Monthly Archives: April 2011

Sydney Ideas: Spirited Muslim Women

We headed off before dinner last night to another well attended Sydney Ideas talk in the new Law School building: Dr Amina Wadud on ‘Spirited Voices of Muslim Women in Islamic Reform Movements’.

We hadn’t read the fine print on the web site, and didn’t realise that the talk was part of a symposium, ‘Spirited Voices from the Muslim World: Islam, Democracy and Gender Rights’, or that the talk was preceded by a performance by the University of Sydney Gamelan Orchestra. So we were pleasantly surprised to arrive at a very full auditorium that sounded like a Balinese night. Marie Bashir, the Governor of NSW, who is also the Chancellor of the University and acting Governor General, launched the Symposium before Dr Wadud took the lectern. The last time I saw her launch anything it was a book published by South Sydney Youth Services, and she brought the same respectful gravitas to that room full of pierced and tattooed young people as to this gathering of distinguished academics.

Amina Wahud is at the forefront of the ‘gender jihad’ – the struggle for gender justice within the global Islamic community. Actually, I just re-read the blurb about her on Sydney Ideas website, and realised that it gives a very adequate summary of the talk:

Dr Wadud’s writings and vision for gender equality, within an Islamic ‘tawhidic paradigm’, incorporate the wider struggle against other forms of oppression such as racism, bigotry, religious intolerance, economic exploitation and the erasure of human dignity.

She described how at the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 the Muslim women met with the aim of coming up with a joint statement, but no agreement could be reached between those who talked in terms of a human rights agenda and those who talked in terms of Islam. She went away from that meeting determined to find a way of reconciling the two, of finding, as she said, epistemological, theological, and other kinds of logical grounds for a Muslim feminism. Like Professor Muhammad Abdel Hameen on the Book Show recently, she has a thoughtful, non-literalistic approach to the Qur’an and pretty much scorns the approach that would take isolated verses as prescriptions for living.  She takes the concept of ‘tahwid’, which is literally the notion that God is One, central to Islam, and argues from it that all humans are equal because each has a direct relationship to God the Transcendental.

I’m not at all engaged in Islamic theology, but it was a joy to hear this flexible alternative to the version of Islam that dominates the airwaves. Dr Wadud began her talk with an invocation of God in Arabic, and when she mentioned the Prophet she said something in Arabic, presumably the traditional ‘Upon him be peace and blessings’. It seems to me that to wage a feminist struggle from inside Islam in this way must be more fruitful in the long run than any number of feminist denunciations of Islam.

There were other, smaller joys. Dr Wadud, who was born in Maryland, USA, wore a shalwar kameez with an elaborate scarf tied over her hair, and a loose scarf over that. For the first quarter hour of the talk, this loose scarf kept trying to fall off. As we strove to follow her explanation of the background to her theoretical work, she had a struggle of her own, repeatedly hitching the back over her head. In the end, the scarf won. The other small joy only made itself known in the Q&A: Dr Wadud explained that some of her points would have been clearer if she had used her PowerPoint version of the talk, but she has moved to an iPad and wasn’t able to connect it to a projector. The joy: we had a person talking to us, instead of to a bunch of explanatory slides.



On the Blue Comet with Rosemary Wells

Rosemary Wells, On the Blue Comet (Candlewick 2010)

This book is a beautiful object. Nicely proportioned, with just the right heft to appeal to its intended readers, ten- or eleven-year-old boys, it has a number of gorgeous full page illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline, but gorgeous in a boy-friendly way – lots of model trains, and a threatening gun or two. The illustrations remind me of my infatuation with my parents’ illustrated Last of the Mohicans when I was 10 or so – all that’s missing is the interleaved tissue paper.

Rosemary Wells was responsible for an extraordinary number of small picture books that gave delight to my family when the young were small. ‘You’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’,’ the eponymous hamster heroine’s threat to the eponymous hamster hero in Benjamin and Tulip, was often quoted in our house, and the domestic struggles between stubborn Max and his bossy big sister Ruby never grew old.

