Regular readers of this blog know that I like to play with rhyming verse, and in particular that I’m in love with the Onegin stanza, which is like a sonnet but with shorter lines. The Emerging Artist (who incidentally has recently been working on a project to submit to a competition only to have the competition, which would have led to an open-air sculpture exhibition, cancelled) said I should put this recent sequence up on the blog. I didn’t write these with any intention of showing them around, so blame the EA if they displease. Of course if you like them, I’ll happily accept praise.
First drought, then fires, and now it's raining
night and day a steady thrum
with windy descant never waning:
bushfires gone now, floods have come.
Our balcony was strewn with ashes
then with red dirt. Now it splashes
inch deep and our thyme will drown.
The lawns are green that once were brown.
Raining, pouring, old man snoring,
how I loved rain when a boy
in Innisfail, a primal joy –
so definite, so life-restoring.
Now we're cooped up in our flat –
warm inside. I'm fine with that.
Drought, fire, flood, and now this virus.
Covid-19 tops the bill.
Don’t touch your face, wash hands, require us
keep two metres from the till.
The papers preach self-isolation.
Norman predicts devastation.
Toilet paper shelves are bare.
Trump says we just shouldn’t care.
The Spanish Flu, AIDS, SARS, Ebola,
tiny predators en masse
toss us down a deep crevasse:
iPhones, cruises, Coca-Cola
promised lives of endless joy.
The gods think we’re a knockdown toy.
Hooray for social isolation.
Splendid? Truly, not so much.
On one side there's devastation,
on t'other six months without touch
of granddaughter or a movie.
Beach and gym closed, and all groovy
birthday parties now on line.
It's books' and Netflix' time to shine.
No more non-essential outings.
Work from home unless you're key
and key means nurses, teachers, see,
not the bankers, brokers, shouting
pollies. Oh, and not the arts!
God save our isolated hearts!
There was an Extinction Rebellion event at Bondi Beach this morning. A couple of hundred of us sat in the shape of the XR logo, representing the planet and an hourglass. There were brief speeches, a drone photo, and some magnificent dancing by members of the Tango Rebellion. The handful of police didn’t have to do anything but stand and watch.
One of the speakers read what she called a faux elegy for the planet – faux because we intend to take action to at least minimise the results of the climate emergency. On the way home in the train, one of my companions expostulated that it’s not the planet that’s in danger of dying out, it’s us or at least life as we know it. The planet will survive just fine. But we all agreed there is such a thing as climate grief that needs to be faced.
I found myself thinking of A D Hope’s poem, ‘On an Early Photograph of My Mother’, the first poem in his A Late Picking (1975) that, according to my pencilled notes on the contents page, was written in 1958, presumably with the proliferation of nuclear weapons in mind. I don’t expect many of my readers to know the poem, so here it is in full, the anger and, yes, grief beneath the irony as alive as ever:
On an Early Photograph of My Mother
Who would believe it to see her now, the mother Of so many daughters and sons – and one of them I – Dear busy old body, bustling around the sky That this was indeed my darling, and no other?
Who would suppose to view her then, the tender Bloom and dazzle of wildfire, and the stance Of unripe grace, the naked eloquent glance, Time could so tame or age despoil her splendour?
Or who imagine the imperceptible stages From her madcap Then to this staid respectable Now? One picture the Family Album does not show. See where she ripped it angrily from the pages!
That is just the picture I should give most to recover, When she changed to a molten mass and began to shrink To a great smooth stone, and the stone began to think, And she raged at her ruin and knew that her youth was over.
Did you destroy it, my darling, that face of granite Cracked and scarred by your volcanic heart? Did you take one look and tear it across and apart, The barren body, the gaunt, unlovable planet?
You could not foresee this lovely old age beginning, The ripeness, the breeding beauty. How could you know Yourself with your lap full of flowers, soft-shouldered with snow, Royally wearing your waters, your children pinning
Cities of lights at your breast, to show how clever they are? Take comfort, my darling, and trundle your bulk through the sky: Your cleverest children—and one of them is not I— Are finding the trick that will turn you back to a star.
Cunning and cautious, but much less cautious than cunning, They split small pieces of rock, a cup or two from your seas. 'Helping Mother!' they say, 'and busy as bees. The noise we can make is tremendous; the flash is stunning.'
