(For Frank Moorhouse & Michael Wilding)
Back then, I had come to live
on Cannery Row with Mac
and the last of the Balmain bugs.
I was so excited and smiling.
It was ‘79 turning ‘80.
I had my journo transcript
from a rustic country college
and headed straight to Sydney
to be among The Writers.
Yes, this would be my entré
to love, fame, popularity,
grants, awards – the fantasy.
So when I got out of my car
to enter a boarding house
straight from Old Goriot,
split into pensiones,
and shown my French door view
with paths, cherubs, the Harbour,
I knew cheap rent with free mould
was going to be my take
on the cockroach life in a garret.
As for the state of the arts
I had heard that The Board
was boiling down arts money
to spread more of less of the toffee.
Was I too late for the party?
Balmain was a past, not present
and the writers were dole-grazing
in new slick chapters and cliques
in Annandale, Rozelle, maybe Mosman,
and some had definitely gone
North of the Harbour to hitch
further on up Nimbin way,
or were earbashing Gurus, far off
in Benares. No, I never
met poor Vicki.
A country bloke
alone in the city, I’d board
the Balmain ferry, chug past
waterfront yards and parks,
Russian and Chinese freighters
tethered like huge black sows
suckling the piglets of tugboats.
Tasting the brine on my face,
I’d look up, smiling, then back
at the Bridge – a reality check:
Bonehead, you Are in the Smoke.
Leaving behind jetty gulls
scavenging fish and chip fingers,
I would then go on the search
for survivors at the Exchange,
hoping to catch up with Billy,
or John, Tom, maybe Robyn,
those names in the little mags
who spoke in code to each other.
Around here, poetry, I thought
must be on a first name basis
with New York poetry manners.
I had hopes of getting along
to an ontological party
at someone’s shabby crash pad
beyond time and decorum
in a Kubla Khan armchair of visions,
while they kept on reminiscing
Whitlam as Philosopher King,
the Moratorium, the Readings,
the fast/car smack subsidies
when lit grants fell like manna.
Balmain rents were peaking.
The layabout era had walked
after the Waterside Workers
marched off, demonstrating
the demise of a seaside suburb.
Not much of a Scene here now,
I did once meet Sam Hunt
and his entourage on tour
all over from New Zealand
one Saturday morning flea market.
They were trying to collar the crowds
with poems like shepherd’s crooks
and chapbooks in the bag;
yet the shoppers were suspicious,
not even warming to Nige,
the popular local performer;
and so we retired to the pub.
The place was now all Property
and I heard a last Balmainian
bemoan the jacked-up real estate
and the Maserati Literati
screaming in like sharks for that hunk
of harbour view and renovated
villa with lead-light windows.
Yes, the convict-hewn cottages
were all getting sandblasted and
bark gardens with nouveau ants
were everywhere down the street
like my next-door neighbour’s.
I went to press his bell
which was the nose of a gargoyle
to be greeted by The Girlfriend
and a priceless Albert Namajira
of ghost gums, sky and red sand
straight from the dead ringing centre
of nostalgia, bouncing crow-caws
in front on the wall of investment,
while the cool kid lawyer
was cutting the best Columbian
upon the glass coffee-table,
a line or two for me, even.
Wow! The charity of the rich
for a part-time gardener-poet!
Was this to socially lift me,
or help fast track my labour –
I, a last patron of mould
and Balmain cockroach sub-tenants
in my flat just over the fence?
Developers still hadn’t marked it.
Now, well-primed with nose candy
and armed with pruning shears,
the Butcher of Balmain
mayhem in several front gardens.
I dispatched weeds, flowers, shrubs
with scissor-hands efficiency
and stood back, admiring my work,
pretending to be hacking away
at the roots of upward mobility,
my forehead still tingling with stars.
How uncool I’d be in that crowd…
I forget, quite, how I met Mac,
the middle-aged writerly-paunch
hiding an everyman’s heart.
He sensed my need for a taste
of the old bohemian mythos,
so took me under his wing.
Yes, now I recall time and place:
a Friday night beer table
with Don and some libertarians,
the Round Tree Hotel in Birchgrove.
They talked and I – the Mute One,
without repartee, just listened.
So Mac gave me employment
in his Nelson St word-cave
to research-assist a project:
the summing up of the decade,
its hopes, its loves and positions
of bickering and bitchiness
like dogs leaping at bacon;
and I saw a Last Balmainian
construct discontinuous time
with a gorgeous visitor –
a woman with cheeks like peaches.
What was her name? Summer?
Drinking red wine from coffee mugs
they discoursed like philosophers
the finer sensations of fellatio
when wearing a clinging condom
as if this was quantum theory,
or the way to cook asparagus.
It would all go onto a blackboard,
adding fresh chalk to the epic
of absurd libertarian dalliance
like a Darian Fo farce –
the scenes, dialogues, exits
of the Excessive Generation,
its postures and impostors
high on whatever substance
the Sydney Push was toking.
This rough epistemology
was a glance-back scrapbook of days,
all wine and rage’s good and bad
fancy dress heads with photos
of black and white shout-outs
for social change on banners
bra-burning sex-changing gay
rights mantra chanting anti-war
barricading of buildings.
The anti heroes of an era,
wearing little halos of lust,
had gathered here en masse,
drunk or stoned in the forehead
of a recalcitrant Balmainian
mixing politics with irreverence,
singing the song-lines of culture,
while offering requiem moments
for the poor moth-souls who crashed
in the flames of hard partying.
(Those who had joined The Immortals
with landmark anthology pieces
still keep on muttering, muttering
lost in the pages of Aus Lit
like unripe ghosts in the Dreamtime:
“If only Michael D, if only…”)
It was time to close for the day.
I turned the ignition and drove
seeing now the sun had melted
I critiqued the Bridge in my head,
perfecting smart-arse discourse,
de-constructing the Coat Hanger,
drilled with modernist rivets
its position between two cultures
a literal bridge from the Occident
its two-way traffic – a thesis
of Europe – the ruins of our future,
til it throbbed alive like a sex-toy,
a nipple of red at the Bridge crest
winking lewdly to ocean liners;
and I steered my Torana away
through back lanes of such history.
In streets, dark with doppelgangers,
was that Bryan Brown out jogging,
or some anchor from TV?
The place was filthy with money.
Dodging a black dog, I drove by
Michael’s big villa of wild parties
where more waifs and strays of art
once gathered on the balcony,
exchanging reefers for Christmas
and thought of this Other Balmainian,
the one so close to home,
my famed neighbour of Wharf Rd
like a cut out in a diaorama,
sitting ironic in the sunset –
a sun-decker in a chair
as if looking over the demise
and raising his glass to the darkness.
Cheers, Balmain Syberite!
It was getting dark, the future
unclear as smoke on the water,
and the Saturday disco ferry
was banging on like chest-pain
with Blondies’ Heart of Glass,
the anthem of the new decade:
designer drugs, kinky dinners,
champagne and snowfall tingling;
and lobsters and Balmain bugs
ready to dance a quadrille
between serviettes and lit candles.
I knew it was time to get real
and went back to my cockroaches,
said goodbye to them, one by one,
then took the last cold shower
through the nozzled aperture
like a galvanised watering can
down in the back shed closet,
and found myself packing the car,
ready to flee to another
astonishing place on the planet,
still aching to find the real me