Leda at the Billabong

If the old god came back,
he wouldn’t take the form of a swan,
now would he, been there, done that.
Perhaps it’s actually got more to do
with the presence of the painter.

He probably just wanted to try out
something new. Not that wanting
to paint a woman in the middle of a rape
was ever unacceptable, artistically
speaking. There are plenty of examples

to prove that, take the crowd scene
in Nicolas Poussin’s ‘The Rape of the Sabine
Women.’  To spend valuable time painting
‘A Patch of Grass with Butterflies’
is to miss the point entirely, don’t you think.

Anyway, if you look really hard,
you can see how he focuses our attention
on the attack. You can tell she’s a woman,
not a goddess. Only Aphrodite
is ever depicted totally nude like that

and there’s absolutely no evidence
to suggest that Aphrodite was ever in
Australia, let alone that she went for a swim
there. Even Hermogenes of Paphos
fails to mention what would otherwise

have been a most interesting fact.
Notice how he concentrates our attention
on her plumpness, her fine satin skin.
Then there’s his admiration for the creature,
how the god entered it, how he took on

the form of that formidable body,
the creamy leather around the jaws,
the teeth like an army of crossed swords,
the black slit in the bog of the motionless
eye, the hint of a tic in the eyelid.

It’s this one detail that makes it clear
that he’s got her in his sights already, 
a woman on her own, entering the moonlit
water, the palms, the mango trees stilled,
the parrots silent and the currawong.

She bends slightly, 
see the soft pouch of her white belly. 
She strokes the water up her arms,
it pours between her breasts.
There’s a wide ripple as his massive torso

twists from side to side, the squat legs 
pumping under the water. The feathery 
brushing of stirred up water across her ankle 
will be the only  warning, if she can read it,
but by then it will be too late.

There’s no emblemata to tell us 
if she’s a mother or a woman of ill repute. 
It’s most likely she’s a virgin, 
after all that’s a very significant part 
of our intellectual and cultural history, isn’t it.

What we do know is that she’s a woman,
a tourist you might say in today’s context,
who’s stepped down, alone and unaware,
into a billabong at night somewhere
in the heart of Australia.

Could the artist himself have been a woman?
A most interesting question,
thank you for that, most interesting.
But I have to say that, given the nature
of the subject matter, I’m inclined to think not.

In 2007 Bernadette Hall was awarded the Rathcoola Fellowship and spent six months living in rural Ireland in Donoughmore about 25 minutes from Cork. The Lustre Jug, a collection of poems arising from this experience, will be launched at the 2009 Christchurch Arts festival. It is published by Victoria University Press. Bernadette has five poems in Moonlight: New Zealand poems on death and dying edited by Andrew Johnston (Godwit-Random House 2008). She is also included in the anthology Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets edited by Andrew Johnston (Victoria University Press and Carcanet) which is due out in the middle of this year. Settings of three of her poems are included in a new CD, Songs by the Dunedin composer, Anthony Ritchie. She is a founding staff member of the Hagley Writers’ Institute in Christchurch.

Hall comments: ‘Several years ago when John and I were visiting family in Queensland, we took a trip out to Green Island, off the coast from Cairns. While there we visited a crocodile farm. At one point a tiny croc was laid across my hands, its mouth securely bound up with sellotape. This, plus the sight of  Oscar, about 5.5 metres long in his pinched up enclosure, gave me a very real sensation of the reality of “crocodile”. In the poem this is overlaid with a newspaper report of the tragic and horrific death of a woman tourist who, on the assurance of her tour guide that it was quite safe,  entered a billabong which in fact was home to several of the creatures. The cruelty that underlies much of Romantic sentiment, notions of power and responsibility and the manipulative possibilities of art and religion, the way we walk on thin ice day to day even in the most gorgeous of settings, the gap between the onlooker and the protagonist which fills up with inauthenticity, all these “big questions” seem to be niggling away under the surface of what I see as basically a comic text, jetblack of course. I hope that at first there’s laughter, or at least a smile from a reader. And then an “oh oh”  and a sense of discomfort. Then more questions, poetry for me being more about questions than anything.’

Poem source details >



Victoria University Press author page
New Zealand Book Council writer file
nzepc—New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre: online work
Turbine 06: Bernadette Hall interviewed
Best New Zealand Poems 200120052006 and 2007
Scottish Poetry Library profile
ka mate ka ora6: Hone Tuwhare tribute