What makes a good poem?
This is the problem posed by every article and review of poetry. Poets and poetry enthusiasts – who are often one and the same in this country – are subject to the occasional antifesto (not to be confused with delicious antipasto, which better describes this article: a platter of tiny samplers) which emerges in response to contemporary poetry trends which are deemed by writer of said antifestos to be unsatisfactory, naff, boring, bad. These antifestos only emerge once or thrice a year and are written by esteemed members of the Australian poetry community. They tell us what they don’t like. They tell us what bad poetry is. While this is useful insofar as creating discussion and challenging our arts practice, it is also divisive. It creates a binary understanding of contemporary poetry: lyricist vs. experimentalist, academic vs. grassroots, printable vs. performable. Essentially, the antifesto fails to elucidate specific traits which make good poetry according to the author, thus differentiating it from a manifesto.
I preface the following list of my all time favourite poems and poets with a disclaimer that together they do not amount to much of a manifesto, either. They do, however, amount to a loose lineage of poetry chronicling and cumulating in what I think makes good poetry. Or perhaps it’s just a list of poems and poets that I love for various reasons; so, let us call this my lovefesto.
Francois Rabelais (1494-1553). Many of the chapters in verse of Gargantua and Pantagruel by this French Renaissance Humanist are hilarious and often naughty celebrations of a utopian life free of social shackles. As Mikhail Bakhtin points out, “The theme of birth of the new was organically linked with death of the old on a gay and degrading level.” And why should it not be so? The best part of reading these verses (and the prose, too) is that to read it is to escape into the eating and drinking and emancipated merriment and madness of the characters Rabelais describes.
Matsuo Basho (1644-94). Reading Narrow Road to the Deep North is like being able to see snapshots of a journey taken some 150 years before the first camera was invented. The perfect composition of each haiku Basho wrote is often lost in wonky English translations but this book reads almost seamlessly in English. What I and many Western poets before me learn from the haiku form is the power of language distilled (to borrow from Rita Dove’s definition of poetry). It takes a true artistic master to deliver an image, an emotion and a philosophy of life within 17 syllables.
Mary Leapor (1722-46). Leapor’s ‘An Essay on Women’ (1751) is a powerful feminist poem about how being judged solely on external appearances dooms a woman who will inevitably grow old. Aside from being one of the earlier examples of feminist poetry being as beautiful as it is political, the references to Sylvia – who is a young, beautiful and doomed wife – in the second stanza reads like eerie apparitions of the life and times of twentieth century writer Sylvia Plath. Not only are the themes in this poem timeless, but so are the specific images portrayed. There is a lesson here about the value of not pandering to the zeitgeist to popularize the subject matter in a poem.
William Blake (1757-1827). Although I like him for making the Devil a hero in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), and for rebelling against religious reign over sexuality; I love him because ‘The Argument’, one of the twenty-four plates from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, written between 1790 and 1793, is arguably the first known example of an English language free verse poem. This makes him a poetic pioneer. Stevie Smith’s ironic rhyming free verse which I adore is reminiscent of Blake, and Allen Ginsberg allegedly had auditory hallucinations of Blake reciting his poems. Were it not for Blake, Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ (1956) might have been a sonnet!
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Revolutionary passion characterises the burning criticism of injustices perpetrated by the ruling class in ‘England in 1819’ (which was not published until 1839). This poem is a significant historical artefact as well as it is an earlier example of how a poet might unrestrainedly strike at the heart of the truth of things no matter how dangerous it is to do so. There is a great artistry in expressing something honestly without compromising for the sake of poetic form and still getting the form just right.
Walt Whitman (1819-92). Old Grey Beard’s Leaves of Grass (1855) reopened a world of possibilities for the next generation of poets through his paradoxically overt sexuality and politics expressed in long lines (ironically) inspired by the King James Version of the Bible. As well as writing poetry that would continue to influence poets in style and subject indefinitely, Whitman was arguably the first to put America on the map for poetry and indeed (according to Harold Bloom in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Leaves of Grass) for literature. Whitman helped to free American poetry from using stressors and rhythms typical to traditional English poetry. Occasionally, poetry is so good that it opens up new possibilities for all the poetry that comes after it.
Fredrico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936). What isn’t to love about a handsome Spanish poet who mentions blood in most of his poems, fell in love with Salvador Dali and was murdered during the Spanish civil war. One of my favourite Lorca poems happens to be ‘Ode to Walt Whitman’ (1930) which Lorca wrote during his stint in New York City. This poem also happens to inspire a theme and a reference in Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Supermarket in California’. Good poetry is passionate and unafraid of darkness.
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ (1923) is the second poem any new poetic apprentice should read – after any haiku by Matsuo Basho – in order to learn about how a poet ought to be in control of the poem’s economy and intended meaning. As well as being a founding poet of Imagism which according to T.S. Eliot is “The point de repére usually and conveniently taken as the starting-point of modern poetry”, Carlos Williams was also Allen Ginsberg’s teacher and wrote the introduction to Howl.
Ezra Pound (1885-1972). I am not a great fan of his ‘Cantos’, or indeed of much of his own poetry, but not many people did as much public relations for modern poetry as Ezra Pound. He reinforced the influence of Eastern poetic forms on English language poetry, he helped write the Imagist manifesto and bring together American and British Imagist poets, and then when he was sick of that he redefined his stance on poetry and invented Vorticism. I wish we had a modern day Pound to organise us all. Part of a poet’s job is to define what makes good poetry; and redefine it whenever necessary.
