The Lovely Haunting

Last year some of Sophia’s poems from Rough Sleepers, the collection written in her last year of life, were submitted to two journals—two very different types of journals, with very different readerships (chosen quite deliberately). Both accepted her poems. As the work has now been published and the journals distributed, Sophia’s poems can also be placed here, on Lexicon.

A sequence of three poems, The Torments, has been published in one of the UK’s most innovative poetry magazines, Shearsman (in the Spring 2023 edition, Vols. 135 & 136, pp 11-13). Thought-provoking and exploratory, Shearsman features original voices and profound themes.

Sophia’s The Torments is an astonishing work. It is a remarkable poem by any standards, and by one so young and in such circumstances—confronted by the all-too-real “extinction of existence”—it is powerful beyond measure.

Yet there is such beauty in it, lines so perfectly wrought they take your breath away, so memorable they live in your mind afterwards, becoming part of how one sees the world.

Can one ever again see the stars without hearing Sophia’s lyrical, beautiful, yet completely accurate lines in one’s mind?

The planets flutter like swallow’s wings
Defective in point of eternity

Every facet of that compressed image is true: perceptually true, scientifically true, metaphysically true, poetically true. We exist in a universe premised on being “defective in point of eternity.” The Second Law of Thermodynamics inevitably takes us there.

As Sophia states in another poem written in her final months, The Substance of Dreams:

And they say, the learned infidels,
That there shall someday be a desert of the stars
And that is what the dreaming cosmos desires

One must remember that Sophia was, of course, an historian who wrote science fiction. The epigraphs of The Torments are themselves a reminder of this (as well as being quintessentially Sophia in erudition and wry perceptiveness), quoting, as they do, not just di Lampedusa and Machiavelli, but also one of her favourite sci-fi TV series, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica: Everything we have, everything we think we have, is taken away from us.

This is the brutal truth. We live. We die. The universe itself will end in cold nothing.

Yet beauty lives (beauty had deep significance in Sophia’s philosophical and theological worldview), and in the extraordinary discipline and force of Sophia’s poem one finds it. The power and beauty one sees in The Torments, the intellectual maturity and the poetic assuredness of it, are the fulfilment of Sophia’s creative as well as spiritual imperative. It was an imperative she understood from the beginning. An interview she did for the Queensland Poetry Festival makes this clear:

I started writing poetry ten years ago, when I was seven years old, so obviously my feelings about an awful lot of things have changed since then. My poetry however seems to have undergone more of a process of evolution, and my analysis of it more an intellectual sharpening, than my feelings about the act and purpose of writing changed. I still aim for beauty and power, I still aim to fight against mortality, and I still write as much about a universe of the quick, haunted by their predecessors as much as I ever did.

In a poem (a clever, wonderful little poem) in the same issue of Shearsman as is Sophia’s, Nathan Shepherdson writes that “poets are born ghosts.” There is truth to that observation. The fight against mortality, as Sophia notes, is the hidden key of poetry, as it is of all great art. Poets (wise ones anyway) probably genuinely are born knowing it, while poetry itself is perhaps an act of haunting, echoing across time, speaking to all of us. It is, as the title of this blog post states, a lovely haunting.

If you read Sophia’s poem sequence, The Torments, I think you too will be haunted by it.

The Torments


Nothing could be decently hated except eternity.
–Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard

There is nothing to be afraid of that is not an idea
We cling to flesh
As a dead deer does to a hook in a still life
Behind the slicing hand of the butcher
Lies the slicing hand of the painter
And beyond the artificer
Lies the truth—death

It is not the white of the bone
The battle-colour of the vein
Or even the shadows fallen upon the brain

It is the really existent extinction of existence
The Chaos perhaps
Which is not deep water

Only ideas stand sickle-handed
At the foot of made beds

And so we cling to flesh
Which alone is subject


…human appetites are insatiable, for since from nature they have the ability and
the wish to desire all things and from fortune the ability to achieve few of them,
there continually results from this a discontent in human minds and a disgust
with the things they possess.
            –Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy

Men are in love with the future and married to the past
Out of this the little mermaid’s knives were forged
Life—the light on the white wall—
Is missed between wave and pulse

The stroke of the painter
The stroke of the demon’s whip
And the lover’s finger tracing out the chin

All the stars we dance under are dead
Clipped flowers wreathe the maiden’s head
And her hair is parted by the sword
The planets flutter like swallow’s wings
Defective in point of eternity

And I see a girl striking
The stream dragging it
Back to the past
Shattering her own reflection


Everything we have, everything we think we have, is taken away from us.
Battlestar Galactica, season 4

Your heaven is my hell, my Cardinal,
For truth is the essence of pain
And pain is an illusion of the affections

She found truth in the apple’s worm
In the imperfection we call a horizon
The black notional between blue and blue

I possess nothing but this idea of division
Which is the gift of the discernment
Of spirits
For seeing is incredulity

There are no caterpillar princes
And thus there is no Lucifer if you see him

Yet to know the truth is the essence of terror
To see white in its whiteness
Or even as it burns the green
Is to lose the last dark part
Of the red brain
Into which I should never have looked

By Sophia Nugent-Siegal