I don’t have a poem today, and for that I am sorry. I feel like my chest is a minefield and sometime yesterday, I unwittingly stepped on one, and my everything has been scattered by the blast. My heart would give any veteran’s game knee a run for its money, as far as being utterly fucked on some days, then fine for stretches. There’s no explanation for it. Some days, it’s like shrapnel rattling around in my ribcage and with each move, with each thought, another small cut is sliced and I can’t stop the bleeding.
I spent most of yesterday in a breathless haze, panic clawing at my chest. Imaginary arguments choking my throat with the unsaid. I don’t know why I fear confrontation so much; nothing anyone has ever said could be as wounding as what I hurl at myself, be it through a figment’s mouth or my own thoughts. At about 8pm, I staggered out of the house and into the cool cloudy night, trying to breathe. I needed to go for a long walk. Long walks are my saviour, they always have been. I’m a tall guy, and there is very little that can frustrate me more than not being able to give my inner urgency voice through freedom of movement, through long strides that eat up the ground.
People always joke about seeing me out walking. My cousin will say, ‘I saw you Terminating your way up the street,’ and laugh, or someone will say I saw you walking up this highway, or ‘what do you mean you were walking in this neighbourhood at 3am? Are you crazy?’ With my family, this will usually devolve into an argument about how I should get a license already. They don’t understand that I need to walk, I need to be in a large open space, I need to be moving, because if I’m still for too long, all these thoughts and words and hurts will collide together and the detonation will leave me stunned and prone for days. Weeks, maybe.
So, I’m out on the street in Ashfield, it’s 8pm, it’s cloudy and cool and lovely. I’m thinking about New York, where I spent most of the past four months. I’m not thinking about the literary events, or the spread of lights, the infinity of colour, movies, celebrities, or crazy people I encountered, or lovely people, or whatever — I’m thinking of the walk I took every day, along the FDR by the East River. I was so serene in New York, so calm, so unaffected by the things I’m normally affected by and I didn’t know why, couldn’t explain to myself why I felt so good, despite my usual tiredness and inability to sleep, until now. Now I know.
If you haven’t been there, let me describe it: it’s basically a dedicated walkway that stretches miles. Not a sidewalk with constant stoppages and lights and traffic, but a walkway for people to stroll by the river and the parks, for cyclists and joggers too. On one side there are public basketball courts, athletic track rings, etc, and on the other is the ever-restless blue of the river. The bridges. I lived by East Broadway, right across from this walkway and every day, and sometimes the nights too, I would walk from there up to 18th St, then down and eventually to Union Sq, before heading back. A walk of about 8km, and I would do it twice some days. People often ask me what I was doing in New York and I feel so guilty, so ridiculous about this that I don’t often mention it, but aside from writing, all I would do is walk.
Walk so far without breaking, so far without needing to stop, my thoughts unfurling with music, a pleasant exhaustion seeping through my muscles — my god, it was wonderful. Forget fitness. Forget everything but the pleasure of thoughtlessness, the beauty of existing in a world of intuition and reaction. It is no wonder I wrote so much poetry along the banks of that river, or that it washed into so much of my writing; it saved me again and again and again, day in, night out, the Williamsburg Bridge arcing over to Brooklyn, its strung out Christmas lights gleaming like shiny baubles beneath the real brilliance of stars. When I think about how much I want to return to New York, so very much of it is because of that walk, that river, and how can I say that to anyone without sounding utterly mad?
Except to say that the restlessness of the river is the restlessness of my blood, except to say that when I am still, it is as if I have been log-jammed and the pressure is building, building, building and god, I need to move again before I suffocate. So I’m outside, it’s 8ish, it’s cool and cloudy and my nose is starting to run, but I’m doing the walk anyway because there’s no real alternative. I call this the Francis walk, oddly enough, because it’s the same path I take to my friend Francis’ house and that’s important purely because I’ve done the walk enough times that I don’t need to think about where my feet are going. My mind can float free, can rush and roar in the dark canopy of trees, can swerve into the tail-lights of the cars swishing by, can pause for a moment in the silhouette of the man on his porch looking out at the Arab guy swiftly walking by.
