SQ 71 The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Entry 71: Fantasia: The Emperor of Ice Cream- Wallace Stevens has wowed my world for overa-emperor-of-ice-tattoo forty years. I can remember, sitting in the park at Gwynneville, Wollongong, watching my children playing in the sandpit on a sunny Saturday in 1974, reading this poem and struggling with its meaning.

It’s only two stanzas; see what you can make of it,

Call the roller of big cigars,/The muscular one, and bid him whip/In kitchen cups concupiscent curds./Let the wenches dawdle in such dress/As they are used to wear, and let the boys/Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers./Let be be finale of seem./The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

 //Take from the dresser of deal,/Lacking the three glass knobs, an-emperor-tattoothat sheet/On which she embroidered fantails once/And spread it so as to cover her face./If her horny feet protrude, they come/To show how cold she is, and dumb./Let the lamp affix its beam./The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

I know, baffled me too! I get that there are two rooms, one per stanza, the kitchen where ice-cream is being whipped up into concupiscent curds and the bedroom where an old woman lies dead, her face to be covered by the sheet she had embroidered in life which may not cover her calloused feet. But it wasn’t until I read, today, Austin Allen’s account of the poem published on the Poetry Foundation’s website that I finally got all of its allusions and interlocking bits.

The lives of all creatures are fragile and temporary, and all creatures obey a sovereign impulse toward hedonism: feast as much as you can while there’s still time.

 And he quotes the celebrated critic Helen Vendler who paraphrases the meaning of the poem thus: The only god of this world is the cold god of persistent life and appetite; and I must look steadily at this repellent but true tableau—the animal life in the kitchen, the corpse in the back bedroom.

 I’ve wrestled with quite a few of Steven’s poems in the decades since. But, reala-wallace-image understanding notwithstanding, I responded to the various ways in which the poet handles sombre themes with playful language by writing a fantasia using the title of the poem and mashing up in it references to a handful more including Anecdote of the Jar and Sunday Morning.

I use the word fantasia advisedly because it seldom approximates the textbook rules of any of the stricter forms. Also, when I was putting the song together, I was listening to the Ralf Vaughan Williams composition, Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis.

a-tallis-imageIt tickles me that this work was written and performed at about the same time that Wallace Stevens was putting together his first volume of poetry in the early decades of the twentieth century. Further, Thomas Tallis emerged as the voice of English music in that most magical of centuries, the sixteenth, which is also the time when the term fantasia came into vogue.

Anyway, decades ago, I had a blast putting the song together. In some ways it is the precursor and companion piece to Harlequin’s Poles, the subject of entry 37. Both deal witha-mussolini-image the allure of totalitarianism. One of the guises of The Emperor of Ice-Cream, of course, is the fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, for whom Wallace Stevens had a brief moment of admiration.

But he was not alone- other poets, too, were enamoured by the snazzy uniforms and dynamism of fascism. Eliot, Pound and Yeats come to mind. George Orwell writing about Yeats in 1943 is scathing,

Yeats, the poet, sees at a glance that Fascism means injustice, and acclaims it for that very reason. But at the same time he fails to see that the new authoritarian civilisation, if it arrives, will not be aristocratic, or what he means by aristocratic. It will not be ruled by noblemen with Van Dyck faces, but by anonymous millionaires, shiny-bottomed bureaucrats and murdering gangsters.

 a-total-imageI wonder how far we are in our security-obsessed society, from the loathsome triad Orwell warned against. But Orwell, nothing, if not fair to those whose world-view is opposed to his goes on to write,

Others who have made the same mistake have afterwards changed their views and one ought not to assume that Yeats, if he had lived longer, would necessarily have followed his friend Pound, even in sympathy.

To be on the wrong side of history- what a bummer!

D. M. Thomas, I think, wrote a dystopian poem decades ago, where he has alien super-a-alienbeings visiting the nuclear wasteland of planet Earth and, using a surviving trace of DNA, resurrect the person from whom it originated. Gaining sentience and, blind at first, the man sings hosannas for the fulfilment of the old Promise. Then, as the scales fall from his eyes, he sees the merciless orbs of the aliens who, having extracted the information they wanted, mow him down with their ray-guns and move on to the next phase of their exploration.


The Emperor of Ice Cream

SQ 72 No Surrender

Entry 72: No Surrender- In January 1995, we returned to Sydney from North Queensland. Yeta-sydney-image another move. In the previous six years we had moved from Sydney (a long train journey) and lived at four different addresses. This has been the pattern for the whole of our married life, having lived at three addresses in the first two years of marriage in Northern Ireland followed by a move to Sydney (a long, long, plane journey).

The migrant hostel at Orana at Dulwich Hill was followed by a grim B&B in Wollongong, followed by a flat at Mt St Thomas, then a teachers’ housing property over near the University at Gwynneville. Back to Ireland in 1979 and three more addresses, then back to Australia in 1988 and another couple of abodes- one being a caravan in a back-yard. An average of a move every eighteen months.

a-st-pauls-imageIn my mid-forties, drinking beer in Sydney’s outer west in a backyard that was not my own, I contemplated the commute that I would have to make to get to work at St Paul’s College, Manly, which has a glorious position on the hill overlooking the harbour. However, to get there would entail a bus, train and ferry journey each way as well as the trudge along the Esplanade and up and down the hill from Manly Wharf to get to work. The commute, I realised, would be longer than the teaching day!

