Kazem is a Kurdish musician and poet. He has been held hostage in Australia’s black site on Manus Island for 4 years where he continues to compose and write.
My guitar is my soul mate nowadays
I don’t care for the world anymore
I play my guitar with a heart full of sadness
My eyes drizzle like rain.
My heart is absent minded.
It’s going to tell the secret words.
It has a heavy pain to reveal.
It is profoundly sad,
sad like someone who has lost his sweetheart.
It has many words to say
but there are no worthy people to talk to.
My restless heart wants to fly
to take a message to someone.
But what benefit is there when there is no way to fly?
My heart is exhausted from waiting and effort.
It’s breathless and alone.
It’s become weak.
It’s looking for a way to fly.
My heart with a hidden secret
and a world full of wounds in a jail
has no path to freedom.
It’s been condemned to a sorrowful separation.
I wish there was a kind person to give an opening to this prisoner,
Give him a smile as a gift,
To let him free from fetters and alienation.
What a pity that it’s all a dream!
My helpless heart has never seen bliss.
The jailer is bringing new chains to fasten.
This is a different prison
Oh, banish the sorrow of my unblessed heart.
I’m like an iron, you know, I am strong!
The white demons have arrived with anger
to promise another Reza’s death.
They have sharp claws
They are roaring
The ground is wet from blood
though no-one has been killed yet.
They want a volunteer.
Someone like Reza Barrati.
Someone to be annihilated again.
The white demons are starving again.
They want to feed themselves with my own body
and celebrate until the next day.
They have no sorrow, no sadness, no pain.
My mother, my love, be strong.
I know it’s hard to say goodbye to your son.
Without seeing it, I can read the verdict:
My young body must be killed.
There is no sign for humanity.
There are no rights for humanity.
Power is in the hands of wicked people.
They have made the world
an un-passable bridge.
(mid August 2017)
– translation from Farsi to English Moones Mansoube (primary)
Mark O’Flynn’s most recent collection of poems is Shared Breath, (Hope Street Press, 2017). He has published a collection of short stories as well as four novels. His latest The Last Days of Ava Langdon (UQP, 2016) has been shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Award.
They hardly ever left the city these days, so it was time. They hadn’t seen their cousins since summer and Naomi and Brent were jumping with rabbity excitement. Perhaps trepidation better described the type of excitement they were feeling. The cousins lived in the country, just beyond Cowra, and were trying, in their way, to be farmers. Naomi and Brent had many sleepless nights in the lead up to a visit to the farm. Darren Twomey, their father, had not spoken to his sister for a long time. Each time, between visits, he wondered if their relationship was reverting to that old enmity, their childhood status quo. As adults it had indifferently thawed. They had gone separate ways. They were so at odds that they each wondered at times how the other managed to survive. Since the death of the parents, long ago, all their battles suddenly seemed old ones. Distant memories. There was no point fighting about them. They were now able to talk to each other as equals. And since the birth of their children, (Lil had three), they had become, well, for a while Darren had thought the word was close.
He felt remiss about not getting the kids out of the city more often. When they were littler Naomi and Brent loved their cousins, although now they were getting to an age where they, too, were finding their lives leading elsewhere. The cousins had not one, not two, but three tree houses. They had their own quad bikes. They had animals. Cats and dogs, of course, but also a constant stream of little yellow chicks, which Naomi would snatch up feeling their hearts vibrating in her hands. Also goats, a peacock, a few cows, a sheep and a great big bull all by himself in the front paddock. Lil and Carlo, her husband, were trying to be diverse-interest farmers. Trying – they were pretty good at it. They wanted to do everything for themselves, grow their own food, make their own clothes, as well as supply what they could to the nation. Subsistence farming was not a phrase Darren could readily throw at them. Nor was impossibly romantic. It must have been hard work. For Lil it was about the survival of the planet, even her clothes were about the survival of the planet, whereas Darren believed the planet would still be here long after he was done with it. Yet they were modest. Lil worked at a high school in Cowra while Carlo, following in his family’s footsteps, worked the land. Not much of interest to Carlo happened beyond his ploughed acres. Lil had an old, self-deprecating joke she would trot out when she thought people had forgotten it: What do you call a successful farmer? One married to a teacher.
The first time they had seen the bull, after the long drive from Sydney, it had its long, pink pizzle out swinging in the breeze. Their mother, Mara, had tried to get them to stop laughing – pizzle was such a funny word, but their father was laughing just as much.
Carlo knew farming. You couldn’t knock that. Darren was slightly envious of his ability to fix, well, anything. His practicality.
‘We’ll twitch it up with a piece of fencing wire.’
That was the panacea he applied to any situation. No problem was too big. Plough up forty acres before breakfast, no worries; change the tines on the harvester, done; slaughter a piglet for dinner, easy. He was the one who had built all the tree houses. An estate of them. Darren resented his own inability to provide as much for his kids. You couldn’t build a single tree house in their inner city back yard no bigger than a couple of picnic blankets. He could barely build a lean-to for the lawnmower. He didn’t need a lawnmower. Carlo did not think much of that. Carlo would have hated being able to hear the neighbours playing their radio, washing their dishes – just there, through the wall. It was one of Darren’s secret pleasures, to see Carlo’s discomfort, on those rare occasions when they came to the city, perched on the edge of a chair as the morning filled with sirens and truck engines and aeroplanes passing overhead. Darren could work the phones and move stock and do a deal on futures trading, but he could not twitch up a tree house with a length of fencing wire.
Naomi at least loved coming here. Lil’s boys were older, closer to her age. Brent was more wary. No one could say they loved the long, dreary drive, but the whole occasion was, for Darren, a shot in the arm. He could leave his phone at home, something that always made him feel liberated, if a little naked. It was as if time sprained its ankle and slowed down. They always slept well. All that fresh air. The vegetables they ate were, frankly, stupendous.
Mara did not love it quite so much. The insects. The animals in general were not her style. If she walked across a paddock she was bound to tread in something. At nighttime it was too dark, the bull shrieking somewhere out there in the blackness like something wounded in no-mans-land. Mara preferred the glow of streetlights coming in the window, the wheezing traffic on rainy roads. She was in her element at a busy intersection, timing her dash across the road.
If she was quizzed closely what it was that disturbed her she was forced to admit she was scared of snakes. And spiders. All the creeping, poisonous wildlife with which the countryside was plagued. She was fearful of wasps and stick insects. She was fearful of sticks that looked like insects. In fact she wasn’t too crazy about sticks in general. And she was certainly no fan of the bull’s pizzle.
‘But there are spiders in the city,’ Darren rationalized.
‘Yes, but they know their place,’ said Mara. ‘They don’t try to dominate the conversation. And they understand spray.’
That was Mara’s panacea – spray.
‘There’s an eagle,’ said Naomi from the back seat and Brent leaned across her to see.
