Aurelia by John Hawke

As an extension of Arc’s Canada-Australia joint issue with Australia’s Cordite magazine, over the next several weeks, Arc will be publishing online selected pieces from Australian poets — this is in addition to the Australian poetry published in print in Arc 77. For the Arc-Cordite joint issue, each magazine handed the editorial responsibilities over to the other: so that Cordite filled Arc #77 (and these these webpages) with nothing but Australian poetry, prose and artwork; Arc did the same for Cordite (Arc’s part of this partnership will be published online at Cordite in December 2014). Our intent in this partnership is to showcase and cross-pollinate poetics between Australia and Canada and to share with a broader audience poetry that may be little known outside of home borders.



Tonight there are vast storms across the sea:
the night sky and black ocean
suddenly glow green in the illumination
of a straight line of lightning that pierces the horizon.
The flashes without thunder follow me into sleep,
and I am rattled by great waves.
I hear a faint but distinct susurrus of rustling,
the bedclothes ripple with activity. A spectre
clutches me from behind, gnawing my neck.
I have my familiars: the black curves of dolphins
breaking the waterline in late afternoon;
and a company of eagles that have settled
in the treetops, white-headed, attentive.
I listen for the shrieks of those hunting birds,
I follow their ascent and fall,
their suspension on a sea-breeze above a hovering wave.
How they drop from a height, scattering the flocks of gulls
like a projection of winter wind—
emissaries of dreams broken by lightning,
dragging the blood from soft prey.
The eagle, at the apex of an abandoned
tower, dangles in mid-air.
I first fell in love with Aurelia
in the face of that woman painted by Giovanni Bellini
with her serene yet introverted eyes.
Even as they gazed at you
with what seemed a frank directness
there was something not given,
reserved perhaps for the homunculus child
that stood upright in her arms:
a look that withheld its engagement,
and only received the observer
through mystery and distance.
This figure I had seen in metamorphosis
through weeks of travel – where the eyes
of women in the street were the mirrors of art—
reached their refinement in these hypnotised madonnas
with features of living stone.
Now, confronted by the foreshortened stare
of self-sufficient indifferent images,
I believed myself in love with Aurelia.
The presence arrives with the faintest percussion
of bells approaching from a distance.
It hovers over this winter sea
and leaves no footfall on the sand.
I discover myself at last in its solitude,
contemplating the glitter in a midnight wave.
I feel a smothering weight:
there is the dark empty room, the grey hallway at dawn,
the breathing sea. Then, ever so faintly,
emanating from silence
like a figure outlined in smoke,
a shadow of sound that brushes the walls
with the softest presence—
the footfall of her sigh in even night.
So it is that every ordinary phrase
is suddenly charged, the signals of daily life
transformed, and we enter that forest
of symbols where everything coincides.
These correspondences find their relation
in the name of the absent beloved,
as if the world of visible signs were itself
a vast and scattered alphabet,
out of which this lost word
might be recombined and rediscovered.
Musicians play quintets in the house across the road,
a dance of life that fills our rooms:
white sunlight and a vine of falling wisteria.
It was here that Aurelia
covered the pages of hidden journals,
not a line of them fiction,
prayers of an anxiety never addressed.
It was a volume too valuable to ever possess,
like that book which tells how there are only
a thousand nights for love, then one other,
after that no more. That final night
would be the turning of the year,
new constellations sparkling as the sea-mist clears.
There are too many anniversaries,
like the names of streets that once addressed you
with their over-familiar signs,
the days of the year become too densely crowded,
and it is better perhaps to no longer remember
the designation of these marks
that in themselves are without meaning.
I gaze across this emptiness studded with coloured lights,
to find her again in a portrait
silhouetted against a dying sky,
the only photograph that remains.
I am suspended above this valley like a helpless winged creature,
witnessing the spread of these constellations—
the silver and gold of streetlights—
as they thread their maps across the black hills
of a suburban evening.
I speak the empty name of this day
in the rhetoric of memory,
where every word transforms its object
into an echo of itself, the lament of endless night.

John Hawke teaches in the English department at Monash University in Melbourne.

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