Poetry: The Book of my Enemy — The Great Wrasse: for Les Murray at sixty | clivejames.com
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The Great Wrasse: for Les Murray at sixty

Mask wet and snorkel dry, I’m lying loose
On the glass roof of time, and forty years
Straight down I see it teeming, the bombora
Of Manning House. Tables like staghorn coral
Chewed at by schools of poets. Frensham girls
(Remember Xanthe Small and Joanne Williamson,
Those blouses and tight skirts? You little beaut
We breathed into our fried rice. God, what dreams:
By now they must be grandmothers) glide by
Like semicircle angelfish. Psychologists
With teeth like wahoos turn their heads as one,
Torn from discussion of the Individual,
Their Watch Committee late-lunch seminar
Prorogued pro tem.
 Poised Andersonian squid
Explain to freshettes peeping from their shells
If dualism allows no real division
There can be no real connection. Fusiliers,
Trevallies, sweetlips, damselfish, hussars
Patrol in Balbos, split up, feed, re-form,
Waved at by worshipping anemones.
The food chain and the mating dance, the mass
Manoeuvring, the shape-up and the shake-out,
The pretty faces pumping pain through spines:
It’s all there, displayed in liquid crystal,
No further than my fingertips adrift
(A year in time is just an inch in space) —
And there you are, and I can see you now
For what you were, most brilliant of the bunch,
The Great Wrasse.
But to know that, I had first
To see the thing itself, in all its glory,
Five years ago. Sleeping on Lizard Island,
My family was recovering its strength
From too long in the cold. On the second day
We woke at noon and rolled into the water
To join the turtles feeding on the seagrass
Between the beach and sandbar. Serious fish
Were just around the point, at the big bommie.
We drifted off the platform at the back
Of the launch and let the current take us over
A chunk of reef that came up to arm’s length:
Just what the doctor ordered. We could see
The whole aquarium in action, hear
The parrotfish at work on the hard coral
Like journalists around the Doric porch
Of some beer-froth tycoon whose time had come
To be cast out of Toorak.
Then it was there —
Beside us, as if to share our view:
Materializing, as is its marvellous way,
With no preliminary fanfare,
Like an air-dropped marching band that opens up
Full blast around your bed. Lord, I can see,
I said in silence, smiling around my rubber
Dummy like a baby. Powered by pearls
On fire inside its emerald envelope,
The Wrasse comes on like a space invader
In docking mode, filling the vision full:
The shock of its appearance stops the swimmer
Dead in the water, flippers frozen solid,
Stunned by a sudden nearness so aloof.
As if the Inca, walking his lion’s walk
In soft shoes, were to pass by from behind
Preoccupied by his divinity,
So with this big fish and its quiet storm,
Its mute Magnificat.
   Bigger fish yet
Plumb deep holes of the Outer Barrier —
Potato cod in mottled camouflage
Like Japanese Army Kawasaki fighters
Parked in the palms, franc-tireur Tiger sharks
With Kerry Packer smiles, the last few marlin
To keep their swords — but nothing quite as massive
As the daddy of all wrasses, the Daimyo number,
Shows up at the bombora, and nothing as bright
Is known the whole reef over.
         Over the reef,
You realize, is where this fish belongs —
Above it and not of it. Nothing is written there,
Enjoyed or cherished. Even the beautiful,
There in abundance, does not know itself.
‘Sex is a Nazi’ you once wrote, and so
It is here. Killing to grow up so they can screw,
Things eat, are eaten, and the crown-of-thorns
Starfish that eats everything looks like
A rail map of the Final Solution,
But all it adds to universal horror
Is its lack of colour.
  Even in full bloom
The reef is a jardin des supplices:
The frills, the fronds, the fans, the powder puffs
Soften the razor’s edge, the reign of terror.
Lulled by the moon snail and the Spanish dancer
With choreography by Carlos Saura,
By feathery platoons of poules de luxe
Cute as the kick-line of the Tropicana,
The tourist feels this is the show for him —
Atlantis in an atrium, a rumpus room
For slo-mo willy-willies of loose chips
From bombed casinos, a warehouse arcade
For love seats, swansdown pouffes and stuffed banquettes
That he could snuggle up to like a prayer
Of Hasidim against the Wailing Wall
And soothe his fevered brow in yielding plush —
But only an expert should ever touch it
Even with rubber gloves.
Buyer beware,
The forms of death are not just for each other
But for us too, and not all are as ugly
As the stonefish, toadfish, puffer and striped Toby
In his leather jacket. Even a child can see
That these are kitted out for bio war:
They pull the face of neurotoxic venom.
But the cone shells that beg to be picked up
By writers are like antique fountain pens
Proust might have held except he would have written
A short book, and that dreamboat with the sulk
Like Michelle Pfeiffer lolling in the glass
Elevator in Scarface is a breed
Of butterfly whose class would set you raving
At closer quarters, anguish cloaked in floating
Come-hither chiffon veils that spell curtains
At the first kiss.
      Rising above it all,
A benign airship poised over New York —
The Hindenburg without the Hakenkreuz
Or parking problems — just by its repose
The dawdling Wrasse siphons up Hell’s Kitchen
And turns it to serenity, the spectrum
Of helium in Rutherford’s radon tube,
The clear, blue light of pure polonium,
The green, fused sand of Trinity, the silent
Summary, the peaceful aftermath.
Something, someone, must be the focal emblem,
The stately bearer of the synthesis
To make our griefs make sense, if not worthwhile.
That the young you, in a red-striped sloppy joe
Like Sydney Greenstreet cast as Ginger Meggs
Progressing through the Quad the very year
Of the first Opera House Lottery draw,
Would be the Great Wrasse, few could guess
But now all know, glad that the time it took
Was in their lives, and what you made of it —
Those new and strange and lovely living things,
Your poems — theirs to goggle at when born:
Born from your mouth.
         Born fit to breathe our sea,
Which is the air I surface to drink in
(My mask a nifty hat by Schiaparelli)
Having seen wonders — how our lives once were,
Nature’s indifference, time’s transparency,
Fame’s cloud of pigment, fortune’s blood-tipped needles,
And finally, most fabulous of all,
A monumental fish that speaks in colours,
Offering solace from within itself.

