The Erratic Reader – II


Bloody newspapers! Having settled into my summer of crime I had little patience for newspapers or the news. The Weekend ‘Australian’ felled a forest in my palm. I looked sourly at the ‘paper’s unrelenting jaundice, directed uniformly in denunciation of the new mob who will steal government from the present mob. In this mood the ‘Australian’ deplores democracy. Deploring busily myself, I turned to the non-news. This is to be found in ‘Review’, the newspaper’s excellent weekly look at books and pictures and movies and dance and music and television shows.  In short, the arts.

 

 

Looking cursorily I leafed through the pages. As I did so I felt cursory; the accursed ‘Review’ was full of attractive material. I came to poems. Poems are hard, like algebra. Unlike algebra the trick is not to try to solve a poem, first listen to the music. Here (‘Review’, page 22) was Barry Hill, himself guilty of poetry, reviewing a book by another poet, Paul Kane. No, I hadn’t heard of him either. Kane’s book, ‘A Passing Bell: Ghazals for Tina’, is a lament for the poet’s wife, Tina, who died a few years ago. Barry Hill likes the book; I loved Hill’s review. I want to give you a taste of Hill on Kane on Tina, but what to choose? Better, what to omit? Not a word is dispensible. Here, at random:

 

It comes in the form of ghazals, the ancient lyric common to the Sufi poets writing in classic Persian (or Arabic, Turkish or Urdu), whose lines fell down the page in couplets that came to rest with a fresh mention of the beloved or the Beloved (sometimes called Master).

In any case, the Sufi exalted the visible as a song to the invisible.

 

 

Hill’s language is pregnant, heavy with knowledge and understandings, gravid with a scholarship I can only envy. Hill chooses the following lines by Kane:

 

“He never meant to write this, it simply took shape and wouldn’t let him go until it was over. But it will never be over for him, his heart inscribed with the name of the beloved, Tina”

 

and:

 

“At night I lie awake and call to you,

but you don’t reply, except in silence.

The night bird is not silent but sings

A simple single note. His mate does not sing back.

I do not understand this silence, as if God

Has departed and taken you with Him.

I have no words to form a prayer

That could reach you or Him.

Two wine glasses sit on the counter top –

One is full then only half full.

Without emptiness the glass could not exist.

If you should speak, Tina, the glass would shatter.

 

And back to Hill:

 

…Meanwhile, the ghazals, their pace and suspension, create a sense of time stretched to some mysterious limit, or of language floating on the waters of emptiness. “What words are these that well up like tears not shed?”

 

 

It took me quite some time before I could go back to Peter Temple’s ‘Dead Point”, my first Jack Irish novel. My first, definitely not my last. And now I’m on to Jane Harper’s ‘The Dry.’ Bloody crime writers writing literature. It’s enough to drive a man to Algebra.

 

The Erratic Reader


Every so often I feel the urge to tell the world what I’m reading. I’ve thought, I’m going to write and tell the world about this essay, that novel, this poem, but I’ve almost never done so. The explanation is I’ve been too busy reading to jot down my reactions to the written material. And now that I’m actually beginning, it’s not because you need to know what I read and what I think, but because I need to nudge someone in the ribs and say, golly, wow, how beautiful, how sad, how simple and true, how complex and elusive!  In short I enjoy a treasure most richly when I can share it. The loneliest person in the world must be he who looks up and regards El Capitan and has no companion to share the wow.

 

 

Let’s start:

 

 

I’ve found the most effective way to make someone yawn is to read a poem aloud. This doesn’t stop me from doing it; the power and beauty of a poem so often compels me. 

 

 

My day starts with a package of poems. These are psalms, attributed to David, the poet-warrior king of ancient Israel. I read these religiously. Like all actions that are ritualised, the ritual intended to enhance meaning can bleach it out of sight. I regret how often I bleach out beauty through simple inattention. But when an accident of biorhythm or a pang of piety actually slows my recitation I can stumble across purple passages* like this:  

 

Praise God from the heavens

Praise Him from the heights

Praise Him all His angels

Praise Him all His hosts

 

Praise Him sun and moon!

Praise Him all starry lights!

Praise Him the utmost heavens!

