by Chris Armstrong
Dad looks up from the page, sees me
as if I were death itself;
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
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.
woven into filaments of shroud cloth
and packed in boxes—
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.