Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Another expat yank
lamented coffee spoons
I have my own gripe
nearly a century later

there are phone calls
intricately prompted
promoting the very
service that's keeping
me waiting on the line.

Oh that line. Wanting to
help me, we are here
to help you and we
value your custom
and your valuable time

then there are the forms
devouring time and space
poised above the paper
pencil-tip quizzing
chewing the rubber
spitting out time and
white out for corrections
to impossibly noteworthy

We all drink coffee now
Nothing exclusive about it
Nothing masculine either
Like it was in those wood-
Panelled clubs.
Paper cups could even be
Recycled from those
Unanswerable questions
About the relative merits
Of slow drip methods
For wasting expendable lives.

Before I was expatiating
I thought buying was exciting
My friend DeeDee shopped at Saks sometimes 
with me in tow
She had blonde hair
A Swedish mother and very
Large breasts that I envied.
Coffee spoons, tea trolleys
Bus stops and parking spots
Bundy clocks and Bunjy jumps
Tell me, please tell me

Who the hell cares.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Words of 2015 or Oh to be Agile

Interesting how certain words get currency, become the go-tos for expressing our collective unconscious.  In my first blog on this I noted how I came to be intrigued by such words.  It began sometime in the 1980s, when the verb ‘resile’ burst onto our public discourse, with one politician after another refusing to ‘resile’ from one thing or another.  I was instantly mesmerised. 

It’s possible that ‘resile,  the long-disused sixteenth-century progenitor of ‘resilient’ and today's very popular ‘resilience’, was embraced as much as it was in the 80s because of the far-reaching economic reforms the Hawke-Keating government brought in – unpopular moves for which all their ministers needed the resolve the words 'not resiling from' suggest. 

So, to my words of 2015 - not in any significant order, but as they intruded on my consciousness:

A substitute for ‘souped-up’ but still deriving from culinary practice (although with 'souped-up' by way of motor mechanics).  Meaning given unnecessary power, exaggerating or overstating the argument; in other words, spoiling something by trying too hard.  From ‘over-egg the pudding'.  Why the over-egged usage last year?  Well, we need look no further perhaps than to our ex-PM’s exaggerated (!) response to terrorism.  All those grim military faces and line-ups of drooping flags.
Another food-derived word.  From silage, the storage of crops for fodder.  In keeping, as the above, with our contemporary obsession with food but here more aligned to the great grain towers dotting the American prairie, symbols of agrarian plenty and security in times of famine, but coming to describe groups isolated from each other, in which a lot of over-egging goes on – powered in large part by the growth of social media. The landscape of discourse is now littered with silos, one unfortunate effect of which has been the current political paralysis. 
According to my dictionary, scourge is unrelated to the simpler word ‘scour’ (meaning and derived from the Latin ‘to clean’) which it succeeds.  Nonetheless the two words will inevitably form an association in the word-obsessed reader’s mind.  For a scourge (from the Latin corrigea, a whip) can, in a sense, ‘cleanse', depending on who or what does the cleansing or, conversely, who or what is in danger of being scrubbed out.  Without minimising the seriousness of the Syrian crisis, or the suffering of those four million Syrians who have been displaced, I suggest that the ‘scourge’ of Daesh was a godsend to our ex-prime minister, who attempted to shore up his crumbling leadership by alerting us daily to the threat to us here in Australia. 
Out on the edge, without much influence on the centre.  We used to call such people ‘marginal’ but that seems to have lost cachet.  In any case, it seems as far as governments go that the paradigm has flipped, and most of us have been turned into outliers.
Maybe it’s owing to euphony, but I honestly can’t think of any other reason for substituting this word for ‘path’.  Yet pathways abound.
These used to be more commonly ‘signs’.   This recent designator conjures new, intriguing associations, bringing to mind, for example, the way male dogs mark their territory on trees.  Or those fat textas provided to brainstormers for use on their whiteboards.  How did this word come to supplant the earlier one?  The answer most likely is buried in apocrypha.  We humans are fickle creatures, forever susceptible to the enchantment of the new.
Signifying the way certain people, ideas, organisations, policies, events or, most especially, behaviours, are seen, or are to be seen.  This latest usage isn't in the dictionary, at least any one I have access to.  But I do know its meaning, as outlined above and in Flavorwire’s ‘Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Optics of Politicians Crying’, when contributor Sarah Seltzer takes Republicans and Fox News to task for cynically implying that Obama’s tears when speaking of the Sandy Hook massacre were mere political theatre.
Oh, don’t we wish.  In the lingo of the day this is a synonym for ‘reform’, which itself today is a call for jacking up more benefits for employers and the rich.  ‘Flexibility’ is code for the same.
2015 was the year when ‘innovation’ was championed, but honoured only in the breach.  We wait to see whether the new prime minister who brought the word into prominence will do anything actually innovative this year.
Trust deficit 
All our major political parties suffer from this.  After years of being lied to, cynicism within the electorate is arguably at an all-time high.
Game changer  
The slowdown in the Chinese economy, while not exactly a crash, is certainly a game changer for us.  But is Turnbull the game changer we need to meet the challenge?  On the evidence to date, no.  We’ve been willing to believe that his retention of Abbott-era policies can be slated to his being hamstrung by the large right-wing rump within the government.  But this sorrowful case of wishful thinking can’t be sustained much longer,  unless Turnbull himself proves as Agile as he wants the rest of us to be.