Many young readers will be engrossed and delighted by the plot of On the Blue Comet, which features not only model trains, and real ones, but also a mysterious Chinese hypnotic device, time travel, almost-plausible nerdy science, armed bank robbers, an idealised father, and a gratifying number of twists on the way to an expected conclusion. But it’s not one of those children’s books, like the best of Max and Ruby, that adults can enjoy in the absence of a hypothetical child reader. Some of the plot mechanics creak, and there are occasional inconsistencies. My experience is that those things don’t matter if I’m engrossed in a book, so something else may have been going on. Perhaps I was a little alienated by the Americana aspects: US cities, iconic US trains, US Presidents, famous US tycoons, US movie personalities, all appear or are lovingly named with an almost liturgical effect, and the book feels at times as if its emotional driver is love of 1930s USA, or perhaps even an agenda to awaken such a love in the reader. Not a jingoistic love by any means, but definitely an insider’s love. I enjoyed it, as an undemanding read when I’ve been struck down by a head-clogging lurgie, but I feel as if Rosemary Wells and I live in different parishes.


Last night half a dozen of us had dinner at Wafu to celebrate a sixtieth birthday. Wafu is an establishment with policy. Evidently, Yukako – the owner, chef and entire wait staff – found that as her restaurant became popular some years ago she was appalled to realise she was becoming part of the great system of waste that prevails in the West. She decided to lay out some requirements. The restaurant is now open only to members and their guests, and there’s a sign near the front door asking visitors NOT to enquire how to become members. The Art Student (who insists that one newspaper article doesn’t mean she has to give up that title) and I, guests of a member, arrived before the rest of our group. Yukako welcomed us and gave us a sheet outlining the policies. Here they are, from the website:

To contribute towards creating a sustainable future we request a little more of our guests than most other restaurants. Please bear in mind the following points.

Please imagine people who live on the other side of the earth – every 6 seconds, one child under the age of 5 dies because they have no food”
Be mindful of the amount of food you order – try to order just the right amount, in harmony with your appetite. When eating with company, please consider sharing meals, family-style, as you would at home. We request that any dishes ordered be finished, as far as possible.

“Please imagine wild animals”
If purchasing takeaway meals, please remember to bring your own containers. Sturdy, long-lived containers are the best. Failure to do so will result in a surcharge, and possible refusal of service.
We advocate respect for food, waste prevention and doing what is best for the environment. Help us to do what we can to shape our future!

“Please re-think”we can do more preventative things before resorting to the 3Rs
(Reuse, reduce & recycle)

Eat-in Policy
First, read our policies and mission statement on our front door or on our website. If you agree to our terms (namely, not wasting food and sharing meals as if you would at home) we will gladly welcome you to Wafu.
Please note that vegetables and salad on the side are NOT decorations; they are part of the meal too. Finishing your meal requires that everything is eaten except lemon slices, gari (sushi ginger) and wasabi.
If you think you might have trouble finishing your meal, order a little less or tell us in advance so that we might put less rice on your plate, for example. As an extra precaution, you could also bring a sturdy reusable container.
“We hope you always keep a suitable container in your bag”

Takeaway Policy
Takeaway orders are available. Please allow extra time for large orders. It is best to pr-order your takeaway meal via SMS. Please be clear in what you want to order and make sure you bring a sufficient amount of containers or plates (bring extra if you are unsure).
Please bring your own reusable storage containers or plates.
However, please ensure that the containers or plates have been well washed and dried – unclean containers will cause food to go off.

When using your own storage containers for takeaway food, we will give you a 30% discount and stamp your Wafu card towards the reward of a $20 voucher to be used for anything in the store!
Trying to order takeaway without your own containers or plates may also result in refusal of service. We advocate respect for food, waste prevention and doing what is best for the environment. Help us to do what we can to shape our future!

What this version doesn’t include is the threat of expulsion if a diner doesn’t clean up everything on her or his plate. Last night, I ate every grain of brown rice, every curl of spring onioon, every drop of sauce. When two of us ordered the salmon hotpot, Yukako recommended that they order one between them, and it turned out she was right .

