Paul Scott-Williams (Goulburn Regional Conservatorium), Caroline Stacey (The Street Theatre, Canberra), and your old mate – 13 November 2018

It was wonderful to zip down the Hume Highway earlier this week to see THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT pick up a 2018 Canberra Critics Circle Award.

Congratulations to all involved in our song cycle: Paul Scott-Williams at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, which commissioned the work; Caroline Stacey at The Street Theatre for the powerful direction and so much more; James Humberstone for the extraordinary score; and exemplary performers Michael Lampard and Alan Hicks.

Big thanks to Katy Mutton for the exquisitely evocative art work (as commissioned by The Street Theatre) that was used to market the work.

Last but by no means least, thank you to everyone who came to one of the shows – there is nothing like an audience, and an audience’s response.

Might this be the official end of this project? Hard to tell. But perhaps it might be nice to leave with the words to the last song in the cycle:

 

FROM HERE

 

From here

I mend

 

From here

there is a bend

in the river

 

From here

there will be

 

the sea-hawk and the shore

and the red-belly black snake

in the rocks

 

so stand with me

stand with me now

 

From here

we mend

 

From here

we mend

 

From here

we mend

together

 

The start of my school journey; tea-pot stance not yet perfected.

Dearest Headmaster Heath,

It was with disappointment – and a little reignited heartache – that I read in the media last week that Barker College had co-signed a letter to the Australian Government stating ‘there is no effective protection under Australian law that guarantees religious freedom for both faith and action’.  The letter was interpreted, justifiably, to mean that Anglican schools wish to retain the right to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ teachers and students.

I know that you have since issued a Mea Culpa, with a very recent follow-up, both of which read as heart-felt and are appreciated, therefore I have wondered about the wisdom in adding to the public debate. However, silence, especially when it relates to formative experiences with long-term – if not life-long – implications, is not always healthy.

So, in the spirit of truth to power:

I attended Barker College from 1978 to 1986, when I completed my secondary education. My brothers, both older, also attended Barker. I have my parents to thank for choosing the school – it was a privilege, though I would come to understand that privilege comes with responsibility and a need for self-reflection.

Looking back, the school offered a reasonable, balanced education. There was a mix of the core subjects and the humanities, arts, languages, and sport. We were encouraged to be inquisitive and well-rounded young people.

In my experience, Barker highlighted three key principles: respect for knowledge (clear thinking and facts); find your own path for living well, which, by extension, meant letting others find their own path; and speak up for what you believe.

Despite being a resolutely average student, my school years were productive and happy.

Except in one respect: a well-hidden turmoil as I began to navigate a sexuality that, I soon realised, was neither common nor generally acceptable, that was, I would soon discover, aggressively – even violently – hated by some.

Regardless, and in a beautiful, innocent way, as I went from class to class, as my friends fell voluminously in love with girls, I allowed myself to fall in love with a boy. What bliss! Indeed, to all intents and purposes, throughout Third Form he and I were in a relationship, as much as it was possible at that age. Of course, we could not publically express our feelings for each other, and we were somewhat confused. I remember him saying, ‘This is not what God wants. We should like girls.’ Oh, would love always be difficult? In Senior School, I did try to like girls; thankfully – for all concerned – there was not much success.

When my time at Barker came to an end, I left the North Shore and moved to Canberra, where I was freer to live a more genuine life, including having the opportunity to explore the wonders of my sexuality.

Still, it was not until 1997 that I was able to do that harrowing (and, thank goodness, increasingly old-fashioned) thing: ‘come out’.

Why did the process take so long?

Fear.

With my maternal grandmother, who I adored.

Of being rejected. Of being considered a freak, a deviant.

That my sexuality might prevent me from achieving my goals; that I might be bashed for simply being myself (a good-natured introvert, you could say). Having been a teenager through the AIDS crisis, there was also fear that my life would be cut short.

Not wanting to bring too much emotion to this correspondence, there were dark times: loneliness, despondency – and worse, but let’s not dwell.

