Tag Archives: reminiscence

November Verse 1: The Second of November

It’s November already.

In the middle of moving house, I’m currently in South Australia to celebrate a sister’s 70th birthday and a niece’s 30th, with any number of other siren calls on my attention. But November is LoSoRhyMo (Local Sonnet Rhyming Month), and I am obliged to produce 14 x 14-line poems over these 30 days. Rhyming is essential and quantity matters more than quality. (The fact that I’m the sole LoSoRhyMo-ist doesn’t render the obligation any less binding.) So here goes:

The Second of November: Memories of a Catholic childhood
On All Souls’ Day, each church visit
sets a suffering sinner free
from Purgatory. How could we miss it?
Duck inside and bend a knee,
Our Father, then a Hail and Glory
Be, and out. Repeat the story.
Girls held hankies to their hair.
No time to sit and think and stare.
Yet this cuckoo-clock palaver
held coding from a long-gone day
like amber that traps DNA.
Now I learn from calaveras
that those acts then, inside my head,
built friendly shrines to all my dead.

David Malouf’s Being There

David Malouf, Being There (Knopf 2014)

1btDavid Malouf could write about the phone book in a way that held his readers rapt. He is a master of what Steven Pinker  (borrowing from Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner) calls the classic style: his readers are invited into conversation with him as he shows us something about the world. He is a brilliant, warm, generous conversationalist; the ‘something’ in this book is the world of art.

Being There is the third collection of Malouf’s writing published by Knopf in 2014 to mark his 80th birthday. Almost half of it is devoted to essays (including reviews, lectures, one-off newspaper columns and catalogue essays) on other people’s creations. Parts II consists of the librettos of two operas, Voss and Mer de Glace. Part III is a playscript, a ‘free version’ of  Euripides’ Hippolytus.

A strong theme in the first part is the importance of our physical presence to the appreciation and enjoyment of art. Malouf articulates this theme most clearly in the 1989 essay that lends its title to the collection. Referring to orchestral music, he writes that after being ‘in love with the perfection of a great performance on record’ we have come back to ‘gloomy old covert halls’, to

share as fellow citizens an experience that is only available on the big city, as unique a product of our civilisation as the skyscraper or the cantilever bridge. An orchestra, in the person of its conductor and each of its ninety to 120 players, performing one of the great works of our heritage, making music, but in an environment that has not been bled of all those elements of noise out of which organised sound arose – the street noises we have just stepped away from, voices in the foyer, the whispers and shuffling before the conductor is quite ready, the slight disturbance of the air that is created by 2000 men and women breathing, even the occasional cough; that substratum of undifferentiated sound against which made music has to assert itself, and against which we bring ourselves to attention. Somehow, to experience the fulness of what music offers we have to be there. Presence is everything.

I love that. My most enjoyable night ever at the opera (not that I’ve been to the opera all that often) is a far cry the one Malouf describes, but I think he would have enjoyed it. It wasn’t in ‘the big city’, but in the Innisfail Shire Hall on a sweltering tropical night in the 1970s. All the windows of the hall were open, so the street noises, though distant, weren’t left behind; and the air in the hall was more than slightly disturbed by hundreds of fans wielded by audience members, who weren’t above an occasional comment. I don’t think anyone considered the performance to be perfection. The costumes looked as if they’d been scrounged from the combined storage rooms of every choral society in north Queensland, and the cast had a similar catch-as-catch-can feel. But from the Grand March from Aida that began proceedings to the final moments of the main event, Bizet’s Carmen, it was exhilarating. It was impossible not to be aware of the physicality of the event – David Malouf’s word ‘presence’ is right on the button.

The sixteen essays of Part I give accounts of Malouf’s presence at, among other places, a ‘happening’ in London in 1965, Barrie Kosky’s much-derided 1995 production of Nabucco (which he defends brilliantly), the Sydney Opera House (‘a single building … providing a city almost overnight with what it lacked, a defining centre’). He responds to the work of architect Glen Murcutt, photographer Bill Henson (long before Kevin Rudd pronounced his work ‘absolutely revolting’), painter William Robinson, and others. He is always interesting.

