Kenneth Adolphe Slessor was an Australian poet, journalist and official war correspondent in World War II. He was one of Australia’s leading poets, notable particularly for the absorption of modernist influences into Australian poetry.
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Famous Kenneth Slessor Poems
‘BEES of old Spanish wine
Pipe at this Inn to-night,
Music and candleshine
Fill the dim chambers . . . .
‘Fans toss and ladies pace,
Flutes of cold metal blow,
Maidens like winds of lace
Tease the dark passages . . . .
‘Run, you fat kitchen-boys,
Pasties in pyramids
Rise while your masters poise
Flagons with silver lids . . . .
‘Ha! Let the platters fume,
Jars wink and bottles drip,
Staining with smoke and spume
Lips, tables, tapestries . . . .
‘Wenches with tousled silk,
Mouths warm and bubble eyes,
Tumble those beds of milk
Under carved canopies . . . .
‘Now let your lovers dive
Deep to that hurricane . . . .
O, to be there alive,
So the ghost cried, and pressed to the dark pane,
Like a white leaf, his face . . . in vain . . . in vain..
(To the memory of William Hickey, Esq.)
COMING out of India with ten thousand a year
Exchanged for flesh and temper, a dry Faust
Whose devil barters with digestion, has he paid dear
For dipping his fingers in the Roc’s valley?
Who knows? It’s certain that he owns a rage,
A face like shark-skin, full of Yellow Jack,
And that unreckoning tyranny of age
That calls for turtles’ eggs in Twickenham.
Sometimes, by moonlight, in a barge he’ll float
Whilst hirelings blow their skulking flageolets,
Served by a Rajah in a golden coat
With pigeon-pie . . . Madeira . . . and Madeira . . .
Or in his Bon de Paris with silver frogs
He rolls puff-bellied in an equipage,
Elegant chariot, through a gulf of fogs
To dine on dolphin-steak with Post-Captains.
Who knows? There are worse things than steak, perhaps,
Worse things than oyster-sauces and tureens
And worlds of provender like painted maps
Pricked out with ports of claret and pitchcocked eels,
And hubbubs of billiard-matches, burnt champagne,
Beautiful ladies ‘of the establishment’
Always in tempers, or melting out again,
Bailiffs and Burgundy and writs of judgment—
Thus to inhabit huge, lugubrious halls
Damp with the steam of entrees, glazed with smoke,
Raw drinking, greasy eating, bussing and brawls,
Drinking and eating and bursting into bed-chambers.
But, in the end, one says farewell to them;
And if he’d curse to-day—God damn your blood!—
Even his curses I’d not altogether condemn,
Not altogether scorn; and if phantoms ate—
Hickey, I’d say, sit down, pull up, set to:
Here’s knife and fork, there’s wine, and there’s a barmaid.
Let us submerge ourselves in onion-soup,
Anything but this ‘damned profession of writing’.
The Country Ride
EARTH which has known so many passages
Of April air, so many marriages
Of strange and lovely atoms breeding light,
Never may find again that lost delight.
In the sharp sky, the frosty deepnesses,
There are still birds to barb the silences,
There are still fields to meet the morning on,
But those who made them beautiful have gone.
Diamonds are flung by other smoking springs,
But where is he that cropped their offerings—
The pick-purse of enchantments, riding by,
Whistling his ‘Go and Be Hanged, That’s Twice Good bye’?
Who such a frolic pomp of blessing made
To kiss a little pretty dairymaid. . . .
And country wives with bare and earth-burnt knees,
And boys with beer, and smiles from balconies. . . .
The greensleeve girl, apprentice-equerry,
Tending great men with slant-eye mockery:
‘Then Mr Sam says, ‘Riding’s hot,’ he says,
Tasting their ale and waving twopences. . . . ‘
Into one gaze they swam, a moment swirled,
One fiery paintbox of the body’s world—
Into Sam’s eye, that flying bushranger—
Swinging their torches for earth’s voyager.
And how the blood sang, and the senses leapt,
And cells that under tents of horn had slept
Rose dancing, at the black and faceless bale
Of gallows-flesh that had not girl nor ale!
VENUS with rosy-cloven rump
And rings of straw-bright flying hair
Looks in the glass that slaves are plying
Not for her own face floating there,
But for the sly and curious gaze
Of Rubens, through the keyhole prying.