Stevie Smith (1902-71). ‘Black March’, and specifically the space between the first two stanzas of that poem, is solely responsible for the past ten years of my professional life. Yes, a blank space between two stanzas in a poem about death by a “mousy, self-effacing and depressed woman” from suburban London inspired me to dedicate a decade of research into modern poetry. The lines surrounding this blank space read: His name is a breath // Of fresh air. Good poetry uses technique unselfconsciously.
Anne Sexton (1928-74). Her poem ‘Sylvia’s Death’, on the death of Sylvia Plath with whom she studied under Robert Lowell in Boston, with its musical cadence and commitment to self-destruction shows how vulnerability is essential in good poetry. As fatal as is a commitment to self-destruction, to present that commitment nakedly and without apology on the page is a courageous saving grace. The confronting rawness of Sexton’s subject matter is only emphasised by the rawness of her poetic: and therein lays her refinement as a poet.
Sylvia Plath (1932-63). The poem ‘Tulips’ (1965) is complex human emotion poetically incarnate. It is unimaginable for anyone to read this poem and not feel affronted by the obnoxious tulips, to yearn for quiet white emptiness, and a whole scope of other intricate sensations. Plath teaches us how to communicate to the reader on an intuitive level as well as at an intellectual level, just as the Imagists tried to do some fifty years earlier.
Charles Bukowski (1920-94). For a dilapidated outcast of society, he sure was adored like a rock star. There are innumerable lessons to be learned from reading Bukowski including, but not limited to: accessibility does not necessarily equate to artlessness, a poet should have something to say and then say it, and the world is much, much larger than the literary world but poetry lives everywhere (on the street, at the dog races, in a bottle, etc.). When I read Bukowski I feel more human and more engaged with reality – more poetry should do this rather than trying for the just opposite.
Allen Ginsberg (1926-97). Arguably the most creative and surely the most controversial English language poet of the twentieth century, he wrote numerous of my favourite poems including ‘The Lion for Real’ (1958) which inspired my current project: a prose novel. Ginsberg is a prime example of how a poet should learn from one’s influences (Blake, Whitman, Williams) whilst developing an utterly unique voice.
Audre Lorde (1934-92). Her poem ‘Coal’ (1976) exemplifies the potential for aesthetic beauty and innate vulnerability in political poetry. Lorde is one of the most marginalized poets I know of, having been born legally blind to Caribbean immigrant parents in New York, she was a lesbian and critic of 1960s white-centric middle-class feminism. Her poetry places the suffering of the individual at the centre of themes of social and political injustice.
Vikram Seth (1952-). His verse novel The Golden Gate written entirely in Onegin sonnets about yuppies in 1980s San Francisco is a captivating example of how traditional forms can be manipulated to tell contemporary stories.
Linton Kwesi Johnson (1952-). This Jamaican-born Londoner is one of a small handful of performance poets whose work is, by definition, poetry (as opposed to simply being spoken word). Why? Because, even for readerships unfamiliar with Patois, his poems are as captivating on the page as they are in aural performance in a way that has rarely been seen since the Beat generation poets – who partly inspired the recent fashion for aptly named “poetry slams” which fail to produce printable work. Further, his poems (particularly ‘Inglan is a Bitch’) are integral additions to the canon of British political poetry.
To summarise, good poetry MUST:
- Not compromise meaning for form (or vice versa)
- Remain in control of each poem’s economy and intended meaning
- Use poetic techniques unselfconsciously
- Match subject matter with poetics so that they are complementary
- Communicate to the reader on both intuitive and intellectual levels
- Have something to say and then say it
- Learn from predecessors whilst developing a unique voice
- Be equally captivating on the page as on the stage
- And, the poet must spend time defining what makes good poetry.
Hopefully the poet manages to also occasionally:
- Engage the reader in the poem’s unique world
- Deliver an image, an emotion and a philosophy economically
- Be timeless
- Use traditional form in new ways
- Open up new possibilities for everything that comes after it
- Be passionate and fearless
- Harmonize internality with politics and aesthetics
- Manipulate traditional forms to tell contemporary stories
I conclude my lovefesto with an apology for not including the following poets, all of whom will no doubt appear in a sequel: T.S. Eliot, John Keats, William Shakespeare, W.H Auden, Sohrab Sepehri, Kenneth Slessor, Siegfried Sassoon, Adrienne Riche, Frank O’Hara, Margaret Atwood, Robert Lowell, Dylan Thomas, John Forbes, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and the list goes on.
 Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and his World, Indiana University Press, Indiana, 1984, p. 79
 Ostriker, Alecia (ed.), The Complete Poems of Blake, Penguin Classics, 1977, p.8
 Brooker, Jewel Spears, Mastery and Escape: T. S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1996, p.46
 Mokhtari, Tara, Representations of Death in the Poetry of Stevie Smith, (PhD Thesis) RMIT University, Melbourne, 2011 p. 111
Dan’s flat is in the East Village. A two bedroom apartment with a little living room combined with the kitchen. It’s obvious a woman lives there and Dan explains that he’s living with a couple, old friends from London named Ivy and Jake. A distinctive stale pizza smell hangs in the air and sure enough, there on the iron and glass coffee table sits an Artichoke Pizza box.
‘Have you had Artichoke pizza yet? Fucking epic, mate.’ Dan doesn’t stop to hear the response as he opens up the box and bites into a cold slice.
Len slumps into the couch, cuddling the soccer ball.
‘It’s nearly 5am. Shit. Ivy will be up soon. You won’t get any sleep out here, man. Come on, you can stay in my room.’
Len briefly wonders how that would work, but he’s too tired to care much. Dan shows him to the room and Len collapses on the bed passing out almost as an instant reaction to being horizontal. His shoes are still on and his phone and wallet are still in his pockets. Dan turns off the light and disappears into the bathroom.
