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Jacket 16 — March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |    

Peter Porter

Two poems

Rimbaud’s Ostrich

He didn’t need one, he was an animal,
The animal which outmanoeuvred Europe.
But in the photograph, as on a boot-polish lid,
The ostrich struts cross-legged, a mapping stool.
Harar is four thousand miles from Paris
And just a Metro ride from two World Wars.

We should ask the ostrich what it thinks
Of scholarship, of lurid nights with absinthe,
Of being in the months of love for essay prizes,
The coal-smoke-crystalled walls of Camden Town,
The semi-educated painters jetting in
To put some Prester John in Cork Street daubs.

France deserved this tribal fetishism,
Its language had become mere logarithm,
Its classicism a blunt guillotine.
Supposing Rimbaud met Sir Richard Burton,
They would have riden ostriches round town
To startle the solared anthropologists.

Photo of Rimbaud's house, Harar, with ostrich

Rimbaud's house in Harar from 1888, photo by Ottorino Rosa

You can view a postcard with a color photo of ‘Arthur Rainbow Place’ — Harar / Ethiopia in Jacket 18. The text on the card reads: ‘This place was built by a French missionary. (Arthur Rainbow) who came and settled at the historical place after the fall of the Harari kingdom. He built Arthur Rainbow place which was later converted to a French school.’

Rimbaud at Charleville

You were loitering, friend; I got a call
from The Saxon Castle , our only decent pub,
‘There’s a potential trouble-maker come to town.’

I speak through my magic-time-tube, since I’m dead.
My palely florid French is good Australian.
For punishment they sent me back to Charleville.

This is it, friend. Not such a hick joint as you think.
Half my friends are Public School Boys; I get cards
postmarked Venice. This is a proper country town.

I came to the boil too soon. Why didn’t I simmer
as a Second Empire Poet. Some drunk asked me
in your Marble Bar, ‘You a Calathumpian Dago, Mate?’

That’d be Basil; he’s been rude ever since he discovered.
he had a pansy name. There’s a big guy writes in the papers
says our land is set aside for mystic poetry.

I gave it away at nineteen; even Jesus kept it up
till he was thirty-three. Underneath the railway arches
far from some Grand Place I foreswore Europe’s heart.

I don’t go a bundle on this Multiculturalism
but hospitality’s something else. You can be Français
or anything, but just keep telling us we’re tops.

I said: There’s the Carpet Moon, Théodore de Banville
at the Oyster Bar; there’s blood slopped at Sedan
and The Being Beauteous Album , ‘le bruits neufs.’

Everyone’s got a hometown. I was sent away to school
with a thousand dollars in my pocket from kangaroos
I’d skinned. Uncles Eric and Neville never came back from France.

Where is your Bibliothèque Nationale? I asked, and they
directed me to The School of Arts. The Emperor
is with his ‘spectacled Accomplice’ and his smoke.

It’s a privilege to have a great French Poet here
in Western Queensland, but as my old headmaster used to say
‘Thank you for coming, and how soon will you be leaving?’

The blond soil, the nevergreen, the eucalyptus smoking
in my eyes. What’s happened to the Ardennes? I’m
playing chess with Ras Makonnen in a louvred Sleep-Out.

The Jesus ewes are lambing and we round them up
on Harley-Davidsons. It’s a work-day, Mr. Rimbaud,
don’t you go frightening the drinkers and the parrots.

Applause. Oblivion. Tumours. Absolution!
The je I called un autre , the democratic feet
beneath the table! Jusq’ à Charleville, I’m dancing.

Hotel in Charleville, Australia

Photo: Hotel in Charleville, Australia

[ A note from the Editor: Charleville is one of the major settlements of South-west Queensland, in outback Australia. It was gazetted in 1868 and named by the Government Surveyor W.A.Tully after a town in Country Cork, in Ireland, which itself had had the name Charleville officially imposed on it by the Charter of 1671. Qantas (an acronym for “Queensland and Northern Territory Air Services” — you learn something every day, don't you?) launched its career with flights from Charleville in 1922. By the 1890's, Charleville was a frontier town with its own brewery, ten pubs and 500 — yes, five hundred — registered bullock teams. Cobb & Co. had a coach-building factory here in 1893. Currently Charleville has a population of 3,327, greatly outnumbered by the region’s 800,000 sheep and 100,000 cattle. ]

You can read John Tranter's review of Somebody Else — Arthur Rimbaud in Africa by Charles Nicholl, Jonathan Cape, London, 1997, on this site in Jacket # 3.

Photo of Peter Porter by John Tranter

Peter Porter is an Australian-born poet resident in London since 1951. He has published more than twenty volumes of poems, translations and collaborations with artists. At the Brisbane boarding school he attended as a child he met many sons of Charleville graziers.

Photo of Peter Porter, London, 1989, by John Tranter. The spirit-like emanation from the solar plexus may be an artifact of the Polaroid® process.

Jacket 16 — March 2002  Contents page
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