 

 

****

 

 

Leviathans and all deeps

Fire! Hail! Snow and Mist

Wind of storm

All work His word

 

 

The mountains and all Hills

Fruit tree and all cedars

Carnivore and Behemoth

Creeping thing and bird on the wing

 

 

Earthly kings and all nations

Potentates and all earthly judges

Youths and also young girls

Old men together with young lads

 

Let them praise the Name of the Lord…

 

 

While you yawn let me tell you how I love this tumbling catalogue of beings and phenomena, its plenitude, its richness, as the poet, God-drunk, calls the roll of the universe; how he brings into chorus every voice (Creeping things! Snow! Leviathan! – did David imagine what we now know and record – that the great whales sing?) – his imagination fires his love into hyperbolic song. After King David I had to wait for Gerard Manly Hopkins for such spiritually excited verse.

 

 

As I remarked above, golly. 

 

*The translation is my own. Don’t blame King James.

Running from Office

The following verse followed me from the city and found me where I am working in remoter parts:

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better

Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the ‘bidgee, years ago,

He was doctoring when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,

Just `on spec’, addressed as follows, `Goldie, Doctor of The Overflown’.

And an answer came directed in a writing not unexpected,

(And for sure the same was written with that horrible doctors’ scrawl)

‘Twas his running mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:

`Goldie’s gone to Queensland doctoring, and we don’t know where he are.’

In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Goldie

Gone a-doctoring `down the Cooper’ where the Western doctors go;

As his flock are slowly sitting, Goldie runs past them singing,

For the bush doctor’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him

In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,

And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,

And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a not so stingy

Ray of sunlight struggles not so much between the buildings tall,

And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city

Through the air con floating, spreads its foulness over all

And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle

Of the tramways and the ‘buses making hurry down the street,

And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,

Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.

And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me

As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,

With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,

For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.

And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Goldie,

Like to take a turn at doctoring where the seasons come and go,

While he faced the round eternal of the drafting and advising —

But I doubt he’d suit the office, Goldie, ‘Doctor of The Overflown’.

Nicholas Miller, legal practitioner and versifier, has doctored Paterson’s ‘Clancy ‘

Let Me Die! Help Me!

The right to die has found its voice. Past generations heard little of that claim, the cri de coueur of our day.

I imagine we never wanted to die so much as we do now. In previous times when life was short, brutish and mean we struggled to stay alive. But now Medicine has taken over. Deaths are prevented, delayed and deformed. Few families in advanced societies have been spared the grotesque spectacle of a loved one subjected to medically prolonged dying.

Because we enjoy better health we live longer lives. Because we reach old age we accumulate the mutations that overwhelm our defences. Cancer results. The cancer epidemic is the trophy won for us by medical advances. And so Medicine sets out to fight its ugly daughter. We cut out tumours, we poison them with chemotherapy, we shrink them with X-Rays, we outwit them with genetically engineered antibodies. Many are the gains, great are the costs.

Eventually dying happens.

Death frightened me when I was younger. Now I can see death as a sometimes friend. John Keats nursed his brother through the long death of tuberculosis. Then Keats himself became tubercular. He knew what lay in wait for him: cachexia then death. The terminus he contemplated was like late–stage cancer, the body self-starved, the mind too aware, the complexion ghastly pale, the skin empty, disfigured:

                                                The weariness, the fever, and the fret 

                                                Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; 

                                                Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, 

                                                Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; 

                                                Where but to think is to be full of sorrow 

                                                And leaden-eyed despairs –

 

 

Keats wrote dreams of an easy death (in his Ode to a Nightingale):

                                                           Darkling I listen; and, for many a time 

                                                           I have been half in love with easeful Death, 

                                                           Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, 

                                                           To take into the air my quiet breath; 

                                                            Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 

                                                           To cease upon the midnight with no pain, 

                                                           While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad 

                                                           In such an ecstasy! 

                                                           Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— 

                                                           To thy high requiem become a sod. 

 

When recently I posted ON EUTHANASIA I anticipated readers might react strongly. I was right: most who responded – on–line and off-line – experienced my thoughts as a wound. I learned how a doctor is expected to relieve all suffering. A doctor is a trusted friend. Once the doctor denies his patient her right, she feels he has betrayed her. The wounded person’s gaze is not directed here to the doctor as a moral agent, not as a person entitled to moral autonomy, simply as one who could help, who now, abruptly, at this last critical and defining moment, acts selfishly.

