Scene from an Athens newspaper office


Feeling the heat
Scene from a newspaper office, Athens

The sports reporter scoffs French fries
as if his life depends on it, and sated,
falls asleep on his computer.

The music expert spends the nights
in lonely bars, disconsolate;
the women almost work themselves to death.

The pagemakers wear masks
of chronic weariness, and stubbled cheeks:
stoics conditioned by a heartless press.

The ringmaster, once leonine,
a lean and mean and hungry beast
whose twitching tail is feared more
than the lash, bares yellowed teeth.

Smoke rises from untidy desks
as from a ship that's sinking fast,
taking all hands on its burning deck ...


On Likavittos
Athens 18/10/11

Attenuated spires of cypress,
spiky octopus of aloes,
cyclamen the earth hoards
for the autumn,
precious golden crocus;
old woman who tends St George's,
stringing beans contentedly;
friendly tortoise, ambling
to meet me on the dusty crest;
cicadas chanting their vibrato
to the noonday sun,
as for millennia their kind has done;
streets leading to Syntagma Square
choked with banners, protesters;
graffiti on a wall in Ambelokipi:
silence is violence.


Early cyclists

Any moment now, I'll glimpse
the skimming Cyclops eyes;
they'll hurtle past
in cohorts riding three abreast,
bug-headed creatures of the dawn
and twilight,
black with neon stripes,
leg-pistons pumping whirring wheels,
words snatched by slipstream's
ripping sound
along the cusp of dark,
unzipping daybreak.



Each time I glimpse the surgeon
there seems less of him:
thin as a whippet's shadow,
wafer-passenger in lifts,
between sightings he seems to wane;
only his eyes and lips
bear intimations of vitality,
as if those lives
he wrests back from the brink
have sapped his strength.

Yet I sense he will not cease
to grapple with those toxic seeds.
Emaciated to the bone,
quietly he carries on,
and life keeps taking from him
for its needs.


Spitfire Girls*

Suddenly the sky became their space,
the air their gauge,
rushing past the Spitfire cockpit's
bubble and the fuselage;
the lives they had been groomed for
sloughed off like constricting, outgrown skin
as chrysalis gave way to wings,
strictures sank in slipstream.

Powder puffs and lacquered nails
were not anomalous to this:
glamour helped to steel the nerves,
the better to remain aloft
in aircraft you had never flown
in practice tests — fledgelings
in control of Blenheims,
Wellingtons and Tiger Moths —
antiquated rigs; new models
fresh from the assembly line;
pristine manual tucked into
boot-top fleece for reference:
no aviation charts or navigators,
just the naked eye
alert for landmarks far below,
hills camouflaged by cloud ahead.

Then came vicissitudes of peace
when Spitfire women dreamed of flight,
never to regain the skies:
shackled to the earth by red tape,
gender, dearth of openings,
caught between the thermals
of intense desire and irony —
birds of diverse feathers, born
for heaven's gate, only to find
the leather glove and tether of the falconer
had realigned, to redefine their sense
of time untrammelled within boundless space,
pulsing like adrenalin from fingertips —
and rein them in.

*The women of the ATA, Britain's Air Transport Auxiliary, 1939–1945

Jena Woodhouse headshotPoet and fiction writer Jena Woodhouse was a Hawthornden Fellow in 2011. Her novel Farming Ghosts (2009) and short story collection Dreams of Flight (in production) are both published by Ginninderra. She has just received first place for a poem in the Greek-Australian Cultural League's annual literary competition. 

Topic tags: new australian poems, Jena Woodhouse



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Existing comments

Loved Spitfire Girls. Heroic women who helped the war effort, the almost forgotten. Till now. Thanks Jena.
Donna Schabe | 18 October 2012

Les Wicks | 19 October 2012

Woodhouse poem: early cyclists , 'unzipping daybreak', lovely.
Bill Wootton | 19 October 2012

Wow ! Beaut poems !
Tessa McMahon | 20 October 2012

I have always enjoyed this writer's work, and these poems are no exception."Surgeon" struck a powerful chord and evinced strong emotions. I could almost see the beseeching eyes of patients and their loved ones, drawing ever more miracles from his thin frame. As the mother of a sick young girl several years ago, my eyes followed such a surgeon, silently begging him to be my daughter's saviour. Like the surgeon in the poem, he seemed to give all to his work, keeping impossible hours day after day, yet with a brightness of spirit that shone from tired eyes and calm reassurances from patient lips. This poem seems like a tribute to such dedicated people.
Nelia Hennessy | 21 October 2012

Thank-you for sharing these poems Jena. Your work is always elegant drawing strong visual imagery with eloquent and expressive line. I particularly enjoyed "Surgeon" and "Early Cyclists".
Betty Beath | 24 October 2012

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