Three poems by Ian C. Smith

IAN C. SMITH’s work has been published in Across the Margin, BBC Radio 4 Sounds,The Dalhousie Review, Gargoyle, Griffith Review, Southword, Stand, & The Stony Thursday Book. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.


‘And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet, Wm. Shakespeare.

At the Spithead a young midshipman rows through November’s dark ripple to meet his brother, Charles Christian, a ship’s surgeon. He rows, rhythmic, action immanent, peat smoke’s earthy scent of ancient moss airborne from the inn where he shall greet Charles in his familiar mocking tone buttressed by self-belief when they embrace. Charles’s journey recently completed, Fletcher’s is held up. They burn the candle quaffing ale, swapping news.

Charles, edgy, exudes relief recounting a tale of mutiny at sea on his East India Company vessel. He grips Fletcher’s arm, that pulsing strength, confessing his implication in the crisis, describes vile abuse, blows, loaded pistols, a terrible captain. Fletcher allays his concern with sentimental gossip about Cockermouth, mimics his own ill-mannered martinet he sailed with previously, raging in a fool’s accent about departure delays. In their cups, their bond infrangible, they laugh until it hurts.

Reassured, Charles leaves at first light, ships indistinct in mist. He turns, sees his brother’s face for what he can’t know is one last time, wishes him safe voyage, vowing to remember him in prayer, their fond farewells lost forever like all words uttered then. Fletcher, always exhibiting confidence, tells him not to worry. Bounty anchored in the roadstead’s silence, a sleeping soul cries out, dream as premonition.

Limp sails sigh in the Doldrums, belt of calms before sudden squalls; ahead, zero latitude, imaginary line between polar extremes beyond which their known world shall turn arse-around, where jacks might be kings, captains knaves. Harsh baptisms await the wary, but of a different kind.

South Seas palm trees in his mind’s eye, skylarking on deck to Michael Byrne’s sizzling fiddle, taking the piss out of Nipcheese Bligh’s parsimony, reeling to his specific orders, sweat flying, swarthy Fletcher anticipates the line ceremony: the tarring, the shaving, the acting, ducking-stool slowly swinging from the yardarm.

But this is not to be. Too brutal, Bligh, swearing no oath to Neptune’s courtiers, informs his log that is to become one of the most perused books from its time. He plans to quell the lads’ grumbling, their innate yahoo urges, by paying the initiates’ fines, topped with a generous issue of grog, so pleasing to the recorder of data.

Luau Love

Bligh responds to a roar, pounding on deck.  Fletcher jumps from one barrel into another, a standing spring, no hands.  The company, not Bligh observing bleakly, applauds this athletic gentleman, a lock of his black hair damp with sweat fallen loose.  Flicking it back, he grins, bows.  Now he claps with force, taps his foot in time with the dancing, the beat of his urgent heart.  Upper lip glistening, he radiates irony.

The only black in Bligh’s hair is the ribbon keeping it intact against his nape, though his rages be black blisters.  In the great cabin shared with 750 potted plants he suffers a megrim.  Chaperoned by chlorophyll’s calming influence, he polishes his sextant with a coat sleeve, reaches for a quill, his log always shipshape.  Hearing the sirens calling them he knows his vulgar jack tars will be ashore again tonight.  There are no suppurating gums, swollen faces, due to the fresh food and water.  Their grumbling in hiatus, he commandeers most of the provisions brought aboard, more tidy profit.

His cock seeing no action these days, he considers the pox, its consequences.  Ah, consequences.  Staring through a valance of leaves, not breadfruit for once, concealed from yet another ruckus of feast preparation, he is as hard as the nails these heathens covet so much.  He, also, could commit a sin watching the handsome six-foot woman the buggers call Mainmast kneeling, a devotee before her idol, hands, mouth, loving her Titreano, his skin, dark like hers, muscular shoulders, slim tattooed buttocks, clenching.  In this brief interlude of history, after Bligh’s encouragement of Fletcher on a previous voyage, he witnesses his bete noire, who mocks him receive tenderness from kleptomaniac savages who practise human sacrifice.

Dolorous memory flashes visit Bligh; hard bright light beating back from an endless ocean, England’s foggy harbours, cartography, sacrilege, as smoke sails across the verdant mountainscape, tang of bacon wafting.  He breathes faster, tries to divert thoughts towards a decent life again but a drumbeat crescendos, banjaxing his better intentions.  For privileged Fletcher, sated now, private torment awaits, a brooding time when the devils of melancholia shall steal upon his hours.

Pitcairn Scuttle

Carved images face distant Easter Island, eroded remnants of much earlier events on this micro-society’s incorrectly charted island perfect for pirates’ buried treasure rather than buried pasts, or worse; bodies. Women who shall survive watch from high above a cutter being loaded before hurriedly leaving an anchored ship, itself high – on a wanted list. The unravelling swell shirring leeside water peels back, baring this coast’s rocky hips. At first, nobody misses Matthew Quintal, nimble arsonist below, defying Fletcher Christian to secure his safety.

Those in the boat hear snapping and hissing as a shaft of fire engulfs the stern like a pyre. Charcoal flecks swirl, disappear into the air like angry words. Glow worms of minor eruptions backlight the much-flogged, mind-flawed Cornishman clambering back down to sea level, expression rapt now their identifier is doomed. They pull on the oars, away from radiant heat, feathering clear of the turbulent entrance’s white wash that guards their isolation boiling below the women watching from The Hill of Difficulty. These unified women expected another load of Bounty’s salvageable material, not this.

