Those Evocative London Placenames

This is a slam poem about grow­ing up. I wrote it after read­ing Han­nah Lowe’s beau­ti­ful pamph­let, The Hitcher. I always felt jeal­ous of Eng­lish poets because they got to lead lives in all these beau­ti­fully poetic Brit­ish places­names, while I was stuck in bor­ing old Can­berra. Here is where I come to terms with it.

 


I used to be enam­oured
With all
those evoc­at­ive Lon­don pla­ce­names
Wanted to live
Where the streets were built of time
And coals­moke,
Wanted to breathe the his­tory of Eng­lish
In every syl­lable of my city;
Took to the Can­berra streets
A one man army
With pla­ce­names for ammuni­tion,
Made streets called after
Birds and dream­times
Into Pall Malls and Park Lanes,
I would not stop until I could play Mono­poly
With the White Pages,
Walked across a dozen ped­es­trian cross­ings
In silent south­side sub­ur­bia
Christened each one Abbey Road,
Turned the High Court into Earl’s Court,
King­ston into Kens­ing­ton,
Grif­fith into Green­wich and
Made the Molon­glo a Thames
Before dawn had even thought to break
And then danced back into bed.

 

But when I woke up
I found that Garema Place was still in place,
Par­lia­ment House was clock­tower­less
And no masked man had tried to blow it up
Because des­per­a­tion and the times had moved his soul,
There was no river under the bridges
Where Exeter and Drake had sailed ships
So heavy with gold
Their bot­toms dragged on a mil­lenium of
Silt and secrets,
No Bard had pro­claimed of time and blood
From the planks of Can­berra Theatre
And as I walked our planned-and-planted streets
I found that round­abouts marked the graves of archi­tects
Where I expec­ted flea mar­kets and
Alleys so awash with gin
That juni­per twined there from cracks and loose cobbles.

 

I took to drink­ing:
Ale from as Brit­ish a pub as I could find
Refus­ing to meet the street out­side the eye­socket doors
As spring turned to sum­mer turned to autumn and the rain
And road­works swept away all my edited street­signs
Leav­ing a Can­berra fresh as a dew­drop.
The ale ran dry, with the last golden drop on my
Parched tongue I went out­side,
Stumbled in Panadol-white sun­light,
Fell and
dis­covered:

 

That I was wrong and young in my leather pants and
Rice­pa­per skin to be enam­oured
with all those evoc­at­ive Lon­don pla­ce­names,
That I have been built by Bur­ley Griffin,
The Brinda­bel­las brought me up
On their blue­berry and smoke backs
Lost in the Cot­ter I made dino­saurs of cow skulls,
Caught my first but­ter­fly in Tid­bin­billa
Wings shiv­er­ing in my sweaty palms
Ripped my knee on a King­ston side­walk,
Snuck from school and smoked my first cigar­ette
Defi­antly cough­ing my inno­cence away
In Telopea Park, long and green as a cucum­ber,
Ran away from home and walked all the way to Civic,
Broke my mother’s heart and came back,
Fell in love
And fell in love
And fell in love
And rewrote each time
What love was and where it happened,
Took my bike in the night and bit­ing rain
Through the fail­ing Grif­fith street­lights
To see a girl in a bra for the very first time,
Sat on a car roof in Quean­beyan
Throw­ing gravel at the stars
Until they gave us wishes,
Drank but­ter­scotch schnapps in aban­doned coun­cil flats
And shoved a desk through a win­dow
Because I’d never broken glass before,
Because I’d never been a teen­ager before,
Because life was new and glor­i­ous,
Because love was new and glor­i­ous,
Lost my father on the shore of Lake Bur­ley Griffin
And saw his ghost in every old man
In Woden Hos­pital,
Grew up, broke up, broke down, defined the map
Of my life in Bur­ley Griffin’s blue­prints,
I was as planned as this city
And as silent as this city
And as loud and new and young as this city
And went to Lon­don, watched my dark eyes in the
Mir­ror of the Tube,
Became enam­oured
with all those evoc­at­ive Can­berra pla­ce­names,
came back.