And the house, Mara thought to herself. It always seemed to smell of ash. That would have been because of the open fires. Swallows sometimes flew down the chimney and darted about the room. Every floorboard in every room creaked. You could hear each footstep in the nighttime squeaking their way to the toilet, which took a long time to fill after it had been flushed. Those floorboards were something Darren enjoyed for some reason – talk about irrational. If you looked out any window to any point of the compass there was nothing but grass. Grass, which made Mara sneeze, if they happened to visit during the spring. The first time they had come out here Naomi had cried: ‘Where are the shops?’
Darren had laughed, but Mara knew what she meant.
The joke about how primitive it all was had worn pretty thin after several days of complaint. Carlo found more and more things that needed repair, activities that kept him away from the house for long periods of time. No, he didn’t need any help. He could be seen at odd times bouncing along the horizon on his tractor.
‘There’s no reception,’ said Naomi, shaking her phone and peering at it.
Darren said he would not bring them back again if they were going to whinge and be such scaredy-custards. All the cousins protested at that, so Darren had to back down and rescind his threat. Mara and Lil looked at him, sadly. Brent sniveled most of all because, like his mother, he had become anxious at the unfamiliarity of everything. His cousins had made him stick his finger in a calf’s mouth and he had cried at that strange sensation. He needed some traffic noise to calm him down.
‘What’s that smell?’ Brent asked, his gap-tooth whistling on the sibilance of the word smell. The tooth had come out during some rough-and-tumble with his sister. Hadn’t there been a fuss about that! Mara was like a raptor or the proverbial tigress on the look out for danger to her cub. Poor Naomi had been flayed alive.
‘That’s fresh air,’ said Darren. ‘It’s good for you.’
This nervousness all came back, it seemed, to spiders. The fact that they could kill you. Snakes also, but snakes were more exotic. You wouldn’t expect to find a snake indoors, in your shoe. Spiders were more commonplace; danger lurking in every nook and cranny, in every cupboard where the biscuits might be hidden. This was the kingdom of the spiders.
‘If you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone,’ said Aunt Lil.
‘But what if you want a biscuit?’
‘You ask for one.’
Brent’s formative consciousness went through a terrible struggle every time Darren announced they were going to visit their cousins. Attractive as the tree houses were, they were full of biting, stinging, lethal bugs. Snap out of it son, he wanted to say, although he knew better than to declare these views in which he heard his own father’s conservative voice. Okay, okay, it was fine for the boy to cry. He didn’t really have to steel himself at all. Manhood still years off. Be a kid. Enjoy it.
Darren bit his tongue. Mara had read all the books. Yes, sensitivity was a virtue, he agreed. If Darren felt that Mara was babying the boy, she for one would not hear of it. Her upheld palm, her whittled disdain, could puncture Darren’s resolve in its womb. He could so easily be reduced to a cliché. All he wanted was for his son to take on the world, not to shy away from it.
So when the long weekend arrived Darren was the least ambivalent about jumping in the car and taking off into the wide green yonder. He would have been happy to go alone, but that was a pathway fraught with its own repercussions. Mara would have grizzled that she was being abandoned to do the child rearing, while he waltzed off on his merry own to enjoy himself in the country. Where was the equity in that? She had a job too you know. They had had this squabble before. Complaints about the wild life, the discomfort, the leaky toilet seemed to be the piper he had to pay to shore up the complaints about neglected responsibilities. He neglected nothing. He thought about everything all the time.
He packed the car with far more than they would need for three days. God help them if they had to get to the spare tyre with all this crap on top of it. But then would he have really known what to do if that need arose? He was ready to leave a full half hour before anyone else. There was make-up to be applied, last minute phone calls to be made. Finally they hit the trail. Stop – Naomi had left her flash drive. Stop – Brent had left his DS with its latest uploads. Stop – Mara had forgotten to set the alarm. There was a hold up on Paramatta Road that delayed their departure even further. They were like pigeons, Darren thought, trapped in the city by the electromagnetic radioenergy of the metropolis. Or something. Where had he heard that theory?
They crawled along in first gear for twenty minutes through the grey fumes of the traffic. Darren watched the temperature gauge climb steadily. It was just approaching the red when the traffic opened out and they were able to speed up. The needle went down, and Darren’s simmering level of stress also subsided.
‘Just wait till we get out to all that fresh air,’ he said, more brightly than he felt.
They played a game where they had to name things they saw in alphabetical sequence. They always got stuck on Q.
Soon enough they fell silent. Naomi listened to her i-pod, lips moving in silent song. After an hour of playing his electronic game Brent said he felt carsick.
‘Look out the front window, mate.’
‘I’m gunna be sick.’
‘Stop the car and let him walk around in the air for a little,’ said Mara.
‘He’ll be fine. Just look out the front.’
‘I’m gunna vomit.’
‘Don’t vomit in the car,’ Darren raised his voice more than was necessary.
‘Then stop the damn car. Let him stretch his legs.’
So Darren stopped the damn car and Brent, looking green about the gills, walked in circles by the side of the road.
‘Brent is gunna spe-ew,’ chanted Naomi, making her own entertainment.
‘I’ll spew on you,’ said Brent, now red in the face.
‘Be quiet,’ snapped Mara. ‘Leave your brother alone.’
‘Why do you always take his side?’
Darren drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. Traveling with the children, and with Mara for that matter, always made the journey so much more tedious. No need to go into detail.
In the town of Blayney Naomi observed that the entire town appeared to be closed. Beyond Cowra they turned off the highway down smaller and smaller roads, winding through paddocks revitalized after the breaking of the drought. Finally a corrugated dirt lane brought them juddering in a cloud of dust to Lil’s gate. Mara began to sneeze. The bull was standing in the front paddock staring at them.
‘Hey Brent,’ said Darren, ‘hop out and open the gate for us.’
‘There’s a big bull,’ said Brent.
‘He’s not that big. I bet he won’t even move. Just shut the gate behind us and hop straight back in the car.’
‘Can’t you do that?’ Mara asked.
‘Brent can do it. He’s old enough.’
Brent reluctantly stepped from the back seat. He stood at the gate and fiddled with the chain. Darren loved those chains, although he could not have explained why. If you lived here, he thought, that chain would be the sort of everyday thing you would take for granted. He wondered if Brent would have the gumption to stand on the gate and swing its wide arc like the kids did in the films, but Brent simply walked it open. The bull stared at them like a wharfie at a picket line. Darren drove through and idled a little way up the track. There were potholes full of water, puddles, he supposed you’d have to call them. Probably full of tadpoles. He would like to look. In the rear-vision mirror Brent had his head bent over the chain at the strainer post. The sun came from behind a cloud and the grass, in an instant, appeared luminously green. Then the back door was open and Brent dived excitedly in.
