This afternoon, while plodding my way through The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958–2003, I was both surprised and delighted (two words that often belong together) to discover Clive James‘ poem on that wonderfully mysterious figure Arthur Stace, a person perhaps better known as ‘Mr Eternity’ or as ‘the Eternity Man’. (James also has a poem in this collection on the great R.S. Thomas, but that one will just have to wait until another day.)
James’ poem was too wonderful not to share, particularly with my Aussie readers for whom Stace – a ‘man with a single obsession’ – is both something of an icon, and a sacrament of otherness’s genuine and most radical strangeness in a world increasingly out of step with things sacred.
Never filmed, he was photographed only once,
Looking up startled into the death-trap flash
Like a threatened life form.
Still underlining his copybook one-word message
With the flourish that doubled back under the initial ‘E’,
He was caught red-eyed with the stark white chalk in his hand
Before he died in 1967
At the age of eighty-eight
He had managed to write it five hundred thousand times,
And always in copperplate script.
Few streets or public places in the city of Sydney
Remained unmarked by the man with a single obsession –
Wherever you lived, sooner or later he’d reach you.
Hauling their billycarts up for the day’s first run
Small boys swarmed when they came to the word
Arrestingly etched in the footpath.
It was self-protected by its perfect calligraphy –
The scrupulous sweep of a hand that had spent its lifetime
He was born in a Balmain slum and raised underneath it,
Sleeping on hessian bags with his brothers and sisters
To keep beyond fist’s reach of his dipso parents.
His name was Arthur Stace.
He had no one to use it apart from his family.
His fate was to die as a man and return as a portent,
His sisters grew up to be prostitutes. He was a pimp,
But in 1930, in his early forties, on meths,
He heard the Reverend John Ridley at Burton Street
Baptist Church, Darlinghurst,
And scrapped his planned night in the down-and-out sanctuary.
The piss artist had his vocation revealed unto him –
‘I wish I could shout one word through the streets of Sydney!’
The Reverend Ridley shouted. ‘Eternity! You
Have got to meet it! You! Where will you spend
Eternity?’ Alone in his pew,
Avoided by all for his smell strong enough to see,
A man reborn saw the path stretch ahead he would stoop to,
In New South Wales for more than a hundred years
We all had to learn that script in school,
But what school did he ever go to, and where
Did his chalk come from? How did he eat?
These nagging conundrums were mulled over endlessly
As he roamed unseen through the city without rhyme or reason
In a blaze of glory the Thousand Year Reich was announced.
Old Bolsheviks shyly confessed with downcast eyes
And the first reffos arrived at Woolloomooloo.
Our troops sailed off to prop up the Middle East
Until Singapore fell and the Yanks overtipped for a taxi –
Yet still through the blacked-out streets he kept his own schedule
But a mere word was ceasing to hold any terrors.
Belief in the afterlife faded. Where was God
When the Christmas snow came fluttering into the death camps?
Those kindling children, their piles of little shoes,
Condemned Divine Justice past hope of apology:
To rage at the storm and expect it to stop made more sense than
He wrote it on the same night Hitler burned.
He wrote it as the Japanese cities melted
And the tanks rolled into Budapest.
While Sputnik skimmed through the stars he bent to his task
As if we believed there was still any Hell except history,
And Heaven could be rebuilt by one scuttling ratbag
The rain didn’t always wash his word away.
He sometimes used more than chalk. Near my place once
I found it fingertip deep in the new white concrete.
It was lined with crimson enamel, a rune punched in
By a branding-iron from space. Down on one knee
I chipped out the paint with my penknife as if I could stop him
He wouldn’t have known. He didn’t have time to go back,
Not even to visit his real bravura efforts
Which culminated in his famous Australia Square
Incised masterpiece filled with stainless steel.
Some snot-nosed kid with a grudge there would always be,
But he put all that behind him and kept on going,
By the time he died I was half the world away
And when I came back I never gave him a thought.
It was almost fifty years after I unpicked it
That I pondered his word again,
On the dawn of the day when the laughing stock was yours truly
Who would have to go on alone and be caught in the spotlight
From the thirty-third floor of the Regent I looked down naked.
The Opera House was sold out. I was afraid,
But the Harbour was flat calm all the way to the sea,
Its shaped, linked loops flush with silver,
And I suddenly saw what that showpiece of geology
Had really been up to ever since the magma cooled –
That word again, and this time I could read it.
It said your life is on loan from those before you
Who had no chance, and before it is even over
Others will come to judge you, if only by
Forgetting your name; so better than glittering vainly
Would be to bend down in the dark half a million times
Where will we spend it? Nowhere except here.
Life everlasting ends where it begins,
On Earth, but it is present at every moment.
We must seek grace now and not for ourselves alone
Was what that crazed saint meant in his ecstasy –
Since time is always, with chalk made from children’s ashes,
Utterly beautiful. Thanks for sharing, Jason!
Clive James is a distinctively Australian poet. Like Arthur Stace.
I haven’t read a lot of James’ poems but one I do like is “Johnny Weismuller Dead in Acapulco”. I think you’d like it too.