Kenneth Slessor

(27 March 1901 – 30 June 1971 / Orange, New South Wales)

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Five Bells


Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
Is not my time, the flood that does not flow.
Between the double and the single bell
Of a ship's hour, between a round of bells
From the dark warship riding there below,
I have lived many lives, and this one life
Of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells.

Deep and dissolving verticals of light
Ferry the falls of moonshine down. Five bells
Coldly rung out in a machine's voice. Night and water
Pour to one rip of darkness, the Harbour floats
In the air, the Cross hangs upside-down in water.

Why do I think of you, dead man, why thieve
These profitless lodgings from the flukes of thought
Anchored in Time? You have gone from earth,
Gone even from the meaning of a name;
Yet something's there, yet something forms its lips
And hits and cries against the ports of space,
Beating their sides to make its fury heard.

Are you shouting at me, dead man, squeezing your face
In agonies of speech on speechless panes?
Cry louder, beat the windows, bawl your name!

But I hear nothing, nothing...only bells,
Five bells, the bumpkin calculus of Time.
Your echoes die, your voice is dowsed by Life,
There's not a mouth can fly the pygmy strait -
Nothing except the memory of some bones
Long shoved away, and sucked away, in mud;
And unimportant things you might have done,
Or once I thought you did; but you forgot,
And all have now forgotten - looks and words
And slops of beer; your coat with buttons off,
Your gaunt chin and pricked eye, and raging tales
Of Irish kings and English perfidy,
And dirtier perfidy of publicans
Groaning to God from Darlinghurst.
Five bells.

Then I saw the road, I heard the thunder
Tumble, and felt the talons of the rain
The night we came to Moorebank in slab-dark,
So dark you bore no body, had no face,
But a sheer voice that rattled out of air
(As now you'd cry if I could break the glass),
A voice that spoke beside me in the bush,
Loud for a breath or bitten off by wind,
Of Milton, melons, and the Rights of Man,
And blowing flutes, and how Tahitian girls
Are brown and angry-tongued, and Sydney girls
Are white and angry-tongued, or so you'd found.
But all I heard was words that didn't join
So Milton became melons, melons girls,
And fifty mouths, it seemed, were out that night,
And in each tree an Ear was bending down,
Or something that had just run, gone behind the grass,
When blank and bone-white, like a maniac's thought,
The naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky,
Knifing the dark with deathly photographs.
There's not so many with so poor a purse
Or fierce a need, must fare by night like that,
Five miles in darkness on a country track,
But when you do, that's what you think.
Five bells.

In Melbourne, your appetite had gone,
Your angers too; they had been leeched away
By the soft archery of summer rains
And the sponge-paws of wetness, the slow damp
That stuck the leaves of living, snailed the mind,
And showed your bones, that had been sharp with rage,
The sodden ectasies of rectitude.
I thought of what you'd written in faint ink,
Your journal with the sawn-off lock, that stayed behind
With other things you left, all without use,
All without meaning now, except a sign
That someone had been living who now was dead:
"At Labassa. Room 6 x 8
On top of the tower; because of this, very dark
And cold in winter. Everything has been stowed
Into this room - 500 books all shapes
And colours, dealt across the floor
And over sills and on the laps of chairs;
Guns, photoes of many differant things
And differant curioes that I obtained..."

In Sydney, by the spent aquarium-flare
Of penny gaslight on pink wallpaper,
We argued about blowing up the world,
But you were living backward, so each night
You crept a moment closer to the breast,
And they were living, all of them, those frames
And shapes of flesh that had perplexed your youth,
And most your father, the old man gone blind,
With fingers always round a fiddle's neck,
That graveyard mason whose fair monuments
And tablets cut with dreams of piety
Rest on the bosoms of a thousand men
Staked bone by bone, in quiet astonishment
At cargoes they had never thought to bear,
These funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.

Where have you gone? The tide is over you,
The turn of midnight water's over you,
As Time is over you, and mystery,
And memory, the flood that does not flow.
You have no suburb, like those easier dead
In private berths of dissolution laid -
The tide goes over, the waves ride over you
And let their shadows down like shining hair,
But they are Water; and the sea-pinks bend
Like lilies in your teeth, but they are Weed;
And you are only part of an Idea.
I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,
The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,
And the short agony, the longer dream,
The Nothing that was neither long nor short;
But I was bound, and could not go that way,
But I was blind, and could not feel your hand.
If I could find an answer, could only find
Your meaning, or could say why you were here
Who now are gone, what purpose gave you breath
Or seized it back, might I not hear your voice?

