LIVES OF THE POETS
Count us off Muse (three, four)
as we sing the sorrows of an age more tender:
a hatful of sentimental tunes,
a schoolgirl high on diesel fumes,
a barn-raised apprentice
adrift on a twelve-month bender.
Hank Jnr heads for the city, and walks
and walks. In the lonesome glass canyons
where the saxophones call, seeking his fortune,
the young man, the hippie boy songster.
The great city hums in the hive of its pleasures,
banjos rattling the venetian blinds.
Storm clouds mass above the cricket stadium.
diesel blossoms / open / in the rain.
The Dirty Half-Mile has seen his kind before, but to him
it’s all new, its gelatinous sheen.
He stands on the corner with his mouth hanging open:
what comes out is sometimes astonishment, sometimes a tune.
The difference a brotherly teacher can make
to an unhappy kid in a district school
where the school-bus driver is the sheep-truck driver
and the house-cow crops in the football paddock
with eyes as stained and melancholy
as a stagnant pool in a migrainous February.
There are rules for the many, and there are rules for the few,
said the History Master, almost literally.
Put a little smoke between yourself and the world.
The violent sirocco blew the roof off the gym shed
and hayfever streamed through the prefabs
like grief without reason.
History, he said, to his snivelling charges,
loves only those whom she fails to intimidate,
their suffering and demanding spirits,
their absurdities, their attempts on Everest.
In the long grass at dusk, by the musical water-race,
Hank thumbed the volumes he’d been given to take home
while the kamikaze magpies
fell from the old man pines screaming ‘Just fuck off!’
Tonight, on the other side of the ditch,
he remembers the spring snow polished by the wind,
lifting his eyes from the swimming print
with its smell of tobacco shreds and bitumen.
With her five foot five and her slant jade eyes,
on the bones of her skinny little teenage butt,
Shona trawls the grooming agencies
then gives up and spends the afternoon shoplifting.
What would it take to prise the shades off this
fresh-faced prince of Darlinghurst?
The boy’s a job snob, after all,
in his gnostic, long-haired kind of way.
As her mother used to say, how much work can it be?
But what would her mother make of this:
her youngest, in a stolen cocktail dress,
trying to look twenty at the House of Isis?
Dance with me darling
to this sad beatnik waltz
tell me you’ve never loved
spin me around
like an old 45
while I sleep on your shoulder
like I’m barely alive
Dance with me darling
to this tired country tune
in a woolshed lit up
by a rustbucket moon
walk me around
on that treacherous floor
I’ll tell you I never loved
Shona waxing lyrical
promenading under the Moreton Bay figs
in the velvety, buggy, moth-winged dark
while everywhere around them the bats wreak invisible carnage.
Their city of flight, she explains, is their own discovery.
Without the report of their chattering sonar
the pair wouldn’t know they had company;
but as the neon comes on, and the streets fold away,
and the houses sink into the darkness like water,
their electronic otherworld blooms in that
inverted dimension. They remind her, she says,
of the lovers’ own travels: the contrapuntal soul-map
they draw with their feet, with his melodies
(how they bounce off the buildings), with the buzz
that she brings from the graveyard shift
back to ground level.
Samantha. An interminable
saga of cigarette burns and smudged mascara.
She comes round to visit with her white-suited Boyfriend
and gets the kids so off their faces their mouths won’t open.
The plan, it appears, is to marry her off
to an oriental merchant in want of a passport.
A generous five-figure sum has been mentioned.
Figures? Fingers? Hank tries to count.
He remembers the yarn Mr Socrates told him,
the magistrate’s daughter, the blonde, with twelve toes.
The taste in his mouth is like licking a battery.
The landlady’s cat bats the window with a cockroach in its jaws.
And if this one plays out right, the Boyfriend is saying,
there’s something else we’re working on. Perhaps you’d be interested?
But who is this ‘you’? And is it Hank’s paranoia, or does
something about this seem curiously orchestrated?
This evening’s guest speaker needs no introduction
and the boy and his missus no second invitation
to observe at the shrine of their weather-beaten elders,
their proud expeditions, their indomitable ascents.
