Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 22

Steve Earle and Townes van Zandt.

Drag the River.

W.B. Yeats.

Arctic Skua.

Because the Austin Sheerline ambulance had been abandoned, the police were called. Customs and quarantine officers soon joined them. The ambulance was traced back to Hull, to an address on the River Humber. The paper-trail ended there. In the glove box they’d found a hardcover copy of The Collected Poems of David Gascoyne, E.W. Elwood’s Badger Husbandry, and a single crow feather. Eventually the ambulance was towed away to the Water Police compound.
When W.B. Yeats and Geoffrey Hill entered the Angler’s Rest, the Sons of Zebedee stood against the wall, watching Hill closely. Geoffrey delighted in reaching into the inside pocket of his coat. On seeing this, the Sons bolted for the door. Yeats turned to Geoffrey: “I respect a man who can scatter fools with even the slightest suggestion of impending doom,” he said.
John Berryman was pissed and in no mood for poets or poetry. “I am taking the waters from the wellspring of a black-and-white-collared heart,” he said, too slowly, when W.B. and Hill walked into the room. “Spoken like a true gentleman,” Yeats said. “Now, finish your pint. We have serious work to do.” “And what that might be?” asked Berryman. Geoffrey Hill took the pint from Berryman’s hand. “You know as well as I do that no-one has any idea until it happens,” he said. “Isn’t that right, W.B.” he said, but Yeats had left the room.
Lucinda Williams was on her mobile. Reception at The Afterglow was patchy, so she’d gone down to the wharf. She’d called her manager in Nashville, and he was telling her that Emmylou Harris, Rawlings and Gillian Welch had gone to Australia on a mission to save a red fish. He then said that other musicians had joined them. Some were on their way to support the Release All Waggas cause, and others were going to try and kill as many as they could. The list of singers, songwriters and bands was straight out of the country music Hall of Fame:  The alternative country-punk band Drag the River had left on a huge dredging barge; Townes van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steve Earle were flying down in Townes’ Nord Noratlas; John Prine was coming with Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women; Steve Forbert was bringing his saltwater swoffing gear; Waylon jennings was on his way with Blaze Foley; Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline were meeting up with Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson in L.A., then flying down. It was going to be very busy time. 
Lucinda Williams folded her phone and looked out at the Red Oblong. “What a circus,” she said. A parasitic jaeger looked down at her from its lookout on a wharf-lamp. It sharpened its beak on the lamp cover. It looked sideways into the harbour. “Blood,” it said, and went knifing off into the sun.  
Back at the Angler’s Rest W.B. Yeats was recruiting men to help him unload a great container of Wagga-rods and reels that had arrived on the train from Sydney. They’d been shipped all the way from Sweden. Being a Nobel Prize winner, W.B. arranged to get the best Swedish rods made up specifically for Waggafish live baiting, and he also got an amazing deal on the purchase. The Sons had come back into the bar and this time Yeats talked them into helping him unpack the rods. He told them that seeing they were mentioned in the Bible as fishermen they should have the first of the red ‘armbreaker’ rods. Yeats walked over to the post office and sent a message to James Joyce by email. He told Joyce to leave Paris immediately and to bring Ernest Hemingway as well. Yeats knew Hemingway was the perfect man for the job, he’d help organise this rabble at the Angler’s Rest and bring some steel into the hunt. He didn’t quite know what use Joyce would be but at least he’d get Hemingway to come. W.B. couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of Hemingway before this.
Things were happening, and although W.B. spoke ironically of the American singers he thought the publicity they might create could be put to use. He was starting to hatch a plan, it would take all his wile to swing but once certain things fell into place the Waggafish would be a dying species. He would set up a fleet of boats, they’d confiscate all the trawlers in the surrounding towns from Woy Woy to Brooklyn for a start, and they’d have boats trawling for squid, they’d have mesh-nets catching slimy mackerel. He wasn’t counting on Shelby and Greene to come up with a re-usable live bait: and besides he still couldn’t tell who they were working for. Was Seidel behind them? Were they just lunatics or did the presence of the Red Oblong indicate that there was something more substantial going on?
There was a racket going on down at the Brooklyn Fishermen’s Co Op. Bill was abusing Auden and a group of ex-Waggaists had gathered around, yelling “Fight. Fight. Fight.” Auden had no idea how he’d got to Brooklyn. One minute he was on The Island, in the cage with Jamie Grant, dishing out a hiding with a plank, and the next he was shaping up against Bill Wisely. Life, friends, was not boring. And now a bird was coming straight at his head. It was an arctic jaeger,  flying at an incredible speed. Auden’s sight was failing and he didn’t see it approaching. Suddenly, Bill swung around and grabbed a plank he had sitting beside his old Qantas bag. It happened fast. Bill held the plank as if it were cricket bat, took a savage swing and collected with the jaeger. The sound made people turn away. Bill’s eyes were wild, he glared at the crowd fiercely and said “Yeah, well, who wants a fucking fight now?” There were blood stained feathers everywhere and Auden kicked the mangled bird aside. It was truly a tragic spectacle. W.B. Yeats saw the whole thing, he didn’t raise a hand, but during this frightening episode he was making notes with a pencil and notebook.

G. Lehmann, the Front

Friday, March 19, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 21

Emmylou Harris, David Rawlings and Gillian Welch arriving at W.B. Yeats' Oyster Shed at Brooklyn.

W.B. Yeats’ oyster shed.

