23 John Forbes

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[The New Australian Poetry, page 260]

John Forbes


an island builds itself around
these souvenirs of loving, vulgar fun/ e.g.
a toilet bowl in plaster with GOOD BYE CRUEL WORLD

as he pulls the chain reminds us
to giggle — remember the sun

& how it feels to be a skyscraper among tornadoes or a
skin cancer blotch, only what’s stored as X-rays are
needs pondering, the glimpse a glass-bottomed launch
blurs while revealing, like speech under water where
coral retains the intense colour air destroys & slides
(even the best) almost malign.

brief journey! between breakfast

& drinks the offer of peanuts suntan lotion distracted us
we missed the way light hits the tiny pores of dead polyps
making the water glow,
how the fish devour each other
so quickly, these things you only learn
by drowning, the souvenir
of going home.

That, or the guide tells you.


[The New Australian Poetry, page 261]

John Forbes

Australian poet John Forbes, circa 1970s, photo courtesy Nigel Roberts.
Australian poet John Forbes, circa 1970s, photo courtesy Nigel Roberts.


      for R.M. Nixon

Let’s paint the ideal supper on the back of
our heads where the poem is a type of hole
rope tricks and grit allow you to descend —

we hope the earth has a centre, a fruity niche
safe from the spiked shoes of the mob; when
you cross to the pub
millions of hopeful athletes knock you over.

Can you feel their lurid needs, now that
the speed of light’s become obsolete, now
the plankton are rising towards the oven?

Where did you get that hat, Tarzan? Like miners
caught in a war of time capsules we quail
before your green fedora, your dreams.

Their glycerine slowly covers Mt Everest
& without peaks, how will the survivors
invent a language? Oral hygiene be with us now
                                                                                      & defend!

So polish your neglect of tennis, for soon
even casual knacks will yellow with nostalgia,
like the bandwagon of heaven’s favourites

or nicknaming your emotions. Otherwise invest
in dilemmas: the better you forget the days of jam
the more relics will surprise you.

Still, after the Age of The Opposable Thumb
there’ll be a lot to discover — will dolphins enjoy bingo?
Were the great comic operas written in perfect order?


[The New Australian Poetry, page 262]

John Forbes


‘Stand roughly here’ the silence was
full of holes as the railway cafeteria
closed and Geoff said ‘marine’ it broke
our boredom like a Chinese rug the way
everyone is treble, monochrome their
nerves left on all night, television
swallowing the room. Myself I can’t draw
though there are white spaces, the Venice
letters no one reads save pickpockets
standing roughly here — their trick is
multilingual and when they photograph
the border, it blurs.


dont bother telling me about the programs
describe what your set is like the casing the
curved screen its strip of white stillness like
beach sand at pools where the animals come
down to drink and a native hunter hides his
muscles, poised with a fire sharpened spear
until the sudden whirr of an anthropologist’s
hidden camera sends gazelles leaping off in
their delicate slow motion caught on film
despite the impulsive killing of unlucky Doctor
Mathews whose body was found three months later
the film and camera intact save for a faint,
green mould on its hand-made leather casing

      & HOW TO DO THEM

      The Classical Head

Nature in her wisdom has formed the human head
so it stands at the very top of the body.


[The New Australian Poetry, page 263]

John Forbes

The head — or let us say the face — divides into 3,
the seats of wisdom, beauty & goodness respectively.

The eyebrows form a circle around the eyes, as
the semicircles of the ears are the size of the

open mouth & the mouth is one eye length from
the nose,itself the length of the lip & at the top

the nose is as wide as one eye. From the nose
to the ear is the length of the middle finger

and the chin is 2½ times as thick as the finger.
The open hand in turn is as large as the face.

A man is ten faces tall & assuming one leaves out
the head the genitals mark his centre exactly.

      The Romantic Head

The Romantic head begins with the hands cupped
under the chin the little fingers resting on the nose
& the thumbs curling up the jaw line towards the ears.

