No Ghosts This Year #2

The walk home was generally a relief. Mark caught the bus home, so he wasn’t around to be a nuisance. And mostly Philip had the time to himself, to think and daydream. Sometimes he would take a book with him and try to read as he walked, but that was a hard thing to do. He knew the walk well and hardly needed to look where he was going to take the correct left and right turns, but he hated having to interrupt his book every time there was a red traffic light (“You would have been happier in this town when there were no traffic lights,” his grandfather had once said to him, “then you could read without stopping”), and once in a while there was a dog that had left a little treat for him on the ground, waiting for careless feet to tread in. No, it was generally best to look where he was going. It was difficult to do that and read at the same time.

You could get quite far in a daydream, of course, even if you couldn’t read: far away from Mark, and far away from PE and Maths homework. You could get to a place where it didn’t matter so much if your hair was messy or you stank, where no-one was likely to take a specky on your back. Only, there were obstacles still to daydreams: the realities of classmates that saw you while you were walking, for instance. Where they were likely just to ignore you at lunchtime, you seemed to become much more interesting when they saw you outside of school. If they saw you while they were standing by the milk-bar, they might call out, “Hey Savage!” as though that were a particularly original (and biting) thing to say. If they were doing something forbidden for kids to do in school uniform – smoking, for instance – they might append an offer to the “Hey Savage”, like, “Wanna smoke?”, knowing, of course, that the answer would be no. That was the point of it: to provoke him into saying no. Had he ever said, “Sure!” and gone over to smoke with them, the appeal might have worn off quickly. Or he might have opened up something altogether new in his relationships with his peers, an entirely unknown and dangerous dimension: unknown and dangerous to all involved.

He preferred the unknown dimensions of his daydreams. At least then he had some control over what happened within each dimension. Recently, for instance, he had discovered that, in his mind, he had mastered the power of time travel, and found that it was remarkably similar to an H.G. Wells book, just without the bad special effects and furry monsters of the old film version your father showed you. In that world he could smoke without getting lung cancer or being grounded, because that was what happened in H.G. Wells books. Indeed, you could do basically everything that would be misinterpreted or misconstrued in a world that simply did not understand imagination or the desire to be somewhere or someone else. So long as he could be in his imagination without anyone seeing that he was “playing imaginary games” (something that, he had learnt a few months ago, he and his peers were all now too old to do), he was fine; he could do whatever had struck him as interesting or worth doing, without fear of it being twisted against him. Hadn’t it been Mark who, back in Grade Three, had seen him and his friend Tim, no longer at the school, playing a game themed around the French aristocracy being guillotined, and had said by way of explaining away their game, “They’re homosexual”? Now it struck him that this had only revealed a lack of imagination or historical knowledge on Mark’s part, not anything negative about himself or Tim, but he could hardly have said that at the time – or even now, for that matter. People like Mark didn’t care about being unimaginative or historically ignorant. It was almost a badge of pride. No, it was best to keep his many worlds inside his head. That was best for everyone.

He was all set to explore one of these worlds on his five minute walk home (ample time for a time traveller to use gainfully) when from behind him came a voice that he didn’t recognise. It wasn’t Mark – that much was impossible, since he would be on his way home on the bus by now. But neither was it anyone from his year level. It was an adult’s voice. He paused, unwilling to look behind him, the stranger-danger talk firmly in his mind.

“Sorry to bother you, mate,” said the man. “I just need some directions.”

Philip remained where he was but tilted his head a little towards the man. He didn’t recognise him, but something about the man made him seem harmless enough. He looked like someone his parents would invite over for dinner – though that was hardly a guarantee of safety. “Even if someone you know well makes you uncomfortable…” his teachers had said – at which Mark had called out, “Ben makes me uncomfortable!” and the lesson had changed from being about stranger-danger to Mark’s stupidity. Not unusual, he reflected. Though it had made the moral of the lesson a little hard to recall at this moment.

“Can you tell me where Burden Street is?” the man continued. “I…” A pause. “I got the train here and thought I could walk there from the station. But I’m lost.”

