Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 38

A swarm of red grasshoppers north of Perth.
Robert Duncan with his own edition of the Zohar.

Eurydice in the form of a stone curlew.

Driving north out of Perth into an overcast afternoon, Michael saw how the sides of the highway were blowing with sand, how the bottlebrushes were lighting the air. Despite having company, he inhaled a draught of solitude and turned back to look at the road.
Michael was telling Andrew Burke about the Edward Hopper exhibition when Andrew pointed. “Looks like a storm ahead.” Over the highway, a large red cloud was swirling and pulsing. “Wind up your window, quick!” Andrew yelled. As the Monaro entered the cloud, huge grasshoppers began smashing into the car and exploding on the windscreen. It was a relentless onslaught of wings and armour-plated bodies, all reduced to a red paste on the windscreen glass. The wipers only made it worse. They pulled over as the swarm raged against the car. When the grasshopper cloud had moved on, they got out and watched it go, breaking and reforming on its way south. The mustard-yellow Monaro had a new paint-job, and some of it was still moving.
When they reached Guilderton, they pulled over beside the Moore River and stretched their legs. Michael took his telescopic rod and a small net from his backpack. He screwed on a small Spinfisher reel spooled with 2 kilo braid and attached a 20 gram lure. He stood on the bank, casting the silver lure out into the river, and winding it back fast. On his third cast, the line went tight and he lifted the rod tip, which then slammed down as the fish took off. Andrew Burke watched as Michael Dransfield went to work on a nice tailor. The fish leapt and shook his head, trying to throw the hooks. Burke was impressed. He didn’t know Dransfield was into fishing, and he marveled at Michael’s rod-work as he brought the fish towards the bank. Michael netted the tailor, lifted it from the net and held it up. Its pale green sides flashed in the late afternoon sunlight. He removed the hooks and lowered the fish into the river, where it disappeared with a flick of its tail. “Why did you let it go?” Andrew asked. “We could have had that for dinner.” Dransfield stood up, removed the reel and collapsed his rod. “Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you have to,” he said. Andrew Burke was disappointed. He’d been hoping for a more eloquent, lyrical explanation. He was looking at the spot where Michael had palmed the tailor back into the river. When he turned around to say something, Michael was sitting in the car, his legs up on the dash, the lowered sun visor concealing his face. 
Dr Greene and Bob Russo pulled off the road at Gerringong and drove down a narrow dirt road that led to the beach. The Cocteau Twins’ Sugar Hiccup was on the stereo. Bob Russo tapped the dash. “What’s this fucken shit?” Dr Greene spoke to the windscreen: “It’s called sublime music, Bob. I have no Bay City Rollers, Kim Carnes or Barry Manilow with which to soothe and inspire the beast that resides within that Godly frame you call a body.” Bob Russo picked up the CD cover and stared at it. “Oh,” he said. Sarcasm had not eluded Bob all his life, the ability to recognise it had been erased from his brain at birth.
The Waggaists were holding an emergency meeting. I loved that they had convened to meet when every day and every aspect of their lives had been one long, drawn-out emergency. 
I’d gone out to Lion Island in Bill Wisely’s tinny to check on their situation. I was anchored out front of the island in a gentle swell when I heard a woman’s voice. I grabbed the binoculars and scanned the scrub. The Waggaists had gathered at the only place on Lion Island where the red fairy penguins couldn’t reach them: in a tree. On top of the Lion’s head was a huge Moreton Bay fig, its branches sprawling and twisting. The Waggaists had covered every part of the main branches - they were like huge red flying foxes standing upright in their torn and stained coats. The woman’s voice cut through the sound of the swell breaking open on the rocks below. Her clear, urgent syllables came through the wind. When I  first heard her speak, the voice was vaguely familiar. The more she spoke, a shock of recognition went through me. I glassed the tree slowly, checking every face. Then I saw her. She’d let her hair out. The red hood of her cloak was flapping out in the wind. She was leaning against the skin of a huge branch, one hand gripping it high for balance, the other waving in time with her words. It was Alison Croggan. Was she really a Waggaist, or had she been, like Dorothy Hewett, working under cover the whole time - and if so, what was her agenda? Surely she’d already had the chance to come out and renounce Red Language. “This doesn’t have to end