'We can do better,' they say. 'A surprise for Mother; She will be pleased when we show her what we can do.' How long will it take? Just another invention or two And someone will press a button. You need not bother;
You will blaze out with the nimbus of youth, the limber Liquid gait and the incandescent air; You will forget the middle-aged ruin you were; Good luck to you, darling! I shall not be there to remember.
For nine years now, Toby Davidson has been organising an annual celebration of Francis Webb’s poetry. Toby edited Webb’s Collected Poems (1911) – my blog post here. Though I’ve been enamoured of Webb’s poetry for 50 years now, this is the first time I’ve managed to attend the event (or the second, if the reading at the 1911 Sydney Writers’ Festival counts – my blog post here).
We met in a large room – the ‘Creator Room’ – at Chatswood Library, in the region where Webb spent his childhood. The library has inherited Webb’s collection of paintings – all or most of them bought with funds Webb received as a government grant, funds spent of art rather than, say, food – and his library of books. The paintings and some of his books were on display, along with other fascinating realia, including a photocopy of the handwritten draft of his final poem.
Toby Davidson was an unabashedly enthusiastic MC for an audience that was an interesting mixture of ancient fans (like me), current students (including some from Davidson’s classes) and satisfyingly motley others. The readers:
Robert Adamson, poet (blogged about by me here and here among other places): told us of his awe-struck meeting with Webb in Callan Park Psychiatric Hospital, and read three poems – ‘End of the Picnic’ (an imagining of the arrival of Cook’s ship in 1770 as a spiritual disaster), ‘Morgan’s Country’ and ‘Wild Honey’ (probably my favourite Webb poem, read in a way that had tears on my cheeks). A hard act to follow, but followed it was.
Michael Griffith (author of God’s Fool, his 1991 biography of Webb): quoted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 ‘How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?’ as emblematic of key themes in Webb (and his own life), and read us two poems with props – the first part of ‘In Memoriam Antony Sandys, 1806–1883’ with the painting that the poem describes on an easel beside him; and ‘On first Hearing a Cuckoo’ preceded by part of Delius’ ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’.
Judith Crispin, poet and photographer, whose work, according to her web site, ‘includes themes of displacement and identity loss, a reflection of [her] own lost Aboriginal ancestry’: read the dingo’s second speech from ‘The Ghost of the Cock’, and commentred on the extraordinary way it embodied what webb could not have known, the polarity of moon and dingo in an Arnhem Land foundation story; and two other poems, ‘Episode’ and ‘Toward the Land of the Composer’.
Gareth Jenkins, poet, spoke among other things of the sonic, rhythmic quality of Webb’s work, his mastery of long lines, and read, beautifully, ‘The Yellowhammer’.
Richard Miller, self-described as a long-time Webb fan and former musician in, I think, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, in a complete change of mood, delivered a brilliantly theatrical, over the top rendition of ‘Introduction in a Waxworks’ from ‘Leichhardt Pantomime’.
Two school students whose names I didn’t catch, one from each of the nearby schools that Webb attended: one read the eminently accessible ‘Australian Night’, which Toby Davidson told us Webb wrote between ages of 7 and 10; the other read ‘Compliments of the Audience’, a sardonic take on a poetry reading, thereby concluding the reading part os the afternoon.
Before we broke for an afternoon snack, we were treated to Oliver Miller’s short film Electric, based on Webb’s radio play of the same name about the first use of ECG on a human subject.
I had a great time. Some of the poems I could just about mouth the words as they were read. Others came from the bits of the work that I have pretty much skimmed. Every reader showed some new aspect of the poetry – and of themselves. Michael Griffiths told us that he had been discouraged from writing his PhD thesis on Webb because, the then Professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University said, ‘He’s mad’. And he’s been dismissed by more than one cultural arbiter. But it was a joy to be in a room full of people who are touched, challenged and invigorated by his poetry.
The Emerging Artist and I have fled the winter in Sydney (which some people are beginning to call Eora, but I’ll wait to see on whose say-so before doing that myself) to spend two weeks on Yunbenun (aka Magnetic Island) in the tropics.
In the taxi to the ferry, the EA asked our friendly driver if he’d live in Townsville long. ‘I’ve lived here all my life,’ he said. ‘It’s my land.’ He is a Wulgurukaba man. Let me start this blog post by acknowledging the Wulgurukaba and Bindal peoples, both with substantial claims to be traditional owners of the land where I have been holidaying, and made welcome.
