Poetry: Slalu | clivejames.com
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Slalu

Sydney, November 2002,
And in the sun’s pre-summer blaze,
This little lullaby of syllables
Invades the setting as I sit and write:
Slalu, the hostie’s word for “always”, **
Applies here, where the beautiful is true.
Jacarandas in the bushfire haze
Are cardinals at a barbecue.

Last night, a song in a sarong,
She taught me my new word
On the leg down from Singapore,
And laughed like a well-bred drain
When, with the intonation of “of course”,
I used it in reply to the easy question
Posed by her slyly hefted bottle
Of Roederer Cristal.

From a Quay-side seat at Rossini’s
I scope the buskers. The young man playing
A sweet and low-down didgeridoo
Looks awfully white to me.
Somewhere West of Gundagai
His authentic opposite number
Models an angry scowl on Russell Crowe.
Let’s hope it evens out
And a few hours of swagger in the pub
Are a fair trade for the long-lost consolation
The old instruments once roared and whispered
Before the totems turned to souvenirs.

Saturday lunch at Margaret Olley’s house
In Paddo, the platinum meal-ticket.
Leo Schofield whose power of rapid response
Out-hitches even Hitchens;
Malouf with his mesmerising memory
Like the linked museums of four continents;
Leonie Kramer the couture bluestocking
Who speaks the way Madame de Sévigné
Wrote letters, with the purest common sense;
And the undersigned, gibbering with jet-lag;
All of us flown on the home-grown wine,
Play in the space above the pretty table
Our interstellar Scrabble
Whose only rule is: no-one scores for facts
Unless they generate a fantasy —
As Margaret, two days before the operation
On her work-worn eyes,
Listens to her clever protégés
Through a mist of cataracts.

Next morning on the Quay, the ring-in
With the groaning hollow log has been replaced
By a trad jazz trio whose combined ages
Would take you back to Captain Cook at least
Tuba, banjo and cornet make space
To top each other at a Kaffeeklatsch
In which we drink the coffee as we watch
Their coruscating stillness spill
Its slipping, sliding, slaloming slalu.
Youngsters to whom music is a power station
Plugged into their heads aren’t given pause,
But we who remember syncopation
Meet each other’s glance and one by one
Or two by two get up to drop a dollar
In the banjo-player’s leopard-skin-lined case,
Though all concerned know this is done from love
Here in our trysting place,
The starting point for everything we are,
Where those who once knew no worse than the tragic
Saw history sail in and lurch ashore.

A ferry grumbling up behind the band
Toots on the beat.
The cornet player wags his plunger mute
As he would for an angel coming in to land.

One does. From the ferry steps a girl
Carrying the blood of so many ethnocentres
Even Malouf would hesitate to guess
How much of the known world her DNA
Crossed on the way to this ignition point
That gave us her.
Margaret might say Modigliani
Had met Berthe Morrisot. Dame Leonie,
Who in her first youth stir-fried strong men’s brains
Like noodles in a wok, would nod approval
As at a well-turned quatrain.
Leo, speed-reading my expression
And knowing me of old, would call me
As predictable as a Bondi tram.

It’s true. I am.
Until they switch me off at the wall
I will never get over the miracle
Of female loveliness,
Except if, in the old age beyond death,
I am granted blindness
With which to contemplate eternal grace.
I think I can see Russia in those cheek-bones.
Slava, the Slavic word for glorious,
Sounds like a version of slalu.

On the lawn in front of Fisher Library
A stunned Bruce Beresford said “Don’t look now,
But about ten yards behind you is the most beautiful
Girl on Earth.” I looked, and he was right.
Tania Verstak, the Russian immigrant
Who became Miss This, Miss That and Miss Australia
And so on to Miss International Beauty,
While all the time, appalled by the attention,
She was planning her escape to Perth —
In those days too far for the press to find her.
She got away with it, a hunted creature:
A PR representative for Qantas
Who went to ground and lived.
Now Miss World is born here every day,
Steps from the ferry and walks through the music
Like a swag of blossoms in the smoke
Sent out by my cheroot and the fires turning
An area the size of Wales to ash.