After climbing in through my window, Lucinda told me a terrible story that not only mirrored what Michael Dransfield had seen in Greene’s lab, but added a few darker details. She was in a real state, sliding her bracelets up and down her arm and tapping the toe of a snakeskin boot on the floor. “I sought refuge in the arms of a man who throws dice with the devil,” she said. “I have known true disgrace.” She then told me her bleak tale of comfort and betrayal.

While Greene had slept, she’d gone to investigate the low, constant hum she’d heard the day she arrived at the apartment. Behind a red curtain in the laundry she’d found a door leading into the dark. She went down the stairs and found his laboratory. As well as the pink nippers and beakers of LIMP2, there were beach worms as thick as her wrist, their black holding-fangs like those on a funnelweb spider. On a stainless steel bench she found the head of a huge yellowtail, its mouth still opening and closing, its gills bright red with oxygenated blood. In a glass tank, the headless bodies of yellowtail and frigate mackerel were swimming around as if they could see where they were going. Their wounds had sealed over.

“It was hellish down there,” she said. “I’ve heard of the breeding tanks under the Red Bunker, of how Seidel and Shelby are loose cannons, but this is beyond the red and the pale.” Lucinda stood up and turned to face me. “We need to do something, Geoff. We need to take action now.”

As the sun came up over the harbour, Lucinda Williams fell asleep on the couch. I sat in the frame of the big bay window and watched light come in like a flood-tide. Out beyond the tuna boats and recreational craft, the Red Oblong glittered and swayed at its mooring. Like the re-usable and headless live-bait in Dr Greene’s lab, this huge shape needed no crew, sail or propellor to drive it forward. I heard Dorothy cursing on the wharf: “The Red Oblong,” and “we’re all fucked.” It was time to find out what I could about this disturbing, influential symbol.

In Brooklyn, things were getting out of hand. The Sons of Zebedee were tired of being kept out of the loop, and had taken matters into their own hands. They went to the Angler’s Rest where they knew John Berryman and Geoffrey Hill would be in the old back bar. Sure enough, the Sons found the two poets deep in discussion and drinking stanzas of Guinness. Berryman put his bottle down when they walked through the door and stood up. “Ah, the sons of the sons of the sons of Trouble,” he said through the grey wires of his beard. Jack grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him up. Jimmy did his best Gene Wilder impression, speaking into the side of Berryman’s head: “Where is Henry when you need him?” Jack chimed in: “What are you two planning? We need to know. We don’t like blow-ins, especially poets who think they can fish.”

Geoffrey Hill put his bottle of Guinness down on the table as if he were lowering a lure into an ice-hole. As the Sons pushed and shoved Berryman, he reached into the special pocket he’d sewn into the inside of his overcoat and pulled out a plank made from a length of crepe myrtle. Then he walked over and started swinging. The Sons went down and strayed there. John Berryman shook Geoffrey’s hand. “I knew when I first read King Log that you’d be a handy man to have in a fix.” Bill Wisely had witnessed Hill’s finesse with the plank from just outside the door. “I like you,” he said, and walked off. Geoffrey Hill picked up his bottle of Guinness and took a long hit. He swallowed and exhaled loudly. “Let’s go find Yeats,” he said.

W.B. Yeats had taken over one of Dutch’s oyster sheds, a barn of a place built from corrugated iron and iron bark - a huge cavern with an elevated floor at one end that Dutch had used for sorting and shucking oysters. Yeats thought this might make a good stage for poetry readings and for giving lectures on the fine points of live-baiting for Waggas. This was a shed that could accommodate at least five hundred people if necessary.

Bill came back from the Angler’s Rest and told W.B. that Geoffrey Hill and Berryman were looking for him. “Oh that’s a fine thing then because I’ll need them before long.” W.B. seemed a bit distracted but he was nevertheless pleased to hear Bill’s news. He was sitting at a makeshift desk writing with the quill of a pelican, setting down the basic rules for the eradication of all Waggafish. He figured there’d be ten Commandments, to make things sound Biblical, and therefore have more rhetorical sway.

Outside there was the sound of a car pulling up in the yard. W.B. looked out the open window and saw a sleek black limo slide into the space where Dutch’s tar-vats used to stand. Bill said “Well fuck me, who the fuck is this, some idiot looking for a dozen oysters?” The back door of the limo opened and out stepped Emmylou Harris, David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. They were dressed in stylish country clothes and Emmylou and Gillian wore their best cream coloured cowboy hats. W. B. Yeats walked out into the yard to introduce himself and welcome them to his shed. They weren’t looking for oysters at all, they were looking for a venue.

Emmylou had heard about the ‘needless slaughter of Waggafish’ and wanted to do a concert to raise funds for a new organization called RAW (Release All Waggas). The look on Yeats’ face was a study of deep symbolic confusion and anger. Bill told them to fuck off because this was Waggafish Central and its job was to bring about the total extinction of waggas throughout the world. “We have been delivered directly into the black heart of the Beast” said Emmylou to Gillian. “This is going to be a very interesting day. I think we should go back to Brooklyn and collect T Bone Burnett, he’s trying to book us into the Angler’s Rest. I think we’re going to need his sage advice.” Before anyone could reply, Bill had grabbed a couple of planks and was coming towards the little group of country singers. They managed to jump back into the limo and tell the driver to get out of there fast, but Bill landed a couple of blows on the bonnet as the limo spun its wheels and fishtailed out of Yeats’ property. As they reached Brooklyn Road they saw T Bone walking along with Geoffrey Hill. They pulled up and told them to get in. “What’s happening man?” asked T Bone. “We’ve been attacked by a madman and have just met W.B. Yeats, who turns out to be one of the main people involved in the slaughter of Waggafish.” Said Emmylou. “W.B. Yeats, the poet? Is he still alive?” “Yes to both questions!” replied David Rawlings. “Well, then far out” replied T Bone.

