SQ 64 Whatever Comes

Entry 64: Whatever Comes– On September 5, 1977, Voyager 1 lifted off from Capea-heliopause-image Canaveral Launch Complex 41 sixteen days after its twin, Voyager 2, for a stupendous mission to chart the outer reaches of our solar system and beyond- that continues to this day. On August 25, 2012 it crossed the heliopause to become the first man-made object to enter interstellar space.

Meanwhile, back on earth on the day of the launch, the Red Army Faction a.k.a. the Bader-Meinhof gang kidnapped a-raf-imageGerman industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer and subsequently murdered him among thirty-three others whose deaths they were responsible for. And as the tiny space craft, weighing only 721.9 kilograms, entered interstellar space, Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik was sentenced to twenty-one years in jail for killing seventy-seven innocent people in Oslo and on the island of Utoya.

 These stats illustrate the best and worst of humanity. Rightly, the golden record affixed toa-golden-record the space-craft does not include details of human atrocities but instead images of the beauty and variety of life on earth as well as our cultural treasures. From the world of classical music, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and Blind Willie Johnston and Chuck Berry from the realm of popular music. Incredibly, EMI refused permission to have the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun included because of copyright concerns!

 Aliens with a sense of humour would be tickled. Journeys a-inward-imageto the interior, can be remarkable, too, as Margaret Atwood demonstrates in her poem about inward voyaging, that travel is not the easy going/from point to point, a dotted/line on a map…that here, too, are found cliffs and swamps, hills and a tangle of trees. And, crucially, I know/ it is easier for me to lose my way/ forever here, than in other landscapes.

 For some, the journeys and voyages have been both within and across the surface of the globe. Marco Polo, whose travels to China and back to Venice encompassing 24,000 kilometres and twenty-four years are remarkable and were influential in whetting the appetite of Europeans for exploration- but little is known of the interior changes wrought in the man who set out as a youth of seventeen years and returned as a middle-aged forty-one-year-old dignitary.

However, someone who travelled a comparable distance in time and space but who leavesa-paul-image an account which deals with what is within- from a time thirteen hundred years before Marco Polo set out on his journey- is the towering figure of St Paul. The song is about him- but not only him, because I mash him up with another outstanding character from world history, contemporaneous with the apostle of the Gentiles; St Peter- you know, the guy who denied his leader- how many times?

Was there ever such an inauspicious start for a world religion? But we all are acquainted with those who shift their allegiances: sometimes it is for the most honourable of motives, at other times it is self-serving and venal. But there are other avenues to explain these antipodean changes: sometimes it is just a matter of information. As a child, I accepted, uncritically, the World View of the CIA- or the USA- whichever you prefer.

a-che-imageThen, when I found out that I had been lied too, egregiously, I swung to the fashionable Left, featuring Che Guevara et al. But, later, finding that the pendulum had swung to an equal and opposite lie- I became somewhat apathetic. Today, I find myself wondering if I should even pay attention to the volume of shite coming down the various pipes that masquerade as the media.

So where, or to whom, do you turn to if you wish for some sort of answer to the problems of the world we live in? To itemise the horrors between the launch of the Voyager 1 space-craft and its exit into interstellar space makes me feel ill. The Jonestown mass suicide/murder claiming over 900 lives happened just a year or so after the launch. As the Voyager 1 broke through into interstellar space a crimea-jill-image was committed in Australia that filled me with anguish and broke the hearts of those who loved a vivacious and intelligent young woman named Jill Meagher who was raped and murdered in Melbourne.

Like millions of others, I saw the CCTV footage of Jill’s last sighting followed by the stalking gait of her predator, who had nothing in mind other than the extinguishing of a lovely life. But, to get back to the original subject- St Paul: such an intrepid traveller; such an obstinate adversary; such an eloquent interlocutor; such a fine explicator of the nature of belief and love and, above all, he had the quality that my mother said all true men should have: the ability to endure, whatever comes.

a-qv-imageSo intertwined are the stories of Peter and Paul that, in this song, I ascribe Peter’s Quo Vadis moment to Paul, as well. Heretic!


