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.”

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.

Redfern When

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As a child, I only knew this as the place
where my grandfather was born, the name full
of bright, fiery growth like I saw near home,
our forests full of ferns both red and green.
In history class I learnt this was the scene
of old but living wars, fought, neither won
nor lost. The push of present crime, the pull
of family heritage, rendered this space
neutral. I neither sought it nor fled. Now
in morning light it is still. History stays
where we like it, asleep. Waking, it stings.
Can we find, beneath these sleeping things,
the Redfern when the speech was made? Those days
are passed. The past echoes anyhow.

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.

Memory in Rain

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Two children looking at construction work being undertaken on St Thomas’ Church of England in Essendon around 1932.(https://au.pinterest.com/pin/524669425310543785)

Essendon is drenched today. On Albion
And Buckley where my Granddad learnt to walk,
To talk, lies last night’s deluge in puddles,
In screen of watery sheen, while vermillion
Morning climbs the eastern sky. When we talk
Of heritage, does it sit in huddles
Like these? old buildings nestled in new ones
And the streets changing names, permanent as chalk,
Captured somewhere in memories like muddles?
Sometimes, when brain’s geography failed,
He fancied himself back on these streets,
And spoke of St Thomas’s where he’d been hailed
As Stupid Stuart. What memory repeats
Is mystery; beneath rainy road is soil
That, pre-Alzheimer’s, Granddad learnt to toil.

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.

Home

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It snowed the week I was born; my brother
and sister, fresh from Sydney, harvested
July joy with tingling fingers, gathered
what they could in eager clumps and pressed it
like ice cream into a punnet, to freeze
and store for future days. Being born late
I missed the fun, but days of ten degrees
trained me for cold; I could never equate
the Queensland warmth when we moved up north with
home, or the way things should be. The first sigh
of frozen breath, I puffed my Arctic wish,
ignoring trees that caught me in my lie.
Home is what our aspirations miss,
where daydreams stop and cognisance is bliss.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

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Xavier Romero Frias, Wikimedia Commons

For most people, Christmas is now over. The supermarkets are already stocking hot cross buns. But in the traditional church calendar, today is the last day of the season of Christmas – a season lasting twelve days, as we remember in the old song. Why remember Christmas for twelve days instead of one? If nothing else, it gives us a chance to think about what it really means, once the distractions have died down, and to look more closely at what comes next in the story.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

Tradition says to put away the tree,
Though yours perhaps has already come down,
The children sullen, home a new-year frown,
And resolutions stowed in the pantry.

“Back to work,” you say. And in the streets
The same straight-fixéd gazes all around,
Ear-buds containing every inward sound.
My-true-love-sent-to-me, pit-pat your feet.

Perhaps you’ve still some toys to play with, or
There’s thank-you letters now for kids to start.
Yet on the twelfth day, Jesus still grew strong
And Mary treasured all things in her heart;
And stars still blazed for those who journeyed on,
Not numbed like us who know the yearly score.

Family Tree

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…and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

(Revelation 22:2)

 

 
 
 
What a father did once when an apple looked sweet
            sent tremors shaking through the earth,
                        breaking roots, severing limbs,
            sickening soil and bruising leaves,
                                    life uprooted from its Tree
                        and grafted into death.
 
What a brother did when he walked through a field
            and Hell crouched at his flapping tent
                        made the earth cry out for blood,
            while knotted roots, turned inside out,
                                    craved curse like twisted blessing which
                        seven times avenged.
 
What Son once climbed a skull-bound tree
            outside garden or city walls
                        took the deadened soil and sprinkled
            cursed roots with the flow of blood,
                                    injected life in deadened leaves
                        and grafted family in.
 
What life, what family, grown in Him
            now where death should hold the sway
                        of wind and trunk, and roots declared
            too dead to be of any good –
                                    now spreads, now heals, now spreading heals.
                        What life has won the day.

