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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 10, Number 1, March 2016

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Claire Everett & Michelle Brock
Northallerton, North Yorkshire, England & Queanbeyan, New South Wales, Australia


The Distance Between
A Tanka Prose Conversation

I clutch the ropes
to steady myself . . .
your tanka
a swaying footbridge
between two hemispheres

The banksia blossoms are alive with bees and a bearded dragon is stalking flies along the retaining wall. I’m up the backyard, immersed in images of morning mist and gathering swallows, revising poems for my final exams. Oh, to be on the other side of the world, wandering that soft English countryside, free from study, grades and speculation about my future!

Footsteps scrape along the path. My mother has a basket of washing tucked under her arm.

“Give us a hand with the sheets,” she calls.

“I’ve just been reading 'To Autumn' by John Keats," I say sauntering towards the clothes line. "He was an English romantic poet, died at twenty-five.”

Before I can tell her about his rich, oozing images and the delicious taste of his words, she launches into her rendition of a bush ballad. By the end of the second line she is somewhere in the outback cracking a stockwhip and herding cattle. Her voice muffles into the background as I drift back into my private world.

mum’s dresses
fluttering on the clothes line . . .
if only
she’d stop for a moment
to watch my butterflies

‘whiter-than-white whites’
Mum can’t get the jingle
out of her head . . .
I seek out the first snowdrop
and its paean to spring

The older I get, the more I miss my father. He didn’t claim to understand everything I wrote, but he had a poet’s heart. He likened it to watching the mist rising from the peat bogs; “who’s to say one of the masters like Yeats or Joyce doesn’t have his fingers tangled in the breeze?” he’d speculate in his sing-song voice, “who’s to say the mist, when it settles, is not the breath of the Sidhe?”

The older I get, the harder it is to hear him. Increasingly, I feel what he’d say, holding his words to my breast like the wildflowers I’d gather were it not kinder to leave them where they dapple the wood’s cloisters with their stained-glass light.

But mum and I are worlds apart. When I tell her the blaze of the forsythia reminds me of him, she remarks how it needs cutting back. When I ask if she’s read my poem I wrote for him, she retrieves it from the drawer in the sideboard where she keeps the bills until they’re settled, hands it to me, now crisply folded into quarters, tells me it is “nice.” I take pains to copy it out again, in cursive like he taught me. I use crayons to illuminate the edges, imagining I’m a scribe adding a page to The Book of Kells.

The summer term at school ends with a trip to the Barbican in London. I arrive home way past midnight with the banter between Beatrice and Benedick taking wing in my sleepy mind, alighting on my lips. Mum shushes me, says tell her about it in the morning, “because right now you certainly are making much ado about nothing.”

In the cold light of day, she’s mowing the lawn, cursing that he left her with so much grass to tend. She might have known he’d die on us, leaving the house falling apart around our ears.

There’s hope in an evening walk. The memory of Dad’s hand folds around mine. These lanes are as familiar to me as the lines of head and heart that wend their way across my palm. I marvel that we’re on the cusp of autumn when the Southern Hemisphere is poised on the edge of spring. Mum’s reading The Thorn Birds, says it’s wonderful, but she wouldn’t want to live there.

“Think of the heat, the dust . . . the spiders!”

We pick elderberries as we go. She scolds me for eating them when they haven’t been washed, looks askance at me when I murmur through a mouthful, "who would have thought blood could taste so sweet?"

“Look at that stain on your dress—I’m going to have to soak it, or it’ll never come out.”

oblivious
to that butterfly beating
against the pane . . .
not one of my poems
has found a way in

drifting
across parallel worlds
I unwrap the sky
on every page
of your poetry book

Just on dusk I’m at the clothes line collecting washing when my daughter races up the hill to tell me something amazing is happening down at the gully. She says I must come quickly before it disappears.

Guiding me towards a gap in the bushes, she presses her finger to her lips as we sneak along the track. The canopy thickens above us and she points to a faint glimmer in the silky fronds of a Grevillea flower, then another just above it.

As we step out into the clearing, sparks and flutters come and go on a flash of transparent wings. The air is alive with fireflies. She stifles an excited squeal.

