Poems by Patricia Sykes
Patricia Sykes is a poet and librettist. She has read her poetry widely in Australia and overseas. Her work has featured on Radio National’s Poetica and the Spirit of Things and her poems have won the John Shaw Neilson, Tom Collins, and Newcastle Poetry Prizes. Wire Dancing, her first collection, was commended in the Anne Elder and Mary Gilmore awards. Her second, Modewarre – home ground, was shortlisted for the Judith Wright Poetry Prize. She was Asialink writer in residence, Malaysia 2006. Patricia’s most recent collection is Among the Gone of it, (English/Chinese, 2017). A song cycle based on her collection, The Abbotsford Mysteries, by composer Andrew Aronowicz, premiered at The Abbotsford Convent in May 2019. Patricia’s collaborations with composer Liza Lim have been performed nationally and internationally, including Huddersfield International Contemporary Music Festival (UK) Festival d’Automne (Paris) MaerzMusik (Berlin) the Chekhov Theatre Festival (Moscow) and the Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York.
Letter to a Pseudonym
Anonymity no shield, your life
at risk each human minute. In
the candle garden each stub
a quenched flame, fixed hearts
unable to shift sideways out of
danger like a snake’s when it
eats. The skeleton of being
has moved its skull
to your street. It watches
you hunger for respite
from the rank crush
of others in flight. Watches
you search a broken alphabet
of body parts, a name
and a fear locked in your throat.
In the birthing cells, hope’s
renascent slender pulse. No
infant fears the future or itself.
The writing on the wall could be
mere spectre. When we began,
a pessimist might say. When
there were less of us. When
the wrack was less. The ruin.
The sun as yellow witness
reveals scars in the species.
Night’s dark magnificence
wields pinprick stars, the
moon a flicker beam, and you
a minute’s grace amid the
bright fatalities, the gone.
After Helen of Troy Perhaps
What arises from the hands
risks the threat of breakage.
I’ve become the possessor
of an antique bowl
born of someone else’s life
though I cannot be sure
once the bowl is in my grip
whether its emptiness is the maker’s,
the first owner’s, the next, or my own.
Breath hovers on its lip
as if what stands between
safe and catastrophe
is as fragile as a champagne glass
which is shaped, it is said,
after Helen of Troy’s breasts
which would make of the bowl
a mimesis cup for mother’s milk?
aphrodisiacs? perhaps, if
everything came down
to suckle or sex.
I bathe the bowl
with hands grown suddenly tender
recalling how Helen
was made an excuse for a siege
and how history’s deceptions
claim truth once enactment is done.
The bowl is its own proof, each small
act of salvage a return on expense.
Your Suicide Coast Again
Your sand coffin a little starker
this year. Wind, rain, and ocean
have wreaked worse than expected.
The eroding rocks that cradled you
are sharper, more fanged, the high
dunes balder, the promontory more
exposed, its black skeletals riddled
with mid-winter sunlight. Beauty’s
violence is now a memory of you.
You left a suicide note at least
even if found too late. I could
only console your loved ones
with how peacefully you rested
like creation’s blessed child
blonde and a-gleam on wet
sand. I omitted the bruises, the
gashes, the rock shelf’s innocent
attacks. The reek of briny fear
wonders all over again if,
as you plummeted, you regretted
hurtling yourself off the cliff. Indeed
the wave-boom when at tidal force
is loud enough to wake the dead. Is
this your unasked for gift, this urge
to cling more tightly to the years
still left and mourn the ones not
well-spent? Yes I owe you perhaps
this aliveness, this joy in my own
existence. The hooded plovers are
also dancing their own deliverance.
They scurry to feed and breed
as if aware they are endangered.
I try to conjure an epitaph
to honour your invisible corpse
but the pollution remains
in your self-caused death
not the first on this wild and
unwitting coast. So little is pristine
where humans tread. I struggle for
something profound but arrive at
only more symbols: the disused
outlet pipe with a great hole in its
top as if a trapped scream erupted,
and the 96º West emergency marker
whose small yellow triangle is
a pyramid pun. Nothing grand is
tombed here, only your one life
prisoned in despair. I gaze at the
rock shelf, at the incoming tide’s
merciless rush, thinking how love
is not the only power and life not
the only loss. The most I can offer,
my intimate stranger, is to allow
you to own your self-death.
Day of Instinct, Rimbun Dahan,* Malaysia
Silence animates the nest
the common iora’s catch of grubs
feeds no throat
her patience tires the heat
exhausts even the binoculars
it’s easier to say a bird obeys instinct
than to believe a bird feels nothing
when a first breeding goes wrong
number is rhythm or no rhythm
arithmos, three laid, three dead
when the iora at last flies off
something human wants to know
if her mothering is still intact
and look she is back and again back
to stab the marauding ants, her beak
never breaching a nest that holds
long after its dead have emptied the sky
her end song is the near side
of eloquent. In the pool
beside the same frangipani
a woman in her first pregnancy
is swimming lap after lap.
*“Branch Laden” in Malay