the dear departed [lovers that have gone]

the dear departed
                 lovers that have gone

angels that once terrified us
                 threatening to bring death

so near as love
                 sometimes return.

these lost loves,
                 whose provenance and history

is harder than a coin
                 passing hand to hand

through all the dull business
                 of the commonwealth,

arrive at our aching arms
                 unexpected.

the strange gifts of a stranger,
                 a once familiar mind.

thoughts that tasted like water,
                 answering an ancient need.

we may go down to the shore
                 and take a boat to be more

completely under a sky we knew
                 at a happier time,

remember love
                 like one who is newly blind remembers color,

listen to our bodies sing
                 their old pain.

our untasted souls,
                 we hoped would feed another life

to propagate our own,
                 make, at any spot we stop to feel,

the feast of questions
                 loving is.
Originally published in Out of the Box: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Poets, edited by Michael Farrell and Jill Jones, Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2009

In museums of beautiful art

In each great hall an exhausted tourist or a lover of art
whose life has come to this fine point, standing still as a sign,
is troubled to learn the truth of his companion’s mind, and
cannot calculate how far he’s come to know so little.

He knows the museums of beautiful art are full,
as much with pain as love; and all the masters, old and new,
knew just what we go to them to do… At every other corner
a blood-soaked scene, vengeful, pitiable, famous or obscure,

is excessive proof—with martyrs, slaughtered innocents, rapes,
betrayals—the world was shaved by a drunken barber; and,
at the next corner, the beautiful starvation of youth, which, like a theory
facts have not yet spoiled, reminds us of all longing unfulfilled.

It’s true, as we’ve been told, every dreadful martyrdom
must run its course. Paris, if he is not in love, is just a city
full of old stuff, unhelpful, jaded waiters, and dog shit.
Fall flat on your face in Rue Saint Denis, and Parisians laugh.

On such a day—beyond where Veronese’s butcher-cook hacks
away just above Christ’s head; and, following the signs, in the hall
past the spot where Leonardo’s Mona Lisa woodenly endures
the tourist crush—one more painting waits for him…

Saint John, the Baptist. From within the black world where nature
and hope have disappeared, the saint’s left hand rests upon his heart;
and his right arm, pointedly, shows the way to another world.
He steps into the traveller’s light and, with a kind word and gesture

to offer, smiling, says, “I know that you, too, suffer.”
Meanings that will not bring words to a traveller’s mouth,
the wounds he spoke of to himself at night, are recognised,
fixed forever, in the master’s art and the smiles of artless saints.


Originally published in Out of the Box: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Poets, edited by Michael Farrell and Jill Jones, Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2009.

st_john_the_baptist_-_leonardo_da_vinci

Dinner at Whistler’s

The interior, like a fresh, young face,
is a masterpiece of simplicity.

Traffic moves along straight lines
between what is said and what is done.

At the dinner table, even the menus
are painted to illustrate the feast.

Desire is a red plate.
Love is a black bowl.

It is ironic that his mother,
now an exhibit in Paris,

is surrounded by impressionists
and looks very sad.

Aesthetes imagine a blue square
is the most beautiful space.

Peacocks and all other flightless birds
no longer lay claim to parts of the sky.

The quarrel of art and money is over.
Needing each other, they kiss and make up.

The rooms we lived in, the meals we made,
the words we spoke, themselves all masterworks,

numbered, rotting, forgotten,
will no longer be the cause of any emotion.

A regret, like a tremor, wakes us.
He goes to piss against the wall.

I am the stranger here, in the room
made for blue and white porcelain.

This poem appeared first in Out of the Box: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Poets, edited by Michael Farrell and Jill Jones, Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2009

Since Jerusalem

… for those who have died but live again.

The first thing I want to say is that everything I’m going to write down here is true. Obviously I’m going to lie a little here and there because you can’t tell everything you know about someone unless you’re trying to hurt them and I don’t want to do that. But as far as all the things that matter are concerned I’m going to tell the truth.

The notebook’s first page is a collection of titles. Most of them are crossed out lightly, or struck through; some have been obliterated by several layers of ink. Two of the titles are written in an unusually neat hand. They were the first and last choices. One of these two has been rejected because of its coincidental reference to a novel by Patrick White. Throughout the notebook the titles are repeated above versions of the same story or different parts of the same story. Everything in the notebook is unfinished.

There are two versions of the beginning: the first is a half-hearted claim to write nothing but the truth, and the second, in the middle of the notebook, is an attempt to begin at the beginning. He has decided this second attempt to open the story was too important to take the place it would naturally have in the record of a person’s life, and therefore adds the note, End—explanation?

The story is there, in the notebook, but, as it stands, it is little more than a record of the author’s failure to write it. “Story”, though, doesn’t describe it properly: some parts are like a diary, some actually a diary, some nothing more than notes on conversations. How much of it is true, how much fiction, doesn’t seem to matter.

