Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 26

James Joyce’s Martello Tower at Sandy Cove.

Patrick Kavanagh making his way to Sandy Cove to meet Yeats.

The sky over Sandy Cove as Yeats returns to Woy Woy.

Robert Adamson in front of Frank O’Hara’s Live Bait shop, Long Jetty.

W.B. Yeats felt himself lifted violently into a roaring wind. Something like fine hail was pelting his face. He tried to open his eyes but the pressure had sewn them shut. He dreamed of gold coins lying heavy on his eyelids, of Saint Beckett blessing him with a bog-wood plank. He heard a choir of celtic thousands singing “Dirty Red Town”. He was lost in a vision of The Salmon of Knowledge when the wind and ice stopped and he felt himself falling. As he tumbled, his clothes were being torn away. He plummeted through a thunderhead, its blue and purple ridges and swollen seams giving way as he went through it. Then he saw a harbour, the roofs of houses shouldering each other down a narrow street. Then a sandstone tower loomed up at him. He closed his eyes and held his breath. And then everything was quiet and still.

Yeats opened his eyes. He was in a high-backed darkwood chair in front of a raging fire. The air was thick with peat and aromatic tobacco smoke. He looked around. The vast room was empty, its sandstone walls flickering with shadows and golden light. In the distance a bell tolled. Then the room’s huge wooden door opened slowly. A massive, hulking figure stepped into the room. It was Cuchculain. The great warrior had to bend low to get under the door frame. When he stood up inside the room, Yeats estimated his height to be at least 10’. He was dressed in boar-leather and the tanned skins of red fish.  A large silver shield with fish and birds embossed into it was hanging from his belt. In one hand he held two spears, their shafts as thick as an average man’s arm. In the other he held a live Waggafish by its tail. The fish must have weighed at least twenty kilos, and was looking around wildly and moaning. Cuchculain held the Wagga aloft, then brought it close to his face. The Wagga went insane, thrashing and snapping its jaws. Cuchculain smiled at Yeats, then bit the Wagga’s head clean off. He spat the still-snapping head into the fireplace. With two steps he was beside Yeats, towering over him. He looked down and said. “I am happy you summoned me. I was expecting your call.” He looked at the headless fish in his fist. “I have slain over ten thousand of these Red creatures and still they come. They are murdering the heart of our rivers. They are in the streams. I have seen them flipping and snarling as they rise on the blades of the mill-wheels. Our fishermen are kneeling in impotent fury under their terrible influence. I have brought you here to meet with those who share your desire to see this Redness banished forever.” 
With those words, Cuchculain stepped aside, and through the door came a silent line of poets, all wearing large War on Wagga badges. First to enter was James Joyce, his monocle flashing with firelight. Then came Patrick Kavanagh, his torn coat stained with Wagga blood. C.S. Lewis was next, his hands clasped together, his head bowed. Oscar Wilde stepped into the room, flicking his fringe and smiling broadly. Then Jonathan Swift swept into the room, a quill from an eagle feather bristling from a pocket of his large black coat. Spike Milligan tripped on the step and stumbled into the room, followed by Paul Muldoon, who looked for all the world as though he’d just been spirited away from drinking with friends in the snug at the Bleeding Horse, or the Bleeding Heart hotel in Ennis.
The poets sat down in a half-circle facing Yeats. Joyce was first to speak. “Red times have befallen us. We are gathered here to free Ireland of this pestilence, this cloud of impending doom.” “What Joyce is trying to say,” said Oscar Wilde, “is that whenever three or four things gather in the name of Redness, that’s three or four too many as far as I’m concerned.” Spike Milligan was staring at Yeats. “The first ‘Woy’ means deep, the second ‘Woy’ water,” he said. Muldoon looked at Milligan. “What the hell are you talking about?” C.S. Lewis packed the bowl of his yew-wood pipe, tamped the tobacco down with his thumb, struck a match on the sole of his boot, put fire to the bowl, took a sip of smoke, and said bugger all.
Yeats was still in shock at finding himself in such illustrious company. He’d only recently been reading Muldoon’s Moy Sand and Gravel, and had been amazed and infuriated by the man’s facility with language and his ability to rhyme rock with Donegal. He took a deep breath and addressed the poets: “My dealings with occultism have been inspirational, but no encounter has led me into such astonishing company. “It only gets better,” Wilde said. “Yes indeed, Patrick Kavanagh said. “Just wait until we bring out the soda bread, porter, and blood pudding.” Yeats removed his glasses and polished the lenses on his waistcoat. “Like Caesar in his war-tent, I feel compelled to study the emotional lie of the land before me, and then consider,” he said quietly. He looked over at Cuchulain, who was jabbing a huge finger into the side of the still-shaking Waggafish. “So please, friends, what would you have me do?” “Are they still live-baiting for jewies among the pylons of the old Woy Woy road bridge?” asked Spike Milligan. James Joyce raised his hand. He made a sweeping gesture that took in the entire room. “My tower at Sandy Bay will be home to our small group until we have harnessed our collective thoughts on how to rid Ireland of the Red ones. We will remain here until such time as we are ready to take action.” Joyce leaned forward in his chair and fixed Yeats with a look so intense, W.B.’s ears started ringing. “Are the red Wagga-rods with their lure-launching device ready to be used in this War?” he asked. Yeats got to his feet and went into a heated description of the complex workings of the rod and lure-launcher. Oscar Wilde went to him and took Yeats by the shoulders. “Settle down man,” he said. “You’re a great poet not a feckin’ epileptic.” Yeats took his seat. “Very well,” Joyce said, “Now, if that’s everything, I suggest...” “This Red K fellow,” Muldoon said. “I was on the bill with him during a festival a couple of years ago. Jaysus it was dreadful. I couldn’t understand a word the man was saying. It was like he was talking through a mouthful of wheat.” Yeats was going to say something about the age-old story of self-promotion rarely achieving the talent it parades, when the air in the room turned cold and he felt a terrible pressure in his neck and down his spine. 
Once again he felt himself rising and tumbling. His mouth filled with rain, and his eyes were sealed with miles of cold wind. One moment he was travelling at a frightening speed, deep inside a dream about Patrick Kavanagh taking a plank to Wendy Cope, and the next he was slumped over the seance table inside the Woy Woy Trades Hall, fighting for breath and trying to still his racing heart. Wallace Stevens prodded him with his walking cane. “Welcome back, W.B.” he said. “There are more than thirteen ways of looking at a miracle.” The other poets started talking at once, asking questions and pointing at the ceiling, which was still smoking. “You were only gone a couple of minutes,” said H.D. Basil Bunting looked at Yeats through eyes grown weary with visions and reading in bad light. “Pity,” he said. “I was hoping for a little insight into the details of The Other Side.” “Well, friends,” Yeats said, “if I told you, you would believe me.”
There was a silence in the hall thick as winter mist on the Budgewoi River. Then one of the Evangelicals let go with a seagull-toned gale of gibberish,  which encouraged the rest of the flock to bust out again into a mumbling version of their speaking in tongues. When this subsided they gradually began filing out of the Trades Hall. After the last of the Evangelicals had moved on, the group of poets started climbing down from the stage. Above them the hole in the roof was shaped like W.B. Yeats’ body. When they reached the street they decided to spilt up into two groups. Bunting had hired a car  earlier in the day. He wanted to show the poets in his group the wonders of the lagoons of the central coast. The other group was myself, W.B. Yeats, Bob Adamson and Anthony Lawrence.

