Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 40

A Waggaist hiding in the trees outside Brooklyn.

An empty street in Geraldton.

Dennis Hopper on the beach at Geraldton.

As Michael Dransfield and Andrew Burke drove into Geraldton, a light rain began falling. The place was all but empty. The windy streets were lined with paper bags and other blown refuse. As they rolled down the main street, Michael noticed that many of the offices and businesses had boards and tin-sheets nailed over their windows. He asked if Andrew knew what had happened. Andrew shrugged and pulled over outside an empty bakery. They got out into a cold wind. The rain was heavier now and it angled onto the footpath. “This is very odd,” Andrew said as they sought refuge under an awning. “Last time I was here the place was humming.” As they stood trying to keep dry and wondering what to do, an old woman came around the corner with a red heeler on a leash. The heeler jumped when it saw the poets, then ran to stand beside the old woman where it curled its lip and sat down uneasily. “Excuse me,” Andrew said to her, “but why is Geraldton so quiet? Where is everyone?” The old woman spoke to her dog: “It’s because the show that never came has finally come,” she said. “What show?” Andrew asked. The old woman spoke to her dog again. “The one we said was over before it began,” she said, and nodded. The heeler was looking up at her expectantly. “Could you be a bit more cryptic?” Michael Dransfield said. The old woman looked away from the dog and fixed him with a glare. “Sarcasm is the last refuge of fools and thieves. Come along Red, these men are uneven and dangerous.” The poets watched as she turned the corner, the heeler giving them a lingering look as it went.
The Waggaists emerged from the bush. They were very cold and their bodies had been scratched and torn. Alison Croggan adjusted her lyre-bird skirt and scanned the scene. She saw how the main entrance to town had been fenced where it led down to the Angler’s Rest. A couple of bikers were standing at the main gate, arms folded. An ambulance was parked beside the gate, facing up the road, and Bill Wisley was talking to one of the paramedics. “We need to get through,” Alison said. “But not like this.” She turned and looked around. There were houses close by, and in their backyards she could see Hills hoists and pole-and-twine washing lines with clothes flapping on them. “I need two volunteers to go and steal those clothes,” she said. The Waggaists found sudden interest in the sky and earth. “You, you, and you” she said. The Waggaists cursed, but didn’t argue. They set off in a crouching run, keeping low among the shrubs and tall grass. They entered the yards and unpegged the clothes, then returned with their arms overspilling with fabric. There was barely enough clothing to go around, but they managed to cover most of their bodies. The men had to make do with shorts and jeans, some put t-shirts on, some had to go bare-chested. The women covered themselves with dresses, shorts, jeans, t-shirts, overalls, an ill-fitting assortment of casual and formal wear. The Waggaists stood among the trees and shrubs looking ridiculous and self-aware. “They’ll think we’ve run away from the nuthouse,” someone said. “Well we have,” said another. Alison Croggan stared down the road. Bill Wisely had left the ambulance and had gone back into town. The bikers were still standing at either side of the gate, their sunglasses gleaming. “We need a distraction,” Alison said. She looked around the group. “Now I need someone to get the attention of those paramedics. Who can do a convincing fainting spell?” A man put up his hand. “I can do them for real,” he said. “So what needs to happen before you faint?” Alison asked. “Mostly it’s the sight of my own blood,” he said, “but sometimes all it takes is to remember a time when I was bleeding.” Alison looked back at the ambulance. “Off you go then,” she said. “Get out into the middle of the road and remember away.” The man began stuttering and protesting. “But I might fall down on the road,” he said. Alison Croggan took him aside. “Shut the fuck up and get your blood-fearing arse out onto that road now. When you’ve got their attention, get as close to the side of the road as you can, then do your thing with blood and memory.” He looked around at the others. The others looked away. His lips trembled. “But,” he said, then he saw how Alison’s eyes were clouding over. “Okay,” he said, and walked out gingerly onto the road. He walked a few paces towards the main gate, then stopped and stood with his head bowed. The Waggaists watched and waited. He started swaying. He lifted a hand to his face. The hand fell away and hung by his side. Then he started staggering. The ambulance engine roared into life. He made it to the side of the road and went over. He dropped like a bag of rags and hit the road. The ambulance pulled away from the gate and came roaring up the road. “I want you all to hide. When I get their attention and bring them over, jump them and make sure they don’t get up again.” When the ambulance reached the fallen Waggaist, the paramedics leapt out and knelt down beside him.  