Geoffrey Hill glared at the country singers. “And what’s the true problem may I ask?”  Emmylou looked hard at Hill: “The real question is that we have come to stop the slaughter of Waggafish. We are giving a concert to raise money for RAW, as we find this brutal murder of fish an appalling insult to all living things.” Hill’s eyes narrowed and then opened wide. He glared fiercely at the singers for a few moments before he started laughing, a terrible black laughter, bitter, twisted and with a sound that sent the fear of God into the hearts of the Americans. “Stop this wretched vehicle. I cant abide people with brains the size of pickled walnuts, let me out of this vacuum chamber right now!” 

G. Lehmann, at the Front and Back.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 20

The bionic mosquito: an early experiment of Dr Greene’s.

A youthful Dr Greene at work in his lab creating re-usable live-bait.

Shelby pumping pink nippers for Dr Greene's experiments.

A prototype of re-usable live-bait.

Shelby and Seidel didn’t care that their every move was being observed, and Ted Hughes and T.S. Eliot seemed oblivious to the fact that they were, for all intents and purposes, hostages and in the company of dangerous men. They went to the maritime museum together. They went to the park for picnics. They walked up and down the main street, looking into shops and talking with the locals. The badger had become a real hit, and a photo of this odd beast appeared in the Ulladulla Times.

I was staying at The Afterglow, a lovely cottage-like pub on the outskirts of town. At my suggestion, Dorothy, Merv and the poets who’d arrived on the oblong checked in as well.

Dorothy Hewett was in a rage. “Shelby and that maniac Seidel are running around with Hughes and Eliot and no-one’s doing anything about it! It’s fucked. You disappoint me, Geoff. You write a great, fearless book about Nero, and yet you can’t even get off your arse and go and sort those idiots out!” I looked over at Dransfield, J.S. Harry, Vicki Viidikas and Kerry Leves. They were listening to the new Jackson Browne album on the pub’s old battered stereo. Dorothy was pacing. “I went to that island to do something. I spent three bloody weeks preparing things for you lot, and now look what’s happening! You can’t even stand up to old Ooga-Booga, and that Shelby is a fuckwit.” I watched as she put on her coat. “Where are you going, darl?” Merv asked. “I’ll bloody well sort this out myself,” Dorothy said, and went out the door. “It’s that fucking oblong,” Merv said, and went after her.

Lucinda Williams looked out the window of her room at The Wheelhouse. The harbour looked incredible: ink-like flourishes of decklights on the water, the silver fizz of insects in the light of the wharf lamps. When she looked down at the road she saw a man wearing a fox-skin cap looking up at her. She turned out the light. When she looked again the man had gone.

I could’t sleep. Behind my eyes, a colour-saturated, badly-edited movie of the last few weeks was on repeat. Scenes rushed past and into each other. I saw Phil Spector riding a giant red bat up to the watch tower, where he leapt off into a Wall of Sound and opened a bottle of Ronnette, which he shared with Frederick Seidel. I saw Sharon Olds get pash-rash from kissing Billy Gibbons with Coral Hull’s mouth. I saw a badger wearing a black swan mask walk up to a Waggaist and give it a mouthful of “Go and get fucked.”

Outside on the street, a nightwatchman was painting the doors and shutters of houses and sheds with the beam of his flashlight. Or so I thought, until a yellow beam came wandering over the walls of my room, followed by a tangle of arms and legs coming through the window. I leapt out of bed and turned on the light. Lucinda Williams killed her flashlight and started raving.

Back on The Island, having found the ongoing weight of responsibility too much to bear, Rodney Hall was looking for a new leader. He was hoping to find a replacement before leaving and returning home to the South coast. Yet when he called a meeting, and asked for a volunteer, no-one put up their hand. The poets looked away or down and shuffled their feet nervously. “What about you, Philip?” Rodney asked. Philip Hodgins thanked him and declined his offer, saying he’d rather tongue-kiss a tiger snake than have to deal with another Waggaist. “And you, Bronwyn?” Bronwyn Lea knelt down and started going through the odds and sods inside her big cane basket. “Is there no-one who will take responsibility for the group and take over?” he asked, his voice trembling. “I’ll do it! I’ll be the leader!” Jamie Grant called from where he was standing at the wire of his cage. He’d managed to remove the fountain pen nib and paper clip mouth guard. “I’ll take charge!” he shouted.

While W.H. Auden went off with a plank to sort things out, I pondered the one special gift that being a war correspondent had afforded me; the one thing that eclipsed all others and left them smoldering in its wake: being omnipresent was a total fucking hoot.

I had another rough night thinking about who was going to be the new leader. Rodney was the perfect man for the job, but we needed someone who could fill his shoes. Around midnight in my room in The Afterglow I was still seeing coloured lights, though this time because a migraine had taken over my head. I looked through my medical supplies and found a couple of broken Black Drop tablets that Coleridge had given me. I swallowed these with a shot of malt whiskey and then started worrying about Sam Coleridge - what on earth had happened to him? I hadn’t seen him since the first few days on the Island. He’d been thinking of setting off with Wordsworth on a squid boat, of going to Tasmania to collect a Devil from Tim Thorne. But these thoughts fell apart as sleep came falling like a cast net. I felt trapped as a black tide of powerful opiate started flooding through my veins. My fever and headache lifted, but these were replaced by dreams, or nightmares concerning rhomboids, obelisks, pyramids and dodecahedrons, then a truncated tetrahedron filled the dark cave of my head; though behind these shapes, always the haunting shadow of the Red Oblong.

