Thirty-six hours in the Philosophical City

Charles-Conder-xx-On-the-River-Yarra-near-Heidelberg-Victoria-xx-Art-Gallery-of-New-South-Wales-Australia

I

Some dreams are unaccountable – perhaps all dreams – but if so some are more unaccountable than others; and this was of the second kind. An archaeological dig on the edge of sand plains, the site jammed up close against low brown rocky cliffs; under a peculiar light, neither day nor night, but as of thought. Not really a dig either because the mansion of sand was still standing and what we were doing was uncovering those things concealed within its walls. We sawed away at the walls, they fell to dust and within we found relics of a missionary enterprise. The platen from a printing press. The blade of a plow. There was a constraint upon us, we had to gather all that we had, load it onto a wagon and transport it to the train station so that it could be railed away south to the Port and thence over seas to the Old Country; wherever that might have been. Leon had the teetering wagon loaded high and ready to negotiate the switchbacks on the narrow road up when I saw a rope-end half revealed in the dirt at the back of the now disintegrated building. Pulled upon it and thus drew out the shallow shell of a boat designed to sail the inland sea. Looked up and saw, from the cliffs above, ancient faces grimacing. We loaded that preposterous boat, upside down, on top of all the other stuff and off the wagon went, tiltering upwards, under crumbling bluffs, as if leaving the Duat behind with a load of purloined grave-goods. The lone and level sands stretched far away.

II

Next morning at the Adamstown markets I came across four pristine copies of the catalogue for the Charles Conder retrospective at the AGNSW in 2003; apart from one that had been ripped half-open by an impatient prospective customer, they were still plastic-wrapped. The fellow whose stall it was said I could tear the rest of the wrapping away, I did, took a brief look at the contents, then bought the book for $5.00. About ten minutes later I returned and bought, as a gift, another one. The fellow was out the front of his stall by now, and I saw he was wearing a moonboot; we started talking. This’s nothing, he said. You should see the hole in the back of my head. I didn’t actually want to see but was happy to hear about the circumstances in which it was acquired. Moonboot, aged 14, was playing cricket, fielding at what he called Stupid Mid Off while the opposition’s premier fast bowler was batting. Along came a long hop, Mr Quick belted it, Moonboot spun around but forgot to duck . . . took the ball in the back of the head. Knocked unconscious. Two days in hospital. Hole in head. Cut to ten years later, in the McDonalds in Raymond Terrace. Mr Quick, who has gone on to State and National honours, meets Moonboot – who he thinks has been dead this decade past, whom he believes, to his guilt and shame, he killed. In fact he still thinks he’s dead and that this is his ghost. White as a sheet, he flees the restaurant; and, a week later, hangs himself in the washhouse. There must have been other reasons for that, I say to Moonboot, who shrugs and doesn’t answer straight away. Then, after a while: Dunno, he says. I still talk to his Mum. Ring her up now and again. Y’know. 

III

That afternoon I went for a swim in the University pool. My usual 20 laps. There’s always a moment, halfway through lap 3, when I think I can’t go on. After that, it feels like I could go on forever but that is of course another illusion. Turning at the shallow end I saw through heavy glass the buttery yellow sunlight across grey-green eucalypts outside; as if the pool were somehow suspended in the treetops before the pale blue winter sky. It was cold out there, with a sou-wester blowing off the snow, but warm within. I sat on a bench and read a few more chapters of a thriller called The Gravity of Shadows by ex-New York art dealer David Ramus. Chandler-esque in conception but Leonard-ish in execution, it was set mostly in Florida and, at the centre of the plot, was a small folio of Velazquez drawings. The book, it turns out, was written in a Federal prison where Ramus was serving a year’s sentence for interstate transportation of stolen art: The constant friction of human contact, the noise and dirt and the simple fact that there is no such thing as a comfortable chair in prison makes it incredibly difficult to sit down with your thoughts and ideas and turn them into meaningful words on a page, he said. I finished the book in the Broadmeadow McDonalds, keeping a weather eye out for any errant ex-cricketer who might have thought I was ghost. I too was once knocked out by a cricket ball, though I was a lot younger than 14 when that happened and I don’t have a hole in my head. 

IV

It’s a long time since I heard anyone start a story thus . . . fucken . . . but that’s how Glen began the tale of how some junkies from the Central Coast got hold of his dog and wouldn’t give her back until he paid a $200 ransom. The whole time he was talking she stood next to his chair, looking beseechingly up at him with her big brown eyes, quivering all over her body as if re-living the experience. In the firelight, as evening fell and a full moon rose through the leaves of the avocado tree. We were burning planks of wood from the walls of some demolished house in the perforated drum of an old washing machine; listening to the radio; drinking bourbon and beer and then wine and smoking cigarettes as if they were going out of fashion; which they are, I was giving up after that. I am, I have. Nothing like a kilometre swim to make you feel it’s alright to abuse your lungs again. After Glen whistled to the dog and slopped off in his thongs to get his bike then ride it home to check on his sick father, I sat out there alone for a while staring into the fire wondering why none of my current schemes seem to have any traction in the world; as if the vacuity at the heart of a flame is also to be found within. I guess, like everything else, the feeling will pass. 

V

In my dream that night we went down to an open beach where some kind of festival was in progress. There on the sands at the southern end stood two contraptions like those Wright Brothers era flying machines, made of bamboo and wishes, bedecked with flags and bunting, never meant to fly, but to roll along the strand on their bicycle wheels like earth-bound kites perhaps. We descended into a labyrinth of ruins from which the voices of poets spoke, some actually mouths kissing the water from below, others with the lips of anemones or molluscs; typically I cannot remember a single word they said. Later the festival continued in an open air venue where a succession of women stood up to recite redrafted versions of the stanzas of Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium. Wonderful but again I cannot recall a word though I did think W B would have been pleased with some of the additions to the first stanza; something beyond even The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas . . . In the third venue the task was to sit upon the polished wooden floor in silent colloquy with other poets or with inanimate objects; I saw my cousin in congress with a church key. I was hungry now and went looking for a kitchen; along the way attracting the attention of a Japanese percussionist who left his instruments and followed the trail of stardust (or dandruff) falling from my shoulders, in and out of other installations, as if in some gallery of the future; or rather, and alack, the present. Just before I woke I realised that the fine old wooden building we were in was the very same as the one that, as a ruin, I had been excavating at the beginning of my sojourn here.

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