Promotion

Promotion

For the second time this week the corpse of a possum hangs from the Stobie pole out the front of my house. I call the power company to come and take it down. The power man arrives with his cherry picker, rubber gloves, boots, ladder and overalls. He stands, looking up at the corpse suspended between pole and wire. “Second this week” I say. “He nearly made it”, he says, “just touched his tail on the wire, shorted himself out; still, only a possum eh?”.“Yeah”, I say, “only a possum on his way to run all over my bloody roof when I’m trying to sleep”. That night, a replacement possum stomps above my head at two a.m., promoted from the ranks to front line service.

 

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

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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

 

Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster – 1

tent of indigenous people

Image from National Library of Australia

I’ve just started an online course entitled “Whitman’s Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster“, through the University of Iowa. I haven’t read a lot of Walt Whitman – he wasn’t on the British school curriculum when I was a boy. And the course is not so much an in-depth study of Whitman, as an investigation into the ways in which we might create art, be it prose, poetry, photography, artwork around the subject of loss, death and disaster, using Whitman as an example. Whitman wrote extensively about the American Civil War and the earlier Mexican War.

Assignment one requires:

“In words or images, compose a response to a “rupture” in a particular history – an event that you think was a defining moment at a particular place, a moment when something seemed to break open or to be dramatically exposed, a moment of dramatic importance – and use a constraint to shape your response.”

I did some further research on massacres of the Australian indigenous population during white “settlement”, and came across descriptions of horrific events in South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, near the town of Elliston. This was 1839 / 1849, around the same time as Whitman wrote about the Mexican War.  The assignment required use of a constraint, such as a poetic form. For this I chose to model Section 34 of Whitman’s “The Song of Myself”.

 

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The Elliston Massacre

(after Walt Whitman)

Now I tell what I knew in Elliston in my early youth,

(I tell not the massacre of Appin,

Not one escaped to tell the deeds of Appin,

Fourteen and many more are dumb yet at Appin)

‘Tis the tale of the murder in cold blood of a hundred or more of Aboriginal men, women and children.

Rounded up by local farmers, angered by the disappearance of but four sheep.

Four sheep and the death of a hanging judge, was the price they took in advance.

The alleged sheep killers already hanged, further retribution was served on the tribe.

They were the Nauo people, who had lived on those lands for tens of thousands of years, subsisting, deeply connected to the spirit of the land.

Matchless trackers, skilled hunters of native animals.

Peaceful, proud people.

Strong, dark, drest in possum and kangaroo skin.

The morning after the hanging judges death, the policemen roused the farmers. On horseback they rode to the Nauo camp, herded all the Aboriginal men, women and children like they would herd cattle, and drove them off the high cliffs of Elliston. From babies to old men and women.

Any who tried to escape were cut down by whip, stick and gun. It was beautiful early summer.

The work commenced about seven o’clock and was over by ten.

None obey’d the command to submit for they knew they would be killed anyway.

Some made a mad and helpless rush over the cliff to their doom, some stood stark and straight and were driven over.

A few fell, shot in the back.

The maim’d and mangled were lifted and thrown to the rocks below.

Some half-kill’d attempted to crawl away. They too were despatched with bayonets or batter’d with the blunts of rifles.

A teenage girl and two small boys survived, by hiding in the saltbush. After the horsemen left, the children peered over the cliff edge but saw only battered bodies on the rocks one hundred and fifty feet below. And some further bodies rolling in the surf.

They set off on foot for Streaky Bay, and with them the tale of the massacre spread. The Aboriginal people they met were terrified, and immediately left, lest they too be massacred. They walked as far as Talewan, the Bight, Yardea, the Gawler Ranges and Ooldea. No Aboriginal person has lived in Elliston ever since.

The cliff is now known as Blackfellas Cliff.

I was one of those small boys, hiding in the saltbush.

That is the tale of the massacre of the Nauo people.

====

The constraint I used was to adopt Section 34 as the model, and superimpose on it details of two massacres of aboriginal people that occurred in South Australia in 1839 and 1849. The two South Australian massacres were remarkably similar, both involving the rounding up of Nauo people and driving them over a cliff. The above is not meant to be a historical record, but conflates details from both massacres. It is therefore a work of fiction, written as a ‘version’ of Section 34 and acknowledging Whitman’s work.

