(A continuing series of poems, papers, articles, notes, letters dedicated to the memory of Charles Buckmaster, 1951-1972)
Part 1 :
Article, Larry Schwartz (1990)
Poem, Kris Hemensley (1968)
Poem, James Hamilton (2011)
DEATH OF A POET
"Often in full flight of longing my soul storms upward"
--found written on a loose sheet among Charles Buckmaster's books.
A dirt road rises and falls alongside orchards, dams and sheep in the hilly farmland where locals wave to strangers in passing cars. This is Gruyere, a small farming community near Lilydale, where almost two decades ago a muffled shot one night punctuated the quiet, rustic setting.
There is the farm house and attached bungalow in which a mother found the shotgun the following morning beside the body of her beloved youngest son. That was 26 November 1972, just over four years after the youth, stifled by the idyll of the tiny community, left for the city, wearing a new suit and clutching a suitcase and a handful of poems.
A diagnosed schitzophrenic, Charles Buckmaster was to finaly succumb to the agonising mental illness when he re-enacted the suicide of an older brother, taking his own life with his brother's gun, at just 21.
"There was a lot of pain and there still is a lot of pain," says a relative of the dead poet. "You put it away and you deal with it but you never forget."
The fifth child (youngest by eight years) of a taciturn farmer who worked at his cherry and peach orchards, Buckmaster wrote of "silent / desperation / waiting for life to descend".
He finally turned his back on the farming community established by his Swiss forbears, quitting school mid-way through the matriculation year in 1968 rather than heed an instruction to cut his hair. Eric Penfold, a teacher at Lilydale High school at the time, remembers Buckmaster as "a bit of a wild boy." "I don't think Charles was a real conformist," he said.
"When I was young, people thought me a strange and moody kid," Buckmaster once said. "Often I felt myself a stranger among people I'd known all my life ... my wanting to get out, which I wanted desperately, was something my parents knew they couldn't fight."
But the lure of Gruyere was strong. Buckmaster, who travelled extensively around Australia, was to return home often, sometimes accompanied by friends for fruit-picking, and his childhood surroundings featured prominently in the poetry of the young rebel some said bore a strong physical resemblance to the ill-fated Jim Morrison of The Doors.
As the forests were cleared for subdivisions, he agonised over the vulnerability of small farmers, such as his parents, to land developers and Gruyere's future as the city sprawled outwards. "The cities will merge, " he warned in a poem called An End to Myth. "Gruyere is dying ... The green walls dissolve." It was there he returned to end his life.
"He seemed to be a prodigy, sprung from the ground!" the poet and close friend, Kris Hemensley, wrote in the last issue of The Age Monthly Review.
"No one believed he really hailed from a place called Gruyere. And no one believed Gruyere existed ..." Melbourne's young writers of the time had thought he might be a hoax "to Ern Malley their movement", Hemensley said, alluding to the fictional poet at the centre of the now-famous literary hoax created to embarrass the editors of the Angry Penguins magazine decades earlier.
Hemensley's wife, Retta, remembers the scepticism she and Kris shared after reading the "terrible scrawl" of a first letter from a high school student called Charles Buckmaster. A newspaper report on writer and poet Michael Dugan had alerted the country schoolboy to the fresh literary activity in the city. The Hemensleys corresponded with him only after being assured by Dugan both Buckmaster and Gruyere were "for real".
Despite early scepticism and that scrawl, Buckmaster, whose earliest influences included Donne, Blake and Owen, was quick to impress. He has left his mark on Australian letters despite his brief career and even though he burned much of his work, including the manuscript for a novel and poems said to be good as good as his best, before he died. His early death robbed the country of one of its most promising literary figures.
He is remembered as a poet of considerable talent who wrote several exceptional poems, his potential for major literary achievement frustrated because his death came when his career was in its infancy.
Though Charles Buckmaster left behind a small body of poetry, his work had "the best urgency of the new poetry", the poet Thomas Shapcott has said.
"...He produced a core of work quite remarkable for so young a poet..." Michael Dugan wrote in the most recent issue of Overland. "What he might have achieved if he had not been cut down by the cruel disease of schizophrenia can only be guessed at."
Now, almost 20 years after his death, the recent publication of his collected works and extensive articles in literary publications Overland and The Age Monthly Review , have highlighted his place in Australian literature and impact of the generation of writers he epitomised.
The case for Buckmaster is perhaps most forcibly put by a friend and writer, John Jenkins, who believes that had the collected poems appeared sooner it would have "put on the map" not only his own work but a stream within Australian poetry that emerged during the tumultuous transition from the conservatism of the '50s.