At the end of the evening, I’m pleased to report, the Art Student and I were given membership cards.

Oh, and the gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, egg-free, vegan friendly food was excellent, though I’ll skip the chocolate soy mousse dessert next time.

Reading about Francis Webb

Bill Ashcroft, The Gimbals of Unease: The poetry of Francis Webb (Centre for Studies in Australian Literature 1996)
Michael Griffith, God’s Fool: The life and poetry of Francis Webb (Angus & Robertson 1991)
Poetry Australia September 1975: Francis Webb (1925–1973) Commemorative Issue
Peter and Leonie Meere, Francis Webb, Poet and Brother: Some of his letters and poetry (Old Sage Press 2001)

Having recently re-read Francis Webb’s collected poems, I didn’t want to just put the book back on the shelf. In order to be as booked-up as possible for the Sydney Writers’ Festival session on Webb next month, I got hold of three books about him, and dusted off my copy of the 1974 Poetry Australia commemorative issue. I can now assert that I have read every book published on the subject of Francis Webb.

Bill Ashcroft was writing an MA thesis on Webb in the Sydney University English Department in the early 1970s when I was a postgraduate student there. Michael Griffith was also in the Department then, and interested in Webb. Both of their books were published in the 1990s. Poetry as dense as Webb’s yields its riches slowly, so I was interested to read the results of such long gestations.

Bill Ashcroft’s emphasis is on explicating the poetry. He talks about Webb’s use of language, and about Webb as Catholic, as schizophrenic and as explorer. I believe Bill approaches Catholicism as an outsider, since he seems to miss references to Catholic liturgy and lore, but his analysis may be all the more useful for that, as he goes instead to major spiritual and intellectual traditions within Catholicism (namely the Thomist–Ignatian and the Augustinian) and locates tensions between them in the poetry.

His discussion of schizophrenia reads as if it was mostly thought through in the 1970s when R D Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement hadn’t lost the battle with Big Pharma for domination. In my opinion it’s all the better for that. He argues that Webb’s extraordinary use of metaphor is intimately connected to the condition for which he was repeatedly hospitalised, drugged and subjected to electroconvulsive therapy; that people diagnosed as schizophrenic often don’t distinguish, as others do, between metaphoric and literal ways of thinking, that this is generally a brilliant way of dealing with impossibly painful situations rather than the symptom of an illness. In the section on Webb as explorer, he argues that Webb’s poetry is groundbreaking post-colonial work, holding ‘a balance between the European spiritual roots and the post-colonial vision’.

According to the book’s back cover, Bill Ashcroft has been a trailblazer in post-colonial studies. As might be expected, then, his prose is heavy with theoretical ballast, and occasionally reaches dizzying heights of abstraction. I expect book would repay close, careful study, but at least for now I’m happy to have read it in a companionable way: I might not understand a lot of what this bloke says, but it’s good to have listened to him talk at length.

Michael Griffith co-edited Cap and Bells, a selection of Webb’s poems that came out the same year as God’s Fool, so he’s probably done as much as anyone to keep the poetry in print for the last 20 years. This book is an offshoot of Griffith’s PhD Thesis. ‘In reducing the work from its longer academic form,’ he writes in his introduction, ‘I have tried also to introduce some aspects of Webb’s humanity which had less place there.’ For this departure from academic rigour, I for one am grateful.

When I studied Eng Lit we did a lot of close reading, and the idea of approaching literary work by way of the author’s biography was sneered at. Bill Ashcroft deals with such potential sneers by talking about the poetry and the poet’s life as two intersecting texts that illuminate each other. Michael Griffith doesn’t see the need for such justification, and just gets on with the illuminating. He does do some explicating of the poetry, but I found much more value in his delving into Webb’s life story than in any tight focus on the text. He draws on Webb’s letters and other documents, including two ‘Hospital Confessions’ written as part of campaigns to have him released from institutions. He quotes correspondence with Norman Lindsay, Douglas Stewart and David Campbell among Webb’s elders, and Rosemary Dobson, Nan Macdonald, Vincent Buckley and others of his contemporaries. One day a collection of Webb’s letters may see the light, but in the meantime this book draws on those that have been preserved by colleagues and family to show us a working poet who, in spite of long periods of incarceration and serious difficulty in coping outside of institutions, was a cherished and active member of a creative community. In particular, it is fascinating to learn details of his early connection to Norman Lindsay, and to consider his poetry of the 1950s in the context of the resurgence of Christian, even Catholic, themes in Australian poetry and art at that time.

