Sunday, 18 August 2013

Bruce Dawe - 'wood-eye'

Some blokes you come across seem to have one thing on their minds – sex; nothing else, everything’s to do with sex.  Their conversation is overloaded, overworked with continual sexual innuendo, connotation, clichés, jokes – and they’ll give a knowing wink as they work references like, ‘limp dick’, ‘big tits’ and ‘pussy’ into whatever it is you’re talking about.  A favourite Australian poet of mine, Bruce Dawe, captures this sort of character brilliantly in his poem, wood-eye.  It’s about a group of blokes who spend time together in hospital in a cancer ward.  One guy in the group has a compulsion to see sex in everything – ‘In Wood-eye’s world all roads led to Gomorrah’.  The title of the poem and the name given to the character is a play on a phrase “Wood-eye” uses in fantasising over having sex with the nursing sisters.  The phrase normally comes after somebody might ask a question, like, “Would you screw her?” – response, “Would I? Would I what!” (meaning, ‘yes I would’).  In the case of Dawe’s character fixated by sex, the question need not be asked, only implied.  ‘Wood-eye’ makes his statement and everybody knows what he means, “Would I? Would I what!”  Anyway, read the poem and see what you think of ‘Wood-eye’.

(Bruce Dawe, 1930 - )

No nursing-sister ever walked
into our ward but Wood-eye cocked an eye
(the good one, still unbandaged)
in our direction, lay there like a lamb
thinking his lion’s thoughts. Calm fingers took
like a professional sneak-thief his stirred pulse.
I’ve never seen a man whose libido’s red-light
as steadily burned in that last street
whose name nobody knows. In Wood-eye’s world
all roads led to Gommorrah where he practiced
as a sort of resident specialist on call
24 hours a day. No instrument
but had it’s phallic relevance: thermometer,
spatula, syringe were sign-posts on the way
to a consummation devoutly to be wished ….
‘Would I?’ he murmured, writhing on the rack
of unrealizable possibilities as some cool
sister exited: Oh Jesus, would I, what!’
So we called him ‘Wood-eye’. Something in his look
suggested that that eye-ball swivelling
in its carven socket, and that unseen eye
under the gauze-pad were like wooden things
intent on meaning more than just themselves
totems, you might say, to which we looked
for meaning while we hunched around the ward
or lay like anchorites on sheets that smelled
as clean as baker’s aprons. Wood-eye’s wit
flapped like a pennon on a distant hill. He was the ravaged,
he was mystery, the figure slouching off into the night,
into the gun-fire crackling like leaves,
coming back at dawn and saying nothing
or nothing with his lips that could drown out
the heavy music of his silences.
And if now I could know
his cancer cured, the bandages dispersed,
the hospital a fleeting memory,
the knives not feared, the sexy sisters gone
from his mind’s racing rink,
the need to grin upon a leaden fate,
all passed away, all passed,
                                       would I rejoice
until this sober skin
burst open like a grape from which might be stamped out
the final wine of love,
                              would I rejoice, then,
would I, would I what!

I don’t know about you, but in the first verse I’m having a sly laugh at ‘Wood-eye’, thinking he’s absurd, not only for how he obviously thinks, but also because he continues to think that way despite the predicament he’s in, dying of cancer – like, be serious, give it a rest mate, you’re in hospital for christ sake!  But old ‘Wood-eye’s’ still ‘writhing on the rack of unrealiseable possibilities’.  Then in the second verse I get the feeling ‘Wood-eye’ is a bit of a hero in the eyes of the other fellas – ‘ ....... wit flapped like a pennon on a distant hill, ……he was mystery ……….coming back at dawn  ………….  the heavy music of his silences’.  I think he was a hero because of his refusal to give up – to give up his sexual desire.  Instead, to openly and boldly maintain his interest in lust, ‘if I’m still thinking about sex, then I must be still alive!’  It makes us wonder about the importance sex gives to the purpose and meaning of life.  The status of hero is confirmed in the last verse.  It almost seems Wood-eye’s humour, sexual innuendos, clichés helped the others to survive, while he himself died.

In each of my posts I try to give a poem that I’ve written, influenced by one of my favourite poets.  My poem in this post is, A Moment With Al.  The subject of the poem reminds me to be always observant of the simple situations in life.  This is my life.  It isn’t always exciting, active or profound – mostly it isn’t!  And that is what I am given to write.  So I stop to talk to an old guy at work and he tells me about this cancer operation he’s going in for.  I’m thinking of Dawe’s ‘Wood-eye’ when the old guy starts telling me that his doctor’s a good looking sort with silky, black hair and she touches him on the leg ……….. good on you Al, you’re still alive!

2012.   Sometimes we don’t fully appreciate that each person has life outside the gate.  And that life is very real and personal and a million miles from the game played out in the factory.
A Moment With Al
Walk through the gate
beneath the liquid amber trees,
their branches now gnarled fingers
held warming toward a feeble winter sun.
Stop and talk to old Al,
of rain and garden mulch
and the August winds
that will dry the ground out,
but Al tells me he won’t be preparing
his gardens for spring,
not this year,
he’s going into hospital
to have a cancer cut out of his chest.
He went and saw Stuey
to take long service leave
but Stuey said take it as sick leave,
that’s what it’s for.
Al thought that was kind
at a time when kindness was needed.
He’ll be away four weeks,
on the operating table two hours,
Charlestown private,
that he had trouble finding,
ended up parking in the council car-park
and searching on foot.
He told the receptionist of the trouble,
she said we’ve got a car-park
right here under the hospital,
at which, Al gives my arm
a knowing punch-line tap
from the back of his hand, car park!
I couldn’t even find the building
so I wouldn’t want to be trying
to find a fucking car-park!
I hoped the doctor
could find all the cancer.
He says the doctor’s a woman,
then quickly bloke-a-fies it by saying
her name’s Tinika, about 40, slim,
Al’s concentration during diagnosis
may not have been entirely steady, but
I guess he’ll be steady enough on the table.
                                                                      J. O. White

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