If so, that will definitely be a word for 2016.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Honouring a Birthday

Curious that birthdays always stay the same, even when those whose years they’ve marked have gone.  Today, the 15th of December, is my partner’s birthday but it’s hard for me to celebrate when he’s not here to share it.  Perhaps he is in spirit.  I like to think so, though I realise that I’m merely comforting myself.  Then again, who of us actually knows?
All that aside, what I’d like to do to honour him is tell a small story. 
It was almost a year ago that we went to buy a new mattress.  Despite the ten-year guarantee, the one we bought six years before had developed a couple of hollows, shaped to our bodies but giving our backs no support.  Tony’s back was bothering him and so was mine.  Tony thought his back hurt because he was getting old.  I knew that mine, having been broken in three places years ago, needed a very firm mattress.  So on the advice of my chiropractor, we took the bus to Sleep City at Belrose, a fur piece away from our flat in Manly.  At least we tried to.  We had recently sold our car, and after carefully studying the possible routes on the net I concluded that we would have to change buses at the corner of Warringah Road and Forest Way.  It was a long ride through some of Sydney’s northern beaches just to reach that intersection, and then the bus driver overshot it.  Instead of stopping on Forest Way so we could cross with the light to get to the bus stop for Belrose, he let us off at the first stop he could on Warringah Road.  From there we trudged to the pedestrian bridge we needed to cross to get back on Forest Way and to the Belrose bus stop.
The problem was that I have a problem with pedestrian bridges.  An aversion to heights brought on by being held as a seven-year-old kid over the Empire State Building’s 85th floor balcony has been exacerbated in recent years by Menieres disease, which in my case gives me severe vertigo whenever height is combined with speed.  I get dizzy on escalators, in cars on hills and often on bridges, especially if they’re arched.  Pedestrian bridges are usually arched and this one was no exception.  But Tony, the 86-year-old ex-mountain climber, held my hand as we crossed it, the terrifying sensation of the traffic whizzing past below playing havoc with my balance.
And that you might call an epiphany.  We did have a lot in common, but there was so much more that we didn’t.  Like his fearlessness when it came to heights, his passion for fishing, his deep love of nature, mountains and wild Canadian rivers.  I learned from him and, to be fair, he learned from me.  And more, I keep on learning, on paths where he has led me.  He told me once that when mountaineers have an accident they keep on climbing, in the way that horseriders do after they take a tumble from a horse.  It’s called exposure, he said.  A word that echoes through my brain whenever I’m faced with a challenge.  And sometimes now I will seek the challenge.  After a nasty fall a couple of years ago, I will walk up a flight of stairs without holding on to the railing, and am even trying to train myself on escalators.  Small ones to begin with, but all the while I chant to myself that special word he taught me: exposure.
As for the new mattress, it has been great for my back, but it didn’t help Tony’s.  The cause of his pain was the spread of his cancer and we just didn’t know. 
But here is a poem I wrote, prophetically perhaps, two years ago, before the knowledge came:
Don’t tell me it isn’t tragic
that I’ll have no one to talk to in the morning
or walk with into Manly round the harbour
or listen to the fulminations
erupting on his tongue
He irritates, no doubt,
is difficult to feed, and I imagine
how I might eat without him.
Truth is, there won’t be much point
in eating then at all.
No one to tease, how I do love to tease him,
a child I am, the child I once was
so many years before.
Wicked? Well, tempted. But no,
not unkind.  And who would be so
when nothing that comes from him
manages to be unkind.
It’s an island I’ve come to, refuge at last,
a small one; high ground.
But why does he need a piano?
It isn’t a home without one, he says
though doesn’t often play.
Below us lies the ocean we travelled
a gentle, rippling sea that day by day
swallows its expanse.
Don’t tell me it’s not tragic
that I’ll wake in a cold bed one day.

