The Tuesday Poem: “Angelfish” by Bernadette Hall
We’re flying over Australia.
Below us is the desert. In the desert
there’s a wound which is water
which is a tear with white salt round
the edges which is a little liquid gateway
as hard as marble should we hurtle
into it. There’s a road, a reddish snake-line
that crosses the continent that’s shaped
like an angelfish. The words are trying
to imitate the world as it imitates
itself, sand wrinkles like frozen sastrugi,
cloud shadows like black poppies
on the red ground. The brain according
to the Novel prize-winning scientist,
Gerald Edelman, is not at all like
a computer. It’s more like a rainforest
‘teeming with growth. decay, competition,
diversity and selection.’ So this word
is a toucan, this poem, a yellow
casque hornbill hiding beneath a canopy
of leaves. My brother went missing once,
in the rainforest. He was a soldier,
part of the New Zealand Army Reserve
sent to fight the Communists in Malaya.
I’ve got the headphones on now.
I’m watching Clint Eastwood’s Letters
from Iwo Jima. He was my favourite cowboy
when I was thirteen about the same time
my brother’s name was in all the papers.
I think of my brother hacking his way
through the jungle with a machete,
making it back to safety, singing ‘Figaro
Figaro, Figaro’ in the shower. He never
got on with my father who wasn’t his father.
I think of my mother and my father,
the Catholic harp, the Protestant drum,
the sad, mad, bad of Irish history:
the flogging and the being flogged,
the burning and the being burnt,
the killing with pike and hoe, sword and gun,
the starving, the evictions, the bombing.
I want to protest.
I want to take communion with them.
‘Think,’ says Edelman, ‘about the idea
that each individual’s soul is truly embodied,
rather than a spirit; precious
because it is unique in its physicality,
and consciousness, unpredictable
in its creativity, and mortal.’
I close my eyes. I dream that the dead
are angelfish drifting through
a rainforest, its green forgiveness.
© Bernadette Hall
published in The Lustre Jug (Victoria University Press) 2009
Angelfish is reproduced here with permission.
About the Poem
Last week I quoted two stanzas from Angelfish in my post on “On Writing” here. And the reason I quoted it is because even though Angelfish came out in the collection The Lustre Jug, I still remember the poem and a whole series of the images contained within it—the angelfish, the black poppies, the rainforest, the ‘sad, mad, bad’—quite clearly. Bernadette has a real gift for that I think: the line or indeed the whole poem that ‘sticks’ with you as reader. Although in fact I heard Angelfish first, on the radio, and remember listening to Bernie read it and thinking: “Yes. Oh, yes!” And that being nearly three years ago now, it’s clearly high time I shared it with you all as a Tuesday Poem!
About the Poet:
Bernadette Hall is recognised as one of New Zealand’s most distinctive poetic voices. She was the 1996 Burns Fellow at Otago University and an Artists in Antarctica Fellow in 2004. The author of nine poetry collections, her work has been published in a range of national and international anthologies. Hall was the 2006 Victoria University Writer in Residence and in 2007 held the Rathcoola Residency in Donoughmore, Ireland. Bernadette’s most recent collection, The Lustre Jug, (Victoria University Press), 2009, was a finalist for the 2010 NZ Post Book Award for Poetry. Most recently, Bernadette was guest lecturer at the International Institute for Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington, and editor for Best New Zealand Poems in 2011.
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