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Thomas Moody

"Grafitti" [by Lisa Gorton]

Lisa Gorton is the former poetry editor of the Australian Book Review and the author of three award winning collections of poetry: Press Release, Hotel Hyperion, and Empirical, and the novel The Life of Houses, which won the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction in 2016. Gorton has a special interest in ekphrastic poetry, having written poems for several exhibition catalogs and also composed a series of poems for the artist Izabela Pluta’s book Figures of Slippage and Oscillation



One of my favorites of Gorton’s poems is “Graffiti,” in which her talent for the ekphrastic is turned to a wall in the city of Pompeii and the scribblings that deface it. The wall was long ago “chained-lugged to the city” by “slaves bent double against the weight," and the poem is constructed around a number of contradictions built out from these details: the aspirations of the wall's purpose (“peace dragged in as a pile of stones”) and the violence of its creation; the dignity of the wall's longevity and the “piss-riddled importunities” that now cover it. We then arrive at the mesmerizing final four lines, in which the poem turns away from its prior concern with notions of permanence and fixedness towards the fleeting and ephemeral: ashes fall softly from the sky and the speaker has to repeatedly stand up to shake them off. "What a weight of light!" she exclaims. We first take this "light" to mean the cumulative weight of the ashes, but our interpretation is immediately undercut by the poem's extraordinary final line.




‘I wonder this wall can bear the weight of such words’

Graffiti on a wall in Pompeii


The city is smaller than you expected.

Its houses turn their backs on streets –

       And given half a chance

       who wouldn’t bunker down behind a stack of silence?

       An arm’s length of wall permits any depth

       of meditative calm or your money back –

Its walls are made of potsherds, broken bricks and stone

cut from the hill’s mouth, chain-lugged to the city –

       It happened just as you picture it:

    slaves bent double against the weight, whip cracks and flies,

       that crowd in the marketplace breaking off mid-sentence

       to see peace dragged in as a pile of stones –

The stucco of the city walls is everywhere

scratched with these piss-riddled importunities –

       – Cruel Lalagus, why don’t you love me?

A wall can bear the weight

       – All the girls love Celadus the Gladiator

The weight is nothing to the wall

      – Caesius faithfully loves M[… name lost]

A wall can bear the weight

      – For a good time, turn right at the end of the street

Out of the dark, ashes fall softly.

We have to stand up again and again to shake them off.

What a weight of light!

The dark is smaller than you expected.


                                    First published in The Australian Book Review

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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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