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Ken Bolton

Five poems

You can read Peter Minter’s interview with Ken Bolton in this issue of Jacket. And on link the Australian Literature Resources site, you can read a bibliography, a selection of poems, and Ken Bolton and John Jenkins: Seven collaborative poems.

                 for Gregory O’Brien

I wonder how
               Gregory does this
                                                 these three line

stanzas & whether I    
               can do them —
                                  to any good effect.

I make coffee, check
               various things around
                                   the kitchen — find

the new clock
                I got Gabe for his
                                     birthday, note the

milk is almost
                 gone, bring the tea back
                                      & sit at this finely red-&-

white checked table cloth
                  again, pick some rice off it
                                       from the meal tonight

chew it, & start — which means,
                   mostly, I stop here
                                         & see how I’ve done

It has my characteristic choppy
                   rhythms, etcetera. Oh well.
                                         It is called after

Albert Pinkham Ryder
                   — Gregory’s poem —
                                       “called after” an American

phrase, that I guess
                   comes to mind
                                       as I recall

what little I know
                   of the American artist —
                                       19th century? or

very early 20th?
                    I visualize small
                                       emblematic paintings

                     with a dark image
                                        centered — briefly

silhouetted —
                      against a dark background —
                                          a sort of horse-&-rider

against a storm? (The image
                       my mind remembers
                                           may even be

some late sketch by Moreau
                       — you know: the late,
                                            atypical unfinished

heavily impasto
                       fragments that
                                             art historians love to suggest

the Fauves might have seen —
                     miles from the
                                            stillness, & detail,

of Oedipus & the Sphinx
                    say — or “in most ways”
                                            Anyway this is miles

from Ryder. And I am
                    briefly sure
                                            it is Ryder I can imagine

& the Moreau too — his
                    horse & rider
                                             in reds & blues

lemon yellow, the American’s
                     black & deeply
                                             varnished colours — browns —

against a discoloured
                     white, or cream
                                             & a larger dark ground.

Tho who knows?

                                             is not really our business

a reverberation of US
                   culture: local news
                                             like CNN, the

American breakfast program
                   we get at night. What a
                                             hopeless analogy. Ryder is better.

Moreau —
                  well, I like to bear in mind
                                             his presence

along with Manet &
                 that revolution. Tho
                                            give me Manet

any day, if I had
                to choose. Tho, um, you don’t.
                                         I like the portrait

— full face, almost filling
                 the frame — of Moreau
                                           in a bowler hat

high collar, & tie, narrow
                 moustache — very
                                           1900s modern

by Roualt (pupil
                 & friend) that is
                                           slightly ‘cubist’:

the one eye furthest from us
                 — it is three-quarter on — & that
                                           whole plane, of cheek

& wide wide forehead,
                swells out, flattens,
                                           just slightly.

It seems an irony
                of history —
                                           or perhaps the irony

was Roualt’s. It was
                mine too eventually
                                          (though less originally)

when I did a copy
               of it  . . .
                                          that I liked

& seem to have lost now
               Misplaced. I haven’t seen it
                                          for a while

(I could do it
                again.) I take the rest
                                          of the tea

& toss it on the
                pot-plant, beneath the goldfish.
The plant had dried out.

The fish wake slightly
                & begin to move —
                                          at this angle

a few vague red shapes,
                 a diaphanous white,
                                           in a tank that looks


Good Friday at the EAF

                                                weekends here
are the best: beautiful, quiet
I sit in Caron’s & my chair
the one we share, at the desk
between our desks, the shutters
letting in light
all is white, the shadows
diffuse — multisourced —
light coming from many directions
I’m beginning to die myself I see
because mostly I sense I cannot see
too well — & have almost a headache. Julie
types way across the space on the computer
the rustle of language that quiet rattle,
Michael came in, adjusted some
of the new equipment, & left — dressed for
tennis. Julie is dressed
differently too —
tight pants. Only I am dressed
the same —
but I am dying. And it is
Good Friday. Big deal, it will
take a while
I make tea, get paper,
start this

Hindley Street Today, with a view of Michael Grimm

What to do

                          when the day’s heavy heart,


                                                                                                                       rises then —

thru some quality of the light —

                                                                                    & you your own mug

                                                                                                                            raise up

                                                                                                                    to see it,

register it


                                                                                   the way counter staff would

                                                                                                                             gain change

in the old days,

                                          but not any more —

                                                                                & not ‘today’, today

being now

                              (&  in this  ‘day & age’) —

                                                                                                   Those old-time cash registers

                                                                                                                    having gone

before the electric typewriter, even, disappeared

                                                                                                                            — tho

                                                                                                                            I never

                                                                                                                            had one

                                                                                                                             of those.


                                                       pause, & reflect, & look down the street

where Michael Grimm might come

                                                                                 — & with any luck holding

                                                                                                                             in his hand

the tape you requested

                                          & he was pleased to deliver


Tho ‘notionally’

                                            Notionally   might well mean  “Never”

Have you got it? Well

                                                                 give it here!

                                                                                                              Maybe he does.

