Image: Willem de Kooning – Valentine (1947)
Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Antipodes, Australian Poetry Journal, Critical Survey, Live Encounters, The Stony Thursday Book, and Two-Thirds North. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.
Ambrose in Amsterdam
Chernobyl time, fall-out drifting
Like a foul disease, falling on Sweden
Another day it was Italy’s turn.
Contamination borne by weather’s random patterns.
Ambrose in Amsterdam
looking for traces of his mother
although one of his voices
knew he would never find her.
He understood enough Dutch
to piece together what had happened,
glanced toward the threatening sky,
wanted to stroll along the street of prostitutes
hands pocket-deep, fingers brushing his penis,
see them lounging in their lurid window.
But desire choked him,
made him feel the way he felt
when he bought pornographic magazines.
After the first seconds of turning pages
His breath catching his throat
& lust crazing him
he always experienced an awareness
of slight boredom tinged with self-revulsion
& futility, always futility.
A cheap hotel room, shouting in the night,
glass smashing. His own tension annoyed him.
Outside his window which he couldn’t open
He noticed in the dim light
A soaked bird, dead on the sill.
Earlier that day he had peered
through the rain beyond the train’s window
hoping to see windmills on the horizon.
Coming here was yet another mistake
one of his interfering voices
the provocative one, had needled.
Why can’t you just get on with your life
like any normal person?
Don’t start on Don Quixote & impossible quests.
Dulcinea del Toboso!
He thought he heard Australian accents
females, further down the carriage
but he didn’t look.
The provocative voice made repetitive nonsense
of the train’s speed, the wheels’ sound.
The rain again the next day exhausted his bones
after the long night and broken, uneasy sleep.
He sipped bitter coffee from a tiny glass cup
enjoying its aroma more than the taste
& watching straight-backed cyclists
steering through the city centre
their knees rising, falling, rising with calm precision
spokes glittering in a lone shaft of sunlight.
He knew this scene would be cast forever in his memory
vivid, locked there to remain
while other times fell away beyond recall.
He mingled with other visitors in the easing rain
under a broad rainbow forming
a half-arch over a cobblestoned square.
An old woman with raggedy sleeves fed pigeons
while a young man smoking a fat roll-your-own
& wearing tight leather pants
& a pattern of studs in one ear
tried to sell clockwork birds.
The gaudy toys fluttered, erratic
& Ambrose ducked, heard someone laugh.
When he looked again, tight pants grinned openly.
Later, he remembered leaning over a railing
watching raindrops fragment his reflection in a canal.
He had read about the Zuyder Zee.
Imagine a dyke thirty kilometres long
holding back the sea, the sea
which had eroded their precious land for centuries.
Incredible people, the Dutch.
Not all of them.
Remember the story at school
a boy’s finger plugging a hole in the dyke?
Yeah, I remember, but a memory
can be a nuisance, however faint.
You’re like that dumb kid at the dyke.
Moving forward in life can be a refusal to quit.
You don’t have to try forever to reclaim the past
Like the Dutch reclaiming their lost land.
So what if he said she was just a Dutch slut?
You can’t change what’s already happened.
The old woman feeding the pigeons
had ignored tight pants winding his clockwork birds.
When she sat Ambrose had seen her large knickers.
She was grey all over
her clothes, her skin, the folds of her neck
all the same colour, grey.
She had looked at Ambrose
& he had wondered where she slept
& what sort of life she had endured.
He felt certain the old woman had no-one.
She was alone.
I could go there. See the Zuyder Zee!
You’ve only just got here!
Every time you arrive somewhere
you want to take off for another place.
You’ve got to face things in the end.
The boy’s gone, the dyke’s gone, she’s gone.