The Beach (a superhypermetrical sestina)
You can read US critic Marjorie Perloff’s analysis of this poem, the book it appeared in (Heart Print, Cambridge UK: Salt, 2001) together with an analysis of US poet Paul Hoover’s life and his poetry book Rehearsal in Black (Cambridge: Salt, 2001), in Jacket magazine no 18, here.
It’s the morning of a summer’s day in the inner west of Sydney, the sun already baking the bowl of sky. Here the pollution is heavier than in the centre of town – the sea breeze nudges the smog westwards through the day and into the evening as the lights come on, the evenings of trysts and hamburger smoke and hot cars, the nitrous oxides cooking in the heat and filtering through the lungs of the working classes in the new suburbs on the baking Cumberland Plain stretching towards the outback. You remember that Sydney and Los Angeles are similar the way a rubber stamp is an echo of its image, a coastal plain with an escarpment ten or twenty miles back from the on-shore breezes so that a bowl is formed with a lid of cold air sitting on top of the warm air
And the smog thick with suspended particles and diesel fumes and deadly gas is dumped on the plain right where the people live but the inhabitants laugh, they’re happy to breathe the contaminated air that gives them health as well as sickness. And now we’ve caught the bus and we’re moving east towards the coast, the sea, the Pacific, longing for a cool drink –
The buses are blue and white now, the colours of the sky, but they used to be dull green and cream, matching the beach at the foot of the grassy park at Brontë, and made in England, but with the postmodern age Australians tilted toward the Teutonic and the people now go to work in buses made by Mercedes Benz, a name meant to recall the beautiful daughter of a diesel millionaire going to boarding school in Switzerland and having lots of expensive fun;
And now in a flash I remember my first meeting thirty years ago with Stephen Knight – then just a young man fresh from Oxford – in the broiling sun at Tamarama Beach – he lay on the sand in long sleeves, long pants, hat, socks and sandals stretched out in a patch of shade among the sybarites but in the fully-clothed potential of his one day being a professor, even then rolling over in his complicated mind the prolix chilly downhill teleology of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur towards armour-plated death,
So here we are, way back then, a couple of teachers, six young students, a bottle of Pernod, Ferdinand de Saussure and all, dozing and reeling around on the fabulous littoral, the mythological beach –
Hi, Stephen – well at least at an exemplar, one unit selected from the Venn diagram of the immense conceptual set of all the overlapping permutations and combinations of the poems, songs, articles and stories about where the shore meets the sea, and the actual twenty-seven foam-scalloped beaches that bedeck and embroider that doorstep of the South Pacific, Sydney.
The bowl of sand and water is a kind of memory theatre now: when I was a boy in the country I liked to swim, poke at an octopus with a stick and chase poisonous puffer fish through the rippling shallows, then I would wander up the five-mile beach, no one there, squinting against the light reflected from the white sand, a sack over my shoulder, collecting bleached cuttlefish bones to sell to the store for bird feed. One time, walking along a ridge of grassy sand where the hollows are full of heat and stillness, I trod on a snake with my bare feet and got such a fright I didn’t think to snap shut the shotgun and shoot. Now the beach seems a tedious gritty way to get skin cancer – just as when I was a kid in a country town I longed to live in Australia’s busiest metropolis, Sydney,
And once I got there and failed a few university courses and worked at the Orange Spot Bar midnight till dawn selling the prostitutes fruit-cake sandwiches and mopping the floor, so I travelled, but found London was no better, Iran at least had crystal fresh air
But nowhere to swim let alone a beach,
And in Afghanistan the bell-boy sold you dope for a dollar a handful, but the police threw you in jail if they found you with an alcoholic drink –
Why are we always restlessly searching for a way to help us avoid thinking about the final payment to this charade, death?
In the end, sad joke, it’s the wages of fun.