In the Town Hall I speak from the same spot
Where fifty years ago a marvellous boy
In a short-pants suit of chocolate velvet
Played Schumann to a crowd including me,
School parties laughing at his sissy curls:
Whoever had a name like Barenboim?
As I launch into my peroration —
Australia as an enemy of justice
Rates very low beside the forces ranged
Against it: be proud of that, at least —
I am attacked by an absurd gratitude
For the protection of long trousers.
The maestro now no doubt remembers Sydney
As a sea of faces in the heat,
A place where his lace collar turned to mush,
Piano hammers spongy with humidity:
One more whistle-stop on the via dolorosa
Of his first career,
When he was still stuck in that suit —
Before he dreamt of Jaqueline du Pré,
Learned about life, love, death and tragedy
And put them all into the tango disc
I most like to dance to.

Displacements are the making of the kind
Of mind that doesn’t see a jacaranda
Until it sees a crocus in the snow.
Taking the applause that once was his,
I can hear Mi Buenos Aires querido:
As happy to have the thing done
As I was that night in the Almagro
When I first used the on-the-spot three-sixty
Taught to me by Jorge and Aurora Firpo.
Jorge kept me at it
Until I could lead Aurora with my hands behind me
And make the step seem simple.
“If it looks like you’re working,” said Gene Kelly,
“You ain’t working hard enough.”

At the nursing home, beside my mother’s bed,
I translate, as I always do, slalu,
Abstract triumph into real terms. “Mum,
I got photographed with Margaret Whitlam.”
Her eyes no longer sharp enough to read,
Her mouth the doctors can’t persuade to eat,
Assemble the resources for a smile
As I bring home one more victory,
Still trying to defuse the thunderbolt
That wrecked her share
Of the life she so generously blesses:
The telegram that said the man she loved
Would not be coming home.

I call the other Margaret to check up
On how her operation went. Success.
She can paint again. Just time for one more burst
You can bet will see her at her best:
One last slaking of the slalu thirst
To integrate the splendour
Splintered before us as we face the worst.

Waiting for Al Qa’eda
The Harbour Bridge and Opera House both look
Self-conscious, like insanely gorgeous girls
Grappling with the confusion
Of being judged for their attractiveness.
Out on the Quay, the police are everywhere.
Today the busker’s spot is occupied
By the Statue of Liberty in dark glasses,
No doubt to signify the close connection
Of American foreign policy
With waste disposal in New Jersey:
Give me your Sopranos,
Your fat and ruthless yearning to be rich.
Nice try, but make way for paranoia:
She could have anything under that skirt.
Her torch could be a grenade launcher.
Still carrying the only licensed hand-guns
In the country, somehow the police neglect
To haul her off her plinth and shake her down.
If someone in the mosque has half a brain
The first big local hit will be a shoo-in,
Here on our front porch.

At the Rose Bay RSL the Tango Night
Is dominated by Latino men
Who could all dance like this before they got here.
The Aussie blokes are floundering
But the girls, as always, catch on fast.
Visiting fireman, I get the best,
And the best of the best is a shy one
Still fending off the dreadful knowledge
(“Tania! Tania! Gizza smile!”)
That she was singled out to drive men silly.
Talking between dances
I praise her progress, leaving out the reason:
Because the guys never let her sit down,
She gets a whole week’s dancing every night
While the wallflowers get one night a year.
Like life, like love, it is so unfair,
But unlike them can never be finessed.
Having danced with no-one except hot-shots
She is poised on her axis like a spindle
In a silk mill. Pause and glide,

Glide and pause. She walks on air.
I could put my hands behind my back
And steer her with my chest.
In the sweetest moment, the return,
She comes back from an ocho adelante
To rest her breasts against me,
And I feel the satisfaction of an old sofa
Favoured by a pair of sleeping cats.

The reward for experience:
Trumpets at sunset, heat in embers,
Life-crumbs for old men at the milonga.
In the tango, you can get past being past it.
When you can’t pull them any more
You can still push them.

Next day: the Rivercat to Paramatta
Was built to leave no wake,
Thus to save the foreshores from erosion
Where the harbour narrows to a stream
Of semi-consciousness hedged either side
By water-scrub too thick for kids to build
A cubby-hole without a flame-thrower.
Lantana, though, is different. Back in Kogarah
I used to disappear up in the quarry
Until almost tea-time.
The place to do a fade is close to home,
Like Osama Bin-Laden.

