Still Life with Cockles and Shells (Judith Bishop)

cocklesIn The Best Australian Poems 2006, edited by Dorothy Porter (Black Inc., 2006). One of the poems that took my attention is by Judith Bishop, “Still Life with Cockles and Shells” (first published Australian Book Review, n.279, March 2006. I was surprised to learn later that it was the winner of the ABR Poetry Competition for 2006. Maybe I’m not so hopeless as poetry critic as I’d supposed! I think this picture, which is actually Flemish, may be the one Bishop discusses in her poem.

Still Life with Cockles and Shells
(Italian, c.17th; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Life breathes in this painting like a child
pretending not to be awake,

or a skink metamorphosed to a stone
but for the flutter in its flank.

You have to lean and listen for the heart
behind the shining paint,

the lips half-open, and the glittering eye.

Velvet of the night. A bald parrot on a parapet
watches to the east.

Ships listing on the waves
neither leave nor approach.

Someone has slain
five other bird beaks, half-closed,

agonise in all directions.
A wash of unearthly light limes the sunken feathers.

What dreams the painter make I seem

to see inside the night
after Apocalypse,

when every soul has risen and sped off,
the violent seas at rest,

ships anchored and abandoned,
shells emptied of their monopods.

Or else the world has ended, but in
some other way;

and the parrot turns to give her
human greeting to the dawn.

Judith Bishop