Libraries

For as long as I can remem­ber I’ve loved being in lib­rar­ies. Brows­ing the shelves of my local pub­lic lib­rary as a child I’d seek out the same books time and again. In primary school the beau­ti­fully kept lib­rary was much more enti­cing to me than the play­ground (yes, I was one of those chil­dren). As a teen­ager I hung around the pub­lic lib­rary so much that they even­tu­ally offered me a job, and I work there still. Now at uni­ver­sity I find excuses to wander around the massive base­ments full of intriguing tomes on a reg­u­lar basis.

Stem­ming from a love of all things book­ish, and in a fit of mad­ness and ambi­tion Raphael and I made a zine. Titled Moira and the Witch, it’s a twis­ted Baba Yaga fairy tale, with machine embroid­ery by me.


 My first zine. We’re rather proud of it. The sort of people who buy zines seemed to like it too. People pay­ing for some­thing I’ve made is a new thing for me (as simple as it may sound) and I was rather chuffed to come away with more money than I’d arrived with. A new exper­i­ence for someone who gen­er­ally can’t res­ist the papery delights offered at such places.

Selling the zines also took some adjust­ment. Each one was indi­vidual and done by hand, and it simply hadn’t occurred to me that once sold, I’d never see them again. Stu­pidly for­got to pho­to­graph them all. Sep­ar­a­tion anxi­ety. Oh well.

Swap­ping was fun though. It felt more valid and mutu­ally appre­ci­at­ive than simply buy­ing and selling. I exchanged one of my little zines for a beau­ti­ful little image of a bee, trapped behind resin, to be worn as a pendant. Art for art’s sake. Happy times.

There was another copy how­ever, that I didn’t mind part­ing with. Sev­eral people from the National Lib­rary came past, and pho­to­graphed us for some blog (I can­not fig­ure out the where­abouts of it on the NLA’s web­site though). And they took a copy of Moira, for the col­lec­tion! Our humble zine, down in that enorm­ous base­ment, by the lake, with those book car­ry­ing robots (I won­der if they’re still all called Charlie?), and all the other books pub­lished in Aus­tralia that the lib­rary can get hold of. Well, that’s one copy of Moira that I can go visit.

Vincent

This is a short story I wrote about one of the main char­ac­ters of the web­comic I write and my friend Nate draws; it can be seen here. I’m pretty happy with it and it is abso­lute fun to read aloud.


For Nate

 

I came home. I pulled out my keys. I tried a key in the lock, but it didn’t work. It slipped against it clum­sily. I looked at the keyring in the dim moon­light. I picked another key, and tried open­ing the lock again. It didn’t work either. I picked another key. Vin­cent came out of the shadows.

You know, if you don’t open the door on the third try,” said Vin­cent, “the mon­sters peel them­selves from the woodwork.”

And what hap­pens then?” I asked.

The only thing they leave is the wood­work,” said Vin­cent, and van­ished into the shad­ows. I pushed the key the whole way in. It turned, and the door swung open with a whis­per of hinges. I went inside. The house was dark and grey and quiet as fur. I closed the door. I put the keys on the shelf. I opened the kit­chen door. As I opened it, I heard another door open, some­where, close. Vin­cent came out of the shadows.

You know, when you open a door and another door closes,” said Vin­cent, “it’s a mon­ster slip­ping away.”

Is it scared of me?” I asked.

Don’t be fool­ish,” said Vin­cent. “It’s just find­ing a bet­ter place.” Vin­cent van­ished into the shadows.

I went through the house and opened all the doors. I checked under all the beds. I opened all the cup­boards. I lif­ted up all the cush­ions. I found no mon­sters. I went into the kit­chen. The kit­chen was safe and bright. I turned all the lights on, and left the fridge door open, and turned on the light in the oven, and put the kettle on and turned the radio on really loud, loud enough to drown out the kettle. I sat in the middle of the room. The fridge star­ted beep­ing at me. Vin­cent came out of the shadows.

You know, if you keep the fridge door open long enough,” said Vin­cent, “the mon­sters slink up at you from inside.”

Where do they live?” I asked.

In the veget­able drawer, of course,” said Vin­cent. “With the car­rots and the avocados.”