Every other Tuesday being Young Folks’ Night,
upstairs at the Sensibility Club.
‘My comrade in arms, the late Stokely Adamant’ –
the Feral Professor tamps his pipe –
‘I can picture him now in the faculty tearoom
terrorizing the dear old Leavisites,
conjuring his divine afflatus
with a Zippo lighter and a coffee spoon.
There were no creative writing schools in those days,
you mark my words!
Talk about years in the wilderness, Gentlemen:
he taught himself to touch-type in Japanese, his first time in Long Bay!’
Far off somewhere in the blue smoky distance
the Zip water-heater blows its lonesome whistle
but the twinkling scholar has found his theme and refreshments are suspended
in the anecdotal amber of his eloquence.
The poet’s on a drilling rig in Azerbaijhan,
now he’s in a boatshed on the Hawkesbury River
with the green mosquitoes and the hookfaced ibis,
the red raw skin of their underwings like terrible trackmarks,
and his diet is gin and jimson weed
and the sunsets spread like burning oil
while he works on his difficult Blood Sugar Sutras
and picks off the fruit bats at dusk with his trusty Armalite.
Hank and Shona feel dizzy themselves
as they pick their way home through Darlinghurst,
he in his buckskins, she in her summer dress.
‘It’s a lot to live up to,’ he says.
Why is the Flesh Bazaar more his style
than the Opera House or Hoyts on Broadway?
Doesn’t he know what his options are?
That’s not the point, he has different priorities.
What kind of repertoire loosens the purses
of the tourists and the belligerent footballers?
Slim Dusty. Johnny Cash.
Elvis. Assorted country weepers.
What kind of boy lets his friend sell her body
while he grinds his mandolin in front of the bank?
Someone who can’t understand what there is to be
lonely for, or is too slick to think about it.
And what is Mr Carlos Imbroglio
(a.k.a. Samantha’s Boyfriend)
doing at breakfast with Shona and company?
This is not the same kind of question. It lingers thoughtfully.
Sydney’s answer to Billie Holliday
nods at the mic stand in the Piccolo Bar.
If there’s a lesson in this for the young man,
still, he’s not going to take it to heart.
He chalks his Hancock up on the board
and tunes his instrument silently.
We can unloose the body in so many ways!
He fashions a cigarette with his left hand.
Shona’s night off – bugs in a rug,
with the phone uncradled and the vodka chilled
and the constellations of tea-lights mustered
and a thunderstorm tearing apart overhead
and reggae (‘slowly, from the hips’)
and the renovating virtue of hot knives and tinfoil –
a hippie sportin’ lady on a busman’s holiday
and Hank Fortune Jnr, irrepressibly tuneful.
(Perhaps we should tip-toe from the picture,
close the door quietly and leave them together
building their play-house of pizza cartons,
designing the high-ceilinged rooms of the future?)
Outside tyres make waves in the street.
A branch wipes big splashy hands on the glass.
Headlights sweep the blistered paint
with the glycerine wash of an incipient nostalgia.
Shona, where can I write you, lover,
crossing the desert on your hands and knees?
You made me feel like a grown man, lover,
in the last November of the 1970s.
‘Children, I have two words for you: hard-ons and money.’
Another impromptu late-night visit from Carlos
Imbroglio, solo this evening, Samantha
pressing industry flesh with some bronzed Kiwi rock god
(‘slathering junkie’). But that’s not what brings him here,
bright-eyed and chattery, with his Turkish nougat
and his up-scale fizz. ‘Observe!’ He tosses off his drink
and unfurls a map of the Island Continent.
The pitch sounds to Hank like a table of elements,
the dire names of ghost-towns and precious metals.
Coober Peddy? You’ve got to be joking, but
(Thanks, I will) next it’s a campervan brochure.
The pamphlet is turned for their ease of digestion.
‘This one, I think.’ Pause for effect.
Shona fidgets with her cigarette lighter.
Imbroglio Kong leans his weight on his knuckles.
‘You want to retire by the time you’re thirty,
you need to get ahead of the curve.
That sounds scary? Risk
Makes Money! Didn’t they teach you that in Jazz School?