here,” Alison said. “We might have lost The War, but we haven’t lost our fire. The poets think it’s over. They’re down there at Brooklyn getting drunk and sleeping in warm beds while we get cold and wet and starve.” The Waggaists were listening with their heads bowed. Croggan continued. “I have a plan. Their will be pain, physical and emotional. Remember: what doesn’t kill you makes you a darker shade of red.” With those words, she  sounded more than convincing. She sounded like a natural-born Red leader. The Waggaists were now muttering and looking around. “But what if we’re wrong?” a man said. “What if the poets are right, and the Red K is indeed nothing more than a manipulative, self-styled, self-promoting mouthpiece for empty rhetoric, badly-edited poems and confused ideologies?” Croggan stared at him. “Then you, my friend, are penguin food. I say we make a swim for the other side. If we form a tight group and swim fast, it won’t take us long.” “What about the Waggafish?” someone said. “Yeah, and the bull sharks!” shouted another. “Baitfish form tight, rolling balls,” Croggan replied. “It confuses predators. There’s safety in numbers.” There was a long, awkward silence. “So, are you with me? If so, we need to leave now, not tomorrow or the day after.” Alison Croggan began climbing down through the branches. Others followed her. Soon many Waggaists were climbing down. As they neared the base of the tree, the red fairy penguins were jumping up and down, snapping and growing. “We need to hit the ground running,” Croggan shouted. “Once we reach the beach, we need to strip off and start swimming. Our cloaks and coats will drag us down. Are you ready?” There was a half-hearted response from the others. “Alright then. One, two, three!” Croggan said, and jumped from the tree. The red fairy penguins went for her but she kicked them away and ran down through the scrub. Most of the other Waggaists followed her, kicking penguins out of the way and removing their clothes. By the time they reached the shore, Alison Croggan was already ten metres out, treading water and urging them on. They dived in a swam out to join her. Up in the scrub, those that had descended the tree but had stalled at its base were being torn to shreds. The screaming was terrible. Those still in the tree were howling and slapping the branches. I pulled the anchor and motored away quickly. Looking back, I could see the water being thrashed to white foam as a desperate group of Waggaists swam for the far shore. 
                                                     THE FINAL TRANSMIGRATION
Lenka was no longer the passive recipient of his dance. She was burning in blue fire as Shiva smiled at her with his alarming pointed teeth. She was the gold centre, the essence of truth at last, all her savagery gone, reaching further and further into the flashing blades and limbs, blue and red, white and black, she was dissolving, melting, through the gate of fire.
                                                                      Vicki Viidikas, Kali and the Dung Beetle
Robert Duncan had been performing complex ceremonies. He concentrated on getting each ritual right, pulling together all his knowledge about the transmigration, weaving this into his effort of calling up Eurydice from Hades. She’d already died twice because Orpheus had doubted her love, the second time as they were about to pass through the gates of hell. Duncan wasn’t going to be responsible for a third failure. Eurydice had died twice for love, this was enough even for a myth. Duncan had started his ritual at 3am and now it was almost dawn, he decided to freshen up before his final session. A shower and a cup of herbal tea, a short period of meditation, refer to some books.
After his shower Duncan carefully shaved, dried his hair and toweled himself. He used a towel with the blue crest of the Masonic Temple embossed on the bottom. He made a pot of lemon-grass tea and decided on a change of clothes. His favorite black velvet suit with its waistcoat, cream silk shirt and a black raw-silk tie. He then consulted the Zohar (on loan to him from Christopher Brennan) an edition he wasn’t familiar with, taking up more time than he had to spare. Duncan used the Zohar as a guide in attaining knowledge about the origin of his soul. Just  to know how far he was along the path to this, always gave him strength.
Duncan considered the meaning of Eurydice’s time in hell. How long could she remain physically separated from Orpheus before her love would begin to fade? Complex considerations, all factors in the truth and life of myth,  things that were unfathomable. Eurydice was another mortal who had been caught up in the whims of Gods, but why had she remained silent - she was like a reflection caught between the silver on the back of a mirror and the surface of its glass, a space of silence. While Orpheus babbled over, water falling, or a skylark embroidering an endless song.
