Small Town

Wide streets, slow talk, visible horizons, unhaste, drinkable coffee, air you can’t see, first prize in the Trap Shoot a ham (second prize two chooks), courteous people, a main street monument to Glenn McGrath, traffic slowing to circle the cenotaph that recalls the one-hundred-year dead, terrain so flat a granite mound (250 metres) is a mountain)*, forty eight social, sporting and cultural clubs (including Writers’ Inc – contact Mrs Shirley Todhunter**), a nursing home full of smiling nonagenarians, churches of wood, the CWA***, a beauty queen crowned Miss Beef…

I like the town.

Walking down the sunblazing main street on a Friday afternoon I pass by three girls slim enough to sit side by side on a single doorstep. All three meet my curious gaze, two smile, one speaks: ‘Good afternoon.’

‘Good afternoon girls.’

Three smiles. These girls, just at the threshold of puberty, haven’t been taught to fear. They smile like their great-grannies who greet me at the nursing home.

I like the town.

In the hospital I treat too many for alcoholism. Ice floods the town, destroying minds, ravaging families. I feel a pang for the three small smilers who did not fear to smile at a stranger.

I come as a gap filler for the doctor who left last week after twenty years of service. The town is in mourning. ‘Will you be staying, doctor?’, the townsfolk ask me.

I don’t like to say no: I like the town.

* Mount Foster.

** I did contact her.

*** If you don’t know the CWA (Country Women’s Association) you have probably never eaten a cream-filled passionfruit sponge cake. If you haven’t eaten a passionfruit sponge, move to a small town and do so.

nevertire of eenaweena

never beenta eenaweena

you’ll never tire of nevertire

when I’ve beenta

eenaweena and nevertire

i’ll have beenta elong elong –

grong grong and matong

were nearer my home town:

I’ve eaten meringue

in wulgulmerang –

in betweena hell,

booligal as well

a long time ago,

in eulomogo;

been alone in quambone

felt at home in gulargambone

done algebra in egelabra

and once in gilgandra

reclined on veranda

and free from hungery

in eumungerie

with grub o from dubbo

found peace, release, ease

at least in burrumbuttock

never felt foreign

in a small town like warren

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Blogging On

I wrote a post a few days ago expecting it to pass with a yawn. That it did not is a surprise. That it might matter is an astonishment. That I’ll persist is the fault of the addressees below:

Dear palmerglassbox,

I am gratified to bring a ray of sunshine twice a week, but I am concerned about the other five sunless days. Please ask your doc to measure your vitamin D levels.

Dear Lionel Lubitz,
I like the idea of opening you (plural) up. It is ages since I performed a laparotomy. Thank you for your unhyperbole and for the teasing notion that the blog can annoy you (again plural). Someone’s taking notice.

Dear Susanne at Bilingual Options,
Your response delights me because you delight in the stories that delight me most, those about family. As one very familiar with the grandrats (Susanne is the model for the speech therapist in Carrots and Jaffas, and my twin grandsons were her patients), you know well their suicidal energies. And as for wordpress, it conquers even the mightiest intellect. Only my daughter can be its blogmeistress, and that by virtue of her power of persistence (in her childhood, read ‘stubbornness’.)

Welcome kaisywmills, who like Janus, has two faces, one feminine, the second bearded.

Claire McAlpine, bloggist and book critic, says blog on. Same to you, Claire, and more so. Your blog and your reviews bring good books to our attention.

Thank you Sulfen for what I take to be encouragement. It is no chore to write, the contrary in fact; my fear is creating a chore for the reader.

And Kerryn, who wrote so thoughtfully: Kerryn, when you encourage me to tell stories, you give my inner minstrel voice to sing. And your suggestion for a story about the bloke in my wedding photo is irresistible. (Watch this space.) Further, if, dear Kerryn you were born on New Year’s Eve about 35 years ago, you might have been delivered by me; and in that case you have met that man, you knew that face: he is my forever friend, my former partner in the medical practice you attended in childhood.

And dear Louis De Vries – the publisher all writers dream of and none can deserve – we know where the readers are: they are all reading on tablets, which were invented to bankrupt you, to frustrate me and to allow people to read in the dunny.

