The Lifeboat and The Emperor

I’ve finally remembered to post my pair of NMA-nominated New Quarterly prize-winning poems. These were the poems that inspired Kim Jernigan to commission my essay about post-traumatic stress disorder, time and poetry, which has been put forward by the editors for another National Magazine Award this year and is also one of the three pieces of work that are being considered for a Pushcart Prize. Fingers crossed. Both poems are dedicated to the memory of my troubled father, who served in the second world war and committed suicide after suffering from depression, PTSD and a wretched heart condition for many years. They were written when I was very ill and had no reason to think I would make a full recovery. I remember lying in bed and reaching for a pen, the voices of children playing in the park across the street drifting into the room as I wrote.

The Lifeboat

All night in his lifeboat my father sang
To keep the voices of the other men
Who cried in the wreckage from reaching him.

He sang what he knew of the requiem,
Of the hit parade and the bits of hymns.
He sang until he would never sing again,

Scalding his raw throat with sea-water
Until his ribs heaved. Until the salt
Wept from his eyes on dry land,

Flecked at his lips in his squalling rages,
Streaked the sheets in his night sweats
As night after night the re-assembled ship

Scattered its parts on the shore of his bed
And the lifeboat eased him out again
To drown each night among singing men.

The Emperor

His bent antenna hooked it
And like a legendary fish
It hauled us to the shoulder
So we could be submerged by it.

Beethoven’s Emperor, my old man and I,
Crammed into his last great wreck.
The windows taped shut, the ice holes
Carved in the windshield

Slowly misting over with our breath.
The notes came high and icily,
Then deepened into thunderheads,
Filling the car with cut glass

That crackled into the static
Of another radio station’s maniacs.
He reeled the dial back in.
And my father, now twenty years dead,

Conducted the piano and the lead violin.
His bony finger arcing overhead,
He leans to me across the leatherette.
This is how you do it, he says.