Saturday, 12 March 2011

A Cockatoo Broke the Peace

I have already mentioned Jamie Grant and included one or two of his shorter poems here. I think he is a really wonderful poet - probably the one I admire the most, apart from Les Murray, in Australia today.

In this moving, intricate and beautiful long poem, in memory of Philip Hodgins, Jamie Grant talks about many things, including 'the value inherent in craft', which he demonstrates brilliantly as well:

The Invisible

i.m.Philip Hodgins 1959-1995, our Adonais

As the flight's destination was a country town,
the plane was not much bigger than a bus,
and was driven by propellers — looking down
from my window seat I could see one set of blades,
     seeming blunt-edged as garden spades,
fixed to the wing which would carry all of us.

The propellers started turning, accompanied
by a high-pitched whine, and became at first
two polished blurry discs, before they gathered speed
and disappeared, proving that solids need not be
     visible, as now one could see
through the spinning steel as if through glass. The worst

thing to do would have been to mistake transparency
for lack of substance. The plane was moving
out, as slow as a vehicle in a city
traffic jam, taking its place in a shuffling queue
     of aircraft. A perfect view
was before me, of the giant jetliners leaving

the ground. They would come to a corner at the top
of the runway, with the lumbering, awkward
motion of a circus elephant, and would stop
there for a moment, as if each was a pole-
     vaulter gathering strength, then roll
gently past a marker, and at last rush forward

with astounding momentum, to ascend a ramp
which was as invisible to the eye
as the spinning propeller blades. The tarmac was damp
from morning rain, and on it humans put their trust
     in atoms much smaller than dust-
grains which would raise their luggage into the sky

along with their lives. At once there were tilting fields
in the window's circular frame, followed by
a ridge of houses with swimming pools as shields
beside the tiled helmet-like rooftops. Some horses
     and their stables, green golf courses,
shopping malls, factories, hotels and matchbox-high

office towers rolled under us, before dense cloud
erased the scenery. It was for a while
as though a broadcast had broken down into loud
hissing silence. As we rose, next, into sunlight,
     a dream landscape of endless white
began, sheer vacancy except for a defile

on the horizon which seemed as vague in outline
as the rockery in an aquarium.
After a pause of undecided length, a decline
back through the cushion-stuffing surface of that world
     took place, and below there unfurled
flat fields with dams and windbreaks, and an emporium-

sized hangar surrounded by hedges. The landing
was smooth. We disembarked over the tarmac
and entered a hallway where people were standing
near the door in a loose semi-circle – mourners
     at a graveside. In a corner
my colleague was seated, reading a paperback.

The occasion meant that our greetings were muted.
We got the car, and set off in scotch-mist rain
which eased as we went. A town passed, and fluted
cliffs in the side of a hill, orchards, sheep farms,
     some road workers with folded arms,
distant mountains and the vision of sunlit plains

Though we did not talk much, our thoughts were of the man
whose funeral would be held that day, and to which
we were driving. He had been a friend, and, more than
that, the poet of the countryside the highway
     led us through. In the sky's matte grey
surface there were scrapings of blue steel, and rich

streaks of light fell on tableaus wherein cattle
and gumtrees were disposed as they are on the cover
of his second book. His decade-long battle
with the cancer which consumed his bone marrow
     had not begun when, at a narrow
table amid a rowdy function, he leaned over

to introduce himself to me. He seemed, then, shy
and modest, and taciturn in manner – who could
have guessed at the conversations which would lie
in our future, leaving the telephone earpiece
     warm as recently slept-in sheets
– and his dress and grooming was such as bespeak good

taste. Yet similar young men were not uncommon,
at the time, and in those circles, so our meeting
was close to dissolving from my recollection
when I saw a piece of his in a magazine
     and thought it especially fine.
A resolve to pass a compliment was fleeting,

as these intentions are, but then a phone call came
from a mutual friend, with the news about
his leukemia. And so nothing was the same.
No longer was there time for the coincidental
     encounters on which natural
friendship thrives. He had three more years. I sought him out.

We met, and, over lunch, found much compatible
ground in our versions of the true. A decade
younger than me, he made it appear possible
that the follies pursued by my own generation
     would be no more than a fashion,
bound for obsolescence. A role he never played,

though he fitted it literally, was the doomed
poet of romance, one of the poses favoured
by those elders. His impatience with the assumed
American style of an indulged middle-class
     who, in writing, hoped they might pass
for the outcasts and underdogs of the world, savoured

of plain good sense. Death was stalking him, and was not,
to him, romantic; instead, he resisted
with the nerve of a partisan. Indeed, he fought
so well that the day when he was meant to expire
     passed without mishap. The most dire
of forecasts, though proven wrong, still persisted

in overshadowing his life through the next ten
years. We sometimes dared to hope he would survive
us all, so full of life could he seem, yet often
a crisis would develop then pass, false alarms
     being part of the disease. Calms
ensued in an ever-changing pattern. Alive,

