Letter to Les
by Tina Kane
I‘ve been thinking about the memories I wouldn’t have if we’d never met. For example, I am certain that I would not remember having slept in a large motor house at the bottom of a steep hill in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood. I am sure of that.
Do you remember our visit to you and Valerie, Daniel, Claire, and little Alex and Peter that November? It was 1984. We arrived late in the afternoon and Valerie kindly invited us to stay for tea. You and my brother Dennis hit it off right away. He had lived in a cave on a beach in New Zealand with some Maori for a while and you talked about that. Paul and Den and I had just taken some friends to the airport—they were returning to the States, after a camping holiday with us on the beach at Booti Booti. During our time there I had seen two porpoises playing in the surf, but I would never have known that Booti Booti meant ‘two porpoises’ if you hadn’t told me.
We had rented a large green vehicle, sort of a cross between a motor home and a bus, for the trip from Melbourne with our friends. We called it ‘Le Bus’. You suggested it would be prudent to park it at the bottom of your very steep hill, instead of in front of your house half way down, for fear ‘Le Bus’ would take off in the night. The next morning, when I first woke, I didn’t have a clue where I was or what I was doing there. But I remember it was a fine morning.
And then, I would never remember having met anyone with a mind like yours—that is, like an encyclopedia. I began to discover this about you over dinner at the house of a friend of Paul’s in Melbourne, later that year. I had been professionally involved in New York in a study of the Shroud of Turin, one of many such scientific studies attempting to ascertain, once and for all, whether the linen textile could have been Christ’s shroud or if it was, instead, a later medieval creation.
My part of that project was minor, translating relevant articles from Italian on studies of the weave structure, spinning and fibers of the Shroud (the Turin Sindone) and the veil (the Oviedo Sudarium). I remember you knew about both of them. You knew, for example, that one fascinating thing about the Shroud was that the image of the corpse on the cloth is imprinted and behaves like a photographic negative, not like a stain. And you knew that the face on the linen Sudarium—purported to have covered Christ’s face during the deposition—and the face on the Sindone have identical measurements.
I remember you saying that maybe at the moment of Christ’s death an immense spiritual energy field was released that could have imprinted the image of the corpse on the shroud. I found that more interesting than any of the conjectures I had read in the scientific studies. I do not believe I have ever mentioned anything to you, like that—of interest to me—that you didn’t know something about.
If we had not met you, I also would not remember meeting Joseph Brodsky. You came to New York, a couple of years later, to read with Joseph at the 92nd Street ‘Y’. Our year in Melbourne had ended and Paul had invited you to stay with us when you came to the East Coast. But I was hesitant because, at the time, we had twenty cats and a dog. I did not know you well and not everybody fits in easily with such a menagerie in a small old farmhouse. But you’d been around animals all your life (I hadn’t known that) and they liked you just fine. And you liked them too, I think.
That was an unforgettable evening at the ‘Y’. You wore a striped sweater Valerie had knitted for the occasion (later someone washed it and it shrank to pigmy size). You read in Australian to New Yorkers. Perhaps, for all I know, that was a first. And Joseph read in Russian. He read in pure voice, and you, in living language. The audience was transfixed. Afterwards, you both signed books. Joseph was better known than you at the time, but now, of course, he’s gone and you are famous. That night we went to eat in the Village after the reading. Over dinner you and Joseph—as he termed it later—scraped ideas everywhere from off the ceiling.
And I would not remember Valerie. I have never met anyone like Valerie. I know intelligent women and candid women and a few with a very good sense of humor. I also know one or two truly strong women, with the great gift of common sense. But I had never before encountered all these qualities in one person. Next time you came to the States, Valerie came too. The cats loved her. I would not know the word ‘moggie’ without Valerie. There were two tiny calico kittens sleeping yin/yang together in the kitchen and Valerie walked right in and petted the small wild things, saying “Be good to each other little moggies.” They liked each other very well as kittens, but grew apart later. They never did each other any harm, though they were both very beautiful, and you know how jealous cats are. One of them is still alive, very frail though. She’s fifteen now. Anyway, ‘moggie’ is such a wonderful word. Valerie has the gift of language too.