Recently I turned 50, so it seems my life has not been cut short. I have been with my partner Tim for 21 years, and have experienced love, intimacy, and companionship.

Perhaps that is something else I got from Barker: tenacity.

Speaking of tenacity, you might be interested to know that I have what some consider an unusual job. I am a writer – 50 short stories published in Australian literary journals, two story collections, a debut novel titled Remnants, a series of interlinked novellas with the latest being The Beach Volcano, and my war novel, Bodies of Men, will be published by Hachette Australia in 2019. I was commissioned to write the libretto for a contemporary song cycle called The Weight of Light (score by James Humberstone) that had its world premiere in Canberra earlier this year before being performed at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. I have held residencies at Varuna and Bundanon, and in 2013 I was a Creative Fellow at UNSW Canberra. Being an author has resulted in some surprising invitations: in 2010 I was asked by the University of Canberra to give the valedictory speech at a graduation ceremony, which was held in the Great Hall at Parliament House – yes, I took the opportunity to tell a version of the story that I am telling you.

Most writers, it seems, have one or two thematic preoccupations. Mine? The need to live our own lives; and there is nothing more important than love and refuge.

Of course, I have also written about what happens when we are unable to live our own lives, when we are unable to find love and refuge. My lived experience shows – proves – that when someone, especially a young person, is not allowed to be who they are, when someone is told their healthy yearnings for human connection are wrong (or that all gay people belong to an evil organisation as I was informed during last year’s marriage equality debate), living can be hard work.

Does Barker really want to make life hard work for its LGBTIQ+ teachers and students?

Currently on the Barker website, under the title ‘From the Head’, there is a quote from the Bible, Jeremiah, 29.11: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you, and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ Although not a person of faith, I can appreciate the sentiment: allow life to unfold as it must, do not let existence be harmful, approach the future with open arms.

‘All good things must come to an end’, claimed my end-of-school top; but even better things were around the corner.

What if last week Barker had put out a clear and unambiguous statement saying that it encouraged all its teachers and – particularly – its students to live good, true lives, to be the best people they can be: brave, generous, curious, authentic, and loving?

What if last week, and reinforcing what I hope is a deeply held conviction, Barker had publically declared that it did not, and would never, discriminate against LGBTIQ+ teachers and students? What if that had been the school’s default position? What a powerful, positive message that would have sent, especially to those students who, for whatever reason, and so sadly – and perhaps, still, with tragic consequences – are experiencing their own well-hidden turmoil because of something as innocuous as their sexuality.

My wish is that from here Barker becomes an active and public voice in ensuring there is no legislative room for Australian schools, public or private, to dismiss LGBTIQ+ teachers and students.

What the marriage equality vote proved is that love – in all its wondrous diversity – does win in the end, that love is inherently resilient, and that resilience will see LGBTIQ+ people continue to live good, healthy, and productive lives.

So then, it is with love that I have shared these words with you.

Sincerely,

Nigel


UPDATE as of 16 November 2018: while I’ve not – yet? – received a reply from the school to the letter, or acknowledgement that it was received, there has been considerable media on the issue: one of the headmasters who signed The Letter described the response as ‘the most humiliating moment of my career‘ (that piece, by David Marr, is interesting in other ways too, especially in terms of what ‘ethos’ means in practical terms), the Anglican Archbishop apologised, and school students held a street protest, which is brilliant. Onwards.


Forthcoming from Hachette Australia in 2019; available for pre-order.

The day was off to a lovely start: I put on my trackydax, uggboots, and my favourite woolen jumper (the one with the holes in it), made a coffee, and then the doorbell rang. There was the postie…with a package that I would soon discover contained the typeset pages for Bodies of Men, courtesy of Hachette Australia.

Holy crap.

After a few days during which I did little more than stare at the pages, on Monday of this week I finally sat down at the desk, picked up a red pen, and got to work.

When I say ‘work’, it seems that I did as much housework as editing. And I’m lousy at housework. But not this week apparently.

