A Melbourne Letter Poem to Ken Bolton, January 2015

By | 1 May 2015

Dear Ken, I still frequent
Self Preservation.
Dan is there, dressed in black,
always a book on the go.
He’s just finished Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s
Death on the Instalment Plan
from which he quotes—
“To hell with reality!
I want to die in music,
not in reason or in prose.”

Tattooed, in his late twenties,
in walks Spencer,
a Canadian New Zealander,
fashionably unwashed looking,
but not pungent
seats himself on the
black vinyl couch,
between Dan and me.

Spencer is
Friday afternoon going into evening restless,
wants someone to go drinking with him
at Lily Blacks,
prefers to talk about girls
rather than books,
says, “I want a girl I can’t have.”
then shows me
several photos of supermodel types
on his mobile phone.

This is the moment
for Sean, the waiter,
to hand me an ice bucket
in which to drown
Spencer’s mobile phone.
But that would be fantasy, not real life,
with its further lessons
around the corner
and, beyond, Lily Blacks.

I walk down Flinders Lane,
pass a sandwich board
that reads, “Grab dinner by the balls.”
I’m not in the mood
and mightn’t be for years.

In Lonsdale Street
“The Burroteca Donkey Disco”,
featuring Zoltar the $2 Cosmic Fortune Teller,
is closed.
I make a note to recommend it to Spencer,
an alternative to Lily Blacks.

In Russell Street
a young Chinese woman
totters out of “Sense Hair Salon”.
She’s wearing bright pink high heels
and a black T-shirt
with two words written on it—

And The Jam sing,
“In the city there’s a thousand things
I want to say to you …”

Ken, I like your hair,
the reddish tinge that fate and genes
have invested in it.
The people from Central Casting
agree with me that your remaining vestiges
of Anthony Quinn looks,
will bring long queues
to the box office of this poem,
so I place you behind the wheel
of a royal blue convertible.

Tires screeching, you peel away from the kerb,
keen to be at Ruby’s Music Room
for The Vampires’ first set,
which I’ll have to miss,
having a forensic report to write
about the poet’s corpse
found lying on the terrace of Madame Brussels
last Sunday morning,
covered in rejection slips,
from Meanjin chiefly.

I think about subject matter
for Edouard Vuillard to paint this century—

Neighbour with leaf blower.

Still life with microwave.

Used Earl Grey tea bag on white saucer.

Vuillard said, “The painter’s instrument
is his armchair.”
Mine is at
Self Preservation,
the black vinyl couch.
I sit there and write
on small yellow index cards,
small brown paper shopping bags,
bookmarks from The Paperback
and The Hill of Content.

Ken, with your black eyepatch in place,
the complete poems of Andre Breton
tucked under your rhinestone-encrusted belt
and a lime green Citroen garaged in every port,
you continue to sail
the salty waters
of Australian poetry.

There’s an affronted mob
who’d would like to see you
hung from the yardarm,
but before strong rope is found
you get another poem accepted
by Best Australian Poems
and Morry Schwartz
mails a “clean” revolver
to a designated P. O. Box in Adelaide.
You call the revolver “The Equalizer”,
tape it to the underside
of your writing desk.

And The Temptations sing,
“But it was just my ‘magination,
running away with me.”

At The Paperback, I buy
a biography of Gauguin,
walk back to Self Preservation.
Edouard Vuillard is there
sitting on the black vinyl couch,
moves over to make room for me.

Emma takes our order, a Pernod each,
which makes Edouard more talkative.
Noticing the light bulb tattoo on Emma’s right shin,
he says, “Each human heart is a light bulb.
Some try to exceed their wattage,
some remain dim,
some dangle naked from a ceiling,
the chair beneath them kicked away.
In paintings
I reveal the individual,
perhaps challenged, subdued by curtain shadow,
perhaps rising from a comfortable chair
to risk looking out a window,
their venturesome face anointed by morning light.
I wander Melbourne’s central business district,
thinking about the bold and the hesitant,
eventually reach a cafe
I long have favoured.

Alas, I am a dedicated bachelor.
A shift from that position
would dismay my widowed mother.
I cannot accompany Spencer to Lily Blacks
to be his wingman.”

A cafe patron’s long black gloves,
as I consider what Edouard said,
crawl away from her hands
onto her face,
become a mask that she may wear tonight
to a ballroom beneath the sea.

Oh white cuboid napkin dispenser
sitting atop the long wooden bench
at Self Preservation,
you are scratched and scuffed
but steady on your four rubber stumps,
having seen Federal governments come and go.
You serve but are not servile.
No wide gossip,
no high-heeled beauty
turns your head.
You go where needed—
to egg stain and wine spill,
give generously
of yourself.

You tolerate
Melbourne weather,
dainty, absorbent,
and Sean playing
“Rosanna”, “Africa” and “Hold The Line” by Toto
every Friday night
on the sound system.

And Billy Joel sings,
“I love you just the way you are.”

Park bench in the Treasury Gardens,
near where Collins Street meets Spring,
often I pause
to rest upon your slats,
to look up at the sky,
sometimes blue, often grey,
an inverted pasture,
where clouds graze
with their rumoured lining,
the sun, a sulky teenager,
goofing off, not doing his job:
to shepherd each rain-fattened cloud
into the corral of the horizon.

I walk along Russell Street towards Little Lonsdale,
pass Trunk Diner,
their sandwich board that reads,

And The Velvet Underground sing,
“Who loves the sun?
Who cares that it makes plants grow?
Who cares what it does
Since you broke my heart?”

My painter friend Antoine recently won a coffin
in a poker game.
He’s painted a self-portrait on the lid,
which now hangs in his room.
At night Antoine sleeps in the bottom half of the coffin,
his on-going packet of Benson & Hedges
within easy reach.
We talk about
drinking glasses and vases,
how their careful placement in our paintings and poems,
may make the individuals portrayed in our work
consider where they place themselves
in a room,
in a gathering,
in this chessboard world
of the regal and the pawned.
Antoine feels he’s ready, almost, to include
a paper napkin dispenser in his next painting.
I’m excited for him.

And Gene Allison sings,
“You can make it if you try
You can make it if you try.”

I craft this poem,
add and erase
until it’s ready to email to you, Ken,
in Adelaide,
where you sit
in your regular cafe,
perhaps thinking about
a favourite Wayne Shorter composition,
ordering scrambled eggs on toast,
wanting them to be
marvellous rather than everyday,
but the shape and detail
of the light green sugar bowl
on the cafe table
have caught your attention
and where you are
and what you’re thinking
ceases to be
and now you’re searching
for a notepad and a pen.

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