THREE PROSE MEMOIRS
The Dead Presidents
O actor! my actor! your fearful script is done.
The B-grade movies have all been shot, but still no Oscar won.
I caught part of the Ronald Reagan funeral on television. Had heard The Battle Hymn of the Republic from a distance, came upstairs a little later just as the choir was launching into Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Then the brief military bit, the precision marchers with that strange crooked-arm step, lining up beside the coffin & then carrying it back down from the nave.
I'd hoped for more. What I saw I was moved by, not by who it was but by the ceremony of it all, the RITUAL. Funerals of heads of state or royalty are one of the few places you can find pure ritual these days. I'd seen a shot of the coffin being transported to the Capitol, a line of motorcyclists abreast across the road, the hearse, the riderless horse with the empty boots facing backwards in the stirrups. I'd hoped that the funeral procession leaving the cathedral would have more pageantry, more ritual, to it.
But, I suppose, this is one of the drawbacks of having an elected Head of State. They come from anywhere in the country & are then returned there for burial. By motorised hearse, by aeroplane. There is not a centre where everything happens. The U.S.A. is a young country, & though it tries occasionally to pretend it has the history of a European state, these are the occasions when that is shown not to be true.
The Queen Mother of England would probably have occupied a similar level of my estimation as Reagan in that I had little time for either of them. But her funeral procession was amazing. Pure ceremony, pure tradition, pure ritual. The flag-draped coffin on a catafalque, the mourners marching behind, in rank, the silence of it all, the rhythm of measured pacing, the occasional creak of the gun-carriage's wheels, the firing of distant guns. Centuries summarised in an act that happens only a few times each century.
The ceremony was almost the antithesis of what William Carlos Williams wrote about in Tract.
I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral –
for you have it over a troop
of artists –
unless one should scour the world –
you have the ground sense necessary.
& yet I somehow think that whoever managed the Queen Mother's funeral did scour the world & did have the necessary ground sense.
I heard about the assassination of John F. Kennedy whilst I was riding in the small bus that then crossed the Coromandel Peninsula of New Zealand from Whitianga to Thames.
A narrow road in a temperate rain forest. Most times only wide enough for the bus. Branches scraping the roof. Few passengers.
The driver had a little transistor radio. Reception was, understandably, crappy at best. Scratchy. But through it all, breaking into the music, came a severe & oh so serious voice. "Stand by for an important news item." Repeated. Then, "The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy has just been assassinated."
Because of the dateline this was the morning of Saturday, November 23 in Aotearoa. Hearing the news anywhere would have caused shock, but to hear it in such surroundings was utterly bizarre. & distressing. Even to someone like myself whose politics were left of left, JFK was a figure of hope. Vietnam was still to move from S.E. Asia's equivalent of off-off-off Broadway. The Cold War was still the main occupant of the world stage. The Bay of Pigs was someone else's fuckup. The Cuban missile crisis had been resolved because of JFK's steely resolve & we were all breathing a little easier. Frank O'Hara was still alive. Khruschev was still coming on the right day!
We changed buses & headed for Auckland where we were to stay at the house of some friends who had gone away a couple of days earlier & who had told us where they'd left the key. Drove into Auckland to a main street dotted with newspaper billboards – yes, they still had afternoon newspapers in those days – that proclaimed PRESIDENT KENNEDY ASSASSINATED. Not many people around, only the billboards.
Caught a taxi to our friends' house. Went inside. First thing we saw was a newspaper billboard on the wall. AMERICAN PRESIDENT ASSASSINATED. Freaked out, totally & utterly. How, if they'd been away for the last two days, could this have got there? Moved closer. Found it to be a reproduction of the billboard announcing Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Did not breathe any easier.
Hie thee to the hinterland
Here, it is only the surrounding landscape & its fauna that keeps me sane. This city does nothing for me; it's like the small places I grew up in the forties & fifties in, but I was young then, & could find a myriad of things to hold my interest. Forty years as a big-city dweller have spoiled me, & now I expect a 24 hour environment, with book shops & music & cafés. Of which there are next to none here.
So I've turned to the local landscape for escape. Enjoy driving through it, even if most of the time it's the same old same old. I have learnt to live with the brownness of it, the scarcity of arable land. Most of it is grazing land, not enough grass for sheep so cattle, predominantly those breeds like Brahman that can exist on minimal water, minimal sustenance. The only crop that seems to be grown around here is turf in heavily-irrigated fields.
There are different aspects to the land, different vegetation that tends to depend upon the altitude. No real high ground here though there are rocky upthrusts, isolated, like pimples on the landscape — in England they'd probably be called tors. Often with steep granite escarpments which are free of the trees that cover the rest of the outcrop. There are occasional low ranges, probably only a couple of hundred metres high, sometimes covered in trees though some are grassland dotted with shrubs. Lots of gums, still quite a lot of prickly pear in the more open parts despite the eradication program undertaken some decades ago. Windmills draw bore water up.