I’ve been reading bits and pieces of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. —For years. I have to admit I don’t like Ezra Pound. There are others I don’t like, which is only natural, but with Pound I feel like I should apologise, like it’s a sin. Father, forgive me my sins. It has been years since my last confession, father, and these are my sins: I don’t like Ezra Pound. It’s nothing about the writing. I think it’s something personal. Something to do with the ‘hieratic head’, the arrogance of it. Something about the way his poems are treated like holy relics. But now I’m not so sure, because there’s this ‘Portrait d’une Femme’, and it makes me cry. I slobber over it. It’s not a terribly sad poem — at least, I don’t think it’s supposed to be.

“Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea.” No need to look at the note to understand what it means. My aunt is my family’s sea, beautiful and dangerous. So much depends on her.

Her life stinks and, unlike Job, she hates god for it. There’s no point in thinking that god might not exist—someone has to be responsible. Her bravery in cursing him during thunderstorms frightens friends who happen to be visiting.

All references to religion have been deleted, except a kind of prayer which I will show later.

In the next passage, not really part of the story, there is the reason for the writing.

More than a year ago my aunt left her home and moved into a flat to live by herself. She left her husband and son. Everyone in my family was shocked by this and couldn’t understand it at all. I include myself, of course. I heard about it second hand, from my mother when she visited me one day, hunting for clues. She didn’t tell me the whole story because she didn’t know it all herself. She didn’t say, for example, that some people in my family had been saying my aunt was a lesbian. “That’s the reason she’s done it. It couldn’t be anything else.” All I knew was my own disbelief.

When mum kicked me out of her house because she wanted to get on with her life, I left quite happily because I wanted to get on with mine. Kids run away just because they’re growing up, or because they think they’re growing up, which is the same thing. It’s about independence. A year ago independence was the only reason I could find for my aunt’s flight. I’d forgotten—not even thought, because it had never been necessary for me—it could also be about survival. Women know this other explanation deeply. Men don’t seem able to think it.

After the titles are four photographs, one to a page, pasted to the lined paper with art cement. The aunt is first. She is cutting a cake (a birthday cake?) and there is a Christmas tree in the background. The uncle is second. He is holding up a glass of beer in the gesture of ‘Skoal!’ and grinning broadly. Grandparents are third. It is a portrait taken with a diffusing lens-filter. A window off to the left of the couple throws light into a dark room. The tan on the face of the sun-loving husband and the flowers on the wife’s dress look painted. I am the fourth. My appearance, as a photograph in the notebook, is puzzling: the only other reference to me I can find is the letter “M” underneath the picture. It would have been more appropriate to include a photograph of the cousin, Robby.

Then there are two pages of scribbling. Two addresses, doodles, and a figuring of dates which arrives at the answer “1953?” The best, but still inadequate, version of this year is written like a report; the rest are only notes.

sailors-women-1946inmelbourne

When she was thirteen everyone called her a tomboy. She used to box with a boy who lived down the street where she lived in Richmond. His name was Johnny Famechon and he went on to make a living beating young men to a pulp in the ring. When he was a kid, though, he used to come out second best against my aunt. In the same year, 1953 I think, there was a hot December night and nothing very important was happening. Anyone who was moving was moving slowly. Maybe half the women in the street were sitting out on their patios drinking beer. One of my aunt’s cousins, older than her but not by much, started talking about sex. It was a subject my aunt had not given much thought to. What was said—something crude and, in fact, a lie about my aunt’s mother—doesn’t matter in the long run. I’ve no intention of bringing it to life by repeating it here. It’s more important to tell how I was told of it.

My aunt was trying to remember how she felt. She said very clearly, very directly, “I hated her.” As she said this I remember seeing this hate as though all the years which separated her present self from that former one were suddenly transparent and irrelevant, and I could see the core of what she was that night her cousin told her the lie. Now I don’t know whether she was referring to her cousin, her mother, or both of them.

That hate lasted eleven years, from the night in December, 1953, to the day she gave birth to her baby. What happened during these eleven years is difficult to explain, and I don’t pretend to understand it at all. She says that this hateful “thing” which had formed inside her was alive, but also silent, like a place where light and sound could enter but not leave, a listening, lizardy thing, cold-blooded, not human. She became ill, and refused to carry on conversations even with people she had known for years. There was going to be a place no one else would know about, where she could be alone; and since there was no place in the real world she could make that happen, she created a place inside herself for that purpose. This place could be infinitely large, insatiably hungry.

There are more lies in here than are necessary to protect the people the writing refers to.

That first rule, Write about what you know, is not very helpful tonight. What I know tonight is that I have forgotten a great deal it would be useful to remember. There are only threads of conversations and stories left, which I pick up, trying to put them together. So, they’re together. How many lies will make a pattern visible?

