Poems From Glasshouses
(Stuart Barnes/Leigh Backhouse)

Posted on July 18, 2017 by in Book Extracts, Heightened Talk

Untitled, 2016, by Leigh Backhouse

ENDONE® Oxycodone hydrochloride 5 mg

Blister-white tablet engraved with ‘ENDONE’
on one side, break bar the other.
It does not take the place of your doctor
or pharmacist: opium or morphine:
Accident or Emergency.

Store it below ground, above ground, in
an unlocked cupboard. Store it in the bathroom,
store it near the sink. Leave it on every
window sill, leave it in the car. Swallow
it before meals with a glass of nausea.

Do not show your pupils, abnormal,
do not show your restlessness, do not show your goose
-flesh, do not show your fast heart rate, do not show your new
-born child to a doctor or pharmacist.


Port Curtis Road’s End

The inability to weep furrows the
pit of my gut like a plough. I, a bull’s-eye,
Port Curtis Road’s end. Why won’t you return my
calls. Cows gawk. Wind scallops algae-

green water, grass and fingers. Pop … Pop … Fish?
My heart, too, is scalloped. The A1, a crane
pirouettes. The iPhone pumps Let England Shake.
I scratch at a plump mosquito bite, inner

right knee. My mind pumps also: Why won’t you re-
turn my calls, return my calls, ret
Ducks startle, zip the river as though a dredge
were suctioning their webbing. Heehaw. Heehaw.

Hush. Hush. I marvel at my indifference.
I also gawk, at the cows’ simplicity.


I turn to a gathering murmuration.
Starlings dip below this bridge then boomerang,
passing over easy meat, to Uluru-
shrewd Mount Archer. Dead white gums. Tonight you’ll wail

Your neck’s burnt, yet proffer no aloe. Bottle-
green shards, hectares and farmhouses. Shadows
crane from left to right, lengthen: I gabble O’s,
sculpture a hedge of tiny white stones: Oxy-

codone: bulging disc: God, I’d kill for a drink.
Something larger’s taken to the air: a rap-
tor, black against unmoving clouds. A foolscap
saccule swishes: Thoroughbred horsehair: a syn-

chronization: Grey Goose, Raven Ale, Wild Turkey. I
narrow blinders: tropical boondocks widen.


Black Cockatoos

after David Brooks

tailed Bedouins
of Poetry, black
cockatoos embroider
the sun into us,
seam-rip it asunder.


On the Fitzroy’s
bank at midday,
cracking seeds of eucalypts
that outrank Council, a hundred
Banksian black cockatoos,
a paroxysm of commas.


With their subtler
ions, the females infinitely
more beautiful
than the ludic-
rously coloured gatherers.


The gospel according to the locals:
‘Four black cockatoos
kreeing seawards
means four days of rain’
(burkesbackyard.com.au confirms it).
I am not a God-fearing man.


Should black cockatoos
that theirs are the colours of life?
Indefatigable black
and needlepointed into this
starry orange and yellow.


black cockatoos
long-lived as man
neglectful beneath the same
white sun, its ROYGBIV illusion
destroyed by the tiniest prism.



Their delicate armies sway
   the ambiguities of space.
Feel in your hands, before you play,

trembling in warmth, and rising,
the agitation of the strings.
It would be comforting to sing

      to the solid mercy of water.
Grasshoppers click and whirr.
      I am high on acid rock, on wandering glitter.

I feel your pulsebeat through my fingertips.
Look, where the grass grows more intense:
grows luminous in distance,

shaping my lips. I lie
      among dazzling visions, lying
to the fine edge of clarity:

The season for philosophy draws on.
Sparrows flock to my pond.
Verses flow in a never-ending torrent.

Death has no features of his own.
Music’s much more than flesh and bone.
What’s all this but the language of illusion?


These poems are excerpted from Stuart Barnes’ award winning collection Glasshouses (UQP).