I looked out my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand
In the moon's drench, that straight enormous glaze,
And ships far off asleep, and Harbour-buoys
Tossing their fireballs wearily each to each,
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat's whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds' voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.
Five bells.

Submitted: Thursday, January 01, 2004

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  • Ruark Lewis (6/8/2012 11:58:00 AM)

    In the 7th stanza, the word you have is 'ectasies' and should read ecstatsies. In this section Slessor thinks about what Joe had written in his 'journal with the sawn-off lock', and quoting from that he uses several deviant words, photoes and differant. I noticed that you have transcribed in the 2nd last line the word 'differant' when in fact Slessor's published version in 1957 spelt it correctly as 'different' and in the final line spells it 'differant' with an 'a'. I thought that was his intention. Photoes as potatoes... This quote was taken from the Labassa, a beautiful Victorian mansions in Caufield, Melbourne. I visited the Australian experimental poet Javant Barujia who lived there, who was only mildly amused with my fixation on the tower rising at that place. I have recently been performing a version called Five Bells Remix with British musician and composer Laurie Scott Baker which will be broadcast shortly by the Australian Broadcasting Commission music program. I shall now go and check other editions to make sure on the correct renderings on stanza 7. Thank you for have a digital version on-line. It is very convenient. Yes I agree, Five bells is a remarkable poem, and much loved here in Sydney. We particularly love the reference to Joe Lynch's Irish heritage, and his anarchist or revolutionary tendency.....and raging tales of Irish kings and English perfidy, and dirtier perfidy of publicans groaning to God from Darlinghurst. This traces to stanza 8 where Slessor recalls in his fabulous line In Sydney, by the spent aquarium-flare of penny gaslight on pink wallpaper, we argued about blowing up the world, but you were living backward, so each night... such a beautifully formed memorial leading to a meeting of Joe's father, the old man gone blind (the grave-yard mason) . Somewhere in this city it would be marvellous to have the masons insrcibed the whole poem in stone. It does deserve it. There is a memorial to Joe Lynch in the Botanic Gardens near the Sydney Opera House, a bronze made by his brother who was a new Zealand monumental sculptor. Ruark Lewis (Report) Reply

  • Sylva Portoian (2/26/2010 9:47:00 AM)

    The Bells of Slessor is not a one poem
    Has five pages with its chanting bells of extraordinary phrases
    Where he felt deep as if he was sunken in harbor there,
    He couldn’t breathe, but he spoke with death
    Blaming angrily why he died there
    He created romance with eternal feeling with Joe the death.
    As he was there and expressed his deep feelings
    Death, but alive to write such a strong words,
    I could not find somewhere else
    Accept in the Five Bells.
    As K.S repeated in his words, Five Bells. (Report) Reply

  • Fergus Hancock (2/6/2010 3:10:00 PM)

    The sadness of Darlinghurst and then the war Slessor wrote is heart-wrenching. His words take us beyond any rationalisms human thinking comes up with beyond that door. I am still struck by his view of the harbour and the Southern Cross hanging upside in its reflection; such an image! (Report) Reply

  • Liam Dudgeon (6/16/2009 10:23:00 PM)

    A true classic Australian poem. The image of Sydney harbor is amazing, and everytime I take the ferry I can almost see Joe there in the water. (Report) Reply

  • Amberlee Carter (5/18/2005 12:23:00 PM)

    I think this work is beautiful and amazing...so much of its meaning is beyond mere humanistic comprehension, I'd say, somewhere between the moment and the afterimage.. (Report) Reply

  • Mark Ritzenhein (5/12/2005 9:28:00 PM)

    This poem is profound, both in meaning and oceanic depths. The imagery of a deceased man unable to communicate past the porthole glass, both literally and figuratively, is a frightening and honest portrayal of the absolute nature of death. It's antique context pulls one back to a previous era, wherein you then feel some sense of familiarity. I've only recently discovered this poet, and I was stunned by his powerful metaphors. They remind me of one of my own poems on a similar theme, as well as other drowning images found in recent films, like Titanic, Orlando, and the Lord of the Rings. I am very inspired by this work. (Report) Reply

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