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   Jacket 33 — July 2007        link Jacket 33 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Wystan Curnow


At exactly 9.45 a.m. Max  cracked
       hisself out of  da egg his mother had
           left in an eagle’s nest & over which
                  the bird had  brooded  seven years. Dis
                         was in Dover, I mean in Bruhl, six miles
                                 to the south of  Kohn, ex-Roman
                                       colony on der Rhine.  Crikey dick
                                              sonny jimbo , da alleygators dey
                                                    not what dey used to be. Wings flap
                                                          dere spans far off into da endless night.
                                                                 And so our little Max grew up to be a
                                                              beautiful and studious child. But not dootiful.
                                                          Nappy daubs  out of hand condemned  by Momma
                                                     and Poppa. Not appreciated.   Ghastly  tedium
                                                of  endless hours  encarcerated  in the  convent-
                                        church, leastways that’s his version.  But what  
                                  of  the exquisite  skulls and delicate bones of
                           eleven thousand virgins encrusting  those walls,
                   reputed to have held him spellbound?  Determin-
            ed in any case closely to scrutinise the mystery
     of telegraph wires (and to flee from his father’s
            tyranny) story goes  5 year old Maxie then fled
                   the parental home.  Worldly goods in sack on
                            stick.  So that after a brief rule of thumb, the
                                   thrown cardinals obliged with a whip around
                                           the four quarters. At a pretty pass of  power-
                                                  ful contradictory tendencies, for instance  Roman
                                                      Catholicism, Western rationalism, negative roman-
                                                  ticism, blow and behold a blue-eyed, blond-curly
                                           -haired, bourgeois child, dressed in meat red
                                     nightshirt, brandishing a brioche in his left
                                hand, walked barefoot into  the middle of
                      a pilgrims’ procession. Truth be told they’d
               already been taken aback a ways back
and  had  slowly by various means  abandon-
               ing self to Self,  been  brought to their
                    feet by the shuddering power of the
                           word "Hemit!", and so forth along
                                  that dusty old nineteenth century road.
                                        However,  enchaunted by this chawm-
                                                ing child and swearing (some grave mother)
                                                          it to be  the vision of an angel or even da
                                                                   infant of da virgin, the  pilgrims now
                                                          proclaimed: ‘Look, li’l  Lord Jesus
                                                 Christ.’  And at night, dreams da tortoise,
                                           or was that now taught us, telegraphy I
                                     mean, and with each booby  a few more
                               scales fell from the eyes of the learned
                         aegrotats,  or acrobats of electricity
                  should that be?  till they fair carpet-
ed the ground around them.  After a mile or
                  so of this the ‘headlight child’ had
                         escaped from the pilgrimage, made
                                 his way out of the dark forest pre-
                                       cinct and into the sunlit station and
                                                took a long and delightful trip on
                                                        de choochoo and the telegraphic
                                                              wires, which move when you look at
                                                                        them from a running train and stand
                                                               still when you stand still and the words
                                                         like lightning go.  Maxie  claps hands.
                                                  And  the bird of day looked thought-
                                         fully down on what he had seen from
                           above the midnight.  Sometime later Lord
                       Max  he struck off  a toot suite of drawings, and
   an eddy shun  of young woomun.   It used to be said
               zee good fish wore zee red shoes, not anymore!
                     Not in that bygone age.  See Poppa, see Momma,
                                  sister Mary, Emma and Louisa, and good
                                         friend  Fritz, pictured there.  On my verbal
                                              there 'll be  no more bicycle ice for you my
                                                     boy, no more the ancient Calligulators. Now
                                                            it's quilt by the board or batting, and no two
                                                     ways,  the days are sorely numbered. Three,
                                              two, one, zoo.  The very next day when the
                                     Bobby brought him home he pacified his
                            Poppa swearing  he was l’enfant phare
                   Fur sure!  On another, historic day
(see 21.4.22) in the Tyrol, first Tristan
           Tiara,  Johnny Arp and then  Pole Eluard
                   and Andre, the  Breton, meet with Maxie Ernst
                          and together they dreamed up ‘DADA
                                   au grand air.’  A year later (1922) they
                                           returned to the Tyrol, with, Mark Joseph-
                                                  son and others in tow, for another moment-
                                                         ous meeting. YadaYadaYada.  So it came to this:
                                                   his Dadda, who was as gullible as the next man,
                                           painted a portrait of his son as the Christ-child.
                                      Looked at him thunderstruck and as from a
                            moving train. Instead of a whip, he carried a
                      cross, dressed in  reddest shirt material, blue eyed,
            curly topped and toed among eggshells, red-
tipped shoes. Then lowered slowly so’s  her chin touched
            her soft eiderdowny bazoomery then
                  slowly it to where you yes you began, wrapped
                         in warm and tinder love. It was thought
                            portraits of women with bare necks cost
                                 one-third more as they were from under
                                        her wing.  This painting maybe the ideological
                                            source of  Ernst's  'Souvenir de Dieu '(1923). He suspects
                                        his Dadda  — he of the menacing eye and the up-turned  
                                  moustaches — of a  God-complex.   Goodness sakes,
                              kissing Mary goodbye gave him his first intimation
                          of the modernist void ( although it was quite
                  possibly a void  of some other determination)
           he feels he  never left the room that she left
when she died.  If you try I don’t doubt you can
           imagine these lines as written by the true
                 Max Ernst who was all of  45 at the
                          time. Whereas in 1897 : premonitions
                               of frottage via miserable childhood measles’
                                     hallucinations,  frightful visions of wallpaper
                                             eyes, noses, and a red nightingale, ovoid
                                                   of face, blue eyed and pale haired  his heart
                                                        was hardening already  against candid realism.
                                                   Exposure to pollution was becoming for him a high
                                               sign of the mass of urbanity. He underwent a series
                                       of psychological crises. And the inevitable battery
                                  of tests in edition. They left him thunderstruck     
                            at midnight. He learnt of the demise of the
                      pink and most intellectual cockatoo,
           of his Momma, of the convent wallpaper
nightingale so menacing  and the cracking
         birth of a sister at  very the same time.
             The psychoanalysts were at sixties and
                      seventies. Between 1926 and 1939 he
                            held exhibitions in Paris, Brussels,
                                  London, Zurich, Madrid, Berlin,           
                                        New York, Los Angeles, etc. He
                                                became mightily confused between birds
                                                       and humans, as is amply demonstrably/
                                                            strated in as many of his paintings as
                                                               drawings. Wings. Identity had been instantaneous
                                                             then convulsive or not at all. And subsequently
                                                       on the 14th of July 1941, he had flown
                                                  to the United States and built a
                                          nest for himself and Peggy
                                  Guggenheim on a cloud above
                         the East River.

Wystan Curnow with Pam Brown, Sydney Harbour, photo by John Tranter

Wystan Curnow: Born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1939, the son of a noted New Zealand poet, Curnow studied English and History at the University of Auckland, and took his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Back in the USA, Cancer Daybook, Castor Bay, and, most recently, Modern Colours. You can read three poems from Modern Colours in Jacket 29.

Photo, left: Wystan Curnow with Pam Brown, Sydney Harbour, photo by John Tranter.