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This poem is taken from PN Review 98, Volume 20 Number 6, July - August 1994.

Barking at the Thunder Les Murray

Synopsis: In the Turkish port of Trabzon, anciently Trebizond, early in World War I, a German-Australian sailor named Fred Boettcher witnesses the incineration of defenceless Armenian women by a crazed mob of men. Unable to stop this crime or save the women, he quickly develops an apparent case of leprosy, which then alters into an invisible but total loss of his sense of touch. His other senses remain intact, and his condition, which he instinctively conceals, brings him the compensations of rapid healing and great physical strength. Throughout a series of often desperate adventures around the edges of the war, he succeeds in keeping his personal vow not to kill Germans or Australians, or indeed anyone else. Now, at the end of the war, he has at last managed to get home to Australia to visit his parents.

Coming home, I walked into a masquerade.
All the people in Newcastle, all on the train wore these face-masks
of white cotton gauze, some dirtied with tobacco and words.
I had to, too. So there I am riding in a dogbox train
through Maitland stewing in that January heat, on through Paterson
between the courthouse and the tall church, above the creek flats,
and all the way so nervous I'm brewing and letting gas
like a great beer-bottle, as I look forward to home.

Then we're at Dungog, all white-whiskered women, muzzled kids
and handkerchief desperadoes. Scared the Black Flu might strike them,
some confused even their families: people singing out Mum? Here I am -
But my family, they aren't there. I'd have known them masked head to foot.
But, maybe it was nothing. The muscular cleared hills looked right.
Smaller, but still home. I'd just hoof it out to the farm
and arrive before my telegram.

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