Snapshots of a week

love

Felix singing Twinkle Twinkle to Antonia one morning. He loves her but I find myself saying frequently – ‘she’s sleeping, don’t touch her, crash into her, or put things on top of her.’

We’ve been home alone this week as Michael is in America. It has its moments. Actually it is all moments – noisy, calm, sweet, rushed, funny, headachy, whiny, cuddly, snuffly, bouncy… The trick is not to worry too much about which moments are coming next. And if there is a quiet moment to relax into it. Like this one – Antonia entranced by the dryer.

babytv2

It has been rainy and the light on the wet leaves made me think of this poem by Clive James.

leaves

With an increase of unsupervised time in the house, strange things are happening. I find the coffee plunger in the fridge. Felix puts the shopping away and his ham ends up in the freezer. He pulls all the measuring cups out of the kitchen cupboard and washes them in the bathroom sink. The scrubbing brush goes missing. I find my boots on the draining board.

bath3

I stuck them both in the bath yesterday. Once Antonia was dry and dressed I raced upstairs to fetch Felix’s pyjamas. Returning, I found he’d squirted her all over with a plastic syringe. Daddy did it, he said.

bath2

I bought Antonia some bright red stockings, and together with a dress from my aunt, a cardigan made by my Nanna, and a bib from Mum, they just make me so happy.

red2

Right now Antonia is having a long morning nap (the first long nap for a few days) and I’ve persuaded Felix to watch Thomas the Tank Engine so I can write. Folding the washing can wait.

red

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The honeymoon Christmas

For once we didn’t go anywhere. This was our seventh Christmas together, but our first Christmas alone together. Our first Christmas in our very own house with our very own tree. Our first Christmas with our very entertaining cats. Our first Christmas married. Our first Christmas in Norway. My very first white Christmas.

On Christmas Eve we tidied up a bit then settled down for presents about 4pm (Michael having ascertained in advance that we would do German presents rather than Australian ones so he wouldn’t have to wait till tomorrow). The kittens were most excited with their toy mice, Michael loved his huge warm grey dressing-gown, I put my early Christmas present of an ipod touch to good use providing some quality Christmas music, and we emptied the Christmas stockings of an over-abundance of Swedish chocolate I had purchased to make up for already having eaten the Australian chocolate Mum had sent me. (We still have some German Christmas goodies left cos Michael’s Mum sent over four boxes of them!) We then called Michael’s folks, had a yummy dinner of roast carrots, parsnips, garlic, red onions, falafels and brussell sprouts, and capped off the evening by watching ‘Let the Right One In’ – brutal and poetic and heart-warming all at once.

The 25th continued in much the same way – our favourite food, a crackling fire, novels on the sofa, a walk in the snow, skype calls to family, and Michael practicing taking photos of lights. Some new friends, a Japanese family, came over for dinner, and their little daughter proved what a good kindergarten teacher I’ve been for the last few months by giving us spirited renditions of ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’.

I thought some more about how much I like that Norwegian advent poem – how joy and hope are there, but longing too. The last verse goes:

We light four candles this evening,
and let them burn down,
for longing, joy, hope and peace,
but most of all
for peace on this small earth
where people live.

 

My Nanna said that Christmas wasn’t the same this year without Irene, my Dad’s twin sister who died earlier this year. And I must admit, looking at several of my friends’ Christmas photos on facebook of their six month old babies, I felt a little twinge for our lost little one whom we will never meet. But then I felt an even bigger twinge from the very present little one kicking and wriggling inside me, and I smiled. We should meet him very soon. But I like that poem very much because those who are absent can be with us too, they are not shut out.

I love Christmas. I love Christmas in Australia with my family and the sunshine, and I love Christmas in Germany with Michael’s family and the perfectly wonderful German Christmas markets. But this year, this quiet, happy, snow-filled Christmas was exactly what we needed, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Christmas lights

Ok so this is just a gratuitous shot of the kittens snoozing in our lounge room. I really want to write about light. Light is very important around here at this darkest time of year. All the houses have little white electric candles in their windows, which shine out calmly to the snow-filled streets.

On December 13th we celebrated Lucia. I think it’s even bigger in Sweden. The children at the kindergarten dressed up in white smocks and carried electric candles and walked in a procession singing songs about saint Lucia. It was strangely moving.

And every Monday at the kindergarten, we lit an advent candle. A day late, but it didn’t matter. Advent candles are pretty new to me, as the church I grew up in wasn’t big on that sort of symbolism. I had of course come across them, but only in passing. So I wasn’t sure if the particular meanings attached to the different candles were universal or peculiar to Norway.

I looked it up, and found this site, which explains it all beautifully. In Norway, the advent candles symbolize, in this order: joy, hope, longing and peace. It feels right to have the longing in there too. This particular configuration of meanings comes from a poem by the Norwegian poet Inger Hagerup. They recite one verse for each of the four Sundays before Christmas. It is a beautiful poem. It’s worth looking at the Norwegian version on the first site I linked to, but an English translation would go something like:

So we light one candle this evening.
We light it for joy.
It stands and shines for itself
And for us who are here now.
So we light one candle this evening,
We light it for joy.

