The Red Asterisk.
Above and below: Monarch butterflies and the souls of wildebeests, summoned by Robert Duncan.
Feargal Sharkey’s specially-built ‘Eurydice Hide’.
The jetty where the Golden Codgers fish for blackfish.
Charlie Daniels was not used to being upstaged. He was a big man with a big presence. So when Michael Stipe started singing in the Angler’s Rest, Charlie flew into a rage. He couldn’t pull the plug on this self-promoting upstart because Stipe was singing unaccompanied and without amplification. He was standing at the bar, hands together, eyes closed, his face painted with red smears. The worst thing was, Stipe was good. He was into the second verse of The Wichita Lineman when Charlie chinned his fiddle and went into The Devil Went Down to Georgia. Stipe’s eyes flew open. The packed bar started cheering. Stipe took a sip of water and smiled. Inside he was in a red fury. He watched Charlie turn and swoop, tapping his boot. Michael Stipe felt like a shag on a wharf pylon. He slipped quietly from the bar and went down to the marina.
The Red Oblong had reached The Red Abyss. Admiral Escher woke his crew and announced that soon they’d be disembarking. “You mean claw through the wall,” Dorothy Hewett said. Ted Hughes and T.S. Eliot stood up and waited for directions. Hughes couldn’t find the badger. He called it and looked around. Then he saw it. It had climbed one of the staircases and was sitting outside a closed door, three flights up. One of the faceless figures was beside it, stroking its head with slow, over-exaggerated sweeps of its white hand. “Here boy, come on, come down here,” Hughes said. The badger just stared at him. Escher went to the foot of the stairs. “X, leave that animal alone.” X stopped patting the badger and stood up. “You’re a benign representation of humanity. You do not engage with living things, do you hear me?” X nodded. “Good, now get back into the lithograph and don’t let me see you cross that border again.” Lucinda Williams loved M.C. Escher’s work. She had his books and posters. He’d been part of her deep imagining as a teenager. Now she didn’t like him. You don’t speak to someone like that, even if they don’t exist, she thought, and then she felt very strange. What the hell does that make me?
On Lion Island, things were totally out of control. The red fairy penguins had taken out fifteen Waggaists and were feeding on their remains. The other Waggaists had sought refuge in the sandstone caves above the shoreline. They’d been eating insects and the curious blue fruit that hung from vines high in the scrub. Some said they’d been better off in the chicken wire cage on The Island. Some said they were going to try and swim to Brooklyn, despite having to run the penguin gauntlet and then negotiate the treacherous passage thick with bull sharks and Waggas.
The Waggaists had never had a natural leader. The Red K had always been more theory than physical presence, and he’d lost whatever power he held when he’d refused to travel during The War. His wool-classing brother had left The Island on the second day, hightailing back to the wheat belt after ZZ Top had told him they were going to tour with his head on a pike. The Red K was now seen as a joke. Whenever the Waggaists went to festivals where the Red K had been invited to read or talk on a panel, he’d cancel at the last minute. And now he was in his bunker in the wheat belt, getting others to type his flawed, tired philosophies.
The Waggaists had been a desperate crowd of fools under the breaking hold of Red Language. Now they were a desperate crowd of fools on another island, being killed by red penguins and starving to death.
“Stand clear,” Admiral Escher said. He pushed a large button on the wall and the front of the Red Oblong made a sound like steam escaping under pressure. Then the wall dissolved. They were still at sea. The sky was clear and dark blue. Before them lay the Red Abyss. It was indeed an asterisk, huge and crafted from wooden beams. “You’ve got to be fucking joking,” Dorothy Hewett said. Escher strode to the wide open space and looked down. The others joined him. The asterisk was massive. It floated on the ocean without any form of anchorage. It rose and fell with the gentle swell. “So what does it actually do?” Ted Hughes asked. “Why nothing at all,” Escher replied. “It is what we do that matters.” “Please explain,” said T.S. Eliot. “And don’t take the scenic route,” Lucinda Williams said. “There’s a festival on at Brooklyn, and I’m not going to miss it because you wanted to show us a wooden asterisk somewhere on the goddam ocean!”