Warm flesh of gods, by light embayed,
And drifting daemon-bones within
That sweep like music up and down
To pouts and cups of ivory skin,
Firm-valleyed croup, and swagging arm
In whose embankment bracelets drown—
Do you remain, you strokes of paint,
With Venus mocked and Rubens dead
And Beauty sold for an antique
And microscopes raised up instead?
Still are your old adherents true;
Rubens is there, if he could speak.
Rubens is there in your high room,
Rubens it is who blows his breath
To fix you laughing in the glass,
Who keeps a castle here from death
While schools go out and fashions fall
And microscopes and movements pass.
This castle-keep of joys conceived
But never sucked is Rubens’ hell,
Is Rubens’ limbo, cut and won
From darkness. Here he comes to dwell.
Man’s heaven is the place he builds
By thoughts imagined and things done.
Some choose a paradise of gas,
And some, by pious deeds below,
The heavenly butter-hatch for flunkeys;
Who dream of nought to nothing go.
Therefore I’d sooner Rubens’ hell
Than go to heaven with the donkeys.
At last I know—it’s on old ivory jars,
Glassed with old miniatures and garnered once with musk.
I’ve seen those eyes like smouldering April stars
As carp might see them behind their bubbled skies
In pale green fishponds—they’re as green your eyes,
As lakes themselves, changed to green stone at dusk.
At last I know—it’s paned in a crystal hoop
On powder-boxes from some dead Italian girl,
I’ve seen such eyes grow suddenly dark, and droop
Their small, pure lids, as if I’d pried too far
In finding you snared there on that ivory jar
By crusted motes of rose and smoky-pearl.
No pause! The buried pipes ring out,
The flour-faced Antic runs from sight;
Now Columbine, with scarlet pout,
Floats in the smoking moon of light.
Now programmes wave, heads bend between—
The roaring Years go past in file.
Soon there’s the Transformation Scene—
And then the Footmen down the aisle.
For you must wait, before you leave
This Theatre of Varieties,
Their frozen fingers on your sleeve,
Their most respectful ‘Now, sir, please!’
Out in the night, the Carriage stands,
Plumed with black trees. The Post-boys grin.
The Coachman beats upon his hands.
Turn after Turn goes on within.
I. The King of Cuckooz
THE King of Cuckooz Contrey
Hangs peaked above Argier
With Janzaries and Marabutts
To bid a sailor fear—
With lantern-eyed astrologers
Who walk upon the walls
And ram with stars their basilisks
Instead of cannon-balls.
And in that floating castle
(I tell you it is so)
Five thousand naked Concubines
With dulcimers do go.
Each rosy nose anoints a tile,
Bang, bang! the fort salutes,
When He, the King of Cuckooz Land,
Comes forth in satin boots,
Each rosy darling flies before
When he desires his tent,
Or, like a tempest driving flowers,
Inspects a battlement.
And this I spied by moonlight
Behind a royal bamboo—
That Monarch in a curricle
Which ninety virgins drew;
That Monarch drinking nectar
(Lord God, my tale attest!)
Milked from a snow-white elephant
As white as your white breast!
And this is no vain fable
As other knaves may lie—
Have I not got that Fowl aboard
Which no man may deny?
The King’s own hunting-falcon
I limed across the side
When by the Bayes of Africa
King James’s Fleet did ride.
What crest is there emblazoned,
Whose mark is this, I beg,
Stamped on the silver manacle
Around that dainty leg?
Let this be news to you, my dear,
How Man should be revered;
Though I’m no King of Cuckooz Land,
Behold as fierce a beard!
I have as huge an appetite,
As deep a kiss, my girl,
And somewhere, for the hand that seeks,
Perhaps a Sultan’s pearl!
POST-ROADS that clapped with tympan heels
Of tilburies and whiskys rapidly spanking,
Where’s now the tireless ghost of Ogilby?
That buoyed the rich and plunging springs
Of coaches vaster than Escurials,
Where now does Ogilby propel that Wheel,
What milestones does he pause to reprimand,
In what unmapped savanna of dumb shades?
Ye know not—ye are silent—brutish ducts
Numbed by the bastinadoes of iron boots,
Three hundred years asnore. Do you forget
The phaetons and fiacres, flys and breaks,
The world of dead men staring out of glass
That drummed upon your bones? Do you forget
Those nostrils oozing smoke, those floating tails,
Those criniers whipped with air?
