Thursday, 20 June 2013

Elizabeth Bishop - Manuelzinho

My selected favourite poem for this post is Elizabeth Bishop’s, Manuelzinho.  I’m acutely aware that Elizabeth’s writing does something for me.  Yet I don’t have anything of hers in my collection of poetry books, nor have I read much about her life.  It’s like I’m saving her for a special moment; don’t want to delve too deeply in case what I’ve already read and know of Elizabeth might dissolve as an illusion.  But I don’t think it will.  I like the ‘voice’ of Elizabeth Bishop – it’s earthy, a bit bold, with a cute playful touch of humour.  Many writers speak of finding ‘your voice’ to write in; I don’t know, but I feel it’s the unique, natural language that comes from your mind and resonates in your soul to bring forth unadorned expression in free verse; a pleasure to write and a pleasure to read.  In reading Manuelzinho, it’s like I’m visiting with the poet, sitting in her kitchen and she’s pouring a cup of tea and telling me about the hired help.  And despite the feigned annoyance, you can tell she really loves this character for who he is and you know she would not change him for the world.  There’s great affect in the way Elizabeth constructs the conversation – as if she’s talking to Manuelzinho, ticking him off, giving him a right good dressing down, and you sense he’s got nothing to say, nothing he can say, he admits, but he doesn’t understand, it’s just how he is and nothing will change him, and “ya gotta love him!”.  Elizabeth Bishop wrote this poem when she lived in Brazil (1950's - 1960's) with her lesbian partner, Lota de Macedo Soares, and it is clear she has studied closely the little facets of life at that time for the farmer peasant in South America.

(Elizabeth Bishop 1911 - 1979)
Half squatter, half tenant (no rent) –
a sort of inheritance; white,
in your thirties now, and supposed
to supply me with vegetables,
but you don’t; or you won’t; or you can’t
get the idea through your brain –
the world’s worst gardener since Cain.
Titled above me, your gardens
ravish my eyes.  You edge
the beds of silver cabbages
with red carnations, and lettuces
mix with alyssum.  And then
umbrella ants arrive,
or it rains for a solid week
and the whole thing’s ruined again
and I buy you more pounds of seeds,
imported, guaranteed,
and eventually you bring me
a mystic three-legged carrot,
or a pumpkin “bigger than the baby.”
I watch you through the rain,
trotting, light, on bare feet,
up the steep paths you have made –
or your father and grandfather made –
all over my property,
with your head and back inside
a sodden burlap bag,
and feel I can’t endure it
another minute; then,
indoors, beside the stove,
keep on reading a book.
You steal my telephone wires,
or someone does.  You starve
your horse and yourself
and your dogs and family
among endless variety
you eat boiled cabbage stalks.
And once I yelled at you
so loud to hurry up
and fetch me those potatoes
your holey hat flew off,
you jumped out of your clogs,
leaving three objects arranged
in a triangle at my feet
as if you’d been a gardener
in a fairy tale all this time
and at the word “potatoes”
had vanished to take up your work
of fairy prince somewhere.
The strangest things happen to you.
Your cow eats a “poison grass”
and drops dead on the spot.
Nobody else’s does.
And then your father dies,
a superior old man
with a black plush hat, and a moustache
like a spread-eagled sea gull.
The family gathers, but you,
no, you “don’t think he’s dead.”
I give you money for the funeral
and you go and hire a bus
for the delighted mourners,
so I have to hand over some more
and then have to hear you tell me
you pray for me every night!
And then you come again,
sniffing and shivering,
hat in hand, with that wistful
face, like a child’s fistful
of bluets or white violets,
improvident as the dawn,
and once more I provide
for a shot of penicillin
down at the pharmacy, or
one more bottle of
Electrical Baby Syrup.
Or, briskly, you come to settle
what we call our “accounts,”
with two old copybooks,
one with flowers on the cover,
the other with a camel,
immediate confusion.
You’ve left out decimal points.
Your columns stagger,
honeycombed with zeros.
You whisper conspiratorially;
the numbers mount to millions.
Account books? They are Dream Books.
In the kitchen we dream together
how the meek shall inherit the earth –
or several acres of mine.
With blue sugar bags on their heads,
carrying your lunch,
your children scuttle by me
like little moles aboveground,
or even crouch behind bushes
as if I were out to shoot them!
- Impossible to make friends,
though each will grab at once
for an orange or a piece of candy.
Twined in wisps of fog,
I see you all up there
along with Formoso, the donkey,
who brays like a pump gone dry,
then suddenly stops.
- All just standing, staring
off into fog and space.
Or coming down at night,
in silence, except for hoofs,
in dim moonlight, the horse
or Formosa stumbling after.
Between us float a few
big, soft, pale-blue,
sluggish fireflies,
the jellyfish of the air ….
Patch upon patch upon patch,
Your wife keeps all of you covered.
(forearmed is forewarned)
your pair of bright-blue pants
with white thread, and these days
your limbs are draped in blueprints.
You paint – heaven knows why –
the outside of the crown
and brim of your straw hat.
Perhaps to reflect the sun?
Or perhaps when you were small,
your mother said, “Manuelzhino,
one thing; be sure you always
paint your straw hat.”
One was gold for a while,
but the gold wore off, like plate.
One was bright green.  Unkindly,
I called you Klorophyll kid.
My visitors thought it was funny.
I apologize here and now.
You helpless, foolish man,
I love you all I can,
I think.  Or I do?
I take off my hat, unpainted
and figurative, to you.
Again I promise to try.
Like all of my favourite poems, Manuelzinho is a poem I can read over and over again – like a favourite song, I never tire of it.  Love the metaphors – and a moustache like a spread-eagled sea gull; donkeywho brays like a pump gone dry.

