Poetry: The Book of my Enemy — Lament for French Deal | clivejames.com
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Lament for French Deal

feror ingenti circumdata nocte

God bless the nurses of the Sacred Heart
Who bring His great gift, morphine, to annul
The agony which tears French Deal apart.
Heaven be praised
That Science makes her once keen senses dull.

We thought of wattle sprays and willow wands
When we first saw French Deal in those young years —
Of frangipani petals and palm fronds.
Lord, she was sweet:
Gamblers and poets were both moved to tears.

To tears of lust as well, for though her face
Beat any angel’s hollow, her loose limbs
And languorous figure had a pagan grace
To make a priest
Compose risqué new words for well-known hymns.

A gambler gave French Deal her name. Today,
Though sick himself, he sits beside her bed.
I know he will, while I am far away,
Kiss her goodbye
On my behalf as I would in his stead.

He named her for a racehorse that came in.
Fresh from the country, Janet was impressed
And as French Deal embraced a Life of Sin —
Since in those days
Free love was damned no sooner than confessed.

But not so at the Royal George Hotel,
Headquarters of the Downtown Push, for there
Bohemians defied the threat of Hell.
Lapsed Catholics
Sang blasphemously to the evening air.

Hot nights, cold beer and filtered cigarettes
Plucked proudly from the new-style flip-top box!
Philosophers pronounced, gamblers made bets —
It was a home
Away from home, that thieves’ den by the docks.

Push women were the equals of their men,
Or so the theory went the men advanced
With all their other theories while, as then
Was still the rule,
The women were required to sit entranced.

Oasis faces in a boundless waste
Of words, and one face fairer than the rest:
Across the room, still smarting at the taste
Of my first beer,
I winced but gazed unblinking and felt blessed.

She was the gambler’s girl and not to be
Approached by one so clearly short of clues,
But when I sailed away her memory
Smoked in my mind,
A brand evoking all I stood to lose.

The white light, the sweet heat, the open air,
The opal sunset and the sudden dawn,
You saw them all when she swept back her hair —
Her upraised arms
Outlined the paradise where we were born.

London was cold and girls in pubs would show
No skin below the neck except their hands.
Only blood shining out made their skins glow:
No sun shone in.
A man’s eyes risked death in such frozen lands.

But come the second winter my despair
Cracked and dissolved. Out of the fog there stepped
French Deal and gathered me into her care.
Until the spring
It was together that we woke and slept.

She made it clear that she had come away
Only to show the gambler she was free.
For her this was a working holiday
From too much love,
A break from him. A bigger break for me,

My longed-for first great love affair unloosed
Not just desire but the desire to please.
Just as Narcissus was himself seduced
As he gazed down
To see the loved one’s face in ecstasies,

I made her gasp and took it for applause:
It was my wretched ego I caressed.
No doubt I had confused effect and cause,
But equally
There could be no doubt I had Passed a Test.

Bursting with butch conceit I said goodbye.
She sailed home to be married. I stayed on,
And fifteen years unravelled before I
Saw her again.
Sydney had changed a lot while I was gone.

The Opera House was finished, there were tall
Buildings ablaze at night behind the Quay.
The Royal George was lost beyond recall
In concrete roads
Whose coils had squeezed it dry of mystery.

But one thing had remained the same: French Deal.
Tea on the lawn in my case proved unwise.
Unused to it, I judged the sun unreal.
Spread at our feet
Careening Cove was too bright for my eyes.

Dazzled I listened while she told me how
Marriage had come and gone. She had been ill
With meningitis but was better now.
She dropped a hint:
She and the gambler were true lovers still.

Long before sunset she took me inside
To lavish lotion on my burning skull.
I heard the ripple of the ebbing tide
Rocking a boat:
The chink of wind chimes and the slapping hull.

From that night on for fifteen years again
Whenever I flew home I came to tea,
And so in her life’s prime the same two men
She started with
Shared her affection and her courtesy.

The gambler got the lion’s share, of course:
To throw his life away yet keep her near
Was his reward for backing the right horse.
Each evening there
He warmed to her while it was morning here.

Conversely in my night she took the train
To Burwood where her girls thought her the best
Teacher in history and offset the pain
Of childlessness —
While he made sure he got a lot of rest.

Yes, all the time I toiled with diligence,
Apart from placing bets his only fame
He got from demonstrating in defence
Of a few trees —
His colleagues in the vegetation game.

Two men who scarcely added up to one,
One work-shy and the other a machine:
Both, when they sat beside her in the sun,
Were at their best.
Each was the better man he might have been.

Born of the fragile truce between us two,
Who never met except in her regard,
Her love life lasted yet was always new —
An ebb and flow
Like the tide at the foot of her front yard.

By rights we should all three have gone to hell
Together, but blind chance chose her to face
The silent forecast of her own death knell —
A cruel shadow
Which will soon, says the Sister’s voice through space,

At last have done. The roses that I left
Fade in their vase. Bending to kiss her eyes
He can precisely see himself bereft
Where I must guess —
Yet I can paint the picture when she dies.

On High Street wharf at midnight she alone
Waits for the small white ferry with no crew
To grumble close. Its soft ropes on their own
Throw quiet loops.
Weightless she steps aboard as we will do

When our turn comes, gambler: but not tonight.
Tonight we are those two gulls overhead
Gliding against the wind to match our flight
With the ghost ship
That will not cross the harbour, but instead

Slips on the tide towards the open sea
Whose darkness, which already reaches deep
Into the brilliant city, soon will be
All that there is,
As she sails out across the curve of sleep —

Too far to follow, even for you and me.

Note (from Collected Poems)

The epigraph is from Virgil, Georgics IV, the sublime episode in which Eurydice berates Orpheus for looking back after he has been told not to. ‘For I am carried folded in gigantic night/ Holding towards you the useless hands alas no longer yours.’ On Sydney Harbour the little white-and-yellow-painted ferries that ran from Circular Quay over to Luna Park and McMahon’s Point were eventually withdrawn in favour of the catamarans, just as the splendid double-ended ferries that ran to Manly gave way to the less imposing but much faster hydrofoils, which in turn were replaced by the JetCats. In the course of seven decades, romance has been usurped by efficiency, but whatever kind of ferry it is, it’s still more fun than the bus, and the glitter on the water is always there.