What I have scribbled I have scribbled, and thus
heal and bless, a spooky penicillin quelling a hubbub
of bad blood, thinks the country clergyman.
‘Blue Hills’ is a frail murmur through static now
and the river heights a warning of how the white man
ruined a continent. He pads through the empty house
clutching a piece of paper, and finds himself in the kitchen
drinking hot chocolate through its gluey skin
and tuning in the ABC at three a.m. on Sunday,
nothing there but an electronic whistle, and fruit bats
quarrelling in the orchard.
Under the lamp a pale Polaroid explains how to hold
a ball above the surf, another how to give the dog a bone,
and here’s the ’39 Buick washed up against the late fifties —
an oil-stained hulk buried in blackberries. He’s
halfway through a sermon, ignoring the grinding noises
as history works it gears and gets ready for the steep descent,
and then the plunge.
What theology endures among the witless, he wonders.
A spiritual headmaster gathers a flock of nods
as a stern father despising the emotions
that will trip him up and bring him down.
So I rant, and offend, laughs the distressed preacher,
why not? It’s like burglary — hushed at noon,
the clatter of locks at nightfall — instructing young girls
to tighten up their virtue as an older brother might.
The spiritual talent coach act prospers for a while
then the crowds thin out, frightened
by the rope of spittle swinging on his chin.
Half-way to the city a crush of bright vehicles —
junk mob trouble a freeway bypass doesn’t solve —
normally a healthy ruckus, but here malevolent, they
slump at the wheel as the exhaust gas leaks in,
spooling through the urban myths on their way to Heaven —
and no mercy for the timid spirit, warns every chapter.
When he was young, the Good Book got by heart,
no end to his mnemonic tricks — in Salt Lake City,
on Waikiki, the names of Yahweh spilled off his tongue
like a bushel payout from a fruit machine.
The destitute suburbs and the red-dirt farms —
poor, but rich in souls — made up God’s fat oyster —
he might as well bamboozle the willing sheep
and strip a wallet a minute, but that’s a cheap Yank
ripoff trick, igniting and dousing nerves
in a storm of public tears and a pounding of arteries
halfway from the hospital to the suffocating grave.
From a stalled truck, screaming — fear in the sun —
hillbillies thrashing their brutal young, belt buckle
chopping the scalp, the tongueless howl, but didn’t he
expect that? His life seemed like wading into water,
deeper each year, more exhaustion, the storm pushing up
a glut of scum, sluts and bodgies fornicating on the sand,
the grass under the bushes littered with sticky flat balloons.
He rose to his parish in the age of the teen rebel —
the hair Hokusai, the iris delft, narrating himself
from the screen to the gaggle below — among the acolytes,
a surfeit of counterfeits and perversions. How
will our kiddies ever know the touch of the real?
Late at night on the wireless some paid communist
harangues Australia with a theory of church power-greed
feeding off 240-volt paranoia. Projecting fear and hatred
onto a gang of blanks, the pastor grits his teeth —
this is an insult to the Mother of God, and sneering
relegation. He knows all about that — you, chosen; you,
burnt. Good night.
Aloof on his windy peninsula,
infusing righteous anger to a tannic brew
he foments anxiety among the young of Balmy Acres,
a ploy from a decade back when good men suffered
brainwashing in Korea for democracy — hullo,
there’s also deviation here — rancour, shadows
under the forest canopy, rage boiling over
at the radio preachers raking in the dollars
and the traitor radicals who’d sell us to the Devil —
that riff-raff, their fashion flags (I’m in, you’re out)
twisting in the wind among the alien Red Clans.
At the Old Time School Dance the fiend of rectitude
loiters around the dunce stool and sobs at the caning block.
Childhood! The bullied and their tardy revenge,
a chill dish, sour in the mouth: invective
in the papers, Letters To The Editor, curses
as cruel as the rogue morality that grunts and reddens
in the poofter’s bar; and now in his country town, dozing
at noon, above the bowling green the ‘safe-sex’ handbills
spin aloft and flutter in the blast of wrath.
Look, they all bear the mark of the Monster,
there’s love and hate on each set of knuckles,
kiss and make up; a puncture, then the venom.
And the Country Party? Urbane ‘pastoral leaseholders’
or dimwit bumpkins meddling with the truth —
a gaggle of has-been would-be’s twirling groggily
into the wee hours on a floor slippery with alcohol.
Down in the City, dealers, bankers and manipulators:
snake-oil salesmen, smart operators who lope aloft
in the big smoke, striding among cloud and rain-wet
rusty steel and glass. You win, but I endure,
sniggers the trendy ripping off the market — his
market, my flock, thinks the shepherd. To shake hands
is a kind of contamination, for that lizard grip
fits yours exactly, and his gelid blood takes
warmth from yours. In despair of water, can the Lord have
planted Capitalism in the wasteland of the human heart?
Lunch at the Church League seems racked with politics —
from mellifluous cadences to the exhibition of stubborn silence
his fellow-soldiers decline and grumble, wondering,
as they watch their sons turn into pimply sin-wracked adults
reversing down the drive into traffic accidents or bad marriages,
wondering is it fear or desire that inflicts us
with a burden of memories, or is that a blessing?
maybe one drink. Maybe
one more. And so the subtle metropolitan afternoon
simmers with gossip and the fraternal murmuring
of those trusted few — ‘… who could have thought the Beast
had spawned so many? … plotting against us,
against our demanding but generous American Friends
and the Lord of Anger.’
But in the sight of God those
waves of remembrance flooding up the sand bring us back
from the human swarm and their talent for betrayal
down the shimmering black highway littered with metal
to the gravel roads empty under the sun, the river-flats
rich with resistant pasture species, the kitchen silent
in the cricket-stitch of midday, back to himself,
exhausted, bewildered under apricots and marsupials,
rediscovering lost love in those snapshots
and hope in the washed-out colours, two copies of each print,
our innocent selves brother and sister, the morning light
unstained then, a simple miracle, Christ with white teeth
like the young men, decently dressed, who went out early
bearing black-bound books into the Sunday suburbs — why,
the very standard of living was a Sign —
twenty centuries after the arrest, trial,
torture and execution of a Criminal — copies
of copies as the waves teach us, the rainwater
rising, and darkness under the trees.
© John Tranter