Jenkins says during the 1970s and much of the '80s Australian literature had been dominated by conservative elements. Only now that it was not "too hot to handle" could a collection by Buckmaster, published late last year, be released.
He sees the work as still "very contemporary". particularly in the preoccupation with the environment and the plight of Australian Aborigines.
While few of the known poems have been widely anthologised and despite two slim volumes of his poems published when he was alive, much remained out of print until publication of the University of Queensland Press collection, part of a series which includes another ill-fated poet of that era, Michael Dransfield. The publishers say though poetry is generally a poor seller, both Dransfield's and Buckmaster's collections were selling better than expected, the latter less so but heartening at up to 500 of the 1500 printed.
The book's editor, Simon McDonald, also a friend of Buckmaster, cited financial and other constraints including the difficulty in obtaining poems scattered among friends around the country, for the delay in publication. He said he had taken upon himself the task of editing because of his strong feeling for his friend and had at one stage even set up an independent publishing company to release it. He said he now felt he had at last done his duty to his friend.
Buckmaster's book with its many previously unpublished poems, has helped friends in Melbourne literary circles finally come to terms with his death. The family kept the funeral private and some close friends did not know he had died until after his cremation. They have long planned to get together to remember him and the times they shared.
"We cried in December 1972 when the news of Charles Buckmaster's suicide was telephoned through -- but the tears hardly constituted a wake," Kris Hemensley wrote. "Only now, it seems to me, with the Collected Poems in hand, can he return to us in his life and death, our youngest poet, our dear and youngest friend."
His friends remember the good times -- his humor and warmth -- along with the bad of a vigorous young man dragged down by his demons, fighting for survival all the way. Michael Dugan describes the change from "sunny personality" to manic highs and lows, bouts of self-destructiveness, severe depression. So that the Collected Poems "remind us of the essential beauty and value of a friend destroyed by circumstances beyond his control".
"He was in such pain," said Buckmaster's girlfriend, Kate Veitch, "such emotional and mental pain. I could understand absolutely why he did it. Absolutely. this guy was being destroyed from the inside. It was agony to watch. Absolute agony."
Buckmaster was a "skyrocket" which exploded, John Jenkins said. The lifestyle he chose epitomised an era to such an extent he became one of the icons. "He was so much a product of his own era. He was unable to transcend it. He became a victim of it."
The young poet's death coincided with the end of a period of extraordinary creativity among younger writers in Melbourne, railing against a perceived literary stagnation and general conservatism.
The late 1960s had seen a frenzy of poetry in roneod poetry magazines and readings centred on what came to be known as the La Mama Poetry Workshop by a new generation of writers, influenced by the innovations of American poets such as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg.
"There was terrific excitement," said Retta Hemensley, who. with Kris, organised the first readings at La Mama. "Something was happening in the city that had been dead for so long".
Retta Hemensley smiles mischievously when she recalls running off copies of the magazine, Our Glass, edited by Kris, while doing secretarial work for Laurie Carmichael at the then Amalgamated Engineering Union.
It was a time of strong opposition to Australia's participation in the Vietnam War, a vigorous counterculture challenge to conservatism, an optimism that youth culture could change the world for the better, a naive belief in the effectiveness of "mind-expanding" drugs and a shared joy in rock music. The poetry of this era was strongly influenced by literary movements in response to the frigidity of Cold War America.
Country boy Charles Buckmaster arrived in the city, finding a first job as laboratory assistant, at a time when bonds between young Australians were strengthened by lame resistance from their elders. Retta Hemensley recalls the cries of "cut your hair, Moses" her husband endured on the streets of Melbourne. it was a time of clumsy censorship, raids on theatres with controversial plays. She recalls acting in a play at a local theatre which was interrupted at each performance by a member of the vice squad in the audience threatening to declare the theatre a "bawdy house".
For Buckmaster and his friends, Faraday Street, Carlton, where the first reading at La Mama on 3 September 1968 attracted 17 people, was a focal point for budding writers.
Michael Dugan, who published a magazine called Croscurrents, remembers Buckmaster's regular readings at La Mama. "Keeping his head down and mumbling his words, he did not project his poems, but the poems were such that they commanded attention," he recently wrote. "There was, perhaps, a stubborn defiance in the way Charles read his poems, as if he were challenging his audience to listen." Kate Veitch remembers differently. "I actually thought he had an incredibly beautiful voice," she said.
Most of the writers were male. It took a brave woman to get up and read her poetry at that time, one said. They would hang out, sipping coffee into the night at Genevieve's coffee lounge or the old Johnny's green Room, yack yack yacking about the Vietnam war, Australian culture or what they'd do come-the-revolution.
