Responses to Noel Pearson

As I’m sure I’ve said before, one of the best things about Black Inc’s Quarterly Essay is that substantial responses to each issue are published in the next one. I’ll write about Guy Rundle’s essay on Clive Palmer in QE 56 some time soon. For now I just want to draw your attention to the Correspondence section.

There’s a plan for a referendum in 2017 on changing the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. This referendum has been postponed a number of times, at least partly because the subject doesn’t seem to be hitting any kind of nerve with most Australians, and partly because there’s no agreement on what proposal should be put to us.

You might think you know enough now to know how you’ll vote. Well, maybe you’re wrong about that. You really should read Noel Pearson’s Quarterly Essay 55, A Rightful Place and then you should read the responses in No 56. (If you’re pressed for time you could skip John Hirst, who has said elsewhere that Aboriginal matters are out of his comfort zone and demonstrates the truth of that here by creating and then dismissing as unpersuasive a breathtakingly simplistic summary of Pearson’s argument. You might also skip Paul Kelly – definitely not the songwriter – who seems intent on offering advice to Tony Abbott rather than talking to you and me.)

Here are some snippets.

From Megan Davis, professor of law at University of NSW:

Even before the Quarterly Essay went on sale, Pearson’s potentially complementary proposal was dismissed as ‘grandstanding’ and ‘unhelpful’. Having served on the prime minister’s expert panel on constitutional recognition alongside Pearson, I found this an exasperating reminder that although black leaders regularly chant ‘leaders are readers’ to our young mob, Australia’s political leaders are in fact, on the whole, not readers.

From Rachel Perkins, filmmaker and activist:

Noel’s notion of tethering cultural survival to constitutional reform is intriguing. When I grasped the potential of his idea, I realised it may be our best hope – in the short term – of attracting national interest on this issue. It lit a spark for me and gave me hope, for we have only to look back on our history to understand the trajectory we are on. The question is: will our people be able to put their differences aside and unite, as they did in 1967, towards this possibility?

From Celeste Liddle, Arrente woman and trade union organiser:

As a trade unionist, I support a hearty process of negotiation between parties wishing to work together to achieve outcomes. There has never been a negotiated agreement between First Peoples and the government in this country and I feel that it is integral to achieve this before we look at amending the constitution to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

From Henry Reynolds, historian:

Noel Pearson’s powerful advocacy notwithstanding, Australia has regressed on indigenous matters– a generation ago the question of a treaty was seriously discussed, as was the status of traditional law. And this leaves us far behind comparable societies such as New Zealand, Canada, the United States and the Scandinavian countries. Noel argues that we cannot expect any more because, unlike the Maoris, indigenous Australians are only a very small minority. But this carefully avoids comparison with the much higher status of the Native Americans in North America and the Sami in Scandinavia.

From Robert Manne:

During the 1990s, under Paul Keating and Patrick Dodson, there existed an atmosphere of intense hopefulness about the role reconciliation might play in the creation of a better nation. In May 2000, at its climax, hundreds of thousands of Australians walked across the bridges of Australia in support of a reconciliation ceremony at the centenary of federation, an idea which, unforgivably, the Howard government quickly killed. The mood of hope was still not altogether extinguished, as the passions stirred by Kevin Rudd’s February 2008 apology to the stolen generations demonstrated. However, in recent years that atmosphere has faded. Somehow, if the referendum is to succeed it will now have to be rediscovered. Pearson it probably right to believe that unless the movement for indigenous constitutional recognition is led by a rock-solid conservative it is unlikely to succeed. The problem is that a rock-solid conservative is the least likely kind of political leader capable of reigniting the social-justice passions of Australians.

From Fred Chaney:

It is helpful to read this essay alongside a viewing of Noel’s address at Garma this year, published on YouTube. There you get the force of presentation as well as intellect. Following reference to the destruction of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, he posed the question ‘we are still grappling with today': ‘will European settlement of Australia enable a different people with a different heritage to have space in it?’ He poses it as a question still unresolved. He says that in the 1820s in Tasmania we answered the question by our actions. Then in stark terms he suggests, ‘If we don’t come to a just answer to that question today, that same answer will come about for benign reasons.’ If he is correct in this, and I think he is, it is a matter of great seriousness for all of us.

