Suburban Archaeology

28 October 2013

Living on a stable plate
while others tumble into the sea
you would think that maybe
we’re special
or chosen
to stay alive while everyone else
is swallowed by the sea.
Or maybe
because we’re so brand new
freshly shorn marines
we’re not quite ready to see the seams
of the earth
split open like a mouth.

And in this strange
cookie-cutter of a country
where waves flick like some girl’s hair,
clouds scuff against a faded denim sky
the night’s LCD ticker tape of highways,
there are only wells,
holes that shriek,
baths being drained.

Sometimes
you see them slowing down
drifting across a four-lane highway,
careening cats’ eyes.
The sky yellow and piss-coloured
spits warm into the bay.
Swimmers freestyle between buoys
and their goggles glint
as the sun sinks behind smokestacks
and empty apartment blocks
with the lights left on
by real estate agents.

You can hear the blink of ships
slipping under the Westgate bridge,
the soft plonk of fishing lines,
tinny rambling of AM radio.
There’s the clicking and cracking
of the magnet factory
as silver discs spill towards each other
across the Williamstown warehouse.

Dreams here are black,
except for the solitary flashlight
of abalone poachers.

And at night, lumps grow.

They grow up
out of the local football field
that used to be landfill,
a suburban grand canyon.
The under 18’s have to dig out car wrecks
that rise to the surface between seasons,
old Holdens bulging beneath the pitch.
In the cancer ward at Geelong’s Mercy,
women wait like oysters to be shucked,
hands over their breasts
feeling for pearls.

We drive through Little River,
past the toilet block where my grandma
once found a finger,
a small bloodied pinkie,
black hair on its knuckle.
She stood there
next to the pinkie
and strewn paper towels,
waiting for the police.

*

I run.
I never jog.

I fill the days with cups of tea,
checking on my laundry across the road
and visiting the painter downstairs
who does canvases for Ikea
to match lounge settings.
It’s all about safe colours, he says,
mulberry, chocolate brown and cream.
The post-September 11 palette,
he says the Swedes call it.

I read the newspaper.
A frat boy is found dead
post-initiation night,
his throat clogged with Hawaiian pizza.
They say his body was covered in thick black texta,
I take it up the arse
nigger lover
I suck cock
eat shit and cum.

The ink sunk in the rigor mortis
and the parents had to bury him like that,
covered in the haiku of a fucked-up generation.

I can’t stop thinking of the girl on the news
who called out of my clock radio
at exactly 7am
– I’m drowning –
when she was being raped
in her basement.

*

When I met him,
his leather bat-winged jacket flapping,
smoking hurried cigarettes,
ghosts coming out of his mouth,
I knew I was going to take to him
like lightning to a lake.

He said, striking a match,
that before matches were red, they were yellow.
The factory workers in London used to glow
because the phosphorus got into their hands and faces.
People watched them coming home,
these human lanterns in the night.

For an entire week he stood on a chair,
neck bent like Michaelangelo’s
mapping out the southern hemisphere
with 38 packets of glow-in-the-dark stars.
He copied everything straight from a map
except for the Milky Way.
That, he said, as we camped out in my one-bedroom flat,
he had traced from the freckles spilt across my nose.

While I slept, he worked.
Zooming in on strange pixelations,
wispy formations.
A police scanner alerted him to sites of homicides and suicides –
and he marked each ghost on a map of Victoria,
meticulously collecting life’s leftovers,
installing web cams
across the state and beyond,
trying to catch the rah-rah skirts of the dead.

In the dark
my hands would scramble towards him,
spiders across the sheets.
Sometimes he would take me
half-in half-out of sleep and
I would come with a film of moon
over my eyes.
In between bulbs
we ignited like headlights on the horizon
and in my bones
I could feel a deep dragging
as if something were pulling me under.

A jogger –
it’s always the joggers that find them, he says.
Clutching their ipods,
housekey on a bit of string.
They find the night’s bodies,
creaking in mottled light under bridges,
pink bloated pendulums.
Piss running down their legs
onto concrete footpaths
inscribed with teenage love affairs,
dreams coaxed to the surface.

Sometimes
the joggers note the small
squeezebox
of a heart.
A little bit of night
dragged into the day
like a cat with
blood on its whiskers.

Out the window
I watch as the owner
of the Laundromat
pushes each machine back
against the wall
after they spent the whole night
shuffling
forward on spin.

*

In summer the flat is too hot.
The stickers on the ceiling peel off.
He laughs and says
Falling Stars.

In just a T-shirt I can see
on his arms the tattoos
he had done with another girl.
Faded mistakes, I can still see them
under his new artwork,
lingering in the way
only an ex can do.

I’m gangly around his ghosts.
Arms thick and legs pylons.
Boobs like water balloons.
I close my eyes and breath our way out of the city,
past the vegemite factory,
car rattling, an old Luna Park ride
up over the Westgate bridge.
The Vicks distillery, the treated pine yards
and treated shit farm.
We pass the toilet block
where granny found the finger.

I can smell this place.
The secret blimps in the sky,
the paused kangaroos,
ink in my fingers.

Perhaps this country’s faultlines
are not so big and obvious like San Francisco’s cracks,
or shuddering like the earthquakes of Indonesia.
Maybe at the bottom of all the seas,
this place where letters land,
we are just a yellow canary
blowing out underground
eyes like poppyseeds.

Wrestling a jammed cassette
out of the player, I unravel the shiny tape.
Black streamers catch on the fingers of ti-trees.
Tomorrow the crows will line their nests
with Jimmy Little.

He slows near the salt marsh
where mum and me used to wade barefoot,
the cuts on our feet stinging
scooping up the salt in empty jam jars.
The egrets, those miniature storks,
would walk curiously alongside us,
poking their beaks into
the muddy holes
our feet left behind.

Once,
we watched a fashion shoot
on the bulldozed mounds of salt
Models in ski goggles, puffy jumpsuits and beanies,
crouched on skis.
Men managed the light with foil reflectors
and the models stared
straight ahead
down a dirt road,
an imaginary Black Spur
where the last length of power line
lit up an abandoned soap factory.
Where his most prized
webcam is on the blink.

Inside
I wait for him
beside an open container of rose-scented soap,
while he leaves footprints
on the dusty concrete floor and
hunts for ghosts
that stink
like potpourri.


This poem first appeared in Griffith Review, Autumn 2007

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