The poet in a time of terror

In December 2017 a man in a black SUV drove his car into a group of pedestrians crossing the street outside Flinders Street station in central Melbourne. The incident had occurred less than a year since the Bourke St event, two city blocks away, leading to the deaths of six people, a traumatised city, a suspended coronial inquiry that will test the response of the police, and a yet-to-be conducted trial which will hinge on the mental state of the accused.

Both incidents were soon dismissed as not terrorist incidents, even if they had a terrifying impact. And of course, there has been a string of vehicular murders over the last two years, emerging from a whirlpool of personal, social and political grievance, unmoderated by decency. The most recent attack in Toronto in April 2018 has prompted Canada to look at what Melbourne learned from the Bourke and Flinders Street incidents about the city in a time of terror.

The December 2017 incident occurred two days before I was to go on leave, at 5 pm as I was walking out of the door. I had spent nearly the whole year at work working in the shadows cast by the Bourke Street incident and attempting to find ways, if indeed there are ways, to prevent such actions or at the least to respond better to them. This work was productive, and led to the establishment of a Fixated Threat Assessment Centre.

The months spent learning about terror, violence and its links to mental illness, addiction and disordered grievance also inspired a post on the Burning Archive on the Return of Sacred Violence, and the following poem, which I wrote in the wake of the Flinders Street incident.

The poet in a time of terror

No words can describe this.
The bodies flew up like dolls.
A father spoke by phone to his thirteen year old son
When the car struck him.
The politician played Augustine:
He declared this an unspeakable act of pure evil –
But Anna’s Requiem found the words.
Long songs of sadness.
Black-eyed Pierrots with a cigarette clasped by their lips.
The old songs are lost in the sirens
And empty books broke memory.
In this world a man himself is nothing
And there ain’t no other world.
The poet bows his head to the porcelain wall
And lets out his tears in rain.
The radio repeats the same information, over and over
Until silence itself is known
As the greatest terror.
The silence of early morning
Woken in fear, wretched and worried.
The closer you are to Caesar the greater the fear.
Every city is stained.
Code names instead of pen names.
No Skalds now,
No epics. The old songs are forgotten.
The poet with the suspect bag sits in the gutter.
Trembles. Mutters bits and pieces.
Who can write poetry after this?
Who cannot?
The real heroes stand by the wounded.
Heal them. Speak kind words
In their agony, drive
The ambulances to the hospital.
One off-duty policeman
Pulled open the attack vehicle’s
Door, and prised out
The jihadist madman – or addict,
Or was it just an impulse
A storm of grievance in his prison mind? –
Wrestled him into arrest.
What point do threnodies serve?
I am not even Marlow
On the Thames,
Accepted in my strangeness.

Jeff Rich 2018

Image source: ABC News Gus Goswell

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