On death and preservation


Beauty of Xiaohe — The Secrets of The Silk Road, Penn. Museum. Mummified face














Bathroom at 4am

Falling into the mirror
so many pieces

showering her nakedness
with light.

Fragments creating
a sharper truth

her ruined face
a Picasso construction

flung between walls
in a windowless room.

The hour before dawn
words unspoken

on the brink
of becoming.

She considers
the quality of darkness

past and present
briefly one.

Then picks up
the pieces

begins brushing
glass from her hair.


Looking for Sarah — Box Hill Cemetery
For my grandmother

Years later I'm following paths
that your daughter trod before me.

She fled to this place nightly,
like a homeless ghost you said.

Just fifteen, talking to stone angels
to shut out the voices in her head.

By the time the men in white coats
took her away, locked her up,

she had absorbed the moon, seen
her belly grow. Moon child she told

the nurses. See it glows from within.
But there was never a baby. At last

I find you, Sarah, a cross on a map.
No marker, not even a shrub, no

roots taking in the goodness of you.
Shadowed by elaborate memorials

I push away disappointment. Perhaps
a farmer's daughter wanted only this.

You were found by a neighbour, gone
to your God as you had wished,

just stepped out of the bath as if
from the womb,

long hair free of its pins
warming your skin.


The copper stick  1941

I knew its touch on my skin so well,
hard, unforgiving. On Mondays I dipped
it into the soupy swirl, hooked a barley

sugar twist of sheets bubbling out of
the copper and hoisted this steaming
mass into concrete troughs for rinsing,

then through the wringer, its rubber rollers
perished and possessive. I would unscrew,
lift, release and re-assemble, as mother

had instructed. It was wartime, even
children had to do their bit for victory.
All the while I sang the songs my dad

and I had sung before he sailed to war.
Mother got a job as a cook and when
we left for Tasmania the copper stick

travelled too, although someone else
did the hotel washing. Sometimes
on the maid's day off mother took me

to the basement laundry. If she thought
it about time. The stick was used once too
often. She could not find a replacement.


The Beauty of Xiaohe* — a photograph

Laid out with care this woman lifted
from a dry river-bed. Here is death
but also preservation: turned-up

nose, high cheekbones, long lashes
fringing her sunken eyes. Her hair
even after 4000 years a springy

mass of foxy brown, spilling over
one shoulder. I imagine her maid
brushing its length, the crackle of

electricity as the woman smiled,
her mouth wide, generous, made
for smiling. Guarding her scalp

a lambskin bonnet tied with a bow.
She is swaddled in a woven cloak,
fur-lined boots protect her feet.

Beside her a child staring, close
to tears, hands bunched into fists.
Someone lifts a camera, frames

the moment: a six-year-old girl
and this ageless beauty. Rising
between them the dust of centuries.

*This mummy is known as the Beauty of Xiaohe
The Secrets of The Silk Road, Penn. Museum, PA

Lorraine McGuigan headshotLorraine McGuigan's poems have appeared in Quadrant, Blue Dog, Antipodes, Social Alternatives, and Puncher & Wattman's anthology Motherlode. She has been managing editor of Monash University's Poetry Monash since 1995. Her collection, What the Body Remembers, shared 2nd place, FAW Anne Elder Award. Interactive Press published her prizewinning ms Wings of the Same Bird.

Topic tags: Lorraine McGuigan, poetry, Beauty of Xiaohe, The Silk Road



submit a comment

Existing comments

Lorraine, Thak you for these beauitfully expressed intimate moments of life. And 4.00am- darkness protects and frightens.
jorie | 20 November 2013

Lorraine, I love these poems!
Tessa McMahon | 22 November 2013


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up