Sunday, May 5, 2013

do at present

Let me find a purpose for as many of these burdens as possible, says Joyce -- the nursery rhyme living like a fish in the subtle electricity of your head since you were two, here is a reason for you to have retained it, you can use it now, you can bring your mental light-beam to bear one bit of my book by remembering Mary had a Little Lamb, making the Wake a more magnified, diverse, and concentrated version of those works, poems, shows, whatever, that ask you to see them through the lens of some single piece of literature that came to you in your primordial young life, the television series Grimm half-arsedly hoping that you remember something about fairy tales, or even my own book (says Joyce) Ulysses, which if you compare it to Finnegans Wake, seems so undemanding -- oh reader, says the Wake -- without you to connect me together I am nothing, I am helpless, I am not even a proper language, your memory is my engine -- the most difficult book is also the most dependent.

When a member of the Victorian police force in Peter Temple's book The Broken Shore said the words "big boss-woman" I reacted as other readers who have lived in Victoria must have reacted, by picturing Christine Nixon, who was Chief Commissioner of the Victorian Police Force from 2001 to 2009, seeing her in my mind's eye, a phrase that I might have thought of just then because Joyce turns it into a pun that I can still remember. "I have them all, tame, deep and harried, in my mine's I".

I've come across a series of puns recently, first in Joyce, then by reading Les Murray's Taller When Prone and then finding a reprint of an 1873 pantomime called Australia Felix or Harlequin Laughing Jackass and the Magic Bat by a writer called Garnet Walch, whose name would have given me an instant set of associations if I had been alive in Melbourne and watching plays in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. He would have come to me through a hundred doorways, I would have watched his plays, I would have read about him in the newspapers, I would have talked about him to others and they might have said, "Walchie!" knowing him instantly because his work was popular, but now he arrives through only one doorway.

The setting: a room of demons

[Thunder and Lightning. Enter KANTANKEROS]

ALL: Our King! Behold him!

KAN: That will do at present,
Give me a whine that's not so effervescent.

SCO: Real, and not sham-pain.

They used to sell copies of the script with the jokes italicised so that you wouldn't miss them when they were said in front of you the first time and then so that you wouldn't forget them afterwards: one purchase and you were reinforced in both directions. There is the villain, Kantankeros, then there is a hero, Felix, there is his father, Old Australia with an Irish accent which the script spells out phonetically (and it phoneticises the elevated diction given to some words, which are accented not because the characters using them have accents but because the words have been used so many times on the stage that they have accents, independent of the characters, "kyalm" for "calm," "trr-r-aiter!" for "traitor," these accents that are in-jokes and footnotes, the possible depth of a written language seeming infinite, vertigo setting in when I think about it) -- there is a companion animal in the shape of a kookaburra and an evil companion animal in the shape of a Mosquito, rip-off of the human Spider act that Melbourne was loving at that moment; there are satirical representations of topical figures, there is an alluring city woman named Miss Collyns Treeter (Collins Streeter, she promenades on Collins Street), there is a troupe of monkeys defeated by a troupe of ladies on a jungle island, there is a painted canvas depicting The Silver Pavilion of Perfect Bliss by Mr A.C. Habbe, there is a little boy in a beard and moustache representing W.G. Grace who was visiting Melbourne with the English First Eleven, and nobody had to explain that Boblo, who wants to meet Kantankeros, was really Robert Lowe, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was hated in Australia for his law proposals, and in Britain as well -- one of them was this: he wanted to put a halfpenny tax on boxes of Lucifer matches. In the play he tells Kantankeros that he has made Britain miserable and now he wants to make Australia miserable too. Excellent, says Kantankeros, I am the demon of misery and I was going to do exactly that thing.

For this purpose he will steal the Magic Bat which is a bat in the sense that it hits a cricket ball and not in the sense that it flies around like a mouse and eats all the mangoes.

Meanwhile the real Robert Lowe did several things one after the other, he became an Hon., he became sick, he published a book of poems (one of them in honour of Caroline Chisholm, one of them about the poverty of guano collectors); and died debilitated by his bad health in 1892.

But though they've deprived us of herds and of flocks
We can still steal the treasure that lies on the rocks,
Scraping, scraping, scraping guano --
Scraping, scraping, scraping.

(from The Gathering of Guano, in Poems of a Life, by Robert Lowe, pub.1885)

I look at that and it occurs to me that Guano is a poem so obscure that no one will probably ever want to cross-reference it or pun it or portmanteau it anywhere because an unfootnoted cross-reference would seem to point, in the minds of almost every reader, to a blank blasted howling spot where stillness dwells in the undisturbed grey dust, or if the writer cross-referenced it they would feel proud of the obscurity, not proud because they had given the reader an immediate passage into an idea: I could be the only person who has read it in years -- that's not impossible.


  1. I'm inclined now to abandon reading anything written in the last 50 years and just go back to spend more time around the kinds of archeological digs that unearthed that play. And the guano poem...! I am tucking that away for the next inevitable visit to a tourist attraction cavern, where, once down in the bowels, I will recite it loudly enough to echo off the walls.

    1. One of the wonderful things about the internet: they have Robert Lowe's entire book online, so that everyone from now until the end of computers can see how weirdly it jumps from gentlemanly topics like Mont Blanc and sunrises ("Oh, God, I see a glorious sight! | The morning sun burst heavenly bright") and Schiller, into "gather gather gather guano" and "scraping scraping scraping guano." ( )