I woke and almost cheered when I saw the sunlight in my window. After a shower I walked down the hallway and found myself in the breakfast room. Sunlight poured through the bay window and reassured me the nightmares were gone. Two people were finishing their breakfast. I noticed one of them was Mandy Beaumont so went up and said hello. “Sit down, have a coffee with us,” she said. Mandy seemed nervous and I felt she wanted to tell me something. “What happened last night?” She replied by relating an incredible story. Mandy spoke without pauses and I found myself believing every word she spoke. Her tone rang true. This what she told me:

“Last night we went to the Ulladulla Yacht Club. The had a show. Hex were playing and Lucinda Williams and Gig Ryan rocked out. It was great.  Around 1am things slowed down and we were drinking on the terrace. We watched a man row up the bay and tie up at the wharf. He walked up to the club and came in looking dazed. It was Michael Dransfield. He’d just escaped from Dr Greene’s lab under the fishing shop. Vicki, Kerry Leves and J.S. Harry were still there, loaded up on LIMP. Greene had been hitting them up, mainlining the stuff. Though by the time reached Dransfield, the drug had worn off and Michael decided he’d had enough. Greene had trouble finding a vein, and when he was stooped over, probing for one, Michael reached for something on the bench behind Greene and smashed a bunsen burner onto his head. Greene crashed across the table, smashing beakers of red liquid, sending live-bait flying and flapping as  jars hit the floor. Michael took off. He ran down the hallway and jumped through a window. There was a pontoon at the back and he leapt into Greene’s net-boat and rowed up the bay to the Yacht Club.

When Michael arrived, he took up the story. He was so articulate, remembering every detail of his kidnapping and he tied these fragments into a description of the experiments he witnessed. Greene was even more a monster than any of us thought. In the secret lab he was in the process of genetically engineering pink nippers. Creating nippers as big as crayfish that were virtually indestructible. He wanted to market ‘re-usable’ live bait! Beautiful-looking pink creatures hovered in the glass vats and changed colours in the manner of squid. They waved their marbled claws, and whenever one broke the surface, it would snap shut, creating a sound like a rifle shot. There were other half-finished projects going on in there, but Michael was visibly shaken when he tried to recall the details.

The crew of the Red Oblong were totally drugged with a new version of LIMP. Greene had refined the formula. Anyone under the influence of LIMP2 could be mesmerised by the sound of the voice they happened to be listening to as the drug hit home. Dransfield couldn’t work out the mysteries of the Red Oblong either. However it’s red pulsations were a fascination to him. He’d even written several odes to the oblong. When they were at sea and the LIMP was wearing off, Michael would reach for his pen and scrawl some more verses. 

As Dransfield reached the end of his tale, I felt so moved that I put my arm around his shoulders. I felt his body tremble like a fawn, without words, his voice, his poetry. When it all fell away, he was a frail creature.

It was clear Mandy was falling in love with Dransfield, and I wondered where this would end: what could I do to shelter these young lovers from the Redness about to spread through this unsuspecting fishing town?

The Club closed and as we all walked back to hotel, we could see the pulsating red glow down at the docks. On the top of a street light Mandy pointed out an unusual bird. It was an Arctic Jaeger. The others went to their rooms but I went through my case and found my field guide. It’s correct name was the parasitic jaeger. I read the following lines aloud:  “Like other skuas, it will fly at the head of a human or fox approaching its nest. It can inflict serious damage, an attack by a jaeger is a frightening and painful experience.”

G. Lehmann, at the Front

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 19

The tackle shop in Ulladulla above Dr Greene’s secret laboratory.

David Malouf aboard Slessor’s Halvorsen cruiser, reacting to the story of Phil Spector being taken down in the lake.

Ulladulla harbour at dusk, just before the arrival of The Red Oblong.

When David Malouf introduced John Milton to the poets, some called Milton for an escaped Waggaist - his red cape confused them, and his intense stare was similar to that of someone coming down from LIMP. “Put him back in the cage, David!” Roger McDonald shouted. Roger had abandoned fiction and returned to poetry, and even though he was too late for The War, he was loving the company of friends he hadn’t seen for more than forty years. “Yeah, what the fuck are you doing? Is this some kind of fashion parade?” Kevin Brophy yelled. Others join in. Milton was used to being heckled, and simply stood his ground until the abuse had subsided. Finally he turned to Malouf and said: “A great, pervasive spirit resides at the heart of this gathering. May it remain so. Now, if it be your will, guide me through the aftermath of this unholy war, this wreckage of mad design and cruelty.” Malouf looked long and hard at Milton. Even the worst parody of the great man’s speech would have been preferable to what he’d just heard. Still, it was better than not having him there at all, and so off they went on a tour of The Island.

