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The Prom

January 23, 2012

I have posted infrequently over the last few months, but that may change this year. Not exactly a New Year’s resolution, more a sense that 2012 will be more creative. I finished 2011 with a week’s holiday at Wilson’s Prom. If that doesn’t immediately conjure for you beautiful surf beaches, peace, the reed-lapped river, birdsong… well, I hope you have an alternative paradise somewhere in this world.

Here are some poems I wrote while I was there. By the way, I’m currently reading Stephen Fry’s book, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. He’s very funny – which is a bonus in an instructional text – but is also teaching me a lot about writing verse. For those poets who already know about and appreciate (and perhaps even positively demand) close attention to poetic style, iambic pentameter and all, please forgive the lack of education so evident in my Prom poems.  I hope you enjoy ‘em anyway.

Forgiveness

 I woke up fuzzy, full of doubt and fear,

But I went for a walk from Tidal River to Picnic Bay,

Waded through shales of gold leaves in tea-tree tunnels on possum-soft dirt,

Looked out over clear waters to seaspray islands,

Climbed over rusty granite boulders,

Carrying my thongs in my hand,

Pricking my soles on tiny shells,

And the wind polished my face with salt crystals

And there were warm holes in the shallows

And the sand at Squeaky Beach squeaked underfoot

And we did indeed have a picnic of cashews and water,

So I came back loving you and the world again.

*

Norman Beach

A wide chunk of fair sand –

Endless walk to the water

Lapping up against the luminous rock

Under a gentle sky.

If this were Hawaii, we’d be ‘Excuse me, excuse me’

- just finding a place to sit!

And there’d be radios and neon surf shacks and shit.

But there are instead a few families and the surge of waves

And the tea-coloured stream flowing out to meet the green under the busy eyes of gulls

And space.

*

That

There is a spot in my mind

That I can almost see

That feels like something good and peaceful

That is beyond my talk

That lies beyond wondering

That is just that.

*

A man and his child

A young man carried a baby on his hip.  He, the man, was frowning and looking for something – his wife, his thongs in the sand, his next meal, his God, I don’t know.  All the while, the baby bounced along, smiling under her downy hair and chatting to her dad who was busy searching.  She, the baby, laughed in recognition of me, another person who was interested.  I thought, how wise the one, how young the other.

*

Birds

 A cockatoo took to the wind above the river,

alone and silent,

home hunting,

flight flapping

on butter-tipped wings

While I benched on the path below,

green-grassed and grieving

watching, wishing, in wingless unbless,

for a crash-landed past.

*

Two blue wrens hip-hopped

Among the reeds

Sway bopping

On bent bows

Of woodwind grass

To the wind’s upbeat.

*

Photo:  The photo was taken at Wilson’s Prom by photographer and fellow-scribe, Bob Thornhill.

Not quite home

August 17, 2011

All my life I have lived within the compass of these desert horizons.  I know there is a different world outside because I have twice been to a city and once – when a very small child – to the sea.  Of course, there are other ways to know, but they are fading and my memory is sufficient.

The sea was a field of mid-spring spinifex grass when the ears wave and waft seed on the breeze.

It is only five years since I visited the city; that place a week’s journey away through narrowing hills and widening roads.  Minny brought me.  On the way, we dined at the hotel in which her mother and I stayed on our honeymoon night.  The steaks were not as thick or tender as formerly.  There is a motel attached to the building now, but Minny and I chose instead to drive on until we found cheaper lodgings.  My journey was in order to negotiate the sale of my farm, a time of loss, and I needed to watch pennies in case the sale went badly.

The brumbies in my mind did not keep pace as we swept up to those tower blocks on the horizon and then in between them at last.  Since my previous visit as a boy on vacation, I had forgotten the frequency of traffic lights and young people and recalled more chimneys.  My thoughts only fitfully held the real things of my life – the flaking of fence posts, the scent of cattle sweating in the sun – as we entered those streets with rough haste.  Many of the real things were soon not to be mine, but my main regret was that I could not give them over to Minny, as my father had handed them to me so long ago in a sheaf of papers marked ‘Grant of Land’.  He had been rightfully proud; a man who started out with a small parcel of unwatered pasture able on his retirement to assign the duty of caring for fertile river flats and 1,000 head of stock to his eldest.

I apologized aloud to Minny and silently to her dead mother as we entered the glass doors of the lawyer’s office.  Minny only shook her head.  What does a divorced librarian need with a stony creek bed and a pile of rusting sheds anyway?  That was the sum of her argument.  It was not my fault, so she also told me, and it is true enough that the banks’ takeover of our district followed the drought’s own land grab with relentless and logical precision.  My memory of healthy grass plains should be consigned to the dead past along with my vision of the sea.  This I cannot deny, but regret is taught by the heart rather than reason.

