Our Houses are Full of Smoke

This is the title of a book of poems by Deb Westbury, who taught me in my first year of writing at the University of Wollongong. It sprang to mind when, having taken the lid off the rice cooker prior to serving dinner, and having sat down to consume said dinner, I smelled burning. I dashed back into the kitchen and found the room hazy with smoke, while a small fire was in progress upon the cooker lid. I grabbed a teatowel and whacked it out, whereupon I discovered that I’d left the element on and the entire plastic handle had melted into black liquid. The tiny screws that had once held it to the steel lid had been released, tittering into the sink.

Who was the idiot who ever invented electric hobs? Why did our landlord not install a gas oven? For one can see gas burning, thereby avoiding the melting of implements. And when mummy said, ‘A bad worker always blames his tools,’ she was of course completely wrong.

I opened all the windows and went back to my dinner, thinking of my favourite book of poems, Bronwyn Lea’s Flight Animals, which has a poem with the line ‘Midnight is the smell of burning.’ I’ve unfortunately left my copy back in Oz, but from memory it’s about a woman whose husband has left her, and who constantly leaves the elements on and wakes up to burning in the middle of the night. It is a beautiful metaphor for a woman made vacant through loss.

Deb’s only son was killed by a train, and whenever I think of her I wonder how she is. I also recall the poem she wrote for Scarp, the Creative Writing department’s literary magazine, after the accident. In the last few lines she wrote of the cry of a crow, and it seemed to hold all of her sadness.

The theme of smoke and disorientated women has drifted into my own life, this being my first afternoon off in nearly a month, aside from the election weekend, when I was too sick to enjoy myself anyway. I’ve worked nonstop on my thesis and on my research project for a Queensland academic, as well as the usual work at the library. I’m counting the days until Christmas, when H and I go to stay with our friends in the country and I shall be without work, phone or internet (God help me, how shall I live?) for three days. Then there will be a few more days of furious writing, until we fly into the blinding sunlight of Thailand.

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