Lucinda Williams slipped her bracelets on and ran a brush through her hair. She looked at herself in the mirror, then looked beyond her face to where Dr Greene was lying on the bed. The last thing she’d wanted was to have an affair, especially with someone whose life seemed so at odds with her own. At first she’d fallen into a drunken embrace. Two days later, after countless embraces, she was still in Greene’s apartment in Ulladulla under the shop he used as a front for his experiments. Now it was time to go. She turned to face him. “You look ravishing,” he said. “I have to go,” she said, and started to gather up her things. Greene got out of bed and went to her. He put a hand on her waist. “Don’t,” she said. “Please.” Greene watched her pack clothes into a bag. Her perfume was like sandalwood and driftwood smoke. “I was hoping we’d be able to start a new life down here,” he said. “I was never a fan of country music until I met you.” Lucinda stopped packing and half-turned towards him. “Then I suggest you return to what you were listening to before you met me,” she said through her hair. “Are you always so cold and aloof at the end of an affair?” he asked. “Only when end is another word for shipwreck,” she said, then picked up her bag and left the room.
A crowd of tuna men and local jetty rats had gathered to watch the ambulance pull into the wharf at Ulladulla. It was a crazy spectacle. A 1950s Austin Sheerline, its roof and bonnet festooned with seaweed, a dead gull hanging by a string from the aerial, and the face of a badger peering out from the passenger window. When Seidel and Ted Hughes stepped out of the ambulance, one of the tuna men said “Looks like youse are the only sick fucks needing treatment around here.” Seidel opened the rear doors, and Shelby emerged backwards, helping T.S, Eliot up the little ladder on the side the wharf. Eliot stood blinking and leaning on his cane. “Land’s End,” he said. “Good job, driver.”
Milton was exhausted. Rodney Hall and David Malouf had taken him in Kenneth Slessor’s Halvorsen cruiser on a water-based tour of The Island. Rodney had pointed out the various places where most of the action had taken place. He’d done his best to explain why the poets had fought the Waggaists, and had been animated in his description of the day Phil Spector had come to grief in the lake. Malouf was wide-eyed and had demanded intimate details. As they returned to the wharf, Milton stood on the bow of the cruiser, his red cape fluttering out behind him. “Figure this out, figurehead!” a poet had shouted as one of the confiscated Waggaist ampules hit  Milton’s shoulder and exploded. “Zest!” he exclaimed. “The essence of what the mind can achieve, under pressure!”
Dr Greene watched as Lucinda Williams got into her Chevy Silverado and pulled away. He’d put on his white lab coat and had gone out the secret side entrance to the apartment. He wanted to see her again, though didn’t know where she was going, or if she knew anyone in the area. He would find out.
Greene’s fishing tackle shop was above his lab, and was doing a fine trade in bait and lures. It was the perfect facade for his serious work. Only one person knew of what lay below the tackle shop, and they were behind the counter, selling lures to the tourists who had just begun to arrive in earnest on the South coast. The man’s name was Bobby Russo. He was a well-known fishing identity, famous for wearing a fox-skin cap and budgie-smugglers, and head-butting yellowfin tuna and bronze-whaler sharks into submission on the rocks. His book The Day the Bottom Moved - the story of how he caught a 300kg Waggafish alone, at night, from The Tubes at Jervis Bay - had been a best-seller. Dr Greene called him from the lab: “Bob, put out the word on a Chevy Silverado. I want to know where it finds a berth for the night.”
I’d taken a water-taxi from The Island to Brooklyn, then driven down to Bermagui to reach Ulladulla by night. Before I left, Dorothy Hewett had taken me aside, saying “Just get yourself to Ulladulla and I’ll meet you there as soon as I can.” She told me that Merv Lilly was coming to pick her up in his pole-barge, and they were then going drive down in the white Merc. 
I looked out over Ulladulla: an orange moon was floating up the sky from the black water.  To my side, a crested pigeon exploded from the grassbank, the jingle-bells in the sound of its flight described an arc across the cyptic twilight. Then I saw something moving on the water, at first it appeared to be another tall ship—but soon realised it was a thing I didn’t really want to see. A shape from the murky past, some old repression, was now making its presence felt in this beautiful setting. It was The Red Oblong. A glassy looking vessel made from some unknown material - it must have been at least twenty metres long - and best way to describe its shape is to call it for what it was: a large oblong that was illumintaed from within. It created a pulsating light that could travel across long distances. I grabbed my old field glasses and had a good look: on deck there were four figures, moving about in postures of unease. Two were kneeling and the other two were laying themselves onto the deck and then standing again. It looked like they were moving to some kind of religious choreography. Ater watching for some time I realised they were praying. The Oblong pushed its blunt way through the harbour and made a messy wake that chopped up the black glass into lumps of crazed redness. This evil geometric vessel was powered by either a big V8 or some old navy diesel plant— I could hear the pistons firing like the throaty purr of some fabulous big cat.
As I watched the Red Oblong being pushed into its archorage by a tugboat, I wondered if Dorothy had been tipped off about this craft of extreme redness. A row-boat had delivered the crew who had been praying on deck of the Oblong. As they walked up the steps of the wharf and into the light I recognised them all: Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas, J.S. Harry and Kerry Leves. The whole crew were dressed in black and humming some turgid mantra, their eyes were glazed and they couldn’t seem to focus. I went up to Vicki and asked her what the hell was going on, she just looked straight through me and seemed unable to respond. The others in turn did the same, they appeared to be members of some kind of red cult, all spaced out and without wills of their own. Was this a manifestation of some Waggaist hex? Who was behind it? Shelby, Dr Greene? These people were all fine poets and head-strong individuals, and it would have been extremely difficult to have brain-washed them. What was the allure of the Red Oblong? They formed a single file and walked straight by me, heading into the town. I waited until Dorothy and Merv arrived in the Merc. Dorothy walked to the end of the wharf to see what was moored there. Throwing back her hair, she moaned: “The Red Oblong, we’re all fucked.”
Ted Hughes, Frederick Seidel, Shelby and T.S. Eliot made a bizarre sight as they walked up the main street of Ulladulla. Shelby had long-since put the LIMP needle away. Hughes wasn’t going anywhere. 
They checked into The Wheelhouse, a bed-and-breakfast near the harbour. Later that evening they were sitting outside a cafe drinking and talking. A woman with golden hair, wearing a blue denim jacket and with a guitar slung over her shoulder, approached and asked if the men knew of a decent place to stay. T.S. Eliot stood up. “The Wheelhouse is splendid,” he said. As Eliot was pointing and giving the woman diections, Frederick Seidel narrowed his eyes. “Country rock meets the Wasteland. This will be interesting,” he said.
I had been given a second chance at reporting from the Front, and I was loving the challenge. Ken had basically lost heart with the whole scene and had gone back to Kings Cross. We didn’t know if he’d be back. The night before he left we threw a party for him on the tall ship. The pink gin was flowing. Ken was in fine form, making speeches and flirting with Mandy Beaumont, who kept reading from tiny hand-made books of poems and giving the eye to Bukowski. Tim Winton, who’d been told about The War by Dennis Haskell, had come over from the West on his Triumph Speedmaster, low-flying in the minor key the length of the Nullabor Plain. He thought there might be a novel in a crowd of poets tearing each other’s words out. When he arrived by tinny and saw a lot of people laughing and deep in conversation, he climbed the tall ship’s rigging and spent the night in the crow’s nest, reading old issues of Tracks magazine. I went to bed and drifted off to sleep to a Lauren Williams love song.

