Poem

Maxine Beneba Clarke
The rate

caught skint

                    at the iga counter

 

frantic hands searching threadbare jeans

                    sorry, guess i’m short on change today

                    forgot my card

as you put the tampons, washing liquid,

and your pride

                                 away

     weighed down by life,

                    and weighing up

between bread, milk

bananas, nappies for the baby

 

more have lived it

than would care to say

 

that’s the thing, isn’t it,

                    about cultivating shame

 

sometimes,

                      i think about

what welfare means, literally:

the happiness, health,

                    or fortunes of a group;

a social effort, designed to promote

the basic wellbeing of people in need

 

but somewhere along the line,

it came to mean greed

 

saying things like stop-gap

       and it’s not meant to be permanent, anyway

 

but the damage, that’s permanent:

there are always things that stay

 

the sheer heart-weight of every time you said

                    nah, i already ate today

ladling out to the kids, your mum, the flatmate

or your lover, the last

                    of the bolognese

knowing they know, that you know, that they know

you’re lying, that’s what stays

 

                    and all the nights you lie awake

 

’cause the new place is so close to the highway

                    you can hear the windows shake

 

printer’s broken down, library’s four k away

need to print your résumé,

the pair of shoes you have will get you there

                    but might not hold together

for the interview on wednesday

 

you don’t shake that off

when you finally get a job

 

the knowing you’ll die sooner

                    from red ink on bills

and it’s harder for hungry children

to learn nine times tables

 

the indignity,

                              that’s what stays

 

          the failure

 

standing in the job-find line

                    day after day

hoping no one who knows you hears,

        as they loudly call your name

 

what stays

 

                    are the smug looks

of men in suits

                        who earn more

than a fortnight stop-gap

        in a single day

 

as you’re begging them

as you’re begging them

 

to raise the rate

raise the rate

 

of those who’ll live

                                   to tell the tale

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.