Polenta Memories

Issue FiveIssue Five PoetryPoetry

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By Jenny Blackford

 

Our handyman, friend of an old friend,

was life support for many years

to our decaying inner-city house.

One day, hungry after endless hours of finding

screws and nuts and tools to help him mend

the fraying patchwork of the place,

of revving drills and clunks and damns

and heavily-accented bloody hells,

I cooked lunchtime polenta in a bowl of milk,

lazy in the microwave, stirred in some cheese,

some herbs, offered a plate of it to him

to supplement his long-gone sandwiches.

 

What did you call this?

His eyes were oddly bright.

 

Polenta, I said again. From Italy.

 

I can’t remember what they used to call it there.

I haven’t had this, oh, for 50, 60 years.

We had it every morning, in the camp,

for breakfast. It was good. But god,

they worked us hard, out in the farm from dawn

to dark and school at night. It was so hard.

 

What camp?

 

A camp for kids, after the war.

We had to work, but we got fed.

 

How could this be, our very

ordinary handyman in such a place?

 

My dad could fly; they put him in the Luftwaffe.

Never came home. The Russian tanks

rolled up our street. Mum shouted at me,

Run, just run.

 

Seven or eight years old, he ran for weeks or months

or maybe years, scrounging and sleeping tough

until they caught him, put him in the camp

with all the rest, taught city kids to dig the fields

somewhere near northern Italy,

and tend a herd of cows. The children ate

the corn and milk they helped to farm: polenta mush.

 

I was so stunned, I couldn’t find the right questions

to ask. Luftwaffe? Russian tanks?

A displaced persons’ camp especially for kids?

That was the background of this stubborn,

blunt man who (I found out later) shared

his packed lunch with my cat, if I was out?

 

Mum found me in the end, he said.

She looked for me for years, wouldn’t give up.

She brought me to Australia soon as she could,

away from all the mess and politics.

All of our family was dead except for us.

We both hate bloody politics.

 

He shuddered, winced theatrically,

and waved his empty plate at me.

 

But that was good. That porridge was the 

best thing in the camp. The hours of school at night,

when we were tired out – it was too hard.

I couldn’t learn.

 

That was one mystery solved – a man

who could design a perfect latch, build it from steel

with his own hands – but no book-learning.

How could a boy, his father dead on the so-wrong side

of a just war, his mother lost to him as well,

care for French and trigonometry, even when

she’d found him, both still alive, all miraculous.

 

(Millions were dead in concentration camps,

more were displaced, unhomed,

borders all changed, barbed wire everywhere,

Australia was a golden dream of peace.)

 

And that was why – despite her age

and all her ailments, his mum still lived

with him – no nursing home for her.

How could he let her lose him now,

who’s lost him once almost forever?

 

We never spoke of is again. Once was enough.

I washed the dishes; he took refuge

in his power tools, mended another drip

or leak or gap, then went off home to his old mum.

 

 

(First published in Jenny’s poetry collection, ‘The Loyalty of Chickens (Pitt Street Poetry, 2017).)

Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.