And kidnapped lights,
Floats of rubbed yellow towed from window-panes,
Rushing their lozenges through headlong stones;
And smells of hackneys, mohair sour with damp,
Leather and slopped madeira, partridge-pies
Long-buried under floors; and yawning Fares
With bumping flap-dark spatulas of cards—
‘Knave takes the ten . . . oh, God, I wish that it,
I wish that it was Guildford’ . . . .
Did not forget, could not escape such ecstacies,
Even in the monasteries of mensuration,
Could not forget the roads that he had gone
In fog and shining air. Each line was joy,
Each computation a beatitude,
A diagram of Ogilby’s eye and ear
With soundings for the nose. Wherefore I think,
Wherefore I think some English gentleman,
Some learned doctor of the steak-houses,
Ending late dinner, having strolled outside
To quell the frivolous hawthorn, may behold
There in the moonshine, rolling up an hill,
Steered by no fleshly hand, with spokes of light,
The Wheel—John Ogilby’s Wheel—the WHEEL hiss by,
Measuring mileposts of eternity.
. Dutch Seacoast
No wind of Life may strike within
This little country’s crystal bin,
Nor calendar compute the days
Tubed in their capsule of soft glaze.
Naked and rinsed, the bubble-clear
Canals of Amsterdam appear,
The blue-tiled turrets, china clocks
And glittering beaks of weathercocks.
A gulf of sweet and winking hoops
Whereon there ride poops
With flying mouths and fleeting hair
Of saints hung up like candles there—
Fox-coloured mansions, lean and tall,
That burst in air but never fall
Whose bolted shadows, row by row,
Float changeless on the stones below—
Sky full of ships, bay full of town,
A port of waters jellied brown:
Such is the world no tide may stir,
Sealed by the great cartographer.
O, could he but clap up like this
My decomposed metropolis,
Those other countries of the mind,
So tousled, dark and undefined!
ONCE Mermaids mocked your ships
With wet and scarlet lips
And fish-dark difficult hips, Conquistador;
Then Ondines danced with Sirens on the shore,
Then from his cloudy stall, you heard the Kraken call,
And, mad with twisting flame, the Firedrake roar.
Such old-established Ladies
No mariner eyed askance,
But, coming on deck, would swivel his neck
To watch the darlings dance,
Or in the gulping dark of nights
Would cast his tranquil eyes
On singular kinds of Hermaphrodites
Without the least surprise.
Then portulano maps were scrolled
With compass-roses, green and gold,
That fired the stiff old Needle with their dyes
And wagged their petals over parchment skies.
Then seas were full of Dolphins’ fins,
Full of swept bones and flying Jinns,
Beaches were filled with Anthropophagi
And Antient Africa with Palanquins.
Then sailors, with a flaked and rice-pale flesh
Staring from maps in sweet and poisoned places,
Diced the old Skeleton afresh
In brigs no bigger than their moon-bunched faces.
Those well-known and respected Harpies
Dance no more on the shore to and fro;
All that has ended long ago;
Nor do they sing outside the captain’s porthole,
A proceeding fiercely reprehended
By the governors of the P. & O.
Nor do they tumble in the sponges of the moon
For the benefit of tourists in the First Saloon,
Nor fork their foaming lily-fins below the side
On the ranges of the ale-clear tide.
And scientists now, with binocular-eyes,
Remark in a tone of complacent surprise:
‘Those pisciform mammals—pure Spectres, I fear—
Must be Doctor Gerbrandus’s Mermaids, my dear!’
But before they can cause the philosopher trouble,
They are GONE like the cracking of a bubble.
. The Seafight
HERE in a gulf of golden leaf
You’ll find a seafight ringed with flame;
Cannons that cry Tirduf, Tirduf,
Daggers that collop, guns that maim;
Jaws beaked with blood, men flung to hell,
Men blasting trumpets, men that flee,
Men crimped by death, and under all
Old patient, baleful, spying Sea—
Old Sea, that in a dicebox rolls
Their trundling skulls, their jacks of bone,
That sucks them out of broken hulls
When other mumbling mouths have gone—
Old hungry Sea, that holds our flesh
In the huge forceps of the storm,
And they are given to the fish
And we plucked forth, and we made warm.
But ye that kill, why heed the face
Of Ocean? Not alone you slay,
Since deeper seas are dammed in space
And fiercer storms can scream in clay;
Existence has as bitter teeth,
But we can always find a minute
For the festivities of death
Who sail upon this dangerous planet.
MUSIC, on the air’s edge, rides alone,
Plumed like empastured Caesars of the sky
With a god’s helmet; now, in the gold dye
Of sunlight, the iron cloak, the Tuscan stone,
Melt to enchanted flesh—a voice is blown
Down from the windy pit, like a star falling.