‘That cow’s comin’,’ he squealed.
Again in the mirror Darren saw the gate behind them slowly swing open and the bull ambling towards it.
He honked the horn, but this only had the effect of making the bull trot forward through the gate, out onto the road.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Mara.
‘The bloody bull’s got out. Didn’t you shut the gate?’
‘I thought I did,’ said Brent.
‘Jesus Christ. Come with me.’
Darren got out of the car. His tone did not allow Brent to object. Mara’s lips were thin. She stared straight ahead. Brent followed his father. The bull was wandering up the road, what did Carlo call it, the long paddock?
‘What part of shut the gate don’t you understand?’
Darren began to trot after the bull. Brent lagged behind. Darren wasn’t quite sure if this was a wise thing to do, to chase after a bull of unknown temperament, but he could not arrive at his sisters, having not seen her for so long and say: ‘Sorry I’ve let your bull out the gate.’
What would Carlo say? Carlo would think, as he had always thought, that Darren was just another city idiot, about as bright as a pigeon pecking for crumbs in the city square.
Puffing now, Darren caught up with the bull, making sounds as if he was trying to reason with it.
‘Wait. Hold on. Wait up.’
The bull suddenly stopped in the middle of the road, tall grass growing up on the verge at either side. Giving it a wide berth Darren circled around it with the idea of herding it back towards the gate. The bull stared at him. No movement.
‘Go on. Shoo. Move.’
The bull stared. Darren waved his arms. He did not know the preferred method for getting a bull to move. He picked up a stone and threw it at the animal, hitting it square on the forehead with dull thud. The bull blinked. Darren picked up a bigger stone and threw that. It hit the bull on the shoulder. Suddenly the bull turned and snorted and began to trot back down the road.
‘Yah!’ Darren ran along behind it, and there in front of the great beast, the much smaller form of his son standing in the middle of the lane.
Everything happened quickly after that, yet at the same time everything slowed down. Seeing the animal coming Brent turned and ran. The bull, seeing nothing but a smaller, fleeing figure, gave chase. The lane was too narrow. All three of them were running at full pace down the road when the bull caught up with the boy, treading on his heel and sending him spinning. Brent tumbled beneath the hooves of the bull, which ran right over him, legs whirring, and kept going past the gate in the opposite direction. In a moment Darren was there, his son on the ground, gouts of blood pulsing from his mouth with every cough, his left foot twisted at entirely the wrong angle, his eye yellow with dust, staring up at Darren, pleading, too stunned to cry. In the distance, Mara, running down the track from the stationary car, her screams shrill and faint like some hysterical bird in a far off flaming tree, but coming, coming.
All the stars that fracture the sky –
they look like a splintered mirror
or pixelated static or
withered harebell scattered carelessly by god.
Is it the night that breaks me
or is it this sod, riddled with weeds
when he was four years old and
would bring me dandelion bouquets?
the prettiest I could find
for my pretty mama
The fate of that tender thing –
of gathered flowers and
I can almost see him waddling towards me
carrying a freshly picked bouquet
with stems smashed together and
a giddy smile.
But there are no more dandelions.
They’ve faded away;
shrunken petals dust the lawn like dying stars.
All I have left is a crescent moon.
A sliced, sharp white
forced to carve itself down
until it is nothing.
Adam Day is the author of the collection of poetry, Model of a City in Civil War (Sarabande Books), and the recipient of a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for Badger, Apocrypha, and of a PEN Emerging Writers Award. My work has appeared in the Boston Review, Kenyon Review, APR, AGNI, Iowa Review, and elsewhere. I also direct the Baltic Writing Residency in Sweden, Scotland, and Blackacre Nature Preserve.
Neighbor is lilac white and doesn’t mean
a thing. Life dissuades him with shabby
armchairs, cocked soldiers. Stashed
eyes. First alive fifteen minutes before
his death. Has a bicycle that like his conscience
gives him only a minor pain in the balls,
racks his rectum crossing road bumps, pumping
his legs in escape from the delusional
narcissistic wood fox and the nymphomaniac
nun. Here are his Prussian gray
polyester pants, his cheap mailman’s boots
that march. His ratcheted hand apes a trigger pull.
Past the skeletons of textile factories
boy with a moth’s mind floats in the cold
shallows, dodging leeches while men
do the wash. Breath and body, waves
and sea, everywhere
currents. Cattle on the sand
beneath the wheeze of seagulls. Mother
checks him – lifts his penis
from the drift-white and tightened
scrotum, an elegant example of free thought.
In the scalp of dark hair one little witch
marooned, slick and sucking. Mother
fumbling at it, a concentration-vein
like a taproot in her forehead, crumbs
of light at the crotch, the smack of spades
in the distance. Out the window, cow drops
green dung wet over a bucket of cherries
left by the spigot – in rain it smokes a little.
Lindsay Tuggle has been widely published in journals and anthologies, including: Cordite, Contrapasso, HEAT, Mascara, Rabbit, and The Hunter Anthology of Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry(2016). She was short-listed for the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize, judged by Simon Armitage. Her work has been recognised by major literary awards, including: the Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize (shortlisted 2015), the Val Vallis Award for Poetry (second prize 2009, third prize 2014), and the Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s Poetry Prize (shortlisted 2016, longlisted 2014). Her first collection, Calenture, is forthcoming with Cordite Publishing. The manuscript evolved from residential writing fellowships awarded by institutions including the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the Library of Congress, and the Mütter Museum of Philadelphia. Tuggle also writes on intersections of poetry and science. The University of Iowa Press’s Whitman Series invited her first book, The Afterlives of Specimens: Science and Mourning in Whitman’s America (forthcoming in 2017). She wrote a chapter on ‘Poetry and Medicine’ for Cambridge University Press’sWhitman in Context (2017). She teaches literary studies at Western Sydney University.
