Issue 6: David Prater
. . . the cute and loving appreciation of my book and meby them in Australia has gone right to my heart.Walt Whitman writing to Bernard O’Dowd
i wish to specifically send remembrances & love to you
& how is your mother bernard is she well? i do hope so
(tho i’ve never met her or your good self nevertheless
send her my regards & tell her water the daisies often
& fred woods is well? i do hope the bruise heals soon
(tho what happened to him i can’t tell either no matter
& young jim hartigan is he likewise well? i do hope so
but please do send him my best regards & the solution
to this week’s crossword is enclosed ada i do hope she’s
well you speak so highly of her i wonder whether she’s
not your real wife after all now don’t go jumping to
conclusions bernard i can only go by what you tell meh
about your bowel movements bernard are they regular
i pray so for you know my views on this issue prunes &
buttermilk (enough said eva i presume she’s well oh
i hope so & as i know oh she’s very cute in that photo
you mentioned enclosing never did arrive unfortunately
still i see her pretty well from here & very cute she is
& her parents mr & mrs fryer are both cute i hope so
please also kindly pass on to dear mr fryer my sincere
congratulations on winning the bridge tournament &
don’t ask how i know! tell ted he’s wanted in several
states over here (i’m sure he’ll get the joke it’s private
i don’t recall who louie is but please send him or her
fond salutations & finally tom touchstone who i can’t
place (no i’m getting nothing but suppose & hope he
is well i guess that’s all but also to other friends not
named e.g. pet cats the milkman (oh he is a cute one
RivetRest not till you rivet and publish your self of your own Personality.Walt Whitman
scramble the point
fasten with rivers
beat a clinch on a nail
attract & hold completely
from river to attach
standing at attention
tired edge of riverbank
swimming naked in rivers
olives on sunlit balconies
tevir (Cf.) in reverse
moon tides over glass
golden age of rivers
falling through a sluice
infant hand regard
archaic printing technology
slow-motion unfurling of leaves
abstract word play
to pule or cry
noise made by small frogs
Swagman Ted(a scapegrace, a swagman only,but a true mate of 11 years standing . . .)Bernard O’Dowd writing to Walt Whitman
Perhaps it was Banjo Paterson’s curse – we’ll never know; as someone once observed, news reaches us slowly over here, is constantly being delayed (or censored?) in the mail. Your letter of (9/11) has only just arrived, and no sign yet of your parcels, nor L of J [sic].
In any case it was circumstance that brought Ted and I together as teenagers. We hit the track together, spent five months in the wilderness. Our blueys wore the shoulders out of sundowner jackets. We starved.
All the gum trees looked the same shade of green to me – but Ted saw things differently back then, saw blue where every clearing was grey. I read A.L.G. to him while the towers of his tobacco smoke rose through the camp. Of a morning, before he woke, I wrote feverishly under gums, poems about an aerial marsh-fire eye, detected networks of wattle with my nose. Every echo of morning electric. Somnolent days followed.
Poor Ted was not here today to get your greeting to him. For he has gone deep within himself, and says he will go shearing. I am afraid for him, having seen the same thing happen while we were still on the track. He wandered off one day, & only at sundown returned to where I was smoking beneath the stars. He called it a strange melancholy fit, and turned in. The next morning he asked me to read him A.L.G. again. I read ‘The Sick Stockrider’, though it seemed to have no effect.
Men like Ted, they never let you in to that wild interior. He knows as well as I do only a vacuum exists there, of his own eyes’ making. He sees thousands of colors in the invisible bush-fire’s aftermath. He’s looking at trees as if they’re on fire. I hardly notice. Again, my problem with the plain colour of the gums. I saw only what the colonial poets had seen, in the cathedral gloom of the Australian bush scene.
At the time all I could think about was the outline of a young woman I had met in Melbourne at a dance, a teacher from a bush school, in her dress. I also had in my mind another image, of a book, dedicated to this woman. Its contents quickly took shape, while Ted slumbered on in the early morning whip-cracks of birds, calling bees.
At the next outpost we came to I asked a lady there if she might send the MS on my behalf, to the address of the bush school, the envelope marked ‘Personal’. She, this lady, handled the envelope gingerly, as if aware of the profanity and passion it no doubt contained. Still, she promised me to send it, estimating it might take a month or two to arrive.
I watched those days disappear before me in the wagon grooves of the crumpled tracks, as Ted grew silent once more, & our nights were spent in rhyming talk. At one point Ted rhymed ‘gun’ with ‘gum’ & I said nothing. I was thinking of her eyes, their aerial marsh-fire glow. We’d spoken often of the need for passionate decency.
She’s not here now to tell her side of the story, though I suppose she might send you her best wishes, were she still alive. It seems that she fell herself into some weird kind of melancholy torpor, & burnt down that old bush school — desks, chalkboards & all. My love, I grimly surmised, lay too in the ashes of that funk of hers.
By the time we arrived in that nameless country town, all traces of her life there had been erased. The bush school had been relocated to a different place, leaving only a patch of cleared ground. Her replacement, a mild-mannered father of forty five, gave me a wild eye when I asked after belongings. It turned out, he informed me, that they’d found the burning remnants of my MS, in its envelope, in the small room behind the hotel she’d rented during her time in the town.
The envelope had been torn to small, postage stamp-sized bits. The leaves of the book had been smeared with something that looked like paraffin oil. Several were missing, or their pages had been tampered with. I recall also the new teacher mildly handing over the ghastly leaves to me, and seeing the words of one of my poems had been scratched out, replaced by curse words & obscenities of a colourful variety.
I clutched at the remnants of my life and scurried from the scene.
I found Ted in the hotel, drinking beer quietly in a corner. We sat there for a while & then Ted began humming a tune. I couldn’t make it out at all. I only wished that he would stop.
And then he did.
David Prater edits Cordite Poetry Review (http://www.cordite.org.au), an online journal of Australian poetry and poetics. His first full-length poetry collection, We Will Disappear, was published in 2007 by papertiger media, and Vagabond Press published his chapbook Morgenland in the same year. He lives in Karlskrona, Sweden. Some of the poems above are based on correspondence between American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and the Australian poet Bernard O'Dowd (1866-1953). Written between 1889 and 1891, and held at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, more than twenty of these letters have so far been found, including O’Dowd’s first letter to Whitman in 1889, which was never sent.