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.
Anyway, the word from the poor author, who’s writing this because he doesn’t have a ‘real’ job, is that he wants to know what’s going on behind those eyes, why we behave as though we still believe in fairy tales when it’s obvious that the world’s fucked. I’m thirty-something, so you’d think I’d have figured it out already; but that’s just the way it is. I’ve got plenty of time, though, if my heart holds out.
I met an author at a book launch recently and we talked about the painter Francis Bacon. An interview with Bacon called ‘The Brutality of Fact’ begins with the admission that Bacon harboured a sexual desire for his father. The author I was talking to thought this was shocking, impressively honest, very promising; but he was sure that Bacon was concealing something else with this honesty. Well, I’m not so sure about that. I’m mentioning this because I remember now what I was thinking while we were talking about Francis Bacon.
I was thinking that when I was a young boy I was fascinated by my father’s sexuality. I loved his body, his big dick and his hairy chest. For years, for most of my adult life, I have maintained the conviction, and touted it publicly, that I hated my father. At my twenty-first birthday party I called him an “elephant’s arsehole”. (Not very nice; but, then, we hated each other secretly: he ‘hated’ me for leaving him; and I ‘hated’ him for treating me so badly when I left.) When I come to think of it, these were almost the last words he ever heard come out of my mouth. Everybody laughed.
Kids are supposed to hate their fathers because they’re the competition in a boy’s love for his mother. Did you ever hear such a stinking lie? This conviction I have maintained, stylishly elaborating it for my small part of the world to hear, is, of course, a load of crap—a load of crap straight out of the elephant’s arsehole, so to speak. The truth is, I loved my father. When I remember him now, in the moments that he touched me, when, for any reason, his arms wrapped around me, I was in heaven. But, even when I was just eleven years old, I knew the boundaries of this feeling, without knowing how I knew them, knew that there were things that could not be done or said, and knew this prohibition was real without ever having heard it spoken.
The point is—to answer the question before it is asked—that Francis Bacon was not concealing something else with his honesty. No, that’s not it. I know what Francis was trying to conceal. In a little while (when I’ve worked out how to say it) I’ll tell you what it was.
It’s hard to say what the truth of ‘style’ is, or with what ‘style’ the truth can be written. I know that I am impatient. I know that poets cannot be trusted. And you know you cannot trust me. You do not know whether I am lying or telling the truth. If those bastards in their ivory towers have their way, no one will know whether this pronoun I am tossing around is the thing that stands for me or is something else. I’ll tell you honestly: it is something else, something that even people who are writers do not know, and people who are readers know even less.
All the most personal writing I have reserved for poems; an idea, a feeling, a gripe with the world, some angry moment or pleasant surprise hunches in a cool, dark place for years, confident that, because it belongs to a writer, no one will arrive with a ‘Use by’ stamp. In a poem, and in some kinds of prose, these moments can be gathered irrationally, bunched like flowers and achieve, without too much thought—apart from concentrating now and then on ‘music’, the need to avoid cliché, and the necessary test of truth—an aesthetic effect. My first poems were not, in any way, personal, except in the safest and most abstract way; they expressed my feelings, but in a way that safely detached these feelings from my person. Perhaps this is the reason, years later, when I read these poems, I’m surprised and grudgingly recognise myself as their author. A few weeks ago, when a Sydney fiction editor wrote to ask if I had any prose suitable for publication in a gay magazine, I was surprised, again, to discover I responded, apologetically, that I write on gay themes only by accident, as though two aspects of my self might collide at an intersection. There are several stories, I explained in my letter, on appropriate themes, but they are all too long and none of them is finished. But, even as I wrote my excuse, I knew that it was not quite true and that I might, some time in the future, have to recant. There are, indeed, long, unfinished stories. It is no accident that they are unfinished. Something has obstructed their completion. There is the story of a man of letters and his boyhood relationship with one of Australia’s greatest painters; a ‘true story’ of which so little detail is available to me that it must be reconstructed from almost nothing: it is like trying to imagine a body from a pile of bones. There is the story of a relationship between a middle-aged man with HIV and a young, straight, drug-addicted prostitute. This is the story from which my last book takes its name: ‘The Ninth Satire’. It is strange, isn’t it, that a book built on the foundation of a particular story should have been published without the very story that prompted it? I like the irony of it. For hundreds of years Decimus Junius Juvenalis’s ‘Satire IX’ was excluded from collections of his satires because it dealt with subject matter which many editors thought unprintable. The relationship of Juvenal to the interlocutor of his ninth satire, Naevolus, has always disturbed me. I cannot fathom Juvenal’s cruelty. And Naevolus is both crudely attractive and repulsive. It is difficult to write about what you do not understand. There is another story, also unfinished, about a young girl who becomes pregnant when she is fucked by a man she later discovers is bi-sexual. This story is about disillusionment, abortion, and feelings of revulsion. These stories have something in common apart from being unfinished. They are all, in some way, stories about my unfinished self, ideas that are waiting for the completion of the person who could be their author.
People like a story that moves forward briskly, sweeps them up in a whirlwind of plausibility and delivers them, not more than a little bruised, to unexpected, credible conclusions: something with a beginning, middle and end. —But life is not like that; at least, none of the lives I know are like that. A story may be composed entirely of things left unsaid, where one thing is not properly related to anything else; and it may move forward only by changing direction. This is a story of that kind. Its author is a character a little like myself; that is, only in the sense that he is also an author.
You see, that’s the problem—Francis Bacon’s problem, one of them—you start out trying to tell the truth and, as soon as you open your mouth, your relationship to it has changed: it is no longer the truth, but something that obstructs something else.
What does it mean when someone writes ‘I’? Geofroy Tory, the typographer and student of Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci, once wrote, “I cannot pass here without pointing out that our said letters were devised through divine inspiration. Homer, King of the Greek poets, states at the beginning of Book VIII of his Iliad that Jupiter once said he could, if he so wished, draw to himself by means of a golden chain all the other gods, and even the earth and the sea as well.” Tory imagines this chain, hanging from heaven to where we stand, “well proportioned in length and breadth, suited to the symmetry of our proportional letter ‘I’.”1 Victor Hugo, on the other hand, believed that “ ‘I’ is a war machine launching its projectile…”2 Can you imagine two more divergent explanations of the same thing? The upright letter. Tory draws his letter over the figure of a naked man. Anything could hide behind such a monument of typography, an ‘I’ that stretches from its author to the supreme god. Hugo’s letter is a cannon. It shoots its meaning into the heart of a reader, and it does not even have to be aimed very carefully to tear him apart.3
Now we understand each other. Now, as the story of this unfinished self goes on, you’ll understand this ‘I’ is both a monument of fiction (the obstruction itself) and the means by which the obstruction is removed. A typographer’s eye is another matter.