Let’s turn back to the landscape – not the real one, this one, which is just a work of art, like something sketched with a pencil and then painted onto a large sheet of paper with those grainy water-colours, the paper crinkling where it’s wet – in one sense every artist is just a version of a kid having fun –
But of course there’s more to it, namely meaning and characters – once on the radio I heard the art critic Peter Fuller say in his serious English voice ‘of course, some landscapes are more meaningful than others’, and I laughed so hard I hurt a muscle in my jaw and had to go to the doctor – everyone knows the meaning gets stirred in at the last minute the same way you add mould inhibitor to a can of bathroom paint! and as for characters, just look around you – not at the painted paper, look at Sydney
Sliding past outside the bus window glittering with shops and traffic and its freight of noise and activity, Vietnamese immigrants, here’s an Italian family quarrelling, and a Greek fish shop crowded with revellers in white – there seems to be a wedding celebration going on, and the bride’s father is yelling at the groom – more characters than you can poke a stick at, every one of them slowly and inexorably heading towards a common end, that unwilling emigration from the country of the living to join the multi-million population of the land of death –
So our feelings write themselves onto the view, turning geography into landscape, distorting the weather. Imagine a sleepy romantic picnic under the trees brought to an embarrassed end with a flurry of leaves and the first pattering drops then the bruised, boiling clouds occupy the sky and a cold rain darkens and fills the summer air
With chill electricity – so we inscribe our feelings onto the backdrop, if a landscape is really a backdrop, the way a young guy in love might notice when he lifts his drink
That it leaves a ring of moisture on the surface of the table and he absent-mindedly traces out a word with his fingertip – a name – seven letters that are full of magic for him, but not for anyone else in the darkened bar, they’re just tired from their day at the beach.
It seems to take ages to get to the coast from almost anywhere, so perhaps we should forget the bus and take the car instead and just put up with the fact that there’s nowhere to park and the acres of boiling hot macadam burn the soles of your feet, and when you finally arrive you trudge along the famous golden sand spiked with rusty needles soaked with hepatitis and HIV and junkie spit wondering what the ‘style’ of the place really represents – you notice the Esplanade is crowded with Japanese brides getting their wedding cheap – they say in Tokyo it costs a fortune with all the presents for the thousands of guests including every fellow worker and all the superiors from the office and their wives, so it’s less expensive to fly to Sydney and have the ceremony at the Nippon International and send everyone back home a video – they stroll past the old milk bar that sells Chiko rolls, milk shakes and fizzy drinks, looking for a sushi bar or maybe an American nightclub and trying to get that casual Australian slope into their walk which has been stiffened by a lifetime of restrained competitive frenzy in Tokyo or Yokohama, they walk right by Martin Smith’s bookshop and never think to drop in and chat and maybe ask for a bit of light reading… nothing too demanding, you know what I mean, something gushy and fake like The Piano, say, to pass the time – their honeymoon time – or a book of haiku about Australian native animals – ha, Aussie Haiku! Excellent! – about native animals, right, but not the ones that creep up inside your trouser-leg and sting and kill, and not the nightmare creatures, say the shark as big as a refrigerator that scoops a leg off in the blink of an eye – you don’t feel it for a few seconds, you just feel a heavy bump that knocks you breathless, and then you feel it, and see the spreading red cloud – surely savage predators wouldn’t live anywhere near such a crowded beach
And in any case we can see the surf lifesavers patrolling in their kindergarten-coloured caps and costumes and we see the warning poles topped with flapping pennants that spell out the difference between safety and danger more bluntly than the social rules that say you can go just so far with a girl but no further, cravats are in but safari jackets are definitely out this year, and shorts and thongs are not allowed in the Jungle Bar – and a team of hefty lads are dragging a boat into the water, a large elegant rowing boat with half a dozen oars, then they butt through the first wave, the nose lifting up then thudding down onto the water again, it seems to be fun
But it’s really a serious kind of work that gives out a noble and metallic social aura because the young men are all volunteers – so are the bush fire fighters with their tankers of life-saving water – here it’s the water that kills – and in both cases it’s youth facing down the unimaginable that can strike us anywhere and – we hope – defeating it with their strength and guts – you feel a glow of gratitude towards them and plan to buy them all a drink
At the clubhouse afterwards but a gesture like that could be badly misinterpreted, and you notice – as the nose of the boat heaves up into the air again – that some of their costumes are very skimpy, if that’s the right word, disappearing into that cleft between the buttocks as the helmsman leans on his oar half-submerged in a boiling green turmoil, the other oars waving in the spray like the feelers of a giant praying mantis – they wouldn’t allow that kind of exhibitionism in Melbourne but hey, this is Sydney,
Right? And anything goes – the boat smashes down onto the back of the wave – you duck as a chopper roars over the crowd from somewhere behind the beach and whistles out to sea, rotors flailing the air
And beating the surface to a creamy froth that leaves a lacy pattern of foam as though a huge doily was racing over the water, flying on a mission to protect the eastern flanks of the city from ever-present death.