I wrote this song in February 1995, not as the sectarian war-cry of my birthplace, but ashome something akin to whistling in the dark. And in that first winter back in Sydney, it was dark getting up for work and dark coming home. Home, because we bought our first Aussie home in March ’95 and still live in it.

Twenty years in one spot and counting. Whoo Hoo! The horrendous commute lasted for just over two years and then I was offered a job at a Girls College less than half an hour down the Great Western Highway- happy days! But at that time, in January ’95, when it seemed that was just more of the same old same old, we needed something to assuage the mid-life blues. Best I could come up with was this song, the chorus of which references a Ron Cobb cartoon depicting an old man in a rocking chair set out on the nature strip with the trash for collection- a withered Christmas tree by his side.

In my own private pantheon, or it may just be Elysium, it will come as no surprise that it is a-cobb-cartoonpopulated with poets, composers, painters, dramatists, novelists, sculptors, and ordinary people. I include cartoonists in this exalted company- they have lightened- and, indeed, enlightened- my existence from the time when I was a kid reading MAD magazine in Aruba to today as I laugh over the jolly japes of First Dog on the Moon.

Australia is well served by its cartoonists; Bill Leak, Michael Leunig, Paula Wilcox and Bruce Petty are a few of the cartoonists I have enjoyed with my muesli over the years.  But I want to focus on Ron Cobb here; he’d be in his seventies or eighties now and a survivor from the counter-culture of America in thea-cobb-caartoon3 ‘sixties (although, it seems a tautology to use counter-culture and cartoonist in the same sentence). A cartoon of his that I have carried in my head and reproduced on blackboards and whiteboards in Australia and Ireland since the seventies is one called Progress.

The upper panel shows two cavemen brandishing bones at one another. Then, dividing the upper panel from the lower, is the word Progress. The lower panel shows two men in suits, one has a pistol with which he has just shot his rival dead. Point made. Another cartoon which has stayed with me is one that exemplifies MAD- but not the magazine; rather the acronym Mutual Assured Destruction. Cobb, like so many of us- I refer you here to Dylan and A Hard Rain– was preoccupied with the thought that the Dr Strangeloves of the world would miscalculate badly and reduce us all to glowing nuclear ash.

a-cobb-cartoon2His cartoon has two men cowering under a broken concrete shelter surrounded by rubble and skulls. One man says to the other, There’s a rumour goin’ round that we won. And this brings us to hell. My version of Tartarus is full of my enemies; those who threw rocks at me as a kid, or sold me dud cars, as well as the usual complement of fraudsters, predators, murderers and others of the ilk.

But, let’s back up! I refuse to end a journal entry with such blackness. Instead, like they do on the news, here’s something lighter to bring the damn thing to a close: John O’Brien wrote about the Irish in western NSW, especially around Boree Creek, a few generations before I visited the place. Listen to an old woman’s simple faith in the face of adversity,a-boree-log

When things were at their worst./Her “Great, Big God” would justify/The trembling trust of men;/For, when the cheerless night passed by,/The sun would wink his golden eye,/And birds would sing again.


No Surrender

SQ 73 A World of Pain

Entry 73: A World of PainWritten early in 2002. You know, it took me about six months toa-twin-tower-image even believe in the events of September 11, 2001. I mean it. For half a year, almost, I could not totally credit what had taken place. I had read and viewed years before the news of those Mickey Mouse attacks on the World Trade Centre, where some losers were trying to situate cars with explosives next to pillars in the underground carpark in the nineties to bring the towers down. Let’s face it. Those guys with towels around their heads were as laughable as the guys in black pyjamas in what the winners now call the American War and what we persist in calling the Vietnam War.

a-paradigm-shift-imageHow could those murderous buffoons deliver such massive blows to the jaw and gut of the premier power on earth? I admit that I got it wrong; first, in Vietnam, and later in NYC. And believe me, it won’t be the last time I get it wrong. It got me thinking about real paradigm shifts, when the lens through which we view the world is revealed to be flawed; where we need a new set of spectacles to see our way- until, that is, the next revelation shakes the core of our being.

For me, the Bali bombings of October 2002 sealed thea-bali-2002-image deal. 202 innocents perished in that awful conflagration. By the end of the year I knew that, indeed, the world had changed and that there would be no going back. But I stand by the imaginative recreation of a possible dystopian future for people like me that I wrote in February 2002. It is as likely to happen as any of the prognostications of the experts I pay a dollar or two to read in the daily newspapers. (Not that the papers will last too much longer, if the pundits have got it right, even accidentally.)

a-tent-imageThe song posits a post-apocalyptic world in which small groups of Westerners, clinging to remnants of their culture and past, wander through a desolate landscape, harried by bands of fanatics (the successors of the Taliban and Islamic State, perhaps) who periodically force them to uproot and keep moving. And they have kept moving, across a virtual, frozen plain for a decade and a half while the real world spins out its revelations- some dire, some dream-laden, some disastrous and some desirous.

