Mercedes Webb-Pullman (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)
Weightless as a widow
‘s veil, sundown desolation
sets on the river looped
like pregnant belly round the city;
the dead will never live
merely pass through like
Wolf Tone in Arizona
berth booked on Despedida
smoke and river mists
chicory coffee and beignets
Kropotkin on the side.
After all, this is America –
rainy night, suburban
fear in the air, mysterious
and multifold, a drifter’s curse
ship already invisible
on shadow map, a revolution
that never begins, a gift
of doubtful grace
The Wobblies promised
a plan. Ardent palms outline
the boulevard, small town
chatter as if from girls behind their hands
as we pass, heading for the distant
indigo mountains; ridges and canyons
fanned paper cut-outs in the haze
abstract time and space
the whole place like a Maxim gun
broken down into bits and pieces
waiting on a blanket for someone
to remember how to get it back
together. The dot that marks our target
moves away at the rate
of our approach. We know
there’s no place like home,
and no road.
Hotel Noctambulo, ramshackle, a block
square, the empire of insomnia where
strange neighbours prowl in search
of cigarettes, connection, conversation.
I draw the Tower, the Hanged Man.
Festive crowding in the courtyard
but here above in calm shadows
a hand has held me back, palm
overmapped by lines – love, life, girdles
of Venus lost beneath white cicatrices
added by grenades, rocks, barbed wire
unspooling too fast, bayonets in
some bullpen. Who’d dare read
this life? His eyes spit darkness
untuned sparkplugs. He smells
of dynamite and anarchy. He wants
our map. He believes it’s his territory.
Whores at work pass by the corridor
three or four times, bored, incurious
while I try to explain how it changes
daily. Like weather. The sky
lightens before I give it up.
He thanks me.
His courtesy is deadly.
With a diffident ‘whump’
the factory explodes – it’s Sunday
the dizzy courtyard concertinas still
for a moment. We’re already on the river
‘s other side; slow orange blooms climb
up among silver sequin stars and die
into funereal black. We don’t
look back. The compass needle circles
like a scenting dog, sets pointing to
the jumble of slag-heaps and tailings.
Rust, the smell of blood, veins open
and running. We’re no longer sure
where we are, or when we’re Union
or scab. We know this isn’t working.
Austrians in their knitted woollen caps
spit and mutter. Cowboys off shift
toy with motorbikes near the pit head
while tree-fed boilers pump and scream
cars of ore clatter and clank up tracks
to the ramp, dump, circle back and vanish
underground. Furnace lights sullen
through steam like marsh gas, poisonous
and false, laboratory of the new alchemy.
For as long as memory we’ve been a team
of men, though I’m a girl, and others
children still. Word arrives in sand scribbles
left by snakes after a trance session. Some
set off for Gottingen to capture the new
mathematics. We farewell the zeppelin
with all due ceremony; it floats away
the weight and shape of a bloated tic. My
assignment is more sinister. I send my dress
to have its rustles removed, lining replaced
with Italian velvet. I practice prestidigitation.
The doves need more work, but the rabbits
after judicious culling pop in and out of time
as designed. News from the Moroccan
front but no one is sure if the pistolero
who brought it is ours or theirs. The I Ching
warns of fire hidden in mountain. That’s more
like it. An intersection approaches.
As if re-incarnated from a Bardo state I wake
in a barrel in the lazarettes of a ship. Quicksilver
slow this far ago; someone in the Kasbah flutes
with metal castanet accompaniment, hidden
from sight. I recognise the mosque where Jonah
landed – so I’m that side of Gibraltar? But when?
I walk for miles around the deck, exhilarated
without reason. Must be Venice where flotillas
of black gondolas wait to rendezvous. The accents
sound suspect. Austro-Hungarian? I hope
this doesn’t mean The Balkans. Runes reveal
little, but my silver coins show a double
headed eagle. Where is my brigade? Perhaps
Trieste, or Yale, feasting on Gibbsian Vectors;
shocking how current will coil, switch flicked.
But this is Ostend, modern art nouveau for
abandoned lovers in death’s anteroom. No one
keeps tabs on the guests. The French Second
Bureau track the Belgian Nihilist’s cell. We all
were part of this clique, once. Something
too terrible to remember falls dizzily away
out along other space-time axes. Everyone
drinks, forgets with whom, or whether
they’re romantically obsessed. Anarcho-
individualists plot King Leopold’s assassination
as a moral obligation, since Sipico and the Boers
missed the Duke of Wales. The Green Hour tumbles
absinthe, sugar and paraphernalia. Rocco
and Pino’s stolen plans for torpedos circulate
danger! they hiss from lady spies! the shy way
they flirt, years in retreat, still resolute and
insomniac, just more Anharmonic Pencilists
by now in syntonic wireless communication
Maxwell Equations the heart of the matter
the pistolero a crypto-antenna. Later in the bath
I discover a number of bruises. No imagination.
Who spies for whom? Like Colorado, the sorrow
Time regains opacity, lapses through layers
of coal smoke and out-of-season flowers
to the ambiguous coast, sea-side shadows
pleating ever-inwardly, entire neighbourhoods
a mapful, sprawled among villages and dunes.
Vast twilight, cryptic in its suspense, pallid
insinuation. What stirs in the night behind
Earth’s curve? Fog smudges a willow copse
low sun-bleared clouds sketch a hidden
city in shades of taupe and damaged rose –
Shambhala, heart’s home, stained
by lowland’s black sweeping light
temple and visitation, prophecy, madness…
Distracted for a moment by four-note
ukulele chords in the context of timelessness.
What a cruel game – back at the start again
my brigade dismantled, torn apart all
unknowing – illumination, stagnation
holes in space/time implode here, explode
some time else. White cranes on the river
mechanical somehow. Li Po goes
with temple bells. To every thing there is
a season of discontent, Earth mother busy
with teething, young Billy just a kid.
The pistolero wears a bird around his neck
now, smells of ocean, ozone, electric.
A Sumo wrestler discovered on a Cornish coast
dies four hundred years before he’s born. Time
is a nautilis adrift in stygian depths, or a bird
with no legs, disappearing again and again
up its own fundamental orifice. Time is
an invisible agent, known only by its effects.
I’ll be damned if I sign on
with the time brigade again.
Mercedes gained a Diploma in Creative Writing from Whitireia in 2009, Lynn Davidson as poetry tutor. She completed her MA at IIML, Victoria, in 2011, with Chris Price. Poems have appeared in Turbine, 4th Floor, Swamp, Reconfigurations, The Electronic Bridge and other various online journals. Mercedes also reads at open mics whenever possible.