We were in Adamson’s Customline again and heading back to the Pacific Highway. As we drove through the streets of Woy Woy, W.B. Yeats told us he had arranged another meeting to do with spiritual matters. This time it was to be held in the Masonic Lodge Hall at Budgewoi, the oldest Masonic Lodge in the Southern Hemisphere. W.B. knew about this because he’d been corresponding with Robert Duncan. It turned out that Duncan had arrived in Sydney a good month before the poetry war, but instead of going directly to The Island had traveled north to Budgewoi. Duncan was the guest of Hammer Whitefeather, the high chief of the Masons of the mid-north coast. These two had been corresponding for three years and plans for Duncan’s performance of a transmigration of the soul had been followed to the letter.

Before we looped back through Budgewoi, W.B. decided we should go and check out O’Hara’s fishing tackle store. We cruised into the Entrance and before long we saw a corner shop with a huge live-bait sign painted in red on the window. We parked and walked over to the store.

Frank O’Hara was there to welcome us, so was his brother and Oboe. The first thought that came to mind was relief that Wallace Stevens had gone off with Bunting’s group to see the lagoons. Whenever anybody saw Oboe, Hemingway was not far away. Frank wanted to take us on a tour of his live-bait tanks but W.B. was over in a corner studying the hard-bodied lures. “Could one rig-up a live bait on one of these beauties?” W.B. asked Frank, but O’Hara had never heard anything like this before. “Well I guess, but it’s against the philosophy of the artificial lure”.  W.B. Yeats looked Frank straight in the eye and said “Well, isn’t that a shame. However, I don’t think any kind of philosophy is going to help us with the struggle against the Waggas - in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t some idiot’s ‘philosophy’ that brought this wretched red pestilence upon us in the first place.” Frank O’Hara felt a trickle of sweat run down his side. If the poets discovered his Waggafish-fillet dealings, he’d be sunk.
Lawrence and Adamson were watching O'Hara closely.  I could sense trouble brewing.

