The horse moved quietly among us in the street
The giant head of this horse did not nicker or whinny
There were no thoughts behind its dark eyes when I looked into them
We talked about such horses being noble creatures but what is a virtuous horse?
It was bred to be a working animal and therefore we imagined it was like us
The horse moved away and climbed a hill on which there was a plinth
When it arrived there it adopted a fighting pose
Both forelegs tore at the grey sky
The halo of the sun shone behind the horse’s head
Immediately, the self-sacrificing horse jumped high into the light
It seemed to reach a very great height
Then, I admit I felt for a moment both sickness and fear
(I did not want to look
But look we all did, just in a glance)
The horse’s thick neck broke awkwardly underneath its fallen body
What was the ideology of the horse?
What was it thinking?!
It was tough then to look into its dead eyes
I remember it was a rainy night, and cold
For our reunion my father took me to his favorite restaurant
His Chrysler Valiant was painted pearlescent white
He drove much too fast of course on slippery roads, and parked in a dark street
When we arrived it was already very late
In this part of town theatre people, and prostitutes, were everywhere
A tall man with an ornate beard stood in the restaurant window’s light
My father was known here so, when we entered, we were seated immediately
One elderly couple had brought their little tan-and-white dog to dine with them
It was creating a puddle on the floor underneath their table
A large party had formed near us, several tables crashed together
There was laughter and shouting for more wine and bread
For a while the restaurant was a chaos of yellow light, food and noise
Tables rearranged themselves like Dodgem cars
And my father’s table crashed the party forming in the centre of the room
There were some people we knew—Susan, for example
She was relating the story of her assault on the base camp of Everest
And there was Thomas, the tiny but famous author with white stubble
I tried to listen to everyone, and even to Susan whose story I had heard before
Thomas tried to speak to me to tell me about something he thought important
I watched his mouth as it spoke to me
Then, unfortunately, Susan saw that I was no longer listening to her
She leaned forward, stared me down, tugging at her ear
Oh, Susan, I said, no one wants to hear what unrecyclables you left at the feet of the gods
So, she was hurt of course but I did not see any way of avoiding it
And Thomas and the secret he was whispering to me were gone
People had already started to leave before the lights went up
It was the time of morning bakers go to work
My father took his coat and headed out before me
He did not wait for me and crossed the road
His silhouette marched into a narrow laneway and then it turned a corner
That was where I also turned to follow after him
I found only wide, dark pools of water there
The steep road, winding along the edge of a city park, was empty
The early morning smelled shiny-wet, and he was nowhere to be seen
I walked in circles and walked in circles and then came back to where I’d been
I fell in a gutter and my skirt and shoes were soaked
The man with the elaborate beard was still standing there
Even after several hours he was still waiting though I didn’t know for what
And inside, I could see through the window the dining room being dismantled
Renovations that could not be started during service had begun
And workers were already atop of their ladders getting ready to paint
The old patron said, it’s cold outside come in
Thank you, if you don’t mind, I will use your restroom, I said to him
And slipping in, behind me, the strangely bearded man followed me
Me too, he said, pretending we were together
Behind a door from the dining room the bakers were on the morning shift
A beautiful young girl with the tray of sweets swept past me, smiling
Try, she said, and tilted the display toward me
I could smell the powdery confection under my nose
Warm, nutty and sweet, and ready to eat
And behind me the smell of my new, wet friend
His arm stretched over my shoulder to grab a treat
His beard, thin as a tattoo, sculpted into spirals, scratched my cheek
I could have fucked him then and there
It was what we wanted, but we threw ourselves into a soft sofa
In the family rooms there were other diners who also had returned, defeated
My wet friend wrapped his legs around me
I looked closely into his eyes, asking for reassurance but finding none
I kept one hand on his shaven neck and with the other painted his lips with sugar
In case you were wondering the quiet Australians
Won’t tell you what they are thinking. Their patriotic
Yowl is stifled by a kind of shame, or fear of shame
That in a plastic-colored world of money, generations
Of growth and privilege do not add up to much.
The quiet Australians want someone to wail for them
To sob about unfairness, suffering, their piece of cake
To blame, to tear down, to strategise retaking what
Was taken from the history their forebears vandalised.
The quiet Australians would stand up to be counted
If they had a leg to stand on. They would go to war
If war did not require a sacrifice they shrink from.
