Thursday, September 25, 2008

Miraculous draft of Les Murray

The daughter of Leo Connellan, our poet friend who passed away, gave me a good deal on 10 of the poet's neckties. I then gave ties to musicians who worked on our poetry score to Leo's hitchhiking epic, Crossing America.

The trustees of Leo's ties are responsible for maintaining their tie with dignity and honor, reading Leo's poetry any day they wear a Leo tie, and submitting a story to Poetry Scores about what they have done on days when they wear Leo's tie.

I chose for myself a baby blue tie with two alternating patterns. One is a line of octagons inset with what look like black measles, the other vaguely floral with suggestions of spermatozoa, tufted by clouds. It is a little frayed, like Leo when we knew him, and blotched in three places with yellow, the same shade, probably from the same meal, I'm guessing egg.

In my Leo tie I sat for my visa photos, so when I entered Ghana and Togo, the border guards knew me in Leo's tie.

I took off my Leo tie to receive shots of yellow fever and meningitis so my body would be inoculated against those pathogens should I encounter them while I am in Africa, and then I kept my tie in my knapsack, because I love Leo but loathe ties.

With my Leo tie I met Les Murray, the unofficial national poet of Australia, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Met's off-day. I joined Les and his friend Alice, who restores tapestries for the museum, for a private, behind-the-scenes tour of a Renaissance tapestry show.

"I've seen that somewhere," Les said, pointing to one of the massive tapestries. He was wearing a New York Yankees fishing hat.

"You've seen it at the Vatican, Les," Alice suggested.

Les in his Yankees fishing hat, I with my Leo tie, we shuffled along.

"These are Big Deal tapestries," Alice noted of the next room. "Raphael did the cartoons. These hang around the Sistine Chapel, just under the ceiling." We were facing Raphael's Miraculous Draft of Fishes.

"'Have you caught any fish?'" Les quoted Jesus Christ from the Bible. "'Let down your nets on the other side.' And there came a miraculous draft of fishes."

Les in his Yankees fishing hat, I with my Leo tie, we shuffled along.

"They surely did like hunting, didn't they?" Les observed, looking at the next batch of tapestries.

"They liked horses' asses!" Alice said. Indeed, rather many of the horses on the hunt did have their backsides turned to weaver and viewer.

"This is one of the Triumphs," Alice noted in the next room.

"Triumph?" Les asked. "Of what?"

"Of Lust," Alice said.

"It's also the invention of the ice cream cone," Les said. One figure's neck was, in fact, coiled like a twirl of soft ice cream.

"The fellow in the middle is saying, 'Have you ever seen a club this size?'" Les said, "but the moral of it you can't read very well."

Les in his Yankees fishing hat, I with my Leo tie, we shuffled along.

"Look at this thing!" Alice exclaimed. "This is St. Michael Overcoming Satan."

"You know, I played Satan in a Medieval play once," Les reminisced. "I had to wear a pig mask. The governor of New South Wales attended. I jumped on him one night. I jumped off the stage. The devils were supposed to flee, so I fled, and ended up on the knees of the governor. His wooden knees. He had lost his legs in the war. The governor handled it with stony aplomb."

Les in his Yankees fishing hat, I with my Leo tie, we descended the grand marble steps of the Met.

"How do you fit into all this?" Alice asked me.

"I'm a Les Murray fan," I said.

"I should photocopy and send you the letter he wrote me," Les said, referring to my first fan letter, when I told him that Les Murray was the star right fielder on my dice baseball team composed of poets. "I keep that one in my folder of very special things."

As we bid Alice farewell, and headed down Fifth Avenue for coffee, I pointed at Les' Yankee hat with a smile.

"I went to the big game," he said, "all because of your insidious influence, of course. The very first hit I saw was a homerun. I started right at the top: a homerun at Yankee Stadium. I expect it's all a slight decline from there."

At the coffee shop, I gave Les a copy of Leo's book Provincetown. I explained about Leo's passing and the trusteeship of the ties. Les thumbed through the book. "I like this feller," Les said of Leo. "He is clear, and real."

Over coffees and ice cream sodas, Les told me that my wife's name, "Karley," means "black" in Sanskrit and Gypsy, because Gypsy is an Indian tongue.

I pointed out that the name is short for "Addokarley," which means "Third Daughter" in her home African language, Mina.

"The Romans went for that, too, naming people after numbers," Les said. "If she were an ancient Roman, I suppose her name would be Tertia."

Walking Les back to the Met, I asked if he had made a spoken word record yet. He had not, though he had done some recording with the Poet Laureate of England, and wanted to do a book-on-tape of his verse novel, Fredy Neptune. When I said that is precisely one of the things that I wanted to do, he agreed I should look into it.

Les was in town to read at the Guggenheim Museum during the world premiere of new works that set his poems to music. During his performance there he had read a piece that refers to music as a "nonsense poem," so only with hesitation did I mention my other dream, doing a poetry score to his long, highly musical poem, "The Sydney High Rise Variations."

"What kind of music should go with it?" I asked.

His lips quivered with the ghost of a melody he was keeping in his head. "There should be some wind in the sound. It starts on this big, high bridge, you see. I wish I had the text in front of me."

I suggested that he mail me a cassette of melodies when he gets back to New South Wales, and he nodded yes agreeably.

In Central Park, just south of the Met, I cornered a street vendor and had him snap a picture of Les and me, Les in his Yankee fishing hat and me with my Leo tie.

"I hope that took!" I said. "That was my last picture."

"Ah, we'll take one when you come to Australia," Les said, opening up a strange new continent in my heart. "There's always corn in Egypt, as my father used to say. "


Image of Miraculous Draft of Fishes from that show at The Met we saw.

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