Berlin

Was nice, if a little cloudy. Lots of delicious pizzas, waffles, and ice-creams were ingested, not to mention German beer. Here is Michael looking pensive in a pink cafe.

A highlight for me was gate-crashing a conference on Shakespear’s ‘Troilus and Cresseda’  and Chaucer’s ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ for half a day, and catching up with not one but two of my favourite Australian medievalists. This was so lovely, and as Stephanie pointed out, it felt a bit like home away from home. The papers I heard were about gesture and emotion, public and private, faces and defacing. I must confess to not having read Chaucher’s ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ since my Honours year, but I have a very clear memory of the brilliant Tom Burton demonstrating the pathos of the poem. (For those not familiar with it, it’s a poem about love and betrayal, with the backdrop of the Trojan war.) Unfortunately the European spring put on a very poor show for all the international guests, but they seemed to enjoy themselves anyway.

We also climbed up to the top of the Berliner Dom, and watched a concert of Schumann and Bruckner there one evening. On Sunday, finally, the sun came out, and I wandered through the Tiergarten while Michael caught up with an old friend.

Whilst I was lounging in the sun, a tall dark handsome stranger from Cairo made a concerted effort to pick me up. He told me he was a masseur and a body-builder (!!!). As I gallantly extricated myself, he told me he was happy to merely ‘look see’. Having escaped Criseyde’s fate, I was immediately rewarded by a sign from the gods.

Gifts

My grandmothers gave you presents.

Yellow hand-knitted booties,
The very same pattern my father wore once
And so did I.

A white cloth to wrap you in
Embroidered with a bumble bee.

For days they seemed to herald
Your presence –
Feet that would curl into them
A body damp and warm
And small enough to hold.

Now they cup emptiness.
I fold them away to save for another.

I will not even give you a name.

But I give you all the names.
The silly names we giggled over late at night.
The beautiful names, the old names,
Far too pretentious to actually use.
Now you can have them all:
The strong names, the bright names,
The storybook names, the wicked names,
The simple, lovely names we weighed on our tongues
Like smooth pebbles.
Have them all.

I’ll weave them into a coat of many colours
Fit for a favoured child.
Being spun of words, it may have holes
(How poorly the letters knit together)
But it will be pretty.
The coat will glitter in the dark like a fiery rainbow,
Like a cloud of bees.

And if, where you’re going, you do not need it, well,
Leave it behind.

Lakes

I cycled to the lake this evening and the water was very still. The pine trees, gilded by the late sun, mirrored themselves perfectly. Then a fish jumped and flopped and splashed and the ripples circled out, a perfect bulls eye, eventually hitting the bank and folding in on themselves. It reminded me of this poem, by a 19th/early 20th century Australian poet who lived and wrote poems near the country town where I grew up. He was a farm labourer and largely uneducated. This poem is a bit awkward in places but I like it anyway.

The Crane is my neighbour

John Shaw Neilson

The bird is my neighbour, a whimsical fellow and dim;
There is in the lake a nobility falling on him.

The bird is a noble, he turns to the sky for a theme,
And the ripples are thoughts coming out to the edge of a dream.

The bird is both ancient and excellent, sober and wise,
But he never could spend all the love that is sent for his eyes.

He bleats no instruction, he is not an arrogant drummer;
His gown is simplicity – blue as the smoke of the summer.

How patient he is as he puts out his wings for the blue!
His eyes are as old as the twilight, and calm as the dew.

The bird is my neighbour, he leaves not a claim for a sigh,
He moves as the guest of the sunlight – he roams in the sky.

The bird is a noble, he turns to the sky for a theme,
And the ripples are thoughts coming out to the edge of a dream.

Claire Souter made a painting inspired by it.

I also thought of this poem, which I wrote about ten years ago and remember word for word. (Not surprising really as it is a silly little thing.) I wrote it about a lake not far from Penola, with which Neilson had some connection, and I was thinking about him and his lake and his ripples at the time.

I am the lake’s reflection
said the curved moon
leaping like a silver fish
in blue, late afternoon.

For me, there is still something magical and improbable about lakes. Perhaps as I come from such a dry country, where things marked as lakes on maps are often just sand flats or salt flats waiting for rain. ‘Lake’. There is something marvelous about it – the image, the word. The thought of all that still water beneath the stones and the trees.

Adelaide

I always find blogging more difficult from here. I guess it’s because many of the people who read the blog are just around the corner. But it’s been good. I’ve been hanging out with my grandparents, and my brother, and my old friends. And it’s good good good. There’s something about old friends which is just great. I also met my one year old second cousin who is cute.

Up until yesterday the days have been shiny and warm and bright. Yesterday it started to rain. After an initial grumpiness (yes I know Adelaide needs rain but not during my holiday) I let myself enjoy it. The white twisty trunk of the gum tree near my parents’ deck is now grey and slippery like wet silk. The air smells clean. The birds croak and chatter and fly about between the newly washed leaves. And the rain, when it comes, is sudden and fresh and noisy on the tin roof, and not like European rain at all.