Today I drive west along the Ridgelands road, my normal route. But instead of turning south or southwest as I usually do, I take a side road to the north, hoping to find what I've mentally designated the secret bridge across the Fitzroy River. The river passes through Rockhampton, cuts it in half on its way to the sea, & the only two bridges I know are both in the city. But the river also follows the way I tend to go, though further north & west before it turns south. There has to be at least one more bridge, though it's probably along one of the roads that I tend to have given up on after a few kilometres, after they become narrow & overgrown, with floodways & gullies that are several metres deep.
But I've seen a sign proclaiming the South Yaamba road, & Yaamba is a place on the Main Highway about 50 kilometres north, so I decide to investigate it. The roadmaps I have are pretty sketchy, & show the road stays on this side of the river, parallel to it, but I'm still hopeful. The tarseal gives way to gravel before too long. The road meanders — east, north, west, north, east. There are still farms at regular intervals though heavier patches of bush. I pass over a river on a narrow wooden bridge with edges about 10 centimetres high. No sign, so perhaps this is the Fitzroy, but my later wanderings, since I don't pass over it again, tend to indicate it is a tributary. What I call the stupid parrots — they are beautiful birds, yellow & grey & lilac, but they tend to forage in the grass beside the road & fly out in front of the car as it passes — frighten me slightly. A couple of large wallabies or small kangaroos, the first I've seen live in the daylight wild, bound across the road in front of me.
& then I come out into flat land again, & see two huge birds descending into a field ahead on the right. From the distance I think eagles at first because of the size; but when I come up to the field & stop the car & get out I see that they are slender, & incredibly tall. There are about fifty of them, some picking around in the small bushes, others on a ridge spreading their wings in some sort of dance. Incredibly elegant & fantastic to behold.
(Later I try to find them in my bird book, but the only comparable bird I can find is the great-billed heron. The size is right — one and a half metres tall — & the grey colour is right & their range is right, but nothing else matches. They are water birds, & there are no estuaries near here. Do another search, with different parameters, & find the bird in question is the brolga.
"[They] bow, advance & retreat, trumpet, & fling objects in the air.")
I watch them for a while, & then move on. About a kilometre up the road I come to a crossroads, no signs, only road names. I go straight on & end up at a farm gate after about three kilometres. I return to the junction & turn to my left & after a couple of kilometres come to a no through road sign. Again I recover my steps & keep on going straight through the intersection. I discover roadwork under way, a good sign. & then I see that the house / farm numbers are going down which I take to be a very good sign. Then the road is sealed once more, & I see a main road sign up ahead & come out again on the Ridgelands road, about 16 kilometres further on from where I turned off, although it's been more like 60 kilometres that I've covered getting here.
I am almost directly opposite the third cross-country road, the one I've least travelled, so I think what the hell & take it instead of heading back up the bitumen. Go past the school & the hall & the racecourse which is the extent of the settlement, hit the gravel road once more. It's like rallycar driving at a city pace. I miss the turnoff I'm meant to take & travel some distance up the road until I see, for once, a direction sign that tells me I'm heading the wrong way. A lot of that today. Head back, have another couple of wallabies bound across the road & a little further on a rabbit scuttles across. In the daylight they are fine, you can see them & they can see you, but at night they freeze in the headlights.
Find the right road, follow it as it cuts across country slightly up the side of a range of hills. Two more brief bits of bitumen, one outside a school & one for no apparent reason — maybe a shire councillor lives here — & then eventually see the power station smokestack. The road is sealed again & then runs into one of the highways that head back to Rockhampton. Thirty or so kilometres to get home, race car not rally.
I have just realised I have lived without music for a month when once I couldn't live without it. It is not through choice, just from being busy doing other things. & when you're occupied, you tend to forget to do other things. Plus I drive with the car radio off.
I try to make up for it by listening to the Very Best of Miles Davis. One swallow does not a summer make.
I have been reading the same book for two weeks. I could not even tell you what it is called. I know it is not a book of poetry. Maybe it's not even a book.
During the time I have been without music I have driven a thousand kilometres checking out the countryside around so I know where to take the visitors when they come. I have visited / passed by salt farms, fields of dry grass, pools with water lilies, the highest hill hereabouts, lagoons, the river, railway lines, power stations.
What I am really trying to do is plot the topography of my relationship with the landscape.
Day by day the land dries out more. I try to keep my fluid intake up.
I wonder if there will be crocodiles this year.
There are turtles though I have only just discovered them. One afternoon I parked in a different place to where I normally do at the Washwool Lagoon & saw turtles sunning themselves on a tree trunk that had fallen into the water. More turtles on a log further down, more swimming. Perhaps fifty in all, & I'd never noticed them before. Most of them the size of bread & butter plates. A few of dinner plate size.
Two days ago we found a turtle by the roadside, heading away from the water. Or possibly trying to find it but lost & heading in the wrong direction. We rescued it, took it back to the water. At first there was only disturbed mud but a few minutes later its head appeared above the surface. I think it was a short-necked turtle. I carried it by spreading my hand across its shell. The turtle withdrew its head.
It will be National Coming Out Day soon. Perhaps that is what the turtle was trying to do & we prevented it.
I wonder if there will be any surprises this year.
I don't think I surprised my parents. Just horrified them.
But that was in another country.
MARK YOUNG'S most recent books are random salamanders, a Wanton Text Production, & Circus economies, from gradient books of Finland.