Mistake leads to interpretation. A proof-reader’s eye can unleash reverberations in a reader’s mind. Hans Gabler’s ‘definitive’ edition of Ulysses repeated the minor error of Clive Driver’s ‘definitive’ edition of Ulysses by deciding that Joyce had meant to write “lumps of coral and copper snow” at the beginning of chapter 15.4 The French translation of Ulysses5 says the phrase is “des couches d’une neige de charbon et de cuivre”—that is, “coal”, not “coral”. Joyce is preparing us for a descent into the underworld, not a sightseeing cruise to a coral reef. While we can imagine that Joyce would have cared greatly to give the correct impression here, the same cannot be said of all writers. It is Proust who interests me; the thousands of pages of digression, one tied to the other, so that a reader becomes lost in purely sensuous wandering, through a garden, along a path, the taste of a little cake dipped in lime-flower tea, the eye stopping for a moment on a young girl’s face. Proust did not seem to care about errors of typesetting. What he cared about was creating yet another digression, and when he received his proofs he added more writing to the galleys instead of reading them.6
“I gazed at her, at first with that gaze which is not merely a messenger from the eyes, in whose window all the senses assemble and lean out, petrified and anxious, that gaze which would fain reach, touch, capture, bear off in triumph the body at which it is aimed, and the soul with the body”, Proust writes, with a typographer’s eye, in the ‘Combray’ chapter of Swann’s Way, “then (so frightened was I lest at any moment my grandfather and father, catching sight of the girl, might tear me away from her, by making me run on in front of them) with another, an unconsciously appealing look, whose object was to force her to pay attention to me, to see, to know me.”7
The eyes are, perhaps, more important than anything—at least, to a person who has the use of them—and there is as much about them in our languages, poetry and morality, as any other part of the body, including the heart. Gray’s Anatomy describes the heart in less than ten pages (leaving aside all the things connected to it) and provides only two illustrations. The eye, however, has at least fourteen pages and five illustrations (not counting the Meibomian glands or the Lachrymal apparatus). The eye is in every aspect of our personality. While we keep the heart and mind separate, all minds have an eye—‘the mind’s eye’—to see things our other eyes cannot. This eye may be green, if we are jealous. And, as we know from the Psalms, having eyes is no guarantee that we will be able to see.8 Understanding is not only a matter for the eyes—‘an eye-opener’—but the speed with which it happens is measured in the eyes: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”9 There is an “inward eye”, according to Wordsworth, “Which is the bliss of solitude.” And, as we wander lonely as a cloud, like William, who knows, we might see Mr Dodgson through the looking-glass with our “dreaming eyes of wonder”. But it is all in the eye of the beholder. Some eyes have apples in them; some are jaundiced, some lacklustre; others have bags underneath. Many eyes are found in months—“men’s eyes in April / are quicker than their brains”10 —and there are a thousand, at least, in every night. Are there more eyes in Shakespeare than in the sky, than in the night sky, plus one, “the great eye of heaven”? “Alas, how is’t with you / That you do bend your eye on vacancy / And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?” Why are there so many eyes in Hamlet? “In my mind’s eye, Horatio.” “… Foul deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes.” “The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword.” “… Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres …” The eyes are the site of our most intractable prejudices. Black and white. “Appearances contribute to reality”, John F. Kennedy said. We know that there is something else, but our eyes tell us what we believe will be the truth. Our eyes connect us, by their immediate reaction, to what we know is viscerally, instinctively beautiful or horrible. Magnetic. Attractive. Insatiable. Repulsive. Ugly. An eye is a key that unlocks pornography. And while it is true that they can be closed, unlike our ears, which are always open (and, so to speak, ‘watchful’), even when closed the imagination keeps them alight. Memories stoke the fire. When we are asleep our eyes follow our dreams. The eyes hardly ever sleep. All of our desire is in them, and all desire’s sadness. The eyes are full of themselves and with everything else. It is with our eyes that we measure the world and first recognise ourselves in it. Sight, as Plato wrote in The Republic, stating the obvious, is the eyes’ “proper excellence”.11 —If only it were true. It is through them that we measure the visible world, and imagine the extent of everything that is hidden. First in the catalogue of human fear is the ‘unknown’, whose most compelling sign is darkness. The eyes are a list of suffering and joy. All of a person’s character may be in their eyes, as Gustave Flaubert knew.12 —And none of it. The eyes of the paranoiac imagine there is more in the eyes that follow him than there actually is. Why? It is because the content of eyes is very often ambiguous. We hope for love and fear rejection, and never know everything that is behind another’s eyes. A ‘visionary’ is one who saw things we did not, and so is a madman. Visionary and madman are measured by what our own eyes see, or don’t see, as the case may be. (Madness, as the mad will tell you, if you ask them, is mostly in the ears. Thoughts are ‘heard’. The mind is a noisy place. But, after the ears, the eyes are the next to go. Light and dark angels appear where voices were.) And, as Michel Foucault has shown, modern medicine was born in the eyes: “The gaze will be fulfilled in its own truth and will have access to the truth of things if it rests on them in silence, if everything keeps silent around what it sees.”13 Two eyes are needed to appreciate perspectives. A mystic is helpless without the third. A banker may not have a heart but he keeps at least one eye on the bottom line. Some people “only have eyes for you”, which is a somewhat unlikely compliment. To have eyes like these is, in short, to be human. Even Jews have them! “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?”14 And niggers, queers, perverts, socialists, women, Liberals and child-molesters have them, too.