The September 1975 issue of Poetry Australia was devoted to Webb, who had died nearly two years earlier. As well as several previously unpublished poems (all of them now available in Toby Davidson’s 2011 Collected Poems), it includes essays by Griffith, Ashcroft and other scholars, but its enduring interest lies in contributions from Webb’s fellow poets who knew him and appreciated his work – Rosemary Dobson, A D Hope and Vincent Buckley among them. There is also a poignant memoir by Sister M. Francisca Fitz-Walter, a Good Samaritan Sister who befriended Webb.

These essays are a striking reminder of how the language of literary criticism has changed in the last 40 or so years. Compare Vincent Buckley, in his essay ‘A Poet of Harmony’:

He was a great phrase maker and 
there are phrases, sentences, cadences in poem after poem that are quite 
unforgettable. He was a great master, and sometimes a victim, of metaphor, 
the most metaphor addicted poet in this country, I would say, and it is noticeable that time and time again the energy of those very ample driving
 rhythms is also the energy with which metaphors are picked up, created
 and extended through the stanza.

with Bill Ashcroft, 30 years later:

The compatibility of schizophrenia and the post-colonial, or to put it a different way, the schizophrenic discourse of post-colonialism, is seen most markedly in the similarity between the absence of the metacommunicative mode in schizophrenic language and [the] metonymic gap [of post-colonial discourse].

I don’t discount the importance of Bill’s theorising – on the contrary, it opens up great vistas of understanding. But Vin (as Webb called him) says a lot more about the immediate experience of reading the poetry.

Francis Webb, Poet and Brother is a labour of love, compiled and self-published by Webb’s younger sister and her husband in 2001, when they must have been in their 70s. It includes a number of poems that had not been previously published – but which are mostly in Toby Davidson’s collection. Its appendices include an impressive bibliography of critical writings about Webb; nearly 60 pages listing all his poems, the place and date of first publication, the place of composition where that’s known, and all subsequent publications; and 12 pages listing errors in those publications and in writings about Webb. All this will probably be of interest to scholars, but then there are the letters – 56 of them, written to his three sisters and his brothers-in-law from 1943 when he was 18 to a month before his death in 1973, with linking passages by the Meeres, including occasional quotes from other sources, such as for example Vincent Buckley’s memoir Cutting Green Hay – a quotation which, incidentally, tells a story of youthful drunkenness that Buckley hinted at but declined to tell in his Poetry Australia essay. If Webb’s letters to colleagues are as compelling, and poignant, and interesting as these, someone really ought to be getting a collection together.

Four things shine through: Webb’s great affection for his family, especially for Leonie and Peter Meeres; his Catholic piety (almost every letter ends asking to be remembered in the recipient’s prayers, and promising to remember them in his); his single-minded dedication to his calling as poet; and his mental anguish. The reason for his repeated confinement in psychiatric institutions remains (of course) obscure: he repeatedly insists that he is completely non-violent, but the letters are peppered with references to incidents such as ‘a silly brawl’. Whatever the reason, it’s heartbreaking to read his pleas for help, his assurances of his harmlessness, his wretched descriptions of himself as a no-hoper, and towards the end his warnings not to upset and possibly damage children by bringing them to see him in his abject state – and through it all, his piety, his affection and his hunger for solitude and peace enough to write poetry.

The Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama lives in a mental hospital in Tokyo, and is able to go to her studio regularly. It may be that Francis Webb needed to be kept apart from the general community, for his own or other people’s safety, but that he lived a life of such deprivation must surely stand as a reproach to the way people labelled mentally ill have been treated in this country. Yet the miracle of it is that he too created marvellous works:

Are gestures stars in sacred dishevelment,
The tiny, the pitiable, meaningless and rare,
As a girl beleaguered by rain, and her yellow hair?

Zero Carbon by 2030 at Sydney Town Hall

Last night we went to hear Peter Harper, Coordinator of Zero Carbon Britain, speak at the Sydney Town Hall. The topic was ‘Zero Carbon by 2030 – Britain’s dream or reality?’ As the advance publicity put it, Zero Carbon Britain is

a plan offering a positive realistic, policy framework to eliminate emissions from fossil fuels within 20 years. Zero Carbon Britain(ZCB) brought together leading UK thinkers, including policy makers, scientists, academics, industry and NGOs to provide political, economic and technological solutions to the urgent challenges raised by climate science.

Governments and businesses seem paralysed and unable to plan for a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy. ZCB shows what can be done by harnessing the voluntary contribution from experts working outside their institutions. The ZCB report, released in June 2010, provides a fully integrated vision of how Britain can respond to the challenges of climate change, resource depletion and global inequity, with the potential for a low-carbon future to enrich society as a whole.

(Download the PDF here.)

The talk itself was a great mood lifter. First, the setting: it’s hard to be gloomy about the future in the elaborate colonial prettiness of the refurbished Town Hall Foyer. Then the introduction by Robyn Williams, icon of enthusiasm for scientific enquiry: after an obeisance to current ABC pusillanimity with the mantra ‘I’m from the ABC and I have no opinions of my own’, he told us that the Science Show had broadcast three programs on Peter Harper’s base, the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, over the years, and generated a lot of interest. The audience was great, producing a supremely lively, smart, on-topic Q & A: as one of my friends said, when an event receives this little much publicity in the mainstream media, the people who know about it are likely to know a lot about the subject.

Peter Harper is a scientist with style. He began and ended with photos of his granddaughter. ‘Why am I doing this?’ he asked at the start. ‘Because of her.’ He went on, ‘I often ask my great-great-great-granddaughter what to do next, and though she hasn’t been born yet, she’s a sharp tongued little hussy and says good things.’ He characterised the ‘leading thinkers’ who had prepared the framework as greenies and geeks, and put his argument for a strategic approach to climate change (as opposed to much frantic activity around short term projects that often turn out to be cul de sacs) with wit, warmth and a lucid slide show.

One of my take-homes is what he called the Canute Principle. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with British lore, he told the story of King Canute ordering the tide not to come in so as to demonstrate to his obsequious courtiers that there are limits to kingly power. The principle: ‘Physical reality trumps political reality.’ That is, there may be any number of political reasons not to act on climate change, or to take short term actions that lead nowhere, but any plan that aims to actually deal with the dangers needs to take account of the physical world. Let me say that again in bold: Physical reality trumps political reality. Isn’t that elegant?

Sydney Ideas: Gregory Crewsdon

Sydney Ideas is a program of public lectures presented each year by Sydney University. The Art Student* and I have attended sporadically, always to our benefit. Tim Flannery on global warming, Sara Roy on Palestine and Margaret Levi on trade unions and social justice in the US and Australia, for instance, stand out. All of those lectures were at the Seymour Centre, on the edge of the university’s sprawl. This year, the program seems to have migrated across City Road into the grounds of the University itself. On Friday night we went to see US photographer Gregory Crewsdon in the new Law School building. At least it’s new to me, and as I approached it from the west, I was gobsmacked by the way it opens out onto a view of Victoria Park and the city.

This was probably the best attended talk that we’ve been to in the series., possibly because it was co-hosted by the Power Institute and attracted Fine Art students, possibly because Gregory Crewsdon is a celebrity among those students. Certainly, it was a young crowd.

The talk was interesting, with slides of Crewsdon’s work and books on sale in the foyer. His photographs were described in the publicity for the talk as ‘disturbingly beautiful, large-scale, small-town American landscape narratives’. He chatted interestingly about them to an Art Professor and then answered questions. We left  half way through the inevitable question using words like eidos and had an animated conversation over dinner about artists and entitlement.

