Junkies in da House: Look out!

Vicki Viidakas, 1977
Photo from «New Poetry» magazine, 1977

A friend who had decided to take lots of drugs came for dinner one evening, a quarter of a century ago. She brought her current boyfriend. He had a ferrety manner, and reminded me of a weasel, for some reason, like the weasels and stoats in «The Wind in the Willows». At some point in the evening he went to the bathroom, upstairs. Soon after, they left. “Why leave so soon?” we asked, but they were gone.

Some days afterwards my wife Lyn noticed that her mother’s wedding ring was missing from our bedroom upstairs. It was just a wedding ring, like many others, but it was irreplaceable. The mother she loved had died of cancer the year before. Did the weasel take it? It was far too late to do anything about it by then, so we let it drop.

If he had taken it — while his companion distracted us with an eager discussion about poetry — the money he may have received from hocking the ring would have bought enough mood-altering subtances to last two people a day or so. Then more money would be needed. Neither of them worked, and the dole was hardly enough to fund their expensive appetites, so they may have felt the need to steal again, from someone else. Someone who trusted them: who would invite them around, and give them plenty of wine and a good dinner, lovingly prepared, and talk about poetry.

The friend was fellow-poet Vicki Viidikas (see photo), and I guess the profound experiences and extreme mental anguish that poetry forced her to endure drove her to seek relief in the revels of Dionysus or the arms of Morpheus. As the great poet Yeats said, writing poems is harder work than breaking rocks for a living. Not that Senator Yeats ever broke any rocks for a living, actually, but being a poet he could easily imagine how dreadful an experience it must be for those poor fellows who had to do it.

Some cynical friends suggested that the role of “poet” was a useful cover story for a junkie: it seemed to provide a fashionable excuse for behaving badly to your friends. But Vicki had been writing poems before she took to drugs, so perhaps it was the other way around. She had started with a bright youthful talent, but she never seemed very interested in the difficult side to writing memorable poetry that Senator Yeats struggled with — rhyme, meter, complex forms, how to bring tradition to heel — and loose colourful prose was what she did well, at least in the early days.

The strength of her writing seemed to become diluted as she progressed, in my opinion. Here’s part of a review I wrote, published in «Meanjin» magazine in 1978:

Both Vicki Viidikas and Robyn Ravlich were associated with the early Balmain days of the new writing; but wrote out of a clear awareness of their female roles as poets, and while Ravlich appears to have gone on to other things after the publication of her book «The Black Abacus» in 1971 (among them, a degree from Sydney University and a role as ABC producer), Viidikas is still writing primarily as a poet, has avoided the academy and has travelled extensively through Europe and Asia. Her first book, «Condition Red» (1973), had many good poems in it, particularly four prose poems at the back of the book, and her collection of prose pieces, «Wrappings» (1974, and reprinted as a paperback in 1976) is in my opinion one of the most interesting books of the decade.

She has a new manuscript of poetry ready for printing with Wild & Woolley in Sydney, and I must confess I was disappointed with it. The flexible form of her prose is to my mind a more effective means of communication than her new poetry, which is a mixture of colourful scenery sketched quickly and without precise outline, and argumentative statement that often circles around the point without hitting it:

…My love, my blood
it is aeons of suffering
and the curtain before the sun;
O brother, O love
flesh the hands which hold the key,
O raise up the dead
and trust the spaces between the stars . . .

Her experiences in the underworld of dope and sex in Sydney and Asia are the materials of much of her poetry, and it looks as though the intensity of her emotional reactions is breaking the banks of her verse, spreading pools of bright colour across the page to little real effect.

Sadly, Vicki died, aged fifty, in November 1998. So many of my friends never made it past fifty. She could be exasperating, but she was liked by just about everybody.

Of course, junkies are good con artists. Or maybe we want to believe that they are good con artists, because if we accepted the obvious fact that they are thieving, selfish losers, people who don’t want to give up their drug highs, who don’t want to compromise their consciences by working for someone else, and who instead steal from what friends they have left, why, that would make us look like suckers.

Which, of course, I was, and I suppose I still am.

15 Replies to “Junkies in da House: Look out!”

  1. I am so shocked by the nastiness of this post. I don’t understand the point of trashing someone in this way, someone who is no longer here to defend herself. I thought I might like your blog, but I don’t think so now…

  2. I understand your feelings, “exiting quickly”. Vicki was a friend and fellow-poet, and I really wish that she had been a better person too. I am very sad that Vicki came to such a bad end, but she knew what she was doing, and no one made her do that. I feel very sad to have to report that my wife’s mother’s wedding ring went missing like that, but my wife was pretty sorry at the time too. When I wrote and published my review of Vicki’s poetry in «Meanjin», she had twenty years to reply or to complain to me if she had wanted to. She never bore any ill-will for my honestly-felt remarks, and I appreciated that at the time. My friend the poet Bruce Beaver once said that he would never give anyone a bad review. That was a good thing to say, in many ways, but it wasn’t good for poetry, in the end. Many of my friends did bad things to one another, and I wish they hadn’t.

  3. but John, reviewing someone’s work is one thing, calling them a thieving, selfish loser is entirely different and shows little empathy for someone with obvious problems. I just cannot understand the point of this post which is not about her work but about making personal accusations that she cannot respond to. I wish you best of luck with your blog, I have enjoyed some of your work in the past, but this kind of dialogue is just not for me.

