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The consolation of cosmology


Selected poems



The consolation of cosmology


From time to time, the fluctuation doesn’t produce

a Big Bang, it just re-creates last Tuesday…

                                                —Katie Mack


We’re not talking here of

those domestic incidents in the home

that can really spoil your day


(the toaster no longer toasting

for instance) though home won’t be so

particularly inviting anyway


when the whole universe ends.

Katie Mack knows about these things

and we should take notice:


‘These terms like Heat Death, Big Rip

and Vacuum Decay don’t sound

all that inviting.’


She’s understating it. Heat Death

will be absolute cold comfort for anyone

who makes it that far


whereas the Big Rip would be

like splitting the backside of your jeans

albeit on a cosmic scale.


Death-bubbles in Vacuum Decay

could be quite a thing, gobbling up all

substance into the void


into that nothing which really is

a thing to be avoided. It could happen

anytime now. ‘The end is nigh’


a sandwich-board man declares.

Katie Mack says: ‘There’s something

about acknowledging


the impermanence of existence

that is a little bit freeing.’

This is perhaps a bit of poetic license.


It could be poetic justice.

Though not really poetic, Arthur Dent

would say, looking nervously


at the calendar. Not really

anything to write home about, in fact…

Katie Mack might give notice


but the universe is indifferent.

So just get a cup of tea and sandwich,

settle in for the main event.


the send-off

no longer the man he was

he is now more or less changed forever


already so much younger

in the minds of friends outside the church


as we narrate him to each other

all those stories that form the last hurrah


as time and its operations turn his body

into detritus and words


as we speak of someone we once knew

have lost and maybe found


the words drift over the graveyard

like butterflies


something lies dead in the hedge

and informs us so


the usual blackbirds

chip at the edges of dusk


Southern China 2014

  1. Yangshuo

from my third-floor hotel balcony I could reach out

almost to touch the mountain


it seems such a good neighbour


when I walk out by the Li River

the mountain follows me / shadowing my footsteps


I watch the river-boats working

their ways across the current towards night-moorings


the fisherman homeward-bound with his cormorants


in the street the rows of stalls flutter with

silks / with kites and flags / with shawls and dresses


dusk is burdened by the gathering monsoon

redolent of fruit and fish and flesh and tobacco smoke


back at the hotel with Mike the porter

drinking baijiu sweetened with osmanthus flowers


our laughter and the full moon echo down the corridor


later that night the mountain silently enters my room

and kneels at my bedside


I lean my drunken head into its flank



  1. street artist in Yangshuo

by the river-wall beneath an acacia tree

he leans into a landscape propped on his easel

with his mind across the river


he is at least one thousand years old


the layered ink beneath his brush

makes a molehill into the mountain before him

before our time and now


like icing a cake in photo-negative


he scrubs the grubby cap from his head

to wipe his brow and then he settles once again

into the brush’s rhythms


drawing out the image already there


the hill’s crest emerges from the clouds

from the fading light from the white parchment

chiaroscuro of the world’s rim


perfect as the final icing on the cake



  1. Qingming

the mountains come down to the river

humped like herds of mammoths


bending to drink the pooled dusk


sunset is a painted veil


the old man’s eyes lift from the shrine

towards a passing river-boat


sorrow glances back

then goes off into the shadows




no stars


sounds of water falling



  1. on the Yulong River

on bamboo rafts

adrift beneath the arched


Ming dynasty bridge

in Baisha town


a wedding couple

teeters in western dress


the bride’s train

muddied yet her smile


so radiant for

the photographer


her husband however

is frowning




we slip across a weir

into twilight


no outboard motors

no tractors


just the lowing

of unharnessed oxen


shouts and songs

of men and women


trudging homeward

from the fields


then a silence

more quiet than itself



  1. wu wei

it is not just because this is

another country


and our foreignness

has brought us to a standstill




not just because officials

are telling us a troubling story


and assert it in this language

we do not understand




nor just because the words

inscribed on this rock


are not by Li Bai or Du Fu

but Chairman Mao




it is just because this moment

is this moment and


the mountain does not move

yet we are moved



  1. Hidden Hill, Guilin

we step from verdant

             foliage into the dark

our footsteps tentative

             inside the hollow hill


in a shrouded silence

             away from the city

figures loom towards us

             from the cavern wall


demons and deities

             on either side

of men aching their ways

             through the bardo


the weight of rock

             pressing in upon us

makes us shrink a little

             into our mortality


‘pain is inevitable

             suffering is a choice’

this road less travelled

             goes along with us



  1. homeward

the river-boat lurches into the sweeping current

makes its way towards the other shore


karst mountains loom like paintings through the mist


rock and forest / waterfalls and bamboo groves


I want to glimpse the poets

but they are working in the fields or on the roads


or else are bureaucrats hunched in grey offices


nostalgia tells me of another time

but really it never was an easy life for them


the rough wine teasing them onward

the full moon in the water








John Allison is a New Zealand poet with 6 collections published. One of these, Balance (Five Islands Press 2006) was published during his 15 year sojourn in Melbourne. His poems have appeared regularly in New Zealand's literary journals and elsewhere throughout the world. His poem 'Father's Axe, Grandfather's Machete' was included in Best New Zealand Poems 2020, and the poem-sequence 'The Poetics of Water' has been set to music by Pieta Hextall for a chamber music ensemble (voice with flute / clarinet / harp / string quartet), to be premiered in October. John is currently preparing his Collected Poems, to be published in 2022.

Main image: Li River (John Allison)

Topic tags: John Allison, poetry



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