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From the trauma of a burning nation, to the desperation of Covid-19, to the united voices of the Black Lives Matter protests, this year called for resilience like few before it. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

fire moves faster

i

south of the equator

the summer
that set the year on fire
              was combustible:

the cotton sweat-slick of shirt-to-back

air so humid, the world turned
in slow motion

 

far-flung ash, settling to dust
on grimy city window sills

the sour smell of singed flesh
drifting, on the wind
              as wild things, whimpering
padded scorched and tender feet
towards outstretched bottles
              of volunteer mount franklin

 

the summer that lit the year that was
              flew magpies, so traumatised
in their mimicry
they wailed like sirens:

indistinguishable
from death’s call

 

january was dark smoke,
              spreading in the distance

all kinds of folk glanced up
as they boarded the tram to work, got
the lawnmower out, hung the washing, took
a break from their word doc, or bunged
the team coffee pot on
saying jesus, mate, look at that sky
you just know it can’t be good

february was small-town apple-eyed folk:
faces tear-tracked, and
racked with hiccup-sobs
on the early evening news

as they stared down the barrel
of abc rural

 

smouldering, amongst the embers
of all they thought they knew

 

by march, catastrophe
had leapt the break

collecting up sticks, seed pods, dry grass
and brittle undergrowth

anything was tinder:
                            whatever would take

 

ii

news out of china
was street spray-downs
and hazmat suits

              there were clips circulating
of officials brute-handling
those who broke
              the isolation rules

we heard tell of mask mandates
and the harsh seal of infected citizens
into their own rooms

watching, from below the equator
it seemed strange-apocalyptic,
              what was happening
in wuhan

 

at first, we thought the virus was unknown
                                                      quantity
then they said they had named it: Covid-19

 

in march, it ravaged italy
and we saw, my god
just what this virus meant to do:

saw morgues too full to take
the bodies on trolleys, lining the walls
of hospital hallways, rasping beneath
thin standard-issue sheets, and the doctors
and nurses
                well, they were dying too

 

looking back, italy
was the moment
we all knew

that something wicked
this way wandered

 

fire burns faster, when
travelling uphill

 

the virus slipped in on unwashed
airport hands at melbourne international,
the virus hitched a ride in the eager lungs
of working cruise-ship youngsters, the virus
nonchalantly dropped anchor
              in the new south wales ports

to some, it was nothing
compared to what arrived
              two hundred and fifty years before

we knew the fever, the
shadow-on-lung; the way
it broke the body down

 

but what we never really thought about
was how we’d watch
our loved ones
                              die alone

how bone-tired nurses would hold ipads
to their faces; and do their fearful best to show
despite the empty room, the face shields,
the absence of any human touch for days

 

they were thought about
and they were loved, and
there were people who prayed

 

some lauded that the virus could hunt you down
no matter who you were, no matter
where you lived, no matter
what you earned

but that was back before factory workers
were put off, before one hundred days
of lockdown, before well-to-do folk
bought the supermarkets out of
toilet paper, canned goods, hand sanitiser and
                                                                                  meat,
before chemists had no emergency flixotide left
              and none available to order
for your asthmatic kid

and chain hardware stores sold out
of veggie seeds, and white goods places
had a run on deep freezers

before they sealed
the public housing towers up
and we saw the brown
– and rightly angry faces
staring down at us
from hundred-fold windows
              as they trucked in one cop
to every five residents

 

and in reality: nobody quite knew,
or cared, what the real infection numbers were
out of india, or brazil

 

while some of us queued for food, and housing
celebrities broadcast themselves singing
                                         imagine all the people

 

arty news crews shot
footage of cherubic choir boys
singing in the centres of empty cities;
took poignant stills
of playgrounds closed off with cautionary tape,
newspapers ran pics of small children
pressing heartbroken hands against
grandma’s window-peeking face

 

on the first day of online learning
my hopeful daughter
wore her uniform

              to the kitchen table

 

iii

may arrived,
and on a daylight street
in minneapolis minnesota

a swagger-cocky white cop
knelt on the neck
of an unarmed black man
              for almost nine minutes

until he ceased to breathe

 

in may, george floyd
              was asphyxiated

by callous knee of an officer, by
cruel might of state, and
under crushing weight of colony

george floyd was run down
by the slave hounds that never stopped
lifting wet noses; sniffing the air
to smell our blood;
              never stopped snarling
at black folk’s heels

when george floyd cried mama, mama
when george floyd said i can’t breathe

every black child-bearer
              and every black child
heard their own child cry for mercy

saw through centuries; felt the lick
of overseer’s whip, splitting proud black skin
felt the sharp, and weeping smart
of plum-red flesh, the desperation
                                        and indignity

fire travels faster
when burning uphill

but june came the strength
of proud black people
june, came the fervour
              of our righteous rage

in bristol, protesters sunk a cast
of edward colston in the harbour

in washington, they almost
              tore andrew jackson down

in ghent, king leopold II was
doused in paint
the crimson colour
              of congo artery