No Ghosts This Year: A Story of Advent #1

img_0539-2hen holidays came, it would be okay. But for now Philip just had the long waiting days. The sun deceives us, he thought, into believing it’s holidays before it is. Last weekend he had made the mistake of sitting out on the verandah with his book, like he used to do with his sister in that first glorious week of holidays at home, and nice as it had been for those hours of warmth loosening his tautened face, once over it only made more agonising that gap between now and the time when holidays properly began. Now he was stuck in that odd limbo period in which teachers pretended that the work they were doing now still mattered but when things like reports and awards had not yet arrived to make the year’s struggle seem somehow worthwhile. They were too old for colouring-in (and he probably would have found it babyish to do now, though he remembered with a certain fondness the focus that shading carefully within the lines had brought him), yet they were too young for work experience or introductions to VCE, too young for anything that was truly important.

What was this now? An odd form of torture designed to keep parents from having to pay for extra child care before Christmas? The days were flusteringly hot and the rooms not air-conditioned. Today he had come in from lunchtime sweaty and irritable. His hair, he knew for a fact, was sticking up all over the place because of the ridiculous hats they had to wear in the summer months. And now he was seated at a large square of tables at the centre of the music room where everyone could see everyone else and there was no hiding while he tried to flatten his hair with his hand so he didn’t look like some strange antennaed alien while they did their listening journal for the afternoon – this one a recording of a highly inappropriate carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”. If only it was the bleak widwinter, he thought. My hair wouldn’t stick up like this in winter.

Wha-at can I bri-ing him, poor as I aaaam?

“The singer,” he wrote, “sounds like a strangled cat, and the words are about as appropriate for Australia as the American national anthem.”

He was quite proud of that. He hoped his teacher would find it funny.

Across the table, Laura was looking over at him. He smiled at her, and pressed his hair down in case it was standing up again. Laura seemed to be laughing. Perhaps she found the song funny too. He could share with her what he’d written after class. It might make her laugh more. But Laura wasn’t looking at him now. She was writing in her listening diary.

I-if I were a she-epherd, I would bring a laaamb…

His feet felt fidgety and his pants were sweaty. The room stank a bit, and he was starting to have that feeling he sometimes did, that dislocated feeling, like he was watching himself, not participating in his own body. He had asked his dad once if he had ever felt like he didn’t really exist. Dad had said, “Yes,” and he’d felt that instant rush of relief that comes from being understood, only then Dad had continued by saying, “That was how we used to talk in the 70s,” and Philip had suddenly fallen from a state of being known to one of total disconnection. His father’s words had fallen flat on him. Was he talking about nothing more than what was trendy back when everyone was on LSD? He’d read about those days in a book once. He was fairly sure his dad had never taken LSD but the words had no other meaning to him than that. No, there was no understanding after all.

I-if I were a wi-ise ma-an, I would do my paaart… 

He held his hair down some more. Laura looked at him again and smiled.

Inspired by the smile, he wrote, “The writer has no idea how to rhyme. He’s obviously only just learnt how to write poetry in primary school. My little brother could write better poetry than that.”

Why had he written that? He didn’t have a little brother. Still, it was effective writing. He kept it in.

But what I ca-an I gi-ive hi-im…

Behind him some boys were laughing. Mark’s voice he recognised, Mark who had taken a specky on his back at the gym last week and feigned repentance and concern for him while the teachers were around only to mock him for his distress when the boys were alone in the change rooms at lunch.

“That’s gay,” someone said – probably Mark. It was the kind of thing he said.

“It’s talking about Jesus,” Laura called back.

Miss Brown said sshh and the lesson regained some barely-maintained control. Philip didn’t write anything more about the song. He didn’t want to sound like Mark. He gave the song three stars, closed his exercise book, and rested his head on his hand to press down his hair more. He hoped no-one could see.

As class finished and they left the room, he slowed down so that he walked through the door at the same time as Laura.

“Did you have fun playing with your hair?” she asked. 

He said nothing. His hands felt clammy.

“Good song, hey, Savage?” said Mark behind him. “You loved it, didn’t you?”