Duncan resumed his secret incantations, his rituals of reclamation. Breathing rebellious fire into the restless soul of Eurydice in Hades. Duncan’s mind and soul were dancing on the border of time and eternity - he felt an affinity with Vicki Viidikas and her lines about being in the ‘gold centre, the essence of truth at last, all her savagery gone, reaching further and further into the flashing blades and limbs, blue and red, white and black, she was dissolving, melting, through the gate of fire’. Duncan could see how the different cultures and myths blended into one vast universe of truth. Figures with glowing heads flew across the heavens, he felt the beginning of Eurydice’s soul’s transmigration. It fluttered and danced and Duncan worked himself into a visionary state. He could tell Eurydice was circling Budgewoi - a migrating bird from the other side of the world looking for a safe waterway to come to rest. Duncan thought of Tennessee William’s Orpheus Descending where he has that image of a tiny legless bird that lives its whole life on the wing ‘they sleep on the wind and never light on this earth but one time when they die!’ Eurydice was free and her soul would return to the paradise of Budgewoi and she would become mortal and never have to live again as a ghost in the underworld.
W.B. Yeats and Devin Johnston came into the library,  they were smiling and Duncan knew by this that he had succeeded. These two weren’t false poets like the imitations of Raworth and Baudelaire that came earlier trying to disrupt the proceedings - Red phantoms from the sick imagination of Dr Greene. These two were Duncan’s friends and even their likenesses could not be corrupted. Yeats was an Immortal and Devin Johnston had been studying the alchemical mysteries of the transmigration for years.
“Eurydice’s soul has been released,” Duncan said to Devin. “She will be here any time now.” Yeats padded across the old Persian carpet on the library floor to where Duncan stood and embraced him. “You’ve done it Robert—her soul has risen from the rocks and bird-less trees of Hades. 
Devin Johnston was smiling broadly but his intelligent eyes were full of questions.
Duncan was exhausted, he sat down on a lounge chair and sighed, he looked out through the window and watched the cold fire of morning. Bower birds swooped through the ancient grape vines growing over the back fence of the Masonic Hall. The wooden grapes were finished and the leaves were yellow. Zebra finches bounced like tiny balls of red-flecked fluff across the grass. In the primrose silver-eyes darted about like green dashes of electricity, the circles of their eyes streaks of white flake.
Feargal Sharkey was huddled in his hide on the edge of the Budgewoi Sports Ground, he’d been there all night waiting for the first sign of the return of Eurydice. Earlier, at dawn he thought he saw a shape in the rolling mist, the figure of a woman appeared and then turned in the parting mist and dissolved in the morning air. Feargal thought why the hell he was doing this, his clothes were damp, his legs were aching and his neck was stiff. He was about to give up when he noticed a bird walking across the oval. An extraordinary creature with long spindly legs, sepia and fawn cryptic plumage, its head large for its body with huge brown eyes. It was a stone curlew and it came walking across the oval towards Feargal in his hide. The stone curlew was only a few feet away and Feargal felt an overwhelming wave of emotion. A feeling so intense he didn’t know how to respond to the situation. He was balancing on one leg which suddenly filled with a hundred cramps, Feargal toppled over and knocked the structure of the hide over. The curlew panicked and jumped three feet into the air before flying off. Feargal finally eased the pain in his leg and managed to get up. He timidly started walking towards the scrub where the stone curlew had vanished, his feet touching on the heavenly grass as he passed by the goal posts.
WB Yeats and Devin were having a coffee in a beach side café. They were talking about Duncan and wondering when they would find out the fate of Eurydice. “How does it work?” Devin said to Yeats. “How can her soul settle into the body of another living soul?” Yeats thought about this for a while before replying “It’s a great mystery.” When the stone curlew walked under the outside tables of the café, the two poets looked at each other knowingly. The soul of Eurydice had taken up in the body of the stone curlew. Feargal Sharkey came in next, his eyes wild and his silky hair falling over his shoulders. “He saw the poets and said “I’m in love!”
G. Lehmann.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 37

