Days Like This

Today I posted off to AUP in Auckland the corrected proofs of Steal Away Boy, the Selected Poems of David Mitchell. This book, which has consumed much of my free time and also that of my fellow editor, Nigel Roberts, over the last year or so, will be published in early April; there'll be a launch at the Gus Fisher gallery in Auckland on the evening of Tuesday 30th March. It's always a strange moment when you let a book go for the last time; but this was stranger than most. I was sorting out what kind of envelope, postage etc. with the clerk at the Summer Hill post office when the manager, a charming man whom I sometimes get to witness contracts for me, leaned over and gave me a thick brown package. No flat number, he said. That's why they couldn't deliver. My name was spelled correctly, the address was otherwise accurate . . . what could it be? I wasn't expecting anything. I flipped it over and saw on the reverse, neatly typed, the name and address of the sender: David Malley, 40 Dalmar Street, Croydon. That's when the hairs began to rise on the back of my neck; because 40 Dalmar Street is, or was, the address of Ern Malley's sister Ethel, it was from that veritable house that the hoax poems and the letters were sent. I've seen it, it's still there, an anonymous red brick house with a frangi pani in the front yard and a tradesman's ute parked in the drive. So who is David Malley and what was in the packet? It was meticulously wrapped and about the size of an A4 manuscript. Postmarked Croydon. $7.50. A hastily scrawled D Malley handwritten below the address. As I walked home I ripped open the sturdy brown envelope and found within another package, also meticulously wrapped, in brown paper, with a white envelope taped to the outside. My name was typed on this envelope, which I tore open and then read the typed letter within. Same address at the top. A date, the 9th of January, my dead sister's birthday; must have been a couple of weeks in the PO; I think that's the first time I've been in there this year. No signature, just the typed name at the bottom. Perhaps with a sense of dejavu, it began, I should begin by saying that when I went through my mother's things after her death I found a letter Lois had written . . . all sorts of things were now rocketing through my head. Today, 28 January, is the anniversary of my mother's death ten years ago now; her name was Lauris, not Lois, but she was the one I thought of when I read that first sentence. How she would have loved to have known that she died on the same day W. B. Yeats did, in Sligo, 1939 . . . I read on: Hence my book Beyond is Anything tells the story of the real Ern Malley . . . the letter is in fact a kind of parody of Ethel Malley's first letter to Max Harris and, within the second brown paper package, there was indeed a book of that title. A4 sized, thick high quality paper bound between covers of stiff black card; with a picture of the moon eclipsing the sun on the cover and the words TOTAL ECLIPSE printed inside the round face of the moon. It's #7 of a numbered edition of 20, privately printed and would have cost a bit to do. There are 24 colour plates including a Durer Self Portrait on the inside front cover and a Durer Portrait of a Woman on the inside back; both portraits are reproduced in miniature on the outside back cover. All of the poems from Malley's The Darkening Ecliptic are reproduced within, some with revisions that are authorised by manuscript corrections in Malley's hand (some of these corrected and/or annotated sheets are reproduced in the illustrations); the poems are divided into three sections (Melbourne; Townsville; and Hospital poems); there is one extra, previously unknown poem included; and the sequence as a whole is re-titled Total Eclipse. Otherwise, the book consists of a prologue, Lois' letter, a new introduction to the poems and a Life Retold. More than that I can't at this stage say because I haven't yet had a chance to read the book; so back to the letter. It says I've been selected because I seem to be a Malley supporter, that I can use any of it on-line and that I have permission to quote from it or reproduce it in part; but that, if I do not use it I should treat it as strictly confidential. It concludes: I must close now, and regret you will be unable to contact me to let me know if there is anything else I can do . . . Yours sincerely . . .

