Waiting for the Barbarians

In Washington they’ve arrived and taken up residence
What is it that we are waiting for, gathered in the square?
       The barbarians are supposed to arrive today.
—Why is there such great idleness inside the Senate house?
   Why are the Senators sitting there, without passing any laws?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today.

       Why should the Senators still be making laws?

       The barbarians, when they come, will legislate.
—Why is it that our Emperor awoke so early today,

   and has taken his position at the greatest of the city’s gates

   seated on his throne, in solemn state, wearing the crown?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today.

       And the emperor is waiting to receive

       their leader. Indeed he is prepared

       to present him with a parchment scroll. In it

       he’s conferred on him many titles and honorifics.
—Why have our consuls and our praetors come outside today

   wearing their scarlet togas with their rich embroidery,

   why have they donned their armlets with all their amethysts,

   and rings with their magnificent, glistening emeralds;

   why should they be carrying such precious staves today,

   maces chased exquisitely with silver and with gold?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today;

       and things like that bedazzle the barbarians.
—Why do our worthy orators not come today as usual

   to deliver their addresses, each to say his piece?
        Because the barbarians will arrive today;

        and they’re bored by eloquence and public speaking.
—Why has this uneasiness arisen all at once,

    and this confusion? (How serious the faces have become.)

    Why is it that the streets and squares are emptying so quickly,

    and everyone’s returning home in such deep contemplation?
       Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.

       And some people have arrived from the borderlands,

       and said there are no barbarians anymore,
And now what’s to become of us without barbarians.

Those people were a solution of a sort.
 

In Canberra, they are circling…


(P V Cavafy, trans Daniel Mendelsohn)

 

Striped Socks

In late 1969 the new doctor emerges half-baked from his progressive medical school. After graduation he spends three years in residence in major hospitals. He emerges from that great womb and enters family practice, feeling underdone still. But he blazes into his new work in a rural general with a few guiding verities. He will not create distance from his patients. He will not wear a white coat. He will wear bright socks, a signal to the young that he too is – was – is young. He will not hold himself aloof. He will not frighten children.

 

 

He starts his work and his feet are rainbows. When he treats children he sits next to them on the floor. Instinct rather than ideology guides the new doctor: he needs to be close; he wants to do away with barriers.

 

 

On his very first day, the ninth of April, 1972, the new doctor delivers a baby, a little girl. He becomes a long-term friend of the new mother. Every April ninth he remembers and often contacts the ‘baby’ – long after she grows, graduates, becomes a musicologist, a linguist, a creator of Aboriginal dictionaries.

 

 

He keeps changing his colourful socks but he does not change his ways. So long as his patients are, for the most part, young, the thin membrane that separates doctor from patient suffices for safety; the blurring of the professional and the human nurtures both the doctor and the doctored.

 

 

A young mother passes terrifying nights seated by her firstborn, watching him, willing his breathing as he gasps his inbreaths and wheezes his outbreaths. She brings the child to the new doctor. His concern comforts her. In time the boy’s asthma improves. The doctor meets and treats all three of that young woman’s children. He is drawn to the three, the thin boys gangling, the coal-eyed little girl, a faun. The children do not fear him. These too he befriends.

 

 

A few years pass and the young parents bring Grandfather to the doctor. The young family have taken the old man and Grandmother in to their home, thoroughly alarmed by the pneumonia he narrowly survived during the previous winter. Sixty years previously that man survived gassing in the trenches. His lungs are ruined, he might not get through another winter. Would the young doctor resume his care? He does, and further friendships grow.

 

 

Grandfather survives a dozen more winters in cheerful semi-invalidism, dying eventually in his late eighties. Grandmother, born in December 1899, lives to see three centuries and two millennia, living beyond all arithmetic probability, dying eventually, aged 104.

 

 

 

The father of the asthmatic boy likes to run. He’s a graduate in Architecture, a landscape artist who turns to teaching maths. He teaches at a school fifteen kilometres distant. Sometimes he runs those fifteen kms, up and down hills, across a couple of creeks to the school in the valley. The teacher shows his doctor friend the secrets and joys of running sandy country tracks. Up hills they run, sharing vistas of white, off-white, pale grey, deep grey, their breath white in the frosty mornings. Summer sees the two up and running before the heat strikes. Sweat-born raptures bind them in close friendship. The doctor showers and dresses for work in the en-suite bathroom of the aged matriarch. He tiptoes past the old lady lying asleep in her bedroom, greeting her after she has awakened. 

 

 

 

Years pass. Decades pass. All are older now. The Medical Board sends letter after letter to doctors, warning them to keep proper distance from patients. The Medical Board has never had the pleasure of being a country doctor. The doctor wears his garish socks still, unconsciously. He knows by now the byways of health, the pathways along which he and patients alike, stumble; ways that lead slowly or rapidly towards the universal destination. He knows his own vulnerability to the pain of others, the sorrows that seep through a thin membrane; and the power of hope to seep osmotically back. He knows too the cases where hopes of cure are cruel illusion. He seeks in these cases to be a guide, to keep company with his patient his friend. That a friend not pass, lost or alone, into finality.  