It was a time to lose oneself in the sounds as disparate as Captain Beefheart's harsh Trout Mask Replica or the Songs of the Humpback Whale in the old Rowden White music lounge at Melbourne University's Student Union Building. It was a time to pore over the American publications at the old Source Bookshop in Collins Street, where Buckmaster and Veitch later worked.
And, at a time when, as one puts it, it was "acid for breakfast", Buckmaster recklessly popped pills, trying LSD, mescaline and marijuana (he is not believed to have ever resorted to 'hard' drugs such as heroin), while writing, partying, travelling around the countryside and publishing his own magazine, The Great Auk. He'd take excessive amounts of LSD, claiming he could control the effect of the drug.
He'd rave to friends about the poetry of Australian Francis Webb or American Kenneth Patchen. After seeing David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia he'd sit up in bed night and day reading T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom so that Veitch, leaving home and returning from work, wondered when he slept. Or he would stroll about with the works of Charles Baudelaire in one pocket and Rimbaud's Drunken Boat the other.
His close friend, John Jenkins, shared accommodation with him on several occasions. They eventually differed and separated after Jenkins objected to damage to a house at Kew they shared during wild parties. But they kept in touch and Jenkins was among those who visited his friend during the last few months, at Gruyere. Long before this, he and others would notice extreme mood swings as Buckmaster became non-communicative and generally depressed.
Buckmaster once returned with a dressmakers' dummy to the flat they shared above The Source bookshop. He dressed the dummy and proceeded to paint it until he became frightened by its appearance; so frightened that Jenkins was persuaded to help him cary it downstairs and through the city finally leaving it outside the Melbourne Stock Exchange.
The flat had no shower. Light was provided by one fly-specked bulb. Double adaptors were jammed into a single power point. Attached to these were a toaster, electric jug and record player. Buckmaster would create collages from magazine pictures and listen endlessly to records by the likes of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Traffic, Australian folkie Danny Spooner, Bob Dylan, Melanie and, of course, The Doors.
There were times when his condition was distressing to his friends. Once, he stabbed vigorously at a self-portrait he had carved in lead. Another time, during a visit to the farm, Buckmaster showed Jenkins his favourite painting titled 'Self Portrait', by a 13 year-old boy.
Once, when they were no longer living together, Buckmaster visited Kate Veitch in a Carlton house she was sharing with friends including the poet and playwright, Garrie Hutchinson. "I came home one evening and Charles was in my bedroom sitting on the edge of my bed just looking so terrible... grey and frightening and there was blood all over the bloody floor and bed and stuff." He had tried to cut off one of his fingers because voices had told him she "needed a piece of him".
"His finger was not hanging off or anything but he'd done a reasonable job of it. And he said that he had been told that I needed to have a piece of him to keep so that's what he had to do. And he was really upset because it hurt too much. Oh boy. I just thought "Ohhhh, I don't want this, I do not want this'."
Retta Hemensley said Buckmaster, who friends say was obsessed by his brother's suicide when the poet was only a small child, "liked to do crazy things". She would help him gather cigarette butts from the street to smoke. He would eat candle wax or hold his hand over a flame. She and Kris continued their correspondence with him from Britain during much of the last few years of his life. He died soon after they returned to Melbourne. By then, the excitement was gone...
Retta Hemensley is still uneasy at having quoted from a Doors' song in a letter to Buckmaster from Britain after Jim Morrison's death: "when the music's over turn out the lights". Did this encourage his destructive urge?
In one of Buckmaster's most powerful poems, written at Willochra Creek, South Australia, a year before his schizophrenia was diagnosed, he wrote: "What can I say? I now acknowledge / yet cannot understand / the nature / of this fear", of "ice, brooding above me". He wrote also that "all the dark hints / were not, as I had expected, / a part of this game... "
The poem, called Willochra, showed he was already experiencing schizophrenic hallucinations, says Kate Veitch, who was so affected by his decline and death, she has not been able to discuss it until recent months.
Veitch concedes she was a "fairly wild and wilful girl", just 15, when she met him at La Mama. She vividly recalls the innocence of their love; he had told her he loved her soon after they met at a reading at la Mama in march 1970, before he had even bothered to ask her name. And the agony of his decline and destruction of their tempestuous, "terribly Cathy and Heathcliff" relationship.
She was "half stupid with happy, early love" the first time she and her lover visited his family farm at Gruyere. She can still see him skimming stones across the surface of the dam. She remembers the bull-rushes near the water, the thick green grass of the paddocks, stunning paintings by his famous uncle Ernest in the kitchen, even westerns by Louis L'Amour read by his father, Jack.