Tonight, my son made a point of coming in to tell me the news that David Bowie had dieda-black-star-image of cancer. My first thought, after registering the info and feeling the existential hit that another of my contemporaneous heroes was gone, was that I had been in JB Hi-Fi just an hour previously and had toyed with the idea of buying Black Star, Bowie’s, as it now seems, last musical CD. But, I had decided to stream it instead.

Yet I had obsessed over Heroes in the seventies, after singing along in the sixties about Major Tom, the Space Oddity, and reprising it again in the eighties to the strains of Ashes to Ashes. Now I am streaming the CD Black Star. Remembering that Bowie had gone to a-carinda-image to make Let’s Dance and throw his considerable celebrity weight behind the cause of Aboriginal rights and recognition reminds me that so much goodness resides beneath the dirt that journalists seek to heap- sometimes justifiably- on those, such as David Bowie, who have attracted the limelight.

Vale, David. And still the world spins crazily: my daughter dances frenetically in her room, I can feel the vibrations through the floor, my wife watches the Golden Globes on the flat-screen TV in another room, my son trawls through footage from forty -one seasons of Saturday Night Live for material that he will use in his radio show next Sunday.

Me? I try to get stuff together: I am supposed to be organising a one-week break in Newa-bws-image Zealand, all the while, consuming the three main food groups of my diet- beer, wine and spirits. The perspicacious among you will know that I will be hanging out for a fragment of a poem by this stage- if not the thing whole. And, yet, I am without a clue.

At the moment I am listening, for the first time, to the final song streaming from Bowie’s last album, I Can’t Give Everything Away and I know I will be listening to the whole album again and again, to the accompaniment of my three favourite food groups and memories stretching back to the sixties will take me somewhere that I hope will reveal a poem to mark the entry appropriately- even though I hate the word appropriately.

a-earthshakingAnd so my daughter dances to Maroon 5, my wife watches Ricky Gervais sneering at the glitterati at the Golden Globes while my son channels John Belushi or, perhaps, perves on Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. And me? I just tip another glass of Cab Sav and reflect that my Christmas stash has just about run dry. So, too, my poetry search. I’ll end with a part of a prayer: as several poets have noted- prayers are poems and poems prayers:

Kyrie Elison, (Lord have mercy).


A World of Pain

SQ74 Another Mother’s Day

Entry 74: Another Mother’s Day– Know any saints? Perhaps you’re related to one or yearn fora-missionary-nun-image that crown yourself. Me? Not one or likely to be one but I can claim kinship to one- if I am to believe my aunt Maggie who was a missionary nun in Africa and who later became the mother superior of a convent in Ireland.

She wrote to me in the late 80s, when I had returned to Australia and she had retired from active life to a convent at Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, that she was pretty sure that we were connected to the founder of the Brown Joeys, more formally known as the sisters of a-mary-imageSt Joseph of the Sacred Heart- one Mary MacKillop. She thought that I might be interested in the connection.

At the time, I thought little of it but my interest in the matter has revived sporadically over the years since: in 1995 with Mary MacKillop’s beatification by Pope John Paul II and in 2010 with her subsequent canonisation by Pope Benedict XVI. If I cared more for genealogy I might now be able to confirm the supposed connection, but I am happy enough with just the possibility of falling within the penumbra of a saint (if one should use such a lightless metaphor in reference to nuns).

Sometimes, lightless is right, though- the Magdalene laundries have a spotted reputation.a-ml-laundry These institutions were run by various orders of nuns, among others, where young women: those pregnant, those dispossessed and those distressed, were put to work in harsh conditions where love was often hidden behind the billowing vapour, clanking rollers and shouted orders in places as far afield as Australia, America, Britain and Ireland.

It’s only in the past 10 years or so that the last one closed. The truth of what happened in a-ml-imagethese places is probably as complex and as various as the times, the places and the people involved: but not likely to be, as the most vociferous critics aver, comparable to a Nazi concentration camp, nor were they merely a soothing refuge for unfortunate girls and women as the defenders of the laundries would have it.

Our family experience of nuns has been generally positive: my wife, though remembering with ire rulers across the hand as a child because she had mispronounced an Irish word, nevertheless waited for nearly a year until Sistera-good-sam-image2 Margaret of the Good Samaritans was able to baptise our younger daughter rather than allow the time-serving priests of the parish we were living in at the time to perform the rite.

I still laugh at an anecdote about my aunt, with bottles of illicit poteen she was bringing back for the nuns in her convent in Cork secreted in the voluminous folds of her religious garments making a a-train-st-imageclinking, clacking racket as she ran for her train through the Dublin station attracting the stares of bemused onlookers.

In 1971, as a wedding gift, she gave us a set of paintings by Nigerian artists which has adorned the walls of our residences for 45 years now. Nuns, generally, are more connected to the communities they serve than their male counter-parts, they have a better sense of humour and, if the church is to survive in thea-nun-image long run it will be down to these redoubtable women rather than the popes, cardinals, bishops and priests who cling desperately to their outmoded privileges.

And so to the nun that this entry’s song is all about- Mother Teresa. She has been the subject of hagiography and vilification as one might expect concerning one of the true icons of this age. The song looks at one part of her interior life- the dark night of the soul. David Van Biena in an article for “Time” magazine (August 23, 2007) wrote in fascinating detail about the contradictions at the heart of her life and ministry revealed through her letters to her confessors,

a-mt-imagemany of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church). They reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever.

