Unfinished Draft (1)

We had an important event at our place on the 13th ult. -our first little one. We are going to call him Eric Whitman. —Bernard O'Dowd, writing to Walt Whitman (1890)

Laakhaven Oost
Den Haag

Dear Mr. Eric O’Dowd,

I have thought of you often, ever since the day I discovered your father’s letters to W.W. in an old issue of Overland, in what remains of the library at my university campus in Hawthorn. Let’s just say a lot of shit has gone downhill since B. O’D. first trod the boards. For a start, there’s not many books left in the library here. But then again that’s where I found him, deep in the library, in the serials compactus, and so things can’t be all that bad. He’s still catalogued under A821.4, I checked.

I read B.’s first letter, the draft he never sent, with a sickly kind of horror. Perhaps I recognised, in its embarrassingly gushing tone, something of my own early attempts at communication with a poet I considered great (if not my master). Another poet named B.B., whose works I read as a young Ozlit student, and by whom I was ‘blown away’ (as we say in the industry), both mentally and intellectually.

B.B. was himself something of a letter writer, like most poets fond of writing words, the more personal the better. He published a book, in which he wrote to a range of poets, both living and dead it turns out. I refer to him in one of my fictitious correspondences between B. O’D. and W.W.

Well, I wrote to B.B. several times myself, after a fortuitous meeting set up one night at someone else’s book launch. I went to visit him in a hospital near Manly and just sat there for who knows how many hours while he talked and talked, about reading detective fiction, about the cranes of Auckland, about gods. Did I need to say anything? I didn’t.

In any case, I later wrote him several letters and he responded to each one in turn, writing in blue ink on sky blue stationery, the handwriting shakier until at the conclusion of his final letter he admitted that he did not understand at all the poems I had sent him, and was passing them on to another friend who, I paraphrase ‘knows more about these things’.

Dear Whitman … may I call you that? I suppose you scarcely care, being food for worms. Still, I’d like to call you Bernie, if that’s all right. My parents had a Jack Russell called Bernie. He was a beautiful dog. Usually I’m not much of a fan of dogs but Jack Russells are okay. Kelpies, too. Your letters are like beautiful dogs to me.

I used to sit on the back step and gently touch Bernie’s ears, trying to guess at the thoughts that raced like a small electric stream through his body. I guess I wanted to be a dog myself, a nice kind of dog. I wanted people to talk to me, to play with my ears.

It’s too late, of course. The time when I could easily pretend to be a dog has long since passed away, like everything. The innocent days when I could worry about the part in my hair have likewise disappeared, my flat-top days. I was a dreaming country kid in a big steel town, unsure of his place, hesitant as a dog on a floating pontoon.

Notice how the dog leaps into the sea anyway, propels himself through the water with small, cute paddling movements. See how the dog manages to keep his head above water, the way he shakes the water out of his pelt when he is back on the beach. Who would have thought that the hair of a dog that small could hold so much of the sea.

Sometimes it comes back to me, the feeling of those years. Whenever this happens, my poems become miniature letters to myself, notes towards the memoir I don’t have the ego to write. Maybe you’d appreciate the metaphor—after all, your letters to W.W. contained many such fragments of self, hesitant descriptions that read RSVP advertisements. Age, height, build, hair colour. Like a colonial game of Guess Who.

Or have you not read them?

Express yourself