CHAPTER THREE: God and the mental note
Morgan McMahon sips coffee at his kitchen table in the suburb of North Melbourne, looking through a pile of old patient files. He glances up at his new chrome fridge and grimaces. His ex-boyfriend, a young budding musician, had taken the old fridge. Granted this one was newer and better, but it was also a big shining phallic reminder of a failed relationship.
The coffee tastes bitter. Morgan has stopped putting sugar and milk in his coffee in an effort to be healthier. In fact, he has cut down on caffeine all together. One black coffee every morning would be sufficient.
Morgan remembers that many months ago when he used to have two or three lattes a day he’d gone into Hot Poppy cafe for a fix with George (his terrier puppy) and there sitting at a table with his writing and minestrone was his former client, Leonard – or, Len as he preferred to be called. Morgan was curious about why Len had simply stopped calling to make appointments rather than discussing the decision to end their therapy sessions. In Morgan’s experience, clients usually required a kind of break-up session to review their progress after a period of therapy. Not Len, apparently.
In the cafe, Len had looked up from his writing and made eye-contact with Morgan standing there at the counter, at the exact same time that Morgan had decided to look away. The awkwardness made Morgan quietly cancel his order and quickly walk out, only adding to Len’s feeling that he was being intentionally snubbed by his old shrink.
Morgan finds the file he’s searching for, opens it, and hits the replay button on his answering machine:
‘Ok, so you must be in session or something because I’ve been calling – and like, not leaving messages. So, um, I thought I’d leave you a message. Which is what I’m… yeah, anyway, look I need to speak to you. I can’t make an appointment to come in because I’m in New York at the moment and I don’t know when I’m coming back and it’s kind of urgent. So, could we maybe have a phone session? Something fucked up has happened. If I tell you on this message, I’m afraid you won’t call me back. But you have to call me back, right, isn’t there some shrink’s code of conduct that means you have to call me? Surely there must be. Anyway, call me, please. I’m really sorry about ending our sessions without getting in touch. I just didn’t see the point, I guess, but I’m sorry if I offended you. Oh, It’s Leonard Juric, by the way. Len Juric. It’s been a while I suppose, I hope you remember me. Anyway, my American number is…’
A long beep follows the phone number. Begin the second message:
‘I’m just going to tell you, ok. But you can’t not call me back because you think I’m mad because that would be unethical. It’s your professional responsibility to care for the mad. If that’s what I am. Unless you’ve heard something about the Bronx zoo missing some big arse felines. And I’m not joking, this is not a joke. I came home to find a lion in my hotel room. Alright, a lion. There, I’ve said it. So please call me. The number is… Oh, it’s Len Juric again.’
Morgan scans the notes he’d made in Len’s file.
On their first session, Morgan had asked Len some standard questions he used to help ascertain some things about the patient’s personality, intellect, sensibilities, and etcetera. One of the questions he asked was: If you find an addressed envelope on the street, unopened, what do you do? Len had proceeded to ask a series of questions about the envelope and the context of the question instead of going with his gut. He asked whether or not the envelope had been postmarked, because if it had, perhaps the recipient had discarded it intentionally. If it hadn’t then it can’t have had a chance to reach its destination. He asked if it had been raining, in case the envelope was damaged. He asked if the address was typed or handwritten, because if it was an official looking document it’d probably be resent eventually anyway, but if it was a personal letter it would seem more important.
Len looked slightly alarmed when Morgan started noting down all these unusual responses, as though he might have said the wrong thing. He was thinking about The Simpsons’ episode in which Homer is declared insane with a red stamp on his hand.
The fact of the matter was that Len wouldn’t do anything until had all the information. More accurately, Len was more interested in exploring the scenario, talking about it, thinking about it, looking at it from every angle and analysing the possibilities than he was in pragmatic solutions to the problem. In a later session, Len had admitted to Morgan that in a weird way he related to Heath Ledger’s Joker in the new Batman movie, because of the character’s insatiable curiosity about humanity and how people react to different strange situations. For a moment, Morgan toyed with the possibility that Len was something of a sociopath, but that was mostly because it would have made his job a little more interesting.
On the contrary, Len was obviously a caring young man who was sensitive to the feelings of others. He was close with his mother and elder sister. He’d been in a loving relationship with his first girlfriend for some years, and although he hadn’t found a woman to settle down with, he didn’t objectify women or have a lot of promiscuous sex. He did have an unusual attachment to one of his university lecturers, and he held her in high esteem. Later in their sessions he admitted to being in love with her. He was smart, literary, good looking. He was also creative. He wrote short stories, poetry and got his work published in journals and magazines.
One point of contention was the relationship with the father. Len had reported feeling disapproved of by his dad. Len recounted a few incidences where he was physically threatened or actually attacked by him. When he was around seven or eight years old, his father had thrown a bucket at him, kicked him and chased him to his bedroom. Over the years Len had been cornered by his father, screamed at and threatened with physical punishment. The turning point in their conflicted relationship occurred when Len was eighteen years old, the same year he moved interstate away from the family. During an altercation after Len broke it to his father that he planned on moving away to go to university (the father disapproved of this idea), the father raised his arm to strike Len for the first time in ten years. Len was finally old enough and big enough to defend himself. He described grabbing his father’s forearm, mid-strike, and pushing him to the ground. The father never threatened Len again but he also saw this incident as a betrayal and their relationship became increasingly distant.
When asked why Len felt his father disapproved of him, he responded that it might have been partly cultural. His dad was born and raised in southeast Europe in a fairly traditional but rather complex family. Len described his father as being a hypochondriac, a manipulator, someone who often lied to save face, and having no control over his emotions. These four traits made Len distrust his father. Len also said that his father didn’t have the self awareness to know his own flaws and so he was constantly frustrated with the world.
