Maxine Beneba Clarke
Section 116

in grade eleven, our legal studies teacher

fired up the overhead projector


and fuzzy grey handwriting shone

                                        on the classroom wall


the constitution:

separation of church and state,

section 116


                    and finally, i felt seen



the exclusive brethren had a church,

in the suburb where i grew


the brethren kids coloured in next to us

                    at the local primary school


all the girls wore scarves and ribbons

                    on waist-length plaits

and the boys were pleat-ironed

straight down the leg

                              of their trouser king-gees


they didn’t play with us heathens


suburban summertimes sucking orange

zooper doopers, bright green bullrush

chasing-game stains smudged across

                             our kmart sandshoes



my dad went door to door with a petition, once:

                    something about a dangerous bridge


more than half the town wanted it closed


they were very polite, the brethren folk

                    said they couldn’t sign

                                                       with nonbelievers

but they’d write one of their own


they didn’t like politics,

                                                     or voting,

                    (but my dad said they bankrolled

                    some parties to win)


brethren homes, they were easy to spot

it was a game we played, my siblings and me:


federation-style; lots of wood detailing

                    and no aerial on the roof for a tv


my mum said they didn’t like modern things


and they were strange, but then apparently, so were we


walking home, neighbourhood kids

                         trailed long sticks

along corrugated fences



                    but we always avoided theirs


mostly, they just were

                    but sometimes, the other townsfolk

gave them a wide berth


like on friday nights


                    when they grouped together

outside nick’s fish and chips

and yelled about us going to hell


repent to the lord, sinners

or you will burn for all eternity


thick leather bibles

held threateningly high

                    above righteous heads


we were terrified,

                                            us kids



during scripture class,

                    the brethren kids were excused


they played cat’s cradle

outside on the balcony


                    i wanted to be excused too


you don’t have a god,

                    scoffed the weird wild-eyed volunteer-lady

who came every week, to teach us jesus

and you need something to believe in


i always hope i’ll see her, when i visit home,

                               i’d ask her what she means


because it’s still something,

                    what i believe in


kindness, and tolerance

generosity, and truth


our innate capacity

to be good to each other


                                                           and section 116

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 13, 2019 as "Section 116".

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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.

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