The true story of James Keir, the father of the Keir family, a market gardener, a devout man in the Church of Christ, who arrived in Australia in the 1850s. My neighbour – if I was alive in the lmid to late-1800s.
Eight of his 13 children and about 12 grandchildren died before reaching aged ten.
But he was long-lived – dying of senile decay, and asthenia in 1903, two years after the death of his wife, Catherine who died of heart failure and asthenia.
I don’t know if the word asthenia is used that much these days, I have not heard it before. Yet it crops up a lot on old death certificates. It means unduly weak and fatigued. When I think of James and Catherine Keir, I imagine the mother worn out from bearing 13 children and dying of a broken heart; and James, the father, similarly worn out by hard work and despair, and mad with grief.
This is an imagined conversation he is having with himself, god and angels as he faces the end of his life as he grapples with his past and his faith through the fog of senile decay. The text in this book comes from a number of sources. As James was deeply religious, some passages as the one below, are from the bible.
After my father died I ended up with his church missal, and not being a person of faith myself, re-deployed some of this into the book as well. Other text comes from the beautiful and strange book, The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox.
Being embarked, I passed over and came to my own town
Point Nepean Road
Each prayer uttered
each deliverance granted you
gives you a pull God-ward
I was a willing servant of Christ
I found work as a gardener
cultivating vast plantations of suffering
my mind is full to the brim with corpses
untasted fruit withered around its seed.
Lucifer sent me
I am sure
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
He cried to the lord in their need
Waterfalls of death
until you can’t get another breath
it was as I’d had my skin stripped off
a sudden wail
pale past with present
in the thousand tongues of humankind
Peace, Perfect Peace
“If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall
ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you”
Well, that’s what they say.
You’re wrong, Father.
I didn’t care to lose my safe place in the world,
“God is merciful”,
The angel whispered,
‘Come back into the church’
A god who will not explain himself, who won’t be questioned
who wants to be obeyed, not understood
who blinds people with their own light
their own world’s loveliness
I had a girl once.
“Little girl, I tell you to get up”
young girl I say to you arise”
Wake up, please
He flatly refused
But she died
“My God, My God,
Why have you abandoned me?”
Does he see me?
Are you feeling calmer?
I should have cut off my hair and put it in their little hands
Before they were buried, as widows still do in the pays.
Other children died
One four year old
a tiny child
my blessed granddaughter
He could hear his voice
wild with exhaustion
with its terrors
Stripped of all human expression
Scarely able to speak.
Their childhoods, their youth
throat so swollen
to scarlet fever or diphtheria
How is it that you have no faith?
3 thoughts on “decay & doubt: James Keir”
What a beautiful work. I am curious about your thoughts on the use by artists of the personal stories/histories of other people in their own work. I am working on an artist’s book which deals with some painful chapters in the life of a now deceased member of my family. I struggle a bit with the responsibility inherent in the use of someone else’s story in one’s own work, particularly of someone who is no longer around to give or deny permission. May I ask where you came upon the story of the Keir family? Again, my compliments on your lovely and powerful work.
Thank you for your thoughtful and kind comments Patricia. Well, I think it is the role of artists, writers and others to interpret lives – hopefully sensitively. It can be a bit tricky when there are challenging or sensitive stories to tell. You can read about the inspiration for this work in another post on my website … KEIRLAND; there is so much more awaiting to be uploaded! Warm wishes. Anne
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