bite through the soft limbs of money
the doughy arms dragging you down
& escape with
the help of a hand
that’s held out to you from the dark heart
of the dollar—that’s you
trailing incandescent orange spots behind!!!
The strange bifurcated feeling began in 2014. I knew I loved men in the particular, as individuals. And I knew I hated men in general, as an idea. I began the year wanting to write the story of ‘Kate’, the woman hounded from the Australian Defence Force Academy after fellow cadets watched her on Skype having sex with their mate. She wouldn’t (or couldn’t) speak to me. I went on to work for a women’s news website writing about female genital mutilation, surgeons who harassed young female interns, and women killed by husbands and partners. But I couldn’t stop thinking, and writing, about men I’d loved. The favourite uncle, an artist who died when I was 16. The musician who’d been a best friend when we were in our early twenties and living in Melbourne, and who’d died of a heroin overdose after I’d moved to another city. Then there was my friend the poet. He’s gone too. You can see a pattern. I’m hanging out with dead people, I explained when I caught up with an old friend for a drink.
Graham Little describes friendship in his book Friendship as a work of the imagination. Our friends are ‘both real and invented, both outside us and in our heads, both our work and theirs’.1 This is the story I imagined about my friend the poet. It sometimes feels like I’m treading on sacred ground.
In 1992 I moved into a flat above Smith Street in Collingwood with two best friends, Peter and David (I know—this story is already sounding quasi-biblical). We were throwing a party and I was sitting on the edge of David’s bed in his tiny room when an older man marched in carrying a few stubbies of beer. John Forbes was wearing what I later came to recognise as his uniform: a navy blue Bonds T-shirt and black jeans that made his already long legs look even longer. His cheeks were full and fleshy, and his dark wavy hair was sprinkled with grey. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, giving him the air of a professor from the neck up—a look that must have been useful during visiting fellowships at overseas universities. From the neck down, however, he could easily pass as the furniture removalist he’d been for a period in Sydney—one of many odd jobs he took, along with tutoring younger poets, to supplement the occasional writing grant that came his way.
In Melbourne winters he often wore a blue parka over the T-shirt and jeans, creating a boyish look that, together with his lack of other key defining marks of middle age—marriage, children, a mortgage—partly explained the ease with which he bridged the gap between himself and the much younger crowd he often moved in.
Not that he didn’t stand out in that crowd. John was tall—at six foot one or two he was at least a foot taller than me. And while his voice had a nasal edge that must have been a legacy of his early childhood in Queensland, he spoke with a loud and commanding baritone. I sat mesmerised on David’s bed, listening to him intently. Although there were many people squashed into that small room, he seemed to take up at least half of the space. And I soon found myself the focus of his attentions.
‘You’re God’s answer to Paul Keating,’ he pronounced only minutes after we met.
I was simultaneously flattered and flabbergasted. I had no idea what he meant—although I’d run in a student election to become an editor of a campus newspaper, I had no interest in joining a political party, let alone in seeking political office. I took his statement as just a sign of his eccentric and extravagant conversational style. Later I learnt Paul Keating had been one of his poetry’s subjects. In ‘Watching the Treasurer’ he wrote the memorable and often quoted lines:
… Paul Keating’s
bottom lip trembles then recovers,
like the exchange rate under pressure …
Before I met the man I’d only heard whispers, a few lines. Just before I’d moved into the Smith Street house, I was living in Fitzroy with my beautiful friend, her baby girl, and her addict boyfriend. ‘Get out of my way or I’ll stick this into you,’ he ranted one morning after an all-nighter, waving a knife in my face.
‘Why don’t you move in with Peter and David?’ my girlfriend Helen, always quick to resolve a domestic impasse (a particularly useful skill in days when domestic impasses seemed to be happening every other week), suggested.
Peter and David were part of a circle of serious and well-read young men who seemed—at least to my young and provincial eyes—to have somehow missed the turn-off sign to Oxbridge and come inexplicably to Melbourne, but had decided to make the best of it anyway. A few of them were involved as writers and editors of a literary magazine called Scripsi. I’d hear them speak about a poet called John, who’d come down from Sydney a few years earlier to become Scripsi’s poetry editor.
Forbes thinks the new book by such and such isn’t very good, they might say. Now the whispers and lines were embodied.