it is best not to dream for long here
medicine disallows her florid stutter
skull calligraphy adorns
the austerity of wounds
a face cut by gravel
the floor observes her fall
cervine lesions embossed
with a queen’s head
siege follows invitation
the graceless mercy
of a master brought low
by his own hand
ungroomed and carnivorous
you dazzle me
if there were amnesty for the dead
we would be strangers still
our tongues bruised by
the flesh of angels
this, my apologia
they only come when you call
her gamine regression
discards once sinewy form
his archival hoard
to loom and seclude
her catalogue of false scars
triptych for an aspirational recluse
it is a problem without a solution
namely, asylum envy
‘for reasons of history
I want bedlam
or to be bedridden
or just to not be looked at like that’
leitmotif: diorama girls in feral dress
(cue dirt eating in hotel)
in their dyadic correspondence
the body is entirely absent
her assassin says
I’d love to work
but there’s no money
in art only death pays
in the morning we wear
each other’s faces
she’s prettier now
in coffined silhouette
after these many years
oddly blonder than before
someday soon we will inherit
each other’s faces:
evangelical and unlovely
do I covet her still
diluted by sleep
the concave half of a sister
long unburdened by skin
after her austere conversion
it’s all tithe and ruin
a nest of mouths speak of Jesus
in bandaged tongues
nice work if you can get it
we won’t be sequestered
in post-curatorial syndrome
suppress an exhibitionist’s desire
to salt her own wound, publicly
back at the fallout shelter
all the other feral anorexics
trace coal dust in the genealogy
of chemical squalls and delicate tibias
ascension is just another compulsion
to light and return
I love the dead more than you
and always will
Adolfo Aranjuez is editor of Metro, subeditor of Screen Education, and a freelance writer, speaker and dancer. He has edited for Voiceworks and Melbourne Books, and been published in Right Now, The Lifted Brow, The Manila Review, Eureka Street and Peril, among others. Adolfo is one of the Melbourne Writers Festival’s 30 Under 30. http://www.adolfoaranjuez.com
We conquer hearts like climbing
mountains, gamble cliffs
with no bearings. You bring
totems of past lives
inhabited. Homes broken
by tectonic tears. It creeps in
like moss on foliage,
weeks old. I stood in that hallway
for hours, wanted words
to spill from cracks in
your pauses. Tell me again
we fear leaving worlds we know
are safe. The shape of a gum
is unlike any other. Warning
heard through window, solo
magpie yarns of sadness.
I break watches ’cos I’m shit
at being patient. With you
space is finite but between us
distance is immense. We’re migrants
with shared skin. We’re bound
by secrets we keep—saying
our faces are the same
as they used to be
when we were kids building
hills by the shoreline.
Writing to the Wire
Edited by Dan Disney and Kit Kelen
Reviewed by ALICE ALLAN
To live on the Australian continent is to be aware of the people who are excluded from it—those who are currently incarcerated in places coolly dubbed ‘detention centres’. Writing to the Wire, edited by Dan Disney and Kit Kelen, presents the work of poets grappling with this reality alongside that of poets actually living it.
An anthology such as this can be successful in a number of ways. At the very least, it can record a perspective beyond what Disney and Kelen describe as the ‘shameless procedural narratives’ that ‘damage our collective ethics and our nation’s sense of identity’. The recording of this perspective alone makes Writing to the Wire a necessary document. Even if Australia’s detention centres are shut down tomorrow, their repercussions will be felt for generations. In the aftermath, we will need to know how our poets responded.
We can also evaluate Writing to the Wire in terms of its position as an activist anthology. The editors admit that the collection is perhaps ‘a little like bashing your head against a brick wall’ or ‘like speaking to a wall’, but we do not have to link these poems to concrete political change to consider them valuable. Each poem is itself an act against what Kelen and Disney call ‘mute complicity’, registering ‘shock, disbelief, disgust, dismay, despair, contempt, cold fury’—never acceptance.
Another question we can ask of a collection like this is to what degree it amplifies the voices of those behind ‘the wire’. One of the most striking aspects of this anthology is the strong contrast between poems by those seeking asylum in Australia and poems by Australian citizens. Consider, to begin with, ‘My soul died years ago’ by poet NH, who was seeking asylum at the time of publication:
There are butterflies in my stomach.
I am very very very cold.
I have been dead for years
but my body is screaming.
It hits itself to the ground
and shouts: ‘I am tired of compulsory life’.
Reading these lines, the ‘mute complicity’ inherent in a comfortable Australian life is starkly obvious. While there are just 18 poems by people who have gone through the process of seeking asylum included in the 204-page collection, their resonance is such that the impact of many of the surrounding poems becomes muted. This is particularly apparent when it comes to poems written by Australians that examine an asylum seeker perspective. In ‘Illegals’, for example, Mark Tredinnick encircles all experiences of exile by writing of an ‘us’ that comes ‘just as far, across the hungry infernal sea’:
But the new land when we step down
onto its abstemious beaches
is so much more like a prison than home,
Another jail to break, another hope to abandon
Like memory in the sea.
Later we learn the language
of freedom, all its civil syllables,
But our tongues, parched from cruising so shabbily and so long into exile,
Will never learn to say our own names again
While there is no question of poetic quality here, there is a distance between the two writers’ experiences. Tredinnick is not alone in writing from the perspective of those seeking asylum—a number of poets have taken this approach to create their contributions. Again, these poems are the result of skilful, considered writing, but their inclusion also highlights the fact that those writing from outside the wire can only ever reach toward understanding, while those inside, in poet Ravi’s words, ‘have come into your very deep water / and have now sunk / in that deepest suffering’.
In making their selections, Disney and Kelen could have taken the same approach as the editors of the more recent anthology They Cannot Take the Sky, which is limited to writing by people who have experienced mandatory detention. The wealth of work by those who have no direct experience of detention in Writing to the Wire creates a broader conversation—a space where Australian poets can examine, in the editors’ words, ‘the idea of being Australian’.
While this is clearly a worthwhile task, the cumulative effect of the many poems by Australian writers somehow fails to amplify their impact. In fact, there’s often a sense of interference, especially when poems that are extremely strong cover the same or similar ground as those that are less accomplished. There’s an obvious irony in arguing for a more stringent selection process here—Kelen and Disney explicitly state that they were ‘guided by principles of inclusivity, pluricentricity and multivalence’—but perhaps fewer poems may have resulted in stronger collection overall.
All that said, Writing to the Wire also includes many poems by contributors who recognise where their understanding falls short and reveal this gap in thoughtful ways. In ‘Nationality II’, Melinda Smith uses found text from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s The Forgotten Children report to bring voices other than her own onto the page:
I feel like a killer
when they use my boat number.
The flat dead eyes of the mother. The gouges
on her son’s forearms.
Boat number has become like our first name.
The glut of bread that sticks in the craw.
This juxtaposition of Smith’s own words against those from the report addresses the question of whether her subject has been seen or merely spoken for. Other poets are more direct in marking their position as outsiders. Peter Minter’s ‘A Letter to You’ begins ‘I can’t think of anything. / I have nothing to say.’ Heather Taylor Johnson’s ‘In the Bottom Eight’ asks ‘What else to do but clear the table and bring out the next course? Bleu cheese goes best with a third bottle of wine, not racism.’ Brook Emery’s ‘Return to Sender’ ends with that bleakly familiar phrase ‘you can bloody well go back where you belong.’
Disney and Kelen explicitly state in their introduction ‘We do not speak for the people incarcerated by Australian governments: they are speaking for themselves here’. While this may not be true of every single poem in the collection, it is clear that the editors are aware of their responsibility to elevate the voices of ‘people who would like to be Australians’. The fact that this problem of ‘speaking for’ is on editorial agendas, in writers’ minds and obvious to readers is exhilarating. It suggests historically silenced voices are becoming more audible.
