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

I spent the day wandering from room to room with my notebook and camera, thinking deeply about the three works I had been allocated to respond to with poems, as well as all the works around them. Turning over in my mind the words of Senior Curator Isobel Parker Philip, who walked us through the exhibition and helped us to see the deeper connections and significances. 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.

As it happens, the works I’ve written poems for – by Julie Rrap, Ann Balla and Patrick Pound ­– are themselves about the act of noticing, and about serendipitous juxtaposition, the unintended consequence, and the ways we try to make the world order itself for us. They also grapple with uncertainty, contingency and the productive tension of contradictions. I have tried to draw out some of this in the resulting poems. The conversation between the poems and the artworks will have to migrate online for the moment, but perhaps someday it will again be possible for it to take place in a real room, full of real people, brought together by beautiful and challenging things, breathing easily, standing as close as they wish, and delighting in the paying of close attention.

Go to Melinda's profile to read her poems

Photo credit: Marina McDonald