Some movement in a tank near W.B. caught his eye. He peered in through the thick glass and could hardly believe what he saw. In the tank there were hundreds of wagga-fingerlings and above them was a sign in red lettering: PODDY WAGGAS $1.50 each!  “What in the name of the Holy Ghost?” W.B. said to Anthony. “Are these what they appear to be?” “What do they look like?” said O’Hara’s brother, who held one of the fingerlings above his mouth for a few seconds before dropping it into his throat and swallowing. “Waggas, fucking baby waggas!” Said Adamson, “This is a total outrage.” Frank’s brother interjected: “Not at all, no not really, it’s well known they are the most cannibalistic fish in the drink. Poddy waggas make the perfect livie - they are so tough they can stay alive for hours with a hook in their shoulder. Also they attract a savage bite from the massive waggas because of the vigorous vibrations they make as they struggle. And best of all, if you don’t get any bites, you can eat the bait!” There was a crash from behind the counter - it was Hemingway and Oboe, they were stocking up on poddy-waggas. One of their live-bait buckets had fallen off the counter and spilled across the floor. “This joint is a mess, I just tripped over a goddamn bottle of Sam’s Black Drops.” Oboe was mopping up the water and carefully picking up the fingerlings. “These are fine, they can survive anything, he said.” Then Papa Hemingway stooped over and delicately picked one up from the floor, he turned it over in the palm of his hand and studied it closely: “What a Goddamn beautiful bait!”

As Hemmingway and Oboe were filling containers with Waggafish fingerlings, Lawrence took O'Hara aside. Adamson closed the doors to the shop and hung the CLOSED sign in the window. Seeing this, O’'Hara  backed into a corner behind the counter. “You look a little nervous, Frank,” Lawrence said. “Yes Frank, would you like some zest?” Adamson said. Frank opened his till. “Take it all,” he stuttered. W.B Yeats adjusted his monocle. “Frank, we are decent folk. We simply demand you return the same decency and answer our questions honestly.” Adamson came close: “We don’t want your money, Frank, we want the truth. Tell us about the Waggafish fillet trade.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I sell live-bait, that’s all.” Lawrence looked towards the back of the shop. “What’s out there Frank?” “Nothing. The lunch room. Containers. Live-bait tanks.” Bob Adamson went over and pulled back a heavy stainless steel door and stepped through it. O’Hara and Lawrence waited, looking at each other. Finally Adamson came back. He was smiling. “Lunch room, eh? Containers? I’d say you’re doing a roaring trade, O’Hara.”
Hemmingway loooked over and saw the tense situation behind the counter. “Keep filling these bags,” he said to Oboe, and walked over to see what was happening. “It seems Mr O’Hara has been very busy,” Adamson said. “Come and check this out, Papa.” “You might like to bring your plank,” said Yeats. 
Out the back of O’Hara’s Live-Bait shop, there was a huge cold-room complex. At the jetty on the canal was a long-lining boat. Hemmingway threw open the doors of the cold room. Inside they saw shelves stacked to the ceiling with trays of huge Waggafish fillets. The place reeked of betrayal and death. Hemmingway was passing his plank from hand to hand. “You mongrel,” he said. O’Hara was freaking out. “Look, it’s nothing. I mean, you people seem to think it’s alright to buy Waggafish fingerlings and use them for live-bait. You think it’s alright to enter into some kind of Red contract with these creatures, but it’s not okay for me to sell them. “It’s different,” Yeats said. “We have adventures while tracking them down, and we get to write about it.”It’s not different” O’Hara said, gaining in confidence. After being given a swift demonstration of  Hemmingway’s plank, he settled down. “Your Waggafish enterprise is over,” Adamson said. 
As Hemmingway went down to the jetty to take command of the long-liner and Adamson and Lawrence inspected the cold-room, Yeats took O’Hara aside and tried to reason with him. Frank listened, then made a run for it. He bolted from the cold room and sprinted down a narrow laneway beside the shop. A motor coughed and roared into life, and Frank O’Hara sped away in his dune buggy.

G. Lehmman, at the Front.

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