Really, I recommend you to read the whole thing.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 Wrap Up

awwbadge_2014The Australian Women Writer’s Challenge is an initiative aimed to address the gender imbalance in our literary culture by having people undertake to read a certain number of books by, as the name of the challenge suggests, Australian Women Writers. I signed up for the Franklin level challenge, which meant I was committed to reading 10 books and reviewing at least 6. I One of the requirements of completing the challenge is to write a completed challenge post. This is that post.

The books I have read so far are:

The book of Chinese poems in translation is probably borderline, but Mabel Lee is definitely an Australian Woman Writer, and editors surely count for something. I’m also not sure I should claim that my blog entries are actually reviews, but if you put 11 blog entries maybe they can count as six reviews.

So, two hefty novels, one non-fiction work, a collection of essays and seven books of poetry; seven books published in 2014 and nothing earlier than 2009; one e-book; one expat, a couple of people born elsewhere and one Indigenous woman.

I may read some more by Australian women writers before the year finishes in two weeks’ time,  but that will be outside the challenge.

Jennifer Maiden’s Drones and Phantoms

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

D&P cover pic

With each new book Jennifer Maiden continues a long-running conversation, or rather several conversations. Here’s a list of those that either continue or begin in Drones and Phantoms:

  • Clare Collins and George Jeffreys appear in 3 poems, bringing their total to more than 16 (not counting the novels where they first appeared). All a new reader needs to know is that the white-haired Clare was a child-murderer and George, her former parole office, is now her part-time lover. You don’t need to know about their past encounters with a Somali pirate or a Beijing dissident to enjoy the poems in this book, which find George in Iceland and Clare hiding in a tree on Manus Island. The pair’s adventures don’t constitute a single narrative: they turn up in hot spots on the slimmest of pretexts and, while the characters are much more than cardboard cut-outs, their conversations with each other and the figures they meet are also a vehicle for what Gig Ryan has called Jennifer Maiden’s ‘dialogic enquiries’.

Maiden’s dialogic enquiries also include a string of public figures, most of them in conversation with resurrected/awakened figures for whom they have expressed admiration in real life, and many of them addressing the complex relationship between the living characters’ actions and their proclaimed ideals:

  • Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt are up to their tenth conversation, full of consolation, admonition and – could it be? – flirtation
  • Tony Abbott and Queen Victoria costar in four brief poems, at the end of which VR appears to give up on TA (which is perhaps the poet relinquishing her attempt to enter Tony Abbott’s mind sympathetically)
  • Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen get on very well
  • Kevin Rudd seeks reassurance from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who observes silently in one poem and soothes indirectly in another (‘Numbers / you know are always deadly’)
  • Nelson Mandela is reluctantly drawn into conversation with Barack Obama about drones, justice and reconciliation
  • Mother Teresa and Lady Diana (who died on the same day) renew their acquaintance
  • Julia Gillard tells an unnamed disk jockey that riding in his Rolls Royce Phantom convertible would make her hair uncontrollable (the reference is to an interview with Kyle Sandilands). I think it’s fair to say that Jennifer Maiden is not a fan of Julia Gillard, whose previous relationship with Nye Bevan seems to have come to an end..

These dialogue poems are a means for the poet to offer reflections on current events, on the nature of power and violence, and state sanctioned evil. (It’s a measure of their success that when I watched our elected leaders struggling to find words in the wake of the Martin Place siege this week, I wanted instead to eavesdrop on George and Clare, or perhaps Mike Baird and Winston Churchill.) But – call me shallow – the poems are also good, eccentric fun. While Tony Abbott is working as a volunteer bushfire fighter, Queen Victoria fans herself with a copy of his book The Minimal Monarchy. Tanya confides to Jane:

Jane, sometimes the need for tact
disconcerts me so much that I grin
like a guilty schoolgirl, then try to make
it seem deliberately charming.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s hand

seemed much larger than Hillary’s now, had
stilled and covered it like the pod
around a seed.

