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Paola Bilbrough

Paola Bilbrough was born on Waiheke Island, New Zealand in 1971. She has lived in Japan and England and currently lives in Victoria, Australia, a location she picked out of a hat four years ago. Her first book, Bell Tongue, was published by Victoria University Press (NZ) in July 1999. An excerpt was re-published as part of an American anthology entitled, Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counter Culture (Seal Press). Paola's work has appeared in various Antipodian journals including Heat, Cordite, Westerly, Imago, Sport, and Landfall. She has also been published in the United Kingdom in The London Magazine and Stand.

In addition to her writing, Paola has travelled widely, believing that different landscapes and climates have a huge impact on her poetry. In January 2000 she was awarded a grant by the Victorian Arts Council to work on a second book of poetry. She is also working on a novel, The Currency of Beauty, which combines many of her obsessions.

More poems


Throat locked against joy
she wore the hot afternoons
like heavy, unwelcome garments.

Severing roses from stranger's bushes
with nail scissors, passing through
endless corridors of streets.

It seemed the men on corners
were rolling cigarettes
with sheaves of human skin.

The sky murky;
a badly executed watercolour
she was not at liberty to fold away.

We were rarely alone
- often there was the blond
boy in the fedora and old mens' suits.

Hisinstruments lined the hall:
cello leaning against guitar,
French horn by itself.
What he was to her
I could not tell. She in white linen
light as a gourd, he in black wool.

In the near dark of the rented house
her bones shone faintly blue,
ribs a fish skeleton, flesh picked out.

Nights when the rest of the city
lay bare, she was ironed flat
beneath two feather quilts,

face in repose that of a woman
pulled from peat bog sunken, polished cheeks,
hair oiled, twisted off the face.

I could not halt her body's
willing erosion nor pull myself
from the mould of sulky, anxious child.

There was no money for paint,
so she began to build tissue paper bones
on canvas, flesh with the stretched quality

of those preserved beneath soil.
Late at night I would step from my lover's bed,
cross the motorway, arrive at my mother's house.

She lying in an inner room
under the carved wings
of a wooden bird with iron feet.

There were flowers dropping petals,
semi-wild fruit: japonica, furred quinces.
Lemons surrounded by leaves over the mantlepiece.

Face pressing against the back of her neck, awaiting sleep
I knew that she would go. The halls were full
of widening cracks, and I heard the soft movement of falling earth.


I wore only a tight necklace,
shoes the colour of a rabbit's
inside ear, buttoned over instep.

Sometimes a painted apron
with flowers unfurling,
spark eyed heads in profile.

I carried my fathers offerings:
pallid, hasty omelets
my mother would not touch,

lemon and mint
she drank in noisy gulps,
painting in the midday sun.

I sat in a manuka teepee.
Voices in my skull, boats bobbing on a river.

When my father left, we made gingerbread people,
molasses-dark and crumbling,
ate them slowly; an arm or leg, week by week.

I wore my shoes to bed,
fell asleep to the noise of hens
roosting in the pear tree.

I dreamt my mother was a statue,
that I followed her to all the world's
cities, watched her in piazzas,

pigeons pecking grain
from her naked shoulders
nearby, an old violinist whose music I couldn't hear.

(first published in Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counter Culture,
Chelsea Cain (ed), Seal Press, Washington 1999


Returned from Mexico he spent all year travelling
between a city terrace with an untidy garden,
and his mother's house in a southern spa town.

A town full of braided sour dough loaves
glass beads and claw-foot baths
of sulphuric water; soft and brown as old tea

I could never predict when I'd see him
Sometimes recognising him in a queue
or the dreamy-dim of a movie as the credits rolled.

He'd grip my arm with a warm hand,
wrist covered in whorls of dark hair,
spine glowing pale, skin stretched tight.

Always on the way elsewhere,
he'd crack his joints, rotate his head,
trying to settle into his own body.

Once I ate dinner at his house; the other guest
was five years old with a name from The Mists of Avalon
Night fell and we dressed her in a Che Guevara T-shirt,

tucked her beneath crimson chenille
in a room filled with Frieda Kahlo postcards
and reproductions of Flemish Madonnas.

I had an urge to try on his shirts
lining the back wall like an audience.
All in a state of disrepair: frayed cuffs, pearl buttons split.

I wanted to push up his sleeves, inhale river silt
and sandal wood. Instead I wound his hair
in tight rosettes and my fingers came away velvet-slick with oil

Outside, a plum tree dropped fermenting fruit
and the child slept; her breathing
filling the room: wind through bamboo.