Happy Accidents

By | 1 July 1999

D.U.I. in the 1970s

for Gary Oliver

Are you, perhaps, a
‘Reader of Books’ ?
—John Jenkins

I had been reading some poets before,
who were supposed to be good

And I suppose they were
but it was on

first reading John Forbes’
‘To The Bobbydazzlers’

my eyes opened.
There did I breathe John’s

‘intense inane’ & the way
you felt for them

I felt for you, John: as though
I sat, saluting—

& stonkered—

facing an horizon
—blue sky,
blue sea—

of all but admiration,

cheered, in-touch
at last,

silent, on a kitchen chair,
in Glebe,

upon a beach, in my imagination.


Another time I was sitting
On a firm kitchen chair. The poems
Were Laurie Duggan’s. Then did I breathe in
A speck of muesli I was having—
But did I choke? I didn’t—these poems
Gave much to live for,
In particular a sort of infinite ‘Quiet Moment’
In which things were ‘in their place’,
‘Attended to’… Etcetera. I cleared my throat, vowing
To continue in this knowledge.


I think I stood up. It seemed too odd
To be sitting, the poem was so great—
Yet, a short one, it was over. I moved
From the brown, cracked, wood table I was reading at

& walked to the door, Pam Brown’s poems
Still in my hand—& stood awhile,
Reading them in the doorway,
Breathing in, breathing out, looking

At the view, that you saw—if you
Stood straight—just above the tin.
The cat used to hang about me when I stood there
—Pots of mint & things, at my feet—

On the step, looking over the fence—the Iron Bridge,
And the city with its back to you


One of the first poems that did it for me
Was ‘Tricks For Danko’. By Robyn Ravlich.
Graceful, & clear, and actual.
Another was O’Hara’s ‘For Grace,
After A Party’. And there were Berrigan’s THE SONNETS,

the poem where “Terry’s spit
Narrowly missed the Prime Minister,” leaving a mark
On the TV. (A poem of Laurie’s.) Later
a poem I loved was Anna Couani’s
‘The Bomb Plot’. John was writing poems

That pretended to be advertising. A different
John. Who became a best friend.

Remember Rae—reading ‘The Deadshits’?

The way we used to shout various lines
From various poets, over & over, for being
Too ridiculously full of portent? “Head first
Into the beautiful accident!” “White horses.
White horses.”


Things we said: “Ah, Bin 33!” “Je suis
Mr Tarzan!” This is the life. Crash or crash thru.
“Grandmother divided by monkey
…(equals ‘Outer Space’!)” Is that
a baby or a shirt factory—(No one can tell
In this weather). One false moof and I die you!
There’s no accounting for taste. I em,
a sophiss-ticated
Euro-Pean! (slight Austrian accent) This is the life.
Head first into the beautiful accident. Ah, Bin 33! Another
Bin 33?
Then we said them all again.

No one said It’s a great life if you don’t
weaken or Get this into you, though we must’ve urged
something similar. I can remember the songs we danced to—
but that is life, which is the important thing—
but not important here.


I first saw Alan Wearne coming down
the banister at a party singing a methodist hymn
wearing a little conical hat or something suggesting deshabille.
I met him first actually at the Adelaide Festival
in ‘76—he told me something weird about another poet.
Carol Novack had big eyes & beautiful hair & when
she played pool her hands shook almost mesmerizingly.
Sometimes the balls went in. Anna’s pool was better—
& her writing, for a kind of intelligent mobility.
Carol took up Law. The party I saw Alan at
was for Brandon Cavalier, a person I have never heard of
or seen since. His shirt had full sleeves
like a pirate’s. (He was a poet.)