Note (from Collected Poems)

People who live on or near the Great Barrier Reef usually pronounce ‘wrasse’ as two syllables, to rhyme with ‘sassy’. This verse letter is composed in blank verse paragraphs, the most demanding form of the lot for anybody who is trying to keep things tight. At the time when my family was holidaying on Lizard Island, the tourist industry’s light impact on the Reef had not yet been supplemented by the intense interest of countless television crews in the forthcoming climate catastrophe which would heat the water, raise the ocean, and reduce billions of tons of coral to a ruin any time soon. In the absence of such an event — nowadays still absent, but surely only minutes away — all was peace, and I lay down to begin reflecting upon my younger days. Necessarily there were a few references to Sydney University, which Les Murray and I both attended as beneficiaries of the Menzies Government’s plan to extend tertiary education even further among the less well-off. ‘Frensham girls’ would have been to private schools: not among the less well-off at all, but with a bewitching access to silk and cashmere. Andersonians were acolytes of the Professor of Philosophy, John Anderson: to some extent I was one of them, and still am. The quotation in italics is from Anderson’s key book Studies in Empirical Philosophy, which is still in the shelves before me as I write this. Toorak is a plush Melbourne enclave that ranks with Belgravia in London or the Sutton Place area in New York. In Australia, during the period of economic deregulation fostered by the Hawke and Keating governments, it was a regular event for some instant billionaire to become just as instantly broke again. Kerry Packer, however, always kept his money, perhaps because he carried a lot of it around in a paper bag. He and Rupert Murdoch were the big media tycoons, but whereas Rupert Murdoch went on to become world famous, Kerry Packer was, as the Australian saying goes, world famous in Australia. When the first atomic bomb was exploded at the ‘Trinity’ site in New Mexico, the desert at Ground Zero turned to green glass. Ginger Meggs was a young larrikin in a famous comic strip that we all read every Sunday: always in trouble but never unforgiven for very long.