Of course I would not remember Bunyah or a rental car biting the dust in Coolongolook in the middle of the night. That was Easter, some year, and we had rented the last Avis car at the Sydney airport to drive to visit you. After a few hours in Sydney with Robert and Jamie, we left in the late afternoon to drive up North and discovered that the car was stone dead. Jamie helped us – somehow – get another one from somewhere. In any case, it was dark when we finally left and we got as far as Newcastle when the new car started acting up. Paul carefully nursed it along, dark mile after dark mile, as I became increasingly apprehensive, contemplating a night on the road in what seemed to me a very remote part of New South Wales. Finally, we crept into Coolongalook, at some awful hour, and the car gave up the ghost. You came and fetched us and later loaned us your car to go back to Sydney.
I would not remember Cecil or the kookaburra that followed him around, after he resurrected it from electrocution, plunging it into a bucket of water. I would not know anything about the ox teams that logged the forests around there. And I certainly would not remember anyone like Cecil. I can recall him so clearly. He kept an eye on Peter and Alex, who were still quite young then, watching us as we sketched on the back porch overlooking his garden one afternoon. Peter drew airplanes, Alex drew maps, and I painted blue lotus flowers from your dam.
Then, too, I would not remember eating the world’s freshest fish and chips on the wharf at Foster Tuncury with the pelicans gliding nearby. I would not have seen flying foxes in the Bush or mangrove swamps along the coast. And I would not remember that beach and the story of the crippled pelican.
Your limousine would never have picked up Paul and me at the Metropolitan Museum to be taken to a poetry reading. And so I would not remember meeting Marie Poinsot, as I did that night, when you read at Queen’s College. I never would have known that she and I had a great friend in common. This particular friend and you and Valerie also have something in common: you never say anything boring.
I probably would never have attempted to write had it not been for you. You remember, you asked me to write a review of Ossie White’s book, Conqueror’s Road, because I had known him and his family when I was a child in Melbourne. You liked the review and that gave me confidence. So now I write a bit, both for pleasure and for professional reasons, and I enjoy it. I also know if I show you anything, you’ll be totally straight with me about it. That’s something. Besides you, only the cats and Paul are always honest with me. Even the poor dog was a little tricky sometimes.
I would not be able to remember that my brother Dennis had a particular friend in you. You once said you and he both had double-jointed minds. That was true. And I wouldn’t remember the poetry reading at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival in ’95 where you met my mother, Chris. Paul launched Philip Hodgins’s book, Up On All Fours. Philip’s wife, Janet, was pregnant with Helen then. Chris loved poetry, and Den and I had grown up with it. We would run around the house yelling, “And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Clancy”, until it drove her nuts and she’d tell us to stop it. You know, in those years, the ‘fifties, that was about all we knew of Australian poetry, a bit from here and there. And we didn’t hear about it in school.
I had gone as a teenager to the opening night of The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll with Ossie and his family in Melbourne and listened to the talk afterwards about how one day Australia would have its own great literature. I wonder if you were writing that night? Chris watched that literature develop with immense interest over the next decades. After a difficult time in the beginning, after leaving New York, she came to love Australia. Although in her later years she read Brodsky and Akhmatova and Mandelstam and Auden, she continued to love to read you as well. Poetry—literature—was her lifeblood in her old age. She loved to hear what we could tell her of you. She admired your spirit.
So Les, we’ll be seeing you and Valerie soon in Mildura again. Maybe we’ll have time for another trip up the Murray to see the rookeries or just time to chat or drive around a bit. I hope so. Maybe you’ll come see our volcano near Clunes, or maybe next time, when we have some shelter there and a couple of trees and something to offer you besides a great view.
This evening, late February, it is snowing again in New York. Looking out the window, in the early twilight, I can see the bare bones of a lilac tree by the old outhouse. The snow is fine and falls over it in a light shroud. There’s something about each of those flakes that’s utterly unique. Isn’t that what they say, no two snowflakes are identical? I don’t know how anyone could know that for sure, but I’ll go along with it for the sake of attempting a metaphor.
Let’s say each snowflake is a crystallized memory. Let’s say the lilac tree is life. The snowflakes collect where the branches intersect. Memories collect where lives meet. So much of my life I do not remember—those memories have disappeared. That was the snow that fell to the ground and melted away—as the old poet said, les neiges d’antan. Where indeed? Maybe that’s where the outhouse fits into my metaphor.
I wish I were a poet. But I’m not. I wasn’t born to it, and I probably couldn’t have paid the price anyway. But if I were, I would do something with this metaphor. So, instead, I offer it to you, with thanks for all the poetry, for all these memories and for many more as well. Please come again some day to see the snow on the bare trees.
[from Letters to Les: A Collection of Prose & Poetry in Celebration of Les Murray]