Are you following me? Good. Then let’s go to New York—city of many niggers, Jews, Koreans in self-serve salad bars, and millions of eyes. The contrasts are surprising. Times Square is said to have more ‘language’ hanging in the air than any other place on earth; a vortex of signs and speech, a typographer’s dream. Wall Street, on the other hand, where language has been replaced by ‘data’, is a cold, almost signless, windy canyon that, I was surprised to find, has a dark and eerily beautiful graveyard, beside Trinity Church, at its entrance. I walked back from Wall Street to my room on West 48th Street by wandering up West Broadway through Soho and Tribeca (in Spring Street there is an old building now dubbed ‘Poet’s House’—it’s in the NY phone book—where a monthly calendar of literary events and readings is published), the Village and, on the other side of Washington Square, Chelsea, up Eighth Avenue past the General Post Office (“NEITHER SNOW NOR RAIN NOR HEAT NOR GLOOM OF NIGHT STAYS THESE COURIERS FROM THE SWIFT COMPLETION OF THEIR APPOINTED ROUNDS”); a walk that, with occasional stops and small detours, can take a couple of hours. The 40s streets on Eighth could be avoided at night, if you are so inclined: they are full of visionaries, madmen, typographers and tourists. A typographer, I kept my eyes open, of course. There is so much to see. I walked into a salad bar where you can fill a small plastic container with whatever you like and pay, according to the weight of what you’ve chosen, only a couple of dollars for dinner. A tall, white red-neck in the queue in front of me was having an argument with the small Korean woman who weighed the meals. I had seen her here several times before, at all times of day, and concluded that she never slept. The red-neck had had enough of something. Maybe there are just too many people with yellow-brown skin in Manhattan these days. He exploded angrily, made some offensive remark, threw coins on the counter, and exited with his plastic container. The Korean woman said something to me that I didn’t understand, and then she laughed. I smiled quizzically. I was becoming accustomed to having conversations in which less than half of what was said could be understood. The previous night a cab driver had stuck his head out of his car and asked a black woman on the street, “Where is two-thoity-sex?” “Two-forty-what?” the black woman had replied in a well-educated tone of voice. I imagined these two people had spent most of their lives growing up together, one from Brooklyn, the other from the Lower East Side and, with only the East River between them, at this one, chance meeting, effective communication seemed impossible. I picked up my plastic container, which the tireless Korean woman had put in a little bag for me, and continued on my way. My eyes were still open. “Hey! Baldy!” I turned around. I realise, now, that this was a mistake. I should have kept my ears closed but, as I’ve already warned you, the ears are ever watchful and cannot be closed. A little Jewish man with long, messy hair, and dressed in a long, dirty, black coat, was hobbling behind me. He looked, in the moment that I saw him, like a mad and visionary Rabbi—not someone to be messed with. “Wha’do you want, baldy?!” Under no circumstances was I going to stop for this man. He had seen something, I don’t know what, leaning out of my eye as I walked along Eighth Avenue toward my room. Desire, perhaps. Whatever it was, he didn’t like it, and he was going to get me. “Hey, baldy! Wha’do you want, eh, baldy? Bald man!! Stop! Wha’da ya looking here for, bald boy?” he cried angrily. This guy was getting on my nerves. I walked a little faster, consoled myself that West 48th Street was only around the next corner and this nightmare would soon be over. But I was also angry. I was, after all, innocent of everything, except having eyes; and in New York there are millions of those. A moment later I realised that this caustic Jew and I had become a spectacle: ‘AVENGING RABBI CHASES GENTILE FROM PIT OF INIQUITY’. —This is what the German tourists have come to New York to see. What business was it of his where I looked, what my eyes saw? And this ‘baldy’ thing—it was very embarrassing. Had my corner not arrived just in time to save me, I would have turned on him and given him the slanging match he so richly deserved. My trump card was 2 Kings 2: 23-24. A Jewish nightmare, I thought, is a Gentile who knows the Old Testament. “And he went up from thence to Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.” I was shocked to look with my ‘inner eye’, in what should have been the “bliss of solitude”, on great reserves of hatred. Visionaries and bigots—the only way to cure them is to pluck their eyes out. This place, I thought, must be Hell in summer.
It is the same everywhere… In Melbourne, at a friendly Fourth of July gathering of expatriate family and lesbian acquaintances, a woman makes the remark, about a young girl who has just left, “She’s a very pretty young woman. And she’ll go far, if she fixes up her teeth.” The discussion bubbles for half an hour and then erupts. What kind of desire, mingled with business-like cruelty, had looked out of those eyes? In the 1930s, in Queensland, a young boy was receiving advice about life from his father. He recalls, nearly sixty years later, “My father told me there is no God. He was a sensible man. He told me I should not waste my time yearning for the Absolute, that I should be careful with money and that I should never feel guilty about sex. But the most important thing of all for a young man, he said, was to be careful not to get a young girl pregnant. If this happened I would be responsible for the baby before that responsibility was wanted, and it would ruin my life.” Between advice and recollection was a remarkable life, guiltless sex and, I assume, no babies. Once or twice, at the moment when stories haltingly begin, he refers to a self-imposed restraint on how his eyes might wander longingly over a beautiful face because, if it were noticed, some danger that is probably only recognition might present itself. Walk along a busy street, anywhere, behind a beautiful girl or boy, and you can see, in the faces of men and women alike who pass you going the opposite way, how their eyes suck light into an abysmal prison of need, with “that gaze which would fain reach, touch, capture, bear off in triumph the body at which it is aimed, and the soul with the body”. “He stared at the snake, and the snake at him”, just at the moment before his painful transformation, one body sucked into the other, and both of them transformed.15 It begins with a stare. Young girls are tarted up so effectively before their images are glued to billboards, you’d think they were old enough to consent. We are in Hell, and all this is perfectly natural here.
My own characters stare out at me like they would stare at the snake. Something prevents me from finishing them off. I slide around them, hissing, for months or, sometimes, years. —An unwillingness to change. That, you see, is how Dante finishes Canto XXV of Inferno: with the change and transmutation of creatures in the eighth circle of Hell, where fraudulent thieves are kept. (So, poets are among them, of course.) Dante’s eyes, he says, are “somewhat confused”, and his mind bewildered.
The eyes have always been the most sexual of organs. Legislators, moral guardians and civil libertarians argue more about what we may and may not see than anything else. The freedom to speak is, just as often as not, the freedom to write and, by implication, the freedom to read; and we live with elaborate administrative systems regulating what may be seen and, every now and then, the rules change. But some things never change and cannot be regulated. At the very beginning of (the first) Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, the author was careful to note that in his own mind he represented the King “not with an inquisitive eye of presumption … but with the observant eye of duty and admiration”.16 The seventeenth century version of “you were always on my mind”, this was, of course, a lie, and it is clear he was attempting to cover up his ‘original sin’. Eyes are not like that. For both God and man, creation, knowledge and everything begins in the eyes: “God saw the light, that it was good … the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes … and the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked …”17
So, when Francis Bacon—the painter—said he harboured a sexual desire for his father, was he concealing something else with this giant truth?