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

Charles Baudelaire.

Val Kilmer in his role as Baudelaire in The Flowers of Evil.

Val Kilmer in his Shelby Mustang driving through Budgewoi.

Dr Greene emerged from his laboratory carrying a large red container. Attached to its side was an aquarium aerator. He put the container down carefully and stretched. He was wearing a leather coat, moleskin trousers and a blue shirt. He adjusted his Akubra to a gunslinging angle and squinted into the hard Ulladulla sun. He was waiting for Bob Russo to close the tackle shop. He looked down the hill and out to the harbour. “It’s time you had a holiday,” he said to himself. When Bob Russo walked out of the tackle shop, the tail of his fox-skin cap swinging like a furred plait over his shoulder, he tossed a set of keys to Dr Greene. “I see you’ve got the new items,” he said. They walked over to the car park. “That fuckwit Berryman has no idea what the words live-bait mean,” Greene said, patting the side of the red, humming container. “It’s time he understood. Let’s go fishing, Bob.” He opened a door and climbed into Lucinda William’s Chevy Silverado.
Seidel and Shelby had been gone for days on a LIMP2 binge. Dr Greene had offered them as much as they wanted, and they had feasted. They’d been in Seidel’s room at The Wheelhouse, talking like a pair of cockatiels and laughing uncontrollably. Seidel had seen the Red Oblong sail away to the north, and had doubled over, clutching his sides and crying with delight. “Look Shelby,” he howled, “they’re escaping in the Red Rectangle.” Shelby was on the floor, counting carpet fibres, quoting lines from The Immigrant Chronicles, and doing T.S. Eliot impersonations.
Now that they were focussed again, they spread a map of New South Wales on the kitchenette table and began making plans. 
Michael Dransfield was waiting outside the Perth art gallery. He’d just been to see the Edward Hopper retrospective. Hopper’s painting Nighthawks had always been a favourite. He loved Hopper’s portrayal of the lonely, after-hours lives of the Red Language poets: the Red K in drag and beside him, Ron Silliman impersonating William S. Burroughs. On the other side of the bar, his back turned, Charles Bernstein writing a poem on a napkin. The diner’s proprietor is reaching for a canister of Zest, as things are getting tense. To his right, the water containers are silo-shaped.
Michael was deep in thought, going over the details of Hopper’s painting when he heard a deep, loud rumbling. He looked up and saw a mustard-yellow Monaro with twin black GT stripes over the roof and bonnet. Behind the wheel, wearing mirror shades, was Andrew Burke. “Come on then!” Andrew called through the passenger window. “It’s a great day for a drive.”
Emmylou Harris looked down the river. She was worried about Lucinda Williams. With one day to go before the festival, she was concerned about Lucinda’s wellbeing, but also she couldn’t stand the thought of her missing out on what was sure to be a memorable time. The atmosphere was unbelievable. There were buskers everywhere, and poets reading on the street. This was not like Tamworth: predictable songs sung by Australians busting their guts to sound like they’d just coughed up a handful of Nashville dust. The Nashville scene was no better, which is why Emmylou and Lucinda had invited an eclectic, mostly alt-country line-up. They left the ragged edges on their music and brought a world of styles to their playing. 
