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Martin Johnston

In Transit — a Sonnet Square

for Roseanne

1. Duende in Darlinghurst

If out of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry, what
do we make of our quarrels with Canberra? Suddenly
someone has gone and invented a new emotion
just as we were coming to terms with Weltschmertz.
Let them in and look what happens.
All the same, the streets are ajitter with larrikins
and outside the boarded-up brothel a tart and her hoon — but a cat
from a different poem cuts out, folds itself in
in a lump at the bedfoot; in this universe
cats are sinisterly dextrous; in antiworlds
at the bottom of the class. Feng-shui, lion and lamb, their sadness
of a tightrope walker over shadows. Do we all fall
now like shooting-gallery ducks? There’s a kind of snowdrop
that grows, but never flowers, in the lowest circle.

2. Biography

About love and hate and boredom they were equally
barracudas, took an arm or leg quick as winking,
their totem Monkey Aware-of-Vacuity.
Empedocles added to the four elements
Love and Strife to set them spinning, Aeschylus
invented tragedy by adding the second actor.
Back past the sold houses in the lost domains
down in the midden-humus
glows the rotting trelliswork of “family”,
odd slug-coloured tubers wince at the touch
with feigned unanthropomorphic shyness,
naked pink tendrils explore holes. It is all
tentative, and these days the Island supports
a “Jungian sandlot therapist”.

3. Hecate County

“This faux pas may be on the nose” (SMH crossword)
and while amyl nitrite does give the nostrils a bloom
and the head a rush of fake Pythagorean
claritas — imaginary number, gaily unfecund — the urethritis
goes away of its own accord. Being more at home
always in the abstract, and counting the streaks of the tulip
all too like afterwards asking whether
It Was Good For You Too Darling, remember Edmund Wilson
was cured by silver nitrate, knowing the risks, in
no time. Well, you have ridden away on your bicycle,
Adrian Leverkühn’s doctors kept falling down dead
like something out of Straw Peter, the undergoing
of the evening-lands though refuses to focus,
the shimmering spokes setting far in the northwest.

4. The Rout of San Romano; or,
     Arsenal 3, Manchester United 2

Three goals in the last minutes, when tens of thousands
were already on their way home! — Niccolo da Torentino,
arching truncheoned in the foregound, washed in yellow
green mauve skyblue green yellow, has yet to notice
there where the shadowline subtends the wave
of breaking colour — the two knights outside the battle
companionably riding up the hill out the back of the canvas
not giving a stuff who wins. And Cattignola only arrives
in the Uffizi; why hang around
so scattered a pictorial space? — the eventual winner
was anyway winning already. The pig-snouted trumpeters,
angelic pigeon-chested page, the “web of men” foreshortened
in a third of the triptych, are in “London”, in nothing:
turn off the set. And they broke up and scattered across nothing.

5. The Modern Primitive (for Theofilos Hadjimikhail)

Only real loaves of bread fall down.
Painted ones stay where you put them.

                               — Theofilos

He ground his own pigment from brightly coloured stones.
The neighbours stoned him when they found him out
grinding down sea and sky for blues and revealing
a glassy shore-sea full of brightly coloured stones
a thousand fathoms within reach, and only the grey
olive midworld under a glass sky’s
tiny brightly coloured stones’ wheeling
glitter a thousand chilly fathoms up. He stood there
stockstill and gave back what he’d stolen:
the glass burst into paint.
The neighbours stoned him and the rocks
hit him exploding steeped in colour:
he ground himself down
and painted all the neighbours’ portrait in bright stone.

You can read Martin Johnston’s essay
on the paintings of Theofilos in Jacket 11.

6. The Café of Situations (for Grace Edwards)

In this café they have solved the problem of names.
Orders go to the bar: “Coffee for Calendar,
two cognacs for Backgammon Board and Football Poster.”
You are where you are. They know names must be revealed
most cautiously and that numbers only serve numbers.
In the café of situations they have found the golden mean:
sit there often enough and you’ll win a table and name,
Clock, say, or Air Vent, which feeds not on you but you,
drop in occasionally and you’re still gifted
while you’re here with just that identity-in-place
you’ve been so long in quest of. Wherever I go
I wear the café walls around me, and the shuffling step
of the invisible waiters brings subtly misconstrued orders
to Broke or Loving or Drunk or wherever I happen to be.

7. Games and Pastimes I: Chess

          Sui-mate: Black moves first and forces White to checkmate him.

Maybe things will improve when Borges becomes the first
to gain a posthumous Nobel. Meanwhile the fifth-floor window
gapes on Luzhin’s board; oddly it’s no temptation.
Situation: ten days to go in Athens and I can do
one of two things: (a) pay the hotel bill, (b) eat.
In the chessworld web of interconsequence, shall I blame Black Holes,
go back in time and shoot my great-great-grandfather?
Both are free like sonnets. For the best effect
you don’t strip yourself of all your defences; rather deploy them
as vast as futile, done up with funny faces,
tripping over each other’s shoelaces. Spend years learning
what no one wants, then so arrange things
then you can’t even do it. Let the sleek-haired Spartans
win Thermopylae. Who needs the epitaph?