There are several sites with information about the Elliston Massacres, including here

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016

 

crime Lord

I went to see “Legend” yesterday, with my 19-year-old son. The film is about the notorious London East-End gangsters, the Kray twins, who ‘ran’ London in the 1960s.

I was aware of the Krays as a teenager in London, and read some fascinating books about them. Even on paper, you could sense their power, their charisma, and their downright evil.

The film does a good job of portraying these characteristics. Tom Hardy plays BOTH Krays, in an astonishing piece of acting. He even manages to make the twins look different, and projects the differences in their personalities: Reggie, the hard-nosed businessman who menaces more often than man-handles; Ronnie the psychopath for whom violence is often the first resort. The complexity of their relationship is well presented. It also shows the fear-based esteem in which they were held in their community. Nobody is completely evil (although Ronnie must have been close) are they? Perhaps the only criticism is that the role of their mother is downplayed, whereas in the books I’ve read, she was a dominant figure in their lives.

A few years ago, I wrote a prose poem loosely based on one of the Krays, although it could equally apply to any other gangland figure: the Richardsons for instance, who were the Krays’ rivals in London at the time. It alludes to the almost Christ-like status of such a gangster:

crime Lord

   Do you remember how nobody spoke when he came into the pub? And nobody dared look up in case they caught his eye. Every bloke in the place bowed the head when Reggie walked in. Almost genuflected. As if he was Christ Almighty. And how he would intone a low “evenin’ to you boys”. To which we would all respond in murmured unison “and to you Reggie”. And how he would sit at the bar with his back to us for an hour or more. And beckon anyone he wanted to commune with. To sit on his right hand side. To discuss whatever was troubling him. In low prayer like whispers. To sing his praises. To get his blessing. And how he followed Jack into the gents one night. There was a bit of shouting, a bit of sobbing as Jack confessed. Begged salvation. Then a lot of screaming, followed by silence. Except for the sound of taps running. And Reggie came out, but Jack didn’t. The barman offered up a whisky, which Reggie duly sank before leaving. Didn’t pay of course, never paid. And how I was the one went in to see about Jack. Found his body. And blood all over the walls. Do you remember? The place would never relax, even after Reggie left. Like some part of him was still present. Listening, watching over us, all-powerful. He’s dead now of course. Died, for his sins, in the nick thank God. And how a multitude turned out for the funeral. Not sure if it was in honour or for the salmon sandwiches afterwards. Or to say “good riddance”. But if it was “good riddance”, no one was saying it out loud. Afraid he might rise from the dead perhaps. They all bowed their heads like they did when he was alive. And nobody spoke. I remember that.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

Poem a Day 2015 #28 – Farewell

20150428_134606

Poem number 38 for April 2015. There was a dead possum on the pavement in front of my house this morning (above). I was reminded of a Gary Young prose poem.

Farewell

after Gary Young

A possum did not survive the night. It is stretched on the pavement, wide-eyed. Whatever fatal injuries it sustained are not visible. No red stain, no ripple of intestines. The musk lorikeets in the high branches of the lemon scented gum are excited, chorusing with the eastern rosellas and mynas lower down.  The elderly man across the road does his morning Parkinsonian walk around the front garden, glances towards the corpse, trembles back indoors. The postman on his Honda rumbles along the pavement, dispenses bills, circulars, welcome and unwelcome news, zigs around the possum, wafts exhaust fumes over the body. It’s autumn. The weather is cool. It will be days before the body ripens, stiffens, bloats. Bin collection is 4 days away. The Anzac day commemorations are gone. The Prime Minister farewelled three hundred troops bound for Iraq. A Basra reed warbler was sighted by a serviceman in the Mesopotamian Marshes.