Note: ‘ENDONE® Oxycodone hydrochloride 5 mg’ is a remix of ENDONE® oxycodone hydrochloride CMI

‘Matrimonies’ is a cento from Gwen Harwood’s ‘Reed Voices’, ‘The Wasps’, ‘A Music Lesson’, ‘Songs of Eve I’, ‘Moonlight’, ‘An Old Graveyard’, ‘Looking towards Bruny’, ‘Carnal Knowledge II’, ‘Mappings of the Plane’, ‘Night Thoughts: Baby & Demon’, ‘Oyster Cove Pastorals’, ‘Shellgrit’, ‘Dust to Dust’, ‘Night Flight’, ‘Littoral’, ‘Thoughts before Sunrise’, ‘Three Poems for Margaret Diesendorf’, ‘A Public Place’, ‘Death Has No Features of His Own’, ‘A Music Lesson’, ‘After a Dream’


Photo: Leigh Backhouse

was born in Hobart, Tasmania, and educated at Monash University, Victoria. His first poetry collection Glasshouses (UQP, 2016) won the 2015 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Prize, was commended for the 2016 FAW Anne Elder Award, and was shortlisted for the 2017 ASAL Mary Gilmore Award. Stuart‘s learning Catalan and translating Imma Tubella’s Un secret de l’Empordà into English. Since 2013 he has lived in Central Queensland and been poetry editor for Tincture Journal. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter.


Leigh Backhouse is a photographer and can be contacted on Twitter.





SHAPING THE FRACTURED SELF (editor: Heather Taylor Johnson)

Posted on June 6, 2017 by in Book Extracts, Heightened Talk

(Anne M Carson)

‘There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen

If I was ceramic I’d be kintsukuroi,
pottery which has been knocked,
dropped, broken into shards then
mended with gold or silver lacquer,
a delicate meander of liquid gold
flowing into the breach. Kintsukuroi
the word a whole world, evoking
the kind of place where mending
is valued more than the break,
where old is treasured more than
new, where putting things back
together is an art form, things more
beautiful for having been broken.


(Andy Jackson)

‘I would be giving in to a myth of sameness which I think can destroy us.’
– Audre Lorde

sometimes I wake into a quiet sadness
blood pooling in my mouth
bones on fire – this is the worst
and best thing that has ever happened to me

one morning I couldn’t walk
the white coats
gave me a chair – I became an adult
while they tried to work it out
the closest was marfanoid habitus
’til a sudden knife in the chest
gave me enough points for the full diagnosis
hearing it, I felt sick

I have mitral valve prolapse, regurgitation
multiple pulmonary nodules
I get short of breath and produce
excessive mucous (clearly I’m very attractive)
my joints are hypermobile
and dislocate (they go out more than I do)
I’m the walking rubber-band

comments and names at school
don’t cross your legs, you look disgusting
spider-woman, anorexic slut
other things I can’t write

doctors accused my parents of abuse
threatened me with feeding tubes
ironic, it was only all this pointing at my bones
that gave me an eating disorder

since I joined Chronic Illness Peer Support
they can’t shut me up
we go on camps, socials, talk about whatever we need to
I meet the most incredible people
and call them my friends
(my dog helps me enormously with my grief)

I’m so motivated people find me exhausting
started studying nursing
but they told me I was too unwell
cried so hard I broke a rib – now it’s psych

I haemorrhaged every day for eighteen months
clots bigger than my hand
doubled over in pain until I passed out
I think about my future a lot
imagine a husband, two golden retrievers
a blue house by the beach, veggie patch
all the people I will help
life is extraordinary and so are you

now look at this photo and tell me
you still want sameness


(Stuart Barnes)

after Gwen Harwood

I know them by their lips. I know the proverb
about immediacy. Many slip
and shatter on sheer concrete, the older, the glass.
They held the common cold in hieratic,

are octopus-suckers. I imagine them
thus, lying facedown on acupuncture tables.
I apprehend firebirds. Their fearsome vacuum
surfaces disturbance. Flying saucers

might inscribe similar discs of stillness
in cereal: formations of purple, rose:
thirteen moons, an earth, a sun in syzygy.
They order qi, are venerable remedy.