Whatever Comes

SQ 65 Homebase

Entry 65: Homebase– I’ve tried three times to start this entry. First attempt: I thought the a-stalin-and-trotsky-imagephrase rootless cosmopolitan referred to an insult hurled by Stalin at Trotsky and I was going to apply it to myself. But then, a cursory examination, courtesy of Wikipedia, showed me that the ice-axe through the skull of Leon Bronstein occurred in 1940, many years before the insult became an instrument of the Soviet Dictator’s strategy for the removal of opponents.

a-protest-imageThen, I thought that I could make a fresh start by delving into my memory and resurrecting a scene from my younger days, when I was at a protest rally in Belfast. It was in late 1970 or early 1971. I remember that I was somewhere near the city centre. Things began to get hairy; I retreated to a safer distance; black-clad police formed phalanxes and then I spotted a student politician from Queen’s University, Belfast, with whom I had been in disputation at an earlier student conference, not sloping off, as I was, but running towards the police lines and, indeed, hopping into the Black Maria, without law and order assistance.a-black-maria

Thinking I was onto the winner, I started to search my papers from files in the attic and, later, the briefcases stored in the front of the garage to see if I could get the skinny on what really had gone on all those years ago- as if it actually counts in the 21st Century! For I had seen that erstwhile radical student politician not so long ago on TV, a person who became a mover and shaker in the conservative camp, and, knowing that I could destroy his life should I so wish- what to do?

a-cunning-planWere I to follow precedent in the media over the past few years, I would name this prominent politician and watch as his career crashed and burned around him. I’ve got the proof, ha, ha! Of course, I have no intention of doing any such thing.

Finally, I hit upon a cunning plan, as Baldrick, the long-suffering sidekick of Edmund Blackadder, used to assert. I’ll re-start for a lucky third time by telegraphing the use of the first lines of the song as the denouement of this entry- thereby avoiding the difficulties ofa-sheep-and-goats-image making another start at all: (cunning, you see…) I do believe I was happier, and more attuned to the world and those around me, before the rubber band of schooling began to stretch me out of shape and sort us all out as points on the elongating, narrowing and vibrating ribbon that separates the educational sheep from the goats.

The song is a sort of coming of age tale. Were it written as a novel it would be called a bildungsroman. Now according to Wikipedia, a-dunce-imageA Bildungsroman relates the growing up or “coming of age” of a sensitive person who goes in search of answers to life’s questions with the expectation that these will result from gaining experience of the world. The genre evolved from folklore tales of a dunce or youngest son going out in the world to seek his fortune.

 Well, I am the youngest son, and many would say I am also a bit of a dunce, too. However, no novel in sight yet for me (apart, that is, from an unfinished 80,000-word effort from almost forty years ago which I managed to hold on to for half-a-life time but have carelessly misplaced somewhere or other in the last few months). But songs I can manage to hold on to- a few I have even been able to resurrect from memory, when the paper versions have gone AWOL.a-wine-bottle

This song is just such an artefact. I wrote it in 1989 a year after returning to Australia from Ireland: an absence of almost ten years. Surprise, surprise, I lost it in the move back to Sydney from Queensland at the beginning of 1995. So I sat down with a bottle of wine and started to re-construct it. A rootless cosmopolitan no more, I had taken out citizenship, with the rest of the family in 1994.

Clive James, one of Australia’s greatest intellectual expatriates, gave an interview in 2015, as he was dying, where he describes Australia as the a-clive-imagepromised land. He wasn’t the first (or last, I guess) who will make that claim about one place or another. But after listening to the interview, a few lines from A Difficult Patriotism, by Michael Dransfield came to mind,

Europe lures away our idealists with/mythologies. Here to be different is agony/There it is easy/But this is the greatest country,/Australia, to leave it means/ death to the spirit We cannot/ change it with our verses and kisses and years…a-dransfield-image

Dransfield, as a poet, has enthralled-and eluded-me since I first encountered his verse in 1973- the year of his much too early death at age 24- when young poets in Wollongong were discussing new voices in Australian letters in the exciting dawn of Whitlam’s Australia. But now, it’s time: time for the denouement promised: the first lines of the song, most things worth knowing I learned by the age of four, school was a drag and I walked out that door, All that I really want, all that I really need is you.




