Poem

Maxine Beneba Clarke
When the decade broke

             the stroke of midnight,

december thirty-first, nineteen ninety-nine,

    was going to end the world

 

at the hospital,

     they brought generators in

 

even the food service staff

were kept till late evening

 

none of us would get to

                                                  aaaaah,

at the most expensive fireworks on earth,

        lighting up a new century:

 

if the power cut out,

    we planned to spend armageddon

pigging out on defrosting sara lee;

   and handing out the bottled water,

down in maternity

 

       we would control the food, we joked,

and therefore, everything

 

in the new century, we, the workers,

      would be king

 

just like one day

                we’ll say

 

where were you,

    on december thirty-first,

two thousand and nineteen

 

   – and perhaps more importantly –

    

       who were you

before the decade turned

 

don’t look at me like that,

you know what i mean:

who were you, when thunder was made

     from our protesting children’s feet,

when 45,

                  (the then-president

      of the united states

of america)

   had just been impeached

 

we’ll say to young ones

 

     unthinkable now,

isn’t it

        that back then, in this city,

women’s bodies were sometimes found

     naked, from the waist down

we would gather in the parks,

for candlelight vigils

 

in this very place, the decade

before revolution came,

                       nobody led

   though four prime ministers

              rose, and fell;

 

innocent black folk were shot

         at point-blank range

regularly

    across the world

and often incarcerated,

        for no valid reason at all

 

don’t avert your eyes from mine:

 

you should know

what this place was:

 

earth on fire,

    from the redwoods of california

to australia’s east coast

 

my god,

              the furnaces

that burned

 

in brazil, they lost a good part

of the amazon,

 

the sea drew back,

              and tsunamis lashed out

in samoa and sumatra;

sulawesi and nagasaki

 

in the new decade, we will say

                        the world

was not always this beautiful way:

in some countries,

     small children starved to death

                           every single day

 

        but that all slowly started to change

 

and powerful men

were brought to trial

     for heinous acts of hate

 

   we threw them out,

              and relegislated

 

(they’d made the churches    

             far more powerful

than the state)

 

for a good while there

we thought we were doomed,

 

              that it was all just way too late

 

but the decade turned

 

the decade turned,

   and suddenly,

 

              we were wide awake

 

lined along the gun-powdered foreshore

   faces tilted to the sky

 

                    watching revolution break

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 21, 2019 as "When the decade broke". 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.

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