As a teenager, actor Samuel Johnson was struck by the work of a little-known Australian poet. Years later he was shocked to discover who she really was. By Samuel Johnson.
Samuel Johnson’s poetic discovery
You’ll perhaps consider me a little slipshod opening my letter this way. But it is my letter and it is my opinion that this correspondence should begin with your words, for yours are so much better.
“Softball Match at the Tech School”
Anderson’s dick, you can’t find it,
Stick your arse behind the backstop and
Shut yer mouth
Four balls make a walk
He stole the whole base
We wanna go home
Strike one for Fatty
This kid’s trying to kill me
Take it easy.
I love that poem. I would love to write one back, but I’m a shit poet. It feels odd writing to you. I don’t know much about you really. I don’t know where or when you were born, or when you died. I don’t know your middle name or what colour you wore your hair. I thought you might be interested to hear what I do know of you though, for there is much you’ve missed.
I lived above dad’s second-hand bookshop for years. When I was 15 and abandoned my dreams of tennis, of Wimbledon, I started working at becoming a bohemian of considerable import. I didn’t know a great deal about poetry but I’d somehow surmised I wouldn’t be able to call myself a true bohemian if I didn’t sport at least a rudimentary grasp. I wore my beret, but it was starting to feel false. And so, in search of authenticity, I trundled down our rickety, wooden, spiral staircase, into dad’s bookshop and its poetry section. I found you in the first book I picked out – an anthology of Australian women poets published in the ’70s, called Mother, I’m Rooted. I picked it up because it had the word “rooted” on the cover. I was 15; it figures. I opened the book square on “Softball Match at the Tech School” and I was in at fungoid fool.
You used your words bravely, leaving me giddy and confused. You put pictures in my head and made me laugh and then feel sad straight after. You captured me with vivid wordplays and your punctuated musicality. I hungered for more than your six poems in the anthology. I searched for you in the index of every other book in the section and found nothing. But I had a piece of you. And I could attest to being a legitimate bohemian, having been so greatly moved by your lyrical dexterity. I donned my beret free of guilt, before taking my customary walk along the beach. To think. And smoke cigarettes. Because that’s what 15-year-old bohemians do.
Over the years I’d hear talk of you. Sometimes I’d fossick and sometimes I’d happen upon it. Apparently you went mad. Too much acid. By all accounts you found life a most dreadful and onerous undertaking, which I think I understand. Despite this, you held famed parties where you would invite the street urchins and the upper classes, just to watch the fireworks. I learnt that you believed in God most fervently, but I can only assume that you shared a tempestuous bond in light of your purported behaviour being so rarely in line with Bible principles. I heard you fed your preschool daughter LSD and I sniffed around and I think it may be true. When you weren’t in the housing commissions you were in the institutions. They don’t exist anymore, you might be interested to know. I heard you reached for God when you got lost but he wasn’t there. In amongst it all, I’m told you had three kids and married a bloke and it didn’t work out. I heard that you loved him more than he loved you, and that it broke your heart. But I’m told there were lots of things that broke your heart. I’m told that you finally ended it after countless attempts.
You don’t know this, and this is why I’m writing to you, but you came into my home when I was 19. Generally speaking, my memory is patchy, but I remember this day like no other and you feature in it most prominently.
I was 19, and back for another stint above dad’s bookshop, another effort to reshuffle my affairs. I had left the bohemian thing behind, realising that only wankers wore berets, and was dedicated to becoming a cynic. I was depressed because the world was like your poems, oddly enough. The one thing holding me together was family and thank blessed fuck that I had care of my nephew Jonathon that afternoon. Young Jonno had been tasked with some creative writing homework. He had to write a story. Dad had encouraged me to write stories from a very early age and he kept every story I ever wrote in his filing cabinet, hoping, as any old book dealer might, that his son would be the next Proust. Regardless, there was one story I had written, when I was about Jonno’s age, called “The Old Man and the Watermelon’” and I thought I might read it to Jonno in an effort to somehow inspire him, such was my hubris at that age. As I rifled through dad’s filing cabinet I came across a tab that read “Merrill’s Poems”.
There you were again.
