Nov 282011


Okay, one of the best things about Numéro Cinq is the serendipity of the network reaching out (which is its nature, and it is insatiable). DG’s friend Haijo Westra, a just-retired classics professor at the University of Calgary, wrote an essay about dg’s novel Elle which, some years ago, out of the blue, he sent to dg, and they became friends (and later the essay was published in French and then in an English translation on NC). Manifesting his enthusiasm in all ways, Haijo gave a copy of Elle to an Australian poet named John Watson who was in Calgary while his wife worked on her doctorate. Then John Watson wrote a poem in response to Elle and sent it to dg. Now dg and John Watson are becoming friends, and, as winter sets in around dg, John Watson WILL INSIST on sending him emails such as:

We had a foretaste of summer heat last week. We had driven to the Central Coast hoping to spend the night in a little cabin. Towards dusk the beach was listlessly hot, the cabin stifling with no Southerly change expected. So we drove another 3 hours back home so as to sleep…

And this:

We went today (2 hours) south of Sydney to the beach behind the house where DHLawrence lived in Thirroul for 3 months and wrote Kangaroo. The first day after a week of rain. Full sun with a large pale edge of rain run off before the dark blue water.

But dg did admire that poem—delightfully exuberant, digressive, Menippean (if you will) and droll (see poem below).

The poet, upon request, sent dg a bio to go with the poem. It went like this:

John Watson the author of A First Reader (Five Islands Press, 2003), Montale: A Biographical Anthology (Puncher and Wattmann, 2006), Erasure Traces (Puncher and Wattmann, 2008), Views from Mt Brogden & A Dictionary of Minor Poets (Puncher and Wattmann, 2008), River Syllabics, (Picaro Press, 2009) and Four Refrains, (Picaro Press, 2011). He won the Newcastle Poetry Prize (2002) and the Blake Prize for Poetry (2009).

But then John Watson wrote a disclaimer:

The bio too is rather austere. No mention of the influence of voluptuous aunt in early days, nor keen interest in Brigitte Bardot films, pursuit of freakish weather events like waterspouts, St Elmo’s Fire, etc.

This seemed intriguing, so dg asked for another bio, the expanded version. Soon a far more exuberant bio arrived (unfortunately still lacking the “voluptuous aunt” story). Bio and poem together are pleasant and diverting reading.

Since in retrospect actual events seem to fade beside literary ones, a brief biography might be possible in terms of influences. Earliest memory: The Three Bears (the pleasures of uncertainty: “Who’s been sitting in my chair?”) Early adolescence: the stories of H G Wells and particularly the romance of The Door in the Wall. (The notion of idyll, loss and longing “which will persist with Watson for the rest of his life.”) A couple of years later, reading aloud The Windhover, with especial delight in the uncertain function of the word “buckle.” First stirrings of poetry as “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Then Lampedusa’s story Lighea with its sexual blaze, Nerval’s Sylvie, Daphnis and Chloe, Beroul’s Tristan, Kleist’s Marquise von O. All of these he will subsequently versify i.e. rewrite in iambics. “The impulse to read more closely by means of versification” derives no doubt in part from Borges’ reviews of non-existent authors. Watson’s Dictionary of Minor Poets (read imaginary poets) (2008 but written 20 years earlier) is also part of that impulse.

Occasionally glimpsed through rifts in these powerful influences, his actual life appears: 30 years of teaching mathematics (mentioning Fibonacci whenever possible), serene marriage, an old weatherboard house in the mountains, frequent excursions on minor roads to the west, numerous visits to Canada and the dazzling sense of space at Lake Louise; but stronger influences like bright clouds close again over such details: he becomes convinced, and remains so for the rest of his life, that the late works of Beethoven represent the summit of human achievement, perhaps more remarkable than any literature. He is thus at pains in his “experimental poem with footnotes”, Frieze, (published in Erasure Traces) to make the last footnote a reference to the Missa Solemnis. Almost 50 years before he had heard Alfred Brendel playing the Hammerclavier.

The cinema was also a vital influence: Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Truffaut, Antonioni. For a long time he was beguiled by the negative capability in Monica Vitti’s gaze in Deserto Rosso, his“favourite film” And in late adolescence Last Year at Marienbad seemed to declare the possibilities of disjunction and abstraction. He shares with Jonathon Coe a curiosity about the missing portions of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

At the age of sixty having “altogether too many typescripts about him” Watson began to publish. The titles listed elsewhere followed. Another, Occam’s Aftershave is forthcoming. Recalling Leo Genn on his deathbed (“Dying is hard but not as hard as comedy”), Watson “prefers humour to severity, the playful or Menippean to the didactic or tragic.” (Some Like It Hot is higher art than The Seventh Seal.) He hopes that “in humour the lyrical may flourish.”


