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An incarnation of chiaroscuro



Selected poems



( blue (Austral. sl. ) argument, row)

We rented behind a block of corner shops, rooms like gloomy cells one side of a narrow hallway abutting the next shop, parking space, entry, from a back lane. Beyond our kitchen’s locked door our landlord the butcher weighed chops, sausages, sexual innuendo, for women eking out housekeeping days. We heard cleaver thuds, saucy laughter.

That summer we argued again, as the poor who toil for the dishonest do, heat, need, itching under our skin, voices muted by butchery until temper betrayed hot secrets. I stamped off, drove, half-crazed. This was when Donald Campbell attempted to hurtle Bluebird across central Australia’s aridity for the land speed record. I hurtled my blue Volkswagen through Melbourne’s southern suburbs to the cool pub.

Returning, contrite, I clipped the gate left ajar, and a plastic toy. Inside, darkened rooms echoed, as haunting as distant Lake Eyre. After phone calls they came back, each of us subdued. We tried in our cyclic way but damage dug deeper each time. I hammered out my Beetle’s dent, resprayed the panel Summer Blue, its paint shop colour, but patch-ups bear scars.

Campbell, born wealthy where I lived as a boy, died chasing the water speed record three years after Lake Eyre, his body located in Coniston Water’s deep decades later. He could not foresee death so soon despite risks taken, and perhaps I am still alive because, born poor, I drove a Beetle instead of the Bluebird.

Under summer’s brilliant night sky, alone except for ghosts from the unshakeable past, mind a weft of loss, wonder, my age now unimaginable then, I am driving that hot day of misery again, not quite making the tight turn from our back lane where love’s guttering light found the fraught future hard to penetrate. I scan iron galaxies for shooting stars, blazing blurs hurtling across stellar space so briefly glimpsed.   



An incarnation of chiaroscuro

Almost September, winter’s end, broke but free, hooked on a movie, I mutter, hands like moths fluttering in my familiar docks’ rusty halls. A foraging dog prowls the remains of a fire on stained concrete. I breathe the sharp smell of tar, break bylaws of trespass but blend in, here in the ‘fifties of my strange lonely boyhood, after escaping from school and home to the Port of Melbourne’s brick and iron bowels. A barge hoots near Constitution Docks’ dark sheds. Place intertwines with wan happiness, this entrepot my mise-en-scene.

Near a goods embankment I reprise ‘Waterfront, Maribyrnong/Yarra the Hudson River’s stand-in. Pigeons like boxer Terry Molloy’s rise from a broken sawtooth roof, clattering through mist over oily water as I flip his collar, air chill, damp, my quick fists burrowing into jacket pockets. I long for an angel with Edie’s face, convent-innocent, unlike mine, who might understand, even share, my boyish dream of making the big time.

Eva Marie Saint’s first movie, the only woman cast by fellow Oscar winner Elia Kazan, with Steiger, Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Brando, hotshock of Streetcar. American cinema-verite, another first, a triumph in monochrome, the neo-realism of Hoboken-on-Hudson’s corruption. Brando hung out with Rocky Marciano long after Nebraska, and military school, absorbing inarticulate authenticity, hoping to become a contender. Did Eva Marie study the religiously dutiful to become chaste Edie trying to resist the kid brother of a mobster?

Her fair hair, alabaster complexion, lit up that bleak waterfront landscape like saints’ haloes in medieval art. Brando, often shot in shadowy semi-darkness, echoing my teenaged days, contrasted with her angelic glow, the camera’ work with light and shadow at the moral heart of this moody movie that captivated me incognito in those sour docklands now archived by memory’s lens. 



Translating Terror Australis

My bad-tempered mother had a lot on her plate, as she put it, which was what I needed, my extra rations sneaked past her martial frugality from the hoarded past, energy for an uncharted frontier. Emigrating from England to Australia was like the pivotal point in a play, this play being my life. Aussie English was a lingua franca back then. Mother, trouble dogging her life, didn’t get the nuances of local idiom, whereas a boy starting school with wild larrikins absorbs slang quicksmart, as we used to say.

Australians swore. Everyone swears now but back then perhaps the English didn’t. Home from school, ripe language saturating my mind, I playfully called my pre-school brother a little bastard. Mother, face ashen, threatened me with her copper stick, itself the colour of her shocked expression, again. No washing-machines for frontierswomen. Accustomed to patient queueing in blitzed London, she challenged locals waiting for service in a higgledy mob like their sheep, pointing out to shopkeepers when they pushed in, her strident accent overriding soft drawls exchanged with sneers that pierced me.

My new cobbers, clattering bikes against our front gate, come to swap comics, yelled my name, a symphony to my ears, instead of knocking, my mother’s reputation spreading. She complained about their dearth of manners. I said, They’re just singing out. Their phrase for this. She said, There’s nothing musical about that lot.

She thought doing your block meant working hard when it actually meant losing your temper, exclaiming in the presence of other migrants more assimilated who knew her well that nobody could accuse her of not doing her block, her eyes then going from face to face trying to decipher shared yet cautious smirks.

In one year alone during the sorrow of war she lost her mother, two sailor brothers, a grandfather, and her father-in-law, after burying a baby son earlier. Three months after the shock of arrival in Australia she said was like journeying back into the past, her father died, this further morbid news arriving in a blue aerogramme. She loved flowering gum trees, and always the warm weather. No more chilblains. The sand in her glass nearly emptied, her visited remaining English relatives commented on her raucous Aussie accent, impressive acquired idiom.



Ian C Smith writes in the Gippsland Lakes region of Victoria, and on Flinders Island. His work has appeared in Antipodes, Communion, cordite, Eureka Street, Griffith Review,  Journal of Working Class Studies, Meniscus, & Shaping the Fractured Self (UWAP). His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra Press.

Main image: Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint as Terry Malloy and Edie Doyle in On the Waterfront (Film Star Vintage/Flickr)

Topic tags: Ian C Smith, On the Waterfront, poetry



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Existing comments

Too difficult to choose a favourite: all great work. In Silverton recently we viewed Mad Max's Museum atop a hill in the desert. I do believe the land speed record was nudged on the way back to Broken Hill.

Pam | 13 April 2021  

So much modern poetry is a masquerade, extremely poor prose so manipulated in structure, music, rhythm and the beauty of word association that for no reason other than the ease of categorisation it is accepted as poetry. But this structured writing which qualifies in its format and structure as prose is indeed fantastic poetry; evocative, beauteous and enriched with the capacity of the English language to capture the nuances of the human condition. Real poetry - a pageant of the power of language.

john frawley | 14 April 2021  

Very bloody impressive, Ian! This is poetic prose with truck loads of interest and evocation.

John RD | 14 April 2021  

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