Escher took a deep breath, stroked his goatee beard, and began. “It’s very simple,” he said. “The Red Abyss is a Red Asterisk in a Red Time, and we have come to seek counsel at its sacred design. “Oh fuck off,” Dorothy said and stepped down onto one of the Red Asterisk’s beams. “I suggest you return to the Oblong immediately,” Escher said. “Why? What’s it going to do? Turn me into an exclamation mark?” Dorothy laughed and started jumping up and down on he cross-beam. “Please, don’t do that,” Escher was wringing his hands and going pale. Dorothy continued jumping and stomping on the beam. Lucinda Williams, Ted Hughes and T.S. Eliot held their breath. The badger was running in circles at Hughes’ feet, whimpering. Suddenly the water around the base of the Red Asterisk turned blood red and trembled. “Oh no,” Escher said. Dorothy stopped jumping and held onto the beam. It began raining heavily. A driving wall of silver water fell upon the Red Asterisk and covered a large area of ocean surrounding it. As everyone watched, looking down into the water, a gigantic shape loomed from the depths. Then it broke through the surface: a huge nose, prominent eyebrows, high cheekbones, all streaming red water. The poets were used to all kinds of visions, but this was beyond the surreal. Lucinda Williams thought back to the time she saw the face of Woody Guthrie in a dark swirl of Mississippi water; how Guthrie beckoned for her to join him - that had been a kind of dark comfort, but now she was afraid. Dorothy was yelling: “It’s about time you showed up!” The face was now clear of the ocean. There were no hydraulic poles, no attendant machinery, just the face - massive, gleaming - and a voice deep as the Mindanao Trench was emerging from the mouth, haltingly at first, and then with a booming confidence that ruffled everyone’s hair and clothes. Dorothy was staring down the throat of Dante Alighieri.
Ocean rain on the torn pelt of our lives
and we surrender all knowledge
of the underside of this world and the next
for assessment and charity.
Gone are the vendors of goodwill and hope.
Gone are the taxidermists of lust.
Whosoever bleeds out
before they are wounded will find comfort
in the selfless itineraries of the heart.
Take this Red design into your breast
and make of it what you will.
A brief encounter can astound
and the overlong engagement disenfranchise
This destination is a mark on the hide
of belief and fortitude.
What appears can be trusted
if the eye and hand travel lightly.
Burden the mind with alternative scenes
and slaughter will find you.
The Red Abyss is not home.
The past and present are not home.
Home does not exist.
The shearwater’s touring black cloud understands
but will not say the name
Go now. Return to what returning means
when all else continues to confound
Remember the sound of indifference
when you falter at the changing-yards
of time and experience.
Go and be yourselves
where others afix the masks of strangers
with blood and hair
and the spittle of abandonment.
The great mouth closed and the head of Dante sank slowly back into the depths. Lucinda Williams was on her knees, weeping. T.S. Eliot was nodding silently, his monocle clouding over. Ted Hughes was trying to tame his heartbeat with a breathing exercise. M.C. Escher was scribbling furiously on a whiteboard. Dorothy Hewett climbed back into the Oblong. She picked up the badger and gave it a cuddle. “Okay, now we’re in trouble,” she said.
‘To immerse yourself in Robert Duncan’s poetry is to dive into a deep sea. The surface is all dazzle of sun, but light fades the deeper you go, the compression intensifies, the sea creatures are as strange and hallucinatory as they are real. And there’s the solitude of the diving suit, its heaviness and foreignness, with it’s huge brass helmet pressurized against massive liquid nighttime. After the depths are reached comes a long drifting up to the choppy surface of the water. Back into the violent weather of the world. No one enters these depths lightly, just as no one dives there alone. Help is needed at every turn, in every further immersion.’
It’s a daunting task to try to describe Robert Duncan in action. However, I’ll give it my full attention: by ‘in action’ I mean Duncan writing, teaching, lecturing or even talking. And it’s another thing again to have to describe him in the midst of a ritual that involves incantations and rituals that are intended to summons a soul from Hades back into the land of the living. Robert Duncan’s speech has been described as possessing a ‘torrential polymathic fluency’. He had been preparing himself for three weeks for this ritual and was now in top form, he was going to open the proceedings. Devin Johnston and W.B. Yeats were at his side, they were prepared for anything, and they needed to be.
I was in attendance during the transmigration - it’s very difficult to remember who else was there last night because I was completely swept up into the vortex of Robert Duncan’s charisma - and forgot to take notes. I can remember Jack Spicer up the back sitting on the floor, swigging a bottle of Russian vodka. Feargal Sharkey was off to the side of the stage, now and then he was caught by the edge of a spotlight, shaking and moving his limbs like some apparition performing the danse macabre. (Which reminds me I also spotted Malcolm Lowry earlier in the night, walking in with a couple of bottles wrapped in brown paper.) The event was meant to be a discrete and exclusive ritual, but the Masonic lodge had scrimped on security, and many gate-crashers had slipped through the back doors. There were at least fifty people all told, including the poets, the Golden Codgers, and a couple of hippy ferals who wanted to hear Feargal Sharkey’s hit song. There were some local Goths who thought the ceremony might be a good creepy show. Poets had traveled from all over, there were some from overseas, others from Brooklyn and the Island. By this stage all the Golden Codgers had given up fishing for blackfish. They had arrived at the Hall straight from their night session of fishing the Budgewoi for pike eels with bullock hearts.