Fears aside, the quiet Australians sometimes speak
When martyrdom can be assured, when whistling
At a pitch that dingoes hear their words give voice
To pain they sincerely feel in the salty cracking
Landscape of their lives. There on the dusty plain
The quiet Australians cultivate contempt for strangers.
Not feeling for them, we pretend the strangers cannot
Feel. We, I say, since I am one of you and know that
Silence can be strength; I know what lengths my hate
Can go to. When we quiet Australians learn to speak
We might have something good to say. But, when?
I don’t know. I’m old. One day, I think. One day.
I woke this morning from a dream in which the future
had been laid out before me like mathematics. All the assertions
of economists and other soothsayers about the sickening movements
of markets could be denied; and everything will be denied
everything—except that two plus two equals four.
The animal used in this auguration was the self-acting mule, a machine
that has arms and pincers, and can be made to perform
routine tasks tirelessly, without complaint except that it might
give a kick now and then. This animal, this algorithm without feeling
has been shitting in our society for years—and now we have found a use for it.
The dream did not turn out at all how I expected it to turn out.
That is how you know dreams have turned into nightmares.
We are all going to find ourselves crouching in a dark space
not together—that is, not acting in unison, as a group—but separately
and individually responsible in the fight that is coming.
The rulers, however—the presidents, governors and the rest—
who have always united for the purpose of our repression and
do not like to share any ground with other people
will be onboard their yachts and planes at the crucial moment
when promises are made and broken in the same breath, and things fall apart.
It is just then that the failure of truth will be its own punishment
and facts will stand out in stark relief, like someone screaming
on a cold night. It will be fight or die. A survivor will be left standing
covered in blood and it will not seem proper to talk about right or wrong
because some questions have always been answered this way.
Note: This poem represents ideas in ‘Chapter Two: The Metaphysics of Political Economy, Part 5’ of Karl Marx’s «The Poverty of Philosophy».
Published in Otoliths, 1 February 2017.
There have been reports of a ‘mountain lion’. The danger
that came down from a reserve and waited crouching
in grey grass at the side of the road had eyes
emitting rays to hypnotise hunters and children.
The announcements paralysed us. We did not think
that in our despair we gave everything we owned
to the rich and scientists who perfected lying
for theorems whose only purpose was deceit. The voters
got up to no good at night in parks set aside
for the betterment of us all, dressed up as crazy beasts
as celebrities, symbolists and as fortune-tellers
and let the animals loose. In Celebration Park
there are no super-heroes, and not even any heroes
in this dire plot: we are the wildlife, it is our nature
stripped and bare-ass naked. There is a map for everywhere
except the private places of a few who can afford silence.
We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.—attributed to Michel de Montaigne
Our hotel would have accommodated the more sinister sequences of some cloak-and-dagger ‘B’ film. During the night, a French letter in the lavatory bowl refused to be flushed by either of us. Then in the morning we had our first glimpse of Olympus through the haze above the curving bay. Any true Grecophile will understand when I say that the unsinkable condom and the smell of shit which precede the moment of illumination make it more rewarding when it happens.—Patrick White, Flaws in the Glass
As a child in the 1960s, in the then newish Melbourne suburb of Forest Hill, I attended Saint Timothy’s Primary School. The little church in which I was confirmed and where I confessed my drab sins was a wooden fire hazard. I went to a service there every Sunday with my father’s mother—my own parents having separated. On one side of it were the school’s classrooms, and on the other a nunnery, both buildings made in what looked like, then, to be a modern style. The school was established in 1962 by the Sisters of the Infant Jesus. I had no idea who they were. To the seven- or eight-year-old me they were the handsome, unthreatening mystics of education who never said an unkind word.
I do not recall having religion forced on me. We said a prayer now and then before running out to play. Occasionally there was a bit of unruly, awful squealing of hymns in the church. And the nuns chose me to appear in ‘dramatic’ reënactments of the nativity story. Even at nine or ten years of age I knew that painted cotton wool beards were not a good look, so I pulled mine off just before walking on stage and tried to look wise without it. This kind of disruptive behavior should have permanently blotted my curriculum vitae: ‘Not a team player.’
I wanted to know what the deal was with these nuns. During an afternoon nap, while lying on the floor near Sister Henry’s workbench, I determined to look up her chalk-covered tunic to see if there was anything there that would provide an answer to the mystery of her manly face. There was nothing. Just layers of perplexing, impenetrable, black underskirts. Anyway, I was ten. Someone was walking on the moon. I ran home to watch it on tv.