The rules out there are for rabbits, my friends,
there’s no one watching the likes of us.
Why would you go there except to get rich?
And it sits there! They hide it in their fucking pannikins!
Wait till you try sleeping out in the desert,
it feels like waking up on the moon.
Hang your hat in that coolibah tree
and I tell you, it’s you and the banjo frogs.’
Can Hank be indifferent to this cowboy paradise? Huh?
But what concerns him more
is the studied indifference of his partner in pleasures.
You’d think she’d heard it all before.
‘So what was that all about?’ Hank wants to know.
You could just ask me not to do it. It’s alright to, like,
care what happens.
Hank puts something bland on the stereo
rounds up the glasses, rolls a smoke.
You know, begins Shona, the sensitive part –
‘Samantha’s up for this?’ It appears so.
The young man emits a blue cloud and goes back to his horn charts.
Asleep at his desk he will dream their departure:
the campervan as some period hog,
(like a 50s Holden?), rounded haunches,
with a laughing child on the running boards –
as if he were waving his Dad off to work,
jumping clear as it rolls away –
and the same child’s face in the rear window,
features caving in disgracefully.
The sun-umbrellas grow wild up here, writes
Mike the Zealot, on a postcard, from Surfers.
Hank, too, enjoys a feral stanza,
whacked out on mandies and warm draught cider,
cruising the Snakepit, stumbling and amorous,
chiselling drinks from his zombiefied buddies:
crop-haired Mouse, the Scag Queen of Glasgow;
Frankie Girl, the promiscuous kisser;
Clubfoot John with his gay Kiwi Pharmakon;
Fattie Labelle and the Graft Captain.
From Peter Angelica, a word to the wise:
his Mum has a caravan down on the Coast,
they can hang out a week or two,
eat a few rock lobsters, work on some songs together,
what does he say?
He says that tonight he works alone:
he has tempered himself in the solitary flame,
he has practised his cigarette moves in the mirror
and now the working girls press
to observe him strike a match on his boot-heel.
The Graft Captain will take his order
in light of the imminent landfall of merchandise.
Frankie wants to know where his girlfriend’s at.
(No, if he doesn’t mind, not just now.)
Later, a few blocks of kicking over mailboxes,
busting up payphones, etc,
the catalogue of slips and elisions
that morning will index in bruises like orphaned phone numbers.
‘How can you say you’re not “wired like that”
when you’re not wired at all?’ the Dark Stranger inquires cunningly.
A swift toke of Buddha and Hank discovers the inner smile.
Then the Dark One cracks one of his exploding potions
and things get very loose indeed.
Hank was brought up in a hayseedy hollow
to shave with a butcher’s knife, plough
a straight furrow, open a bottle of beer with his teeth:
the Dark Stranger’s kind were not welcome in that neck of the woods.
So the boy isn’t sure he can stand the excitement,
something in his stomach complains
ambiguously, an adrenal wolf-whistle,
sound of an unzippered boilersuit, the brandishing
of a spanner. You can take the boy out of the bush, as they say.
You can film the perversities
in the building across the street.
But you can’t take away from the frothy spectacle,
the come-uppance, ever so acutely deserved,
of our hero, face-down among the feathers,
trying to look sophisticated.
Shona, we learn, is not the writing kind,
any more than Hank is to be discovered watching the mailbox.
He once got a letter from someone he fancied
and tore it to pieces, unopened, for show.
After six weeks of silence (if the boy had been counting)
comes a brown paper package and a battered C60.
She’d send him a return address
but H wouldn’t know what to do with it, would he?
From his tape machine issues random wildtrack:
road noise, scraps of conversation;
something which might be a dawn chorus;
a few bars of Elvis and a call-sign, Mt Isa . . .
Her voice message fetches him up from an ambient doze.
Such as there is of it. Darwin. Rain.
A boat which was meant to arrive by now.
Ambiguous pronouns. The faintest itinerary,
someone they met back in Katherine
who might now be travelling with them. Gene,
she calls him, Hank would like him, back as a boy
in his twenties used to box in the tent shows . . .
Imagine it, fighting
the biggest mouth in each of those shitty little towns.
