Poetic reflections on Shadow catchers: Melinda Smith

Melinda Smith

Melinda Smith reflects on Shadow catchers and the strange environment that she found herself in, on the cusp of her commission.

In these strange times, poetry too is pivoting.

One of the last ‘normal’ days of 2020 for me was 25 February, the day I visited the Art Gallery of NSW with the other commissioned poets to see the artworks in the Shadow catchers exhibition. It was a sunny Tuesday. The flight from Canberra was full. The train in to the city from Kingsford Smith Airport was standing-room-only.

Just thinking back on those close-packed crowds makes me queasy. It turns out that back home, that same day, my partner was being exposed to COVID-19 at a work conference. A few days later he developed severe bronchitis, and then pneumonia. He tested negative for the virus, but his symptoms made him so vulnerable we decided as a family to start self-isolating at the end of that week. We’ve been in lockdown ever since – taking turns, all four of us, to develop and recover from bronchitis and pneumonia. I think we’re currently on day 39.

From the perspective of day 39, everything about that day at the Gallery seems completely surreal. How easy it was to breathe, and to walk briskly across the Domain. The casual way I embraced and kissed the other poets when we met. The meal we shared, gathered around a cafeteria table after our tour was over, some of us tasting each other’s snacks. How close we all stood as we were posing for photographs. And, most of all, the immense privilege of spending time in a public gallery, looking and looking at beautiful and challenging images, visiting them again and again.

All day I was engaged in the close attention that poetry brings, the sanctified act of noticing – that many-rooted, slow-flowering thing. I did not realise the other work I was performing: the work that would enable me to look back on this day and capture it as part of the ‘before’. Impressions and emotions were silting up inside my head, leaving alluvial traces of joy. Weeks later, as I sift them, they are complicated and enriched by layers of mourning. They are also studded with small seeds of hope.

This is an excerpt from Melinda Smith's reflection. For the full comment: redroomcompany.org/projects/shadow-catchers

Melinda Smith won the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2014 for her fourth book of poems Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call. She is currently poetry editor for The Canberra Times. Her recent collaboration with artist Rhonda Ayliffe, the #LookUP Project, explored the process of looking up every day for one year. Together they captured the moment of looking to the sky with a photograph and responding micro poem.

AGNSW collection Patrick Pound The image pool 2016
AGNSW collection Patrick Pound The image pool 2016
AGNSW Audio  Melinda Smith: Akimbo
AGNSW Audio Melinda Smith: Akimbo


I came to your image pool, seeking. I stood
at the lip. I gazed, and dipped, and snapped,
and bore away with me a woman, in a wardrobe,
in a white bra and panties, a pie plate eclipsing
her face. (If she can’t see, she can’t be seen).
Above her, as thought-bubble: two fleshy parallels
- naked legs on a beach, cropped. Below:
another woman in white, erupting, elbows out,
from a nose-cone of wedding dress. Surveying herself,
she angles her head just so, calibrating the effect.
Beside her porthole mirror, her silver fish-eye,
black-framed certificates trail down the wall,
listing, slightly. At her back is a giant door.

Looking again, I find I have captured
other women, other limbs, ones you did not
put there. They are works in the backwards gallery,
the salon of un-intention. There, too, we see frames
of black, the far wall gripping them too tight to tilt.
A girl leans, rounding the small of her back, letting
light through from beyond. Above, two dancers
in white, ghosted parallels, elbows out, caught
in one frame of their loop. Centre: another woman,
one I know well, a triangle of white for the hair.
If she can’t see, she can’t be seen. She stoops,
elbows out, phone-case eclipsing her face, cradling
the oblong of black, angling, calibrating. It opens,
a giant door.

AGNSW collection Ann Balla Interior departures (17): Tracy 1980
AGNSW collection Ann Balla Interior departures (17): Tracy 1980


I see you, looking. You are breathing, a little
heavily. I see you, gazing, at the pooled shadow
in her collarbone; at her armpit, its intimate tuft.

You are licking your lips. You want to pluck her
like a flower, like the idea of a flower. Her slender
bicep, her serious mouth. She is practising her freestyle,

trying her power, trying her goggles on for size.
She will need them, to see through, under water.
Dangling above her, the glistening certainty

of what this is, what you think you are owed.
A black swallow, stiff-winged, inverted, inert.
You want to pluck her; vase her in glass crenellations;

trap most of her under water, til she sags and wilts,
til she blows. I watch you, watching her. I keep
watch. The room ghosts around me,

around the both of me, we are misting
and partially see-through. We make our own frame
with our elbows, our bones. We will ourselves solid,

angular, unpluckable, unplucked. I see through
the room, the frame, the place where the both of us
merge. She sees through the world under water. I see
through you.

AGNSW Audio  Melinda Smith: In sight
AGNSW Audio Melinda Smith: In sight
AGNSW collection Julie Rrap Body double 2007
AGNSW collection Julie Rrap Body double 2007

Melinda Smith,

Quotes in italics
from TS Eliot,
‘The Hollow Men’,
as published in
(London, 1925).

In response to
Julie Rrap
Body double

AGNSW Audio  Melinda Smith: Habitus
AGNSW Audio Melinda Smith: Habitus


a hand spread on a hand -
starfish meat on starfish meat
in the old wide belly of the sea.

breathe. life is very long.
even with a hand
spread on a hand, ebbing,

cresting. life is. your body
(whose body) this body
is evolving. inhale. you are safe,

face-down in the dark,
face-up in the light,
you are swelling in a warm, salt

womb. life is very.
your body (whose body)
this body is revolving.

exhale. here we go round.
it sheds (and gathers
and sheds again) genitalia

as it rolls, bestriding
the darkness. you will turn
many times, ebbing, resting,

unresting, becoming.
as befits a fine, muscled idea,
you will take up brief residence

in a pale lump, flaccid, seamed,
incomplete, a cold cadaver,
neck severed and pinched.

between this body and your body
(whose body) falls the shadow.
here we go round
. this is quite

unbecoming. wear it. rest. roll left,
as a man. rest. roll right
as a woman. rest. rasp. rinse.

repeat. your body (whose body),
this body, its ribs moving as gills
in the light, its extremities blurring,

doubling. life is very full.
you are always pregnant
with your next self. between

this body and your body
(whose body), between the idea
and the wide belly, falls orlando.

you may feel incomplete,
you may experience some slight
unrest; some warming. salting.

breathe. you are brief. you are always
some body. wear it. work it.
even ebbing, shedding. even in the dark.