Friday, 30 August 2013

Michelle Cahill - Possum Poems

We’ve got a lot of possums in Australia, and many of them live in our cities in the suburbs.  People make a living as a ‘possum catcher’ trapping possums that have got into your ceiling and made themselves at home – they catch them and release them so they get into somebody else’s ceiling who then has to call the ‘possum catcher’.  So it’s not surprising that possums feature widely in Australian poetry.  I’ve written a poem about a possum.  That’s why I’m always interested when I come across another ‘possum poem’.  And here’s one that’s in a recent (2011) anthology I’m reading, Thirty Australian Poets, UQP.  The poem is called, ‘The Stinking Mantra’, by Michelle Cahill.  Michelle is Anglo-Indian, born in Kenya, went to school in London.  Seems to me the poem’s about a possum that gets electrocuted on power lines – fried, zapped – and the poet, instead of burying her (it was a female possum), she (the poet) leaves the carcass laying around the yard in summer heat until it gets fly blown.  And the poet spends a day reflecting on living substance that still has names that can be spoken compared to the dead possum that now cannot be expressed by name and whose name nobody knew.  There’s definitely something Indian-Vishnu in the name of the possum, minah birds and sprinkling wisteria blossoms.

The Stinking Mantra
Michelle Cahill (1969 -  )
I lay her under a camellia bush by the stone Buddha,
where a cherry blossom scattered its confetti karma,
where azaleas flourished and minah birds convened.
Her pelt had been tattooed by a powerline.  Night fell.
I almost forgot her because I was exhausted,
because I couldn’t sleep, bypassing all attendant
thought of mourning.  Outside the brushwood
stirred with native ghostings: her kind, not the shape
of hunger but death’s apprentice slipping through trees,
their wire fingers scuffed against sky.  The mist paused,
as if it were autumn, the trees were bare tightropes.
By daylight there were catkins, magpies broke the dawn,
the sky pinned back its rain.  Leaves were floating carp,
wisteria festooned desiccated gardens.  I walked past lilies
with elephant ears swaying in the sun, a stop sign pulled
out from the ground by schoolboys.  All this to slake me,
to dress my grief: these things with names to keep or to speak
as if articulation made of thought a substance.
Words, falling softly as feathers or pollen.  How many words
might a woman discern?  And what of a small marsupial
shocked by current, mid-climb, lit-up in free-fall?
What made me crush a blossom of wisteria to sprinkle
over the small, dead thing?  Away I went to read the day’s
diffuse paragraphs, to bluff my way through colouring-in,
a daughter’s grammar.  She ties toys with paperclip chains,
devices infinite to bind or to banish.  Cars flew by,
a truck with a skip-bin, birds scavenged from the tarmac.
Up close, the possum smelt like rancid butter.  I sat with
her and smoked, hearing nothing.  No pity, no slight
for what I’d named her, Sweet Shadow-Playing Funambulist.
What was the harm?  I might call her a crumpled stocking,
a ripple in the field, or a girl’s dismembered evidence.
The swing tempts her back.  Trucks pass rudely in the valley.
Soon her mouth began to fizz, filling with a residue
creamy as boot polish and everything pregnant with heat.
So the riddle of days, walking from doorstep to driveway
then back to school.  Disgusting, my daughter said.
For at last the maggots came, teeming in the possum’s
stopped, burned mouth.  The air smelt of stewed semen,
the tongue like a black orchid, half-severed, dangled
and torqued.  So the tongue swayed and in the fraying sleep
of my fatigue I could hear the quiet vowels, rising from
wisteria, from the hot ground, and falling back into silence.

There are definitely some questions I’ve got from this poem.  What in hell’s name is a ‘girl’s dismembered evidence’?  And what is the meaning to call a dead possum ‘a crumpled stocking’ or ‘a ripple in the field’?  Is it a newspaper you’re reading when you read, ‘the day’s diffuse paragraphs’?  What does, ‘a stop sign pulled out from the ground by schoolboys’ have to do with anything?  Is that why, ‘cars flew by’, and ‘a truck with a skip-bin’ flew by, and those ‘trucks pass rudely in the valley’?  How does the, ‘swing tempt her back’?  back from where?  And the most intriguing question of all, ‘how does the poet know what “stewed semen” smells like?
Sometimes I think you can try too hard.  But still, I like the poem because it’s about a possum, and I think I might discover more as I keep reading it.

So this is my ‘possum’ poem – also features a dead possum.
2010.  I don’t care what anybody says  -  I’ve driven country roads at night and on dusk and at dawn and I’ve come across many native animals on the road or beside the road, kangaroos, wombats, emu, camels, different sorts of marsupials — I know they could be out there and I’ve always been able to avoid butchering them with my car.  Likewise, in the city I’ve always been able to avoid ploughing into cats and dogs that run out.  So it really pisses me off when I hear people boasting how they ‘cleaned up’ some poor animal while driving.  To me, a lot of it is plain deliberate.

Road Rage 

8:30 pm
Walking my dog
down Lewers Street.
It’s quiet residential, zoned 50
when she alerts me
to an animal lump
laying in the middle of the road.
It’s a huge brush tail
laid there like a Davey Crocket hat
7 to 10 kilos, easy.
There’re puffs of grey fur
blown off and buffeting
as if still in the slipstream,
anchored bits of fairy floss
spun on the tips of blue metal tar,
not a mark on the body,
I stroke my hand
along the natural lay of fur
from the skull bone bristly covering
as I’ve done times before,
when other wild possum have taken my trust
for irresistible slices of apple,
leaning over the roof gable, gargoyle
eyes alive with escape,
and into the thick, warm pelt
that I would never have gotten away with,
for only those with the right mark
could enfold instinctively, warm wadding
in their hollowed out trees,
wild, wintry nights.
I use the tail
to carry her to the side of the road,
lay her on the footpath
where some neighbour
will hopefully bury it,
pause to look up the road, wondering
who did this?
I would like to know,
because I would walk up to them, and say
Ya fucking prick!
                                                                                        J. O. White


  1. Nice poem.. very nicely written.. Yes in Australia possum is huge problems which is the reason behind popularity of possum removal brisbane services

  2. Thankyou William - nice to know somebody's listening.

  3. michelle is actually the worlds biggest bitch. her kid wanted the possom gone but she left the thing just there. unsanitary for her daughter who would've been 9 or 10 at the time. poor little T