Tasmania: fragments from a story
The Governor built his prisons,
but he built his chapels, too.
Now the Lamb of God beams down
in light that’s brightly stained,
right foreleg implausibly curled
around a regimental flag.
Cloisters bristle with pennants,
stiffened with gold, backbones of wire.
Elsewhere, another chapel where
Irishmen of much conviction
whisper prayers to a shiny Virgin;
paint chipped from a toenail,
as a sandaled foot
arches over a snake’s head
—crushes that twisty dead-beat
in the lime-green grass. Psst. Psst.
See where fingers touched those feet,
where dusty plaster falls away like cake?
Port Arthur Penal Settlement,
Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania, 1850
This monkhood turns grasses Trappists.
They shut your trap. The warder said nowt,
bundled you—poor bugger!—into dark:
dumb cells, down there no light, no noise, no talk.
Without the light, it’s all bad dreams, blind faith.
You touch the wall to feel the world’s still there.
For days your mind wheels over landless seas.
You welcome Sunday: clanks, chains, the key.
But now, felt slippers, the guards’ steps muffled,
you’re hooded with a beak, prodded, shuffled
(damp-smells, echoes) towards the sniff of sun,
air, black on the back of your neck and hands.
Sunday, each man in his privy wooden stall,
you take your only communion in the swell
of hymns. Each soul can shout himself out
from his little wedge of God-pointed dark.
You sing your name: it fills your throat, your mouth;
not sure what is echo, what is prayer;
once more you’re wheeling over what brought you here:
Roaring Forties, that ache of nothing to the south.
Your work is picking oakum in solitude.
In the yard you’re hidden by a mask
that twists each jail-bird’s face into beak.
Nothing to say or do but Work is Prayer.
You do your bird. You do your time. Keep shtum
Keep nose clean. Keep hands to yourself. Keep mum.
One day in the yard, a man runs head-first, mad
against the wall. Falls, gets up, head-butts
his way, almost through that brick: again and again,
you hear the sound of skin and bone. That crack.
It echoes down the months. It fills your cell.
Your mind’s eye colonised by the twitch
of a wounded bird, the way it fell;
how blood frothed cobbles, sun smirked along its beak.
Cliff Forshaw lives in Hull, England, where he teaches at the university. Recent UK publications include Trans and three chapbooks: A Ned Kelly Hymnal, Wake, and Tiger.