A Poem for People who don’t enjoy Poems*

Seventy years had passed before the Prussian-American Charles Bukowski entered my life. (It happened by the beach, at the southernmost tip of our continent: Wamoon was the place’s ancient name.) It was my birthday and an author friend drove three hundred kilometres to present me with the book. I asked him to stay the night. He limped down to the ocean, immersed himself to the waist, then drove back home where he was writing five books at once.

I learned Bukowski belonged to the Dirty Realist movement in Los Angeles. I wasn’t surprised. He had authored over sixty books (five at a time?), one of which was titled, Notes of a Dirty Old Man. On account of that title, the FBI kept an eye on him.

Here’s the first poem to take my eye, ‘Are You Drinking?’

washed up, on shore, the old yellow notebook

out again

I write from the bed

as I did last 

year.

will see the doctor,

Monday.

“yes, doctor, weak legs, vertigo, head-

aches and my back

hurts.”

“are you drinking?” he will ask.

“are you getting your

exercise, your

vitamins?”

I think that I am just ill

with life, the same stale yet

fluctuating 

factors.

My doctor mind interrupts, interprets.

‘Washed up’ – is he depressed?

‘I write from the bed’ – probably depressed.

‘will see the doctor’ – THE doctor, one known to the speaker, one who knows the speaker: is this patient a regular?  a recalcitrant? An incurable? 

‘weak legs’ – alcohol and nutritional neglect will lead to muscle wasting, thin weak legs below the large belly groaning with ascitic fluid;

‘vertigo’ – alcohol again, damaging the back end of the brain;

‘head-

aches’ – the hyphen, why the line change? Who 

knows?

‘and my back

hurts’ – who, in this human herd, has a back that doesn’t hurt? Or a head that doesn’t ache?

‘vitamins’ – often critical and urgent when an alcoholic comes to medical care; nutritional neglect can lead to vitamin B deficiency, with brain damage resulting.

All these items, concrete and specific: Charles writes from personal knowledge. Nothing abstract here.

I read on:

even at the track

I watch the horses run by

and it seems 

meaningless.

I leave early after buying tickets on the

remaining races.

“taking off?” asks the mutuel

clerk.

My wordlover’s mind wonders – mutuel – is this a typographical error?

The dictionary assures me it’s not: this office bearer at the race track checks bets, sells tickets, pays out cash where due. In Australia he’d be a turf accountant, a bookie’s clerk

‘‘… if you think it’s boring

out there”, he tells me, “you oughta be

back here.”

And now, in this moment in the story, in a poem that doesn’t bother to rhyme, that refuses all song, that wastes nought by way of capital letters and punctuation, reserving them for the speech of the doctor and the clerk, now the engine of strong feeling fires:

so here I am

propped against my pillows

again

just an old guy

just an old writer

with a yellow

notebook.

Listen as the engine roars in to high fear: I’m intruding here with bold print:

something is

walking across the floor

toward

me.

Feel Bukowski’s fear. Something which has the power of motion. Some thing, some beast, some force, some terror.

Feel the poet alert, listening, paralysed in his fear. Feel his tension rising, rising, as the something comes nearer and nearer. What does he fear?

What fear is this that drives the poet to drink, that send him again and again to the doctor, what fear is it  that dulls even the power and the thrill of ‘the horses that run by’? 

oh, it’s just

my cat

this 

time

‘this’ 

A space, a breath, a moment grabbed from the fearful something that surely will come –

time’

The fearful something came for Charles Bukowski on March 9, 1994. He was 73 years and seven months old.

Drawn Toward the Portals

I’m seventy-five. Seventy-five, a thankful number, and a thinkful one. Anyone who reaches this stage knows – with me – that we are closer here to the exit than the entry. Anyone who follows my writing will note how my mind drifts toward death, dying and the dead; toward memory and memorial.

A friend observed thirty years ago, ‘You know Howard, all this writing you are doing is a just means of coming to terms with your mortality.’

I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. 

I smiled the kindly smile you give to the clueless friend who means well.

I know now my friend was right, dead right.