Another funny thing happened last night. I was drinking a beer with my brother in the verander of a pub, and a very friendly lawyer kept popping out for a smoke. He chatted to my brother, and when he discovered that my brother is an artist, he gave him his card so he can invite him to his next exhibition. Then he asked me what I did, and when I said I had just finished a PhD in literature, he said his sister Kate is into literature too, she’s a poet. ‘Kate who?’ I asked, but I already knew. Kate Deller Evans and I had our first collections of poetry published together in New Poets Seven back in 2002. He said he was seeing her later, and he’d say hello. Living on the other side of the world, I have become unused to all this synchronicity!

Why you should still love Les Murray

I felt so tired this morning that I promised myself an early night tonight. Why is it not possible to get more done? I am making progress but I wish it were quicker.

I am working on my Les Murray chapter. I like his work very much. I’m not sure my chapter will do him justice. Actually, ‘like’ is not the right word at all. I adore his poems. He is a genius. His politics are also terribly problematic and unfortunately I have to deal with them in the chapter. But they don’t make me adore his poetry any less. (Not every single poem, but a lot of them.) I came across this beautiful review by Clive James that sums up one of the things so brilliant about him. He says Murray is an example of the way poets are ‘ unfairly interesting, as if they didn’t deserve to get so much said in such a short space’:

‘The severed trunk
slips off its stump and drops along its shadow.’

Not only do you wonder how he thought of that, you imagine him wondering too…

There is another good example in ‘The Power-line Incarnation’, a poem about how it feels to clear fallen power-lines off the roof of your house and find them to be still transmitting their full load of electricity.

‘When I ran to snatch the wires off our roof
hands bloomed teeth shouted I was almost seized held back from this life
O flumes O chariot reins
you cover me with lurids deck me with gaudies…’

The non-Australian reader need not think that there are outback Australians who call wires flumes. ‘Flume’, meaning an artificial channel, is Middle English following Old French, and comes out of the dictionary, not out of colonial usage. But the flumes, lurids, and gaudies seem appropriate here because the shock has sent the narrator back to the roots, of language as of life; the voltage has impelled a Jungian power-dive into the collective unconscious.

Isn’t ‘flume’ a lovely word? It sums up for me the electric shiver I get like get from moments like this in Murray’s poetry. Instead of writing my chapter I would like to write pages and pages about these incredible phrases. His bat poem for example. And oh, there are millions and millions. (If you click over to James’s review he discusses a few more.)

But these magic phrases are not the only thing that is wonderful about Murray’s poetry. He has all these elaborate theories about Australian identity, involving fusions of Aboriginal poetry, and Catholicism, and Gaelic poetry, and the Middle Ages, and the poor farmers, and about how he experiences belonging in the country the same way the Aboriginals do but also in the same way his Scottish ancestors did. Which of course is terribly problematic and you can’t really do that, and in designating certain groups as truly ‘Australian’ he’s alienating a huge proportion of the population.

But – I don’t think his poetry is brilliant simply in spite of his weird politics and his intense spiritual visions. I think they’re bound up together somehow, they come from the same place. So while I can unpick the unsettling way he aligns the Middle Ages with Australia, in some ways I don’t want to, because his vision is compelling and marvelous. It is a myth, yes, and there are real problems with some of the things he implies, but what he gives outweighs by far anything we can objectively say is problematic about his poetry.

And I was going to talk about how reading his ‘The Idyll Wheel’ – a suite of poems based around the Australian seasons – while holed up in my study listening to The Magic Flute in a snowy Norwegian February made me cry. But I have to go to bed now otherwise my new curfew will count for nothing and I will be a slow writer tomorrow morning. But the poem reminded me of how some weird woman on TV in England said she’d hate to have a Christmas in Australia because you’d know winter was just around the corner, and I thought – she knows nothing, winter is the least of their problems right now. Winter is unimaginable right now. As Les knows well:

Weedy drymouth Feb, first cousin of scorched creek stones,
of barbed wire across gaunt gullies, bringer of soldered
death-freckles to the backs of farmer’s hands. . .

. . .

. . . needy Feb, who waits for the raw eel-perfume
of the first real rain’s pheromones, the magic rain-on-dust
sexual scent of Time itself, philtre of all native beings

Ezra Pound sings cuckoo

The things you find on Wikipedia. I must confess, I’ve never been able to get into Ezra Pound. I never had the chance to study his work formally, and the few times I opened his collected poems as a conscientious undergraduate in the library on rainy afternoons, I found them impenetrable. But I was looking up the ‘cuckoo song‘, for thesis related reasons, and I came across this. It won’t mean much to you Aussies right now, but it made me laugh out loud.

