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The Thousand Yachts: Two: | Jennifer Maiden

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.

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