This post is a creative, experimental mash-up of personal experience plus one of the poems Bernhard Schlink read on Sunday 23 August in RMIT Capitol Theatre, in a session called ‘Pleasure and Pain: Poetry and the Body’ at Melbourne Writers Festival. The poem is called ‘Ballad of the Outer Life’ or ‘Ballade des auBeren Lebens’, and is by Hugo Von Hofmannsthal. I stole the English translation from here.
Where do you look, during a poetry reading?
And the children grow up with deep eyes
I study the face, and hands. There is often a wobble, even in the chin of the experienced. I look at how old they are, the gap between their legs, the way their hair falls back into the same place or the glasses slip down and they unconsciously push them back, back. I often imagine them naked.
who know of nothing, grow up and die,
I walk up and down Swanston Street wanting an item of food, something sweet, and a corner where I can open my book before the event. The book is scary and it can’t be read in a jumpy place. I am frustrated by my own indecision on the food. Yoghurt? Cake (but only banana)? Chocolate? No. A fight. I am eating too much. I need vegetables. Just get a coffee. No. I have real hunger. And I’m craving something sweet. Probably my iron is low again.
and all people go their ways.
The walking is nice but the people are justgetoutofmyfuckingway. And my sister in a foreign city with the same frustrations.
And the bitter fruits become sweet
Settle on chocolate-coated fruit and nuts. There is some guilt. I should have gotten fruit. But fruit wouldn’t last as long. These can be savoured. I get a coffee. I eat my book for a little while.
and fall down at night like dead birds
and lie a few days and spoil.
Christos Tsiolkas reads a poem called ‘Greed’ by Nina Cassian and I know her hunger and his relation to her fearless hunger but I am still growing the fearless part. My eyes become full of Anne Michaels’ hair and Andrea Goldsmith’s bright outfit, she exceeds the blocky theatre, and her hands shiver as she reads Dorothy Porter’s The Ninth Hour. And all the bodies in the audience know.
And always the wind blows, and again and again
Sometimes you breathe in and the poem comes with you. Other times, your mind is caught on some other ghost of a word which flies and perches behind a block on the roof and refuses to come back down and you realise you have lost the gist (Emily Ballou reads Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope is the Thing With Feathers’). You always feel bad for not absorbing it all. Often it is not the speaker or the poem but the lack of a jigsaw piece that seems to slot (at least roughly) into your own.
You make eye contact with Nathan Curnow later at the Wordplay poetry reading and you have to look away because he has all kinds of jigsaws you think you can see the pictures of. But it’s embarrassing to be presumptuous.
At work on Tuesday a severe storm warning and your heart races to the tune of doom and the apocalypse and missed relatives on far flung corners of the globe. And thinking about the people they are severing ties with. And the extreme change from black sky to blue for the faraway folk while you just grasp at a thousand twigs hanging on larger trees, holding on to all of them at once and suddenly your feet have left the ground and you’re swaying around in the wind and so dizzy.
we hear and speak many words
She comes to my work and we have the same lunch and she tries to get me to talk about my inadequacies. But the truth is in fiction.
and feel [the] pleasure and weariness of our limbs.
And she gives me the warmest hug goodbye and I am surprised because I always thought she didn’t like hugs but I think they’re the best and I would stretch my arms right around the globe. I am too startled by the hug to hug properly back and I think I even blush because I admire her and I make a note to myself to hug better goodbye next time.
And streets run through the grass, and places
The enraptured crowd at the poetry reading and my teeth close on the nut and it’s too loud, I am too loud, once the sweet surface has melted off.
are here and there, full of torches, trees, ponds,
and menacing ones and death-like withered ones…
Why are these raised up? and resemble
each other never? and are countlessly many?
Buildings and trees and writers. Countlessly many. The way Bernhard Schlink says here with a whoosh behind it. His words are sharp at the top and deep underneath, like triangles.
Why do laughing, crying, and turning pale alternate?
I do them all at once. A cocktail of affect. Something with tequila and salt.
Of what use is all this to us and all these games
who are (after all) great and eternally lonely
and, wandering, never seek any goals?
It is of no use at all, says my badge of the face of Albert Camus.
Of what use is it to have seen so many such things?
To try and not try so hard to absorb them all. To try and lose something and find knowledge in relaxation. To forget the seen things, even. To maybe have literate children forget them too. Or just continue to wrap your arms around them, arms around the earth and jigsaw fits and naked poets. To have split seconds of skin joy, or hugs, or eye contact. Always the smell of pages.
And nevertheless he says much who says “evening”,
a word from which deep meaning and sadness run
like heavy honey from the hollow comb.