8. Games and Pastimes II: Crossword

— Hearing, as I do the crossword, “You like Turkish coffee? — “
Turkish? in Athens? Outside the donkeyboys
play Ayatollahs. A crimson knot of panzers at the counter
are bawling “Shrimp! Shrimp!” — I think we’re defeated,
and it’s as cold as London. The Caryatids’ blank niches
wait for amalgam: Seferis’ dream — “Yeah man
your little ol’ Parthenon’d make a great ad for toothpaste” —
naturalism and a big gold grin. The last clue
looks like a giggle and slides off. In the local paper
“Infant bites snake: a female Herakles?”;
an easy one that though, uncryptic, the story begins
“In a suburb of Melbourne, Australia.” O to think
“this isn’t ‘my’ Greece”; it never was. With years to run
the phony lease has been scrapped and the demolishers come.

9. Games and Pastimes III: Jigsaw

Everyone in the village sues everyone else over land rights.
This is the literal Arcadia. My book on cryptanalysis
dissolves unnoticed; there’s no shower curtain
to the only shower in town. But where else to write
a critical study of SF? My enormous friend
the Christopher Brennan expert, trying to grow
eyes in the back of his head, shatters the plate-glass door.
I talk for three hours about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
till too drunk for pain I smash my jaw on a milepost.
“Jeeze it’s great the way you keep it up”; somehow my nerve-ends nod
and also the locals think we’re CIA. They’re throwing the blacks
                  in the harbour
and there aren’t enough blacks to go around. And while we fall
my other friend works at the Jackson Pollock jigsaw
for the twenty-second year, remarking: “I’m a slow tourist.”

10. The Plato’s Cave Hotel (i.m. Mimis Leoussis)

Now his old mansion houses a double ghost.
I’ve carried the first like a furled handkerchief
twenty years now, since the child’s day
they wouldn’t let me see him, only the twin shadow
swinging pendulum with the gold-crystal chandelier that’s gone
now his house is the hotel where all night I wake, wait, sweat.
I met the second on the hill, in the olive-groves:
Paris-Edwardian fashion catalogues, bills of lading
for timber and sponges and marble; envelopes with his name
in mauve and sepia copperplate; as though in the midday hush
a landau had clip-clopped by and frightened the crickets.
He was whisper-thin and stained as those envelopes, wore
a carnation buttonhole he could no longer afford, and spoke
in copperplate of his ships, the mists of Oxford, the waltzing beauties.

11. Of Time and Typing

I sit here writing you letters that always cross
and thinking about time and typing.
Those “effortless” lyrical tropes, how drearily long they gestated
“beauty, that unicorn” — fourteen years younger,
proud of how much I knew, how hard I revised.
The terms of the problem have changed: how to answer your last
when your next is on its way without warping both
how to fit the machine with seismograph paper
so as to write the honest poem that’s mainly white space
to denote all the hours of just smoking and staring at crosswords
reading and trying not to
auguries in what’s not in your letter, drinking
and hopelessly masturbating, knowing the room smells,
the cleaning lady is at the door, the toilet will never flush.

12. Drinking Sappho Brand Ouzo (after Vassilis Vassilikos)

Crackup, last day of Carnival, first of Lent,
an ouzo-sodden moony pall hangs over the city
where we swim, soft wet flies, mad and silent
and American sailors on leave, their faces covered
with moist red apertures, buy Greek pornography.
“I only come to observe the audience.”
Cheap ouzo, Sappho brand, the dawn
brododaktulos, in the Lesbian dialect. The normal
awaking hangover this time is milky white not blue,
has the half-twist of sexual origami. Try being stoic
in the Stoa five minutes’ walk off — crackup — the sherds
carry dialectal variants of your name, and a gypsy
follows everywhere singing: “I shook down
the flowers from the blossoming almond-tree.”

13. For the Cretan Maker (i.m. Nikos Xylouris)

          Then he died ... so I made him a song
               — General Makriyannis, Memoirs

As always, lose a friend and gain an emblem.
So Xylouris is gone too. Unmet, unknown. Oh, hell, hell,
write more poems, half-Berryman would-be Cretan,
sing his lament in the shower? High in the White Mountains
they’re listening for the black horseman with the clanging chains
dragging the Heroes; no one is crying, no one.
Cancer of the stomach, nine months. I don’t know what’s born —
for me — if a billion dead Chinese jumped —
they propped his knife and his lyre against the stone
and named a street after him. And for my mother.
Last night at dinner three shepherds sang his songs
and I did the sort of thing one seems to have done
with the idea of putting it into some tawdry poem — bile, black bile —
I hid my tears behind the TLS.

14. On Aggression: Group Self-Portrait
                as Greylag Goslings

        (for LD, JF, GR, JT and MJ)

        And home at last between drafts. Back in Athens
air like unwashed dogs, the temples pitted grey, friends passing
leaving me phials of curious pills. Old favourite pin-up
Emperor Julian Apostate, bless
                                                        these spiralling austerities
as calculated as the filioque. Then flattening air, a flight
more of a waddle, a sling-stretch of the mind
to silicon-chip blackjack and my friends again
in the ruined beer-garden. They’ve stolen another sky.
The goslings fight, as do adults, using their wings,
but as these are no more than tiny stumps, their blows
fall short, for they aim them as if their wings
were in the right proportion
                                                to the size of their bodies
thus Konrad Lorenz. (It’s not the heat
but the humidity. Make love not imprintings.)

M.J. — Sydney — Athens — Sydney, November ‘79 — March ‘80

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