Philip slowed and slowed until he sank into the exiting mass coming through the door. The holidays could not come a moment too soon. More and more outside of himself, he watched as a small and insignificant child hid inside a mind that no-one could penetrate if they tried. The day, at least, was over.

Topography

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…rediscovering, room by room, what it was that I first learned there about how high, how wide the world is, how one space opens into another…

(David Malouf, 12 Edmondstone Street)

How many of my dreams go to this place?
Always the same Queenslander balconies
where I wander over those drooping eaves
in search of silent, sleeping days of grace.
What do I find there? Memory’s faint trace,
nestled somewhere in the comfort of leaves,
world always higher than my gaze believes.
I must look up always to see Your face,
so dreams look up: to canopy, to farm
atop a hill, a volcanic red dome…
When I return here with my wife, we find
the colours that I know, the trilling sound
of butcherbird above our heads, yet mind
always says, “Climb up. This is still not the ground.”

All our comings and our goings

Some wandered in deserts; I strayed
Among Antarctic beeches and Bunya pine,
Silver ferns and blood red soil, where I made
Kingdoms and mountains from my trampoline.
Some languished at sea; I saw an ocean
Outside my window when the Easter rains
Flooded the side path, and gazed at the scene
In raptured delight. I frittered hours
On the back garden wall; others wailed.
My haven-home moved with me; others lost
Home with house and place. Love never failed
My nomad days; yet love carries a cost.
It demands I reach out as I am held,
And make new home where the world has repelled.

Birthday Song (Apologies to Sylvia Plath)

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Today would have been the 95th birthday of my maternal grandfather who passed away nearly nine years ago: a man who influenced me and my writing more than one poem can express. Still, I couldn’t let the day pass without acknowledging it in some way, especially while I’m in the midst of writing about my family and childhood. So, for what it’s worth, here is something little to say that I love him still.

Love sets me writing like a Grandfather clock:
Love of him as much as anything else.
While his van is parked in our drive, I sit
With a cup of Twinings tea as he tells
Of Abel Magwitch, and Crusoe, and which
Works of Dickens’ he has never read.
I stuff words and stories wherever they fit,
Dreaming of graveyards and convicts. In bed
I compose my own Kidnapped, see pages
Like plates of delicacies, shelf-tables spread
As feast before me. I taste the ages
And grab pen to write: first of Samurais,
Then peace – whatever the mind engages –
In words like airboats breaking through the skies.

My childhood with Sting

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Well, he once rhymed “cough” with “Nabakov” and poetically asked, “Hey Mr Brontosaurus, have you got a lesson for us?” And now Sting has unknowingly inspired my latest writing project.

The inspiration came via this TED Talk and interview he did in 2014 about how he overcame writer’s block. What was Sting’s answer to his affliction? He realised that he was getting in the way of his work – that there was too much of him and that he needed to step aside and let others speak. How he did that is his story to tell, and you should let him tell it – the TED talk is a compelling listen. But in short he started tapping into the stories of the community that he grew up in, the community he’d been so eager to put aside when he discovered his own artistic potential.

I guess it’s fairly common for a writer to be full of themselves. I don’t want to be. What struck me about Sting’s story was the realisation that it could so easily be true of me. And so, while on holiday with my wife in southern Queensland where I spent ten of my earliest years, I conceived of this new project: My Family and Other Landscapes, a tribute to the places and people that formed me. I can’t guarantee that I, like Sting, won’t get in the way of my work doing its job. But I hope I can honour a few other people and places on the way. I hope you can join me as I post some of the poems I write and start announcing soon ways that you can be involved.

From Ashes: No glitch

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No glitch in the creation plan and yet

my mind skips and repeats over old tracks

as though, as though in early days a scratch

a fleck of dust crept in, crept in, upset

the balance of it all. With every beat

the tension in these ancient grooves – this wax –

threatens now to jump, to echo back.

What function is at fault? What needle head

was broken at the start? What plan, what plan

has bred this error in the early heart?

Unglitch, unglitch; return, reboot, play true;

the data will cohere when they are scanned

beneath the eyes that made your every part

and never will the glitching past win you.