 

oh, the streets were awash
with black and yellow
june was a march of red
                                       and green

 

black lives matter
black lives matter


in australia, the press gave more space
to deaths in custody

for just a moment
you could taste a dream

later, in october
as the melbourne lockdown
                                                            lifted

 

they would quietly fell
a djab wurrung tree

 

iv

in victoria, during the first wave,
it kind of became ritual:

the premier, standing before the press,
and the people, crowded around their
home tv sets,
              jostling to hear

 

when you think about it deeply,
it kind of sung of war

 

on saturdays and sundays,
the premier wore north face

and on weekdays, a signature dark suit

the chief health officer, brett,
soon garnered a cult following

 

the pin-ups of 2020 could rock a statistic

some looked hot in both heels
and health policy
could pull off that lab coat scientist-chic

you couldn’t meet for tinder dates,
but all the swipe-rights
designed contact-tracing systems
                                                           in their sleep

get yourself a bae who can hook up a ventilator,
but will wash up their coffee cup too

 

lanky teens stacking
supermarket aisles
              on thursday nights
had more certain employment
than the dentists did

in some ways
the new status quo
was delightfully. fucking. weird.

the world was a trash fire
but it was all avoidable:

your kid’s playdate after school with
that child you think is a terrible influence;
              book club with jenny,
who insists on chewing jatz
with her mouth
                                  wide open

that pap smear you got a reminder for
two months ago
i mean, it’s selflessness really: can’t go now,
wouldn’t want to clog up the medical system

the courage to quit that job
that’s been giving you stress-eczema
for going on a year

you could pocket jobkeeper:
netflix and uber eats while you wait
and who even knows,
              maybe there’ll be redundancy pay

 

introducing your new partner
to your dad and mum

yeah, nah, sorry,
we’re all in lockdown
i mean, i *wish* we could come

 

routine was tuning in
between 10am and 1

to check out
what was happening
                      with the curve

 

pollies and journos spun their usual crap:

that tim smith, down state,
who can never shut up
              at the best of times
was always mouthing off
about daniel andrews this
and daniel andrews that

and rachel baxendale
from the murdoch press
tied up
              every covid conference
with tedious i-got-you’s

berejiklian got involved
with some real shady-arse bloke

it was like:
              sister, just…nope

 

and scott morrison fucked up
trade deals, left and right:
souring diplomatic ties
like a small, stubborn child

spent the rest of his time
out cavorting
              with hillsong

no matter what happens,
              politics rolls on

 

v

planes were grounded, motorcars
slept street-side, birds
repopulated silent cities

some said the upside was
they had never breathed
air so clean

 

but trauma
does not reverse
so easily

 

a tornado ripped through sumatra island
the taal erupted in the philippines;
bush-burn raged, through colorado and california
              through faulconbridge and northmead

 

the atlantic
ran out of the english alphabet

when christening hurricanes
this season

 

fire travelled faster,
when roaring uphill

 

vi

by november,

washington
was a sea of white flags

each solemn-planted
for one of the dead

 

when election rolled round
the early voters
queued the block

 

the exit polls showed
it was largely black women
              and native american voters

who stood up, and shouted out
and in united numbers
                     got the job done

 

president trump tried every avenue
to beat them back, but the
roads were all painted
with black lives matter

 

the victory, well, it wasn’t much
but it was also just enough

fire travels faster,
when climbing up

 

for a moment, we forgot the pandemic
and the floods, and the shootings
and the blasts, forgot to wonder
where next month’s rent
would be coming from

 

and the whole world stood
              and watched, in awe

as decent americans
packed city street-sides, singing mariah carey
from subwoofed rides, as they formed
philadelphian street parades, as
chicago fireworks shone
              and flash mobs were made,
as harlem hodge-podged
marching bands,

and new york crowds
made cool jazz hands

the whole world stood
              and watched, in awe

 

and the united states
of america

partied its way
to a brand new dawn

 

vii

sometimes,

you don’t wanna
think too much
about the year that was,
              you know

 

the 1.6 million empty places
at the kwanzaa, the hanukkah
and the christmas table

the elders you’ll skype,
              cause you still can’t see

the lockdown-weight
so many still carry

all the small, and poignant, ways
we couldn’t help but have to change
how you scrub your hands
              a little too hard
these days,
at the bathroom sink

 

how,
            most nights,
despite going to bed early,
you still don’t get much sleep

 

the handful of emergency cans
you now insist on keeping

 

and the flinch,
when some stranger brushes by,
             or other

 

the distance between us,
and how readily you cry

 

there is hope, in little things

watching the zucchini plants flower, sharing
a meal with friends

loud children,
playing tag in the park again

realising you know
your neighbour’s name

 

how a mass of screaming bodies
on global city streets
can harness the voice
              of an entire people

 

what a city can overcome

what ordinary people
will muster to give

 

how fire moves faster,
when travelling uphill

and how fiercely we realised
how fiercely we realised

we all will fight, to live

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2020 as "fire moves faster".

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Maxine Beneba Clarke is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil. She is a winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry.