New Year's Eve
Kenneth Slessor woke up on Sydney Harbour,
thinking if time sailed, as he'd written,
like the hundred yachts, there was still a thousand
casting their opal shadows in thick water,
as fireworks danced out like chorus girls within
a million gaudy costumes but the colour
of it all still as innocent as optimism,
although, beside him, the critic was in an anger
produced by celebration and gun powder
and the thousandth attempt to imprison art
having failed by his own classification.
There is something about fireworks that ever
indraws one into guilt, thought Slessor,
feeling pity, respect and the old need to comfort.
He himself was feeling reasonably sanguine -
if not quite so rosy as the brilliant tinsels that
were spread on prismed tides around them.
He had spent an intense evening with Noela -
his first wife, the one who lived and died forever
in the tap of any footstep on the quay here in the dark -
and about whom he had confided chronic passion
to the critic here more than once, although this man
still often focused on the death of Europe, and the loss
of Slessor's father's Jewish mysticism. Of the reasons
given for his stopping-writing, though, the formal poet,
when not abyssed by Noela's dove-wild eyes, allowed
the critic's reason had more dignity than the poet doctor
Grace Perry's diagnosis he'd too long propped
up the Journalist Club bar, destroyed his liver. The thought
of Grace did remind him of John Tranter. Guilt, moreover,
in the critic's slow, stooped pacing and the peculiar
energy, the vector, in it, fed his own need to explain.
'Perhaps', he said, 'It helps to know that one's own
critical indignation does undo one. When I was
working for the Literature Fund, Dr.Perry requested
aid to publish the boy Tranter and I refused,
because his poetry seemed to me disjointed and without
sufficient solid literary merit. She published it, anyway, as
an issue of Poetry Australia. It all assured his reputation,
hers, and did not help with mine. Had I been writing,
I'd have seen as I do now that his work serrated nature,
paced surreal and real simply as these incandescent yachts.
Are you interested in the Afterlife?' Unstartled, the critic
replied: 'To me it has always been entangled hopeless
in patriotism and family and the way that the classifications
I was taught to survive confine it, but I think I will deflect
your question with one: you spoke of an evening just then
with Noela. In the present or the past?' Slessor said, 'Of course
you want to know if existence has meaning, and it does. But
there are always sufficient spare pockets, synapses, if you prefer,
in the brain to harbour unsuspected ghosts.
Noela and I at our own dinner
eighty years ago were courting all last night. It was amusing because
when we flirted then, we-in-the present argued, but when we-then
shouted, we laughed calmy, truced by sex. And one can affect
time itself sometimes by haunting those deep pockets.' The critic
said, 'I've often wondered if you went back there to make sure
you wrote one last poem, Beach Burial. And if there will be more?'
The critic always seemed to explain, thought Slessor, points of fact,
for an unseen listener either bereft of knowledge or attention,
including himself in the inexperience in a manner that Slessor
thought lonely more than humble, but it ghosted in his heart.
Slessor said, 'I thought as a journalist, not critic. A critic always is
promiscuous by nature, is always a collector. The seductive eclectic
must be brought in his control, must be disciplined by grammar,
by his own internal school.' The critic replied, 'Like you, I attended
a grammar school, but I think was not affected by its rules. Only later
did honour translate to loyalty, as if the secret country - the pocket,
if you will, synaptic pocket - created its own diaspora, its phantoms,
called me back to the flotillas of the past. The hundred yachts, down
there, all moored patient, and all to view the pyrotechnics, from
his paradise of numbers, are something, too, a boy can only watch.
I have waited to inherit what you lost.' Again,
Slessor faced the other man, and recognised: the vague hand,
the child-eyes downturned by experience, the expecting voice,
the scared scarred boy perfect prefect salute,
the soul hardening inside the spine when all parades had gone.
The midnight had exploded into stars. They were alone, and
the harbour mirrored nothing as a thousand yachts moved on.
Jennifer Maiden has 23 poetry collections and 6 novels. Awards include 3 Slessors, 2 C.J. Dennis, Victorian Prize for Literature, Christopher Brennan, 2 Age Poetry Book of Year, Age Book of Year, ALS Gold Medal. Latest books: Quemar Press, 2018: Selected Poems 1967-2018, Appalachian Fall, the Play With Knives Quintet 1&2, 3&4, and 5.