Monday, November 21, 2011

Tuesday Poem - Fire With Fire by John Foulcher

(January 1994)

After the fires, a wind
dripping cinders
drew me back to Sydney,

where I was born.
At the city's shrivelled edges
houses and hills

were faint watercolours,
drained, diffuse.
That rich, fermented smell

of things that had been burned
rolling across the roads
to my brother's house in Ryde. Here

the bushfires had sent letters:
he showed me a bowl
of leaves plucked from the lawn,

each the exact shape
that had hung coloured
and lithe, now blackened to an artform,

dry and eternal.
And the soot, everywhere, as if churned
from factories. In the dusk

we sat outside
while the kids tugged fun
from the television. And we watched

with a few beers
the tired, safe world. That night
I slept in the room

that had been my parents'
when, close on a decade,
I was told

of my father's death.
All so different,
in a different bed. I dreamed I was caught

in some grim country town.
I gathered the kids
and waded quiet streets

to a rotting house
rimmed with stillness. In the dark
two men shaved

by a dead light,
the dark one below
speaking as softly

as a touch of wind
on your hands. Please, I said,
let me make a phone-call. This man

who was talking,
who was in charge,
leaned into the stain of lamplight

and said, pointing
to the other, His mouth burns
and heals, when he kisses

me. Then I saw his friend,
pocked, fat, staring
at me, his withered mouth

barely closed, barely open. Please,
I said again. Yes -
the word scuttled

from his lips -
Yes, but let me have
the children. I tell you I was shocked

and would have left,
but agreed. It was for their sake,
the children, curled and feline

at my feet. I woke
then, and the bedroom
became nothing

I knew, again. Outside, the wind
herding clouds
rubbed against the sky,

a few smudges
of leftover smoke. Crisp January leaves,
whetted on the glass.

Going back to Canberra,
I trailed along roads
burning with traffic

under a sky scoured
raw. I had to make
one stop more:

the national park,
clumped at the edge
of Maianbar, where I'd decided

about marriage and family.
But there was nothing
to remember here, nothing

green any more. Time
had been razed. The orange flesh
of the angophoras, their paper

leaves clattering in the wind,
their branches cracking
canvas ridges. Black-fingered banksias

along the scorched road.
A thin black stream
beneath a bridge,

glistening like an eel
among the grey rocks. And the roadsigns,
melted, Dali,

twisted, limp.
When I stopped the car and got out
the ground pouted

ash. Sounds evaporated
in the birdless air.
It was all strange,

this known land
hidden by growth
in the familiar years, in the time

I'd grown, not knowing
contours, undulations.
I felt like a man

who sees an old friend
drunk, and turns away
in embarrassment. In the end

I left, on a road
as cool as the earth,
a highway slung

through pasture and forest,
a land still to burn.
Home held its perfect rooms, its bed

and clean sheets,
all night. Tonight,
though, my daughter is sick:

she shivers on the lounge
in a leak of light,
twitching and vomiting,

throws back her head
simmering with sweat,
her hair lined

with saliva. Sleep
comes in bursts.
Again, the spasms of the body,

all thought of friends
or toys gone,
as she knows

in her blood and bowels
that her dreams don't matter,
that the only thing

is to wake
the next morning, and forget
all that has happened in the night.

John Foulcher used to live in Canberra but he has recently shifted to Melbourne and he is a very welcome addition to the scene. This poem is from his book – What On Earth Possessed You published by Halstead Press in 2008.

I like the way this poem takes its own subtle time and roams here and there. It's a road poem for sure, and it ends up at home.


  1. I think it's very hard to write convincing dream sequences but this poem does that so strongly! Thanks for posting it, Jen.

  2. I like the heat and fire - a constant in the poem - simmering with sweat, city's shrivelled edges, burning traffic