Poem

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

thunkerrthunkerrthunk

 

                    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 Jul 13, 2019 as "Section 116". Subscribe here.

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