Representing the experiences of asylum seekers, either directly or from a remove, is not the only focus of this anthology. Many of the poems here also bring to light what Kelen and Disney call ‘a collective burden of shame’. In ‘Queue-jumping’ Anthony Lynch catalogues positions of privileged safety in a poem that reads like a judge’s sentence:
When the pact was signed
I was eighth in line for a decaf.
When the navy arrived
I poured myself a second Scotch.
When the boat was towed
I sent my tenth email of the day.
When security tightened
we bought the fourth-best house in the street.
Along with shame, the ‘cold fury’ Disney and Kelen describe is another key theme, most obvious in poems addressing Australia’s politicians. In ‘Reply to a father from a Federal Member’, Nathan Curnow writes in the voice of politician giving parenting advice after two young boys hear about a detention centre suicide:
Tell them we’re calmly implementing policies.
In fact try saying it was ‘a horrible, tragic death’,
keep repeating it like a sober example,
after all, we’re in the business of saving lives
and that phrase helps discourage the journey.
Each of the poems in this anthology reveals an Australia so many would prefer to ignore. Nevertheless, Kelen and Disney position Writing to the Wire as ‘a book of hope—a book to make us look and think and feel again’. The collection begins with a poem in which Kelen asks a simple question:
And: For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share. Remember?
By the final page, each contributor has done their part in this work of remembering, adding a new layer to a complex and confronting picture.
In the unlikely event that Writing to the Wire inspires no action at all, it will at least endure as a record of Australia’s policies towards those forced to seek asylum here. By collecting the words of those who continue to feel the full force of these policies alongside the bewilderment of those who are watching their effects unfold, it answers its own epigraphic question, posed by Julian Burnside in his Hamer Oration: ‘What have we become?’
ALICE ALLAN is a writer and editor living in Melbourne. Her work has been published in journals such as Rabbit, Cordite, Going Down Swinging and Offset.
Shastra Deo was born in Fiji, raised in Melbourne, and lives in Brisbane. She holds a Bachelor of Creative Arts in Writing and English Literature, First Class Honours and a University Medal in Creative Writing, and a Master of Arts in Writing, Editing and Publishing from The University of Queensland. Her work has appeared in Cordite, Peril, Uneven Floor, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2016 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize; her debut collection, The Agonist, is forthcoming from UQP in September 2017.
In the summer of 1995 my mother and I took
a road trip, followed the Murray River
all the way up to Echuca. Our lives were bundled up
in garbage bags, weighing down the trunk, and at the start
the tiny hatchback could barely make it up the hills. The engine
was as ragged as my mother’s breathing.
Every twenty kilometers we’d stop and she’d throw
a bag into the river. We would watch it
long enough to make sure it would sink, then drive on, lighter
and lighter. I don’t remember the trip back, but I imagine it must have been
like the drive past the redgum wharf: the windows down,
the freshwater wind soaking my hair.
The engine was thrumming and I felt as though
I could outrun anything.
You never told me how it happened—bones trembling
beneath your skin, fluid collecting in your joints,
vertebrae ready to snap as the pressure
built at the base of your skull.
On autopsy they found bubbles in your brain,
your lungs swollen and soaked in sea-water,
ribs caved in. Paradoxical breathing—
your documented cause of death.
They didn’t stop searching until they found the sorrow,
tucked away in your thoracic viscera, the longing
distilled in the pedicle of your liver, hunger
hidden in the mitral valve of your heart,
didn’t stop until they had you cut and gutted like a mackerel
on a Sunday afternoon. In the low light your hands shone
phosphorescent like fish scales. Somewhere, the sea
stretches out for you, gleaming with promise.
Pass me the salt, sugar—you smelled of old empires
and the smoke of sacrifice—because salt preserves
and it purifies. You had the sea in your veins,
before they filled you up with chemicals.
Pass me the shovel, lover. It’s just you
and me, and I’m still waiting for you
to get up and walk away.
Mindy Gill completed her Honours in Creative Writing at QUT. She has won the Tom Collins Poetry Prize, a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Voiceworks, Tincture, Hecate, Australian Poetry Journal, and Island Magazine. She is an editor at Peril Magazine.
Home is the Solace of Small Towns (Springbrook 1991)
Eucalypts filter light like fly screen
onto the tan brick corner store,
a sign advertises Cornettos,
OPEN painted in soil-red.
My mother buys a newspaper,
two cans of Coke, counts change
from dawn-pink five-dollar notes.
The sun curls away as my father watches
the edge of town, devout
to the quiet of valleys.
He looks up at the grey gum bellies
of baby magpies, suspended moon-like
in the leatherwood.
My mother leans against the hot back of the car,
vermillion as a bird, vermillion
as this country.
The shop dog sleeps
like a mosquito coil
at her feet, blue back
dusty as drought.
With a line from Jeet Thayil
When my grandfather hears the first curlew
break the morning, before paradise
cracks its shoreline, the ocean shucks
away the tourists, he instructs
himself quietly, The best thing for stress
is to believe in God. From the third, glittering
eye of the high-rise apartment, among
the white-wash, the steel-skinned glass, the blue
of paradise, he watches the horizon like a line
or a flame that bars him from the dead, the past.
Under the prodigal sun, the gulls, ruthless with hunger
patrol the pools left by the tide, and the brine
dries the golden surface of paradise, and his last
word is not a word but a shudder.
JT Tait is currently undertaking the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne and is the mother of a recently turned teenage boy who laughs that they will be finishing uni together.
‘Between Trauma and Beauty Itself’: Mothers, Memory and Forgetting
We tell stories because in the last analysis human lives need and merit being narrated. This remark takes on its full force when we refer to the necessity to save the history of the defeated and the lost. The whole history of suffering cries out for vengeance and calls for narrative
—Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative
First, the elevator. The long ride up in the stench of piss and stale cigarette smoke. The grey metal clunking back to reveal the paint-chipped door of Nanna’s flat.
Mum’s hair long, thick and swinging before my sister and me as she knocks. Nanna, grey curls and wheezing breath, opening the door to greet us. Walk into the dining area, a round table with yellow plastic tablecloth, stiff plastic in folds. Four chairs, brown vinyl peeling back, exposing white tufts like fairy floss, which we would work at nervously while eating lunch or dinner. Brown plastic placemats with yellow flowers sit on the table, matching the floral curtains at the small window. In the middle of the table a gold stork statue holds pride of place. A bench separates the dining room from the kitchen. Here we would eat our breakfast seated on the tall orange stools, Nanna passing cereal and toast over the scratched surface. Homemade sausage rolls baking in the oven, boiled-meat scent swamping the cramped quarters.