 

 

 

The running friend becomes unexpectedly breathless. Time passes and he cannot catch his breath. Tests show a shadow on a lung. Other tests reveal a tumour in the bowel. The years of torment begin. Surgery, chemotherapy, surgery again, scans and biopsies that show a third disorder, a serious chronic lung inflammation, nemesis now of three male generations. The teacher painter architect runner friend – what word can encapsulate a human person? – must take strong steroid medicines to stay alive, to breathe.

 

 

 

The breathing man works on a new painting. He paints a square-rigged ship negotiating a strait. He paints the ship then repaints it. His work reaches no finality. He shows the work to his doctor friend, who comes – as he used to in the running days – for breakfast. That’s a sound in New Zealand, a fiord really. It’s called ‘Doubtful Sound.’ Captain Cook came to the entrance, felt uncertain whether he’d get ‘The Endeavour’ out if he were to enter. He felt doubtful and he named the place for his doubt.

 

 

 

The painting shows a tall ship heeling before a strong wind. Its bow points bravely into the wind. The wind bears it towards the reef that guards the mouth of the sound. The rocks are a maw, open, baleful. The sails are close rigged. This is a ship under strain. Relieving that strain is a smaller boat whose heaving oarsmen pull the larger one towards safety. The doctor looks at the picture doubtfully. He was raised on boats. He’s negotiated dangerous narrows, but he had a motor to see him through.

 

 

 

That small boat, that’s a whaler. I used to row boats like that as a boy, on the Thames. In earlier times the master of a square rigger would launch the whaler to sound depths, but also, to help the mother vessel in places where the going was tight. When he felt doubt that he’d make it through.

 

 

 

The cortisone voice crackles, phrases punctuated by breathing pauses. The creator looks at his unfinishing work. Artful brushstrokes of blue, of greys, of white, create waves, wake, bow-wave. The ship holds its own. In all the stresses and forces it has not reached finality.

But What is the Middle?

While watching Seven’s Summer of Ads on TV it was easy, from time to time, to let the tennis distract you from the advertisements. One important headline announced: Bunnings Warehouse: Lowest Prices are just the Beginning. Over this summer and many before it, I heard these words so often I managed to commit them to memory.

 

 

In the Bunnings ads one ordinary, unglamorous Australian after another advises the viewer about this lawn trimmer, that bathroom spotlight, this house paint, all at bargain prices. After delivering this helpful information my aproned fellow Australian assures the nation Lowest Prices are just the Beginning.

 

 

I enjoy these ads. They suggest ordinary people (with the exception of the writer) can do it themselves. An empowering message, edifying. But, after decades of just the beginning an uneasy feeling has grown. I want to know: What is the middle? Why haven’t Bunnings told us? Surely they must know. Unless… unless  there isn’t a middle; unless (terrifying thought) Bunnings knows but isn’t saying. What if there is no middle? Can it be that Lowest Prices are just the Beginning and the End is Nigh?

At that Precise Spot at that Exact Moment

Centuries ago a bridge suspended high above an Andean valley collapsed. As a handful of travellers fell to their deaths, a Franciscan Friar approaching the bridge witnessed the event. Hundreds crossed that bridge every day. He never doubted God had decided to end those lives for a reason. Certain those lives had reached their completeness, Friar Juniper set out to investigate, to prove meaning in the seeming randomness. The author Thornton Wilder wrote a short, intense account of the monk’s quest in his book ‘The Bridge at San Luis Rey.’
 

 

Thirty years ago I made the winding climb from the valley floor to Marysville’s lovely Steavensons Falls. Half way up, nearing a bend in the cool and green, I encountered a plaque that read:  

IT WAS AN ACT OF GOD ON A WINDLESS MORNING 

          FOR THAT PARTICULAR TREE TO FALL 

         AT THAT PARTICULAR PLACE AND TIME 

 

PETER JOHN SYMONS AGED 19 YEARS 

MAXWELL JAY HUTTY AGED 18 YEARS 

DOROTHY PATRICIA MCNALLY AGED 15 YEARS

JANINE CLARK AGED 13 YEARS

 

The plaque had aged, its sheen lost. The text begged the Great Question. A smaller question lay buried in the ordering of names, listed – not alphabetically but by age. The fact of ordering betrayed the human need that pressed upon the text’s composer, the need to overcome chaos, to quell the fear of existential meaninglessness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On an idyllic summer day in the heart of Melbourne, streets milled with innocents in their hundreds, in their thousands. They were schoolchildren, adults, workers, lovers. They were foreigners and out-of-towners here for the tennis, they were suited business people and bewigged barristers. They were in the liveable city where life was blessed by a gentle sun, a sweet torpor, a Friday feeling. One of those thousands was a baby boy whose life was about to end at the age of three months; one a twenty-two year old woman who bubbled with laughter; two were men, aged 25 and 33 years. A fifth was ten years old, a school girl.