Geoffrey Lehmann, the Front

Monday, March 15, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 18

Geoffrey Lehmann, poet and War Correspondent.

Interior of the Austin Sheerline ambulance.

Since accepting the brief role as war correspondent, Geoffrey Lehmann had been up each day at dawn. Despite being told by all and sundry that he was no longer needed, he continued to walk around taking photos and scribbling furiously into his own little notebook. You could hear him as he passed by: “Very interesting. Yes, indeed. That’s good. I wonder. Perhaps there are...” When he cornered Bukowski on the wharf and started asking him questions about the various movie depictions of his life, Charles picked Geoff up and threw him into the river. “Ben Gazzara or Mickey Rourke?” Geoff had demanded, streaming water and ribbons of weed. “And who are you? Are you Charles? Chuck? Hank? Henry? Tell me! The world needs details! You can’t just write about battered lampshades, horses, bourbon, cigars, women, fighting, poetry, fucking, vomiting, L.A., bars, Mozart and bed bugs without giving us at least a splinter of the truth!” Bukowski had gone into the river to silence Lehmann, but Geoff outswam him. His freestyle was excellent. Charles came back to the wharf, pulled up a deck chair, opened a beer, and sat there patiently, waiting for Lehmann to come ashore.

Fifty kilometers away, the ambulance was punching through a stiff norther-easterly chop. It was heavy going. Shelby had to strap T.S. Eliot into the stretcher as he kept flying out of his seat and rolling around on the floor. Up front, visibility was patchy. The wipers were slapping across the glass and small waves were breaking over the roof. Seidel and Hughes sat in silence. For awhile they’d listened to old country and western songs on the cassette player Ted had brought along, but now Seidel was in no mood for music. They were travelling about a kilometer offshore. Occasionally they caught glimpses of a headland or beach through the spray. The sight made Hughes think of Cornwall, of the times he and Sylvia had stayed at the stone cottage by the beach and spent evenings wandering around Tintagel Castle, the birthplace of King Arthur. He was remembering how Sylvia would turn her face into the wind, her hair flying around her face, when Seidel shouted “Look out!” Hughes came back and through the chop he saw a yacht bearing down on them, some fifty yards away. At the last minute the yacht tacked away, its crew hanging over the sides. Seidel wound down his window: “You fucking morons we’re in an ambulance are you blind or just plain stupid!” The badger had leapt under the dash when Seidel started shouting, and was now looking up at Ted through loops of trailing wires. T.S. Eliot was demanding to know what was going on. Shelby was close to tears. He got seasick drinking water.
Geoffrey Lehmann had avoided a nasty incident with Bukowski by promising he’d speak to his good friend in Melbourne - the Australian importer for Lagavulin single malt Scotch. Feeling cocky, he was now standing outside the Waggaist cage, asking questions and taking photos. The Waggaists couldn’t speak because they were wearing wire-mesh mouth guards, but that didn’t stop Geoffrey. He wanted to know everything: what Waggaists ate, if polygamy was their thing, had they ever met the Red K, their tastes in music, if they were allowed to read lyrical poetry, what they thought of poets who called themselves post-modernists... The huge red crowd were making muffled, angry noises and kicking at the sandy soil. Geoffrey’s questions continued unabated. He didn’t miss a beat, scrawling answers to his own questions and nodding wildly. In the end, Rodney Hall had to take him by the arm and lead him away. Even in his cabin, he could be heard asking questions, answering them, and practising his best correspondent’s voice.
K. Slessor, the Front

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 17

The Fortune of War hotel, Circular Quay.

A small Waggafish, around the same size as the one caught and killed by Bill Wisely seven years ago.
I looked at the departing ambulance and realised this was the time to have a lengthy break. I wanted to know more about the background to The War, who actually started it, what factors from history or social problems contributed to it? I knew it had its roots deep in the creation of the Waggafish - the CSIRO experiment gone wrong - but how did Dr Greene really become involved? Where did Shelby come from? He wasn’t even a poet. The list went on. There were so many implications, so many innocent bystanders, victims, camp-followers and red-raggers. Deep at the heart of this whole episode in history was a dark mystery. What had really started the Poetry War and divided so many diverse people and set them at each other’s throats? Were the fishermen involved simply because a fish - admittedly a fish like no other - was involved?