On the left the living room, always in darkness with blinds drawn and TV flickering. Dougie sprawled in an armchair. For years we thought Dougie was another word for Grandpa, turns out it was just his name. He was my Nanna’s boyfriend and father to none. But he remained our Dougie.
Go straight through the dining area and into the kitchen, turn left at the second door and you reach a small hallway. I slipped there and hit my head on the wooden frame of the door; vision blood-soaked and reddened, twenty-five stitches right in the middle of my forehead. My cousin did the same thing in the same place a couple of months later. It was the mat at the end of the hallway that did it. We’d come hurtling down in our never-ending rush to be somewhere and the mat would slip right out from under our feet. Nanna got rid of it after the second time.
The kids’ room is first on the left, then Nanna’s room; at the end a sewing room, and on the right a bathroom. Nanna died in the kids’ room. She had an asthma attack. They say she went there to be closer to her grandchildren. I was nine and thought I’d killed her because she’d hit me on my last visit. When I told Mum my fears, she explained that not everything was about me.
That was the first time I saw what a small part I played in the world around me.
Nanna lived in the commission flats. An overriding sense of depression clouds my memories of that place.
She had a brother, messed up from the war. She was always slapping the back of his head. He’d just sit there, food dribbling down his chin. He scared us with his vacancy and his constant wet smile.
She fought with Mum and Dad all the time. Said they weren’t fit. Mum said Nanna was an alcoholic. That’s why Mum doesn’t drink.
We used to love it when she gave us money to go to the commission shop and buy mixed lollies. Half-cent lollies, a couple of dollars would go far.
We’d cross the road to Prahran swimming pool and spend the whole day there with our cousins. Just us, no adults nagging. Lips stained red by icy-poles. Afterward we’d take the elevator up to her flat to soak in a warm bath. We’d share the bath, my sister and I. Blowing bubbles in each other’s faces and wearing bubble beards. Then we’d sit beside Nanna on the couch with her aged hands entwined in our water-wrinkled fingers.
I got two black eyes from a girl half my size but twice my age in the playground at the base of the stairs. We knew her as Googie. She was queen muck of the commission play areas. She told me she could see my undies while I was standing on the swing, swaying back and forth, minding my own business. All I said was at least I had some on. My mouth was always getting me into trouble back then. In any case, girls like that don’t take nicely to talk like that. I was six.
There was a forbidden stairwell. Where a man was known to play with himself and watch kids. We would dare each other to run past. Double-dare. Go up the staircase. I dare you. No, you do it. The call of the darkness of that stairwell was a constant black whisper. From the slide in the playground you could see its shadows beckoning us across the way. We had our own mysterious ways of learning life lessons when we were young. The way we’d torture each other with our fears, egging each other on to yet more foolishness.
I can’t remember ever seeing Nanna outside of the dimness of those high-rise walls. We would run wild with our cousins who lived in different commission flats across the way and around the corner. They were so much tougher than us, little flower-children that we were. We wouldn’t come home ’til dinner. Then bath-time and warm in clean pyjamas we’d sit by her side watching TV or reading stories.
Nanna was warm and soft when she hugged you and her clothes smelled of jasmine. Looking back now I think she was trying to make up for something with us, something she missed in raising her own kids.
I came to hate those flats. I hated the way Nanna talked to my parents. She scared me when she spoke of taking us away from them. How she could be so nice and turn so mean in the same breath. But I loved my Nanna. I loved her cooking. I loved that she loved me. I often imagine her surrounded by crayoned drawings, gasping for breath. I hope being close to us, her grandchildren, helped her. Somehow.
Funny when writing about Nanna how the child’s voice always comes to play. Time stretches ever onwards yet bounces me back to the girl I was. For I never learned to know her as herself, a separate identity. In ‘Bracha’s Eurydice’—her foreword to Bracha Ettinger’s The Matrixial Borderspace—Judith Butler writes of the loss of Eurydice that ‘the gaze by which she is apprehended is the gaze through which she is banished. Our gaze pushes her back to death, since we are prohibited from looking, and we know that by looking we will lose her’ (viii). Nanna will forever be real only as an extension of my mother, myself. Her story, her rationale for behaving in certain ways, is lost to us. No matter how hard we try to capture her.
Nanna lived in an unforgiving time and place but this doesn’t explain her apparent dislike of only one of her surviving children, my mother. She was of the time when people accepted Freud’s theory that ‘the desire for a child is the desire for a penis, and in this sense, a substitute for phallic and symbolic dominion’ (Kristeva 206). The concept of losing one’s identity after childbirth would have been beyond comprehension. In the Prahran commission flats and pubs no one cared two hoots about the identity of that Irish Catholic mother dragging her six children around, begging for money to feed her children and spending it all on booze. Who was Noreen Fergus? How did she come to be here? I think in another time she would have been a fiery feminist, a passionate activist. Instead she found herself stuck in a patriarchal society with no chance of escape. Nanna was not made to be a mother; I imagine she would have wholeheartedly agreed with the concept of motherhood as ‘a sort of instituted, socialized, natural psychosis’ (Kristeva 206). Kristeva writes:
Pregnancy seems to be experienced as the radical ordeal of the splitting of the subject: redoubling up of the body, separation and coexistence of the self and the other, of nature and consciousness, of physiology and speech. This fundamental challenge to identity is then accompanied by a fantasy of totality – narcissistic completeness – a sort of instituted, socialized, natural psychosis. (206)
All this is wholly imagined however, pieced together from stories told to me by my mother and told to her by hers. Butler begins her foreword by asking: ‘what does one do with early childhood? Or rather, what does early childhood do with us’ (vii)? All those misshapen memories, thwarted by time. How do they leave their mark on us? Who do we become because of them? I do not pretend to have the answers, just an enduring fascination with the complexities of intergenerational trauma.
Telling the story of generational addiction can be difficult: the tricks memory plays, the alternate perspectives. Telling one’s own family story can also be construed as self-indulgent. Fear of ridicule, of the dreaded ‘misery memoir’ tag, fear itself; all can skew the words on the page.
My nanna was an alcoholic; my father was an alcoholic and a heroin addict who died of an overdose; my mother is a heroin addict. I have an addictive personality; I am consumed by my passions. And all down this ‘wicked’ line, each addict has despised the others’ addictions.
My sister and I grew up with love in abundance: my mother did not. We all grew up with trauma. Butler writes:
We are speaking … not only of the loss of childhood, or the loss of a maternal connection that the child must undergo, but also of an enigmatic loss that is communicated from the mother to the child, from the parents to the child, from the adult world to the child, who is given this loss to handle when the child cannot handle it, when it is too large for the child, when it is too large for the adult, when the loss is trauma, and cannot be handled by anyone, anywhere, where the loss signifies what we cannot master. (ix).