 

 

 

On Patriots Day, 2013, thirty thousand of us set off to run from the village of Hopkinton to Boston, 26 miles and 185 yards away. The marathon started at 10.00 in the morning. One million Bostonians lined the route, standing outside until all had passed, cheering us on. Boston loved us all, from the elite to the aging plodders. Celebrating this, their ceremony of innocence, the spectators offered us oranges, bananas, sausages, beer. They held up signs: YOU ARE ALL KENYANS. At 2.46 pm the first bomb exploded at the Finish Line, followed moments later by the second. Of the many hundreds shouting and cheering in Boylston Street, three were killed, 264 injured. One of those killed was a boy aged eight. Sixteen survivors lost limbs.

 

 

 

In Wilder’s classic novel, the Friar spends years seeking the proof of divine design in the chaos and cruelty of life. His researches culminate in a book in which simple faith is upheld by simplistic conclusions. Wilder writes:

 

I shall spare you Brother Juniper’s generalizations. They are always with us. He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to heaven…

 

The book being done fell under the eyes of some judges and was pronounced heretical. It was ordered to be burned in the Square with its author. Brother Juniper submitted to the decision that the devil had made use of him…The little Friar was given to the congenial flames… he called twice upon St Francis, and leaning upon a flame he smiled and died.

 

 

 

In the final few pages Wilder makes clear his rejection of The Friar’s ‘generalizations.’ Instead he writes of those who loved and lost and lamented and never healed. All these live out their days numbed, unable to find solace or meaning. One by one, they cross the lonely years and confess their grief, their self-blame, to an aged Abbess, herself bereaved of the two who used to be orphans in her care. All the bereaved live out their days waiting for death.

 

 

 

For the present generations, living in our scientific age, reared as we are with data to slake our thirst for the rational, attempts to rationalise last week’s experiences fail to satisfy. Instead explanations are felt as an affront. The image of a pram, upended, empty, upon the bloodied street; a child lying face down, entirely alone in death, torn from her mother and sister who struggle for life elsewhere, in Intensive Care Units; the Japanese stranger – still unidentified – who dies alone and unknown, far from his home – who, in the face of these, can find comfort in pious nostrums?

 

 

 

Ultimately Wilder’s Abbess finds, not explanation, not meaning, but reconciliation: Even now – she thought – almost no-one remembers Esteban and Pepita but myself… soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

 

 

 

As in Boston after the bombs, once the fatal car had passed, the people of Melbourne beheld those injured, those lost in wild surmise, those stunned. The cabbie who leaped from his car, the citizens who took travel brochures, garments – whatever they found to hand – to bind wounds, all became sudden trauma nurses and paramedics. So too the shop attendants who streamed from department stores with towels to stanch haemorrhage, with a board torn from a wooden pallet to splint a broken leg.

 A terrible beauty born.
 

 
 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 
 
 

 
 

 
 

 

 
 

 

Australia Day in Doomadgee

Doomadgee, we write it
In our orthography
Really should be
Dumat’ji
 

No flag raising here
No speech or ceremony
On Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

River runs warm
Kiddies swim and swarm
On Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

Uncles bashing
In Australian passion
On Australia Eve
Here in Doomadgee

 
Broken hand, broken
Jaw, cut faces and more:
That’s Australia Day
In Doomadgee.
 

Adam Goodes
Too far away
This Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

A busy day this
Australia Day
In the hospital
In Doomadgee
 

We plaster, we suture
Like there’s no future:
Future no feature 
of Australia Day,
Not here, no way, 
In Doomadgee
 

The end of Australia Day –
Quietness falls
In hospital halls
Of Doomadgee
 

But short the respite –
Quick! Elder sick,
Dying On Australia night –
Dying here in Doomadgee?
 

Quiet, quiet, his voice, his breath –
Small his smile at threshold of death –
Good night Australia:
System failure in Doomadgee
 

Beside him, quiet woman – or girl –
His guard and ward in this world
Trembles, faces an Australian day
Elderless in Doomadgee.
 

He slips away from teeming kin
Who hold tears and keening in;
A dreadful peace on Australia Day
And quiet, this night in Doomadgee.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Once Upon a Poem 


Once, when two persons were walking together at day’s end, the elder of the two remarked on the sunset. He spoke and said:

 

the sky is burning

in my mind

 

Once Upon a Story

 

Once, when two were walking on the beach the younger saw a rock that looked like Leviathan and she said:

 

Last night I was here and that rock wasn’t a rock.

Last night I saw it move from the sea. It moved up the beach and it came towards me. It was a whale. It chased me up the sand and I ran and I ran and I didn’t stop running until I got home.

 

Once Upon a Song

 

Once, when two walked together a song drifted towards them. The song had no words. The sounds of the song reached them from somewhere higher or darker or hidden. The sound surrounded them. The flapping of wings, the whoosh of flight, made them think of birds. And the drift and drone, the rise and fall, the start and pause, mad them think of a breathing. Perhaps a person. Perhaps their planet.
Once and Always

 

The poem and the story and the song came and went, went and came, always different, ever the same. The song and the story and the poem bound the younger to the elder and both of them to all who came after and to all who came before.

 

Sometimes the two remembered or wondered or dreamed or knew: the song and the poem and the story had been there before they were, before the sunset, before the rock. Perhaps song, poem and story had brought the sunset and the rock and the flapping wings into being.

 

The two knew they could exist only in a world of story and poem and song.