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, ’tis why I am, Goddamm,
So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

Why I’m doing this

Been thinking about Australian poetry. What it means to me. Why it called out to me, and drew me to study it. Why on earth I ended up devoting several years of my life to studying Australian poetry and the Middle Ages, together. It has something to do with being out of the limelight. And something to do with feeling at home. Not sure if that makes sense. I love all kinds of literature – Dostoevsky, Keats, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, but I’d never consider doing a PhD on them. (I wrote an honours thesis in Dostoevsky but that’s different – I didn’t have to learn Russian for that…)

Before I did the Masters in Medieval literature in York (which I did because it sounded amazingly fun, and it was), I came up with the PhD topic that I am now getting close to finishing – to look at representations of the Middle Ages in Australian literature. It helped me get funding for my Masters, which in turn helped me get funding for the PhD. While I was doing the Masters, I wondered if I would come up with a new topic, a ‘proper medieval topic’, and abandon my old one. My Masters dissertation was on the Pearl-poet and fourteenth-century mystics. I loved it. Pearl is still one of my favourite poems. Anyway, I agonized over potential PhD topics for months. But I remember walking along the river one afternoon, and it all suddenly becoming clear. Australian poetry. That was it. It had to be. It lit something up inside me. It made me smile. It was as certain as the grey light on the water, winding out a path.

At various points over the past few years as I’ve studied Australian poetry at an English university, I’ve wondered what’s special about it, to me. When I was tutoring on the introductory ‘Reading Prose’ module, I listened to lectures on Great Expectations and Mrs Dalloway (both novels I adore, especially the latter), and I suddenly realised – London’s down the road for these students. It’s not some mythical city on the other side of the world. ‘English literature’ happens here, it comes from here, here is the centre. And they probably don’t even notice.

Which was probably the reason, as I got into poetry as a teenager and a young adult, that I felt especially connected to the Australian poems. Yes I loved T.S. Eliot and Hopkins and Dylan Thomas and for that matter Zbigniew Herbert, but there was something extraordinary about the fact that John Shaw Neilson wrote about lakes and trees not far from my home, and Les Murray wrote about Emus and possums ‘skidding down the roof on little moonlit claws’, and when Judith Wright described the ‘delicate dry breasts’ of a moon-glazed country seen from a train window, she spoke of a land I knew by heart.

There’s also the weird pride that I come from the same place. I like it that Francis Webb was born in Adelaide, and Randolph Stow taught there. And I love it when I show someone a poem written in Australia and they are seriously impressed. I do feel proud. Like I have some strange national duty to share with the world what good stuff is going on down there.

So that’s the personal baggage I’m bringing to this project (we’ll have to do the ‘why the Middle Ages’ post another day, if anyone’s interested). And it’s what hums in the background as I consider rather tedious arguments about ‘national traditions’ and ‘postcoloniality’ and ‘cultural autonomy’. Because with my thinking-hat on, I don’t buy any of that whole-sale. Belonging is problematic in Australia, and I think ‘cultural autonomy’ is a myth (more on this another day, too). But – something about these poems belong to me – and I to them. And that makes me happy.

I am modelled on the sun

I appear from the inner world, singular and many, I am
the animals of my tree, appointed to travel and be eaten
since animals are plants’ genital extensions, I’m clothed in luscious
dung but designed to elicit yet richer, I am modelled on the sun,
dry shine shedding off mottled surface but having like it a crack seed. . .

. . . I am streamy inside, taut with sugar meats, circular,
my colours are those of the sun understood by leaf liquor cells
and cells of deep earth metal, I am dressed for eyes by the blind,
perfumed, flavoured by the mouthless, by insect-conductors who kill
and summon by turns, I’m to tell you there is a future and there are
consequences, and they are not the same, I emerge continually
from the inner world, which you can’t mate with nor eat.

Les Murray, ‘Stone Fruit’

I don’t think anyone has imagined stone fruit as perfectly as Murray. I ate this peach, ‘streamy inside, taut with sugar meats’, yesterday. Two of them, in fact. I’m planning on eating more today. Peaches were always my favourite at a child, but I gave up on them years ago. They were never as I remembered – often floury, often small. But in the supermarket yesterday, I saw them, and I could tell. Sweet but bright. Its juice ran down my chin and my hands and squirted out over the wooden steps as I ate it. Liquid sunlight, all the way.

Colours

All I can offer is more green, I’m afraid. Here it is, illumined by the setting sun, just after eight this evening. I wish I could send you the birdsong. Waking up at the moment is a joy. My window is open to the sweet morning air and the birds. Now, I like the bird-calls in Australia, the cawing of the magpies. My soul feels at home in that sound, and as I try right now, with partial success, to remember what it sounds like, I can smell the Australian morning too, that dusty openness, the tang of eucalypts, the light spreading over the gum trees. But – I can understand why Europeans are non-plussed or unsettled by it. Here, the birdsong is pure as the voices of choir boys. It swells and folds with such sweetness, such clarity, for hours and hours. Francis Webb was on to something.

And then, just when you are used to the green, it all goes white.

Why you should read Francis Webb (with a medievalist interlude)

Because he’s different from anything you’ve ever read, or ever will read. Because he fools you into thinking he’s naive or obtuse before you realise he’s something else altogether. Because he knits his stanzas together with rhyme schemes so cleverly that you don’t even know they’re there. Because – just sometimes – his words make your breath stop and your heart beat faster. He takes you to strange places that you recognise.