and vigorous, he joined a group of us to stay
over Christmas in the mountains. The cottage
we borrowed was smothered in creepers, and a grey
pall of neglect filled every room; the garden
     was overgrown, with a wooden
pergola fragrant with roses, and a wild patch

of vegetables had seeded by the kitchen door.
After a restless night, we set out walking
on a track which led through ferns and forest before
descending into a gully carved out of stone
     by a cool spilling stream. Alone
in that moss-hung, shadowy place, we started talking

of the need for content in art, of the value
inherent in craft, and of how one conveys
emotion. He knew technique, as each review
would note, as did few other writers, in an age
     when that was shunned. Every page
he worked on was polished and refined over days

through which the words resolved into rightness. They came
out with the sound of his laconic farmer's voice,
obedient to metre and to rhyme. When fame,
of a kind, touched his life, that voice remained unchanged
     although his explorations ranged
over much of the world. Climbing, we had a choice

between two pathways, and took the one which skirted
the face of a cliff. With jagged stone towering
on one side, next to a sheer fall, we were rewarded
by a view toward the valley which lies beyond
     the mountains, like a map opened
at our feet. A blue-tongued lizard and flowering

eucalypts passed by, before we made an ascent
of another rock- and moss-strewn gully, leading
back to the plateau we had set out from. Bent
over and short of breath, I envied him the ease
     with which he climbed, while my stiff knees
stumbled around boulders. Yet his life was bleeding

away, while mine was not. More scenery followed,
chasms, outcrops and waterfalls, and breathtaking
drops protected by wire guard-rails, which swallowed
up the very earth. One such descent had yawned
     before a fugitive, who, warned
to halt by last century's police, preferred making

a leap into the void to the fate of capture.
Gum forest, with its shades of lizard-blue, was hitched
to the horizon, and weathering had made sculpture
out of lichen-stained boulders. His talk revealed
     the schooling from which he was expelled
for a deed still unrepented, memories fetched

back for poems he would later compose. Light ebbed,
and we returned to the cottage with its layers
of dust, its broken, boarded windows and cobwebbed
ceilings, and he cooked a meal we ate in the dim
     dingy kitchen. We learned from him
the strength of resignation. 'Weep for Adonais,'

Shelley wrote of Keats, 'for he is dead.' Yet weeping,
we felt at the time, was unsuited to the humour
he used to face his fate. Tears were not in keeping
for one who wrote about urinals and goannas,
     of football supporters' banners,
and of setting brown snakes loose in a furniture

store. The country of culverts and haybales, of logs
with creatures in them amid the geometry
of empty paddocks, and of cruelty to dogs
as casual as kindness, accepted the fact
     of death, like the sexual act,
and took it for granted. Driving through that country,

we felt as if his living presence filled it yet.
The time for the funeral was now approaching,
but we still had to reach the town where it was set.
We had tried a short cut which became a detour
     through a preserved mining town, pure
as a Disney construction. My friend, reproaching

himself for the delay, had worked up a fever
of misdirected guilt and near-rage. The railway
bridge at the outskirts ended his fears, whatever
they were, and we arrived in time for the cortege
     to be arranged. Beyond the edge
of town there were old mine-workings, in fields as grey

as the craters on an asteroid, and the cars
processed through this landscape in a slow-moving file
like the aircraft lining up on a runway. Scars
of the gold-rush era were punctuated by fields
     where cattle grazed the barren yields,
while suburban-seeming houses appeared each mile.

Then the procession turned through a nondescript
gate, and a few scattered headstones could be seen
on the slope of a low hill, among the leaf-stripped
trunks of tall trees which resembled telegraph posts
     in their rigid uprightness, most
of their height beneath a cluster of olive-green

leafage being bare enough for light to flood
the ground. A crowd of people stood among those trees,
in a half-circle facing a hole dug through mud
and strata of clay and stone. Many had faces
     I had known from other places.
They stayed silent, though a cockatoo broke the peace

with its harsh call. Then the hearse – a humble station-
wagon – appeared, and four men hoisted a varnished
pine coffin onto their shoulders. Concentration
focused on them until the silence broke again
     with the sound of a woman's pain:
it was his widow sobbing, a pure, ungarnished,

heartfelt cry which made us envision our friend, laid
out as though asleep, within that brass-handled box;
her tears brought to mind his sardonic, well-made
face, his eyes and voice and limbs, which to her had meant
     more than to any of us, spent
and vacant now, descending past layers of rocks

without return. Something invisible had fled
from him, and now a mechanical hoist lowered
what was left from view. Weep for Adonais, he is dead.
Meanwhile, his children played among gravestones as though
      at a picnic, oblivious, so
it would seem, to their mother's grief. Motor-powered,

the slow descent came to an end, accompanied
by a rending groan which could have been the lid
prised open from within. But there was no need
for thoughts of resurrection. Instead of a priest,
      poets began what was his last
reading: That is no country for old men. He did

not want consolation for his friends, and neither
did he expect a soothing ceremony
to attend his burial. There is no life other
than that of words on paper, he believed, to look
     forward to. A loud chicken's squawk
from a farmyard nearby upset the dignity

