Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Poet writes story about canoes.

There was once a poet who won the American National Book Award in Poetry, and then got appointed Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. After that, he was hired as poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. In the end he must have tired of rambling around empty halls of learning like a kept ghost, albeit a scholarly one, while stroking his beard and frowning as if trying to give birth to a sixty verse epic.

So he wrote a book.

He called it Deliverance.

I may be exaggerating a little, but just about the entire world has seen the movie 'Deliverance'; or if they haven't, they know what it is about. But most people have never heard of James Dickey.

My copy is a Pan from its tenth printing in 1976. One of the reviews on the back cover states that it ' ... achieves what it sets out to do ... ' and even the word 'brilliantly' prefixing that snippet doesn't really detract from the quote's air of faint praise. Time called it a ' ... shapely adventure tale.' Shapely? Well, I suppose so. But the word has possibly seen a reduction in its meanings over the last forty years. There is however some modern shapeliness early in the book.

Dickey can't help his background, nor leave it. The novel rolls out like the river it follows, flowing relentlessly down to the end, a disquieting noise in the background punctuated by eerily unlikely metalanguage that nevertheless works. The central character who climbs a cliff to thwart the murderous toothless hillbilly takes from page 141 to 155 to do so, and the progress is not so much described as pschyoanalysed. The book is an experiment in time and scale and a few other dimensions I haven't quite found yet. Yet it's also just a straight tale, if you excuse the 14-page cliff climb. Books like this shoot themselves in the foot. They are too good for their apparent readership (a marketing problem, not a criticism of the popular book audience) but conversely the academics tend to hate them.

If you were anxious for Ed Gentry to get up the cliff, don't hold your breath during the canoe ride.
I waited for the upward revengeful smash of the river, but the nose rode down with an odd softness and into the back-scrolled smashed water at the foot of the rock, quivered straight back through the spine of the canoe into mine and into my brain, where I saw a vision of burning jackstraws or needles, and we were back down on to the bedded river in two almost simultaneous stepdowns.
Most writers would have just said 'saw stars' but 'saw a vision of burning jackstraws’? Dickey was a poet, but he had lived experience with an ability to verbalise it locked together like a freight train and its tender at 100 miles an hour. Lucky man. Apparently he was a pain in the neck on the set of the movie, but you would have to be. Dealing with all those fucking art directors.

Deliverance by James Dickey
Hamish Hamilton 1970

Three-word review: Hemingway with commas.


The cabin.

It was a late afternoon flight – the only one available – and daylight saving had ended the day before. The plane rode cloud cover all the way across Bass Strait and in just under an hour it came down out of the clouds and banked and frail dying orange light came into the plane as the sleety runway rose up and hit the wheels.

We climbed out of the rear of the plane and walked a hundred metres through light warm rain to a square terminal that seemed a lot bigger once you got inside. A trained beagle led by a uniformed customs officer greeted the passengers and pushed into someone's bag and pulled out an apple. No fruit admitted. I've seen this trick several times and every time the perpetrator looks guiltier than a terrorist. For some reason it always seems to be a well-dressed upper middle-class lady who has forgotten about the no-fruit rule. Bailed up by a beagle, hands in the air in dismay. Or just well-bred embarrassment.

I had wanted light so I could see where I was going. They had built new roads since last time I was here. But as we were heading north, I should be OK. No real easts or wests before you make the north/south decision. The airport is south of the city so I pointed the hire car north, across the river, and then north again alongside the river. It was completely dark now; the light had died with the contraband apple.

Next thing to think about was food: either divert into town and waste time looking for something or stay on the highway until about halfway where I knew a food store in the last small town would still be open: if I hurried, and if its website was correct. Closes 8 p.m. Mondays, it said. We'll see. It was seven o'clock. I had an eight year old, a twelve year old and a teenager on board. And two adults, counting me. Food. There would be nothing at our destination except a cabin and a key. If they remembered. I'd called twice, once to make the booking, the second time to confirm, but neither time did they ask for a deposit or a credit card number. I put it down to rural nonchalance, a quality that no longer exists, or at least the word doesn't.

The rain got heavier and the road narrowed as it wound north around hills. The river, a massive estuary, was below us off to the right but all you could see was blackness on that side. Rising away on the left were houses with sleepy yellow windows way up behind the trees. Half an hour of that in violent rain and then the 110 speed sign went down to 80. That was the halfway town approaching. Some lights were on in the main street, including the ones in the supermarket. I pulled over, right out the front.

'Stay here.' I opened the car door, letting in a few bucketfuls of rain, crouch-ran into the supermarket, gathered up some things from the hot bar and some drinks, and ran back to the car after paying the twenty-something behind the counter who could have known me half my life given her friendliness. Lightly freckled calcite skin, swept-back pale straw hair and a smile to launch a thousand small towns. The things you notice in ten seconds.

More hard rain. The windscreen wipers struggled, and the road ahead was a silver ribbon. No lights anywhere now. The river was still somewhere off to the right. It had to be. The car swished through another smaller lightless town, all tucked up for the night. Then another, just the same.

Twenty minutes later, the rain stopped just as the road ended, curving gently around to the right and narrowing down to a gravel bowl, one one side a closed shop and further around, an entrance: 'Green's Beach Caravan Park. Cabins.'

I could smell the sea. I walked around and looked for an office, found one and knocked. No-one home. I looked for a key. No box. Then a crunching sound. A dog emerged out of the darkness, leashed to a figure close behind. Could he help me? the figure asked. Yes, he could, I said. I had booked a cabin. Bit late, he said. Not accusing, just pointing out a fact. I said I'd told the lady on the phone we'd be here around eight. Not defensively, just stating a fact. We stated a few more facts just to be friendly in the darkness and then he said come over to the caretaker's caravan and we'd get his wife out and she'd fix everything. She came out and we had more pleasantries, and then we walked back to the closed office and she opened up and we examined the reservations book as if we were all detectives. She said the other people had gone a week or so ago, and they'd taken over and weren't sure about who was coming and who wasn't. Then she gave me the key and some milk for tea and pointed at cabin no. 1. I was right about that word that doesn't exist any more. It was right here on full display. They were the nicest people you could hope to meet but not a word of gushing city insincerity would ever pass their lips.

It was warm and clean and cosy inside, and the children destroyed the food and the drinks, and we opened the windows and the sea roar came in. They didn't even know how close the sea was, but I did. I'd been here before in a past life or what seemed like it. They would go out early in the morning, and they would run across the broad sand and shriek and climb the rocks and see the Bass Strait surf breaking and dancing on the horizon way out past the gentler waters of the semi-bay.



"Why, Rebecca, how can you call him a name like that?" Evelyn exclaimed.
Rebecca laughed, "Oh, come off it, Kansas. You can't pretend you like the son of a bitch."
Evelyn thought very deeply. She had to admit to herself, and then to Rebecca, that she did not.
"Look," Rebecca said, "if there's racial equality, we have the right to hate bores and loud-mouths regardless of what species they are."
Evelyn was a little reluctant to admit she was right. "He is an aggressive fellow, but after all, Becky, any member of a minority is bound to be ..."
"Now that's real prejudice, Evelyn. If you think you have to go around loving all Jews because of what happened in Germany, then you're as guilty as Hitler is, or was. For God's sake, respect us enough to hate us when you feel like it."
"I see," Evelyn said in a small voice that held an enormous new realization. "Yes. Of course I see." But if anyone but a Jew had told her what Rebecca had, she would have labeled the person "a vicious anti-Semite."
Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff by William Inge
Little, Brown and Company 1970