SQ 66 The Long Weekend

Entry 66: The Long WeekendMidway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a foresta-dante-image dark,/For the straightforward pathway had been lost. These lines are from the beginning of Dante’s The Inferno, as translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In all literature, The Divine Comedy, of which The Inferno forms the first and most popular part, has few peers: many poets see it as a touchstone against which to test their own prowess in translation and prosody.

Visual artists, too, regard this work as a test of their abilities to render to sight what has been wrought in sound (I’m told, by those who know, that Dante’s great work needs to be heard in the original Tuscan for full effect). Gustave Doré’s monochrome woodcuts set the standard, here. Many of these images have stayed with me. Dante, standing in the selva oscura, the dark forest, is one such, where he looks back towards the light as he steps deeper into the dark tunnel formed by the over-arching branches of the ominous trees.

a-belfast-library-imageIn similar fashion, I watched appalled as the social fabric of Belfast started to warp, fray and unravel from 1968 under the political and paramilitary forces increasingly at work before my eyes. I glanced backward at the departing light of mid-sixties optimism where the city was alive with great music in the dance-halls and clubs. As the tribal war drums began to reverberate, I retreated to Belfast City Library to access reading material and listening material to help me escape.

There I came across Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country. Having been intrigued by the islandaustralia continent since schoolboy Geography classes, I began to read about Australia. I determined to apply for a teaching post there and subsequently got a conditional offer from the New South Wales Education Department. Arriving in Aussie in August 1972, I found that I fit right in- a bit of an indictment really, in the light of what Ronald Conway had a-conway-imageto say in his book The Great Australian Stupor, where he painted the Australian male as a completely inadequate father, selfish husband and incompetent lover, who took refuge from his inadequacies at the pub.

Ouch! He also wrote in 1988: “Australia has become an addicted society, one which seeks a too easy and too dangerous way of breaking out of the rat trap of materialism that it has built for itself. This is a society without sufficient creative imagination to stay happy and healthy.” He was no less scathing in the new millennium, writing in 2001, “Ours could be the first century in history to turn media-heated sexuality into a universal bore.”

I used the title of his second book, The Land of the Long Weekend, in the song, even though,a-long-weekend now, it is a sad remnant of a long-ago time in this consumer age of 24/7 trading where the un- and under- employed and age-pensioners such as myself are in the dwindling band of those who may actually get- if not enjoy- a whole weekend of leisure. As to why we are here? He wrote, “Perhaps the wholly present point of our conscious existence is not to build a wall against mortality but live as deeply as we can so as to inspire those who come after.”

Do I agree? Yes. Yes, I do. I am indebted to distinguished Aussie journalist Tony Stephens for the information on Conway from his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 26, a-beatrice-image2009. Conway’s acerbic critique has been a challenge to me over the decades. First, in the 70s where I was less than half-way along my life’s path when things got twisted and I couldn’t find the way. My Beatrice led me back to where it all began, in Ireland in 1979, but as others, too, have found, you can’t go back.

You’re just a ghost, wandering in a landscape where once-familiar faces look at you strangely. Returning to Australia in 1988, I was in time to catch Conway’s ongoing critique of Aussiea-nepean-image life and I must admit that I noticed that things had changed quite a bit in the almost ten-year absence. And, they’ve continued to change; yet, strangely, despite all this- Australia remains a land of dreams and endless opportunities that the ugly spectres from the other, older and raddled hemisphere have not been able to infect so far, touch wood!

The sun-drenched optimism that pours into my backyard in Sydney’s outer West on this the last day of 2015 reminds me of a Sydney expatriate who has kept me entertained and challenged through the decades since he had me in stitches with his Unreliable Memoirs– and all the books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, journalism and TV appearances. Of course, I’m talking about Clive James, Even my memories are clearly seen:/Whence comes the answer if I’m told I must/Be aching for my homeland/…The sky is overcast/Here in the English autumn, but my mind/Basks in the light I never left behind. Stay with us Clive, we need you, still.


