My eyes were stunned. My ears heard blister!
‘Was someone there?’
‘Indeed there was! And dying for air!’
As it turned out, a dock-mate’s sister’s
brother-in-law – a friend in greed –
had stowed away!
with thick mustache, and thicker vowels;
a handsome fellow, a courteous man (he’d
squat downwind when relieving his bowels).
Except, of course, when stuck in a drum.
The lid was dented, and had become
impossible for him to open.
Until, at last, I smeared some soap in
(you must admit, I am resourceful!)
and rolled the drum so that its rim
was unobstructed; and shouted to him
– that packed Sayeed – to give a forceful
kick. He did. And he was hatched!
At ﬁrst that dented drum dispatched
an olive-green and brown placenta
which quickly ﬁlled a tidal pool
(one orange-red starﬁsh turned magenta).
Then came the fetus, that grown-up fool,
all limp and soggy, with sludgy beard
and fudgy hair, his clothes all smeared
with slime and so horriﬁcally smelling
I even gag in this retelling.
Half-crazed, he was apologetic
just the same, and crawled, the wretch,
a shivering seal, out toward the stretch
of ice-cold sea. A sympathetic
soul, I wasn’t. I could have seized
a bucket, bathed him, helped him ease
his misery. Instead I headed
sulkily away, traversed
the land wherein cruel fate had wedded
our two lives; and sat and cursed
and didn’t go near him for several days
– or rather, weeks. The world plays
a joke and we sit bitterly grinning
with no idea it’s just a beginning.
‘Well why this stiﬂing
of your story? What muzzles you?
You’ve served some meat; we want to chew
it – Arcady! This foolish, triﬂing
rhyme of yours. How dare you set
the scheme my tongue must follow!’
in life, my dear, aren’t we required
to speak a certain way? Our words
are chosen for us. What we desire
to say is rarely what gets heard.
Come here, my love! Just look outside.
It is that time, the eventide,
when gypsy’s belly-dancing twilight
slips her gauze across our eye-sight,
moves in sequined undulations.
Car-lights blaze like embers in
a desert’s sideways-howling wind.
Their wild and festive oscillation,
through the curtain gaps, advance
and stir our shadows into dance.
But do those drivers see the fervent
fun they ﬂing upon our walls?
And is our reader so observant
as to see our bodies sprawl
upon this bed in just our socks,
a blanket on a pinewood box
which wasn’t built for two to mingle?
(Our ghost had friends, but slept a single.)’111
‘And so, my dear, most stories
must live in constant twilight. To read
them is to nonchalantly speed
through claire-obscurist territories,
our eyes ﬁxed more upon the red
oscelar brake-lights up ahead
than on the angels lighting stellar
tapers in the night. And yet,
unknown to readers, most storytellers
– in rendering that silhouette
through which their readers, eyes ablaze,
so blindly pilot – use those rays,
those passing rays of light, to brighten
up the starless dens they write in.’
‘My point: The reader rarely
disembarks his car to walk
(or if the writer’s rich, to stalk)
around the author’s nest! This barely
visible shack! It stands on legs
of cinderblocks – or rather, sags,
much like a creature apprehended
in a net of shadows cast
by trees (a net both torn and mended
by the car-beams speeding past).
See now, dear reader! See? I turn
my lamp on here and you discern
through golden window what I’m doing.
View the woman I am viewing
as she lifts a hand-knit sweater
’bove her head’
– ‘It’s corduroy,
a jersey’ –
‘and lets us all enjoy
those lacy, black and loosely fettered
pups beneath; the way, each yoked
to each, they both in tandem poke
their noses out through thickly rolling
waves of ﬂesh; how each one seeks
a tasty treat, or soft, consoling
master’s stroke. O let us peek
beneath their muzzles! No? Not yet?
A symptom of the female set:
The more she feels a lover eyes her,
the more she serves up appetizers!’
111 Kevin Ireland, a New Zealand writer who often lived with Sargeson, once recalled: ‘In the evenings we would drink lemon wine and people like Janet Frame, Keith Sinclair, Kendrick Smithyman and Maurice Duggan would drop in every night of the week. It was a wonderful, stimulating, exciting time; an oasis of common sense and literary excitement in the dull and conventional environment of the 1950s.’
Zireaux’s comments on these stanzas
In case it’s not clear already, the “blister, raw-pain, sun” is Mr. Sayeed’s oil drum muffled cry for help: “Mister Robinson!” (Our narrator’s name, you’ll remember, is Arcady Robinson). Sayeed, by the way, becomes the protagonist for most of Res Publica, Book II.
The “ghost,” I remind you, is that of Frank Sargeson (first mentioned in stanza 58); the “pinewood box” his bed, which remains in his house on 14A Esmonde Road in Takapuna for readers who wish to visit the place where Arcady composed much of Res Publica (and where one of New Zealand’s greatest writers lived).
Just one more week to go — the final six stanzas — and the first book of Res Publica is complete.