When she visited him at the farm again before his death, he was cheered to see her but seemed to have lost his will. He stood when she stood. Sat when she sat. Followed her to the door, when she left. It was more than just good manners, she said.
Just after his death, she returned to the farm for a last time and entered his room with his mother. Buckmaster had left her a parcel with several of his most prized books, with a note on one, a collection by one of his favourites, Christopher Brennan. "Kate, please be careful with these things," it said.
It was a summer evening and she had visited the farm after work at the bookstore. She can't remember how she got there. She didn't drive at the time. Neither did the friend who accompanied her. Nevertheless, she vividly recalls a distressing reminder of her boyfriend in his old room.
"For anyone who has experienced a bereavement or a grief there are always little worst moments," she said."There was a jacket that Charles used to wear all the time. It was an old air-force jacket I think, navy blue. His mother opened a drawer in his cupboard and his jacket was there. And his smell came flooding out as she opened it. I almost passed out because he was such a heavy smoker. It was a combination of tobacco and body odors."
Michael Dugan, remarked in his recent article in Overland that the poet was "tidying up" in his last months, "preparing to leave nothing behind". He had received a letter months before the suicide, rejecting an offer to help publish some of his poems, with money enclosed to pay for a book he had borrowed from Dugan and lost.
While some argue that ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) treatment hastened the onset of his schizophrenia, others attribute it to his reckless use of drugs.
John Jenkins remembers Buckmaster had pills in his pockets most of the time. "Sometimes he just seemed earmarked for disaster," he said."He lived very intensely and very fast. He didn't have any insurance policy. It was all or nothing with Charles, all the time."
Buckmaster admitted himself to Royal Park psychiatric hospital late in 1970, discharging himself after several days. he was later readmitted, diagnosed schizophrenic and given ECT which he was to describe as a "roulette wheel" providing relief from his tormented state when the little ball landed in "the right slot".
According to Dugan, Kate Veitch, Buckmaster's main emotional support until late 1971, bore the brunt of the self-destructiveness caused by his disintegration. Finally, not yet 17, she could no longer endure his behaviour.
Veitch remembers seeing him at the institution. "He was kept in a ward with really old people. It was like they just didn't know how to handle him. The first time I went to see him I just rolled up unannounced and got directions to the ward he was in.
"I was waiting in this foyer and heard footsteps coming down this long linoleum corridor and I knew it must be him but I was too nervous to turn around. And then I did turn around. It was a very frightening change. It was really, really scary.
"He was walking down the corridor between these two ... classic great hulking chaps in white jackets and I think he was wearing just standard issue institutional type clothing. He just looked terrible. He looked like a zombie, he really did."
She demanded to see the psychiatrist in charge. "I wanted to know what was going on. Did they understand him? Did they have a clue what they had in their hands? This guy was a very special person. Well you can imagine what the chief shrink thought of me. Here comes this girl in hippy clothes with long hair saying: 'I want you to tell me what you are doing'. He was not interested at all."
She said she was elated when she left. After spending a couple of hours together he seemed to have returned from the grave. "By the time I left he didn't look like a zombie. He was fantastic. It was like he remembered that there was actually a world outside."
Kate Veitch still has the Christopher Brennan book from the parcel left for her by Buckmaster, along with a copy of a Jerusalem Bible Buckmaster had stolen from a bookshop. The incident led to his arrest on a charge of possession after police searched him and found marijuana.
She recalls that they separated after an altercation in the city. This was just after she had bailed him out of Pentridge. "He was out of his mind ... God, he was going to take on the bloody world, I tell you. He took a tram into the city and he was trying to see Frank Galbally. I said 'Charles, you don't just walk into guys' offices like this, Charles, you haven't got any shoes on'.
"I said 'you can't go in there like this. You will get thrown out. He went in, he turned around to me and said 'you don't have to come in, man, you're so gutless'. And that was a real turning point for me. until then I was pretty solid. At that moment I thought: 'arsehole, you are not worth it. I don't care how clever you are. I don't care how talented you are. I don't care how beautiful you are. I don't even care how much I love you, you're not worth it.' And I just walked off."
Charles Buckmaster was given a good behavior bond at his trial on condition he returned to his parents' home at Gruyere. "If I do it, I'll leave nothing behind," he had once told John Jenkins. He spent the last few months erasing traces of his literary life, preparing for the moment he might finally escape his hell.