There are other dialogues:

  • LM Montgomery, creator of Anne of Green Gables, wakes up in the modern museum version of Green Gables and alarms a tourist
  • There are real, remembered conversations that Jennifer Maiden has had with Judith Wright and with her daughter Katharine; and an imaginary chat with Frank O’Hara, a poet whose work she has never read.

The conversation in this book isn’t limited to the imaginary or remembered dialogues. In a number of essay poems (some of which Maiden labels ‘Diary Poems’ in ironic response to a critic who dismissed some of her earlier poems as diary excerpts), the conversational tone is marked, and occasionally the reader is addressed directly, as in this, from ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Silence':

I often value my lack of audience (except
for you, of course) in that one
can speak freely in a poem because
no one will read it, which is like
being silent, but with almost none
of the corollary frustration.

Closely related to this pervasive use of dialogue is another kind of interactivity. Maiden increasingly flies in the face of the truism that no good can come from a writer responding to critics or dissing editors. There’s the mild amusement in ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Frank O’Hara’ at a reviewer who ‘said I’d learned a lot from Frank O’Hara’ and then ‘professed shock that I had never read O’Hara’, and in the opening of ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Judith Wright':

After a couple of reviewers who decided
I was not Judith Wright’s successor, I
began to recall my encounters
with Judith herself

But there’s less amusement, something closer to rancour, when she tells of a row with an editor (in ‘The Sweet Sheep Gone’), when she refers in ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Ethiopia’ to feminists who are ‘well in favour / of ethical security’ and ‘a hostile magazine site’ ‘now given / to ethical self-security’, when she gets stuck into ‘The Director of a Writers’ Society [who] tweets / flatly that my book is not her “thing” / because it is too political with only / a “niche” of poetry’ (in ‘In Proportion’ ). I find it hard to know what to make of these responses to critics, especially because, as a bit of a fan, I often recognise the reviews and have read the relevant comments threads. It is interesting, though, that she speaks back from within the poems – resulting in a kind of vertiginous cross-referencing within her body of work.

You probably have to be interested in the political news to enjoy this poetry. Or maybe not. I’m at home with references to Forbes and Hope, Christmas Island, Fukushima, Run-Over-the-Bastards Askin, Santamaria. But there are a lot of references that I don’t get. I generally enjoy the play of language and mind enough anyway, but when I decide to let Google be my friend, the results invariably enrich the reading experience: I had to reread Hopkins’s ‘Elected Silence’, find out who Frieda Hughes is, and learn about the killing and ‘autopsy’ of the giraffe Marius in Denmark, among, come to think of it, many other things.

There’s more, lots more. But that’s enough for one blog post.

awwbadge_2014Drones and Phantoms, is tenth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge, and with it I have met the quota I accepted at the beginning of the year. I am very grateful to Giramondo for sending me a complimentary copy.

Lily Brett’s Only in New York

Lily Brett, Only in New York (Hamish Hamilton 2014)

1ony

This book is not to be confused with Lily Brett’s similarly titled New York, published in 2001, even though both are collections of essays about New York. There are similarities of course, but whereas New York‘s essays were each exactly three pages long, and geared primarily to a German readership (they were first published as columns in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, translated by Melanie Waltz), the essays here are much less constrained, ranging from two to 10 pages, and don’t have any sense of the deadline pressure that’s often found in newspaper columns (though at least one of them, ‘Falling in Love in Cologne’, has appeared in Die Zeit). Many of the essays read as if they were partly written in Lily Brett’s head as she went on long walks in Manhattan. Not that she’s a flâneuse, as her opening sentences make clear:

When I go for a walk in New York, I like to have a destination. Actually, I like to have a destination wherever I am when I go for a walk. I am not one of those aimless walkers, people who can stroll around from place to place without a plan.

