In the Midst of Bushfires
Outside, the sun
the smoke-pink sky
is a ten watt pearlescent globe.
Despite my glasses
and the energy-saving
portholes of halogen in the ceiling
it’s hard to make out small print.
What I need is in your office,
the non eco-friendly
garage-sale desk lamp
with its starburst inside
the black Da Vinci Code monk’s hood.
On dull days you read by it
(when reading was something
you were able to do).
It fluttered and spat ouija divinations
across the chipboard planks
of your horizontal ark.
(The most beloved books queued up there
two by two, in case one was lost
or loaned and never given back).
Stepping into that room I smell
the not-quite lapsed Catholic in you
in the ash of pyrethrum fumes
from mosquito coils you burned constantly.
And I wonder yet again if it was sublimation
for the swinging thuribles of incense
from your childhood’s High Mass.
I close the door, the desk lamp dangling
in one hand, and in my nose
the ghosts of reward and punishment
smouldering on their Archimedean spiral.
At least dementia has singed off
the last remnants of your religious guilt.
And I have become the reluctant keeper
of your conscience and your books
which were much the same thing.
Some days I’d like to take
those twinned titles
down to the river and drown them
for their collective wisdoms
refusing to save the mind
of their Noah.
Other days I would apply a match
to this house and everything in it.
But not this summer
when far too many people already
stand in the charred ruins
of what is left of their lives, wondering
what obeisance they failed to observe.
What preparation could have made
Impossible to tell from your empty stare what you're thinking.
Your fingers are busy on your lap, knitting and unknitting air
as though vaguely aware of your old skill with sailor knots.
A dozen remote-control catamarans race on the foggy lake
10 metres in front of us. They zigzag around
an orange buoy the size of a tennis ball.
Tacking seems the wrong word for what they do.
There are no temporary stitches unless you count the lake's
many tongues lapping at its wounds to heal them
after the hulls have incised the surface.
The owners of the fleet (all men) stand on shore, controllers
in hand, leaning in the direction they want their craft to go.
This old impulse has a name, echo-phenomena:
half wish fulfillment, half hypnosis.
Or in our case, my love, fully habit, as we have lived
so long together our gestures waltz in mimicry.
At least that’s the way it used to be.
Now you sit on the bench two inches from me
unreadable as an MRI of space.
All I know is what I do, call on the skin-memory in you.
That as-yet un-mauled part that recalls
the many times we lay together length to length
unable to identify seams between us let alone unpick them.
I put my arm around your shoulders and after a lag of five
seconds or so, Dementia lifts enough to allow
the person who once adored me to briefly surface.
An hour later it’s time to go. The race is over.
The fog dispersing. I automatically slow my walk
to your shuffle. Twilight’s spears aim low in the trees.
The diminutive catamarans have all been dried off
and packed away in the little coffins of their boxes.
Headlights of leaving cars hiccough
on the bumpy track to the main road.
Someone laughs behind us and we turn.
Once our eyes would have smiled in sync
over the good-natured joke unfolding near the water's edge.
And afterwards, we’d have gone home
to make love then talk about
the ingenuity of men and their toys.
And I’d tell you my favourite part was near the end
when we were walking to the car, heard a laugh
and turned to see the winner of the race on his
makeshift podium of a milk crate, his thumb
over the opening of a piccolo of champagne.
The way this accountant, plumber, funeral director by weekday
tongue-in-cheek, shook up then fizzed the lightness
of a moment's bubbles over the grass at his feet.
And we’d speculate why the big brains of humans
might down their serious tools long enough
to invent more childlike ways to play.
And you’d go all Oliver Sacks on me
explaining which chemicals are released
what neurons light up when we’re having fun.
But I’d only be half listening, thinking instead
a series of tiny effervescent joys
could leaven the heart, to bear the sorrow
that might descend on any one of our lives.