Category Archives: Diary

The 2019 Francis Webb Poetry Reading

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.

Two weeks on Yunbenun

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.

History repeating

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:

Announcement
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.

 

Caminho de Tiago Day 6

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
church-factory wanness
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.

Caminho de Tiago Day 5

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.

Caminho de Tiago Day 4

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:
I bought
the three bananas
that were on
the counter
of Talha Viana

and which
you were certainly
queueing to buy

Forgive me
they were delicious
and went so well
with our meite de leites.

——

Anzac Day
in Rua 25 de Abril, Balugães
nobody notices
the dead swallow

——-

Earworms/earwords:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
valderee, valderá, valderee,
thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
valde-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah

 

 

Caminho de Tiago, Day 3

Today we walked from Barcelos to Balugâes.

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.

——

Whipper-snipping
bale-wrapping
tractor-driving
hedge-uprooting
rotary-hoeing
barrow-wheeling
bean-picking
hand-hoeing
cow-and-sheep-driving
grass-raking:
farmers working up a sweat.
Pilgrims walking one up.

——

A road sign:
a snowflake
inside a red triangle.
(The obedient snow is keeping a safe distance.)

Caminho Portuguès, Day 2

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.)

——

WALK
EAT
SLEEP
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.)

——

Street names:
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

——

Sign

If you look closely you can see the Emerging Artist in this picture

Another road sign:
Caution
Pilgrim Traffic.

——

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)

And tonight everything is sore.

 

 

Caminho Portuguès, Day 1

The Emerging Artist (can I still call her that?) and I are walking part of the Caminho Portuguès, from Porto to Tui (which is in Spain, but quite a way from the goal of true pilgrims, Santiago de Compostella. We are not true pilgrims: we’re not sporting scallop shells, we left our Pilgrim’s Passports in our hotel room in Porto, and we don’t anticipate spiritual experiences. But I’ll try to put up a couple of bits of verse each day. So here goes, with Day One.

I though we’d be like vermin
but sweet European birdsong
and men on bikes in lycra
wish us Bom Caminho.

——

Twang two three four
thud two three four.
Walk with a stick and
follow follow follow
follow the yellow arrów.

——

Here the eucalypts
are a virus caught from capital
but they still smell like home.

——

On these cobbled high-walled roads
cars approach like thunder.

Nos ossos

I had hoped to write about the Moving Hearts Project in London as it happened, but it turns out need recollection time to do that sort of thing, and that sort of time has been in short supply. Other kinds of blogging, including brief notes about my reading and perhaps a little translation, don’t have quite the same needs.

Today we visited the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) attached to the Church of São Francisco in Evora, Portugal. The chapel was built in the 17th century, with walls and pillars covered with thousands of human bones, including skulls. It’s beautiful in an inner-city tattoo kind of way, but very creepy, especially when you realise that the bones were dug up from cemeteries connected to the church. The makers, however unthinkingly disrespectful to the graves they robbed, had pious intentions. The chapel is meant as an over-the-top memento mori.

A poem by Padre António da Ascenção Teles, a local parish priest in the mid 19th century, is displayed in the chapel to help us tourists understand the pious intent. (I’ve also included it, in Portuguese, at the end of this post.) It’s a sonnet, so how could I resist having a bash at a version (helped of course, since I don’t speak or read Portuguese, by the literal, non-rhyming English version also on display in the chapel, which you can see here). My title is the message carved in the stone over the entrance to the chapel.

Nos ossos qui aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos /
We bones who are here are waiting for yours

Where are you rushing to, sightseer?
Stop now. Ignore the guidebook’s patter.
Nothing that’s in there can matter
more than the sight you see right here.

Billions have gone, no longer breathing,
and you’ll end pretty much the same.
Ignore this? That would be a shame.
For every life, death is a key thing.

Shopping, selfies, news with noddies,
tweets of Trump and deeds of Dutton:
who remembers we’re all bodies?

Just look. These walls, though they’re bizarre,
can reset your attention button.
Stop now. Remember what you are.

The original, by Fr. António da Ascenção Teles:

Aonde vais, caminhante, acelerado?
Pára…não prossigas mais avante;
Negócio, não tens mais importante,
Do que este, à tua vista apresentado.

Recorda quantos desta vida têm passado,
Reflecte em que terás fim semelhante,
Que para meditar causa é bastante
Terem todos mais nisto parado.

Pondera, que influido d’essa sorte,
Entre negociações do mundo tantas,
Tão pouco consideras na morte;

Porém, se os olhos aqui levantas,
Pára … porque em negócio deste porte,
Quanto mais tu parares, mais adiantas.