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

Poem a Day 2015 #14 – Finding Music in Havana

Poem number 14 for April 2015. And another snippet from my Cuba journal:

The Music of Havana

Tuesday 28th June 2005

I want to hear some live Cuban music. After dinner I walk down to the Malecon to catch a scooter-taxi. The taxi driver is the biggest and blackest man I’ve ever seen, with the whitest teeth I’ve ever seen – they almost glow as night draws in. He quotes $5 to take me to Habana Vieja (Old Havana). He is loud and humorous and friendly, like most Cubans. He tells me “you need to find a woman. You haven’t lived until you have fucked a Cuban woman”. I tell him I am married. He says so is he, but it makes no difference. I say “no thanks”. He laughs and points out a few of the “chicas” as he speeds along the Malecon, looking more at me than at the road. I ask him where to find the best music. He recommends La Bodegita del Medio and drops me nearby. This area of Havana is well preserved: cobbled streets, no traffic, it could be an old part of Madrid or Barcelona. The Bodegita is a small, cramped, L-shaped bar with wooden partitions to the street. There is indeed a good band playing, nestled in the corner, backs to the street, guitar, double bass, maracas, drums and all of them singing intricate harmonies. The maraca player occasionally bangs his maracas on the partition. It the best I’ve heard so far, but the place is a bit touristy, and the beers are tourist prices i.e. $3 for a beer compared to the usual $1. After two or three songs, the guitarist passes around the hat and pushes their CD. I buy one for $10. I walk about 100 metres and hear another band. A more down-market but bigger bar. Ceiling fans, waitresses, cigar smoke. The band are OK. A female flautist does a dance routine with the male lead singer. I walk for another ten minutes and come to the Bar Monserrate. The band here really cooks: saxophone, electric piano, drums, guitar, vocals. The sax player is a virtuoso, sprinkling references to Gershwin in his solos. I wander further, past a derelict, partly demolished building in which chairs have been set up and there is an improvised bar in the corner, and a small stage. The band on the stage look and sound like the Buena Vista Social Club. Great vocals. But the rain starts, and it gets so heavy that they call the gig off. I get a scooter-taxi back to Vedado. A different driver. Not a good-time guy, a serious guy. No talk of Cuban women, but of Fidel and Chavez and a big deal they are pulling off.

 

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

Poem a Day 2015 #13 – On my way to meet Fat Mary the Prostitute

Poem number 13 for April 2015. Another snippet from my Cuba journal:

On my way to meet Fat Mary the Prostitute

18th June 2005

I’m cycling on the Guanahacabibes Peninsula, to the westernmost point of Cuba to see Fat Mary the Prostitute. She’s not there anymore, but the town of Maria La Gorda is named after her. Maria was an aboriginal Venezuelan woman, cast aside by pirates once they had tired of her. When the pirates departed, she set up an “inn” where she made a living by entertaining sailors and locals, and grew fat on the proceeds. The inn is now a Cuban hotel. Cuban hotels are almost all terrible, but there’s nowhere else to stay at Maria la Gorda. Once I’m on the peninsula, the landscape changes from small farms to thick scrub, which is high enough to cast much-needed shade over the quiet road. Clouds of white and yellow butterflies rise up in front of my bicycle. Thousands of small red crabs scuttle sideways across the road. A vulture flies along the crest of the road in front of me for a few hundred metres after I disturb it from its road kill. I stop by the roadside about 11:30 for an early lunch. 44 kilometres covered. A hundred mosquitoes descend on me, but obligingly disperse when I wave my arms frantically. My backside is sore. I adjust the height of the saddle and get back on the road. At 52 kilometres I reach the sea at Bajada. I was told there was high security here because of the fear of U.S. invasion and the sparse population along the coast. There’s a boom gate across the road. The guard is asleep in his hut. I stop obediently but it seems a shame to wake him. I cycle around the boom gate. The last 14 kilometres is alongside white sandy beaches. The road gets rougher. It’s completely washed away in places. It’s covered in white debris – what looks like a mixture of sand and marble. I’m wearing an old long-sleeved business shirt I bought in a shop in Vinales for 33 Cuban Pesos (about $2). I didn’t know it was old until I unwrapped it and saw the soiled collar, but for $2 it was still a bargain. The long sleeves and high collar will give me some protection from the Cuban sun. To try to stay cool I have unbuttoned the shirt all the way down the front. Despite my downward facing position on the bike, I find that my stomach and chest are turning lobster red from sunburn; the sun’s reflection off the white road. I reach the hotel at Maria La Gorda. I haven’t booked, so if it’s full I either sleep out in the open (not a good idea) or turn around and head 70 kilometres back to Sandino (impossible, I’m exhausted). The Señorita at receptions says “Si”, they have a room. She is not fat. Her name is not Mary.

