Backpacking for Beginners
Auckland, April 2007

I arrive late
in an unfamiliar city
– already darkened
by the creep of evening

my hostel room is prison-bleak
– a desk, a chair, a bed
the smell of old socks, dead air
the carpet is thirty-years thin

on a shoestring budget
I search for food
consider two-star restaurants
fried chicken, the ubiquitous burger

settle on a cold pasty and coke
from a twenty-four hour servo
the attendant is surly, face like a red brick
he slaps my change on the counter

back at the hostel
I huddle under musty sheets
listen to street sounds
muffled music, the murmur of traffic

the brochures describe
a vibrant nightlife, a city of excitement
I read them again and again
– fall asleep to a lullaby of sirens

from Travelling Backwards

Beautiful Cars

cars the colour of fire
with rainbow tails
and crests of scarlet feathers

cars that sing underwater
howl at the moon
and mimic the sounds of other cars

cars with tusks and velvet antlers
trunks and technicolour wings

cars that curl into small spikey balls

cars that fit into the palm of your hand

cars that hover over forest ponds
drink from the throats of tiny flowers

cars with golden manes
silver-green scales and silver hooves

cars that ride the highways of the sky

cars that run wild on the ruins of roads

from The Hieronymus Bosch Shopping Mall

A Dreamhome for the Lonely

the doorknobs
are shaped like hands
with palms open in welcome

the chairs are like laps
with arms that embrace
and shoulders you can lean on

the refrigerator will talk
as long as you want
about sport, sex or the weather

the bed will massage you
at the end of the day
the pillows will hug you back

and if you should wake in fear
the lamp will hold your trembling hand
– the clock sing you a lullaby

from The Hieronymus Bosch Shopping Mall

Empire of Leaves

the tree was our universe
our home, city, empire
every branch mapped in our minds
we had names for them all
knew the best ways to climb them
the weak spots, the bumps and hollows

even the wattle, which burned my eyes
did not stop our explorations
we took toys – cars, plastic animals
a day’s provisions of food and drink
watched out for ants, lizards, mantids
counted cars, spied on the girls across the street

thirty years on, the tree is long gone
the yard a slab of concrete, memories buried

from Corduroy & Cabbage


a misfit fruit
the difficult child
of an unhappy marriage
between orange and lemon

even its name a mistake
few fruit more ungrapelike than this
a bunch of them could kill
if dropped from a height

a tree outside my window
once bore this bitter fruit
let it fall with a thud
like a slow and heavy rain

my Mother tried to gather them
offered grapefruit at every meal
but no amount of dieting
could consume them

these days I turn
to grapefruit for punishment
seek to scrape its sour juice
from within a wall of pith

even sugared and sliced
they do not sweeten
respond to the gentle prod of a teaspoon
by spitting sticky venom into my eye

from Shooting Stars

The House of Tears

a gecko crawls across her cheek
and into the crack behind her ear

the lights in her eyes have gone out

moth wings litter her windowsills

her mouth is overgrown with weeds
time has rusted her tongue

she keeps her doors locked, curtains drawn

her empty rooms are musty with regret

webs decorate her memories

she has found mouse droppings
in the closet of her womb

and a pool of shattered glass

where someone has thrown a brick
through the window of her heart

from The Hieronymus Bosch Shopping Mall


on and off and on
the shoplight flickers
like a nervous twitch
at the corner of my eye

the jammed cars creep forward
indicators tick off the seconds
I tap tap tap on the steering wheel
to the thud of the city’s heartbeat

stranded in the afternoon rush
an old man leans over a bin
mutters at the rubbish
his face clenched in anger

getting ready to fight
he takes off his coat
then puts it on again
off again, and then on

from The Inverted World


My Education


it wasn’t my fault
I was the pushed, not the pusher
but Grimly dragged me out of the line
bellowed bad breath in my face

with his seal-slick hair
and trim moustache
he looked like a fat, little Hitler
ferocious tyrant of the schoolyard

he didn’t beat me then, saved it for later
in front of the school assembly
I was lifted by the elbow
caned across the back of the knees

my legs are still stinging


Barker marched across the schoolyard
as though in a military parade
a reflection of her missionary zeal
bringing the message of God to savages

megaphone affixed to her mouth
her voice heard streets away
pick up those papers, walk properly
stop talking, stop running, stop being silly

in class, she towered above us
showering our desks with spittle
called us hopeless, idiotic, stupid
but then her voice would soften

she would tell us of God
and the Kingdom of Peace  

from Corduroy & Cabbage

River Spirit

I live beneath the river
sleep deep within its skin

in the blue above, boats
and trees and water birds

I see a swimmer eclipse the sun
I see fish ripple storm clouds
I see a swan swallow the moon

I see children with their nets
scooping frogs from the sky
I see old men hooking driftwood

I see leaves like spinning stars
descend the river’s staircase

settle upon my silt-rimmed lips
turn to mud in my mouth

from The Inverted World


for a second or two, out in the bay
an island appears, shimmers then sinks
like a dark wave, pushing against the surf
a rippling chain of granite boulders

one blink, and it has disappeared
we doubt it was even there
just an apparition, a phantom of the sea
cousin to the Loch Ness Monster

our eyes strain for a second glimpse
and then again, beyond the reef
a hint of fin, a sudden burst of spray
a barnacled back rises to the surface

excited, we scale the headland
scan the horizon for our Moby Dick
but are confronted by a shifting sea
the illusory effects of light and water

each shadow becomes a sign
each dark shape a possibility
everywhere we look, we see them
the ocean is overflowing with whales

from Shooting Stars


gravitating from one window to another
they observe worlds they can never enter

watch dots of colour flicker on fields of glass
forming patterns of desire, illusions of beauty

I look for signs of life – see an eyelid quiver
the occasional small movement of the hand

but they are beyond contact – under hypnosis
mesmerised by these visions of artificial life

night turns to day, then day to night once more
– the windows to the outside world remain shut

from Shooting Stars

Processed with Snapseed.


All images and poems © Graham Catt 2018








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