In Memoriam – Russell Talbot (1960 -2022)

Russ and me June 2021. He had a bad eye ulcer and never recovered the sight in that eye

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 communing with the miniature horse in Laurel Hospice

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.


[1] Bardo  in Tibetan Buddhism is a state of existence between death and rebirth.

Dog Poo Haiku #1

Running from Somerton beach to Seacliff and back this morning, lots of people enjoying the spring sunshine. Lots of dog owners giving their dogs sun, sea and exercise, mostly well behaved (dogs and owners). A large dog did a huge dump on the white sand as I was running towards it. The male owner came equipped with the free “pick up after your dog” plastic bags provided by the council. He pulled one out of his pocket, slipped it on his hand and merely covered the poop with a sprinkling of sand, then walked on. Lovely surprise for any kids digging sandcastles later today, or just washed into the sea where kids and adults swim, paddle and play. But at least he kept his hands clean, and that’s what’s important.

“Ya Don’t Go ta the beach in Adelaide”

Many years ago, I was listening to the ABC radio commentary on a test match in Adelaide. I can’t remember who Australia was playing, but one of the commentators was the late Rod Marsh, ex Australian wicketkeeper, from Western Australia. Asked by his fellow commentator what else he did whilst in Adelaide, did he for instance go to the beach, Marsh replied something like “Nah, ya don’t go ta the beach in Adelaide”. I was stunned by this comment, but it typifies the strange parochialism of Australians, the weird interstate one-upmanship that goes on. South Australia being one of the least populous states, and Adelaide one of the smaller State capitals, is often the target of such remarks, usually made by men (it’s pretty much always men) from the eastern states and in this case the west.

One explanation is that Marsh reputedly drank 51 cans of beer on the flight from Australia to London for the 1989 Ashes series. Beaches may not have been top of his list of preferred places to be.

What is stunning to me about this remark is either the wilful or deliberate ignorance of surely some of the best city beaches in the world. I’ve recently sold my house in the inner suburbs and am trying out living in a beachside suburb. I’m not ON the beach, but conveniently enough situated that I go to the beach once or twice daily, to walk, run, cycle or drink coffee. It’s winter here so I’ve not yet been brave enough to try a cold, cold water swim. It never fails to take my breath away, that first sight of the vast ocean, the expanse of white sand, the waves breaking on the beach. Often (maybe thanks to remarks such as those of Rod Marsh), there are very few people there, though that will change on summer weekends.

Yesterday (a Saturday) I cycled about twenty kilometres along the seafront cycle path from home up to West Beach and back. Rod Marsh’s words came to mind. So I took a few pics to justify my incredulity.

Ain’t gahn ta the beach

Too much white sand ‘n breakers

Gi’us a beer instead

© text and images Mike Hopkins 2022

Hanson Haiku

When the chips are down

The fishwife comes to the fore

With a load of cod

—————–

For non-Australian readers, Pauline Hanson is a right-wing Australian politician, famous for her incoherent racist ramblings. Before entering politics as a Liberal (read Tory) party selection, she was the owner of a fish and chip shop in Queensland. She founded the One Nation party, which has gone through a number of manifestations. It has been a vehicle enabling her to grift a living out of the Australian electoral system, which reimburses any party that achieves 4+% of the first preference vote. She recently squeaked back into the Federal Senate. Amongst her attention seeking stunts is the wearing of a burqa into Parliament and most recently walking out during the acknowledgement of country (which acknowledges and pays respect to First Nations peoples as the Traditional Owners and ongoing custodians of the land).

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2022. Image courtesy SBS: https://tinyurl.com/26wp887b

On Retreat at Glenbarr

I spent the weekend (16-18th April 2021) on a meditation retreat held at a beautiful old homestead in Strathalbyn, about an hour’s drive from Adelaide. I’ve done several retreats over the last ten years or so, including a ten day Vipassana retreat in Battambang, Cambodia, and various 2-5 day retreats in South Australia. This one was run by Anna Markey, of Coast and City Sangha, at Glenbarr homestead. I met Anna before Covid when she and Ken Golding ran a climate change themed retreat in Victor Harbor. I liked her approach and sporadically attended her sessions in Adelaide until Covid forced a halt. Her approach is unlike others I’ve experienced, in that she does not recommend trying to avoid or ignore your thoughts during meditation — rather, she espouses recollective awareness, whereby you allow your thoughts to occur, and briefly journal them at the end of the meditation. In this way, over time, you become aware of your predominant patterns of thinking. The weekend was mostly spent in silence (apart from dharma related discussions), and without any electronic distractions. There were multiple meditations each day, mostly forty-five minutes long plus a short journaling session after each meditation.

I haven’t been writing much since the start of Covid, so this period of quiet isolation was an opportunity to get back to poetry of some kind, however basic. As part of my post meditation journaling I wrote a haiku-like (not all strictly haiku format) poem related to either the meditation or the discussion.