The Long Weekend

SQ 67 Anything Can Happen

Entry 67: Anything Can Happen- 23 BC in Rome was interesting in a number of ways:a-augustus-image Augustus declared himself Princeps or “first citizen”; the Roman poet, Horace, published his first three books of Odes; and, elsewhere in the Roman sphere of influence, Herod the Great built a sumptuous palace in Jerusalem and married the ravishing beauty, Mariamme, after raising her Dad to an appropriate level- one commensurate with his lascivious…eye?

But it is Horace, the poet, rather than the politicians that this a-horace-imageentry concerns itself with. The title of the song of the entry is taken from one of the Odes. Book 1, Ode  34. The Odes cover a range of subjects – Love, Friendship, Wine, Religion, Morality, Patriotism; poems of eulogy addressed to Augustus and his relations; and verses written on a miscellany of subjects and incidents, including the uncertainty of life, the cultivation of tranquillity and contentment, and the observance of moderation or the “golden mean.” Thank you Wikipedia.

More? Horace’s career coincided with Rome’s momentous change from Republic to Empire. An officer in the republican army defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, he was befriended by Octavian’s right-hand man in civil affairs, Maecenas, and became a spokesman for the new regime. For somea-maecenas-image commentators, his association with the regime was a delicate balance in which he maintained a strong measure of independence (he was “a master of the graceful sidestep”) but for others he was, in John Dryden‘s phrase, “a well-mannered court slave”.

Poor bastard- not literally, just an Aussie epithet. Most of us know what it’s like to dodge a bullet or be utterly dependent on the patronage of a kindly person or institution or sheer blind luck. Horace had Maecenas, whose very name has become an eponym for a patron of the arts.

a-client-patron-imageHis patronage was exercised, not from vanity or a mere dilettante love of letters, but with a view to the higher interest of the state. He recognised in the genius of the poets of that time, not only the truest ornament of the court, but a power of reconciling men’s minds to the new order of things, and of investing the actual state of affairs with an ideal glory and majesty. The change in seriousness of purpose between the Eclogues and the Georgics of Virgil was in a great measure the result of the direction given by the statesman to the poet’s genius. A similar change between the earlier odes of Horace, in which he declares his epicurean indifference to affairs of state, and the great national odes of the third book has been ascribed by some to the same guidance.

Oh, ah? Anyone else feeling slightly uncomfortable with that? Didn’t Stalin and all thea-carpe-image other totalitarian dictators arrange for something similar in history? Have you ever been persuaded, either by self-censorship or kindly persuasion, to massage an opinion genuinely held to something other than that which you actually believe? No! Cast the first stone then, by all means! Nevertheless, Horace speaks across the millennia to us: carpe diem, anyone?

Many of us know the phrase from Robin a-dps-imageWilliam’s portrayal of teacher John Keating in the film, Dead Poets Society, who exhorts his students to, Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary. The phrase is from Book 1, Ode 11. …life is short; should hope be more?/In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away./Seize the day; trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may. Time and mortality were themes Horace returned to in Ode seven of the fourth book.

This poem, A. E. Housman considered to be the most beautiful in ancient literature. Here are some of the lines he found so entrancing,a-e-housman-image

The swift hour and the brief prime of the year/Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye./Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring/Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers/Comes autumn, with his apples scattering;/Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs./ But oh, whate’er the sky-led seasons mar,/Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams:…we are dust and dreams.

Seamus Heaney, shaken by the events of 9/11, wrote Anything Can Happen based on Ode 34 of Book 1. Anything can happen, the tallest towers/Be overturned, those in high places daunted,/Those overlooked angry-eagleregarded./ He talks of Fortune as a bird of prey tearing the crest off one,/Setting it down bleeding on the next.

Recognising that nothing will ever be the same again he ends the poem with the lines, Capstones shift, nothing resettles right./Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

I first read Heaney as a student in Belfast in 1968. In the decades since, I have read and admired just about everything he has ever written. Alas, that he will write no more: valea-heaney-image Famous Seamus. After reading District and Circle, the collection from which this poem is taken, I wrote this song in 2007.


