After the Festival
for Vivienne Plumb
Dear friend and guide, your town is the perfect town to win awards or browse a dark museum of treaties and spears. It is a town of recommendations. Someone will recommend you this or that. Here they no longer lock up refugees and the grassy island where they used to is a windswept heritage park. Apart from that, your town is my town, in miniature – as our ex-Prime Minister said, if you don’t live here you’re camping out. In your town it's not hard to be ‘on the committee’ (so many). A committee's the only place a writer can relax. Here I would stay, forever, on account of you, and on account of a tangible earthquake readiness and poets, more lyrical and natural than the other places and poets who smile and embrace at festival time, ruffling up to their cunning civil service colleagues, snaffling the canapés, and some of the more experienced ones, the battle-weary, holding on with the shakes. Here (I have heard) you can learn to write by reading the horses’ names in the form guide. It's written in the stars and in the winds, and in the form guide. There is knowledge here of ancient navigation. But what could be more thrilling for a man from a stable continent famous for its ‘Dead Heart’ than an earthquake? Anything over 6 or 7 on the scale deemed ‘mild destruction’, which is rare. I line up for books. I line up with the literary community. Two women with time and cake crumbs on their hands invite me to their castles on the hill. I imagine orgies in the weatherboard suburbs but that’s me. They tell me in a half whisper that the star American dirty realist complained that wild blondes got him stoned and stripped him down after they rescued him from his capsized kayak. This is how his novels begin. He really missed his hunting rifle. Last time the writers gathered, the land shook and a baby was born to a famous poet. The best Festival ever, the director announced… Sir J.’s tango goes down great, and Sir J. goes down, to a harbourside bar, to smoke. I think he hates this place, grumbles about the wind that seems to always blow against him, no matter which direction he takes. He was only ever a boy from Kogarah. I see a gang of tattooed thugs creep up on us. But it’s only Sir J.’s black tinted SUV arriving to take him to the TV studio. We never did sit down to a quiet beer, like Sydney boys say they do. Still, the locals (like you) so cool just look insouciant – a word you love when the ground under our feet begins to sink, and topple the city that’s stacked with pollies and University Press books. The sushi's fresh and on the seismograph the Abyss appears; geologists call it ‘liquefaction’. The car park sinks and it’s noisier than a harbourside bard with opinions, more eloquent than an A-lister on TV. Like all towns that read books, your town is far lovelier than its icy wind.
Notes on the River 1
(Tonle Sap, Siem Reap, Cambodia)
It is not a river at all
but a question.
Secrets they will always promise
An infant's mellifluous endurance.
One can ask of it direction,
or turn it, this way and that,
depth-sounding its varied permutations:
progress flowing back on itself.
Pay it homage and you’ll find
Hell at the end of it
and Heaven also.
Scream at it, it whispers back.
A big harbour man will never buy it,
either it’s stagnant, or engorged.
A mini Mississippi
hugged by shanties, one tribe
to the west, the rest to the east.
We work its curves, hold hands and harmonise
to a soprano line
of whistling bats in the Grand Hotel Gardens.
We know how death is lurking
in headwaters and the mouth.
A discarded brassiere
or the slough of a black snake in a rubbish bin.
Gardeners play drafts with bottle tops
and frangipani petals,
rank and file scratched into the earth.
Sandalled army toting whipper-snippers
Keep off say the signs
in the ancient lettering of priests.
When the moonlight shines
and the traffic cops nod off
they dream of babies, stalk the shadows
and lay each other down in them.
Eels that find their way to flood.