Alan Gould: from “The Poets’ Stairwell”
Alan Gould is an Australian poet, novelist and essayist. His seventh novel, The Lakewoman, was launched at The 2009 Melbourne Writers’ Festival, and his twelfth volume of poetry, Folk Tunes, has just been published by Salt. Among his many awards, he has won the NSW Premier’s Prize For Poetry (1981), The National Book Council Banjo Prize for Fiction (1992), The Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal For Literature, and The Grace Leven Award for his The Past Completes Me – Selected Poems 1973-2003.
Poets are born, they say, not made.
By the time of my own birth I was an over-cooked baby, having dallied in the interior of The Mudda for week after overcast week beyond the normal term. After such dalliance, little wonder my hankering to recover enchanted time.
So I, Claude Boon, begin by imagining The Mudda in that interval of my pre-birth. As my embryonic presence swelled her usually neat, Flemish frame it grew ungainly as a washtub, and needed to be hauled, ah, upstairs, uphill, upfront and upsadaisy, onto double-decker buses and into small black cars, and she, Boon-buoyant, Boon-weary, with the burden of me. Did she complain? I believe not. If she sat at table, I was a round under her grey smock like a great cheese remembered from the plenty of pre-war Holland. If she returned from wet Woolwich High Street where she had stood half an hour in the queue for a ration of sausages or liver, she felt my presence as a grapnel on her every fibre. Her patience, her resilience, were entering my character, as were some of the qualities of her Brabanter forbears, my clean complexion and open forehead, my good-natured nose and my eyes a little too trusting of the world, perhaps.
And if I pushed out my fist or my foot, how do I evoke the strangeness of her sensations? Here, did she sense it, was a live butterfly fluttering against the interior of a balloon, here was the gear-stick of a small black car pushed back and forth against her inner fabric?
‘Nou, we zullen zien wat er gaat gebeuren,’ she said, first in her own language to mask her impatience, then, to show politeness to the borough maternity nurse, ‘We must see what comes, of course.’
If the Mudda’s patience was sometimes tested, I appeared at ease with the situation. Through those weeks of the British winter and early spring I hunched in the placental tree-house, stem-fed by her magnificent system. Into my future flowed those exact proteins and vitamins she could extract from the spam, the herring, the dried egg of that tin-food era, the orange juice, rose hip syrup and extra allowance of milk allowed for this pregnancy by her green ration card. While the Pa beavered among his memos at the British War Office, I spent the day, either rocked asleep by the Mudda’s internal rhythms, or dreamily pushing that exploratory gear-stick against her womb wall.
Do embryos dream? Did my own lifelong attachment to reverie begin in the treehouse with some aural/maternal-fantasy? Is this where the protozoa of poems originate, for the muse is said to be a mother-figure.
Beglub-beglub pumped the Mudda’s heart, gloink, her intestinal plumbing eased itself, purrr, slid her blood along its Flemish conduits. Is it possible my proto-intellect was actually wired to the maternal dreaming during her final weeks of pregnancy in the Woolwich army quarter? From some trace-memory I possess, here is Mrs Boon dozing during the February afternoons, tiaras of raindrops agleam under the telegraph wires, while the scenes behind her eyelids show the imminent Boon, a spiked coronet on my round head that must surely tear her as I leave her. Then, in this phantasmagoria of a woman-with-child in a monarchic nation not her own, she watches as I grow away from her wounded body, recede to some altitude above her head like a gargoyle leering from the façade of one of those decorous, overbearing English cathedrals that her Englishman husband had shown her during his intervals of wartime leave.
Week to week, cell on cell, morula, blastocyst, trophoblast, from fertilised ovum to gargoyle I grew. Ears, limbs, testicles popped from me like mushrooms. Blood went beading along my arteries and capillaries; insulin was secreted; teeth aligned themselves below the gums in preparation for their future troublemaking. I gained the full human kit with the apparent exception of the will to move on from that original tree-house welfare state. So complacent was my attitude to being born, it was decided three weeks after my term I would need medical help to be induced into the world. Poeta nascitur, non fit.
While The Pa Read Milton
In fact I was not my parents’ first child, for there had been an elder sister, born at Dehra Dun in India in ’47 who survived only a few days. To safeguard my own emergence into the world therefore, it seems the Pa had arranged, at some expense, for Harley Street’s Sir John Cue to be at Mrs Boon’s side. Five months earlier, this obstetrician knight had assisted at the birth of the heir to the British throne, an attendance thought to give me an improved chance of safe arrival.
This may also account for the Mudda’s fantasy of my coronet, and in the longer term my sense of self-regard, this egotism materialising, as it were, at HRH favour.
My birth occurred at supper time on a March Friday in 1949 at one of the delivery rooms of the King’s College Hospital.
‘Hah, hah, hah,’ gasped the Mudda, who was a modest woman trying to recover her composure after a bodily event rather more public than she preferred. ‘Ferry kint, dank u wel.’
London’s Bow Bells did not ring for me, but outside the hospital window I gather the Thames sky did ooze a typical drizzle for this future minor Australian poet of the latter twentieth century. The 1949 streets were slimed with moisture as London families (like the Lucks of Third Avenue, Ilford) sat down to meals eked from whatever those green ration cards permitted; the spam, the rabbit pie, the dried egg scrambled to the insipid yellow of institutional soap, parsnip and cabbage boiled to a quattrocento artist’s corpse-pallor, or some originally orange winter vegetable similarly transmogrified.
