Where the Trees Were

cover image

Cover photograph, “Masonic Hall, Smithton”, from Vanishing Tasmania: a photographic essay, by Frank Bolt

Where the Trees Were was published in 1999 by Indigo/Ginninderra. This book is out of print but copies are obtainable direct from the author.


Three poems from Where the Trees Were are displayed on this page:

  • The Sail and the Gannet
  • Diversions of a Painter
  • Final Museum

The Sail and the Gannet

A single sail,
Translucent apricot,
Drifts like a poppy’s petal on a frail
Breeze that is not —

A baby’s breath
Of air sparingly strewn
And eked out by the estuary’s width
All afternoon.

Lit from behind,
That fabric puts on show
What all of this, when the sun has declined,
Will undergo,

When like a dye
Extravagantly loosed,
Late saffron through blue river and blue sky
Will be suffused.

Hours that require
Only themselves. Suspended,
Division and the eye dissolve, desire
Almost is mended.

The close of day
Approaches: echelons
Of shade and light ascend the river, grey
And flooded bronze.

That sail’s no more.
And out of nowhere looms
One gannet, sweeping up and down the shore,
In the gold glooms

Seeking the day’s
Last fish. So swift it flies
And circles and returns, rushing to appraise
What underlies

Its beat, it brings
A darker note into
The scene, as though to match the darkenings
That drain the view.

Too fast its flight
(And slightly desperate
Before the urgings of the loss of light)
To concentrate

Its faculties
On fish, it can’t be seeing,
You feel — or it’s this shadowing it sees,
And is now fleeing.

Diversions of a Painter

Las Meninas by Velázquez

Near right, the dwarf Nicolasito
Prods to arouse with his black shoe’s
Diminutive and cheeky veto
The mastiff which would sooner snooze.
Next to him, quaintly beatific,
Eyes fixed on some unseen, specific
Point of focus, the squat buffoon
Maribárbola stands immune
To her surroundings. On the left hand,
Before a canvas turned form view,
The artist is included too,
Absorbed in observation, deft hand
Poised with a ready brush to set
Down — what? We do not know as yet.

Mid-foreground, pert with inattention
But still prepared to acquiesce
In this elaborate invention,
Is posed the five-year-old princess,
The setting’s dainty prima donna.
On either side, a maid of honour:
One knelt in tender protocol;
One tilted like a lifeless doll.
On the back wall what seems a painting
(Of king and queen?), alone among
The canvases which there are hung
In shadow, gleams distinctly. Tainting
With day the intimate half-gloom
Which stills that quarter of the room,

An open door presents its splendid
Oblong of light and, watching there,
A chamberlain is held suspended
With fascination of the stair.
The room seems spacious, only cluttered
By these few figures. They have shuttered
All but two windows on the right
Which shed their glow just out of sight.
Behind the doll-like maid a pair of
Superfluous attendants stand —
She, with turned face and gestured hand,
Prattling to him, quite unaware of
Her station. He, oblivious,
Stares at the canvas closed to us.

What is the painting in the painting,
If we could peep around the frame?
What subject was Velázquez feinting
In playing this reflexive game?
In one sense, nothing, for quite clearly,
The work within the work is merely
The canvas back and frame we see.
The full front is a fantasy.
As meaningless to pose the question
As ask what Hamlet might have done
Or said three days before Act One;
As fanciful as the suggestion
A living person could declare
That he is Don Quixote’s heir.

But art begins here to bamboozle.
What seemed a portrait on the wall
At first glance is, on close perusal,
Really a mirror after all.
The silvered king and queen, detected
In glass, turn out to be reflected
From that position where they pose
Beyond the scene the picture shows.
That canvas, then, is their depiction?
So it is they the small princess
And Maribárbola address?
Well, no; this is another fiction.
Those mirror images depict
No couple, but the viewer tricked.

And now you see his game, his clever
Subversion of the paradigm.
He’s playing with you, viewer, whoever
You are, or where, or in what time.
He’s almost starting to unnerve you,
For aren’t you placed within his purview
Precisely where the subject is?
It’s you that hooded gaze of his,
Standing back from the work, assesses
Within the work, or turns towards.
It’s you the portraitist records.
You’re the buffoon’s and the princess’s
Focus. Found out through time, you’re brought
To notice in the Spanish court.

Enough, though, of these artful cruces.
How did he really paint the thing?
Mirrors may answer many uses.
He placed one where the questioning
Spectator stands, in which reflexion
The room lay bare to his inspection:
Dog, dwarfs, princess, maids, chamberlain
Arrested and entranced within
His block of light, and, there to haunt us,
Velázquez too, brush poised before
An edge of frame. But there is more.
The ghost of mirrors comes to haunt us
Now, for the picture that, we know,
Is in the picture has on show

Another easel (and a painter,
Dog, dwarfs, princess, maids, chamberlain,
Servants) which has a picture—fainter
Smaller—which has an easel, in
A spiral traced through time and distance
With its grotesque counterexistence.
Around each corner of a frame
You’ll be confronted by the same,
Chasing Velázquez from this idyll
Of courtly life beyond the rhyme
Of reason, beyond eye and time.
(The only way to solve the riddle,
Cut short the regress, end the doubt?
Reach in and drag that canvas out.)

Final Museum

Time capsule of itself, sealed in its own
Transparency and hidden in the surface
Of this closed form, it is its contents now
And their description, a catalogue raisonné,
The catalogue of all the catalogues.
Never did the theories of light
Construct such desolating blues, the laws
Of physics hold so piercingly, or time’s
Variable caprice know how to work
Such beautiful mischief from a few relict
Interchangeable moments.

Arranged now with the ultimate precision,
Curated to the nth degree, here are
The fashion-clad and naked mannequins
Safe in their vitrines, bloodlessly erotic,
With the hands of Thai dancers or a Hindu
God, offering their plaster benedictions;
The multicoloured jigsaw on the shelves
Of a grocery store, deadpan retrospective
On a lost art, its arbitrary order
Become the revealed pattern; vehicles
Left as parked, with all their rear-view mirrors
Preserving stubbornly these devout scraps
Of memory, like pictures of home shown
To strangers; the railway lines still blinded by
Sunlight, proving perspective through the plains
Of cut-out townships; houses locked to no one—
Rooms with their talc of waste, untroubled now
Even by the clothes moth or the meagre mouse —
Wanting the skewed geometries they granted
Once to the occupants of passing flights;
The dark roads, indifference of the sea;
The saffron longueur of late afternoon;
The spaces where the trees were; somewhere distant,
Two hoof prints of an oryx that the wind
Missed; this desk in the National Library,
The thick anthology open at the words,
“Time capsule of itself…”

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