‘Come over to our place for lunch,’ John said to me at the end of the party, inviting me to the North Carlton semi he shared with Owen, one of the Scripsi boys. A couple of weeks later I walked up the steps of their Station Street home and knocked on the door.
‘Here she is—God’s answer to Paul Keating!’ boomed John as I handed him a bottle of wine and stepped past the large pushbike leaning against the hallway wall. Their house was high-ceilinged and airy, though unrenovated and sparsely furnished. Stacks of books and manuscripts were piled about the place, advance copies from publishers hoping John or Owen might review them. The piles might have been larger, but for the fact that they often sold their review copies to secondhand bookstores in order to meet the rent, or to buy another round at the Carlton bar Jimmy Watson’s, a habit I’d soon pick up myself.
The afternoon passed with gossip about Melbourne’s literary and academic worlds, and listening to John’s lament about the girl he was then infatuated with: ‘She’s having it off with her English professor.’ How he could reconcile his lofty regard for her with the knowledge she’d run off with a mere professor of literature when she could have had him—a living poet—I didn’t think to ask.
John’s knowledge of history and literature was extraordinary, and while I couldn’t begin to understand all of the complex references in his poems, I could see they were brilliant. And while his poems were often difficult, they could also reference the Ramones, or perhaps a Lou Reed song (he called one poem ‘Satellite of Love’). Many of his poems were funny and accessible. See, for example, the poem he simply titled ‘Drugs’:
Marijuana lets you know
what you really feel about
this, that, these & those
but cigarettes are just
something to breathe against
while speed wraps itself around you
the way a speeding car
wraps itself around a telegraph pole …
Like a precocious kid in a lolly shop reciting the flavours and relative merits of each piece of merchandise, the poem goes on to detail drugs such as heroin and coke—and cough medicine, the chemist store drug he consumed excessively for years.
Not long after meeting John I sat in a packed lecture hall at the University of Melbourne where Meaghan Morris delivered a talk about her latest book: Ecstasy and Economics: American Essays for John Forbes. The book was loosely inspired by John’s poetry, and it quickly dawned on me that John was more than just an interesting older guy I’d recently met. He was a significant cultural figure.
Our friendship began as an improbable one—he was a critically acclaimed but penniless middle-aged poet, I was a half-hearted student activist who camped at Pine Gap and flitted from one inner-city share house to another. But John was keenly interested in politics beyond a fascination with Keating’s bottom lip. And I was, almost without realising it, making my way to a writing life: sitting for long hours moving words around the page became both a way to make a living and the thing I loved to do. Not that our differences weren’t important (‘Friends dread the tedium of being merely echoed in a conversation, their attitudes not enhanced or contradicted but xeroxed,’ Graham Little says).
I met John a number of times over the next two years, over drinks at Carlton bars or at student parties. And when I moved to Sydney in 1994 our friendship continued without a noticeable pause. ‘It’s John here,’ was a common refrain on my answering machine when I came home from a day at work, or from classes at the University of Technology, Sydney. ‘Could you put me up for a few days?’ he’d ask.
On one of his first visits he turned up at my flat in Stanmore in his Bonds T-shirt and jeans, clutching a paper bag with either a bottle of alcohol or cough medicine—I can’t remember which, but he usually had one or both of his addictions close at hand. My small flat on the ground floor of a small block of units resembled a middling-sized hotel room, and I unfolded my futon couch and made up a bed for him with clean white sheets. On this visit he asked an old friend, a journalist who worked in women’s magazines, to dinner—ostensibly because he thought she might be a good person for me to know. It was also the first time I saw my relationship with John in a wider context: I understood, for the first time in a real sense, that John had a history. And that his friendships with women like me—not girlfriends, but something more than, or at least different to, mates—were a theme in that history.
‘I’ve got to pick up some boxes of things I’ve stored,’ John said when we woke on the morning of his first visit, suggesting an excursion to the old flour mill by the train line in the next suburb of Newtown. ‘Come with me and I’ll introduce you to some old friends.’
He coughed loudly and persistently as he finished showering and brushing his teeth. I took my turn to get ready, and we set off on a walk through the backstreets of Stanmore and Newtown—neither of us had a licence, let alone a car—towards the mill where he had worked for a furniture removal and storage business (long before the place was gutted and turned into designer apartments, with futuristic round rooms fashioned from the mill’s circular towers).
