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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing, January 2024
Professor of Concrete, story by Tug Dumbly.
We were having drinks on the roof of the State Library. It was after a reading of Romanian poetry in the gilded rooms below. I’d read some English translations of Romanian classics and this man congratulated me on my performance. I thanked him and asked what he did. ‘Professor of Concrete’, he said.
I looked about me. Mostly males, over sixty, tufts of ear hair and dressed by Lowes. Christ, I was at the Engineer’s table. I picked at a pretzel and plotted my escape. The Professor batted on. He was an academic who lectured in concrete. He told me of his hero, a man who’d written a textbook on concrete, a kind of Concrete Bible, as sacred to the Prof as Leaves of Grass is to me.
‘So, a seminal work on cement’ I said, for something to say. The Professor’s Espresso Martini froze to his lips and he winced. His wife’s smile dropped like a rock and she busied herself in the canapés. If there was a piano it would have stopped playing, then suicided from the roof. I knew I’d blundered. A hobbitish little man to my left, who I’d thought asleep, nudged me:
‘Concrete, not cement’, he hissed. Never mix the two’. I said ‘is that an Engineer’s joke?’ ‘No’, he said. ‘Amongst Engineers there are no jokes. Only failures’.
I confessed to the Hobbit that I used the terms Concrete and Cement interchangeably. Was there a difference between the two? I mean, it’s just that hard stuff of buildings and roads and footpaths that you blithely walk on and through, and live and work in, and are never more than a couple of feet from for most of your life. It’s everywhere, right, our environment? And, like, does a goldfish question the water it lives in?
The Hobbit considered me with scorn, then pity.
‘Yesss …’, he finally conceded. ‘To confuse Concrete with Cement is a mistake sometimes made. By the ignorant.’
He then condescended to sketch me a brief Wiki lesson on the differences between the majesty of Concrete and its poor serf cousin Cement, a primer on their varying properties and uses. There was guff about proportions of sand and gravel and lime, water and blue metal … talk of skyscrapers, birdbaths, the Colosseum … girders, formwork, steel reinforcement … blah blah.
I thanked him and promptly forgot all he’d said. Or rather I didn’t bother trying to remember it. I was too fixated on pretending to look like I was listening to him to actually listen, like I am with most people. But I knew enough to turn back and resume talk with the Professor. I’d even armed myself with a mnemonic: ‘Concrete is King, Cement’s a bit shit’. (Yes, it needed work). The Professor had thawed from his shock and was busy wheeling the Lazee Suzanne to get at the Cabanossi.
‘Look’, I said. ‘I’m sorry about my silly mistake before. But your friend here has now set me straight’. ‘Oh’, said the Professor. ‘Which friend is that?’ ‘Why’, I said, ‘this gentleman right …’
I turned to my left, but the seat was empty. Not only empty but neatly pushed in, with the cutlery and plate unused.
‘But he was just here’, I said, ‘a minute ago!’ ‘Yes, yes of course he was’, said the Professor soothingly. ‘It’s been a big afternoon’s poetry … anyway, you must tell me about your methods. I’ve always been envious of people who can make poems. And cakes too. Yes, poems and cakes’. He patted the hand of his re-smiling wife.
Call me paranoid, but I couldn’t help feel that others at this round table of engineers were eyeing me, from under their owl brows and fat bifocals, with a mix of derision and amusement. At heart, beneath my sensitive exterior, I’m actually a fairly competitive fellow – petty, egotistical, brittle and vain, bristling with an arsenal grievance and lack. I judge others constantly, take bad weather as a personal affront, find offence in the laughter of children, and another’s good fortune can destroy my day. In short, I was compelled to save face.
‘Well you know’, I said casually, ‘Concrete and Poetry are not all that dissimilar. There’s even branch of poetry called Concrete Poetry …’
The Professor paused in sucking the brains from a King Prawn. He’d taken the bait.
‘Is that so?’ he gruffed.