The National Gallery of Victoria has an early Bacon painting, Study from the Human Body (1949). Many of Bacon’s paintings depict bodies of this type. The naked male figure moves through a veil or curtain, steps into a dark space behind the painting, from the visible world into the invisible world, from consciousness into the unconscious, from life into death. His right leg and right arm quietly push the veil aside. His head bends forward into the dark. Two falls of curtain divide the painting—left and right—and the figure is in the centre. The man’s calves have been chopped off at the bottom edge of the frame. We cannot see his feet. The left fall of curtain hangs straight. The more central folds of the right fall of curtain slope gently toward the right. Above the man’s head, between the falls of curtain, is solid grey. The whole picture is composed of sandy-yellows, greys and white paint. The back, right shoulder and right arm of the figure are mostly bare, white paint. We cannot see his eyes, which must be looking down to where a little yellow-grey light is slipping along the floor from where we are to where he is going. Unlike many of Francis Bacon’s paintings, the figure is not distorted or deformed. He is a lover leaving the bedroom. A father disappearing into the past. You can stare into the painting a long time without noticing something else, a small detail that may not be very important: there is a safety pin fastened to the right fall of curtain, helping to hold the veil open. If the figure were absent, if no one had decided to pass through here, or if he had already gone, the gap in the veil would remain open, the safety pin holding it there so we could peer into the dark. In a moment he will be gone. The figure in this painting looks like my father. We want to call him back, tell him not to go in there. We would only need to say something, anything. We would only need to say something else. We do not know what this something else is. No one knows.
This story comes to you courtesy of the Great World between Fact and Fiction, Inc., the eighth circle of Hell, pit of thieves and poets; where everything is changed into everything else; where, Dante reports, thank God for small mercies, smoking is not only permitted but absolutely essential; where poor Mr Bacon and I stare at the snake and wait, with terror, to be changed. Later, in the eighth circle, you will meet fraudulent counsellors and all kinds of falsifiers (generally speaking, the post-modernists). —Have a nice day.
This short story was originally published in Going Down Swinging Number 15, 1995.
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.
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.
“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?
“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 …”
It is true the movements can sometimes go according to a formula and this is when they are least satisfying. In their defence, though, remember how the mind works when it is alone, grinding from scene to scene. Touch me there. And now here. Then there. Tick. Tick. It is necessary, somehow, to act as though the other were present in your dream and also dreaming. You are neither completely free nor in any way constrained. Finding one who is imprisoned there is, because of that, all the more terrifying. That “one” — of which there are many forms and faces — does not see the real features of the face or form with which it is confronted, but remodels them in the image of the dream before the action began. The whole procedure is rigid and precise — it could be said ‘scientific’, ‘experimental’, ‘repeatable’ — and cannot be repeated exactly, even once, without risking boredom. Many men and women are willing to take this risk. A small variation is introduced into the action. It may not be a variation of action exactly, but a variation of the attitude with which the action is performed. I do this now, imagining that so-and-so is doing such-and-such. Does that feel better? The life of the dream and the life of the action play at endless comparison and assessment — afterwards, that is. It is destructive to bring the force of memory into the play of your movements. To be present, engaged and unselfconscious is important, and almost impossible. Desire and love compete with each other. I want it this way, and that, then this. — Or — It is this way, and that, then this. You cannot take out wanting altogether, hoping to be left with a pure action. The wish guides you toward pleasure; without desire you have no identity, your ‘I’ disappears and falls out of your body as you say …am nothing. This is the struggle and the essence of struggle. What either one wants, at different times, is to be free of this struggle, to find the moment, several moments strung together, when the struggle disappears and ease and freedom take its place. An ‘I’ announces itself in a shout, not at the end of the action but at the beginning, where it is least expected and most clear. Then, it must be said, the sense of struggle does not leave either one entirely — for without it there is no reason to proceed — but is suppressed and becomes the platform of a noisy, messy construction. Both of them talk endlessly. A rule is invented which can be more or less easily broken and replaced by another rule. Thousands of small objects and motions pile up one on top of the other. The hand goes here. “Balance it just there. It is going to fall!” The whole, stupid structure can fall in a heap of laughter and the ‘I’ must announce itself in a shout again for the construction to continue. The play proceeds in waves and froth, swelling and crashing, one disaster and joke after another, crude, violent, farcical. (The one thing it is not — when it is itself, and what it should be — is silent. Silence takes the action, by force, to a place entirely enclosed by the desire of one or other of the participants and where movement is confined by studied schedules and policies. When the struggle is silent it takes the form of the simple wish to shout, to announce the presence of meaning. — But it is precisely this sound which is forgotten by rigid desire, alone with itself in a noiseless oblivion.) (There are also modulations, musical, recuperative and quiet, in which the struggle allows a different kind of silence. It is easy to become lost. As an example, I refer you to the Aria (Cantilena) from
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Villa-Lobos, where, from the beginning, voice and strings work in contrary motion but give confidence to each other, and each learns the other’s part. Voice and strings have the opportunity to speak a long melodic sentence, a sentence without words — ah — endlessly wandering and climbing and soothing. In the middle, when the music appears to have stopped, exhausted, and for a moment does, in fact, stop, both parts then discover the same text — a series of difficult, straining notes, repeated and sustained, slowly descending and then ascending — in which speaking is agony. Near the end the contrary motion of voice and strings reappears, the music expressing only the desire for release by asking the voice to sing with its mouth closed — by humming — mmmm… ) So much energy is expended in the struggle, in the falls and repetitions that are its progress, that the mind becomes drunk with chemicals released into its blood, and it is because they are drunk that each one has no fear to die. They do not know whether the struggle will fail and they will die or succeed and they will die. Knowing is the first thing to die and they are both stupid with love and desire. (…until the very end where both motions play the same, new part. The singer takes a breath before the last note and, with the teeth still closed, forces air into the head on such a note as makes the skull resonate, like a finger on the wet rim of a glass, and “ravishes human sense.” )
Ask me why I write so many poems about the dead
And I tell you it is because there are so many of them.
Ask me why these poems must be written and I tell you
It is because other poems are wrong and must be corrected.
What is wrong about these other poems? you want to know.
I heard one say, “My friend, who is dead now, sat with me
All afternoon and there was nothing to say, and when I was leaving
He stopped to take a flower from his tree and gave it to me.”
I heard another say, “Don’t be sad—This is only as This is,
Things growing and things dying in their cycle, all
In their own time and in their own way dying. The dead
Are dead and gone. Life goes on. So, go.”
The purpose of a poem is to say what is—with the force
Of a hammer. When it comes down, this hammer, the poem
That comes with it, about that dead lover or that dead father,
Should strike you in the throat and make you speechless.
So, when someone has died, do not take flowers with you.
When it is your turn to write about the dead do not write
About flowers, or afternoons in the sun, or cycles, or God.
Tell it as it was. Get out your hammer and drive the nail in.
For example, the poem of a father says, “He preferred
Pain to morphine, hiding pills the doctor gave because pain
Told him he was still alive. He died in a hospital bed.
His cleaning woman was standing beside him.
Yes. That’s right. The cleaning woman. Fearing love more
Than death, Dad would not let the family know
He was human and in need of love. We read about it
In the classified columns of the daily newspaper.”
