Way Station

On a stony road
to the Balkans,
formerly the scene
of a peasant revolt,
I played billiards
on a table
without pockets
and decorated my wrists
with crinkled paper.


Later, I watched
a weaver border
a field as smooth
and green as a sea
closed early for winter,
and sensed a story
in the fine vermilion
day of a donkey
grazing beneath wattle:
a tale of lichen
and mordant leaf,
vegetable skin
and wild root,
the warmth
and reliable strength
of bone-tinting madder
as discovered by
John Belchier
on surgical examination
of animals fed
the ruby-inducing plant (1735),
documented by
anatomist and dissectionist,
John Hunter,
who displayed
the pink penetration
of a pig’s skull
on a glazed shelf
alongside the skeleton
of a carnival giant
in the Royal College of Surgeons (1783)
and endorsed by
Dutch masters,
red-coated armies
and healers who believed
the blood-coloured
magic cured jaundice
and chronic bruising;
a tale of the oak-infesting
scarlet of dried field lice,
the cochineal remains
of cactus-inhabiting
insects heavy with eggs,
the travertine ease
of bubble and hue,
head scarf and bare feet,
loom and oral tradition
steamed from vats
on the weaver’s straw floor
into the quick motifs
and tumbleweed knots
of her language,
the sheen and mystic grace
of her memory,
the tufts and spun wool
of her modest
interpretation of history.


Before leaving,
I lined up
with a visitation
of civic leaders
to buy film
so the whole world
would know lizards
climbed the face
of the clock tower
and flower heads
ran loose in the square
as I stood in a wode-yellow T-shirt
between monuments
of concrete and soapstone.


Stephanie De Montalk is the author of the memoir/biography, Unquiet World: the Life of Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk (2001), three collections of poetry, and a novel, The Fountain of Tears (2006). She was the 2005 Victoria University Writer in Residence.

‘Way Station’ is part of an eastern cycle, prompted by Bill Manhire. Bill said, on hearing I’d experienced an otolithic crisis of Tumarkin (disturbance in the semi-circular canals of the inner ear), that the occurrence sounded like a medieval battle to the east of the Balkans, and surely needed a poem.