‘Oh yes’, I said. ‘Concrete poems are written to ape the shape of their subject matter. Thus a poem about a tree will look like a tree, a poem about a horse will be in the shape of a horse, and so on. For instance George Herbert’s poem Easter Wings has its text in the shape of wings, while Lewis Carol’s poem The Mouse’s Tail is …’
‘Yes, yes, how quaint’, interrupted the Professor. ‘And yet how laborious and futile’.
‘Ha, yes’, I laughed, ‘I’m inclined to agree. Mostly. And yet …’ I paused, as though reticent to plague the great man with whimsicalities. The Professor’s fork hovered in expectation over his Sticky Date pudding. ‘… and yet there are other possibilities’, I tantalized. ‘Concrete poems don’t just have to be about Nature, you know, the frivolities of bugs and trees. No, they could be shaped to cathedrals, for instance. Or any other kind of building …’
The professor got a misty look. I pressed my advantage:
‘ … now if only some maverick could break the mould! You say you’re envious of people who can make poems. And yet you yourself could make some of the most monumental of poems …’
‘Go on’, said the Professor, licking his lips.
‘All we lack are visionaries’, I sighed. ‘Why, even as I sit here gazing out over this city skyscape before us, this majestic concrete peon to commerce, other possibilities occur to me, as surely they must occur to a man like you. Yes, I picture a truly functional yet beauteous form of concrete poetry, a form shockingly new …’
‘But you don’t mean …’ stuttered the Professor.
‘But I DO mean!’ I pounced. ‘A Poem City! Form and function in one delicious fuck. Picture it – Haiku-shaped public toilets, Limerick-shaped shops, Villanelle villas, Ghazal Ghettos, public housing blocks in the shape of Bush Ballads (the poor will have no choice), right up to skyscrapers of Dante-esque Epic!’
‘But … but, this is pure fantasy’, said the Professor with a pale smile. ‘I mean the audacity! … This is, this is …’
‘This is VISIONARY!’ I finished for him, bashing my fist onto the table and making the plates and grazing engineers jump. ‘This will be a movement to banish Bauhaus back to the shithouse! An architectural revolution to make the International Style look like International Roast!’
The professor was suddenly bug-eyed and randy with Vision. ‘But of course!’ he blurted. ‘Such ideas as these have long skirted the edge of my fantasies!’
‘No doubt’, I said, grasping his hands. ‘And credit for the foundation of the Poem City Movement will be laid at the feet of its rightful progenitor. Look, we can write our manifesto right here and now. On the back of these cocktail napkins!’
‘Yes, yes!’ said the Professor, his mechanism whirring. But then he paused. ‘But … the practicalities of designing such buildings … the form, the structure …’
‘Pfft!’ I dismissed it with a flip. ‘These are gnattish irritants to men of vision, quirks that I’m sure your underlings here’ – and I indicated the circle of now gaping engineers – ‘will relish resolving. Remember gentlemen’, I smirked at them, ‘there’s no “can’t” in concrete’.
‘He’s right, you fools!’ ejaculated the Professor. ‘They said Utzon was mad, and look what he did with a seashell! Well, you heard the man, get cracking!’
And thus, on a soft Autumn evening, on the rooftop bar of Sydney’s historic Mitchell Library, with flying foxes dotting the caramel sky above the Botanic Gardens, the Poem City Movement was born.
Oh, the Professor was hooked deep. He right away began barking orders at the table of engineers and architects. ’Come come, gentlemen, no time like the present. Let us inseminate our Poem City!’ And like a team of Oompa Loompas on deadline in a chocolate factory they set to work, sketching on the back of napkins, cobbling models from cheese cubes and gherkins, marking mud maps on the tablecloth with gravy.
There was a frenzied Googling of different poetic forms, and heated discussion of metre, indent, enjambment and stanza. Should that hotel be a Sestina or a Ghazal? The new parliament a Lyrical Ballad or Blank Verse? I played my part and quickly summarised the history of Modernist Poetry for the poor drudges, and then explained to them, as though to slow toddlers, the differences between the English and Italian Sonnet. (It was decided Italian for Starbucks, English for Chemist Warehouse).