For example, the poem of a lover says, “I thought—
Who the fuck is this man with bones sticking up under
The skin of his back, who looks jagged and cold as a lizard?
When you said you were hungry and I made dinner,
I knew you were going to throw up, and you did
—In my lap. Thanks. Let’s make a deal. I forgive you
For looking at me with those weightless, jealous eyes, if
You forgive me for hoping you would die more quickly.”
When someone has died, do not take flowers with you.
Make poems in the teeth of your grinding jaw and bursting head.
The dead don’t need flowers or poems about flowers.
The dead leave pain behind them so we know we are still alive.
Originally published in Overland, Number 120, 1990 and then in Family Ties: Australian poems of the family, edited by Jennifer Strauss. Melbourne: Oxford, 1998
P enters the room. She’s a big woman, a bit fat, and she dresses like a tart. She married young, probably because that is what young people with no education and no future tend to do. Her parents didn’t do good by her, and she is not going to do any better for her kids. At least that’s the way it looks like turning out.
She has two kids, and her husband has AIDS. The husband is in the next room, gasping for air, coughing up blood. He will die soon enough, and she will still have two kids to take care of. Naturally she’s very pissed off, and very scared.
The husband got infected by the virus that causes AIDS when he was fucked by a man in a sauna. He liked having sex with men and women, but will only admit to liking sex with women. The men who fucked him were faggots, worthless. He’s a married man, after all, quite normal, and not one of them. Married men are not supposed to get AIDS. That is what is happening. Naturally he’s very pissed off about this, and he’s very scared. He knows he is going to die. Though he has heard there are people who are ‘living with AIDS’, it feels like he is dying.
P enters the room. The place is a mess, though it’s not quite as bad inside as it is outside. (Someone has been pissing in the elevator.) Eve was just showing me a book that Douglas left for her to read. Eve looks up at her mother and knows that it is all going to start again. I feel like I should be able to explain to her what is really happening. “Your mother is angry and has to blame someone. I will be here for you.” But I am not sure I will be here for her; not always, anyway. —Next week, certainly. For a while yet. But not always.
There she is, though, coming in again to give Eve another serve. Bitch. “You little bitch! You fucking little bitch! Didn’t I tell you to clean up your stuff out of here? Can’t you help me at all? What are you trying to do? Kill your father!?”
When I go home I can put on a record, anything by Mozart, and life comes back into balance. In the Commission flats little Eve is still in hell.
I don’t really want to make you feel guilty about having to leave the team as soon as it was established—these things happen—but we are already feeling the strain of not having a co-ordinator who can co-ordinate us. The team they put together for M is already breaking up. At the area meeting tonight [Support services of the AIDS Council are divided into geographical ‘area groups’ relative to the city—North, South and so on. Larger groups are subdivided again, to make meetings and organisation manageable.] several new people who had just finished basic training were told they would be needed to stand in. M’s wife is very choosy. No gays, she says, which makes it a bit difficult. Who can remember everything they’ve done with their dick in the last five years? Does just thinking about something bent count? Lord, she is hard. She hasn’t got her way completely. Two of the team are gay, and four straight.
Another briefing and discussion on Saturday. M’s wife is very strong-willed and wants to be in control of everything. Fair enough, perhaps. Her house. Her family. Her husband! It is not her death, however, and I am concerned about her always being between the team and M. The new co-ordinator, Henry, tells us we’re not to become emotionally involved. OK. Heard that advice before. M is not the average client. He’s married, for starters. Two children. They live in a Carlton Housing Commission place. His eyesight is poor, and this may get worse, of course. Oh, lord, and there is lots else to worry about. I cannot believe some of the things that are happening in that place. The kids are in a real mess. I cannot believe how little support they are getting. I haven’t quite sorted out what can be done about it. Though relations with P’s mother and sisters seem mostly normal, I’m told that M’s mother, who tried to extract a promise never to tell anyone of M’s true condition—a promise quickly broken because no one believed it was leukemia anyway—rarely contacts him, and I suppose that there is some conflict there. I gather she has feelings of guilt about M’s sight impairment, an odd thing to feel guilty about since it wasn’t her fault. She didn’t like him wearing his thick glasses any more than he likes wearing them. They only get in the way of showing his handsome face. (Actually, it is rather comical to think of M in a sauna, with or without his glasses, totally helpless, not knowing what he was grabbing on to!) Is M’s father better or worse, learning of the diagnosis and packing his bags, without saying anything, and going bush? He has visited his son once, a big step no doubt, but I know nothing about what happened when they were together. M has two brothers, one an alcoholic in a de facto relationship, and the other openly gay and in no relationship at all (as far as the family knows). Yes, that means it is a family with every known kind—straight, bi, and gay. M is candidly admiring of his gay brother, which only makes the hostility to his own one-night stands even less comprehensible. Deirdre has been off really ill with flu. Douglas has been stricken with it, too, along with half of his Army Reserve mates. Fairfield (as well as other hospitals) is filling up quickly with victims. Consequently there have been problems providing people for the roster, and I was feeling guilty about being on leave for a week. But P is down with flu, as well, apparently not too badly, and she is at home, so I feel all right about taking my time off. She can call if she wants anything, and I know she will. M has spent the last few days in Ward 4 being pumped full of Bactrim, and this seems to have warded off his fourth attack of pneumocystis, but I don’t think he is going to survive this winter. The decline is becoming obvious. He has lost several kilos in the last three weeks and has decided to cease all medication. It can’t be long now. At least, I hope it won’t be long. I don’t feel guilty about saying that any more … Love, Jim
P telephones Deirdre to ask if she will go out with her to the pub in Rathdowne Street. Deirdre hasn’t the heart to say no, though she loathes the place. P telephones Deirdre to ask if she will take her and Eve to the market Saturday mornings or to other places for shopping on Friday nights. P telephones Deirdre just to talk, for an hour or more, at least weekly. Same with me. I’ll get a call late at night asking me to come over. It’s an hour-long return trip for me. I am expected to be present when M’s brother is told the truth about the illness. I don’t know whether to think this is fair or not: since my brother died of AIDS, and they know this, I suppose they felt it would be easier with me around. I am counsellor and surrogate father as well as home help. The next day I take Eve to the dentist and then to school. The next day I am several hours with M after his father had rung to interrogate him about his sexual preferences.