 

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

Poem a Day 2015 #10 – The Woman in the Basement

Poem number 10 for April 2015. I’ve been reading up on prose poems in preparation for a poetry group meeting this weekend. I haven’t written one for a while. This one came to me today, again from a childhood memory.

The Woman in the Basement

The woman in the basement scared me. I mean really scared me. Mrs. Chivers her name was. She always wore a hairnet, and one of those dustcoat aprons, floral and greasy. A widow. I didn’t really know what a widow was, but it sounded bad. And a fag always hanging out the corner of her mouth, a half inch of ash ever poised to drop. Not that she ever said or did anything scary as such. Except to look. It was her look mostly. Every time she saw me, she’d look at me that way. At the front of the house, the concrete yard where I pedalled my trike, was level with the top of her front window. She had net curtains. I couldn’t see her behind the net curtains, but I could sense her there; almost see her silhouette. And she was watching me. I was a quiet boy, so it’s not as if I was disturbing her. But I knew she was there, and I felt her resentment. There was a staircase going down from our kitchen to her basement flat. It had a door, which locked from her side. One of those doors with two oblong panes of frosted glass in the top half. I wanted us to put a lock on our side too. The way it was, she could keep us out, but we couldn’t keep her out. I lay awake at night, worrying that she was coming up that staircase, unsnibbing the lock and entering our world; that she was footpadding around, looking into our drawers, inspecting our larder, stealing our jam, helping herself to a cup of tea, and putting her feet up to smoke my Dad’s fags. I had regular nightmares. Nightmares of being drawn by some invisible force, towards that door at the top of her stairs; of the door being opened from the inside by an unseen hand; of the dark stairs leading down to her basement; of the dark outline of her waiting at the bottom of the stairs; only in my nightmare she had the head of a dog or wolf; of being unable to scream; of being dragged by that invisible force down, and down the stairs. I’d wake, screaming real screams. Next morning, I’d inspect the kitchen for signs of her: a dirty cup, a scattering of fag ash. I’d check if the door to the basement was still locked, and sometimes I could see her right there, behind the door, listening.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

Cuba Journal – The Casablanca Ferry

Saturday 11th June 2005

Queuing along a shadowy passageway leading down to the local ferry from Havana to Casablanca and Cojimar. My bike worth ten years wages to the Cubans pressed in around me. It’s claustrophobic. It’s humid. My paranoia is mounting. The queue shuffles forward. Even the locals are sweating.

One hand on my wallet. My thoughts of a stiletto knife and the ease with which one could be slipped between my ribs. My eyes drawn to the dark gap between ferry and quay, tailor made for a tourist’s body. My attention sought by a ragged man and his ragged wife in front of me. They are staring at my wallet and the Convertible Pesos * folded inside it. He gesticulates to me and then to his wife. She looks too old, surely, to be a prostitute, though she is probably younger than me.

I don’t understand his gap toothed Spanish. Can vaguely interprete “too much, too much”. Too much what? I have too much money for one person in a socialist country? I have too many possessions and those around me have too few?  I tighten my grip on my bike, push my wallet deeper into my pocket, keep edging forward towards the rough looking, swarthy Cuban collecting fares on the gangplank. The old man is getting more and more agitated, keeps pointing to his wife and to me. At last she reaches into her purse, pulls out 40 centavos, local currency, the ferry fare; gives it to me, to save me using a whole convertible peso, for which I would receive no change.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

* Cuba operates dual currencies: Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC$) are for tourist use, pegged to the US dollar and must be used to pay for accommodation and anywhere that tourists might shop – bars, restaurants, supermarkets,tourist buses. Local pesos are used day to day by Cubans, are only accepted in the local shops, street stalls, local transport etc. A CUC$ is worth about 25 times a local peso. Each peso is made up of 100 centavos. So the ferry fare of 40 centavos is about 1/60th of CUC$1

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2014