Then Alison stepped forward. “Aggghhhhh,” she screamed. The paramedics looked over. They saw a woman standing with her face in her hands. Then the woman fell down. One of the paramedics ran over and knelt beside her. Alison was holding her breath. “Better grab the defibrillator,” Jack, I think we’ve got a cardiac arrest.” Jack left the fallen Waggaist, who had come around and was sitting up in the gravel. When he reached his partner he unzipped the red defibrillator bag and knelt down. The Waggaists came out of hiding and fell upon the paramedics. They knocked them out and dragged them away into the trees. They stripped their clothes, then Alison and a young man put the uniforms on. Using vines and the belts, they tied the unconscious men to the base of a tree and gagged them. Alison climbed into the driver’s seat. The other Waggaist joined her up front. The others climbed into the back and closed the door. They only just managed to fit. In a tangle of arms and legs and stolen clothes, they started arguing and shoving as the ambulance pulled away. “Silence!” Alison shouted. “We’re going in.”
Dransfield and Burke were amazed at how quiet Geraldton was. Everywhere they looked the streets were empty. The rain had stopped and a clear sky had given the buildings and houses a startling glow. When they reached the harbour, they got out and stood on the sand. The breakwall’s broken spine went out into deep water. On the far side of the bay, a stand of pines looked like a watercolour bleed. As they looked around, they saw someone at the far end of the beach. They took off their shoes and started walking towards this lone figure. As they got closer they could see it was a man. He was holding a large black book in his hands. When the man saw the poets he raised the book in welcome. “Hello friends,” the man said in an American accent. He was dressed in black jeans, a black shirt, black boots and was wearing Ray-bans. Michael Dransfield stopped walking and stared at the man. “It’s Dennis Hopper,” he said. “Bullshit,” Andrew Burke said, then looked closer at the man. “Bloody hell, it is Dennis Hopper.” Dennis walked up to the poets and extended his hand. “It’s good to see you,” he said, smiling broadly. 
Dennis told the poets he’d been on his way to an island north of Sydney with Marlon Brando more than a month ago. Their friend the poet Philip Levine had told them about the Poetry War, and they were keen to come and lend a hand. Brando had insisted they fly to Perth first as he’d heard there was a restaurant in Fremantle that served the world’s best seafood gumbo. Dennis said he’d soon tired of Brando’s endless demands and moods, and had gone off to a club where he’d scored some speed. Then he’d returned to the restaurant, completely wired and full of talk. Brando was in to his third dish of gumbo, and all but ignored him. “To get his attention, I went into my James Cagney routine, but that just pissed him off,” Dennis said. Then I started reciting his own lines from Apocalypse Now. ‘The horror, the horror,’” Dennis said, and doubled over, laughing. “You should have seen his face. He went pale then red, then he stood up and turned the table over. Shrimp and fish and sauce went flying. Oh Lord, what a carnival!” Andrew Burke was feeling ill. He knew that it was indeed Dennis Hopper there on the sand before him, but nothing he’d ever read, seen or heard approached the madness he felt descending upon him in. “I think we’d better go,” he said to Dransfield, but Michael had gone head-and-heart-first into Hopper’s story. “So what happened then?” he asked. Dennis opened the big black book - a dictionary - and started reading. “Convolvulus,” he said. “A trailing or twining plant with funnel-shaped flowers.” He looked over the black edge of the dictionary. “Isn’t that a beautiful thing?” He opened the book again. “Denouement,” he savoured the word. “The unraveling or clarification of a plot.” He shivered. “Mellifluous words. They steal your breath,” he said. Michael agreed, then said “But why are you in Geraldton?” Dennis Hopper closed the dictionary and looked out over the harbour. “I left Brando to sort things out in the restaurant and went back to the club. I fell in with a very bad crowd. Speed, heroin, the best hash I’ve ever smoked. Whisky. I went under that swift current and stayed there. When I woke up I was in the back of a camper van, just up there near the marina. I’d been driven to Geraldton.” He smiled and removed his Ray-bans. “Isn’t life grand,” he said quietly. Andrew Burke had wandered off and was sitting up on the grass above the beach. He was talking loudly to himself: “Edward Hopper. Grasshoppers. Dennis Hopper,” he said. “Is your friend alright?” Dennis asked. Michael looked up at Andrew. “He’ll be fine,” he said. “He’s just doing it hard with the living and the dead.” “Aren’t we all,” Dennis said. “And who would have it any other way?”