My aunt used to listen to doctors, friends, and family talking to her, asking her what was wrong, and it would seem she wasn’t listening at all. Nothing seemed to get through. That was a mistake. In fact, she heard everything and let everything in. In her secret place she would be listening and speaking all the time, saying things like, “You’re all idiots! You’re never going to get in here!” Doctors can be idiots, too, of course. “It’s stupid to claim you know something when you don’t”, is her explanation of the work of psychiatrists. She does admit that one of her doctors came close to her.

He gave her paints and clean, white paper to work with. She liked painting, and still does, though she never paints people because she believes there is too much in people which can’t be seen. She paints only landscapes and houses. In Mont Park, the mental hospital, she painted what she saw and used only two of the colors in her set of paints, black and red. The whole surface of the white paper she’d been given would be covered with black, except for a thin, rectangular sliver of white right in the middle. At the end of this white sliver she put a red dot.

It was a cigarette. My aunt was certain that no one “in the whole world” would understand what it meant, but the doctor who’d given her the paints looked at it and said, “Well, there’s some hope for you yet. I’m glad you think there’s still some white to look at. It’s a window, yes?”

Less subtle, not-so-clever psychiatrists had already tried electric shocks to relieve her depression. The idea is that, if you shoot a certain number of volts through someone’s brain, the poor bugger’s going to feel as though he’s died, first, and then feel like he’s been born again, which gives him a new start in life. It certainly gives him a start. It wasn’t electricity which shocked my aunt out of her private place but the desire for light and the surprise of a real birth.

The notebook, its leaning toward an always incomplete story, seems to skirt the issue of a scandal in the family, providing the motive to write, but surfacing only in phrases delaying its appearance—“until recently … ”.

By 1959 my aunt had already married. I don’t have the foggiest idea how this happened. The details of this part of her life have never interested me very much, but now that I get around to this part they seem important and I’m pissed off that I can’t record it properly. I do know that her husband is a good man and loves her. I know that most of the time they sleep in separate beds. I know that until recently her marriage was the happiest in my whole family. I know there was a baby, my cousin.

After a few years she was still not considered to be really well or, at least, “normal”, and there was a lot of talk about whether she would be able to cope with a baby. For a while into the pregnancy her doctors continued to ask questions, mainly about sex. Neither my aunt nor her husband seemed to be very comfortable with it, but then you could say that about a lot of people, including most of the doctors, I suppose. She got fat. It was the first time in her life she looked like her bulging, robust sisters, and she thought it was wonderful. It was wonderful being fat; she wasn’t yet sure about the baby. If you could see her grand, muscular son now when he stands beside his tiny mother you’d probably laugh at the miracle of it. At some point she discovered the baby was protecting her. The doctors stopped asking questions. Occasionally she heard people say things like “It could go either way”, which she supposed was a comment on her mental state. She got fatter. She became two people. And then one afternoon, after complaining to the nurses of the women’s hospital for more than an hour, her son’s leg “popped out.”

I think it was a leg but it might have been his arm. She remembers travelling in an elevator with one or other of the baby’s limbs sticking out from between her legs and a nurse saying “You’re not being very helpful” as she wheeled my aunt’s bed into the delivery room.

After that there was nothing real, only a dream.

There are two dreams in the notebook: one recording a birth and the other a death.

Over the next few days the same dream kept coming back. She was being beaten cruelly by people who wanted to get inside her, and the baby wasn’t safe. Every night she had to fight these people off until her baby emerged with bruises on its face. The staff at the hospital and all the visitors recited a prepared speech when my aunt asked them why she could not see her baby. “Everything is all right. You must rest a few more days.” Robby did have bruises on his head, caused by the large clamp which had been used to assist his appearance in the world.

He has tried to assess Ezra Pound’s poem against his aunt’s life. There are lines in the poem which made him think of her, but others apparently did not sit comfortably with his ideas about her. Two pages of the notebook are devoted to this strange assessment, most of it unintelligible, referring to things and events not appearing elsewhere.

“Oddments of all things”

Pillow — Cigarettes — Huge jigsaw puzzle — Watches — Body

— Toasters — Radios — Matches

“Fact that leads nowhere”

Doctors

“No! there is nothing! In the whole world and all, nothing

that’s quite yr own.”

Anyone? What rubbish!

These are the only three parts of the poem clearly connected with parts of the notebook text.

It’s now about thirty years since the first time my aunt died. I’ve promised her the next time she dies, which will probably be from lung cancer at the rate she smokes, I will arrange for her favorite pillow, cigarettes and a box of matches to be buried with her. She says these are the only things she couldn’t bear to live without—or die without, depending on how you look at it.

After Robby was born my aunt started pulling things apart to find out what was wrong with them. Wherever she’s lived she’s become famous (locally) for being able to pull broken things apart and put them back together again fixed. Neighbors bring toasters, radios, tape-recorders, hair-dryers and children’s toys and puzzles for my aunt to work her magic. This is the way my aunt set about trying to repair the world and understand it, one thing at a time. Watches and clocks are her speciality.