Men think it is a lost eagle calling,
But the fool and the lover know it for Music’s cry.
He is running with the Valkyrs on a road of manes,
Darkness draws back its fur, the stars course by,
Fighting the windy beaks of hurricanes
To keep their stations in the sky—
Away, away! The little earth-light wanes,
The moon has drowned herself, cold music rings,
The battering of a thousand Vulcanals
Hammers the blood; a thousand horsemen fly
Belly to air, away! Now Music sings
Harshly, like horns of Tartars blown on high.
A SHIP in hell marooned;
He lies under the mast,
Caked with the sticky unguents of the sun.
Sluggishly at his wound,
The rat Pain, biting with bloody teeth
And broken nails, is fed at last,
The tale is done.
Let the shell of bleeding flesh remain,
This crusted finery is nothing worth.
He flings his body carelessly to Pain,
Meat for the earth.
Trumpets of godhood! The voice of Music sings,
Lost in the dark forest, riding out,
Louder and nearer, with triumphant wings,
Music and his eternal cavaliers—
Now Tristan rises with a mighty shout.
O, SILENT night, dark beach,
Drowning like lovers, each in each,
Uncharge thy musky boughs, unbend
Thy mouths of air, and give them speech—
Then, like a nest of thieves,
The golden, tattling leaves
Will sell their mask for bravoes’ love,
Or cry their fruit to stranger Eves,
And voices ride
By foam and field
Of drowsy lovers, lips unsealed,
Blown to the lazy tide—
‘With love we put the planets out,
With kissing drowned the bells,
And struck the clambering moon to ice;
Now we shall sleep and hide . . . ‘
I sang with Nonie, side by side,
Sunk in a drift of tumbled laces,
Till Music breathed his enormous flute
Over our small, upturned faces.
IN the pans of straw-coned country
This river is the solitary traveller;
Nothing else moves, the sky lies empty,
Birds there are none, and cattle not many.
Now it is sunlight, what is the difference?
Nothing. The sun is as white as moonlight.
Wind has buffeted flat the grasses,
Long, long ago; but now there is nothing,
Wind gone and men gone, only the water
Stumbling over the stones in silence—
Nothing but fields with roots gone rotten,
Paddocks unploughed and clotted marshes.
Even the wind that stirred them has vanished,
Only the river remains with its water,
Shambling over the straw-coned country.
Nothing else moves, the sky lies empty,
Only the river remains with its water,
And droughts will come . . . .
IN and out the countryfolk, the carriages and carnival,
Pastry-cooks in all directions push to barter their confections,
Trays of little gilded cakes, caramels in painted flakes,
Marzipan of various makes and macaroons of all complexions,
Riding on a tide of country faces.
Up and down the smoke and crying,
Girls with apple-eyes are flying,
Country boys in costly braces
Run with red, pneumatic faces;
Trumpets gleam, whistles scream,
Organs cough their coloured steam out,
Dogs are worming, sniffing, squirming;
Air-balloons and paper moons,
Roundabouts with curdled tunes,
Drowned bassoons and waggon-jacks;
Tents like flowers of candle-wax;
‘Buy, buy, buy, buy!
Cotton ties, cakes and pies, what a size, test your eyes, hairdyes,
candy-shies, all a prize, penny tries, no lies, watch it rise,
buy, buy, buy, buy!’
So everybody buys.
Gently the doctor of magic mutters,
Opens his puppet-stall,
Pulls back the painted shutters,
Ruffles the golden lace.
Ha! The crowd flutters . . .
Reddened and sharp and small,
O, Petroushka’s face!
TORCHES and running fire; the flagstones drip
Like a black mirror, wet from killing. Smoke goes up,
Clouding the gilded rafter-birds, and the flying cup
That floats with magic wine to Konchak’s lip.
Then the Khan claps his beard, and harps are brushed
Clear in the darkness; dancers’ bells far off
Blab at their ankles. Now, from the gold trough,
We have dipped bowls of mare’s milk; all is hushed.
Suddenly, dull bubbling drums uprise, grow thicker,
Split with a scream of metal—glazed in the flare,
Tartar girls rapidly whirl in storms of animal hair,
Spinning in islands of movement, quicker and quicker.
In the middle of the dance, smiling at his whim,
Khan Konchak rose, and left the golden hall.
Soon there was silent darkness over all.
