Thursday, March 4, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 8

Above: Wallace Stevens. Below: Michael Dransfield and Dorothy Hewett.

Wallace Stevens was busy with the scattergun. At first he was far more liberal with the zest than his thoughts on writing poetry, but soon he warmed to his role and began reading poems - his own and others’ - and the Waggaists were being given highly toxic doses. Rodney Hall wanted them alive. Blodgett wanted them for Wagga food. W. B. Yeats was pushing to have them recruited into his new Waggafishing program. 

Wallace was aware of the conflicting demands and desires regarding the prisoners, but for now he was in charge. He walked around the net, talking to those still conscious and kicking the boots of anyone who’d stopped moving. An hour later, those Waggaists that hadn’t garroted themselves on mullet mesh or overdosed on zest were calling out for mercy. They had never heard anything like these poems - crazy, long-lined things where theory was married to fancy and history to a manifesto on mental illness. 

He had just begun a long, sweeping sequence on the dangers of hunting down symbolism in the early work of Dylan Thomas when Blodgett strode into the hall. “Excuse me, Mr Stevens. I need to speak to the prisoners.” Wallace didn’t miss a beat. “The bell tower of palladium in the eyeline of the head...” “Mr Stevens, please, I...” “Starlight in the antler velvet of a gaming man...” “I must insist that you stop talking and listen to me,” Blodgett said, pacing up and down and flinging his hands into the air. “Listen to him, please!” a Waggaist implored. “Yeah, shut up!” yelled another. Wallace stopped talking. Blodgett’s face was a study in anguish and apology. “I need to escort the prisoners down to the wharf,” he whimpered. Wallace Stevens turned around slowly. “I have never been interrupted,” he said. Blodgett held his breath. “Who are you?” “Blodgett,” said Blodgett. "Are you a reader of ambitious British verse?” “Look, I love Thomas. And George Mackay Brown and MacCaig. All that shit” “Ah, Mackay Brown, the Orkney ornithologist, yes...” “So can I have the prisoners? Please?” Wallace Stevens looked around at the tangled sea of netted, red bodies. “No,” he said. “They are mine.” Blodgett snapped. “Now look here, you insurance fraud! These prisoners are...” Wallace fired the scattergun. The blast of zest hit Blodgett full in the face and he went down stinging. “Good shot!” a Waggaist yelled. Others applauded with meshed hands.

The poets had left the wretched scene down at the moat, and were now using one of the masts they’d chopped from the tall-ship as a battering ram to gain access to the Red Bunker. Stephen Edgar was urging them on, speaking in tight, lyrical three line sentences. Philip Levine was combing his mustache with a bream’s dorsal spines and shouting about Detroit automative sweatshops. Mallarme was still in mourning for the lost Symbolists, but was holding it together and lifting up score cards each time the battering ram hit the door.

Bukowski and Dorn had doubled back into the network of tunnels and had found themselves at a crossroads. There were red signs on each of the passageway walls. To Bedlam and All the Way Back, The Red Cell, Strife Studies, and The Law at Hurt’s Desire. Dorn suggested they take the road to Bedlam, as they’d been more or less living in one since arriving on The Island. Bukowski insisted on The Red Cell. He was in a black mood, so Dorn didn’t argue. As they walked off they could hear the sounds of glass jars breaking and uncontrollable laughter.

The poets came running at the Red Bunker from a long way back, chanting and swearing as they ran. The masthead smashed into the buckled red door and it gave way, its hinges flying off. They stormed through the opening and ran down the narrow, ill-lit passage, but another door was blocking their way. Two Waggaists had been standing guard. When they saw the poets they threw their wheatgrass guns to the ground and raised their hands. “Open this door,” Rodney Hall demanded. “We can’t. It’s on a timer mechanism,” one of the Waggaists said. “It only opens at feeding time, and there’s still two hours to go.” “Then we’ll wait,” said Rodney, and sprayed them with his zest can. They fell to the floor, writhing and moaning. “We wait here,” he shouted to the crowd of poets behind him. “So this is where the Waggafish are. Let’s give them the kind of food they deserve!”

Shelby and Seidel were in a secret compound, high in the roof of the citadel. It was a small room, fortified with six inch steel walls and fed with air from a pipe inside the mouth of one of the Waggafish gargoyles. They were watching the action on a series of small CCT screens. When they saw Bukowski and Dorn take The Red Cell corridor, Seidel cursed. “One in four. A lucky guess,” he said. Shelby looked at the two poets stepping carefully behind the beams of their head lanterns. “The Red Cell will be a test of their courage and endurance,” he said, smiling. “I’ve added a little surprise at that bleak destination.” The concealed micro-cameras in the Red Bunker tunnel showed a tightly-packed crowd of poets. “They are about to taste the true meaning of fury,” he said, and looked over at the Feeding Time switch on the wall. “This will be better than a front-row seat at the Colosseum.”

Blodgett opened his eyes and raised himself up on his elbows. He saw Wallace Stevens patrolling the net, firing zest and reciting poetry. He knew that Stevens would be a difficult proposition, yet a plan was forming inside his throbbing head. He lay down again and waited for him to pass by.

The Red Cell was at the very centre of the citadel. It was empty but for a large chicken-wire enclosure, divided into sections. Razor wire had been spooled around the outside of the cage, and the floor leading up to it had been mined. Inside the cage, Wilding, Wallace-Crabbe, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and ZZ Top were sitting down. Torn and shredded pages of The Immigrant Chronicles were all over the floor. Wilding had stopped talking, and was chewing on a chronicle. Wallace-Crabbe, who’d been working on a poem scratched into the earthen floor, was whispering to himself, crossing out lines and rewriting them. ZZ Top were staring wildly around the enclosure. They might have given up dope and cigarettes, but Billy had handed out four-way English trips to everyone: squares of blotting paper with purple castles stamped into them. They’d all been tripping out of their heads for twelve hours, and the acid was not about to loosen its grip.

