"Do you know what blood looks like in a black and white video? Shadows."
John Prine - Lake Marie
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Dispatch From The Front: Day 13
Bill Beard’s watchtower
The University of Sydney's Robert Fowler (Dean of Genetics) awarded Geoffrey Hillhis honorary degree, Doctor of Live Bait, March 9 2010.
The Waggaists who’d been trying to flank Spector and Dickey had skirted the northern base of the hill and had come face to face with the kind of poetry they most feared: conviction fuelled by attention to technique and craft. They weren’t used to it. It disturbed them. Under the leadership of the Red K, they’d come to understand and develop a deep appreciation of his motto: Write, Self-Promote, Publish Everything, Repeat. Yet here, out of control and out of their comfort zone, they were slammed by the stagers and book-ended by the pagers. They were printed in limited editions by the grains of planks and distributed to all parts of the valley by Zest. Jayne Fenton Keane took out three red fools with a stream-of-consciousness rave about beer bottles. Peter Boyle translated a wayward ampule of wheatgrass juice and chili oil into a glass of Spanish wine, then drank it.
Spector and Dickey were dodging mortar shells and trying to get the Mustang clear of the mud. They’d jammed a few lance-ends and cross-bow bolts under the tyres. Phil had seen the poets coming, but concern for his battered car had taken all his attention. Death of a Lady’s Man was on the stereo. When Memories came on, Phil climbed in, cranked up the volume and kicked the big V8 into life. It growled and spat as the tyres found purchase, and slowly the Mustang emerged from the deep twin grooves in the grass. “Almost clear!” Dickey shouted.
Bill Beard had grabbed a jousting lance when he saw that the poets and Waggaists were about to met head-on. He mimed snapping shut the perforated metal visor on a helmet. He whispered into the ear of an armoured, stamping stallion. He lifted the heavy, candy-striped lance and tucked the handle under his arm. He wanted to scream something memorable as he ran down the hill into battle. He wanted to make a real impression with his arrival. But as he stumbled down the bank, his lance dug into the earth and he was levered high, kicking and flailing. He came down on the head of a Waggaist who thought that standing your ground and reciting the Red K’s poems was a good tactic in a time of war. Bill flattened him, then got to his feet to cheering and clapping. “Do that again!” said Peter Rose as he ran past, his spray-can at the ready.
“Get out of my fucking way!” Phil Spector yelled as the Mustang roared down the hill. Everyone but Richard Hugo did as they were told. As the Mustang leapt and rumbled over the grass, Hugo sidestepped at the last moment and tossed a smoke grenade through the open window. Dickey climbed out through the sun-roof and dived clear. When the grenade went off, the Mustang started swerving. Spector was losing control. Blinded by smoke and shaken by the blast, he tried wrestling the car back into line but it was useless. He went sideways with smoke pouring from the windows and sun-roof, and then he over-corrected. The Mustang went into a fatal broadside, then flipped. It went into the air and landed on its side in the lake. “Play Smoke on the Water, Phil!” Nigel Roberts shouted.
The Waggaists and poets had stopped fighting. Philip Levine stood with his plank raised, open-mouthed and breathing heavily. J.S. Harry released her grip on the red collar of the Waggaist she’d felled with a talking rabbit. David McCooey gave his beaten adversary a shove, and the weeping Waggaist went down.
Phil Spector climbed from the smoking wreck. The muted, bubbling strains of Romance in Durango drifted up from the dying stereo. As he waded to the bank, a pair of black swans went for him, honking and thrusting their long necks, their red beaks tearing at his clothes and hands. Phil was fending them off, waist-deep in the muddy water, when a loud, low moaning sound filled the air. The swans retreated, flying off towards the river. Phil looked around. The water began to ripple and swirl, then erupted. A Waggafish in excess of eighty kilos came crashing through the surface and took hold of Spector’s head. It clamped its terrible jaws together, buckled sideways, and dragged Phil down. As it went deep, Spector’s black shoes cut a ragged V in the surface. The water had turned a deep, turbulent red.
When the lake was calm and the music had stopped, no-one spoke or moved. It was Rodney Hall that broke the silence. “Now, where were we?” he asked, and looked around, a faint smile playing over his lips.
I’d had enough violence for one day. I needed a pink gin, and wanted nothing more than to drop anchor in Jerusalem Bay for the night, sit out on the deck, drink gin and listen to mullet slapping the surface. I climbed aboard Wallace-Crabbe’s Halvorsen cruiser and headed to Brooklyn for supplies.
