Knifing the Dark With Deadly Photographs

Kenneth Slessor (27 March 1901 to 30 June 1971) –

He helped Australian poetry transcend its traditional town-and-country ballads and move into the 20th century.

See how this distant memory, from Country Towns, perhaps a fragment of time from his birthplace of Orange, New South Wales, compares with, say, A. B. Paterson:

Verandas baked with musky sleep,

Mulberry faces dozing deep,

And dogs that lick the sunlight up

Like paste of gold – or, roused in vain

By far, mysterious buggy-wheels,

Lower their ears, and drowse again….”

Judith Wright wrote – “…the note of hollowness and hopelessness in Slessor’s work is inescapable…in Slessor’s poetry the abyss is finally triumphant.”*

For example, here’s the melancholy, evocative death of James Cook from Five visions of Captain Cook, noting the use of repetition:

And then the trumpery springs of fate – a stone,

A musket-shot, a round of gunpowder,

And puzzled animals, killing they knew not what

Or why, but killing…the surge of goatish flanks

Armoured in feathers, like cruel birds:

Wild, childish faces, killing; a moment seen,

Marines with crimson coats and puffs of smoke

Toppling face down; and a knife of English iron,

Forged aboard ship, that had been changed for pigs,

Given back to Cook between the shoulder-blades.

There he dropped, and the old floundering sea,

The old, fumbling witless lover-enemy,

Had taken his breath, last office of salt water.

And here’s Slessor’s lament for a drowned friend, Five Bells:

When, blank and bone-white, like a maniac’s thought,

The naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky,

Knifing the dark with deathly photographs.

…Yet something’s there, yet something forms its lips

And hits and cries against the ports of space,…

But I hear nothing, nothing…

…And I tried to hear your voice, but all I heard

Was a boat’s whistle, and the scraping squeal

Of seabirds’ voices far away, and bells…”

(image by Ian Boggs)

[Judith Wright, Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (1965), pp. 158, 159.]

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