November verse 9: Happy Birthday
(For my sister Mary Ann)
‘Sweet Leilani, heavenly flower,’
our father sang when you were born
and kept on singing. That’s girl power
after three boys. Time has worn
the sharp joy from your nickname Lani
but not destroyed it. Scratch the blarney,
underneath you’ll find the stone
of honest feeling, blood and bone.
Leonard and before him Harry
put your real name into song:
a mournful, agonised so-long,
a Caribbean won’t-you-marry.
Now I, as you turn sixty-nine,
invoke their rhymes with one of mine
And one Leonard made earlier:
First an embarrassing memory, and then a slightly less embarrassing piece of verse.
The memory: in 1970 I was an English Honours student at Sydney University and had no idea how ignorant I was. James McAuley, then one of the Grand Old Men of Australian poetry, had a new book out, Surprises of the Sun. One of its poems, ‘In the Twentieth Century’, begins: ‘Christ, you walked on the sea, / But cannot walk in a poem, /Not in our century.’
To my mind he was clearly mistaken, so I wrote him a letter, in which I pointed out his error and as proof transcribed the second stanza of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, which begins, ‘Jesus was a sailor and he walked upon the water’.
McAuley didn’t reply, and presumably the letter itself has long since ceased to exist, but my brain has refused to eliminate the memory.
And the verse:
Verse 5: … about it all again
No drunken midnight choir sang me to
sleep. I heard no secret chord.
The room filled up with one mosquito,
and no sweetness was restored.
Adam’s long since left the garden.
Home he’s gone without a hard-on.
Break the bugle, skin the drum –
democracy is yet to come.
He’s danced us to the end of living,
leans no longer for Suzanne
or sea-and-shoreline Marianne.
Say goodbye to Leonard leaving.
So much light came through his cracks
and gave our griefs their music tracks.