  4. But that night, as our guest, Vicki didn’t show any empathy for me, or for my wife Lyn. She kept us entertained while her partner cased our joint. I have talked about her work, in this post, honestly, I hope. I adored her early poetry, and was honestly disappointed by her later poetry. And I have talked about her betrayal of our friendship, which is different, but also important, also honestly, I hope. I was devastated. Lyn was devastated. We were betrayed, I honestly think. Isn’t this important? Doesn’t this have valuable things to say about Vicki’s role or pose as a poet? How valuable is the role, when it involves betrayal? I could hide all this, and not talk about it, but that would not be honest. What do you think?

  5. I understand her betrayal of you, and it is awful.

    But I could tell you of many things stolen from me, of betrayals by lovers, friends and others in my life. I have been around numerous drug addicts whose disregard for others is notable when the addiction takes hold. But it is an illness, not a reflection of who they really are and I wouldn’t expose that aspect of their life to public view. That would be to betray their personal place in my life. It is not dishonest to restrain from exposing personal details in public. There is always much more to a story than one person can tell and people are complex, life is messy, of course you know that.

    I guess I am shocked because you are a poet and this post doesn’t represent the layers of a person. Its singular dimension is much less than I expected from you. I feel let down by what you have written and I feel sorrier for Vicki in the way she has been portrayed than for you and your wife for your material loss. Her inner world must have been chaotic and her loss of a functional life a tragedy.

    I have experienced and done things in my earlier life that I wouldn’t want anyone writing about on the internet, now or when I am gone. But having said that I do have to admit that I have written about my parents in major newspapers, which although uncomfortable was something I felt had a greater purpose, ie in speaking up about abuse and trying to expose the violent behaviours our society avoids talking about. It may or may not be different to what you have done, but I have had to think very deeply before I write anything that public tarnishes perceptions of a person.

    I obviously don’t exit that quickly…

  6. You say “But it is an illness, not a reflection of who they really are…” But I would argue that what they do is a reflection of who they truly are. We must be responsible for what we do. Otherwise, chaos.

  7. that I am able to be responsible for what I do and able to make choices is a gift not afforded to everyone, regardless of how a person may try. I cannot imagine the inner turmoil that some people face or the lack of control they feel over their self and life – and yes their lives are chaotic. Sometimes we lock them up if they become too socially unacceptable, others are able to find help. For some, taking their own life is the only way out. A drug addict’s life is not a joyous one. I don’t mean that we should not hold people to account for their actions but we need understanding and we sometimes need to withhold our judgements and absolute beliefs. Many people are damaged, mentally ill, or have inner problems that lead them. I don’t know the forces they have to deal with inside and I feel very lucky to have had the capacity to change my life when necessary. I am just lucky.

  8. Thinking of Vicky

    ‘The judge, he holds a grudge
    He’s gonna call on you
    But he’s badly built
    And he walks on stilts
    Watch out he don’t fall on you.’

    Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine
    Bob Dylan

  9. in her own words:

    Which drug did she take?
    Which pain did she prefer?
    What does the lady offer
    behind the words, behind the words?
    Their criteria will be:
    so long as she’s dead we may
    sabotage and rape

  10. Another friend who died of an addiction was the poet Martin Johnston. He died in June 1990 at the age of forty-two. He has something similar to say in his poem “In Memoriam”, whence this excerpt:

    Whether there is particular grief in the deaths of poets
    is a question that much engages us,
    that we answer always in the affirmative,
    a priori, because it’s very useful to us to do so.
    Pale watercolour lovers in the pastel sun

    we can rape and chomp our friends’ corpses at midnight,
    hunch and sidle in the morgue, our eyes
    a tracery of red veins in the Gothick crypt, and the tourist
    maps show Transylvania’s regular trains, its ordered roads.

    Because it does come down to rape, this invasion
    of one’s substance by that of another
    without connivance. And not the strongest or fiercest
    can fight it, but must lie back and open
    up to the slime and spawn.

    Death and rebirth myths are made by poets, and no wonder:
    one Dransfield can feed dozens of us for a month,
    a Webb for years. And they’re fair game, we can plead continuance,
    no poet ever died a poet: as the salt muck filled Shelley
    the empyrean gave way to the nibbling fish and the cold.

  11. It seems strange to me that John Forbes was “a subtle, ironic and brilliant poet, wholly dedicated to his art” whilst Vicki Viidikas is remembered as a “junkie in da house”, considering how much they had in common.

  12. Indeed, Anna, you are quite right. They both were poets,and they both used drugs, and they both stole from me. In other words, they were both lying stealing people who happened to be poets. But John Forbes just happened to be a brilliant poet, while Vicki Viidikas was not. In my humble opinion. The future will decide; but my vote goes to John Forbes. Is there any poem of Vicki’s you would like to see compared to “Monkey’s Pride”?

    best wishes

    John T

  13. John Forbes seems to have been applauded more since his death than when he was alive and he was very strategic in his choice of friends.

  14. The audience for John’s work grew slowly from his first book, and still grows. When I attended a conference in Melbourne last year I found that John’s work appealed very strongly to a new generation of young people, mainly people who studied at university and read and wrote poetry.

    As for John’s choice of friends, I have never met a person who was less “strategic” in managing their lives than John. He chose not to continue with an academic career, when his teachers were practically begging him to, and chose instead to work as a removalist, in a tinsel factory and in a bag-making factory. Clever career moves? Hardly.

    I should correct an earlier comment: while John did seem to use drugs, he never seemed badly affected by them, and never acted like a junkie. I suspect he felt that heroin made you do stupid things, and he would hate to be thought of like that.

    John Tranter

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