Dear Miriam Abud,
How delightful to find you finding me in this way. Suddenly the invention of the computer is justified, the existence of the internet worthwhile. The thought of anyone settling down to half a dozen of my writings thrills and amazes me. That it is YOU fills me with smiles of pleasure. I’ll keep going. And I think the radio would bring out all that is boring and pompous and opinionated in me. But if it would sell books…

And you, Helen, in urging more poetry you open a mare’s nest, a can of sperms, and a mix of metaphors. My own verse is largely limited to medical referral letters where, because they are confidential and hence unpublishable, the verse does least harm. On the odd occasion I post the verse of true poets, women – generally young undergraduates – drool and swoon, a pleasant surprise for an old gent. I suspect poetry drives many men away.

Hello, misssophiablog, welcome to this blog. I am impressed that yours has a FAQ section. Golly. When I need fashion advice I’ll turn to you, Courtney.

Hello Spot, your remark, ‘in the outback you give us another window on the world’ is unexpected and brings the sudden thought that a casual smartarse blogger might actually be some sort of postman to another person waiting for a letter, any letter. Suddenly, all this might be serious. Or significant. Thank you and golly!

Hello dear Faye Colls,
No writer could ever earn your unwavering loyalty. You are a warm and kindly spirit. Fair dinkum.

Dear Dear Bruce,
In your steadfast attention to my musings you create a blog of your own, revealing a soldier of the law who defended the weak to his own cost. You show us your wounds of honour, your human vulnerability. In all your humility you lift us up.

Dear Hilary Custance Green,
As well as having the very most remarkable and unforgettable and rhymable name an author or a blogger could desire, you write most thoughtfully and I should say, faithfully. Everyone should read your new novel, which I will buy in the UK in January – despite Amazon’s best efforts to sabotage you – and which I’ll review in this blog. Please ensure Foyles stocks the book.
I have just received your remarkable (and generous) review of Carrots and Jaffas. You have expressed my purposes so adroitly and divined my approach so comprehensively, you’ve actually deepened my understanding of my own book. Thank you, quite humbly, HCG. (in my trade hcg is the acronym for human chorionic gonadotrophin, which is the substance in a woman’s urine that tells her she’s pregnant when she pees onto a stick. You have elevated HCG to a more refined level.)

Dear Nick Miller,
Like you I find myself thwarted by wordpress. I’m all the gratefuller for your close attention to the blog, as to all of my writing. Carrots and Jaffas would have been a much poorer book without your criticisms.

Gerard Oosterman, hello, and thank you for commenting. Your own blog is masterly and you seem to have conquered wordpress. Bravo! (note to readers – chase up gerard’s blog: it’s a ripper!)

Dear I L Wolf, dear Margot Mann (in fact, beloved MCM), dear Glitchy Mind, dear Claire Word by Word, dear the chattyrachel, dear M. Talmage Moorhead (a name to rival Hilary’s), dear mannyrutinel, dear amandalyle, dear fictionistasan (intriguing monniker), dear M. Funk l PHOTOGRAPHY, dear Greg Mercer, MSN, dear jackiewilson, dear bluchickenninja – you all liked a blogpost that ran the risk of becoming a fishing expedition for compliments. You forgave me and you wrote. Thank you all.

And dear DovTheRov, you make me larrf, Thank you for the encouragement. You write a mean weekly newsletter. How many rabbis can make a minyan smile?

In Hebrew we have an expression: “acharon, acharon chaviv” – last mentioned, most beloved. Thank you Rachel, thank you, thank you.

Yours, twice weekly, I’m afraid.

Dalia Died

A friend wrote the other day to tell me Dalia died.

I met Dalia in 1972 at the nursing home she ran in Wattle Glen. You descended from the bitumen into a silvan retreat, the buildings concealed behind flowering native shrubs. A quiet path led to a doorway. Through the door you entered a different world: smells assailled you, disinfectant, cooking smells and behind them, always, the smell of urine, the smell of the elderly and incontinent.

Dalia greeted you, her voice musical, her fetching smile stretched over an uneven lower lip, the more fetching for assymetry, her accent French and very pleasing. The bushland at the entry and the greeting upon entering, these redeemed you amid the oppressive smells.