The Professor whipped his men on like an old Egyptian slaver, and encouraged my own galloping excitement, which lead me to stand on my chair and begin improvising a loud and lengthy ode to our new Poem City, or “MetroPoem”, as I styled it. Exactly what I said is lost in the ear of the gods. But I know that I was on fire and that the Muses were having a gang bang in my brain as I showered sparks of vision. Truly, my mouth was angle grinder of angels!
The rooftop bar was stilled by my oration. The Romanian Consul and other dignitaries, guests, bar staff and innocent strangers watched agape as I declaimed about ‘ants of language’ and ‘alphabets of sperm … the living syllable … Sestina rest homes …’ Oh at first there was some confusion, as they wondered whether to call security or an ambulance. But by the second hour they settled into it and I could feel them won over like a tide as I, in full performance flow, poured forth immaculate glissandos of words rhapsodising the coming Poem City!
When finally I sat there was a pause … And then? Oh then, such a dam-burst of APPLAUSE! Nay, naked adulation! I was exhausted but exultant. The professor, mopping his eyes with a napkin (and a chicken consommé with a bit of sourdough), slapped my back as the engineers mobbed me like gushing groupies. Everyone believed in me and my vision, none more so than myself! Yes, what had begun as a cheeky prank on the Professor and his gang of boffins had been converted in my head to a shining possibility, nay an actuality – The Poem City! Ye gads, that bright and mythical place was Coleridge’s Xanadu, but for real!
Well the rest of that arvening was spent in a pleasant blur as I soaked up praise and Port in equal measure. The world was a magnificent place and I felt magnanimous and expansive, full of brotherly love and generosity for my fellow creatures, even these poor engineer dullards. No, we weren’t so different the Professor and I, he with his love of concrete facts and me with my penchant for words and the un-calloused abstract. I saw that anyone’s love for anything can be beautiful, no matter what that thing may be – that thing that wakes them in the morning, that thing that sets a sweet pillow under their head at night.
Yes, thus the Poem City Movement was born!
And thus, alas, it died.
Hours later, on the way out to the lift, after basting in many effusions of love (and Freddy Fudpuckers) I saw an odd thing. Or at least imagined I did. Glancing down a staff access corridor at the side of the bar I could have sworn I saw the Professor’s wife. Only her dress had changed into the uniform of the bar staff, and as the door closed behind her she was removing a Brunette wig to reveal the sharp cut of a Concrete Blonde! But it was only a glimpse. I rubbed my eyes and blamed the lateness of the hour and the liquor.
But then down on street level I saw something more solid, something that couldn’t be as easily dismissed. Walking ahead of me up the road towards a taxi rank was the Professor. Beside him was a little man. It was the Hobbit who’d been seated beside me at the start of the afternoon, the one who the Professor had dismissed as a phantom of my imagination. They were both cackling madly, doubling over and slapping each other’s backs. I couldn’t help but suspect I’d had a joke engineered upon me.
© Tug Dumbly
Tug Dumbly is the pen and stage name of Geoff Forrester, a Nowra-born poet and performer who has lived in Sydney for decades. He has worked extensively in radio, venues and schools, and founded a couple of seminal poetry nights in Sydney. He has performed his work as resident-poet on ABC radio (Triple J, ABC 702), and released two spoken-word CDs through the ABC – Junk Culture Lullabies and Idiom Savant. His awards include the Banjo Paterson Prize for Comic Verse (twice), and Nimbin Performance Poetry World Cup (thrice). His poems have appeared in many publications and he has been shortlisted numerous times for major awards. In 2020 he won the Borranga Poetry Prize, in 2022 he won the Woorilla Poetry Prize, and most recently he won the 2023 Bruce Dawe Poetry prize. His first poetry collection, Son Songs, came out in 2018 through Flying Island Books. He is also a singer, songwriter and musician who likes photography and nature, especially cicadas.