Bernadette Hall

Leda at the Billabong

If the old god came back,
he wouldn’t take the form of a swan,
now would he, been there, done that.
Perhaps it’s actually got more to do
with the presence of the painter.

He probably just wanted to try out
something new. Not that wanting
to paint a woman in the middle of a rape
was ever unacceptable, artistically
speaking. There are plenty of examples

to prove that, take the crowd scene
in Nicolas Poussin’s ‘The Rape of the Sabine
Women.’  To spend valuable time painting
‘A Patch of Grass with Butterflies’
is to miss the point entirely, don’t you think.

Anyway, if you look really hard,
you can see how he focuses our attention
on the attack. You can tell she’s a woman,
not a goddess. Only Aphrodite
is ever depicted totally nude like that

and there’s absolutely no evidence
to suggest that Aphrodite was ever in
Australia, let alone that she went for a swim
there. Even Hermogenes of Paphos
fails to mention what would otherwise

have been a most interesting fact.
Notice how he concentrates our attention
on her plumpness, her fine satin skin.
Then there’s his admiration for the creature,
how the god entered it, how he took on

the form of that formidable body,
the creamy leather around the jaws,
the teeth like an army of crossed swords,
the black slit in the bog of the motionless
eye, the hint of a tic in the eyelid.

It’s this one detail that makes it clear
that he’s got her in his sights already,
a woman on her own, entering the moonlit
water, the palms, the mango trees stilled,
the parrots silent and the currawong.

She bends slightly,
see the soft pouch of her white belly.
She strokes the water up her arms,
it pours between her breasts.
There’s a wide ripple as his massive torso

twists from side to side, the squat legs
pumping under the water. The feathery
brushing of stirred up water across her ankle
will be the only  warning, if she can read it,
but by then it will be too late.

There’s no emblemata to tell us
if she’s a mother or a woman of ill repute.
It’s most likely she’s a virgin,
after all that’s a very significant part
of our intellectual and cultural history, isn’t it.

What we do know is that she’s a woman,
a tourist you might say in today’s context,
who’s stepped down, alone and unaware,
into a billabong at night somewhere
in the heart of Australia.

Could the artist himself have been a woman?
A most interesting question,
thank you for that, most interesting.
But I have to say that, given the nature
of the subject matter, I’m inclined to think not.

Author’s Note


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