A siren sounded in short, loud bursts inside the Red Bunker, and a revolving red light began throwing oblongs around the walls and over the faces of the poets. The second door slid open. Rodney turned to the crowd behind him. “We proceed with extreme caution,” he said. “No shit, Sherlock,” Kevin Brophy yelled.

I was exhausted. I’d been running around, scribbling notes and trying to keep up with the action. I had Leonard Cohen’s The Future on my iPod, which seemed the perfect soundtrack to all this insanity. The Island Wars had become a complete farce, which I’d always suspected they would be, but now I was losing heart. Along with Jennifer Maiden, other poets had abandoned the War and returned to the mainland. John Forbes, having worked himself into a frenzy trying to write a poem about what he’d seen, had stormed off and hauled on the kookaburra balloon rope, bringing the great bird down to the wharf. Once inside the basket, he hit the burner, inflated the balloon to its full capacity, and then cut the tie-rope. I watched him sail away, hanging over the edge, waving. Geoffrey Lehmann had stripped off and dived into the river. Last I saw he was stroking out into open water, a few gulls circling over his head, a lone gannet eyeing him from a bait-school-finding height.

I knew that things were about to come to a head, though I had no idea how it would all transpire. Poetry and war. Not since hearing a young soldier reciting Wilfred Owen in a mountainside cave in Crete had I felt so forlorn, so hopeless. I’d been keeping my thoughts and opinions to myself, recording what I saw with a cold eye. That changed dramatically when Michael Dransfield’s vision was played out in amazing circumstances, deep within the Red Bunker.

The poets had reached the Waggafish breeding area. As they came pouring through the doors into a warm, blood-and-offal-reeking red light, the Waggaists on feeding duty ran for cover and hit behind the tanks, the control panel, anywhere they could find. Rodney addressed them: “You will not be harmed if you do as you are told. We are here to deal with these fish, not to inflict violence.” “Speak for yourself, Hall!” Geoff Goodfellow shouted. “There will be no blood-shed here,” Rodney said, his voice echoing around the stainless steel tanks.

The Waggaists emerged from their hiding places. There were nine of them. All were dressed in red feeding robes, their faces in shadow beneath large hoods. Michael Dransfield stepped to the front of the crowd and turned to face the others. “I know you are angry,” he said softly. “I understand that many of us have been traumatised by what has happened on The Island. Some of you are at the end of your tether, and want to see justice done, no matter what the outcome. But I need to tell you this: last night I had a dream in which these great red fish lost all desire to kill and maim. They were, like any other species, essentially shy and simply wanted to co-exist in the rivers and oceans, producing offspring, living in harmony within the complex layers of that curious world. “Give us a break,” Gig Ryan yelled. “Go back to Courland Penders and take a few Waggas with you,” Sam Wagan Watson said. The poets started heckling Michael relentlessly. “Wagga lover!” “Judas!” “Streets of the Red Voyage!” Michael lowered his head. For a moment I thought he was about to cry. When he looked up again, he said “Then I will prove my vision to be true.” He removed his coat, his shirt, trousers and shoes. Rodney put a hand on his shoulder. “You don’t have to do this,” he said. Michael looked at Rodney for a long time, then said “The red roses on the cover of Second Month of Spring should have been a warning. You have edited your way into misery.” And with that he leapt up onto the rim of one of the large stainless steel tanks and pulled the kevlar cover away. “Waggafish just need our love and understanding,” he said, and dropped into the tank.

There was a loud humming sound, a metallic clang, then silence. The poets waited. Rodney Hall was white and pulling at his hair. The water in the tank bubbled from the aerators. There was no thrashing, so fountains of blood hitting the roof. The poets rushed forward and looked into the tank. It was empty. The lit, swirling water contained the bones of kangaroos and water hens, nothing more. Then one of the Waggaists came forward from behind the big control panel. It was a woman. Her long white hair was plaited in a thick rope that hung down from under her hood. When she lifted the hood back, there was an audible, collective gasp. It was Dorothy Hewett. “I knew you’d come,” she said.

As Dransfield was about to enter the tank, Dorothy had hit the switch that opens the main sluice-gates to the tanks. The giant Waggas had been sucked out through the exit pipe. When Michael had gone in, she had redirected the flow so that he would be sent hurtling underground through a diversion pipe that surfaces just beyond the wharf. “Michael Dransfield believes in justice and fair play,” Dorothy said. “I was not about to let that kind of love be taken down. I’d say he’d be climbing up onto the wharf about now, wondering what the hell just happened.” The other Waggaists came forward. Silently, they removed their red cloaks. They took their Waggafish Research Program badges and threw them into the tank. “We are with you,” a young woman said. “Yes, we’ve had enough,” a man said. “This is not surrender, this is reason,” a woman said. “Let us know what you’d like us to do.”

On hearing about the red activities on The Island, Dorothy had arrived two weeks before the poets. She had come by raft one night on the dark of the moon. Merv Lilley was on the long oar, standing at the stern and cutting a steady passage through the river’s phosphorescence. The firewater was turning the blade of his oar into a magnified, burning leaf. He rowed in silence. Dorothy sat up front, watching the Island grow towards her. On the top of the needle-tower, the citadel’s red lamp glowed and bled. On the wharf, she said “If anything happens, tell them I’ve gone to ask Alice a couple of questions and won’t be back for awhile.” As she walked up the hill, she turned to look at Merv, who was watching her go. An Archie Ammons poem came to mind, and he recited it out load: I found a weed that had a mirror in it, and that mirror looked in at a mirror in me that had a weed in it.

K. Slessor, at the Front

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