As many Australians have come together over the past week to recognise the first Australians for NAIDOC week, I’ve been challenged to think more about how I walk with indigenous Australians day to day. This is a small beginning: a reflection of what it means in my own backyard.
Being a neighbour is fraught at any time, but in a time when suburbs, states and families are being isolated from one another, it is even harder. As an Australian, being part of an island nation has much impact on how we view our own place in the world, and in this time of reminding myself continually that “no man is an island”, I have turned to this theme for the third and final installment in my video poem series, “And who is my neighbour?”
It’s been a delight to collaborate with Asher Graieg-Morrison who has supplied music for each of these films. Check out his rich and textured work here.
I wrote this poem yesterday for the third installment in a series of videos about being a neighbour. As I wrote, I was contemplating the prospect of my Melbourne suburb being the next to go into lockdown. Little did I know that today the whole city would be put back into lockdown. So I’m posting the poem today, as my city prepares for six more weeks inside. I look forward to sharing the film with you when it’s finished. Stay safe.
Curtains are borders between me and the street.
Next door is an unseen checkpoint away;
Other postcodes have police blockades
And I count the days until my home is the same.
By the bay we watch
Numbers, statistics, localities named.
Quiet suburb whispers its fears.
No scapegoat to name, only
The innate mistrust of the island state
That says, "I choose who comes here."
How did this come here?
What conspiracy brings us cheek to cheek
With the airborne griefs that plague all humankind,
save us? This happens
Only on TVs, never in 3d
Where it reaches out with power to grab.
And does it console to know that,
Somewhere, over oceans, others suffer
Far worse than us? Hardly.
I must view you up close to take comfort in your distance.
When I open curtains, my neighbour crosses street,
Crosses seas, to land at my doorstep, breathing,
"It's coming; you're next. The only place left
Is our father's house, and we must share."
Nothing says summer like this:
Renaissance minstrel piped through tinny speakers,
musicbox-like, rotating through sleepy street,
a call for ice-cream from a roaming van,
suburban icon, half-sinister, half-sweet.
To us in the south it seems fitting that the tune
should be used too for carols:
“What Child is This?” and another I don’t know,
“Now that the old year is fled”.
Who is the lady Greensleeves? Apocryphal stories clash with tradition;
promiscuity, Henry VIII wooing his distant Anne,
sleeves to reflect the moral state…
Into such as this, the child steps;
if today, would Mr Whippy have heralded Him,
as he lay down in our real estate?
Would summer celebrators have briefly paused
to laud the newborn king?
Now that our year is nearly fled,
we lie to rest but wake instead
to a summer, blazing bright away
and nothing more to fill our stockings.
As the green grass casts us away,
that the child-king might be found amongst us.
A scramble for parking greets us,
then the festive aisles to survive.
These shelves have been stocked with seasonal cheer
since the night when the dead arose.
Now celebration cake replaces
pumpkins to carve, and the shock is swapped
with the joyful trimmings of the time.
Yet what room is there?
I negotiate tight spaces with my pram,
three-point-turning my son between
everyday goods and the specials of the month.
Panettone greets at $6.99;
fruit mince pies line the place between aisles.
At the interstice of normal and festival, I squeeze
to prepare, to be ready, to live.
Fire is the colour of the eastbound sun
lighting the face of the dusty sky.
Ash is the colour of this roadwork black,
of tarmac where the plane lost flight.
Red is the colour of the traffic light,
gold the colour in the new day’s eye,
and ash to ash is this road we drive;
no dust be lost today.
Suburb has its own time.
Nestled just beneath city’s scheduled view, it sits
when city runs. It holds
deep memories and secrets, left
in garages, holds hopes
in council offices. Roadwork
punctuates the day’s first lines.
Promises in orange signs declare:
something soon is happening. Prepare.
You may have left your lunch behind, may have left
the drive too little space to breathe.
Watch out for traffic. Slow the start
in day’s suburban street.
Slow the beat of self-knowledge,
slow the heart to blink awake.
We also came across the seas, my people:
Romans, Vikings, colonials, the lot of them,
convicts and scoundrels, emperors and ne’er-do-wells.
They came and they saw, they usurped, or were sent.
You came like us, to this lucky country.
You came in hope. We take it from you.
We also heard of the boundless plains;
we, my people, did not like to share.
Advancing ourselves, your foul was our fair.
Fences excluded; excluding, we fenced.
Tall hedges, tall stories: we made our own glories.
You came here for freedom; we came to rule.
I do not recall the home we came from.
You carry yours as a scar, and the ones
before us both know every hill’s name.
I must steal this to call it my own;
I squander what never was mine, and you look
through bars at the freedom we feast on. Our hearts
are never at home.
Did you know that Melbourne has a Brooklyn?
Mostly factories, but behind the freeway
Nestled amidst houses there’s a church, in
Low-ecclesiastic cream brick. Today
On my way to work I saw it, vacant
Being Wednesday. But on Sunday there’s family.
And I smelt the Spotswood Vegemite plant
With its playful chimneys; a child might be
Filled with yeasty dreams to live there, growing
Up on that street where happiness ferments.
My first home was a tambourine, singing
Its jingling sounds in south Queensland silence.
So I’ll write here for these other unknown homes,
For everywhere that’s never had a poem.
The city is quietly occupied, the day protected –
as though something must be done.
Watch a screen by all means,
but first gather friends,
and walk to the shops to lubricate the day.
Or hit the streets, if you choose –
to enjoy unexpected sunshine, and the hum,
like a ball hissing through the sky,
of a city in agreement.
Deeper meaning is lost, yet perhaps we still glimpse Sabbath:
a quiet acceptance that today we need not be boss.
Whatever sport we make, however we will spend
the lost hour of this night –
rejoice now in daylight,
in a moment which can neither be bought nor saved,
yet beckons the endless holiday,
the game that can only be won.