I haven’t seen Voss or Mer de Glace, and unsurprisingly found the librettos pretty inscrutable. I say ‘unsurprisingly’, because essays in the first part of the book have prepared the ground. Part of Malouf’s point about the importance of presence is the idea that a play, an opera or a piece of music is more than its script or libretto. In ‘Opera’ (1988), he writes:

That what is sung in opera shares with speech the use of words ought not to confuse us into believing that what the music expresses is what is in the words. The music has a drama and a purpose of its own. What it gives voice to, beyond mere social exchange or the expression of highly charged particular emotions – devotion, doubt, desire, jealousy, pity, anger, resolution, triumph, grief – is the spirit in action.

The Hippolytus, commissioned by the Bell Shakespeare Company and first performed in 2002, is a wonderful read, and for my money is a standing reproach to the domesticated versions of the Greeks that have been appearing on Sydney stages in the last few years. I’m sorry to have missed the production – maybe I can live in hope of a revival.

I met David Malouf in the street recently, and he referred to himself as ‘very old’. May we all age so gracefully, and so creatively.

Looking back: June 1964, 1974, 2004

Yesterday, searching for the name of a book I read in the early 70s, I dug out the little notebook where I listed every book I read from 1961 to 1974 – from ages 14 to 27.

As pure self indulgence – after all, what’s a blog for? – here is most of 1964:

1964
It was my last year of high school so I didn’t read a lot. It’s interesting to notice that before heading off to boarding school I read science fiction, crime, and a coulpe of James Bonds. After that, it’s religious books (I was on my way to being a member of a Catholic religious order), Charlotte Bronte (but not Jane Eyre), Goodbye Mr Chips, some Belloc, some Chesterton and some Paul Gallico. I know I also read Wuthering Heights and Macbeth, both more than once – evidently I didn’t count study texts as reading material for the purposes of this notebook.

By 1974, now 27, I had abandoned my unfinished MA thesis in Aust Lit and was working at Currency Press, publisher of Australian plays.

1974 June

In June – 40 years ago this month – I read 10 books and went to the theatre once. Religion had been replaced by C G Jung: I read two books about him, and one on the I Ching (which he sometimes used to diagnose children and others). There were two novels by Herman Hesse, which I don’t remember at all. Kind of work-related, I read some Sophocles, some Patrick White and some Peter Handke. (I’m surprised to find I read the Peter Handke eight months or so before I saw Peter Wherett’s brilliant production at the Nimrod in Belvoir Street with Kate Fitxzpatrick and Peter Carroll.) I went to Melbourne to see a Jack Hibberd play, at the Pram Factory with Bill Garner and the fabulous Evelyn Krape.  I also began reading a history of North Queensland, which a note says I took more than a year to finish. And there’s a book each from Bruce Beaver and Robert Adamson. Nothing by women.

I stopped making a note of my reading in my late 20s, so I’ll skip to 2004, just 10 years ago, when I was keeping a blog, the precursor of the one whose entries now appear in the right-hand column here. If you want details, you can click on this link. It turns out in June 2004 I read an amazing 25 books,  almost all of them for my work at The School Magazine. So I was paid to read fabulous novels by Terry Pratchett, Geraldine McCaughrean, Allan Baillie, Susan Cooper and Gillian Cross, picture books by Julius Lester & Jerry Pinkney, Alan Ahlberg & Peter Bailey, Colin & Jacqui Hawkins, and Anna & Barbara Fienberg & Kim Gamble, and poetry by Myra Cohn Livingston. Good work if you can get it!

On my own 10 cents in June 2004, I read three volumes of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman epic, and – some suffering is self-induced – The Da Vinci Code.

So here I am in June 2014, two books read and three on the go. My recent excursion into self-improvement with Alain de Botton is perhaps an equivalent of the religious texts of 1964 and Jung in 1974. I’m still reading weighty Australian novels, poetry (this time from China as well as Australia), history, and comics artists.

Maybe by 2114 I’ll have kicked the addiction.