In his father’s defence, Len said that he was a dedicated family man; that he didn’t drink or smoke or cheat and he worked all his life to care for his family. He also admitted to being afraid of turning out like his father, who never learned to be independent and look inside himself, and that made Len reject the idea of having his own family anytime soon.
Although Len was independent and freethinking, he also struggled with moderate to severe bouts of depression and anxious episodes that lead to panic attacks. It was not a consistent condition; he described gradual onsets of anxiety that brought on a panic attack which was immediately followed by a period of depression. Whereas the anxiety did not present until he was in his mid-twenties, the depression had been diagnosed by a clinical psychologist when Len was just thirteen years old.
When asked what brought on the periods of anxiety, Len said he didn’t know.
When asked whether or not he’d ever taken drugs, either experimentally or habitually, Len admitted to occasionally smoking marijuana and having taken cocaine a few times.
Now Morgan is wondering whether he should have probed further down that line of questioning. He didn’t believe smoke a joint once in a while was so unusual for a young man his early thirties who doesn’t have the most conventional lifestyle, anyway. Unless Len had failed to mention having taken marijuana daily, say, as a teenager, the chances that it was the cause of some kind of hysterical psychoses are slim to none. A hallucination of this kind would be more likely to occur in someone who had taken acid, even if it was only once. Morgan feels certain he’d have picked up on it during their sessions if Len was suffering from psychotic episodes. An isolated incidence of taking a hallucinogenic would be a much likelier explanation. It is possible that Len had simply forgotten to mention having tried acid during that session, or that he didn’t think it pertinent to the discussion.
The phone rings just as Morgan goes to call Len back. He picks it up first ring which is a rare thing for a man who habitually screens all his professional and personal calls:
‘Morgan McMahon?’ – his standard answer.
‘Morgan! You’re there!’ Len sounds manic and distant.
‘Len? Yes, hi. Got your messages. Look I’m not sure there’s a great deal I can do for you if you’re overseas. Can you tell me how you’re feeling right now?’
‘I’m feeling… I don’t know, confused. I blacked out last night. Well, this morning really. And I slept in this bartender’s room. In his bed. And now he’s gone and I don’t know what happened exactly. I mean, I don’t think anything happened, like that, you know. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I mean…’
‘Len, do you remember I asked you about drug use in one of our sessions?’ Morgan interrupted his rant.
‘I haven’t taken drugs! Seriously! I woke up, pulled a muscle in my neck, took a shower without closing the curtain and flooded the bathroom, went out and got a coffee and a very painful Chinese massage, and when I came back to my room there was a great lion in it. He was drinking the water off the bathroom floor. That’s what happened. No drugs, nothing like that. I haven’t smoked weed since last year sometime. Coke’s really cheap here, I took some my first week but that was like three months ago! I’m not on drugs, ok, I’m just… I don’t know what I am. You have to believe me!’
‘Ok, Len. I believe you. But the most important thing is to retrace your steps in the time leading up to the hallucination, and to get some help with doing it. You need to find a doctor who will give you a referral to check into a psych ward where they can do a full evaluation of what’s happening with you. Once you do that, you can give the clinician my details and ask them to send over your file in case you decide to return to Australia.’
Alone in the apartment in the East Village Len is silent. He closes his eyes and moves the phone away from his ear. He isn’t sure if he feels wildly frustrated that his old shrink doesn’t believe there’s really a lion in his hotel room, or if he’s just terrified that he’s properly lost his mind. But the, why would he have called a shrink in the first place if he really believed in the lion’s existence? The appropriate person to call would have been a zoo keeper, or the fire brigade, or the cops. And if Len doesn’t believe in the lion, should that not be a sufficient psychological push for the lion to have disappeared that second time he went into the room? If the lion was playing mind games, and Len wasn’t falling for it, why could he still see the lion? At least it means he shouldn’t feel discouraged when a shrink confirms that the lion isn’t real. But he is discouraged.
The likelihood that the animal was real is minimal. Someone else would have seen him. For a lion to make its way from, say, the Bronx zoo all the way to the Upper West Side and into a hotel lobby during daylight hours, up the stairs, past the religious television addict neighbour and into Len’s room… thousands of people would have seen him! It would be all over the news that a lion was at large. Unless his transportation into the room involved some kind of black magic and the lion was real.
Thereby remain three possibilities: either the lion is imagined, or the lion is real, or the lion is real but magical. All three possibilities have unique advantages and disadvantages. Each of the three possibilities can be explained away, and yet, the lion remains in Len’s hotel room over on the Upper West Side.
Len can hear Morgan’s tiny voice through the receiver that is now sitting on the floor in front of him:
‘Len? Did you hear what I said? Are you still there? Len?’
Len presses the hang up button and lays back down on the carpet in Dan’s living room. He is naked and devoid of a logical explanation for being so. He hadn’t heard Dan leave, he just woke in the afternoon beside a note on the pillow that read:
Morning Leo. Gotta catch a train up to the mountains. Don’t worry about lions in your room, mate. Sure as god is a lie, your lion is your illusion which means he doesn’t control you, you control him.
There’s a black inky pen with no lid on the floor beside the bed. Len picks it up to write a reply and leave it for Dan. He has no idea what to write so he starts doodling on the back of the note.