“Poetry—it’ll be bigger than tennis,”
was a line already part of poetry folklore
when I joined the team. I never saw or met the man
who uttered it. (Similarly, when I came to Adelaide,
I was introduced to Ian de Gruchy—& well after
I’d heard his “The ambience is all around us”—as either
forewarning, or characterization. He was an
artist, not a poet.) At some level, I think, young poets know
what they let themselves in for—an economic &
social reality they allude to with crossed fingers &
humour. Some of course get real jobs or train properly
for something. My friend John lucked his way into journalism
hardly expecting his charade to work. The profession
took him to its bosom, suffocatingly, tho not too suffocatingly. None I knew
became doctors. Laurie’s made a late well-timed run
at academia. Most of us have shit jobs. “Headfirst
into the beautiful accident.” (Tranter must have
come in to some money. The line works differently for him.)


Kris Hemensley’s poems—’Rocky Mountains & Tired Indians’
& one about some biscuits—I liked a lot, though
I couldn’t emulate them. Their domesticity reminded me
of a happy little band of Melbourne poets whom I
assumed mirrored ours in Glebe, Newtown & Balmain—the
Westgarth/Merri Creek/Brunswick gang: Kris, Robert,
Walter, Retta. Letters from them were cheering & I
wrote back on happenings here—one, in which Adders
attacked everybody at a reading, casting aspersions on the Soul,
Potency, Alcoholism of his major rival (also on the bill), who did
his own equivalent of the same, while a performance artist friend
tried to stage her nervous breakdown (over her husband’s
infidelity)—& which intuited the interest
& coming intervention
of David Bowie into her life. She made a lot of repeated noise—
to the puzzlement of the audience,
who did not realize its import,
and anyway had the poets’ dark mutterings to work on.
We took her away, sedated or placated her (I
can’t remember). John & Laurie read, finally,
attacking no one just reading great poems: it was a total
fucking gas, Terry’s spit narrowly missing the Prime Minister


I wrote some poems just by going through my
note books circling all the good bits still
unused—from poems, letters, notes & quotations—
& typing them up in the order they came
adding new stuff wherever I felt like it. I still
do these occasionally. People don’t understand them
but I feel exhilarated. Laurie’s poems
had introduced me to Philip Whalen’s (& these
I liked). Philip Hammial introduced me to the poems
of Tony Towle—whom I knew & liked
only by one or two things
was a great book.
Years later
my inexpert emulation of it
enabled me to write NOTES FOR POEMS—a book
critics at the time ignored, or disliked.
As they do still, for all I know.
I remember the early Alan Wearne poem I liked
had Jesus Christ or John the Baptist running up
some stairs.


That’s how it was when I started.
Earlier I’d read Creeley & Olson &
earlier still Larkin & Davie. But really
what I found exciting were the ideas I entertained
about Johns & Rauschenberg & the aesthetic
jockeying for ideological position
of Greenberg, Fried, Stella & the Minimalists,
the ideas of Kuhn, the dreaminess of Marguerite Duras
& the steel & irony of Robbe-Grillet, the look
of ‘key works’ by Rivers (‘key works’?) & the erased
de Kooning,
the nerviness of Gorky; Tony Tuckson; Joan Mitchell.
‘Bean Spasms’, when I read it, & ‘Tambourine Life’,
fell on fertile ground. Apart from the R n B
I played mostly, I also played John Coltrane—
all of this a cliche or at any rate ‘of its time’.
The sober brain of Donald Brook, internalized
in mine—where it nowhere resembled very closely
Brook’s big brain—looked on. The English Department
was dull. Anna introduced me to my own mind as
‘Curious Stranger’—(to be ‘analysed’). It has grown
curiouser & curiouser, & I have learned to watch it
closely. Watch it, watch it! A favourite phrase—
spoken as by a removalist backing up a piano
or something large. I was never a removalist like
other poets. I became a poet when a flatmate
kept showing me his poems, for evaluation, &
any demurral of mine met with Well,
you wouldn’t know—as you’re not a poet.

I could do better, I thought, & so I began—doing
better, if not doing actually ‘well’, till around
1976, the point at which this tale began.


