Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 14

A Waggaist badge

Frederick Seidel’s tattoo

Blodgett and Stevens were in a bad way. After being bound and gagged, they’d been given a long-lasting hit of LIMP (Language-Intensified Monosyllabic Poetry), a drug the Red K had invented and developed in one of the science labs at Oxford. Seidel had been given a huge supply of the drug, which he’d brought with him to The Island to keep the Waggaists in line.

Behind their gags, the two poets had been spewing forth an unintelligible, seamless stream of verse that contained no similes, metaphors or internal rhyme. It was, as Wilding would say later, “a vile sound, stripped of all emotion, like hearing a conference paper on Language Poetry through a box of sand.”

Blodgett and Stevens had managed to crab and crawl their way to a dark corner of the Main Hall, and there they had remained, speaking garbage for days. As Wilding and Wallace-Crabbe emerged from the tunnel, they’d heard the confused, gnarled voices and had gone to investigate. After cutting the ropes and removing the gags, the horror of what they were hearing only intensified. Wilding was about to replace the gags, when Wallace-Crabbe threw himself over the poets and started sobbing. He was in the final stage of his trip, and through his exhaustion and hot-wired imagination, he began counseling Blodgett and Stevens, telling them that “nothing decays, life is not tragic.” When Wallace-Crabbe had finished, Wilding helped him and the other poets to their feet. It had worked. They’d stopped the rank onslaught of words. Then, like figures awakened from a Goya painting, they walked quietly out of the hall.

Bukowski had heard and seen enough. He tore down the chicken wire cage and hurled the rolls of hexagons away. He grabbed Dorn and lifted him from the Drunken Boat. Dorn tried to hit him, but his wild swings went over Hank’s head. Rimbaud started swearing and hurled a copy of Enid Starkey’s biography. “Lies! He screamed. “Ugly lies! My life was much darker and more violent that what’s in there!” Billy, Dusty and Frank came quietly. They knew a finishing-line when they saw one. Baudelaire had already left the cage and was standing in the shadows, smoking and drinking. Bukowski saw the red glow and the faint gleam of his absinthe bottle. “Get your Symbolist ass over here now, Charles!”

When they were standing in a tight, sorry group, Hank began telling them of his plan. Then he stopped. He’d never had a plan in his life and wasn’t about to start making one now. “Ah fuck it,” he said. “Let’s just get out of here.” As they were leaving the room, Billy Gibbons came up to Bukowski and said “What about Burroughs? He’ll come in handy. We need a good road manager.” Hank cursed. He’d forgotten about Bill. This tripping bunch of madmen had demanded all his attention. He asked Billy to take the others down to the wharf, and went to get Bill.

Entering the Beluga Vault, he found Bill asleep on a huge mound of empty jars. The room, once stained and littered, was now akin to a crime scene in a caviar-processing factory. The walls were completely black. Burroughs himself was a wet, dark figure, barely discernible among the wreckage. He might have been a huge sturgeon, gasping for air on black sand by the Caspian Sea. Bukowski tried waking him. He took him by the shoulders and shook him violently. He even tried quoting a line from the Red K’s Salt in the Wound, knowing how much it irritated Bill, but he would not stir. In desperation, he took Bill’s Colt .45 from its holster and fired off four quick rounds. Bill leapt to his feet and reached for his gun. Seeing the Colt in Bukowski’s hand, he narrowed his eyes until they were slits and said “Relinquish that weapon or eat dust like an extra in Gunsmoke.“Welcome back, Bill,” Hank said, and handed the revolver over.

John Berryman had taken Geoffrey Hill into the oldest bar in the Angler’s Rest. The decor was just as it was in the 1950’s, with formica tables, hard-backed wooden chairs, and an old-fashioned cash register that chimed with each sale. Few people used the room now. Berryman wanted Hill’s full attention.

Sitting in the corner, a small lamp casting a pool of light upon his dark coat and weaving hands, Berryman was animated and theatrical, embuing each word with loving detail. He began by commenting on the red flying fox attack at the citadel: “Bats have no bankers and they do not drink and cannot be arrested and pay no tax and, in general, bats have it made.” He then moved swiftly into new, serious territory. He read DREAM SONG 29: There Sat Down, Once, a Thing On Henry’s Heart - a poem Geoffrey Hill knew well. He had used it many times with his students at the University of Leeds.

As Berryman read, a chill went up Hill’s spine and into his neck. He was overcome with vertigo. Leaning forward, captivated and in complete disarray, it dawned on him that Berryman’s poem - indeed the entire DREAM SONG sequence - was about a live-bait called Henry. 
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
so heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.
Clearly this was a reference to reincarnation - the endless life-cycle of the live-bait. The little cough of an approaching mulloway, and its sweet, predatory odour. The chime of a chemically-sharpened hook on a harbour stone...
Berryman continued:
And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
Geoffrey felt the room bend and shake. The reference to a Waggafish was unmistakable. He was finding it hard to breathe. He couldn’t take much more. And finally this:
But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.
Geoffrey Hill’s heart was racing. His mouth was dry. Berryman was detailing the secret nature, thoughts and fears of a live-bait: a slimy mackerel or yellowtail. It was about the guilt Henry endures and subsequently conceals after witnessing the murder, by a pelagic hunter, of the bait-school.

