A crowd of voices was first published by Pariah Press (Melbourne, Australia) in 1985. It won the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Anne Elder Award and the Association for the Study of Australian Literature’s Mary Gilmore Award.
for Deanna H.
Cover image — Artist : Peter Booth (Australia, b.1940) Title : Date : -1981 Medium Description: oil on canvas Dimensions : Credit Line : Purchased with assistance from the Visual Arts Board Australia Council 1981Image Credit Line : Accession Number : 203.1981 Used with permission of the artist.
Even though our eyes are bruised
from reading all the daily news,
we think of Rome and Paris in the Springtime,
of telephoning long lost friends,
of leaving our hearts on tables in expensive restaurants.
We are like terrorists edging toward some word
of reason our commander never speaks.
We begin by opening a book on holidays
in Uganda, which has a preface telling how
to sit quietly in living room chairs
while they become electric with possibilities,
and read a chapter showing how to move
our eyes to the corner of their sockets
so that we can look (without having the appearance
of looking) at things we do not want to see,
then flick the pages for some clue
on how to get there, but all we find
are reasons not to go.
It is yet another year of no holidays
in Uganda, where we could travel
with lists of missing persons,
sit and look at complacent animals burning
in the hot light, and the chance of not seeing ourselves
would be unlikely.
Light up the sky red
with a red blaze — not blood
red, not even a patriotic flag
red that could be politically
hazy and scared red — but a
brilliant and artificial red
like good communists make
in factories. Then paint.
Paint the house, embassy,
the politicians, dictators,
tyrants, all the ordinary
people and their comrades;
paint them all top to
bottom and the middle parts
too, especially the penises.
Bright red penises of Russia
standing up to be counted
for mother country. —And
don’t forget the women:
the women who take out
their finest brushes to
paint the red lines in
the eyes of their sons.
They get down on their hands
and knees to wipe the paint
off the factory floors;
they stand at sinks for hours
scrubbing the paint spots
out of their husbands’ shirts;
they wait outside the operating
theatre when paint messes the
mechanic’s table; they cry
and scream the throat of Russia
red-raw till the whole land
coughs up blood. Ordinary
people understand this sort
of red. It’s the red leaders
use for wild speculations and
artists paint radiant futures
with it. Red is an image
by itself. Red is hell. Red
is unnatural, oppressively hot.
Red like the inside of a mad
animal’s mouth. Blood-sucking red.
Red on the screen of the blood
film. Historical red. The color
of revolution red. The red hammer
of education. A red sickle
to chop off heads. A shade of red
to blame for everything. Women’s
red. Menstruation red. Red
faces and red sex. Red rage.
Who made the Red Sea red?
The Russians did. Who invented
red herrings? The Russians did.
Who built the pyramids?
The Russians did. Who shot down
the Korean plane? The Russians
did. Who made America what
it is today? The Russians did.
Some of the men cry, and many of the women
Make impossible devotions. Some others
Who are neither men nor women go about
Their work invisibly — or else, becoming.
And behind a wall the gymnast (having managed
To balance for a very long moment the spectators’
Fear of falling) thinks he sees a spinning wheel
And fire in the eye of a monster. The world
Is like this, he says, there is no need
For prophesy — it is all here.
Watching this trick was a man in the doorway
Now turning to leave and covered with sun.
I notice his quiet walk — the way he steps
On his shadow’s toe, lifting a foot and balancing
There each step in the light like a wire artist,
That close to the edge. Out in the streets
You can see if you look, the Hunger presents
Himself like a man in black suit and bow-tie;
A noble savage who’d rather dress than eat.
“I’ve been trying to say this for years
And find it like a spider on my lip:
Arriving, there’s a padlock on the door
Protecting nothing but a window
In one wall, and a double bed
Complete with holes—none of which I need.
My agent provides this free. The squalor
And the shit coming for me: hurt dogs
Squeal in the street below; Vespas spew smoke
Through every crack; and prostitutes repeat
Their life, life-long story in chopped up verse.
“I drop on the bed after a whole year travelling
— Noise, decay, clamour at shutters
As I sleep, and fan blades above me swing
In great circles
“At the centre of the world,
Two halves scraping unequal edges with each other.”
A woman with beans works
Uncomplaining, shuffling them
On wooden platters
Before the eye
Of a prying city
Turning to what’s believed
Is distant past,
Almost forgotten now,
Where all remains
Unchanged: how long
Do we suppose
This stroke of eye
Will leave us satisfied
To our unreal world,
You can burn a book but a poem is
logically uninflammable. You can burn
your love letters, your diary, your house,
your volumes of nineteenth century French
pornography; any embarrassing, inexplicable,
unlikable thing that can burn, you can burn.
You can burn an argument by falling silent,
though a word is logically uninflammable.
You can burn the midnight oil, have a burning
ambition or burning desire, burn money or
burn time. Anything that burns, you can burn.
You can burn your dinner, burn the toast
or burn your bra. Burning is a primal power.
You can burn an opinion with censorship, or
burn authority by just not doing
what you’re supposed to do. —Try it sometime.
You’ll like it. A thing that burns recedes
in thought. You can burn Joan of Arc, though
the Church will still live, just to spite you.
You can burn parliaments, or the politicians
in their cars, but democracy will still
haunt you. You can burn Jews but then
there would be Nürnberg and unerasable guilt.
Anything that burns or does not burn,
you can burn. You can tie a nigger to a tree
and go to work with a blow-torch, though
there are now some people who would object.
Anything that burns or should not be burned,
you can burn. Burning is an absolute freedom.
You can burn someone else, burn yourself, or
yourself be burned. You can burn Dresden,
or burn Hiroshima, or burn the world.
Anything that burns or should not burn, that
you can burn, other people can burn, too.