Such phenomena are handed down to us through the generations, a family gift of unknown origin. Kristeva suggests in ‘Women’s Time’ that ‘there are cycles, gestation, the eternal recurrence of a biological rhythm which conforms to that of nature and imposes a temporality whose stereotyping may shock, but whose regularity and unison with what is experienced as extra-subjective time, cosmic time, occasion vertiginous visions and unnameable jouissance’ (191). Is it possible, within the reverberating tale of our family, there is joy in the sorrow? Are we now so tied to our past that we revel in our peculiar branch of divine melancholy?
In collating these seemingly random memories from my childhood I aim to create an overall sense of that place in time and how its echoes still reach us now. Ricoeur states that plot is first ‘a mediation between the individual events or incidents and a story taken as a whole’ (65). ‘In this respect,’ he goes on to write, ‘we may say equivalently that it draws a meaningful story from a diversity of events or incidents (Aristotle’s pragmata) or that it transforms the events or incidents into a story.’ The story you find behind the non-linear form may tell you more than even I know.
The greatest gift of growing up is, I believe, to meet your parent as a friend. A being beyond the extension of the self. My mother never had that opportunity. When you befriend your parents, much can be forgiven. When you’ve lived and known your own flaws, you can live with and love them in others.
First, the smell. Lemons. That sharp tang. It remains one of my first remembered sensations. I’m not sure why heroin cooking smells like lemons but cut one open and I’m transported back to that wide-eyed kid sitting on the staircase of our house in Birchgrove. Watching through the bannisters as Dad loosens the belt around Mum’s upper arm and slowly slides the needle from her vein. I watch her head roll to the side, her eyes grow heavily lidded. He makes sure she’s settled before pulling the loosened belt up his arm and tightening the cracked leather.
My sister comes creeping up behind me and I shoo her away, toward our bedroom. I feel the heavy weight of her lean against me, her stomach on my back, and sense her trying to look over my shoulder. Standing up, I take her hand and walk up the stairs. I look back once to see Dad put the needle in his own arm. I start chattering nonsense and watch my sister’s face light up.
In Birchgrove they were dealing. So we had lots of nice things and lived in a two-storey house with bars on all the ground-floor windows.
Our days were structured with lessons in the morning and play in the afternoon. On waking, we’d race down the stairs to find a message and maths sum from Mr Man. Mr Man was a stick figure on the blackboard. Once we’d answered the question we were allowed to wake Mum and Dad up. After breakfast Dad would teach us how to read, do a few more sums, and then focus on music. Dad was a trombone player and composer and he played Jazz.
Afternoons with Mum were endless and lazy play. Twice a week we had a Spanish tutor. Even when they weren’t dealing, the same structure remained. Lessons in the morning, play all day. That is, up until they separated.
We really felt we had the most normal of lives. Most of the time.
One day we came home from the shops and the bars on one window were bent. Dad told us Superman had come to visit while we were out. We asked why he’d made such a big mess? Drawers were pulled out of the cabinet and cushions were off the couch. Chairs were tipped over. Our Lego was spilt across the floor and Dad swore as he stepped on a piece. Mum put her bags on the floor in the hallway and quickly started tidying up. I went with my sister to the window and looked at the bent bars, our eyes filled with marvel. It was the side window in the lounge-room. We could see down the long garden pathway to the vegie patch. One of next-door’s rabbits hopped amongst the lettuces. My sister went to tell Dad, but I shushed her with a finger across her lips. I could feel something was wrong by the pressure on my back, my shoulders. I could sense something fearful behind their furious whispering. I grabbed her hand and pulled her across the room, up the stairs. Let’s play.
All was forgotten by dinner when we ate our lentils at the worn wooden table. Dad kicked up his feet and pulled the guitar onto his lap, softly tuning and humming under his breath. Mum started piling the dishes into the sink, flicking us with the tea towel to make us laugh. Bent spoons clattered into soapy water. Becky told Dad about the rabbits. Dad hooted and ran out to the back garden, making wild gestures and yelling. Taking the pesky rabbits to task. We followed laughing and he piled our crossed arms with ripe veggies. We dumped them on the kitchen table and Mum shooed us away, fondly grumbling about the mess. We sighed into our soft beds that night, safe and grateful for all things normal and comical.
The bars on the windows didn’t help when the cops busted us. They just put a ladder up to Mum and Dad’s balcony and entered through their bedroom door. The first I knew of it was the shouting. Gruff voices, violent. Then two police officers entered our bedroom, came up to our bunk bed. They told us everything was going to be okay. But I could hear the thuds and short breaths. I could hear my Mum screaming at someone to stop. And the faint sound of my Dad whimpering.
The next day Mum sold everything we owned to get Dad out on bail. It was the first time we got busted, but it wasn’t the last.
Living with addicts from a young age, you love them even when they’re hurting you and you don’t know it. The days they OD’d in front of us – mostly accidental, occasionally purposeful: dragging them to the shower and drenching them in cold water, the mad rush to the next-door neighbour for help, the ambulances, the misguided reassurances from adults who thought we knew nothing. The long hospital visits, the foster carers, the threats from family members to take us away.
Above all: an ever-abiding love and a longing to never be separated. Ever.
I was twelve when I first started wanting to write our story. Back then I wanted two things: I wanted to let other children of addicts know they weren’t alone, and I wanted people to understand addicts. I was tired of living a secret life. Of being afraid of being found out. I wanted to bust it open and just be. I wanted people to love my parents. Basically, I wanted to live without stigma before I knew what stigma was. Kristeva asks why we yearn to use literature as a means of affirmation: ‘is it because, faced with social norms, literature reveals a certain knowledge and sometimes the truth itself about an otherwise repressed, nocturnal, secret and unconscious universe? Because it thus redoubles the social contract by exposing the unsaid, the uncanny?’ (207) Perhaps at twelve I sensed that in making a game of the ‘frustrating order of social signs’ (Kristeva 207), I would in sense be making a place for myself, my family.
It was then that I realised I could never know my own story without knowing theirs. My parents’. Kristeva talks about how to ‘bring out … the singularity of each person and, even more, along with the multiplicity of every person’s possible identifications (with atoms, e.g., stretching from the family to the stars) – the relativity of his/her symbolic as well as biological existence, according to the variation in his/her specific symbolic capacities’ (210). We are all we are through a combination of biology and chance and hold a certain responsibility to represent our unique circumstance. So I bugged my parents day and night and I wrote down every word. All the hurt, all the mistakes, all the hopes and failed dreams. I gathered them and hoarded them like small treasures. But of course I was twelve, and didn’t yet know I’d make many mistakes of my own.
It was not pleasant, I am sure, to have one’s child ask the sorts of questions I did. But my parents had a knack for brutal honesty, which they delivered with a rhythmic beauty. Perhaps a perverse pride in their child’s inquisitiveness was also on display.
