Personal Choice 34
My father and my mother never quarrelled.
They were united in a kind of love
As daily as the Sydney Morning Herald,
Rather than like the eagle or the dove.
I never saw them casually touch,
Or show a moment’s joy in one another.
Why should this matter to me now so much?
I think it bore more hardly on my mother,
Who had more generous feelings to express.
My father had dammed up his Irish blood
Against all drinking praying fecklessness,
And stiffened into stone and creaking wood.
His lips would make a switching sound, as though
Spontaneous impulse must be kept at bay.
That it was mainly weakness I see now,
But then my feelings curled back in dismay.
Small things can pit the memory like a cyst:
Having seen other fathers greet their sons,
I put my childish face up to be kissed
After an absence. The rebuff still stuns
My blood. The poor man’s curt embarrassment
At such a delicate proffer of affection
Cut like a saw. But home the lesson went:
My tenderness thenceforth escaped detection.
My mother sang ‘Because’, and ‘Annie Laurie’,
‘White Wings’, and other songs; her voice was sweet.
I never gave enough, and I am sorry;
But we were all closed in the same defeat.
People do what they can; they were good people,
They cared for us and loved us. Once they stood
Tall in my childhood as the school, the steeple.
How can I judge without ingratitude?
Judgment is simply trying to reject
A part of what we are because it hurts.
The living cannot call the dead collect:
They won’t accept the charge, and it reverts.
It’s my own judgment day that I draw near,
Descending in the past, without a clue,
Down to that central deadness: the despair
Older than any Hope I ever knew.
A year ago you came
Early into the light,
You lived a day and night
Then died; no-one to blame.
Once only, with one hand
Your mother in farewell
Touched you. I cannot tell,
I cannot understand
A thing so dark and deep,
So physical a loss:
One touch, and that was all
She had of you to keep.
Clean wounds, but terrible,
Are those made with the Cross.
James Phillip McAuley (1917 – 1976) was an Australian academic, poet, journalist, literary critic and a prominent convert to Roman Catholicism. He was involved in the Ern Malley poetry hoax.
Because is one of the truly great Australian poems and one that draws the reader inexplicably into an examination of the past, childhood, parents and what we are left with to regret.