I was asleep in the Halvorsen when I heard a knock on the window. I parted the curtain and saw Michael Wilding looking in, his nose pressed to the glass. “Can I have a word, Ken?” he asked. I looked at my watch. It was 6 am. Normally I would have told him to go away, but there was something about his expression and voice that concerned me. I hadn’t seen him for awhile, and had noticed his absence. I got up, put on my dressing gown and let him in.

“It’s poetry,” he said. “Poetry and poets.” Michael ran his fingers through his hair and sighed loudly. “I’ve just about had enough.”

I knew that Wilding wasn’t poetry’s greatest fan, yet he had made the effort to come to The Island. His support for a couple of old friends was soon extended, without fanfare, to all the poets during the war. He had become a popular figure: quiet, observant, and with a dark sense of humour.

“Poets. You can’t live with them, and without them your life is less complicated and less likely to unravel spontaneously. Even the most well-adjusted poets are fucked-up. They are territorial and competitive. Secretly, they loathe each other and can’t stand the success of their peers. In private they study literary theory and test the waters of radical reform with regards to style and syntax. In public they feign indifference to poetics and theory, preferring to hit the piss. At festivals they read, yet never attend the readings of other poets on the program. They always get small audiences, and complain bitterly about this fact. They fear the arrival of a new, young talent. Poets are paranoid, bleak individuals who live their lives in a permanent state somewhere between melancholia, acute anxiety and depression. When they laugh, it is usually a nervous reaction to the onset of mania. Bank managers, Writers Festival Directors and most literary journal editors despise them. There is no Prime Minister’s Award for poetry. This is not an accident or oversight. The Prime Minister does not understand poets or poetry, nor do his advisors. They see it as subversive, divisive, and totally unintelligible. All poetry since Banjo Patterson is regarded with cynicism and contempt. No one buys it, hardly anyone reads it, teachers are tyrannised by it and students are afraid of it. Poetry is a threat. When I was at the University of Sydney, whenever I saw a poet coming up the stairs or into the cafeteria, I would hide. Their conversation is stilted. They take minimalism to a new level. Mostly they talk about themselves, and their essays are full of symbolist jargon. Romantic crap. Poets aren’t happy with just writing the stuff, they need to be known as poets. Leonard Cohen once said that poetry isn’t a career, it’s a verdict. Cohen was right. The Poetry War has been brewing for many years. It was only a matter of time. An ego time-bomb.”

When Wilding stopped talking, he stood up and adjusted his tie. “Thanks for listening, Ken,” he said, then he walked out of the cabin and onto the wharf. I watched as he walked off down the beach, kicking at driftwood.

This was the last straw. I really had to get off The Island. I knew I couldn't leave for good until everything had been resolved. I had to get to Sydney for one more interview. All the travel was wearing me down. I asked Frank Webb if he’d take over as correspondent for a couple of days, but he swore at me and opened his bible. I asked Geoff Page and Wallace-Crabbe, but they pretended they hadn’t heard. When I asked Geoffrey Lehmann, he ripped the notebook and pen from my hand and said “When do I start?”

I took the Halvorsen to Church Point, picked up my car and drove to Sydney, knowing reports from The Island were going to be in good hands.

I felt like a late breakfast and a drink. I decided to go to The Fortune of War Hotel at Circular Quay. It was the only early opener I trusted for a decent feed. I had a pink gin and ordered bacon and eggs. I happened to read a coaster on the bar: “The Fortune has a colourful reputation, which includes being the first and last port of call for generations of Australian soldiers involved in theatres of conflict.” Oh just perfect, I thought as someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Shelton Lea. “So where have you been hiding Shelly?”  “I’ve been here for three months, reading poetry at dawn every day for drinks. They gave me a room and now I’m the poet in residence.” I filled Shelton in on The Island war, but he was right up on it. Evidently Jordie Albiston had been commissioned to write an opera based on the goings on at The Island. Shelton said: “I asked her who had commissioned it. She told me she’d been contacted by Kate Jennings, who is working for this patron who loves poetry and music.” And who was this patron? Did he happen to be an American? “Oh yes, I think he is from the U.S. The opera company has a weird name: “Ooga-Booga-Inc.” I mentioned the name Frederick Seidel. “Yeah, that’s it! Ooga-Booga Seidel!” Shelton said with a diabolical spasm of laughter. After a few more beers I asked him how he thought the war had started. He told me this story.

“I actually remember the first blow in the war. Yes, that's right. I happened to be there. I was up at Brooklyn when this bloke came by in an old beaten up tinny and asked if I wanted to go fishing with him. Said his name was Bill. Well, we went way up the river and Bill started cutting up pillies and throwing them over the side for burley. We were using squid for bait. Bill said he had a frozen supply in the pub freezer. It was nearly black but he reckoned it was okay. It must’ve been, because within a half hour Bill pulled in a beautiful mulloway of about twenty pounds. Then he got another one, but half way in Bill thought he’d lost him. When he pulled his line up there was just the jewie's head left on the hook. Fucking Noah’s ark, said Bill. So he throws out another squid and he’s on again, this time he pulled in this incredibly ugly looking fish.

