Still life

Earlier this month I was one of several artists-in-residence for Assembly for the Future, an incredible project that saw visionaries like Claire G Coleman, Scott Ludlam and Alice Wong address us from the end of this decade, and other respondents and participants theorise how to get there. Here’s my creative response, a poem remembering 2020 from 2029, available below in both audio and text (best viewed on desktop, tablet, or phone in landscape mode).

You’ll find all the provocations, artworks, and dispatches from the future on the BLEED festival website and the Things We Did Next website.

Still life

Remember that year we sat in the stench of death,
peering at lighted squares, searching for the numbers of fallen.
I was conscious of my breath, conscious of the too-close bodies
passing in the aisles, conscious of the skin of the oranges,
already touched, in the pile. I tried to grieve,
I tried not to cough. I couldn’t sleep or I slept too much.
I tried to believe that words were enough, but I wore
them through. There was nothing to do, or everything to do
and no one to touch. It was a communal crisis of the flesh
yet I lost mine in the wash, lost sense of the seasons
and the earth and the feeling of the turn as the world shrunk down
to different sized squares of sound and sight.
We joked that none of us would age that year. A desperate lie
while op-eds sneered that it wasn’t worth a minute or a dollar
to save people from dying only a few months earlier.
Only. It was clear which bodies were tagged thus.
All life was cheap, but some was cheaper.
All bodies are material, only some matter.
The killings were watered down, the victims rewritten
so they were already dead or dying.
Suffering was naturalised, for some their only birthright.

But even back then, we knew our bodies
were sacred, our inheritance lush,
our ancestors attentive. I carried
the strength of my lineage,
I learned to shed its burden.
The gift was wheat but not bread.
Fruit but not wine.

In those days, the bosses and their machines
stole our time. They crept into our houses,
they owned our faces and stories
and footsteps and grammar and sold them on.
All that our ancestors gave us,
the market clambered to purchase, trade,
perfect and erase. We fought back,
marching in the streets, singing in the towers,
bleeding on film and paper. It wasn’t enough.
The water came up, the fires burned hotter, the prisons
swelled and swallowed more of our number.
The second summer of that year indoors,
the old world came knocking and flirting again.

Wheat but not bread. Fruit but not wine.
We had to take our time back, hold close
to the skin of the earth, feel the turn inside and out.
There was no script, only the noise at the door
and an ache in my neck and a dim memory
that once we were worth more and could be again.
There was no blank page. There was no empty land.
There was never a moment that felt like the stage was set
for the world to come. There was only the unmarked seed,
the garden already overgrown, and between the weeds and the flowers
there was work — there was living to be done.

Notes

1. As the Covid-19 pandemic killed hundreds of people around him, Herald Sun commentator Andrew Bolt wrote, ‘Victoria’s bans are doing huge damage to — essentially — save aged-care residents from dying a few months earlier.’

2. Alison Whittaker, writing about Aboriginal people dying in custody for The Guardian in 2018:

Pathology became a way to avoid blame – disguising violence as disadvantage or doom… Coroners contributed to the same blameless fatalism that has long underscored Australia’s Indigenous policy. Indigenous death and suffering was naturalised, Indigenous people lived only by the benevolence of their gaolers.

In the same piece, she quotes Canadian scholar Sherene Razack who writes that ‘the Aboriginal body is considered to be one that is already dead’.

3. Daniel Mallory Ortberg writes on page 59 of Something That May Shock and Discredit You, his memoir which offers a transgender Christian theology of sorts:

The answer, then, for Paul, is the body-that-is exists always in anticipation of and conversation with the body-that-will-be, that all flesh is not the same flesh but that bodies please God, that death is always followed by growth, that there are many different types of glory, that dishonor may be followed by redemption, that all things spiritual originate in the goodness of the flesh, that our bodies might come to reflect both where we have been and where we are going. As my friend Julian puts it, only half winkingly: ‘God blessed me by making me transsexual for the same reason God made wheat but not bread and fruit but not wine, so that humanity might share in the act of creation.’

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