They never play hard to get. Foul deed, foul day they aren’t.
All bell, no whistle. Anti-insurrection.
A trance in sudsy buckets; rinsed, their lips
await others’ blue skin. Love, their love is blind.


What lies beneath my skin
(Rachael Mead) 

The ringing phone ratchets me into tension.
It is everything and nothing,
filling the place poetry used to be.
Management only works in practice
and right now I’m all about theory.
The circling around guilt’s drain.
The awareness of performance
– the inability to stop. The anger.
Everything turned inward.
I prefer silence and when I talk
it’s all repetition. I let the phone ring.

Fear of death drops away like a silk
dress slipping from its hanger. The
knife rack, the rafters are pregnant with
possibility. I know what to do.
Walk the dog. Sometimes, this is all.
The gum trees raise their lacy fists, a
level of defiance I find impossible.
The glitter of creek water,
the black field of stars.
I put myself in the path of wildness and
let it fill my long and hollow bones.


Her arms and legs are thin
(Fiona Wright)

for Pip Smith (and after T. S. Eliot)

Do I dare
Disturb the universe? Do I dare to eat a peach?
When I can’t see what remains
and in short, I am afraid
and I cannot know what stands within my reach;
and there is time yet for a hundred indecisions
and a hundred visions and revisions, every time
before the taking of a toast and cup of tea.

I sit in sawdust restaurants of insidious intent
and there is time yet for a hundred indecisions. I wait.
My glass hands lift and drop a question on my plate:
do I dare to eat a steak, the squid, a peach?
Have I the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
(And they say ‘But how her arms and legs are thin!’)
I lick my tongue instead into the corners of the evening.

In short, I am afraid. And though I have wept and fasted
(And they say ‘But how her arms and legs are thin!’)
Although I’ve measured out my life, checked every whim,
They try to fix me in a formulated phrase
and I don’t dare see what remains –
I’ve simply bitten off the matter with a smile.
(I know it never can be worth it, after all.)

And this is not what I meant
not it at all.

How can I spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways,
how can I dare to eat a peach
when I know I am no prophet?
They say ‘But how her arms and legs are thin!’
They say I’ll learn the moment of my greatness.
They try to fix me with a formulated phrase.
They say it could have all been worth it
but this is not what I meant.

This was never what I meant.
This is not it, not it at all.


Ten Things I Love to Hate About You
(Beth Spencer)

1.   Someone once described it as like walking across a room in the dark and no matter       which direction you go a board flies up and hits you in the face.

2.   Noticing, gradually – from the subtle clues amongst the cheery posts and triumphs        – the number of people in my Facebook feed who are living with a hidden illness.

3.  A change of government and the social terrain shifts; suddenly feeling like a        criminal again.

4.  The grief for all that never was. All the books, the friendships and loves, all the     children and grandchildren. All the students. All the clients. All the travels and        adventures. (Scaling inner mountains instead.)

5.   The exhilaration that rises with hope from a new theory or treatment or diagnostic      piece of the puzzle. And then under the surface (forged by too often), bracing for        the crash.

6.  Writing lists of how things have improved, to remind myself. (Because it’s        necessary. The reminding. And it has. In a way.)

7.  Writing lists of strategies and actions for the bad days when it’s hard to even      remember (or move) to consult such lists. But then I do. And that search for the       small obscure window, pushing against and through (don’t cut yourself), and then        finding the next little window, and the next.

8.   Salvaging a long difficult day spent prostrate by writing one not-great but not-awful       poem just before midnight. (Yay.)

9.  Imagining the events and parties and gatherings looked forward to with joy (but      then not up to going) laid out end to end in one long glorious summer of love. A        beautiful able-bodied parallel world.

10.  Learning (and unlearning and learning again) to embrace the space I be. Because      maybe, in the constellation of the universe, every misshapen star, every strange       permutation, is desired by life itself to be experienced and added to the mix. The      force of everything demanding everything. Even this. Learning and unlearning,      and learning it again, and again. (And again.) Until the star becomes the centre        (and shines).