What do they look like?” I asked.

Like fangs that snakes lost,” said Vin­cent. “Like oiled oyster shells without eyes.” Vin­cent van­ished into the shad­ows. I closed the fridge door. It seemed safer that way.

I put on my biggest, cosi­est jumper. I put on my warmest, safest socks. I pulled the plaid rug from the linen cup­board, and wrapped myself in it, and sat in my bed­room, clutch­ing a cup of tea. I drank some of the tea, and it made me feel bet­ter. I felt calm enough to read a book. I put the tea on the side of the table. Vin­cent came out of the shadows.

You know, if you leave the tea so long that it gets cold,” said Vin­cent, “the mon­sters coil around your toes. They crush your throat.”

Why do they care about my tea?” I asked.

They just like it warm,” said Vin­cent, and van­ished into the shad­ows. I drank all the tea in one big gulp, and it scal­ded my tongue. It seemed bet­ter that way.

Before I went to bed, I checked the whole house. I checked it for elec­trical appli­ances left on and for hor­rors I had heard of. I found one heater still hot and one light in the bath­room still lit. I found no hor­rors. I brushed my teeth. I spit and gargled. I left the bath­room light on, in case I wanted water in the night, and went to the bed­room. I climbed into my pyja­mas. Vin­cent came out of the shadows.

You know, if you leave the bath­room light on all night,” said Vin­cent, “it draws moths.”

I don’t see what’s so bad about moths,” I said.

The moths aren’t the thing,” said Vin­cent. “The moths draw other things.”

Do they eat the moths?” I asked.

No,” said Vin­cent. “They watch.” He van­ished into the shadows.

I went to the bath­room and turned off the light. It was the sens­ible thing to do. It was pitch black get­ting to my bed­room, and I hit my knee on a badly placed set of draw­ers. I climbed into bed, sore. I fell asleep quickly. I had sound­less dreams. Vin­cent came out of the shadows.

You know, if you have sound­less dreams,” said Vin­cent, “it means some­thing is block­ing your ears while you sleep.”

What sort of thing?” I asked.

It has a name,” said Vin­cent, “but you never hear it. It’s block­ing your ears, you see.” He van­ished into the shad­ows. I woke up scream­ing. There was some­thing in the room with me. It was the things that wait for moths. Without mouths. Without eyes. Like slick slinky oyster shells. It was the shad­ows. I van­ished into the shadows.

Vin­cent came out of the shadows.

Absalom Jones

This is a story about the things that hap­pen to you when you do things you didn’t know you weren’t sup­posed to. It con­tains murk.


 

Haunt End was not the sort of place a man wanted to find him­self at mid­night on a Witch­ing Eve, when the moon is dark and the stars cold and dis­tant. Yet it was Haunt End that Absa­lom Jones found him­self walk­ing through, with a hurry in his step, as the clocks struck twelve and the cats cackled mirth­lessly in the rooftops – for Witch­ing Eve is the one night when cats shed their every­day forms and ride in the skies on curse­wood brooms. Absa­lom Jones pulled the tattered ends of his coat tighter to his chest against the cold and strode onwards, when a sud­den voice pulled him short. 

Spare a penny, Absa­lom Jones?” it rustled from a dark door­way. It soun­ded like many-legged things slither­ing through dead leaves. Many many-legged things.

Who’s there?” asked Absa­lom Jones. “How do you know my name?” He peered into the dark­ness, which was like a clot of ink. As he stared, it slowly formed into a man who unpeeled him­self from the doorframe and stood within it – a short, dark man with long, dark hair, the col­our of leaf­mould and smelling the same, wear­ing no shirt but a huge fur coat, and no pants but huge brown boots.

Who are you?” asked Absa­lom Jones.

I asked my ques­tion first,” replied the man peev­ishly. Absa­lom Jones reached into his pocket and pulled out a cop­per penny, which he offered the man, all without tak­ing his eyes off him. The man grabbed it. His hands were slick and clammy and cold, and Absa­lom Jones shivered.

That’s bet­ter,” creaked the man, apprais­ing his coin. Then he returned his atten­tion to Absa­lom Jones.

