My mother the Surrealist



Selected poems


Five poems from a sonnet sequence


I wanted to sing opera, but the notes

were always better in some others' throats.

I bought an old guitar to learn to play

and practised till my fingers hurt each day.


I turned to the piano and I tried.

My aunts and uncles laughed until they cried.

I borrowed a bass saxophone and blew

until the neighbour's Doberman howled too.


My cousin played French horn and told me, 'Well,

if anybody asks, you play like hell.'

I then picked up a violin and found


a cat on heat emitted the same sound.

I wanted to play flute and clarinet.

The world does not seem ready for me yet.




The voices of two women in the train up to the highlands

rise in volume and insistence as we leave the coastal plain.

The younger: 'Mother, they're not Germans. I said, gerberas,

they're all around the farm. Just wait,


you'll see them from the window of the lovely room

we've set up for your stay. A field of gerberas in full bloom.'

'And are the Germans all in uniforms, then, dear?'

'No, Mum, they're flowers. Flowers don't wear any clothes.


They're lovely blooms. They're simply called for someone German.'

'Dear, I don't want naked Germans in the window.

Alec fought them, as you know. He didn't like them.'


'No, Mum, flowers. They're not Germans. Mum, just listen,

we've got gerbera growing all around the house.'

'So why do Germans want to come in bringing flowers?'




My mother the Surrealist lived in a liminal zone

like the mood of a great bank foyer

or a grand hotel's palm court where former lovers meet

and find each other noble: mythic space,


from which she said an owl and a cat in a boat

had declared, to the sound of small guitar,

their love and plan to marry.

Where did she learn feline speech?


She told me how a band of beast musicians

went to Bremen, and a cat had gone to London

to investigate a Queen, and how a small boy had been


counselled by the cat that seemed to turn up

in each story, that if he turned back, he'd thrive. I checked;

he did. So what was there I could not love about her?




In Tarkovsky's Solaris, the hero's long-dead wife

is resurrected in his mind and in reality,

repeatedly, no matter how he tries to face the fact

that she was mortal, and she died, except


the evidence of breath is so compelling.

How that movie plumbs the pitch of grief,

the horror vacui when some loved person dies.

My parents went. Some friends as well.


The world is smaller for their loss.

And no day passes without some display of growth

and proof of change: grape into raisin, leaf


to compost that will feed the vine again.

Men fight and kill and add to earth. We live with that.

In spite of which, if you should die —




I might have been a plant or beast, and you,

as much as I, a form apart. Some things

we take for granted, without knowing why

we do — e.g., the way that life proliferates


from elements that further split and mix.

We are descended from that cocktail, could

have been revised as plankton. Though I like

your human shape. As Shelley thought, a plant


might sense some beauty in the world and like

that beauty, seem to die, like Keats's lady.

But there's no death: there is change, and it is


not the world that changes by itself. We count

the changes in it and ourselves and rate

the chance — or was it fate? — of being us.





Just look at yourself

The codger with the rheumy eyes tries looking at his hand,

and gives up, staring into space.

His funeral.

The oculist's receptionist calls, 'Next'.

A sign out front says 'Like us on Facebook'.

The buzzword of the business is Eye Care.

The Age of Nice is with us everywhere.


Ms Tan, my ophthalmologist, declares,

'The image on the screen's your eye's back wall.

You see the red lines on the orange orb?'

'You're sure that's not the planet Mars', I ask,

'There's water down there, alien life perhaps'. She beams me up:

'Are your eyes sometimes gritty, like with dust?

That indicates your blood pressure is up'.


I like the way she dodges round the catachrestic 'we',

unlike the people in the shop next door

with their 'Good morning, sir, and what would we be looking for?'

The eye is an extension of the brain,

and made up of three chambers — like the ear,

frogs' hearts, and Synod of the C of E —

which all work when each section does its part.


Virgil says Sunt rerum lacrimae

that there are tears for things, and mortal things affect the mind.

Ms Tan says tears flow down the fronts of eyes

to drain in puncta and through ducts,

which, put succinctly means that when you've got

hysterics from your laughing

or convulsions from your grief, you're full of snot.


Cats' physiology is otherwise.

Their corneas don't require lubricating all the time.

Mehitabel and Felix and Sylvester

simply close their eyes or stare.

And if they wink,

they don't need glasses or a shrink.

They've got cat herpes. Call the vet.


Grief occurs like sudden squalls of rain

or abscessed ears' incessant pain. Fondling his cane,

my high school mathematics teacher told me, 'Look at you'.

Impossible, I told him: even in a mirror

I do not appear the same.

'So then we see each other in the Cubist light again' — his very words.

And after flogging me, he went on blithely drawing surds.


My friend who's going blind does not enjoy

the monthly needle in the eye. You get the picture.

Nor would I. He and others,

e.g., Milton, Borges, Joyce and Leggott,

have recalled the shapes and colours of the world.

But how could Homer illustrate the tincture of the sea,

the legend on Achilles's shield, what banners Strife unfurled?


And what do cyborgs know of fate,

or why a non-transhuman, such as I, drinks single malt?

What do they see and know of love?

Robots comprehend fatigue and stress and creep, I know.

It's in their programs where what we might label thought is shaped,

but do they know why people (I speak loosely of my species)

aren't, by and large, enamoured of disfigurement and rape?


At Sydney University, the gargoyles in the Quad

are said to portray scholars who worked there.

I've met some living lookalikes on Dublin's Grattan Bridge

and in the mirror shaving with a hand opposed to mine.

My uncle used to say come in and give the dog a fright.

It's always dark inside a poem.

'Now read out the smallest line', the elder partner says.


Ms Tan goes to the lab to check the script.

I put on my old glasses and peruse a magazine.

What's great about Palladio's palazzi is

their fronts, which though appearing false, are not.

Each building is a symphony in stone,

its symmetry unlike my poorer sight's.

I realise a weak pun in that line.


A Blind Man parks outside the convent gate.

The Abbess looks him up and down and asks,

'So you're the Blind Man?' — 'Yes', he says, 'I am'.

I think I'll leave the punch line out this time.

Another blind man walks into a bar, a stool, a table ...

The history of Byzantium's a maculated fable

pocked with tyrants blinding one or both eyes of their rivals.


Among the pleasures of the blind: graffiti:

they're spared that. Among the ones they'll never know:

a tree hangs upside down against the blue sky in a pond,

and Gemma the retriever with her mistress

every morning in the park, when traffic slows

and drivers take note of the loveliness of both.

And one is blind.


Perhaps I'll look fantastic in new specs,

by Rodenstock, DG or Hugo Boss —

precision fashion billboard on my face,

but every face presents a parody

of something that I once imagined me.

I ask instead to see the knock-offs shelf

and settle for a satire on myself.



Michael SharkeyMichael Sharkey was formerly editor of the Australian Poetry Journal. His most recent book is Many Such as She: Victorian Australian Women Poets of World War One (2019) published by Walleah Press, Hobart.

Topic tags: Michael Sharkey, poerty



submit a comment

Existing comments

An impressive combination of entertainment and literary erudition, Michael. Thank you.
John RD | 14 October 2019

Sonnet 2: the tenderest love.
Pam | 14 October 2019

The way these most engaging poems communicate a playful wit, vitality, and warm sense of humanity makes them a pleasure to read, as does their dexterity with poetic form and delight in vernacular language. Thank you Michael, for sharing your generosity of spirit and life-affirming sense of humour in these highly accomplished poems. (And please forgive me if that sounds solemn or pompous. Perhaps I should just say, I really like the poems.)
Jena Woodhouse | 15 October 2019


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up