Poems - Katherine Gallagher



(after Lobster Telephone, Salvador Dali)

Lobster and telephone have found each other:
the telephone can’t eat the lobster
the lobster can’t eat the telephone.

The phone’s gone kitsch, wearing
an electric-orange hard-hat,
keeping the day on hold.

Sooner or later it had to happen
that some laser-eyed lobster
would shake off one sea and find another –

a stunned, air-shell ocean of voices
listening to sterlob sterlob,
lobster language

as if for the first time.

(Published in Southerly, 2007)


A hand circles a beach, remembering:

people exclaim at its strangeness; children ask
why it’s flying alone like this.

The hand is preoccupied with its past -
what it’s done, and might have done.

It has seen itself as a Maker
who could lock and unlock doors.

It has known magic, marked out
boundaries, held loved ones.

It was there at the marriage of earth and sky,
saw the world spin in its palm.

When it unwinds from a fist-coil
its rivers unfold, its plains settle

to be read as the Book of Itself
covering dark moments, the flail

of the whip, the trigger-sharp alert, beside
transformations that amaze; spill over.

This hand – the hand that has been raised
in anger and in peace –

invites: Stop, sit on your hands.


(after a line by Derek Walcott)

Have you seen the way the day grows
around you, neither perpendicular
nor horizontal -

open to whims, new currents,
the sky inviting banks of cloud,
stubborn vaults of air?

How it keeps you balancing
like that angel on a pinhead,
your feet facing all ways into the poem!

You follow it, you're the wind, a gale,
path escalating - you're sure
the day has you in its sights.

And you welcome it, ready
to be astonished.


All around, islands of girls waiting
to be asked – cherry pinks, fern-greens, lilacs,

offsetting lines of dark-suits,
half-shy boys: one by one, couples swirling

away, following each other into the sea
of that crowded floor – everything suspended

in the thinning air, the school dancing on its toes,
Exhibition Swing pumped out by an imitation

Victor Sylvester Band, unsmiling, but practised
as a row of puppets,

a whirl of sedate moves under spotlights,
and me, ready to step

out of that loop. . .


1. Orchid

        a fervent watcher
        set to charm you

        vellum to write on
        one cool sentence

        a drowsy oberon
        lulling the year

        a classic eye
        coding skies

        a capricious mood
        for whimsy’s sake

        smooth-tongued suitor
        in the chat-game

        a global traveller
        trading secrets

        the cagey face
        of fleet tomorrow

        a beacon shine
        for offshore days

2. Marguerites

        Leggy performers
        reaching from garden hideouts,
        full-face the sun, feisty, parading
        pincushion centres – terra cotta discs
        fringed in white paling.
                Leaves, sludge-laced,
        shadow long stalks lifting a flower head –
                sesamied by sun.

3. Christmas Cactus

Tropical, they have taken off from the dark,
drawn further from the secret of themselves.

A cavalcade of sisters, faces lifted,
full-splashed in waxy mauves; fringed
heads braced to salute the season.

Girls at a ball, simmering their whispers,
breakaway islands of dancers swirling
their waltz, each held by solo promises to sun.

Uncrowned, they exult in this
annual pageant, mouths pursed – expectant.

Later, over months, they will hone in
on themselves - bargain again with darkness, await
the shadows of pale moons

and suns to explode their dark.


This is the dangerous time, sky clouding:
lifesavers on the alert, intermittently moving the flags,
shoals of swimmers still keening the fray.

0nly a narrow stretch of ocean left now
between the signposts, the spume growing wilder
lifting more boldly – you imagine yourself drawn in,
tugged all ways past the horizon.

Isn’t it enough just to be here on this ivory sand
watching breakers curl against clouds darkening, still far out,
spellbound by the limitless, the reach of coast?

Six o’clock now, the show’s closing down.
        A few paragliders swoop in
while children put final touches to their sandcastle.
Soon they’ll carry water to the moat.


(after Frank O’Hara)

Have you forgotten the zany way we danced
pivoting round corners at breakneck speed
through a sea of Year Tens who stood entranced?.
‘Like flying,’ you said, me following your lead -
with tousled hair and tapping toes, again
again, each day a new adventure trip -
hunting poetry from Adamson to Zen
and taking our time, just letting it rip.

Sometimes I wonder why we didn’t stay
shining up those days - good times and more.
We wanted to travel, get right away,
see the other side, its open door -
not worried much about beating the drum,
believing our best days were yet to come.


