In a perfect society it would not be necessary to say In a perfect society the politicians should enact a law which provides a regulation for who may be a poet and this perfect law would not deny any person entry to the guild but only say  If you do not tell the truth, you are not a poet.

A person with a script is standing in the middle of a room, saying The first thing I want to say is that everything I’m going to say here is true.  Of course, you can’t tell everything you know about people unless you’re trying to hurt them and I don’t want to do that.  So I’m going to lie a bit here and there.  But as far as all the things that matter are concerned I’m going to tell the truth. And this may or may not be a reason to revise a perfect law.  I don’t care.  I don’t like poets, anyway. Most of them are just like me.

Who is a poet, then?  I know one, a schizophrenic, whose head is nearly bursting with all sorts of delusions. He’s in the audience tonight. But you can’t see who it is. It’s dark inside. There’s another in the audience who has had a kind of cancer and has refused to die of it.  And another one I know who — and I must be careful here because, though I have asked if it might be possible to write such a line, it is still a line that is painful to hear — … No, I won’t write it. Privacy has to count for something.

I say this only to remind you that there is a poetry of the audience.


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.

When you say yes… say yes to safe sex.
When you say yes… say yes to safe sex (Information flyer of the Victorian AIDS Council) Stephen J. Williams
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 from the 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.]

Middle life transcribed for ’cello

My lessons began with ‘A Bass to Heartsease’,
The harder work done on grand piano,
Comforting and accurate as a mother.

For being even-handed, there was the lesson
Of double stops; in perfect fifths, delivering sound
Which once was meant to be the sign of God.

I’ve learned already, though cannot master it,
That tension and position are closely linked.
No failure — and there are many — leaves me worn.

I squawk for hours, content with struggle, and pay
For patience and advice while teachers sigh (“If only
He were ten or twelve — we’d go farther, sooner”).

I’m late to understanding.  It’s a common fault.
At 33, I could give up writing for the chance
To know how one note, rightly sounded — round,

Toneful, hair clinching string from top to end —
Shakes the matter in my skull and rests all trouble.
Still to come are mysteries, endless scales, harmonics.

Big orchestra

What we need is a big orchestra of at least one hundred players. We should make a surreal painting of our lives and be able to say, as though it were the only true utterance that ever stuttered off our lips: this is what life is like: a briefcase, a glove-box, stuffed full with an enormous orchestra of violinists, cellists, flautists, pianists, organists, trombonists, french-horn-players, clarinetists, timpanists, cymbalists, the whole-bang-lot, that we could open up like a magic box in those quiet moments for which our language has no words. You know the moments I mean, don’t you? You could be sitting at a table just looking out the window, or reading a book, or a friend may have just decided that it’s time to go home and leaves you, or the music from the record-player may have just stopped, and the room is suddenly quiet, and you then look up from your book or your dinner, or have stopped at an intersection waiting for the lights to change, and then, as though your eyes had been pulled out of your head and taken ten feet away and pointed at you, you see yourself, your whole self, and you wait for something, for anything. A car may pass on the street outside, or someone may make a little sound in the next room, or a fluorescent lamp in a shop window may be flickering on and off, or the books in your room may stare out at you, a company of objects full of meaning no-one entirely understands. And standing there, or sitting there, just waiting there, you become an object. You are the object that arranges for the kettle to boil each morning, the fastidious object that periodically puts other objects back in their proper places, the object that, because it is not entirely without pity, sometimes almost spontaneously, acts with compassion toward some other object, a dog, a cat, a person, and sometime afterwards wonders whether it acted selflessly, and if so, Why? For what reason? That mad, suffering, ridiculous object which each day opens up its head and tears its brain apart, atom from atom, then throws them into the air, into the darkness. The atoms are like stars; the space between them the sum of all unanswerable questions. Or else, they are something more humble: specks of dust suspended in a beam of daylight. Whichever, you are the object standing there, watching, with its arms open to them as they fall. Coming through each day is a miracle: the atoms, the stars, the dust falling into your arms. It’s a miracle how nothing is lost. Each memory persists: the dust and the stars falling into your hands, and all the atoms combining to make you whole again, the complete object, the perfectly still object with not a single word in its head. Words could not explain what it is like to be just a thing, an object. No language has words for such a terrible idea. It is a moment like that when you need a big orchestra; not just a radio or a record-player, but a real orchestra, made of real people and real instruments. You need to have it straight away. There’s no time to go out and look for it; it has to be there, ready for you. And then you would want it to start playing slowly and quietly, there at the street corner, or at your table, or in your room: a single violin, or a piano beginning to play so quietly that you tilt and turn your head toward it, before all the others join in, making the music louder and faster, but even then only by slow degrees. It must be slowly, painfully slowly, because something terrible and unforgettable is happening to you. You had lost something and now it is being given back to you.

This ‘prose poem’ was first published in a radio broadcast (5UV, Adelaide) in 1984, and then in A crowd of voices. It is included among dream reports because it was originally a dream. In later years I abandoned attempts to turn dreams into stories and concentrated, instead, on finding a way of writing dreams that allowed them to remain, more obviously, what they were.
%d bloggers like this: