David McIlwain: ‘Time’


“Never had a thought in his life.” And this a disciple said
Of Kenneth Adolf Slessor who had pondered Kublai’s soul
But knew how many minions had drawn the silken palanquins
And eaten noodle lunches in their shade. He feared he was one,
And always he returned from the brilliant palace of the Khan

To his desk—he was still a toothless, chronophilic old man
Fatally pinching at the pennies of time: a paradox,
But so are all our ends, said Eliot. And so we begin
Unsmiling, wrinkled, bow-tied, and divorced, as jowly and glum
As that bulldog of Birmingham licking piss from a thistle,

Conservative and ready to give a youngster a haircut,
Leaving Elizabeth Bay to dumb tides in 1962.
Where the outlet now for the lapidary? Damned profession
Of fastidious tradesmen eyeing up the page with the lust
Of the Florentine sculptor for cut of Carraran marble!

The bright young thing eagerly mailing his children to Angus
& Robertson, promising “many more” of these sacrificed
Athenians to Norman Lindsay’s artistic Minotaur,
Contriving his vision and myth from the foreshores of Lane Cove
To wait on despairing cliffs for the white sails of readership.

For he had long since leaped, that boy, shanghaied from the sweet country
Of romantic youth’s brief taste of pleasure, fewer seconds still
Of perception—wax-winged, pagan flights across the pygmy strait
Of life’s mysteries with diversions up the fingers of sea,
Singing with nymphs, juvenilia he would never live down—

Till Chatswood he never quite disowned that Pan at Lane Cove;
Apollonian wunderkind whose Dionysian friends
Ended up as Icarus in the smothering molasses
Of the harbour at night, pulling him far down into the dark
On the drowning weight of poetry as ferry time passed on.

In the harbour’s palm the dice of dead men roll, and Slessor’s words
Add but the thickening iridescent mantle of shell
To something rich and strange—the being of death out of the sea,
As beast of time who will devour sailor and airman alike.
But they tempt this Minos—five bells, those sea-nymphs, will sound their knell.

Above the mystery, ferries still chug, and ferries like steel
Tennis balls bounce on past the Heads, not breakers but waves, a force
In dreadful, exciting symmetries, as slow pagan dance;
The noon gun at Pinchgut—seaplanes sound the day though, growling low
Hum on the near horizon, the sound of weather and light,

Even time itself in Sydney, between Palm Beach and Rose Bay—
Nostalgic, plaintive, and lonely, with the inexplicable,
Almost the Japanese mono no aware sentiment
Or Virgil’s lacrimae rerum for the Old World Western mind,
Both casting our thoughts to the burden of the beautiful void.

For what meaning would we find in life though it continued on
Forever?—Quite as meaningless as the seaplane flying on,
Never touching down on the face of the ruffled, angry bay;
The white harbour of June, scaffolds on a rising opera house
While far from his death, the Soyuz 11 plunged through to earth,

With vital stocks of air sucked through faulty valves, damning her crew
To a cosmonaut series of postage stamps; no Icarus
Was Slessor, five foot ten, not short nor tall, and at seventy
Like Pasternak (another incurably local Hebrew),
Both reaching the psalmist’s span—not long nor short—but only when

That tearless, punctual Chronos comes to sleep upon our grave.
Man comes and tills the soil and lies beneath, as Tennyson penned
In parsimonious words that the Victorians adored
And as the Edwardian gent Kenneth Slessor said
Expressed it all of the barren fruits of conscious finitude.

—“Groaning to God” from the Mater in 1971?
Who knows, but Slessor may have thought of God as his Heine had,
As tormenting and inexorable, and with human faults,
Two poets of Hebrew blood following the Hellenic Sirens
To the day-bright and ship-strewn coasts of agnostic despair.

Or perhaps he believed in Nothing—a favourite word of his
As it was of Shakespeare, but they were the hedgehog and the fox;
While Shakespeare had his many tricks, Slessor had but one response
And curled in a ball against the vast intellectual task
Of a real Australian poetry; it was never him,

That hysterical pregnancy, New World verse—those A.D. Hopes
Bitching in the journals, or Jindyworobaks, in strange words
Describing phenomena more lifelessly than the real sands
Of the deserts from which no prophets come, less artists in verse;
Seldom the realist except in this feel for his fate.

So he and Douglas Stewart would bore the barmaids with all
The schoolboy rote-learnt rubaiyats of Omar FitzGerald
Wondering what the vintners could buy, half so sweet as their wares.
Women? He knew little of women—they slept in separate rooms;
He’d indulge their shopping but knew why people cry at weddings.

Women ran him through as casually and coldly as Chronos.
All agree he loved to eat, a melancholy bon vivant
And founder of the Condiments Club who cooked his meals as rich
As his verse or “lucent syrups” of Keats “tinct with cinnamon”
And met his guests smiling courtly (and portly) atop the stairs,

Welcoming the Nabob out of India for dolphin steak
Or the old Venetian fresh from the pleasures of Xanadu
Or paladins of Charlemagne, captains of the Spanish Main
Scented with adventures, now decayed like ancient maps and wrecks,
As all romance, sucked from the blood of anaemic modern Earth.

And so the decrepit Heine in Paris at his window
Was Slessor in the “mattress grave” on the Rue d’Amsterdam;
So memoirist William Hickey at Twickenham, not Madras
Or Jamaica where turtle’s eggs are plenty; danger and rum
And then Captain Dobbin né Bayldon, at the window again …

Yes, quite a menagerie perhaps—a doomed zoological project, Slessor’s ark
Against the flux: he longed to preserve a breeding pair of each
His treasured links with that world both fantastic and real, the Now
Of when we feel that we are Faust and kissing Helen!
And was this “quest” for reality romanticized? Of course,

For romantic he was, but with his own Sancho in his ear
Crying, “Those are windmills and not giants; there is nothing left
Of the ages that you crave, and misunderstand, and would be
Unsuited to at best!” The heart counselled the ego thus
And Slessor settled into his jovial Weltschmerz once more,

With the Smith’s crowd in the Assembly Hotel, the bar submerged
In the pink of ten-pound notes and the blue of tobacco smoke,
Back to soporific tropics: he who’d held in clear blue eyes
The concrete image, left but to report on carved ice
In the Capricornian clime of metropolitan news.

History continued in far, poor countries: in East Bengal
Battles flickered in the mangrove labyrinths of the Sundarbans;
In China the students charged the poets, Shall we add your books
To the atomic bombs our enemy has poised to strike us?
—That was no Cultural Revolution to worry about

So he stowed away his desk, sealing the creaking portals closed
On his gardens, leaving the ponds of present to neglect,
That once had been his outlet to sea. His waterfowl scattered.
These now are but poems. A half-remembered Du Fu lament:
Sweet country conquered, mountains and rivers remain …

Harbours too, though empirical Slessor drifted through the Heads
And out of compass of the finite bays of that “moment’s world”
As hard and blinding as summer concrete, glinting with fool’s gold,
Substantial as sandstone blocks, as big as shipping containers,
Littering the shelf, and as temporal as the gusts between.

Never had a thought in his life. Yet the poet never thinks
But feels and beholds as closer to the genesis or source,
A fertile nullity, giving birth then drawing back again.
Wandering the quarantine graveyard, such thinking floods the mind,
They have withdrawn to that faraway, far beyond the tide’s reach.

Whether plague, cholera, or what Dickensian malady
In centuries and cities to which they were not granted pass,
After that fitful fever they sleep well, having found out home
In the sunny, warm detachment of these plots
And Time flows past them like a hundred yachts.

David McIlwain

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