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Figure without a landscape

If from the emptiness of space we’re surprised to hear

a pod of whales admiring one another’s freshly barnacled dorsal fins

and in that photo of us as school chums you’ve kept on the piano

we’re listening to a mountain’s chainmail

of crunch and chuckle laid down

as a gravel lane for us to wander

if a stone that we kick to the side of that lane

hums along in its own frequency which, if we could only hear it

we might describe as the sound of something being jettisoned

from the galaxy’s tilted dice cup

if even the magpie listening for a worm hears a loamy fidget

beneath its claws, beneath its own sandpapery intent


then why shouldn’t absence make its own sound

the sound of its making and of what it was made?


(I hope my absence doesn’t sound like change room muzak.)


I watch you place the tone arm onto an LP

from a box you’ve rescued from the attic

with the solicitude of an aged home companion.

The arpeggio begins its long descent

down the adagio in the Fifth, musicians playing

as the score necessitates and in such sequence

as the audience, not rehearsal, demands,

playing as though they heard the piece as a whole

not in tricky bits, picking up

from this bar or that as infelicities require.


You rummage past Scarpia hearing in his derangement

the worshippers’ voices as his own,

two fishermen chatting somewhere.

Tallis’s vast water flowing under bridges.

Scrape of a chair. An instrument tocks,

a lark climbs rungs of sunlight. 


I’d even settle for something like that cassette tape

we played with such relish on family trips

over and over until it was so stretched

it made the singer’s voice wobble predictably,

phrases where the melody wavered

like the scrub on either side we stared at from the back,

blurring past, sometimes fixed for a second, then fixed again

until it seemed bush and melody had become the one thing.


But not this:

not the way you look up at the sound of rafters

contracting in the cold, the way

you seem to be expecting someone to speak

as walls settle for the night

not these coins taped as ballast to weight my tongue

to keep it from skipping, from failing to navigate

the shallow and deep vinyl gorges,

the river between tracks growing wider

merging with the final locked groove at the centre

whispering da capo, da capo, da capo.

Highly commended, Tom Collins Poetry Prize 2023, Fellowship of Australian Writers WA

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