My poem in memory of my late, great friend, Russell Talbot, is published in InDaily today (click here). Thanks to the editor, John Miles.
I first met Russ when we were studying for our MBAs, at the Uni of South Australia in 1989. Russ was the youngest student on the course, a tall, very smart, good-looking guy with the world at his feet it seemed. Unbeknownst to me, he had already had one brain tumour. Over the ensuing years he was afflicted with a host of serious health issues including another brain tumour and then a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer in 2017. These resulted in him having serious balance, speaking and swallowing difficulties. He once said to me that his three main pleasures in life were drinking (wine and coffee especially), eating (he had a very sweet tooth) and talking (he was a great talker). One by one, these pleasures were taken from him.
Despite these challenges, Russ refused to live an ordinary life. He acquired a three-wheel recumbent bike which he rode serious distances around Adelaide. He also did a cycling trip on the Florida Keys. Occasionally, Russ and I would cycle to a cafe for coffee and cake, and he had other regular cycling partners who accompanied him on rides of forty to fifty kms at times. He wrote consistently and was a member of a number of writing groups including the Poetica group which had some very fine Adelaide poets in it. It was Russ that first encouraged me to write poetry when he was running the poetry group at Unley Library around 2008. He was an objective critic of my work and had an eagle eye for bad grammar, spelling mistakes and mixed metaphors. He published a number of poetry chapbooks through Ginninderra Press and kept his many friends up to date with his life via regular email epistles. Though I was a good friend, I saw only one slice of Russ’s life. He also had a very close and supportive family, a regular chess playing and wine appreciating partner, a cat (he is survived by Harley), a regular yoga instructor, other cycling friends, a coffee drinking community centred on Kappy’s in Adelaide, numerous writing friends and all in all a full social calendar. He was a snappy, colourful dresser, delighting in bright t-shirts. He was also a skilled cartoonist, inventing a series of characters called Fuzzballs. Here’s one of his that was published in the local council magazine Unley Life.
Russ was guest poet a number of times at poetry readings in Adelaide. Because of his speech difficulties, he would ask someone else to read his poems on his behalf. One memorable occasion was at a library session organised by Jules Leigh Koch for Friendly Street Poets, where Jennifer Liston did an inspirational job of presenting poems from his chapbook. His face beamed utter happiness as she read his poems. Occasionally I would read single poems for him at regular Friendly Street meetings. You could count on Russ’s poems to demonstrate a high level of empathy and insight.
Russ eventually chose to move to Laurel Hospice at Flinders Medical Centre in May this year. Needless to say, he charmed everyone there, just as he had charmed people all his life. And it wasn’t a superficial charm. Of course, in conversation, Russ could be as critical as anyone. He reserved a special sort of contempt for Scott Morrison way before it became popular to do so! But his charm was a genuine charm coming from a man with a most decent heart, determined to live a good life, determined not to let two brain tumours and stage four cancer stop him from engaging energetically with the world. I visited him twice in Laurel Hospice. It is a beautiful place with a stunning roof garden looking out over the coast and the city. Volunteers provide all sorts of services, including individual harp recitals and a visiting miniature horse.
Russ died in June this year. His funeral was one of the most heartbreaking yet beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. At the front was his coffin adorned with pictures of Russ, messages from his nephews and nieces, his walking stick and his recumbent bike. I was privileged to be one of several of his friends asked to say a few words in tribute. Not one of the speakers was able to ‘hold it together’ when recounting the effect of Russ on their lives. Every time I find a poem I like I still reach for Gmail to send it to him and then realise I can’t. Or when I need a wise and empathetic ear to share some minor disaster, I can no longer text him to see if he’s home. I can’t send this to him to say “Read this Russ, what do you think?” What I soon realised with Russ was that whatever life difficulty I was going through, it was nothing compared to the immense issues he coped with for most of his life. He was a man like no other.
In his final email, his last (written) words were borrowed from (author) Richard Flanagan’s mum: “I’ve had a lovely time. Thank you all for coming”.
To Russell in the Bardo 1
i.m. Russell Talbot 1960 -2022
And do you have a body Russ?
And is it the same one, but without the neuromas, the cancers, the ulcers?
And how old are you there – in your prime or are you timeless?
And can you see us and the gap you left? Is it like being behind a two-way mirror?
And is there pain and pleasure?
And are you in the first-class cabin, to make up for the way you suffered here?
And is there a cat for your lap?
And a garden to grow your vegetables?
And how do you get around, because you could never stay still for long? Or is there no such a thing as around?
And if there is, how many wheels on your cycle?
And have you shown them your cartoons?
And read them your poetry?
And played them your songs?
And will they let you leave?
Because like in the coffee shop, the poetry group, the yoga class, the surgeries, the hospice, you are surely everybody’s favourite.
 Bardo in Tibetan Buddhism is a state of existence between death and rebirth.