It was least 1.30 am before Duncan started the proceedings. He started by reading some lines by H.D. (who was in the audience) and then he spoke at great length of Hermes and the Gnostics. He told us about the great troves discovered during the 1940s in the caves along the Dead Sea at Qumran and at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, and also in the Jabal al-Tarif, a mountain filled with caves. The Dead Sea Scrolls were a central text in Duncan’s teachings. He asked us if we had thought about just whose soul would be transmigrating? Where this soul might come to rest once it made the journey from Hades to Budgewoi? What vessel would the soul take up in? At this there was a disturbed murmuring in the Hall. I noticed Jack Spicer shudder at the thought of the possibility. Malcolm Lowry opened a brown paper wrapped bottle of whisky. Peter O’Leary had made the journey from Chicago, and he was looking more worried as the night unfolded. We heard a loud disturbance, looking around I could see who was creating the ruckus. It was Hart Crane. Wearing his white crinkled linen suit and his Panama hat, it looked like he’d just arrived on an ocean liner. He was talking to Lowry and I could tell they were going to be trouble as the night wore on.
Duncan was declaiming verses, he was speaking in some ancient sounding language. When he completed the poem he turned around and picked up a golden grail and started pouring what looked like a fine oil over Devin Johnston’s head. W.B. Yeats took out his red Bic lighter and started lighting the candles. Devin unfurled a stunning looking tapestry on the back wall, depicting a unicorn, a peregrine falcon and a flight of whooping cranes. Then the lights in the Hall went out and we sat there in the dark for four or five minutes or so as Duncan chanted more ancient sounding poetry. Then there was relative silence, we listened to the sound of Crane and Lowry swigging from their bottles. Then I heard Jack Spicer raise his voice and ask somebody if they had a transistor radio so he could listen to the cricket! There was a buzzing sound and we thought the lights were about the come back on again - it wasn’t the lights however, there was a glow across the Hall but it wasn’t coming from lighting. Hundreds, thousands of monarch butterflies filled the air in the Masonic Hall, they were a great zone of glowing colour, moving from the floor to the ceiling, a great and illuminated atmosphere of flight. Eventually, they gathered around one of the small windows along the top of the wall, the windowpane fell open and the butterflies poured out the opening in a seemingly endless stream of delicate wings.
This miraculous event hushed the audience again. The drunks even stopped drinking for a minute or so, the Golden Codgers burst out into spontaneous applause. Then Duncan was introducing W.B.Yeats and his recitation of ‘The Second Coming’. WB chanted the poem and was spell-binding, the words flowed over the audience and we were transported into various levels of trace-like states. Then Yeats sat down and a strange sound started up. It turned into an incredible noise that thundered through the Hall. The call of a massive herd of wildebeests. It was the sound they made as they charged and hurled themselves wildly into some turbulent river in Africa. It was as if they were actually charging through the Masonic Hall right there in Budgewoi. People were dodging phantom beasts and throwing themselves under their chairs. It wasn’t surprising because they were in fact being charged by wild animals, they were being charged by the souls of a herd of wildebeests. Robert Duncan was calling up the souls of these charging creatures. Gradually the sound of the wildebeests faded away and we were left in a relative silence again.
Duncan told us that next he was going to call up the soul of Eurydice. He said she had been in Hades so long she had almost forgotten paradise. Duncan wanted to get her back out of hell so that she could enjoy the paradise of Budgewoi. The Golden Codgers loved this and made noises of encouragement, however the Goths didn’t like this idea at all, and started to boo and jeer. At this outrage Robert Duncan called a halt to the proceedings and ordered everyone to leave. We filed out through the front door and were amazed to see that it was already dawn. The sun was shining and there was a clear blue sky with some light mist hanging in the trees. We looked about and saw that the butterflies were still in the air. There were hundreds of monarchs fluttering around the Masonic Hall and filling the sky.
Feargal Sharkey came bounding out from the Hall. He had decided to build himself a special ‘hide’ so that he would be able to observe Eurydice when she appeared in the early morning mist tomorrow. Duncan mentioned she would be materializing in some form at dawn at the opening of a field. So Feargal built his hide in the pine trees that ran along behind the goal posts of the Budgewoi Sports Ground. Feargal said this way, he wouldn’t miss a thing. The old Golden Codgers had been so shaken by the night’s events that they had decided to take up fishing for blackfish again. They reached the jetty where they fished with their red and white pencil floats by the river. It was a magnificent morning, not a wind in the world. They watched the mullet rising and listened to the now reassuring calls of the curlews. There was a low blanket of translucent mist floating just above the surface of the tide.