When I first met Johnny J his grant
had run out. He used describe himself as a
grifter—which word he enjoyed for its hokey, 1930s
arcane quality. If it was a specific job description
it might have been John’s: for example, Colin, another friend,
claimed the shoes John wore were his. John
had had them for a year but, caught out, handed them over
(fairly cheerfully). Colin shook his head. I loaned John my thongs
& he walked home. Those days I was on a higher degree scholarship,
though I did nothing but read & write poetry—
more intensely than anyone ever did an M.A. Laurie for a time
wrote movies, though he did not earn a lot by it.
He used don his dark glasses & say emphatically
Think ‘Mogul’. Mostly he did the dole—as we were
all about to do—or worked in the library
setting out to prove, I think, just how many sick days
could be achieved before redundancy. Pam worked
screenprinting for an American hippie employer
who turned gradually straight capitalist exploiter. Pam
had once been a nurse. Now she did the dole, taught film.
And works now in a library—taking probably the maximum number
of sick days (that ‘envelope’ first tested by Laurie).
John Forbes worked in a tinsel factory, &, one time, I was
surprised to see him in a lottery ticket-&-snacks type booth,
like a large Punch & Judy, outside Museum railway station;
then he went in for removing, which built him up
considerably. Big, but never boofy. Most of the poets I knew in the late 70s
worked briefly sorting mail—at Redfern Mail Exchange,
constituting a militant facet of its productivity problem:
Steve took a large supply of dope that he & others smoked
on the roof at lunchtime & on numerous breaks after
& before. In toilets, wash rooms, stairwells & broom cupboards.
Anna worked with him, & Alan Jefferies. (‘Good-o Goodooga!’)
Steve became a public servant eventualy & wrote
speeches for Keating, but took so much time off
he returned at last from the U.S. to find himself
in charge of the photocopy paper, with a lone desk
—alone—in the storeroom. He resigned.
which I loved: intemperate—exasperated—lush.
Sal, with whom I lived in Redfern,
would catch the bus down Chalmers Street,
past the exchange, to the station—
a book rep, a job she was good at but hated.
Anna & Rae became teachers. (In fact Rae became mayor
of a difficult inner city council.) Nigel, also a teacher. Denis Gallagher
a captain of industry. Did he ever sort mail?
I don’t remember.


‘The European Shoe’ by Michael Benedikt I liked a lot
though not so much his other poems & I wrote a poem,
‘The Mysteries’, because of it, with other influences in there too: quotations, bits ‘in the manner of’ & ‘reminiscent of’. (Of
whom? O’Hara, Ashbery, Robbe-Grillet.) Kenneth Koch
I read a lot then. (‘The Circus’, ‘The Departure From Hydra’,
‘The Railway Stationery’, ‘Fresh Air’, & later
THE ART OF LOVE & OTHER POEMS). Alan Wearne early recommended to me
Schuyler’s poem about a man mowing the lawn, in which,
I think, Hugo Winterhalter & other composers & conductors
are in the sky. Or are those two poems? It was very good
but I did not begin reading Schuyler as a fan until later—
& it was his later poems, too. John Tranter’s ‘Rimbaud
& the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy’ in an early form I liked
though it puzzled me, but I liked its sense of a determined ambition—
a major work, like an Historical Painting. Ron Padgett’s poem,
in which God “runs off giggling” I liked, for the graceful mystery
of its perfection—’Some Things For Anne’, was it called?
‘Ruth Etting’s Tears’ I liked but that was later—
there were other Schjeldahl poems I liked then—his version
of ‘Life Studies’, & ‘Hullo America’—the attack on Robert Lowell &
Bob Dylan. There were fabulous poems in STRANGE DAYS AHEAD,
too. John liked Kenward Elmslie as I remember.
Anne Waldman’s first book, GIANT NIGHT, I liked. I also liked
Lewis Warsh I found curiously comforting. (LONG DISTANCE, & one
that was a diary.) Pam liked Tom Clark & various Frenchmen
and Patti Smith. Others liked Duncan—but I couldn’t see it.
Some German poets I liked—Bisinger et al—but
I have not kept up, & then it was the 80s
& another poem.

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