Many of the essays start with naming a destination: Grand Central Station, Spandex House in the Garment District, Caffe Dante in Greenwich Village, her father’s apartment block. Occasionally, as when her eldest daughter is in labour, there’s no destination, but it’s still not aimless wandering, but walking ‘around and around the block, with increasing speed. For hours.’ Apart from the streets and people of Manhattan (the other boroughs don’t get a look in), the book returns to a number of subjects: Brett’s family – mother, father, husband, children – her Australian connections, her many neuroses and anxieties. Much of the book’s considerable charm comes from the way the essays veer off in unexpected directions – like a purposeful but totally distractable walker.

In an essay that starts out apparently about Brett’s incompetence at sewing, she confides that she  is ‘not the kind of person who can lounge around the house in a sweatshirt’, and goes on:

My mother was well dressed all the time. Even when she cleaned the house. She polished the floor and scrubbed the kitchen in a silk blouse, pleated skirt and high heels.

Then, without missing  a beat:

After her world cracked and splintered when the Nazis invaded Poland, my mother was never the same. She could never relax. She was always on guard. It was as though she needed to be prepared for any eventuality. And I have inherited that need.

We can enjoy the image of Brett’s mother’s eccentricity. But we’re not to trivialise her. And that’s true of the book as a whole. I laughed a lot. Brett’s nonagenarian father is very funny, but he is a triumph of the human spirit. New York is full of absurdities (customers are called ‘guests’, dogs wear shorts, psychics abound) but you never know what you’ll see if you keep your eyes open.

At a Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago Inga Clendinnen said that whereas a novelist plays Catch-Me-If-You-Can with the reader, an essayist invites the reader to come for a walk. She could have had this book in mind.

awwbadge_2014

Only in New York is the ninth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge,

The Book Group and John Hirst’s Australian History in 7 Questions

John Hirst, Australian History in 7 Questions (Black Inc 2014)

9781863956703Before the Book group meeting: ‘I know that many people find Australian history dull and predictable,’ John Hirst starts his introduction to this book. Invited to lecture on this potentially deadly topic at a branch of the University of the Third Age, he had the thought that if he framed the lectures as puzzling over genuine questions, they would cease to be predictable. I don’t know about the lectures, but this book is lively and has quite a few surprises.

Hirst’s seven questions, and severely truncated version of his answers, are:

  1. Why did Aborigines not become farmers? The real question is why did other hunter-gatherer peoples ever make the transition to farming, when it’s advantages are far from obvious? (He relies on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel a fair bit. It’s not part of his story that Aboriginal people did become farmers, but were ruthlessly driven off their land by the colonisers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century – as in Heather Goodall’s From Invasion to Embassy.)
  2. How did a penal colony change peacefully to a democracy? This question is based on a misapprehension: New South Wales was never a penal colony. It began as a colony of convicts: from the beginning the work of the colony was overseen by other convicts, and convicts had substantial rights. The penal reform movement in England led to a failed attempt to turn it into a penal colony in the 1820s and 1830s.
  3. Why was Australia so prosperous so early? The most interesting aspect of Hirst’s answer is that the colony was run by government employees. That is, the people in charge weren’t there to make profit for themselves or their company, but were public servants, and had the resources of the British government behind them.
  4. Why did the Australian colonies federate? This chapter is mainly a rebuttal of two common replies: that Federation happened because of business interests or because of racism. Business in fact opposed Federation until the eleventh hour, and while racism was big and ugly it wasn’t the motivator. You have to ignore the vast amount of bad poetry being published in late 19th century Australia not to realise that the move to Federation was driven by a deep yearning for independence, a powerful nationalistic sentiment.
  5. What effect did convict origins have on national character? Relying on a 1969 essay by Henry Reynolds, Hirst rebuts Russell Ward’s well-established story that our convict origins made us an irreverent lot, free-spirited and suspicious of authority. On the contrary, the ‘convict stain’ meant Australians felt the need to prove themselves among nations by, for example, sending off lots of young men to die in England’s wars. The need to transcend the ‘impure origins’ of the nation may have lain behind the racism of the White Australia policy – Australia would be ‘racially pure’.
  6. Why was the postwar migration program a success? Hirst points to the way the colonies dealt with cultural differences well before the 1950s. The conflicts that were left behind in Britain and Ireland were savage, and though prejudice and mutual unpleasantness continued, there was a general consensus that the old conflicts should not be imported into the new country.
  7. Why is Australia not a republic? The Australian colonies were too far away from England to feel safe if they cut ties, and much more recently John Howard played on people’s distrust of politicians to secure a defeat in the 1999 referendum.