I'm about to stop making sense. I don't know who this mysterious, other, DM, might be. Not a clue. Not, I think, anyone I know. He (is it a he?) knows that I blog but he doesn't, not really, know where I live. (Unit Four (4) if you're reading this and want to send more mail.) Does he know that I too have written a life of Ern Malley? An autobiography, no less. Called White City (2006) and thus far unpublished, it is as if surrounded by an aura of palpable silence. Though there were a couple a pieces from it in a recent Landfall. When, not so very long ago, a NZ publisher expressed interest in White City, I found myself uncharacteristically shy of surrendering the ms. But I would give it to the putative DM, should he want to see it . . . that way we could perhaps see if his recollections and my proxy account have anything in common, anything that might be shared. Anything . . . germane.



the liminal days

In my peculiar chronology, the old year ends around the summer solstice and the new one doesn't begin until today, or perhaps tomorrow. The days between are liminal days, intercalary days . . . sometimes I feel like proclaiming an idiosyncratic Decree of Canopus but it would of course have effect only in my own private universe. Or within these four walls, whichever is the larger. So, there's time in there not so much for reflection as for casting ahead, for attempts at precognition, that sweep of mind-light into the near and far of the future. In 1977, perhaps foolishly, I refused the option of a university career (was a Junior Lecturer in the English Dept. at Victoria Uni in Wellington that year, with the possibility of doing a PhD OE and then joining a faculty somewhere) and ran away instead with the Red Mole circus for five delirious years on the road in NZ, the US, the UK . . . that led onto working with various rock 'n' roll bands. And so on and so forth. Now, thirty-three years later, I've enrolled at the University of Western Sydney and will, on February 1, formally begin study towards a DCA . . . which means, portentously, Doctorate of Creative Arts. The good thing about that is the generous scholarship I'll be paid to do it over the next three years. It isn't quite enough to live in the high style I've always wanted to become accustomed to; but will mean I'll spend far less time sitting on the rank at Bondi Junction wondering where it all went wrong. As if I don't already know all the many ways there are to roast that old chestnut. My subject . . . is not an easy one and I feel some trepidation even naming it here; the proposal is called Double Lives and the idea is to research and write a dual biography of two Australian painters of the mid-years of the 20th century. Sounds fairly straight forward; until you realise the two are Rex Battarbee and Albert Namatjira and therein lies a tale of infinite complexity. Well, I wouldn't be content with anything simple, now, would I? As long as I've lived here I have, like many Australians, shied away from both the idea and the reality of the Centre, as it's sometimes called; but following along in the steps of Ludwig Becker in late 2007 somehow changed all that. Two things determined my shift in focus: one was an inadvertent speculation arising from contemplation of one of Becker's images: I wondered if a line of influence might be traced from his work to Namatijira's; they were both Lutherans, both water-colourists . . . and both something more than any such categories can comprehend: if a line could be found, the intermediary would have to have been Battarbee. The other was a moment on the trip itself, when I stood on a bluff about twenty-five ks from Broken Hill and looked west towards . . . whatever is out there. There's a strangely active, almost cacophonous silence that rises from those desert lands. Like a clamour of unheard voices. Once you have heard the unheard, you then wish to see the unseen. Various coincidences since, which I won't go into, have transformed this vague hope into something that now feels more like an imperative.



Currawong Dreaming

One of the joys of not driving, as I have not been these last ten days, is sitting out on the balcony watching the evening redness fading in the west . . . well, that was then. Next thing I'm seeing this tall spindly guy dressed like an undertaker without his jacket waving both arms outrageously on the other side of the road opposite the Waverley Court and Police Station. I go up to the intersection at Birrell Street and when I'm sure there's no vacant cabs coming towards me or in the rearview mirror turn around and go back for him. His face is bent the wrong way around the mouth and his head like a football with the air leaked out of it but he's non-threatening, raving in fact, he's been drinking with the old guys in the Robin Hood and then up to the court 'for entertainment' only to find that neither of his two favourite blonde magistrates is presiding today so he was going to go to the Coach & Horses in Randwick to have a few more drinks. Three in the afternoon or a bit after. Hot. He appreciates the air-con. My local, he observes. After a pause. Eight generations. You have a genealogy that long here? I ask incredulously. What are you? he comes back with. And then has a good look at me. Oh, I see. An actor. It turns out we've both been stage managers in the theatre so that's alright. The Pet Shop Boys are playing, real low, but he hears the song. I love this fucking song! Can I turn it up? More? More? He could and he did. I've got the brains / You've got the looks / Let's make / lotsa money blasting out all down the somnolent streets of Bronte with their nursing homes where superannuated poets live out their long exile from the word. They're genius! I'm not gay by the way but they're just . . . fucking genius. Can I turn it up a bit more? It's three days of this kind of thing before I get back to the balcony and by then whatever the currawongs were up to has passed, instead it's a crow with the crust of a sandwich that it gurgles over on a branch in the gum tree out front. While a timorous soldier bird contemplates the crumbs from further up the leafy end. I can remember one (currawong) perched like a black flag on the steeple tip on the horizon while two others, one with a raggedy tail, sang and chased, chased and sang, athletically and operatically, one almost skewering me in the forehead with its beak as I looked out on a swoop and pursuit past the building. Attended by vengeful, not timorous, soldier birds. As if I could ever work out anyway what it was they were up to. Ornithology is for the birds. Then a sacred ibis passes white and black on the powder blue sky. All the way from the Pleistocene to ancient Egypt to now. Or whatever. Thoth's bird. It brings the gift of forgetting. Forgetting in words.



