His Cousin’s Eulogy

Issue NineIssue Nine PoetryPoetry

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by Chris Armstrong

 

Dad looks up from the page, sees me

—startles

as if I were death itself;

lurking, watching.

 

Hello. He says. What are you thinking.

We reply—both death and I—

how sad it is that Uncle Athol has died.

 

This is my father’s second read

of his cousin’s eulogy

turning each page over, bringing each back,

laying pages to one side, taking them back again

 

rattled, he puts the eulogy aside

lets out a wounded, woof of a sigh.

 

*

 

Coincidentally, it is the day Les Murray* dies

when I find myself at Athol’s funeral.

 

One of those good old men Murray wrote

peddling so many crossing threads

 

through narrative and nostalgia.

One of my holiday Uncles

 

one of those powerful bloodlines

spun by Clotho, handed to me by Lachesis

 

cut long by Atropos once rummaged

from the chance and luck of history.

 

 

 

*In memory of Les, after Athol’s funeral, I re-read the Buladelah-Taree Song Cycle — so drunk on familial grief. This is what I did; lived the season of the long visiting, crossing the Myall and entering the North Coast, that stunning snake of relatives and cars looping through the hills and burning all night, heading for Dads and Uncles, Mums or Cousins, winding past those flooded gums, their ghost white coats illuminated by our headlights, the palm trees, the red glow of tail-lights, all night behind the hills he wrote me into this world.

 

He wrote of me before I left

wrote of my returns

wrote of my abandonments.

 

*

 

For Uncle’s funeral

I travelled that highway again

now bland and straight

and sharing the back seat

with my brother’s mini-foxie

prosletising about recycling

and Mexican food;

talking about work until it was

 

a worn and shiny patch of upholstery under my sad fingers.

 

*

 

Athol’s song cycle delivered the next day;

 

Good and faithful servant

his workmates said

Good and faithful servant

the plaque they gave him read…

 

sung in a steady, paced rhythm

by an equally good and faithful son.

 

This is my sunrise desire:

goodness and faithfulness.

 

*

 

Then suddenly it’s been a week

the vignettes fading

the press of crowded mourners

the hectic April sun

against me, his widow

with her side of the family, not his

with her friends, not his

at the wake she sat

without one of the sandwiches she paid for.

 

*

 

And here’s my Dad—

too incontinent, too surrendered

and digressed

to attend his cousin’s funeral.

 

I leave the wake early

leave the getting-louder-over-schooners-of-beer

leave the last, cold spring roll on the buffet

and a half drunk cup of tea.

 

I take my mother home

so she can sleep there in her chair.

I take his cousin’s eulogy.

 

*

 

Stories:

woven into filaments of shroud cloth

and packed in boxes—

 

the stories:

a giant cod, fished using a bullock team and chains,

the iron rattling rocks on the river bed

as the cod snaps the line and escapes downstream

 

an asthmatic foundling

led to a stringybark tree

the smoke and ceremony

inhaling and drinking its decocted bark

him, thanking the aboriginal elders now

with a respect they deserved

earlier than massacres.

 

I would stand at the front door of his house one more time

leaving, again, and leaving, again, and I’d better be going now but

one more story at the bottom step, always, just one more

with his arthritic knuckles bent to accentuate each point

and the dementia of me thinking they will not catch away

on the September nor’easters as I walk this life, deaf and brittle

with my own hungers and I dream these men will never not

be there at that moment when I am ready to listen.