The Carlton spring hung down that night,
acres of fog licking the ground.

How they skipped – shining folk on the move.
up, down, lift, left foot, right, poet-professor
Vincent Buckley leading a non-stop conga,
in and out of rooms, circling wide; up, down,
accordeon music, that same L.P. – When Irish Eyes
Are Smiling – begorra, a few party girls,
smiling through:
        poetry whirling the boards -

        hours and hours of it
plaited together by wandering souls,
skip your heart out, Buckley shedding reserve
like fairy floss, skipping as if going somewhere
with only hours to spare – laughing, talking,
breaks for drinks;

        antique tunes, folksongs, the music lifting
Mountains of Mourne and Tara’s Halls, ballads
echoing from floors, ceilings, windows;
feet tapping the sweet and not-so-sweet shreds
of history – and if you stopped to breathe,
others skipping on, always up, down, leaping fire,

constant to the tune of Eumerella Shore
and The Wild Colonial Boy -
        for the hell of it and more . . .


Poppies, roses fill the summer air
blazing, blazing through the ink-red day -
quiet fields, once war’s bleak thoroughfare.

Shell-shocked voices surge to challenge prayer,
circle makeshift graves, their broken clay -
poppies, roses fill the summer air.

Rustling winds arise, unleash, lay bare
long dead soldiers' dreams of peace some day -
quiet fields, once war’s bleak thoroughfare.

Gun-smoke, fever, stench, hard-eyed despair -
demon moments skirr, shriek death, decay:
poppies, roses fill the summer air.

Fires and burning taunt all history's care
- bugles echo, flay this blood-soaked way:
quiet fields, once war’s grim thoroughfare.

Gravestones lashed by storms mazed everywhere,
loop back scenes that just won’t go away. . .
Poppies, roses fill the summer air,
frame the fields of war’s dark thoroughfare


(i.m. K.)

It was February, the harvesting done
and the stubble prickly, yellowed-brown.
He looked out on his paddocks,
the tall gums pencil-shadowing the dam.
The operations had seared his sides -
ridges of scars, Snakes and Ladders,
with the strained muscles slowly folding in.
As he said, the omens weren’t good.

I remember the air chafing, the odd fly
accompanying his body’s shudders that
jolted him day and night, meeting
morphine that gave only brief respite. . .

Always with his face to the window,
the paddocks and a pulsing sun outside.


Track the garden
        that fields your tiger.

Track your valerian
        dreaming haywire

        and this map
        that colours you in,
        cache-cache offshoots.

Track your mercury,
        its lasered pulses.

Track your tree -
        its bosky spin-offs

        and your pollen -
        its chain of hours,

Track your windmill,
        its shaky cross-bars.

Track your bridge
        (it’s weigh-in time)

        and your rain-barrel,
        your precious catchment
        against quick-burn drought.

Track your diviner -
        its special water-butt.

Track your marsh,
        its wary bunyip.

Track your rain,
        its downpour grains.


Everything has slowed
to a hush, cottony wisps settled
into glazed fields - vast surfaces,
luminous, unscuffed - crisp footprints
covered over in minutes.

            I’ve amassed all this white,
its thoroughness, marked the speed
of the wrapping. Two hours
under the glide of flakes
and the tableau’s remade,
whatever the stark terrain beneath -
            its unventured piste,
feathered topsoil, a makeover to last
however briefly – tagging
the beauty of the pause.

From CIRCUS-APPRENTICE (Arc Publications, 2006)


Laanecoorie on the Loddon, with its long Aboriginal name:
Laanecoorie, the strange sound of it, not knowing what it meant.
The Loddon, fringed by stout red gums, with their knotted roots
reaching down into the riverbed, the stones, the mud.

Laanecoorie, the strange sound of it, not knowing what it meant.
The Loddon, my first river, measuring over my head
and reaching down into the riverbed, the stones, the mud -
more interesting than a dam or mere waterhole.

The Loddon, my first river, measuring over my head.
Prickly January: there to see cousins, swim the Loddon –
more interesting than a dam or mere waterhole.
Ted Malone dived and like a troupe of tumblers, we followed.

Prickly January: there to see cousins, swim the Loddon –
always ready to scream ourselves hoarse.
Ted Malone dived and like a troupe of tumblers, we followed.
Childlike, we trusted the river’s bulges, its twists,

always ready to scream ourselves hoarse.
Looking back forty years, two brothers and a cousin lost to Lethe
that day, childlike, we trusted the river’s bulges, its twists
as magpies, kookaburras and wagtails swooped by.

