Wednesday, June 8, 2016

'Sorry, I can't' (Meanjin)

Illustration by Lily Mae Martin
I've an essay in the new Meanjin magazine, 'Four Quarters'.

It's a collaboration with artist Lily Mae Martin, which looks at failure: parental, artistic, bodily, existential.

A sample, from the passages on the body:
‘Shit, do that again.’ The doctor prods my neck bulge, and my arm burns: down my elbow, to my forearm and fingers. Pinky and ring finger tingle. Physiological ventriloquism, and I am dummy and audience. ‘Mr Young, this is serious.’ Possible paralysis, she says. Possible quadriplegia, she says. Days later, the registrar adds more detail: ‘If the disc ruptures completely, the vertebrae will grind against each other.’ Bruised spinal cord. Bruised nerves. ‘You have already lost strength in that hand,’ he says, two fingers squeezed in my palm. 
Strength was familiar: the mass I threw around, in the playground at five, to the judo school at thirty. After my son was born, I took up the martial art at nights, pinning and cartwheeling on three hours’ sleep. My falls were clumsy. When I tell the stories, it seems like an epic throw damaged my spine. But the truth is: it might have been months of forward rolls—or decades hunched over books, like TS Eliot at Lloyd’s Bank, ‘stooping, very like a dark bird in a feeder’. Either way, I will never quite recover. 
But recover what? The easy languor of falling asleep on my back, every limb cushioned. The comforting force of my oldest friend’s arm, hugging my neck. The gentle fit of my baby son to my forearm. (‘Mr Young, don’t lift anything over three kilograms.’ Nikos was 3.65kg at birth.) 
For a while, I cannot type without voice recognition software. I’m writing my debut book. My head perfectly still, I talk at the old laptop, elevated on balsawood IKEA drawers. ‘Alienation’. Violin nation. Delete. ‘ALIENATION’. Violin nation. Delete. ‘FUCKING ALIENATION.’ Truck in violin nation. What the nerve damage begins, the Ibuprofen ends. My mind is slower, more vague. And so is my manuscript.  
It is psychologically neat to say ‘my neck is damaged’. But existentially, things are messier: I am damaged. Parts of my psyche are caring, dutiful, sensitive and exciting—but they are at odds with the parts that are selfish through fear, weak after sleeplessness, anaesthetised by pain, and dull because of drugs. I am not what I was, and certainly not what I hoped to be. 
Eventually I can travel, and I take the bus and tram to the university. A teenager in a purple choker nods her head to Kanye’s “Gold Digger”, and I wince with each thud. The bus bounces over potholes in Richmond, and I do the same. Toward the end of my route, a young mother with a pram stumbles as the tram stops, then rushes to get her baby off onto the platform. There is a drop from the tram’s step to the concrete, and she asks me to help her by taking one end of the pram. 
I say ‘sorry, I can’t’. And I recognise the look of astonished contempt in her tired eyes: this is how I feel about myself.
You can pick up Meanjin online or from bookshops. My advice is to subscribe.

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