On the eternal nature of fresh beginnings
(Peter Boyle)

This body next to you, said the German expert on design, is your ideal self – what you climbed out of once and have since forgotten about. Like gills and dialogues with rainbows, like your life as a ruminant quadruped, it has been erased from your waking story. When the time is right you will step inside it and it will transport you. Do not look at the claws that dangle from its withered right arm – consider only its wings. Say to yourself the word ‘Perfection’. Be confident. All the stars of the universe were placed millennia ago far inside you.


Of course not all great art has its genesis in pain, and not all pain – not even a fraction – leads to the partial consolations of art. But if lancing an abscess is the surest way to healing, can poetry offer that same cleansing of emotional wounds? Shaping the Fractured Self showcases twenty-eight of Australia’s finest poets who happen to live with chronic illness and pain. The autobiographical short essays, in conjunction with the three poems from each of the poets, capture the body in trauma in its many and varied moods. Because those who live with chronic illness and pain experience shifts in their relationship to it on a yearly, monthly or daily basis, so do the words they use to describe it. Shaping the Fractured Self is available from UWAP. Poets will be reading from the book next Tuesday, 13 June at Sappho in Glebe. 

Heather Taylor Johnson is the editor of the anthology Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain (UWAP, 2017). She moved from the US to Australia in 1999 to begin a post graduate degree in Creative Writing. She received a PhD from the University of Adelaide and, while doing so, found a husband and had three children. Her first novel was Pursuing Love and Death (HarperCollins 2013) and her second is Jean Harley Was Here (UQP 2017). Her fourth book of poetry is Meanwhile, the Oak (Five Islands Press, 2016). She’s been writing reviews of poetry and fiction for various literary magazines for more than a decade and regularly reviews film for InDaily. She was the poetry editor for Wet Ink during the term of its publication and is currently the poetry editor for Transnational Literature. She’s co-edited two anthologies but Shaping the Fractured Self is her first solo effort.

Heather has lived with Meniere’s disease for almost half of her life and finds the illness keeps making its way into her writing. Having given a paper at Oxford on poetry-as-illness-narrative and having expanded her thesis to include lyric essays and novellas – the stuff of her current work-in-progress and something she will speak about at the NonfictioNow conference in Reykjavik – Heather is a passionate proponent of illness narrative.

Olive (Stuart Barnes)

Posted on December 28, 2013 by in Heightened Talk

Olive (Stuart Barnes)

IsadoraO love, how did you get here?
O embryo
Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
I didn’t call you.
I didn’t call you at all.
Love, love, the low smokes roll
From me like Isadora’s scarves, I’m in a fright
One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel.
Nevertheless, nevertheless
Love, love,
I have hung our cave with roses,
With soft rugs—
The last of Victoriana.
Five balls! Five bright brass balls!
To juggle with, my love, when the sky falls.
Love, the world
Suddenly turns, turns color. The streetlight
And I love your stupidity,
The blind mirror of it. I look in
O love, O celibate.
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
Love, love, my season.
A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for


† This poem is a cento; sources: Sylvia Plath’s ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, ‘Medusa’, ‘Fever 103º’, ‘By Candlelight’, ‘Letter in November’, ‘For a Fatherless Son’, ‘Morning Song’, ‘The Couriers’, ‘Poppies in October’

Elementals (Stuart Barnes)

Posted on November 16, 2013 by in Heightened Talk

Elementals (Stuart Barnes)

Bridge 3

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers—

Two. Of course there are two.

First, are you our sort of person?

The word of a snail on the plate of a leaf?

What was she doing when it blew in


What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful?

The courage of the shut mouth, in spite of artillery!

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.

My night sweats grease his breakfast plate.

Empty, I echo to the least footfall,


I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:

The abstracts hover like dull angels:

Stasis in darkness.

A secret! A secret!

I ordered this, this clean wood box


What a thrill—

Bare-handed, I hand the combs.

Clownlike, happiest on your hands,

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.

