October 2017


Lucky Luke

By Oscar Schwartz
The Darwin poet whose muse is a dialysis machine

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 long-term 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 non-Indigenous 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.”

A few 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.’”

Oscar Schwartz

Oscar Schwartz is a Melbourne-based writer.

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