Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Directions for Dreamfishing
(Directions for Dreamfishing)
First you must blow a bottle round your sleep
in concave bottle-greens of drifting seas
around dreams' hot vermilions, where unease
will abrogate its fishing rights to deep
seas, where your Dreamfish, bred and interbred
to swim upnight with what you most desire,
slides through the streaming cellstrands in your head
stippled with swirling wet St Elmo's fire
and surfacing flutters on the midnight wind,
as fish can't, as you know. The night is green
with loss. In fading dictionaries you find
'the sea-green beryl, or aquamarine.'
You wake in billingsgate, haggling for a drab
dead slice of Dreamfish on a beryl slab.
Martin Johnston (1947 - 1990)
In recent times this beautiful poem by Martin Johnston kept coming back into my mind. I first read "Directions for Dreamfishing" in an anthology of Australian poetry edited by John Tranter; for years, I kept a copy of the poem pinned on the wall in front of my desk. But I'd long-since lost that photocopy in my travels. I couldn't find the poem online; the Tranter anthology is in a box back in Sydney. I could almost remember the poem by heart, but there were frustrating gaps. So I went to Google Books and reconstructed it, line by line. Google would only show me a few lines at a time, but by careful phrase-searches I managed to fill in the gaps and piece it together.
When I was nineteen I knew Johnston from the Sydney poetry reading scene around Darlinghurst - I'd even read one night in a poetry reading at Exiles Bookshop that he was also in. He lived a street away from me - I was in Forbes St, he in Thomson, from memory. One day I doorknocked him and importuned him (I guess it's a form of blackmail, a doorknock like that) to buy a copy of my first small book of poems, "Four Plots for Magnets". I suppose he was around 34. He seemed both ridiculously polite and painfully shy.
Then I met him again in mid-89, in the corridors of the old SBS Television headquarters when it was still in North Sydney near Luna Park and I had, very briefly - this was the final year before I got properly "clean" - a job on a small current affairs program called "Vox Populi". He was a subtitler there - Greek films, I guess, and whatever other languages his vast mind had a handle on. I stopped him one day, reminded him of who I was and where we knew each other from. He had that spooked colt thing going still - an edginess, a slight spaciness - but he was unfailingly polite and welcoming too. He invited me to come across the road to the pub any lunch time - he would be there every day, he implied, every lunch time.
I never took up the offer. I was freelance - it wasn't like I took a lunch hour anyhow. He was dead within a year. What I find in this poem - and perhaps I'm deeply wrong - is the sadness of his struggle with alcohol. "Unease" is perhaps the fulcrum word of the poem. I love the fact that there's a "first" - as if we're about to get a set of instructions - but no "second". It's not a how-to, it's a lament for what's lost. The dreamer gets lost in the struggle of the dream. There's a chance the unease might be let go of for something greater, something deeper. Contact with the elemental seems to be made, but it won't be retained - except, perhaps, in the "fading dictionaries" of his poems? There's the brilliant work those "streaming cellstrands" do: that image I get both of rippling seaweed deep underwater and of the neuronal pathways in the brain. There's that brutal sense of waking, of waking bewildered (and hung over?) to the demands of this world above the surface. That abrupt "as fish can't, as you know." It seems perhaps a perfect poem about the actual physiology of nightly withdrawal, and the psychic toll it takes. Passing out, "going under", sleeping restlessly, and waking later to a harsh and brittle world.
On the other hand, it's about much more than that, of course. "Dreams are private myths," wrote Joseph Campbell. "Myths are public dreams." In "Directions for Dreamfishing", Johnston created a mythically beautiful poem by making a private anguish public.