Love, the world

A squeal of brakes.

Viciousness in the kitchen!

This is the sea, then, this great abeyance.

Off that landspit of stony mouth-plugs,

Over your body the clouds go

Pure? What does it mean?

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.

Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.

Somebody is shooting at something in our town—

It was a place of force—


A smile fell in the grass.

O half moon—


If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.

You come in late, wiping your lips.


No use, no use, now, begging Recognize.

I am a miner. The light burns blue.

How far is it?

I have done it again.

You do not do, you do not do


This is the easy time, there is nothing doing.




(This poem is a cento; source:
Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and other poems – The Restored Edition, 2004)

Mykonos (Stuart Barnes)

Posted on October 12, 2013 by in Heightened Talk

Mykonos (Stuart Barnes)

Flats 2

after Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lesbos’



In that block

Of flats. From six

A.M. you’d modernise.


I’d hammer, call you Sookie, sook.

So scared to relish bareback.

Designer duds rook



O tiny, spineless cocklebur.

O Cancerman. O castrate.

Only with Dutch

Courage you confronted—only once.


O pearl, you always knew just who I hated.

I amputated you, O saboteur.

Former Child Star (Stuart Barnes)

Posted on September 21, 2013 by in Heightened Talk

Former Child Star (Stuart Barnes)

Bell jar 2.3

after Sylvia Plath’s ‘Child’


Your half-moons are the ten absolutely fabulous things.

I want to streak them with Covergirl, Puck,

Museums of dew


Whose waves you intonate –

Grape hyacinth, tall Paperwhite,

Small, small


Reed without rimple,

Lagoons in which figures

Should fire like the maniple


Not this disgust-

Ing Oberon, this stark

Pan-Cake without sparkle.


Lipograms: five nursery rhymes reworked (Stuart Barnes)

Posted on October 9, 2012 by in Heightened Talk

Lipograms: five nursery rhymes reworked (Stuart Barnes)


Humpty Dumpty rocked on the well,
Humpty Dumpty tumbled to Hell.

The King’s twelve fledglings, the King’s four colts
couldn’t put Humpty together, the dolts.



‘Baa, baa, outcast,
own you any wool?’

Vâng sir, vâng sir,
ba boats full:

một for your Harpy,
một for your Fool,

and một for your vagrants

flailing in your Forty Rains.’



Fat Mary had an ugly Lamb,
Her fleece as bleached as snow,
and everywhere Fat Mary hammed
the Lamb was sure to go.
She chauffeured Her to school one day
and broke the teacher’s rule;
the persecutors stamped and brayed
to see that Lamb at school.
And when the teacher turned Her out
She sought the water fount,
then sadly sat upon Her rear –
Fat Mary – ‘Hallelujah!’ – appeared.
‘Why’s the Lamb love Fatty

M?’ the persecutors bleated.
‘Mary loves the Lamb, you sheep.’  
The teacher fetched her burlap sacks.



It’s raining, it’s teeming,
the white-haired Father’s wheezing
(He bumped His head beneath the bed);

He shan’t survive the evening.



‘Who killed Rockin’ Robin?’

‘I,’ said the Doctor

Bird. ‘With benzos and Propofol

I killed Rockin’ Robin.’


‘Who saw him die?’

‘I,’ said the Fly.

‘With my little eye

I saw him die.’


‘Who wiped his face?’

‘I,’ said the Fish.

‘With my tail’s swish

I wiped his face.’


‘Who’ll make the veil?’

‘I,’ said the Beetle.

‘With thread and needle

I’ll make the veil.’


‘Who’ll dig his grave?’

‘I,’ said the Owl.

‘With pick and trowel

I’ll dig his grave.’


‘Who’ll be the parson?’

‘I,’ said the Rook.

‘With my little book

I’ll be the parson.’


‘Who’ll be the clerk?’

‘I,’ said the Lark.

‘If not after dark,

I’ll be the clerk.’

‘Who’ll carry the glove?’

‘I,’ said the Linnet.