Sad trees, such sad trees,
with deep sad colours,
barely green, more black,
and waters of beaten pewter
that he loves.
Big, tangled rivers, the current
so strong they would knock
a man down they have.
He dreams of them
those sad trees
but doesn’t see they’re sad
nor the ravelling of the river.
Tragedy. There’s no monopoly here,
and yet we will meet her
with wide, distant eyes,
as if by pleading might be spared.
But once she beams her baleful grin upon us
we might as well take up exclusive claim.
Notice how a crested quail
will stand beside her stricken.
On the road or in the spangled forest.                                                                 copyright Sara Dowse 2015

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Charlotte and Poetry

Charlotte is late this month and it’s no surprise to me.  Things haven’t been good for me lately but I can’t bring myself to write about them.  It’s possible that I will one day because that’s what writers do.  But for now it’s all too raw.  Poetry seems the apposite form of expression but it’s too soon for that as well.  Instead I will be posting some older poems, some published, some not.  I have been writing poetry for many years but have been lax in trying to place them.  The one today was published in Southerly a few years ago, and was written soon after Barack Obama was elected America’s president.  The hope that remarkable event brought had me putting the political and personal together in a kind of verse autobiography.  The disillusion that has followed Obama’s election has only deepened my conviction that change to the political economy that has dominated us, creating massive destruction to lives and threatening future ones, must eventually come.
On the Election of Barack Hussein Obama
This Chicago child
born some seventy years ago
with few great expectations.
There were red poppies
sold on blustery streets
but an ocean away
shattered glass,
yellow stars on the horizon.

No, no great expectations.
The city was rebuilding
and that was good, and might
have been enough, but who could know?
Feet first – that was the way
to come.  The only way to emerge
into that uncertain future.

Mother.  Father.  He might
have been from Kenya.
Under the Louis Sullivan towers
under the silos
the stench of the abattoirs
the yachts on the lake
and in the south of the city
the dives, the jazz.

A friend has a father
who lives there, a white
man selling milk.
And then there was the war in
the Pacific, California.
Japanese in camps,
sailors in seaside bars
and an ocean and a continent
away, the yellow stars.

There was a president
disabled, but no one saw
it that way, it was shy
with the cameras.
That, truth to say, might
have been the first time,
the first of our handicapped
presidents who prevailed.
Always something, always someone
to beam our hopes on
but some of them don’t fail.

Hands on our breasts, we repeated
the lines we inherited.
whoever spoke them gave them meaning
or leached
the sense away.
We hold these truths,
created equal.  Happiness.
Not assured but promised,
a gunpoint, a flashpoint away.

On the giant screens before us
war was won and flags were raised.
Marines on Iwo Jima,
a giant cloud,
dust of fungus, spores of death,
arrested us in fear.
What would be the reprisal?
Now that the sun had fallen
could we have chased a bear?

Land of free, home of brave.
What images would free us?
Lone cowboys, the sheriff, Shane.
But who in Chicago could carry
a pistol in the open, snug
on a hip for all to see?
No, the strengths in Chicago
were elsewhere, in the hearts
of its poets: Sandburg, Algren.
And Terkel, long-lived Terkel,
and Bellow, Bellow too.

But there was that Pacific
and the spores of the cloud.
A long, loping stride on the ocean,
water-walking, and money
clanking in your pockets, and
those images on the screen,
and what to do with those poor boys,
the lines we repeated, chanting,
hands on breast.
And what about those breasts?
Breasts aplenty, harnessed,
torpedoed, but never bared.

Until, one night on Mulholland
or was it the ocean?
The night the grunion were running,
a beach of rubbers
some sights that were making their journey
up on the screen, and just to
confuse us, water coiling
round our ankles, then our necks.
A ship ploughs through the ocean
to the south side, the time when
a bald man puts on a golf cap
and a man with thick eyebrows
tests a tiny bomb.
Only a small one, and that in the desert,
the bald ferrous centre
of the land.
And then the water-walkers with
the cloaks light on their shoulders
yawn and stretch their fingers and
pointing again to the Pacific
take their leisure on the south side.
A penchant for that part
of the city but only for the jazz,
weakened in the water but they
have a nose for it and it’s there.

Frenzy then.  A hardened resistance
from the soft-hearted, the woolly-headed.
A time for hirsuteness, and there on the screen
the zipped-up plastic, the loaves
of corpses.  Long before in
Chicago’s aquarium, the fishes
drifted upwards and glassy eyes
stared back through the bubbles
and now blue-lit they fell on the carpet
swimming out of the picture,
and back in Chicago they stormed
the convention, paving the way
for Cambodia’s dead.