Dalia moved with you from patient to patient. Almost all of them were women, aged, their men long dead, their families generally distant through geography or choice. This young doctor, oppressed by bodies that did not work, by diseases medicine would not cure, by alienating disfigurement and by disfiguring debility, by drooling helplessness, dementia, strange behaviours, this doctor nearing quiet moral panic, redeemed, redeemed always by Dalia. Dalia would proceed to the bedhead, cradle the neck of her charge, sing to the patient the glad news of the coming of the doctor: Here is Doctor to see you, darling. You remember, this is Doctor Howard. He comes to you every week.

Dalia was not alienated, never distanced. Dalia embraced her guests, kissed their foreheads, fixed their pillows, fussed over painless areas of red skin that she would not allow to break down. Dalia spoke to her speechless, apparently demented patient, as if she were wholebrained, fully alert, fully human. Only after taking doctor aside, out of hearing, away from the presence of the stricken, would Dalia allow any concession to incompleteness.
A secular person, she recognised tenderly the spiritual yearnings of her charges, old women born in an earlier age when churchgoing was a norm and a religious outlook sustaining. Poor Thelma, she weeps, she weeps because God has rejected her. She wants to die, she prays for death, and because death does not come, she believes her God will not have her in his heaven.

Now death has come for Dalia. She was ninety two years old.

Dalia left Wattle Glen and our paths did not cross again until a few years ago, when our respective writings brought us together. The accent was still there, the smile, the relentless action of her critical mind, unwilling to yield on any of her concerns. And all her concerns were for humans. I read her memoir, a work of humbling honesty, of emotional privation in Belgium in the middle years of last century, of falling in love, of the ending of love, of emotional collapse, of recovery, of growth, of a thirst for learning. Hers was a life of learning, of ever journeying in her wisdom towards greater wisdom. I thought of Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca”.

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.

Ultimately Dalia became a therapist. I thought how fortunate were her patients, what gifts of life she brought them from her lifelong travels to Ithaca.

Dalia became a little unwell a few weeks ago, persisting in her vigorous ways until her last days. When abruptly her blood pressure fell due to a prolapsed heart valve, she asked the doctors to perform the operation they’d ordinarily reserve for one decades younger. When they explained the risk of technical success with accidental brain damage, Dalia elected to die. She accepted a trial of hero molecules for twenty-four hours; when these duly failed, she embraced morphia, chatted with her loved ones and went to sleep, rich with all she’d gotten on the way, and arrived at last in her Ithaca.

Her believer friend, the young doctor of 1972, prays his God will give her rest. At this Dalia would smile her crooked smile and pat me on the head indulgently and forgive my wishful thinking.

Good News, Bad News

I drove to work one bleak and dark morning early this week and listened to the news. Big mistake.

Over the coming couple of days I glanced at the papers. Another mistake.

The news was full of reports of the depredations of a dangerous species that spoiled its earth, that sacrificed its young, that snatched and killed the young of rivals, that poisoned, bombed, burned in the name of a god, that raped and killed a defenseless woman in the garden. Geniuses in government decide that indigenous people in regional communities need poker machines, a human right.

That wretched species was our own, the human.

I glanced at The Daily Nausea this morning. The wretched chiefs we chose to lead our island nation dream up ever crueller, more wicked ways of throwing away human supplicants, now offshore, now at sea, now in our gulags. Tight of lip, narrow of soul, bereft of remorse, we succeed: we turn back the boats.

I try to avoid this sort of surfeit. I rise early and spend my reading time on poetry, secular and sacred. The truth, the beauty, these endure. They inspire me, build me up.

I can read these and after reading them I am able still to believe in the goodness of humans.

Yesterday morning with no time for the papers, no time for radio, I joined the commuter crush, took the train to work. At the terminus an oldish bloke debarked, limping, his age-dried eyes tearing and bleary, hobbled towards the gates. A broken-backed sort of bloke, stocky, his face lined, grim-looking, evidently gritting against some pain. A young woman, tallish, plumpish, running, chased after the man. The crowds impeded her, she had to weave. After two hundred metres she tapped his shoulder: “Excuse me, you dropped this.” The young woman handed the older man a disreputable-looking hanky.