Growing up ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’ also lent my writerly aspirations a bent and socially awkward tangent. Exposés of the kind that poured from my pre-teen pen were unexpected to say the least. Ricoeur states that,
as a function of the norms immanent in a culture, actions can be estimated or evaluated, that is, judged according to a scale of moral preferences. They thereby receive a relative value, which says this action is more valuable than that one. These degrees of value, first attributed to actions, can be extended to the agents themselves, who are held to be good or bad, better or worse. (58)
The reader, then, bases a character’s worth on the ethical nature of their actions. For Ricouer, ‘There is no action that does not give rise to approbation or reprobation, to however small a degree, as a function of a hierarchy of values for which goodness and wickedness are the poles’ (59). But who decides these moral values? And can one thwart these values once embedded?
The aim of my twelve-year-old angst was to turn wickedness on its head and show the banality and ordinariness of an addict’s life. It was not a cry for help, for saving. It was a desperate plea for understanding. The years fly by and slowly the world awakens to hear the voices it has silenced for so long. Now, forty-plus, I still write to break open addiction taboos, though many have already been broken. I still struggle to find the right words. Simone de Beauvoir writes:
Old age. From a distance you take it to be an institution; but they are all young, these people who suddenly find that they are old. One day I said to myself: “I’m forty!” By the time I recovered from the shock of that discovery I had reached fifty. The stupor that seized me then has not left me. (672)
I look in the mirror and see Beauvoir’s words reflected back to me, to my mother, to my grandmother. And to all those mirror images I say, forgive yourself. Forgive.
The story of my Nanna’s dying words has become mythological. I’ll never truly understand the power she had over my mother. Her stories of abandonment and loss are etched into my brain. Every hurt word, every dismissal, every avowal of hatred from her mother’s mouth. And so my mother chooses her needle, to forget. She gives me her stories and I keep them safe. Her stories become mine but are not me, they imprint. Butler suggests that such stories are indeed ‘never fully made one’s own, for the claim of autonomy would involve the losing of the trace. And the trace, the sign of loss, the remnant of loss, is understood as the link, the occasional and nearly impossible connection, between trauma and beauty itself’ (xi). And I choose to not lose the trace, to remember.
The memories shift and change, as does my perspective within them. Sometimes I see the stories as from a great distance. At other times I’m right inside them, living and breathing each moment as it happens.
My Nanna’s last words were an affirmation of all my mother’s greatest fears. But also an inspiration that changed the way she parented, so changing the arc of her story. I inherit the trauma and beauty both.
First, the shaking. It was the middle of the night when Mum woke us. Rain pelted against the window leaving glistening trails against a backdrop of darkness.
All is confused and jumbled as I swim into focus. I sit in bed rubbing my eyes, noting the panic in her voice as she shakes my sister awake. The bedside lamp sends a soft glow of purple around the room, shining through the scarf draped over it.
Wake up. Nanna’s dead. We have to go to the flats. I ask if she’s kidding. Well, that wouldn’t be a very funny joke would it, she snaps. It’s unlike her and so I know this is Real. I stumble out of bed and let her bundle me into a dressing gown and slippers. I must’ve fallen asleep because suddenly I’m awake in the back seat of the car. My head leaning against the window, the rain now in a hurry across the pane. Mum and Ava are arguing in the front. Ava steers erratically and beeps the horn loudly, gesturing rudely out the window. Mum cries.
Mum and Dad had been separated for a few years when Nanna died. Mum had stolen us away in the dead of night, barely packing a thing. First we’d travelled to our friends in Queensland, but he’d found us. Then she went to hospital to get clean and sent us with a friend to Melbourne, to live with Nanna until she got better.
When Mum arrived we moved in with her girlfriend Ava and they shared a bed. Then she cut off her long hair. We didn’t cry until we saw her short cut. It seemed the final straw. Too many changes and too quick. That hair we’d seen swinging before us all our short lives. We’d played with it and poured honey in it when she wouldn’t wake up. It seemed to signify who she was, and now wasn’t. We had to adjust ourselves to this new Mum, and figure out our place in the world beside her.
Dad followed us eventually. He was arrested in Sydney for attempting suicide so couldn’t come straight away. That’s what I overheard, or thought I overheard. When he arrived and came to see us, Ava left a note on the door saying NO MEN ALLOWED. When we stayed at his house next and they came to pick us up, he left a note on the door saying NO AVAS ALLOWED. And so it went.
When we arrive at the flats, we take the elevator up one last time to Nanna’s. This time, instead of Mum’s long hair before us, there is Mum and Ava’s hands holding each other in fists. There is no Nanna with wheezing breath to greet us at the door. One of our uncles opens the door abruptly after the first knock. Mum hugs him briefly and walks in. He ignores Ava’s outstretched hand. We appear forgotten so straggle in quietly and lean against a wall.
The dining room is too small for all of them. All their bodies too grown for the space in which they’d grown up. There is muted conversation and a thick layer of smoke across the ceiling. The gold stork stands on the table amid a crowd of bottles, stretching its neck gracefully over bourbon and rum, wine and beer, overflowing ashtrays. We slide down the wall and sit on the floor, huddled together. They seem like brooding giants from that angle. And it isn’t just sorrow I felt from them in that confined space but menace also. Something angry simmering below the surface talk. Something in the way her brothers held themselves frightened me.
I heard Mum asking where she was and someone reply the kids’ room. Her sister walked with her towards the hallway. We just sit, watching. Ava stands to the side of the room, completely forgotten. I can hear Mum crying in the other room. Loud sobs.
It was then I saw Dougie. But he was no longer our Dougie. He was filled with some emotion I couldn’t place. It made him dark. He gloomed. He came through the dining room at a pace I’d never seen him take. I heard him say something guttural in the next room. Then my mother screamed. A never-to-be-forgotten type of scream. The room erupted. All of them shouting at each other, so many words unknown. All jumbled on top of one another. But my aunt’s whisper carried through it all. He told her. Mum strides into the room, stopping suddenly and staring at the table. At the gold beak of the stork rising above the bottles. As she leans forward, I can see a faint line of sweat across her forehead, her eyes red. She picks up the stork and walks straight out. Ava gathers us up and we take one last look through that paint-chipped door at all our family before they slam it shut behind us.
In the corridor Mum is punching the elevator button. Ava tries to hug her and is pushed away. I don’t think she remembered in that moment that we existed. The grief is too much. We take the elevator down and we never see that place or those people again.
Butler, Judith, ‘Foreword: Bracha’s Eurydice’, in Ettinger, Bracha L., The Matrixial Borderspace, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
de Beauvoir, Simone, Force of Circumstance, Middlesex: Penguin, 1968.
Kristeva, Julia, ‘Women’s Time’ in Toril Moi (ed.), The Kristeva Reader, New York City: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Ricoeur, Paul, Time and Narrative, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.