When Real Death Enters the House, All Poetry is Dumb: Reflecting on Alfalfa


Originally Published in Edition Three (2022)

content warning: explores grief and death

I recently cried over some graffiti. Two words sprayed in bright yellow paint on a wall along Brunswick Road. their letters smudged, running in rivulets from the rain. In a thick, heavy hand with soft, round edges on the consonants, and the tail of the Y curled into a heart at the end; it read "R.I.P Alfy". It was one of dozens in the
same hand, all dedicated to Alf, that I have seen across Brunswick, Parkville, and Carlton, a scribbled obituary that no doubt extends far beyond just the few that I have seen. They are simple and sincere. "Alfy". "Alfalfa" "R.I.P Alfy. Our sad boy. A good boy. We miss you."

These messages seem to be a permanent part of the landscape that I have trained my eve to notice, like a botanist with rare plants. They are usually small, on walls, bins, and mailboxes, sometimes in spray paint and sometimes pen. I have never seen one written. They are static in this way, and yet living, growing; new ones continue to appear each time I'm out, where just a few days ago, there was but bare infrastructure They are truly everywhere-once you are looking for them, they appear on every surface--sometimes large, sometimes small, but always there, always present within the world. They are, to me, incredible. They piss on the impersonality of the places they mark. They are brazenly personal; they suggest total ownership of the city; they scream in your face to listen to the grief, the loss, and the pain contained in every tag. They don't just adorn the pavements and front fences but actively reconstruct them into a site of mourning, of reflection, an endless suburban gravestone that spreads its solemn grief ever outwards.

It is, however, a troubling appreciation. In many ways, I feel like a terrible voyeur for my constant sighting of these messages. It is uncomfortable to even write about them. I hate to think that I am over-interpreting an actual death into some benign think piece about how sad they make me. Or perhaps, even, to believe that I am creating a story from nothing, a tale of loss where there is only graffiti. It certainly feels disrespectful to invent an author for them. These are real people, real loss, real lives separate from mine. It feels wrong to express my thoughts without their consent. I do not know if Alfy was old or young, even if he was--as I am making the unfortunate assumption--human. Perhaps he was a pet? Perhaps a houseplant. They project genuine, tangible grief, but their content is deeply personal and contextual. Who am I, not knowing this figure, to comment on his life and passing? They are seen by all and yet only to be understood by few--a window to a world only those who knew him to live within. I should not be looking at them. They are not for me.

My concern also extends to a knotty question. Of course, these are art in the sense that any act of creative expression is, on a purely abstract level, artistic in nature, but is it not incredibly presumptive of me to view them in the same way you might a painting or song about death? I certainly feel far less shame about consuming them. But what really is the difference involved here?

It cannot be the circumstances; as while raw and emotive, it is not exactly uncommon for art to be motivated or inspired by death. It also can't be the anonymity. Would things really change if I knew the author? It seems to be in the actual encounter, the way such a personal story paints itself onto the public space. Public art is rarely confrontational and usually abstract--lacking in any concrete message, to remain palatable to any given passer-by. The death of a loved one might inspire a mural, but it's just not the same as the brutally honest admission of grief plastered across concrete and stone. It pulls back the curtain on our inner lives; the reality of the intimate that we keep wrapped up inside ourselves that is suppressed in the public domain. You keep your head down on the train when inner lives come out-the drunkard's rant, the lover's quarrel, the salacious story whispered into a telephone. And yet, are these not the stories that compel us the most? For they contain within them a truthfulness that can only be understood when we remove them from the vast unknown of private life- snapshots of another's world in all their frozen beauty, taken exactly as we hear them. The scale of Alfy's commemoration belies that it is but one tiny glimpse into an entire history of two intertwined lives. We have eavesdropped on this public conversation, and from it, we must take only what is there; a heart wracked with great and terrible pain, and a dead boy, gone too soon.

Yet most importantly, these tags tell a tragic tale as old as time: When the people we love die, we honour them. We erect graves, statues, and mausoleums--great monuments designed to last generations, to ensure that no one forgets the sheer magnitude of their passing. We compose songs and poetry, paint and draw and sculpt and write; anything to come to terms with the terror, the gaping absence that once was a person. Death is always personal, yet rarely private. It seeps and blights; it sits in your house, and it does not leave in dusty portraits and cold empty beds. It is too much of a burden to bear on one's own, lest it takes you too, and must thus be shared. It must be conjured into being through expression so that we might look into its face and beg for it all to go away. But what if you cannot erect a grave, and you cannot paint, and you cannot sing, and someone that you love so dearly, more than life itself, has been taken away from you, and the grief is so overwhelming that it breaks you apart inside and you know, beyond all else, that you must do something about it? Then what do you do?

Maybe then, just maybe, you'd walk all night in the cold with nothing but a marker and your memories, trace the streets you used to roam together, pound pavement where once he matched your stride, where you now set pace alone. Rattle up Sydney Road in a battered old B-class where you scratched your tag into the window with a key, past the stops where you would sit idly and laugh together waiting for the tram. And everywhere you go, everywhere that once belonged to both of you, every spot where you stood or sat or ran or walked: that shall be his monument. On every wall and pole, for all to see, leave a sign that defiantly says that Alfy was here, that his presence has not left this place and that he will not be so easily forgotten. On every wall and pole, honour the memory of someone you loved, someone who is no longer here but who will live on forever in these simple declarations. Our sad boy. We miss you Alfalfa. Alfy. Alfy. Alfy.

And when I walked home late at night along Brunswick Road after a not-very-good party and saw at my feet the exact familiar words, drawn in the same hand, with the tail of the Y curling into a heart, I was wracked with sobs. I sat there, and I cried, for I knew exactly why the graffiti moved me so at that moment. That the soul of one sad boy, wandering the streets endlessly where once he walked among the living, might see messages meant just for him, calling out beyond this realm from the pavement, lamppost, park bench, painted on the very fabric of the city. A breadcrumb trail spanning miles, written desperately in the hope that they might remind him that he is not forgotten, that he is not only remembered but celebrated, triumphed as much as any great monument or tomb. Maybe, just maybe, they will guide a lonely ghost home to where the ones who love him are waiting patiently, having never stopped missing their Alfalfa.

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