Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Baseball for an Australian Poet

One of series of pieces about Les Murray, whose poem "The Sydney Highrise Variations" we are scoring for 2009.

A Baseball for an Australian Poet
By Chris King

I always judge a book by its cover. It's never my last judgment, and not always my first, but it figures in there somewhere, part of books' physical magic that makes them irreplaceable.

So I was picking through a milk crate of books in Mercer Street Books in Greenwich Village when I saw a hard farm family in simple clothes, painted in a primitive style with bold colors, flanked by dogs who alone seem at ease on earth – one dog even has his back turned, leg hiked in mid-flea-scratch, gazing away, as if he were restless to escape the severity of this little painting. Some thumbing convinced me that the poetry was every bit as tough as the painting, while showing a wider range of technique and emotion.

On the back cover (I judge books by their backs, too) major poets like Derek Walcott and Richard Howard (with whom I once dined on Moroccan fish soup) were dishing out high praise. I decided that Les Murray, the author of this book, was one of the countless heavies who had slipped by me undetected. I bought the book.

Now for a bit of madness.

I soon discovered that I loved this poet so much that I had to have him on my team. I was tiring of Pablo Neruda, who was slumping at the plate (and sounding stagey and vague in English translation), so I traded my star centerfielder to a rival club, moved Ovid to center and signed Les Murray, this Aussie rookie, to play right field.

He started off on a ferocious tear, quickly joining the league leaders in every major offensive category, and I found myself more and more absorbed in the poetry. A web search revealed both an upcoming New York reading for Les and a listing of his home address in a tiny hamlet in New South Wales, Australia, so I dashed off a fan letter (written on breath-thin pink paper that a long-ago girlfriend had brought me as a gift from New Delhi), saying I'd like to interview you when you come to Brooklyn. Believe it or not, you are a star in a dice version of the American pastime that some buddies and I play with poets as the ballplayers. And by the way, would you sign a baseball for me when you come?

Soon enough a postcard appeared from Australia declaring, yes, you can interview me for a story, but your letter is already the highest praise and my best piece of fan mail, ever.

Then some very dedicated men showed the extreme bad taste of flying commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, killing thousands and scaring a great many good people, including Les Murray, out of the skies.

In our grief, my buddies and I kept our hobby alive – verseball returned to action before Major League Baseball did – and Les continued to excel as my right fielder. Not long after his cancelled reading (and immediately after a verseball game against the North Jersey Turkey Vultures, in which our man drew three walks from John Donne, as if the veteran right hander were afraid to pitch to the Australian slugger), I cheered myself up by writing Les a long letter, which I enclosed in a box with a baseball that I asked him to sign (and maybe even add a tiny poem, too, right on the leather).

When the ball never came back, I figured that the anthrax scare got to Les, too, and kept him from opening a bulky package from New York. Or maybe I had tried his patience. Or perhaps the commission for a poem was too far over the top, biting into his professional pride (he gets paid for poems, after all). It wasn't the first time I overdid something. Sigh. We'll always have the postcard.

But then, one day, waiting for me on my doorstep was a box that once held self-drilling screws, postmarked in New South Wales and inscribed (for the benefit of customs), "GIFT ONLY. Contents: one baseball. No commercial value." And indeed, there it was, a baseball that had flown from a factory in China to a Sports Authority outlet on Long Island to a poet's home in rural Australia, then back to me, annotated:

He knocks on the door
and listens to his heart
approaching. -----

And, on the other side:

for Chris King
with rhymes and reasons
Les Murray

With this talisman came another poem on paper, obviously hand-typed using his typewriter:

Mid-19th century

Good-looking young man
in your Crimean shirt
with your willow shield
up, as if to face spears,

you're inside their men's Law,
one church they do obey;
they'll remember you were here.
Keep fending off their casts.

Don't come out of character.
Like you, they suspect
idiosyncrasy of witchcraft.Above all, don't get out

too easily, and have to leave here
where all missiles are just leather
and come from one direction.
Keep it noble. Keep it light.

This one is addressed "for Chris & the Sans Souci Poetasters," which is the name of my verseball team, in honor of my Uncle Skippy Sans Souci, a chef who published a small booklet of verse by that name. With that poem, Les included quite a long and remarkable letter:

Dear Chris,

Yeah, well, I was a damn ninny not to come to NY and perform & meet you. It goes like that sometimes: the family get worried about their breadwinners. The news is so gloomy you don't believe your innocent verses can dispel or countervail the gloom – and presto! You let yourself and everyone DOWN. It was a momentary thing, much regretted ever since.

The day you wrote your second, disappointed letter to me was my birthday (17 Oct.), and I spent it first in the air en route to Tokyo. Then all on my Todd Malone in an impersonal hotel before flying the great length of Siberia and Russia the next day. I still had a month's busy tour to do in Britain, you see. The Brits were an object lesson to me, cool and unflapped – non-kamikazied and un-massacred in their chief city, too, of course – trying not to say beastly things about the Muslims in their midst but scared of them all the same. Just like people in Sydney, all squinting up at the word Racist in the sky and striving not to have it fall on them. The tour was hard work but fun, as ever – and flying is a pleasure, now. Lots of empty seats, room to spread out and sleep ... I did lose my nail clippers at the start of both my big flights, but happily the real deadly weapon I have to carry at all times, my supply of insulin injectors, wasn't looked at. And yet, a spike from one would kill a non-diabetic stone dead. Ironic, eh, the world of terror?

I'm bemused but much impressed by the moves of the Sans Souci Poetasters (very good name, I agree, to have been conferred in honor of a poet chef!). I like the case of nerves I caused in John Donne. Herewith your baseball, with a very short poem and a cramped signature, plus a better, plainly legible signature. The only real equivalent gift I can add is a poem about a young man called Nannuttesa, as Aboriginal cricket player of the 1850s-60s. His handsome portrait, in a red Crimean shirt, hangs in the National Gallery in Canberra. The first two cricket teams ever to go play in Britain from Australia were both Aboriginal. One went in the 1860s and amazed the superior British by winning half of its games. Not so "primitive." The second Ab. team did pretty well, but not quite so well – and after them the sniffy white colonists back in this country impeded further Ab. tours so as not to be shown up. Which they wouldn't have been, as it proved. I think you have a team called the Braves – is that Boston? Imagine if they were & had always been braves in the full sense.

"Casts" in the poem refers to the trial by ordeal warriors undergo when they've broken tribal law. They have to stand and face a given number of spears flung at them, & they only have a small shield to deflect these with. For really bad deeds, they have no shield, but may still duck and weave. For offences just short of the death penalty they have to endure a spear thrust in the thigh. Deep. Big adultery will get a man that. These punishments still go on, on tribal lands & other Outback places, despite misgivings from the Whitefeller law. Not even the North Jersey Turkey Vultures, I'm sure, would go in for such severe training.

Now how do I tell Les that he has fallen into a slump and is in danger of being platooned in right field with Alice Fulton?

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