My name is Dee,” he said, and flicked a black tongue over his lips. “And yours is well-known about these parts.”

It is not,” replied Absa­lom Jones. “I’ve never been here.”

Then,” said Dee, “your fame pre­cedes you.”

I’ve no fame neither,” replied Absa­lom Jones. “I’m just a grave-digger.” He turned to leave, but a gaunt, hairy hand shot out of the clot of Dee and grabbed him by the forearm.

Get off!” shouted Absa­lom Jones, pulling sharply. Dee’s grip was strong and heavy and chilly, like old roots. Absa­lom Jones struggled more, tottered back­wards, and pulled Dee out of the door­way, from where he came with a wet tear­ing crunch. The dark clot remained in it. In the light of the stars, Absa­lom could see that Dee’s skin was dark; not dark like the skin of the gypsy dock-workers, but dark like mud, and death, and the water in still ponds. In some places, it seemed to show through to the bones beneath, and the bones were mottled and mossy.

What man­ner of demon are you?” yelped Absa­lom Jones in ter­ror, and crossed him­self with his free hand. “Let go, hag!”

Your fame does pre­ceed you,” nod­ded Dee, finally let­ting go. Absa­lom Jones backed into a wall, and crossed him­self again.

Please let me go,” he whimpered. Dee appraised him with still eyes.

You have done much wrong, Absa­lom Jones,” Dee spoke softly, and each word slithered from his lips and dropped like heavy beetles to the cobbles. The rare night air thickened – thickened and begun to smell of the things that have no eyes, that live by sound in moist places, and are nameless.

I’ve been an good Chris­tian man,” moaned Absa­lom Jones, to whom no sal­va­tion was forthcoming.

Yes,” agreed Dee. “You have done much wrong.”

I’m not really Chris­tian,” back-tracked Absa­lom Jones, teeth chat­ter­ing in fear. “I’m a Jew!”

What you are,” spoke Dee, and pulled him­self into the air till he stood like Death and fury, “is of little con­sequence to the crimes you have com­mited. Repent, Absa­lom Jones.”

I repent,” screamed Absa­lom Jones, as Dee of the roots and the dark places slunk towards him. “I repent, I repent!”

But why repent when the crime is not known?” whispered Dee in Absa­lom Jones’ ear. “Shall I tell you?”

Absa­lom Jones whimpered some­thing in a lan­guage only the ones soon to die can speak. The air filled with rot; it hung from the wall behind Absa­lom Jones in thick sliv­ers of moss, in white stringy roots that crawled into his ears. Huge pale mush­rooms burst from the pave­ment. Absa­lom Jones crawled with sweat and beetles, with worms and mag­gots. He screamed, and mould tumbled from him.

You’ve tombed men in the ground,” spoke Dee in a voice that men only hear once. “Women, too. Chil­dren, too, Absa­lom Jones. You’ve shut them in the loam. They have no place to go. They have no place to be. They rot and decay, Absa­lom Jones, rot and decay. And their souls rot with them till they look like black mush­rooms. And still they stay souls, Absa­lom Jones. Rot­ten souls with no escape. That is your crime.”

I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he screamed. “I’m sorry!” But it was far too late for Absa­lom Jones, for inside he was already crawl­ing with rot, and his eyes turned white and murky, and he slumped like a rag of swamp water to the cobble­stones, and stirred no more.

Dee smiled a hor­rible smile, then limped and slunk away from the alley in Haunt End, and noth­ing was left there the next morn­ing but the rot­ten body of Absa­lom Jones, and a small pale mush­room, and an old parch­ment card, on which was scrawled the name ‘Dee Kay’.

The Worst Christmas Ever

I wrote this at two in the morn­ing after fin­ish­ing Neil Gaiman’s The Grave­yard Book and then stum­bling onto this story by Joey Comeau.


Santa Claus was lying in our fire­place. Dead. Very dead. The little brown tiles he had landed on, head-first, were covered in a grow­ing pool of ruddy blood. His huge booted feet were still up the chim­ney. A grim­ace of sud­den shock was plastered across his jowly, bearded face.

