Magdalena Ball: Six Poems

Solace, the world, love and pain: Beatriz Copello reviews The Density of Compact Bone by Magdalena Ball
Entering a liminal space: Denise O’Hagan launches The Density of Compact Bone by Magdalena Ball

Her name is Mud
last of her kind, an icon
AKA Red River Giant Softshell
Shanghai Softshell
Swinhoe’s Softshell, Yangtze Giant
also known as Oscaria swinhoei
pig, soup, turtle, ghost.

She lived in China and Vietnam
she no longer comes from anywhere
she was one of four, then two
then one of none, a symbol.

She is what cannot be
whittled to a point
she wants to be more
like the cosmos in which
she once swam

but wanting is a human concern
best left to the hungry.

 She wishes she could be
something other a statistic
representative of what is coming
what no one yet mourns.

She needs nothing
that can be provided
she has been the largest of her kind
alive for 90 years, a starlet, and bound.

You’re crying now
her paradise an empty pond
cathartic enough, blurring your eyes
to a crisis that needs more than tears.

For her, pain is over
the gate is open
her job done.

Her name
is the Sixth Mass Extinction
glaciers, forest, buildings, man.


Qi Qi, the Endling

 Pale, blind, goddess of the Yangtze

 the only thing I can do is supplicate
lean towards the guilt
wear it like a red-skinned scarf
soaked in the blood of every species
we couldnt save.

Apologies are too weak
last year we lost over two dozen
birds, sharks, lizards, frogs,
fish, snails: hush
you cant save
what you dont know needs saving

tracking missing feathers across an acoustic
frequency, spectrum of absence.

Martha was a passenger pigeon
wholesome pinkish-rufous
iridescent bronze neck catching the light
sleek and slender
hunted from hero to zero in fifty years
twittering her final song alone.

Celia, Pyrenean ibex, Bucardo, ghost
long-horns sillhouetted in memory
against a setting sun, dying again and again
as we try to atone, resurrect, clone.

Lonesome George
Pinta Island Galapagos Tortoise
older than any man
rarest creature in the world
no longer rare
but every endling is rare by definition
the heart can only take so much.

What did yours tell you I wonder uselessly
your exquisite preserved body
reveals no secrets.

I imagine you all somewhere
in the liminal space we call

exchanging glances. laughing at the extent
of anguish, our reckoning and what it might
mean to pay attention.

Meanwhile under the radar of advancement
Qi Qi quietly disappears.

The languid river stretches from a glacier in Tibet
to the tower blocks of Shanghai, such progress winding
its deadly beauty past the canyons and valleys of three gorges:
Qutang, Wu, Xiling, transparent waters as silent as sonar
clicks and whistles that once told a bedtime story
of shrinking sand bars and terrible hunger.


Earth Scars

An object of darkness travelling fifteen miles a second came into close collision course trajectory. Lost in the glow of the sun. I thought of the earth, receiving the blow in her solar plexis. Uluru-Kata Tjuta, Northern Territory. Radiating nerves and ganglia.

What it would look like? Two million hectares of rivers, forests, floodplains
exploded instantly into impact winter, such terrible alchemy. The crisscross of lines across distended hips, tears concentrated to amber.

 Is it easier if it’s random? If there was nothing we could have done? I could be
there, first in the queue, taking the hit for our planet, sensing motion as the rock enters the atmosphere, a new species in deadly motion, riding the shockwave of exogenesis.

There are other scars, below the crust, keloids of overexpression; of industry – we’re an industrious race, always working, growing, metabolizing, metastasising.

Proof runs along the fault line in warning shades of phosphorous green. Tailings, digging, burning, tunnelling, cutting, liquid reserves in aqua blue, iridescent blooms and red tides, the trace of radionuclides, carbon spheres changing the signal in sedimentary rock layer, arriving faster than the speed of sound, crashing before the sonic boom of impact.