Looking back forty years, two brothers and a cousin lost to Lethe
that day, we played water polo, raced against each other
while magpies, kookaburras and wagtails swooped by
and we swam full-pelt into the rippling swell.

That day, we played water polo, raced against each other
and our parents watched, faces mottled in eucalyptus shade
as we swam full-pelt into the rippling swell
with never a thought for the futures in waiting,

carrying with us always the mud and the stones and the memory
of Laanecoorie on the Loddon, with its long Aboriginal name;
aware only of the day, the heat of sun, the cool of water -
the Loddon, fringed by stout red gums, with their knotted roots.

(Published in Magma, No.34, 2006)


(for Aicha Ouedraogo, Nadraogo)
Aicha, you give us no survival-heroics, no
doom-histories, as your face, sculpture-solid
reaches out from a front-page spread –
you in floral cottons, wide-eyed, poised
beside the thick-leaved neem you have nurtured
from a seedling – carrying water to it weekly,
gliding sure-footed towards it like an Angel of the Desert,
your face shining under a glass-blue sky.

But you have managed to astound the stars:
resolutely starting over as your lifeline for food, fuel
building materials and health cures became waste –
your homelands stripped. You planted fifteen trees here
in Nadraogo, with just the Sahara’s dry promises in your eye.

How do you name your miracles? Of the fifteen,
five survived, including your neem now growing
beanstalk-fast in desert, already over twice your height
and reaching into a tongue-dry, drought-filled sky;
twice knocked flat by straying cattle, twice mended by you,
fastening it to a wooden splint with strips of bark.

Aicha, I know little about you, your days in Nadraogo,
your work in the reforestation commune. . .
How have you rattled the sky, perfected the art of loving trees?
Your fable of neem stalks our century and more.

(After an article by Michael McCarthy, A Tree for Christmas,
The Independent, 23rd December, 2002)
(Published in Mslexia, 2003)


I’m learning it all – acrobatics, clowning,
riding bareback and trapeze,
fire from a sleeve: my hand’s a wand.

I weave my life round dancing elephants
who spray the air while turning
their backs on the crowd;

lions who never put a foot wrong.
I’m taking their cue, I’ve seen
what people want.

Prancing ponies teach me steps:
pacing, adroitness, like my fellow-dancers
keeping their spot.

I’m walking the high-wire, making my mark
poised, balanced, don't look away –
you are my gravity's other edge.

(Published in The Wolf, 2004)


You want me to be a lighthouse-keeper? Fine.
I’ll set myself up in a spiralled house
with only books and the cat for company.

I’ll learn how the sea looks
turned inside out, how bird cries
are thin winding scarves escaping.

I’ll handle looking myself in the eye
when I peer down the telescope,
meet silences ragged as runaway clouds.

No one will know how I value
the way the ships’ lights radiate,
how I long for their visits.

I’ll stay my ground, teach people
to keep their distance,
maybe get to love this sea-life

drop my anchor, forget the city,
its solidity, after the ribbed
slip and slap of sea.

(Published in Acumen, 2005)


(RNLI, Aldeburgh)
It’s that time, mid-autumn: an oil-base blue sky -
pebbles, rocks, a foothold for seagulls.
Clouds buckle, scoop grey on grey, mirror
the colours of the stones. Now, rose-tinged
the clouds fire up – a final show
before darkening. The boat shed stirs,
tugs on its moorings, flags down the breeze
as rows of street-lights flick on.

People shuffle by, shaped by anoraks, adrift
from the pack. They peer through the windows
of the lifeguards’ shop, lined into
the oldest dream, of being saved
no matter what sea.


I have swallowed a country,
it sits quietly inside me.
Days go by when I scarcely
realise it is there. . .

........ I talk to this country,
tell it, You’re not forgotten,
nor ever could be.
I depend on you –

cornucopia packed close
with daylight moons
and bony coasts,
the dust of eucalyptus

on my teeth; mudded rivers
burnished smooth
under the cobalt crystal
of a lucent sky.

It is my reference-point
for other landscapes
that, after thirty years,
have multiplied my skies.

(Published in Agenda, Australian issue, 2005)


(i.m. C.G. d. 19.9.87)
The sting in a limbering spring day
foreshadows summer. Through her window
roses plait themselves together beside young-
leafed eucalypts as she, too ill to speak,
slowly becomes my eye in the clouds, the gap
I will see through. No one knows me better
than she who circled my first flight.