When I was a child the fact of death frightened me. To be annihilated – unthinkable! Literally, I was unable to think what the world could be like without Howard Jonathan Goldenberg. In my adult life I’ve experienced a similar disability of thinking: I find myself simply unable to think of an afterlife. I don’t deny the possibility, I just can’t relate to the concept.

So I live this life as if it’s my only one. I think now that death is a good idea. I don’t feel frightened anymore of annihilation. It’s my loved ones who fear my death, especially the grandchildren. The more I love them, the more they love me, the more vulnerable I make them. That’s a dilemma for me. I have felt at times, almost irresponsible, for becoming close and precious to children whose frailty I know so well. For myself, I can reflect how this planet, our species, did alright before Howard Jonathan Goldenberg arrived; once he’s gone, there’ll be one polluter fewer.

But just as the exit has always exercised my mind, the opposite portal called me irresistibly. As my own life ebbs, at the opposite portal an opposite tide of new life always rises. That portal has admitted nine grandchildren into life, into my life. The nine have broadened and deepened my late years. Those years feel more intense, more vivid, more life-stained than the years before.

I used to work at the portal that admits newcomers to life. I delivered babies. I was the intimate outsider, the guest who was invited to attend the birth of a family. Looking back, gazing over my shoulder towards that portal, that screaming gateway, I see blood and shit and tears, I see babies who gasped and roared, I see other babies who had to be coaxed into breath, I see some who would never breathe. I see women shaken, transfigured by the sudden knowledge of their enormous power. I see placentas stuck, I see the lifeblood ebbing, I feel once again the terror…

Two portals long have drawn me, twin doorways of universal truth.

My day starts with prayer, followed by some tablets to lower my blood pressure washed down with strong coffee to raise it. I plug in my hearing aids, I put on my specs, I stretch my shrinking spine and try to stand straight. These small acts, the adjustments of a seventy-five year old, as he moves ever backward, ever closer to the portal marked Exit.

I remember a book my wife’s father gifted me, an anthology of sorts, with odd bits of writing. One story ran something like this: 

A man went for a walk in the high mountains. Entranced by the grandeur that he saw all around, he jumped when he heard a loud roar from behind him. Looking back, he saw a snow tiger. The giant creature would very soon overtake him. The man ran, and as the tiger sprang the man reached the summit and leaped. 

The man looked down at the valley floor far below. Turning in mid-air, he reached and just managed to grab an overhanging branch of the small sapling that grew at the edge of the fall. The man swung from the bough, his fall broken. Looking up he saw the slavering tiger regarding him. Looking down he saw the unbroken fall. The man heard a groaning sound. Looking behind, he saw the sapling slowly coming away from the peak. Swinging, he looked at the cliff face, and saw, just beneath the sapling, some strawberries growing there. The man’s free hand plucked some strawberries and he ate them. How good the strawberries tasted.

Suspended between the portals of truth, a seventy-five year old enjoys the taste of strawberries.

An Air Fryer by the Urinal

The box sits there, unopened, apparently intact, inscrutable, pristine, just sits there, outside the urinal at a truckers’ rest stop off the Refugee Road to Victoria.
The word at the top reads ‘Mistral’. I know what mistral means; we learned about it at school in Form Four Geography. Mistral is the name of the strong wind that blows cold, dry air on Mediterranean coasts.
But ‘Air Fryer’ is a new concept. What’s an air fryer for? Who would wish to fry air? The last time the air fried, we had those horrible bushfires that tore through this area and along our East. Pausing in passing, I examine the box. The lid opens readily, revealing an unfamiliar contrivance, presumably the device for frying air. Resting atop the device in the box, I note a number of smaller packages, gift-wrapped, addressed to Dear Colin and to Granny Nancy. I retreat hastily, conscious of invading privacy.
The air outside the urinal is heavy and stale.