I wrote that changing a law does not necessarily serve wisdom. The reality here is no conceivable law can resolve all of the problems of our competing needs and values. We need relief. We need a doctor who respects our autonomy. We need a doctor who will not sit in lofty judgement.  We need a doctor who will protect life and now we need one who will take life. And we need to know he’ll protect when he should and take when we seek it. The forgotten need is that of the doctor to reconcile those parts of his work. Putting it a different way, if the doctor, in trying be all those things, violates her own being, inevitably she disintegrates. She must give away her integrity. And then all lose.

I read the responses. I felt them, the tremor of the soul that prompted brave, naked, passionate disclosure of self.  My mind went back to deaths I have known, deaths I have conducted. I recalled the baby who aspirated meconium in the birth canal. The baby’s chest heaved as it worked to ventilate lungs clogged with a material of the texture of bitumen. We ventilated him, he did not improve, he did not die. He would not die. Morning after morning I entered NICU and there he was, his skin marbled, his chest rising and falling in obedience to our machine. His life felt like a reproach. We had turned on the machine. I learned then that the decision to bring in the technology is more onerous than to withhold, to wait.

I recalled the first person to ask for my mercy. That person was my mother, the one who had given me life. Mum would have been sixty, I thirty. ‘Darling’, she said, ‘I have high blood pressure, I have high cholesterol; one day I’ll have a stroke. When that happens, I want you to slip me a mickey.’

I understood Mum’s reference to ‘a mickey finn’ – a lethal draught.

‘Mum, NO!’ – was my instinctive response, which I quickly softened with promises to read favourite literature to her.

Twenty or more years later Mum duly suffered stroke after stroke, the final one devastating. My son and I carried her up the stairs one day and I asked her whether she recalled our conversation. She did, clearly. I asked Mum whether she regretted my failure to ‘slip her a mickey’. Mum’s blithe response did not surprise me. Whichever way she might have responded would not prove any argument, would be particular, not general, would not resolve the next sufferer’s dilemma.

I sat with the heat and the passion and the pain of this debate. Having little faith in lawmakers to solve the problems of human existence and oblivion, I searched for some useful fragment to proffer. I recalled those numerous patients who had made written Advance Care Directives. For the simple doctor these expressions of your wishes are a godsend. I read them and I am ruled by your refusals. Some decline ventilation, some explicitly forbid ICU, some decline antibiotics or feeding by tube. Many directives are less specific: ‘Do nothing more than keep me comfortable.’ ‘Let me die with dignity.’ These last call for my deepest self-search. They challenge me to imagine what  comprises and what violates your dignity. They draw my mind into the unknowable tomorrow. But these directives too are helpful. Your opaque request demands my vision of your humanity. It’s a big ask and it’s a fair one. My parents asked of their children that we allow them to die with dignity. We did our best and we saw Mum and Dad pass more or less peacefully from us with our honest best. It’s a big ask but I feel equal to it.

So that’s my first suggestion: COMPOSE YOUR THOUGHTS, EXPRESS YOUR WISHES, WRITE THEM DOWN, GIVE THEM TO YOUR DOCTORS (IN THE PLURAL), TO YOUR LOVED ONES, TO YOUR LAWYER.

No guarantees.

The second idea came to me as I wondered about by own expertise in the matter of ending life by intent. I must do it unerringly. You don’t want to wake up mute and paralysed after I have botched it. Your family doesn’t want to see you struggle or convulse or vomit then inhale, gag and gasp. I’d need training. Then it came to me: the legalized euthanaser must be trained, supervised and certified. You’d want him to know the relevant law, the protocols. The euthanaser might benefit from ethical training. I am sure the practitioner will need pastoral support and peer supervision. He’ll need to be able to recognise and resist the opportunist heir-designate who wants Aunt Nancy knocked off before her care costs consume too much of the inheritance. (I had to do this once.)

So here’s my second suggestion, this to the lawmakers: A PERSON MUST BE LICENSED TO END LIFE. THE LICENSE WILL ASSURE THE COMMUNITY AND PROFESSIONAL PEERS THAT THE PRACTITIONER IS TRAINED, COMPETENT, HONEST AND WILLING. That final adjective might save many patients from the painful disappointment of denial of help by a doctor not prepared to end a life. (That doctor might be me.) You might or might not be able to respect the difficulty of a doctor who feels torn between your need and his vanity/arrogance/integrity/different sense of defining mission, but you need not suffer a humiliating rebuff in your extremity of need.

As I wrote earlier, a change of law cannot resolve everything.

Keeping Quiet

A young poet friend shared a poem with me. Gabriel Garcia Marquez declared the poet – Pablo Neruda – to be the twentieth century’s “greatest poet in any language.”

