Incident at the Exercise Park

This is the fifth assignment for the MOOC, “Whitman’s Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster“, through the University of Iowa.

This assignment is as follows:

In words and/or images, compose a piece in response to a memory of conflict, war, loss, or trauma that includes two or three central sensations: perhaps a sound that corresponds to or contrasts with a sight, perhaps the feel, noise, and smell of a place. 

I was walking one evening last week, through a nearby park used in the evenings for dog exercise. Out of apparently nowhere, a chicken appeared in the middle of the park. All hell broke loose. I’m pretty sure the chicken jumped the fence from a nearby house owned by an elderly Italian couple, who keep chickens in their back garden.

I’ve killed two birds with one stone here (pun intended) – I was meant to write about my trip to Mildura Writers’ Week last month, to share with fellow travellers Heather Taylor Johnson, Gay Lynch and Louise Nicholas. They all managed to write about Mildura, but I cheated and wrote about a chicken instead. Thanks to Heather, Gay and Louise for reviewing this poem. The version here is 2nd draft.


Incident at the Exercise Park

Blue Heelers, Poodles, Terriers, Retrievers,

all bustling eagerness, romping,

rolling, off leash on cold evening grass.

 

Drenched air, lemon scented gums,

a yellow glow from the old-folks home washes

over the iron fence. Cars sweep by, headlights

beaming, wipers swishing.

 

Above the smell of rain, of overcooked greens

and thickening gravy, of grass and gums:

the sudden presence of chicken.

Bemused, disoriented, strayed

from some backyard run into foreign territory.

 

A madness grips the animals,

a predatory reflex: chase, kill,

taste flesh. Everything is bark and bite,

hunter and hunted; a churning

of legs, ears, teeth, a helter-skelter

of fur and feather. The panicked bird

fleeing the snap of teeth.

 

In the cacophony, owners bark orders, call

hounds to heel. A man leaps into the whirl,

whips the stunned chicken from the chomp

of jaws, shields it under his jacket.

The clamour subsides in a fug of wet fur

and drooling maw. Charges are muzzled,

collars clipped to leads; a smear of blood

wiped from nose, a feather plucked from lip,

warnings delivered against ever again behaving

like animals.

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016

 

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Absence

This is the fourth assignment for the MOOC, “Whitman’s Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster“, through the University of Iowa.

This assignment is as follows:

Professor Folsom noted in our video discussion that Whitman encountered many soldiers who, even in the silence of a peaceful night, still heard the noises of Civil War Battlefields, sounds and sensations that never left them. These reverberations crept into the silence of each night, making those spaces unbearably loud. What are the unseen remnants of our modern conflicts and traumas? What losses or absences do you or do we continue to sense from things that are no longer present? In words or images, compose a piece that explores the “phantom limbs” of a trauma or traumas.

—————-

13 Ways of Looking at Absence

I

The child:

fatherless

before birth

II

the teenager:

role models

missing in action

III

the alcoholic:

memories

blanked by oblivion

IV

the drug-taker:

unhinged

unparented

V

the stray dog:

cowered

unleashed

VI

the wandered mind:

unwilling

to be present

VII

the lost keys:

determined

to be overlooked

VIII

the dementia ward:

short-term memories

extinguished

IX

the war veteran:

hope replaced

by horror

X

the aboriginal:

amputated from land

spirit adrift

XI

the abusive priest:

oaths broken

scruples dispensed

XII

the bully’s victim:

confidence lost

trust breached

XIII

the disgraced sportsman:

dreams shattered

image broken

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016

 

Account of a Survivor of an Australian Bushfire

Bushfire

This is the third assignment for the MOOC, “Whitman’s Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster“, through the University of Iowa.

This assignment is described as:

“The kinds of oxymoronic reactions that Whitman had toward the war are some of the most difficult to articulate in words—to express how one can both hate and love the same thing, find it beautiful and horrifying, sustaining and devastating.” In words or images, compose a response to an event or experience that invoked this kind of contradiction for you. Consider how craft can call upon contradiction—in form, syntax, diction, metaphor, exposure, or juxtaposition—and employ those elements in a manner most fitting to your experience.