Back to the car where Annette and Nana await. It’s 6.30pm and at midnight they’ll close the border. We’ve driven the refugee road now for four hours, racing from Sydney where we’d barely unpacked, only to hear Mr Andrews speaking upon the radio at 2.00pm. He said he’d let us return to Victoria, and we wouldn’t have to quarantine, but only if we crossed from New South Wales before midnight. After that hour we’d be required to isolate at home for 2 weeks.
By 2.15 we’d decided to leave. Kisses, hugs, sad looks, big squeezes with Ruby, whose eighth birthday celebrations have been twisted and shrunken beyond recognition. Nana and this household haven’t seen each other for fifteen months. During that time, all fear they’ll never see each other again. Covid, easily caught, kills old girls of ninety-four with diabetes. But no, Nana arrives in Sydney alive, she embraces her Sydney family, faces awash with tears. An intense forty six hours follow, rich with longing requited. Then Mister Andrews says come home quick. And we do.
And somewhere two hours north of the Victorian border, a refugee with a full bladder jumps from a car and dislodges gifts chosen with love for Colin and Granny Nancy. The urinator races from urinal to vehicle and hurries south to beat the deadline. I’m hoping he or she crossed the border in time and – unquarantined, a Magus ungifted – spends a joyous Christmas with Cousin Colin and Granny.

Jesse at Eighteen

The mother whom you are about to bring into being feels a pain in her belly. Your birth was due a couple of days ago but it doesn’t occur to the woman that she might be in labour. She phones her father, a doctor, soon to become a grandfather.

Dad, my tummy hurts. It’s been hurting all day. Could it be gastro?

Darling, you are pregnant. You have reached full term. Unless you have diarrhoea you’re probably in labour. Go to hospital.

The date is November 11, a date already doubly and indelibly significant for Australians. It’s the date you create a mother, a father, three grandparents, a great-grandmother, uncles, aunts, great-uncles, great-aunts. It’s the date you change our world.

All day you knock at life’s door. Day becomes night. In the Delivery Suite your mum-to-be squats and strains. In an adjacent waiting area, dimly lit, your yogi great-grandmother-designate squats and bears down, trying to birth you at a remove. The soon-to-be grandfather consults his wristwatch. This climactic second stage of labour has become prolonged. He knows a lengthy second stage imperils a baby. He sends a message to the obstetrician: Would you like an extra pair of hands in case the baby needs resuscitation?

The specialist says yes.

I enter and not long after, the door of life opens to you. You and I meet. You need no resuscitation. I hold you and I introduce you to the mother whom you have brought into being.

Thirty-six hours later I’m gazing at you, just a baby. You lie inside my pink cap. I’ve seen hundreds of babies, I’ve delivered hundreds, every one of them a miracle, every one of them scrutinised for irregularities by a clinical eye. You are no less imperfect than those hundreds. You are skinny, you look like an empty sock, your face isn’t quite symmetrical.

But some event or process, something visceral, something cosmic perhaps, is taking place and I am transmogrified: I am a grandfather; I love you. What is this joy? Your fingers curl and close around my finger and you grip me. 

On the eighth day of your life you rest on the lap of your great-grandfather, I remove some skin and bring you into a Covenant. A drop of wine pacifies you. Your tribe jubilates. We know our long back story. Behold you! We see you and we behold our futurity.

Years pass, your parents send you to this grandfather to learn rituals, traditional melodies, ancient texts. At thirteen you are barmitzvah. Once again your clan rejoices and this time you can share it. You sense the power, the force field of love that is your extended family, the depth of our feeling. Profoundly you know belonging.

Life takes you through ups and downs. At eleven you walk with me, up, down, up and again down, to a distant lighthouse. A boy who buries strong feelings, you struggle and you achieve. You declare, I love you Saba. Later you say, I’ll bring my kids on this walk. And you add, I love you Saba.

Six years later, life is still up and down. We do that same walk again. This time it is the boy who stops and waits, and allows an aging Saba to catch up. Your words are few but they have not changed. The miles, the steeps, the struggle weld us once again.

This week you sit your last school examination. Your schooldays are behind you. We behold you, the first of your generation. Eighteen years have passed, enriched and intensified by your being. Eighteen years ago you gripped me, never to let me go.