This woman could have provided a template for characters in existentialist angst-ridden dramas from Ibsen to Beckett where all that can be seen is “an arid landscape from which the deity has disappeared.”

She wrote in 1962, If I ever become a Saint–I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven–to be the light of those in darkness on earth.

I will end with the words of an unfashionable writer but one I have used before in thisa-longfellow-image journal, and may have recourse to in future: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in stanzas two and three of his poem Loss and Gain wrote with clarity and wisdom,

I am aware/How many days have been idly spent;/How like an arrow the good intent/Has fallen short or been turned aside.//But who shall dare/To measure loss and gain in this wise?/Defeat may be victory in disguise;/The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.


Another Mother’s Day

SQ 75 Another Saturday in Limbo

Entry 75: Another Saturday in Limbo It’s simple for the atheists among us. There’s nothing.a-limbo-image Believers of one sort or another, on the other hand, postulate one or more states of post-mortem being such as the eastern concept of Nirvana or the five abodes of Thomas Aquinas: heaven, hell, purgatory, limbo of children and limbo of the Patriarchs.

 To this I would add those empty hours when everything worthwhile seems to be in abeyance. It is particularly a-boredom-imagesharp on Saturdays when the drudgery of the work-a-day week is over and the promises of the day telegraphed so alluringly in the days prior begin to wither under the gravity of listlessness and inertia that so often descends on the blank-eyed denizens of the dragging eons that seem to stretch out before them on what should be the best day of the week.

As I write this, though, I wonder if the capacity to be so intensely bored is a passing phenomenon- today’s netizen has only to glance at aa-netizen-image smart phone or watch and give a curt command to the digital assistant to be instantly diverted by whatever whim is within reach. But when I wrote this song, in 1982, no such diversions were available. Reading books was always- and still, though to a lesser extent, alas-an antidote to the poisonous ennui that I seem to absorb through the pores.

a-adams-imageI first read The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 1979 and later devoured the BBC Radio Four adaptation when it was broadcast. Then the 1981 TV series eventuated and I looked down with superior disdain upon those who had only just discovered the wonderful creations of Douglas Adams. One of my favourites was Marvin, the Paranoid Android. In him, I found a template for my own angst. Here, he speaks,

I didn’t ask to be made: no one consulted me or considered my feelings in the matter. I don’t think it even occurred to them that I might have feelings.” Wikipedia supplies the true horror of his situation.  As the menial labourer on the Heart of Gold spaceship, he grew immensely resentful of the insistence of his…masters… that he open doors, check airlocks and pick up pieces of paper. He reserved a particular contempt for the sentient doors, despising their blissful satisfaction with existence.

 It is, of course, my practice to include bits of poems in these journal entries. So, here’s a stanza from a lullaby composed by Marvin which has the title How I Hate the Night,a-android-image

Now I lay me down to sleep/Try to count electric sheep/Sweet dream wishes you can keep/How I hate the night.

 And how I hate the night. When you snap awake at three in the morning and start to remember lines from Aubade by Phillip Larkin. I work all day and get half-drunk at night. That was me for over forty years. Taking refuge in prayer does not overwhelm that dry voice referring to that vast, moth-eaten musical brocade created a-larkin-imageto pretend we never die. In fifty lines, taking little over three minutes to recite, you can listen to the poet explicating our deepest existential fear on YouTube.

Well, back then it was Saturday morning and I was, as they say, at a loose end. My wife and kids were visiting her mother and I was alone with a guitar and feeling trapped. An Australian friend, visiting the year before had envied the setting in which I lived: in the heart of the Glens of Antrim, looking across Red Bay to Garron Point. My response? Yeah, it’s great-if you like living in a postcard.

So I stared out the kitchen window from the flatness of my postcard and made myself a cup of instant coffee. I looked out on the turned soil of the front yard, not much largera-garron-point than a bedsheet. I was preparing the ground for…? Who knows? But it seemed a good idea at the time. I sat down and started strumming chords on the guitar, a fairly usual ploy to break the boredom. Searching in the fridge for something to snack on, I saw a block of processed cheese on which rested my younger son’s half-chewed teething rusk.

And I was bored no more. I had been reading in a recent Sunday supplement a-val-imageabout the pop images of Mel Ramos and one, in particular, had stuck in my mind- his image of a nude pin-up poised on a giant block of Velveeta processed cheese, raised on one arm, her head turned over her shoulder towards the viewer, her elaborate, coiffed hairstyle proudly on show. You probably know it- he first drew this in 1965 and reprised it as recently as 2004. An example of pop-art sensibility at its best.

If Andy or Roy appeal to you, then Mel is worth checking out. His nudes adorn bottle tops, cocktail glasses, cigars as well asa-mel-image3 emerging from peeled bananas and lurking behind sauce bottles. I sat down at the table and started writing this song. I finished it just before my wife returned with the kids. And what are you looking so pleased about?, she demanded, as she manoeuvred the pram in through the door.