Hands so fucked up he can’t make a fist.
A striking match . . .
Tape hiss . . .
You never know who you might find in the Snakepit, but here’s a surprise,
it’s the Feral Professor!
The Club has disbanded, the Prof
has been trialling alternative venues, excellent, excellent!
Where is his young friend?
‘Interstate,’ Hank mutters. ‘Never mind. Listen –
that stuff I was telling you, Stokely, Dransfield, all that jazz,
you do realise that it’s History, don’t you?’
He must appear blank, since the older man
pauses, fixes him with a rheumy eye. ‘I’m sorry,
young cowboy, what I have to say may be
upsetting. Try not to let it sour your drink,
you’re young, you’ve still a few summery seasons –
Slatternize! Botanize! Leave with the circus!
It’s just that, when that’s done, you’ll have to start over.
You’re going to discover you’ve learned the wrong instrument,
hipsters like you will be surplus stock,
while hipsters like me will be living off our pensions
(laughs) so, you know, guess who cops it?
One day you’ll go down to Circular Quay
and find cats from the bush in bandannas and bodypaint
honking into their didgeridoos
with amplifiers, with drum machines!
And the Bureau, meantime,
will draft a new Book of Deeds,
and the volume of your sound will be
reflected in your salary,
and every last day you spend strumming in the country
will be justly accounted
by the office clerks of melancholy –
picture them in their Mum and Dad bondage gear,
they’ll know what to do with you!’
I’m sorry? ‘Hate to be the one to tell you.
Train don’t stop here. It’s that old song.’
Hank Jnr’s eyes roll whitely back.
He slides off his barstool, frothing, and swallows his tongue.
The warty grain of the melanoma
burrowing in her father’s skull
as we all partied up after Catherine’s suicide
we buried the wee thing on Clodhopper Hill
then drove in the fur farmers’ panel wagon
Shona whistling her recondite tunes
down from the misty Tablelands
to the leatherette funk of the Casino Stockhausen . . .
Oh, and still the surprises keep coming:
Samantha! What are you doing here?
The answer, he gathers, is that – bored with the roadshow –
she flew back from Darwin ahead of the wet.
Not that you’d get this in a sentence or two –
she isn’t exactly articulating –
eyes at half-mast, slumped on the shoulder
of some scratchy-looking ape in a sawn-off jacket.
The Kiwi rocker, Hank presumes,
though nobody’s standing on ceremony here,
least of all him, in fact – what does he need to know? –
what he needs, he suddenly discovers, is fresh air,
motion, a stroll down the point to the harbour,
the lit towers inverted in the felty, black water,
the span of the bridge reaching greenly.
Then let the boy sleep:
tomorrow will be a long day,
waking from crowded, unsettling dreams
to a draught-beer headache, an indistinct longing,
and at midday a letter, in Hank Snr’s uncertain hand.
Today he turns twenty. Friends
take him drinking, Carol and Peter Angelica, Susie and Jimmy.
In the nostalgic dankness of Woolloomooloo they
guzzle their Montepulciano and talk about getting older.
Sentimental gestures are exchanged
unselfconsciously. Carol sketches
a freehand likeness in ballpoint on a table napkin,
and yes, she captures his horse-operatic melancholy
perfectly. Happy birthday, young Hank Fortune.
He thanks her old-fashionedly and burns it in the ashtray.
Nice idea! But if Shona were here
she’d tell him that likenesses don’t fade so readily,
you don’t simply slough them you know
(he’s not really a reptile!). How many thousand
different ways to repeat the performance
and still reappear in the same shoes, the same shirt,
the same lonely crag in the candlelight,
lambent and futile?
The kitchen staff push them out with the broom,
but look, there’s a taxi at the kerbside, lit up like the World’s Fair.
First night home you lay awake in the bunk-house
and listened to the chugging of the generator shed.
A gin trap clattered in the shelterbelt, sings Hank Jnr,
already three parts shickered.
You woke in the morning to frost on the blankets –
the visible mist of your breath.
Lunch was a smoke and a look at the mountain.
The burn grew back green as a billiard cloth.