I’m posting my poem, Phil’s Story around the idea of a writer’s ‘voice’.  Like Elizabeth with Manuelzinho I could not have written my poem without experience and close study of the subject.  I was told this story that was so far from how my life has been.  I had to write it down for the simple fact I wanted to remember it so I could tell others.  I was struck by the ‘matter of fact’ way in which Phil described his experience, ‘wow, man!’  I started writing as if I was telling the story in real time to somebody.  I was aware of my conversational voice as I wrote and my first draft was practically as I left it and as it is now.
2011 - Every person has a story.  Sometimes those stories make you wonder about your own life - what you have experienced; the sufferings, joy, tragedies; that by quirk of fate shaped you as a person.  Most times those stories are never told, who would be interested?  It’s nothing really - just how it was.

Phil’s Story 

Probably the name wasn’t always Chorusch,
Probably once was Choruschnenko, or
Choruschnekov or something …. avsky.
Phil’s father was Russian before the war,
Then could never be Russian again, a prisoner
When he should have heroically killed himself,
So he becomes a refugee and ends up in Australia.
That’s how I know Phil.
We’re practically the same age.
He was born in 1955.
Time enough for his father to do work for the Americans,
Driving a Colonel’s wife all over Europe on a sight-seeing tour,
Fall in love with a Hungarian girl, and
Escape the mess that Europe was,
Escape to the other side of the world.
Whatever Phil’s father thought then of Hungarian women,
I’m sure he was to revise it.
They met in Germany.
She must have already had children,
A daughter at least,
Because when they came to Australia there were letters titled ‘Dear Mum’.
In those days, who knows what you might do to have yourself survive.
Phil’s mother was a survivor,
She didn’t talk about the war,
Neither did his father
Except for a large scar on his thigh,
Where Phil reckons a bullet must have hit him from behind, and
Exploded right out the front of his leg.
He remembers the scar,
And he remembers how the prisoners would have to run,
From one wire surrounded compound,
Through a narrow wire race to another wire compound,
And as they ran through the race,
Food was thrown down at them,
Bread and meat and vegetables, and
They had to grab at it on the run,
And if somebody bent down to pick up off the ground,
Or stumbled, then they would be trampled to death.
That’s how it was then,
It’s just how it was.
He put it behind him.
Got a job at the BHP,
Got a loan for a house in Cardiff,
Grew beautiful vegetables in the back yard, and
Fathered six children in as many years.
Phil counts them on his fingers, one for every year
Himself in 1955, ‘56, Stephenie in ‘57, 1958, ‘59, and
Then there was his youngest brother Alan.
Looking at it, Phil figures his father had sex only six times.
You couldn’t say his mother wasn’t fertile
But fertility can be to do with motherhood, and
Then it can be to do with promiscuity and the grog, and
The temptation of having fun.
It seems that’s how it might have been with Phil’s mum.
They lived next door to a woman whose husband was in the merchant marine,
BHP ships, Iron Duke or Iron Monarch, Iron Chief, something like that.
The husband was away at sea for months at a time,
And his wife entertained dozens of blokes,
Introduced to the kids as ‘uncle’,
Got mixed up with it all and got bored with her own life,
And her own dull husband,
Trudging in to the steelworks each day.
Who knows when she decided to do something about it, or
How long she took to set it all up.
Phil reckons she must have had people helping her.
He was nine years old, 1964
Alan would have been only three or four.
This woman picks a day when her husband leaves for work,
Then she packs everything up in the house,
Sells off furniture, has people come around to pick stuff up,
Stores stuff in her neighbour’s garage,
Strips the house completely bare,
Leaves an empty peanut butter jar on the kitchen sink,
Phil says months later,
He saw the huge Hornby train set that he got for Christmas,
In the window of a Newcastle pawn shop.
This woman then takes her six children,
And drops them off,