The pattern seemed to be: edit paragraph, then dust the sitting room; edit paragraph, then put away the CDs that have been forming into piles; edit paragraph, then dust the stereo; edit paragraph, go buy some firewood and stack it very, very neatly in the shed; edit paragraph, consider vacuuming the rugs (with this chore, ‘consider’ was as far as I got, I’m afraid).

So, it’s been a slow process editing the typeset pages. One reason is the text looks so beautiful that I don’t want to spoil it with my scrawl; another reason is I’m finding it’s taking a lot of mental energy to dive deep into the story (again) and fix the annoying mistakes I’ve made or the sentences that really do need to be better.

Which gets me back to the pattern: fix sentence, then go and clean the fridge.

On Thursday evening I took a break and had dinner with a writer who’s currently working on a novel. One of the things we discussed over the meal was how much we should talk about our fiction before it’s published. I shared some advice I received a few years ago from an eminent Australian novelist who told me (with gusto, I should add), ‘Never talk about your fiction while you’re writing it. This has nothing to do with superstition. If you talk about it while you’re writing it, the energy will go from the telling because you will have already shared the story publicly.’ So my writer friend and I decided that it indeed it was wise not to talk too much about our projects before they were published. Instead we talked about our families.

This enforced creative reticence is at odds with social media: by their nature, digital platforms (a terrible term, methinks) encourage the sharing – and over-sharing – of everything. Of course, it’s rather pleasant, probably healthy, to tell the world a little about how things are going, especially when writing is primarily a solitary task; but, yes, there is wisdom in holding back, especially in terms of the content of this thing I’m writing – and living and breathing – since 2013, although I did give a couple of hints in an earlier post.

What am I trying to say?

That I’m still working on Bodies of Men but the end is in sight – I have to get the edits back to Hachette in a fortnight’s time, even though publication is not until April 2019. Until then, I hope you don’t mind if I remain a little shy (at first my fingers typed ‘shit’) about the actual story of the novel. Perhaps I’m just scared, or feeling vulnerable? That wouldn’t be a bad thing. Maybe.

As ever, thanks so very much for all your interest and support. Many of the readers of this blog/website thing-o have been incredibly encouraging over the years, offering warm thoughts and reflections, silent little whisperings saying, Just keep going.

So that’s what I’m doing: keeping going.

Best I get back to the edits, then I’ve got a bathroom to clean.

It is, in a way, an act of withdrawal, and I worry about it sometimes.

I am spending more and more time reading and alone. How healthy can that be? But let’s be honest: for a natural hermit, it is very healthy, especially when I am fortunate to have a room dedicated to books—a private library.

Eight years ago, partly due to good luck and partly due to a desire to put literature at the centre of my being, I left Canberra for a town an hour away, in regional New South Wales. Although I would need to continue earning an income, I could, if luck kept smiling on me, live on the smell of an oily rag. My plan was to spend the majority of each week writing, but I have found, thankfully, that I am spending as much time reading—day after day of it, all in the smallest room in my crumbling old cottage.

In the library is a pair of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that were there when I moved in, as well as an old green Hordern & Sons wood-heater (it is rarely used, because it tends to smoke out the house) and a tartan couch that I bought for $30 from the local Vinnies but is a bit too short for my body. In winter, when the mornings sometimes start with a horrifying minus 10 degrees, I read under two blankets: one, a mix of oranges and reds, was my grandmother’s; the other, which is as green as the wood-heater and the couch, was my mother’s and given to her by a school friend—my mother is now in a nursing home and battling dementia, so the gift came to me earlier this year.

In summer I am sprawled only in black T-shirt and grey shorts, the soles of my feet gritty with dirt because I like to get up every hour or so and hand-water the garden…

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Keep reading over at Meanjin, which commissioned this piece and first published it on 26 September 2018.

Composer James Humberstone (left), baritone Michael Lampard (right) and myself post-show. Image credit: Anne Casey

Oh, massive thanks to all those who came out to see THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT in Sydney last week – it’s hugely appreciated and I’m most grateful. Thanks also to those who have been saying nice things and sending me messages. It means the world to me.

Really.