Another Saturday in Limbo

SQ 76 It’s Been Taken Away

Entry 76: It’s Been Taken Away–  It’s Australia Day. I’ve been tasked with learning how toa-australia-day-imageth cook the perfect leg of lamb on the Weber by consulting the experts online, but I’m not going to do that just yet. Procrastination’s at work, yes, but there’s something else.

My awareness of aboriginal Australia started almost as soon as I arrived here in Sydney. In September, 1972, I attended an orientation session organised by the NSW Department of Education in Bridge Street. There, one of the presenters recited a litany of Aboriginal place-names: probably a party piece, and, I suspect, plagiarised from the Geoff Mack lyrics to a-everywhere-imageI’ve Been Everywhere, Man.  Among the mellifluous recitation were such exotic locations as Adelong Boggabilla Coolongatta Dandenong Ettalong Mooloolaba Murwillimbah Kirribilli Wollondilly Cabramatta Goondiwindi Parramatta Unandera Wnagaratta Mullimbimby Narrabeen Kurrajong Narromine Mittagong Billabong and Wollongong.

Not that I remember the list, of course- except for the last in the series, Wollongong, for the next day I found myself on a train to that South Coast city that was to be my home for the next six years.

At Warrawong High School in 1973 there was one black face in my Year 8 class. A quiet and withdrawn boy, whose name eludes me now- but it was an anglicised name and not aboriginal. I later realised that he was part of the stolen generations, but at the time I had no idea.a-sg-image

A couple of years later the group I was playing in were part of a support concert for the victims of Pinochet in Chile. Memories of that event are vague, but two incidents stand out: First, I remember a heated exchange between some of the concert organisers and a belligerent aboriginal elder from Nowra who was indignant that we had the time and inclination to support victims of injustice in South America but remained blind to what was going on in Australia to the original Australians.

The truth stung, and my wife, who was working as a secretary in the Department of a-bomb-threat-imageCommunity Services, reminded me of the endemic racism she witnessed regularly when matters pertaining to Aboriginal Australians were dealt with. Second, there was a phoned bomb threat and I remarked to my wife as I bundled her into the car with the kids that it would be ironic to be blown up in Wollongong after surviving Belfast.

Returning to Australia in 1988, little had changed, The Royal Commission into Black a-frontier-war-imageDeaths in Custody basically said, nothing to see here, folks. But, little by little, the truth is getting out. I read Henry Reynolds when I was teaching up near Townsville. He had established the Australian History department at the university there and was documenting the history of the frontier clashes between white settlers and indigenous tribes.

Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech was the catalyst for my getting off my arse and taking out a-keating-imageAustralian citizenship, which I did, somewhat belatedly, at the beginning of January 1995, with the rest of the family. He optimistically ended, We cannot imagine that the descendants of people whose genius and resilience maintained a culture here through fifty thousand years or more, through cataclysmic changes to the climate and environment, and who then survived two centuries of dispossession and abuse, will be denied their place in the modern Australian nation… I am confident that we will succeed in this decade. Dec 10 1992.

 Everything hunky-dory then? Twenty-four year later, Stan Grant gained viral reach justa-grant-image2 this week when the Ethics Centre re-broadcast his 2015 IQ2 off-the cuff speech, where, among other things, he said, starting with a reference to the shameful booing of Adam Goodes, aboriginal sportsman and, ironically, Australian of the Year in 2014,

When we heard those boos, we heard a sound that was very familiar to us … we heard a howl of humiliation that echoes across two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival. We heard the howl of the Australian dream, and it said to us again, you’re not welcome. Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free. My people die young in this country We die 10 years younger than the average Australian, and we are far from free. We are fewer than 3 per cent of the Australian population and yet we are 25 per cent — a quarter of those Australians locked up in our prisons. And if you’re a juvenile it is worse, it is 50 per cent. An Indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school. 

 a-oogeroo-imageI’ll finish with lines from one of aboriginal Australia’s greatest poets, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, whom I first knew as Kath Walker when I taught poetry to my Year 8 class as the face of that sad boy lives on in my memory, The best of every race/should here find welcome place;/ The colour of his face/ Is no man’s test of worth


It’s Been Taken Away

SQ 77 The Silver Frame

Entry 77: The Silver Frame– Photographs. I mean, here, the older sort- printed on speciala-ansel-image paper and placed in albums or behind frames or in glossy magazines, not the digital imposters that feature grinning, gesticulating loons having such a hell of a good time all of the time that they can barely maintain continence- or so it seems to me when my daughter shows me the latest trove from her Facebook page.

Susan Sontag, in 1977, wrote that the proliferation of photographic images had created in people a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world around them; and this, mind you, thirty years before the iPhone amplified that to include a-sontag-imagean overwhelming, self-absorbed narcissism. My initial dyspeptic comments notwithstanding, I love photographs: LIFE magazine was a feature of our household along with National Geographic when I was growing up and I spent hours with these magazines, imagining the lives and places behind the images.

The Yosemite studies of Ansel Adams, Hubble telescope revelations of distant galaxies and underwater vistas of coral reefs and deep-sea creatures are balm for the soul, certainly, but the human condition is revealed more clearly in images involving people sucha-american-civil-war-image as those from the early years of photography featuring the battlegrounds from the American Civil War and other sepia records from the 19th Century.