What memories of the cloud, the burning chemicals?
The rouged face, the carboned eyes washed clean.
Never again and now it was a grey world,
grunge world, dark and mean.
There are children, what children!
to shepherd through it, feet first,
careful footholds, houses, cheeky dogs.
And machines that eat plastic
and spit out money, and our vision
contracted to accommodate the screens.

A careful time when we gave away our money
to thieves in philosophers’ clothing
and our freedoms too.  When before
the towers fell, before the hurricanes,
the scourge was underway.
And in Chicago a woman died
lonely on the lake where purple sharks
had drifted on the shores
smelling the blood that was there.
And even the body’s death was not enough
the mind and the soul, heart’s twins
died too.  The angels, did they hover
wondering when to descend?

Facing death, joints stiffening,
a certain élan waning. Talents scattered,
moonsilvered water,
the ferry her friend.  So this is it,
the best of it, the quiet time,
and for the rest, perhaps a slow awakening.
A tiny apocalypse, no more
than a yearning,
but she’d almost forgotten Chicago.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Cigarettes, Sugar, Chocolate, and Time

Many years ago I visited a friend in her hospital room.  She was dying from ovarian cancer, and she was dying too soon.  Her devastated family waited anxiously outside for what was to be my brief stay at her bedside to end.  But my visit went on longer than anyone expected, least of all me.  When she asked me to light a cigarette for her I hesitated.  I doubt if her family knew she had one, but Claire was a smoker, a chain one, and she wasn’t going to deprive herself of that comfort now.  I saw the sense in it, even then, but I hadn’t had a fag in my mouth for some 20 years and I admit that I was a little afraid that even one puff might kick off my habit again.  I took the cigarette, put it to my lips, struck the match and inhaled, and handed it over.  And stayed with her until she had finished it.

I’m not proud that I took up so much of the family’s precious time with Claire.  But I’m proud of that cigarette, and haven’t had another one since.

When she died, too young, Claire Burton was a well-known feminist sociologist.  The family set up a scholarship in her name, if only to make sense of her death.  To make her live on, to wrest some meaning from her tragedy.  It’s what we do, often.  We flounder, we rail.  We try to honour the dead.

Twenty-plus years down the line I visit my partner’s bedside.  He is much improved since experiencing what we must call a medically induced stroke, though I give thanks it was a relatively mild one and came about for the best of reasons, to shrink the tumours that had spread from his prostate, although they didn’t know then of the one lurking deep in his brain.  They hadn’t looked at his brain.  The belief has been that prostate cancer can’t spread there.  The truth is that we don’t know enough about prostate cancer.  Even the doctors are learning.

Since they figured out what had gone wrong, my partner has been put on a drug called dexamethazone, the aim of which is to reduce the swelling around the tumours without triggering more bleeding, as happened on the androgen inhibitor.  A side effect of dexamethazone is a ravenous hunger, which is good in a way since he’s lost so much weight.  He has been craving sugar.  Can’t get enough of it.  Four paper packets in his coffee (‘Black as night, hot as hell, sweet as sin’, he says, quoting Balzac), endless cookies (also in packets, two at a time), and chocolates.  I bring the chocolates.  He goes through a box of Cadbury miniatures in less than two days.  It took many days to persuade the hospital staff to let him have those four sugars in his coffee – ‘Sugar is bad for you,’ they say.  This doesn’t wash with him.  He is a former scientist, the body turns everything to sugar in the end, he says.  They are confused by this.  Informed as we are nowadays, we still resist science, and are bundled up endlessly in tangles of myth. 

When I’m not visiting him I’m making adjustments in preparation for his homecoming.  The occupational therapists are amazingly ingenious, and they agree that this is the place he should be.  In a beautiful old building, the flat has high ceilings and plenty of light.  Though this is not the easiest accommodation, not what might be prescribed for a patient whose mobility and stability are not what they should be.  There are stairs.  The flat is tiny, the floor uneven.  Something of a challenge for a walking frame.  We’ll be getting a small one, not the large one advised.  The rehab doctor, a nice man but with a perpetually worried look on his face, is confounded.  There are concerns for his safety, of course.

But life is not safe, entirely.  If it was, it wouldn’t be life. 

There are books about this.  One, by Atul Gawande, is recommended.  So much is now being written on the subject.  We are waking up, waking up to dying.  This isn’t an altogether pleasant awakening, especially for those of us fortunate enough to have lived in societies where the fact of death has tended to be ignored until, forced to confront it, we relentlessly combatted it.  For what a trick had been played on us!  To give us this wealth of experience, this miracle of consciousness, only in the end to have it snuffed out.   

 I have no answers for this.  None of us do, really.   

 All I know is I’m eating a lot of chocolate.  And sharing it with him.