The Sisters of the Infant Jesus handed me over to the Christian Brothers to complete my befuddlement.
When I was twelve and in the first year of high school I helped fellow classmates cheat at Latin, allowing them to steal my answers in order to escape the sarcasm, and strap, of the unchristian maniac who ruled our Latin and math classes. I didn’t think I could help with the math; I felt hopeless at that. This was the year that maniac was hit by a car while riding his bike. For a couple of weeks this chastening episode turned the rancorous sadist into the mild and kind teacher he should have been all along. And then, without warning, ‘Mr Hyde’ returned.
Family circumstances required me to sample the educational services of four different Christian Brothers Colleges. After Thomas More’s Boys College (now called Emmaus College), I attended Cathedral College in East Melbourne for two weeks, and then St Mary’s in West Melbourne.
A middle-aged man who was a customer of my mother’s business began to use puns in his brief conversations with me that were intended to suggest he knew of my interest in sex. I had not heard them before but, after checking my Chambers Dictionary, instantly recognised them as verbal concussion grenades. One morning, at St Mary’s in West Melbourne, I armed these grenades and chucked them in a history class without bothering to take cover. The lay teacher looked at me for what seemed like a long time while the meaning of what I had said sunk in and he tried to figure out if I had actually meant to use the anatomical pronunciation of ‘aboriginal’. Something about my face must have suggested I had. He sent me down to the principal’s office, where the whole story of my new interest in punography had to be revealed.
St Mary’s principal was a severe-looking bald man who demonstrated his eccentricity and his modernism through the medium of Vespas. He rode his scooter everywhere. He travelled even the short distance from St Joseph’s, where the brothers lived and which was to be my next college, to St Mary’s by scooter. It was one block away. He put his helmet on, started the scooter, turned one corner, and he was at work. When I told him how I had become so expert at upsetting adults, he immediately sat down so as to bring himself on the same level with me. He spoke to me with an unfeigned concern about how important it was for me to avoid the man in my mother’s restaurant. I knew the nameless thing he was warning me against. I had sensed it, but not felt in any danger.
On sports days many of the St Mary’s students would walk along Victoria Street to the Melbourne City Baths to go swimming. One of the younger religious brothers at the school inexplicably decided to go swimming with us, which required him to be naked in the changerooms. When this happened, I suspected he was secretly trying to announce that the brothers were, after all, ordinary men. We thought his arse was too hairy and were distressed we had to look at it.
In the first years of the 1970s, boys of my age could see the chaos in Vietnam had been worsening, even as news of Australia’s decreasing involvement in the war there made no impression on me at all. No adult ever mentioned or tried to justify to me why Australia was involved in the fighting. It seemed to have escaped the notice of the adult world that there were children waiting in the wings of its drama and we had no idea what we were going to say or do when it was time for us to be pushed into the spotlight. The matter was urgent because we sensed our bodies were changing even as the threat of conscription increased. The election of a Labor government was a relief.
When we were fifteen a classmate and I experimented with the social effects of our own precocious hairiness by going to an R-rated double-bill at the Forum Theatre on the corner of Russell and Flinders Streets in Melbourne. It was the 1973 version of The Wicker Man, followed by something in the vampire-sexploitation genre. The first movie seemed to be about burning Christians. We were disappointed there was not more sex, naked actresses notwithstanding. During the intermission we discovered that our hairy-arsed teacher had also been in the audience with us. He asked us if we liked the movie and we answered in a way that avoided telling him what we really thought, while still pretending to be three years older than we were. I do not think it worked, but he did not seem to mind.
At St Joseph’s College, in 1974, a beautiful student whose parents came from Sri Lanka started calling me “Stevie Wonder” and tickled my palm flirtatiously when he shook my hand. Was I being mocked or flattered? Gough Whitlam was prime minister and anything seemed possible. I listened to Motown, and liked it. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to Melbourne. (There is a photograph of him flexing his muscles as he stands on the tram tracks in Bourke Street. The long-haired boy in the striped shirt and bell-bottom trousers standing behind him is not me— but the claim of resemblance to my former self is credible, and several times I used the photograph to ‘prove’ I once had a chance to push Conan, the barbarian, under a moving vehicle.)