Ngurrumbang update and some very old news

It can now be revealed that Melburnians will have a chance to see Ngurrumbang on their home turf in May. No need this time to travel to Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide or central Spain, just head off to the Australian Shorts session of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image 7.30 pm on 9 May.  The whole program looks fabulous. (Sadly, that set of films won’t be part of the Festival as it travels around the country in the next three months.)

And other news: I was interviewed yesterday for a project about resistance to conscription at the time of the Vietnam War. Gulliver Media’s Hell No! We Won’t Go, which may one day become a film, is shaping up at present as a collection of interviews with draft resisters and conscientious objectors. I was a conscientious objector and happy to delve into memory as part of this project to preserve part of our history that is threatened with occlusion.

I also delved into a diary that I kept at the time (my CO hearing was either late 1970 or early 1971), which prompts me to offer the following unsolicited advice to anyone in their early 20s who is keeping a diary: no one, including yourself, is going to be interested in your half-baked witticisms and introspective anxieties in 40 years time; what they’ll want is NAMES, and DATES, and PLACES.

While finding very little to help my recollections of the court case, and shrivelling with embarrassment at the angst and pomposity of 23-year-old me (which makes me look even more kindly on Lena Dunham’s Girls),  I did find one or two entertaining snippets. On Les Murray:

I met Les Murray at Dianne’s party last Saturday night, a man who is not shy about quoting from his own someday-to-be-written ‘Table Talk’. Among other things he said wh I found interesting: ‘There is no Tao for stumbling in the dark. If you had the Tao, you’d walk.’

On David Malouf, perhaps from conversation in the English Department common rooms, which I’d forgotten I ever shared with him:

Dave Malouf  ‘don’t think Polanski’s any good’, but when pressed likes all except Rosemary’s baby, on the grounds that it moves away from the class vision wh MUST be part of his Communist framed sensibility – and WILL NOT see Fearless V Ks.

Having recently read the script of Rosemary’s Baby, I think he was right about that. But I hope he relented and saw The Fearless Vampire Killers, which I hope is as funny as I remember.

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?

History acknowledged

In a little strip of green not far from Harold Park Raceway, near where a bridge crosses Johnson’s Creek, a new object appeared the other day: a squat, squarish thing beside the path,  looking more than anything like a cardboard carton fallen off a passing truck – or given its distance from any road, perhaps from a helicopter. On approach, it turned out to be a block of sandstone with a plaque on top.

Over the logo of Leichhardt Municipal Council, the plaque explains itself:

In the early 1970s resident groups,
including the Glebe Society, joined with the
Builders Labourers Federation,
led by Jack Mundey,
to impose a Green Ban on expressways
planned to carve through
Glebe, Annandale and Lilyfield.
This plaque commemorates all the men and women who fought this battle.

Well, I’m chuffed to be commemorated, and so I’m sure are the rest of the raggedy coalition of anarchists, Maoists (who created a poster showing a US flag as highway ploughing through tiny houses, because of course the expressway was a product of US capitalism’s relentless pursuit of profit), students fresh from the Vietnam Moratorium demos, out of work actors, etc, who joined the ‘battle’ with the starchy Glebe Society and the fabulous BLF. In those heady days I remember overhearing a conversation between a Philosophy Lecturer and an Eng Lit Honours student deciding not to blow up the beginning stages of the expressway because although they had it in their hearts to do it, they lacked the practical knowledge of high explosives. Inspired by something someone had read about successful protests in San Francisco, we built an adventure playground in a little park in Darling Street, Glebe, though as far as I know very few children actually availed themselves of our crude constructions. perhaps these are the kinds of reasons why we are being commemorated rather than honoured.

But why in this park? And why now? Isn’t there already a site-appropriate plaque in Glebe that gives more detail? This morning I took the dog to visit that pleasant little park, between 77a and 79 Darling Street.

and found this:

Yes, a pale patch of rock where once a plaque had been. Was this was the work of vandals or the result of Glebe being taken over by the City of Sydney? Did the Councils talk to each other? Is the new plaque some kind of replacement for the stolen/removed one? I’ve phoned Leichhardt Council and emailed the City of Sydney Council. The latter’s web site promises a reply within 14 days.