Anything Can Happen

SQ 68 Counting Game

Entry 68: Counting GameSkinny Malink Malogen legs/Big banana feet,/Went to the pictures anda-belfast-kids-image couldn’t get a seat/When she got a seat/She fell fast asleep/Skinny Malink Malogen legs/Big banana feet. This is one of a dozen or more Belfast skipping songs that my wife has related to our children over the years, remembered from her own childhood in the late fifties.

The world of children’s games exists alongside that of adult lives and concerns: magical, colourful, rhythmical and musical- it needs few props to make it come alive. A length of rope, a ball, a hoop and a spinning top combined with the energy and agility of young bodies not yet jaded and twisted by sophisticated pursuits in the pub or club that await their later years, can create a parallel universe where fears and uncertainties fall away in the shamanism created by the chanting and dancing in the street, or by the gable wall, or up an urban alley as the swaying, stamping, intertwining shadows cast their spells that have run, no doubt, across the years back to the time before time immemorial.

ancient_toys_and_games_ordering_activityIncidentally, according to Wikipedia, there is an actual date for “time immemorial”, in 1275, by the first Statute of Westminster, the time of memory was limited to the reign of Richard I (Richard the Lionheart), beginning 6 July 1189, the date of the King’s accession. But, sticklers and pedants, notwithstanding, I think that children’s games extend much further into the past than this. We know from archaeological artefacts that children in the cities of the ancient world played games.

Unfortunately, we have no video evidence from those times, but I’m sure if technology is ever able to re-create childhood play scenes from the misty past, there will be a real resemblance to a 24-minute documentary entitled Dusty Bluebells recorded by BBC Northern Ireland in 1971 that I accessed on YouTube today. The city streets I recogniseda-falls-image with a jolt- the British soldiers on street corners armed with SLRs, the Saracen armoured cars, the rusty delivery vans, old clunkers and drab terraces of the lower Falls Road- but above all, the Dystopian nightmare of the Divis Flats complex, one of the 1960s high-rise developments that, within a couple of decades, were demolished.

The children, from St Mary’s Primary School, transform that blasted cityscape with their energy and innocence. A poem by E. E. Cummings recreates, in his inimitable way, the sounds and sights of a child’s world,

a-children-imagein Just-spring when the world is mud-luscious the little lame balloonman whistles far and wee and eddieandbill come running from marbles and piracies and it’s spring when the world is puddle-wonderful the queer old balloonman whistles far and wee and bettyandisbel come dancing from hop-scotch and jump-rope and it’s spring and the goat-footed balloonMan whistles far and wee.

In Australia, across an ocean of water and poetics, James McAuley recorded an early memory in, Childhood Morning-homebush,

The half-moon is a muted lamp/ Motionless behind a veil./As the eastern sky grows pale,/I heara-rooster-image the slow-train’s puffing stamp//Gathering speed. A bulbul sings,/Raiding persimmon and fig./The rooster in full glossy rig/Crows triumph at the state of things.//I make no comment; I don’t know;/I don’t know what there is to know./I hear that every answer’s No,/But can’t believe it can be so.

 And so, to the counting games of kids One for sorrow/two for joy/three for a kiss/four for a boy/five for silver/ six for gold/seven for a secret, never to be told. There are a myriad counting games and systems of notation that a-tally-imagechildren use to master the complexity of numbers. One of the most ubiquitous is the use of the tally, to keep track of an unfolding sequence- you know what I mean, four vertical strokes and one diagonal across them to indicate the number five. Prisoners can keep tally of their durance vile on the walls of their cells by scratching an ongoing record of their incarceration.

One of the most striking uses of the tally system is that found at Hanakapiai Beach, on thea-beach-sign Hawaiian island of Kauai where a sign warns, do not go near the water, unseen currents have killed-what follows is a tally in chalk on the board and you can see the most recent death toll by counting the tally. As of August 2014 there were 83 tally marks. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but I’m pretty sure that I would forego a swim there, despite the heat of the day.

Have you ever heard the expression- you can count on me? Or more negatively, count on you to stuff things up! How do you keep track of the items in your existence? Skilful at balancing your budget, are you? Or do a-coffee-imageyou, like Prufrock, measure out your life with coffee spoons?