Dear Morris, … your holiday. Deirdre is desperately in need of one. Those of us remaining are all headed that way, but Deirdre especially because, as you know, she was involved with ‘Themselves’ (as we have come to call them) since long before the team was formed. Marg and Chris (I think they joined the team after you—did you meet them?) want to come, too, if only to escape M’s silences—it is really remarkable how little he reveals of himself, especially now, when you’d think that he would stand to lose nothing and gain everything from opening up a bit. It is really a kind of torture. —For us. I’ve just had the thought that maybe he is coping a lot better than we are. Maybe he’s the only one who’s really got a handle on the situation? We’ll never know if we’re waiting for him to tell us. Though Douglas has only visited Themselves a couple of afternoons, he, too, has started to become worried about the way P is treating the kids. I can’t sort that out now—I’m too tired. Deirdre and I are each spending about 20 hours a week with Themselves, and that’s plain bloody ridiculous. The area group leader says there is no one else available to lighten the load. Thinking about joining you. Love, Jim “Hello, Henry. This is Jim. How are you?”
“Well, thanks. Busy, of course. And you?”
“Got a few hours to spare? It would take that long.”
“I know it’s been hard. We’re all… we’re all that way now.”
“We could really do with an extra person on the team. A few have dropped out, you know—effectively dropped out. They’re just not turning up to do their bit.”
“I’m sorry, Jim, there isn’t anyone else at the moment, but I know your problems. Hold on for a while longer and we’ll see what we can do.”
“You know Adam has left the team, too, after his mother died. I don’t blame him for that. He wasn’t up to it any more.”
“Yes. I heard. It’s sad.”
“P is calling on Deirdre and me all the time for all sorts of things. The family is really up the creek.”
“P isn’t your client. You have to get that straight with her. M is your client, not the whole family.”
“Oh, come on Henry! You’ve got to be kidding. You know this is a special case…”
“Look, what do you expect me to do? You’re on the team. I’ve warned you before not to get involved emotionally. I’ve got seven teams to co-ordinate and they’ve all got problems.”
“You have not given us any such warning, and what sort of remark is that, anyway? How can we not get involved?”
“You’re not taking on the whole family!”
“How do we manage that?”
“I’ve been telling you since last November that…”
“November? I’ve been on the team since January twenty-eight. What’s this about November?”
“I’ve been telling you since … “
“Who have you been telling? I’m sorry, but I don’t remember hearing anything from you, unless we count what is said about the team behind our backs at area group meetings.”
“Nothing is said behind your backs. You’re supposed to be at those meetings.”
“Deirdre and I have got no time or energy for all the meetings when we’re with our clients all week…”
“Client. You have one client.”
“We’ve got four clients, two adults and two children, and the rest of their family.”
“You’ve got one client.”
“Oh, this is ridiculous. We’re not getting anywhere.” Dear Morris, … I don’t think I like what the whole episode told me about myself. I like even less what it told me about some other people. It’s done now, anyway. Both Adam and Henry have resigned. Did you hear what happened to Adam? It’s terrible. He went to one of those weekend things for team leaders—rest, recreation, and getting stuff off your chest about how things get done, or don’t get done, as the case may be—and had a good time. When he got back home he found his mother dead. We have all tried to console him. He can’t stay any longer. There’s something about this, about the way it happened, that hits at the rest of us. Deirdre asks me whether any of us still have a life of our own, whether we realise that our own lives have to keep going on—knowing that the answer to both questions is no. Now I am going to have to swallow at least a few of the bad things I’ve said about Henry, because before he left he arranged with the new area co-ordinator to have a new person—Mark—put on the team as a ‘carer for the carers’. This is a good move … Anyway, I hope you get the feeling that I think this is great. I’ve spoken to Mark several times already and feel a lot better for it … I have only gotten half way through a planned two weeks’ rest from the team, and the urge to return has beaten me. Something to do with the weather. Violent gales, freezing mornings and rain all week. P has the flu (so do two of the team) and her children are home. I have put a casserole in the oven and called to say I will be over to take the children to a movie for the afternoon. No protest. They are always in need of relief. … picking up my report a week later, M has deteriorated quickly under the influence of a worsening chest infection. He slept through my visit, workmen banging in the flat above him, and the television on full blast. Nothing seemed to wake him except his own coughing, and perhaps he can do that in his sleep. I feel we should be keeping a team journal that we could pass on to the Council’s training people. The training of new volunteers is going to have to come to terms with the increasing number of married people in need of care. You learn a lot in the support training, but almost nothing about the kinds of things we have had to do—which is, basically, how to keep a family together and safe when it is suddenly without a father. … They’re on the eleventh floor up there. All the balconies have been closed up to stop people jumping off and messing the footpath. When I arrived I discovered one of the glass panes of the balcony outside Themselves’ flat had been smashed, and there were slivers of glass almost the entire length of the walkway. It had been left like that for two days. I cleaned it up. I really get sick and tired of being told that this has nothing to do with caring for the patient. It has everything to do with him … Jim
… P and M first met Hans in hospital when M was in there for a dose of Bactrim and rest and Hans was visiting his lover. Hans’s lover has since died. Hans is very handsome and fit and tall and blue-eyed, oozing sexuality. P is very attracted to him, and cannot hide the fact (not that she wants to), even from her husband. I can see the reason for the animal attraction, but don’t know why P falls for men whose preferences do not favour her more clearly. What is she looking for? M is naturally very angry with P’s performance with Hans; or perhaps it is straightforward jealousy? … M is feeling well enough to go out, so Deirdre and I drive the three of them, M, P and Hans, to a pub where there’s a band playing. Deirdre and I leave to go off by ourselves, finding somewhere quiet to get pissed (which I believe we are doing more and more of these days!). After a couple of hours we’re quite happy and decide to go back to see how the others are getting on. P’s abuse of Deirdre is astonishing. “Who do you think you are, jumping on Jim without telling me?!” She wants to know everything everyone is doing, with whom, when, and how often; and she asks me straight out, later, whether Deirdre and I are having “an affair”. “You’re guessing. Anyway, no.” Before we leave, P tells me she is in love with Hans.
… I have given Eve many children’s books unused by my children for a long time. No one will read with her except team members. P interrupts the reading continually. I will not stop until I have finished the sentence I am in. She doesn’t like this … There is a nut missing on Eve’s little bike, and I point this out to P, saying that I will fix it tomorrow. “She’s a little bitch. She does it on purpose, you know.” “I don’t think so. It’s not her fault, I’m sure.” “You shit of a child.”
… P told me this afternoon that she can feel something moving in her uterus. “Something is kicking or moving down there!” She also says that she’s been on the pill during Hans’s visit, in order to be period-free.
… Hans has found a ‘new love’, a new man in his life. The penny dropped on P the other night when Hans was over for dinner. She rang Deirdre this morning, miserable, depressed. “I dinn’t ask for all this. I don’ need this trouble as well.” I went over this evening with a bottle and tried to cheer her. M is being difficult and short with everyone, but especially with P.