And so I came home from that last urban venture, if not quite home.  At least, I ended back between the sky walls I’ve always known.  My unit – not yet a berth in a nursing home – is close to the municipal offices where Minny works, and she drives me past the farm gate on weekends.  The distance is forgiving out here.  It lets you abide in wide circles without making you fear you have strayed too far.  From different hills, you can see the same bird wheeling.

I shelter now, rather than live, and perhaps sheltering is better.  I am in the hands of God the earth, God the sky, God the wind, and He has not yet scattered my bones, which are still strong enough for the little work I have to do.  I have gained rather than lost my sense of His presence, being much alone and usually idle.  I hear his voice in the crow’s cawing and the thud of hooves.  The silence that calms shy animals also gentles me.  Human chatter has never been my craving.

I have no need for tools now, except lowly ones that I keep about my person.  A sharp knife is still a good thing.  I skinned a rabbit for my grandson this morning and, while wiping the blood on the ground, recognized the drops of it.  It was the dewy bare soil that ran through my father’s fingers as he planned new pastures, and the oil from the diesel train that came to rest forever in our siding years ago, and the flower of the bottlebrush tree that perhaps still grows outside my kitchen window, and the black grease around the eyes of my first working dog.  And it has stopped flowing.

Sometimes I wake from dreams of death by dust.  It is clogging my throat, my lungs, my veins.  Who will heed my gasps?

Let me not die in my bed but while I am out walking somewhere, please God.  Let my body lie between walls only of weather.  Let me feel the cold wind on my face and the bite of rain on my bare arms, at the end.  If I hear the voice of the grass in the breeze, I will be comforted.

But I am become feeble-minded indeed if I give in to fears cast up by nightmares.  This compass of horizons – and the years it has been my lot to carry – mean no more to the universe than a set of hopping footprints among the spinifex.  Let me, instead, accept the passing.  There is no call for mourning.  God’s tears do not fall, and neither shall mine.

Thanks for reading my story.

Photo: Yaruman5

The word as visual art: Is Wordle the last word?

June 15, 2011

It’s true: words really can be art.  We know they should sound good to the inner ear, but how about making them pleasing to the eye?  Words, after all, are symbols, representations of meaning – and they can be represented in many ways.  The visual representation can influence the meaning.

A friend of mine recently indulged in NaNoWriMo and was introduced to Wordle as a reward.  (I say ‘indulged’ because I’m envious; he wrote a 50,000 word novel in a month.)  Wordle is a quick easy way to turn your words, and anyone else’s, into a word cloud picture.  You can:

frame it…

stencil it…

cover a book with it…

paper the walls with it…

create a Powerpoint presentation of it…

write a poem about a loved one, Wordle it and send it to them as a card…

make an ad with it…

turn your 50,000 word novel into it???  I wonder…

Here are some Wordle examples to inspire you:

The Sermon on the Mount, Wordle by Purple Slog

Wordle used in a Powerpoint presentation, by London Looks

Wordle ad, photo by Ged Carroll

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But you’re doubtful, aren’t you?  You’re thinking Wordle is too quick and easy.  Where’s the evidence of skill, of mastery, of sweat, of commitment, damn it?  In a Wordle, the meaning just might translate as I-couldn’t-be-bothered.  Fine, then.  Go ahead and learn calligraphy, buy your parchments and your gold leaf.

If you want to know what real commitment to words looks like, check out this example below:

Photo by Dave Keeshan

This photo was taken on Australia Day, also known as Survival Day, 26th January 2008, the day the Australian Prime Minster said sorry on behalf of the nation to the ‘stolen generations’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.  Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Sorry Speech was, in itself, an important piece of word art.  It was heartfelt and healing, and it took ‘sorry’ to a whole new level of meaning as a nation-definer.  I still can’t read it without crying.

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And what do you think of word tatts?  Every day, your body is talking to you and everyone else who sees you.  It says the same thing, over and over again…

Photo by Molly Germaine

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In the context of the tattoo above, Kurt Vonnegut’s words become a philosophy of life.

Photo by Leah Jones

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The tattoo above is Hebrew scripture.  David, before he became king, asks that his enemies will fall by the sword and become no better than foxes.  The meaning here is ambiguous.  Why would you wear this biblical line as a tatt?  Perhaps to show political allegiance, but it might also signify devotion to a spiritual path, even more so than a Hijab or a Christian cross both of which can be taken off.

Photo by Leo Lambertini

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Don’t panic – we’re in this together.  I think this tatt is my favourite, especially as it has a greater impact in a group.

I realise now that this post could also have been titled: What to do with your work if you can’t get a publisher and are still resisting the bottom drawer/delete button/shredder.