One afternoon I went to visit her there were tiny pieces of metal scattered in what might have been an orderly fashion all over the kitchen table. She asked me whether I thought time was inside or outside a clock and I had to admit I didn’t have the faintest idea; so we just had another cup of tea while she put the clock back together again.

The meaning of the word ‘Body’ in the group “Oddments of all things” is not clear. The implication may be that the aunt’s peculiar mechanical abilities, her desire to “pull things apart”, were a substitute for a deeper interest in the workings of human bodies.

How can only three people be afflicted with so many unpronounceable names? ‘Von Recklinghausen.’ ‘Dupuytren.’ And so on. I imagine there are many like her, who live among the rest of us without ever telling us their special knowledge because they do not understand themselves it is something worth knowing. I imagine they have special powers given to them by their experience. And I imagine their numbers are growing.

I wish I were one of those know all authors who write stories where everything just falls into place, who make their characters do things like it was obvious what was going to happen all along.

In all the years I have known him I can only remember my uncle saying about a dozen things to me. Sometimes a few will come in combination: “Hi, how are you?” “It’s been a long time.” “What have you been doing?” I have a photo of him, glass of beer in his left hand and his mouth stretched to form an astonishing smile. It is really a picture of the mouth.

And then, the same thing over again …

Another Christmas has been accomplished. My aunt, her husband and son were absent this year. If they had said nothing, which would not be unusual, the rest of the family could easily have thought the three of them were staging a protest. It was not a protest. They went to meet Ken’s father halfway between the present and the past.

My aunt’s family seems to spend a lot of time not speaking. That’s not quite right: they speak, but do not tell. In all the years I have known him, before the last year, I can remember Ken saying only about a dozen things to me. Sometimes a few would come in combination: “Hi, how are you?” “It’s been a long time”, and, “What have you been doing?” I have a photo of him, glass of beer in his left hand, and his mouth stretched to form an astonishing smile. It is really a picture of a mouth. The mouth that doesn’t talk, at least not to me. It’s no less a friendly mouth just because few words come out of it.

I called her today to find out what had been going on. She didn’t come to Christmas lunch this year because she, Ken and Robby went up to the mountains to see Ken’s father. It’s been forty-four years. Father and son sat on the grass up there for hours, crying and talking, talking and crying, while the others, eating cold chicken, watched from a distance. My aunt couldn’t hear what was going on because her hearing aid was pointing into the wind. All she got was a roaring hiss. On the phone she kept calling the whole thing “pathetic”—“It was so sad, pathetic.”

He is relieved, at last, of the burden of having no past. Now, he looks there, seeing something solid, a grey face, old, not very impressive as far as faces go—but a face, life in its contours, a real death and loss in its future, something to know, touch, and kiss, or to hate and to blame. With this relief there will also be change. That must happen.

But, as for me, I am unchanged. The photographs prove it. I stare into the lens, my lips closed tight, not in the pose of a man who will not tell, but like one who has nothing to say. The one photograph which is most telling shows me clothed in black, in a solidly dark room. A light to one side of my face half lights me, and appears to freeze me in a world without its own features. The other half is completely black, and this is the place where I dream, and where, I suppose, my aunt lived. Who knows if there is any change or life there, or whether it is just a slow accumulation of junk and memory, where we might, if we were brave enough, go to find all our other selves, and write.

O God, who made us, who knows us, who knows our future

Who causes all our pain, and leaves us bewildered and helpless,

And free to die, and without hope, I know you are the God

Who is not God, who is our unfeeling, unthinking emptiness—

I know you are the God my aunt married, the dull, cold-blooded,

Blue-blooded lizard, and the dark, sticky resin where memory

Is planted, and where our feet stick. I know that I must fear You

As I fear the grave, and fear madness, because that is what you are.

I know that I must have you in my house and in everything I do

Because you are the living God who is dead in everyone,

Who sleeps and dreams with us, who arrives at breakfast

Stoney-faced, formal, in a black suit, like forgetting, and

Whose cruel, unbroken years of silence waits to break us.

Last night I dreamt I had fallen to the ground. I could see faces coming toward me, the familiar faces of the people I work with coming toward me. Arms reach out to touch me. Just at this moment I realise I am about to die. There is nothing these people can do to help. Someone calls for an ambulance. Since there is nothing I can do I watch my self dissolve; the faces looking at me disappear as I might seem to be disappearing to them. Then I am in a deep darkness. There is no sound and I can feel nothing. My mind is alive inside a black box. At this point—it has only taken a few seconds—I understand I have dreamt my own death, or I have actually died and that I understand nothing. What do I do now?