Bill Wisely had been on the look-out for Australian country music stars trying to get into the festival. He’d put posters of John Williamson, Lee Kernaghan, Slim Dusty, Anne Kirkpatrick, Casey Chambers. Keith Urban and Troy Cassar-Daley on the train station walls, at the Angler’s Rest, and at the main entrance gate just down from Ian the Squid-Man’s live-bait shop. He knew that some of them would try to get past security, and he was determined to keep them out. 
“So what was your point?” Dorothy Hewett asked Admiral Escher as the Red Oblong made its way north. Escher didn’t respond. He was staring straight ahead as though he were looking through a high window of a bridge on some ocean liner. “I mean, great, we got to see a red asterisk at a place called the Red Abyss, and then the head of Dante comes out of the water like some fucking humanoid atoll spewing red water, and starts raving. And it didn’t even sound like Dante. This is fucked. Look, you’re a great graphic artist. One of the best. I love Night and Day and Hand With Reflecting Sphere. And Three Worlds got me through some tough times. You put things into perspective, and you do our heads in with your dreamscapes and tricked realities, but to be honest, I don’t care anymore. You can take your clever visions and put someone else inside them. I didn’t ask to be included in all this horror. I didn’t just wake up one morning and say ‘Bloody hell, I hope M.C. Escher takes me in a Red Oblong out to sea for a front-row seat at the Dante-and-Asterisk Show.” T.S. Eliot spoke from the top of a staircase. “But you did enter the Oblong, Dorothy.” “Oh fuck off, T.S.,” she said. “I only scrambled into this jumped-up bit of geometry because I was worried about you and Ted and Lucinda. If that’s how you feel, you can all get stuffed.” M.C. Escher was nodding. Then it became apparent that he was crying. His shoulders were rising and falling slowly. Great globes of tears were sliding down his cheeks, each with highly-stylised images of birds and insects inside them. Lucinda went to him and put her hand on his arm. “It’s alright, Cornelis, we’re all a bit stressed here.” Ted Hughes joined Lucinda. “Come on old man, chin up.” The badger farted. Dorothy sat down at the base of a staircase. “All this redness,” she said. “Can we please have a change of colour?” Lucinda Williams took a deep breath. “How long will it take us to get to Brooklyn?” she asked. “About twenty hours,” Admiral Escher said between sobs. “Perfect,” Lucinda said. “We just might make the opening of the festival after all.”
   The Transmigration
‘I had known from the beginning and told those about me that we were in the Last Days, in the Glory then. The Doctor came into the picture then. I told him about the fall of the giant orders of the world. “How can the unreal have as much effect as the real?’ I asked the Doctor. The falling of the astral worlds may be, then, the falling of the sky, where giant stars and dwarves, monstrous constellations and regents of the planets stream down in the collapse of time. Here the Doctor and I must restore the Milky Way, the spring of stars that is our universe. The Doctor had the key to the old science of the spring. I had to find the lock, but now it seems that I draw the water forth by the physical magnetism of a shaman, witching, pulling invisible reins of the stream with my hands. ‘You who are nearest to me’, I said to the Doctor, ‘are unreal’. I could see through his form.’
                                                                 Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book