We’ve been here a little over a week now, with a little less than a week to go. We’ve both been laid low with viral infections, the kind that come with grandparenting territory. We’re less sick now than when we arrived, but still coughing and spluttering quite a bit. Still, we’ve managed to go on some reasonably demanding walks – classified as moderate, but entailing fairly prolonged uphill climbs and including some spectacular views of the Coral Sea. We’ve been entertained by legion kookaburras, curlews, koels and currawongs, and admired the cuteness of rock wallabies. Koalas are yet to make themselves visible to us, but we’re confident that will happen. Our Air BnB host is friendly and very interesting – a marine scientist who is a rich source of information about the sea around us. He was able to reassure me that I needn’t have scrambled for the shore when a stingray came swimming straight for me when I ventured into the water.
Our usual experience is to arrive at a holiday destination and discover that a really interesting festival or event has just finished. This time is an exception. Quite without planning, our visit coincided with the North Australian Festival of Arts, and we spent the weekend on the mainland to participate. We were too crook on Saturday night to use our tickets to Tom Gleeson’s show in the May Wirth (a tent in the Queen’s Garden, named for one of Australia’s outstanding circus performers), but we walked the length of the Strand a number of times, taking in Strand Ephemera 2019, billed as North Queensland’s sculpture festival.
As in Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea, the sculptures are displayed in a stunning natural environment, and have tremendous appeal for whole families. Here are some photos taken by the Emerging Artist: a weaving and ceramics tableau by the students at St Patrick’s College for girls (a video of the making of it here); an archipelago of caged gnomes painted variously in Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander colours, LGBTQI symbols, etc; a car tyre pierced by the handles of hundreds of souvenir teaspoons; 200 coconuts, some of them sprouting, painted with Pacific designs; a string bag representative of the traditional people of Western Cape York, but huge and made from industrial materials; coral sculpted in sugar, beautiful and also emblematic of environmental disaster; bamboo pipes played gently by the wind; what one boy called a pillow fort and I thought of as a defended place to dream. And much more that we didn’t photograph.
And this afternoon, at the Mary Who? Bookshop, David Malouf read to an audience of abut 50 people. It’s hard to imagine that the Tom Gleeson show that we’d missed could have given as much joy as this. David is a brilliant reader of his own poetry, and framed his selection beautifully today. He spoke of three stages: the experience that a poem draws on; the writing of the poem, which often happens many years after the experience; and, if the poet lives long enough, reading the poems many years after it was written. He began with The Year of the Foxes, a poem about a childhood memory written in 1965, and ended with Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian, which has to be one of the most cheerful death-anticipating poems ever written (which made wet stuff run down my cheeks anyhow). When the Emerging Artist and I arrived, we commented that the age of the people gathered in the shop was generally well over 60: it was sweet, therefore, that David Malouf several times felt he had to explain a reference because most of his audience wouldn’t be old enough to recognise it. (He’s 85!)
Now for another week of health-restoring warmth, about which I may or may not blog.
A little less than eight years ago, she who was to become the Emerging Artist and I sold our house and bought the smaller one where we now live. I recorded the process in verse.
4 November 2010:
On selling the family home
Our home for more than twenty years
Our haven, our Three Seventeen,
Where children’s laughter, rage and tears,
And adults’ too, and in between
Have filled the air, where stains and scratches,
Dents and holes, loose threads and patches
Are records of our history
With love’s abiding mystery
Was sold on Tuesday, seven thirty.
Our shell, our outer skin, alive,
We’ll trade for one point five two five.
It’s brick and wood, some bits quite dirty.
We’ll shuffle off to somewhere new:
New owners, may it welcome you.
6 November 2010:
Looking to buy
Flexible, unique and charming,
spacious, stylish, redesigned,
with northern sun, and traffic calming,
details of the classic kind,
potential for downsizers’ retreat
in much sought after treelined street,
we seek it here, we seek it there,
our new home could be anywhere,
in Earlwood, Petersham, St Peters,
Marrickville or Hurlstone Park,
(Burwood’s too far off the mark).
At each new door the agents greet us.
We turn up, armed with cheques, not knives,
Buying, not fighting, for our lives.
26 November 2010:
We’ve bought a house, we sign today,
pay ten percent of far too much
(but we’re in love, so that’s OK).
It’s done up with a loving touch,
it’s near a park and faces north,
near shops, trains, buses and so forth.