A River Flows Through

A river flows through my childhood. I dwelt in that particular suburb of heaven which is a country boyhood. When I was nine-and-a-half years of age I was kidnapped by my parents and brought to a city where I have sojourned for 65 years. Very quickly I learned to embrace my new home. Over time I have learned to forgive Melbourne for not being Leeton.
Every so seldom work calls me back to that riverine land. For the past three weeks I’ve been working in the blessed town of Cootamundra. Wide streets, unhurried citizens, verdant gardens, wide skies, a community without traffic lights, have nourished and refreshed me these three weeks. Road signs direct the motorist to nearby downs: this way to Tumut; close by is the drowned township of Talbingo; only two and a bit hours to Albury, where abides my oldest friend; down the road is Gundagai; turn right for Junee, railway junction to the entire state. Leeton (Leeton!) is not far; and down that road lies Wagga Wagga Wagga, so great they named it thrice.

The river flows through these parts. Its strong current could seize a body and drown it. It seizes me still and flings me backwards. Nostalgia is the practice of rejoicing in grief. It’s probably a malignant habit. But it reflects a truth, the truth of country, of homeland, a truth known to every territorial animal, including the human.

Sitting in my surgery I meet old farmers of a third or fourth generation on this land. Their attachment to country runs deeply, deep in struggle, deep in memory of drought and flood, in struggle to sustain family and to flourish. Their love runs deeper than mine, which is of the surface. Theirs is rooted in the earth. In Malaya they have a word for it:  bumi putra – sons of the soil.   

Wars have been fought here over territory. The professor of law who sits in my surgery tells me the local Wiradjuri fought the tribe that gave Canberra its name. The same professor declares, of course epidemics killed most Aboriginal people. The settlers spread them intentionally. They gave blankets to the indigenous, smearing them first with smallpox.Incredulous, I ask for proof.I can’t prove it. It’s part of Aboriginal narrative. Marcia Langton quotes it. Other historians too.


Drinking my morning coffee at Dusty Road Coffee Roasters I fall into conversation with a tall, pear-shaped woman of about fifty. She tells me she teaches in schools for the Red Cross.Do you teach the kids First Aid?No, cultural diversity. In particular, to accept and welcome migrants of all colours, from all places.Can you teach kids not to be racist?Yes, that’s not too hard. You can’t teach adults, though.I digest this for a while. The woman speaks again: Cootamundra Girls’ School was created to train stolen girls to be domestic servants. They were stealing girls as late as 1970. None of the girls came from this district. They were brought here as aliens. The old girls held a reunion here recently.The occasion brought together old friends, survivors together of loneliness, of seizure from country. On pain of physical punishment those girls were forbidden to speak in language. Coming together with old friends was somehow joyous.I ask our informant how long she’s lived in Cootamundra. This isn’t my country. My father’s people are Gunditjmara from near Warrnambool. My mother’s mother came from the Netherlands.The woman leaves us to go to her work, making non-racists.

The professor takes me to see the old girls’ school. It sits near the middle of town, a vast nondescript brick edifice on spacious grounds. Insignia on a placard inform us that a Cadet Corps uses the property. No sign of indigenous occupancy, no word or name to be seen , no-one would dream this is Wiradjuri country. The professor speaks: Many Indigenous people stay away from Cootamundra. Folk memory of this school is unbearable to them.I look around for signs of First People. Nothing here, nothing anywhere I’ve been these past seventeen days. I’ve run main roads and side roads, run to the cemetery, past the churches, past the handsome two-story buildings that house the banks, past the hospital, past the imposing old railway station, past the Council Chambers. I’ve lived across the street from the old Masonic TempIe. This is a town which honours its pioneer past. It honours the birthplace of Donald Bradman and preserves the little house that was his natal hospital. I haven’t noticed an Aboriginal Medical Centre, nor a Cultural Centre.

Until now I didn’t even notice the silence or the absence. So easy, so very easy, not to see, not to know, not to look or ask.

And this is Naidoc Week. 

The river that flows through my childhood flows also through the entire time of European settlement. Those times are the recent shallows. The river we all claim, the river that claims us flows through all time and song and dance and story.