JERUSALEM (1942) postcard

“What is there left for me to do? My first death left me with a choice I could not avoid, to live forever in that black cave I made, with my own voice, or … I remember the moment Robby was born, as though he were punching his way free of the place where he had been confined with me. I knew then that I was not alone, and never had been. This small thing had been with me all along, even from before I was married. He had been with me for as long as I have been here. I emerged, too, along with my boy, and found the other place outside not much worth living in. Every now and then I discover some thing, or a small area to live in, flooded with light, things or places where nothing is hidden from anyone who cares to look. —A clock or a watch, for example, inside which nothing can be secret, and where, because of that, there can be no real darkness or misunderstanding. The closed box of a jigsaw puzzle, too, is a place always containing some perfect picture; it only needs opening and patience. On the other hand, people are completely mysterious, and hopelessly dark. It is impossible to paint them. They are all odd numbers. My husband, whom I love, I have lived with all these years and I still do not understand him. I cannot explain the bad time we went through. The bruises, the drink, everything obvious about that time … I know I have not been the easiest person to get along with. He saved me once. I think it must have been he who saved me. At some point I can no longer remember I must have willingly come out of my madness and loved him. This must be true. I am here, after all. And we have survived all this. We are no longer alone together, but together. Something deeper has saved us all, and continues to save us. When I was young, very young, my parents already knew I was to be the odd one out, and odd even among all the odd in the world. I was the last of four sisters. My father was going to the War, taking a ship to the Middle East. It would be a struggle with four kids at home. The wartime censors pretended to keep secret where the men had gone. I still have a letter which dad sent home that has a square in the top right hand corner neatly removed. But there is also a yellow-brown postcard with the word JERUSALEM boldly printed at the bottom. On the docks, before he left, mum told me later, was where I was conceived, in the last ten minutes before all those years of silence. I can’t imagine where they found a quiet place to make me, or if they were worried about that. It was a quick job, but one well done, mum says. They never loved each other more than in that moment just before leaving, which was a kind of death, and never hoped more for the life that was promised after death. That is the reason I am here, and the meaning of everything that has happened to me …”

 
 
Originally published in Meanjin, 1990. (Reader’s report by Gerald Murnane.)

Apology

Today I sat with coffee and newspaper
through the lunch hour
trying to catch up with the whole world’s tragedy.
Over the weekend was the calmest, coldest Sunday
for lunatics with guns, and there are six dead.
Monday all the wounded, the heroes, the neighbours,
the journalists, the dogs and cats,
have interviewed each other.
But today I was not living in a real world
and I must apologise for this.
For this one hour, when I was not working and distracted,
with time to think how life is,
I remembered Figaro and Susanna, Cherubino’s love songs,
and hummed Mozart, hummed through blood
and black banners which came off on my hands.
Last night one fine lover pushed pain aside
and held me still—the best duet, the friendliest, and quietest.
So, I’m sorry, today the world
was not in the least bit tragic, not even a little sad.
I could not cry for any pain.
Happiness has hardened me against all sorrow.

Originally published as part of War poems: for baritone voice, alto sax, cello, vibraphone and piano, performed by Grant Smith. Composer: Andrée Greenwell. An OzOpera production at the Melbourne Opera Centre, 10 and 11 September 1999, and at the Barossa Music Festival on Sunday 3 October 1999.

Dog day

Do you have to wrap that stuff in so much paper?” one of the brothers said.

“If you want to drink from broken glasses, no”, answered a woman’s voice from the kitchen.

“Hey, when are we going to start putting the stuff in the truck? It’s ten already.”

“Soon. Soon. As soon as the bows are on the boxes.”

“Bows?”

“Yeh, I think so.”

Jocey walked into the room with a stack of plates in her hands. “I don’t care. Take them all now and we’ll see what happens. Why you had to move the furniture first I’ll never know. Sitting on the floor for two days, it’s been painful.”

“I asked you what should go first last week and you didn’t have any suggestions. Just like a woman.”

“Oh, how’s that?”

“O, woman, so womanly. You can never — ”

“You’re only like this because your brother’s here.”

“Now, now. Leave me out of this, please.”

“Yeh, go on. Leave him out of it!”

The brother at the door squatted, bending his knees around the width of one of the boxes and prising his fingers between it and the carpet. It turned out to be the heaviest of the boxes, the one with A to Q of the New World Encyclopaedia in it. The elder brother pushed down the flaps of the box containing plates and picked it up. When he was half-way down the driveway of the house the other man was just then opening the back of the truck.
It looked too large. Though the floor space would be barely sufficient for what had to be put in it, the ceiling was fifteen feet high. It would be mostly empty when they had finished.

“God, she’s so fussy.”

“Can’t be helped. Joan’s like that, too.”

“They’re all the same. Sometimes I wonder why I did it.”

“What?”

“Got married, of course, you twit.”

“It’s not so bad.”

