Arthur Dean, The brigadier’s horse and other poems from the western front (Stephen Whiteside 2010)
Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Editor), Violence: Westside Jr Vol 2 (Bankstown Youth Development Service 2010)
My initial reason for doing a combined blog entry about these two books – a very slim vol of verse written by the publisher’s grandfather and a glossy publication showcasing writing by young refugees in Western Sydney – was the accident of their both arriving in my letterbox last week. (Even a blog as modest and marginal as mine occasionally cops a freebie.) On reflection, yoking them together is a long way from meaningless.
Stephen Whiteside’s previous self-published booklets have featured his own poems, mainly bush ballads and C J Dennis parodies. This one is not so different in style, and even includes a Dennis tribute, but it’s quite a different beast: it rescues from obscurity the poems written during the First World War by Arthur Dean, later to be a Victorian Supreme Court judge, and the publisher’s grandfather. The judge’s poetic endeavours have not gone unnoted before now. His Australian Dictionary of Biography Online entry says: ‘He was something of a “trench poet”, contributing light verse to army magazines.’ In this little book are eight of his poems, all – as his grandson tells us in his introduction – probably written in 1916. The title poem won a £3 prize from the Diggers’ newspaper The Rising Sun, for which young Arthur received a congratulatory letter from C E W Bean, reproduced in an appendix here.
Arthur Dean was no Rupert Brooke. This is accomplished light verse, composed to distract the poet and his comrades from their lot as soldiers, and perhaps allow a little relieving laughter. Though offered as entertainment in 1916, it still hits some living targets:
Everyone’s scavenger, everyone’s slave;
The papers may splutter about us being brave,
How nobly we fell and how honoured our grave,
But that is the luck of the few.
The ADB entry tells us that Dean’s ‘delight in composing “doggerel” was to continue all his life’, so perhaps we can expect further volumes – perhaps doing for the law what this one does for war.
In an Afterword to Violence, BYDS Director Tim Carroll tells us that his father, ‘a gentle man, full of love’, serves in the Air Force in World War 2: ‘He killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people in those dark times and carried the guilt of those killings with him to his death.’ This is the kind of thing that simply could not be said in prize-winning light verse written in the trenches, or perhaps in any poetry written by a soldier in a combat zone: do any of the celebrated war poets talk of themselves as killers? And how could they contemplate the long tail of war – the creation of refugees, the lives devastated by loss, the generations of dysfunction?
The long tail features loud and clear in this book.
Refugee Action Support (RAS) is a government funded program that supports young refugees with English language literacy. As part of the program, BYDS Bankstown Youth Development Service) ran a number of two-hour writing workshops in schools in Western Sydney. The bulk of the book is writing that emerged from those workshops. There are eloquent photographs of BYDS facilitators working with students, and a number of pieces by non-students (including interviews with a boxer, a psychiatrist, Wafa Zaim, manager of Muslim Women’s Association, and Craig Greenhill, who took some of the most telling photographs of the Cronulla violence in 2005), but it’s the refugee students’ writing that makes the book.
The editor, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, explains in his introduction that he decided ‘to present the raw versions of each artist’s work’ – that is, not to ‘repair the grammar’, and so on. He also decided to preserve words and passages that had been crossed out by the writers, so every few pages there is a word, a phrase a sentence with a line through it. My editor’s heart recoiled when I read this, but having read the result I think the decision was completely correct. The effect is to present the writing as process rather than as product: most of the young writers are clearly struggling with English as at best a second language, and most of the pieces are struggling with crushingly difficult subjects – war, domestic and other violence, dislocation, racism. The unconventional use of English and the occasional striking out effectively dramatise the difficulty of the undertaking. For example, this short piece (author not specified from the list of participants, as a way of protecting privacy):
Being Muslim is crime in this world. When some people heard of Muslim or meat a Muslim they think of terrorists. They don’t think who real Muslim people are. They don’t know who the real terrorists are.
Tidied up, that would lose what it now has, a strong sense of a mind seeking to communicate across a cultural divide. The reader is granted an unexpected sense of intimacy.
Interesting things are coming out of Western Sydney.