On it several versions of Bauhaus:




                              It’s too bright & clear

                                                                                    in Hindley Street —

                                                                                                                        for him to be about,

                                                                                                                                     the Count.

Yet, the waitress says —

                                                                       “Yeah, I frighten a lot of people,”

says jokingly

                                           tho without much effort

                                                                                                               as she clears the table

                                                                                                                                where I sit today


to a patron whom she’d startled

                                                                                 —    & actually, tho she’s

                                                                                                      pretty enough

her makeup’s vaguely ‘Goth’.

                                                             I find her interesting

                                                                                                                  —  as I look up today

& down the street

                                            looking for it to confirm my intimation

                                                                                                                   & expanded heart

With a view of, say, seraphic Michael Grimm

                                                                                                                    & my tape

on which

                            Bela Lugosi’s dead

                                                                                    studio version & ‘live’.

He’s dead

                                             & Dion

                                                                                 & so is Bing.

Bob Hope lives on, I think,

                                                                                 tho barely

                                                                                                                        but I’m alive

& Michael & Julie & Chris —

                                                                    & those dead-heads from

                                                                                                 the Arts Department

they’ve moved in

                                           & now they find us ‘more alive’ —



                          at that,

                                                             ‘good naturedly’,

                                                                                                 the street is cleaner, too


they arrived

                                           a reason why

                                                                                 the light strikes things better now

&, if this coffee haint improved

                                                            my mood has

                                                                                                                     as I think, Yep

—  of Michael,

                                             The Grimster  —

                                                                                                     will he have done it yet?

Too soon.

                                            “Too Soon”

                                                                                — the Nirvana story

                                                                                                                                          it usually is

too soon, I guess

                                           even Lugosi might have thought

One more day,  a week!

                                                               I think, “not yet”

                                                                                                                    I’ve got

the ‘Hindley Street’ template out & operating again, the

details falling in

                                               —   ‘signed up’ for the long ride,

Tho less some days than others


just this minute I’m up for it.

                                                                                    The street looks grey & white

& muted

                           benign    —    or tired    —     or

more forgiving

                                             Is that just the lack of traffic?

Temporary.     And the lull between the late


                                           & the early-lunch crowd, the time


                          the waitress to talk

                                                                                     the old men

at their tables, plotting

                                                             —  plotting nothing  —

the Tech teachers at elevenses, me,

                                                                                                 & fucking

                                                                                         Michael Grimm


Poem (“the ice in my glass”)

                                                          the ice in my glass goes crink!
as it adjusts to the tequila — keying in
that sophistication — the feel of it — I associate
with these tall buildings — a bit of the
skyline of New York I envisage,
important to me for many years —

or if they weren’t, the buildings stood
for the idea of importance, New York —
an imaginary number filling out
an order — of which the others were a part:
the finite Melbourne, Sydney, Glebe —
& Fitzroy & Bega. Did I think about it?

But it became less important — & then, almost by accident,

I visited, & saw it — specific, real —
& loveable, surely — if less impressive than the
rarely summoned abstraction. Strange —
& terrible — to think of it threatened,
New Yorkers frightened — as the city’s image
draws retaliation upon it. Clink, the ice again, settling.

My New York — the notional one — the city of poets,
of art. I met one poet there — ‘perfect’ —
urbane, bohemian a little, worldly, smart,
immensely intelligent. (The art, there, was in galleries
& historical — great, but not like the poet.) My
second time I met rich people — the sort the terrorists

think of: people congratulating themselves on
the world & their ownership of it — talking deals, leverage,
new fields, salaries & investment. We were on a penthouse roof
near the UN building, looking out over the water
(towards New Jersey? — somewhere) for
the fireworks of July the 4th. The same UN building

as in James Schuyler’s poem, that moves slightly — in
the wind, the light — or has that building been torn down & gone
& this is a new one?
                                    The New York I like —
personalized, romantic — about which I know a great deal,
detail — things that have happened there, what one poet said
to another (at Gem Spa, at the Morgan Library), the

books they read, thoughts they had: unreal again —
a fabled, picturesque locality, of thirty years ago.
A little like the Sydney I now visit, which I left
in the 80s & in fact hardly know — can scarce reconcile
with the site of my former life there: where X said A to Y,
where ‘L’ lay (or sat) & wrote ‘Sleeping in the Dining Room’,

or ‘A’ began, “Saussure! Saussure!” — where I lived, round the corner
behind the Max Factor Building. I didn’t meet the rich —
tho Sydney has them — resembling New York’s probably
& voting just as vociferously
to support war on the Afghans.
Frank O’Hara, a hero of mine — a one-time hero, a hero still —

mixed with the rich a little. But as was said in his defence once

recently, he never owned more than two suits. He was not of them.
I don’t like the Sydney rich — for wishing to be interchangeable
with their New York counterparts. Which is as I fancy them.
Tho as it said on the Max Factor building below the name —
“Sydney  London  Paris  Rome  New York” — & I aspired
in my own way, too.

