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Lying in the confessional


Tour of duty
St Brendan's, where I learnt to hold a plate
beneath the tongues of locals. Robed
in surplice and cassock, eyeing off the congregation,
I saw what ritual and prayer does to faces,
how a district organised itself into rows, favoured pews.
The priests had little doubt who they were talking to.
The essence of ritual is returning.
The farmers and their families
were as religious as their milking.
The altar where I learnt to ring a bell, balance
the cruets. Christ's feet were always bleeding
as babies crying were carried outside,
away from the smokers who would politely enter
at the Consecration, then leave after Communion,
roll cigarettes and lean against weatherboards.
What happened outside Mass affected a community —
men clustering into conversations
girls comparing weekends or rushing
to wait in cars for fathers, while the priest
smiled into farmer's confidences.
Everybody suddenly became polite:
mothers fussing, laughing at his jokes.
A three metre concrete square attained the life of a party:
the quiet brooders, the listeners, the elevators,
the show offs, the weekly pious.
Within an hour we were leaving
for World of Sport and The Sunday Press.

True confessions
The red velvet curtain parting
miniature wooden door sliding back
a man's face able to be smelt.

Bless me father for I have sinned
My sins are
lying, being rude to a sister,
eyeing off women in Mass.

Is there anything else?
Pure and impure thoughts
desires I can't talk about.

A monotone absolution, my mood
lightening as I raced through
The Act of Contrition.

Relieved, almost giddy to get through
I join locals kneeling before candles on the altar,
the women who stay longer.

I want to be contrite —
It appears to be the done thing.
My sins have been heard

a part of me has been released —
rehashed, reheated, pre-loved.
Like others, lying in the confessional

became a duty — inventing sins to keep the peace,
to assuage the guilt that never leaves —
I'm happy now, but can I be happy later on?

The first of many contradictory Catholic beliefs.
The distance in the man's voice
rattling through cool absolving words.

Were the priests cheated too, as I was?
Or did they come to trust a congregation
by the stories told in confession?

Getting a walk in
A police siren undermines the quiet
approaching knock-off time. Lone figures
enter wide streets; harried, faces down.

Families after a spell at the park —
prams overloaded with tissues, a squashed sandwich.
Children hopping between the footpath cracks

between conversations. That enviable time
of heightened telling, of a voice emerging
from the chrysalis of watching others.

Light in their eyes, as they interrupt, repeat, stammer
whack each other with sticks,
parents lugging their cheer down familiar streets.

Of course I am watching all this, pulled along
by a dog whose curiosity has the better of her.
She bristles at humans, yelps at dog smells, together

we eye-off the Federation-era houses —
lawns, rope swings, remnants of a sandstone fence,
a tangible history with a clinical leaf-scattered edge.

A cypress hedge hanging over the footpath affords shelter,
earthy smells of paddocks and the airy spaces
memory takes you to —

Granny living on after her husband.
Quiet hours of washing clothes,
wiping down the gold-flecked laminex table

while a budgie frittered in its cage. I was sent to escape
the infighting of school holidays. Poking around in her garage,
the airiness of grease smells, boxes of screws and nuts,

the red and cream Humber she drove out to the farm to deliver ten icy poles.
Eternal summer light blanching her north facing wall
as I kicked a ball fighting boredom, retreating inside my head.

Recently, I returned but misplaced her house —
painted and fenced off, another hold on the past haunted by loss.
Passing my old school, its reduced grounds

so much larger in my mind, as with the fights,
of kneeling before a teacher to apologise.
Molly sniffs at the door to the senior wing

already boys from my class have died.
First headlights, sun lifting the sheen on a Give-Way sign.
Throughout this walk, Molly has marked her territory

scratched and flicked back grass as other dogs will do.
I remember too much. The openness of streets —
a chasm teenagers could fall into.

Here, a single act reverberates.
A friend's mother dropped dead in her bathroom.
Her death carried by word of mouth

is talked about for weeks,
becomes the need for those still able to
get a walk in before darkness falls.

Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan's first collection, Why I Am Not a Farmer, was published in 2000. His most recent book, A Paddock in his Head, has poems about the inner suburbs, the Bellarine Peninsula, and travelling overseas, but the central theme is his family's farm.

Topic tags: brendan ryan, new australian poems, Tour of duty, True confessions, Getting a walk in



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Existing comments

Takes me back to my childhood in Bellata NSW where the Priest would come out from Moree once per month, stay the night at the hotel and go back on the train on Sunday at 11.00 am

Raymond Benjamin Meppem | 01 September 2009  

A real oldie now - yes I had to smile when I read the poem about confession - especially when I was young and the young irish curate in our parish was my cousin - and would finish my confession by saying "Tell Mum I'll be down in an hour for tea" when I thought I might be kidding him it was not me = Oh, they were the days!

margaret o'reilly | 01 September 2009  

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