That first sanctuary

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Selected poems



Odour of Libraries


He enters a university library at thirty-five feeling like an imposter, rougher-hewn from suffering than most students, wrapped in an aura he thinks religious pilgrims experience shuffling along echoing naves of Gothic cathedrals, sombre, joyous. On this undergraduate group’s familiarisation tour he gives up trying to embed library terminology in memory to embrace personal discovery, spaces perfectly hedged by the order of books, books as landscape where the swarming mind could fall in love, this awesome new-found sanctity.

Enrolment, the first of his generation in a widespread clan suffering from the aftermath of war, the belief that only money is worth garnering, his childhood a war in itself, steers him to safe harbour in the stacks squirreling away knowledge of a ravelled world unfolding before his eyes, stupendous centuries of language, history, art, or anything else starved senses devour as books gradually displace fragile friendships.

He can’t know years from now he shall mull over a kaleidoscopic life journey, events jostling for room to replay their roles in a failing memory; can’t predict the clamorous ache to step again from the advertised world’s cunning greed, the bastardry of betrayal, into cool shadows, that first sanctuary, breathe in the sensuous whiff of recorded life, the satisfying odour of libraries, do it more thoroughly. 



Bar Behaviour 101


At fourteen, wearing my work overalls, so looking older, I breast the bar’s murmuring buzz after pushing through the sesame door. Payday, air blue with cigarette smoke, a swearing stew. Women, not allowed in this jingoistic jungle, sit in the Ladies Lounge, a demi-monde of quiet drinkers. Some men wear suits, battered hats, or brilliantined hair like mine. Office personnel arrive later than day shift workers. Printers, ink-grubby hard drinkers, argue there before work.  Shaky old men sipping wee glasses, ‘ponies’, treated with respect, always attend. Off-duty detectives eye this hubbub of talk, too much of this also being most men’s ritual complaint about women, those cops’ probing glares assessing me this first time with my eighteen year-old workmate.

Buying rounds, ‘shouting’, required the right words, gestures, diction rough, ensuring barely pausing barmen understood, their fluid movement artistry to me. Alert to nuances of slang, I began to relax, part of the throng though agog with need to fathom arcane rites, concerned I might jostle somebody’s drink — most guzzled beer in various sized glasses — through obvious drunkenness, or speak too loudly, big no-no’s akin to engaging eye contact with off-duty cops.

Soaking up lore like a bar mat, alcohol intake limited by junior wages, I embraced the surging swell, tipsy choir of packed voices, angled light from acid-etched windows, jokes’ casual vulgarity, horse racing rationale, the lowdown on current scandals, ornate silver cash registers’ constant ringing, subtle but strict etiquette, even the stink of spilled beer’s stale familiarity.

When I was seventeen one of those cops I knew well by then chided me incorrectly for encouraging a group of underaged drinkers, kicking them out but not me, muttering that I ought to know better. I worked it out later I was the second-youngest. 






We lived on our wits and savings then, a working holiday, her keener on working than holidaying. Exploring London’s vast echoing age, shadows tempting after Australia’s gaudy glare, I stopped at blue historical plaques signifying that famous people spent parts of their lives there, thrilled chancing upon Dickens’ Bleeding Heart Yard. I read ancient manuscripts in the British Museum, hoarding these days like precious jewels for the future. We also kept hearing an old hit by Procol Harum, the tune everywhere, even the front upstairs seat of a red bus, as if an anthem borne on the Thames tide.

Too serious for such frivolity, she could never remember its wan title which I dragged from my trove of trivia, so I teased her about this, a kind of motif to that phase of our lives each time we heard it, daring to pay a forfeit if she could remember next time. Pledged scourging progressed from vaudevillian to outrageous.

My craving for colour, for spice, disarmed her, but not so much as my pride would honouring my word if she came good.  I had already escaped stripping naked in Piccadilly, now, my thin ice on the brink of cracking, this rashness unnerved me.  When the stakes soar I fold, yet couldn’t resist offering smartarse clues such as a metaphor for English complexions.