Such an accolade claims plenty poetic licence: does Mister Marquez read Sanskrit? Korean? Swahili? Arrernte?

Never mind: I think Mister Marquez is a good judge.

What is this power of the artfully selected offering of words?

This power that rivals music?

Read the poem; best of all, have someone read it aloud to you while you sit with your eyes comfortably closed:

Keeping Quiet Pablo Neruda

 

Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language; let’s stop for one second, and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines; we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea would not harm whales and the man gathering salt would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.

Paint Me As I Am

A poet sent me this poem. It is a poem I could never write. It is the poem of a spirit stronger, freer and bolder. When a poem as true as this comes my way I feel I know the poet, I’d recognise him by the beauty of the poem. I marvel at the freedom he claims and I rejoice for him, while holding my breath as he skelters along life’s unseen edge. My timid spirit prays, ‘o let him not fall off the edge.’ 


Paint Me As I Am


Why don’t you paint me as I am?             

Running and reading, with waves and

Sand tangling in my hair.

With fire in my hands. 

Paint me as a surfer, catching opportunities like a wave.

 

Paint me without dark paint, for I am not

only shades of grey.  

Paint me somewhere else, where dew moistens leaves

and the chilly air circulating around me that

makes every fibre of my being feel alive.

 

Paint me with my wrinkles, for those are signs of me laughing.

Paint me so my tears and scars don’t show.

 

Paint me with my nightmares but most of all, paint me with my dreams.

                           – Miles, aged 11


Garland Makers

Emerging from my early morning train I follow the subterranean tunnel that will lead to a city lane and daylight. There by the stairway stands a figure in the dimness, a fiddle at her chin, a bow in her right hand. I catch a glimpse of a t-shirt emblazoned with a black skull on a ground of brilliant white. A musician is playing Bach in a catacomb in Melbourne.

 

 

The musician plays. Later she will answer my query: “It’s Bach, one of the minuets.” Like any commuter I hurry by. A piccolo latte later I return to the tunnel. I have, after all, ten minutes of leisure, ten minutes free from scampering from screen to screen. I stand at a remove where I watch the slow bowing of her right hand and the nimble darting fingers of her left.

 

 

The musician plays. I don’t recognise this music, something slow and languid; liquid sounds flowing, flowing, peak hour crowds hurrying, hurrying. The musician plays, the commuters exit and I stand and I listen. In my hands I hold ‘Review’ from the weekend paper. Between melodies I read a poem by Judith Beveridge. The poem, titled ‘To a Garland Maker’ starts:

 

 

‘It must be good to be a garland-maker –

Your daughters carrying water, working with you

Braiding feathers, shells, leaves…’

 

 

Somehow the poem clinches the moment for me. Some obscure connection takes place. Perhaps it’s simply the gladsome encounter, unexpected, with the beautiful. I drop a bank note into the musician’s empty violin case. Between pieces I approach: “Please forgive my enquiry… what else do you do? In music, I mean?”     

“I’m at the Conservatorium. I’m studying.”

     

 

I withdraw and the musician plays again. Once again sounds drawn by slow bowing to an unhurried tempo, once again sounds not of this century nor of the last. Is there perhaps defiance in her choice of the unfashionable, of the non-popular? Most mornings the busker in this tunnel is a singlet-clad Springsteen, twice this girl’s age. But his music is far younger. His guitar case fills quickly with coin and notes.

 

 

My ten minutes of slow pass quickly. I’ve been in reverie, prompted by the playing and the poem:

 

 

‘Daughters

who will adorn you at your funeral with blossoms

picked at dawn.’

 

 

 

Following the poet’s images of daughters and aged mothers a vision comes to me of this same girl, three score years in the future, her delicate face coarsened by years and care. As I walk away my mind takes me to an elderly lady I know. She suffered a stroke a few years ago and recovered all movement but her speech was affected. Now words tumble from her mouth in lively disorder. My friend knows what she wants to say but her brain plucks the wrong word from her lexicon. The old lady has much to tell but her speech trips her up. She lives alone in the old family home, her gaiety unquenched.

 

 

 

In my reverie I hear the fiddler with her slow music, I hold the poet’s images of garland-making daughters, of disfiguring time, and of an old lady who cannot talk straight. Yeats wrote of ‘Gaiety transfiguring all that dread’. It is art I suppose, the access to beauty, that brings us to the sunlight.