I’m not morbid or sad or depressed, but I like cemeteries. I like the combination of park and sculpture and masonry and history. I find names and bits of story that inspire and interest and intrigue. I also find peace and tranquility and consolation – which is a bit odd, perhaps, when surrounded by graves and – let’s face it – a whole lot of dead bodies under the earth. It is perhaps the sense that after all the struggle and busyness of life, it all comes to this…wind in dry grass, a magpie on a gravestone, lichen growing on carving and that carving slowly crumbling away by weather and time.
When I lived in Campbell’s Creek as a kid in 1966-7, I used to play in the cemetery. My friend and I used to take little picnics to eat. I also (and I’m ashamed of this now) used to steal the white ceramic doves and hands from the smashed glass domes. It was very wild back then – in high summer you could just see the headstones and rusted railings above the long grass and thickets of roses and blackberries. The further back you walked, the older the graves. Some of them were still standing straight but others were fallen over, tip-tilted, sunken, or even – and this had a shivery, ghost-story quality – split in two by lightning. I loved the place. I loved the peace and the past; I loved the busy life of plants and animals going on among the houses of the dead.
When I was 11, we moved back to the city – to Chelsea on the bay, and with a back gate opening right onto the beach – but I mourned my country life and my special place. Though at that stage I hadn’t heard of Thomas Grey and his Elegy, I have in front of me a long poem I wrote in 1970. I poured into it all my feelings of loss and longing and I’ll have to say that at the time I thought it was pretty damn good. It is much too embarrassing to reproduce in full, mainly because I hadn’t yet cottoned on to the idea of less is more and laid on bathos, cliches and especially adjectives with a shovel – but here are the first and last sections.
Among the tall yellow swaying grasses
Stand headstones, tall and gaunt,
Enclosed by rusty railings bent and contorted by age,
All the fancy carving crumbled, the letters blurred and stained by years.
A wild rose climbs a tombstone
Covering the RIP with a sweet sad scent.
A thousand sweetpeas, sown by a coffee jar of flowers
Offered by a loving hand to one so dear and dead
To that one, the tip-tilted one, or that one, split in two…
The bush is creeping closer, claiming what it lost.
Parrots sit on tombstones among rising shrubs and grasses;
A pink and grey blush of galahs swoop overhead;
A kookaburra laughs at a long-forgotten joke,
At the wallaby leaping through the misty bush.
Dirty grey sheep in stony water-starved pastures
Bleat for the lambs that play among stumps.
By the creek willows weep into the dark water
While the wind teases dry grass and ghosts.