The Return


Mondays Began

with one plait loose, a pip in your teeth

and late for Geography, lined and blank,

facts to the right, tall stories left.

To sail the heat in a weatherboard classroom boat

with banana and vegemite colouring the air

sargasso green. To ship ten thousand things

on cursive seas to the edge of the known page

—coffee, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves.

To import small desires and grown-up needs

in little packets of time for show and tell.

To carve your name on the prow.

To wait for the bell.




In the Parlour

only the French clock answered back.

They sat cross-legged on the Persian carpet;

destinations flashed by

the smell of Marveer, lavender, dusty velvet.

They opened their eyes in the olden times

to fossick under the coffin flaps

of the jarrah window seat

for proper advice from disheveled magazines:

nose straighteners, recipes, posture improvers,

the runt who smoked and the chap who rowed.

They didn’t see foresight’s guarded smile,

they didn’t hear hindsight howl like a dog;

the riddles were wordy, the clues were dumb:

lopped head of a doll, silk wedding sleeve,

gilt volumes, silverfish,

and in the glass case,

untouchable figurines locked away

as grown-ups always seemed to be:

shepherd and shepherdess on their marks,

Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Limoges?

The real thing?



Almond Trees

cover Willunga Plains: like the misty breath

of winter children, the blossom hovers. Dearth,

says the black bark, splits to let scent through

with open questions where when why what who?

As for that earliest aroma fear,

she’d  smell it, taste it, anywhere,

one part in a million, pungent as coffee or smoke,

already there in her mother’s milk.

Against its grey unbeing she caught

at talismans – black stones on a white plate,

concrete nouns clattering out of thought.

Marking time down the dead-end street

to morning. Why was it always dark

in the quiet hall? Through a memory crack

of light an edge squeezed round the door:

regret to inform stop missing in stop the air

elliptic with tracer fire, familiar eyes

glancing away, prismatic as flies’.

Voices crept and huddled, where’s Daddy’s girl?

He did come back, but who? They could not tell.

Collections began. The tang of foreign coins

lent her a lingo and currency for the unknown;

Brother stuck down squares of expedited

love with serrated edges. And they were invited

to a fancy-dress ball with games of us and them.

Father could not come for he was lame

and Mother had to watch and wait not play

so they learned dolls and trains and night and day

and Snakes and Ladders and Hide and Seek.

Knight’s gambit. Castle your king. Check.

And when the black door opened and they knew

threshold was famished, Brother stepped through.

Now fear had her ID and her address.

Best send an invitation. Tell her guest

the lightest thing she served would ward off harm –

a stick, a stone, a cloud of white perfume,

thought itself, needing a go-between

to say ‘this fragrance is like newborn skin,

these quickening trees, like Mary’s aging cousin

conceiving all baptism out of season’.




She Collected Dictionaries

as other women take up men

and shelve them:

manuals, grammars, Teach Yourself

German, Malay, Italian, Swahili, Welsh,

like a passion for clothes that would hang

unworn in the dark,

for peridots, garnets, amethysts, pearls

in a shut case, nouns declined.

Each unknown word shone with delicious fire

and the alien phrases silked her skin

with their genders and connotations.


She might have been the end house

on the waterfront of Macau

welcoming every sailor in.

But the longing for many tongues

to part her lips – si, igen, ja,

ah oui, yes, yes –

was departure’s smile,

a leaning to the wind

that sweeps a glitter of light

across the sea and sets a silvery chill

at the neck. Quick, to those books

guarding the mantelpiece,

ISBNs snug as a span of days;

to bread and fruit and sparkling wine.


She had been given a cyclamen with scent,

some new trick that married violet and rose,

as if a flower should yearn to sing

and the pink timbre tremble

into quietest words.

She touched her flesh and knew

that it would fade as speech did

and did not.

And yet it was not language that she sought,

nor the music of any meaning.

An old allegiance drew her on

beyond the first ground of thought

and the idea even of silence

to the fifth season which must at last return

with its weather of recognition

and its lost ends.



Jan Owen (Australia, 1940-), from Poems 1980-2008, John Leonard Press, 2008


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