Take ‘On First Hearing a Cuckoo’, for example. Here I’m going to take a medievalist detour and talk about a different poem first – a very famous thirteenth century poem which he most likely would have been aware of:

Sumer is icumen in
Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.

Sumer is icumen in –
Lhude sing, cuccu.
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springeth the wude nu –
Sing cuccu.

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing, cuccu.
Cuccu, cuccu,
Well singes thu, cuccu –
Ne swik thu naver nu!

I first came across this poem in a small leather-bound anthology of English poetry with bible-thin pages, given to me by my Grandma. I remember sitting down in her spare room in summer and deciding to read all of it. I didn’t get very far. This was the first poem. What a strange little thing, I remember thinking.

More recently, I discussed this poem with my students. We talked about how the ‘u’ sound holds it all together, and makes it wierd and wonderful. And about the internal rhyme in the 6th and 11th lines. My students loved ‘icumen’. And one of them pointed out that the bucks are being a bit rude (read ‘f’ for ‘v’ in line 11 and you might work it out). The last line means: ‘don’t you ever stop’, or ‘don’t you ever deceive’. ‘Nu’ means ‘now’. Cuckoos, of course, deceive by nature, and the English summer sadly never lasts long. In the lecture, my supervisor pointed out that when it says ‘cuccu’, you can never be sure if it means the bird itself or the sound it makes. This poem is memorable because it is small, simple, secretly ambiguous, joyful, naughty, rueful, fun. And it has been claimed as quintessentially English – English enough to open a serious looking anthology.

Cross to an Australian poet in England in the 1960s. He’s never heard a cuckoo before:

It was never more than two unchanging words
Heard in the first coming green of daybreak,
The sleepier green than sleep, with a sheer white
Between this yawning advancing green and the colour
Of all lights out. Not consciousness, the awakening early green:
For that was steep curtain, immediate
Structure of pain and learning, familiar rattlings.

In a Webb poem, there’s usually a few phrases you don’t understand on a first reading. What’s this ‘sheer white’ doing, and why is he using the odd phrase ‘all lights out’? But the image of the green dawn and the sound of the cuckoo is gentle and haunting. I love ‘the sleepier green than sleep’, and the idea of an awareness and a feeling of peace beneath a more frightened and confused ‘consciousness’ trying to come to grips with the surroundings and the self rationally. The poem goes on to twist around this image of green, and the ‘two words’ of the cuckoo, which enter through the window:

With this taut white wariness two words
Involved themselves, formed and changeless, cool and haunting.
. . .
. . . But they were quite apart,
So freely entering, so at home,
Not softening, not disturbing, but making distant.
Old-story-devious green, all shapes and sizes
Of illusion, turned right out of doors:
Two words, always the same words, freely entering.

It’s hard not to quote the whole poem. It continues through a single day. The speaker hears the cuckoo again whilst ‘playing cricket at eleven’, at dinner, and at nightfall. ‘Voyaging green’, ‘robust green’ and ‘sleek green’ give way to the ‘dissolute green’ of evening, and all the while the cuckoo speaks ‘two level and small words/Never at odds with self, never with green’. Night approaches:

. . . Then the changeless words
Unelectric among the going green and the advancing
Colour of lights out and the nagging strands
Of an anger. And cool before the cavernous
Green of sleep which could alone lose them.

And you start to realise that the whole poem is about the triumph of colour and light against darkness and confusion. The words of the cuckoo, which embody colour and light, cut through the confusion of the self and the ‘nagging strands/Of an anger’. They also cut through darkness. The poem never names darkness, it’s called ‘lights out’ – a phrase that is repeated three times. Electric lights fail against the darkness because they are switched off. The cuckoo’s words, however, are ‘unelectric/Against lights out’, which gives them their calm, persistent power. The poem ends:

What in themselves? Twelve hours shaken away,
Not the abandoned green remained, not self,
Not spring, not Surrey, no, nor merely
A dead word-haunted man. Two words remained –
The language foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable –
Heedless of enmity, again and again coming
To a taut candour, to a loose warbling green.

Curiously enough, the last three lines could easily be describing ‘sumer is icumen in’. The poem is edged by feelings of unease and displacement – England’s excessive greenness is strange to Australian eyes and almost threatening. But the cadence of the cuckoo’s words overcomes this, even if, like the thirteenth century poem, their language is ‘foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable’. ‘Ne swik thu naver nu!’

Reading Webb

Reading Francis Webb’s poems is an extremely odd experience. Practically any Australian poet will tell you he was Australia’s greatest poet, but Australian poets aside, hardly anyone knows about him. He was born in Adelaide in 1925 and died in 1973. And the poems are – well – strange. They are densely constructed and glitter like quartz. Sometimes they are startlingly beautiful. Sometimes they don’t seem to make sense, but you still have the feeling they know what they’re doing. It’s slow going, trying to write about them.

