Lucky Luke

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Os­car Schwartz

The first poem I read by Luke Mor­com is en­ti­tled ‘My Lov­ing Wife’. In the first three stan­zas, a man sings in praise of his new spouse, count­ing the ways that he loves her. But then, in the fi­nal two lines, the poem takes a sharp turn, ren­o­vat­ing the mean­ing of the pre­ced­ing lines.

She is the per­fect woman, ev­ery­one’s dream My part­ner for life is a dial­y­sis ma­chine.

A friend sent me this poem via email. She told me that Luke had writ­ten dozens of other po­ems about dial­y­sis, and that he was keen to talk about his po­etry with another writer.

So, a few days later, I give Luke a call. “G’day. Lucky Luke here,” he an­swers. I in­tro­duce my­self and ask if he’d be keen to meet up to talk about po­etry. “Well, they’re just hook­ing me up to the dial­y­sis ma­chine now,” he says. “Do you reckon you could come by the Night­cliff Re­nal Unit?”

At the re­nal unit, lo­cated in the north­ern sub­urbs of Dar­win, a nurse leads me down a cor­ri­dor and into a large ward. Sta­tioned one me­tre apart along the outer perime­ter of the room are pa­tients sit­ting in what look like den­tist chairs. Next to each of these is a large dial­y­sis ma­chine. Each per­son is con­nected to their ma­chine by two tubes: one tak­ing blood out of their arm and de­posit­ing it in the ma­chine for fil­tra­tion in an ar­ti­fi­cial kid­ney; the other rein­tro­duc­ing the fil­tered blood to the same arm. Hang­ing from the roof above ev­ery chair is a tele­vi­sion broad­cast­ing in­fomer­cials, cook­ing shows and the news.

A man sit­ting in one of the chairs, wear­ing a Tiwi Is­lands foot­ball cap and match­ing polo shirt, looks me up and down. “You Os­car the Grouch?” he asks, peer­ing over the top of his glasses. “You Lucky Luke?” I re­spond. “I sure am,” he an­swers, and then launches into a se­ries of ques­tions. Where you from? What do you do for a crust? What’s the best team in the AFL?

We talk footy for a while, but then turn to po­etry. Luke tells me he’s been writ­ing since 1997, after his wife left him, be­cause it helped re­lease some ten­sion. “I used to write about all sorts of things in my life, but now I’m just writ­ing about dial­y­sis.” He started com­ing to the re­nal unit three years ago, ten years after be­ing di­ag­nosed with di­a­betes. “I come Tuesday, Thursday, Satur­day, five hours at a time. It’s not too bad some days, but other days I just find it un­bear­able.” He points to the tubes com­ing from his arm. “They give me lit­tle twitches, like elec­tri­cal jabs in my hands and feet. And I get re­ally itchy from not be­ing able to move around. Also, it’s bloody freez­ing in here.”

Luke is in­ter­rupted by his ma­chine, which starts beep­ing louder than usual. A nurse comes over and pushes some but­tons. She then moves over to a young man sit­ting in the chair next to Luke. The nurse is try­ing to ex­plain some de­tails about his treat­ment, but English is not his first lan­guage. Luke watches me watch­ing them. “It’s hard for him,” Luke says. “I re­ally feel for these peo­ple from re­mote com­mu­ni­ties. I see the pain on their faces. They’re so far from home.”

Luke takes a sheet of lined pa­per out of his bag. “I have a poem about the pain of be­ing sep­a­rated from home. It’s called ‘Con­nec­tion to Coun­try’.” He reads the first four lines:

Another day on the ma­chine my aching body no longer keen The blood re­ally need to be clean a trans­plant would ful­fil my dream.

In the North­ern Ter­ri­tory in the 1990s, an Indige­nous per­son was es­ti­mated to be 15 to 30 times more likely to have kid­ney fail­ure than a non-Indige­nous per­son. It was this dis­par­ity that com­pelled Paul Lawton, a kid­ney spe­cial­ist, to move to Dar­win from Mel­bourne. His in­ten­tion was to con­duct re­search about kid­ney dis­ease dis­par­i­ties be­tween Indige­nous and non-Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions, but he found there was so much work to do with sick pa­tients that the pro­ject was side­lined. Al­most two decades later, the preva­lence of kid­ney dis­ease in the Indige­nous pop­u­la­tion has only in­creased, as has the num­ber of peo­ple on longterm dial­y­sis treat­ment.