… Themselves have gone on a holiday to visit Hans in Adelaide. Isn’t this amazing?! M took incredible doses of Bactrim and other stuff to suppress coughing, in preparation for the trip. P returned with hideous souvenirs for Deirdre and me, things that I suspect were the produce of a sheltered workshop. “They’re lovely!” we said in unison, smiling.
… P has been on a diet, lost quite a bit of weight and is beginning to look quite attractive (if you are attracted to that sort).
… P and Hans had a great row when she discovered blood on his sheets (from his thrashing and heaving with the new man the previous night).
… What a family. Just think of the men in it, on both sides. P’s brother has been drinking pretty well nonstop since he heard M’s diagnosis. Is it the men who are so pathetic? Is it the women? What is it about the women, on both M’s side and on P’s side, that attracts them to such hopeless men?
… “You’ll ‘ave to stay a day or two more. I’m really too stuffed to go an get you. Your father an I will still look the same when you get back ‘ere. Don’t worry!”
… “I know I told you we dinn’t do anything but that wasn’t true. I did ‘ave my way with Hans when I was there. I know what you’re goin’ to ask—yes, he definitely did wear a condom, though I don’ know how he got it on because he’s got the biggest dick I’ve ever seen on a white man. I’m no longer in love with him. No. I’m not in love with him. I’m over that, I really am. But I still love him, sort of. —You know what I mean. You can’t just have no feelings at all. But I’m not ‘in love’ with him any more. I’m sure of it.”
… Deirdre had dinner with Themselves last night. Dinner and everything else. When she got home she called me. She is very worried about Eve and could not stop crying as she told me of what must be counted as an assault. P strikes like a snake at the child, so quickly there is no chance to beg for moderation. One second Eve is sitting quietly beside Deirdre, the next Eve’s chair is balancing on two legs, about to fall backwards to the floor. Deirdre’s hands are occupied with knife and fork, and her mouth open, as Eve crashes. There is no sound for a few seconds before the crying starts. Eve picks herself up, looks at her mother, and says, “I hate you.” War being declared, the troops mobilise. M gets up from the table, muttering to himself, goes into the bedroom. Deirdre wonders how he has suddenly got the energy to hobble so quickly. He comes back with a brush in his hand. “You can’t speak to yer mother like that!” She dodges him in the living room but gets caught in the bedroom.
“I’ve seen M use a piece of wood.”
“Jim, we have to do something, quickly.”
Dear Morris, … You know the routine. It was all a plot against her. The kids have nits. I took charge, told her to go up to Lygon Street to buy some Quellada and combs. While she was out I stripped the beds and started the first four or five washing-machine loads. Everything. Bedding, shirts, towels, dressing gowns. I hung all the pillows, blankets and doonas in that concrete room they have at the flats. There is not much sun in there, though, and I decided to take a lot of stuff home with me to give them a proper airing. While P was out, her mother volunteered the view that she would “dump” the kids as soon as M died. Apparently the family has discussed it and P’s sisters believe this is what she will do. Betty asked me what I thought would happen. I had to admit the same thoughts had crossed my mind. We spent four or five hours delousing the flat and the children. Marg, our wonderful, absent team leader, returned with a vengeance and attempted to organise Deirdre and me. M couldn’t stand the sight of her, and P rang the area co-ordinator to ask that she be removed from the team, suggesting that someone else—anyone, straight or gay!—be got to take her place. So, Marg’s gone. This will leave Deirdre and me in a worse situation, but we are learning to say no. I have just declined to spend five or six hours minding M at the flat on Friday while P goes to bingo. Deirdre is doing the same. … and the trials of the hospital visits continue. Got M in the car and then went back to get the script from Dr Murray (I think you know him—he’s a good friend) and an appointment for blood tests next week. As I turned to say goodbye, Murray stretched out his arm for what was to be, I thought, a handshake. Instead, I got an enormous bear-hug. M was observing from the car, and when I got back to him he said, “He’s a homosexual, you know. You’ll be all right so long as you don’t take your pants down.” EEEEKKK! … M’s back is extremely painful and he is definitely showing signs of an impending crisis—perhaps within the next couple of months. He’s started coughing again during the night and the candida is flaring up again. He is always cold. Even on mild days he is in his room with blankets and a heater, shivering! Love, Jim Sad today. It’s my twenty-second wedding anniversary and, at seven in the evening, I’m home alone. The kids have gone out to party and Elizabeth is in the Howqua Valley, walking with friends. That’s it, I suppose.
… undoubtedly flattered that she is still attractive to men. We all need our egos stroked in this way and it is important to her in her situation. P seems to be saying to Deirdre and me (but not to Douglas), “I need a regular sex-life but I really want it in a permanent and stable relationship.” And why not? The men she chooses, though—remember Hans!? We have a strong sense of entering the stage where we have to help her prepare for the post-M days. That’s what Deirdre and I are currently trying to do. I can only hope that we are on the right track. She is certainly more forthcoming about her feelings, hopes and despairs. (But I wish she’d get some make-up and grooming advice to help her look less like a tart!) … movie about a man emotionally dead but rediscovering himself at the end of an eighteen-year marriage—a bit close to the bone for me. I should have gone to see a porno film instead. P has just rung to give me all the amazing details of her relationship with yet another bloke, this time a Greek trucker. She insists that she is “not doin anythin—a bit a neckin, an none a the in-out.” She says she is improving, and enjoying the limited physical contact. Every visit and phone call she mentions sex and what it will be like after M is gone (in a sort of testing-the-water way). Maybe she is using us to give herself permission to be herself? The atmosphere is heavy with sex and sexuality in this team—always has been. Why? And why not? When we go over to visit Themselves, M is rugged up in exactly the same position he was in when we left him a few days before. He asks where we have been and then listens to the boring details of what we have been doing without uttering any further comment. I watch him as I talk. The eyelids begin to close, as though he is falling asleep. He coughs up some deep yellow muck—and his eyes are open again. I continue talking. At these times I wonder whether he will, one day, just die in front of me, quietly, unnoticed, while I describe my groceries. I took M to the hospital for a blood test and checkup. He has no T-cells left at all. He asked for “Morphine, poison or something” to relieve the pain. On the way home I broach the subject that has been on all our minds, the funeral arrangements, asking him what he would like to happen. He shrugs it off, saying “No fucking priests. Ask P about it.” I bought Themselves some new pillows, as instructed, and took the receipt to the AIDS Council, where I was told the promised refund would take a few weeks—glad I’m not on the dole and desperately in need of money! Themselves were no more thankful. The covers were ripped off and the pillows put on the bed, without a word. Feeling miffed, after being asked how much they cost, that I hadn’t been thanked for getting the bloody things, I took one out to M for his approval. “It’s only a bloody pillow, isn’t it?” he snarled. Herself was sipping a tea I had poured her. “Jesus bloody Christ! What’ve ya done with the tea? Dinn’t ya scrub the pot out? I haven’t used it fer days—the bags were probly mouldy!” Feeling seriously used, abused, misused et cetera, I made her another cup of tea (tea bag in a cup this time). —And then I cleaned the pot. … Understand that I am not paranoid; it’s just they’re all out to get me! I’ve a raging dose of thrush or tinea or something—down there. I’ll screw Deirdre’s neck, as soon as I stop scratching. Am I boring you terribly with all this? Mmmm. Thought so. Yesterday P predicted that it would all be over in a week. Wife’s intuition, maybe. Love, Jim
The phone rang at half past three in the morning. Betty told me that M had “passed away” four hours before. I was not needed. The body had been removed and the kids were still asleep. The family were all together and “in charge”. Don’t come over. “Ring before you come, to see if it’s convenient.” The family closed ranks as it never had before.