Most of the Rivercats are aptly named
For post-war Aussie female sprinters:
The Betty Cuthbert, the Marjorie Jackson.
The girls who barely touched the ground:
No footprints, only sets of holes punched in
By hurrying electric light-plugs.
Once, on a plane from Singapore to Cairns,
I met the man who designed this thing.
With a Mont Blanc he outlined the principle:
There are two wakes, arranged by mathematics
To soothe each other’s flurry.
He also designed the Jet-cats
That halve the time from Manly to the Quay,
And the RAN’s computerised patrol boats
Packed keel to bridge with so much electronics
The crew have to take turns sitting down.

The hour before I flew out to the reef
I visited his house. In the garage
Was a mock-up of a space vehicle,
A scram-jet dream-ship boogie-board
Shaped to skip the atmosphere to London.
In the next generation, hustlers
Who pull the stunt that kept me out of here
For decades, will come home for the weekend.

I can see the future me
Commuting through the star-tunnel
In the Cate Blanchett.
I can see him touching up his latest speech
While he kills a half bottle of champagne
In the Nicole Kidman.

At the city’s edges
The fires are joining up,
Aided by our home-grown terrorists:
Dick-heads who flick cigarettes from cars.
Here in Paramatta
The smoke, not quite thick enough to see,
Tastes like an exhaust pipe.
A solitary jacaranda,
Within screaming distance of the spot
Where the Reverend Samuel Marsden
Had convicts flogged to pulp,
Transpires the same pale shade of purple
As a vase in one of Margaret’s still-lifes
That graces now, in Cambridge, a guest-room
Whose front window facing Jesus Green
Will never see a bushfire
Until the world ends.

On my last night in town,
Upstairs in Glebe Town Hall I dance with Lisa,
The maestro Peter’s partner and alter ego.
At least once every trip
I am always here, for her.
While the hoons howl in the street
I lead her through the winding lanes laid down
By the delicate music of De Sali.
Through a moving forest of other couples
We navigate by radar, her eyes closed
And mine only half open.
One day I will be gone forever
And she will still be here.
Tomorrow night the plane I ride in
Will be steering by the stars
As it floats like this to Changi,
Where my father was, before he was shipped out
To slavery on the Kobe cargo docks —
Above which, rehearsing for the main event,
The Yanks released the dummy atom bomb
They code-named Pumpkin,
To watch the way it went down. Trick or treat?

My last morning on the Quay,
With a decaf latte and a raisin toast.
Over there, the terminal I left from
On the old Bretagne forty years ago,
Has restaurants in it now, but the big ships —
Cruise liners out of Panama and Russia
That show the wrecks in Iron Bottom Sound
To hundreds of wrinklies at a time —
Still leave from here, though no-one under ninety
Does anything but fly.

Then voices: “Are you ever coming home?”
A couple my age ask the usual question
As I sign one of my books, putting their names.
They’ve heard one of my daughters
Is a molecular biologist.
So is one of theirs, or will be,
Provided things work out in Cold Spring Harbour.
Where is she now? She just got back from Bali.
She loves the nightclubs there,
She loves to dance,
But on the night, some trouble with her tummy
Kept her in her hotel-room:
“We never thought that we could be so grateful
To an improperly washed lettuce.”
I’m glad they didn’t see the hand of God:
That’s what the bomber saw.

Another busker starts his act:
Watch out, it’s mime time.
Time, soon, for the sponsor’s silent limo
To the Endeavour nursing home, and then
The airport that is filling up the bay
With runways where once I watched the nets
Bring in the stingrays and the wobbegongs
That looked so woebegone, drowning in air.
Unless another martyrdom is scheduled,
The night after tonight I’ll dance again
In our tiled extended kitchen,
With the lovely El dia que me quieras
Lilting on the boom-box.
“Who is he,” she will think, “the man I married?
Where does he really live?”

Search me, sweetheart, because I’m damned if I know:
But in one way, I suppose, I still live here,
In the place we both were born
And dream of always, think about slalu
A word for us. The perfect word for you.

Vintage: The Mildura Writers’ Festival Anthology, 2004
[ **more commonly rendered as “selalu” — Archive Ed. ]