The lips are ripe but pressed together as the eyes
are closed or narrowed, gazing in the direction of
the little fingers. The face as a whole exists to gesture.

The nose while beautiful is like the neck, ignored,
being merely a prop for the brow that is usually
well developed & creased in thought — consider the lines

‘the wrinkled sea beneath him crawls‘ locating the centre
of the Romantic head above the hairline & between the ears;
so the artist must see shapes the normal eye is blind to.

This is achieved at the top of the cranium where the skull
opens to the air, zooms & merges with its own aurora.
Here the whole diurnal round passes through. In this way


[The New Australian Poetry, page 264]

John Forbes

the dissolution the quivering chin & supported jaw seemed
to fear, as the head longed for, takes place. The head, at
last one with the world, dissolves. The artist changes genre.

      The Symbolist Head

No longer begins with even a mention of anatomy,
the approach in fact leaves one with the whole glittering
universe from which only the head has been removed.
One attempts, in the teeth of an obvious fallacy, to find
the shape, colour, smell, to know the ‘feel’ of the head
without knowing the head at all. And the quarry is elusive!
If the stomach disappears, butterflies are liberated & while
the head teems with ideas who has ever seen one? Equally,
the sound of a head stroked with sponge rubber or the sound
of a head kicked along the street on Anzac Day could be
the sound of a million other things kicked or stroked.
The head leaves no prints in the air & the shape of an
absence baffles even metaphysics. But the body connects
to the head like a visible idea & so has its uses, for
what feeling is aroused by The Winged Victory of Samothrace
but piercing regret for the lost head? And beyond the body,
a landscape is not just our yearning to be a pane of glass
but a web of clues to its centre, the head. And here, like one day
finding a lone wig in the vast rubbish dump devoted to shoes,
the Symbolist head appears, a painting filled with love
for itself, an emotion useless as mirrors without a head.
This art verges on the sentimental. It’s called ‘Pillow Talk’

      The Conceptual Head

1)  The breeze moves
     the branches as sleep moves the old man’s head:
     neither move the poem.

2)  The opening image becomes
      ‘poetic’ only if visualised


[The New Australian Poetry, page 265]

John Forbes

3)  but even so
    the head can’t really be
                                  or smelt —
    the Objective Head would be raving nostalgia.

4)  Yet the head is not a word
    & the word means ‘head’
    only inside the head or its gesture,
                      the mouth.
                      So the poem can’t escape,
                      trapped inside its subject.
   & longing to be a piece of flesh & blood
          Ten Pounds of Ugly Fat
          The Immortal Taperecorder

5)  While anatomy is only a map, sketched
                    from an engaging rumour,
      metaphor is the dream
      of its shape —
                              from ‘head in the stars’
                              to ‘head of lettuce’

      Between the two
      the poem of the head is endless.

6)  Now the world of the head opens
      like the journals of old travellers
                              & all your past emotions
      seem tiny, crude simulacra of its beauty
      & you are totally free

7)                      Greater than all Magellans
      you commence an adventure more huge & intricate
      than the complete idea of Mt Everest.


[The New Australian Poetry, page 266]

John Forbes

      And this academy can teach you no more.
                                                The voyage will branch out,
      seem boring & faraway from the head,
      but nothing can delay you
      for nothing is lost to the head.

