This piece is part of our ongoing series ‘Poem of the Month’. Every month, the Writer’s Edit team selects their favourite submission and provides detailed feedback to the author.
Stay tuned for an interview with Donna Waters, discussing her inspirations and literary influences.
Memory of Trees by Donna Waters
They should have killed the oleanders and planted trees.
Natives, Jacarandas, anything – but of course they didn’t:
too busy hiding their addictions and sucking the breath
out of the air and putting it in the laundry cupboard, the one
that was green fibro, like the house, sticky with the smell
of Bilo cordial, cat food and the brown Kiwi shoe polish we used as girls.
I loved you but hated when you ran away with the girls
from school with their flicked hair and love hearts scraped in trees.
Until you came back with Pete #1 and his Kombi-smell
of beer and bongs and sex, hoping you’d take me but you didn’t.
I wasn’t like you – I was gagged and paralysed, wishing for one
chance of getting out of there while I still had breath.
In the end you were the one left with literally no breath.
The black malignancy began as girls
when the bile and fear and cigarette ash merged into one
and became real, morphed into a mass as solid as the trees
I yearned for so childishly. Even then I didn’t
imagine I would choose your time. But not the place or smell.
We grew at right angles: both moved away from the smell
of green fibro, kerosene heating, and black-hole breath.
In hospital – with the secondary pneumonia that didn’t
respond – I saw a flicker of that beautiful feisty girl
cartwheeling near the oleander bush where there should have been trees –
before the cancer got greedy, not satisfied with one
lung, took both. The ventilator kept you alive for one
week and three days after that. Bloated pearls of smell
lined up and rolled off your body like felled trees.
We had to turn your machine off. Your breath
was troubled and I remembered having a coughing fit as a girl
after you gave me a bong. Pete #2 thought it was funny – you didn’t.
The unbelievable truth makes me crazy to think about: I didn’t
want to choose when you died but told the doctor, ‘One
o’clock,’ – the afternoon of your life. Your girls
massaged lavender oil into your skin, the smell
of it was you, like Enya, incense and coffee-breath.
I willed you to be with music and laughter and books under the Wishing Tree.
We watched you breathe until you didn’t, the sounds and smell
of loving despair carried us way past 1.16 when you took your last breath –
And at 44 – no longer a girl – and far from any trees – I watched you die.