When John Berryman had finished reading, Geoffrey Hill excused himself and went into the bathroom. He stood leaning on the basin, looking at himself in the mirror. “Brilliant,” he said to his reflection. “Brilliant and dangerous,” his reflection replied. When he went back to the bar, Berryman was gone. On the table he found a napkin with a drawing, in red ink, of a small fish. Beside the fish, Berryman had written: “Henry is a survivor. His wounds grow over. It is the endless cycle, Mr Hill.”

High in the citadel, Shelby was now into his fifth copy of The Immigrant Chronicles. He’d tried eating the poems in strips, in crunched-up balls and as neatly-folded pages. They all tasted the same: like passport-control at the border between Sentiment and Longing. Seidel was in the corner, spitting out lines of vacuous rubbish. He’d taken off his shirt, revealing the tattoo he’d had done on his chest to celebrate becoming commander of the Waggiasts: a black swan against a red background. To take his mind off the hunger and thirst, he’d injected himself with LIMP. He knew his mouth would be off and running for at least five hours, but it was better than listening to Shelby complain.

The Waggaists had thrown down their weapons and were sitting in the grass. Having collected the wheat-grass guns and thrown the mortar canon into the lake, Rodney Hall and the poets walked among the beaten crowd. Seeing them up close was both a shock and revelation. They were nothing special. Men and women in red coats, their badges declaring allegiance to the Red K.

Rodney walked up the hill and turned to address them: “The war is over. The Red K’s work on The Island has come to an end. If you choose to surrender quietly and with dignity, you will not be harmed. Good work awaits you. As I speak, W.B. Yeats is gathering a vast team to patrol the waters of Australia to bring an end to this Waggafish scourge once and for all. He needs deck-hands, cooks, publicity people, craftsmen and women, guides... If you choose to accept these conditions, you must also promise to abandon all study and interest in Red Language. It must be obvious to you now, that this heinous form of so-called poetry has done nothing but lead you astray. It has crippled your lyrical tendencies and infected your heads and hearts. It has hollowed you out and turned you into followers, not original thinkers.” A Waggaist raised his hand. “Can I keep my copy of The Silo Manifesto? The Red K signed it for me.” Rodney nodded to Richard Hugo, who walked over to the Waggaist, picked him up, carried him down to the lake and threw him in. The Waggaist waded back to shore, but was once again hurled out into the deep. There was a loud, mournful moaning as the lake’s surface trembled, bubbled, then shattered. The dissenter was taken down.

When the red water had settled, Rodney continued. “Any other requests?” he asked. A Waggaist stood up. “We’ll need to go into rehab,” she said. “We are all addicted to LIMP.” Rodney motioned for Judith Beveridge to join him on the hill. Judith smiled and walked over. “I will be taking you to Mangrove Mountain,” she said. “There we will embark on a two-week meditation course and read William Stafford, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver and Li-Young Lee. By the end of this course, LIMP will no longer be a problem.” Mary Oliver spoke up. “I’d like to thank you for suggesting my work. In Boston, people can’t find my books in the poetry section, they’ve all been shelved under Self-Help and Spiritual Growth.” Mary looked around. “Have you noticed how the bullrushes shed their velvet when we look at them, how the lakeside grass demands nothing from the wind? Why even the Waggafish are beautiful in their raw desire. This morning, as I...” “Thankyou Mary,” Rodney said loudly. “Now, I’d like the prisoners to form two orderly lines and walk slowly back to the wharf. We will be following and watching you closely.”

Bill beard had returned to the watchtower after seeing Phil Spector’s violent end. He was drinking a beer when something caught his eye. Glassing the hill, he saw two red lines coming over the crest. The Waggaists were walking slowly, heads down, hands by their sides. Their red coats and hats were gone. Behind them, the pagers and stagers were strolling along, some with mounds of red fabric in their arms, others carrying guns and sling-shots.

Bill finished his beer and climbed down from the tower. At the base he took an axe and started chopping. Each swing took a white wedge from the ancient wood. Soon he heard the tree creaking and cracking. After one more mighty blow, the tree trembled, cracked loudly, and began to fall. Bill ran back and watched. It leaned and toppled, throwing branches and clumps of leaves. The small shelter that had been his home came crashing down with the canopy and disappeared into the surrounding trees. He took a deep breath. He didn’t look back as he walked off in the direction of the wharf.

K. Slessor, at the Front.

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