I don’t think that was sup­posed to hap­pen,” said Mina. She was not my identical twin, but looked a lot like me any­way. She was tall and blonde and bright, and stand­ing in the middle of the liv­ing room in her pyja­mas and look­ing at Santa’s body.

No, I really don’t think so either,” I said. Santa smelt like pine needles and wet fur and reindeer musk.

The reindeers are prob­ably still up there on the roof!” I moaned. “Reindeer? Reindeers?”

Who cares?” yelped Mina, then glanced in the dir­ec­tion of our par­ents’ room. “Alright. Quick. Think! We have to do some­thing – get rid of Santa’s body.”

We do?” I said. The corpse grim­aced at me pain­fully. I was per­fectly happy to climb into bed and pre­tend noth­ing had happened.

Yes, we do!” she whispered angrily. “We can’t just leave him! Our par­ents will notice! There’ll be questions!”

They might not notice… they don’t believe in him…”

Sam, you moron, it doesn’t mat­ter how much you don’t believe in someone if his body is crammed up the fire­place and bleed­ing all over your tiles! Ugh.”

Right. Yes. Fine. Uh, let’s…” I stopped. “Is he heavy? Can we take him somewhere?”

Where?”

I thought for a bit. Some­where with no people. Or reindeers. Reindeer?

Ooh!” I remembered. “The skip at the back of the super­mar­ket down the block. There’ll be nobody there.”

You sure?”

I swear.”

Alright. Let’s drag him.” We grabbed an arm each, after shift­ing the Christ­mas tree, and pulled him out of the liv­ing room and into the hall. His head dripped little rubies of blood onto the car­pet, and his body smudged them into wet stains as we pulled. He was heavy, after all – very heavy, like a sack of bricks, and just as bad to pull. Mina’s pulling helped more than mine and I kept try­ing to pull harder to catch up to her. We man­aged to get him through the liv­ing room door, past our par­ents’ room and past little Maddy’s – I think we woke her up, but little Maddy’s the sort of really quiet kid who doesn’t ask ques­tions at two in the morn­ing, so she just stared at us with big white eyes from her bed and then lay back down.

The hard­est part was drag­ging him out onto the street. The front door was okay, and then there were steps, but just when we thought the coast was clear, a big gang of drunks came wan­der­ing down the street, and I felt scared even though I had Santa’s corpse with me. But after they left, we still had all the block to go to get to the shops. It was the hard­est thing I’ve ever done in my life – harder than the beep test, harder than a mara­thon or a hun­dred metre race or any­thing. My arms felt numb and pained and blistered all at once, and the fact that Santa’s expres­sion changed at one point – we must’ve bumped him against the path really hard – really didn’t help make me feel bet­ter. We dragged in silence, pant­ing and puff­ing. Some of the reindeers trot­ted with us, a few steps behind, and even though they seemed con­cerned and friendly, it made me feel uneasy.

But finally we got him to the skip, which was behind the super­mar­ket through a little alley closer to our side of the road, which was good. The skip smelt awful, and we had to have the heavy metal lid of it open for so long, what with try­ing to lever and push and pull Santa’s body into it, that I felt like I’d smell of old fish and sour milk and veget­able peel­ings forever. It wasn’t easy, but we man­aged it in the end. When we’d fin­ished, you could only see the tip of one of Santa’s shiny boots stick­ing out a corner of the skip, and we both decided we weren’t keen on the idea of climb­ing in there with Santa and rearran­ging his limbs so he’d fit bet­ter, so we just walked home. The reindeers stayed behind, all big and silent. I felt des­per­ately tired. But when we got back home, we still hadn’t fin­ished, because Mina handed me a sponge and we had to clean the car­pet. It did very little. You can still see the stains pretty clearly, but our par­ents never asked about them much.