I took some key words and partial sentences from an ABC interview with a survivor of the 2009 Victorian fires, just as Whitman took newspaper reports as the basis of some of his prose and poetry.

—————-

Account of a Survivor of an Australian Bushfire

It was forecast: the worst heat on record. Nobody can say they weren’t warned. The day started bloody hot and got hotter. We knew straight away that this was more than a hot one, it was going to be a catastrophic one. The wind blew up from the west. It was like being inside a fan forced oven. By late morning, the sky was still clear, but somehow threatening. I went inside for a cold drink. When I came out, there was a column of smoke, thousands of feet high. It was a straight column and it loomed right over us, directly above our house. The sun was directly behind it. The column had white edges, like cumulonimbus. And then it was all sorts of colours, but at its heart it was ochre – deep, deep ochre. Balls of yellow fire hit the deciduous trees around the house. Flames went into the trees, smoke shot out. All around the house, the light went golden. Through every window it went golden at the same time. We felt a burning, radiant, ferocious heat, and then it passed. We just huddled together on the floor, waiting to die, but somehow it passed. The only thing that saved us was the sprinkler system on the roof. The fire passed right over us without igniting the house. I don’t really know how.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016

 

The Girl, the Cat and the Great Plague

The Plague

This is the second assignment for the MOOC, “Whitman’s Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster“, through the University of Iowa.

This assignment requires:

Think of a place that at first may not seem to be related to a contemporary conflict or a traumatic event from the past, but which might be used to reveal something important about that conflict. Perhaps if you describe that conflict or traumatic event from the viewpoint of that place, you will find that new thoughts about the conflict or event come to you. Perhaps if you compare this place to the site of the conflict or event, you will find new ways to describe what the conflict or event means to you and what you think it should mean to the world. Through writing and/or image, compose your own picture or description of this conflict or trauma, constructing the details from the unexpected place you have chosen

—————-

The Girl, the Cat and the Great Plague

 

She sips her mint tea. It soothes her swollen tonsils. Her cat sits at the foot of her bed. They share the warmth of the fire the girl’s mother has lit in her room. The cat appears to have no ill-effects from the vaccinations carried out by the vet a few days earlier. It was expensive, but the cat is much-loved, and is a great companion to the girl. She is an only child. Her parents do not skimp on healthcare for their daughter or her cat.

Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the keeping of cats in London was illegal. Men were employed to kill cats and dogs as a way, it was thought, to stop the spread of the Great Plague. In fact, it had the reverse effect: rats were the main carriers of the fleas infected with the Yersinia pestis bacterium. Cats in particular would have kept the rat population down, and slowed the spread of the plague. Eventually it was realised that those who (illegally) kept cats tended to avoid the plague, and the ban was lifted; too late for tens of thousands of plague victims.

Had the tonsillitis afflicted girl lived in London in 1665, she would have likely been such a victim. The leeches, the pomander, the potions, the prayers of her desperate mother would have had no effect. There would have been no pet cat to kill off the local, flea infested rats. Instead of mildly painful tonsils, the lymph nodes in her neck and under her arms would have swollen into painful buboes. She would have been racked with fever, afflicted with frequent vomiting, pounding headaches and gangrene; barely able to swallow. Her face would have blown up in bulbous black swellings. A quack doctor would have lanced them or sliced them with a razor. She would have gone mad with pain, died in agony. The single, cold, cramped room she shared with several siblings in a rat-infested building would have seen a feeding frenzy by the vicious biting fleas. The plague would have ravaged her whole family.

The fortunate modern-day girl sips her mint tea, gazes for a while out of the fly-screened window of her warm, comfortable bedroom, finishes her history homework with the help of her iPad and Wikipedia. She looks forward to her afternoon ice cream treat. The cat purrs contentedly at the foot of her bed. The girl unwraps a gift she has been saving for it: a black flea collar with small golden bell.

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016