Judith Nangala Crispin
Assembly (The Modelled Forms)
This poem was commissioned in response to Angelica Mesiti’s three-channel video installation, ASSEMBLY.
Assembly (The Modelled Forms) by Judith Nangala Crispin is an ekphrastic poem, commissioned in partnership with Red Room Poetry with the intention of amplifying connections between poetry and works in the national collection. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description, written in response to a work of art.
Judith Nangala Crispin is a poet, visual artist, motorcyclist and volunteer firefighter, living on unceded Yuin Country in Braidwood, on the NSW Southern Tablelands. She has published two collections of poetry, The Myrrh-Bearers (Puncher & Wattmann) and The Lumen Seed (Daylight Books). Judith is a descendant of Bpangerang people from the Murray River, and also acknowledges heritage from Ireland, Scotland, France, Mali, Senegal and the Ivory Coast. Judith spends part of each year living and working with Warlpiri people in the Northern Tanami Desert. Much of her writing focuses on issues of displacement and identity ambiguity. Judith was the winner of the 2020 Blake Prize.
There will be no forgiveness. Not for any of us who’ve come here—
no forgiveness or condemnation, no signs of recognition.
Those who built this place have gone, leaving busts of their own likeness
in the sunlit orangery windows, beside the statue of a dead king.
We fell alone—plummeting at the wind’s edge like comets flaring into a different dark.
The wind has changed and left us stranded,
with no memory of anything before this interior, these halls of ashtrays
and old wood, the pendant lights shaped like UFOs.
Neon EXIT signs in the corridors point nowhere. They hang over locked doors,
over carpets dyed the red of cardinals and pharaohs.
We look for emu tracks in the parquetry, the growth of new buds
on the blackwood balustrades.
Why did you come here?
to this fish-trap, this dead planet—an edifice modelled by archons on an image
they’d seen floating out there in space.
Eucalypts deliver night-songs to the locked front door.
But we’re too afraid to open it.
The nights are dangerous.
Don’t stand beside the open window,
when trees let fall their shadows under stranger stars.
Monitors perch on the desks under a painted mural
of Cicero, silver-tongued among the Romans, condemning tyranny, autocracy
in Jupiter’s red temple—
before they took his hands and head and nailed them to the architraves
of their Parliamentary chamber.
We don’t remember when the others came—blinding and beautiful.
A stenographer, in a gilded amphitheater, is avian.
His boned shoulders mimic a kestrel’s wing, curved, where the wind runs.
He plays music—harnessing the rhythms of his own blood, his cells and marrow,
under circles of tiered chairs. If you saw this room from above
it would resemble an occult sigil.
He types poems in a dead language—luminous messages,
in voices that will never utter our names.
He tells us the grass is treacherous,
that the mountains cannot see us from their mantles of blue mulga.
Wrens and sparrowhawks don’t speak to us.
Their words drift out on cold winds and are lost.
The stenographer melts back into raked galleries, the armchairs
in Queensland maple, upholstered red as Christ’s blood and his martyrs,
the oak tree insects crushed for pigment.
Why did you let me come here, if you knew?
These corridors have made us thin machines, mindless and repeating.
We blink, we click our jaws. Don’t listen to your pulse in case it falters.
If the mask drops there’s only credit cards and pills beneath it—
Fentanyl, Diazepam, anything that works.
A pianist, in the ampitheater’s centre, listens to the light falling
through her outstretched fingers. Dust motes settle in the bower of her hair.
She is far from any window. No stammer of rain against the glass, no sound
of leaves or wind. Her hands are hovering white owls,
spilling fantasias from whirring wings, the songs of ancestors who died
and transmuted into stars. She doesn’t know their names.
Don’t stand in the open window, when moths press darkly
at the glass and the clouds are pierced by dangerous stars.
Everyone who comes here is alone.
A man in the corridor is playing violin. His bow hand transcribes the arch
of a scorpion’s tail. Under square fluorescent lights, he is a stork swaying
on a pale creek’s edge.
