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This week from the Poet Laureates of Melbourne
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Cate Kennedy

THE SMALLEST LETTERS YOU CAN READ
 

We expect drama with our rupturing moments
the old story as catastrophe crashes 
like some theatrical CGI wave
of catharsis and world out of joint

so why should it be here
outside the beige door of a room just disinfected 
and soon to be disinfected again
after the presence of my daughter?
She sits with her beautiful head
pressed forward into the metal, rigid, 
as the shopping-mall optometrist says 
this is called a pressure test.
Sit still and look at the cross.
Now blink. Get ready for the flash.

Why here and now
her first time out of the house in weeks
hurrying stricken through the dystopic mall 
to this appointment?  I look at her feet 
squarely on the floor, obedient,
her hands, red and ravaged with too much scrubbing,
the mask covering everything but her eyes
the hunched shoulders holding every quelled anxiety.

Why these tears now, leaking into my own mask
as the stun gun of light hits her retinas, and her head 
gives a wild involuntary jerk?
I hold myself in my chair.  The optometrist says
OK we'll do it again
my daughter whispers I'm sorry 
the apparatus between them
calibrating and ticking.  The flashing cross waiting.
Not a wave, but an abyss.

Astigmatism: a diagnosis
to explain the blurred and unfocussed world, 
the numbers on the screen swimming, unaligned,
the straining for a recognisable horizon,
the headache haloed glare of an outside  
tipped over forever.
This is a pressure test
of numbers, glaciers, fires, fury.  

My girl has become cowed and timid, these last five months.
Now it's September, and with nothing but more of this to come
she holds her head humbly in the vice 
while a masked stranger leans over, slides a new lens sideways
like a magazine into a gun chamber
and says: which is better, this or this?  
Of a and b, which is clearer?
OK, now focus on the smallest letters you can read.

It's the blinding moment 
as she and all of them, every one of them, 
mine and yours, 
so pale now, acquiescent and uncertain
behind their closed doors, 
listen as we tell them that for their own good
they must stare into this new pitiless sun
and not look away
and they blink, and try
and apologise for flinching.  

Who would have thought
the cataclysm would be so quiet
so neutrally-delivered, so orderly?
Better or worse? says the voice, brisk and all business. 
How about now?  Better?  
Or worse? 

Cate Kennedy is the author of several books of poetry and prose including The Taste of River Water – New and Selected Poems and the novel The World Beneath.  She is best known for her short stories, and both her collections, Dark Roots and Like a House on Fire, are currently on the Victorian VCE syllabus.
Cate can be chatted with here

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