the dear departed [lovers that have gone]

the dear departed
                 lovers that have gone

angels that once terrified us
                 threatening to bring death

so near as love
                 sometimes return.

these lost loves,
                 whose provenance and history

is harder than a coin
                 passing hand to hand

through all the dull business
                 of the commonwealth,

arrive at our aching arms

the strange gifts of a stranger,
                 a once familiar mind.

thoughts that tasted like water,
                 answering an ancient need.

we may go down to the shore
                 and take a boat to be more

completely under a sky we knew
                 at a happier time,

remember love
                 like one who is newly blind remembers color,

listen to our bodies sing
                 their old pain.

our untasted souls,
                 we hoped would feed another life

to propagate our own,
                 make, at any spot we stop to feel,

the feast of questions
                 loving is.
Originally published in Out of the Box: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Poets, edited by Michael Farrell and Jill Jones, Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2009

In museums of beautiful art

In each great hall an exhausted tourist or a lover of art
whose life has come to this fine point, standing still as a sign,
is troubled to learn the truth of his companion’s mind, and
cannot calculate how far he’s come to know so little.

He knows the museums of beautiful art are full,
as much with pain as love; and all the masters, old and new,
knew just what we go to them to do… At every other corner
a blood-soaked scene, vengeful, pitiable, famous or obscure,

is excessive proof—with martyrs, slaughtered innocents, rapes,
betrayals—the world was shaved by a drunken barber; and,
at the next corner, the beautiful starvation of youth, which, like a theory
facts have not yet spoiled, reminds us of all longing unfulfilled.

It’s true, as we’ve been told, every dreadful martyrdom
must run its course. Paris, if he is not in love, is just a city
full of old stuff, unhelpful, jaded waiters, and dog shit.
Fall flat on your face in Rue Saint Denis, and Parisians laugh.

On such a day—beyond where Veronese’s butcher-cook hacks
away just above Christ’s head; and, following the signs, in the hall
past the spot where Leonardo’s Mona Lisa woodenly endures
the tourist crush—one more painting waits for him…

Saint John, the Baptist. From within the black world where nature
and hope have disappeared, the saint’s left hand rests upon his heart;
and his right arm, pointedly, shows the way to another world.
He steps into the traveller’s light and, with a kind word and gesture

to offer, smiling, says, “I know that you, too, suffer.”
Meanings that will not bring words to a traveller’s mouth,
the wounds he spoke of to himself at night, are recognised,
fixed forever, in the master’s art and the smiles of artless saints.

Originally published in Out of the Box: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Poets, edited by Michael Farrell and Jill Jones, Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2009.


Dinner at Whistler’s

The interior, like a fresh, young face,
is a masterpiece of simplicity.

Traffic moves along straight lines
between what is said and what is done.

At the dinner table, even the menus
are painted to illustrate the feast.

Desire is a red plate.
Love is a black bowl.

It is ironic that his mother,
now an exhibit in Paris,

is surrounded by impressionists
and looks very sad.

Aesthetes imagine a blue square
is the most beautiful space.

Peacocks and all other flightless birds
no longer lay claim to parts of the sky.

The quarrel of art and money is over.
Needing each other, they kiss and make up.

The rooms we lived in, the meals we made,
the words we spoke, themselves all masterworks,

numbered, rotting, forgotten,
will no longer be the cause of any emotion.

A regret, like a tremor, wakes us.
He goes to piss against the wall.

I am the stranger here, in the room
made for blue and white porcelain.

This poem appeared first in Out of the Box: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Poets, edited by Michael Farrell and Jill Jones, Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2009

The whole truth

Clichés tumble out of lovers’ minds
Like bargains at a jumble sale.
All the scraps they think are ‘finds’
Are hand-me-downs whose colors paled.

New lovers walk around in rags
No decent mum would have her kids in:
Straight, or bi, or screaming fag,
There is no haute couture of loving.

Unseemly, smelly, dirty things
No civil person does, or has;
Turgid, horrid, lumpy limbs;
Quantities of juice and gas—

These are what must be endured
For seconds of a feeble pleasure.
Lasting joy is not assured
By love’s insipid, tawdry treasures.

This poem was originally published in Overland Number 1, 1996.

Flowers for the dead

Ask me why I write so many poems about the dead
And I tell you it is because there are so many of them.
Ask me why these poems must be written and I tell you
It is because other poems are wrong and must be corrected.

What is wrong about these other poems? you want to know.
I heard one say, “My friend, who is dead now, sat with me
All afternoon and there was nothing to say, and when I was leaving
He stopped to take a flower from his tree and gave it to me.”

I heard another say, “Don’t be sad—This is only as This is,
Things growing and things dying in their cycle, all
In their own time and in their own way dying. The dead
Are dead and gone. Life goes on. So, go.”