As I was about to walk into the general store, Geoffrey Hill walked down the stairs of the Angler’s Rest. He said he wanted breakfast, and was about to ask Griffo where the best place would be. The Rest’s cook didn’t clock-on until lunch. Before Hill could find the publican he ran into a man sitting on the stairs. This fellow had a long beard and was stooped over, muttering “Life friends is boring but we must not say so,” along with phrases of disjointed syntax that nevertheless impressed Hill with haunting implications. The man was John Berryman. He had been with the poets on The Island, but found the war, like life, to be boring. He was drinking straight from a bottle of vodka. “Are you a swoffer or a live bait man?” he asked Hill. “Neither. When I fish I always use a spinner-bait. I learnt to fish for sea-bass in Dublin when I was running a poetry workshop with Seamus Heaney ” Berryman ignored this. “But do you think the live bait feels pain as it swims against the tide with a chemically sharpened hook pierced through its shoulder?” he asked. “Of course it feels pain,” said Hill. “Not only does it feel pain, it prays to the Lord of Fishes.” “Remarkable,” said Berryman. “That’s a loaded sidewinder of a sentence. So the fish is capable of thought, then?” “I didn’t say that at all,” Hill insisted. “Yet I do believe the live-bait is a survivor. These fish are sacrificed and are reincarnated as live-bait again. They may go down the throat of a blue-nosed whiting as a blood worm, only to return as a poddy mullet, to be swallowed in turn by a huge dusky flathead, & so on.” “Well, my new friend, that’s a damn bad thought.” Berryman was becoming agitated: “Bait-fish: survivors of the food chain. Perhaps God ought to be curbed. God sounds like a slob, playful, rough-hewn. The oceans are one vast Martini without an olive or a twist of zest. And besides you’re playing around with words again.” At this Hill growled and spluttered. “Look here. It’s the moral copula, it takes the accidentality from history, the fatalism from science. The moral copula’s not just grammatical, it’s attuned to the minute particulars of grammar and etymology.” “Well, my friend, that sounds like something to do with old Sam Coleridge,” replied Berryman, plucking broken strands from his long greying beard. “And as I said before you started me on all this stuff of despair: “Life friends is boring.”
Hill shook his head like a prize fighter, he wasn’t going to let Berryman fob him off with that stale old line. He gathered his thoughts, but Geoffrey Hill was so agitated he forgot his high moral stance and let go with one below the belt: “Is life also boring to a live-bait—for instance: does a live-bait know that it is a live-bait?” “Oh yes, yes, yes’ Berryman shuddered, coughed in a hacking spasm and went red, he’d been caught out. “Yes, yes, I have been a live-bait man since my time in Florida, I learned how to live-bait from Wallace Stevens. He used to fish with me when he came over on his holidays. Wally was a gun bone-fish man, when the others were swoffing Wally was using blood-worms, when the others were casting their artificial crab-flies for permit Wally was using live-manna crabs. He taught me everything I know, he blooded me on the sandflats of Florida Keys. We were silent killers, live-baiting by sight, polaroiding in the early mornings and late sunsets.” Hill’s eyes were opening wider as Berryman raved about live-bait: “And how do you feel about it now?” Berryman shook his head sadly. “That’s where I get this heaviness of soul: the pleasure and the guilt.”
The hunt with its twin-kill, the live-bait eaten by the catch, the catch eaten by the hunter. Wally taught me that too, if we have to exist in a goddamn food chain, then it’s best to exist at the top. “The imagination, the one reality in this imagined world” is how he put it, to imagine the bone-fish hovering like a blonde shadow over the blonde sand. The live crab descending through the water column, its legs sending the vibrations out to the receptors along the side of the bonefish; then the crushing jaws, the death strike.” Hill was shaking with anticipation. “So you want to know if the live bait knows it is in fact a live-bait?” Hill nodded gravely, “ Totally, they have souls like gentle honey-eaters. They hover in the tide with a great red hook through their shoulder, they see the shadow of the bone-fish, the mulloway, the stingray or the shark. They are super aware, they have the sensitivity of an ancient job fish, they know their fate and they never accept it until the jaws of a predator close around their heads.” “My God,” said, Hill “You are a monster, a cold-hearted remorseless killer.” Berryman, opened his arms and wiped the air with his right hand “O ho alas when will indifference come, I moan and rave, and I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn.” But Geoffrey Hill was a harder man, he caught Berryman’s attention, fixed him with a raptor’s eye and slowly said: “A beast is slain, a beast thrives. Fat blood squeaks on the sand. A blinded god believes that he is not blind.”