Letter to Jean Chapalain



‘16 Prospect Street, Toowoomba …’
At this my boyhood’s address I peer
reopening the envelope that I’ve saved
because it came from Finistere,
from another boy, Jean Chapalain,
the lost penfriend of a perilous year:
1938: when Europe
rumbled and I was too young to hear
but he was not, and he was there.
Did he survive, preceding me
into the war of the world? I’ve wondered,
and thought of my own rumbling sea,
the round Pacific, deep with peril,
then pitted with peace as I breathed on,
in which I dip another pen.
Jean Chapalain, read me again.


At last I’ve come to San Francisco.
The Spanish round Pacific has spun
my centrifugal feet to the Golden Gate;
I’m El Dorado the golden man
and my life has been incredible,
thank God. Drake in the Golden Hind
sailed by here; I think that I’ll
never be as near to a sea-dog’s mind.
The city itself, though standing still,
is still an earthquake built upon,
or a Chinese dragon whose sea gill,
the big bay, breathes, like an ancient lung,
my El Dorado’s boyhood back.
I walked but a mile from Prospect Street
and gazed towards my own bay’s gate.
The times have taken me further out.


A patched poorboy blown cock-a-hoop
by branches billowing in the wind,
I climbed the golden apricot
in my green Toowoomba yard; and dreamed
till the 1930s, down-and-out,
did not intrude. I clung; and I wrote
my letters and poems, Jean Chapalain,
as the world’s earthquake shook underfoot
your Europe and the circles of the seas
that Drake had sailed in the Golden Hind.
Now there was a young and golden man,
and there was a climbing dreamer’s wind!
Here, as I stop by the pendulum clock
in San Francisco’s Market Street,
I travel again to Finistere,
blown by the leaves of an apricot.


‘My dear friend, I have your letter.
Like you, I feel it a novelty,
to receive a letter from Australia.
My postman looked astounded at me.
I am like you a schoolboy, but older.
I am, indeed, nineteen years old…
Perhaps you have heard of my town’s bay,
one of the beautiful of the world…
Amities, Jean Chapalain.’
I’ve read again his copperplate lines
of kindly language to a younger boy,
and wondered what hazardous undertones
his prospects harboured when ’38
split open the beautiful of the world!
I saw three bays at the Golden Gate,
and the boys who vanished or grew old.


O commemorative streets of sea-dogs,
prospects, El Dorado’s! Today
I’m older, at 38 Nelson Street,
Brisbane, nearer the beautiful bay.
My pen, pendulous, dips to spell
a syllabus of difference again
in a once perilous Pacific blue,
for the generated anxious young,
and my lungs, with language the dragon convulsed,
expand to domicile my past
so that these might understand their own.
I think the die has been worth the cast;
it was an irrevocable course
I dreamed as I wrote from my apricot hill
to my friend of an eruptive year
when to be young was golden still.


So I sail the antique sea of truth;
my future ripples in its rings.
My only difference, a phosphorescence,
glows from many resembling things,
and I resemble all. Clocks, even,
tick out all times and generations,
centrifugal. My pendulum-pen
swings between gates of bays and nations
and to every El Dorado’s tread.
Any gold rendezvous with ships
which envelop and fold the latitudes
like lines sealed by the travelling lips
that spoke them, is the visit of surprise
to be nourished for someone else. This
we wanted, boys in our yards of the world,
once language had lifted our hands and knees.


Distant or dead-now kindly penfriend
of a year which rumbled war, have I,
since then, been writing one long letter?
In 1972 I flew
incredibly over your Finistere
and gazed across the green square yards
of a springtime France. Jean Chapalain,
these are my survivor’s words.
Drake of the circling Golden Hind
met at my age his great armada
and died a sea-dog in his trade,
pursuing a lesser battle. Ah, meurtre!
None of us survive for long
the blown imminence of rippling death
where the deep seas gulp down like a stone
the cast prospect of our dragon, breath.


Here the earth opens at the faultline
and geography is death; the bay’s
waters devour the bordering houses
and the city along the San Andreas
convulses with roaring Pacific fire
in threatened or promised compacts struck
with inevitable ends. Cities
are symbols. The symbol of this is rock;
it slips from Diablo to the sea.
I disembark in Market Street
and count to 1906.
Not only the fathoms pull my feet
but something nobody bargains for:
the pain of gravity in a maelstrom
centripetal to a planet’s core;
and the dragon’s jagged mouth grows dumb.


The crossed currents of the earthquake
and the cyclone cannon us out and in.
The wrecked inkwell spills over its rim:
the prospect of the golden main
is split by minutes pitted with depths
more than the rifted years design.
Yet shall these lines still tell time
because they once existed? Again
read me; amities, my friend!
Since Europe bellowed over your pen
I’ve corresponded from strange worlds
that blow and burn the climber down,
and the mountain tree is gone that dipped
my own to its seabent bay.
So many guns and anchors, seized,
sink; but so many phantoms stay.


Ah, boyhood, dreaming in the apricot!
There was never a fabulous dragon then.
It was to be unexpected, emerging
as from a shell with the shape and grain
of a fruitstone. It divided and rejoined,
like its own dividing jaws, our bodies’
bone; and breathed Galapagos,
a glitter, into our circles and eddies:
our golden pursuits were gilled with smoke.
But still among such encantadas
shelled with the seadog echoes of Drake
and the promise and ashes of armadas,
I saw lately that your lettered voice
and mine by its address might be
a deed still unconsumed. For all
which I enclose,. I sign merci!

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