To be continued …

Franny and Zooey revisited (not reviewed)

J D Salinger, Franny and Zooey (1961, Bantam 1964)

Franny_and_Zooey ImageAccording to the little red notebook I kept at the time, I read Franny and Zooey in 1962, when I was 15. My eldest brother, Michael, who was then 24, introduced us younger ones to much that was sophisticated, including classical music (played loud ‘so you can hear it properly’), rock and roll (danced with a slack-jawed deadpan expression I’ve seen nowhere else), Mad magazine, Jules Feiffer, sick jokes (‘Mummy, why do I keep walking in circles?’ ‘Shut up or I’ll nail your other foot to the floor’), and J D Salinger. So where other people found in Holden Caulfield a mouthpiece for their own teenage alienation, I read him dutifully in the footsteps of my luminous big brother. I moved on to Franny and Zooey in a similar mode, and what I remember is mainly that I was very pleased with myself for having read such a sophisticated book. Kerryn Goldsworthy blogged recently about how significant Franny and Zooey was to her as a 16 year old. The one moment that I retained, revelatory to me in its own way, was in ‘Franny’. Lane has been going on about his brilliant seminar paper. He pauses for Franny’s response. She says:

‘You going to eat your olive, or what?’
Lane gave his Martini glass a brief glance, then looked back at Franny. ‘No,’ he said coldly. ‘You want it?’

I couldn’t have told you why, but I felt I’d been allowed into a great secret at that moment. I had no idea what Lane was talking about – Flaubert, ‘capital-F Freudian’, the mot juste were droppings from the inscrutable world of adult discourse. But I understood that Franny found his olive more interesting than his monologue, and that his coldness was full of unspeakable emotion. The door to understanding the adult world was creaking open for me.

When I read it just now, I realised that the book had been much more influential than I realised. Everything I wrote from the age of 16 to 30, at least when I was trying to appear intelligent, aspired to sound like Buddy Glass (‘Zooey”s narrator) – the complex syntax, the self-deprecating hi-falutinness, the over-use of words like ‘rather’, and so on. Though I’d forgotten it, Zooey’s tirade about the importance of not moulding Jesus to fit one’s own psychological needs ranked with Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor (I read The Brothers Karamazov two years later) as a major outside perspective on my intensely held Catholic faith.

As I started ‘Zooey’ this time, I doubted whether I’d actually ever read it. maybe I’d listed it in my notebook as a bit of wishful thinking. But from the scene where Zooey sits in the bath and first reads a very long letter from his brother  and then has a very very long, snitchy conversation with his mother, through the conversations with Franny who is in the middle of a nervous breakdown, I was amazed at how intensely personal it felt. It’s not as if I remembered individual passages –more like I was reopening old neural pathways, as if the book hadn’t been remembered in a normal way but somehow stored at a cellular level. That is to say, I have no idea what I’d have made of it if I’d read it for the first time today.

It’s embarrassing. I’d thought all those people who talked about how Salinger’s work had changed their lives were, um, a bit phoney. Now I discover that if I’d kept closer – or perhaps smarter – track on myself, I would have been one of them.

Bob does Will

In my last two years of high school we studied Macbeth. I don’t think we actually saw a performance, but taking the copies of the bowdlerised edition our school had in stock and laboriously reinscribing the rude bits at Brother Claudius’s dictation, we read the text through collectively, stopping for discussion and explication, three times. All three times, when we reached the line about fortune showing ‘like a rebel’s whore’, one of my fellow students, a pious young man named Geoffrey, asked, ‘What’s a whore, Brother?’  and poor Brother Claudius’s answers had to get more explicit each time: a loose woman, a woman of poor morals, a prostitute, and eventually a woman who commit sins of impurity in return for money.

Apart from Geoffrey’s enlightenment about the shocking ways of the world, the main result of this approach to the play was that we got to know slabs of it off by heart — a line here and there, and one or two soliloquies: ‘Is this a dagger I see before me’ and of course ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’. To this day I love to recite the latter in a singsong rhythm, enjoying the feel of the words and not caring too much at all for the meaning.