My heart faltered. I couldn’t deal with it while Jonno was up. I sequestered the file in my room before finding “The Old Man and the Watermelon” and reading it. Jonno wrote his piece, we had apple pie and custard, he brushed his teeth, I read him another chunk of Huck Finn and tucked him away safe and sound.
I sat in my bedroom. I fingered the manila folder nervously, not sure I was ready to see what was inside. It felt wrong to be reading a private file of my father’s, but he need not ever know. There were maybe a hundred poems. I turned the pages slowly, edging ever closer to knowing you. I drifted through your twisted mind. Your pages were lyrical, alarming, completely disconnected, manic, paranoid, sinister, even graceful, depending on the day or your mood or your place. In no time flat, there were only two pages left unread. I searched the penultimate page for a title, but this was the first poem without one. It just said, simply and in brackets, (For Samuel Joseph). That’s my name. You wrote me a poem for me. Before you died. Now you weren’t some acid-drenched poet. Now you were my mum.
I’m writing to tell you that I found the poem you wrote me. You’ve probably forgotten it, but here it is:
“(For Samuel Joseph)”
When “this old man”
From the nursery rhyme
You were hiding in his sack and
Seizing the first gruff moment his back
Was turned you stuck your head
Out and grinned
O lord how I sinned
No great sin to conceive
You little son, receive
A mother’s prayer for you
And a fresh pair of pants
Gold ducks on red overalls
Little fellow fat tim
With your chest all a rumble
Go cough in the night
Look look see the thumb
Making arcs in the air by the
Window is your own
Thumb and the fingers
Leave the fingers weaving
Greetings to the pane
And smile just once again
Forever for your
Once and for all mum
If I’d lost you big bonny baby son
Sam Sam listen if you can Sam
There’d never be another son
Like you so
I sent the silly fellow from the rhyme a
Packing, skulking off with nought
But empty sacking for company
And I kept you
Treasure devil dear
All the seas of joy
Rise to sing for you boy
Surge and swell and roar
All the seas of joy
Sound wonderfully near
Since you’ve been here
I wrote to you not just to tell you that I found your poem, and to thank you for it, but with some feeble hope that perhaps, like me, you’ll find this letter buried in a filing cabinet somewhere. And so you know who your son is, there are a few things I need to make clear. I’ve become a half-decent human. There’s a miscreant in me and I’ve fucked up plenty, but I’ve balanced out my base hedonism with sizeable helpings of community work and I endeavour to be the best that I can. They told me I have what you had but I don’t believe them and I’ve been off my medication for nearly two years without incident. I’ve never tried to kill myself. I’m a practising minimalist and your poem is one of my few possessions, protected in fireproof glass. I give most of what I earn to my family and loved ones and am generous with my time. I’m not particularly good at any one thing but I try hard and I’m proud of that. I think you tried hard, too. Maybe that’s where I got it. I have a long-term partner and I have shared nearly a whole decade with my stepson, Khye, who is troubled in much the same way I imagine you were. My first book was published last week, so I’m a writer like you now, which feels good. Despite mostly feeling that my life has been an unending series of fuck-ups, I’ve found some confidence and a little security, in so far as you can.
I have never blamed you for leaving. Lots of people these days call suicide selfish. They say, what about the kids? What about the family? Not realising it’s not at all about them. I don’t miss you, for I never had you to miss. That bloke you had three kids with stepped up when you stepped out. He was effeminate and authoritative, so I had a two-in-one type of deal. I’m pretty much okay, except I have intimacy issues and I can’t share a bed for more than one night. I feel lucky that you didn’t stick around and fuck up my life like you did my sister’s. She found you dead when she was 12. She was late to see you. Ever since, she’s carried a swag of neuroses. She’s never once been late in the decades since. Thanks for making her so punctual.
I’ve only seen one photo of us together. I’ve never cared to obtain my own copy. You were cremated, but the small plaque with your name on it is long lost and only your punctual daughter has ever searched for it. To be honest, for that’s what letters ought be, I think I did better without you. I think you knew I would. You are mostly forgotten now, which happens of course, but your poetry stays near and that is your gift.
With true thanks, for changing my life for the better, forever for your, once and for all, big bonny baby son,
Lifeline 13 11 14
A version of this was first read at the literary event Men of Letters.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 15, 2014 as "Poète maudit".
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