Poetry by Rhian Gallagher

When Rhian Gallagher returned from almost two decades out of the country, and won the NZ Post Award in 2011, it seemed to me that there was a perceptible addition to what went on in our poetry. Here was a freshly attentive linguistic edge, a direct sensual intensity, a focus and gutsiness in writing of memory and regret, that seemed just that bit different from what any other writer here was doing. One reviewer called her poems ‘assiduously polished’, another picked up on ‘the visceral strength of her language’. What I admired then I find there again to admire in these unpublished poems. I’m glad my almost last laureate blog becomes the forum to display them.

– Vincent O’Sullivan

Photo courtesy of Rhian Gallagher.

A Haunt that the Thistledown Bore


It was a warm wind day,
no one was at home in the asylum,
the thistledown woke from its dream

shocked by the electric sun
the armour plate of leaves turned gray

out of those ragged grave clothes
the feathery lightness rose,

emerged through broken crowns
like breathless children.

*     *     *     *

A faint depression in the land,
blurred with the years,
where the misery mansion stood –

four and a half million bricks, one hundred and sixty foot tower.

Those who were sent or came
lost their names at the gate.

The voiceless ones among us
as if the earth gave them away
and whatever was left became air.

*     *     *     *

Above the walls and the bars and the slips

all afternoon the thistledown flew
hatching like a thousand butterflies,
each with a small ghost face.

The wings and the seed, how life
makes a start and an end,
how souls depart

some held on to a friend
or huddled in groups on briar,
some floated free alone

above the walls, above the bars and the slips.

Note: Misery Mansion is taken from the book title Misery Mansion: Grim Tales of New Zealand Asylums by Arthur Sainsbury (self published 1946)

An Age of Windows


I’d left the clarity behind, the blue,
the startling light exchanged for days
that felt like versions of the night
when autumn blew and winter
drew its blanketing across the rooflines.

First east then west then north again,
a sort of bedsit crawl. The streets to ask
is this home, here or here?
London stretched the other side of any wall,
it was the sea that Shelley heard,
fierce, aquatic London.

Those houses were in disarray, each room
with small repair: the windows gave
damp green, the foxes making fight and play,
the gaps of sky, the chimney stacks.
To learn there was an animal of light
rearranging shadows, a single tree

with all of aching autumn in display.
Gulls gathered on the bricked-in shore
to lift away and leave their flight-lines on the air.
Where dwelling dwelt, inside to out,
I’m numbered by the windows I have known.

Learning to Read

Your friends go forward
writing stories. Sunlight
sails through the chalk dust.
This is your timeless time. The alphabet
lives on the blackboard’s brow
– each letter has a big brother
or a big sister.

Miss Breen can see
there’s some far place in you.
Fantail stutters from the window tree.
You stand beside the island of her desk.
Your friends are busy;
even the tadpoles are working themselves
out and into frogs.

You can’t tell what you see
– the words are shapes
and the schoolroom’s paused.
Bright crayoned houses
pinned to the wall; the piano that waits
to be woken with a touch.
All of the doors that will open.

Her finger steers
crossing the page – you tilt
your voice in reply; through your held back days
you are her echo.
The smell of Miss Breen. The story
is everything.

Small Bird Without a Sky

She flew in through an open door
or some gap that I can’t see
and now a life in danger
– small bird without a sky.

Corralled inside the corridor
she flutters to a pane
that falsifies the world,
                      the tree, the cloud.
The walls she has no map for.

Free her, shoo her...
how she claims me
– bright beaded eye, feather unto skin
creature to creature –
this rapid, rapid beating.

The City

The city had a breath, inlaid a glaze on pavements
deepening the features of old stone. The buildings
recreating from their daylight face
beams and haloes
melded with the currents. A busker
and the bird-like note of flute, a beggar
held a card for you to read;
and from the bridge a scent of distance,
Big Ben tolled, gulls gathered up their shadows
across the shiny plane, each long chime
beat towards a headline.

The hovering of crane shafts, a pleading
outstretched hand, the city with an ache
and moving at a sprawl; that decade that you knew
marchers snaked along the Strand,
a violent blue: Thatcher’s wars,
the bloody Poll Tax, too many bomb scares.
All that news leaching into pores of stone,
became another chapter in the air. The city
peeling and re-peeling like the plane trees
casting skin, hunting with their roots
through layered clay.

You walked and walked
inside the never-ending winter¬ – your destination
in delay to ripple with a crowd and then another
as if the night were pushing from below,
with a sequence of small nudges, anticipation gained
and flowered into Soho; pouting boys and boys
in leather, where a hidden river flowed,
below the street, strobes cast a rainbow
on the floor that mixed the beat –
‘Native Love’, ‘It’s a Sin’ and ‘The Hills of Kathmandu’
– you could be a stranger or a friend,
a body making heat till 4am.

Now and then you went to Heaven*;
it was the prelude that you loved
and after love the night bus
staged its crawl across the city;
the Hackney estate you called home,
your keys cocked in your palm.

Note: Heaven is a gay nightclub in London

The Wahine Storm

Let out of school early
we cut through the paddocks for home
and the wind came, it grew
like an animal, our voices drowned in the roar,
clods flew up from their bed,
the little ones got scared.
We tried to keep our heads above the air,
a sheep lorry went past on a lean
then my dad swooped in from nowhere
pulling me out of the wind, ‘thank God’ he said.

*     *     *     *

The wind kept coming for more, the shed roof
sailed over the lawn, everywhere was drag and claw,
it felt like our house might surrender.
Our faces made strange in candlelight,
the transistor voice was our centre, the ferry
was the size of a street. ‘These night prayers,’
mum said, ‘are given up for the rescue’.
But wasn’t God steering the storm?
A horn blew, a judder, behind the window
where I lay, chilled by the air waves.
The sea would never be the same
                                 and the people, the people.

His Parting Gift

I wheel you into the garden and the sunlit air
beyond the glass where day on day your stare is cast.
A gap between the trees, there are the mountains,
the horizon sleeps against your knees.

*     *     *     *

The birds about us jest at spring
but what of it is reaching you? Memory gone,
your talk’s away, amplifies remembering in me
till the garden is the one before
– long rows you stooped and tended.

Your work is done – who loved to dance
and taught us how to make food grow.
In your bent and buckled hands
you show the difference of life.

*     *     *     *

Out to sea in a sea of air –
who’s provider? Am I the elder?
– every breath becomes a flower,
I prattle like a girl beside your chair.

*     *     *     *

A vigil kept across the night, what matters most
we hardly know – oblivion, the outmost zone –
you’re being fetched without a thing in hand.

The ships of all your life are passing
and there are stars to see you out, to toil and dance
upon the decks. You were a child
                                                       though we forget.

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