You see, ‘large-scale, small-town’ images require enormous resources in the making. Crewsdon started out with what he called a ‘renegade’ process. Without any kind of permit, but with the cooperation of the local people, he took images from a high crane of people doing odd things: laying turf in the main street, planting flowers like traffic calmers and so on. He moved on to creating works on sound stages, that had David Lynch or Hitchcock–like neurosis hovering in the frame. And then, he took ‘the work’ outside again, and here’s where questions of entitlement came up for us. To create the image he wants, he might need to have a house on fire – the local fire brigade supplies him with a dozen houses they are willing to burn down for his purposes. He needs snow but not enough has fallen, so he brings in a snow machine. To create a single image, he has a huge crew, including a Director of Photography. The ‘renegade’ work involved engagement with a community. Once he had official status and access to more resources (no one said where the money came from, but he is a professor at Yale), the process looks much more like big business – all the paraphernalia of a movie set. The Art Student and I had been listening earlier in the day to Naomi Klein’s TED talk about advanced capitalism’s reckless plundering of resources. It was hard not to see Crewsdon’s artistic process as part of that recklessness: ‘I want this image to show a certain psychological state of alienation, and I’ll do whatever I need to do to make it.’ Carbon footprint? Social impact? Cost–benefit ratio? Not relevant. I remember Richard Wherrett saying decades ago – yes, I am a Baby Boomer – that theatrical productions like Jesus Christ Superstar were of dubious morality because of the human cost of mounting them: more than one person died building the sets of the Sydney production. As far as I know no one has died for  a Gregory Crewsdon photograph, but houses have been destroyed in a nation where homelessness is a significant problem. But then, how do you calculate the cultural benefit created?

Sadly, the Art Student, for whom these concerns were most vividly in mind, was too cranky to put them as a question rather than an attack.

* She insists that one journalist calling her an artist doesn’t change anything. She’s still a student, and arguably still in kindergarten.

Peter Timms in search of Hobart

Peter Timms, In Search of Hobart (UNSW Press 2009)

I enjoyed Delia Falconer’s book on Sydney in the Cities series very much, so when this turned up for borrowing at our Book Club, I fell on it with cries of joy.

Alas, after a characteristically elegant foreword by Robert Dessaix, in which he ominously mentions that the author is his partner and describes the book as ‘a concatenation of views of Hobart’, my enthusiasm took a beating. By page 15 the concatenated voices are complaining about the traffic, and before any of the beauties of the city have been evoked we’re treated to argument about town planning and the puncturing of self-serving quotes from government officials such as emanates from local ginger groups in any modern city. A swipe at Kevin Rudd’s ‘working families’ mantra left me feeling not just that I was listening in on local fights, but that the fights were old.

On page 40, in a dip into colonial history, ‘Having staked their claim, the authorities in London promptly put the struggling settlement out of their minds,’ I decided to follow their example and put the book out of mine. It might improve – if you know for sure it does, you know where comment button is.

Andy Kissane’s Out to Lunch

Andy Kissane, Out to Lunch (Puncher & Wattman 2009)

Continuing on my advance reading for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards: here’s another title from the shortlist.

This book’s cover, featuring an electric plug that looks more North American than Australian, led me to expect some kind of postmodern smart-arsery that would speak to a placeless, hip readership. Then ‘The Earlwood–Bardwell Park Song Cycle’ on the contents page seemed to promise more smart-arsery, this time taking the mickey out of Les Murray’s ‘Taree–Buladelah Holiday Song Cycle’. I was prepared, one way and/or the other, to be alienated, left out in the cold, feeling like I was too just old for this world.