Len wonders what god has to do with anything. On one hand, he considers himself a respectful atheist and god has no bearing on his daily life. On the other hand, has to concede that god is bloody everywhere. There was a synagogue next door to the hotel on west 79th street and a Baptist church a few doors up from that. Then there was the god fearing neighbour with his/her Jesus door decor and Morning Prayer television. God is in the senate, on the nightly news, on all the social network sites updating statuses and checking into heaven. So perhaps the lion has some relation to god, too. It wouldn’t be the first time god used a lion to make a point. But if god was manifesting in so many ways and using mass media to do his or her public relations, why bother to show up as a lion in a random hotel room in Manhattan who’s only seen by one man? And if the lion is god, is he the vengeful type or the Buddhist type? God probably survives without food or exercise but a lion surely doesn’t. If the lion dies in that hotel room, would god die with him?
Focusing back to the note at hand, Len realises he’s not yet written a word. He has, however, drawn something: a kind of stick figure lion with a zigzag mane and one raised eyebrow. It seems better than any note he could have written, especially considering his lack of context to write a fitting reply – he’s too consumed by the issue of the lion to think of the most delicate phrasing for the question ‘were we gay together last night?’ so he leaves the drawing on the pillow where the note was left for him.
What Len does recall is not having worn underpants yesterday. Perhaps he’d woken after passing out on Dan’s bed still fully dressed and with his shoes on and forgetting where he was decided to pull some gear off. If this was the case, and Len sincerely hoped it was, then Dan deserves full credit for not kicking him out of his flat on his bare arse. This would be the second time that not wearing underpants resulted in his humiliation in front of a stranger in twenty-four hours (the first was during the Chinese massage).
Here’s a sneaky look at my current project. It’s a novel inspired by my favourite Ginsberg poem.
Finally the barman finishes pulling the beer and puts it down on the coaster, not failing to notice that it’s been disfigured by its nervous patron. The two men cheers and down their shots. The whiskey warms Len instantly and it’s not until he feels the brief contrasting calm that that realises he’s been shaking all afternoon. The crazed gleam in his eye hasn’t dulled yet but at least at least he can feel his extremities now.
‘I’m Dan, by the way.’ The barman reaches over to shake Len’s hand from across the bar.
‘What’s that short for, then? Allen?’
‘Aha! Why don’t they call you Leo?’
Len chokes and some Guinness trickles out of his nose. He coughs hard and wipes his lip.
‘I don’t know. Why don’t they call you Goldielocks?’ He says once he’s halfway composed again.
‘I knew a girl who called me that. I was madly in love with her. A poet I met when I was bartending in Australia. You kind of remind me her, actually. You alright then, Len? You look like you’ve had a rough day.’
The pub is almost empty. A young white couple at a table along the side wall look to be on a dead boring date, she sips at her Riesling and he nurses a local beer and they don’t say a word to each other. A chubby middle-aged Latino guy sits at the other end of the bar with baskets of fried food: ribs, onion rings, potato wedges, all in their own separate baskets lined with paper towel and embellished with little tubs of sauce. He watches the baseball game rerun on the television screen behind the bar looking far happier there with his grease, sports and beer for company than the couple look with each other.
‘Like you wouldn’t fucking believe.’ Len finally replies.
‘Go on then…’ Dan leans against the bench by the sink.
‘I’ll need a few more first, I think.’
Len drinks his Guinness and studies Dan’s face and body language while he’s pulling another beer at the other end of the bar. He sort of looks sensible, for a guy who’s obviously a compulsive backpacker. He also seems a little too refined or pleasant or something, indicating a middle-class upbringing. Of course. Only middle class kids become semi-professional backpackers. They don’t have the constant fear of impending poverty and ruin stamped into them all their lives so they don’t feel the urge to seek permanency and security in their jobs and homes. But Dan doesn’t come across as spoiled or uppity, either. He has a nice tiredness to him that adds some depth and darkness to his well practiced hospitality glow. He seems alright. Maybe he’d even understand about what Len had just been through.
Unfortunately though, if he didn’t understand, he’d likely assume Len was off his tits on drugs and kick him out of the bar, and Len has nowhere else to go at this stage. No, the clever thing to do would be to drink until close, which was probably at 4am, and then maybe let slip about the lion. Since Len has nowhere to sleep tonight he has to be clever about stalling for time.
‘Can I order some nachos, too, mate? The ones with the steak strips?’ Len asks.
Dan disappears behind the swinging wooden doors at the opposite end of the bar to place the order. He comes back and pours another shot for Len.
‘On the house.’ Dan says.
Len looks at the time again, 9.06pm. It’s probably still too early in Australia to call his old shrink back. He pulls out his phone and scrolls through the phone book until he reaches the letter P. Paula. Surely she’d understand. Or at least she’d talk him around to doing something practical like finding a new hotel room or booking a flight home. Len downs the shot and hits the call button.
After several rings, Paula’s voice is a croaky whisper answering:
‘Hello? Len is that you?’
Len gets up and walks outside.
‘It’s me. There’s a lion in my hotel room. Don’t say anything, don’t laugh, ok? I’m fucking serious. It’s a lion!’
Paula clears her throat.
‘You do know it’s 11am here and I didn’t finish work until 5am?’
‘Didn’t you hear me? I said I have a fucking lion in my room. The lion doesn’t know what time it is in Australia, Jesus!’
‘No hellos or how-are-yous anymore, then hey? Just straight onto one of your rants. Seriously, Len…’
‘I don’t think you’re hearing me, Paula.’
‘I hear you; I just don’t get the joke. It’s too early for riddles.’
‘I’m not joking! I’m not! Please! I went and got a Chinese massage up the street, I pulled something in my neck and I was going to get coffee and the massage was fucking agony and then I came back to my room and looked up and there was this lion. Like, a real lion inside my room!’
‘A real lion in your hotel room?’
‘Yes! Yes exactly!’
‘I still don’t get it. Stop fucking around and tell me what you mean.’
‘I’m telling you! A lion! Like, literally a lion!’
