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

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