As mentioned in previous Homesong diary entries, it’s a nerve-wracking experience writing for the stage, partly because it’s so exposing – for all concerned, no doubt – and partly because it’s hard to know how an audience will respond. Indeed, in the weeks before a show, there’s a lot of worrying about whether or not people will come along at all. So, another thank you: to those who helped spread the word through social media or email – every effort was valuable and valued.

In the lead up to the Sydney shows, James wrote a wonderfully illuminating piece for Limelight Magazine about how he approached composing the music.

In the end we had good audiences, in terms of numbers and responses. We had some terrifically lively foyer conversations afterwards, and longer chats over beer and wine!

Some kind and generous folk put notes up on social media. This, from award-winning Australian poet Anne Casey, was especially appreciated:

THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT is spellbinding, spine-tingling, heartbreaking and gloriously uplifting. Extraordinary performance by operatic baritone Michael Lampard and pianist Alan Hicks. This was a stunningly moving, beautiful, haunting and inventive production from the very first breath to the last.

What happens from here?

Another rest. There’s talk of the show heading into regional NSW, which, after all, was the original intention of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium who commissioned the work; there’s also the possibility of a run in Melbourne, perhaps next year.

Personally, I’m looking forward to preparing for (i.e. worrying about) my novel BODIES OF MEN, which is forthcoming from Hachette Australia in 2019.

Thanks again for all the interest and support.

It’s gold. And it’s a balm.

Michael Lampard performing as The Soldier and accompanist Alan Hicks at the Canberra premiere in March 2018, The Street Theatre (Image credit: Shelly Higgs/The Street Theatre)

Book launches make me want to vomit.

My own book launches.

Of course, it is wonderful to have a crowd of people help celebrate your new book, but it’s also stressful. Will the speakers be entertaining? Will I make a fool of myself? Yes, launches make me feel sick; or, at the least, make me want to head for the hills.

Which is why, at the world premiere of The Weight of Light, a song cycle, in Canberra earlier this year, it was surprising to feel positively calm in the foyer before the performance: I drank mineral water, I chatted, I gave and received embraces, and all the while I was relaxed and happy. But then – but then! – the bells rang and the audience entered the theatre and as the lights went down I could feel my heart making bone-shaking explosions. How was the audience going to respond? Was the work inherently problematic? And why had I been so naïve to think I could produce a text to be sung?

Boom! went the thing in my chest…

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Keep reading at ArtsHub, which published this piece on 23 July 2018. Thanks to Richard Watts.

Composer James Humberstone during the creative development sessions at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, December 2017. (Image: Ryley Gillen)

When I first met James Humberstone, over dinner in 2015, he looked like a guitarist in Radiohead: joggers, funky trousers, coloured T-shirt, and a cardigan that looked like something a soccer player would wear in the garden. With his English accent (he was born in London and migrated to Australia in 1997) and a brain full of opinions, which range from veganism to marriage equality, James is terrific company. In terms of music, I remember us that night chatting about Malcolm Williamson, the Australian composer who was also the Master of the Queen’s Music from 1975 until his death in 2003, but also the stratospheric English rock band Muse. James has an irreverent sense of humour, with political conservatives coming off second best.

With the Sydney shows for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT just around the corner – Friday 27 July, to be precise – James and I had a chat about our influences, and, after all these years, what we think is at the core of our song cycle.

NIGEL

In terms of music, who inspires you?

JAMES

Howard Skempton (image credit: Clive Barda)

The biggest influence on my own composition has been Howard Skempton, the English post-experimental composer. I remember the first time I heard his Lento, at the age of 16, I was struck by a music that was timeless in more than one way. Timeless because it was obviously new, but seemed ancient, too. And timeless because structurally it felt like the piece didn’t go from A to B to C, but instead just occupied the time for which it lasted.

At university I was able to find more of his music, and loved it equally. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Howard’s music over 20 years ago and was lucky enough to study with him privately for a short time before migrating to Australia.