“My dog’s more friendly.”

“Oh, come on … ”

“Really!”

“I like her. She’s always been nice to me.”

“I noticed.”

“What does that mean?”

“I notice how nice she is when you’re around.”

“She was like that before.”

“Before marriage everything is nice … Your dog’s been making a hell of a racket.”

“Had strangers around?”

“Nup.”

“We’ve trained our dog. He shouldn’t bark at nothing.”

“It’s both of them. Noisy when they’re together.”

“Let one out in the front for a while then.”

“OK.” He slid the box containing plates down to the back of the truck and then jumped down to the road. “Drive this thing up closer to the house will you? And I’ll get the gate open.”
Tom started up the truck and manoeuvred it backwards along the driveway, and Mike released the Dobermann into the front garden.

“Have to travel to get to see you now.”

“It’s not that far.”

“Still, it won’t be the same.”

“Don’t get sentimental about it.”

“I’m not. It’s just that it’s really going to be the first time we’ve lived even in different suburbs. It’s strange.”

“It’s not strange. It’s normal. Stop being queer.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“That’s OK. Any time.”

“Jocey, I really don’t understand why you’re moving. I mean, it doesn’t seem to have anything going for it. It’s further from Mike’s work. The house is smaller. There’s nothing wrong with this place. I can’t see anything wrong with it. There isn’t, is there? Is it haunted, or something?” Jocey was looking out the kitchen window with an expression that was a little cold, a little aloof, as though there were a performance in the garden, one too obviously intended to inspire pathos. “Oh! The place is haunted!”

“No. Not with ghosts, anyway.”

“With what, then?”

“Who knows? With Mike and me, I suppose. I was just thinking about the people who are going to live here after us. I can’t imagine anyone living here after us, after Mike and me. Not living. Screaming, I can imagine. Or dying. Or murdering. But I can’t imagine anyone putting together something like a life in this place, in this particular house, in that garden.”

“You are in a bad way.”

“I’m in a great way. It’s a bad marriage I’m in. You know, it’s really funny, I like murder mysteries … ”

“Yes. You like murder mysteries.”

“I can sit all evening at that bench with one of them, a different one each night. Mum says they’re trash; ‘escapist’ she calls it. But they’re not, because I set them all here. This place is full of suspects. Mike’s half of them and I’m the rest.”

“I think I know what you mean, but … ”

“We don’t like each other any more.”

“That’s terrible.”

“I’m not really sure that it is. Not terrible for me, anyway. After all, Mike is treating me the way he treats everyone. That’s fair, I think.” Jocey wrapped cutlery and kitchen utensils into tea-towels. Joan stacked arm-fulls of linen she was moving from a hallway cabinet. “I haven’t answered your question, have I?”

“I don’t know.”

“I like it here. We’re leaving because we like it here.”

“I’m going to make a cup of tea. Want one?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“Doesn’t sound like a very good reason.”

“With any luck we’ll have destroyed everything before we have any children. Then make a clean break.”

“You’ve talked about that?!”

“Hardly.” The electric kettle began to rumble. Joan looked at it, thinking for a moment it might say something she could understand. She searched the benches for milk and sugar. “Milk’s in the fridge.”

“Tea?”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s a blue thing. Try in that box over there.”

“Blue? Here it is.”

“It should be blue, of course. Tea’s a blue drink. And gin, but I’m too young for that.”

“Have you talked about that?”

“Mike prefers non-verbal communication. Grimaces. Shrugs. Silence. Grabbing hold of me like a piece of furniture to be moved when I’m in the way. Maybe we shouldn’t have married so young. There was no need to.”

“Milk?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“What are you going to do?”

Tom’s great Dogue de Bordeaux stepped up onto the back porch and looked through the kitchen window at the women talking. The wrinkles between its eyes and a mouth that hung down at the sides of the face made the animal look always perplexed. Taller than the Dobermann and more muscular, this dog, nevertheless, seemed to Jocey more lovable and more human. “Is there sugar in this?”

“No, sorry. Here it is.”

“What am I going to do?” Jocey’s head swayed a little side to side, like an unbalanced gyroscope, unable to find an answer. “What am I going to do?” She looked out through the window again. The dog was still watching her, as though he, too, were waiting for an answer to appear on her lips. “You know I appreciate having you to talk to, Joan. We’re like sisters. It’s us against them, I think. The women against the men. They’ll kill us if we don’t stick together.”

“All of them?”

“Mike and Tom.”

“Oh, no, Jocey, that’s not right. Tom wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“You don’t think they’re alike, then, that they don’t stick together?”

Joan felt a knot forming in Jocey’s words, one she feared she would not be able to untie, and it made her angry. The brothers were not at all alike, but Joan wanted to give some explanation. “They’re brothers.”