On this, my opening night, the Pa sat halfway down the long corridor leading to the delivery room. He was, we must guess, without his supper. A well-thumbed, leather-bound volume was balanced on his knee and he looked up from his page only when he heard an ‘Ahem,’ and found the KBE with his case of medical instruments standing uncertainly before him. Having come directly from his desk at The War Office, my parent was still dressed in his service uniform, the tunic buttons glinting under the neon lights. Promptly he rose to attention in order to hear the obstetrician apprise him of the facts of my birth.
‘Colonel Boon,’ Sir John apparently chose his words, ‘You have become the parent of a somewhat serious-minded young fellow, if the first five minutes of a life are any guide.’
‘I am obliged to you,’ replied The Pa.
‘May I ask what you are reading?’ asked the knight.
‘I am reading the incomparable Milton.’
Keeping his finger in the page, the planet’s newest father held up the gold lettering on the spine of the book that it might be seen. The volume had accompanied the Pa during his war service with 43rd Division from Normandy to Bremerhaven so the tooled red leather of the cover was scarred by items, military and otherwise, that had chafed against it in one haversack or another during those eleven months of attritional European warfare.
‘I understand,’ replied the knight. ‘One is mindful at such moments as this of the need to touch the sublime.’
‘My feeling exactly,’ said the Pa.
‘Your wife is a foreigner, I see.’
‘Mrs Boon is Dutch, from Breda in the Northern Brabant.’
‘Just so,’ replied Sir John, (who perhaps felt he must disarm the Colonel’s tendency to over-explain when rank was an uncertainty in conversation). ‘Of course your son will be entitled to call himself a Cockney if he wishes. Earshot of the bells and so on.’
‘He will undoubtedly turn himself into something.’
‘Do you have in mind a name for the child?’
‘We have agreed on Claude Evelyn Boon.’
‘Claude from Claudius, just so. You have chosen stateliness there, I think.’ The knight rocked contemplatively back and forth on the balls of his feet. ‘And Evelyn!’ Sir John considered these syllables next.
‘As an obstetrician, you see, one takes an interest in names. Evelyn, Aveline, your choice here derives from the French word for the hazel which was a nut denoting wisdom in olden days, did you know?’
‘I did not. I am obliged to you for informing me.’
‘May I wish the very best to the three of you?’
‘You may indeed.’
At this the knight apparently took a step or two, then paused in his departure.
Let me pause to consider him. This person’s hands were the first to touch my own person. For some moments he would have cradled me, perhaps cleaned me, weighed me, and many years later, when I was intrigued by the remotest and smallest influences present in the formation of character, I was led to wonder what quiet influence those hands might have conferred upon me.
This was not altogether self-regarding whimsy on my part. Twenty-eight years later, in an encounter that was extraordinary for its casual coincidence, Boon, the babe now grown to youngish manhood, would meet and receive kindness at the hands of his obstetrician. That meeting must await its place in this story, but it would allow me to know that Sir John possessed a pleasant face, more that of a pastrymaker than a knight perhaps, and the upshot of this is that I am pleased by the thought of having come into the world where my first contact was a kindly stranger. The spring of natural charity in people has mystified me, and I will meet a diversity of kindly strangers in the travels that these pages record.
Now the knight, whose head would tremble a little as he struggled to express a perplexity, was confiding to the Pa. ‘And yet, you see, Colonel, if one only knew what that ‘best’ might include in these distracting times, Iron Curtains, atomic bombs and such palaver.’
The Pa, I should mention, was a staunch Cromwellian in outlook and therefore in the habit of providing answers that were to the purpose. Here before him was a figure of social rank who had mislaid that vital self-assurance proper to rank, particularly when it was needed to sustain morale in nuclear times.
‘One strives,’ the Pa delivered his view, ‘to give each child opportunity to discover such interests as may match a livelihood and that this match should please a commonwealth.’
Did this grandiloquence belong more to the floor of The House Of Commons than a chat in a hospital corridor? My Pa was perhaps more parliamentary than colloquial in his relations with both me, and all his acquaintance. His work in military education, and his papers on disadvantaged learners lay behind this conviction.
‘Just so,’ Sir John shifted on his feet.
And now there was an awkward pause, as of two men who might strike up an acquaintance could they fathom each other’s tone. Then they shook hands and Sir John receded down the corridor while the new father stood under the icy lights wondering whether he might now put aside the incomparable Milton to visit Mrs Boon. Along that corridor there may have been other delivery rooms producing other 1949 children, but no one intruded upon the colonel’s own small dilemma on that spot of linoleum.
For my Pa was a gentlemanly colonel, divided between his knowledge that there were matters to face and his decent uncertainty as to whether it was proper for the paternal person to end the mother’s privacy quite so early after that mysteriously female event of a birth. Resolving against doubt, and slipping Milton into his briefcase, the Pa set out for the door to the delivery room.
(from The Poets’ Stairwell, a picaresque novel-in-progress.)