Shelton Lea was legendary in (Aussie) poetic circles, and probably some others, and I’d heard the legends before I finally met him in the early eighties. He’d been in prison. He drank too much. He got into fights. Yet there was a respect, too, in the way people spoke of him, and that was for the poetry. His colourful life, as summarised here — and do scroll down to the first Comment, a poem by Komninos with more anecdotes of Shelton — stemmed from a bizarre childhood. Both are dealt with in detail in Diana Georgeff’s biography, the well named Delinquent Angel, and outlined in the review at this link. However, that book failed to convey his importance to Australian poetry and what a friend and mentor he became to many other poets — including me. My reminiscences of Shelton would make this much too long a post, but are told on my blog, in poetry.
There were funny stories about his years as a thief, such as robbing one grand house and then stopping to rearrange the pictures on the walls because they were, aesthetically, so badly hung. He told me himself of being halfway up a drainpipe one cold night and realising he was getting a bit old for that life. So he decided then and there to stop being a thief and be a poet instead.
He never joined organisations like the Poets Union or the Street Poets, but ran his life on similar principles. He created broadsheets and paper booklets of his poems, often illustrated by artist friends, and sold them (very cheaply). He recited his poetry anywhere and everywhere — at poetry festivals, on street corners, in bars.... His beautiful voice and theatrical manner (always with a hint of laughter at himself) won the hearts of all listeners. Rough men in pubs, who would normally sneer at poetry, begged for more — as you read in Liz Hall-Downs’s poem last week. My own elegy for Shelton concerns the publication of Poems from a Peach Melba Hat, the eighth of his ten published volumes. These and other tributes to him are in All Travellers We (2007) which is listed in one online reference as being by Shelton. Instead it was about and for him, by a number of the poets who loved him.
Loving the sounds of words, he was a master of extravagantly lyrical phrases: ‘... dead friends / who had the appalling grace / to spend some time with us’, ‘and when the soft sentinel of the starry night / the moon / sets / as languid as sleep’, ‘i dream of the soft slide of light / across the down of hair on your face’, and a reference to poems as ‘these senseless interrogations of the heart’. But the one I could most wish I’d written is one of his tougher pieces, a flawed but wonderful poem from his last book, Nebuchadnezzar, published in 2005, the year of his death from lung cancer. (He lived to attend the book launch.)
for albert “ah” hayes the bidwell brother
australia, oh australia
i have seen you in your belly’s roar
that there’s nothing downwind
and the country’s offshore.
what have you done with your
your destabilised dollar?
your people are grim
and your humour’s gone out the same door
others’ money’s come in.
where now are
the glad givers of the rape of our rivers,
those impertinent soldiers made absurd
by the black man’s dance
on his river’s curve?
we arrived on these shores
like shell-shocked pink angels
after a storm.
and deep down in sydney,
where the traffic’s roar
on a saturday night
is stilled by the heartbeat
of the city’s poor,
the bone moon shines,
shedding a light that is thin
through a sky that’s as large
as an idiot’s grin.
but i love the alleys and the highways,
the streets where it always rains;
the parkie-darkies round their campfires
in the dreaming of redfern;
the scud of clouds across the desert’s brutal sky,
the lap of words against
our gentle shores.
and there were wheat carriages,
their tarpaulined corners turned
through which a lad could slip
with his boy’s young loins.
and deep in the wheat a journey began
through this place that we call the common land.
from toorak through fitzroy;
from reform schools through jails;
from deserts to seas;
to cherbourg, redfern, toowong and sale,
this land has been trod
by a sod with a poem whose voice wants to speak
of the australia he’s known;
of this land of fences and diatribes,
where distances cannot be described by maps.
but that is the matter of this country
where we dwell,
a place where the stars are as close as a smile,
where the winds are not tempests
but a spell in the weather,
where no longer our dreams
are of penny ice-creams
but macdonalds that cost you a dollar.
and are we to be reduced to anecdote,
the time when, the time where
rather than now?
alone where we stand is a beggar’s land
were the blackfeller’s dreaming
could give us a hand.
for this is our black brudda’s country.
its bruises and wounds are now theirs
for we have made this land untenable
for even the poor on the stairs.
look around you bruddas
to leichhardt, poor buggers they were;
chewing green leather sample bags
and dying within sight of a murri camp.
they say that blaxland, wentworth and lawson
were the first to traverse
that rugged blue mountain range.
but the koorie had used the hieroglyphs
of wallaby maps
and the echidna’s scratched calligraphy
to show the way;
long before the gubba’s foot had trod this scrub
the dreaming tracks were made.
(Leichhardt, Wentworth, Blaxland and Lawson were all early white explorers of Australia. Murri and koorie are Aboriginal people's words for themselves — different in different parts of the country.)
Most of Lea's titles are out of print. The Love Poems and Nebuchadnezzar are available from Abe Books. (Nebuchadnezzar is also available from the link given previously, above.)
The brief introduction to All Travellers We ends: 'His elegant generosity of spirit, eternal optimism, and far-reaching influence on Australian poetry will echo into the future. There will never be another like him.'
Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).