Kenneth Slessor (27 March 1901 – 30 June 1971 / Orange, New South Wales)
The Old Play
IN an old play-house, in an old play,
In an old piece that has been done to death,
We dance, kind ladies, noble friends.
Observe our modishness, I pray,
What dignity the music lends.
Our sighs, no doubt, are only a doll's breath,
But gravely done—indeed, we're all devotion,
All pride and fury and pitiful elegance.
The importance of these antics, who may doubt?
Do you deny us the honour of emotion
Because another has danced this, our dance?
Let us jump it out.
IN the old play-house, in the watery flare
Of gilt and candlesticks, in a dim pit
Furred with a powder of corroded plush,
Paint fallen from angels floating in mid-air,
The gods in languor sit.
Their talk they hush,
Their eyes' bright stony suction
Freezes to silence as we come
With our proud masks to act.
Who knows? Our poor induction
May take the ear, may still, perchance, distract.
Is there nothing new in this old theatre, nothing new?
Are there no bristles left to prick
With monstrous tunes the music-box of flesh?
Hopes dies away; the dance, absurd, antique,
Fatigues their monocles; the gods pursue
Their ageless colloquy afresh.
MARDUK his jewelled finger flips
To greet a friend. Bald-headed, lean,
He wets his red transparent lips,
Taps his pince-nez, and gapes unseen.
Hequet to Mama Cocha cranes
Her horny beak. 'These fools who drink
Hemlock with love deserve their pains.
They're so conventional, I think.'
Limply she ceases to employ
Her little ivory spying-lens.
'I much prefer the Egyptian boy
Who poisoned Thua in the fens.'
BUT who are we to sneer,
Who are we to count the rhymes
Or the authorized postures of the heart
Filched from a dynasty of mimes?
Each has a part;
We do not hear
The mockers at our little, minion ardours,
Our darling hatreds and adulteries,
Our griefs and ecstasies,
Our festivals and murders.
And who are we, who are we,
That would despise the lawful ceremonies
Condoned by the coming of five Christs,
By the beating of an infinitude of breasts,
By Adam's tears, by the dead man's pennies,
Who are we?
AND who are we to argue with our lutes,
How would we change the play?
Are we Lucifers with hell in our boots?
There are no Lucifers to-day.
By no means. It is never like this,
Never like this. One does not fall.
How should we find, like Lucifer, an abyss?
Never like that at all.
And who are we to pester Azrael,
Importunate for funeral plumes
And all the graces Death can sell—
Death in cocked feathers, Death in drawing-rooms,
Death with a sword-cane, stabbing down the stairs?
It is not like this at all,
Never, never like this.
Death is the humblest of affairs,
It is really incredibly small:
The dropping of a degree or less,
And tightening of a vein, such gradual things.
How should we guess
The slow Capuan poison, the soft strings,
Of Death with leather jaws come tasting men?
CAMAZOTZ and Anubis
Go no more to the coulisses.
Once they'd wait for hours,
Grateful for a few excuses,
Hiding their snouts in flowers,
Merely as a tribute to the Muses.
Those were the days of serenades.
Prima donnas and appointments.
Now they think longer of pomades,
Less of the heart and more of ointments.
Anubis dabbles with the world;
A charming man, perhaps a trifle sinister,
But with his stars on, and his tendrils curled,
Really, you'd take him for the Persian Minister.
But Camazotz has grown jaded
And likes an arm-chair in the stalls,
Being by brute necessity persuaded
That perfect love inevitably palls;
Such the divine adversity
Of passion twisting on its stem,
Seeking a vague and cloudier trophy
Beyond the usual diadem.
'More balconies! More lilac-trees!
Let us go out to the private bar.
I am so tired of young men like these,
Besides, I note he is carrying a guitar.'
'SHANG YA! I want to be your friend'—
That was the fashion in our termitary,
In the gas-lit cellules of virtuous young men—
'Shang Ya! I want to be your friend.'
Often I think, if we had gone then
Waving the torches of demoniac theory,
We should have melted stone, astonished God,
Overturned kings, exalted scullions,
And ridden the hairy beast outside
Into our stables to be shod—
Such was the infection of our pride,
Almost a confederation of Napoleons.