One of the problems is the words don’t stick in your head. I remember when, as an undergrad, I wrote an essay on T.S. Eliot, I memorised huge chunks of Four Quartets without even trying, and it sang in my head as I walked along. This doesn’t happen with Webb. When you look for a line you have remembered and want to quote, it can take you ages to find it, because it’s not at all obvious where it might be. And if you’re not careful, even if you look in the right place you won’t notice it. Maybe this just means I’ve done enough for the day.

I like him a lot, though he puzzles me. I’ll tell you more later…

A walk in the park

For two days this week the park by uni was covered in snow, or more precisely, frozen fog. It was beautiful.

Now it has warmed up again but the wind has come back. It shakes my window panes and keeps blowing out the pilot light in our water heater. I have been analysing poems all day and my brain feels as hazy as the sky. But it is nice – to hold the poems lightly in your hands and hear them talk to each other, to coax them out of hiding.

And this was a good week

I met with my supervisors on Wednesday, and they liked my chapter!!! This is my last chapter. It was pretty tough to write and I was worried they’d tear it apart. Instead they said all kinds of nice things like I’m streaming ahead on my own now, they’re happy to sit back and watch! It just needs a little stretching and tidying, no more than ten days work. They reckon if I put my mind to it I could be done in September! So. I’m putting my mind to it. Most of what needs doing is adding in more close analysis of poems, which is my favourite bit anyway.

I taught Beowulf this week. It was so much fun reading it again – apart from reveling in the shiny, heavy language, I kept making all sort of new connections. (New for me, anyway.) I thought it was so interesting the way fratricide is emphasised in the narrative, and how Grendel’s descent from Cain (specifically, from Cain’s murder of Abel) is played against this. He is a monster – an enemy of God, and of the people of the story, but the people of the story commit the same sin which made him a monster in the first place. One of my students asked if this was another example of the Christian author of the poem distancing the Christian audience from the pagan practices of the past. An interesting thought…

I also asked them to read Tolkien’s ‘The Monsters and the Critics’, but I told them it was optional – a mistake I will not be making again (none of them read it). I enjoyed rereading that, though, too. When I was an undergraduate, I missed out on the Early Middle Ages module, but I made a point of reading Beowulf and that essay. Beowulf didn’t do a lot for me the first time I read it, but the essay made me shiver with delight. The way he talks about dragons! (I have a fondness for dragons.) This time I couldn’t help noticing how both universalism and nationalism frame his interpretation of the poem. He says it is a poem about man confronting the darkness of impending doom and inevitable death. He says this quite poetically. But – it’s not just that. The poem isn’t just about universal ‘man’. It is about a very specific society, which it goes to great pains to construct. The monsters don’t threaten humanity, but the Scandinavians. Hence my theory about Grendel, which I outlined above…

Anyway. The students weren’t quite as excited about it as I was, but it is a difficult poem and I think they did pretty well. Next week, the sagas….

Spring?

You’ve been wooing me for days,
invisibly, with the most delicate of whispers.
With a fragrant smell despite the clouds,
with sunlight on my bathroom floor,
with snowdrops crowding the tombstones
of the old church.
I’m pretending not to notice,
knowing (rightly) that winter will crush me again,
hammer me with black weight,
and I am so tired.

How can I trust what weighs less than my breathing
and vanishes when I turn around?

But look, winter’s worn himself out with gravity
and there’s nothing to do
but breathe again, and float upwards.
I had read of the lightness of spring
but never felt it –
this quiet buoyancy – how strange!
O fickle lover, I know you won’t stay.
Now it’s birdcalls in the mornings,
and minute gifts of extra daylight,
and everything will rise again without trying,
impossibly.

I won’t speak of you yet, too loudly –
I might scare you away.

Yes, cold may come again,
with the wind and the hail,
but maybe I like you,
maybe I trust you,
maybe I’ll walk with you, now.

Stammerer

I once wrote a poem that went like this:

i know the cruelty of consonants
the sweep deep swish
of sss-ss-sssss, the fish gaping
vowels

BURST!

BURST!

i want to float
soft drifting word-sea
slide through meaning
weightless/fluid/bright

BUT

Kookaburra laugh
kcKckkccckkKcckkc
helicopter wings whirring
shatter air

you guess my words
steal
RIP
from my throat
CUT
with clear tongue,
precise mouth, cruel

my words
choking, knocking, flapping
dying moths

stillborn

This was ten years ago. I was eighteen. I wrote it during an English tutorial on postmodernism at Adelaide University. We were reading poems by Ania Walwicz and J.S. Harry. I sat in the corner, a bubbling mess of emotion. I was in awe of the playful and violent ways they made language sing, but I couldn’t express how I felt. I was too afraid to speak, knowing my words would crash and crumble and collide.

Flashback to a history class, aged fourteen, when the teacher asked me a direct question because she knew I knew the answer, and I pretended I didn’t, because I knew I couldn’t say it.

I sat in the corner some more. And then I started writing. The words tumbled out, as fierce and pure as the words everyone else was discussing. It felt good.