“Do you think they are fairies?” she asks flitting across the grass, flapping her arms, her hair streaming behind her.

soft rush
of air as I exhale
breathless
I watch her wings unfold
into a perfect moment

Words gather around the tip of my pen, then scatter. How hard I strive to catch these moments as if writing them down will somehow make them stay. “Slow down,” I tell the years, “why the hurry?” I have barely caught my breath and already winter is yielding to the quickening of another spring.

this basket
too small for all the poems
you gave me
I leave a trail along the path
. . . a lesson in letting go

never one
for bricks and mortar . . .
a Gretel path
of scattered memories
and I am home

The floors are still bare boards and some of the windows lack curtains, but for that, this little house is already a bell for laughter. Children who have been used to their own space are having to share but it’s a place we can call our own and the recent, difficult past has been left where it belongs.

“Mum, come quickly!” My youngest daughter calls in a strange, half-stifled voice. I clamber down from the stepladder, trying not to panic,

“What is it?” No reply. When she hears my footsteps she says in a low voice, “Sshh! You might want to take off your shoes.”

I tiptoe into the dining room, which is doubling as the girls’ bedroom, to find her seated on a packing case by a window festooned with fairy lights—she and her sister seem to be going for a grotto theme. Assuming this is why she called me down, I sigh impatiently then realise she’s beckoning me to look out into the garden. "Look!" she whispers, "There in the firethorn. I think he’s after the berries."

I peer out into the tangle of winter brambles and mizzle, trying to make out what she’s seen, then gasp at the sight of a tiny bird flitting from branch to branch. Dad used to point out birds to me and would have me tuning my ear to the intricacies of their calls and songs, but in all my years I've never witnessed anything quite like this darling thing, more flame than being, a miniature haloed saint anointing the silence with its zi zi zi.

“How do you know it’s a male?” I whisper.

“See the crest stripe? Well, it’s orange. The female’s is yellow.”

She hasn’t taken her eyes off him and now I’m just as mesmerised by her face in profile, shimmering in the soft pink glow from the fairy lights, as I am by the goldcrest fluttering into the cotoneaster. For an instant the likeness is uncanny; it’s hard to comprehend that she never knew her grandfather. In fact, none of the children did. “Listen! He’s calling for his mate.”

of like kind
kindred and kindling born
of the same root . . .
the breath that makes
the flame take hold

I wish I’d kept notes to remember all he taught me, but I could barely read and write when we took those lazy Sunday morning walks. There were so many moments whose flowers I might have pressed. But now, here is this child.

Grass-whistles are calling me back to long-forgotten lanes. And suddenly those speckled eggs whose hungry cheeps I never got to hear have found their wings.

through winter mist
with quartered russets
for the fieldfares . . .
I may not see you
but I know you are here

tracing lines
across my father’s hand
memory trails
around the corner stone
where I first set roots

Right now he’s probably out in the garden calling to the butcher bird. With fading eyes and joints that barely bend there’s little left to fill my father’s days. He is blurring at the edges, his pigment dissolving into the sepia shades of our ancestors.

Throughout my childhood, time with him was a rare and precious thing. For six days a week he wore workman’s overalls, leaving Mum to the house and child-rearing.

“I’ve never been much of a talker,” he says as I try to gather gossamer strands of memory.

He’s right. For as long as I can remember, few words were exchanged between us on those Sunday afternoons by the waterhole while we watched concentric circles become a figure eight around our fishing lines. As the water settled we’d gaze into the shadowy depths, until our thoughts became as still as stones on the riverbed. If the whip bird called he’d respond with a long whistle followed by a sharp choo-choo. As we made our way home across the paddocks in softening light, he’d answer through cupped hands to the low too-hoot of the tawny frogmouth.

five ducks
gliding across the water
just so—
how did they learn
about the golden ratio?

At home there were always a couple of magpies hanging around the vegetable garden. In autumn while he sewed broad beans, I rode my imaginary horse through the rows of ripening corn, humming made up songs. He often called me over to see the various creatures he’d uncovered—slaters, ladybugs, lace wings, scarab grubs, earthworms—and point out which ones were good for the garden.

Once I almost bolted when he showed me a legless lizard. “It’s not a snake,” he explained as it wriggled across his palm. “It’s got little ear holes and stumps where its legs used to be. Better bury it again before the magpies spy it.”

Then he made a trench across the ground with his index finger and untied a bundle of onion seedlings wrapped in damp newspaper. He gave me a handful to plant. How sweet that rising scent of earth as I tamped each seedling in the moist soil.

These days he can’t be bothered with the garden. Last September he turned 98, doesn’t really want to make a century. “Leave it to the Australian cricket team,” he says.

His fishing tackle has vanished into the flotsam of the years. In the shed his garden tools are waiting too, for their time to leave.

on a nail
above the workbench
a coil of string
still measures the distance
around his sturdy fingers

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end

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