Back at my flat he unpacked his boxes of stored possessions, leaving me with copies of a mimeographed poetry publication he’d edited when he still lived in Sydney called Surfers Paradise, and a small volume of his poetry, John Forbes, New and Selected Poems.
‘You can keep this too,’ he said, handing me a plastic wall clock decorated with Stalin’s head, painted in the graphic, heroic style of the Russian constructivists. I’d started working for a trade union, and I took it as a part affectionate, part shit-stirring gesture.
When he stayed at my place he usually headed out during the day to visit old friends or family. It was his style to talk up all of his friends, and he spoke about a sister-in-law, in particularly fond terms. She’s a saint,’ he said to me after a visit to his brother’s house. He also came back from that visit with an A4 page filled on one side with a typed poem he titled ‘Humidity’. The poem’s narrator describes someone feeling out of sorts on a very Sydney kind of day, someone
… whose skin
is almost as moist as the air
just before those downpours
men in one of the city’s
2 classes—air conditioned
& the rest—call showers.
Rather than suffer in clothes like ‘wet steel wool’, the poem’s narrator says
… But I’d prefer to be
a beetle, the spread of my
wings to keep me cool &
a million bright things
to bash my head against!
While the poem conveys a sense of being weighed down by Sydney’s oppressive weather, at the time I was revelling in Sydney’s lighter, sunnier atmosphere, shedding the layers of my Melbourne clothes. There was a libertarian and hedonistic streak to the city I hadn’t known in Melbourne: I marched with work friends in the Mardi Gras, I joined a yoga school, and on hot days I’d take the train to Bondi Junction and then the 378 bus that snaked down into the gully at Bronte Beach to swim in the cool salty water of the rock pool.
But my Sydney move hadn’t begun so happily. I’d come to Sydney for another older man (I remember his name—he was a John too, but he’s not the John my mind keeps drifting back to now, I wish I could tell my younger self). This other John had asked me for months to move north for him, though by the time I agreed to come he’d planned his own move—to London. By then I’d already packed my possessions, said goodbye to Melbourne friends, and organised a lift to Sydney: not coming didn’t seem like an option.
Instead of spending my first weeks in what I thought would be the comfort of my boyfriend’s flat, I spent my first days in Sydney wandering back and forth in a daze down the St Peters end of King Street, past the second-hand furniture stores and cheap Thai food cafés, past the fetish shops and anarchist bookshops of Enmore Road, trying to find my bearings in a city that suddenly seemed without any. At one point I boarded a train—I didn’t know where it was going, it was just heading west, to Sydney’s endless suburbs, which I imagined to be so vast one could easily vanish in them forever.
‘What a fool,’ John Forbes would say about the other John, trying to cheer me up. He’d suggest we go out and do things together I had thought I was moving to Sydney to do with my bolting boyfriend. ‘Let’s see a movie,’ he said on one early visit, and he took me to one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen—the City of Lost Children, a surreal science fiction story about a scientist who kidnaps children to steal their dreams in an attempt to stop himself from getting any older.
In 1996 I was living in red-brick terrace house in Petersham. My bedroom was the large room on the top floor at the front of the house—I had room for my big wooden desk by the French doors that opened out to a brick balcony, and plenty of floor space for spreading out my notes. I was writing a thesis, an analysis of a year in the media when dozens of newspaper articles and radio and TV stories had worked themselves into waves of paroxysms over the state of young women, and particularly young feminists. The stories were a reaction to Helen Garner’s The First Stone, her attempt to figure out why two young women at a university residential college had gone to the police to report unwanted sexual advances by their college master. When John came to visit we sat in the mess of papers and talked.
It’s just so unfair, I railed at him. Every-one is attacking young feminists but no-one wants to hear what they have to say. He looked at me, nodding, an expression of amused tolerance on his face. John and I found ourselves at opposite sides of this debate. I’d been one of the editors of Farrago, the University of Melbourne student paper, when the events occurred, and we ran many articles defending the young women’s right to make formal complaints. Scripsi, the magazine that had brought John to Melbourne, had offices at the college where the events took place, and Garner had interviewed John for her book. Later, friends told me he was a source of an unattributed quote in her book:
‘You know the dresses these girls wear to these formal do’s?’ said an older Ormond resident. ‘They’re all’—he made sinuous narrowing, then overflowing gestures with both hands—‘got up like chocolates about to be opened. That’s the male point of view on it, anyway.’
