Meeting mortality

Cuneiform tablet

What can no longer be
touched—the aged skin, the rare,
rests in a muted light, in a spotlight—

short print runs, handmade things
in a cave of black partitions, glass echoes
of the old museum and the walkthroughs

housing phosphorescent rocks
in that labyrinthine place gone to angled
steel and here

the Beat poets, botanica
in nineteenth-century inks, a Torah scroll
and an ancient notepad of clay. The wedges

signify stock whose descendants
were skinned for the scroll under glass
or for a codex named

for a mountain. On the third floor
under the State Library’s dome,
by a roped-off spiral stair

the indentations in the clay recall
the press of a sharpened reed.
Tablets of this size were also used

for travel inventories and sacrificial
lists. They hardened in fire
or sun. This palm pilot was stacked 

for burning. Framed against the dark
in a precise atmosphere it is preserved
under glass. I cannot deposit my oil

in its grooves, nor weigh its matter
in a glove. Three clasps hold it
like a jewel.

Mary of Magdala

if the hunger remains
that held her
and the oldest stories do not concur
she is painted, a candle in a mirror, one hand
on a skull

if the book she holds—let’s not assume
we know which book
it is—opens
on a language
as quick as the nematodes that cling to roots
beneath the first blanket of soil
when the whole busy world of decomposing
dark and dense
is—under the rain—a welcome
chain of being

if she rests against a stone
where ants climb, intent as angels
on a ladder
that inclines between earth and sky

and if all that cannot be touched falls in clumps
like spitfires on an oil-stained drive
it is the beginning
of a loss
that makes things possible—four trees
grow around her words—
we see in icons
she holds a flask of ointment and an egg

Mortal life 

for Robert Adamson

This is the wild
thing that turns
to loam, the seal pup

dead on the shore,
a fish caught
in a crevice of rock

when the tide ebbs.
The wind shakes
the cabin. The sea

is gathered in, pulled up
in white snatches
that break   over

tidal pools.
There are rabbits
in the scrub, a cormorant

on the rocks. This is
the woman with unkempt
hair, in a room

that is forgotten.
It is not a basement.
It is not an attic.

She will not be consumed
in a fire set
by madness. It is

the priest’s hole
no longer used,
the bushranger’s cave,

the feel of a place
that might be men’s
business—if the warning

signs were known—
the disorienting polis,
the agora of the soul

where mortal things
meet, the dam where a heron
dips her bill.

PoetMelbourne-based Anne Elvey holds honorary appointments at Monash University, Trinity College and MCD University of Divinity. She is author of Stolen Heath (Melbourne Poets Union, 2009), Claimed by Country (PressPress, 2010) and Bent toward the thing (Rosslyn Avenue, 2012), in support of The Sunflower Foundation. Her poem “Bayside Suburban” was shortlisted for the 2012 Peter Porter Poetry Prize.

Topic tags: new australian poems, anne elvey, Mortal life, Cuneiform tablet, Mary of Magdala



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