Paul, who is now a se­nior re­search fel­low at the Men­zies School of Health Re­search, tells me that in the 18 years of work­ing in re­nal health in the Ter­ri­tory he has learned that kid­ney fail­ure is a dis­ease of poverty, caused by three types of de­vel­op­men­tal dis­ad­van­tage: low birth weight; poor ac­cess to good hous­ing in early child­hood, which leads to reg­u­lar in­fec­tion; and a lack of ed­u­ca­tion about nu­tri­tion and ex­er­cise in early adult­hood. While these types of dis­ad­van­tage af­flict non-Indige­nous Aus­tralians too, it is the ef­fect of all three com­bined that is un­der­ly­ing the cur­rent cri­sis. Paul ex­plains that Indige­nous peo­ple are at a dis­ad­van­tage from the out­set. “They have fewer cards in their hand, and they lose them faster dur­ing the game of life. They run out of

kid­ney in their 40s or 50s, in the prime of their lives in terms of their com­mu­nity- and fam­ily-lead­er­ship du­ties.”

I ask Paul whether Indige­nous peo­ple with kid­ney fail­ure are more likely to re­ceive kid­ney trans­plants, given that they go on dial­y­sis at a younger age. He lets out a very long and de­lib­er­ate sigh, says no, and then ex­plains that while an Indige­nous per­son liv­ing re­motely is less likely to re­ceive a trans­plant than some­one in Syd­ney or Mel­bourne, a nonIndige­nous per­son liv­ing re­mote is in fact more likely to get a kid­ney trans­plant than a city dweller. “You might think that it’s harder to pro­vide a trans­plant to a per­son from Bor­roloola, but it turns out that’s only the case if they’re Abo­rig­i­nal,” Lawton says. “In 2017, the harsh re­al­ity is that most Indige­nous pa­tients whose kid­neys fail will end up on dial­y­sis and stay there. There are a cou­ple of rea­sons for this fact, but ba­si­cally it is struc­tural bias. And there’s another word for that. It starts with an R.”

Afew days later, Luke gives me a call from Ra­dio Lar­rakia, a lo­cal sta­tion where he presents the morn­ing show. He tells me to come pick him up from the city at 2 pm, and that he has some­thing to give me.

I ar­rive a few min­utes late. Luke hops in my car and hands me a large yel­low en­ve­lope. “In­side is a man­u­script of po­etry I wrote a while back,” he says. “It’s called Plight of the Tur­tle. Have a look and tell me what you think.” He in­vites me to join him for lunch at a Chi­nese res­tau­rant in a shop­ping cen­tre near his home.

While we drive, Luke tells me his story. He was born in 1951 un­der a mango tree in Bor­roloola, a com­mu­nity on the McArthur River, 50 kilo­me­tres up­stream from the Gulf of Car­pen­taria. His fa­ther’s name was Al­bert Mor­com, and his mother was called Yima. “My mother was Yanyuwa,” he says, “and my Abo­rig­i­nal name is Man­guji, which I now sign on my po­ems.” When Luke was seven days old he was taken from his mother and sent to the Catholic mis­sion at Gar­den Point on Melville Is­land, al­most 1000 kilo­me­tres from his home. Nuns raised Luke, along with other stolen chil­dren, un­til he was 12, at which time he was sent to Ade­laide to at­tend school and live with an adopted fam­ily. At age 21 he re­turned to Bor­roloola to dis­cover that his mother had passed away. Luke mourned not only her loss but also the hope of re-es­tab­lish­ing a life in his home coun­try. After that, Luke moved to Dar­win, worked in a va­ri­ety of jobs and started a fam­ily of his own. “You can read about all that in my book of po­etry,” Luke says, point­ing at the en­ve­lope as we pull up to the shop­ping cen­tre.

Over lunch, Luke tells me that it was an English teacher at school in Ade­laide who taught him to love po­etry, by show­ing him the works of Banjo Pater­son. “Not many peo­ple know this, but the man from Snowy River was a black­fella, a ringer,” Luke says, and raises his eye­brows as if dar­ing me to dis­agree. “You know how I know? He was a skilled horse rider, an out­sider, and he did his job but never got his re­ward, never got the thou­sand pounds. They just gave him some tins of bully beef and sent him off.” Luke pauses and leans back in his seat. “What do you think of that the­ory?” he asks. “Sounds good to me,” I re­spond. Luke laughs loudly.

On the drive back to his place, Luke reads some po­ems from Plight of the Tur­tle. Many are about a yearn­ing to feel his mother’s touch and to re­turn to his coun­try. His mother’s skin and the soil of Bor­roloola be­come in­sep­a­ra­ble in his po­etic imag­i­na­tion. The dial­y­sis po­etry that Luke is writ­ing now is about how a mech­a­nism is, once again, tak­ing his peo­ple away from coun­try, how he has been made de­pen­dent on a ma­chine that main­tains life but de­stroys a way of liv­ing.

As we pull up to his house, Luke tells me that since he started dial­y­sis he can’t sleep. “I toss and turn, one end of the bed to the next,” he says. “I’m al­ways knack­ered.” Even after three years he finds the treat­ment hellish, “but I look at pic­tures of my fam­ily on my phone ev­ery time I go in, and I say to my­self, ‘I’m do­ing it for them.’”

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