Gillian Barton

My daughter beside me grabs my hand. Her warm body I body.
His, cold hard body – like mine small, dark, hazel eyed, we body
Swallows in the eaves dart in
flit off
I bring them to my feet, the flagstone floor, solid present
Two black crows called Doves open the coffin window open
My brother’s yellow face
My daughter and I body his dead body
From a Kalahari camping trip his karross under the cold stars the high desert
his bed
warm not dead

We candle him in whispers. The women: mother, sister, old wife, wife to be, daughter, niece. The women who should chanting carry him through into the life of after life. We who should have washed him, uncurled his hands, covered with a clean linen cloth his legs, his feet, his body, arranged his genitals like fruit in a bowl, put pennies on his eyes, candled him out.

We who should have wreathed him around with stories of his life
eaten venison, drunken the good red wine
We stood
sat waxen
with the frozen few
faintly sang
the litany

I unwreathe the Gordian knot called our childhood and spin
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~the threads a fine red twine ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My heart flip-flops about in its cage his coffin
the earth of water, a shimmering unhinges in the cool chapel

Flags flutter and flutter away, water the air with colour.
Prayer rises unbidden in the marshy spaces after the funeral.
I thirst.
Paint a large cross on black paper.

Wet on wet runs away, drifts


I seem to be standing here
Under the branches
In the wind
In water In water
without water
In a desert. In the wind.

… … … … Grains in my mouth … … … …

I say his name.
Tell it to the dogs.

You were island country
pebble rolled around the tides
your hand grain of it’s corn knows at last the moment
But most
you stand
at a door in the centrehouse
with no break for the earth.
You speak silence in murder
Trees unloose this death, even its bone
Birds rest the world
After a wave, your pebble
all soul
own heaven

To come to this country speak another language make up bloodstories of defeat and dust
To come to this country sing in sorrow the long lines of betrayal and silence
Learn to avert your eyes and speak of other things before the death of the brother
I cannot myself be a question. I cannot come to this country
and not be broken-hearted
I cannot be exiled to the far reaches of my skin
I am not from this country
I cannot myself be a question

Gillian Barton


Millions of aeons, countless parabolas ago, in the long slow evolving of all the luminosities, when earth, sun and moon were one, the big becoming of starry space and the myriad of heavenly bodies began. The sun, a furious gash of sulphur bequeathed a molten core, then exploded space with light and ripped the gods of fire away.

Moon and earth in heavy unism swung amidst dark stars and luminous black holes. Under a hard cold surface solidarities condensed and auras for airy beings opened. The big chill settled in.

Bone Woman, craggy, cavernous, lined like a mountain, stood where she’d been before, enduring. She knew the place at the crossroads, by the way, the weir where the water flowed or gathered in pools beneath One Hex Mountain.

The many raptors, mountain boats, float above the high horizon
Deep tree eyries and many snakes in holes hide below the pilgrim stones

Here she read the hands of those that wept or came with hope and prayer in smiles and shining eyes.

“The many mountain streams run dry as unfilled fingers in summer,”
Bone Woman said, reading the lines in the young woman’s palm.

The girl closed her hand.

“When the moon falls out, earth’s crevices collapse. The lonely planet spins in ice and silence,”
Bone Woman said, looking into the young woman’s eyes.

Little silver birds flew down the girl’ face.

Sometimes Bone Woman was there with the others of the carved faces and sticks – the mountain crones. They gossiped, watched the weather on its way, and read the signs of footprints and wind in spilt leaves.

In winter storms they roar and whip the pilgrim stones

Plates shifted. Glaciers crashed into crevasses, descended deep into blue. Boulders big as clouds piled one upon another.

At new moon, the crones heard small animal talk and replied in a silent speak that brought the mice, the deer at night, snakes to the stones, and bats at dusk. They fed them seeds and pieces of rind. She alone, Bone Woman, drank from a yellowed skull, talked to herself, and cackled like a raucous parrot in an acacia tree. She gathered up the dark fruit pods in her

The many stone pines in cold west winds roll in the rushy rain

Her skirts billowed and breathed like sheets on a line.

Huge cumulus covering cloths blow the pilgrim stones.

The crone concocted magic potions. Dark of the moon she laid and lit a fire of cones and eucalyptus logs. She chanted strangely.

The earth’s red core boiled and grumbled. Tamped tight it sought out funnels and gulleys and in a spectacular show, molten red rock and smoke exploded to the sky. A thick river of magma galloped into the cold oceans. Enveloped by mammoth clouds of vapour the dancing landscape heaved, roared, groaned and … disappeared.

She lay awake all night in brilliant sleep.

The volatile elements subsided. The seething ocean, the crushing and exultation of stone, the steamship clouds, earth’s ice and fire, torrential lava, and the travelling crust of earth resolved.

‘Stones and stars are good for bones next time around,’ she said.

The rushy air whipped around the globe and the blue-black oceans tossed and crumpled; shouted yes, yes to the pull of the beaming moon.