‘Give me a moment,

I’ll carry the glove.’


‘Who’ll be chief griever?’

‘I,’ said the Black Dove.

‘I weep the world’s love!

I’ll be chief griever.’


‘Who’ll carry the coffin?’

‘I,’ said the Kite.

‘If not by night,

I’ll carry the coffin.’


‘Who’ll bear the pall?’

‘We,’ said the Wren

(both cock and hen).

‘We’ll bear the pall.’


‘Who’ll sing a psalm?’

‘I,’ said the Tailor-

bird (from her diamond cradle).

‘I’ll sing a psalm.’


‘Who’ll toll the bell?’

‘I,’ said the Stag.

‘‘Cos I can drag,

I’ll toll the bell.’


And all the birds of the air

fell a-sighing and a-sobbing

when they heard the bell tolling for

poor Rockin’ Robin.


vâng: yes; ba: three; một: one (Vietnamese: English)

Mother and Son (Stuart Barnes)

Posted on August 14, 2012 by in Out of Limbo

Mother and Son (Stuart Barnes)

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings



Mid-December 1994. Recently I’d turned 17; my parents had separated. My uncle extended an invitation to my mother and me to housesit his and his wife’s Cremorne mansion while they revelled in a Northern American adventure. We were desperate to be anywhere but Hobart: that backwater had become hazardous: every other weekend my mother would encounter—in Myer, at Salamanca Market—the former classmate with whom my father had had an affair and intended to marry; at the private school I was forced to attend I’d invite—by listening to The Cure, by studying anything other than Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in the Common Room—the raging rich kids’ gauntlets.

So we promptly booked flights and packed; and the very next morning taxied from the small voltaic unit we occupied like lioness and zebra to the capital’s pastoral International Airport.

Mother in tow, I speared from the QANTAS Boeing, through the refreshingly mixed gridlock, the smeary sliding doors, then was belted across the jaw by the fist of a sweltering Sydney.

Instantly I loved it; she loathed it.

In a parking bay, in his Range Rover Classic, awaited that Irish giant, itching to zip us home. Crossing the Harbour Bridge, I was ecstatic, my mother ‘so seasick’. Hungover, I knew. (Every night she consumed a bottle of Teacher’s Scotch Whisky.)

Steel and water glittered.

Our bedrooms had been ‘appointed before dawn’ by my aunt, an angular firecracker. My mother’s was on the second floor, overlooked ‘a park where men’—rage spewed from the rear-view mirror—‘prowl at night’, mine the fourth, ‘in case he tries to sneak out: the stairs creak’. Sniggering, he jabbed my snoozing mother in the ribcage.

Carbon dioxide leaked from me as it leaks from a child’s balloon.


The following afternoon my mother and I farewelled her brother and sister-in-law.

‘Thank God they’re gone. I love them, but …’ A bottle of Coca-Cola hissed, a tray of ice cubes crackled on a hideous marble bench. ‘What’re you doing till dinner?’

‘Taking out the 4WD: need black hair dye.’

‘Jesus fucking Christ! So it’s not enough that I’m tortured twenty-four seven by the wailing of Robert Smith and his …’—his pack of fags? I willed her to spit it again. ‘For the next month,’ she moaned, ‘I’m going to be shadowed by a clone.’

‘Would you rather I drove off The Gap?’

This vicious allusion to my latest suicide attempt momentarily rattled my mother; and then her top lip arched like a canine’s. ‘Don’t buy foundation … or lipstick … or mascara!’

I seized the Bluebeardesque ring of keys from the bronze hook in the foyer. ‘I won’t,’ I laughed. ‘I can use yours.’

As I started the engine the front door shook in its jamb.


The month with my mother was like a game of cricket: agonizingly slow. In mid-January 1995, my uncle and his wife returned—sans thanks—from the U.S. (then retreated, for six weeks, to their ‘châteaux, for some R&R’); my mother to Hobart.

Finally I was alone.

