‘Some precepts of postmodern mourning’

Amidst this sombre Holy Week, it feels appropriate to smile at death.  For a seasoned celebrant of funerals, this is a close enough to truth to be oddly comforting.

Some precepts of postmodern mourning
Alex Skovron

There must be a body, but there needn’t be.
The body must be remembered with some fondness:
there must be at least two eulogists, and a third
must have been detained by traffic or a death
and the service must proceed. Sex
must be mentioned, but preferably not, except at the wake
or the séance when most words are permissible again.
On second thought, this precept needn’t apply.
But at least one text must be read from,
preferably composed by the body and significant; it
must include expletives, but needn’t do so.
Everyone must look dignified and important, or at least
significant; move deliberately but not heavily; smile
but laugh only once. Black must be avoided,
except in socks and sunglasses, which must be worn
during the service as well as outside afterwards.
There must be at least a reference to Celtic poetry
or Jewish ancestry, and both Testaments must be drawn upon.
Someone must remark ‘I still can’t believe it’
then ‘Yes I can’, and someone must respond
with a philosophical but solicitous lift of an eyebrow.
One of the mourners must be overheard to whisper,
‘I’m surprised she didn’t come, though it doesn’t
surprise me.’ It must be noted that the body
could never suffer fools gladly, and someone
must observe how much he or she is only now learning
about the body. Someone must say at least one Italian thing
either to mourners or to the body, but a French
or German or Latin or Spanish or Sanskrit thing
will do, or a thing in any other accredited language,
provided the expression is significant. There must be
no public mysticism, though there may be, and coffee
or white wine must be served afterwards. Someone
needs to be squinting tears, preferably a large man
in a double-breasted suit with a crimson kerchief
protruding rudely, coupled with a pallid pusillanimous
niece with a weak chin and beatific smile
nodding with significance. Reincarnation must be accepted
by at least half the mourners, but not mentioned,
though strange omens and premonitions over recent weeks
must be seen as significant in retrospect.
The body must be understood to be pleased with the service,
the simple dignity and grace of the occasion,
the Baroque cantata, the words, the weather. Everything
must be just so. Everything must be significant.
Though in the end it needn’t be. Later, this in itself
must be acknowledged as most significant of all,
or at least put down to the quintessential irony of death.

skovron-alex-ip-author-300w_poet-bioAlex Skovron, published in The Puncher and Wattmann Anthology of Australian Poetry, ed. John Leonard, 2009.

Sacred bones

Bone Scan
Gwen Harwood

Thou has searched me and known me.
Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising.
Psalm 139

In the twinkling of an eye,
in a moment, all is changed:
on a small radiant screen
(honeydew melon green)
are my scintillating bones.
Still in my flesh I see
the God who goes with me
glowing with radioactive
isotopes. This is what he
at last allows a mortal
eye to behold: the grand
supporting frame complete
(but for the wisdom teeth),
the friend who lives beneath
appearance, alive
with light. Each glittering bone
assures me: you are known.

1367157941403Gwen Harwood (1920 – 1995)
Included in Beverage and Ogle (eds), Falling and Flying: Poems on Ageing, Blackheath: Brandle & Schlesinger, 2015.

‘Gone to the fields to be lovely’

Over the summer break we travelled to New Zealand. Amidst the extraordinary beauty of the place, the roadside fields of Russell Lupins were so lovely. Often backdropped by a vista of snowcapped mountains, they had a way of bringing majesty into more intimate reach.

Just yesterday, a dear friend sent me some poetry, words by the American poet Lynn Ungar. As I understand, the camas lilies Ungar describes are a wild flower native to her part of the world. No matter, the bidding of the fields is the same.

Camas Lilies

Consider the lilies of the field,
the blue banks of camas opening
into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the native ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers’ hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?

And you—what of your rushed
and useful life? Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything—
leaving only a note: “Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I’m through blooming.”

Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake. Of course
your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.


The gift of a day

A manuscript complete and sent. It’s the first ‘day off’ in a while without a pending deadline. I’m back to the comfort of routines.

Friday is market day. In the mellow morning air, I push a trolley through the maze of traders couped under tin rooves: veggies, fruit, cheese, fish, poultry and bread. I watch and talk. I touch the avocados and hold the peaches in my hand. I look wistfully at a brie de meaux and banter with the fishmonger as he prepares my snapper fillets.  I imagine recipes in my head, and anticipate the idiosyncrasies of those I cook for. Finally, I linger with the sweep of flowers, and choose my colour of gorgeous for the week.

A gift for Christmas was a collection of poetry by Michael O’Siadhail. What an extraordinary ability this Irishman has to give words to things I can only feel. This one provides a benediction to my morning.


What does it mean?
Suddenly, effortlessly, to touch the core.
Mostly in the glow of friends
but today just strolling the length of a city street.
Carnival moments.
The apple back on its tree
in a garden lost, a garden longed for.

I move among the traders.
Stacks of aubergines, rows of tiger-lilies.
Rings of silver and cornelian
A feast of action.
Crosslegged, an Indian plays
music on a saw-blade glittering in the sun.