 

When school star­ted, the next year – we were in year six, which was fun because we were finally in dif­fer­ent classes so people stopped ask­ing us if we were twins (yes) and were we identical (no) and how come we looked the same (don’t know) and did we have to share our clothes (only our school uni­forms, some­times) – we asked around how our friends’ Christ­mases were. Most of them seemed bet­ter than ours. We decided ours was the worst Christ­mas ever. But then Frankie Black came up to me at the end of lunch and said Santa had had a heart attack on his nice liv­ing room sofa, and Annie McClaren told Mina that Santa had fallen off her roof and got­ten impaled on the garden fence – so we worked out it happened to some kids some years and some kids oth­ers. But Santa def­in­itely won’t be com­ing to our place again. Except maybe for little Maddy. But I really hope she’ll wake us up when she finds him dead, because she’s very small and not very good at walk­ing to the shops by herself.

The Swamp Man

This is a poem about love and swamps.


I love you in the sun­light,
peel cica­das from your skin
lie in trancestill lan­guor,
watch the birds as the birds watch
us with dark eyes.

I love you in the sun­light,
wrap you in sea­weed
dream in lakesilt
watch the fish as the fish watch
us with hol­low eyes.

I love you in the sun­light,
twine through tree­roots,
drink sap and silence,
watch the trees as the trees watch
us without eyes.

I leave you in the deep night,
scream on the lakeshore,
howl into pine­glades,
bind you in batwings,
I find me a swamp man.

I’m his in the night­time,
we luc­ub­rate in bog­pits,
our hearts beat like thun­ders,
our lust glows like marsh­gas,
our moans frighten nightowls,
we reek of each other.

I leave him before sun­light,
He sinks into the quag­mire,
The mud cracks in day­heat,
I find you in silence,
expect­ing my presence.

Ned Kelly

This is the poem which won me a spot at the 2010 finals of the Aus­tralian National Poetry Slam – some­thing which still fills me with con­fu­sion. A slam, for those not in the know, is a type of per­form­ance poetry – you stand up at a micro­phone (in a pub, cafe, theatre, whatever) and read 2 minutes of whatever your soul wants to read. Slam poetry is the most excit­ing thing in the world. It doesn’t have to have the best words – what’s most import­ant is con­nect­ing with the audi­ence, mak­ing them feel what you feel when you’re up there. I’m not a very good slam poet but I’m get­ting bet­ter. There is a prob­ably a slam in your city, go there and per­form.
I didn’t do very well at the finals but it was an amaz­ing exper­i­ence and as far as I’m con­cerned, no prize is bet­ter than sit­ting in a pub with friends and Best Slam Poet In The World, Robin ‘Archie’ Arch­bold. He is phe­nom­enal. Any­how, this is the poem I wrote, inspired by Peter Carey’s strange and power­ful book The True His­tory of the Kelly Gang. If you don’t know who Ned Kelly is, let Wiki­pe­dia edu­cate you (or altern­at­ively, read Carey’s book.)


The dawn wakes cold as stones.

Here, in the dim, wet morn­ing, the gum trees
Reach for the sky like crooked screams,
Here, in the dim, wet morn­ing, on a ver­andah
Dark with dew and blood,
Stands Ned Kelly, in armour, huge.

The dawn wakes and it is vast,
Shoot, he says, shoot you God­less fuck­ers, shoot

They shoot, once, twice,
Six times they shoot, the bul­lets are lead
And soft and fast, they dent his sooty hide,
It is good armour Ned Kelly made
A coffin.

They shoot his legs, he buckles like a moun­tain
As hol­low as a gallow-pit and falls,
Off the wet boards to the ground,

And all the birds scream once.

And I feel such heavy loss,
Such an empty use­less loss,
About Ned Kelly.
Born here, not far away, to Rus­sian par­ents
Who held no gun in out­rage,
Who suffered but in silence,
Why do I find this passing
Leaves in me an empti­ness as empty as the dawn
After Ned Kelly was taken from it?

None of us are rebels any longer,
None here have murdered a police­man
Because he raped their sis­ter,
None have hid­den in the dark of moun­tains
Eat­ing shit and wait­ing for death,
None have said fine words at a gal­lows
None will say fine words at a gal­lows,
Such is life,

Good.

Kelly, you can hear us even if that empty suit
Your legend lives in
Traps your words:

We’re all the same now,
We protest meekly against death and taxes
By ask­ing for less taxes
Or less death, not both,
We are tooth­less mod­ern chil­dren
And I miss you.