Book launch invitation

dear all
this coming sunday evening i’ll be participating in a virtual book launch
i’m writing to inform you of the event and to invite you to attend
my invitation comes without a hint of obligation or expectation but with my commendation of a really worthy book that tells a remarkable story
i read it and i was moved
it speaks to us in times that challenge human decency and threaten our liberty
it’s story to remember
i found it inspiring
come along

Click HERE to register


sincerely

howard

On the eve of Rosh Hashana

A year has passed – what have we learned?

We had more than we needed

We could get by with less

We need things less than we believed; we need people more than we realised

Compassion

The reality of mental ill health, its ubiquity

A year has passed – what have we lost?

Money mainly;

time with loved ones;

the pleasures of socialising; leisurely time in coffee shops

Many  – too many – have lost jobs

Too many have lost loved ones

Almost all of us have had to borrow from our future

For boomers of my generation it’s the end of the free ride, it’s a long farewell to our plans for retirement

A year has passed – what have we gained?

A guilty sense of responsibility for a planet despoiled

Humility as we saw so many so much worse off

Appreciation of the good we had

Understanding without judgement

Neighbours – they were there all the time and we never knew them 

We know our loved ones better.

Desiderata – we have learned we can go slowly amid noise and haste 

Can we be better?

Dear Victoria

Dear Victoria,


They were normal people who stopped us about thirty kilometers along the Hume Highway. The soldier wore a mask. The police officers wore masks and guns and bullet-proof jackets. All was customary. The soldier said it was a lovely day.

It was. The sun shone, spring sprang. The soldier asked, where are you going?

Wodonga.

Why?

We’re going to Sydney.

Why?

We told him about the sickness and the surgeries and the complications and the pains and the parents and their children that needed our help. The soldier said he was sorry.

There was a pause.

My eyes stung a bit with his kindness. He said you wouldn’t have a Permit, would you?

We did. We showed him. The soldier said, go carefully. Go well.

In Wodonga the motel people were just the same, all masked. The familiar unfamiliarity was almost comforting.

Up early, still under curfew, we waited until 5.00 am before driving to the checkpoint at the border. More masks and guns and body armour, a roadblock, a fast car at the ready in case we made a break for it. All normal, familiar from the black and white war movie that is our life. We showed our papers. The officers – mine a female, Annette’s a male – photographed the barcode that isn’t a barcode but a blob, and told us to drive carefully.

So, Dear Victoria, we’ve been in New South Wales for twenty-four hours now. We had wondered how the people would be. We wondered how they’d react to our Victorian registration plates. Apart from the angry mob we encountered in Bathurst, people didn’t seem to mind. It turned out the Bathurst bunch were protesting about koalas. Some ratbag had suggested koalas be protected! We felt unsafe: they come for the koala today, tomorrow it can be the Victorian.We got out of there in a hurry. 

At petrol stations we saw humans closer up. We could tell there was something different about them. What was it?  Eventually it came to us: Noses! People here have noses. We remembered other people’s noses. We remembered the days when it was not only the persons in your household and persons in Renaissance paintings who had them. We remembered; four-year old Sadie probably would, but Marnie, aged only half a year would not. The old people who drop off food at her front door and wave at her, the old couple supposed to be her grandparents, are normal beings, noseless and masked.

While in quarantine here in the mountains, Annette and I will occupy ourselves with an online self-help book. We need to refresh old skills in preparation for grandparenting. The book is Cuddles, Hugs, Kisses: a Manual for Grandparents.

Memorial Concert

I was the second in a bunch of four kids. Including parents we were a family of six. That was then.

In 2003, Dad died; a few years later our eldest brother died, three years after him, Mum died. Now we are three. The anniversary of Dad’s death fell this week. I wrote to the other two survivors:


sister, brother

I wish us all many more years of vigorous good health

It has been an empty yahrzeit* no ceremony, no minyan** to respond to my kaddish*** just a candle burning and reciting the bedtime shema and recalling how Dad taught us and translated, the words echoing his love of the text, his love of the tradition, and his love of us, to whom he was passing it all on and reciting the psalm: ”yea even though my father and my father have forsaken me…”
I thought of Dad at intervals through the day, but I didn’t build my day around acknowledging him