 

Photographers’ flickr pages:

Purple Slog, London Looks, Ged Carroll, Dave Keeshan, Molly Germaine, Leah Jones, Leo Lambertini

 

Woman who walks with the dogs – true(ish) story with pictures

May 31, 2011

In the end they sent an application for renewal of dog registration and I had to answer. It was just like The Truman Show. Every which way, I was hounded (pun intended). The people of the world with their ways, they were out to get me, no doubt about it.

I didn't make this up. Zoom in on the sign in the sky. No creative editing here, I promise. Punt Road, Melbourne as one strange art gallery.

I was out walking the dog and I saw a sign above the railway bridge. It read, ‘Blame and punish the individual.’ Beneath the sign, cars streamed into the tunnel and out of it, turning left and right, waiting at the lights, revving a bit as they waited. On the bridge, people waited for their trains, the 5.36 from Frankston and the 5.12 – running late – from Epping. No one looked at the sign, although it was huge, at least the size of a large plate-glass window in an art gallery. White letters on a black background. A big full stop the size of a basketball after the word ‘individual’. No one looked at the sign because they didn’t need to. They all knew it, they got the message, they were all breathing it in anyway. Individuals being blamed and punished, and doing their fair share of blaming and punishing too.

Lucky dogs can’t read, I thought as I looked down and shook my head. The dog was wagging her tail. She likes cars as long as she’s on her lead. She knows she’s safe with me.

Yes, we really do live in a funny world.

On the way home, I passed another sign that gave me pause. See? The world is not that real, don’t worry, I told the dog. She clearly wasn’t worried at all.

But then I got home and discovered that her registration was up for renewal. Now there’s a sign that you can’t ignore. She runs away, the Council finds her, they’ll be on to me with a fine, and who wants that? I could risk it, and it’s not that much money anyway, but there are some ways of the world that you might as well go with. The application letter said she was a small Australian Terrier, black, with no distinguishing features. The only part that’s strictly true is the part about no distinguishing features. It’s also the only part she’d appreciate, if I could tell her. She’d like that description of herself, I think.

Head not shown to protect the animal's privacy.

She wears a green tag on her collar, an extra tag, not just the one the Council gave me. It’s because she does run away occasionally. An adventurer, she is. A covert adventurer, which is why she likes to be indistinguishable. Goes out into the world, looks at its ways, and then comes home. Always comes home. I like that in a person, the homing instinct. That’s the bit that’s most true, and it’s what matters most about this whole thing, I guess.

The Cloud Street of life

May 29, 2011

Thousands of people claim Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet as their favourite novel.  It’s certainly one of mine.  But what is so special about this saga of two poor families living mid-20th Century in a rundown house in a parochial Australian town?  The lives involved would probably rate as not worth the bother to most storytellers.  Special?  Winton’s characters live, die, fall in and out of love, get married, have kids, get old.  They have their tragedies and their joys, mostly private ones, like most of us.  But you wouldn’t give any of them a second glance on the daily train commute.  In the course of 20 years, not one of them has a story that would make the front page of the newspaper you’re reading.  Sure, they have their little sensations, but you’d mostly dismiss those as pub talk.  So why?

Tim Winton opens up their lives for us as if that dusty broken old house on Cloud Street is a stuffed-full keepsake chest.

… an enormous, flaking mansion with eyes and ears and a look of godless opulence about it…

… the quiet yard where vegetables teemed in the earth and fruit hung, where a scarfaced pig sang sweetly at the sky…

He treats each member of the Lamb and Pickles clans as a soul who cradles the essence of life itself.  Their every gesture is worthy of reverence simply because they are human beings.

Lester and Oriel Lamb are Godfearing people.  If you didn’t know them you could see it in the way they set up a light in the darkness.  You’ve never seen people relish the lighting of a lamp like this, the way they crouch together and cradle the glass piece in their hands, wide eyes caught in the flare of a match, the gentle murmurs and the pumping, the sighs as the light grows and turns footprints on the river beach into longshadowed moon craters.  Let your light so shine.

Rose sharpened all her pencils and kept her writing desk in good order.  Each drawer was neat as a diagram inside: paper, nibs, clips, crayons, blunt scissors closed like a body in repose.  It was the way she’d have her whole kitchen, if she ever had one to herself: her whole house.

He doesn’t romanticise their lives.  He keeps them complicated, knotty.  He mingles their joy with sadness, refuses them important, let alone happy, endings.  Yet he also treats them with so much compassion that you learn to revere them as he does.  Fish Lamb, Cloudstreet’s central character – the most odd, disabled and beautiful of all Winton’s characters – voices his creator’s and our own feeling about them:  ‘… you can’t help but worry for them, love them, want for them…’

And I’m excited about the mini-series of the novel, screening soon.  The posters give hope of a thoughtful production.  The still photos of plainly dressed characters and simple scenes are carefully designed.  They’re pretty and polished, not flashy and false.  Historical accuracy has not been compromised, but neither has the richness of these fictional lives.  It looks like the producers might share the general respect for this novel.  And many of us agree that it is the great Australian novel.