This walk is no comparison to the New York walk. Firstly, the street is suburban, tree-ridden, and without much in the way of street-lights, so I’m forever stumbling out onto the road, afraid of walking into the various spiderwebs I know cling from branch to mailbox. Some of them are only in my mind. Most of them, in fact. That doesn’t stop me from rushing onto the road whenever sudden certainty erupts that I’m about to become ensnared in the easily torn web of a spider; I’m an arachnophobe and I should do more about this debilitating fear of the scuttling, eight-legged eight-eyed symbol of death, but I’m a coward at heart and I have too many other fears, too many other hurts I’m trying to deal with right now. I wonder what the drivers must think about me, safe and still in their boxes, as their headlights flare blindingly to identify the large shape that just entered their field of vision–like, what the fuck is he doing?
I wonder too, in those moments, if this is what the deer feels, if it glories in flexing its muscles, in being so fleet of foot or hoof or whatever, in flashing through foliage, leaping over obstacles, in coming as close to soaring as any land-bound wingless thing; if its heart stutters and stops on the black tarmac, the headlights twin suns, its everything whitened, blinded. And then, if it’s lucky enough, enjoys the resumption of flight. I staggered like a drunk man from one side of the road to the other, my choices based on whichever side had less traffic at the time, only occasionally retreating to the false comfort of the sidewalk. Luckily, it’s a long straight road and I can see for some way in either direction. I pass by schools and fields and roundabouts until I come to a highway in Canterbury and now, finally, here is a stretch without trees so I can walk it in a straight line without fear, without stopping very much, and I begin to breathe better.
Like now, in fact, writing this — I began twenty minutes ago, and in the furious dance of fingertips on keyboard, I gave my thoughts an outlet, I let the river flow its maddening flow and slowly, so agonisingly slowly, the constriction across my chest began to ease, to unfurl, and I can breathe now, I can slow down, I can pick up the patterns in the swirl of the water, the ink; I can liberate the debris. I know what’s happened this week because it’s happened before. Not just the tragedy at the cafe in Sydney, the resumption of fear-driven narratives re: Muslims, race, and refugees, not just the small idiotic household concerns I’ve been putting off, or the stresses about money and rent and getting a “real” job again that isn’t writing, that pays more than the occasional freelance piece. Not just these things, or the various work I’ve sent out into the ether, little pieces of myself I’m awaiting judgment on, but so much more than that, more than I can possibly articulate at this moment–
My grandfather’s death. That’s one thing. I was thinking about this year as a whole–I wrote about it recently for a comedy piece–and while discussing it with my friend, I said to him, this has actually been a really good year for me. After all, I’ve had several poems published, two short stories, numerous articles, and was shortlisted for a prize, to say nothing of visiting Turkey and New York. A great year is what I thought, despite how utterly tragedy-ridden the year has been as a whole for the rest of the world, and I realised at the moment I said it that I’d forgotten my grandfather. He passed away only six months or so ago and he’d passed from my memory too; I’m surprised I didn’t keel over then and there beneath the surge of grief and guilt.
I forgot my grandfather; I forgot his huge ears, which I’ve inherited, albeit on a smaller scale; I forgot the smell of tobacco that inevitably clouded him; I forgot his wiry frame, the way his very sparseness of body seemed to imply a focus, like he was efficiency personified; the way his thick rectangular glasses glinted in the light; the feel of his grizzled cheek beneath my lips as I kissed him hello; seeing him out in the garden, as often to be found in greenery as he was sitting in front of the TV watching various B-grade Western action flicks with avid avian interest, despite not understanding English. I forgot him, and I think that is unforgivable and no amount of walking can change that. That’s part of it, of course–a big part–but there’s some vague, indefinable thing that binds these moments, these wounds, these hurts together, that allows them to never die, but to just sit waiting beneath the thin veneer of my skin, ready to erupt at any given point in time and I am so tired of it. So very tired, despite my mind rushing, rushing, rushing, even now.
So I didn’t find a poem this week to share, nor have I written the things I meant to write, but I will go for a not-so-great-but-just-good-enough walk today and maybe, just maybe, my body will catch up with my mind and I will be wholly tired, instead of forever out-of-sync, and able to get some rest. Able to relax. Able, in that moment of unwinding relaxation, to read poetry, to let it sink into the sediment beneath my river or be the bridge I walk across to the other side, and then, able to share it with you. To give you a chance for the same. So, I am sorry for all of that, but at the very least, I am breathing easily at last and that is a start.