8)  Goodbye,
                                    send me postcards
                                    and colourful native stamps,
                                                                                              Good luck!


      for Mandy Connell

After breakfast in the philippines
I take a bath
                        & it’s a total fucking gas

Enjoy that ice cream, Gerald,
                        the sun sparkling
                        on its white frostiness
is the closest you’ll ever get to St Moritz,
racing up the tiny snow fields on the side of a pill
                        as beside you the young girl’s
mirrored goggles reflect all Switzerland
like a chocolate box at the speed of sound
                        & like the ashtray he / she you & it
                        are a total fucking gas

Asleep in
the milk bars
daylight saving annuls our tuxedo
                        & happy to breathe again
like a revived dance craze
we gulp fresh air, our speeches to the telephone
              so various,
                                  so beautiful —
                      who loves at close range


[The New Australian Poetry, page 267]

John Forbes

                    like they do thru a tube?
& when the sun polishes the wires gold then invisible
                    a million cheer-up telegrams
                    collapse in the snow
while Mandy & I have a glass of Coca-Cola
                    as we fly past the moon &
after the piano goes to sleep in our arms
                                      we wake up
                                      & it’s a total fucking gas

                                      Was that a baby
or a shirt factory?
no one can tell in this weather, for tho
the tropics are slowly drifting apart & a
                        vicious sludge blurs
                the green banks of the river, a chalet
drifts thru the novella where I compare thee
                to a surfboard lost in Peru,
                flotsam like a crate of strong liquor
                                      that addles our skis
                                      & when they bump
                                                    it’s a total fucking gas


A dazed disc jockey fingers an epaulette
But the future is the colour of the air
The air corrodes the frigidaire
Or money relaxing in a distant bet.
Emotions boom in the vowels, as my cheque
Turns to beer then disappears and if she
Was apples they’d rot. This mess I’m in
Wastes muscle baffles love but works —
I don’t know much about bolts from the blue
But a house in the country spells death
And we are as far away as ever from
The Perfect Carburettor. Drugs disappear
In the slipstream of a bright car, the
Windows are stuffed with menus but
They don’t keep out the cold.


[The New Australian Poetry, page 268]

John Forbes


The polo stopped so suddenly the spectators imagined
the level green oval had jerked like a carpet pulled
hard or a sneeze hurling men, horses and the red ‘out
of bounds” flags into a frieze where only the keenest
fans could see the game’s obvious development. But
those few seconds made sports’ history collapse, for
as one of the captains had remarked some days before
‘It’s a pattern’ and now his words took on a new, more
luminous meaning as this mass seizure into marble
left no one holding their breath for years, while
those with a yen for the bric-a-brac of change can
see the cool, blurred process like an embrace in this
one photograph, already taking on the patina of auth-
enticity as snapped by a lucky photographer bringing
a long overdue and welcome fame to reflex action


The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
Juniper berries bloom in the heat. My Heart!
‘Bottoms up, Comrade!’ The nicotine-stained
fingers of our latest defector shake as they
reach for Sholokhov’s ‘Lenin’ — the veranda is
littered with copies — no, commies, the ones
in comics like Battle Action or Sgt Fury
& His Howling Commandos. Does form follow
function? Well, after lunch we hear a speech.
It’s Stephen Fitzgerald back from ‘Red’ China.
Then, you hear a postie whistle. I hear without
understanding, two members of Wolverhampton
Wanderers pissed out of their brains, trying
to talk Russian. Try reading your telegram —
‘Mes vacances sont finies: Stalin’. But we don’t
speak French or play soccer in Australia, our
vocabulary and games are lazier by far. Back
in the USSR, we don’t know how lucky we are.


[The New Australian Poetry, page 269]

