EJ Shu

EJ Shu is an Australian-Canadian poet whose recent work appears in Antiphon, Plumwood Mountain, Cordite Poetry Review, Poets Reading the News, Plum Tree Tavern and Psaltery & Lyre. She makes her home on the north west coast of Tasmania. You can read more about her on www.ejshu.com

Penicillin’s Daughter

A breach in the first line, the second,

and closer, a whiff of sepsis. The arc of our ambition

has faltered, boils appear

to lodge in the meat, crusts

beggar belief

while we, the sick, each counted day turn

from blighted x-rays in a weak bargain, discreetly

so as not to spill our defences and rouse

an unholy consumption.


It has come down to this

scant arsenal in profitless vials,

a pocketful of posies,

duds against bedlam and phlegm, buboes, the spatter

of iron blood in the mouth.

Natural selection is a slow way to end

the tragedy of the commons—

Shigella: dysenteriae, flexneri, boydii, sonnei

will sing your child to sleep without a hitch.


We act like it’s burial we should shrink from,

mineral stink and slip

of wet clay, base indignity,

but that’s where she’s headed—she’s sure deliverance lives

in that dumb, hypogeal dark.

Into the breach, game

and down the fissured ways, tracking

labyrinthine and invisible rivers like the ones

tattooed on her arm.


The flowstone is a refuge. She treads

the boneyard maze like the moon between

cloudless pools, between

gypsum bushes and cave pearls, heaped,

glossy by headlamp, milky

mounds of calcite, hoodoos and here,

a pit lead blowing good air, crystalline

spines that prick

and lodge in the hands,


and kneels to swab and drill

the velvet wall, hoping

for a bomb, a dam, an adult’s hand to stop

the carousel and let us off.

For something thickly coiled inside uncanny breeds,

imperforate, baroque:

the aleph-bet seed. What we missed

up there, where the resistome blooms

like there’s no tomorrow.


Response to: Pawlowski, A.C., Wang, W., Koteva, K., Barton, H.A., McArthur, A.G., and Wright, G.D. 2016. A diverse intrinsic antibiotic resistome from a cave bacterium. Nature Communications. 7: 13803. doi:10.1038/ncomms13803