Tag Archives: James McAuley

November Verse 5

First an embarrassing memory, and then a slightly less embarrassing piece of verse.

The memory: in 1970 I was an English Honours student at Sydney University and had no idea how ignorant I was. James McAuley, then one of the Grand Old Men of Australian poetry, had a new book out, Surprises of the Sun. One of its poems, ‘In the Twentieth Century’, begins: ‘Christ, you walked on the sea, / But cannot walk in a poem, /Not in our century.’

To my mind he was clearly mistaken, so I wrote him a letter, in which I pointed out his error and as proof transcribed the second stanza of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, which begins, ‘Jesus was a sailor and he walked upon the water’.

McAuley didn’t reply, and presumably the letter itself has long since ceased to exist, but my brain has refused to eliminate the memory.

And the verse:

Verse 5: … about it all again
No drunken midnight choir sang me to
sleep. I heard no secret chord.
The room filled up with one mosquito,
and no sweetness was restored.
Adam’s long since left the garden.
Home he’s gone without a hard-on.
Break the bugle, skin the drum –
democracy is yet to come.
He’s danced us to the end of living,
leans no longer for Suzanne
or sea-and-shoreline Marianne.
Say goodbye to Leonard leaving.
So much light came through his cracks
and gave our griefs their music tracks.

Jennifer Compton, Parker & Quink

Jennifer Compton, Parker & Quink (Ginninderra Press 2004)

1pqJennifer Compton was in her mid 20s when she burst onto the Australian theatre scene with her play No Man’s Land, which shared the 1974 Newcastle Playwriting Competition prize with John Romeril’s The Floating World (distinguished company!), was produced by Ken Horler at the Nimrod Theatre in Belvoir Street and, redubbed Crossfire to avoid confusion with Harold Pinter’s play of the same name, was published by Currency Press.

Parker & Quink came 30 years, 3 plays and at least 3 books of poetry later, and has been followed by other plays, other books of poetry. I came upon it by chance, as one still can in bricks-and-mortar bookshops. Time passes, we grow older, times change: that’s a recurring preoccupation of these poems, from the three-line title poem to the 18 stanzas of ‘During the Power Cut I Read, by Candlelight, “Ballade” by Kenneth Koch’.

Parker & Quink: the young might stare at these words blankly, but for us sexagenarians they have unmistakeable nostalgic power to evoke the sensual feel of a fountain pen, the aroma of quality ink, the dubious joys of blotting and smudging, perhaps even the quiet pleasure of receiving one’s first Parker pen as a reward for doing well in a school exam. The title poem, just three lines, draws on those associations, but its tone is more bemused than nostalgic:

Parker & Quink
To write your email address
with a fountain pen filled with ink
like lighting a candle on the moon.

The past isn’t just another country, it’s a whole other celestial body, with unbelievably limited, even ineffective communication technology. Yet to my way of thinking a lot of the poetry in the rest of he book uses just that technology: the kind that needs the reader to come and sit with it for a while, rather than providing instant hits, instant links. The second poem, ‘Imposing the Chat’, starts out with a chat room report of attending a gallery opening where (the capitals are hers)

ALL THE ARTWORKS HAD BEEN MADE BY
THE PARENTS OF MURDERED CHILDREN

I don’t understand chat room jargon, but I think the speaker is thrown out of the room, presumably because her subject is unacceptable. She is left to write in a form where ‘the words do not evaporate out of the top of the page’, where she can’t just shout in performative horror but goes on to grapple with the complex and disturbing experience of attending that opening, talking with some of those parents, remembering at least one of the murders and driving home wordlessly with her husband to look in at last on her sleeping children. As the first line of the poem puts it, ‘It should be hard to write.’ Sometimes candles and moonlight, however ineffective, are what’s called for.

That’s the first two poems. After them, the book touches on many subjects, speaks in many voices, reflects many moods. There are memories of a New Zealand childhood, private acknowledgement from an eminent theatre critic (though we’re left not knowing if this was real or imagined), a touch of Bildungsroman, the imitation of Kenneth Koch I mentioned earlier (a kind of compressed, fragmentary, cryptic autobiography), dreams, dramatic monologues, and perhaps my favourite, an imitation bird call whose title is, perhaps accidentally, three words from James McAuley’s ‘Magpie‘ (the ugly bold here should be in italics, but I can’t make that work in my WordPress template):

Every Morning, Waking
Out in the zero velvet of the night
swinging deep into left field
the first interrogatory of the aubade.

A startle of – Where was I? What!
Then the anxious, enquiring flex,
And am I still a magpie? Yes!

awwbadge_2013 This is the seventh book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. I undertook to read six and review four, and I’ve now read seven and reviewed six, so I guess I’ve met the challenge, but as a matter of interest and google fu I’ll keep adding a note when I read an AWW title.