Though in Yuëh it is usual
To behead a cock and dog,
Such was not considered binding
In our bloodless decalogue.
But the tail-piece to the chapter
We so fierily began
Resembled an old song-book
From the golden days of Han.
Ours was the Life-Parting
Which made the poets so elegantly tragic.
On and on, always on and on,
By fears and families, by a sudden plague of logic,
By an agreeable ossification,
By a thousand tiny particles of space
Widening the fissures of our brotherhood,
We were impelled from place to place,
Dismembered by necessitude.
Who could have called that soft, adhesive nag
We bounced our lives on, a wild horse?
We were given palfreys in the place of stallions;
As for the kings and scullions,
We should, no doubt, have brought them to our flag
Had we not forgotten the prescribed discourse.
On and on, driven by flabby whips,
To the Nine Lands, to the world's end,
We have been scattered by the sea-captains of ships,
Crying no more with bright and childish lips,
Even if we wanted to pretend,
'Shang Ya! Let me be your friend.'
THIS is really a Complete Life and Works,
The memorial of a great man
Who was born with Excalibur in his fist
And finished by asking questions.
Woken by a star falling on his tiles,
He rushed out, defying devils—
'Come forth, you monster!' Only neighbours peeped
Fish-eyed at this ferocity.
Repeatedly inviting the rogue to stand,
He hunted with a naked sword,
But though general admiration and sympathy were expressed,
The scoundrel was not detected.
At last, regrettable to state, he stopped.
Why honour a coward with pursuit?
So he began to use Excalibur in the kitchen,
Or on occasion as a hay-rake.
How did he know that Time at length would gnaw
The rascal's face with quicklime?
Gradually the print faded, a fog blew down,
He even forgot the nature of the outrage.
However, he managed to live very tolerably,
And now, in a substantial villa,
Having saved enough to purchase an annuity,
Is piously glad he never found anyone.
But Gutumdug and Vukub-Cakix,
Having already seen many great men,
May surely be pardoned if with foundered chins
They doze a little. . . .
Phew . . . heu. . . .
Doze a little.
A BIRD sang in the jaws of night,
Like a star lost in space—
O, dauntless molecule to smite
With joy that giant face!
I heard you mock the lonely air,
The bitter dark, with song,
Waking again the old Despair
That had been dead so long,
That had been covered up with clay
And never talked about,
So none with bony claws could say
They'd dig my coffin out.
But you, with music clear and brave,
Have shamed the buried thing;
It rises dripping from the grave
And tries in vain to sing.
O, could the bleeding mouth reply,
The broken flesh but moan,
The tongues of skeletons would cry,
And Death push back his stone!
MY strings I break, my breast I beat,
The immemorial tears repeat,
But Beli, yawning in the pit,
Is not at all impressed by it.
Fresh lachrymations to endure!
He champs a gilded comfiture—
'The song was stale five Acts ago;
Besides, it isn't Life, you know.'
BUT Life we know, but Life we know,
Is full of visions and vertigo,
Full of God's blowpipes belching rubies forth,
And God's ambiguous grape-shot maiming saints,
Full of emancipations and restraints—
Thou poor, bewildered earth!
Thou givest us neither doom nor expiation,
Nor palm-trees bursting into praise;
Blow down thy fruit, we snatch our stomachful,
Thou turnest not thy gaze,
Knowing we do but rob a little time;
A flight of air; thou takest back the spoils.
O, for some thunder on our brother's crime,
Even a little harmless flagellation
Or a few miserable boils!
But thou! Thou dost not turn thy face
Either to buffet or explore.
The devils bask, the martyrs weep.
Art thou too proud in a high place,
Or too befuddled in thy sleep?
Art thou too languorous to roar?
YOU that we raised
To the high places,
With painted eyes
And cloudy faces,
You that are named,
But no one finds,
Made out of nothing
By men's minds—
Be true to us,
Play us not false;
Be cruel, O Gods,
You were our statues
Cut from space,
And dragon's face;
Fail us not,
You that we made,
When the stars go out
And the suns fade.
You were our hope
Death to bless—
Leave us not crying
Comments about this poem (The Old Play by Kenneth Slessor )
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