We heard his pulsing guitar well before we reached the busker, the Tube’s long tiled walkway’s echo chamber effect glorifying our sad ubiquitous refrain, those nonsense lyrics. Well, she demanded, stopping to face me, more than a hint of ice cracking in her voice, Aren’t you going to ask again? Seasons later she is successful in her sensible profession and I remember with clarity leaving for the coast, skin paler by then, torn thoughts, train wheels’ moody susurrus, carrying me alone into the risky future, away from the threnody of it all, that song tattooed on my hippocampus.



My First Funeral


When Harry plunged her into a chasm of grief he also said her brother-in-law, who phoned Harry with the news most of us hope never to deliver, wanted me to call him. Her mum had lost weight like an actor rigorously embracing the role of a dying saint, the way we all would if we didn’t eat. I thought this starvation regime a need for attention akin to her religious rapture, something I still believe these years on.

Harry and Marcie babysat while we watched a movie. They boasted a phone, many in our poor neighbourhood without. Our names flashed below a caravan where sexual heat was rising, a regular event at drive-ins, pierced me with a jolt of nervous electricity. That movie was adapted from a story by D.H. Lawrence, a writer, among others, I would come to admire.

My heroes in those days boxers, this brother-in-law and I were as far apart as Earth and the asteroid belt, his father a bank manager, mine a gardener. During our odd conversation he seemed to make slight slips of the tongue, probably thought I never made sense. Trouble with gender pronouns. Turned out her dad had died, not mum. Marcie, agog, calling Harry a fool, my wife’s sobs abated, joy in her eyes at first, guilt lodging in the years ahead for being closer to her mum than her suddenly dead dad.

Still an apprentice of appropriate behaviour, a skill always flunked, I faced the immediate future fraught with duty, a harbinger of misery yet to relay all of the amended news. Her dad, who, never owning a car, walked miles one chilly winter’s evening to give us a tiny portion of his pocket-money when we were struggling, perhaps now weary of his wife’s denials of bedroom advances in favour of conversations with God in her breakaway sect, had hanged himself in their little garden shed. He told me of his frustration in a rare man-to-man moment, honouring wisdom deficient me with this intimate confidence. That  drive-in, an eerie memory, has been replaced by a church.



Ian C Smith writes in the Gippsland Lakes region of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.  His work has appeared in Antipodes, cordite, Landscapes, Poetry New Zealand,  Shaping the Fractured Self (UWAP),  Southerly, & Text: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra Port Adelaide, 2014.

Topic tags: Ian Smith, poetry, library



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Gothic! Uni Library! Pub Crawl! Ladies! Swearing! OK, Air, pride, plume, here Buckle! it ain't, but it flies this little wingless Windhover back to Old Melbourne Town. Library? The biggie's more brutalist than Gothic, but there are others. Ya wanna see Cloisters? The Quadrangle had a feel to it. Gothic Wilson Hall? Only in photos for me, or living on the walls of Mystic Monsalvat - not Parsifal's island and his son the Schwannritter Lohengrin's Graalheim, but Justus Jorgensen's, in Farms and Wildwoods Eltham. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde, after Friday's last lectures and labs, get Errant in both senses. First Port of Crawl, the Clare Castle. Swear once, Mine Hostess says "No swearing!" Swear twice, and you're on your collective way to the Haymarket, the Royal Artillery, ultimately to Y&J's - named for the Prince's Bridge - its groundworks by St Percy Grainger's dad. Then over Flinders to Ma's Iconic PIE CART, and sit on the steps under The Clocks, sauce-&-gravying the shirtfront. "Nice nught!"sez I "Dum loquimur fugerit invida Aetas: carpe diem, quam minima credula postero!"sez Horace

James Marchment | 24 July 2020  

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