Poetry in Motion – A Still Life by Rozanna Lilley

Our house used to be frequented by poets. They were part of the rough fabric of the Sydney arts scene in the 1970s, along with the painters, musos, actors and other assorted souls who were regular patrons of my mother’s impromptu salons. Mainly they seemed to be young(ish) men who consumed flagons of wine and, when empty, threw them at each other. Sometimes when they were pretty plastered, they’d have pissing competitions in the kitchen sink. Often their banter was punctuated by equal measures of misogyny and romance. Women, it was clear, had a thing for poets, and they knew it. They were lads – with pens.

Really the poets were lucky to make it inside our Jersey Road house. Beyond the sedate front door there was simply a hole. Unknowing visitors stepped over the threshold and straight into a muddy pit. The hole where a hearth should have been was part of one of my father’s endless renovation plans. No one was in a hurry to install floorboards. Observing the hapless literary victims of Dad’s talent for demolition was all part of my adolescent enjoyment. We were different, and the only way to survive that knowledge was to watch as the chaos and the Ben Ean moselle flowed; to smile wryly as another unwary aspirant to this heady scene fell through the ever widening gaps.

Once inside, there was plenty to keep poets occupied. For a start, there was my mother and my sister and me. And there was an ostentatious gold velvet sofa, adding a strong dose of bordello to the interior decorating scheme, along with the brocaded and tasselled lampshades. My mother would recline on this sofa and ‘tell stories’. This is actually an occupation in my family. I’m told that in some households parents go to work. But my Mum and Dad were better than that – they entertained. Often they seemed to be competing over who could be the most outrageous. Mum would start talking about her lovers, and schmoozing up to some potential candidates, tossing her head back and laughing drolly while ostentatiously smoking in a style befitting a 1940s movie queen. Dad adopted a different tactic. Like a New Guinea highlander engaged in a culinary prestation of charred pork that would outwit the most conniving masculine rival, Dad would cook. Huge slabs of meat would emerge from the kitchen – a side of corned beef, a few dozen chickens, some legs of lamb for good measure. Occasionally nice women, who appeared like unwilling extras, would incline their heads and cluck ‘You are so lucky to have a husband who cooks, Dorothy’. If Merv still felt he hadn’t adequately conveyed his message, he would stand out in the Woollahra street and crack his stockwhip, a wild smarting sound rending the suburban night sky. I recall one hapless poet attempting to imitate my father. He stumbled, inebriated, out on to Jersey Rd and heaved the whip, flaccidly, on to the bitumen. A petulant silence ensued. He never tried it again.

When the poets really got going, you were in for a good time. Leonard Cohen would be played on the turntable, and the lyrics floridly repeated, as though nothing more could ever be said, or sung. Occasionally Bob Dylan would muscle Leonard out of the way and we would all be transported, feverish, to Black Diamond Bay. When the night really got underway, we might go and listen to our local version of Dylan. Driscoll had a regular gig in a city pub. At 15 my favourite drink was cherry advocaat with a dash of lemonade. ‘Blue blue angel’ he would intone huskily into the mike, laconically strumming his guitar, a mop of curly hair lending a disreputable air. His lyrics seemed, at a minimum, exquisite.

Later we’d pile in a car, ready to party on. One night remains vivid. I was in the front seat squished on the lap of a painter, who I may have slept with once or twice. A poet was driving. He had a fast car. In case we didn’t know this, he was driving the car very fast down Sussex St. He screamed to a stop at a milk bar, demanding that they add his flask of bourbon to the milkshake. It was not like Grease. He would race through red lights, and then suddenly brake, just for the hell of it. My mother always referred to the seat I was sort of sitting in as the death seat, at least in conversation with my father. (With poets she had a more devil-may-care personality.) As the fast car screamed to a halt and then lurched forward, like a rocking horse on steroids, I began to cry. The painter told the poet to cut it out. Although the poet was clearly in the grip of mania, he still maintained a hazy awareness that the painter was at least twice his size. His driving became more benign, and in my grateful teenage mind the painter became an artist who had rescued me from the jaws of poet-inflicted death. I started to think of him as my boyfriend.