It had a huge head full of teeth, a red coloured body with spikes all over it, and yet it was pretty sleek looking, a real predator. Bill pulled it in, luckily it was a small one. It stared at us with pure hate in its eyes. After a minute or so the fish started flapping around in the belly of the boat. Bill asked me to pass him an old plank he kept under the seats. I handed it to him and he went to work on that little red horror. He smashed it to a pulp and growled and carried on something terrible. After it was over, I asked him what kind of fish it was. He said “I didn’t think I’d ever see one in the Hawkesbury, fucking red swine of a thing. Fucking dog of a fish. It’s a Wagga. A fucking Wagga-Fish!” “So that’s how it started,” Shelly said. The next day Bill had a fresh supply of planks in the boat. “The red tide has turned,” Bill Wisley said, and glared at me. “You fucking idiot.” “And that's the story of the first blow in the poetry war, Ken. Like I said, it’s a mystery.”

Debriefing to me about poets and poetry seemed to have done Michael Wilding the world of good. When I saw him on my return from Sydney, he was looking much happier. Never had I met a man for whom poetry had become such a burden. He mentioned that he thought the war would go on indefinitely, but I told him the Waggaists were a spent force. There'd be no more torture or bats, no more spear guns or darts - and more to the point - no more chicken wire mouth guards. We were safe as long as we didn’t dangle our feet over the wharf. At first Wilding didn’t seem at all convinced by any of this, but as I spoke he seemed to warm to my enthusiasm and positive approach. Just then Geoffrey Lehmann walked up with his tape recorder and notebook. He had a pencil behind his ear, and he was wearing a fedora with a press card stuck in the band. Wilding took one look at him and said “Another poet who thinks verse is in bed with the media, this is just fucking great!”

Late that afternoon, while waiting for Wilding to meet me on the wharf, I noticed a red beam of light coming across the water. When I saw it, I was relieved when Wilding appeared. He was carrying two deck chairs, staring down at the planks in the jetty, so he didn’t notice the red beam until he sat down alongside me. We both watched as the light grew brighter. “Oh, but of course,” Michael said with a cutting resignation, ‘It’s heading in towards the Island. What next? A Captain Cook River Cruise with poetry? A tour of The Island to see poets living out Lord of the Flies? A delegation from the Australia Council come to see that their Poetry War Grant is being used properly?”

The light was way out to sea and I knew it would take at least a half an hour to arrive. Michael said: “It’s a contemporary abomination of the light from the West Egg, a moving light coming straight at us, and a red light just in case we miss the point. West Egg has merged with East Egg and they have turned into the Bad Egg.” Eventually it became clear that a small craft was navigating its way in through the reefs at Flint and Steel, hitting the throttle and roaring towards Wilding’s head.

As we watched the red light approaching, Wilding broke the silence. “What’s that?” he asked.

A fish had washed up on the shore next to the wharf and had been left high and dry on a seaweed-covered rock. It had most likely been stung to death by man-o-war jellyfish in a trawler’s pocket. “It’s a large black sole,” I told him. “Ah, that’s me, a Black Soul.” Michael smiled at his own ironic metaphor. On closer inspection, this fish was an evil-looking creature, with fangs and hollow eye-sockets. It was astonishing. Geoffrey Lehmann wanted to take it and nail it to the wharf, but Wilding told him to leave it where it was. “It’s the Poetry Fish,” he said. “It will devour itself soon enough.”

It was Wilding who first started living on the Island, long before the citadel had been built. At first he’d rented a house, then after years of living there peacefully (except for the times Rudi Krausman swam to shore from his yacht, found his house and climbed in through the window), he’d built his own bungalow. This had been sold and torn down when Seidel offered him twenty times the market price. Back then he was like Gatsby, renting a house in “one of the strangest communities in the country, the long slender riotous island which extends itself due east...”

Wilding looked up almost expecting to see the two enormous eggs that had haunted Gatsby. I mentioned Gatsby to Wilding, and he shook his head sadly. “No, oh nothing like that. Gatsby’s light reading, a relief really, no, nothing like Gatsby.” He smiled at the thought of “something lighter” as we sat back on our deck chairs, watching the red beam coming towards us bringing god only knows what. I asked him what was really on his mind. “What's on my mind, Kenneth? It’s always the same thing, really, in one form or another. Paradise Lost. It keeps repeating itself,  along with Paradise Regained, it’s the story of our lives.”

We were blinded as the Haines Hunter pulled into the wharf. There were civilized accents, a shuffling and bumping, then a man with a rope. As our eyes adjusted to the redness and the bright light, we both recognised the noble dome of David Malouf’s head. “Is that you David?” “It certainly is. And it’s a surprise and a delight to see you here, Ken.” “He thinks you’ve been dead for years Ken, that’s why he seems surprised,” said Wilding.  “And Michael Wilding! This is a wonderful reception!” “Okay, don’t get too carried way,” said Wilding. “And who’s the wonder in the cape hiding in the cabin?” “He’s not hiding,” Malouf said. “He’s preparing for his lecture.” Michael looked crestfallen. “What lecture would that be?”  “The Herbert Blaiklock Memorial Lecture, honouring the poet Henry Kendall.”  “Oh right, good god. What the hell next?” said Wilding in an anguished tone. “Okay, then, who is this fellow?”

A hunched  figure wearing a crumpled red cape emerged from the cabin of the Haines Hunter. “Don’t you recognise him?” asked Malouf. “It’s John Milton.”

At the mention Milton’s name a pelican, coming home late, misjudged its landing perch, overflew the pylon, and crashed into the water. A swirl, a wake of phosphorescent plankton, and a shower of whitebait escaping in terror. A Wagga had taken the pelican down by one leg at first. What followed was a horrible scene. Feathers flecked with red light and blood, moans of anguish from Wilding, cries of distressed alarm from Malouf, and finally the undisturbed, mirror of the tide again. Then the red cloaked figure of Milton, one hand shading his eyes, gazing knowingly at the black water.

K. Slessor, the Front