At a Church of England home for abandoned children,
In Mayfield.
Six kids aged nine to three,
Taken from their family home,
With no explanation, no possessions, no favorite toy,
Standing on disinfected tiles in the hallway,
Of a big old institutional mansion,
While matronly women fuss,
Soothe and speak softly to mummy,
As they stand between,
And usher her quickly down the stone steps.
Then the old women trying to make it exciting and fun,
As they entice the little clutch,
To come and see where they will be staying and sleeping,
And there’s a drink for everyone,
And something to eat,
Though it isn’t morning tea or even lunch time,
Pacifiers, just like in the POW camps.
Phil doesn’t know what his father thought when he got home,
The cleaned out furnishings and possessions fairly obvious,
But what about the children, where were they?
Where had she taken them?
I wonder at Phil, why his father can’t go to the police and report them as missing,
And be told where his children are,
Phil reminds me that it’s not how they did things in those days,
If a woman reported domestic violence to the police,
Then that was it,
The Police would protect the woman,
Tell the man to piss off,
Leave her alone, or else.
Apparently, Phil’s mother had reported abuse in the past,
This is where the lines can get blurry.
Was there violence?
Phil can remember his father losing it a couple of times,
Yelling, arguing, if that’s what violence is.
Phil says his mother reported being hit on the head with an axe,
She was helping in the garden,
Kneeling down holding a garden stake,
While her husband hammered it in with the axe.
That’s when, Phil says in his father’s defence,
The axe head came loose off the handle and fell on the woman’s head,
An accident,
Be that as it may, if you’re kneeling with your back turned toward somebody,
And they’re swinging an axe,
And then the axe strikes you on the head,
Then maybe it does make you think.
Of course Phil’s father doesn’t know if it’s because of the axe incident,
That the authorities won’t tell him what’s became of his children,
That they’re split up and scattered in C of E children’s homes,
The younger ones having been taken to a home in Taree by this stage,
Leaving Phil and his brother in the home in Mayfield.
Phil’s father simply walks away,
Falters on the loan on the house, loses it
And ends up having to live in a cheap rented room of a friend.
He goes to work each day at the steelworks in Mayfield,
And each day Phil and his brother walk the same few blocks,
From the children’s home to attend Mayfield primary school,
And back home again.
Phil says he can’t complain,
They were treated well in the home,
Not like you hear what happened in some of the Catholic homes.
There were twenty-four boys in Mayfield,
All around the same age,
Always plenty to eat,
And Phil figures they must have got colour television before anybody else ever did
Still, it wasn’t family.
Then one day out of nowhere but hope,
Phil and his father come face to face.
It happens in Crebert Street,
On an ordinary day,
Phil is dragging his schoolbag to school,
His father is driving to work,
Phil recognizes the family car,
The father recognizes his son,
I try to imagine what that chance meeting must have been like,
The joy, the feeling of rescue,
But Phil doesn’t remember it like that,
He says you have to understand,
He had been in the home for quite awhile now,
Had gotten used to it,
And he didn’t know the circumstances of how he had got there,
What part his father had played in the conspiracy,
Whether his father knew they were there at all.
You can only cry when you know somebody loved you,
And is lost desperate in their search to find you,
But Phil doesn’t know anything.
So he’s standing on the sidewalk in Crebert Street,
Watching his dad climb out of a car, walk towards him,
And neither of them cry,
My mind races, thinking of final rescue,
Phil gets bundled into the car and whisked away, surely,
Why couldn’t it be like that?
Phil said it couldn’t because his dad had nowhere to take him,
And anyway, he just couldn’t take him like that, kidnap him.
He had to be careful, the authorities, you know,
It wasn’t like it is today,
that’s just how it was,
says Phil.
                     J. O. White

