Past Tense

Meanjin, Vol. 61, No. 2 (2002)

‘Where’s the present tense / now that we need it?’
                                        —John Forbes

I am sitting in the kitchen reading John Forbes’ Collected Poems while my sons fire cap guns across the table at each other and run shouting down the hall. The battle is for possession of the best weapon. The youngest learned long ago to hold out, yelling at the top of his lungs until we can take it no longer. ‘Give it to him,’ someone barks, ‘or you’ll never see that gun again!’ John, himself the eldest of four boys, would have enjoyed this, I imagine.

Among the many regrets I have in the wake of John’s premature death in 1998—sorry that I didn’t invite him to dinner more often, sorry that he’ll never wander into my office again, sorry that he didn’t get to reap the rewards of celebrity while he could still enjoy them—is a feeling that it’s too bad he never had a family. I know that in many respects this is a ridiculous notion. John was like the anti-father: he hated steady work, he never had any money, he was a drug addict, he gambled, he drank, he disdained compromise. Reading back over his poems and the reminiscences of his friends, collected in Homage to John Forbes (edited by Ken Bolton, Brandl & Schlesinger, 2002), I am struck again by his wit, his charm, his brilliance, of course, but also by the steadfastness of his march down the path of self-destruction. Sometimes I think it was the artist’s vocation—what Bolton calls, only partly mockingly, ‘the principled romance of leading the poetic life’—that did him in. Sometimes I think it was just his habits.

John was as warm and kind and generous a person as ever lived. He was patient, loyal and fundamentally honest. He had, in many ways, the only qualities that count in a father, perhaps in a human, and I think he knew this about himself, the way he knew, despite the lack of public recognition, that he was a major poet. But somehow this part of his life—that is, his life as opposed to his writing—remained unsatisfactory, full of absences, longings and regrets. One of my most vivid memories of him is the night he came to St Vincent’s Hospital shortly after I’d given birth to my second son. There were complications after the delivery and I’d been given a jolt of pitocin, which is like starting labour all over again, and some heavy-duty drugs to kill the pain. John had brought me a book, In the Garden of Good and Evil, but he had to leave it at the nurses’ station because I didn’t want to see him. It was just too soon. I’ve always felt a certain regret about turning him away, but also a niggling curiosity as to why he came. I once went the same way, too precipitately, to see someone who’d had a baby. It was someone I didn’t even know very well and I now recognise the impulse for what it was: a desire, almost a compulsion, to get near the event.

This was before I had any children of my own, and it had something to do with curiosity but more with a weird kind of magnetism that is difficult to explain. Perhaps I make more of this than I ought. And yet, there is an interesting exchange in an interview John recorded with Cath Keneally in 1991. In it Cath talks about poets, especially male poets, being what she calls ‘nebulously personal,’ by which I take her to mean something like incidentally revealing. ‘There was a poem that you read the other night,’ she says, ‘that I don’t remember much about except it said … it was partly about “No babies.”’ John laughs and explains that the poem, ‘Chapel Street,’ was written shortly after he moved to Melbourne and that it describes a mood of mixed elation and misery. The poem begins with a series of images from the street—‘raunchy rock’n’roll hits’ (a sign in a window), ‘a suave Asian half-seen through / Plate-glass’, a stack of six ‘cutprice colour TVs,’ and then it shifts from outside to in:

Today’s the day to be a bulbous public twit & think
‘Who me?’ then twice walk past the pharmacy, distracted
By my lack of happiness in living colour & 3D.
It happens but & even that Bob Marley song
‘No Woman No Cry’ could be wrong. ‘No Baby No Cry’ should
Play on cue but you want that crying in the night
That first you curse & later, it’s all right. Not me yet.

It’s very close to if not actually sentimental, and John goes on to say in the interview that the words ‘Not me yet’ are ‘meant to sound Poor, poor pitiful me.’ But a student in his writing class at the time had a completely different interpretation. She thought ‘it was more like (with snappy bravado): Not me yet. Wouldn’t catch me in that racket—No! No way.

JF: So it could read as a sort of They haven’t managed to nail me down yet!  Though it’s interesting: the person who made that remark was an elderly lady, who would probably construct something like that in those terms of, you know, dodging …

CK: That’s right—‘feckless young man’.

JF: Well, feckless middle-aged man. Whereas that’s not the case at all. 

At some pains to deflect this image of himself as the ultimate bachelor, John nevertheless seems taken with the idea of the poem’s ambiguity. In a way that he probably realized, the elderly lady had nailed him, no matter what he might say.

There is little doubt that the absence of connections—no partner, no children, no home—left John feeling bereft and lonely a lot of the time. But it was also something he obviously chose: no irons, no chains, no shackles. The last few lines of ‘Chapel Street’ are instructive. Immediately after ‘Not me yet’ the poem soars away from the shabby realities of Prahran, away from the pharmacy and the codeine habit and the vexed question of happiness or its lack, making, as its penultimate gesture, one quick ironic swoop—a sort of poetic signature:

Some search the sky for signs & portents (forgetting
Each person with a Porsche is certain of a portion)
But I can see them in the shape of clouds, backlit
Brilliantly & racing towards neither Melbourne nor me
Yet purely 19th century, coming from behind Geelong.

One could hardly imagine a more spirited defense of a life led purely in the service of poetry, or a more resounding dismissal of one’s day-to-day tribulations. ‘It’s important to be major,’ he writes in ‘Lessons for Young Poets’, ‘but not to be too cute about it—I mean it’s the empty future you want to impress, not just the people who’ll always be richer & less talented than you.’