I’ve tried to prepare myself, remembering
her cyclopaedic mind, her gift for solutions.
My bird-mother. I reach out, hold her hands.

She slides down into sleep and wakes again
on this final island, where touch is more important
than words. She grimaces, begs for morphine . . .
Our world divides. We’ll fly differently now.

(Published in The Review, Weekend Australian, 2006)

From After Kandinsky (Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2005)

YELLOW, RED, BLUE - (1925)

Watch the animal eyes that whisk corners
faster than an angel breathing passwords
in a mesh of yellow. Cloud-sure, life flags itself on.
Circle after circle is mapped in the mystery
of a line quicker than an arrow, shot from left to right,
the dark corners turned in on themselves,
while the sea advances up the cliffs.

Presently a cat walks tall out of the waves,
eyes open, heading for the fire at the centre,
the red waves fanned, turned crimson,
surrounded by purples that ferry
the jigsaw’s spell. Choices multiply,
resonate, form patterns for love-songs
the heart claims again and again.

In the background, dark moons, resilient,
juggle patchwork squares, lines, and curves.
Light bounces off them as finally the perfect blue
you’ve been waiting for, dips, tumbles
into the still of the storm, among reds, purples,
all shades - this country you keep coming back to,
that walks you home to yourself.

(Published in Equinox, 2005)

BALANCING - (1925)

Sheering into extremes, prime colours that reach back
to childhood – crayons and paints that you flew everywhere,
sometimes colouring inside the lines, sometimes splashing
on a blank slate, allowing sun to be orange, black or green;
waves to be carmine, tipped with blue.

Traffic isn’t one way in this quick-eyed adventure between earth
and sky. Moons sit sublime, harness a catalogue of randomness,
signal where to land. To live in the House of Colours
is to spark cadences in the corners of your heart,
everything translated for its verve and flow.


Every secret is a hidden box. You rein it in
and wait. Years on, you’ve stored laughter
to keep you steady. The sky flares red,
its fires savage the forest.
You remember
when the arsonists cried wolf
and their calls defeated you.

As the sun climbs, the sky is strummed
like a guitar – string-ladders of sound.
You see the dispute between red and black,
light offered to travellers between moons.

Red stretches, soars, spills,
tantalizes . . .


Last night, the full moon
hung like a papery lamp
over my quiet road.
I savoured the chilly sky –
the moon tagging my shadow.

(Published in The Unidentified Frying Omelette, Hodder, 2000)


September 3, 1939. Early evening
and the sea soughs, sways
- a sketchbook washing calm,
its ribs carrying the meticulous rainy births -
portraits from her many lives.

She has always loved the coastline,
come back to it, the waves' fringed-grip -
daily swimming the Channel - testing herself
against its heave and push.
Ahead, Dover's scribbly-white cliffs,
and beyond, the hills of Tenby -
its beach's curve, her childhood's
patch of sand. She has tested this sea's glass

and painted herself into its mirror
like a cloud passing over. She has more
interiors to match and place, place and match
as again she gives herself to the water -
its moody mountains surging,
pacing her - the archetypal swimmer
planing darkness, with the coast
clearing and Paris-Meudon behind her.

(Published in Mslexia, No.8, Winter/Spring, 2001)


Clouded Yellows, Red Admirals, others I cannot name
weaving in and out of bindweed, daisies, buttercups.
They've flown over wide sea-stretches
to reach these wild grasses, tombs and ruins.

I breathe the scented air, feel the sky's silk,
there for the taking. I can almost unknot
my unhappiness - see how its underside
is the impossible love
I've carried all this way
like spare, necessary baggage.

Can I ungrip it, leave it here
for random gods to give one last blessing?
I hear your voice urging me on
to walk through this
steady fire of butterflies.

(Published in Acumen 47, September, 2003)

From TIGERS ON THE SILK ROAD (Arc Publications, 2000)


(for M.)
Daily she chides
her mirror:

who is this woman
staring back

turning the glass around,
twisting its magnifier

seeing a lifetime's portraits
paraded like miniatures -

herself at fifteen in the school-
concert, on her wedding-day,

in the Alexandra Chorus,
at her son's graduation?

She gathers in her few strands
under the blonde-curled wig

Studies her pinched skin,
wanting a sign,

a rouge
in her cheeks

an opposite of surrender.
The love of red will save her.


Solo lamps articulate
each starred bush. Leaves become flowers,
flowers become leaves,
fine red stems shedding fire, sunrise-bright.

