When my Dad told me he had a copy of Gail Jones’s Five Bells that he was going to post over to me I was very happy indeed. I first encountered Gail Jones’s work back in 1998 when I was a second year student at Adelaide University. It was included in a module on postmodernism. I don’t remember the name of the book, but it was a collection of short stories and I remember being impressed by its lightness, strangeness and lucidity. I have seen her name come up a lot over the years, and intended to read her other books, such as Sixty Lights and Sorry, but never got around to it. In addition to this, ‘Five Bells’ is one of my favourite Australian poems, and I couldn’t wait to see what she had done with it.
For the benefit of my non-Australian readers, ‘Five Bells’, by Kenneth Slessor, was first published in 1939. It is a meditation on death, time and memory, in the context of a reflection on the death of a friend of the poet, who drowned in Sydney Harbour. The five bells are ship bells that ring out across the harbour, and they occur as a refrain throughout the poem. It opens:
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.
The poem seeks an alternative form of temporality in order to seek to touch Joe, who is lost. ‘My time, the flood that does not flow’ is memory, which consists of a different temporality than that of linear time, which marches always in the same direction, measured by clocks. Memory floods the present and rehearses the past.
The poem tries and tries to reconnect with Joe through lyric intensity but in the end acknowledges failure:
The tide goes over, the waves ride over you
And let their shadows down like shining hair,
But they are Water; and sea-pinks bend
Like lilies in your teeth, but they are Weed;
And you are only part of an idea.
The poem refuses metaphor and its own redemptive imaginings. It allows an afterlife but only in memory, and this remembering and imagining can never truly touch the dead. I think the next few lines are some of the most powerful and uncomfortable words that I have ever come across:
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.
Even the horrifically precise image of the water’s ‘black thumb-balls’ is not enough to ensure communion with the dead.
Gail Jones’s ‘Five Bells’ takes the poem as a starting point for a meditation on four individuals, each remembering their own dead. Phrases from the poem echo throughout the book, as do several other places, images and literary allusions: the harbour itself, snow, James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, Russian literature, Communist China. The book takes place over a single day in which each of the characters visits Sydney harbour, but of course their own rememberings mean that the temporality of the novel is much more complex than that.
All this talk of death makes the poem – and the novel – sound a lot more gloomy than they actually are. The novel, like the poem, has a musical lightness about it, and riffs beautifully on the poem’s ‘diamond quills and combs of light’. I wonder how different an experience it would be to read it if you had never been to Sydney harbour, because it catches so perfectly its dazzling brightness. The novel does the poem justice and is a beautiful thing in its own right. The ending strikes the perfect – if disconcerting – note. I could write so much more but will instead leave you with one of the many memorable passages:
At the funeral there were flowers, and suddenly it made sense, why this might be so. In this town with no florist, this tiny town on the edge of nowhere, somehow roses and lilies had turned up, somehow there were elaborate wreaths and cellophane-wrapped bunches, and yet he had no idea how or from whence they had arrived. Yet it made sense. Something offered so that everything did not have to rest inside words. Something silent delivered from the living world. Something with no purpose other than to declare that the beautiful exists and will not last.