Girl Wearing Bear

By John Watson


I’m wading ashore on the Isle of Demons
When a funny sort
Of a girl wearing a bear
Ambles forward and says, “Here
I am.  Grrreat to meet with you-all.
I know everything and anything
And I’ll tell you whatever you’d like to hear.
Of course you won’t be wanting
Stuff about the Gulf of St Lawrence
Since you’ve just read Glover’s book
Which, incidentally, is quite flattering to me, don’t you think?
And as far as any text can be said to be true
Is true.”  The bear looks heavy and cold.  “You’re looking
At my life-jacket, and my love, and my Canada.”
The bear is looking over her shoulder.
“Of course, we’re both a good bit older
Than when we first got symbiotic together.
And, à propos of Time, the true subject of all stories,
Tacitus notes the Celts measure time in nights (“fortnights”)
While the French by days (“Quinze jours”).  So they’re
The gloomy ones and we’re the cheerful ones
And you’ll find it, by and large, reflected in my choice
Of odd facts.  Of course, I’m the kind of girl
Who can’t say No – can’t say No to any tale – or tail –
The tale being a set of odd conjunctions, right?
And not necessarily the sexual conjunctions either
Though I wouldn’t say No to those, right?
And the very odd, sixty-four dollar conjunction I’ll regale
You with is – ”  Here the bear seemed to growl
In her ear and she paused and said, “Oh yeah,
I forgot.  It’s been said that consciousness is half
Past and half future stuff, hence déjà vu, hence
Precognition, hence the recognition in later events
Of things originally dreamt or day-dreamt.  But bears
– Bless them – don’t centre on the present,
Their present is an aurora vaguely over their horizon;
Instead they range, range freely, and divide time,
It is said, into something more lyric
Than our schematic, often unworkable tripartite,
Our bell curve with the present set at x=o.
Therefore with this bear’s help I’m able to tell you
Anything from anywhere and I’m not limited
To the old Gulf of St Lawrence in the 16th Century;
What about Saint David Herbert Lawrence for example?
We know stories about him which would make
Your hair curl or turn grizzly – he being
Very bear-like in some respects.
But I digress.
What are the essential elements
Of the tale or story or anecdote or incident
Which will endear it and make it burn
Into receptive memory like ice into a wound?
It should have a point and this one
The one about the pyramid soon to unfold
Has that; it should have surprise,
Something straining credulity as the wind in winter
Strains the seal-skin tents along this island;
And it should be arbitrary, like a bear
Suddenly appearing on the ice-floes and trundling off
In a new direction.  Excuse me –
Yes?  Yes?  Right.  It’s O.K.  Bears can’t bear
Too much Theory.  I’m being advised to move on.
O.K.  Dearly beloved, today’s reading comes from the Gospel
According to Saint Gustave and involves
Flaubert and his friend Maxime du Camp.
Just before dawn they climb the pyramid at Giza.
You know it well of course.  Maxime acted
The mountain goat and was out of breath near the top;
Gustave reached the top just as the first rays broke
Through the ice sheet of the sky low in the east.
And here is the point.  The point occurs
At the point of the pyramid.  Gustave records that he found
Attached to a stone at the summit a business card
Bearing the two words Humbert, Frotteur.  Yes, Humbert, Humbert!
I repeat the name with all the incredulous delight
A frivolous and shallow girl, inside a bear
With both parties somewhat over-ripe, windswept and fate-wrecked,
Gobsmacked by Fortune, flooded by dreams – can muster.
And Frotteur!  Say no more!  I rest my case!
I dips me lid – as a true Antipodean
Without the guidance of bears might say.
This is a true story.”  She paused for bear-breath.
She bowed.  The bear bowed.  I thanked her.  I turned
To wade again through dragon waves in fierce wind
To my boat at anchor.  “Thankyou.  You’re a remarkable girl.
There’s no-one quite like you.”  “Well,” she said, “That’s not – well –
Exactly true.  Past and future incarnations of me are quite like me.”
In the sleet wind I turned back to see the bear
With all of Canada craning behind him in that gale
Fold his arms round her so that she was
Quite lost to view on that desolate shore.

—John Watson

  One Response to “Girl Wearing Bear, or Elle, the Poem — John Watson”

  1. What fun! Thanks for sharing.

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