I was a little bit appalled when I heard John had apparently said this. But I also couldn’t help feel a flash of admiration for his unforgettable turn of phrase. After reading it, one could easily think that no other description of young women dressed up for a formal dance could ever seem quite so exactly, quite so vividly, right.
While other friends who came to stay left shopping bags of groceries, or our names on the door to their travelling band’s gig, when John came to stay he would leave pages of poetry. The poem that I opened this story with is from that period. Like many things John said and wrote, it left me puzzled. What was meant by the ‘doughy arms’? The ‘dark heart’? And what are those ‘incandescent orange spots’ trailing behind?
The poem is handwritten in his loose, upright script. Two months later he must have called me, for I’ve crossed out and altered some lines and made a note: ‘changes 24/02/96, phone conversation with JF’.
In the years I knew him John developed more than a few unrequited crushes on much younger women, and he often tested his friends’ willingness to listen to him with his often funny, but usually too long, tales of his love life, or lack of one. While John never slept in my bed, it would be disingenuous to pretend there weren’t times he almost certainly wanted to. But he had other crushes on women that I believe he held at a greater distance, and with a greater intensity, than any romantic longing he might have felt for me. The fact that he could stay with me, I think, spoke of the easy camaraderie we established in each other’s company.
It’s strange, this need to write about my friend John now. I listen to the news and an Australian woman has been murdered by her partner in America. The Dead Women count ticks up. It’s 2016, 21 years now since Garner wrote her book, yet sexual assaults on campus are in the headlines again. I’m just so tired of rehashing old debates. I can see what I’m doing here, of course. Recuperating an old friendship. A man who can’t now disappoint. A reverse idealisation. A friendship safely stashed away in the past.
When I was young and first met John, I’d met far too many jerks in quick succession. Arseholes, really: men who thought that a smile or a nodding interest in their conversation gave them the right to start undressing you, no discussion entered into. Or, worse, to come into your room when you were asleep to …
I’m not opening the door any further. It seems to me we demand far too much personal revelation now, particularly from women. As a writer, particularly a female writer, you’re almost expected to hand over a piece of your life to the reader. Go further, go deeper, we’re told. As if revealing the most awful things will make the writer’s voice more honest, more authentic.What was once the liberation of personal revelation can too easily become the burden of compulsory disclosure. Stuff that, I want to say. It seems more interesting—at least more refreshing—to look elsewhere. To consider the self in relation to another. Especially another who appears as a friend and ally.
So I’m shutting that door. Except to say there was a time when a man who preferred to work from a romantic distance felt like a necessary thing. There was something about John’s courtly, overly romanticised, kind of love for certain women that was medicinal. I’m sure I needed to fall asleep under the same roof as a man who wouldn’t dream of waking me and asking for anything.
I can’t say what he got from these friendships in return. I know his unrequited attractions could inspire some great poems—not that John would have agreed that his poetry was about love for any particular woman. In a review for the Age newspaper of a book of lyrics by the singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, John wrote: ‘His love lyrics have an intense awareness of romantic agony but they refuse to indulge it.’ The same observation could be made of John’s poetry. Read his ‘Europe, endless’ (named after a Kraftwerk song):
& driving for hours
along a freezing highway
‘it’s true’ she said
‘our rock music’s shit
but we invented sexual attraction
didn’t you know? In the 12th Century—
I mean they had it before
as a central, defining principle
in the Subject’s relation to the Other’
I looked across at her—
her fine boned face
& deep, serious eyes—
Thanks, I said
Thanks a lot.
While John’s art, like Kelly’s, wasn’t simply autobiographical, whenever I read the last lines of this poem I picture his face, and a look he could sometimes give. As he left a room he would sometimes flash me a tight, rueful smile, followed by a small shake of the head, as if to say, ‘If only I were 20 years younger.’