One of the dancers was sent after him.
IN the apple-country, in the apple-trees,
The boughs are bubbling with pink snow
To frost the fields. A thousand birds fall crying,
Sharp and sweet, like morning-stars, in seas
Deeper than air. A thousand blossoms blow,
Drops of gold blood, like flowers gone flying,
Drowning with foam the drowsy girls below.
These country-girls, in hats of straw,
Take kissing as a natural law,
Put up their cheeks, like rosy saucers,
Gravely on tiptoe waiting.
They plainly do not know the dangers
This practice breeds from courteous strangers,
Who find, on airing their politeness,
Such local customs captivating.
As for my part, under the trees,
I found a girl with tawny knees,
Pretty enough, at a hurried view.
We lay on blossoms, glassed with dew.
I didn’t notice her till we kissed.
How pleasant, a sentimentalist!
OPEN! It is the moon knocking with fists of air
To break thy doors down, it is the lusty moon
More clamorous than hunting-cries, come tramping
With lanterns to uprouse thee, drown the fields
In drifts of crystal, waken the farms with light,
And lovers call to buffet the rough smoke
From valleys rising up—then, like the juice
Of Juno’s apples, the rich, Indian glow
Shall cast them out of Time, and all be running,
Dancing and kissing, in this headlong, breathless moon,
This moon pulling at old hinges, bawling through keyholes,
Crying out ‘Siegmund! Siegmund! Siegmund!’
The door flies open.
In this house, there is anger, in the forest, night,
But love is under my laughter, and under my cloak, flight.
O, hast thou not yet woken?
In night, there is bitterness, in sorrow, tears to weep,
But love is under my music, and under my cloak, sleep.
O, Lady, hast thou spoken?
In tears, there is remembering, in memory, no release,
But love is under my kissing, and under my cloak, peace.
O, hide beneath my cloak!
So shall we steal into the deeps of Spring,
Clasped each to each, and swim the merry tide,
Rounding the world, on the green floods astride,
Till, drowned in a bubble of flowers, too dazed to cling,
We’re thrown up, pink and naked castaways,
On some old beach, where Time is put to rout,
And the world a buried star, not talked about—
So shall we daunt the gods, conceal their gaze.
ONCE, at your words, I would have struck to flame
The ground I strode on, all the hives of blood
Gone bursting mad—but now, congealed and thick,
Anger, the wine, chokes me, hoods me with stone,
Clogs and corrodes me with its marish flood.
Suddenly, as though to metal grown,
I stand immovable, feel strangely sick,
And hear your voice far off, crying my name.
The clouds dissolve. Now I can see your face,
Immense and sweating; the room has fallen in,
Tiny beside it—your face, immense and sweating,
Blurred into mockery at the words that fill you.
Come, then. You wish to crush me. Let us begin;
Since it is obvious I shall have to kill you,
Have done with useless voices and regretting.
I want to get it over, and leave this place.
Then, like some god on a stone pedestal
Who stirs by night with unfamiliar limbs,
I turn to an automation, upraise
Half-wondering an arm I find in the air,
Clammy with grappled iron. Everything swims,
Fogged in the coughing gas-light. Blindly I stare,
And stab once or twice . . . stabbing in a daze . . . .
No need for more. He is dead, this animal.
Dead, dead. There was no need to strike
So many times, there is no need to hide—
It’s nothing to be ashamed of nowadays.
He was my enemy. Now he has perished,
Charred in the smoking ovens of my pride.
Why should the splendid fury that I cherished
Seem now to be a cold and fruitless blaze?
Good God! Can’t I kill my enemy if I like!
NOTHING grows on the stone trees
But lanterns, frosty gourds of colour,
Melting their bloody drops in water
Over the dark seas.
These peaks of stucco, smoking light,
These Venice-roads, the pools and channels,
Tunnel the night with a thousand planets,
Daubing their glaze of white,
Where belfries glitter, spire on spire,
Shining on men with paper faces,
And boats, in the glass billow fading,
Beetles of cloudy fire.
Faintly the dripping, crystal strings
Unlock their Spanish airs, their festival
Which, far away, resolves to emptiness,
Echoes of bitter things,
Far away music, cold and small,
Which, like a child’s delight remembered,
Falls to mocked effigy for ever,
Melancholy to recall.
COME in your painted coaches, friends of mine,
We’ll keep the stars night-company with wine,
Morning shall find us bending to the flute,
And daybreak mock us at our candleshine.
