By JOHN MOYLE
In between the two lockdowns, Kings Cross poet Charles Freyberg managed to stay focussed as he wrote The Crumbling Mansions, a book of 45 poems, published by Ginninderra Press, one of the few outlets in Australia for new and emerging poetry.
Like his previous poetry collection, Dining at the Edge, many of the poems within are centred around the fringe world of Kings Cross present and past, which Freyberg brings to life with extraordinary clarity, insight and compassion.
Just as his Kings Cross poetic predecessor Kenneth Slessor, Freyberg tears into the urban fabric to wrench out stories and characters that are as fully fleshed as any drawn from a graphic novel.
Unlike Slessor, Freyberg also has a great affinity with nature, particularly that of the Blue Mountains and far northern NSW which are evoked in his beautiful pastoral poems “Forest Elegy”, “After the Bushfire” and “Terania Creek Revisited”.
Throughout his poetry, Freyberg grapples with alienation, identity and sexuality and loneliness, which are all explored and are offered up to the reader with a sense of hope.
“He’s worked through a lot to get to this book”, Angela Stretch, creative director of Poetry Sydney said.
“It’s as much of a discovery for himself and him living life.
“We did a production in 2019 where Charles was exploring some of these characters and it enables him to look at ways of performance and bring them to another level that was deeper and more personal so that he could produce these characters for an audience beyond the page.”
“Poetry has always been about performance, and I think of myself as a performance poet and I am trying to create something that is strong and fascinating in its own way today, almost like some of the mythic poets,” Charles Freyberg, poet, said.
“I adore Shakespeare and I read Homer and Virgil, and they were performed, and not many people perform their poetry these days, and I think that I fill their space.”
Vashti Hughes is a Kings Cross based performance artist and writer and has often worked with Freyberg.
“Charles did some training in acting, so he is most happy when he has learned all his lines and can go for character choices, and he is proudest of his work when he has costume and makeup,” Hughes said.
Across the collection of poems, we are introduced to characters that are drawn to the Cross for various reasons, but all are in rejection of their suburban habitats and are seeking a new identity in the loose and at times frightening community centred around coffee shops, bars, clubs and streets that seemingly offer a sense of belonging and lack of censure.
“We have Michael from the suburbs, we have Michael on Darlinghurst Road and there is a tragedy in the sense that he is a temporary citizen,” Stretch said.
“Michael comes from the suburbs and he has come from the quiet of his bedroom and his eiderdown with its little blue cars, but he is not a little boy, he’s frightened of the sounds of silence and he wants the noise and distractions and sexual energy of the city and that is why he comes to Kings Cross,” Freyberg said.
Another character Louise is also feeling the suburbs and she can be seen as a reference to Freyberg’s own trajectory from Sydney’s North Shore to Kings Cross many years ago.
“I needed to come to the city to see what’s going on and I think for a lot of gay young men, it is especially urgent that they have a place where they can explore whom they really are,” Freyberg said.
“And a lot of women do this too, they don’t just want to marry their high school sweetheart, they want to get into life with passion as well, and without predictability, and the only way that they can do this is to leave where they come from and come to a place like Kings Cross.”
If there is an epicentre to the poems it can be found around the old Piccolo Bar in Roslyn Street, Kings Cross, where a younger version of Freyberg met with owner/operator Vittorio Bianchi, who was also working at the Ensemble Theatre and was a founding member of Cabaret Conspiracy, one of Sydney’s earliest alternative performance groups.
Under Bianchi, the Piccolo became a safe haven for artists, performers, strippers, transexuals, hookers and anyone looking for late night company and a chat over an indifferent cup of coffee or a joint.
“The artists were there and for Charles being a poet, it seemed appropriate that this was where he chose to spend his time,” Hughes said.
“No doubt some of the characters in The Crumbing Mansions came through the Piccolo, while others came together from bars, clubs and university.”
Bookending the anthology are a number of exquisite poems that are centred in the natural surrounds of the Blue Mountains and Terania Creek in the state’s far north.
“I think that the energy I receive from nature and the way that nature is in danger of spoiling and disappearing is something a little bit like what I am writing about in the character poems, because I feel the energy from the people and I feel the energy from nature, and I feel a sense with both of them that there is this danger and sadness that is taking the destiny to the surface,” Freyberg said.
“What I love about Charles as a poet is that he is a real, true bohemian who has lived in the Cross all these years and he is that classic poet/taxi driver who has never stopped creating,” Hughes said.
On December 5th and 7th Freyberg will be performing select poems from The Crumbling Mansions with musician Marquerite Montes at El Rocco, now the last vestige of the bohemian days of the Cross.
“I think El Rocco is one of the unspoiled and un-renovated places in the Cross and I love the basement where you can just go and sit in the dark and the lights come on and you can see your dreams,” Freyberg said.
“And that is what I will be doing, describing this dream world of people and nature that I have been part of for the last 20 years, and El Rocco is a really good place to bring it to life.”
John Moyle is the associate editor and special writer for the Sydney Sentinel.
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