Paula is silent. Len can hear her even breaths and he’s never been more annoyed; such stupidly annoying calmness emanating from the receiver.
‘Ok sweetie. So it’s a lion. And what have you done about it?’
‘Don’t ok sweetie me.’
‘Sorry. Come on, what are you doing about this lion?’
‘Nothing. I went to the pub after I saw it again.’
‘Again? You’ve seen it before?’
‘No, just today.’
‘Where are you now?’
‘The pub, I just told you.’
‘You’re at the pub now? How many beers down?’
‘Just one. A couple of whiskeys.’
‘I’m hanging up Len. I’m tired. And James is here.’
‘Yes, he’s just had his wisdom teeth out so he’s on sick leave from work.’
‘Fucking hell, Len. I’m hanging up now.’
‘Don’t hang up!’
The phone goes dead. Len swears under his breath and paces back and forth in front of the empty tables and chairs outside the pub. Two bikes are tied to lamppost by the street. Len kicks the lamppost and one of the bikes fall over. He picks up the bike and leans it back against the post then walks back inside.
A steaming plate of nachos awaits him on his part of the bar. Len sits down and orders another beer from Dan. He picks a jalapeno off the top of the nachos and forms a jack cheese bridge between the plate and his mouth as he eats it. The chilli has a surprising kick and the cheese burns. He unravels the fork from its tight little napkin cocoon and eats some of the steak strips and refried beans off the corn chips. The plate is massive and he’ll struggle to finish the whole lot. If Mr Onion Rings resembled a pig sitting there surrounded by his dainty baskets of grease – Len now looks like a wild bush boar in contrast. He wonders if lions eat nachos.
The vanilla couple get up to leave, their drinks unfinished on the table between them. As soon as they walk out Len would have no recollection of what either of them actually looked like.
‘What do you say, then? Awkward first date or overdue last date?’ Dan asks Len.
‘I was just wondering that. Maybe they’re brother and sister.’
‘Ha! Another shot, Leo?’
‘Only if you have one too, Goldielocks.’
Dan pours two more.
‘To incest!’ Says Dan.
To incest.’ Says Len.
4.06am and a bottle of whiskey down, Len sits with his elbows on the bar holding his head in his hands and watching Dan put the last chair up on the table, take the broom out the back and reappear through swinging doors.
‘I feel like I should be helping.’ Len grumbles.
‘Then I’d have to share my tips with you and that ain’t happening. Another one for the road?’
‘No more shots.’
‘How ‘bout a nice glass of sherry, then?’
‘Ok, Grandma Goldilocks. Let’s have a sherry.’
Dan pours two glasses of sherry and puts them on the bar. He comes around to sit with his mad new Australian friend. Len knows this time of the night well: lockout, when the bartenders end up on the drinkers’ side of the bar and all the upturned chairs on tables make a forest of chair legs at eye-level from atop the last bar stool standing. The two men clink glasses.
‘So, about this unbelievable day of yours?’ Dan probes.
‘Fuck. I’d nearly forgotten. Ok I’ll tell you but I have to preface this story with a disclaimer. I’m not joking or lying, and I don’t have a history of hallucinations.’
‘This ought to be good.’
‘I went back to my hotel this afternoon to find a lion in my room.’
‘A big, live, moving, breathing lion. He was drinking the water off the bathroom floor. I’d forgotten to pull the curtain in the shower and flooded everything.’
‘You know the Chinese are into animal symbolism. Like, an elephant stands for astuteness, a tiglon is courage and strength—’
‘You mean a tiger?’ Len interjects.
‘That’s what I said. I wonder what ants would stand for.’
‘Right, nothing an Englishman or an Australian would know anything about! So you can’t go back there tonight, I suppose. You can crash at mine if you want.’
‘Oh I couldn’t ask you to do that… Did I even pay my check?’
‘You didn’t ask. Come on, Leo. Finish up and let’s go.’
Len is heartened. He’d be thrilled if he weren’t so tired and drunk. It’s difficult to anticipate just how alone a man can feel in such an engaging city. In a way, the city’s engagement is precisely the problem if you think of the city like a toilet stall or a lover: if they’re engaged then you’re an outsider. Everyone in big cities is engaged in things that are exclusive of you and your problems. That’s just how it is. As such, Len is amazed to have found a person who seems to sort of understand. He looks at the curly friend he’s made with a momentary tenderness that borders on lust. He’s never wanted to hug another man so much in his life but he thinks better of it and then the moment has passed.
Downing the last of his sherry, Len reaches over the bar to deposit the empty glass near the sink. Dan is already back behind the bar picking up his bag, a soccer ball and a large set of keys. He throws the ball to Len who just barely catches it without falling backwards off his stool.
‘Take that outside. I’ll lock up and meet you out there.’
Len dutifully takes the ball out onto the street. It’s dark now but the sun would be rising before long. Bouncing the ball on the sidewalk in the streetlight Len avoids thinking about facing a new day. He’s content to be in some decent company for now. Perhaps he’d even get some sleep tonight.
A is for art. Just because you’re better at writing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment and learn painting and sculpture.
B is for bastards. The world is mostly populated with these. Some of them are quite charming and attractive – beware.
Speaking of which, B is also for boys. Pretty much all the ones you secretly like like you back, so don’t be afraid to talk to them.
C is censoring yourself to please others. Don’t do it. It’s bad for your writing and you’ll inevitably disappoint those people somehow anyway.
D is for depression. Be prepared to conquer this over and over again for the rest of your life. And make the most out of the times when you’re alright.
E is for emancipation. You’ll achieve it sooner than you think and after it happens the world will be your oyster. You’ll also swallow it whole and get food poisoning from it.