Glenbarr Homestead was built in 1842. It has a huge personality of its own, and is home to a range of very active wildlife. On the first evening, for instance, a bat came into the meditation hall and swooped over our heads for several minutes before being enticed outside by turning all the lights off except for an external lamp. A huge flock of correllas made regular flights over the property, and there were numerous unidentified animals to be heard running around and over the roof.




Meditation One:

what is the sound

of one bat flapping?


The Heritage Wall:

Its sounds are impervious

to our passing thoughts


Meditation Three:

The roof is alive

to the sound of footsteps


Even your own mug

can teach you a life lesson

about attachment


A meat-eater’s tee-shirt:

how can a vegan respond

in a skilful way?


Need a more Buddhist

response to the barking dog

than “Shut the Fuck Up”


Scott Morrison’s path

is less of The Middle Way

more The Muddle Way 


Sounds of the Sangha

Throat clearing, yawns and snoring

test my compassion


He was too far out

all his life, not sleeping

but meditating


The discussion group

wanders off the eightfold path,

falls over a cliff


St. Leonard Cohen

let me burn the fuel

of my agitation


May I witness the

causes and conditions

of my grumpiness


Each chattering thought

is like a corella’s squawk

saying “Look at me”


__________________________________
Copyright Mike Hopkins 2021

What did you do in the …?

Number 6 in the weekly poems written with the “Poetry in a time of Pestilence” group.

What did you do in the …?

A Golden Shovel using part of “Speech To The Young : Speech To The Progress-Toward” by Gwendolyn Brooks

 

We wrote for distraction and we’d say

“let’s meet for wine and gossip”, to

drink in words, to laugh at them

and to bless us, to crush sour grapes, to say

“another bottle”, to walk the city dark, to

find the last bar, the last resort, the

place for desperates and down-keepers,

to string out the night like Christmas lights, to coax the

right words, to praise the sun-slappers,

to empty ourselves and our souls, to overshare the

daily drama, berate the self-soilers,

the donkey-men, the lairs and pikers, to sift the

possibilities, drown out the harmony-hushers

decant our thoughts and Lord knows we even

hugged and held hands and danced, as if

that would be enough to save the world for you.

© Mike Hopkins 2020

In Which I Confess To Plagiarising Many Poems (PiatoP#5)

 

In Which I Confess To

Plagiarising Many Poems

Plagiarising Ross Sutherland

On my way home from the poetry reading,

I call into The Austral for a steadying drink

and marvel at the fact that I, Michael J Hopkins,

have not yet been exposed as a plagiarist.

 

Even though my bio states that I have been heavily influenced

by certain other poets, that I’ve read widely, that I may be channeling

Gertrude Stein and Kenneth Koch, that I attend séances

where my pen is possessed by the spirits of dead poets,

 

the critics still praise me as an original talent. In my early period

I would make at least some effort to cover my tracks. Lifting whole slabs

of works by obscure Canadian poets was my favourite gambit. Thankfully,

not many people have a copy of Best Manitoban Poetry 1997.

 

I just replaced snow with red dirt, Douglas firs

with Blue gums, grizzlies with kangaroos, Pierre Trudeau

with Paul Keating and was careful to remove

all references to Mounties. Over time I became bolder.

 

I incorporated well-known lines unchanged: I wandered lonely

Shall I compare thee …, It was the man from Ironbark …  But my audiences

smiled at my cleverness and applauded. These days I steal poems

wholesale. I can hardly be bothered to change the title. I won the T.S. Eliot

 

with a clone of The Waste Land, (opening line: August is the shittest month)

the Blake Prize with a knock-off of And did those feet in ancient time,

set to a mix of cockney rhyming slang and ocker (And ya reckon those plates back in the day…?),

the Montreal Prize with a sonnet commencing Shall I compare thee to a winter’s night?

 

My proudest achievement is putting a third-century Chinese classic through

Google Translate and publishing it as my own original homage to Tao Yuanming.

SQuadrant described it as poetry of ennui, shifting towards sustained

transcendental inclination. It’s great they can find jobs for these critics.

 

When people ask me to autograph books of my poetry, I sign

with someone else’s name: Keats, Collins, Armitage, even Heaney.

Think of a poet, I’ve copied them. But people don’t bother to read

the scrawled inscription: All their own work or the badly forged signature.

 

Ira Lightman will track me down eventually,

but I’ll transfer the prize money to the Cayman Islands and decamp

to a south-east Asian country where poetry is valued more than the poet who claims

to have written it and where they appreciate a genuine charlatan.

 


Er… © 2020 Mike Hopkins. Image from here

Listen to Ross Sutherland’s poem here

Crackertown (PiatoP#4)

 

No photo description available.

I’ve started, with a group of friends, writing a poem a week during these strange Covid-19 days. I’ll share mine here, regardless of quality. This is the fourth. 