Here, as a reward for reading that preamble, is Bob Dylan reciting the soliloquy, lifted from his Theme Time Radio Hour broadcast, number 24 of the first season.

I’m assuming that uploading a small clip like this is OK with those that control the rights. If they ask me to I’ll take it down immediately. In the event that it’s not there when you read this, you can download the whole program from here. (The guy who has made the links possible is ill, so consider leaving a small donation.)

Melancholy derangement

Kate Jennings, Come to Me My Melancholy Baby (Outback Press 1975)

jennings coverI’ve mentioned Kate Jennings once or twice in my blogs, mainly because her New York based writing has given me much pleasure. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that she won a place in my heart nearly (gasp!) forty years ago with a speech she gave at a Vietnam Moratorium meeting on the Front Lawn at Sydney University. On that day, after a number of rousing speeches from various anti-war organisations, a number of women, perhaps there were ten of them, came to the front of the speaking area and fanned out across its full width, standing with legs apart and arms folded. I was off at one side near the front of the thousand-strong crowd, and was impressed by the deliberate drama of the moment. I noticed that the woman closest to me was trembling, and realised that they were doing something that terrified them. Kate stepped to the microphone – the painfully thin designated speaker – and delivered her speech in a voice that shook but didn’t break. The speech was intemperate, overblown, bitter, profane and inelegant. It changed my life.

The speech was printed five years later as ‘Moratorium: Front Lawn: 1970’ in Kate’s first book, Come to Me My Melancholy Baby. It’s a slim vol of poetry, plus the speech and one other short prose piece. I lost my copy decades ago, and was delighted when a slightly battered arrived in the mail last week from a friend who was culling her bookshelves. The poems, it turns out,  haven’t generally aged well, though the pain in some of them fairly leaps off the page. When Kate was interviewed on the ABC by Julie McCrossin a couple of years ago (published in Hecate Vol 14 Nº 1), Julie asked her about this book, and in particular about that speech. Here’s a relevant bit:

KJ: I think you’d call that speech ‘in your face’. They were wild, rackety outrageous days and we were not getting the attention of the men at that point. We were a very small group that started meeting and that was the speech I gave. I’m not sure that we can actually say it out loud on radio. It was that outrageous.
JM
: But what was the core content, the cry from the heart?
KJ
: The cry from the heart was that we were all Vietnam activists and the men were all gung-ho about fighting that cause, and nobody cared about women, and at that stage women could not have legal abortions.
JM
: And when you look back are you amazed at the courage you had, that was a new voice then, the voice of women saying: ‘Look out over here, something’s happening, or not happening?’
KJ
: When I look back at all my life I am amazed, I do keep walking a plank. I thought those days were terrific.
JM
: Why?
KJ
: We were very inventive. We weren’t as earnest as people are making us out to be now. I don’t think of course those tactics are necessary now.

The bit of the speech that made me sit up and listen wasn’t the vile man-hating rhetoric. What made it possible to listen to that and hear what was being said was the opening lines, printed in the book as an epigraph:

you’ll say I’m a manhating braburning
lesbian member of the castration
penisenvy brigade, which I am

I’d remembered the last three words as ‘Well, I am.’ The thing that so affected me was that Kate and the women who flanked her were proclaiming that they would no longer be silenced or kept in their places by even the most vicious putdowns anyone could throw at them. If need be they would claim the putdowns as badges of honour. It made my young, impressionable, male heart sing.

The poems that precede and follow the speech recount some of the personal cost behind that stand:

If it’s not booze, it’s drugs
if it’s not drugs, it’s poetry,
if it’s not poetry, it’s feminism,
if it’s not feminism, it’s love
if it’s not love,
well, you’re just plain crazy.
When you are crying like that
how long before you stop?
I’ve stopped.

Part of the pleasure of her more recent books is in their sheer urbane poise, a great relief to the reader who followed her through the derangement, rage and ‘racketiness’ of this book.