just after midnight, and I will obey you.


The Recidivist

There’s a long-subdued fire bursting
in my erotic medicine chest;
the moon in its bruise and limping fiends,
and flesh from the palm of the hand I lost.

I’ve always loved the haunted moment
when night refills with fresh blood,
and dark bare death’s speaking human words:
I’ve done it. I do it. I’ll do it again.

Atoning dust blows here every day,
ancient sunlight cools my sins.
Get me out of here, there’s a shortage of coffins
in this bitter hemisphere.


Holes and Stars

I just got my memory back.
Few loons and I would live
in a corner at the airport,
not for the sequence
but the agony we had to be in,
running off with the money
and faking our own deaths.
Will technology make me remote?
I don’t know where I am,
I never know what’s going to happen.

Everything is quiet,
stunned yet animated,
evolving yet wilting.
If I want to read a newspaper,
I reach out for it with my hand.
Funny how you’ve taken my theory
and decided to call it your own.
They will be making snow tonight;
it will be beautiful and we can afford it.
Come quickly,
by yourself,
bring the negatives.


The Baby’s Diamonds

The turtle
in her own hot shell
came home without jewels.

The fainting trout
was advised
not to stumble.

At five a.m.
a diver went in
after the baby’s diamonds.

The sea was only
its perfect self,
red without a qualm.



Goodbye to Maybe

Of what earthly use is Madame Bovary to me
when I am drawn into a situation
containing those very elements I should avoid?

Concepts of need are awash in oil dollars,
hoax callers are jamming the emergency lines,
and the fireworks were my only pleasure all year.

This gesture of putting my hand to my eye
alerts the world that I’m still alive.

My heart is empty of all snakes,
the game is played and I throw the game away.

I may fall asleep on the railway station platform
and dream not totally pastoral dreams.

Like maintenance men clinging to steel,
I open my mouth to make this cry.




They speak of stridency and of nothingness
and wrap up their shoulders in grey light.
I want to walk again in this miry place.
I want the fever and fret beneath, though
it’s something I forget, like pain.

Sky a tent immaculately pitched and noon’s
ghosts are creeping across paddocks.
Low, lame winds grow in the rushes—
the smoky pool mad in its sleep. I have
found earth still adhering. I wait for storms
to crack the glamour open.

I don’t know the language of this country.
It begins in mists, sombre wild bees. Moss
sophistry while I lie listening. Dark snake
rumours grave in my ear.

Butterflies edged with wonder. Sly harrier,
cool stealing the day. A wraith’s day—
slow and gentle and ravaged. This whole
calm world’s sweet venom. My puritan
soul half in a sea, clawing deep in the peace
of mud.



Some of the following poems have appeared previously in journals and other publications, including Verse(US), Grafitto (Can), HEAT (Aust), PN Review (UK), Thylazine (e-zine), Masthead (Aust), New Poetries II (UK), Sport (NZ), Hanging Loose (US), Landfall (NZ), Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets (Paper Bark Press, Aust 2000) and The Wild Reply (Black Pepper, Aust 1997).



Bio: Emma Lew’s The Wild Reply (Black Pepper Press 1997) was awarded the Association for the Study of Australian Literature’s Mary Gilmore Award for a first book of poetry (1998), and The Age Book of the Year Award: Dinny O’Hearn Poetry Prize (1997 joint winner). Her poetry has been published widely in various literary journals and her recent work will appear in a chapbook (Potes & Poets, San Francisco 2001). Emma’s poetry appears in Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets (eds. Michael Brennan and Peter Minter, Paper Bark Press 2000), Australian Verse: An Oxford Anthology (ed. John Leonard 1998) and in the forthcoming anthology New Music: Contemporary Poetry (ed. John Leonard, Five Islands Press 2001). Emma lives in Melbourne.

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