In the 20th Century, the two epochal collections curated by Edward Steichen at New York City’s MoMA entitled The Family of Man and The Bitter Years inspired one of my favourite poets, Carl Sandburg, to write,

People! flung wide and far, born into toil, struggle, blood and dreams, among lovers, eaters, drinkers, workers, loafers, fighters, players, gamblers. Here are a-family-of-man-imageironworkers, bridge men, musicians, sandhogs, miners, builders of huts and skyscrapers, jungle hunters, landlords, and the landless, the loved and the unloved, the lonely and abandoned, the brutal and the compassionate — one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being. If the human face is “the masterpiece of God” it is here, then in a thousand fateful registrations. Faces in crowds, laughing and windblown leaf faces, profiles in an instant of agony, mouths in a dumb-show mockery lacking speech, faces of music in gay song or a twist of pain, a hate ready to kill, or calm and ready-for-death faces. Some of them are worth a long look now and deep contemplation later.

These collections have found a permanent home at Chateau Clervaux in Luxembourg anda-lange-image this is one of the destinations on my bucket list. You’re so tragic, I hear the adrenaline junkies among you sneer- so be it. There are, of course, countless portraits in black and white and colour where a human moment in time is trapped for our perusal and, perhaps, deep contemplation later.

In the 21st Century, the appalling image of the planes striking the World Trade Centre has, for me, and many others, I expect, maintained premier position, so far, in the photographic history of this century. Just how sensitive the use of this iconography proved to be is exemplified by the reaction to the initial album a-reich-imagecover of Steve Reichs’ WTC 9/11, written for the Kronos Quartet on the tenth anniversary of the atrocity.

The cover shows the twin towers just after the first plane has struck and just before the second is to strike. Phil Kline, a fellow composer, called the original “the first truly despicable classical album cover that I have ever seen. “It stirred up an enormous controversy that I was absolutely amazed to see,” Reich said. Others were surprised too. “This is a kind of image we were inundated with for weeks, months, even years after the event,” Anne Midgette wrote in The Washington Post. “Newspapers and magazines and television screens and the covers of books were flooded with pictures of towers being hit, towers burning, towers falling, rescue workers with red-rimmed eyes standing numbly amid the rubble of the towers.” So why, 10 years later, is this cover any different?

A good question, and I’m not sure there is any easy answer other than to suggest that ina-wedding-image the age of instant indignation fuelled and amplified by Twitter and other social media sites, artists have to be very careful about their choices, remain au fait with the technology and be adroit at turning on a dime to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous bloggers.

 For some, a photograph is more precious than any material treasure. In bushfires, the family photo album is taken ahead of the silverware. Although, I must admit that technology enabling images to be saved to the cloud may consign future albums to the flames. This song is about a photograph that is the only artefact remaining of a loving relationship uncovered after twenty years: precious, irreplaceable, unrepeatable.


The Silver Frame

SQ 78 I Can’t Sleep at Night

Entry 78: I Can’t Sleep at Night– Up to about ten years ago, I would occasionally boast abouta-clear-conscience the cleanliness of my soul and the tranquillity of my conscience, and, as evidence, proudly point out that I had never taken a sleeping pill in my life.

No, but many a sleeping draught, my wife’s look would wearily whisper: no doubt, caused by my longstanding habit of having a few soothing libations of an evening.

Then things changed. Future shock arrived, at last.

a-infobesity-imageIn 1971 I had read the Alvin Toffler best-selling book and was fascinated by the concepts he presented. Chief among them was the phrase information overload. The concept has also become known as infobesity, data smog and infoxication. Too much information renders the understanding of issues and, consequently, the making of decisions, difficult.

According to Wikipedia, Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a systema-spam-image exceeds its processing capacity. E-mail remains a major source of information overload, as people struggle to keep up with the rate of incoming messages. As well as filtering out unsolicited commercial messages (spam), users also have to contend with the growing use of email attachments in the form of lengthy reports, presentations and media files.

 To say nothing of petty bureaucratic regulations about having to respond to these excrescences within an absurdly short period of time. It a-clerk-imageseemed to me that the introduction of individual laptops to teachers’ desks produced a work-environment not unlike those of Dickensian clerks chained to their desks in serried rows.

According to Lucy Kellaway, One clerk, Benjamin Orchard, wrote the following bitter account of his existence in 1871: We aren’t real men. We don’t do men’s work. Pen-drivers – miserable little pen-drivers – fellows in black coats, with inky fingers and shiny seats on their trousers – that’s what we are. Think of crossing T’s and dotting I’s all day long. No wonder bricklayers and omnibus drivers have contempt for us. We haven’t even health.