of the occasion, but only for an instant,
reminding us all of life's continuation
in rose-bordered bungalows where a shrub's pleasant
scent overwhelms the fragrance from the poultry shed.
     Everything one could have said
was finished. We returned, as to the reception

after a wedding, to a room with sausages
impaled on toothpicks, asparagus rolls, warm pies,
and cakes and cups of tea, while light-filled passages
with polished hardwood floors reverberated
     to the kind of talk he hated
to miss. At length my colleague said his goodbyes

on both our behalf. Even though the afternoon
was close to passing, he intended to drive home.
We retraced our journey in waning light, which soon
became pitch darkness, and swept through swamps we
        could smell
     without seeing, towns with one hotel
and a single street-lamp, and ghost-gums white as foam

were caught in the headlights. By dinner we had reached
a country town which resembled an outer
suburb transplanted into a vast plain of bleached
pastureland: its flag-bedecked car-dealers' yards,
     supermarkets with discount cards,
floodlit takeaways, video stores, and utter

blankness of character, was less than inviting.
Fuelled by coffee, we continued to drive.
Time was passing, and already we were fighting
sleep, on the featureless road which unreeled toward
     the river flats at the border.
There were no other cars. The only ones alive,

that night, were hidden away, behind the porch lights
glowing out of farms which were lost among clumps of trees
the moonless sky revealed in silhouette. Such nights
of ceaseless driving are blurred in recollection
     and half-real, for each impression
is succeeded by an unrelated scene. Skies

smudged with cloud parted on a star-cluttered dome,
like a conjuror's glitter costume, while we wound
among the elephant-like trunks of river red-gum
forest and the clay banks of silent waterways.
     At midnight, we crossed a black space
in the ground, which was the river's channel, and turned

along a gravel-edged cutting through the folded hills
away from the main road. Another short-cut. Bowl-
shaped valleys, each one brimming with mist, as one fills
a pet's dish with milk. At first the pale liquid cleared
     with the next rise, but more appeared
in every crease of the land. A creekbed's whole

length would be trimmed with cloud. It was, soon, no
       mere mist
which covered all of the hollows like a blanket;
it was a fog as thick as the smoke-skeins which twist
from the chimneys of kilns. The road vanished from view
     before our eyes; we drove on through
a shroud, transformed by an artist's monotone palette.

It was like being in the plane as it pushed through
the cloud-ceiling earlier that day; an ideal
landscape, upholstered in white, appeared when we flew
over hill-crests, but then we would dive again, and crawl
     blindly through fog which was for all
the world like encroaching cataracts. We would feel,

through those long moments, as one does in a nightmare
of helplessness, and each new wave breaking over
us was like the sleep which was threatening to tear
down our wakefulness. The scale of time seemed altered
     as it is in flight; and we faltered,
groping, as the wheels churned up gravel and clover

from the verge before righting themselves. The stars
above us excepted, there were no lights, no farms
or railway sidings, and nor were there passing cars,
so a town came as a surprise, out of the mist.
     A few dark houses, a signpost,
and we came upon a main street with all the charms

of a former time's architecture: verandahs
over paved sidewalks, closed wooden shutters, and rails
for horses – empty as expected in the hour
after midnight. The fog swirled over a street-lamp
     like ectoplasm. An air of damp
unreality, as though upon the stage. Veils

of mist hiding the side-streets; a drinking-trough;
shopfronts with simple lettering – BUTCHER, GROCER
and GENERAL STORE; a feeble light winking off
behind a curtained window; no petrol station,
     no sign of modernisation,
though all of the town seemed newly made; buildings closer

together than in the outspread suburbs of our
age. In a film, or in someone's novel, a trap-
door would have opened next, on a strange adventure
through unknown dimensions; instead, nothing happened
     and we went on by the flattened
metal ruins in a car-wrecker's yard, a flap

of canvas pulled over old motor parts, and past
the town's last cottages and sheds. The dark country
resumed, and still each declivity breathed out mist:
at one point it was shoulder-deep, so that our heads
     skimmed over whiteness like a bed's,
in air clear as spring water, under symmetry

of stars. The ground started rising, at length, and less
cloud covered the road, which grew wider and more smooth.
Gateposts and other traces of populousness,
such as road signs and letterboxes, could be seen
     in the headlights' duplicate beam.
A radio transmission tower, a sharp tooth

outlined against the stars, and plantations of pines
and poplars – and then a reflective green placard
announced the main highway. Suddenly there were lines
of traffic, even though we were in the middle
     hours of night, so for a little
while we had to pause at the junction to let hard-

driven transport convoys sweep up the hill, with lights
strung like yuletide decorations on each trailer;
after hours of darkness, the effect of this sight
was as of coming to a shining and noble
     city amid the wild – mobile,
luminous, roaring; or of landfall for a sailor

approaching Byzantium. It was the city
of the future, it almost seemed, where emotion
will be replaced by machines, and technology
on wheels ruled all our desires. We had left the past
     behind, in the mist, moving fast,
and police cars prowled like sharks beneath the ocean.

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