After the local Goths had upset the first transmigration ceremony, Robert Duncan decided to hold the final phase in private. He waited until after midnight and was about to set up his candles for the ritual. There was a knock on the door. It was Tom Raworth and Charles Baudelaire. They looked tired and were soaking wet and their legs were covered in mud. “We came up the river in a Bass-Boat we borrowed from Dr Greene. We didn’t see a sunken tree as we came into Budgewoi and it hit the boat with a great force,” said Raworth. “With the force of Darkness,” said Baudelaire.  “What a lot of shit,” said Raworth. You could tell they had been arguing for days. It seemed they were on some kind of mission. Duncan became very suspicious. Why were they using Dr Greene’s boat? Had Greene lent the boat or had they stolen it? Duncan knew Greene never lent his bass-boat - it was the boat he used in Bass-Fishing Competitions; he’d been trying to beat Steve Starling with the best bass for years and he had to have the boat ready. Duncan had been briefed by Rodney Hall about Dr Greene and his obsessions. “So you have been with the Doctor?” Duncan eyed them with his straight eye. “You have been dicing with death.” This seemed to cheer Baudelaire up. He looked about the Masonic Hall and took off his wet coat. “Is there a bathroom here? I would like to refresh myself, and to wash this mud from my legs and feet.” Duncan directed him to the bathroom.
Tom Raworth wanted a drink, he wanted “vodka with limes, and a double to start with.” Duncan told him that Feargal Sharkey had drunk everything in the Masonic Hall except for a bottle of pink gin the Lodge got in when they thought that Kenneth Slessor was coming up to report on the transmigration. Duncan opened the gin and offered a bottle of tonic water.  Raworth wanted to know when the transmigration would occur. He said  wanted to write a report for ‘Pepper’ an electronic literary journal. Duncan knew this was edited by the Red K, or at least started by the K before he lost the Poetry War. Duncan also knew the funds were drawn from the poetry mafia’s bank in America, run by the poetry academic, (this was her cover) Helen Vendler. “Where’s the money?” says the investigator from Internal Revenue. “The money? What a joke, there’s no money in poetry.” Vendler had relentlessly omitted Robert Duncan from every anthology she edited and generally made it clear she did not even consider his work.   Just  thinking of Vendler made Duncan furious.
“She rings up Dr Greene to check out the flathead fishing in Queensland,” said Tom Raworth with a smile. Duncan felt betrayed. He knew Raworth was double dealing somehow, and when Raworth had finished half a bottle of gin he slipped up. He took out his thin silver camera from his coat pocket an envelope fell onto the floor, it was addressed, in Raworth’s handwriting to Val Kilmer! “What the hell is going on here?” Duncan said.   Baudelaire had finished his bath and came back into the library drying his hair with a towel. “Yes, Val Kilmer!” said Tom Raworth. “He is going to play the main role in Flowers of Evil - a big Hollywood movie based on the life and times of Charles Baudelaire.” “He will play me in my heyday!” said Baudelaire. “Yes, it’s all happening,” said Tom. “Charlie loves the idea of Val Kilmer, in fact he suggested it.”
“Tom, did you just say that Helen Vendler phoned the Doctor in Queensland to ask about flathead fishing?” Duncan, shaking his head. “Yes, Vendler is fascinated by flathead. She wants to come to Australia and give a lecture on Gwen Harwood at the University of Queensland so she can go flathead fishing with Doctor Greene.” Duncan let go with a stream of references and quotations from the 17th Century to the present day but right at the end he slipped in a sly question to Raworth. “Tell me Tom, what do you make of the poetry of the Red K?” Raworth was well known for his quickness, though now he stumbled and waited two seconds too long. Duncan knew these two desperados were either poetry gangsters or agents working for either Greene, Shelby or the Red K himself.
Feargal Sharkey came in with the crew of golden codgers, armed with their gaff-hooks and blackfish knives. They had been fishing all day and were going to cook up a feed for Duncan to bring him strength for his transmigration ceremony. Duncan said to Feargal “Throw them out, these two are frauds, they aren’t who they claim to be, throw them back into the river where they came in from.” At this Feargal tore off his clothes and mounted the old oak table in the library, he started flapping his arms and imitating the call of a male kookaburra. He danced around on the table and became a kookaburra shaman, his voice transforming from a human imitating a kookaburra into pure bird song. As he did this the golden codgers with their gaffs held in threatening positions ushered the two false poets out of the Budgewoi Masonic Hall.
It was 3am when Robert Duncan began to call on the soul of Eurydice. Outside the Milky Way looked like a great horn of fog flecked with stars and flares of starlight and cold fire. The constellations were spinning their light and drawing themselves onto the imagination of whoever looked up that night. The heavens were bright with darkness. Feargal Sharkey had recovered from his kookaburra shape-changing dance and was now settled into his special Eurydice hide on the edge of the Budgewoi Sports Ground. The golden codgers were in their beds and Duncan was chanting and calling up the dead from the library of the Masonic Hall.
How would Eurydice’s soul manifest itself? Would she return as a Goth and finally get to speak in the local version of English? She had never spoken in all the myths, not one word, in Greek or any other language. She was a silent figure for the wife of the first singer, the inventor of the lyre and the poet who charmed the King of Hell. What was behind this silence? Maybe Feargal Sharkey would be the first moral to hear Eurydice’s side of the myth, the first person to hear Eurydice’s own story.
Feargal peered through the slot in his special hide and saw the mist rolling in over the cricket pitch, over the turf and around the goal posts.

