Nigel Roberts in Casablanca for the Waters

Nigel Roberts, In Casablanca for the Waters (Wild and Woolley 1977)

2015498179I’ve been vaguely on the look-out for this book for decades. Nigel Roberts was a regular reader at the Balmain Poetry Readings of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and something of a mover and shaker in the volatile poetry scene of those days. He was canonised as one of the generation of 68 in John Tranter’s New Australian Poetry; he turns up in Robert Adamson’s Inside Out as ‘a robust individual with a generous mind, passionate in his belief that poetry should reach more people at a street level’; he helped found a number of poetry magazines with names like Free Poetry; and he worked as an art teacher in the Department of Education, including at the school of one of my sons. He has stayed in my mind because of one half-remembered poem. I was very happy recently to find the book, and the poem, on the shelves of Berkelouw’s secondhand and antiquarian bookshop.

The poem is ‘Flavour of the Month’, in which the male speaker inveighs against flavoured vaginal douches in a romantic, anti-corporate celebration of the female body. It struck a chord with me 40 years ago: in spite of its ‘sexually explicit language’ it reminded me – perhaps by way of Blake’s proverb, ‘The nakedness of woman is the glory of God’ – of Gerard Manly Hopkins’s ‘God’s Grandeur‘: ‘all is seared with trade … nor can foot feel, being shod.’ Rereading ‘Flavour of the Month’ now, I still like it, but it does feel dated: what was fashionably transgressive 40 years now just seems crude.

As it happens, much of this collection is dated. There’s quite a lot of writing about sex, particularly oral sex, that may have been liberatory once but is now deadeningly familiar. There’s some smirking about marijuana, some right-on sentiments about the US-Vietnam War, quite a lot of ephemeral poetry-wars rhetoric and gossip, unaltered phrases from Bob Dylan’s songs, and satiric barbs whose targets have died or moved on. The introductory note, by no less a star than US poet Robert Duncan, reads now as a puerile collection of penis jokes – not a preface but ‘A Prepucal Face’.

The datedness is probably an inevitable by-product of the poems’ strengths – their spontaneity, their aim to ‘reach more people … at street level’. And perhaps it’s a matter of point of view. The poems offer a fascinating glimpse of an epoch that involved group houses, an odd explicitness about sex and sexism, marijuana as a symbol of subversion, and knockabout creativity.

A handful of poems stand out. For me at least there’s still ‘Flavour of the Month’. ‘The Quote from Auden’ is almost a parody of Dylan’s ‘The Gates of Eden’. With ‘In the Family Album’, the poetry comes into its own. I haven’t mentioned the use of illustrations. The photographs that punctuate the poems are mostly comic or ‘satirical’ in effect, as in the advertisement for Raspberry Douche that accompanies ‘Flavour of the Month’. Those incorporated into ‘In the Family Album’ are of a different order: they show the poet’s grandfather as a young man in a boater, at 75 at an Anzac Day March, waiting with Kitchener for a devastating Dervish attack in the Boer War, and their presence enriches the poem’s quiet contemplation of the relationship between the poet and that grandfather – so that when it ends with an anti-US-Vietnam-war chant and an anti-war slogan, the smart-aleckery and bravado that is characteristic of most of the book is just not there.

2 responses to “Nigel Roberts in Casablanca for the Waters

  1. Katharine Margot Toohey

    I’ve shown this to my Mum (Jennifer Maiden) and she says its wonderful that you’ve rediscovered Nigel Roberts as he was a terrific person and a very under-rated influence on Australian writing and culture in general. She says that when she was in her early twenties she was really impressed by his magazine “Free Poetry” and wrote for it, appreciating the opportunity to expand her style and subject matter. Nigel always needed funds to publish it, and when Mum had a poem published in “The Bulletin” she sent him the $10.00 payment they gave her and told him she was “milking the capitalist cow”.
    Years later at a book launching, he gave her a $10.00 note, but she insisted he keep it, and it ended up on the floor. She pointed out that the scene could be misunderstood, so he finally picked up the note.
    She says what needs to be understood about the “poetry wars” at that time is that conservative, pro-war poets were actively trying to deny any sort of funding or survival to anyone who disagreed with them. Bringing that out in the open was necessary as a basic means to continue at all.
    I think there is a huge conservative hijacking of left-wing concepts at the moment (using ‘feminism’ to persecute Assange for example), but I still hope there will be more sincerely left wing magazines like ‘Free Poetry’ and more brave idealists like Roberts.


  2. Thanks for that insight into the past, Katharine (and Jennifer). The story of the $10 note is wonderful, and it’s good to be reminded that the ‘poetry wars’ were really no less trivial and no less one-sided than the more recent ‘history wars’.


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