• Judy Johnson


In the Midst of Bushfires

(summer 2020)


Outside, the sun

smothered under

the smoke-pink sky

is a ten watt pearlescent globe.


Despite my glasses

and the energy-saving

portholes of halogen in the ceiling

it’s hard to make out small print.


What I need is in your office,

the non eco-friendly

garage-sale desk lamp

with its starburst inside

the black Da Vinci Code monk’s hood.


On dull days you read by it

(when reading was something

you were able to do).


It fluttered and spat ouija divinations

across the chipboard planks

of your horizontal ark.


(The most beloved books queued up there

two by two, in case one was lost

or loaned and never given back).


Stepping into that room I smell

the not-quite lapsed Catholic in you

in the ash of pyrethrum fumes

from mosquito coils you burned constantly.


And I wonder yet again if it was sublimation

for the swinging thuribles of incense

from your childhood’s High Mass.


I close the door, the desk lamp dangling

in one hand, and in my nose

the ghosts of reward and punishment

smouldering on their Archimedean spiral.


At least dementia has singed off 

the last remnants of your religious guilt.


And I have become the reluctant keeper

of your conscience and your books

which were much the same thing. 


Some days I’d like to take

those twinned titles

down to the river and drown them


as retribution

for their collective wisdoms

refusing to save the mind

of their Noah.


Other days I would apply a match

to this house and everything in it.


But not this summer

when far too many people already


stand in the charred ruins

of what is left of their lives, wondering


what obeisance they failed to observe.


What preparation could have made

any difference.





Miniature Boats


Impossible to tell from your empty stare what you're thinking.

Your fingers are busy on your lap, knitting and unknitting air


as though vaguely aware of your old skill with sailor knots.


A dozen remote-control catamarans race on the foggy lake

10 metres in front of us. They zigzag around


an orange buoy the size of a tennis ball.


Tacking seems the wrong word for what they do. 

There are no temporary stitches unless you count the lake's


many tongues lapping at its wounds to heal them

after the hulls have incised the surface.


The owners of the fleet (all men) stand on shore, controllers

in hand, leaning in the direction they want their craft to go.


This old impulse has a name, echo-phenomena:

half wish fulfillment, half hypnosis.


Or in our case, my love, fully habit, as we have lived

so long together our gestures waltz in mimicry.


At least that’s the way it used to be.


Now you sit on the bench two inches from me

unreadable as an MRI of space.   


All I know is what I do, call on the skin-memory in you.

That as-yet un-mauled part that recalls


the many times we lay together length to length

unable to identify seams between us let alone unpick them.


I put my arm around your shoulders and after a lag of five

seconds or so, Dementia lifts enough to allow


the person who once adored me to briefly surface.


An hour later it’s time to go. The race is over.

The fog dispersing. I automatically slow my walk


to your shuffle. Twilight’s spears aim low in the trees.


The diminutive catamarans have all been dried off

and packed away in the little coffins of their boxes.


Headlights of leaving cars hiccough

on the bumpy track to the main road.


Someone laughs behind us and we turn. 


Once our eyes would have smiled in sync

over the good-natured joke unfolding near the water's edge.


And afterwards, we’d have gone home

to make love then talk about


the ingenuity of men and their toys.


And I’d tell you my favourite part was near the end

when we were walking to the car, heard a laugh


and turned to see the winner of the race on his

makeshift podium of a milk crate, his thumb


over the opening of a piccolo of champagne. 


The way this accountant, plumber, funeral director by weekday

tongue-in-cheek, shook up then fizzed the lightness


of a moment's bubbles over the grass at his feet.


And we’d speculate why the big brains of humans

might down their serious tools long enough


to invent more childlike ways to play.


And you’d go all Oliver Sacks on me

explaining which chemicals are released


what neurons light up when we’re having fun.


But I’d only be half listening, thinking instead

a series of tiny effervescent joys


could leaven the heart, to bear the sorrow

that might descend on any one of our lives.