Denise O’Hagan

In the shadows

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura …

(Dante, Inferno, Canto I)

Crossing the park this morning
The world is still and silent and waiting.
Mist lies over the grass, the trees, the everything
As lightly as a suggestion.

I tread the curving path into the bush
With something between awe and trepidation.
A slim brown snake shudders its way across the ground,
Gone in a blink, leaving me wondering
If I had only dreamed it.

I look up at the ashen underbelly of the bridge
(Not quite the turreted beauty seen from up above
But simpler, workmanlike and more prosaic),
Home to a darker side of human nature:
The ghosts of last month’s flowers laid there linger still.

The path to the creek is grey and veined by tree roots
The water is flowing cleanly and clearly, not a plastic bag in sight
And cut through by a sinuous line of stepping stones
With their petticoat of pebbles, mottled lurid green with moss.

A darkening of the foliage on the other side
Brings a parallel darkening of my thoughts
And in the shadows I see the shape of my deepest fears.
I stumble over a tree trunk, fallen, split open and bleeding sap,
Its roots jerked from the earth, a gash exposed.

Righting myself, a scratching sound tears at my thin composure
But it’s only a bulbous-bodied, spindly-necked bush turkey
Picking its way up the hill. I too will rise,
Negotiate my way through the mesh of undergrowth and my life,
Catching my thoughts on brambles, tripping on memories, as
Still heavy’d by longing after all these years,
I cut between great slabs of rock, polished lustrous
And emerge, at last, panting, on a high flat path
Streaked by sunlight and dappled in hope.
The blue-grey gums, dusky as eyeshadow
Sway easily against a pale sky, yet anchored to the earth
They tether in turn my own emotions
And I hear, as if on cue, the high fluting of a bird.

I tread the last quarter home,
Vindicated, triumphant.
I have, once again, negotiated the thickets of my mind
And can finally see the little things:
Weeds thriving in dull concrete
Where spoiled orchids in suburban gardens strain to grow,
Rainwater, in silver rivulets, running off the street
Pooling in ridges between pavers
Making glistening cushions of glass
Or hanging, in balls of silver on the underside of railings,
From last night’s rain.

First prize in Adelaide Plains Poetry Competition (open section), 28 July 2019