                                  Funny, all the papers have pointed out
the Auden poem, “1939”, has been much quoted —
& some Yeats? Would Rome or Berlin — Paris even —
have sent minds to poetry? It is the enormity of the act —
New York as symbol — & as never attacked before.
I wonder if it is a new era? You’ll read about it elsewhere —
not here. If it is. I might look up that Schuyler poem, “Funny

the UN building moved / & in all the years / I’ve
lived here” or something — or find the O’Hara one
in which he stays up late trying to select his poems
thinking, good or bad, he did it at least. Wrote them.

I’ve found out what I think. Very little.
As I might have guessed. An event moving ‘under the skin’

away from words — & become attitude.

will be bigger than me. Having ideas about them being
almost irrelevant. Though I ‘have’ them: none helpful or
resolvable: that the New York I liked, even then, came
at a price, that today does, & that I don’t pay it.
The free ride you complain about — would you get off?

As usual the exchange rate dominates the news again
                                                                      — a cargo cult
The dues you pay are servitude — so you can hate yourself,
or wonder merely at the duration of the ride

Some Thinking

Does all art aspire to the condition
of music? — While someone

is always prepared to say so I put on
a tape, a CD, instead of writing

or put it on to write to.
As far as the art gets.

A tape rolls quietly — “Light Blue”,
“Soul Eyes” — to which I’ve done

a lot of reading, a lot
of pottering about, a few drawings —

& to which I’ve ‘cleaned house’ —

& a lot of writing — or of ‘trying to write’,
which comes to the same thing. Mal Waldron

wrote both these tunes.
                                 I first heard of him
in the poem for Billie Holiday — “The Day

Lady Died”, with the great last lines
where she whispers to him across the keyboard —

“& everyone & I stopped breathing.”
The great thing

about the line is the uncertainty: is it “everyone
& I stopped breathing”? or that Holiday whispers the song

“to Mal Waldron & everyone” — & it is then O’Hara
“stopped breathing”?

It makes for a pause, a hesitation, a number of them —
that evokes the magic & tension

of her timing. And there’s Frank, leaning there
-  near the door to the toilets? The ‘john’,

which always suggests the hard American 50s —
& ensures I think of him in a white shirt & narrow tie,

suited. Already the texture of life is disappearing
-  exactly how it felt, to be in those suits, in that time, at a nightclub

how anxious or not, how preoccupied & with what —
how people held themselves — is gone. Well,

it survives somehow, unverifiably, hard to quantify,
in poetry ...  we still have the music, films —

but films lie. Cassavetes suggests the era to me —
was he ‘the type’ of the hipster — cool, up tight, hip, witty?

suited, a drinker, free, & maybe more exploratory —
within limits more circumscribed than now?

Or do we always see ourselves as more free —
& get it wrong? Did he

& O’Hara meet ever?
Different worlds.

The thing I was going to say about nightclubs
was that maybe how people feel & act in them

never changes. (I heard some magical things
at Lark & Tina’s, for example. I’ve been as tense

as anyone, at the Cargo Club — & wore suits there.)
But night clubs themselves might’ve changed — with the music:

amplified is different? the fashion for recorded
dance music, or for dee-jays, might have altered them.

On tape one of the moments I like best is the voice —
a little shakey, a little spaced — Jim Carroll’s by repute,

asking for tuinols, in the space between songs, at a great
Patti Smith gig. Or Velvet Underground —

they’re both on that tape. There’s some great
& wonderfully casual, relaxed things said, over the music

at a late 50s date that features Miles Davis
guesting with local hero Jimmy Forrest: a type of music, & experience,

continuous with the live recordings of Charlie Parker —
the same carefree ambience & same reason to pay attention

whereas Patti’s music gets to you pretty much
whether you listen or not. You don’t have to choose of course.

“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”
is always great to hear said. This track,

the badly named “Soul Eyes” (how can you not roll it
into one word?), is not live but so sad & so unhurried

it makes time, development, almost its subject. John
Coltrane. Well within his limits — as

somehow imagined — & great the way conservative paintings
by great artists often are — a Gauguin still-life

that looks as though it wants to be Manet, or Fantin-Latour.

Ken Bolton, 2004

Ken Bolton, 2004

Born in Sydney (1949), Ken Bolton lives in Adelaide, where he is associated with the Experimental Art Foundation and the revived-again Lee Marvin Readings. He is a poet, art critic, and also an editor and publisher — currently producing the Little Esther books series (which have included books by Pam Brown, Laurie Duggan, Cath Kenneally, Cassie Lewis, Gregory O’Brien, Linda Marie Walker and others). He edited the literary magazines Otis Rush  and Magic Sam. His major publications include a Selected Poems (Penguin/ ETT) and Untimely Meditations (Wakefield Press). A recent title is August 6th (Little Esther). A newy, At The Flash & At The Baci, is due soon — along with some smaller books, Europe and Three Poems For John Forbes. The Circus (with illustrations by Michael Fitzjames) is due in 2005. His art criticism has been widely published. With Melbourne poet John Jenkins he has also written (and published) a great deal of collaborative poetry — see for example, The Wallah Group (Little Esther) or Nutters Without Fetters (Press Press) or the forthcoming Poems Of Relative Unlikelihood. Ken Bolton edited Homage To John Forbes, published by Brandl & Schlesinger in 2002. He lives with author Cath Kenneally.

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