Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Ismene in transit



Selected poems


Ismene in transit, Doha


I step on the moving walkway. I am taken

by that dark river, past an army of shades

standing on the wrong bank with brooms, with mops,

with plastic bin liners. The women

are not veiled, the men don't stop

to look at the golden boys kicking

footballs on giant screens. But they are not

shades: each one I pass is a person,

held here by decree, by a boulder placed

across the mouth. If I walk through a temple

built by slaves, (sending a pittance home

to countries too poor for anyone

to bother waging war over), if I walk

through that temple— even if I see the truth

and look those people right in the eye — if I walk

through that temple, then, who am I? I am

moving through this terminal, not

walking. I am conveyed: a western purse

packed inside expensive luggage, fooled

into believing my own volition —

I could be falling down a well. I breathe

and I remember all that I see, a small stone

falling down the deepest well. No solid ground

to stand upon. Stepping off, I feel my feet swell.



These men are pristine in white, showcased

like fussy and urgent brides. They sucked

the oxygen out of the lounge. Oh, I was sure

I wouldn't banish myself to the family room,

wouldn't bend to the euphemism, but here

I am. Alone, I can breathe in this shabby

small room, nothing like the palace of servants

and alcohol and sweet delights just outside,

the blinds and curtains drawn tight. I lost

my nerve — tonight there were no phlegmatic

businessmen. I need only a sprinkling,

British and Australian passports are best:
lumbering, loud, immune to the spell, drinking beer

and goading each other about the rugby score

though they have never met before and may

never meet again. They cut the tension,

give me cover. The British man, last time,

aware of the service he provided

while he cheered on his beloved Pakistani

cricket team (exiled here, in frank and dusty luxury),

he nodded over the screen of his laptop, and then,

had no further interest in me, which is just

what I want. The glory of civic space —

impossible to recall the taste when it's gone.



As if ripped out of my own chest,

a bird shoots up from behind the sofa, up

to the filthy skylight where a red streak

of dawn anchors the desert sky. It hurls

itself against the glass, hard, then falls,

spinning and cartwheeling like a shot down

plane. Twitches on the family room carpet,

one wing bent at an angle that must be wrong.

I begin to cry out but hold that cry, there can be

no official attention, the bird will not

survive it. How long has it been trapped

in this crypt, willing itself against the glass?

A common pigeon, no curse of royal blood,

no one cares if it lives or dies, this bird

that will do anything to survive. Small stone,

the deepest well. No one will compose

songs for the people who built this airport,

whose bones were broken when the bricks were laid,

no chorus will speak their name. No one

remembers my sister, either, they only

remember her name. But I remember —

her hands, her mouth, her breath on my shoulder

in our childhood bed. Should I leave water

for this pigeon, or wring its bony neck?


Note on 'Ismene in Transit, Doha':

Ismene is Antigone's pragmatic sister in Sophocles' play. She tries to convince Antigone not to martyr herself over burial rites for their (already) dead brother. Seamus Heaney translates the thrust of her argument as: 'Life is for the living.'

The 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held in Qatar. It has been estimated that more than a thousand migrant workers have been killed building the stadiums for this event, working in appalling conditions. Migrant workers make up 90 per cent of Qatar's population.





They are here when I get home from the school run.

My face wet with a storm I couldn't

see coming, I'm holding the steering wheel

like it can help me. On the front grass, under

the trees, their raucous want and call carries down

the years, thousands of years. Forty white cockatoos

in my front garden, cousins of dragons.

Up close, each one as large as a circus toddler

teetering on a tricycle, under the whip.

But they are not caged, no one keeps them.

Stripping my trees of all their seeds, all

there is to eat. When they call they fill

the air with dinosaur, vocalise conquest, feast.

I get out of the car and they barely register

me, a high-vis crest raised like an eyebrow,

then a turned back. I look at their beaks

and feel my fingers crushed inside;

their cold lizard eyes and their wild, wild hearts.



Lisa BrockwellLisa Brockwell lives on a rural property near Byron Bay. Her poems have been published in the Spectator, the Canberra Times, the Weekend Australian, Meanjin and Best Australian Poems. Her first collection, Earth Girls, was published by Pitt Street Poetry in 2016 and commended in the Anne Elder Award.

Topic tags: Lisa Brockwell, poetry



submit a comment

Existing comments

Beautifully and viscerally moving; I am placed right there, immediate yet anonymous bystander in each scene. Thank you.

Richard Jupp | 19 June 2019  

Re: Ismene in transit. Wow.

Tina | 19 June 2019  

Some poetry!

john frawley | 19 June 2019  

Ismene in Transit has been one of my favourite poems, ever since I first read it a few years ago. It puts into words all the harrowing and complex feelings I have had, going through airports like Dubai, for example; or re-reading and watching 'The Handmaid's Tale', and thinking 'but I have been in similar places where this kind of thing is happening in my own life.' It also reminds me of women in my own family, in the not-very-distant past, who have also done so much, so invisibly - like the 'shades' in the poem - and doing it right up against such oblivious and undeserved privilege. It's so important to witness, and to acknowledge - and may it lead us to welcome refugees and economic immigrants, and stand strong for western liberal democratic values. That the poet has managed to convey all this with such beautiful language and arresting imagery (that bird ...) is the miracle of poetry, and of a great writer. Thank you.

Laura Bloom | 19 June 2019  

Lisa, Beautiful, My memories of Doha are brought home again My wife and I stopped over in Doha for a brief break after our Pilgrimages to Greece, Turkey and the Holy Land, about three weeks ago . We learnt that the foreign worker population outnumbers the people of Qatar by at least 4 to 1 . The building frenzy shows no signs of slowing, although the current Gulf crisis might impact it severely. While we were there the outside 'shade' temperature ranged from around 30 degrees in the morning before sunrise, to a punishing 44 degrees by 3pm- so hot that we had to stay in our air conditioned Hotel or go to an airconditioned Mall. Across the street from our Hotel foreign workers were building a new building which we understood is yet another hotel! Workers from many countries, mainly India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines etc etc were working in conditions which no Australian worker would tolerate-sure they took a break in the afternoon heat, but were back on the job working under lights as soon as it was dark. It was Ramadan during our stay. What terrible exploitation.

Gavin O'Brien | 19 June 2019  

Immediate and powerful Lisa and a sense of our separateness from one another. Thanks

Steve Sinn | 19 June 2019  

Similar Articles

Gaetano decided to leave

  • Aaron Lembo
  • 24 June 2019

A student of Ethics and Philosophy, aspiring librettist, Gaetano Leigh read dusty books on the 16th century Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci in the basement of the Central Library ... Daily Gaetano imagined sailing the South China Sea re-reading catholic theology written to entice the scholarly Confucians ...


Grey matters

  • Isabella Fels
  • 13 June 2019

Trying to pursue unattainable things in life can be felt in ones bones — and I'm not just talking about my early onset osteoporosis. Along the way there are many bumps and humps, and much wear and tear. I despair at my prominent varicose veins, which no longer allow me to feel vain.