‘And for the telling o truth,’ she said, “at

the many edges – some stand on them, some drop to death below

from loft to lowland, on rocks and sands, in striations of sediments, volcanic stone and ash, crushed marble, dolomite, coarse-grained granite, feldspar, mica, quartz

some come to kill another, another pilgrim stone

In her house, alone and straightened, she knew the song of Death, when he was about and what business he was for. Some of the time she told the ones he touched that he’d fine fingered them.

‘For some o the time, for some,’ she said, ‘there was a candle’s way out. For others, other times,’ she said, ‘it be a done deal, and there be naught to plead or wish for. They will obey. As will I too thus soon.

‘And Death, the lonely visitor will release me to the deepest treasures of my nature, mountain bone,’ she said.

One Hex Mountain with its vast, sharp teats enclosed in snow waited for the sun’s orange sticks to pull the cloak of night away. The earth turned towards the fiery chariot of day. And vanished time gathered in the landscape to the riddle of the fading moon,

in this forsaken land of pilgrim stones

Gillian Barton

They sang the song
and crossed the dunes
on camels

the song crossed the dunes
and “Camels on!”
they sang

They crossed the camels
on song
and sang the dunes

The dunes sang
the camels song
and they crossed on

They crossed the song
and the dunes sang
on camels

And the crossed camels
on the dunes song
they sang

They crossed
and the camels song
sang on the dunes

The camels they crossed
and the dunes
sang on song

Gillian Barton

Writing this Year

Gesticulating first one hand, then the other, she makes a flat broad plain. It falls at the end into an empty land. Gesticulating with her arm: a white bird. It flies off in a loop over the horizon. She gesticulates with her long body a dream story longing for a tablet. The Small Stone Man still waits. On a hot rock. Perhaps the form found now can settle into the body, gesticulating fall away, so that one hand holds the paper steady while the other scribbles a barefoot poem, follows the thread like a stone skimming the silky water. Gives the Stone Man a chapter. Then another. Good sitting bones and a solid stance quieten the song and dance. The gesticulating year of writing has gone with the smoke in a straight shot; dissolves into sky. She gathers the gesticulations, the grey stone, the groans, the low ground – all the pieces to look and see. And begin again.

“It’s a sentimental, unfortunate piece and I haven’t given it much time or thought. I’m sorry. It fell between the cracks, the floorboards, down into the bog beneath the page, disappeared with the dead men and women, lies in a shallow grave. But it’s all I could do. I know it isn’t very good or pretty, this my year of writing, doesn’t rise with the wave, white birds sailing the restless sea. I’m sorry. It’s not saying yes, saying yes. Sadly the poems, stories, efforts, scribblings wait like the small stone man for his diary, his musings, rememberings. Thoughts of my dead brother long gone and scattered, ash to ash. The children live on but the story hovers still.”  She is still wringing her hands, wringing her hands.

“You should take a long stick and poke and prod the recalcitrant, lazy wringer towards her desk. Demand she finds the form. Or perhaps more kindly, take her arm, and help her hush the words along. Not wringing, writing!”

Gillian Barton

Ballad – untitled 

Under the bridge at the river
Titus watched the water inflamed
One hand fixed in a stiff black glove
in the other a switch-blade

She limped along to the tumult
where the river swallowed the train
 ‘This be the place we meet,’ she said,
‘and what is traced will remain.’

A youth lurched towards them crying
‘I’m Lucien!’ Sirens screamed loud
and reaching for them hefell, he fell
a flower to the ground

‘This is our son,’ said Cora
‘He was on that train tonight
Give up your hatred, your anger, your blade
He’s our boy – the bringer of light.’

‘Mercy, forgive me,’ said Titus
Some lost, some wounded, more dead
lie like the moon in its final phase
and the father held his son’s head

‘I don’t justify what wounds me
Our sorrow is carried away
on the river that gave us our darlin’
and the grass is green as the grave

I found a place in the sun
He disappeared into shade
The dead were buried that winter
But the dark, the dark I’ll not name.’

Gillian Barton

Our own mud, our own marshes:
the place of the dead down under
the sod, the soil, worked earth like roots
in bogs. The hands of dead women settle
with wings here hidden over the corpse.
The living die with fading
with breath, even light. Death-walks
become earth to the point of our own mud.
Dreams of ladders against rough birds
fall with the land. Dead
men lie shaped without an author.
A kind of dying wails and
forgets the flat broad earth. Night feels
the body through the back door of thought
beginning with death.

Beginning with death
the body, through the back door of thought
forgets the flat broad earth. Night feels
a kind of dying wail, and
men lie shaped without an author,
fall with the land. Dead
dreams of ladders against rough birds
become earth to the point of our own mud
with breath, even light. Death walks
with wings here hidden over the corpse.
In bogs the hands of dead women settle
the sod, the soil, worked earth like roots:
the place of the dead down under
our own mud, our own marshes.

Gillian Barton

Fire in the Earth

Settle into the palace of your heart
Plait your past with open secrets of the sage
Listen – painted animals over the stones laugh!
Settle into the palace of your heart
like alizarin at the start
of fires in a rough bowl for the departed
that flicker the dark caverns awake
Settle into the palace of your heart
Plait your past with open secrets of the sage.