Jocey stirred her tea then sipped it quietly. “The dog is watching us”, she said, as it turned its hindquarters to her. The head started its dizzy, rolling movement again. Joan thought she might cry.

Tom had moved quietly into the kitchen doorway and watched the women sitting in the sun beside the window.

“I must’ve married the wrong one, then.”

“You and Mike finished, are you?”

“No. Just come in to see what’s happening.”

“We’re having a cup of tea. Want some?”

“No, thanks.” Jocey was taking no notice of them. Tom mouthed a soundless word and tilted his head, signalling Joan should follow him out.

“I’m going to see how they’re getting along. Back in a minute.”

Tom looked back from the front door into the living room to see that Jocey was not following them. “What did you say to make her like that?”

“Nothing!”

“If Mike had heard that he’d have killed me. It couldn’t be nothing.”

“I asked why they were moving.”

“That’s all?”

“Aren’t you curious?”

“No. Jesus!” Tom exclaimed in whispers. “Mike already thinks his wife likes me more than him. Don’t make it worse, please.”

“She does!”

Mike stopped for a moment near the truck and looked at his brother standing in the front door of the house. The Dobermann ran across the lawn from the street with a ball in its mouth. “Good boy!” Joan looked over Tom’s shoulder at the dog sitting at Mike’s feet. “She does what?!” He threw the ball away again and walked past the two at the door to pick up another box. “What does she do?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“Who are we talking about?”

“A neighbour of ours.”

“Oh.”

Tom followed him into the living room, leaving Joan at the door to stare into the dog’s black, almond eyes. She walked to the back of the truck. “It’s going to be empty!”

“Might’ve done better with a ute.”

“I want to get it over in one.”

“Whose dog is this?”

“Oh, that’s the photo I gave Mike when he said he wanted a dog. You’ve still got it! Framed it and all!”

“Nice looking dog, that.”

“You think so?” Joan asked. “I think they’re a bit ugly.”

Mike stopped to stare into Joan’s face, waiting for her to look up and notice his attention. When she did, he said, “ — Just like women.”

“I’m sorry you couldn’t show it, Mike.”

“Not your fault. Nobody’s really.”

“It was a terrific looking pup. Still looks fine.” Tom attempted conciliation. Mike’s dog had developed an hereditary fault, its hocks crowing visibly. He’d been sold a dud, but one he liked, nevertheless, perhaps more because it was now useless for showing.

Unwelcome or uneasy inside and outside the house now, Joan walked on the front lawn, pretending interest in the progress of the garden.

“He looks terrible. The hocks are shit.”

“That’s not much of a problem.”

“I’m not saying I don’t like him.” The brothers sat down on the porch steps, elbows on knees.

“This truck is big. We’re only filling the bottom of it.”

The Dobermann stuck its head and forechest between the brothers’ shoulders, then sniffed at Mike’s ear. “Life’s like that.” The dog walked through the front door of the house into the living room and put its square muzzle into several boxes.

Jocey, still in the kitchen, had begun to wrap glass bowls and small jars which she kept on the sill. One of them, containing clear green marbles and eucalyptus oil, neck blocked with a cork stopper, she opened sometimes to cover unpleasant smells. She poured out the oil into the sink, ran hot water into the jar to clean it. Hearing paws patting on the linoleum floor, she turned and said “Hello, stupid” to the dog. It stood up, knuckled feet resting on the edge of the kitchen bench. “Shoo! Go on. Get out of that!”

Jocey watched low, grey cloud move above the garden, moving apart, turning the day overcast to bright in a minute. A sheet of light entered the room, striking Jocey’s breast, passed her and fell to the floor. The dog lapped it up, lying on its back in the magnified heat. Jocey looked into the garden thinking how quickly its mood had changed, everything in it unmoved but suddenly luminous, green, and felt trapped by its life like a potential suicide opening the door on her own surprise birthday party. “Damn. That’s really ruined my depression.”

Roused by her voice, the dog patted across the linoleum to sniff at Jocey’s legs. “Oh, piss off! You’re as bad as your master.” The dog persisted, pushing neck and withers between Jocey and the sink cupboards, getting stuck there until Jocey stepped back to complain again. Circling quickly, it stood up, forelegs at Jocey’s back and shoulder, muzzle in her neck, and red penis poking at her thigh.

Mike stiffened when he heard the sound of breaking glass and Jocey yelling “Stupid…,” “Rotten…,” “Mongrel!” He thought, and didn’t think, noticed himself concentrating on those sounds, repeating and reducing them to exactly the feeling they intended. They were no longer glass or word but an expression that could be read plainly on his face. The dog ran out the front door, but he took no notice of it. It was Jocey he wanted. Where was she? Where is the stupid, rotten bitch? He did not walk straight through the house to the kitchen, where the sounds came from, where he knew she would be waiting for him. He walked into the living room and looked at the floor as though he were looking for evidence or for something lost, knowing that he would find nothing. He stood there for a moment and looked at the blinds covering the window which faced the back garden, and the spears of light they sent into the room. He wanted her to come out and look into the dog’s face, chase it down the street, to scream, now, while he was there. “Where are you, you bitch!”