Pile all thy jewelled berries in a heap,
Almonds and musk and sweetmeats, all for thee—
We’ll rest on silk a thousand cushions deep,
Wake up and shake the cassia-tree,
And eat a sticky cake, and sleep,
Look up! Thou hast a shining Guest
Whose body in the dews hath lain,
His face like a strange wafer pressed
Secret and starry, at thy pane;
And he shall sing with human tongue
Old music men have never sung
Since Orpheus on earth was young,
And shall not sing again.
But life and all its lies of stone
Shall crack to fumes and disappear,
Thy little golden shells be blown
Like stars in water, far and near,
And thou shalt wake behind the Glass,
In stone dissolved, and phantom brass—
O, deaf! The bells of Music pass,
Not can, but darest, thou hear!
To The Poetry Of Hugh Mccrae
UNCLES who burst on childhood, from the East,
Blown from air, like bearded ghosts arriving,
And are, indeed, a kind of guessed-at ghost
Through mumbled names at dinner-tables moving,
Bearers of parrots, bonfires of blazing stones,
Their pockets fat with riches out of reason,
Meerschaum and sharks’-teeth, ropes of China coins,
And weeds and seeds and berries blowzed with poison—
So, from the baleful Kimberleys of thought,
From the mad continent of dreams, you wander,
Spending your trophies at our bloodless feet,
Mocking our fortunes with more desperate plunder;
So with your boomerangs of rhyme you come,
With blossoms wrenched from sweet and deadly branches,
And we, pale Crusoes in the moment’s tomb,
Watch, turn aside, and touch again those riches,
Nor ask what beaches of the mind you trod,
What skies endured, and unimagined rivers,
Or whiteness trenched by what mysterious tide,
And aching silence of the Never-Nevers;
Watch, turn aside, and touch with easy faith
Your chest of miracles, but counting nothing,
Or dumbly, that you stole them out of death,
Out of death’s pyramids, to prove us breathing.
We breathe, who beat the sides of emptiness,
We live, who die by statute in steel hearses,
We dance, whose only posture gives us grace
To squeeze the greasy udders of our purses—
(Look in this harsher glass, and I will show you
The daylight after the darkness, and the morning
After the midnight, and after the night the day
After the year after, terribly returning).
We live by these, your masks and images,
We breathe in this, your quick and borrowed body;
But you take passage on the ruffian seas,
And you are vanished in the dark already.
Vesper-Song Of The Reverend Samuel Marsden
MY cure of souls, my cage of brutes,
Go lick and learn at these my boots!
When tainted highways tear a hole,
I bid my cobbler welt the sole.
O, ye that wear the boots of Hell,
Shall I not welt a soul as well?
O, souls that leak with holes of sin,
Shall I not let God’s leather in,
Or hit with sacramental knout
Your twice-convicted vileness out?
Lord, I have sung with ceaseless lips
A tinker’s litany of whips,
Have graved another Testament
On backs bowed down and bodies bent.
My stripes of jewelled blood repeat
A scarlet Grace for holy meat.
Not mine, the Hand that writes the weal
On this, my vellum of puffed veal,
Not mine, the glory that endures,
But Yours, dear God, entirely Yours.
Are there not Saints in holier skies
Who have been scourged to Paradise?
O, Lord, when I have come to that,
Grant there may be a Heavenly Cat
With twice as many tails as here—
And make me, God, Your Overseer.
But if the veins of Saints be dead,
Grant me a whip in Hell instead,
Where blood is not so hard to fetch.
But I, Lord, am Your humble wretch.
‘TALBINGO RIVER’—as one says of bones:
‘Captain’ or ‘Commodore’ that smelt gunpowder
In old engagements no one quite believes
Or understands. Talbingo had its blood
As they did, ran with waters huge and clear
Lopping down mountains,
Turning crags to banks.
Now it’s a sort of aching valley,
Basalt shaggy with scales,
A funnel of tobacco-coloured clay,
Smoulders of puffed earth
And pebbles and shell-bodied flies
And water thickening to stone in pocks.
That’s what we’re like out here,
Beds of dried-up passions.
(To the Poets’ Ladies)
SHALL I give you the Bourbon-sugars
Of sherry and yellow sky
And a girl in a country curricle
Merrily bowling by?
Or darkness flying with crystals,
And the great Miser, Night,
Rubbing a mountain’s breast-bone
With an old rind of light?
Wake up the handcuffed angels,
Muster the marble kings,
Till the blood swims in their bodies
And the stone captain sings?