He gazed at the grotty cloth:” That’s noble”, he said and thanked her.

I was that old man.

So Foul and Fair a Day

Howard at the Boston Marathon 2013

Howard at the Boston Marathon 2013

When I solicited funds as a charity runner in the 2013 Boston Marathon I promised to write a report on the race and my donors’ ‘investment.’ The moment the race started I started to compose my report. The mood was light, the crowd a united force of love, the events and sights all affirming a shared humanity. This would be a report of smiles. The serious counterpoint would be the 26.2 long miles.

At 2.07pm the mood changed. After that the playful response would feel profane. But I did promise a race report.

I slept on the matter. The evil was great and real, certainly. Real too was the goodness. Both demand to be written.

***

Does any runner sleep well the night before a marathon? I don’t. To prevent dehydration on race day I drink plenty through the previous day and every cupful demands its exit through the night. I am excited, nervous, a kid before his birthday party. Boston, after all, is to marathoners as Wimbledon is to tennis players. An enormous privilege, unearned by any effort of my legs, paid for in thousands of donated dollars.

The playful mind must be carried by legs that are 67 years old. Some prudence surfaces. The sixty-seven year old prepares methodically. The experience of forty past marathons insists I vaseline my second toes (which always blister), my armpits (which chafe), my nipples (which bleed) and my private bits (none of your business).
To prevent my shoelaces untying over the distance I double knot them: a trivial detail? No, not in Boston, for it was at the start line of one Boston Marathon back in the seventies that the favourite, noting his arch rival’s single-knotted shoes, bent down and double-tied them.

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This Consciousness that is Aware

A few days ago I wrote and posted a poem. It dealt, narrowly, with a contemplated stroke. More broadly, I suppose more deeply too, it is the certain fact of my one day death that I interrogate.
It is a big question, or set of questions, for me. I am sure it is for others too.
My feelings were pressing, my need to express them was strong. Poetry was the needed medium.
This morning I awoke (still alive), moved limbs (no motor stroke) and opened a volume of poetry. The book fell open at this poem of Emily Dickenson, a poem I had not previously known. I read the work (no central stroke) and understood Emily had addressed similar questions.

“This Consciousness that is aware”

This Consciousness that is aware

Of Neighbors and the Sun

Will be the one aware of Death

And that itself alone

 

Is traversing the interval

Experience between

And most profound experiment

death

Appointed unto Men-

 

How adequate unto itself

Its properties shall be

Itself unto itself and None

Shall make discovery.

 

Adventure most unto itself

The Soul condemned to be-

Attended by a single Hound

Its own identity.

Emily Dickenson

 

After reading and considering, I recalled how Death (Emily always capitalises and personifies her erotic forces) is the subject, her opposite actor, in many, many poems. Many poems, but never too many. Such is the subject and such is the poet.
It was my great friend (and the greatest critic of this blog) who observed of my writing a couple of decades ago: “You realise, don’t you Howard, that everything you write is part of the process of coming to terms with your own death?”

Nobody Doesn’t Like a Song

I

Whenever I wanted to read a poem to my father he’d make a face. He claimed he didn’t like poetry. I suspect it was the ambiguity in a poem that frustrated him. In fact Dad loved poems, the poems he committed to memory in his schooldays. He recited some of these often enough for them to take seed and grow inside me.

Now Dad is gone and it is I who recites his lines, learned at school around 1925:

Blow, blow, thou winter wind

Thou art not so unkind

As man’s ingratitude…

Thy tooth is not so keen

Because thou art not seen

Although thy breath be rude

I see Dad’s wry smile as he continued with lines that border on the cynical.

Sing Hey Ho, Hey ho unto the holly

Most friendship is feigning

Most loving mere folly

Dad was not cynical. So what appealed to him about this snatch from ‘The Tempest’?

I think it was the music.

Lots of people think they don’t like poetry. They would never read a poem – not willingly, not wittingly.

But they listen to songs. And a song is just a poem hidden inside music.

Think of the Beatles. Think of ‘Till there was you’. Think of ‘Elinor Mackenzie’. We loved those songs, not least for their poetry.

Nobody doesn’t like a song.

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