By the time of John’s last visit to Sydney I was living in a house in Australia Street, Newtown. On the home’s first floor a short, narrow flight of stairs led to a brightly lit loft. It was little more than two metres square, and it was capped by a pyramid-shaped corrugated roof, through which my housemates and visitors climbed to look over Camperdown Park, and the turrets of Sydney University towards the city. John slept until late in the morning, upstairs in his little cell-like room, like a Jesuit priest on retreat. I had just had a book review published in the Sydney Morning Herald and I was eager to show him the evidence of my small triumph.
He read it standing in the way I’d become familiar with: one hand resting on his hip, the leg below stretched slightly forward, the top half of his body following too, all straight angles but like a straw that bends in the middle so you can drink. ‘No, no. That’s not how you should have started it,’ he said, impatiently slamming down the article on my desk. Although he was intensely loyal once you had his friendship, John had no interest in indulging his friends with false praise. Our conversation faltered. We retired for a drink. ‘Can you lend me some money?’ he asked as he said goodbye.
The last time I spoke with John I rang him at his home in Melbourne. Now broke myself, I wanted to know if he could pay back the loan. Of course he could, he said. I imagined him peddling on his bike towards a bank on Carlton’s Lygon Street.
Not long after this call, my girlfriend Helen called me at home. I picked up the bright red phone that lived under the stairs, next to the dining table where, a few weeks earlier, I’d sat and chatted to John. ‘I’ve got some really bad news,’ Helen said. ‘John had a heart attack.’
John died at home while talking to friends at his own kitchen table. Memorial services were held for him—or, more accurately, for grieving friends and family—in Melbourne and Sydney. After the Sydney service I travelled in a taxi to Rockwood cemetery for the burial with my old friend L., who’d flown up from Melbourne. He was one of the circle of Scripsi boys, and we’d briefly had a long-distance affair before, during a weekend away, we had a fight about nothing in particular that now seemed absurd. I held on to his hand tightly, as if to let go might run the risk of him disappearing forever any moment too.
The late January day was warm, sunshine blazed from the bright blue sky. It was as if the day was determined to win the best visual effects prize in nature’s version of the Oscars, like some sort of twisted joke; why not turn on the most beautiful show on the day we said goodbye to the man who saw and described the world much more vividly and more imaginatively than most?
At the gravesite one of John’s friends, a fellow poet, began reading from his poem ‘Death, an Ode’:
Death, you’re more successful than America,
even if we don’t choose to join you, we do.
I’ve just become aware of this conscription
where no one’s marble doesn’t come up;
At the wake I looked for John’s sister-in-law, the one he had described as a saint. John thought the world of you,’ I told her, making her cry.
‘I’m trying to figure out what my relationship with John was about’, I said to L. recently when I called him in Melbourne.
‘You mean, it was platonic but not platonic?’
I suppose. We were mates of a sort, but there was something else about the quality of our friendship that couldn’t be simply defined by the term ‘mateship’. At times I mothered him—making him meals and beds. In return, he could be something like a mentor or father figure to me and, as one often does with fathers and mentors, I had assumed he would always be around. There was also, I don’t doubt, at times a romantic or erotic undercurrent to our relationship. But it was an undercurrent I either chose to ignore, or that I was genuinely not conscious of: like many young women, I could vastly underestimate my sexual power. Ultimately, it wasn’t the aspect of our relationship that was most important. What I know is we met somewhere between Sydney and Melbourne, between male and female, youth and middle age, politics and poetry.
Recently I’ve been rereading the poem John wrote for me. I’m now almost the same age as he was when I knew him, though a mortgage, children, gender and so much more means our lives could hardly be more different. I don’t want to romanticise poverty or addiction, but because he didn’t have a large stake in the system, I think John could see and say certain truths about the world that others couldn’t, or wouldn’t.
I won’t ever know just what he meant when he wrote ‘escape with the help of a hand / that’s held out to you from the dark heart / of the dollar’. Or what he really thought about this, that, these and those. Sometimes I even think my bottom lip trembles then recovers, like the exchange rate under pressure. I like the way Graham Little describes the mysteries of friendship:
It’s always possible that the world we think we see and the people we say we know are our own creations, made up of wishes we have cultivated and sent abroad like doves till they seem to us to contain the truth of things.
John Forbes may be gone, but he’s left us with his words. And some signs of love. That’s him, trailing incandescent orange spots behind.