At four o’clock, after making some tea and toast, sitting in the kitchen, it was still dark outside. I telephoned Deirdre (it was her birthday) and Douglas.
Dear Morris, Thank you for your help and all your encouraging comments. You don’t know how helpful it has been to be able to write these letters to you. Writing is not enough—to write to someone is important. God knows the team has not had help from any of those who should have given it. There are more grievances, as you might have guessed, and much anger. I will take my time.
Though the AIDS Council was informed of M’s death within hours, weeks have passed and we have not heard a word from them. We all feel abandoned and adrift. I could kill. I went to a florist in Fitzroy to arrange flowers from the team. After writing the cards, the nice old queen who runs the place looked at my name, then my face, and said that he knew my brother so there would be a discount. I left quickly, went and sat in the car and cried like a baby. When I visited P she was red-eyed and talkative. “Oh, Jim, it was terrible. Jus’ terrible. ‘E ‘ad these awful seizures an ‘is eyes rolled up so there wuz nothin but white there an I dinn’t know what to do. I jus’ dinn’t know. I called the Nursin Serfice after the secon one an all they did when they did come was tell me it was jus’ the fuckin medication an that was it. That’s it. That’s all ‘e said. An ‘e started to give ‘im a shave an a wash to make ‘im comfy but ‘e looked up an said if they fuckin moved ‘im again ‘e’d punch ’em. There was nothin to do, really. ‘E ‘ad anuffer seizure, almos’ jumpin, ‘is eyes went again, all white, so that even the bloody nurse was frighted out’f ‘is fuckin wits. The useless thing left soon enough an I made a cuppa tea. … I wen’ back inta the room an ‘e lifted ‘is ‘and as if askin me to do somethin for him. I got there. I jus’ got there an had ‘is head in me hands an ‘e sighed an that was it. That’s all. I spent some time with ‘im alone, thinking. An after a while I called the nurse back and we dressed ‘im in ‘is suit with a shirt an tie an called the funeral parlour. The kids were asleep. Slept through all of it. It was quiet an the nurse dinn’t say anythin. I called mum, of course. She’s been really wonderful, ya know. An she came an sat with me while we waited. Then they jus’ took ‘im out. I dinn’t wanna wake the kids. That’s all … “ Deirdre was mad, having also been told she should call before she went over, to make sure it was ‘convenient’. “Fuck them, Jim. It’s never been bloody convenient! We’ve been there all along while the family just ran for cover.” We decided to go together, defying anyone to ask us to leave. The day before the funeral we arrived unannounced, with quiche, pie and flowers, which had the effect of thawing the icy stares we got from mother and sisters. —After all this time, to be less welcome than a pie! The next day I was up at quarter past five in the morning, unable to sleep. I worked in the garden for a couple of hours, emptying the compost bin on my vegetables. Later in the morning Deirdre, Douglas and I met for a drink before going to the service. A lump in the throat when I saw the children and the coffin. P was tearful. During the service the priest mentioned that P wanted the nurses thanked by name. When no mention was made of the team Deirdre turned to me and said, “I want to go.” “No”, I said, as I held her arm, “he hasn’t mentioned the doctors either, or the home help, or the health aide … “
On the way to the cemetery Marg and Douglas discussed the costs of male prostitutes, and the risks, and whether the boys practised safe sex with ladies from one suburb and gentlemen from another. She pontificates about married men who… “They should be one thing or the other. They should make up their minds. They shouldn’t sit on the fence.” Too many shoulds. I gave her the lecture about the Range of Human Sexual Expression. Will I ever learn? She will not be satisfied until I admit to fucking every married man I know—and a few I don’t—, to interfering with little boys, and to giving M the virus. Somewhere, feeling mad, I said, “And what’s wrong with a friendly wank between mates?” I don’t know who was more shocked—Deirdre, Marg or myself! The question stands. Sod her. P told us, when we got to the cemetery, that the priest had advised her against mentioning the team. “So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.” The significance of this story was lost on them, of course. Himself’s family hastened to position themselves at the front of P and the children. Insensitive, phoney. The father, who had only seen his son for thirty minutes in the last two years, struck a ‘pillar of the family’ pose. A certain amount of ceremony concealed hostility between the families. Venomous? Once it is written here it is finished. —And thank you for listening. What a day it was. Later in the afternoon I went to my weekly marriage guidance session—alone. And in the evening there was an area group meeting. Douglas announced his resignation from the AIDS Council. I think I will do the same, but not yet … I still feel, after all this time, there is a lot unfinished. Gaps needing to be filled. I’m very tired, despite getting lots of sleep. I have not known what more there could be for me to do. We learned how to be part of the family; loving, hating and caring more strongly. I have to learn how to be a stranger again. Uncle Stranger. Leave the gaps in the names unfilled. I won’t know what sort of person P becomes, how she will write herself. M? He was always unfinished. But I’m grateful that, because of him, I met Deirdre, who taught me to be sexually OK again; and because of him I met Marg (sod her), who taught me that I can’t be all things to all people, and I don’t want to be; and because of him I met Morris, who helped me find the spirituality I had lost in my life; and because of him I met Douglas—bless him—who taught me that I can ache for people who are graceless, but people, nevertheless. … Deirdre and I played the message you left on her answering machine several times over for the sheer pleasure of hearing your voice. Truly! We’d had a belly full of Themselves that day and when we returned to Deirdre’s house, with carnal intentions, you were waiting for us. You never imagined that what you said could be so much like music and accompany us in our fore- and after-play…
This story was originally published in Meanjin in 1992 and 1993.