No matter, there is one indubitable fact. No matter what systems you use to navigate and comprehend this world or to what level of proficiency: You count.


Counting Game

SQ 69 Tomorrow’s Zero

Entry 69: Tomorrow’s Zero– I am going to take you now to an exhibition in a pub that willa-absurdist-image require you to walk past urinals while a woman dressed in a communion dress reads lewd poetry. No need to take up your bulging biros or strike your cataplexic keyboards in protest- all the participants are long dead as this performance took place almost a century ago in Cologne.

And for those of you disappointed at this news, don’t despair, for the birthplace of the anarchic art movement known as Dadaism, a-cabaret-voltaire-posterthe Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, is celebrating 100 years since Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings opened for business in 1916. The website of this venerable establishment extends a welcome, in German, of course, to all visitors and you may even enjoy a coffee freshly brewed as you attend one of the performances.

The soirees were often raucous events with artists experimenting with new forms of performance, such as sound poetry and simultaneous poetry. Mirroring the maelstrom of World War I raging around it, the art it exhibited was often chaotic and brutal. On at least one occasion, the audience attacked the Cabaret’s stage.

I wonder if one of the attacks took place when Hugo Ball regaled the patrons with his Dadaist Manifesto on July 14, 1916? Here is an English translation of part of the original- imagine it being read to you in guttural, shouteda-ball-image German and then decide whether you would have been one of the ones storming the stage,

Dada is a new tendency in art. One can tell this from the fact that until now nobody knew anything about it…Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French it means “hobby horse”. In German it means “good-bye”…In Romanian: “Yes…yes…An International word…Just a word, and the word a movement…terribly simple…How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness…I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words…The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The word…is a public concern of the first importance.

a-tomato-imageIn a thought-scenario, in the spirit of Dadaism, I have come prepared; my overcoat pockets stuffed with rotten tomatoes, which I hurl joyfully at the orator onstage while shouting critique concrete, critique concrete! The red mush dripping from his head and my hands is nothing compared the red mush of the cataclysmic conflict tearing the old Europe apart. It is but a kiss compared to a decapitation.

The title of the song comes from a chapter-heading of Alvarez’s acclaimed study ofa-crystal-skull suicide, A Savage God, which I read in Wollongong in the mid-seventies. This book has supplied an earlier song, Sylvia and journal entry, eight.

Curious about the author and how he has fared in the interim, I looked him up in Wikipedia (from whence comes all the info on Dadaism) and find that, as of today’s date, he is still alive, having published his last book in 2013, called Pondlife. He is 86 and has published twenty a-a-alvarezbooks on a diverse range of subjects including poker, mountaineering, divorce, the oil business, dreams as well as books about and of poetry. Add to that, his tenure as poetry editor and critic for The Observer from 1956-1966 and I think you’ll agree that he has paid his dues.  

He describes his loves and hates – his distaste for the literary world (“peopled by monsters”) and his unfaltering love on a sudden sighting of his wife: “Forty years on and my heart still jumped with pleasure.” He quotes Bette Davis: “Getting old ain’t for sissies.” And Beckett, who “got it right” when he wrote: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” So writes Kate Kellaway in a review of Pondlife in The Guardian on 17/02/2013.

This someone you could warm to, eh? But back to the song: the persona is someonea-bartleby-image absorbed by the nihilism of Dada who, like Melville’s protagonist in his short story Bartleby the Scrivener, becomes more and more removed from the world; who responds to well-meaning words with a formulaic response of his own- I prefer not to, until the logical outcome of such an outlook: extinguishment.

Instead of Bartleby the Scrivener’s polite and nihilistic repetitions of I prefer not to, I prefer to read the work of poets such as Australia’s Judith Beveridge: listen to this extract from The White Peacock, but make sure you read the whole poem,

a-beveridge-imageThe feathers lift -/like the sudden coming on/of sprinklered water/over imperial lawns./ Breeze-shaken and trembling -/you imagine the break/into a drift of wish-flowers./Now the fan streaming with dance -/(imagine the face of an/angel/streaming with light/in an annunciation).