F is father. Nothing changes in that department; your relationship will always be the same. The sooner you learn to give yourself what you think you need from him, the better.
G is for girlfriends. You need to get more of them. They’re very good value.
H is for hair. Don’t perm yours a second time, at least not until the first perm has completely grown out.
I is for independence. You can have too much of this. It’s ok to depend on people and ask for things sometimes.
J is for jeans. You will grow out of every pair you buy for the next ten years. So enjoy being a twig with boobs while you can, but don’t get too used to it.
K is for kindness. Practice this more on yourself and then on others: in that order.
L is for love. Be brave in love. Be brave enough to leave if someone abuses you. But when it’s real, be brave enough not to run away from it.
M is for mistakes. You’re a quick learner and you never make the same one twice when it really matters – so don’t worry about them.
N is for nature. Spend more time in it. Have a relationship with it.
O is for obsessive behaviour. You sometimes need to force yourself to do normal healthy things like sit in a different spot at the cafe or have friends come to stay at your house even though these things make you uncomfortable. Start practicing now to avoid becoming obsessive later on.
P is for party. Throw one now or you’ll never throw one in your life.
P is also for poetry and prose. Nobody reads poems so practice writing prose. But keep writing poems, too.
Q is for quiet. It’s ok to prefer it to parties.
R is for relatives. Make some serious effort to get to know yours, even if it means traveling a very long way. They won’t all be around forever.
S is for suicide. It’s not a great idea. Not just because if you die it’ll upset everyone who loves you and inevitably almost none of them will understand why you did it – also because if you survive, it’ll have some terrible long term implications for your health.
S is also for scientists. They almost all think they’re smarter than you. In reality, you have the interest and capacity to learn about physics and biology but most of them could never write a good poem.
T is for tact. A little goes a long way. Especially when dealing with people you love. Don’t assume to know the answers to everyone’s problems, or that you’re the right person to say everything you happen to think of.
U is for university. Take a literature major as well as a writing one. It’ll save you a lot of stress, time and energy later.
V is for valium-like medications. They can be very handy in small doses. Try not to keep a big supply in the house though – and hiding them from yourself won’t work for long.
W is for working out. Get in the habit of doing it. You’ll need a brilliant sports bra but it’ll be a worthwhile investment.
W is also for wife. You won’t be one. Not for a very long time, if ever. I think warning of you this now will give you considerable comfort.
X is for Xerox machines. Don’t worry; you’ll never need to learn how to use one.
Y is for yelling. Don’t worry; you’ll never need to learn how to do it.
Z is for zero. There will be times – many times – when you feel like you are one. Really, you’re about a seven. Whenever you feel like a zero, think of the number seven.
For Stevie Smith, the subject of my PhD, who slit her wrists at work on July 1st 1953 and lived to write more death poems than any other poet I know.
I know how you felt
That Wednesday at work
When you wanted out
You tried to cut your way
With a knife behind your secretarial desk
And all the blood screamed out of you
And they took you away
Said you’re a nervous wreck
And anemic too
And they kept an eye on you
And you wrote your friend Kay
A jovial note to say
Work would be a thing of the past
The doctors gave you leave for life
And you took it.
I feel that way every Wednesday
And every Thursday, for that matter
I want out
When I stand and look at classrooms full of dull eyes,
Laptops and mobile phones
(Those awful kinds of portable computers
You’d hate them if you saw them)
Crude ideas of an industry designed
To sell cigarettes to children
And shit all over the television…
I want to take a knife
And make the long incision
And show them
How dark red a woman’s blood can be
How thick and fast it spills
How death is one truth
Those doctors can never spin
(No matter how good they get).
I want someone to take me away
Say it’s ok, I don’t ever have to go back
Say it’s ok I couldn’t hack it
(I cry all night on the bathroom floor and
this chronic sciatica’s a pain in the ass)
I got my certificate in the mail,
I’m a doctor now too,
In fact, I’m a doctor of you.
I can’t look at it though,
It makes me ill
I get chills thinking how
It should have been the last thing I ever did
I should have left it at that
The Wednesday in July when I
Packaged up all your deaths
And submitted them to be judged
Knowing full well all your deaths
And only one of mine
Could ever be.
Her granite-black streets soaked
mist abound at every gutter
floating above sidewalks, boots and cloaks,
coffee brews and voices mutter.
Gothic shadows wake from dreams
of European romances and Rioja wine,
oak-tree hems and tram-track seams,
regular rhythms and sporadic rhyme.
Lime and lemongrass emanate from little Bourke lanes,
beats and riffs pulse underground
through dark hours the warmth remains
she holds my hand and walks me ’round.
She holds my heart, delivers her poetry
and inspires mine – Melbourne, my obsidian city.
She had too much to drink
clouds pour so much love
the swollen, pregnant Yarra
The lion paws at a pint glass
pulls a dark ale spying my approach
through the swinging door.
He tells me boss said it’s alright
if he brings in some pictures of Lenin
to mount behind the bar.
A blonde boy with teeth and cheekbones
sipping at the bar
tells me he sings and plays guitar, likes to travel
“because you meet heaps of awesome people”
“-and heaps of shitheads,” I say
“but all experience is worthwhile!”
I want to ask him where he stores
all the cliches he collects?
Under the bed in his sleeping mind?
In an underwear drawer with all his Calvin Klein?
Lion comes back to rescue me
with a tub of cutlery,
polishes each fork with a tea towel
says the owner votes conservative
so Lenin might not last long on these walls.
If you’ve been a readin’ and you’d like to get a writin’ (with me) go here:
1 hour poetry workshop, 1 night only, Tuesday 29th 6.30pm Sunshine Library, free
If you’re a poet, you should be one of the 6 people left in the world who remembers what punctuation was for. I’m tired of the whole writing in lower-case only and using & instead of ‘and’ trend. There’s enough fucking ‘lol’ in the world, why are poets forfeiting meaning for fashion too now? Below is a poem by Bukowski on the subject.
