Heather Cam (formerly Johnstone)

Heather CamHeather came from Canada to study at the University of Adelaide in 1977 and quickly found Friendly Street Poets. She was a regular attendee and performer until her departure for England in 1979, returning briefly in the early 1980s before motherhood and a job in Sydney ended her participation in 1984. Having written an MA thesis on the American poet Robert Duncan, and a PhD on the ‘confessional’ poets Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman and W.D. Snodgrass, she worked for five years as an academic at Macquarie University: tutoring in literature; hosting poetry readings and running poetry workshops. She left academe for publishing and reviewing in 1988.

For eleven years she was the chief poetry reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald and poetry publisher and senior editor at Hale & Iremonger. She has since worked at Penguin Books Australia, as a consultant to Macquarie University’s Graduate Diploma for Editing and Publishing and its online Post-Graduate Certificate in Editing, and at UNSW Press (NewSouth Publishing), where she is the Managing Editor. She has been awarded a DE (Distinguished Editor) by her peers.

Heather is the author of two poetry collections: The Moon’s Hook (Poetry Australia/South Head Press, 1990) and The Majestic Rollerink (William Heinemann Australia, 1996) and a booklet, Border Crossing and Other Poems (Wagtail #45, Picaro Press, 2005).

She, her philosopher husband and their Japanese spitz divide their time between Newtown, in Sydney’s inner west, and Blackheath in the Blue Mountains.


Arrival of a 75 per center to the Burns Unit

They wheeled him in
just before the dinner trolley
wrapped like Lazarus,
but howling
howling
so you’d know he was alive.

Returning to Adelaide at high noon
For Phil

After many years away,
the sight of home from the plane
was a flock of parrots lifting,
shrieking, pounding rapid wings,
raising pollen and dust in your heart’s paddocks;
it was the city centre’s hot metal and blinking glass
glinting in the sun,
signalling a greeting;
it was all the toy cars washed and polished
winking from the roadways;
it was the sweep of the bay
as the plane turned to land,
to where everyone was waving in your direction,
flashing smiles, lifting children to see,
as you came through the barrier
to all that was so familiar, yet changed:
Your mother greyer than you remembered
and frail in your embrace;
your father rounder, short of breath, and red in the face,
assuring you gruffly, all’s much the same
in this place, that you’ve carried about with you
on the back of your eyelids,
in your heart’s locket,
in your memory safe.

Snow

That winter
the heat at the school
went off
one week-end
and the goldfish
in the bowl
on the window-ledge
froze.

But the snowbanks
humped up to the glass
made no comment;
and the snow
swirled
at our ankles
as we sat at the dinner table
(pretending not to notice),
and whispered
as we crossed the space
of darkness
to our beds –
heaped with snow.

Awakening
in the northern morning
to a new topography,
where only the telephone-poles
knew
where the streets lay
silent under drifts.
The lamp-posts
had no tale to tell,
but a shivering humming
which ceased
when the alarm-clocks
clamoured
and the morning milk-
bottles burst
on the backsteps
(all together) –
exploding in the cold.

The men went out
before breakfast
with shovels
in their hands
and flowers of frost
in their beards;
while the women
at the windows
breathed anxious
crystal patterns on the pane,
watching
the whirling snow
sweep over
the ploughed pathways –
beautifully.

The bandit-children,
scarves over their mouths,
scrambled with dogs
to the snowbanks,
digging out “forts” and caves,
like graves,
in the implacable
white face.

And one boy
broke his neck
at the foot of the toboggan slope,
and was stiff
when they brought him home
with blue lips.

Other things were lost
in the snow:
Coins at bus stops
to be found in spring-thaw;
scraps of litter
blown from over-
turned garbage cans.

The wind
howled in at the door
and sighed
at the cracks:
the cat went out one night
and never came back.

The salt on the roads
ate at the cars’ undersides;
farmers with fields
along the highway
complained;
in town
pedestrians
slipped on the ice,
gracelessly
their hip bones smashed.

In backyards
washing hung
petrified;
inside everyone ate
mandarins from China,
and drew their curtains
on the snow.
Yet always,
in pauses in the conversation,
they heard the arctic blast;
and at night,
lying between white sheets
and drifts of blankets,
they were swept
to vast fields
where sleep
was heaped
upon them
in banks of
snow.