John Forbes


How we see things determines how we act and even
who ‘we’ are, as the fragile temper of our acts
breaks like a bubble from the drowning mouth and into
the air, shaping these identities to begin with.
For as their escape traces like a machine the pattern of
our doubts on to the future, it’s obvious something’s
got to give and keeping the sun over our right shoulder
so the shadow of the past is always in our minds
doesn’t solve the dilemma but merely divides our needs
further from our pronouns so that our whole being
ends up with this double aspect, and hence the idea of
time — our best, because most subtle, delusion about
the meaning of these incessant apologies. Far better
to remain in the tense we first thought of, for though
blame spreads evenly across the entire body like a
typing error where ‘inconsequential’ and ‘trembling’
seem to blur and merge, it’s scarcely a disaster. And
if we glance back at the panorama (and you can bet
we will) which our fatigue and cigarette smoke frame
into well earned images of self esteem that border on
wonder at our avoiding the issue, the whole landscape of
tiny details fits together. So suddenly, what once
loomed seems trivial — a high, remote jigsaw puzzle we’ve
solved by standing completely still. But the vestige of
a smile this picture implies might well have been saved
until the walk from the valley floor to this noted
beauty spot and scenic lookout had been accomplished.
For to merely blink our eyes thinking this disclaimer
has the problem staring us in the face once more
like the hint of a mirror in the alpine lake, a
riddle for ever unless everything is indeed beautiful
in its own kind of way — for us here in the national park
and in the distant farms and villages as well,
as if an opinion poll had been left out for months
in the weather and elsewhere thousands of separate
people were breathing.


[The New Australian Poetry, page 270]

John Forbes


not serious about drugs
and into the sky that’s
open like a face and
when night arrives the
smiling starts we being
our own stars as the days
pass in their cars and
the stereo fills with mud
we don’t care     we walk
in the rhythm of a face
that’s awake in the air
and I’d like to kiss you
but you’ve just washed
your hair. the night goes
on and we do too until
like pills dissolving
turn a glass of water
blue it’s dawn and we
go to sleep we dream
like crazy and get rich
and go away.


Flexed suddenly the muscles of the stomach
can make the joints in the back of the neck
go ‘crack’. This clears the room for you,
like a pirouette, full of energy but passive,
the way these diaries of pure sensation
balance your responses against how you think
you will respond, leaving a margin of wind
for you to turn into. Not actually a repeat
performance, but more like an encore from
where you will collapse completely. Nothing
or no one will pass you by, just as a body
lying on the floor is probably not dead but
really relaxed in a total trance, so the rise &


[The New Australian Poetry, page 271]

John Forbes

fall of your chest arches over the day to day
posture you impose on appearing as you are
 — that is, not really knowing you’re alive
until the air touches more than your idea of
its following you around. Instead you are
in the wake of the air, preceding your first
impressions: delicate & quick, but here left
out of things, like a law of karma that will
never improve you, just as a dead calm will
never delay the Owl & the Pussycat in their
beautiful pea green boat. You will continue
breathing & like a sail the comic loot from
this effect piles up on the deck; lots of money &
plenty of honey, wrapped up in a five pound note.


A loony tune in the rumpus room packs
Them in. It wakes up the wisdom tooth
Our guide, philosopher and friend. And
You, Reader, have you ever vacationed
In Crete, strolled around the streets
To watch the sudden, fabulous reversals
Each touch brings, the way hands guide
The body, drunk, between tables; then
To wake up tomorrow’s first thought &
It sparkles, pure as water or the upper
Atmosphere? How old, or wise are you?
Indolent but accurate, a smile will do. How
Fantastic too each day lets another begin
As the clear air breathes a big Hullo
Echoed by the bodies turning over below.


35 cigarettes a day
leads to nerve end capital
                  & a frangipani life /


[The New Australian Poetry, page 271]

John Forbes

breathing to live
& living to keep a big board flashing
                                  FAKE PATIO!
                                  FAKE PATIO!
          It’s the same in China
the same, minus the electricity
                        & the asbestos pyjamas.
built for comfort, not for speed.
          At least, that’s what it was like
in the old days —
                                  you sat on the porch
                                  building a balsa glider
                                  Maybe you heard
                                  a screen door slam
                                  on the Andy Griffith Show
 — now simultaneous feedback
      makes this inertia seem sentimental,
                    like the idea of a relative.
                                    Now ideas occur
                            before you can have them
& we go so fast the future is like the past,
                          timeless in fact,
                              taking the heat.
& that’s how the Chinese see things,
                    one big happy family,
                    smoking furiously.