G. Lehmann.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 36

Lyle Lovett’s sound-check.

Michael Dransfield stepped off the plane in Perth and inhaled the air. It reeked of solitude and vast distances. The light was sharp and clean. He walked into a hot, dry wind, more focussed than he could remember.

J.S. Harry and Kerry Leves had gone to Brooklyn. They weren’t country music fans, but the festival seemed a far better option than travelling into the wild West on a mission that was bound to end in tears.

Michael caught a cab into the city, then walked down through Kings park and the botanical gardens to the Swan River. He found the jetty where kids were doing bombies in the opening pages of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. He sat on the end of the jetty, looking out over the sliding dark blue river, going through the details of his plan. He had much to do and see before he went to the wheat belt. First he needed to visit Fay Zwicky. Fay had sent him a text, saying she had a special gift, one that would be ‘a talisman against redness...’ After visiting Fay, Michael was going to call in on Andrew Burke. He’d liked the poems of Andrew’s he’d read in New Poetry and sensed he could rely on him in a tight fix. He was going to ask if he’d accompany him to Geraldton. Michael had always wanted to see first-hand the harbour and surrounding countryside of Randolph Stowe’s Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, and Andrew Burke knew the place well. He remembered a line from the novel, and said it aloud: “The merry-go-round had a centre post of cast iron, reddened a little by the salt air...” He understood that line now. The redness was not rust. It was Stowe’s metaphor for a fast-approaching time of linguistic decay and unprecedented ego in Australian literature. The merry-go-round’s centre post was the eye of the storm, the hub, and at its perimeter was the centrifugal force that would throw all but the most discerning and determined readers and lovers of poetry into chaos.

Fay had morning tea ready when Michael arrived. She poured tea and talked about The Island War. She spoke calmly about how the Waggaists were representative of all that’s wrong with poetry when theory becomes its overarching focus and driving force. “Most of them are running scared on the meniscus of an ill-perceived notion of what it takes to write good verse,” she said, spooning blackberry jam into a bowl. “They feel that if you dive deep, and go on your nerve and trust your instincts rather than the poetics of the current fashion of the time, you’re seen as being too vulnerable, or sentimental. The Waggaist’s poetry is largely without passion and emotion. They view anything that engages with matters of the spirit as being pathetic. It’s why the Deep Imagists were ridiculed by the Academy when they started publishing their poems. When James Wright wrote “...when I stand upright in the wind, my bones turn to dark emeralds,” or “...if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom,” the hard-arsed spin-doctors of cynicism and theory couldn’t handle it. For them, opening your chest and saying ‘Look at my heart, it’s in shreds’ was a fuck-up.” Fay was leaning on her elbows, using a scone to highlight each point. “By following the Red K’s lead, the Waggaists were writing too much, too quickly.  Technique and craft might seem to be interchangeable, but when careful editing is exposed on a hillside in septic weather, the poem breaks down.” Fay took a sip of tea and looked carefully at Dransfield. “Can you remember one line of a Red K poem?” Michael had to think, but not for too long. “No,” he said. Fay smiled and stood up. “My point exactly,” she said. She went to a large mahogany cabinet and opened a drawer. When she turned around she was holding a pendant on a plaited black leather string. She came to stand behind Michael and looped the pendant around his neck. It settled against his shirt with a cool, comforting weight. He lifted it and saw a photo of an osprey behind a globe of glass. Michael was overcome with emotion. The osprey was his favourite raptor. Fay took his hand. “The long voyage does indeed involve many streets,” she said, and kissed him on the forehead. “Now get to work.”