G. Lehmann.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 39

A Superb Lyre-Bird mimicking the call of the Waggafish.

The red wheel barrow out back of Ian the Squid Man’s shop.

The free-styling Waggaists were in a tight, thrashing group. As they reached the centre of the river, a loud moaning filled the air. The sound seemed to be coming from the depths of both the water and the pit of despair of itself. Then the sound became like a raw, broken symphony - a chorus-line, where anger, sadness, futility and pain were dividing and reforming. NARAAAGH, the sound was getting louder. And then it became flesh, that of rising, hungry fish, and that of the stricken Waggaists. Two of the weakest swimmers at the back suddenly fell further behind and went under, as if they’d been pulled away by a swift current. The water around them turned red, and then their arms and legs came flying out of the turbulence and floated away. “Keep swimming!” Alison Croggan urged them on. Then the man beside her was torn asunder. A huge school of Waggafish had surrounded the swimmers. Like killer whales working to isolate whale calves, they came at the Waggaists in quick, violent raids, crashing into their bodies then ripping them away and down, where they were torn apart. A wide, red stain was covering the river. By the time they’d reached the far shore, there were only twenty Waggaists left. The limbs and torsos of the others were being ferried away out to sea. Alison Croggan spoke through her tears. “Away,” she said, and walked off into the scrub. The others followed, numb with cold and grief. 
They climbed into the escarpment. It was tough going. Branches scratched at their faces and hands. The hard afternoon light gave their bodies an amber, ethereal glow. They climbed and did not speak. Past the blackened trunks of gums, through scribbles of vine and trembling, dusty ferns. They stumbled and fell. When they reached a high sandstone cave, lit as if from within, they sat together and stared back down over the river. The walls of the cave were honeycombed and crumbling. They huddled together, shivering and holding their arms. Alison spoke through her hair: “Whatever happens, we need to be strong. We should reach Brooklyn in a few hours. Keep together. Try not to think about what just happened.” She was about to say something else, when a loud, piercing sound came through the scrub above them. NARAAAGH, NARAAAGH. The Waggaists started shouting and leapt to their feet. They looked around wildly. Waggas in the bush? This was now completely fucked up. Alison stepped from the cave and peered up through the trees. The sound came again. Her first thought was that the poets had come looking for them, and were taunting them from high in the scrub. “Let’s go,” she said. “If they want a fight, then I’m up for it.” 
They climbed higher, moving slowly and keeping low in the undergrowth. As they reached the top of the ridge, Alison Croggan parted a screen of sawgrass and raised her hand. “Don’t move,” she whispered. Carefully, she eased her face and shoulders through the sharp serrations of waving green grass. In a clearing, its tail fan spread wide, a lyre-bird was parading and strutting. NARAAAGH, it called. The perfect mimic, it had picked up the cry of the Waggafish and was giving it back to the late afternoon sky. Alison cursed. “Fuck this,” she said. She waited until the lyre-bird had turned away to face the other side of the clearing, then she got to her feet and sprinted after it. She was fast. The lyre bird never had a chance. She grabbed it by the tail-fan and swung it around over her head. The Waggaists watched in amazement as she turned and danced. The lyre bird was calling out in panic. It was repeating a rapid-fire arrangement of sounds from the bush: whip-birds, kookaburras, even chain-saws and the motor-driven shutter from a camera. As it went around and around over Alison’s head, a car alarm went off in the lyre-bird’s mouth. Soon it fell silent, and it closed its eyes. Alison put the bird down onto the earth it had scraped clear. She stood over it, breathing hard. Then she knelt down and began removing its tail feathers. When she had plucked them all, she took a length of vine and began attaching the feathers. When she stood up, she wrapped the tan and white tasseled skirt around her waist and looked at the other Waggaists who had emerged from the saw grass. “What are we going to wear?” asked one. Alison adjusted her skirt. “Go find your own lyre bird,” she said.
