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Weeping

She wept, and told me you were dead.
Dead, and your corpse cremated
for fear your disease might contaminate us all.
I wept with her; but shamefully, not for you.
Fear of death – my death – swept through me
like fire in dry grass.  I barely thought of you at all.
I wept while waiting in the STD clinic
certain of what the test results would be.

The doctor beckoned me into his chambers
and stood well clear as I passed him.
He did not accept my proffered handshake;
he pointed to a chair; said curtly: “sit down”.

He took his time; he looked at me and curled a disdainful lip.
He spoke of how “this new disease is sweeping through your kind”.
I think he quite liked that word, “sweeping”:
a new broom, ridding the world of filth.

He spoke of “the unnatural sexual practises your kind pursue”
although no description of them passed his primly purséd lips.
He discoursed at length of rampant promiscuity and its inevitable sequelae:

disease;

death;

decay;

damnation.

With each moment his moral surety surged stronger.
Oddly, that surety now dragged his speech into the gutter:
“Your kind can’t fuck every arse in sight and not expect repercussions”.
The phrase seemed to satisfy him. He repeated it.

I was still sitting in the chair.
I was not weeping.
I was simply listening to him spewing execration.

“Look”, I said, “You don’t know me;

you didn’t know Peter;

you don’t know what

we did or didn’t do in bed.

And it clearly does not matter to you,

and frankly it’s none of your fucking business,

but what mattered most between us wasn’t sex:

it was love.

So cease your sanctimonious ramblings
and give me the test results.”

He studied the report, and then, pointedly, read it again.
He put the report back in its file and slammed it on his desk.
He paused, possibly briefly; decades, centuries passed for me.
Then, his disappointment palpable, said: “you’re HIV-negative.”

I don’t remember leaving the clinic.
I do remember weeping;
But this time, at last, I wept for Peter.

**********************************************************************************

I’m going to explain this poem a bit.  Peter was my first partner, and still the only man I can say I loved unreservedly.  I miss him every day of my life.
At the time of his death we were not together -we were separated by work commitments.  I did not know he was ill; I think he tried to tell me but couldn’t bring himself to do it.  The first I knew of his death was when a mutual friend phoned me in hysterics to say that she had just been to his funeral and that Peter had died of AIDS.
I still have no idea why I remained HIV-negative.  Safe sex was only just starting to be talked about, and Peter and I not only had never practised safe sex, our sex was just about as risky as is possible to imagine.
This was 1987.  AIDS hysteria was hitting a peak.  Peter was cremated, against the wishes and beliefs of his family – it was actually government policy at the time that AIDS victims could not be buried, a sign of just how pervasive the hysteria about AIDS was at the time.
All of us in the Gay community were living in fear – not just of the illness but of the tremendous outpouring of loathing and hatred, from the usual suspects (of course)  but  also from the general community and indeed much of the medical establishment.  Perhaps the only upside was that actual “poofter bashing” (practically a national sport in Australia at the time) decreased markedly, since the bashers were suddenly aware that they might catch AIDS  from their victims.
Government attempts at “public education” served only to heighten the hysteria.  Watch this Australian advert from the period if you don’t believe me.

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Get a job in Tom Price.  Work in the mine.  Iron ore.
Chase the Tom Price Dreaming.  Great money.
You think it’s going to be a frontier town:
heavy-set blokes killing each other in the Pub.

It’s not like that.

Gotta get your head around the place.
It’s an outer suburb of Perth:
as far out as you can get.  Suburbia set in spinifex;
twisted mulga; hard shale.

Clay you can’t dent with a pick-axe.

Take a joy flight, Cessna buzzing like a sick V-Dub.
Brick and tile nestles in an iridescent oasis.
Trees and lawns and ovals.  The bowling green.
Swimming pool an opal mirage in the heat haze.

Lush curves of reeds snake from the shit-farm outfall.

The people are good.  Solid people with a sheen of money.
Mums with prams gossiping in front of the Farmers variety store.
Littlies yahooing on the 20 cent ride-on in the mall.
Blokes who like a few beers after their shift.

Barbies at the weekends.  Four footie teams.

Young marrieds chase the Tom Price Dreaming.
Good money.  Real good money.
Stick it for five years you can own a house back in Perth.
Or Melbourne or Adelaide or Newcastle or Wellington.

But five years become seven, then ten.  The kids are in high school.

Tom Price gets into your blood.  Walk down the street.
You know everybody.  Everybody knows you.
The money’s good.  Too good to leave.  At least just yet.
Got to get yourselves set up properly.

Do it right.

Five days off after night shift.  Hop in the new Landcruiser.
Head off to the Gorges.  Or Millstream.
The coast is only 300 kays away.
Do a little fishing.  Drink a bit of beer.

Six weeks holiday a year.  Two free flights to Perth.

The boys want dirtbikes.  You’ve always wanted a good guitar.
A pool would be nice.  Maybe a boat for when you hit the coast.
Scrimp a little you can send Tracey down to Perth.
Year 11 and 12 at St Hilda’s.  Or St Mary’s Anglican.

A bright kid.  Deserves the best.

