Esther Ottaway – Reading your poems
about your dead son, quickly

Ottaway LE P&W August 2023

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Special Australian Edition August 2023

Reading your poems about your dead son, quickly – poems by Esther Ottaway.

Reading your poems  about your dead son, quickly

“And Jesus gave him to his mother.” – Luke 7:15

I am reading your words
hungrily, because I need to know
what it is like
even as I pray never to know
what it is like. We face each other
in the mirror of motherhood:
you are speaking to me
from the land of no-longer,
you have your theodolite out,
your sextant, and barehanded
you are mapping negative space,
every millimetre of the white room.
I hear you speaking with your cut-out tongue,
you, bare and bloodied under a granite moon
that travels with you everywhere,
you, bearing down
as he is born, you raising a man,
you taking the measure of horror –
I am shamed in my barefaced greed
for my daughter’s life. I splash water on my face
and it pools on your mirror-cheeks,
tracks along your jaw where his baby hand
stroked your skin. How can you bear
what cannot be borne? My body says
to gather you up as if you were my daughter,
tuck you under my chin, and hold
my firm, calm heartbeat
against your flayed bones – a paltry offering,
viviparous mother-instinct all I have.
But I face you. If listening could re-create, I would
give him to you as Christ would: whole, vital.

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

I’d seen them for decades, on postcards, on tea towels
and tote bags, on plates and coasters, I’d seen them
on charity leaflets, in pixels and algorithms,
so dowdy in their vase, unprepossessing,
flat colours of pigeon or scree,
and in truth, it was Monet’s gardens
for which I had flown a day’s journey. I didn’t care
whether I would see them here, knowing them brown
and irrelevant – what could be announced
by a bunch of sunflowers? But when I saw them,
morning light streamed from the sunflowers
and struck my face and shoulders, my long-stemmed neck,
the light bathed the flowers of my breasts – the lovers’ light
rippling through a stone window, the tender light
of citrus in a mother’s bowl, the larrikin light
in the crest of a young cockatoo, the maverick light
of gorse-blossom down a midlands hillside, the lifeforce light
of an opened egg, the God-blessed light of Solomon
in his glory, and I saw that the real thing – the truth of things –
shines. In my selfie
the flowers look brown, but the light is in my eyes.

© Esther Ottaway  

Esther Ottaway’s poems have been shortlisted in the international poetry prizes, the Montreal, Bridport, MPU International, and Mslexia, and she has won the Tim Thorne Prize for Poetry, the Tom Collins Poetry Prize, the Queensland Poetry Festival Ekphrasis Award and other prizes. Often powerfully bringing to light the experiences of women, her work is widely published, including in Rattle (US) and Mslexia (UK), and anthologised in Australia and New Zealand, notably in Thirty Australian Poets (UQP). Her acclaimed new collection, She Doesn’t Seem Autistic (Puncher & Wattmann), creatively illuminates the hidden experiences of women and girls on the autism spectrum, and her previous collection, Intimate, low-voiced, delicate things (Puncher & Wattmann), which explores family and its origins, motherhood, love and the loss of love, won both the Poetry category and People’s Choice in the Tasmanian Literary Awards.

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