Shelby woke with a start and looked around. He was at the back of a bus in the dark, the aisle strip-lighting like an aircraft runway at night. Seidel was beside him, breathing loudly, his head on the window glass. They were heading back to Sydney, where they were going to meet with Merle Haggard then catch a water-taxi to Brooklyn. Merle and Seidel were old friends. Seidel had helped resurrect Merle’s flagging career by injecting large amounts of cash and time into promoting his work. As a gesture of thanks and goodwill, Merle had written a new song for Frederick: The Sod-Buster’s Dream, which he’d sung to Seidel over the phone. Frederick told Merle he thought the song was a masterpiece, where in all honesty he thought it was a piece of shit. A few weeks later, when Haggard found out that Emmylou Harris had not invited him to the festival in Brooklyn, he flew into a violent rage. He called Seidel and said he was going to come anyway, and he was bringing trouble. Seidel didn’t doubt it. When Merle was angry, storm clouds gathered, animals and birds went for cover. When Seidel told Merle how he’d been treated by the poets, Merle completely flipped. Seidel heard stomping, breaking glass, a door slam and then slam again. A bird shrieked and fell silent. A dog yelped. A cat started yowling then made a sound like an electronic blip. When Merle picked up the phone again, he said “You tell those freaks in Brooklyn that Merle Haggard has poets and poetry in his sights, and that his magazine is loaded.”
The Sons of Zebedee dragged the giant Waggafish from the bow of the boat and loaded it into a wheelbarrow, then they went off to Ian the Squid Man’s live-bait shop. Ian had the best filleting knives in town, but he also had a secret sideline in Waggafish blood. He sold small bottles of it out back of the shop. It was so intense in texture and scent, that only a few drops were needed when fishing. The blood infiltrated the water column, attracting fish from miles around. The old locals used it in their burley, and some were said to have developed an addiction to it. You could see them walking around with a red smear on their lips, their eyes glazed over.
Ezra Pound hopped and skipped along behind the wheelbarrow, stroking his beard nervously and whistling like a wattlebird. “Where are you taking that Wagga? I am very fond of the meat in the pouch below the gill-rakers, though I’m also quite partial to the liver. Can you spare an old man a small fillet of delirium?” The Sons just laughed and wheeled the Wagga away into the crowd.
When they got to Ian’s Live-Bait shop, Ian wasn’t there. The Sons went around the side and climbed in through a back window. Ezra remained out front of the shop, cupping his hands at the glass and moving from foot to foot. “Please!” he cried out. “Just a taste!”. Bill Wisely was crossing the street, heading down to the festival stage with an arm-load of planks when he saw Pound outside the shop. “What are you doing you old codger?” Bill shouted. Ezra tried to run away, but Bill went after him and hauled him up by the collar of his coat. “What are you up to, Pound?” Ezra pointed back to the live-bait shop. “They have a Wagga, and they won’t give me any meat.” Bill’s eyes narrowed. “Who has a Wagga?” “The Sons of Zebedee,” Ezra said. “They have a red wheelbarrow glazed with Wagga blood beside the white fridges.” “Stay here,” Bill said, and strode off towards the bait shop. He went to the window and looked in. When he saw what was happening, he took his plank and smashed the lock on the door, then went in swinging. The Sons had removed the Wagga from the wheelbarrow and were just about to start cutting it up when they were floored with a plank. As they tried to get up they were planked again. “This,” Bill panted, “is,” he swung the plank again, “what,” he shouted, “you,” he took aim at a retreating arse, “get,” he gave the arse a whack, “for,” he planked the shield of a hand, “bringing,” the plank came back over his shoulder, “Waggas,” the plank fell, “into,” a Son screamed for mercy, “town!” The Sons of Zebedee had ben laid-out cold on the floor of the bait-shop. Bill Wisely looked down at his handiwork, then put flakes and broken bits of plank into the wheelbarrow. He went to the Wagga, took a filleting knife and cut a sliver of meat from its side. He wrapped it in a square of carpet, then took it out to Ezra Pound.
Led Zeppelin were now passing over the many islands surrounding Fiji. They were flying low, speared along by a potent tail-wind, and were making good time. They were going to be in Brooklyn by mid afternoon on the first day of the festival. 
Jimmy Page was looking down, watching the ocean’s surface glitter pour through and over the long rollers of a velvet swell when he noticed a disturbance. Many sea birds had gathered and were diving into and around what appeared to be a dark blue shadow. It was a cloudless day. Then he saw how large fish were patrolling the edge of the shadow. He called to John Bonham. “Are you seeing this?” “Yes,” Bonham replied. “It’s a huge bait-ball.” They watched as the birds and fish swept into and over the dark mass. They had to move down the airship, looking through each window as the airship passed over this foam-flecked, travelling feast. From the last window, they saw a new disturbance - a red cloud was circling the dark blue one like an ocean-borne corona. “Waggas!” Bonham cried. He ran up and down the aisle of the airship, rubbing his hands together and laughing. “Waggas!” he said again. “Fuck the festival, I’m going fishing.”

G. Lehmann.