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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing May 2023
Father Unknown, poems by Patricia Sykes
i.m Joseph John Dale, 1889-1918
“In the perpetual care
of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission”
War’s dog tag your child’s
legacy. She afloat in utero.
You embarked in the belly
of a troop ship with army kin:
39th Battalion, 10th Brigade.
En route Armentieres, Messines,
Ypres, the Somme. Life’s
blood rites possibly wept. As
if they did not expect brutish,
combat, trench, mustard gas.
Or the wound that evacuated
you to Blighty. You died there
records say of primary and
secondary: pneumonia, heart
failure. But Grandfather
in the shared tomb of 1914-
1918 your anniversary heart
blooms Flanders Field red,
cradled in Earth’s ability
to survive a surfeit
of weaponry, bone, flesh.
A grace note, blood fed,
tilled like an infant.
The Great Ocean Road Again
The Western Plains a-hum under the tyres.
The ears of childhood alive now as then.
My sister’s ghost beside me in the
passenger seat content to play memory
prompt. Same dry paddocks of gorse,
scotch thistle, host now to Wild Nights
At The Zoo. Red Hot Pokers flowering
at the feet of a tiger silhouette are young
enough not to fret, the Werribee Exit
a caution not a threat, the thundering
trucks mostly going the anti-direction.
They’ll hit Melbourne with a thirst
there’s no satisfying. My petrol tank
refuses to be afraid, filled with a trust
in this bitumen stretch which broke the
news of my sister’s death: not virus-kill,
an accident of genes. What we share
we share. We are not speeding. The
Slow-to 75km and No Alcohol in Public
Places disturbs neither of us. We obey
Please Consider The Vehicles Following
and permit a cyclist to pedal past, his
antennae eliciting themes of Extra
Terrestrial, his speed a mad break-neck
as if two-wheeled travel is safer from
disaster than a four. We go beyond $2.50
Horse Poo, Caravan Storage and Kayaks
For Sale. We leave behind School Bus
Reversing, Scout Camp, Country Club,
and the indigenous Culture Walk that once
had no need to name itself. At length we
reach the Transfer Station’s lit windows
where I offload myself to a guest bed.
Swaddled in night’s flannelette my sister
imagines herself alive again. We fall
asleep mid-debate. The ocean sighs.
In the tug between word and flesh
a poem likes to believe its reach
is more than a brew of lines
an imagination’s tweak. Gripped
hearts are never anonymous
the gasp in a throat is fear’s fatigue
an adrenal shock, a wish to be safe
among the beloved. Words would spare
us if they could, keep bedside vigil
alongside penultimate breath,
ultimate loss, would choose silence
so as not to become reporters
of the noose, as in the territory
of suicide where grief’s hard
sunlight substitutes elegy
for cradle song.
© Patricia Sykes
Patricia Sykes is a poet and librettist. Her poems and collections have received various awards, including the Newcastle Poetry Prize, John Shaw Neilson award and the Tom Howard Poetry Prize. She has read her work widely and it has featured on ABC radio programs Poetica and The Spirit of Things. Her collaborations with composer Liza Lim have been performed in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Paris, Germany, Russia, New York and the UK. She was Asialink Writer in Residence, Malaysia, 2006. A selection of her poems was published in an English/Chinese edition by Flying Island Books in 2017. A song cycle composed by Andrew Aronowicz, based on her collection The Abbotsford Mysteries, premiered at The Abbotsford Convent Melbourne — now an arts precinct — in 2019. A podcast of this work is available on various platforms.