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Robert Gray - Salvation Army Hostel

Being a man; being alone in non-descript motel rooms on work assignment in impersonal cities and cold, remote, tin-pot towns.  I guess I’ve done my share over the years, enough for me to recognize in another man’s poem that he’s done some hard yards too and knows what he’s talking about when it comes to boarding in cheap accommodation.  A favourite contemporary Australian poet of mine, Robert Gray, captures it in his poem, Salvation Army Hostel.  Gray writes great descriptive poetry of nature, the Australian landscape and suburban life.  He comes from a similar background to Les Murray – grew up in a New South Wales country town and went on to become a professional poet.  Salvation Army Hostel may not be one of his more recognized poems, but I like it because I can relate to it – well, OK, I don’t think I’ve ever drunkenly pissed out the window of my hotel room, but I’ve lain and listened to the clattering, the dripping and the yelling, or things similar……………..

                                            Salvation Army Hostel

Robert Gray (1945 – )
I’m woken up – and God knows
what’s the time.  It’s
a woman screeching, over there
the other side of
the light well.
I strained against the window-wire, tonight, and saw
the bottom, with rotting rag,
cardboard – a no-man’s
greenish hole.  And there’s
evidently been rain,
surprisingly – the aftermath still
falling from a
broken gutter somewhere,
that concrete
way down –
a clattering.  No …
she’s yelling at someone
on a floor above this who’s
taking a piss, out of his window –
It keeps on.  He must have
got a flagon in
this place, and have his cock out through
the criss-cross
grille.  A dripping
now, past me – turned over so’s
to listen.  I can almost see
his blind, bloated face up there
No one else but that woman
seems awake.  Who suddenly drags her window down –
Both gone.
And I lie in the stiff, thin,
stencilled sheets
again.  Like an unresolved equation;
in this aperture.
I like the ‘hook’ Gray gives at the end of the poem, like an unresolved equation, in this aperture…  I keep going over it – what is the unresolved equation? what is the aperture?  Is the aperture simply his room and he’s lying on the bed in the foetal position, shape of a question mark (at the end of an unresolved equation)?  Or is the aperture an insight (opening) he has been given into the behaviour of people, who for whatever reason, are staying in the hostel?  A ‘resolved’ equation would imply the answer has been revealed, logic, solution.  But he can’t figure it out – what he has just witnessed is alien to him and the equation goes around and around in his mind – the guy pissing, plus the woman dragging her window down, plus himself, equals what?

Long before I discovered Gray's, Salvation Army Hostel, I'm in a concrete block of my own with the background muffled whir that comes from a rising elevator shaft, lift slides and privacy clunk of a balanced door allowed to fall heavily closed, and I try to describe and capture the emotion of loneliness and being alone in my poem, Lonely on a City.
1989.  One of those times when I’ve been put up at HMAS Kuttabul or booked into a hotel in Sydney to attend some course.  Finished work at 4 or 5pm.  Alone in the room.  What do I do now?
Lonely on a City
Watch the sun dapple
through venetian blind,
play shadow patterns
upon my arm,
shimmer dust
as there’s always dust
on venetian blinds,
and I run my finger along
one concave brittle slat,
to the plastic webbing
where dirt’s built up,
on the leading edge of my finger.
I scrape it
on a terrazo window ledge
with my thumb.
busy in the street
with noise, constant
dull city traffic,
heard story floors high.
never pausing,
rise and fall,
like surf dumping,
on a deserted beach.
people are getting on
and getting off the buses
but they never look up.
                                                                               J. O. White