Ask for a cage of comets,
Poets will give you this—
But if you should ask them for nothing,
They’ll see how dead girls kiss.
SUDDENLY to become John Benbow, walking down William Street
With a tin trunk and a five-pound note, looking for a place to eat,
And a peajacket the colour of a shark’s behind
That a Jew might buy in the morning. . . .
To fry potatoes (God save us!) if you feel inclined,
Or to kiss the landlady’s daughter, and no one mind,
In a peel-papered bedroom with a whistling jet
And a picture of the Holy Virgin. . . .
Wake in a shaggy bale of blankets with a fished-up cigarette,
Picking over the ‘Turfbird’s Tattle’ for a Saturday morning bet,
With a bottle in the wardrobe easy to reach
And a blast of onions from the landing. . . .
Tattooed with foreign ladies’ tokens, a heart and dagger each,
In places that make the delicate female inquirer screech,
And over a chest smoky with gunpowder-blue—
Behold!—a mermaid piping through a coach-horn!
Banjo-playing, firing off guns, and other momentous things to do,
Such as blowing through peashooters at hawkers to improve the view—
Suddenly paid-off and forgotten in Woolloomooloo. . . .
Suddenly to become John Benbow. . . .
AT five I wake, rise, rub on the smoking pane
A port to see—water breathing in the air,
Boughs broken. The sun comes up in a golden stain,
Floats like a glassy sea-fruit. There is mist everywhere,
White and humid, and the Harbour is like plated stone,
Dull flakes of ice. One light drips out alone,
One bead of winter-red, smouldering in the steam,
Quietly over the roof-tops—another window
Touched with a crystal fire in the sun’s gullies,
One lonely star of the morning, where no stars gleam.
Far away on the rim of this great misty cup,
The sun gilds the dead suburbs as he rises up,
Diamonds the wind-cocks, makes glitter the crusted spikes
On moss-drowned gables. Now the tiles drip scarlet-wet,
Swim like birds’ paving-stones, and sunlight strikes
Their watery mirrors with a moister rivulet,
Acid and cold. Here lie those mummied Kings,
Men sleeping in houses, embalmed in stony coffins,
Till the Last Trumpet calls their galleries up,
And the suburbs rise with distant murmurings.
O buried dolls, O men sleeping invisible there,
I stare above your mounds of stone, lean down,
Marooned and lonely in this bitter air,
And in one moment deny your frozen town,
Renounce your bodies—earth falls in clouds away,
Stones lose their meaning, substance is lost in clay,
Roofs fade, and that small smoking forgotten heap,
The city, dissolves to a shell of bricks and paper,
Empty, without purpose, a thing not comprehended,
A broken tomb, where ghosts unknown sleep.
And the least crystal weed, shaken with frost,
The furred herbs of silver, the daisies round-eyed and tart,
Painted in antic china, the smallest night-flower tossed
Like a bright penny on the lawn, stirs more my heart.
Strikes deeper this morning air, than mortal towers
Dried to a common blindness, fainter than flowers,
Fordone, extinguished, as the vapours break,
And dead in the dawn. O Sun that kills with life,
And brings to breath all silent things—O Dawn,
Waken me with old earth, keep me awake!
La Dame Du Palais De La Reine
SOPHIE, in shocks of scarlet lace,
Receives her usual embrace
Beneath a hedge, behind a curtain,
Or in the chambers of His Grace.
Whether a kiss be worth the care
Five minions wasted on her hair,
Sophie herself is half uncertain,
Paused in adorable despair.
When past beseeching Man she floats
In golden-coasted petticoats,
A shaft of irritation passes;
Like colic; but with antidotes.
Then serious doubts occur of Love
That spoils the Peacock, sours the Dove,
And mixes up the lower classes
So hopelessly with those above.
Is the bird Passion worth the lime?
Can the small Amor turn to crime
By ruining skirts—and the digestion?
Such problems occupy her time.
But often these objections thaw
To counts with viols—or grooms with straw—
And Sophie, giving up the question,
Bends to some strange but natural law.
With books of music, diamond rings,
Spaniels and roses, fireworks, swings,
Her lovers come. But Sophie sighs,
Whose thoughts are fixed on Higher Things.
Between the sleepy kisses given,
Her mind by grave debate is driven,
Perplexity distracts those eyes
Which, lovers vow, are lost in Heaven!
AFTER all, you are my rather tedious hero;
It is impossible (damn it!) to avoid
Looking at you through keyholes.