It didn’t happen like that at all. After being tantalised by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s poetry and wrestling with Francis Webb’s, I took to Andy Kissane’s like a duck, or perhaps a horse, to water. The first poem, ‘Loaves and Days’, describes a baker at work; the second, ‘Bus Ride with Grey Owl and Dancing Woman’ has a woman dancing on a bus to the music from her Walkman while the poet reads Native American poems at the back of the bus. There are poems about surfing, about the death of friends, about the joys of fatherhood, about visiting friends and family in Melbourne, about adolescent ideals (what does happen to them?). The poems are mostly conversational – no extreme compression of language or dense metaphor, none of the quality I think the blurbs mean when they say poems are permeable or unfenced (something like,’Here are the words, you make the meaning’). Some are pleasantly silly – ‘The Humble Sausage’, for instance is a collection of short pieces having fun with famous lines (‘I wandered lonely as a sausage / Without a slice of bread …’). Some celebrate quotidian joys:

My daughter runs ahead, hair flying out behind her
like the tail of a beloved horse – an appaloosa

mare or brindle stallion – her hoofs kicking
up sand as she jumps the creek and canters
towards the rocks.

As for ‘The Earlwood–Bardwell Park Song Cycle’, there’s nothing smart-arse or mickey-taking about it, though it’s not without humour. In fact, I just checked and found that Les Murray included a section of it in his Best Australian Poems 2005. And it’s deeply deeply rooted in a place that isn’t far from places I know well myself. Let me quote the ending, because it’s lovely, and also because it mentions my new home suburb:

 _________________The moon rises over the hills
of Marrickville, the moon of workers and mystics, the moon
of the tax return and the tax refund, the cadmium yellow moon
of homework and tears at bedtime. The moon of the coming
election, of palm tree and  hoop pine, of all things passed and yet
to pass. Swaying peacefully in the water until a fish jumps
and the globe breaks, before forming again – the full moon
hanging in the dark sky and floating in the dark water.

Paradoxically, the book’s final section, the source of its title, is the one that appealed least to me. The poet has lunch with a series of literary figures – Osip Mandelstam, Atticus Finch, Raskolnikov, and so on – and tells about them in poems with a studiedly dashed-off feel. It’s a nice idea, one that makes me itch to give it a go for my own amusement – just imagine lunch with one of Marilynne Robinson’s patriarchs, or Sam Pollitt, or for that matter Henny Pollitt! But compared to the rest of the book they feel (to me – I may be missing something) so light as to be hardly there at all.

Rereading Francis Webb

Francis Webb, Collected Poems (Angus & Robertson 1969)
Toby Davidson (ed.), Collected Poems: Francis Webb (UWA Publications 2011)

I reach for Francis Webb’s poetry fairly regularly – mainly the same handful of late poems. After listening to pieces about him on the Book Show and Poetica (parts One and Two), both on the ABC, having wept at the superb readings on the latter and been stung by Geoff Page’s describing the poetry as defective on the former, I decided to re-read the whole book. I started out on my 1969 edition, with its copious pencilled annotations by twenty-something me, but about a third of the way in I bought a copy of the new edition and switched to that. One learned person, according to my faint pencil notes, wrote that ‘reading Francis Webb is like wrestling with an angel’. No one would disagree that wrestling is involved: just decoding the syntax can be a challenge in many of these poems, then there are compacted metaphors, elusive rhyme schemes, buried religious references, and an expectation that the reader will be as alarmingly erudite as the poet. Just have a look, say, at the first lines of ‘Stendhal’:

Italy, and a nom de plume – better than in the van
Of France defeated: his clean scarlet brain
Must work in a pure detachment over man
Who was nothing without his D.R.O.s again.
Love, hate, ambition mustered at his bugle,
Sorties of good and evil were in vain.
With watchful eye and towerings of the eagle
He must disarm the priests, immobilize pain.

To which I admit I don’t have much more to say than ‘Huh?’

The angel part is harder to describe – the exciting part, that makes you feel you’ve been through the wringer, but that the world is somehow clearer, richer and more harshly beautiful because of it. He writes about sunsets, fog and wind as if they contain all the deepest struggles of the cosmos.