It was the golden age of religious educational indifference. The Christian Brother who taught me nothing about Australian history before 1788 stood one day behind a not-quite-closed door and spied on the ‘Year 11 agnostic society’ pooh-poohing transubstantiation and putting the resurrection of Jesus down to a bad case of food poisoning. When we noticed him we expected our religious auditor to establish an inquisition. Instead, he took his nose out of the crack in the doorway and walked away. In retrospect, this now seems like the mature response.
One hundred years after the death of Winwood Reade I got around to reading his book The Martyrdom of Man. The initial excitement wore off after a while and I entered a long period of theological apathy.
Young boys and girls everywhere, before they reach what we have come to refer to as adulthood, trip over the idea that adult convictions are a charade. We stand up, mud on our faces, feeling that we are at the same time cynics and anarchists; we want to preserve what is in our interests and to agitate against the failures of the world we have found ourselves in. Some people manage to maintain an expectation of revolutionary possibility about their own selves and about the world.
By the start of 1976 no psycho-social jamming was strong enough to block my ‘gaydar’. Of course, I was unsure about how to meet people. I was not old enough to go to bars; and the internet was still in the hands of the military-industrial complex; so, I found friends and education as a flâneur. I met men at night, but I was better at conversation than at sex. The first man who spoke to me was three times my age. He invited me to his flat—a tiny bedsit in the ‘CAIRO’ apartments across the road from the Carlton Gardens. He made tea. We talked, and he gave me a tatty copy of Voltaire’s Candide that I have treasured for nearly fifty years. Life, it says, is one episode after another of misfortune and suffering; and the only antidote is work.
In the second half of 1977, construction of the World Trade Centre was completed. Airliner ‘terrorism’ was in its first flowering. Voyager 2 was being launched. There was a uranium export debate in Australia. In August, a ‘docudrama’, The War Game, was shown at the Longford Cinema in Toorak Road, South Yarra. This BBC production by Peter Watkins was a critical event in the life of the high school friend sitting next to me. When the movie ended most of the audience decided not to leave and, instead, started the conversation right there in the theatre about what could be done. It took me a few more years to find the failure I would agitate against.
I left home in the late 1970s. My mother thought gay people were “disgusting.” My first nights of freedom I slept on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne, at a bend near where there is now a skate park. The first home of my own was a couple of rooms in North Fitzroy that were more like corrugated iron lean-tos than rooms. These rooms were air-conditioned but not waterproof; the windows were broken, glass louvres, and the entrance door had a large hole in it. By 1980 I had moved into digs, at the rear of 777 Park Street in Brunswick, that are still standing and look like a granny flat. Worries about finding and keeping a home were often on my mind.
In retrospect, the educational mystery of my childhood is how I could have been treated so gently by most of my teachers, spent so long in the care and company of outwardly religious people, and ended up sharing so few of their beliefs. The same is true about sexuality: growing up surrounded by intolerant, know-all heterosexuals clearly does not lead one to become an intolerant, know-all heterosexual. Why do people believe what they believe, and why do others’ prejudices always seem more urgently troubling than our own? Attacking and shaming people for their opinions, beliefs, choices and preferences has become a blood-sport, usually played while crouching behind an anonymising avatar.
In the 1980s the appearance of the AIDS virus turned my theological apathy into disgusted atheism, not because I thought an omnipotent god could have avoided such misery but because there were suddenly a lot of angry people claiming to be concerned with morals. At this time, my humanistic, progressively-oriented opinionatedness was in full flower, until I saw the world in its proper scale. I had a ‘Hubble moment’. It dawned on me that all the stars of the night sky I had been looking at all my life were just the lights of my local galaxy and altogether less than a hundred-billionth part of the universe. This universe was, if properly imagined, too large for spiritual and ethical systems focussed on what people did with their genital systems.
It is oddly disorienting now to remember that the cause of “GRID” was not known, though its effect was immediately obvious: “Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning,” Susan Sontag told me.
For a while I did volunteer work writing advertisements and pamphlets about sex. It was a subject I never claimed to know very well, but there were a lot of experts willing to talk, and there was a lot of ‘literature’. I made careful note of the interesting bits and tried to pass on the best intelligence. Patrick White had just published Flaws in the Glass, which contained the only example I needed that condoms were a good idea; the advertisements I helped to write, with a committee of volunteers at the local AIDS council, were less inspiring than Patrick White, but more appropriate for the toilet doors of gay clubs.