Emmy-Lou Harris was running around with a clip-board under her arm, organising the many singers and bands. There were only two days to go before the festival, and things were tight. The stage has been erected - it ran along beside the water at the marina, and had a huge scallop shell behind it, lit with green and blue. At night it looked incredible. During Lyle Lovett’s sound-check, Lyle had insisted the crowd be allowed to come to the stage. The atmosphere was electric.

Heading the bill at the music festival was supposed to have been Lucinda Williams and Hex, but no one had seen Lucinda for days. In her place, she’d put Lynyrd Skynyrd (with special guest John Berryman). Ronnie van Zandt and Berryman had been holed up in the back bar of the Angler’s Rest, putting music to some of the Dream Songs. Berryman loved that “Life, Friends, Is Boring...” now had a driving Southern swamp-boogie sound. Following Skynyrd were:
Johnny Cash
The Charlie Daniels Band
John Prine and Iris Dement
Patty Loveless (performing songs from her forthcoming album inspired by the poems of Mary Oliver)
Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris
Drag the River (with Lucky Oceans replacing their late friend on pedal-steel)
Sun Kil Moon
Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers
Dolly Parton, Lynn Anderson, Linda Rondstadt
Blue Rodeo
The Jayhawks
Kris Kristofferson and the Oyster Band
Gillian Welch
Drive-By Truckers
The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash
The Amazing Rhythm Aces
Lyle Lovett
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (with Doc Watson and Vassar Clements)
The Ozark Mountain Daredevils
The freak banjo-player from Deliverance (with James Dickey responding on guitar)
Waylon and Shooter Jennings
Steve Earle and the Copperheads
Townes van Zandt
Wrinkle Neck Mules
Robert Earle Keen
Frog Holler
Chris Knight
James McMurtry 
I See Hawks in L.A.
Bill Wisely was Head of Security. He and Terry Hack and Moose had set up a perimeter fence around the venue, and out back of Yeats’ oyster shed, in case they were needed, they’d erected a few chicken wire cages. Bill had also enlisted the help of the Sons of Zebedee, who had finally been won over by Berryman and Hill’s eloquence and passion. Bill was handing out planks and giving orders.

Traffic out of Sydney and on the freeway south was already a nightmare. The Old Pacific Highway was banked up from Asquith and cars jammed the freeway from the Gosford turn-off. Many had abandoned their vehicles and were walking in. A local outlaw motorcycle club had already arrived in Brooklyn, and were a serious presence as they walked around with Bill’s planks, keeping things in order. Dolly Parton had taken the members aside and given them a stern lecture about how crowd-control can get out of hand. She reminded them of what had happened in ’69 when the Stones played Altamont. The bikers were impressed by Dolly’s cautionary speech, and promised to keep order without resorting to violence. 

Brooklyn was packed. You couldn’t get near the bar of The Rest. Thousands of craft were anchored out on the river - from Brooklyn to Flint and Steel and up to Spencer there was no room for anymore. The river was a tight patchworking of motor boats and sails. In town most people had gone up to the oval above the marina. There was a constant blue fog of spliff smoke on the breeze. Barbecues were spitting and smoking. The local cops were barely visible. They assumed because it was a country music festival that things would not get out of hand. This would prove a fatal mistake.

In their stone cottage, Bron yr Aur, in the Snowdonia National Park in Wales, Led Zeppelin were getting ready to leave. Robert Plant had received an email from his old friend Gram Parsons. Gram had told him how much he was looking forward to the festival in Brooklyn. Plant had contacted the other members, saying how much he wanted to go, and were they up for it. They hadn’t been semi-acoustic since Led Zeppelin 111, and they thought they’d surprise Gram by turning up in Brooklyn. They were all keen. John Bonham was excited. He was a keen fisherman, and news of massive Waggafish in the Lakes District had been in the London Times. He’d already packed his live-baiting gear. The band’s air-ship was waiting, hovering over a field outside the cottage.

G. Lehmann

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 34

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
and betray.
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
and terrify.
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.’
                                          Peter O’Leary 
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.

G. Lehmann.