To My Sons, poems by Ian C Smith
Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Antipodes, Australian Poetry Journal, Critical Survey, Live Encounters, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two-Thirds North. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.
To My Sons
At the age you were in Year 9 I read Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, a WW2 saga of blood and glory in the news, which I also read, but in the way seagulls gobble thrown remains of fish’n’chips, without discernment, just need. I joined a small lending library, a shop, weekly loans inexpensive, my pay a child’s wage for factory work. Machinery never interested me. Halfway through the lengthy novel the meaning of a strange portmanteau word, sonofobitch, the mantra of enlisted grunts, the middle syllables of which I mentally pronounced as ‘offer’, made sense. It wasn’t a curse used by Australians, but was heard in American movie dialogue. In an unheated rented room become a steamy South Pacific island, reading because I knew nobody, inklings of first publication’s thrill impossibly distant, I felt abashed, stabs I still feel, but with humour now.
The year before that strange time, I weighed 9st. 6lbs, bigger than average then, but not now, everybody, everything, larger; 60kg., according to Google’s facts and figures at our fingertips today. I would have treasured The Guinness Book of Records, let alone the Internet, if it existed when I played schoolboy football fearing no boy, also against men, yet wept most nights after our evening meal – the fault line of my father’s bitter jealousy of me – with my friend the dog rolling in reek, me rolling cigarettes imagining a tough tattooed gum-chewing guy in a motorcycle jacket living at the heartbeat of what I suspected was an enchanting world, instead of that silent tableau, my distress a secret, seeking love though I didn’t understand. If my father had written something, anything, about his boyhood, no doubt harsh, I might have better understood my own sonofabitch days, even cherished them, as you should yours.
Digits Damage Deus Ex Machina
He slices his fingers with secateurs, another instance of his hapless old-and-absent-minded routine these dreamy dreary days. A neighbour binds the dramatic wound tightly with Elastoplast. He is impatient with dwindling time, hours too precious to waste travelling to A&E for stitches. The binding soaked with his medicated blood dries, hardens, reminds him of plaster casts of youth, other bloodstained misadventures.
An editor whose acceptance months earlier of his poem about a teenage factory labourer’s near fatal workplace accident, a mangled thumb, and morphine’s effect, has written a text to accompany it, referring to poetry, novels, and films, the beloved brawl, the pungency of their working past, Satanic indeed, pulsing like his blood. Happenstance, memory, regret-tinged pleasure.
He finds the braided timing of these events of harrowing discomfort ironic, aware of what seems the phenomenon of his days now. He will select unusual words then resume reading, turning pages to reveal these exotic words; or think of somebody almost forgotten then receive an email from that person. Again and again this occurs. Is it due to an overcrowded mind? He abhors mumbo-jumbo, feeling monitored in these days of surveillance, yet likes the idea of angels’ wings casting shadow, prepared for anything.
No happy hearths for us. In the slowness of days while the lights of cities go on and off we work the dormitories for cigarettes, currency of the convicted, minor industries thriving in this chapel of corruption, regulations our enemy.
Dickie, who has already boxed in the tents, skin, features, gravelly pronunciation harbouring a vestige of his downtrodden people’s true Australian tongue, contrasts with me, my skin pale, pimply, much taller, less brave, both adrift in the undertow of a treacherous tide, surviving.
Alert to venomous prejudice of outsiders, incomers, the disabled, the different, flotsam washed up on these isolated shores, my speech, London’s foggy guttural erased, sets up the entertainment, a ringmaster’s spiel to those whose lives have been fistfuls of pain, redemption a haven too far.
If we feign placidity supervision is soft between grub and lights out at nine. After each boy hands over tobacco I thread a needle, cotton white for dramatic effect – how we came by these humble items for legerdemain beyond me now – before transporting Dickie into his spirit world by muttering great bulldust as he calls it when we are alone together, that odd friendship of cast out boys.
Svengali sentenced, I hush them quiet as night, the only thing missing, a mopoke’s ancient call, hand the needle to Dickie who flutters his black eyelashes, rhythmically whispering the names of racehorses backwards as practised, before opening his mouth wide, bad boys bored no longer, jostling to spot any hanky-panky.
He pierces his plump cheek, a silvery glint emerging through the outside of his expressionless face eliciting disgusted oaths, some demanding he stop, as he pulls the entire shaft trailing cotton through, blood the climax, bright against white, a droplet left on his cheek as I snap my fingers to break the spell, bring him back, to survival, cigarettes.
Life is a Camel
His admiration of Myron’s athletic sculpture, Discobulus, is foreshadowed by a photo in his father’s sports pages of the previous night’s stoush, Dick Turpin, a namesake of the colourful highwayman he had heard of, boxing Albert Finch for the British title, a ‘bruising affair’ won by Finch ‘unanimously’ – a word to puzzle over – on points.
In the sports annual inside a pillowslip on his bedpost on Christmas morning he pores over more photos; colours, names of football teams, enthralling: dazzling green and white hoops of Glasgow Celtic, black and old gold of Wolverhampton Wanderers – Wolves. He yearns for a resplendent uniform, to be portrayed in action, wants to be a sports photographer. Or a sailor.
In a rage to live he is greedy for the starburst of sideshow alley, each illuminated inch of what is gimcrack, ersatz, winning a gypsy prize playing an electronic horseracing game at Epsom. Derby Day. Rae ‘Togo’ Johnstone, an Australian, kicks home the big winner, a French horse, crowd roaring as if outraged as he tries to see through a forest of grey flannels. Intrigued by Togo, emblazoned jockey’s silks, aware of different nationalities, he wonders about names, places: the Gold Coast, Siam, Tibet, Hawaii, Formosa, Alaska, Newfoundland. Words. Colours rippling before a field of acid green. Sportsmen of the world. That great roar.
After weathered storm surges of half a lifetime when only fragments of remembered happiness glint like pinpricks of light in a black sky; school’s brutal ritual, the terrible churn of family havoc, youth detention, factory, foundry fodder’s hamster on a wheel calamity going down, down in a cascade of suffering to psychiatric assessment, marriage shattered, tertiary study beckons from beyond chaos. Then life opens up like his books’ pages, travel to lands with different names now, the arts unfurling. He still follows some sports, albeit with measured cynicism. Walking at dawn past a circus encampment, mulling, stars subbed out, he recalls the joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee, thinks life, that bruising affair, is a camel.
© Ian C Smith