The idea that I was little more than a 21st Century version of Benjamin Orchard, lodged ina-call-centre-image my brain and grew year on year, as micro-managerial strategies replaced previously relaxed and human ways of doing things. And these strategies strangled creativity as teaching became more like painting by numbers than producing the real thing. And I began to sleep less and worry more about…nothing. Generalised anxiety, perhaps. But it irked me. I wasn’t a monster who deserved to lose the peaceful repose of a good night’s sleep: a bit cranky, of course, but no Macbeth!

a-insomnia-imageMethought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!/ Macbeth does murder sleep,” the innocent sleep,/ Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,/ The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,/ Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,/ Chief nourisher in life’s feast. (Macbeth: 2: 2: 32-37)

 According to the online Shakespeare Navigator site, a “ravell’d sleave” is a tangled skein of thread or yarn. Macbeth uses it as a metaphor for the kind ofa-tangled-skein frustration we experience when we have so many problems that we can’t see the end to any of them. And we can understand why the Scottish nobleman has such perturbation of spirit- he’d just murdered his kinsman and king who was a guest under the sacred protection of the laws of hospitality. When the knocking at the gates echoes in the courtyard, he starts,

How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?/ What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes./  Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/ Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather/ The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one a-sea-imagered.  (Macbeth: 2: 2: 55-60)

 Don’t you just weep over the beauty of such language. It’s hard to believe the info-babble spewing from managerial mouths and clacking keyboards is produced by members of the same species as the Bard. I refer you to the catalogue of dogs, found later in the play. The ignoble curs and mongrels outnumber the noble hounds, I fear.

When sleep fails me now, I read poetry of the lighter sort such as this by Eugene Field,

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night/Sailed off in a wooden shoe,/Sailed on a river of crystal light/Into a sea of dew/“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”/The old moon asked thea-wynken-image three./“We have come to fish for the herring-fish/ That live in this beautiful sea;/ Nets of silver and gold have we,”/ Said Wynken,/Blynken,/And Nod./…All night long their nets they threw/To the stars in the twinkling foam,/Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe, /Bringing the fishermen home:/‘Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed/As if it could not be;/And some folk thought ‘twas a dream they’d dreamed/ Of sailing that beautiful sea/;But I shall name you the fishermen three:/Wynken,/Blynken,/ And Nod.


I Can’t Sleep At Night

SQ 79 Deadhead

Entry 79: DeadheadThe song for this entry is an imagined account of a fan following thea-gd-image career of The Grateful Dead from the San Francisco event of March 3rd 1968,  I remember getting off the bus on Haight Street that Spring day, pushing my way through the crowds to see what all the excitement was about (I didn’t know- did anyone? -that the Dead were parking a flatbed truck across Haight Street to play a free gig!)

…to the last appearance of Jerry Garcia, singer and lead guitarist, at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1995.

a-gd3-imagePeople ask me what my favourite show was, and I always say the next one. But this is actually one of my favourites. The mood before, during, and after the show seemed to be one of unity and healing…The masterpiece for me was “So Many Roads” I remember leaving the show on a high that lasted for days. It would have been nice to see where we could have taken that. In the end, though, how do you rate a miracle.

These are real fans’ recollections which I have appropriated for the persona in the song.

 Here’s David Paumgarten, writing in The New Yorker of November 26, 2012: The Deada-gd4-image inspired many lamentable bumper stickers, but one good one captured how it felt, and feels, to be under their sway: “Who are the Grateful Dead, and why do they keep following me?”

Why do they keep following me around? I’ve never been to San Francisco, don’t much rate the hippie lifestyle and generally value brevity above prolixity. But slip on a pair of good earphones and stream one of the great concerts, such as the one at Fox Theatre in Atlanta, on November 30, 1980, and there might be a glimmer of an answer to the question: who are The Grateful Dead?

For me, a guitarist and mandolin player, the answer was Gerry Garcia. As a writer, though, I knew about the non-playing member of the band, Robert Hunter, whose collaborations with Garcia have a-gd5-imageproduced some of the most memorable songs: I’ll mention a trio of greats:  Scarlet Begonias, which is usually linked in concert to Fire on the Mountain and which fans usually refer to as Scarlet Fire. Begonias has the memorable lines It seldom turns out the way it does in the song, but my favourites are the final lines, Strangers stopping strangers/ Just to shake their hand, Everybody is playing/ In the Heart of Gold Band/The Heart of Gold Band.

 1987’s, A Touch of Grey, gains more relevance for me year after year. The verses are non-sequential litanies of largely negative images such as, Cows giving kerosene/Kid can’t read at seventeen/ The words he knows are all obscene, but the images of the verses are redeemed by the chorus, I will get by/I will survive, which morphs into We will get by/We will survive.

 The last of the trio is Terrapin Station, which I will not attempt to explicate other than toa-gd6-image say it’s a sixteen-minute long, sprawling, rococo, musical- and here I’ll use a technical term- mess! The lyrics are derivative, obscure and somewhat pretentious, and yet…yet, I do not skip past it on a playlist and I will often seek it out as I search for sleep on many a night. Go figure.

But I can’t end without mentioning, by name, some members of the group who have been there for years, Bob Weir- singer, guitarist, writer and vocalist; Phil Lesh, bass player extraordinaire, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, drummers of excellence, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Keith and Donna Godchaux, keyboards/vocalist, Brent Myland, Tom a-gd7-imageConstanten and Vince Welnick, keyboards. I must mention the other writer associated with the band, John Perry Barlow, who wrote memorable songs with Bob Weir such as Estimated Prophet and Throwing Stones.