A clarinettist performs behind heavy sound-proofed doors, to a circle of board-tables.
The curve of her neck is a snakebird or heron. The reed, strange against her tongue,
calls waterbirds down from the tapestries.
We don’t remember when the others came—blind and beautiful,
in their t-shirts and coloured friendship bracelets.
They sit in the lobby, spinning light across their fingers—sparks fuse
to glowing forms, sculptures that reflect a moment in their maker’s reading glasses
and then die.
A man plays hammer dulcimer in the Assembly Room.
He holds the hammers, as lightly as spoons, sweeping arcs over the vibrant strings.
Drapes pulled closed across the window, are suffused with golden light,
as if the sun were behind them.
Sounds drift in from the portico.
He dismisses them as phantoms—the clash of protesters and police, rhythms beaten
on caravans and shipping containers, tents torn down and torched. Sometimes,
aeroplanes rumble overhead.
He hears songs in the old language.
A car alarm is a bush stone curlew in the scrub.
Smoke from sorry fires slips under the doorjambs.
He hears thunder in the Orphic hills.
He hears the ashes of an Aboriginal poet scattered in the formal roses.
I’ve seen wallpaper birds stir under velvet—
when the shadows of wall-mounted lamps are tarantulas, their black legs wheeling
over floors of cinnabar or toxic vermillion, the red of mercury mines.
All the chairs, in the Monarch’s room, are square and pink.
Colonial furnishings speak the cubes and grids of empire.
Only the dancer is fluid.
She sees her own face floating in a glass display cabinet,
among the crowns and sceptres. A golden eagle’s wing is a vanity of Queens.
The dancer rises like a frog from her office chair,
balancing one hand and foot on the seat.
Her fingers, lifted into light, are minnows, sunlit in shallow water.
She plunges an arm into the shade of a cedar writing desk,
performs mudras and sacred gestures—her elbow juts, her forefinger points
like John the Baptist.
And she is a multi-armed Shiva. Her shadow flung across the wall is another dancer.
Her movements are strange and the voice of her reflection is strange.
She touches fingertips above her head, before an open window, the sky,
obsidian with fixed and wandering stars—Delphinus and the lesser Magellanic cloud.
She dances Mimas, Saturn’s death star moon, into its orbit.
Other will come, blind and liminal.
Watch for lights from other worlds.
Those who built this place once swarmed its corridors in identical black suits,
over carpets run in arsenic red, the colour of Spanish Galleons.
A red sun.
And in their atriums, they planted radioactive trees
with bitter leaves and branches, with seeds of lesions and disease and deep
Some pass through here, bare and celestial.
I’ve seen them in the lobbies—the spinning arms and legs of drummers,
inscribing polyrhythms, syncopations, metric modulations in the light.
Their drums glow like jellyfish or bioluminescent krill,
shoes hardly touch the floor before they’re gone, as lightly as they came—
exiting the dark orangery windows like floating moons.
The sky is open.
If you’re fast,
you can follow them—out over service stations and sprawling suburban lights,
rabbits on the Parliamentary lawn.
There’s a tower cordoned behind wire fences. Its upper reaches have crumbled
to nothing. Sparks descend around it like fireflies
through street-signs and silent trees.
There are so many falling stars.
People gather in the street to watch them.
Boobooks, heavy on their slow wings, cross in from night fields,
where the moon drags itself through black water. The dark was always there—and the stars.
Don’t look back, through billowing curtains, into that colonial monument,
those rooms with walnut-panelled walls, where women are singing,
all facing straight ahead.
Their mouths open and close like deep sea bass.
Artificial light pools on their cheekbones and across their breasts.
They are beautiful and hollow as the chamber.
They are held inside their modelled forms—
just echoes in the amber hour.
Their voices are honey and forgetting.
Don’t listen to them.
Search the sky for known coordinates—Betelguese in Orion, the pointer stars
of Centaurus and Crux.
Triangulate your position in the squid ink black of space,