A Man Alone

© David Campbell

Winner, 2017 Laura Literary Awards, Open Bush Poetry, Laura SA.

I found him late one winter’s day, a rifle by his side,
and people said he’d “gone away”, a victim of his pride.
They’d nod and sigh “It’s just so sad, we’re sorry for your loss,
but maybe things had got so bad he’d one last bridge to cross.”

They all mean well, for they have seen it happen here before —
when Mother Nature vents her spleen it’s hard to take much more,
and sometimes, when you’re very low, consumed by fear and doubt,
there only seems one way to go, one final pathway out.

They’d watched us struggle to survive as drought destroyed our land,
had seen us resolutely strive to meet the bank’s demand,
but time won’t wait for nature’s whims, it simply marches on,
while we are left to sing some hymns, and mourn for those who’ve gone.

Out here that tale is hardly new, it’s far too often told
as bitter winds of change blow through, and debt exerts its hold,
but in our case it’s just a part of all that might be said,
for though death stilled a beating heart, there’s much that’s far from dead.

My mother stands so straight and tall, composed in her distress,
and when the neighbours come to call there isn’t one who’d guess
that she is fully on her guard, for, underneath her grief,
well masked behind that calm façade, is genuine relief.

They cannot see the years of pain, the bruises that she hid,
the days that she would weep in vain, enduring what he did
when drunk and raging at our plight, at all the damage done,
the wrongs that he could not put right, the race that he had run.

There’s so much more than meets the eye concealed behind closed doors —
that desperate, despondent cry the outside world ignores
as stress hits hard and takes its toll, so disappointment reigns
and strips a man of heart and soul, till only rage remains.

It tore our family in two until there came a day
when I knew what I had to do, the price I had to pay.
Though just a boy, a mere fifteen, I had to make a stand,
to challenge him and intervene, to take our fate in hand.

His fist was raised, his voice was slurred, he moved to strike the blow —
my mother only said one word, a sharp, despairing “No!”
before I ran and took her place, then grabbed him by the arm
and shouted “Coward!” to his face. “You’d do a woman harm?”

He stopped, perplexed to see me there, then took a quick step back.
I followed him, and held his stare, as if I might attack,
and in my face perhaps he saw a mirror of his own,
the white-hot fury, rough and raw, that showed a man alone.

His shoulders sagged, he seemed to shrink before our very eyes —
we saw a man who’d reached the brink and failed to recognise
how inner torment can destroy the love of those held dear,
and rob their lives of any joy, replacing it with fear.

He turned away and shook his head, then slowly left the room.
A short time later he was dead, and so we must assume
that, in a way, I struck him down, and though I plead my youth,
a tiny, close-knit country town might struggle with the truth.

So he’s the victim that they see, just one more who has lost
the fight to beat a bank’s decree, and paid a tragic cost,
while we are left to battle through the problems that remain,
and wonder what we have to do to feel secure again.

But there is yet one other thing that I can’t leave behind,
a thought that lingers and can bring those nightmare years to mind.
What if the face my father saw my future wife might see?
What if the cycle turns once more and she’s afraid of me?

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