The poem won a competition. There was an awards dinner, and we were supposed to read out our poems. I said no, I couldn’t do it, not this time. So the organizer of the competition said she’d read it for me. She took me aside to practice reading it. She read it well, but not quite right. I would read it more like this, I said. I read it. I made the harsh bits hard, and in the quiet, wistful stanzas I put all my longing. She looked at me. Meli, she said, you are reading that poem.

I did. And I read it again, to hundreds and hundred of people, when the book was launched at Writers’ Week. Someone recorded it and played it on Poetica on Radio National. The best bit was, my second cousin’s step-father, who is an academic in Sydney, heard it on the radio in his car. That night, he said he’d heard an amazing poem about stammering on the radio. That’s Meli, said my cousin. No, he said, it couldn’t have been, it was someone older. And then she showed him the book.

The poem is an elegy. And it is a sharp sword, sheathed. These days, I don’t need to think about it very often. Only sometimes, giving conference papers, or meeting new people, or teaching… Yesterday, my class crumbled a bit at the end. Afterwards, I felt embarrassed and distraught and wanted to hide. I remembered the poem. When I was younger, I used to wish I could swap my disability for something else. I thought – I would rather be in a wheelchair than stammer. Having since worked with people who rely on wheelchairs, I take this back. I definitely have the better deal. But if you’re in a wheelchair, you work things out. You get ramps fixed in your workplace. I can work things out, too. I can work out what went wrong, and how to avoid it next time (in this case, make sure I have all details like names of websites on a printed hand-out). It can be done.

Night, and Light and the Half Light

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths
enwrought with golden and silver light,

the blue and the dim and the dark cloths
of night and light and the half light

I would spread the cloths under your feet.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams.

I have spread my dreams under your feet.
Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.

W. B. Yeats

I memorised this poem when I was sixteen. I think I particularly liked the line about the half light. There’s a lot of that around here at the moment. The photo of the full moon setting was taken from our window at 8.15 in the morning. The photos of the fortress and the harbour were taken about 4 in the afternoon. But it’s lighter for longer every day. The half-light edges its way into the darkness, spreading its cloak.

Dappled Things

Pied Beauty

GLORY be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I couldn’t help myself. Not with all these autumn leaves, and the marbled light of the Lake District. I love the alliteration of this poem, and its strangeness. And sometimes my days seem dappled – how easy it is to switch from sadness to joy, from hope to tedium and back again. Not so much as I used to, ten years ago. Now it is easier to accept my days as dappled. These differing emotions are not so much interwoven, as flecked.

Birds and Tigers

When I arrived back in Leeds just over a week ago, it was like Christmas. I had been away for seven weeks, and my desk was overflowing with envelopes and packages. A one hundred and thirty pound refund from Yorkshire water. Photos of the Lake District and a Kookaburra card from my grandparents. Hagues chocolate teddybears in a tin from my unbelievably kind cousin in Adelaide, who thought I might need some cheering up. And, most wondrous of all, this.

Claire Souter had been touched by my previous post about her, and was interested that out of hundreds of paintings I’d included Birds and Tigers, which she said had never been framed nor exhibited, nor hardly seen. Waiting for me, she said. She sent it to me.

So now the beautiful bird perches in my room. I can’t quite believe how lovely it is. The bird’s soft grey feathers, its quiet, intense glance, the way it concentrates, the golden light, the golden ring, hovering. It is like a myth and a fairytale. A muse. Just looking at it calms me, and helps me think and write. I love the lace beneath it, too. I used to make lace. These days, when I’m feeling crafty, I stitch away at a giant cross-stitch of Henry VIII and his wives (two wives down, four to go). Claire’s delicate painting of the lace makes me think of women, and patience, and skill and love – and all the hours which must have gone into such creations. It is a metaphor for my own work as well – a thesis is built and held together by tiny stitches. And the tigers looks pretty happy, bounding in from unknown fields, as flowers bloom above them. It is a wondrous painting, a meeting of worlds. I can’t help but think it captures the fleeting, private, luminous act of creation itself. It reminds me of a poem I wrote, once. In the poem I mention a nest. Claire has painted one. Thank you. Thank you.

Paraclete

You would like a poem about a bird,
about that bird
which is a deeper grey than pigeons,
is delicate,
and is visiting our feet.
We do not know what kind it is
but there is something lovely
about grey wings which sheathe
realms of air beneath their quiet feathers,
about the pointed bright eyed head
which bows and bobs
and knows something, but will not say.

Apart from that
it is a bird, and birds
have soft breasts we long to touch
but cannot own –
brittle underneath and light as air,
warm quickly pulsing
(our groping hands would crush in loving
or die of gentleness)
– and mostly, a presence
which can dip away swiftly
but is near now.

I would like to build a nest with words
(nothing like a cage)
fine enough and firm enough
for the bird to live close to you.

You could carry her around like a good secret
you could take her out at night.

She would diminish the darkness
but you still wouldn’t own her –
the bird would be just as precious
just as rare, pure gift.

Eve

My name is an exotic flower in your mouth

I taste its strange new petals on your tongue.