Much has been made, and rightly, of John’s artistic integrity, his dedication to his craft, his cool and penetrating critical analysis, his sometimes harsh assessments of other people’s work. There is a sense in all this of a vocation, a calling, not unlike the priesthood, which cannot be combined with other modes of life. Of course, John would never willingly have subscribed to this overtly romantic notion—‘I don’t think I ever felt le sang des poètes in the full sense of “the blood of the poet courses in the veins,”’ he says to Cath Keneally—but he lived according to its strictures nevertheless. In his essay ‘The Working Life’ he writes, for instance, about his many jobs, all but one or two of them blue-collar: storeman, removalist, factory hand. Of a brief stint in the Public Service he writes, ‘[I] hated it … You needed to use just enough of your brain to make the work distracting without there being any compensatory interest.’ It is a description of a particular job (checking doctors’ repat. claims), but could stand for almost any white-collar, entry-level position—that’s what white-collar means: you use your brains, not your muscles. But John preferred to reserve his brains for the one true work of writing poetry. Only late in his life, when his body betrayed him, would he countenance the idea of making money with his mind.

There was a similar sort of intransigence in his relationships with women. He complained constantly about his love life, but women were always drawn to him despite a certain gaucherie in his manner. I remember arriving at the Meanjin office one morning and meeting him at the gate.

‘You look—’ he said, studying me closely with a concerned expression.

‘Haggard,’ I replied, with mild sarcasm.

‘Yeah, that’s it!’

‘Thanks, John,’ I said. ‘Thanks a lot.’

‘As I remember it,’ writes Bolton, ‘girls were irritated and miffed with John when he was in his twenties—or hugely impressed. In his forties I know that the women I knew all felt very tenderly towards [him].’ Recalling John’s last visit to England, Tracy Ryan writes: ‘There were the usual unattainable women in Cambridge, some of whom became firm or fleeting friends, often through the medium of his heartfelt outpourings—one said to me she began to feel like his mother.’ This, of course, was not what he wanted. As he wrote to Laurie Duggan from Darwin in 1988, ‘If I meet another girl who likes me for my mind I think I’ll have a lobotomy.’ But he did not, in fact, ever suffer a shortage of female attention—it’s just that it wasn’t exactly the right kind of attention or didn’t come from exactly the right girl. In the eighties, when I first met him, John talked endlessly to me about another woman, who, it seemed to me, was the one he really missed. I urged him to make it up with her. No, he said, it would never work. What I didn’t know then was that this was his MO: he only ever wanted what he couldn’t have. The distance was integral to the desire, or, as Peter Porter once said of his political sympathies, ‘A lost cause with an inflexible dogma always appealed to John.’

John could, if he wished, have had most of the things he complained about not having. Money, for instance, or a girlfriend. One has to assume, I think, that there was something in it for him in not having what he said he desired. Certainly, artistically speaking, self-pity proved the perfect foil for his withering irony, humanizing what might otherwise have been a tiringly ‘I’m-cleverer-than-you’ take on the world. And I think he was really ambivalent about all those other responsibilities. He had the focus, the concentration, the commitment, the narcissism actually, that are necessary for a certain level of artistic success. Or, at least, that was how it seemed. But there was something else that kept him in trouble, kept him broke and probably alone, something he tellingly kept quiet about while he was pining for some postgraduate or carrying on about the rent.

Even people who were not on intimate terms with John knew that he had a history of using drugs. It was not something he denied or lied about, but he kept it out of view. For his friends it was just part of the picture, just another one of his eccentricities, like dropping his paycheck at the TAB. John was ‘from an early date’, writes Laurie Duggan, ‘a notorious user of pharmacological substances, yet there is in his work no romantic blurring of drugs with art … Poetry required full attention; drugs and alcohol were for those other, less satisfactory parts of life, those gaps when nothing else was happening.’ As a description of John’s hierarchy of values this seems perfectly accurate: drugs were (at least at first) recreational, poetry was serious stuff. But as a description of the role that drugs actually played in his life, I think it falls short.

There was widespread shock in the literary community when John dropped dead of a heart attack at forty-seven. It was partly that he had been so strong. A powerfully built six foot-something, he withstood a remarkable level of abuse for a remarkable length of time. Indeed, I think it would be fair to say that what John did to himself would have killed most other people much faster. One should not discount the element of bravado—John’s own Kokoda Trail—but increasingly I see this issue in terms of a mass delusion, encouraged by John and accepted by his friends, that he could shrug off the effects of addiction the way he shrugged off debt. At some point along the way, however, the tail began to wag the dog.

Ken Bolton’s description of John’s last visit to Adelaide is chilling. He was showing the signs of serious liver damage and was ‘I think, afraid, and also disgusted and embarrassed or embittered as this was self-inflicted and seemed an injustice.’ Laurie had warned a year before that John was destroying himself, and he was not alone in seeing the writing on the wall. Peter Porter writes of John’s last visit to England that ‘it was plain that he was declining physically. His intellect appeared undamaged but he gave off a sense of emergency, of things closing in.’ To anyone who knew him in those last years his appearance was frequently alarming, and yet he seemed incapable of doing anything to help himself. On the contrary, he seemed almost to have decided that the matter was out of his hands, and because this was his shtick anyway, it was difficult to see the difference between the pretense of impotence and the real thing. But while his vocation periodically made him unhappy, it was the drugs that got him in the end. He died much younger than he should have, and that is what I regret most of all.