Tomorrow’s Zero

SQ 70 The Dispossessed

Entry 70: The Dispossessed I passed Poisoned Waterhole Creek on the way to perform at thea-riverina-scene Boree Creek pub in the Riverina of NSW in the mid-seventies. When I asked about the name, one man told me that squatters in the 19th Century had poisoned the creek to get rid of the local aboriginal tribe. Another vehemently disagreed and said it was a furphy.

The Narrandera Argus and Riverina Advertiser of 5 February 1951 published an article by local man George Gow who wrote,

In two recent publications I have seen reference to the alleged tragedy of native blacks being a-abiriginal-imagepoisoned by the early settlers at what is known as the Poisoned Waterholes, on the Wagga road, a few miles from Narrandera. I have been in the Narrandera district for some 57 years and. know some of the early settlers of about 100 years ago, none of whom gave credence to such statements.

However, of late years the story has grown in intensity and if not contradicted will go down in history as a hideous fact… Some 57 years ago I frequently saw an ancient black from Narrandera known as Mickey. He used to interest me with tales of his youth and of the blacks when he was a boy. He never mentioned any poisoning of his tribe to me, nor did I ask him, as I had not heard of such tales myself at that particular time…

So called ‘mulga’ historians, who have no connection with the very early days, spin the most blood-a-gilmore-imagecurdling tales and add to them as they go along to make them more interesting. Perhaps the person most responsible for the wild tales of alleged atrocities against the blacks is a lady, Dame Mary Gilmore…

In a recent article in a Sydney journal Dame Mary Gilmore recalls the wholesale massacre of Riverina blacks by driving them into the river and drowning them! Just fancy trying to drown a river black by driving him into the water…

she writes, ‘Shooting children was considered a waste of ammunition. They were just as effectively killed by a quick blow on the head with a stirrup iron.” If such stories spread, our early ancestors might not be very popular. It would be bad enough, even if they were true. I appeal to the people of Narrandera and the Yanko Shire generally to help refute those tales.  

 a-grant-imageIn October, 2015, Stan Grant, proud Wiradjuri man, winner of the prestigious 2015 Walkley award for coverage of Aboriginal Australia and the Indigenous affairs editor for The Guardian, Australia, wrote,

It is here that I stand now, on the edge of the Murrumbidgee near Narrandera. After several days I have shaken loose the noise of the city. Now I hear birdsong and the flapping of the wings of ducksa-duck-image as they skim the surface. In the distance I can hear the barking of a dog and there is a breeze pushing softly through the long grass.

Now I know I am home. I have my youngest son with me. He has come here throughout his life and we have passed this same road to his grandparents’ house time and again, but he has never paused to question the curious name of this place: Poisoned Waterhole creek. My father would point it out to me when I was the age my son is now. And so I point it out to him.

a-pinjarra-massacreThe Wiradjuri rested here and drank from the stream. As the conflict continued the local homestead owner grew tired of the black people on his property, so he poisoned their waterhole. Many drank from it and died agonising deaths. “Really, Dad?” My son asks. “Here in Narrandera?…” I tell him that later other Wiradjuri people sought refuge from a white raiding party.

They huddled together on an island in the middle of the river but the white men opened fire, killing all but one boy. Today this place is known as Murdering Island. Islands and creeks with such sinister names. Yet today we can be so oblivious. They are almost casual references to long-forgotten atrocities of our past.

I am unable to arbitrate the matter, but believe that oral history accounts of atrocitiesa-gsslideshow2-jpg-600x400_q85_crop_upscale associated with dispossession from the land of my birth are more generally accurate than not and that the harassment and persecution of travelling people continue to this day. The song deals with three groups, the Aboriginal people of Australia, the various travelling people of Europe and the Irish people.

a-outback-sceneI leave you with this verse extract by George Gow’s nemesis, Dame Mary Gilmore, entitled The Waradgery Tribe,

Harried we were, and spent,/broken and falling,/ere as the cranes we went,/crying and calling.//Summer shall see the bird/backward returning;/never shall there be heard/those, who went yearning.//Emptied of us the land;/ghostly our going;/fallen like spears the hand/dropped in the throwing./We are the lost who went,/like the cranes, crying;/hunted, lonely and spent/broken and dying.


The Dispossessed

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