But still, why so special?  Why so great?

I think it’s because Tim Winton’s vision of life is the one we all want.  We want to see our own lives in the same kindly light, no matter our foibles and our ordinariness.  Look how he paints conversations, as if each word is the perfect and only thing that can be uttered in that moment.  Not a word too many, not one too few:

Dolly rests an elbow on the sill.  The grass is shin high out in their half of the yard.  Bits of busted billycarts and boxes litter the place beneath the sagging clothesline.

I dunno what I’m doin, she says.

Do you ever?

She shrugs.  Spose not.  What about you?

He takes a drag.  I’m a bloke.  I work.  I’m courtin the shifty shadow.  That’s what I’m doin.

This is another life.

It’s the city.  We own a house.  We got tenants.

Do you remember Joel’s beach house?

Sorta question is that?

That was our life.

It’s easy to forget how beautiful Tim Winton’s style is.  So many writers, particularly we Australians who are proud of the guy, model our work on his.  ‘Wintonesque’ is already in the lexicon and will probably make it into The Macquarie Dictionary in time.  We’re used to it is all.

Like all great books, there’s a message in Cloudstreet that readers can take away to enrich their own lives.  It’s that we can have that same vision and it will redeem us.  We don’t have to strive for worldly greatness or stand out from the crowd.  We can be – and no doubt most of us are – no better or worse, no more or less important, than a Sam Pickles or an Oriel Lamb.  All it takes is a little forgiveness, and our lives will be as lovable.

A story: Black, white, blue

May 2, 2011

He had white hair and blue eyes and was about 6-years old.  I say ‘about’ only to take into account that many 4-year olds and 8-year olds could pass for 6.  ‘About’ is a habit.   Actually many people could and did pass for him.  I’ve seen literally hundreds of lookalike photos.

There was one of a 53-year old named Albert who bore such a good resemblance in the grainy black-and-white shot taken by an insomniac dog walker that he gave a mother hope for three whole days.  Albert was snapped outside a public toilet in a seaside caravan park at 2am.  He happened to be only130 centimetres tall and was remarkedly aged, so that his hair had turned completely white from its once dark brown.  A much taller man was with him, and these guys suffered unfair scrutiny for a while until their mutual attraction adequately explained why they were in that location at that hour.

There were many more children than adults, of course, in the lookalike images.  Some boys, some girls.  In most cases, they were being cared for at the time by a parent who just happened to be getting a coffee at the kiosk, or was changing a younger sibling’s nappy on a nearby bench, or was chasing a runaway dog, or was making a phone call in the car.  In some cases, the children were playing hookey and as a result of being caught got into trouble with their school or their kindergarten or their parents or other authorities, but no harm done.

There was the case of the dark-haired 14-year old, Max, who was found passed out from a heroin overdose in tea tree scrub, not far from the scene of Albert’s adventures.  Max had not been reported missing yet.  In fact, he’d just had time to jump out of his bedroom window, meet his dealer and secure his gear, inject himself, then O.D. when he was found.  Paramedics in the search party – this was in our first week – revived him and, as far as I know, he has gone on to live an uneventful life.  It was lucky for Max that the search was on.  We call him the silver lining.

But enough about the false trails.  The fact remains that none of those hundreds of lookalikes was our boy.  After so long, I have to accept – so the counselors tell me – that not one of them was, is or ever will be Matthew Clay Robinson, who might also have answered to Matt or Mattie or my little man.

Photo: CobraVerde

Bird call

March 29, 2011

OwlOn the phone last night to a friend,

Looking out across rooves as I

Complained about the new arrangements at work again,

I saw a silhouette

Against the neighbour’s lamplit window.

*

Black shape of a large bird

- perched on an aerial –

Framed in the golden square.

*

‘So after the meeting I thought fuck you , of course, and then he –’

Twisted its head and preened feathers,

Sat as still as stone,

Spread a powerful wingspan,

Lifted and was gone.

*

‘Well, if he thinks I’m going to come around to –’

A fluttering caught my eye.

The wings so much grander than the usual pigeon’s

And anyway, no pigeon in the dark.

A bat?  But the feathers, the box-shaped tail.

*

Now, in my own yard,

Landed on the Hills Hoist,

Swayed, talons gripped the wire –

Its round head swiveled as if in a socket

Pale face – an owl.

*

What message from the wild?

This wildness I’ve never seen here –

Never in more than 40 years of city life, tram stops, supermarket shopping.

‘Sorry? Look, I have to go.  See you at book club, yeah.’

*

The clothesline bare and bouncing.

Flown while I was hanging up.

Then a distant trombone note

And another, far away.

What message from the night’s great hunter?

What message?

Am I, as usual, too late to know?

***

I wrote this poem the other night.  Feedback welcome.

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