Then, I had a day job as a writer for a union. I knew even less about Leon Trotsky than I knew about sex and, therefore, resorted to the same creative process. And at night I joined hundreds of people at telephone counselling services to answer questions from people panicked by the Australian government’s ‘public service’ announcements about AIDS. The telephone banks were in training rooms of the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital.
There was a very long period, years that seemed depressingly long, when every diagnosis was a death-sentence. Like scores of others in Melbourne, I did the required training and joined care teams for people who were dying. I wrote stories and poems and hoped, like Voltaire’s Professor Pangloss, that everything would turn out well in the end.
My next writing job was explaining science to journalists: I tried to make laboratory fractionation dramatic, and offered to fact-check their articles; they wrote articles about three-eyed fish and called me a fascist. I learned that a good many, if not most, scientists are, in their hearts, engineers who want to know how things work, to make things work better, and to apply knowledge to practical problems or unproven theses.
In his early middle age, the conservative and combative Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, had a thick mop of brushed-back hair. When he visited the city campus of RMIT, a rabble of students turned out to protest. A young man, dressed in flannel pajamas and an old-fashioned dressing gown, yelled at Kennett as he got out of his limousine, “Get a haircut!” We became good friends, listened to Bach and Nina Simone, and drank a great deal of champagne. Twenty years later he saved my life.
In the late 1980s and through the 1990s reports began to appear in the media about abuse of children by Catholic priests. The institutional failure of Catholicism to protect children from abuse, to admit the wrongs done, and to offer reparations, is evidence of a general failure of religious people to face reality. I used to imagine religious fanatics and authorities could be cowed with public lashings of pure reason. But the faith at the centre of religious belief is password-protected, unassailable and shameless.
What can a former Catholic do with a feeling of loss that is also the hope of loss? Any man or woman who is honest with themselves must get used to abandoning prejudices and wrong beliefs. The judge “standeth before the door,” and that judge is the world.
For years I tried hard to maintain a small part of trust in the wisdom of the religion that educated me and tried to protect me. But that church does not understand what wrong it did and is still pretending that gay priests are the problem, when the worse sin is betrayal.
In 2012, after many months of tiredness and a feeling of disorientation, I spoke to a friend about how I was feeling. He used to wear pajamas while he was painting in the artists’ studios at university. He spoke to a nurse about what he had heard me say and they were concerned I might have had a stroke. My friend called an ambulance. He knocked on the door of my flat and, when I answered the door, two paramedics were standing behind him. All three of them insisted that I would have to step into the vehicle that had been manoeuvred into position so I could step into it directly from the rear door of my apartment in St Kilda. One of the paramedics asked me a couple of questions designed to ascertain whether my mind was still in one piece. The ambulance moved onto the street and toward the nearest hospital. Sometime in the next minute I was unconscious, and then in an induced coma for several weeks. There were no distant, mysterious lights. There was, unfortunately, no music.
It was a long while before the wound on the back of my left leg, caused by a bacterial infection, had healed sufficiently for me to be able to stand again. I was confined to a hospital bed and drugged for months, and the demarcation between my dreams and the real world became very unclear. In the days between Christmas and New Year, 2013, I imagined, and for a while actually believed, the surgeons of The Alfred hospital had grafted a reproduction of a painting by Canaletto to my thigh using a new technique to disguise the scarring of surgery. By mid-January 2013 I was at war, somewhere in rural Italy, in sets made by Cinecitta designers and photographed by Pasolini. The electrical substation that was the locale of my small part in the war had a touch of HR Giger about it—and, yes, there were well-dressed Nazis who looked like they had just stepped off the set of a Mel Brooks video. When the body is in ruins, the mind works on, regardless. Among the beliefs most difficult to abandon is that we have a firm grip on reality. Seen in retrospect, what we believed is as substantial and changeable as a dream. Certainty is in the here and now, where we are sure we know what is real, and where we are almost always in some way wrong.
Fifty years too late, perhaps, I reached an age where The Epic of Gilgamesh made sense as a fiction about life—something it is difficult to see when you are young. Like the probably gay Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, we are all the bad rulers of our own domains. In the end, we look to the places we called home, forced to accept we will not survive; but our work, the city, its culture and even its empty fields, will outlive us.… Candide was right.