Gillian Barton

Strange countries and sorrows

He came at night to the tatami mat bowing before me holding a bowl of rice. This was his love offering and my future husband, Guido de Silva, who rose with Sagittarius in high heaven at his birth. We met in the dawning day of the first of the New Year, Europe still at war; saw spread on the outgoing tide, gifts to Imanja, vain goddess of the waves, until the golden sticks of the sun straight over the horizon lit our starry eyes. I knew it as he emerged like a seal full of foam, silver from the flat sea, a bright planet into my orbit. Oh our destinies … now so many years later, I tell you, daughter of my daughter, keeper of dark secrets: I married the wrong man. But how could I have known that, that warm goddess night? He swam into my arms, full of salt and promises.

Peering through the playground of my life away from the glittering halls of Rio de Janeiro with their chandeliers and champagne, de Silva and I faced another life – we looked east and headed to Africa: this land was the death of Guido and nearly mine too, Sophia. Listen while I plait the ancient story of my life into your future. This land brought hunger and loss to the door – my husband killed at the hands of a man whose life he saved, and I left on the old farm in Mozambique. Ah, Planta del‘a Plages, you remember our old farm, querida? The palm trees, the droughts, our trips to the turquoise sea, the green and blue of that place … Then your mother and I, alone, became responsible for the rancho. What a difficult time, a hollow time, Guido only a few months in his grave.

A later incident was named The Night of Fallen Knives. Here’s how it happened: Sueno, ill-named, was not a happy dream at all, but a wild and truculent black bull, one thousand pounds of snorting, slashing fury. Somehow, that moonless night, he escaped his strong corral and in the suffering of the light, his red eyes distinguished me. Like a tsunami he came – his hot black breath, his frenzied rage, his slicing hooves and oh querida, the pain … the pain; the nape of my neck visible for stroking. He pinned me to the ground, gored my side, broke my back, and now, beloved child, people say that I am like him, that his breath is inside me. Certainly like Sueno, I rage, I rage. When I sing from my broken place you can hear him. La duende put her long fingers into my blood and in the way my bones were crushed beneath him, when the skin of the timbal strikes, I carry us into strange countries and sorrows with my song.

Gillian Barton

In the dark towards day, half asleep, looking like she’s swimming to the surface of a lake, there’s a restlessness in the air behind her head – a rumpling slight disturbance as though the roots are shifting or the lines in her palms rearranging themselves. Now is the time that those who have gone before, come across the water when called.

I’m afraid in my life now that you’re gone.

He opens the locked gate of her dream.

Entering it he says, How the soul belongs, wants the body for sound, loves the skin of touch…. ah, the leaves of loss.

A hum shivers the block. Her eyes still closed, she throws off the grey sheets of dawn; barefooted feels her way towards the tiled bathroom. Running the taps, the air fills with steam. Kneeling, she trails her hand back and forth. Standing, she strips and lowers herself into the water.

And then, she says, What then? What happens when the body dies?

She lifts her eyes away from the thin place where her legs enter the water, distorting them as though broken. Her dead brother hovers in the rising heat before the long sticks of the sun dispel ghosts. A terrible melancholy fills the room of her heart. She breathes in the residue of sadness.

There’s a reediness in his voice: Dying violently makes a void of black, a great emptiness of hunger and sorrow. I cannot return nor continue. Release me, release me. I’m sorry I had to go. My children hang on the edge like saucers. Our ancestors shine through the gauze.

The sun, best morning preacher, slips above the rim. She holds the small, pink cake of soap as though her life depended upon it, then lets it slide away like his breath into the warm water. It settles over her belly button.

I’m connected to you. Come back, she whispers, come back and sinks beneath the surface of the dam.

Gillian Barton

16 word poem

Autumn, a soft cadence, braids
seven arpeggios on the timbal
with ocean’s crumpled gesture
and the touch of skulls

A rondavel song braids
the seven oceans of autumn
and catapult a cadence –
a crumpled touch

Seven autumn timbals
twirl a skull song of cadence
crumpled into an arpeggio braid
that touch the ocean’s seven gestures

rondavel, rondavel

Gillian Barton


There has always been a fish in my long arm
writing to the dead, swimming
in the tide of a story wind

It obeys the command unwritten on the window
of my white page, forgetting
the source of all belonging before the seas began

Imagine floating like a diver
below bubbles rising like a shower of flying fish
into the world of air

If only I had worked on the secrets of the coral
lived as a kingfisher above the rough surface of the lake
beginning to calm

known kindness as the only imperative

Gillian Barton


We go way back like the Tipuana tree
rising in folds
while I was married and unsure
an animal on long breaths entered.

Rising in folds
like the roots of the sea
an animal on long breaths enters.
And the red dragon sleeps

Like the roots of the sea
the seeds of unborn children come carolling down.
And the red dragon sleeps
in a bottle with smoke.

The seeds of unborn children came carolling down
while I was married and unsure
in a bottle with smoke.
We go way back like the Tipuana tree.