Every day I woke late and gorged on bacon and eggs; tripped, after a long bath, into clean jocks and socks, the same Einstürzende Neubauten T-shirt—white-eyed, well-hung red stallion, pissing—and frazzled black shorts; laced, carefully, my gleaming black 14-Hole Docs; smeared, in my aunt’s en suite, kohl on my upper lids; backcombed my mud-brown hair (‘If you’d peroxided it before you’d coloured it, it would’ve taken on the L’Oréal,’ sighed a friend in Tasmania).

In regalia, war paint and headdress, I rifled the city’s gifts: Oxford Street’s Pop Shop, Centennial Park’s copses, the Museum of Contemporary Art…


One sultry evening I talked my way into a Darlinghurst deco pub. There I collided with Mark, my ideal composite (although he—‘I’m only a bus boy’—disagreed) of the scholars, heroes and gods with whom I’d coexisted since Year 9 Classics.

It was, to quote Joseph Heller, love at first sight.

On a break, he whisked me to the fire escape, where we kissed, then propped me on a stool that towered over sparkling wet asphalt and headlights that wavered like Mediterranean jellyfish. Every so often he’d swing by to nuzzle my nape, to collect an empty glass, to deliver a fresh pint, to introduce a friend. ‘We adore him—’ ‘Not once has he judged us,’ the man’s brother—graced also with sarcomas—finished. Crowed a leatherman, a former Professor from Arkansas: ‘I’m just waiting for God … O!’ ‘I had to stop taking my pills,’ a twenty-year-old confessed. ‘They made me sicker than the illness.’ He placed a hand—bony, pale—over mine. ‘I know I’m going to die. I’m not afraid.’

But I was.

Not of him.

But for him.

For them all.

For there—“God’s Waiting Room” (‘Charming, isn’t it,’ fumed Mark one night, ‘the epithet those fortunate HIV negative men have branded upon the place I work’)—preyed an impatient, ruthless dog.


Despite spiralling to Hobart in mid-February, I continued my relationship with Mark. We spoke when we could, wrote to each other weekly. One of his letters—in which Sonnet 29 had been elegantly transcribed—precipitated my coming out.

‘Who’s Mark?’ screeched my mother.

She found them, she found them.

I was more relieved than alarmed.

‘Stuart? Who the fuck’s Mark?’

I marched into the lounge-room. She was perched on a florid pink and grey recliner that had been swivelled toward the doorway. Her face was starched like a hospital sheet. The letter was squatting in her lap, a fat toad. The others, which had been plucked from their envelopes, were crumpled on the carpet.

‘Are you gay?’

For years I’d anticipated the question from her. As a child I’d decided that when I was asked I’d answer honestly, believing she—of all people—would be receptive.

‘Yes, Mum. I’m gay.’

I’ve never forgotten her response:

What about my grandchildren? You’ll fucking die from AIDS!

After this, I remember very little: gathering the letters, the envelopes; stuffing clothes and notebooks into my school backpack; searching for loose change to call my friend Andrew, who knew I was gay, from the nearby Telstra payphone; praying (not to God: I electrocuted Him at thirteen while a priest’s doughy appendage caressed my knee) that payphone not be out of order.

‘What the fuck,’ my mother bellowed, ‘do you think you’re doing?’

‘Getting the hell out of here… Going to meet someone.’


‘You don’t know him.’

‘Is he also—’

‘Gay? Yes, Mum. He’s gay.’ The more I uttered the word, the more hopeful, the more relaxed, the more unencumbered I felt.

‘If you go out my door I’ll telephone your father and tell him you’re—’

‘Gay? Gay! Gay!’ My nose’s tip almost brushed hers. ‘If you tell Dad I’m gay you’ll never see me again.

Keening, she lumbered to her bedroom.

I wrote on the kitchen bench’s floral pad:

Mum, I’m gay.
I always have been.
If you can’t accept this…
I’ll be in touch.
Love Stu

I glided from the unit to the payphone. One ring, two rings, three rings. Shit! And then Andrew answered his black analogue brick.


