A Book of Answers XXVI: David Campbell

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Here is a piece of nonsense to end this Book of Answers. I have admired and enjoyed David Campbell’s work for so many years and have been gratified by a growing friendship with the man himself. In November 1968 he invited me to lunch at the Lobby Restaurant in Canberra where he discovered from the head waiter that they had stocks of Pokolbin wines from the recently destroyed vineyards which had been devastated by bushfires. The lunch was an epic celebration; I chiefly recall the head waiter approaching David and saying: “Mr Campbell, it is now nearly half-past six and we are about to begin the next meal: would you and your friend care to go on to dinner?”

A few days later David’s Selected Poems 1942–1968 came out, and he sent me a copy with this charming reminiscence of our splendid lunch in the form of the following imitation of Herrick, whom we had discussed on that day. My own reply was written six years later in response not to David’s verses exactly, but to the feeling that he had positively to have a place in this volume.

The style of his poem is so reminiscent of my favourite seventeenth century that I have ventured to reply in fairly broad Australian of the twentieth century.

For A.D. Hope

Ah Alec!
I’ll be thy Herrick
When we thy guests
Meet at those lyrick Feasts,
Made at The Chandelier,
The Lobby, and Canberra, where
We such Pokolbin had
As made us nobly wise, not mad,
And yet each Verse of thine
Outdid the meats, outdid the frolick wine.
7th November 1968

For David Campbell

And, lo, they were very dry.
Ezekiel, XXXVII.2.
At the Last Judgement, as the final batch
Is sorted out: “Goats, seventeen; sheep, three!”
God may permit himself at last to snatch
A yawn or two; then, looking at his watch:
“TIME, Gentlemen, please! Henceforth Eternity!”

At which, well pleased with a decisive clap
Recording Angel will shut up his book,
And Devil’s Advocate, dog-tired poor chap,
Take off his horns, put on his halo, wrap
His nimbus round, when someone bawls: “Hey, look!

“Hold it! There’s someone coming up the street!”
And sure enough, far down that dusty slope
Trod by so many million shuffling feet
A straggler comes in view. God takes his seat
Saying: “I might have known it: Alec Hope!

“Always the tail-end of the bloody mob;
Always too feckless even to cut it fine.
The Foolish Virgins did a proper job
Compared with him, well, when that loafing slob
Arrives, we’ll really lay it on the line!”

“Wait, Lord! He does not come alone, though,” cries
The D.A. putting back his horns and tail.
“One in, all in’s the rule!” The Lord replies,
“Contempt of court will fit them all for size,
And just don’t let me hear you ask for bail!”

And round the last bend weaving up the straight,
Glorious, hilarious, erratically slow,
The company of the incorrigibly late,
Campbell and Hope approach the Pearly Gate,
Passing a long-necked bottle to and fro.

God bends his ireful brows upon the pair;
Singles me out: “Well, Alec Hope, you have
Ten seconds flat, I say, ten seconds bare,
If either of you have anything to declare
Against the bottomless pit, the fiery grave.”

“Well, Lord, there’s little enough that I can say;
We met this morning after the final crunch,
(The Resurrection, I mean) and thought the way
To celebrate Damnation and the Last Day
Would be to give ourselves a splendid lunch.”

“Lunch!” says the Lord, “You poets beat the band!
Lunch on a day like this? My Day of Doom!
You keep ME waiting, and you turn up canned:
What excuse can you possibly …?” “Lord, you understand,
We poets develop a grand thirst in the tomb

“We’ve been a long time dead; our bones were dry
As those Ezekiel in his vision raised up.
And there were these new tongues of ours to try
For wine and song—Well, David Campbell and I
Resolved to make a halt for bite and sup.

“We met outside the Bacchus too. In short
He said: ‘Look, Alec, this seems the finger of Fate;
Why don’t we …?’ ‘Dave,’ I said, ‘the selfsame thought
Occurred to me. My turn to shout though, sport;
I’ve owed you a lunch since nineteen sixty-eight.’

“ ‘Ten centuries?’ he said: ‘Well, what d’you know?
That’s quite a time for building up a thirst.
We mustn’t forget, of course, there’s a big show
At Heaven’s Gate today—we’ve got to go,
But what I always say is: First things first!

“ ‘Besides, there’s something more: I think I’ve got
A poem coming on.’ ‘For that a fine
Pokolbin, David, would be just the shot;
And Heaven will be dry as like as not.’
Well that’s our story, Lord, Campbell’s and mine.”

“Campbell?” the Lord will say, “Now let me see;
He’s a good poet and always dead on time.
I’d put this lapse down to bad company.
We’re short of poets in Heaven too … Dear me,
He wouldn’t, by any chance, have finished that rhyme?”

“Just what he did, Lord! You should hear it, you should!”
And Dave will speak those lines at Heaven’s Gate
And God will say: “Well done, Campbell, jolly good!
Let’s hear more, Campbell, while we’re in the mood
Let Time continue: Eternity can wait!”

There in a listening silence the world will end
With poetry as with poetry it began
And, when it is done, the Lord will smile and bend
His eyes on me and say: “Well, Hope, your friend
Has saved your bacon; at least I think I can

“Just stretch the rules a little—So, on your way!
Get along, both of you; and don’t forget:
There’ll be no lunching in Heaven from today;
Pick up your harps from Peter, and learn to play;
We’ll expect some heavenly music from you yet.”

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