In the sweat of thy face
shalt thou eat bread. First hearing
that story, I’d bled for Adam.
I bump into an acquaintance and begin to apologise.
‘Taking a break,
Be hard at it tomorrow.’
Puritan me, so afraid of Paradise.

Anaxagoras the sage
(a century before Plato) mulled it over
on a street like this in Athens.
First question: Why are you here on earth?
Answer: To behold.
No excuses called for.
Contemplation. Seeing. Fierce and intense.

This majesty. This fullness.
Does it all foreshadow another Eden?
The air is laden with yearning.
I can’t say for what and I can’t be silent either.
Rejoice. Rejoice.
To attest the gift of a day.
To saunter and gaze. To own the world.

Michael O’Siadhail, Collected Poems, Bloodaxe, 2013, 306–307.

Lent: a time to follow

I’m not ready, Lord.
I don’t want to go.
The Advent candles are barely snuffed out;
the straw bales from the stable
are still in the dumpster out back.
And now this?
It’s just February, for God’s sake!
I’m not ready.

Let it go, let it go

I’m tired, Lord.
The year’s got off to a rough start.
I know I should be fresh, alert,
full of new-year resolve and ready for anything:
‘Yes, Lord!’
But I’m not.
This is hard work.
Just showing up is a tough gig.
I don’t want to go.

Let it out, let it out
let it all unravel

You want forty days of ‘on’ and ‘upward’?
You want six Sundays of resolution and surrender?
You want my life? my undivided attention?
‘Simon, are you asleep?
Could you not keep awake one hour?’
Frankly, Jesus, no.
I don’t have it.
I don’t feel it.
I can’t do it.

Let it free, let it free
let it all unravel

I know the way, Lord.
I know where this road leads.
I’ve been around the block before.
That’s the issue, isn’t it?
I know what you expect
and I know what it costs.
God knows, I tell others often enough.
If I front up with ‘all of me’
I know what it takes:
it’s all ‘giving up’ and ‘letting go’;
it’s all vulnerability, exposure,
opposition and conflict.
And everything so deeply felt.
Honestly, Lord, my heart aches enough already.
And, besides, this ‘all of me’
feels like a hollow gift to give.

Let it go
Let it out
Let it all unravel
Let it free
And it will be
A path on which to travel*

I’m not ready, Lord,
… but I’m here.


*With thanks to Michael Leunig for his constant inspiration


Last week I sat with a friend whose sadness was deep, overwhelming. It was grief so tangible, impossible to avoid. And yet I came away with hope. Why? There was something in my friend’s capacity to bear such grief, honestly yet resolutely, that was itself a light. It reminded me of these words from the poet Mary Oliver.


That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer
and I did not die.
Surely God
had His hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it —
books, bricks, grief —
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled —
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

UnknownMary Oliver, Thirst, Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, 53-54.


The cold wind cuts like a scythe
through the folds.
Alone at the tram stop I brace.
My coat pulled tight around my chest
I turn my head to the side
as though the blade slices in just one direction.
It doesn’t.

My ribs are cold,
my feet are cold.
My nose is wet and my ears numb.
It’s not the cold of ice and snow.
It’s damp and drippy cold,
the cold without reward:
no white Christmas,
no toboggans and twinkly lights.
It’s the cold of a Melbourne July.
June was long and
August snickers around the corner.
Damn, it’s cold.

But it’s warm too —
a warm that only winter tells.
It’s the warm of home once I arrive;
discarded coat and scarf and shoes.
It’s the enveloping warm as the door shuts behind.
Home is embraces, throws and quilts.
It’s fires burning and big pots of soup that simmer.
It’s stews that stew with the saucepan lid slightly ajar.
It’s red bean chilis with cornbread,
and warm winter puddings
with custard and cream.
And cheese.
And bread.
And earthy red wines.

The cold is still there,
just beyond the doorframe.
It laps at the porch steps
like an encroaching tide.
But now I eye its menace
through the window and smile.
Cocooned inside,
I am reassured.
I have no cause to venture out again.
Not tonight, because it’s cold.

[image from Melbourne Street Photography]

Not at home

Why aren’t you at home?
Why aren’t you there when I come by?
You don’t answer when I call
or play your scrabble move once I’ve played mine.
You’re not there to smile when I walk in the door
— as though just by being me I made your day.
‘Simon Carey’, you would always say.
But not now.
Now the chair is empty
and you’re not there.

I shouldn’t need you.
‘Need’ is a gratuitous word.
I’ve had my share.
I have enough —
a home of my own and a family too.
With hair that’s thin and joints that ache,
I’m long past needs
under warranty.
Your job is done.
My cup is full.
But I still look for you.

I want you to call, you see.
I need you to answer.
I need to drop in and have you hold my hand,
to ask about my beloved ones
and take me on the family tour.
And those questions I always tried to avoid —
I want you to ask them again
so I can deftly weave around them
as I always did.
But you can’t,
so neither can I.

You’re not at home anymore.