Paul Hetherington

Shangri-La
 
Even the way the name sings in your mouth
excites you, fantastical and joyous,
and though others debunk the idea of Shangri-La
as preposterous, your thoughts won’t let it go,
travelling past mysterious peaks and over long plateaux
made when the earth was new. You began with trepidation
in lower grasslands, having boarded a groaning train
in an ancient city, where women
with red and orange shawls around their faces
were—strangely—talking in English,
bending to pick up baskets
of washed linen and three rectangular parcels
wrapped in cloth of gold. You were conspicuous
because of your pale skin and overly nonchalant posture,
still getting used to the feel of your travelling body.
Beggars demanded money; someone grabbed
at the ring on your hand. Much later,
in a town cut out of stone,
you followed scrawled directions down an alley,
past shadows that seemed alive, and suddenly knew
that looking for Shangri-La might be your death
despite a café’s flicker of candlelight.
You sat with food that smelt of cinnamon
and something unrecognisable, a sour,
heady flavour that seemed to adhere to the dress
of the silent waitress who bowed when greeting you.
Tomorrow a man is due to bring supplies
so you can hunker down on a camel trek
for another thousand kilometres towards
the globular, sacred mountain which you believe
will be luminous and white like a monstrous pearl;
towards that lovely, seductive sound in your mouth,
the indomitable, rising inflection of your dream.
 
 
Six Different Windows
 
Being stretched across landscapes
you find sensations are yet to arrive
from earlier destinations—
the slant of sun through six different windows,
views of nine Baroque cathedrals,
a street vendor shouting out—
but that was in a different country.
 
Losing those important connections
that clung to inflections and gestures,
you barely lay your feet on soil
while reading guide books, handling pottery
and beginning to understand you’ve never lived
as expansively as you believed.
You push open a shutter to reveal
 
the Sierra Nevada mountains, imagine
Roman legions assembling in the valley
two millennia ago, bringing to Elibyrge
their efficient language and civilisation,
knowing it as alien territory,
speaking words like “ultimatum”
to the shifting, incorrigible air.
 
 
Pompeii
 
‘Every object that presented itself to our eyes …
seemed changed, being covered deep
with ashes as if with snow.’         
                                    —Pliny
 
1.
Despite the ground shaking
and cracking his jar
of green olive oil
he decided to stay,
ensconced in a life
hazarded and made
over troubling decades.
Once a centurion
at Jerusalem’s ruin
when the Second Temple
was immured in flame—
bodies strewn
like wheat at a wedding—
he now owned a villa,
dogs, and a store
of excellent grain,
a sprawl of good vines
and three useful slaves.
In any case
tremors spoke monthly
of the gods being close
and abundance had followed—
garum, fine bread,
oil and cheese.
His wife was faithful,
like a duck with its mate.
They’d commissioned a series
of colourful frescoes—
roses and nightingales,
split pomegranates,
a dove in laurel.
But although they made
every obeisance,
observing rituals
and each sacrifice,
the volcano threw smoke
like an umbrella pine
standing robustly
in a dirty sky.
As branches sheared
like arms breaking free
from a flexing torso,
pumice and ash
fell on the streets
and darkness, like someone
closing a room,
dived on the world.
 
2.
She held out strong hands
and an abundance like stardust
gathered in miniscule
quick germinations
as if night were lifted.
When she bared her breasts
her nipples became
a distant terrain’s
dark prominences,
her breath the pulsation
of the local hot springs.
He traversed her skin
with labourer’s hands
in stroking affection,
feeling her warmth.
She thought of cats
tonguing her palm
for treats she held.
He could see undulations
like a fanciful landscape
roaming her body—
as if lakes and valleys
and hillsides with fauns
rolled over her back.
He imagined walking
near Mount Vesuvius
in now-smoking groves
of chestnut and alder.
A tremor ran through her
and she was, for a moment,
every wonder he’d quizzed
and abstraction he’d searched
and failed to hold.
She was Athena, Artemis,
Hecate, Ceres,
fused with religion,
speaking of love.
Her hands brushed his face
and he knew that no telling
could negate this moment;
that even in aftermath
part of his being
would be held just here
as in ancient amber;
that her ragged hair
and laminating salt
would taste on his tongue
like a spectral presence.
To join and be joined;
to gather and release;
to watch slow night
burn with the hue
of the sea’s phosphorescence.
Then only in grasping
each other’s fall
could they continue to breathe.
They vanished completely,
covered by drift,
stiffened in postures
made of white air,
her head in his rib cage
like someone burrowing,
their longing twisted
into one caress.
 
 
Fifteen-Year-Old Inca Child Sacrifice
 
Like a hand, this intolerant season
reaches to cloth of feather
and chaquira cloth
subtly strung with gold and silver—
undoes the clasp near her heart,
exposes her pliable flesh.
Snow and ice crawl over her.
 
The solstice demanded this gift.
Guinea pigs, textiles had failed;
llamas and incense had yielded
no special dispensation.
 
The priests nodded towards
a gifted, amiable child.
Statuettes were minted
and yellow maize was gathered.
 
Her vision of self was foreshortened;
her parents saw their caresses
absorbed in bleaching shadows.
A priest examined her daily.
She put away most gesture.
 
As the party ascended the mountain
she looked behind to her life—
child on her parents’ knees,
child in hazy grasslands,
the dry saturation
of indolent, doubtful summer.
 
She held a cup of maize;
beads of silver and gold
glittered on her torso.
 
She heard a subtle murmur:
‘Give the ancient gods textiles,
give them statues and food,
give them incense and coca;
hand guinea pigs to the gods;
give up a breathing child.’
Lightning riled the ridges
and mountain ice was like silver.
 
Placed carefully on a platform,
curled in a foetal position,
statuettes next to her
and llamas carved from a shell
 
she drowsed on the skin of the world.
 
 
 
 
 
Paul Hetherington lives in Canberra, Australia. He has published seven collections of poetry and two poetry chapbooks. His poetry has won a variety of prizes and is part of the online Australian Poetry Library. In 2002 he was the recipient of a Chief Minister’s ACT Creative Arts Fellowship and he was awarded a place on the 2012 Australian Poetry Tour of Ireland. He edited the final three volumes of the National Library of Australia’s edition of the diaries of the artist Donald Friend, was founding editor of the quarterly humanities and literary journal Voices (1991-97) and one of the founding editors of the online journal Axon: Creative Explorations. He is Associate Professor of Writing at the University of Canberra and chair of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs. He has written articles and essays on literary and cultural matters, including poetry, creativity and ways of providing access to cultural materials.
 

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