And so you’ll stay a little longer.  Get yourselves really set up.
Now you’re the President of the Bowls Club.  On the Tidy Town committee.
You’re still making good money.  Money you can’t make in Perth.
Or Melbourne or Adelaide or Newcastle or Wellington.

The Tom Price Dreaming eats the Dreamers whole.

*************************************************************

I don’t normally explain my poetry – it should stand on its merits.  But Tom Price isn’t like this now.  This is about the period I was there – 1980 to 1986 – and then it was a purely residential company town, highly unionised, and the working conditions were great.  8 hour shifts, and if you “worked back” you got 8 hours extra pay for 4 hours work.  The money was insanely good.  And the town was a real community – no fly in-fly out.  You lived there, and every community facility you could possibly imagine was provided free of charge by the company.  That’s all changed.  The money is still great, but you are on 12 hour shifts with minimal breaks between shift changeovers and that has radically changed how the town functions.  And the live-in population has halved, and the people I’ve spoken to tell me that the sense of community is gone.  But in many ways, while I was there Tom Price was a paradise.  Stunningly beautiful scenery, good people, and a wonderful place to live and work.  I miss it, even though I have no desire to work in the industry any more.

The Gorges in Karajini National Park - again, one small part of it

The Gorges in Karajini National Park – again, one small part of it. Paradise.

Tom Price - looking from near the mine towards the town

Tom Price – looking from near the mine towards the town -it’s off to the left in the photo

The Tom Price open-cut iron ore mine

The Tom Price open-cut iron ore mine – or one tiny part of it, anyway

 

Do you remember your first drink?

I do.

Oh, not the sip of froth off Dad’s beer,

or the little glass of watered wine on special occasions:

Christmas, birthdays, wedding anniversaries.

I remember my first drink like it was yesterday,

40 years ago, or near enough.

We stole a bottle of Beenleigh Rum

from Greg’s Dad’s liquor cabinet.

He never even noticed it was gone.

Plenty more bottles in the walnut veneer bar,

with its padded leatherette stools and bullfight posters.

And we sat in the little Bondwood caravan

at the back of my house,

and drank it neat from plastic cups.  Mine was orange.

And we choked it down and felt like men,

12 years old and desperate to be older.

And as it hit, it was as if some great God

had entered me, and flaming fiercely

raised me to the sky.

For the first time to feel as others must surely always do –

or so it seemed.  I felt I was a human being.

The feeling of fellowship; of commonality: of normality.

The thoughts that crucified me vanished.

They fell from me like a feather weighing tons.

Gone the fears,

the constant thoughts,

the ceaseless shame,

the secret guilt

– hidden, always hidden –

for things I knew I had not done,

could not have done.

For that brief moment I was free,

I knew them for delusions:

the glowing God incinerated all.

Too soon the God departed.

Draped limp around a lamppost, I vomited him up.

And some Samaritan brought me home

and took me to my Mother,

who murmured “my sweet baby” as she sponged my brow;

gently held my head over the bucket as I retched

until all that was left was bitter slime drooling from slack lips.

And even as I heaved and shivered,

even as she laid me down,

even as she watched over me that night,

I knew that I would seek the God again

and steal the coruscating fire that seared my fears,

and held me pure, perfect, whole: blazing in the sky.

For Evil to Triumph

 

In Tom Price I wasn’t the town drunk;

I was one of dozens fighting for that title.

Not all in the same division:

call me a contender in the welterweights.

And sometimes after a hard bout in the Animal Bar,

When the VB cans had been getting through my defences,

I’d throw in the towel and wander home

beneath the velvet desert sky and stars like shards of ice.

And the park bench by the big aviary, or maybe

the old gum tree by the library, would look at me

and say “Alec, mate, you just got hammered.

What you need is a bit of a sit down and a rest.”

And I’d take the advice and sit down for a while

to let the world stop spinning.  And next thing I knew

(if it wasn’t the dawn corellas going apeshit in the trees)

there’d be a flashlight in my eyes.

“Jesus, Alec, you again.  Come on, on your feet, son.

Let’s get you home.  SCU 23 isn’t it?”

And they’d prop me up and get me to the police Landcruiser

and drive me the 400 metres to the single men’s quarters.

“Don’t you spew in here Alec, you spew in here

And so help me you’ll clean it up with your tongue!”

And I’d fumble the key into my door; they’d say “See ya mate.”

And that’d be it.  Good blokes, on the whole.

                        *          *          *

You didn’t often see Aborigines in Tom Price;

something about it being Sickness Country, so people said.

But anyway, a family drove in, in an elderly Holden;

red dust holding the red rust together.

And people didn’t quite stare; more flicked their eyes

and then away – you’d hardly notice if you weren’t looking for it.

The big lady in the faded floral dress noticed alright.  She stood up proud,

gathered the kids, and marched them into the Farmers store.

Got the trolley, put the fat grinning bub in the seat,

wiped his nose, and set off shopping.  But the old bloke (check shirt, stubbies,

RM Williams boots gone out at the sides, thin as a rake and twice as hard)

he headed for the pub to wash 300 Kay’s of bulldust from his throat.

And a couple of hours later I saw him under the big gum tree by the library.