In Australia, the biggest influence on me has been Anne Boyd, who was my supervisor during my Masters in composition, but also influenced me through the study of her own work, as I engraved it as she wrote it over a few years, and as a friend. I knew I wanted to be an academic-composer early on, but it was Anne who made me sure of it.

Of course, I’m inspired by many other composers and performers. In the last decade I’ve drawn on so many of J S Bach’s ideas, which are still so radical even today. I think Beethoven was probably the greatest composer to live, and don’t ever try to emulate him. As a young teenage composer I was inspired by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Britten, and still often revisit their scores to see how they achieved the amazing sounds that they did, especially orchestrally. While I’d describe myself as a (post-)experimentalist (though if Cage didn’t like that label, why would I?), I’m one of the few who loves the music of both minimalists and the serialists/complexists. In fact, there isn’t much music that I don’t like, although to me the stuff that’s truly inspiring is the music you don’t ‘get’ the first time and hear new things in every time you listen.

I’ve listed traditional western art music composers there, but I must also say that last qualification applies to all of the genres I listen to. The greats include Radiohead and Björk, but there are many writing such interesting music in all fields now – I’m listening to hip-hop, punk and EDM just as much as I am to any art music composer. It’s a feast.

What about your musical inspirations?

NIGEL

My musical life started with Kate Bush and The Cure and has progressed (maybe?) from there. Bands that continue to resonate are The Smiths, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Red House Painters, Frightened Rabbit, and The Go! Team, as well as artists such as Nina Simone, PJ Harvey, Peaches, and DJ Shadow. I went through a huge dance-music stage – series by Global Underground and Renaissance – and I still enjoy the more intricate side of that kind of music e.g. Burial, Kiasmos, and Jon Hopkins. After getting into some wonderful post-rock – primarily Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Explosions in the Sky – I’ve been immersing myself in more minimal music; I’ve always loved Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Arvo Pärt, but more recently I’ve been listening to Dustin O’Halloran, Jóhann Jóhannsson (rest his soul), and Max Richter – I love his re-scoring of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as well as Three Worlds, his score for a ballet based on the novels of Virginia Woolf. Nils Frahm’s All Melody is that newest album that I adore, as well as Singularity by Jon Hopkins.

I could go on…

Tell me about the literature that has interested you?

JAMES

I’m a complete lightweight, but not because I want to be. I have a job that involves reading thousands of words every day, and while I do find reading for research extremely pleasurable (I won’t say the same for marking university assignments, but they are an essential part of the education process, so I try not to complain), I have little energy left for reading for pleasure, so tend to read page-turners.

Margaret Atwood

Rather like my choice of films and TV series, my tired brain enjoys science fiction as Philip K Dick described it (anything where reality has changed a little bit – not necessarily with spaceships and laser guns!). I’m a huge Phillip Pullman fan, and really want his permission to create an opera trilogy of the Dark Materials books (I’ve asked; his agent says no), just reread Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale after the excellent new TV adaptation, and have been enjoying reading Tolkien and Rowling to my kids.

That may not sound very inspiring for a composer, but I should point out that when one works with words, as I have in my two largest recent projects, The Weight of Light and Odysseus: Live, I’m constantly inspired by the texts that I’m setting. One begins with the words, their emotion, their structure, their intent, the narrative, and everything is planned around that. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with some amazing writers, and have never had to set a ‘dud’ text yet. I imagine that it would result in a piece of music that wasn’t much cop, either.

Over to you: what’s the literature that inspires?

NIGEL

I love the Russans, especially Chekhov and Tolstoy. More often than not I’m stunned by JM Coetzee. Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx is one of the most extraordinary pieces of literature I know, as is Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and The Riders were an early influence, and I’ve also found much inspiration in Helen Garner, as well as Patrick White and Randolph Stow. Of course, there’s Hemingway – what a perfect piece of writing is The Old Man in the Sea. Other authors who regularly inspire are Aminatta Forna, Kazuo Ishiguro, Colm Tóibín, Evelyn Waugh, Michelle de Kretser, Alan Hollinghurst, Anne Enright, Evelyn Waugh, Christos Tsiolkas, and EM Forster. In terms of poetry, for me it’s Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, ee cumings, Philip Larkin, and Dorothy Porter. Recent novels that knocked me for a six: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, both of which are thrillingly, bravely experimental – but with heart.