He was phenomenal – a brave man who made himself strong despite inner infirmity a man who inspired, a man to remember

we were blessed

love howard

Sister and brother wrote back, with their rememberings. Cousins wrote, and friends. It all felt mellow, a species of happy. There was a pleasure in remembering and in sharing memory.
I found myself wandering around, singing a song I hadn’t sung or heard for perhaps forty years. I heard myself singing: he sipped no sup and he craved no crumb…

This was one of the many songs that Dad, a singing man, especially liked.
When I realised what I was doing, I tried to recall one of Mum’s songs. Although Mum was a blithe old girl, she seldom sang. But a memory came of one song she did sing to me when I was very young. I remember her contorting her face as she sang, glee and hilarity bursting from her in self-parody, flinging the words from her with abandon:
cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild wine they’ll drive you crazy, they’ll drive you insane…

I decided to record myself singing my parents’ songs. You can hear their memorial concert by pressing play below.

*anniversary**a congregation***a memorial prayer, recited only in congregational worship

Fellow Australian Citizens

My Fellow Australian Citizen dismounts from his bicycle at the intersection. Here, where the bike lane ends, trams, cars and pedestrians converge. Some turn at this intersection, others race through at speed. It’s a tricky crossing, the roadway here unsafe for a cyclist.

My fellow Australian Citizen wheels his bike carefully along the footpath. He finds himself following close behind a Fellow Australian Citizen (FAC) who. oblivious of man and bicycle, is engrossed in her phone conversation. FAC, male, decides to alert her to his presence: Pardon me, he says. FAC, female, looks up, sees her fellow citizen, looks angry.FAC, male, feels he’s interrupted the other’s conversation. He apologises: Excuse me, he says, I am sorry. FAC, female, speaks. He thinks he hears, You don’t belong here.

Does she mean, you and your cycle don’t belong on the footpath? Pardon me? – he asks.

YOU. DON’T. BELONG. HERE.
FAC, male, is no longer in doubt.
I ask FAC, male, How did you feel, once you understood her meaning?Water off a duck’s back. I tell FAC, male, I feel sick. Sick and sad. Like I did when they decided Adam Goodes didn’t belong. FAC, male, explains: Sticks and stones. Back in Rwanda one half of our population decided the other half didn’t belong. They equipped themselves with machetes. I survived and I ran. My family went into hiding. To this day they hide in a safe house. They’re still after me. I ran to Australia and Australia gave me asylum. I stayed, I worked, I studied. I graduated and I became a citizen.
A hopeful thought: I ask, What did she look like, your Fellow Australian Citizen? Ordinary. Nothing remarkable. I persist: Describe her for me.FAC, male, is puzzled: She looked like anyone else: mid-forties, perhaps. Light brown hair, slim, medium height. (What I want to know, what I’m hoping to hear, is she’s Aboriginal. If she were indigenous she’d be within her rights. Rude perhaps, but within her rights, certainly.) I mean what was her race?Oh. She was caucasian.


Fellow Australian Citizens have rallied in their thousands, in their tens of thousands, in a time of danger, risking greatly, searching, trying to find a way of showing how black lives matter in this country too.In this country citizens are feeling conscious that we might not belong here, not by ancient right. We arrived here in the last century, or two or three. We are new here.We lack the legitimacy of antiquity.
The First Australians might reasonably challenge us. They might say, you don’t belong here. But they don’t say that. Instead they say, let’s share country.
I’ve heard them, I’ve heard it everywhere that I’ve travelled to work – in the Pilbara, in the Kimberley, in the Ngaaanyatjarrah lands, in the Adnymathanha lands, in my home country of the Wiradjuri, in Bigambul country, in the country of the Darug, the Yamaji, the Arrernte, the Warlpiri, the Bininj, the Nangiomeri, Marimandinji, Marithiel, Maringar, Mulluk Mulluk.
These dark times are also times of hope. Times of searching of a nation’s soul.But at that crossing, at that intersection where Fellow Australian Citizens meet, hope slackens. Fear, feeding on a deep ignorance of the nature of an immigrant nation, flickers into hate. Elsewhere in this country, fear flickers into hate against Chinese Australians. And there’s always the Jews to hate too.