Mantle over the Kill

 Ornithological has so many beats
it takes flight in the mouth
letter-winged, a kite
the word is a raptor, onomatopoetic
making saliva
enzymes breaking down particles
evoking the desire of ownership.

There’s no malice
it’s just irruptive, built of necessity
there are secrets you cannot know
when you’re always grabbing.

I speak from knowledge
I was born a bird, grew out of it
feathers smoothed in ageing
learned how to pretend.

I guess you could say I’m a hybrid
clumsy against the earth
crashing in.

Because I’m good, I take it
swallow, which is not my breed.

Remembering is an act of defiance
after all those words, here I am tongue-tied

it’s not what I’m missing that causes the stutter
it’s surfeit, sensory awareness is the easy part
layers of landscape, sound, pattern
phylogeny: even a beak can make the sound.

You can’t blame me for liking
such silky transmissions
floating past as compression waves.

This is what I was born for
letting contractions become my body
so much that gets missed
warning signs no longer early.

When the rain emptied like a fallen pail
not bunting or passerine, wingspan
flesh is just another word for skin
giving in to gravity, the movement of time
unfeathered on the beak
you could call it by another name
not youth, that’s a different bird.

A lost blur against the sky
swifts and house martins
it always comes back to flight
and now, just the path
shaped like a figure of eight
twisting back on itself
counting from zero
the musky scent of consolation
opening the body to change
migration is as risky as love.


The Density of Compact Bone

 I don’t want to write this
my fingers ache
with the weight
of what they know
and won’t type.

This was meant to be
a story about beginnings

big feminine energy
crackling about
static everywhere
setting the house alight
the way I managed
one hundred things with grace
never stopped smiling and waving
like the Queen
even as you reminded me
how far I missed the mark.

In this version I was winning
laughing in profile
better for the loss, cleaner, freer

but I dropped the glass
it cut my hand
blood got on my best white shirt
my shirt tore on the edge of the bed
and then I was in the forest again
cheeks stained
with resin and gravel rash
rock fragments

the trees I loved and hurt
casting a shadow as I
walked and walked
and walked
until there was no more walking
because my feet failed
beneath all that bluster
still bone.



If you were looking for a sign or excuse
to stay where you are

that particular
ray of light, a twitch at the small
of your back, the downward slant
darkening eyes in the mirror
warm sun pretending to be gentle
half blooming crocuses
swing chair creaking
dead bees floating on the cold
pool, death against life.

My body has grown heavier
weighted by memory
competing languages
an accumulation of cells
an accretion of blows
all people and all things
swallowed down and carried
small densities, big plans
Inertia taking me further towards
the centre point.

You cannot separate the words
from the culture
the motion of the mouth
how it shapes the features
changing thought, perception
you cannot unlearn
only hide, pretend
that you have always been
will always be safe.

My ancestors would have
happily buried that history
into the sweet earth
along with their bones
picked clean of anything valuable:
jewellery, gold fillings, hair, nutrients
but we can’t help touching
tongue against missing tooth.
The gap draws us down, down.

Somewhere there; here
is an answer
transmitted into sound

a humming that might be wind
second life, second soul
the lullaby you can almost sing
by heart, though you’ve never
heard it before
In this lifetime

mother, are you in that breeze

teaching me
how to let go?


 Magdalena Ball is a novelist, poet, reviewer, interviewer, and is Managing Editor of Compulsive Reader. She is the author of several novels and poetry books, the most recent of which, The Density of Compact Bone, was published in late 2021 by Ginninderra Press. She runs a podcast of writer interviews, is a frequent festival host and is currently finalising a poetry book due out in late 2022 by Puncher & Wattmann. Find out more about Magdalena at

Solace, the world, love and pain: Beatriz Copello reviews The Density of Compact Bone by Magdalena Ball
Entering a liminal space: Denise O’Hagan launches The Density of Compact Bone by Magdalena Ball


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