To finish, in terms of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT I’ve been thinking that, at its core, the work is about the pressure nations put on individuals to do near impossible things, but the unpredictable chances we get to heal and make new.

What do you think the work is about at its core?

JAMES

Humanity, or the human spirit if you prefer, pulling us through.

Whether we live in Australia, where most of us live in the top levels of wealth in the whole world, or in poor countries where the majority struggle to survive, or in war zones, where it might not matter how wealthy or poor you are, but whether you can save your life and the lives of your family — we all have stories of adversity that we have survived. Most adults have lost someone very close to them. Many of us, even in this country, have struggled with questions of our identity or against forces and misassumptions out of our control. Perhaps just thinking back on those things is enough to make us cry, or break down again.

Yet most of us get up. And get on. And when we see someone who can’t, or at least not yet, we help them. Or, at least, the best of us do.

In THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT a series of devastating events shake our soldier to the core, all over one short weekend. He is down, he is down again, he is hurt, hurt, hurt, and breaking. Yet he gets up. We endure and express so much pain, but we get up. And when we can’t, we ‘cry out for help’, and hopefully our family and our friends are there for us. I hope in this Trumpian, post-Brexit, keep-out-the-boat-people time that we live in, that the tide might change, soon, as we remember our humanity and find a little more compassion and love for those around us – or far away – who are hurting.

Michael Lampard as The Soldier, at the world premiere of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, Canberra, The Street Theatre, Canberra, 2018. (Image credit: Shelly Higgs)

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THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT: Friday 27 July 2018, 1pm and 7.30pm. Venue: Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featuring Michael Lampard as The Soldier. Pianist: Alan Hicks. Direction: Caroline Stacey. Tickets ($25/$15) available here.

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THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium and developed by The Street Theatre in Canberra.

One minute, so it seems, I’m a moody youth meeting friends on the steps of the Sydney Town Hall before heading to various record shops to buy new albums from The Cure, The Clash, and The Smiths. The next (i.e. 35 years later), THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, the song cycle I’ve written with James Humberstone, is about to be performed at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

YIKES.

Sydney is the place of my birth, childhood, and teenage years. I left at the age of 18 to have independent adventures, first in Canberra and then Perth; there was some time spent travelling overseas, and then another stint in Canberra; before, in 2010, I headed into the wilds of regional New South Wales. It’s all been wonderful (well, it’s all been an experience!), and throughout has been reading, writing, and music.

There have been two other constants, if I’m entirely honest: a quest for love; and a never-ending questioning of what it means to be a man.

Now I think about it, there’s been something else: an ongoing concern about Australia, this apparently happy, lucky country, this country with a conflicted, complicated soul, this country which has done terrible things both at home and abroad to achieve its aims, and continues to do terrible things.

THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT brings all these themes together. No wonder composer James Humberstone, when he first read the libretto, said, ‘Woah, this is intense.’

And he’s right.

Though there’s no point making art about big issues such as love and war if there isn’t a sense of hope, if we can’t heal from this. There’s definitely hope in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT. Beauty even.

But best I don’t go on. All I really wanted to say is that if you’re in Sydney on Friday 27 July, it’d be terrific to see you at one of the two performances. Baritone Michael Lampard is extraordinary as The Soldier, and accompanist Alan Hicks is an orchestra with ten fingers.

Tickets ($25/$15) are available here. A brief, teaser video can be found here.

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THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium and developed by The Street Theatre in Canberra.

My dears,

we never really know if

the light on the hill

 

is a brand new world –

 

what might that be exactly:

a sign of alien life,

some kind of angel from

the other side,

miraculous politics?

 

or just a carload of youths about to yell, ‘Fuckin’ faggot!’ –

 

as they drive past

their words do indeed come,

like a casually flung beer bottle,

before the smile and wave

and drive-off

 

But, my dears,

we go on, don’t we

we go on

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