But come! At least you might try to be
Even, let us say, a Graceful Zero
Or an Eminent Molecule, gorgeously employed.
Have you not played Hamlet’s father in the wings
Long enough, listening to poets groan,
Seeking a false catharsis
In flesh not yours, through doors ajar
In the houses of dead kings,
In the gods’ tombs, in the coffins of cracked stone?
Have you not poured yourself, thin fluid mind,
Down the dried-up canals, the powdering creeks,
Whose waters none remember
Either to praise them or condemn,
Whose fabulous cataracts none can find
Save one who has forgotten what he seeks?
Your uncle, the Great Harry, left after him
The memory of a cravat, a taste in cheese,
And a way of saying ‘I am honoured.’
Such things, when men and beasts have gone,
Smell sweetly to the seraphim.
Believe me, fool, there are worse gifts than these.
IN Undine’s mirror the cutpurse found
Five candlesticks by magic drowned,
Like boughs of silver . . . and pale as death,
Biting his beard, till the rogue’s own breath
Shook all their gourds of fire, he stopped,
Eyed the gilt baskets, gaped half-round . . . .
Then down to the floor his pistol dropped . . . .
No sound in the dark rooms . . . the clank
Of metal and beam died fast . . . and flank
Pressed in strange fear to Undine’s bed,
The robber stared long, and bent his head
To that soft wave . . . then hand on silk,
Plumbed the warm valley where nightly sank
Undine the water-maid, caved in milk.
And over those pools, the rogue could smell
Rich essences globed and stoppered well
On Undine’s table . . . and row by row,
Jars of green china foamed stiff with snow,
And crystal trays and bottles of stone
Bowed like black slaves to that ivory shell,
The body of Undine . . . but Undine was gone.
Only below the candles’ gleam,
In one small casket of waxen cream
With sidelong eyes the thief could follow
That rosy trough, the printed hollow
Of Undine’s finger . . . then out to the street
He sprawled and fled . . . but still on the beam
His pistol waited for Undine’s feet!
Toilet Of A Dandy
TRANSPORTS of filed nerves; a wistful cough;
One sensual hairbrush reluctantly concludes
The Great Harry’s excruciations and beatitudes,
Delicately and gravely putting things on and off.
Shouting through shirts, dipping out liquid flowers,
All the accoutrements and mysteries,
The awful engines of the toilet—presses, trees,
And huge voluptuous bootjacks, for two shuddering hours.
But in the glass navel of his dressing-room,
Nests of diminishing mirrors, Narcissus peers,
Too nicely shined, parting the cracked, refracted sneers,
And meets the Corpse in Evening Dress; Caruso’s tomb.
(Or Goethe for the Times)
ONCE long ago lived a Flea
Who kept such a fine, fat King,
Not that he held with royalty,
But more for the appearance of the thing,
And gave his Majesty to hold
(Such pageantries are far too few)
A sword of ruby-hilted gold
That possibly might hack a cheese in two;
But lest this glory might begin
To prove the regency too far,
His thunderbolt they made of tin,
And changed his godship for another Star.
Thus when the Monarch drove abroad,
With stars like buttons round his chest,
God-fearing Fleas would all applaud,
And alien Lice be grudgingly impressed.
Such relics every Flea must flaunt,
If only as the final trump
That mocks Materialism’s taunt,
Proving there’s more in life than Suck and Jump.
Once long ago—but not so long—
A King went curing scrofula . . .
The chorus of this charming song,
I’m told reliably, is Ha, Ha, Ha.
IF all those tumbling babes of heaven,
Plump cherubim with blown cheeks,
Could vault in these warm skies, or leaven
Our starry silent mountain-peaks—
O painter of chub-faced, shining-thighed
Fat Ganymedes of God—what noise
Would churn between the clouds and stride
Far downward from those rose-mouthed boys!
Down to our spires their lusty whooping,
Fanfares of Paradise, would speed,
Far down to dark-faced clergy stooping
Round altars of their doleful creed;
And God, whose wings of silver sweep
Like metal afire on heaven’s rim,
Would daze them with a twinkling peep
Of those young moon-stained cherubim—
Then, for a trice, their skies might sparkle,
And some gold ichor splash amid
Those most respectable, patriarchal
Purveyors of stale pardons, hid
Behind their old cathedral closes
From this unguessed, unguessable God,
Shining before their learned noses
Down roads that Peter Rubens trod.