She sees herself walking through
their thick wall, a cascade of scarlet
at the hospital entrance.

Daily the tread through white-lined leaves,
the bloodless veined maps, red-topped -
their blazes reminders.

When she grows tired, it is right
to look away, forget
the furrowed richness.

Three months have scarred me. . .
She studies photographs
from last Christmas:

she and her sons
among the prized
dye-bright coal-flowers

that will not be extinguished,
will fall off the stem
and fold in at their own pace.


Her visitors trailed messages of fire.
She touched the poinsettias -
velvet-strong petals, easily bruised.
If only some of their fire could stay for her,
help her sleep. One operation after another.
She followed her charts; read 'Terminal'
(the doctors' notes carelessly
left on her bed) as if she were
strong enough to know the worst -
the tumour's shifts and moods,
as though her body had stopped
in its tracks, to remind her of the
recklessness of cells speeding up.
The word 'Terminal' hammered her.
If only she hadn't read it. .


The poinsettias stopped flowering,
their fire finally dissolved in air.
She cut the stems back to half their length,
fed them every fortnight
when the new growth began.

Without their red, the painted leaves,
she felt displaced, settled
into a green of hesitations,
willing herself to obey the plants:
Don't overfeed, use tepid water. . .

She would carry them
or leave a message for her sons
to bring them from the cellar
next Christmas, nearly
a year away now.


They'd hoped he'd be back for Christmas -
the lights shining down on him, the tree
somehow shielding off the horror. A break.
The family hadn't seen him as a soldier,
in his uniform, among harvested paddocks,
the dried stubble that pricked your legs.

Arriving home, he said Merry Christmas,
hugged people and slapped them on the back.
Wandered about the place, eyes crinkled
with strain, lines dug
into his forehead. So young, he seemed
to be either laughing or very sad
as though, in between,
there was nothing.


Nothing has dulled my feel for earth,
its stern gravity-pull,
its cushion of dark.

Neighbours in the flat below
hear my feet tapping
while the rest of the house sleeps.
When I dance in daylight, boards creak
to samba, tango, waltz.

I have acres and acres to dance through,
recharging as I go. Sometimes I find a partner
in a shopping-mall or an uncut field,
my party-face sparking till I'm giddy.
I whirl through tiredness changing the beat,
everything spinning - I'm flying at last.

My eyes glisten, past bitterness -
I dance in my sleep.
Whole streets fly by me,
whole streets have started dancing.


They have found an answer,
those people talking to their plants.

Tongues rising,
breath following breath.

Through a carbon dioxide veil
plants take in exhalations.

In new council-flat blocks
the windows are uniformly small,

rationing the view. It was never
like this on the mountain.

Years of looking at guidebooks,
wanting to camp in the hills.

There was no deluge, only equators
that saw the rivers spill over.

The sky might boil, we would
cover our heads, remembering

love, where we had delayed it -
this fate of avoidance.

We wear our hearts on old sleeves,
tamed by the usual risks.

There is still the wash of sun.
Another day, the drying summer.


I am fooled.
You insist on the secret of skins -
how perfectly each wraps you.

You compartmentalize,
I don't know how.
I can peel you back to nothing.

I hunt for what isn't there -
layer upon layer -
down to your cagey heart.

When I try to get away
you've snuck into my breath, eyes,
making me cry

into my hands.


A cave of air softens,
hovers over our heads.
We've waited all year for this:
the March lull, the park
almost tourist-free.

Put your ear
to this unsaddled soil,
sound out the mating-calls
of otters, rabbits, voles;
hear horses' hoofbeats
pound nearer-far.

I have made an altar of calm
among these ageing oaks,
lines of stiff-backed trees.

Our walk circles the ancient house,
grounds set off by daffodils.
A five-year-old sings a nursery rhyme,
wanting to pat sheep. Their beady eyes
distract, promising only puzzles.

We call ourselves comfortable explorers,
notice a wine-glass left among the ferns.
A squirrel skids into wintry hiding.
As the light fades, we study
each other's faces
for signs of sun.

©Copyright Katherine Gallagher 2000, 2006, 2010
The above collections are published by Arc Publications, Nanholme Mill, Shaw Wood Road, Todmorden, Lancs., OL14 6DA, UK. Email: arc.publications@btconnect.com

and distributed in Australia by Eleanor Brasch Enterprises, PO Box 586, ARTAMON, NSW, 2064, AUSTRALIA. Email: brasch2@aol.com.