you arrive like a flurry
of freefalling snow, wet
against a red iron backdrop
a landscape so old
it has rusted in place
fused against the saltwater sky
like a ghost-gum, you haunt me
you are sweet
all bare, gleaming flesh
a freshwater fish
in my mouth
you flicker in a desert
of dry grass and lust
the shimmer of heatwaves
TSTmpj: What haunts you? Love, perhaps? In what way?
Holly Zwalf: Until recently I was being haunted by a bone. A clavicle, to be precise, both fragile and firm, supporting that sweet stretch of skin bridging shoulder and neck, glowing like the woman who wore it. This poem is about her, about the distance between us, and about the delirium of a dehydrated heart.
TSTmpj: Your poem finely observes the landscape while at the same time being erotic. If given a choice between being alone in that landscape (even though you may be surrounded by strangers); and being in an austere, windowless room with a lover, which would you choose (an explained faux-choice from you, perhaps?)
Holly Zwalf: When I first wrote this poem I would have chosen her. I would have chosen that freshwater flesh, hands pinned above her head, stretched against the blank backdrop of a peeling motel wall. But gradually I began to realise that the bone that gave shape to this woman had itself been imagined, all along. I had it all wrong—she wore a button-up shirt the night we first met, not the clavicle-baring singlet I remembered. I had never actually seen this curve of the collarbone that lingered like an apparition in my infatuated mind. She was the ghost of a ghost, felt in passing. She was a trick of the light, late afternoon sun flickering through stunted trees. I changed my answer. I opted instead for the terrifying expanse of that heartland, where your blood runs as red as the dust that settles in drifts in sharp corners, deep gullies, soft wrinkles. I chose that teeming void, reaching across impossible distances that suck you in and strip you bare, strip you back to bone. Real bones, made with calcium and marrow, not the imaginary scaffolding of a poet's verse. But of course this debate is nothing but an act. If I am to be so bold as to call myself a poet, I must also brave honesty, too. A true poet will deliberate, will make a great show of weighing up the choices in her hands, but in the end she will be forced to admit that, in fact, there was never a question to begin with. Given a choice, the poet will choose the girl. Every single time.
TSTmpj: Unless I'm quite mistaken, I pick you as an Australian poet. Is there anything you wish to say to the predominantly so far other-than-Australian TSTmpj audience about your poetics?
Holly Zwalf: I have always hated landscape poetry. I used to skip over the skylines and vistas, sharpening my focus instead on the human shapes: their stories, their sorrows, their passions. And then one day foreground and background collided and my short-sighted glasses were smashed. In this poem the landscape is not the backdrop but the cornerstone of the piece, acknowledging that sense of place and sense of self are synonymous. Indigenous Australians have known this for many centuries; white people are still grappling with this knowledge. Journey out to that part of central Australia that is nothing but dry dirt and sky: it will seem dead only until you embrace it. The desert is the heart of this country and the heart of this poem, and it is where my flatlining heart woke up in surprise and gratefully beat once again.
Holly Zwalf's a queer poet who likes working on her PhD on kink, loves Cyndi Lauper, and hates wearing shoes.