The Red and Black Bookshop, in Brisbane, when I was nineteen,
was the place to discover poets.
‘A corrupting place,’ our parents called it —
dubious as Dracula lurking near blameless sellers of batik
and too many flavours of icecream.
In the dangerous spaces left there by banned Beardsley prints,
young men who had recently fainted,
spit-polished and khaki-creased, cradling cadet rifles
on Anzac Day, were turning over Marx and Mao,
arguing for anarchy and intently
lengthening their hair.
In my aqua splash of mini-shift, I skulked behind the shelves.
I wanted to be a Holub water sprite —
but feared I was a slug, dazzled by the shimmer
from Akhmatova, Prevert, Ferlinghetti, Montale, Herbert,
Buber, Woolf, Fromm . . .
How shall we live? Must there always be wars? . . .
Megaphone cries and crowd bleats
ambushed the arcade. Reds under beds, black banners at marches,
bloodied Vietnamese in Semper and body-bagged Aussies
on the TV News . . .
On the silk screens of our eyelids while we slept,
red asterisks ripped. Into inky holes
the world was imploding.
In brief retreat from all that I slid in from the street
with the beat of policemen’s fists on my back —
reached through the Red and Black
for these time bombs: white pages opening on my palms,
innocent as butterflies.
The poems lifted off
so lightly . . . but that shop was forever
flickery with shocks. I walked away electric,
not knowing how many others also slept
on pillows of Penguin paperbacks.
While cane toads squashed and mosquitoes fizzed,
into exercise books day and night
my own leaky lyrics spilled. In my separate conspiracy,
plotting snails’ trails away
from the mangroves and the malevolent
lines of law and order breeding blue armies like mudcrabs
I was nineteen, secreting round myself a chrysalis of words —
just beginning to be
an unknowing member of a secret tribe:
initiated by the Red and Black
into these mysteries
of holding, for a moment, poems’ unfolding wings —
while I waited for my own metamorphic flights.
(from The Satin Bowerbird 1998)