Barlow wrote 25 Principles of Adult Behaviour in 1977, just before his 30th birthday, and I’ll give some of them here, in place of my usual verse, to end this entry:

1 Be patient. No matter what. 2 Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, not blame. Say nothing ofa-barlow-and-hunter-image another you wouldn’t say to him. 3 Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you. 5 Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change. 6 Expect no more of anyone than you can deliver yourself. 7 Tolerate ambiguity. 8 Laugh at yourself frequently. 9 Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right. 10 Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong. 12 Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Don’t risk it frivolously. 13 Never lie to anyone for any reason. 14 Learn the needs of those around you and respect them. 15 Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that. 16 Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun. 17 Praise at least as often as you disparage. 18 Admit your errors freely and soon. 19 Become less suspicious of joy. 20 Understand humility. 21 Remember that love forgives everything. 22 Foster dignity. 23 Live memorably. 24 Love yourself. 

 And finally, my personal touchstone, number 25– Endure.



SQ 80 Any Old Song/Dancing House

Entry 80: Any Old Song/Dancing House I’ll let the following adaptation from an article bya-french-quarter-image one of my correspondents speak for itself:

Records show that The Dancing House was established on the banks of the Mississippi in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1816 by an Irish associate of the pirate Jean Lafitte. His name is lost in the mists of time but one source of dubious provenance names him as Ian Chell, an adventurer who fled Ireland after the failed rising of 1798.

 The same source indicates that he fought in the a-battle-of-no-imageBattle of New Orleans and, as a reward for services rendered, was given a goodly sum of money with which he established a New World version of the old Irish ‘shebeen”.

The structure overlooked the river and its original name was written in green paint and in Gaelic. It had a notorious reputation and was shut down on several occasions. It passed through several hands in the century that it was in existence. Its use has been variously described as a brothel, a dance venue, a haunt for smugglers and bootleggers, a safea-n-o-image house for the underground railway during the slave years, and a social club for immigrants from various parts of Europe.

 Pre-eminent among its accomplishments was the quality of the music, which is a continuous motif in all its history and incarnations. The end of the fabled Dancing House came in the late summer of 1916. At this time, it was owned by a rogue of the first water; one “Colonel” James Ponsonby, a veteran of the Boer War who won it in a crooked poker game from its syphilitic previous owner.

a-fire-sceneA fracas erupted between Ponsonby (with his henchmen) and a group of Irish navvies- who were fired up by the events of Easter 1916 in Dublin and its aftermath. A blaze broke out and the structure burned to the ground. The glare of the inferno was seen for miles that fateful night. There is a curious epilogue to this incident that has kept the legend green (in more than one sense).

 The facade overlooking the Mississippi detached from the rest of the building and fell into the river where it floated downstream. Clinging to the wreckage was an Irish navvy called, Charlie Brymit, a native of the Antrim glens. How he got the facade to land, or where, is a matter for conjecture. What is important is that he did: for the facade preserved the original name in faded green paint (and all its other names in English and other languages.)

 An interesting fact is that Dancing House remained its name in every language- except under itsa-southern-mansion2-image last owner. Ponsonby had renamed it The Britannia Arms in a vindictive attempt to expunge its origins. Loosie May, a young Southern lass, the spirited heiress of one of the large landowners of the Lake Ponchchantrain area takes up the story in a diary entry dated September 23, 1916: “A most curious sight- a waggon drawn by four mules pulled in in front of the coach-house today. A bedraggled Irishman, half delirious was with a carter I know of vaguely. He asked for assistance to unload what looked to be a large pile of waterlogged planks. I gave orders to have it done. He begged for payment in advance saying he had promised the men ten dollars. I cannot fathom why, but I did! More on this curious transaction tomorrow.” Alas, we cannot know more, for the diary pages from this date on are missing.

The following notes from the diary of an anonymous folklorist may shed further light on the matter “Shrevesport 2/2/22. Home of Handly Moore. Negro music- guitar very primitive. a-share-cropper-imageStories of share-cropping. Love. Nothing new. Odd anecdote about a ritual burning. Mad Irishman of Moore’s acquaintance. Owner of illicit house with drink. Bizarre opening ceremony. Nailed up a plank written in a foreign language at front entrance. Gathered friends (Moore among them) outside at midnight. Another plank placed in oil-drum. Burned to ashes which are buried at crossroads!” Every business, vocation, occupation- what you will- has its myths.

 One of the most elusive yet persistent among establishments which are more than mere drinking dens, concerns the original signage of The Dancing House. In locations as scattered as Valparaiso, Rotterdam, Chicago, Durban, Skopje, Kalgoorlie and Belfast I have come across stories about The Dancing House. It is a modern version of splinters from the One True Cross! The owners swear that they have one of the sections of the original facade. They confide that the “real” artefact is concealed behind the visible name- embedded in the fabric of the building, for instance.

 In no case have I been favoured with a glimpse of the “relic”. Although, in several cases, the namea-dancing-house-image has been emblazoned in cheap glitter or garish neon or a pathetic attempt at a “weathered” sign- obvious fakes! The ambience of such places is such that no one could seriously imagine that they are true offspring of the original. Still, I have been in a few establishments where it would be churlish to believe otherwise than what has been claimed. Maybe you’ve been there too. Such places are welcoming, tolerant, musical and magical.

 And I may have been in one or two myself, over the years, the decades!


Any Old Song Will Do/Dancing House