Some thoughts about writing ‘Yellow Feathers’
I took my new poem to a poetry group held in a busy pub in Melbourne city. We were crowded around a long table with our glasses of cider or wine or juice. I only knew one person there and she left early because she realised she’d dropped her driver’s license at the police station where she had just been with her sister for some reason. Anyway, she left, and people read their poems and then they asked me if I would like to read my poem. I pulled ‘Yellow Feathers’ out of my bag. The poem is set at one of my places of work, the Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE Writing and Publishing Programme, which has its campus in Fairfield. The campus used to be an infectious diseases hospital. When I started there one of the students, a young man, had shown me around and noted that the grounds were so beautifully planted out in trees and flower gardens because it was a place that, for many people, would be their last home. It also has a tall brick chimney which was a crematorium, so infectious people could be cremated on site. Some of the patients arrived by the river that curves through the grounds to avoid spreading disease by taking other sorts of transport.
So anyway, I read the poem out and the woman next to me put her hand on my arm and said it made her cry. Another woman said she knew the old infectious diseases hospital very well; she’d been a patient there as a child. She didn’t think of it as lovely. She talked about lino and hallways. I made the woman next to me cry, not really because of my poem but because of what my poem brought back – her good friend used to go to the hospital and read to people with AIDS. Someone asked, ‘Where do infectious people go now?’
All of this may not sound like me discussing my writing process. But so many things diverge in the creation of a poem: place, memory, another poem, tiredness, a weird burst of energy, silence, conversation, relief, beauty, quirkiness, jokes. A lucky moment when you walk your preoccupations into a setting that animates them into words. Which is what happened to me when I finished teaching and went to the AIDS Memorial Garden to breathe a moment before the long two-train journey home. It was late afternoon, the autumn light was still and pale gold, the sign ‘Men Doing Tree Work’ was funny, the men seemed perched and silent in the huge white gum tree and the ropes hung down inside the light.
When I wrote the poem, the first part of it was all description of the scene – you could say it was unpoetic, I guess – but then ‘things’ are the stuff of poetry and sometimes, in certain composition and without the hoopla of simile, these familiar things turn into something other and (in those lucky moments) bigger than themselves. Simile lost its potency (I couldn’t or didn’t want to make it stick) because composition or arrangement was doing all the poetic work a poem might need. And maybe only relatively unmediated transformation is possible when you’re standing in the AIDS Memorial Garden and what’s gone seems so very gone. Maybe there are times when, rather than following the lighted path to the transformative simile, we need to make our own way through the ‘arrangement of stuff’ in a poem.
So after the unravelling attempt to transform with simile, the poem leaves a space and shifts to the next ‘incident’ or moment. The bit about the man who sat beside me on the train with the bird on his arm, and the beautiful, silent display of its yellow wing. And his gentle encouragement to touch the bird. This interaction seemed to answer that sense of loss that no simile could repair in the memorial garden. It was the transformation I could not ‘make up’.
I am not usually given poems in the way this poem seemed given to me. Those moments, all on the same day, one answering another. I didn’t rush home and write the poem. I didn’t take notes on the train. I told a few people about it though, over the next few weeks. It took a while before I put pen to paper to turn it all into a poem. Then at the poetry group some women I didn’t know turned my words on paper back into place and memory and love and loss and the alchemy of our knowing and our not-knowing. I think the most exciting thing about poetry is that it’s never finished.