For the next week I stayed with his good friend Peter, who I previously hadn’t met. He encouraged me to buzz my mother, to let her know I was safe. By the time I did—around midnight—my stomach had completely emptied itself. My mother’s voice was rich with bitterness, with whisky. ‘Where the fuck are you? With who? Sounds like a bleeding peedaphile! If you don’t fucking tell me where he lives’—sniffles; quickly she composed herself—‘I’ll hire a private eye, have him tail you after school!’

Anxiety mutated into fear; I dropped the handset. Peter chatted briefly, gently, yet firmly, with my mother, then held me as I howled.

If it weren’t for him (and Andrew, who visited each night), I wouldn’t be alive. Mornings, he washed, dried and ironed my uniform; filled my lunchbox with sandwiches and fruit; drove me to school. Afternoons, he picked me up, returned me to his plush, comforting home, where he insisted I ‘drill until dinner’ (he lectured at a nearby college, proposed I apply to interstate universities). Dishwasher stacked, we’d retire to the sitting room, he with a snifter of brandy, me water; there I was introduced to the films of Fellini, the concertos of Mozart, the novels of Patrick White.

Those were some of the happiest evenings of my life. I was blessed to have known Peter, to have been one of the dozens of young—and not so young—gay men he sheltered, comforted and supported.

At the end of that week in Oz, my mother materialised at my school like the Wicked Witch of the West and begged me to head back to Kansas. A fortnight later—‘You’re a fucking liar!’ ‘You’ve changed!’—she kicked me out. I moved into a three-bedroom flat with two female university students whose friend—a gay guy with whom Andrew was acquainted—had recently relocated to Melbourne. It was almost overwhelming, knowing they weren’t repelled by my sexual orientation.

The first night in my new home, two school friends helped me unpack. From my atlas slipped a sepia photo—taken at Central Station in a romantic rickety booth—of Mark and me kissing. They snatched at it the way sea gulls snatch at chips. ‘What’s this?’ ‘You a Fudgepacker?’ ‘No! It was a dare!’ But the quaver in my voice betrayed me. Some excuse—‘Gotta get our bitches’—then they left.


The next morning, in halls, in classes, ‘Doughnut Puncher’ and ‘Arse Bandit’ were supplanted by ‘Grim Reaper’ and ‘You’re. Fucking. Dead’. Terrified, I confessed everything to my headmaster. He immediately convened students and staff, then told them in no uncertain terms that ‘homophobic hostilities or toleration of will effect expulsion or termination’. The tirade’s crescendo: ‘For Christ’s sake, grow up! From all of you I expect compassion for this young man who’s been outed!’ (So as not to roar nor cry, I bit my tongue until I tasted rust.) After that, not a single raging rich kid could look me in the eye.

At lunch I came out to my closest friends. Sam, in full view of hundreds of teenagers wrestling on the oval like Ancient Greeks, hugged me, then kissed each cheek. ‘Okay,’ said James, ‘wanna kick the footy?’ Adrian was typically facetious: ‘Always wondered why you hated threading worms onto fishhooks.’


Several months later, ‘Dad, I’m gay’ flew from my mouth, a beautiful bird. ‘I know,’ he smiled. I was speechless. ‘Deanna—then his fiancé, now his wife—‘thought so, a while ago. She’s a finely tuned … Gaydar?’ When my silence lingered, he offered: ‘You’re my child, and I love you. I always have, and I always will—no matter what.’

Mark and I amicably broke up. Although we’re no longer in touch, I occasionally re-read his letters. They remind me of summer, of young love, of losing my virginity, of Sydney’s men, of Andrew, Peter and my headmaster, of Sam, James and Adrian.

And they remind me of my mother. In thirty-four years I’ve thought often of blood; and I’ve realised—with sorrow, with hope—that it isn’t thicker than water.

So my mother and me?

We do not even know each other. We look alike but we have nothing to say. But I won’t hang around in my hospital shift, repeating The Black Mass and all of it.

I say Live, Live because of the sun, the dream, the excitable gift.


(Final three lines from Anne Sexton’s Live or Die, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1966.)