Vespers (I,I)

BY Bella Li

THEME LEADER Justin Clemens

SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.

Writer Bella Li was invited to consider and respond in poetry or prose to a death mask by American-Israeli architect and designer Neri Oxman.

Vespers (I,I)

Evening falls O bloody sea


There was a dream he had dreamt at dusk. Low tide receding, sun of the afternoon beating incessantly down upon the surface of the water. The yellow of rape blossoms, green of young grass. All shaken with a pale grief. And in the ruins of ancient castles, in the skies above he saw the sinking of clustered stars. Blazing towards strange images. The winter of 1945 had been a persistent one. Ice still glittered under the starlight. In the glittering starlight, he could look across sere fields to the basin in which the city lay extended. Traces of dark fog rising from the gorges (an unfamiliar station, an unfamiliar street). What we call evil is. She had turned her head and was looking out the window into the unfamiliar street. As though she were a pale woman, looking for the first time.


From my bed, where I passed in a kind of deep, I heard news of the destruction of H—. Let the curve in our diagram correspond to the temperature, M. Pearce’s Star. Herculis. Aurigae. The cool evening falling headlong into the tide. From our eyes we watched the sky turn crimson, the sun went down—there in the centre of the basin in which the city lay. Lapsed again into invisibility. Again the machinery of deception had begun to work within me. From my bed I saw our generals in the fields, faces down. I shall be born again three times. And grasp the sword in my hand. To account for the radiation of the stars, early spectroscopists believed—but there is a straight line that does not pass through the origin. Perhaps I will not be understood, at the familiar hour, in the dusk when the bell sounds, but for the account of this straight line: my legs carried me running toward something that in any case was not—whatever it was, it was not.

The fearful days were beginning. I passed through the long shadow.


Bella Li is the author of Maps, Cargo (Vagabond Press, 2013), shortlisted for the 2014 Wesley Michel Wright Prize, and Argosy (Vagabond Press, 2017)—a book of poetry, collage and photography—commended in the 2017 Wesley Michel Wright Prize and awarded the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry. Her next book, Lost Lake, is forthcoming from Vagabond Press in 2018.

This article was originally published in NGV Magazine Jan/Feb 2018 issue.


The epigraph is from Guillaume Apollinaire, Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913–1916), translated by Anne Hyde Greet, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2004.

Phrases were sourced from the following texts: James Jeans, Astronomy and Cosmology, Dover Publications, New York, 1961; Kumiko Kakehashi, So Sad to Fall in Battle: An Account of War, Presidio Press, New York, 2007; Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, translated by Meredith Weatherby, New Directions, New York, 1958.