Crackertown

I’m drinking in Crackertown

because teaching a class of bored, phone-fixated teenagers makes me thirsty

because riding home on my motorbike takes me through Crackertown

because Crackertown is full of cheap bars and cafes and reprobates, lots of reprobates

because of the waft of dope, the construction dust, the security guard who looks like my favourite uncle, the fairy lights around the doors

because the bar staff remember me from when I was here ten days ago and might be the only ones all week to ask “how are you?”

because of the brown-snouted, hairy-backed pig trotting from bar to bar, snuffling nuts dropped on the floor

because of the sense that something outrageous has just happened or is about to happen and I want to be there, to witness

because of the low purr of the fridge full of Saigon Specials and Hudas and the sound of the cash drawer clicking out and in and the shuffling of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese dong

because the fellow teacher, who is a dick, walks in and says “Got any spliff man”

because the bar owner went upstairs and got some

because his wife has the shortest shorts I’ve ever seen

because the amateur singers are really, really good

because I can Shazam the music all night

because the two wasted old expats, skinny as rakes, tattooed on every limb, are throwing roundhouse punches in the street but soon will be hugging each other like lovers

because not once in nine months have I ever seen police in the street but rats every night, rats as big as cats, dozens of them, and most weeks motorbike crashes at the crossroads and still no police

because of more old expat guys gazing through an alcohol haze at half-their-age Vietnamese girlfriends

because I meet N and G at Taco Ngon, just a shack by the side of the road, and we choose from the menu of only four types of taco and four types of sauce and beer at $1 a can which we help ourselves to from an ice-filled esky and line up the empties on the low table on the pavement to show how many we’ve drunk

because the waitress counts our empties and paper plates at the end of the night and pencils up a bill for us and on a quiet night the owner invites me to play some incomprehensible board game which I always lose

because everybody in Crackertown is waiting for something, even the pig and the rats and the security guard who looks like my uncle.

 

“Crackertown” is a name given to the area around the An Thuong streets near where I lived in Danang.

 


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2020 except photo from here

I Can’t Swear There Wasn’t Love (PiatoP#3)

 

This is the third of the weekly poems written during the Covid-19 social distancing. The prompt this week was to write a poem which might be entered into one of several competitions. The subjects included place, water, mysticism and love. I don’t write many (serious) love poems, so this is a rarity. Its also a Golden Shovel, a form invented by Terrance Hayes in tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. It takes lines from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem and uses each word as the last word in each line of the new poem. So if you read down the last word of my poem it will reveal part of the Brooks poem. And of course, the voice in the poem is not necessarily the voice of the poet.

I Can’t Swear There Wasn’t Love

(A Golden Shovel – using part of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story”)

We undressed

our childhood wounds and

bared the stripes whipped

into our skins and held out

our scarred wrists. I can’t swear there wasn’t love at the

start, or even in the middle. I confess to conjuring a light

in her eyes, to loving the lilt in her voice and

being charmed by the way we flowed

across the dancefloor. It turned into

love of a kind, a shared bed,

a sense of being different and

being outsiders as we lay

in a tight-knit town, clinging, loose-limbed

to each other, mistaking alliance for

something deeper. I took on a

co-star role, but could not sustain the moment

-um or remember my lines. Outcasts in

a city of priests and zealots, we scorned the

wafer-thin piety, the schizophrenic week-end

binges of alcohol and devotion. In the bright

light of Sunday, the mothball aroma of bedclothes

and best suits was suffocating then.

 


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2020 except image which is from here

 

 

What You Missed That Day You Were Absent From Meditation Class (PiatoP#2)

 

I’ve started, with a group of friends, writing a poem a week during these strange Covid-19 days. I’ll share mine here, regardless of quality. The second is a response to, or inspired by, or in parallel to the poem “What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade” by Brad Aaron Modlin here.

What You Missed That Day You Were Absent From Meditation Class

after Brad Aaron Modlin

Rinpoché explained how to breathe, to notice the space between inbreath and outbreath,

and how to locate the part of the mind that sends a shiver down your spine when listening

 

to Sibelius. He spoke of the wisdom of doing nothing and about waking in a panic at four

every morning. He suggested you think about who you were before you were somebody.

 

The morning dharma talk was about how combing your hair can be a meditation on loss

or even on grief. After a long sit in silence, he gave instruction on how to study a picture

 

of yourself as a child – to focus on the area around your eyes and forehead where you may see

your life compressed. There was a question and answer session on how to manage self-esteem

 

when ‘self’ and ‘esteem’ are delusions, and how to reorganise your mental filing cabinet

(hint: not alphabetically). This prompted him to draw a rough schematic of Shakespeare’s mind

 

at the time he was writing sonnets. The group discussed how not to scream when sending

loving kindness to world leaders and could the Buddha have been wrong about rage

 

being impermanent? Before sounding the gong, Rinpoché set the task for the coming week:

to find a good home for the people living rent-free in your head.

 


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2020 except image which is from here