Flames, burning ash, shoot ever skywards, seabirds arcing the heat current while the women keen. Christian, whose initial exhilaration when he discovered Pitcairn uninhabited, its fertility, its water, though both scarce, most of its two square miles rocky slopes, some steep, understands the limits of human endurance. Distilling spirits from ti shall bring out the bestiality in the worst of them. His assumed authority eroded yet again, grief tugs at his heart, personal strain that remains mostly unexplained.

After suffering inhuman treatment from these Europeans the Pacific Islander men stage their own mutiny, first murdering John Williams, the armourer from Guernsey, Fletcher’s blacksmith, builder of their forge. Trapped gardening, startled, he cries out, swearing in French. When they confront Fletcher, also tilling his patch, perhaps saving him the ritual of a more ignominious end, through pain, his terrible ache for home, his last words are, Oh dear! Soft rain cleanses his wounds, his sins. He leaves Mauatua, who curates his skull for sacred reasons, their three offspring, the patois of English language she has learned, and an engrossing tale of memory and myth to pass on. He is gone. Oh dear, indeed.

Before/After and Leavetaking – prose-poems by Ian C. Smith

IAN C. SMITH’s work has been published in Antipodes, BBC Radio 4 Sounds, The Dalhousie Review, Griffith Review, San Pedro River Review , Southword, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two Thirds North. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.


Before we broke up we thought we knew about long-haul travel.  Days dimmed in mid-afternoon, our attic walls furry, so we walked.  Signs pointed across barnyard mud to fields where we lost crooked trails only to find them again pointing the way towards blue smoke above a serrated cottage roofline.  Ducks streamed under bridges of stone past black-faced sheep between charcoal-sketched glimpses of a distant spire.  Across disused railway embankments we roamed, and through farms, climbing stiles, squeezing between gaps in broad gates.  We waited while a herd of cows ambled by, a line of pale hills blurring to violet in the dwindling light.  Then a dark shape crested a rise tinkling like a band of wandering minstrels.  Muscular horses pulled three wooden caravans against the backdrop of lowering sky.  A whippet tethered to the last caravan placed its paws with deliberate care as those travellers nursing the secrets of centuries faced the roads ahead, their shadows falling across us.  We didn’t stir until we no longer heard the sound of tiny brass bells.  Our breath steamed as we stood there, her hair misted with diamonds, for minutes I wish I could experience again, these details imprinted on memory.

After we broke up, after I finished off our cheap bottle of Pig’s Nose whisky, I tramped November’s fields blackened in slow drenching rain, a train’s horn keening like a cello’s sombre drawn-out final note in the gloaming near the derelict WW2 air force base haunted by distant airwave voices, haven for crepuscular creatures, brave truth we might have sorted out stuck in autumn’s red, raw throat.  Our poplars were being stripped of their sensuous splendour, one toppled, matted roots curling, exposed like wild sexual hair, her ripped open note with my cold hand inside the pocket of the seaman’s pea-jacket she gave me to ward off icy wind the previous winter that now lies encrypted in the same pocket hanging in exile in my wardrobe eclipsed by the silent dark.  I read of letters turning up lonely years after long-dead soldiers posted them, the bereft gently kissing foxed handwriting, those letters better than grave markers, certain, astonishing, mementoes.  I dislike evenings, their blanketing of days, thought I knew about the transnational blueprint, but travellers move on.  I didn’t.  I don’t need reminders.  Rain needs no reminder to softly fall.


Trees threshed by fierce wind driving cloud, red-tinged, my nemesis, dark smoke plumes ten miles distant, branches cracking, light a hellish burnt umber, the state blazes, temperature soaring over forty degrees again, a regular horror now despite naysayers’ published scorn of climate change.  The jack donkey’s coat fluffs in this wind, strands of his hay scudding before it.  My neighbours silhouetted on their hill by shifting smoke are leaving.  Driving past, they slow, peer at me, frowning, wave.

Possums scoured juiced orange peels on my compost heaps, inverting them to resemble white bra cups, like an art installation, contrasting with the dark teeming below, and now, above.  The empty clothesline sways, days of pegged socks’n’jocks, colour, all gone, gone, children grown.  Where six pink and grey galahs perch, silent, feathers ruffled, I sit under their melaleuca watching the car disappear, a Beckett character waiting.  For what?  So much I love is under threat.

I can’t imagine starting again, beauty razed but for echoed voices, these trodden paths to the heart.  Walking about in circles, brittle leaves, small branches, crunching underfoot, grevillea, bottlebrushes, bravely flying their colours in this demonic blast, I feel as helpless as a crushed bird.  An eerie soundtrack as in a film by Werner Herzog or Terence Malick would be apt.

My neighbours return, relay that we have been advised by phone to leave.  Reluctant, I assure them I shall, voice, meant to sound upbeat, hoarse, aware of their kindness, my deserved caste as odd recluse, phone a seldom-used landline.  A low-pressure change heads our way.  Yay!  The cavalry.

The trough arrives, favouring my position , cooling me and galahs, but imperilling others.  I play back the evacuation message, make calls.  My son in a city far away tells me to get going to my sister’s in town.  Now.  Ravelled with decision-making: cats, donkey, documents, photographs, cherished journals; my heart brimming, I secure windows, doors, take short-term essentials, leave this place, so beloved, especially its fragrance when soft rain begins to fall.