For James, who died of AIDS on 18 September 1987.
When death starts its process first we resist, hard to watch
everything familiar and beautiful about the body shrink.
We say to ourselves, “I want him back” or “Give me back
that firm, healthy person!” When we are in the room with him
all of us want to shout “But where is David?! Where has he gone?!”
Then, all together, we have the knotted pain in the eyes,
recognising him among us as a poor remaking of the other man
we knew. “Michael, is that you I see? Is it really you?”
Bringing gifts and asking questions we have brought and asked
many times before, when he was still himself, is a test.
“Here are some chocolates I thought you might like, and yellow roses.”
Are these pleasures the new Paul knows? And who are you now?
In the last year his head is full of creatures and animal hate,
wide-eyed and terrified to live in the world where everything dies.
If he is fresh and strong in the morning, he is warm-blooded, huge,
growling in the garden. Afternoons in the heat he is worn blue
as a slim lizard, lies about, breathless, bumps into the furniture.
The old friends leave him, while he makes the real ones new.
No one dares come near who cannot answer questions:
“Are you friend or foe?” “Will you fight me, even now,
in the middle of all this?” and “Will I die? Will I truly die?”
Before the visiting hours the family takes a few stiff drinks,
wanders in the numb maze of the hospital, with threads hanging
behind them. All our tongues are pins and needles for lack of use,
or telling lies. “Oh, he has cancer, a tragic disease; I did tell him
not to smoke.” “Thank you for the card. He likes it very much,
and sends you all his love.” “He is better and we hope for a remission.”
Afterwards, alone, he practises the scavenging happiness
of birds, picks up crumbs from his own story, cries and laughs,
vomits the soft dinner, starves quietly and more surely
than anyone who waits for justice. Every sleepless night
some part is stolen and in the morning he is less there.
He is awake behind closed lids, while we dream
of planting onions, and hope for death. Even those who don’t
believe can see he becomes more real; the soul is exposed
and visible, resting on a cracked edge before it goes.
Published by ‘A First Hearing’, ABC Radio (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), 31 December 1989, and then in Overland, Number 120, 1990, and various anthologies.
This poem received the John Shaw Neilson Award for Poetry, Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1989 (awarded 22 February 1990).
[Information about the David Williams Fund, where contributions can be made to assist people living with HIV.]