Akubra over his face, a can of VB beside him.  Snoring quietly.

“Hello brother, you and me both, eh?” I thought, as I raked up leaves around him,

and I figured his missus would come and get him, and give him hell for drinking the cheque.

                        *          *          *

The Police ute pulled up and they got out.

The good blokes who helped me home.

No words spoken; a quiet nod.  Picked the old feller up

and threw him in the back of the ute, like a cockie with a dead sheep.

I heard him slam against the steel.

I heard his boots rattle against the weld-mesh cage.

I heard him groan, and call out something I couldn’t catch.

And I did nothing.

I watched the ute head north.

Not south to the lockup.

North to the road out of town.

And I did nothing.

I’ve never found out what they did with him.

You don’t go asking awkward questions of small-town country coppers.

Do you?  I didn’t.

I said nothing.

Oh God, I hope they only dropped him 20 Kays from town, “to teach him a lesson”.

They would have left him, wouldn’t they?  Oh God, I hope they left him.

I hope at least they left him in one piece.

Because I did nothing.

I never saw the rusty Holden leave town – it was shift-end,

and time for the Animal Bar, and another 15 round stoush with the VB.

And a bloke said “Did you see the coppers sort that boong out?”

And I said nothing.

Sometimes I wonder if I could have done anything; anything, just something.

But I did nothing, and when next the coppers helped me home I was suitably grateful.

And one of them said “You know, Alec, you’ve been giving the grog a bit of a nudge lately,

Don’t you think you should do something?” And I just grinned and I said nothing.

Nothing at all.

 

 

I took my soul out; shook it a little

to get the wrinkles out.  Held it up to the sun.

Frayed around the edges.  Slightly grimy.

Needs a wash, I thought, turning it in the light;

chuck it in the machine with a cup of detergent –

perhaps some NapiSan for the ground-in dirt.

Still turning it, I looked beneath the stains.

Patterns emerged in the warp and weft:

tightly woven knots of experience;

the denim of hard times; embroideries of joy.

It’s not dirt, I thought; what do you call it?

Patina.  Patina, that’s it.  And put it back.

For Linda, with thanks


 
*******************************************************************
 
Briefly: I wrote this as a way of thanking my clinical psychologist, Linda, after two gruelling years of the most intense and challenging therapy. Without Linda’s therapy there is no doubt in my mind that I would have died years ago. None.

After working with Linda I had 7 years of stability – not one drink, not one hospitalisation. Life was VERY good. I still had my ups and downs (that’s inevitable when you have Bi-Polar Disorder, Type 2) but I could cope with them and manage them.

It’s only in the last couple of years that things have slipped again. Basically, I got over-confident, I stopped doing the things that helped me maintain my stability and as a result the last 2 years have been pretty hellish. Many drinking binges, many hospitalisations in psychiatric clinics, my working career thrown into chaos, my life totally unmanageable.

I have returned to therapy with Linda and again, it’s going to be very long and hard; but I am confident that I will get my stability back once more. And life will once again be VERY good.

So, how are things round Sirius?
Or is it to Arcturus that you’ve gone?
Some star, anyway;
some far-flung sphere of gas.
Revolving, circling, orbiting,
on asteroid or planet,
you’re etiolated by its alien light.
Blanched and waxen, whitened;
waiting for infinity
to fill your once-quick mind.

You’d tell me of your travels
between star and star;
spinning webs of story,
Homerian Odysseys.
But always you’d return
at journey’s end
to home; to stay – a while, at least –
beneath familiar light,
beneath Sol’s friendly warmth,
firm-footed, fixed, on Earth.

Why did you leave me, Captainless,
waiting, always waiting,
in hopeless hope of your return?
You’re gone for good
and yet it’s ill you’ve done me.
Lost, I’m waiting still,
forlornly lingering
on Terra’s clay;
while you circle, orbit,
eternally revolve, beyond my reach.

For Peter

Almost hour-glass in shape;
A bobbin trapped within.
Chromed steel.

Turn the wheel within its cage:
It catches, in a slot,
The key;

Slides it down along the shaft,
To nestle with the keys
Beneath.

It’s strange how things remind us of the man;
His steely mind could take a complex thought,
And turning, slot it in its proper place.

Smoking in the clinic’s courtyard,
he stiffened, rigid at the sound of shelling.

Not shelling.  Fireworks.
Fireworks.  Not shelling, fireworks.

Fireworks.  Christ, they’re shelling;
he flinched as each shell burst.

Sweat slid slickly down his chest,
his dog-tags swinging gently as he shook.

Not his dog-tags.  They’re vapour;
vanished with his commission.

No.  Carefully crafted replicas:
something to hold onto when the shelling starts.

Not shelling.  Fireworks.
Distant mortars rumbled in his head.

Remember what the nurses taught you.  Breathe.
In … two … three.  Pause.  Out … two … three.

Pause.  In … two … three … oh what’s the fucking use?
He whispered, anguished, “Jesus – make it stop.”

Cigarette forgotten in his hand,
He turned to me, a silent witness:

“Alec, can you get a nurse?  Please?”

I don’t want these to die with me. And sometimes death seems very close.