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.