Poetry: The Book of my Enemy — To Margaret Olley on the Occasion of her Retrospective Exhibition in Sydney, October 1996 | clivejames.com
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To Margaret Olley on the Occasion
of her Retrospective Exhibition
in Sydney, October 1996

Margaret, the Jeu de paume
As it used to be back when
All the painters of light
In that lilting dawn patrol
Gathered and felt at home
Is in your mind and art —
A dream-time pleasure dome
With the decor done just right
In a Tuileries born again
As a fairground for the heart,
A health farm for the soul:
Montparnasse and Montmartre
Rolled into one venue
With dancing every night —
That’s how we think of you.

Bonnard, Degas, Derain,
Matisse, Renoir, Manet,
Monet, Vuillard, Cézanne —
They’re all there in your frame,
But you have drawn on them all
For something beyond themselves:
A multiple interplay
No American football game
Could match for complexity —
Or rainbow’s swirling veil
Backed up by its waterfall
For tensile frailty
Spun off from inner steel.

The crockery on your shelves,
The posters on every wall
Of that magic Paddington house,
On your canvas shift around
In a permanent minuet
Of colour arranged like sound,
Keeping their essences
While giving themselves away
In a blissful synthesis —
A fusing of separateness
Delicious as a kiss.

There’s alchemy in your hands
The way Toulouse-Lautrec
At an artists’ ball one night
Played barman and mixed tall drinks
Of every colour combined:
Pure spirits in vivid bands,
Striped towers of pigments and inks,
Their effect was dynamite.
A poet went out of his mind,
A collector died of fright,
The hostess is still a wreck —
The evening, nevertheless,
For exalting the sense of sight,
Was hailed as a success.

We love the Impressionists.
Well, Goering loved them too,
But acted out the desire
Differently from you.
He ticked them off on lists,
He loaded them on to trains,
He buried them down salt mines —
Yet in one way you and he,
Though he lacked your manners and brains,
Thought on the same lines:
You both saw that entire
Upsurge of human joy
In its timeless unity,
And couldn’t repress the urge
To make the whole thing yours.
A greedy boy with a gun,
An art-struck bum in a rush,
He did it, but not for long.
You did it for keeps with a brush
And the patience that waits like a nun
Behind her life’s closed doors
For the love of God to emerge
From a bowl of fruit like a song.

Margaret, with you the quest
For a National Identity
Uniquely Australia’s own
Stands at last for all to see
Revealed as a mare’s nest.
By going it alone
With not one home-grown theme —
Except our feeling free,
Even if we offend,
To hold ourselves apart
And choose what we may dream —
Your representational art
That represents us all
Reminds us, in the swell
Of our millennial pride
And its raucous picture books,
That nothing counts in the end
But the individual,
Whose eternal right it is
To swim against the tide
With strokes specifically hers —
Spectral ripples that blend
Into something that looks
Wonderful on the wall.