“a note upon modern poesy” – Charles Bukowski, Come On In
poetry has come a long way, though very slowly;
you aren’t as old I am
and I can remember reading
magazines where at the end of a poem
that seemed to make a
difference, and so, those who could afford to
(and some who couldn’t)
I am also old enough so that I remember when poems
made many references to the Greek and Roman
if you didn’t know your gods you weren’t a very good
also, if you couldn’t slip in a line of
Spanish, French or
you certainly weren’t a very good
5 or 6 decades ago,
some poets started using
“i” for “I”
“&” for “and.”
many still use a small
“i” and many more continue to use the
feeling that this is
poetically quite effective and
also, the oldest notion still in vogue is
that if you can’t understand a poem then
it almost certainly is a
poetry is still moving slowly forward, I guess,
and when your average garage mechanics
start bringing books of poesy to read
on their lunch breaks
then we’ll know for sure we’re moving in
this is an extract from my first verse-novel manuscript, written for ‘older young adults’ (apparently)…
Andy’s house is cold
With cold white walls
Modern and hard
I’m lead by the hand
Upstairs and in his room
The television is on
Silent and blurry
I used to watch this
This man who makes
Hot sweet coffee
And calls me Miss.
The clock ticks a rhyme
An early Beatles music clip
Is on the television screen
They all look too innocent
To be watching me
Shamelessly cry in the arms
Of a guy I barely know.
I’m wet with
Sweat and tears
The room is freezing
The blanket Andy gives me itches
I’m thinking of my mother
And listening to him breath.
I cried so long
He’s gone to sleep.
I wonder if he thought
He’d get lucky tonight.
Slowly I rise,
Find my things and
Creep out the front door.
Sky Heavy clouds
That slick and stream
Down streets like oil.
The morning after
Walks me home
Beside through ways
The silhouette city,
Where winter tree
Against winter sky
Just gray shades
Of heavy clouds
Illuminate complex twig.
this is an extract from my current verse-novel project… still in draft-mode.
The day everyone comes in twos
it’s February, we’re all hot here
wanton southern hemisphere,
everyone half-dressed and skin-bearing
couples should use the day
down under here,
that coincides with wishing to be free
free of clothing and partnership
wishing to a have few too many
cold beers at the pub
just enough sexy booze
to carry another restless stranger home
undress them for bad bored relations,
hope to forget it all tomorrow
after the alarm goes off
roll into more clothes, coffee, train
drag our hangovers to work.
On this Valentines day,
my Valentine was a tram driver
long graying hair
pulled back in a pony tail
he belonged on a Harley, not a Yarratram.
I’d come across him every month or so,
since I moved to Melbourne
always driving the 96 route.
he was always looking,
sweetly admiring, friendly,
something between a father
and an impossible lover,
never a lecherous old man, just looking
wondering maybe if his bohemian charms still
enraptured young women like me
scolding himself for wondering
wondering if I remembered him
from last month and all the other months…
as if I would
I’m nearly half his age
I’m clever and pretty enough
for a rock star to notice me in a crowd,
pick me up at the bar
over shots of vodka and marry me.
As if I would notice
some middle-aging hippy tram driver…
* * *
I ran for my tram after belly-dancing and drinking
red wine on Gertrude
for the first time, I made it!
climbed with grinning pride
ten meters later,
stuck behind a broken down tram in front.
the packed 112 opened its doors
out streamed a tired mob in twos,
almost every second grumpy lover rose in hand
aggravated looks leading the way
to the closest cross street.
We all stepped onto the next tram
disengaged and clumsy stumbling
as it took off round the corner into the city
smells of stale cigarettes and impatience.
Luck rolled the dice
back at Gertrude street
or fate or whoever…
The alternate tram change
casino stop chink chink…
And there he was:
my Harley Davidson tram driver.
11.48pm, not much time left
for a sordid public transport
I fantasized the whole 6 stops:
Could I write my number on a receipt in my bag
slip it into the driver’s compartment?
Would his wife mind?
How about just a note with no name?
Could I pretend I needed directions,
he’d slide open the window
I’d stick my neck through
kiss his prickly cheek,
could I knock? he’d let me in
I’d sit on his lap and he’d show me how the tram is maneuvered…
11.56pm my stop,
my loose top hangs off my shoulder
he’ll see my tattoo
there’ll be no question it’s me,
he’s already turned his head,
I’ve been staring at him since I got on.
I can see his legs,
he must be wearing shorts and
dress shoes with socks
middle-aging hippy schoolboy
he knows today’s Valentines day
I wont let him down
the tram doors are opening,
I look straight at him through the window
it’s all happening now
the red wine’s made me confident,
now’s the time:
I smile and mumble.
He understands, says a single-syllabic word
I don’t really hear
but it’s friendly
I’m fully satisfied with the exchange.
I run all the way home
buzzing new energy
like a kid
scuffing my worn boots
till it’s just my sock-heal and the tarmac.
I am Tara.
I write poetry.
I teach creative writing and poetry.
I’m sometimes published.
I enjoy academic writing.
I wrote plays I had produced.
I had a theatre company.
I worked in the music industry.
I have a tattoo on my arm from a Persian mystic poem – “Live large, be alone, be modest and unyielding”.
I have a lion tattoo on my other arm.
I drink sometimes.
I eat oysters sometimes.
I have good friends, and famous friends, but no rich friends.
I don’t mind that.
I do mind almost everything else.
I’m pleased to meet you.