If you haven’t read any of Webb’s work, I recommend you start with the relatively straightforward ‘Five Days Old’. My mother, no lover of difficult language, wrote to me in a 1972 letter: ‘”Five Days Old” is sweet. I have to concentrate to read poetry so I haven’t read the others yet.’ More ambitiously, you might try the two sequences, Eyre All Alone and Ward Two. (If you’ve got plenty of time, I recommend reading Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Exploration as interesting in itself, but also, as my pencilled notes remind me, because it sheds interesting light on Webb’s poem, which at some points comes close to paraphrasing passages from it.) I’d skip the radio plays about Hitler (Birthday, this one was broadcast on the BBC in 1955), the Holy Grail (The Chalice), the anthropogenic end of the world (The Ghost of the Cock) and the man who invented electroconvulsive therapy (Electric).

One of the things that I loved about Webb’s poetry from the start is that it’s work. You can feel the labour of getting the words down, squeezing meaning onto the page, into the shape of the poem. Even at his most difficult, he is working at communication, never being difficult for its own sake.

Forty years ago I went searching for the first publication of his early poems, and found one or two that hadn’t been collected, and others that had been substantially edited on the way to being collected. The former and one or two of the latter are in the new collection, but my favourite example of revision isn’t. Here are the first three stanzas of ‘The Day of the Statue’, in which fishermen catch an ancient statue in their nets, as they appear in both Collected Poems:

You look for prodigies leaning on the sill of storm,
Or loose in the yellow gap at a candle’s end,
But here was patience: fishermen out on the bay,
Work and silence inching with the minute-hand.

Moored in a lulled spinny of sun and shadow,
With an impotent tremor in the sails, the ketch nosed down
To the long lunge of the swell, rose dripping, gasping
As if with eagerness to suck in air again.

And the men, snug in this casual pediment of time,
Their gestures grouped and restricted and interlocking,
Felt the haul stubborn to their hands, an eye-tooth wrenched
From the iron gums of the sea-bed, shuddering and aching.

Compare the first five stanzas of the version published in the Bulletin on 8 October 1947, when Webb was 22 years old:

You look for prodigies leaning on the sill of a storm
Or loitering about the wake of a snuffed-out light;
But such things are apt, as you know, on these days of full sunshine
To be quietly pocketed or else shoved clean out of sight.

Certainly, three fishermen out on the bay
And the shaping of a miracle are rarely aligned,
History bells hours only, clock on the walls of speeches:
Work and silence tick unnoticed with the second-hand.

Moored to drifting banks of sun and shadow,
With an impotent tremor in the sails, the ketch nosed down,
plunged to the bowsprit in the swell, rose dripping, gasping
As if with eagerness to suck in air again.

And the men grouped snugly in this leeward pediment of time,
With their slow gestures of toil, felt a curious lagging in the strands
Of their sunken net, as if parallel action under the water
Passed on a sort of nerveless shock to the hands.

Your touch on a net-load of fish short-circuits life:
The cargo is arteries stabbed in their element and shaking,
But this haul yielded stubbornly like an eye-tooth wrenched
From the iron jaws of the sea-bed, shuddering and aching.

I love the way he pared those stanzas down, even at the risk of making his meaning harder to grasp. And the revisions towards the end of the poem are even more telling. The last stanza changed from

Beauty comes baleful as a skull, comes riven from the sea:
Well to consider the mortal, the native token
Before you polish, incise – before you replace
What that bronze arm once clutched that time has broken.


There were some to roll back the heavy stone of the sea;
There was none to ponder the mortal, the living token.
But later, men polished, incised, established at last
What that raised hand once clutched and years had broken.

With great economy, the resurrection of Christ is invoked, and the contrast between the practicalities of dragging up the statue and understanding it is conveyed as a further piece of narrative rather than in a slightly priggish address from the author.

Ramona Koval said she’d never heard of Francis Webb. That’s a great shame. The Sydney Writers’ Festival has a session on ‘The Lost Poetry of Francis Webb’. I’m assuming that phrase refers to his whole body of work rather than to the handful of previously uncollected poems that begin and end Toby Davidson’s collection. I plan to be there.