Pageant Part 9

Excited though everyone was about the pageant – the first that would not consist of a mawkishly sentimental song which they would all have to pretend to enjoy – the real feature on which everyone’s anticipation was focused was the fact that Grant and Sue would be there together.
“I bet she thinks he’s changed.”
“Not likely.”
“She’s dreaming.”
“A leopard doesn’t change its stripes.”
“Spots.”
“What?”
“It doesn’t change its spots. Zebras have stripes.”
“Don’t bloody tell me about zebras. What have they got to do with it?”
And on it went, as cars drove to the hall and children on back-seats flinched and squirmed in their awkward and overheated costumes. And on it went, in muffled whispers and behind darting eyes, as families stepped from their cars and walked into the hall. And it carried on as they took children back-stage, and on into the stalls and into the rows of seats, punctuated by, “Excuse me,” and, “Which number are you?” and, “That’s my seat. Get out.”
It only stopped when the curtain stirred and on the stage stood a boy with a white robe and rat-tail whose parents had, until this moment, been convinced was playing an angel not a…what was he?
“Good evening, ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls.”
A pause. Had he forgotten his lines? His little sister squirmed empathetically. His dad turned to his mother and said, “I didn’t know he had lines.”
“Good evening, ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls,” he repeated. “Welcome to the Christmas play. The title of tonight’s play is, ‘A Scandalous Baby’.”
His mother applauded. His sister turned to the mother and said, “What’s scandalous?” Her father said, “Shut up and listen.”
“Our story starts in…”
A whisper from backstage. “Bethlehem.”
Another pause.
Another whisper: “Bethlehem.”
Then a nod of recognition.
“Our story stars in Bethlehem…where…an unexpectedly virgin is giving a baby…”
Another whisper: “Where a virgin is unexpectedly giving birth…”
A nod. “Yep. That.” Another pause.
“Come with us…”
Another nod. “Come with us to…a stable where a baby is being born.”
The curtain rose. Behind the curtain was a scene familiar to everyone who had ever been to a Christmas pageant before: a mock-agricultural setting more reminiscent of the Manchester section of a department store than the Middle East in the first century, with boys and girls in tea-towels, sheets and bathrobes, and an appropriate number dressed in cotton-wool and brown blankets with face paint suggesting the animals they were representing. In the middle of the stage, gloriously tall, was a tree, with a star on top, moving suspiciously like there was a boy behind it.
“Braydon,” whispered Grant.
Some of the boys and girls on the stage started whispering. They hesitated at times, as though their lines had only recently been learnt, but there was something unmistakeable about those lines, a quality seen all too often behind curtains, on lawns and in supermarket aisles. To Grant and Sue, the room stank of town gossip.
“I’m sorry,” said a boy, dressed slightly differently to the others, with a large, messily-written name-tag that seemed to say, “Inn-kePPer”. “We don’t have room here for your sort,” he added, disdainfully.
And so a boy and girl carrying a baby doll and with two children dressed as a donkey beside them moved clumsily around the stage, the donkey trying to avoid bumping into actors and props on the way, with little space available to differentiate between unwelcoming inn and the stable in which they finally settled.
Meanwhile, Braydon was beginning to feel quietly triumphant. He had worked out that there was a way that he could move his right leg out first, leaving his left leg securely on the platform for stability. Then, once his right leg was carefully placed against the wall, he could use that and the harness to hold himself in place while he lifted his left leg. He had already done it once without anyone noticing. Was now the time to fly? It was difficult to tell, paying as he was no attention whatsoever to the rest of the action. He replaced his knees on the platform. They were becoming a little sore.
On the stage, Joseph and Mary had successfully found a manger in which to give birth (Mary also having mustered up the courage to no longer need her mother with her), and so it was time for the shepherds to emerge. Patrick, previously First Haystack Angel, emerged as First Shepherd, with Ben and Lachlan in tow as his sheep, to the joyful applause of family.
“Go Patty!” called out his father.
The First Shepherd squinted in the direction of his father. It was difficult to see if he was happy or angry. He momentarily forgot to walk forward. Second and Third Shepherd stalled for that moment behind him. Their sheep bumped into one another.
Hearing the action pause beneath him, Braydon wondered if now was the time to fly, while on the left-hand side of the stage Kassie too was preparing for her moment. Kassie, unlike Braydon, being a little unwilling to fly, though her part seemed to call for it, Kim and Craig had had to settle for an arrangement of clouds which would appear at Stage Left and above which Kassie would slowly rise from a seated position to say Gabriel’s lines. What with the delay, however, with the sheep, the stage-hand who was supposed to help Kassie get set up behind the cloud hovered to the side, unaware that his assistance was needed. Kassie paused. Should she come out anyway, cloud or no cloud? What would happen if Gabriel didn’t herald the arrival of Jesus? What if her father never saw her say her lines?
“Jack,” whispered Craig.
Jack the stage-hand looked over at his teacher.
“Kassie’s cloud,” said Craig.
“Oh,” said Jack, running over to collect it.
The silence on stage continued. Braydon fancied it invited him to fly.
“You ready, Kassie?” said Craig.
Kassie nodded.
Braydon shifted.
Jack carried the cloud over to Kassie. Kassie hid behind it. Slowly the cloud moved forward and Kassie with it. Braydon stretched out his right leg.
The First Shepherd moved towards the cloud.
The Second and Third Shepherds began to move, but the sheep were tangled up in the tree. The tree shook.
Braydon positioned his right leg on the tree.
“Okay, Kass,” said Craig.
Kassie breathed. What was her line again?
Held in place by his right leg, Braydon began to lift his other leg towards the wall.
Second Shepherd tugged at his sheep. The base of the tree rotated a little to the right.
“Do not be afraid,” said Kassie.
Sue’s heart stirred.
The top of the tree stirred.
“I bring tidings of great joy.”
That’s my girl, thought Grant.
It’s time, thought Braydon.
He stretched out his left leg.
Third Shepherd pulled at his sheep. The sheep would not move. The manger shook slightly. Tayla, holding onto the manger, moved slightly with it.
“Today in the town of…David…a saviour…”
Go, thought Braydon.
“Come on,” muttered Third Shepherd to his sheep. “What are you doing, Danny?”
“…has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord.”
What a lot of lines Kassie had to learn, thought Sue. Braydon at least was behaving himself.
Then Tayla screamed.

Go to Part 10