hypnogeographies [ 7 ] [ the wedding party ]

It was a wedding party. My own. And my beloved’s. In a high clear room whose south windows looked out over the landscape from a Renaissance painting; whose north rose up above the canals that threaded the cobbled streets below. Not that anyone was looking out the windows. At tables on the mezzanine, down on the black and white checked floor, in galleries and alcoves, all the people I have ever known and many I did not were gathered in conversation, in eating and drinking, in laughter and forgetting. Such a wealth of acquaintance! And yet no family. I stepped down from the mezzanine to a table where a heavily bound, ancient book was opened by a gentleman with moustaches and the words on a page therein read by him to the lady at his side. It was a parallel text, each read from the page before them, and each read the same words. What were they? A spell, a recipe, an instruction, a poem? I could not tell and then I could not hear: on the black and white floor a band advanced, playing. A horn section, drums, accordion and guitar. Some of them I knew, they were musicians I had worked with in my youth. Now another band came from the other side of the floor, identical instrumentation, different players. It was a duel, a battle of the bands, wonderful! And where was my beloved? I looked up towards the windows in the south, the green leafy trees, the yellow fields where tiny black peasants laboured, the distant white towers and the architecture of clouds in the sky. She came walking down out of that magnificence, the people fell back on either side, the musicians too, the wizard with his book, the lady, everyone, holding up in their hands peculiar U-shaped glasses full of purple wine. It was a party, my own and my beloved’s, not a wedding; for the wedding had already been. We raised the U-shaped glasses and we drank. And then the bands began to march and to play, to advance and retreat, back and forth, like miniature armies, across the black and white floor.



hypnogeographies [ 6 ] [ lullaby ]

He was sitting next to the gas stove in the corner of the kitchen of the flat in Womerah Lane, with guitar, writing a song. Even though he looked nothing like the wizened old rhubarb—pencil-line moustache, black hat, quizzical eyes—of the photographs, I recognised him instantly. Nor was his voice, when he sang, that of the antediluvian reptilian croaker familiar from the recordings. Still, I didn’t say anything, just asked him how it was going? He showed me what he was working on: there were lines of lyrics and then cloudy spaces in which the words had not yet appeared. I considered telling him about the dream gadget I invented, the Emmental Effecter, that makes the right ones come; but then thought better of it. Who was I to advise the Master? Anyway, he said, the words would come, it was just a matter of making the place ready for ’em. My sons were over by the door, each also with a guitar in hand, singing sweetly, in harmony, like junior bards: a nursery rhyme they’d written themselves. They put up their instruments and said they were going to the studio to work on it some more. Trepidation: it was the dark of the Darlo night outside, they were just boys, would they be alright? Of course we’ll be alright, Daaaaaad, they drawled in affectionate derision, and left. He also put up his guitar and went out into the hallway: a tall, elegant young man who carried himself in the full knowledge of his isolate splendour. Something about him reminded me of a Scottish friend, from Glasgow, who also moves in the consciousness of his particular difference from the rest of us. It isn’t arrogance, it isn’t pride or scorn, just a sombre recognition of the code immortals must live by. Now he was joined by his girlfriend, tall, elegant, lissom as he was. They stood in the bathroom door, turned away from me, and bared their backs to show me their tattoos. I don’t recall ever having seen 3D tattoos before, though I have read of them in books. Samuel R. Delany springs to mind. His was a red cockerel rampant on a dunghill below a halo of stars, like a barnyard version of the logo of Paramount Films; hers, the letters of her own name—R A C H—inside another starry marquee. Somehow, standing side by side together like that, they made their tattoos merge into one image: the Chanticleer of the Boulevards with his Hen. Trailing ambiguous clouds of noblesse oblige, they sashayed back down the hall, through the kitchen, along the cat walk and out into the clamorous night. And then we found ourselves waiting at a bus stop, stranded under yellow neons on Parramatta Road, Petersham. I thought I should be calling a cab so that these immortals might return to their Olympus; or else a rainbow. He said: I like to stay a night or two sometimes with anonymous friends; I like it even more when they show discretion. I said I had to go and see where my sons were at. He said he was sure they would be fine and to send along a copy of the lullaby when they finished recording it. And then we parted in the yellow gloom outside the Marco Polo Motel. Just before I woke I saw words begin to form in the empty spaces he had left for them: Well now what’s the use in dreamin’ / You got better things to do / Dreams never did work for me anyway / Even when they did come true . . .