It’s hard to imagine that dark force reaching up and taking you in daylight under the glaring blue sky, death
Belongs to midnight and silence, to the long quiet end of things, to shadowy corridors and empty rooms, to the hospital ward where my father’s life leaked away, the starched sheets where my mother’s tiny body lay curled in the gloom like a child’s, the polished lino floor of the kitchen where my uncle Martin pitched forward and fell, surprised, and in the silence heard his poor battered heart stumble to a stop – it doesn’t belong with us gathered here on the sunny crowded beach
With the cries of children and the tinkle of the ice-cream van a few blocks away and the squawk of seagulls filling the windy air.
But death doesn’t answer our queries, it doesn’t bother laughing at us. It drifts in with the morning breeze, it mixes with the smell of burnt sausages at the family barbecue, with the hiss of gas escaping from a keg of beer, it blends with the chlorine crystals filtering to the bottom of the municipal swimming pool, it blinks in time to the fairy lights and bounces along with the party balloons and the fun
At Mardi Gras and it washes into the gutters that drain the streets of Sydney
And down the sewers into the Harbour and out to the Pacific, a spreading stain, it takes your friends and your enemies alike, and in the middle of the good times it tugs your sleeve and murmurs to you whether you want to listen or not. One summer evening when I tilted into Martin’s Bar on Oxford Street – this must be twenty years ago – and asked for a drink
The topless waitress – her pretty tits tipped with pink lipstick wobbling in time to the disco music pumping from the speakers – she asked ‘What kind of drink? We’ve got hundreds,’ and I said ‘How about a martini?’ and she blinked and said: ‘Martini, ahh… I know, that’s the one with the olive, right? Sorry, pet, we’re out of olives, how about a strawberry, okay?’ I said ‘Are you kidding? A strawberry? Just give me a drink
Of gin with a dash of dry vermouth, please, no strawberries.’ And in the shadows a ghost touched my shoulder and whispered in my ear ‘Hey, have you tried this? It’s better than drink. Friends of yours have gone to sleep in its arms. How about a shot of death?’
No, no thanks, no death. In Sydney
Let’s say there’s no more dying, each word we speak holds it at bay for one more minute, and where there’s a party there’s music and happiness, so no dying on and beyond and behind the beach
And in the sloping layers of rented rooms and apartments and human cliffs that stretch uphill, a tilting layer cake made of brick and tile behind Bondi glimmering in the twilight and pulsing with life, under the shade of the trees in the empty avenues, the cars asleep under the street lamps that swap glare and shadow, shadow and glare, you hear the shuffle of stealthy footsteps, clink of a bottle, happy whispering, but no sadness, just a perplexed and sometimes tiring kind of fun,
Okay? – just fun, don’t ask questions – in the warm air.
So quick, drop your book, get a drink, breathe in the air and laugh at death. Under the bright blue canopy it’s time for fun; it’s a summer’s day in Sydney, and everyone’s going to the beach.
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