[This the text of Larry Schwartz's feature article as published in The Sunday Age (Agenda), 5th August, 1990, with minute editing & deletion]
GRUYERE : THE PEOPLE WHO STAYED
(for Charles Buckmaster)
who stayed only becos they couldnt
find their way out again ( your poem
about them )
& the people who are still there now
you could practically call it
Buckmaster country -
at least one part of it
( yr houses at four points
spanning cherry orchards
the dam with frogs
surrounded by green flora
& brown earth
in view of Mount St Leonard
on the outskirts of the water :
a cows carcass
already substantially returned
to the ground
the dead cow
bones turned up / great eye cavities
where 'things' have burrowed into its cranium
its legs become part of the earth
beside the dam.
the roar of the frogs
the Ruston Lincoln
diesel pump ( we
sheltered in its shed from
the rain )
listening to bell birds
grey as the gum
its belly softer grey than its wing.
the clouted earth / broken bracken / grey weathered
grey watered / grey forest . thataway ..
the cicada walks right out of its shell
himself ( the husks
crustate the wooden boards
the diesel pump.
fixed treadle )
& flies out & over
the patches of black slime
bearing frogs eggs ( ten-
nis balls )
amongst the reeds
spreading under the surface
end to end
making it their own
a tungle croft
of unusual constellations
of floating forests
of sheep following their leaders from
one spot in the field
to another part
all of them . .
it pays to look up your stars
( THIS GUN
WAS CAPTURED FROM THE
BY THE 41st BATTALION A.I.F.
IN BELGIUM 1918
AND PRESENTED TO THE RESIDENTS OF
SOUTH GRUYERE )
sprigs of bacon & egg ( rust &
yellow ) flower
garlands to wear round yr neck
: you ancient !
look up the stars .
the familiar spots / stones
you know by heart -
thru the kitchen window
( original oil paintings
on the wall )
going back ( father
& sons )
in one long sweep / of
the blu of the sky.
over barbed wire
deeper thru trees
rough brown bark hanging a strip
treading over centuries of decomposition &
following possum to their tree nests
another cow carcass
head propped on its shoulder
its left foreleg a
few yards away
hacked off & gnawed clean.
taut across the backbone &
you could bounce on it.
the fording point
too deep -
the centre of the log bridge
covered by the stream.
when cows trespass ( you told us )
you cant chase them back.
you have to wait til the
owner comes & collects.
& if the trespasser
eats off yr land or tramples
the entire farm under foot
you still have to wait.
( the cows owner pays damages of course! )
tasting the sap
a tree -
& a flavor which hardens the entire
coating the tongue with
something worse than detol
"youre not sposed to eat it..."
too late !
but what did they live on
before the swiss
berries. grass. some varieties
& bury their dead in the forest ?
for the deliverance of obstinate
bury them down the gradient
in the centre
of the thickest bush
bury them maybe
in mass graves
on the down slope towards
one massive skull
the head larger than a cow or
must be an ox
the jaws loosened by
the teeth planted in soil
prettied with moss . .
& the legs of the monster
to the right
of the head
the comings & goings
the mainroad to Lilydale to
- the way 'home' -
cars bumper to bumper
which go right on by
oblivious of the
"barbecue down the road :
if the rain holds out"
of the living
made for 30 years
off the land
amongst cherry trees
with bridesmaids veils ( in
behaviour patterns of country folk
whether they forecast rainstorms
by rheumatic twinges
incidence of various common
the facts & figures of sociological reports
as much to the people who go
as the people who stay
in the middle of the earth
does anything change substantially ?
a day in a life.
the place exists
nothing is more certain than
the recalled materials. the composition of ground :
yr bread & eard.
nothing is deader
than when it is forgotten.
(September/October 29, 1968)
CHARLES BUCKMASTER'S MOTORCYCLE
It is strange, the places
where he rides. The spokes whir
a silver churning, a fuel gauge
where something might be written.
An absent roar the sound
of pages burning, a tank or fuselage
scrapped or kept in a dark garage,
shadow heaped on knowing metal.
I have pages creased in folders
but not the rush of their trajectory,
phantom destinations written
on worn rubber. The one lamp
dull in an old night, tracing names
of towns bypassed by the highway.
A yellow lamp lit up
in a reckless notebook,
youth's windshield. Stored away
the words wait to ride, a poem
on the mechanical horseback
Larry Schwartz wrote for the Age & the Sunday Age for many years before going freelance. His poems have occasionally appear, for example in Bob Adamson's Ulitarra magazine in the mid '90s.
James Hamilton whilst not studying at La Trobe University, pursues his own research of the life & times of Charles Buckmaster & the La Mama poets of the late 60s.