We’re downing size, yes, less is more,
from Three One Seven to Thirty-Four.
Bring us garlands, bring us flowers.
Blow the whistle: end of innings.
Sing a song of new beginnings.
Four signatures, the house is ours.
Soon we fly the empty nest.
We’ve found our home for all the rest.
And now we’ve just done it again, this time moving into an apartment about a block away from where we now live. It’s astonishing how those three stanzas describe the process and the feelings that go with it. we exchanged contracts on our present house on 25 September, and bought the apartment at auction on 6 October.
This time it’s serious downsizing. Many books have already found new homes, and many more are yet to do so.
This was our last day, from Pescene to Tui, just across the border in Spain. Another four or fove days and we’d be in Compostella, but we’d booked our return flights too soon to do the whole thing, so reluctantly we’re no longer pelegrinos, even in name.
In this tiny chapel
Nossa Senhora de Fatima’s
belies the peasant bluntness
of her messages, and
Nossa Senhora das Neves
gives us a glimpse of
her maternal implacability.
I started on another take on the John Bunyan hymn, but ran out of time, what with eating dinner at Spanish hours (no other diners had arrived at the restaurant when we left at close to ten o’clock, but it was clear the staff were expecting an influx) and the watching Die Hard on Spanish TV until well past midnight. SO that’s it from me as pilgrim poet. Thanks for the likes and encouraging comments.
Today was our most arduous walk so far, and also the one through the most beautiful environments, from Ponte de Lima to the tiny town of Paredes de Coura, where we are staying in the lovely Casa da Capela.
‘Should we pick up that sock?’ you said
and picked up a sock with a yellow
plastic peg attached. ‘Someone
will be looking for it.’
An hour and four K later
we met a young woman going the other way
and while I was thinking she looked too young
and un-Portuguese to be going to Fatima,
you called, ‘Are you looking for a sock?’
“You are my angel,’ she said.
We hear the young lycra-men on bikes
from half a K away, even noisier than
the young Italian women back in town.
Those who would venture to walk
on the Caminho,
let them do more than just talk
over their vino.
They need to buy good shoes,
they need to pick and choose
walking poles that let them cruise
when they are pilgrims.
Today was a pleasant and relatively sociable walk from Balugães to Ponte de Lima. A cool breeze made all the difference to weariness levels, or maybe we’ve become accustomed to what after all isn’t a very long walk each day – a little less than 20 kilometres. Here are my snippets.
This would be for the Danish pilgrim to say:
the three bananas
that were on
of Talha Viana
you were certainly
queueing to buy
they were delicious
and went so well
with our meite de leites.
in Rua 25 de Abril, Balugães
the dead swallow
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
valderee, valderá, valderee,
thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
Pasolini called his film The Gospel According to Matthew. If he could drop the Saint, so can I: it’s not São Tiago or Santiago from now on, just Tiago. Here’s today’s crop of call-them-poems.
A huge toad
flattened on the road
like a childhood memory.
No need to ask if we’re lost
or where we want to go,
just smile and point.
farmers working up a sweat.
Pilgrims walking one up.
A road sign:
inside a red triangle.
(The obedient snow is keeping a safe distance.)
Day 2, we walked from Arco to Barcelos. There was, as a fellow caminhante said, mucho calor. (I have no idea if that is correct Portuguese, but the meaning was clear and accurate.) Today I have some found poems for you ((or stolen, if you like), some translated to the best of my ability.
If the world is a book
then those who do not travel
read only one page.
St Augustine (Neatly written in French on a waypost.)
REPEAT (In English on a gum tree – which were myriad)
Japanese Mini Tractors for Sale (In Portuguese on the fence of a yard containing half a dozen very small tractors)
A road sign:
a plump cow in silhouette
inside a red warning triangle.
(We saw no cows.
They had been warned off.)
Rua de São Salvador
Rua Senhora de Imaculada Conceinçao
Rua da Cruz de São João.
Here you are what you are
in relationship to Catholicism
If you look closely you can see the Emerging Artist in this picture
Another road sign:
Find out what’s the least you can do (What I think the Portuguese says on a little tile in Barcelos, attributed to Ferdinand Pessoa)
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Based on novels by Tana French, which I haven't read, this is an excellent police procedural, with lots of psychological murk to make the main cops interesting. A new word to me is 'fetch', the ghost of a living person, a concept that is played on beautifully.
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