hypnogeographies [ 5 ]

There is a third place that I have been to only a few times and then much against my will; although its grandeur and its gloom linger like a prodigy in the waking mind. It can be reached only by traversing, one by one, from zero to a hundred, each of the massive steps strung out and bending like the bridge on Jupiter over the methane haunted abyss clouding the planet below. Once you reach three figures you will find there, on the right, an adamantine gate into the Encyclopaedic City beyond. It is laid out on an infinite grid whose streets are designated only by combinations of letters and numerals and whose dwellings, halls, palaces, utilities and vacant lots resemble volumes which no sight can resolve, no eye can read, no thought may comprehend. To enter therein is to become lost without recourse, without hope and without egress. I have been stranded on the corner of K and L in great fear of my life, while avenues of gloom temples stretched north and south into the murk forever. I have seen the shadowy arcades opening before me, with their impossible illusions, their unsaleable goods, their currency that is made up of whispers and sighs, their denizens who are without faces or names or even bodily form—and yet they persist. There is no sky above, no earth below, the air is made of darkness and yet you can still sense through the grey insubstantial atmos the rows of buildings curving away down the endless streets. Perhaps after all it is the city of the dead and that is the source both of its horror and its grandeur. Once I visited a house there, which was my house, or at least it was the house where I lived. A rotting mansion built on the side of a gully, where one wall, the east, opened onto the nothing of a vista of roofs like clouds. There were many storeys to this mansion, five or six, but most of the rooms lacked floors and some lacked ceilings too: so how could they be rooms? The walls were bare wood where ragged sheets of scrim hung and breathed in the wind of souls. There were gowns of satin and ermine thrown over chairs and eaten away by mould; piles of paste jewellery gleaming before mirrors on falling down dressing tables; wardrobes in which black undertaker suits greened in the damp; velvets whose plush was devoured by rodents. We who lived there were the outcast, the deranged, the unregenerate, the free; we never went out. Brezhnev and Hood and China West; Jenny Tits, Help Help Me Rhonda and the rest of the Hole Sick Crew. To keep ourselves entertained we made extravagant costumes out of that lordly detritus; played music that came from I don’t know where; took drugs of whose nature only traces remain in the demonic visions of PCT; and comported on beds that floated somehow above those rotten or absent floors, beneath those rumoured ceilings. Our lives were made of confected drama and real grief, we were fictions in search of a plot that would restore us to meaning, bodies without souls or souls without bodies, who knew? And when, in a terror that had no motive but which I recognise from my most alienated waking moments, I tried to flee that place, it was down a hallway of infinite extension, pursued by ghosts, that I ran. One of those nightmares from which you implore your own self to wake you; and wake I did, but only into another fragment of the dream. On the north side of the house, below the crumpled iron of the balconies, tough pale grass grew among white fallen stones, the grey lead of water pipes, festooned with defunct taps, stepped down the hill to where the letter box leaned on its splintered post; there was a wire gate half off its hinges and through that I went into the nameless beyond: turning once to look back at the ruin looming above me, white faces, red mouths, black eyes, imploring at every window for my return.