The purpose of a poem is to say what is—with the force
Of a hammer. When it comes down, this hammer, the poem
That comes with it, about that dead lover or that dead father,
Should strike you in the throat and make you speechless.

So, when someone has died, do not take flowers with you.
When it is your turn to write about the dead do not write
About flowers, or afternoons in the sun, or cycles, or God.
Tell it as it was. Get out your hammer and drive the nail in.

For example, the poem of a father says, “He preferred
Pain to morphine, hiding pills the doctor gave because pain
Told him he was still alive. He died in a hospital bed.
His cleaning woman was standing beside him.

Yes. That’s right. The cleaning woman. Fearing love more
Than death, Dad would not let the family know
He was human and in need of love. We read about it
In the classified columns of the daily newspaper.”

For example, the poem of a lover says, “I thought—
Who the fuck is this man with bones sticking up under
The skin of his back, who looks jagged and cold as a lizard?
When you said you were hungry and I made dinner,

I knew you were going to throw up, and you did
—In my lap. Thanks. Let’s make a deal. I forgive you
For looking at me with those weightless, jealous eyes, if
You forgive me for hoping you would die more quickly.”

When someone has died, do not take flowers with you.
Make poems in the teeth of your grinding jaw and bursting head.
The dead don’t need flowers or poems about flowers.
The dead leave pain behind them so we know we are still alive.

Originally published in Overland, Number 120, 1990 and then in Family Ties: Australian poems of the family, edited by Jennifer Strauss. Melbourne: Oxford, 1998


For James, who died of AIDS on 18 September 1987.

When death starts its process first we resist, hard to watch
everything familiar and beautiful about the body shrink.
We say to ourselves, “I want him back” or “Give me back
that firm, healthy person!” When we are in the room with him
all of us want to shout “But where is David?! Where has he gone?!”

Then, all together, we have the knotted pain in the eyes,
recognising him among us as a poor remaking of the other man
we knew. “Michael, is that you I see? Is it really you?”
Bringing gifts and asking questions we have brought and asked
many times before, when he was still himself, is a test.
“Here are some chocolates I thought you might like, and yellow roses.”
Are these pleasures the new Paul knows? And who are you now?

In the last year his head is full of creatures and animal hate,
wide-eyed and terrified to live in the world where everything dies.
If he is fresh and strong in the morning, he is warm-blooded, huge,
growling in the garden. Afternoons in the heat he is worn blue
as a slim lizard, lies about, breathless, bumps into the furniture.

The old friends leave him, while he makes the real ones new.
No one dares come near who cannot answer questions:
“Are you friend or foe?” “Will you fight me, even now,
in the middle of all this?” and “Will I die? Will I truly die?”

Before the visiting hours the family takes a few stiff drinks,
wanders in the numb maze of the hospital, with threads hanging
behind them. All our tongues are pins and needles for lack of use,
or telling lies. “Oh, he has cancer, a tragic disease; I did tell him
not to smoke.” “Thank you for the card. He likes it very much,
and sends you all his love.” “He is better and we hope for a remission.”

Afterwards, alone, he practises the scavenging happiness
of birds, picks up crumbs from his own story, cries and laughs,
vomits the soft dinner, starves quietly and more surely
than anyone who waits for justice. Every sleepless night
some part is stolen and in the morning he is less there.

He is awake behind closed lids, while we dream
of planting onions, and hope for death. Even those who don’t
believe can see he becomes more real; the soul is exposed
and visible, resting on a cracked edge before it goes.

Published by ‘A First Hearing’, ABC Radio (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), 31 December 1989, and then in Overland, Number 120, 1990, and various anthologies.
This poem received the John Shaw Neilson Award for Poetry from the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1989 (awarded 22 February 1990).

[Information about the David Williams Fund, where contributions can be made to assist people living with HIV.]

Middle life transcribed for ’cello

My lessons began with ‘A Bass to Heartsease’,
The harder work done on grand piano,
Comforting and accurate as a mother.

For being even-handed, there was the lesson
Of double stops; in perfect fifths, delivering sound
Which once was meant to be the sign of God.

I’ve learned already, though cannot master it,
That tension and position are closely linked.
No failure — and there are many — leaves me worn.

I squawk for hours, content with struggle, and pay
For patience and advice while teachers sigh (“If only
He were ten or twelve — we’d go farther, sooner”).

I’m late to understanding.  It’s a common fault.
At 33, I could give up writing for the chance
To know how one note, rightly sounded — round,

Toneful, hair clinching string from top to end —
Shakes the matter in my skull and rests all trouble.
Still to come are mysteries, endless scales, harmonics.