'Cuckoo in the Straw', by Peter Goldsworthy

Photograph by Holly Hayes. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Licence.

About babies they were mostly
wrong, the Old Masters, even
when they stuck wings on them.

I saw my first bad babies
in Florence, in a room with a view
of Gorgione and Giotto.

It was a hilarious massacre
of the innocents, in oil,
but I wondered why Lesson 1

in Renaissance Life Drawing
wasn’t a live one on a plinth,
or a peek down the nearest pram?

Perhaps all those one or two
candle-power-lit interiors
were just too dark for detail,

but even Leonardo, who cut
his babies up outside, in daylight,
got the faces wrong:

his wised-up mannikins
with shrunken-heads
make funny looking kids.

‘FLK’ I’d scribble in the case-notes
when one popped its alien head out,
cautiously, in labour ward:

short-hand code for
something’s wrong with that one
but I don’t know what. Yet.

Run a test, Nurse, to prove
if it’s a cretin or a moron,
a mongol or a dwarf. Stat.

(Beg pardon, this was before
the Great Insult Shift
of biologic terms.)
Back in theme park Florence,
one last, vast oil window
looked out upon a stable.

‘Twas the night after Christmas,
single star power above
and not a candle in sight,

just the self-illumination
of the Blessed FLK Himself,
looking wise beyond His year:

a midget circus freak
that glowed in the dark,
a cuckoo in the straw

that didn’t look like its Dad,
and didn’t look much
like its host mother either.
DNA typing, Nurse. Stat.
It doesn’t comes from Venus,
and it doesn’t come from Mars,
they are both up on the ceiling,
with the other lovely gods
and properly formed mortals:
the old testament Davids
and pre-testament Apollos,
the lady-killing dukes and

drop-dead last duchesses,
as if symmetrical beauty
was a pigment in short supply,

like Ultramarine or Tyrian Purple,
and there was only so much
Baby Pink powder to go around.


This poem originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #24: The Medicine Issue.

Peter Goldsworthy’s most recent book is the comic memoir, His Stupid Boyhood; his 1996 novel Wish was also reprinted last year as a Text Classic. His first collection of poetry for 15 years, The Rise of the Machines and other Love Poems, will be published this July by Pitt Street poets.