Jocey, though, would do none of that. She was already calm, exhausted. “Your stupid dog tried to fuck me. I can’t believe it. It stood up and tried to fuck me! Stupid thug. Now look what’s happened. That beautiful jar with the marbles. I’m not going to find another one like it.” She bent down to pick up a marble, and searched, crouching, for others. “These will be OK, anyway. I can’t believe it. Do you have to let that thing in the house?” When Jocey stooped to reach near Mike’s feet he thought he might kick her. He took a step back from the kitchen door and looked at her head. He could do it. It would be easy. The anger was written in red strips across his face; in clear, vivid stripes of light on his red face. Tom’s dog barked in the back yard.

“Get out of the way.”

“It’s your dog’s fault. The stupid thing.”

“Get out of my way.”

The absence of anything meaningful to say had paralysed them both, replaying, in this moment, the scene which was their daily life together.

“I can’t believe it.”

“Let me out.”

Mike gripped Jocey’s shoulders, lifted her up straight, and moved her aside. He walked out the back door and Tom’s dog rushed towards him. He led it off the back porch down into the garden and then to the gate. Jocey watched them from the window as they left the back yard to join the others.

The dogs barked together.

No one spoke a word but got on with the business of moving boxes. Mike and Tom moved back and forth between living room and truck. They moved more and more quickly, urgently emptying the house. Joan moved more slowly, slipping across the path of the busy brothers like a pedestrian through fast traffic. She stopped and laughed at them quietly, and then, embarrassed, thought they must have heard because the yard was quiet, too. The dogs were silent. “What’s happened?” Joan asked.

The dogs were there, standing on the street, completely still.

“What’s going on with them?”

The brothers stood together, looking quizzically on the quiet scene in which the dogs also stood together like statues left in the middle of the road. The black dog moved first. Tom’s dog ran second. They seemed to spring into a chase of something hidden in a neighbour’s garden, but nothing could be seen there.

Mike, Joan, and Tom moved out onto the footpath and looked across to the garden of the neighbour directly opposite them. The dogs had gone.

“That’s strange. What are they doing?”

“Shsh!”

Since they could not see anything beyond the row of low bushes except the row of higher trees, and not even anything of the house beyond those, except the roof, they waited with their ears more open, staring blankly into the leaves.

Next came the sound more musical and human than they expected, shrill and feminine and clear, a voice half wailing and half singing. It was not the cry of physical pain, but the tuneless singing of someone terrified and sad.

Mike crossed the road, looked up at the house, and decided to go in. He did not see the dogs anywhere in the yard. The voice had stopped its strange song, leaving Mike to listen to his own thoughts. He wondered if the dogs could have attacked the old woman or her husband. No, it is not that. He sees the old man standing at the door, walking backwards, turning, not sure how to move. Closer, almost at the door himself, he sees the old woman raise her hands to her head, open her mouth, and release an odd note.

Beneath the note he heard the low growl and grunt of the two dogs, and then saw them, down at the floor in the middle of the old couple’s living room, tugging at a bloodied bundle. Mike shouted a command at the top of his voice and, when it appeared the dogs might not willingly give up their prize, moved toward them threateningly, with his hand raised, repeating the command to stop.

The dogs ran and Mike followed them out of the house. He watched the dogs closely, shepherding them back to his own territory where Joan and Tom waited for an explanation. He held his lips tight together, concealing the laugh in his throat. “It’s all right,” he said, and his teeth showed.

The things in the sea

Two things in the sea
We came to see,
One, the great No,
Monumental and black,
And one, the white Yes,
Lucid and clear.
We stood in the mouth,
The world at our back,
To hear the things speak.
Two things in the sea
We came to hear,
The drums of the No
And the hush of the Yes.
We stood in the ear
Of the world at the sea
And whispered our wish
And wished it would hear.
Two things in the sea
We came to taste,
The salt of the No,
And its bitterness, Yes.
We stood in the hand
Of the world on the beach
And counted our lives
In mouthfuls of sand.
We went there to ask,
To see for ourselves,
The puzzle that rises
In seeing the sea —
The curtain of sky
And stage of the sea,
The speech of the tide,
The quandary of being.
Two things in the sea
We came to see —
To see the great No,
To see the white Yes,
Their drums and their hush,
Their salt and their sand.
It did not show
Or speak; it did not
Hear, or care to know,
What wish we had,
What pain we bear;
It did not answer
To our fears, though
The things in the sea
Were moving there,
Beneath the foam
And grey, they neither
Let out any word, nor
Sent us on our way.

Originally published in Perseverance Poets’ Collection 1991-92, 1992