There must be poems about this,’ you say.

There are,’ I say, ‘and good ones too.’

No, this – the moonlight on your lover’s breast –

whoever designed it got it right.’

And I am glad to be a body, warm and smooth

for light to sculpt, for hands to stroke.

I watch the grey dawn gather in your eyes

and need no other sun

as though I were a creature formed from your rib,

named only by your tongue.

And we finally allow ourselves to sleep

only for the pleasure of waking

still whole.

Happy Vic

Here is my housemate Vic, celebrating handing in her masters dissertation, just over a week ago. Hooray!!! I’m sure she’s still smiling. She did a masters in postcolonial literature, and her dissertation was on two feminist Maltese writers (a novelist, Lou Drofenik, a Maltese-Australian, and a poet, Maria Grech Ganado). Vic comes from Malta. It was really fascinating – feminism seems to have arrived in Malta a lot later than in the rest of the world, and how these Maltese women engage with their Catholic heritage is really interesting. Anyway… I have loved living with Vic – her enthusiasm, passion and dedication is inspiring. She did her masters part-time over two years, while she worked full-time. I want to wish her a fun last few months in England, and I’m slightly envious that she’s heading home to a warm, sunshiny, seaside country soon.

Leeds Poem

The sky is low,
the buildings grey,
we need a multicoloured retro raindrop*
to brighten a day like today.

My usual ducky-optimism has slumped a bit for the past couple of days, because there is so much to do! Boxes to pack, to weigh and to post, contracts to sign, bills and cheque books to find, books to borrow, tickets to buy, words to write. But I’ll get there. And on Friday I’m meeting my grandparents and the lovie, and we’re going to the lovely Lake District! Just a few more days…

* see the duck songs post below

Sea Song

Walking by the sea in the strong air

you think of girls who lie pebbling

the small rocks

who wait the echoing nights

by the hard sea’s moan.

You’ve seen them often

at the edges of sleep –

the girls with wind tangling

their hair and their skirts, waiting

not for war or love

or the tall ships battering

their grey stone coasts

or lonely eyed sailors

with gold caskets and cloth

from failing empires, jewels

from mountains beyond the sea.

They burn smoky sea weed

to warm the slow nights

the quick fading footprints in sand.

In your mind they wait

among red anemones with pointed hands,

driftwood shaped like water

and the salt bleached shells

hollowed by fingering waves.

Your songs twist in their ears

slip like pearls from their necks

but they wait to risk drowning,

to grow gills and slip to the old world

far from waves and wind

and sailors and their lonely eyes.

I wrote this several years ago, but Fifi’s lovely posts about the ocean, such as this one, and especially this one, made me remember it.

Les Murray and ANZAC Day

I’m tired. And tired of computers. Today I finished a draft of a chapter on the Australian poet Les Murray, and emailed it off to my supervisors. I always find deadlines stressful – I need them to force myself to get things done but they’re not pleasant. Anyway, the chapter is well on the way, and I have expanded the 2000 words of the conference paper I gave earlier this year to 15,000 words, which with a bit of tweaking will make a chapter.

Today is ANZAC Day – which for you non-Aussies celebrates the landing of the Australian and New Zealand forces in Gallipolli in 1915. And all wars Australia has been involved in since then. Les Murray is ambivalent about the role of war in cementing a nation’s identity – though I suppose it’s a pretty global thing. He compares it with human sacrifice, such as the Aztecs practiced. Dying in order to give a nation an identity doesn’t sound much fun to me either.

Coming from a family (on both sides) of conscientious objectors, ANZAC day has never meant much to me apart from being a public holiday. This is despite the fact that my great uncle (who was English) died in World War II when his plane disappeared. There was never any mention of sacrifice or bravery, just a sense of overwhelming tragedy and even shame (he left behind his mother, his sister and his fiance, who all adored him).

My chapter is about Les Murray’s use of medievalism to construct notions of belonging in Australia. This means the way he uses images of and ideas about the Middle Ages in order to form images of Australia and establish connections to it. This sounds like a pretty batty idea, but it’s not actually as strange as it first appears – it’s about the way we all use history as myth, to construct our own identities and homelands. As I’ve worked on the chapter I’ve realised that Murray does not only use the Middle Ages to establish a sense of belonging in Australia, but also to explore notions of not-belonging. The not-belonging I’m talking about here has to do with his Christian perspective of ultimately belonging in the next world rather than this one. The Middle Ages can be useful here partly because that’s the way people thought back then, and partly because it’s easy to imagine the Middle Ages as a sort of lost world, which can then be used to imagine a promised land, waiting beyond death.

ANZAC day is also about using history as myth. All these ideas have been swimming around my head today. How in some ways the soldiers are supposed to have died to help people to belong, but because they’re dead, the soldiers don’t belong, they belong (perhaps) somewhere else. And what about the awkward belonging felt by those who refuse to fight? The picture, culled from The Advertiser, shows the dawn service at the war memorial in Adelaide. It’s near the University. I’ve always liked the angel.