We arrived at someone’s house, possibly Driscoll’s. It was a narrow terrace furnished haphazardly with throw-outs from back alleys. Everyone was slugging down those flagons. Romances and fights began to break out. My parents were nowhere to be seen. This is really living, I thought. The poet got me up against a wall. He kept telling me that if I would just go away with him – for a weekend – he would change my life. I looked around for my saviour. But he was busy beating up his younger brother, a weedy man who had almost been a pop star in the sixties and never had another moment in the sun since. Even the poet was impressed with the Oedipal battle being enacted only a few feet away. When the painter had demolished the passé recording artist, and a little blood decorated the skirting boards, we all broke up, retiring to eat platefuls of lukewarm rice-a-riso. This was not something I ever consumed in my father’s kitchen.

My relationship with the painter never worked out. At fifteen, he was twice my age. His compellingly crazed portrait of my mother won the Archibald Prize in 1990. I can find no hint of myself in those thick trails of glossy oil playfully demarcating enormous unbound breasts and unfettered zestful imperium. My mother ended up writing a slender book of deeply romantic verse about the poet. Apparently he did change her life. Indeed, he was her chosen tragedy. Although the volume was slender, the havoc it caused in my family was immense. Driscoll eventually died, as people do, his health ruined by heroin. At 93 my father still attempts to slay women into submission through rhyming verse. ‘You are my biscuit girl’, he might address a missive to one of the women who now shower and feed him daily, hungrily hoping for some action. Usually I am the only person who reads these intended appetisers.

Poetry, I think it would be fair to say, has partly written my life. When poets want to seduce someone, they write them a poem. In the 70s, they actually used to post them. Occasionally when I am overcome with longing, I still reach for my pen or, less poetically, my keyboard. But email just doesn’t have the same cachet. Last year I recited some of my mother’s poetry at Sydney Writers Festival. She had passed away a decade earlier, and my sister, Kate, had organised a tribute. There’s a special tent you register in if you are performing. They have free beer and wine. Inside you feel a little superior to the crowds queuing along the wharf, waiting for their artful encounters. When I approached the desk and named the session I was involved in the attendant looked me up and down, taking in my pink-checked skirt suit. ‘You are a publicist’, she announced. Evidently my efforts to appear an intimate part of this febrile world had been instantly exposed as fraudulent. I remain, at best, an observer.

Looking back, it’s hard to find the right words to describe that period of time when, if you got up in the morning, and went downstairs to cobble together some breakfast, you’d stumble across a composer passed out on the velvet lounge or a guy who had recently completed his first feature film script petulantly drinking tepid coffee or an actress, still leery from the night before, draped across the chipped mahogany sideboard. Some mornings it was hard not to trip over them. I’d quickly wash my socks and undies in the outdoor laundry, putting them on still damp, and raid my mother’s bone leather handbag, which smelled of 4711 eau de cologne and sadness, so that I could buy some lunch at the school tuckshop.  There was no one I knew to say goodbye to. It was so simultaneously exciting and awful.

I suspect children of the talented and famous often feel like pastel reflections of a more colourful presence. It is easy to resent the neglect that accompanied my mother’s relentless imaginary. The harder task is to make sense of it. In my 20s, a de facto relationship ended. Anthony had been my first stable relationship with a man my age; he was gentle and reliable. Restless, I pursued someone else. Despairing at my own fecklessness, I visited Mum, hoping for solace. She was lying in bed, a notebook propped on her lap, writing. This was her usual position. As I told her the story of my infidelity, she glanced up, tears of genuine compassion rimming her eyes. ‘Oh Rosie’, she exclaimed. Then she looked back at her spirax companion, her lips moving in the slight mutter that always accompanied her creations. And that was it.

I know now how hard it can be to find the right words for daughters. I know, too, that the Sydney arts scene in the 70s was a difficult place to grow up. For Dorothy, it was a dream interior where she could make her oft-repeated longing to be centre-stage come true. Her daughters were her props. When I was a teenager, she tried to incorporate me into her world. She, literally, wrote my parts. I would stand before a microphone, given a leading role in her radio play. Or I would be captured on film, playing some dishevelled girl desperately desired by others, acting out her romances.

My Aunt Dessie tells this story. When she and Mum were girls, growing up on their isolated wheat farm, they used to roam the paddocks together. Dorothy would invent long and convoluted narratives and command her little sister to write down all of her words as soon as they returned home. Forged in the midst of all that brazen self-reflection, I’m still struggling to dig myself out. My own still-life has a more muted palette. It’s a comparatively quiet place of calm and order and, in good times, constancy. But if you look carefully, there in the recesses of the deep shadows, you can just glimpse a poetic undertone of striking scarlet.