That gives some idea of the book’s arguments. Of course, the story you tell depends on what questions you start from. Ask any Australian historian to come up with 7 questions, and you’ll get a different book. It’s hard to imagine an Aboriginal historian such as Vicki Grieves choosing Hirst’s first, even without the questionable term ‘Aborigines’, or James Boyce, author of Van Diemen’s Land, being so focussed on Sydney and Melbourne. I don’t remember any mention of the Chinese on the goldfields, or of the substantial non-Anglo immigrant communities that flourished before the Second World War – Germans in South Australia, and Southern Europeans in north Queensland, say.

I’m not a historian myself, but I enjoy reading history, and plan to keep my ears open for the discussion this book generates. Hirst has stuck a number of spanners in the well-oiled works of received versions of Australian history, and that can’t be bad.

The meeting: This was our last meeting for the year and was even more convivial than usual. The business of the evening began with ceremonial distribution of  books each of us had chosen from our shelves and wrapped in bright paper. I scored The Atlantic Ocean, a collection of essays by Andrew O’Hagan.

The book turned out to be a fabulous choice for the group. There was a lot of interesting discussion, which included quite a bit of holding personal histories up against Hirst’s generalisations. We are all white, almost all of Anglo heritage, but quite a few of us had our own experiences or those of people we’re close to that resonated with Hirst’s notion of conflicts being left in their place of origin, not dwelt on here. One guy started out saying that he didn’t care for the book much because the writing is pedestrian, giving information but no pleasure – but by the end of the evening, he said he had been converted. We laughed a lot, but I don’t remember what about.

Brendan Ryan’s Travelling through the Family

Brendan Ryan, Travelling through the Family (Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets 2012)

My father was a sugar farmer in North Queensland, who ran a small herd of cattle and never swore in front of us kids, if you don’t count an occasional ‘bloody’ in all male company. He used to tell a joke about a farmer from the back blocks who was taken to the big city (which we understood to be Brisbane) to speak at a conference about his use of organic fertiliser His talk went down well, and afterwards, one of the city folk approached the outreach officer who had brought him. ‘That was very interesting,’ he said, ‘but couldn’t you have told him to say “cow dung” or “manure” instead of “cow poo”?’ The officer replied, ‘If you only knew how hard it was to clean up his language to say “poo”.’

That might give you some idea of the pleasure I found in Brendan Ryan’s poem ‘Cowshit’, which includes these lines:

Smell of country air, of cowshit in the grass,
in the dairy, on farmers’ arms, on jeans, shirts,
leather aprons, cowshit dripping off the rails,
squeegeed down drains, piped into paddocks.
One farmer’s waste becomes a supermarket essential.
It’s cowshit economics. The word that dare not
be admitted determines class, roughness, is
the perfume in a dairy farmer’s bedroom.

The poem goes on, and includes such fine turns of phrase as ‘the soft explosion beneath my feet’, ‘little green haloes are spread across the paddocks’, and:

Cows on the road always leave a Hansel and Gretel trail,
a splattering that reflects the meditative sway of their walk.

Anyone who has worked closely with cattle would have to be touched.

Likewise, anyone from a big Irish Catholic country family would resonate with the way ‘Walking through Family’ ventiloquises the mother keeping the children on track, culminating in the line ‘AnnetteTheresaMichaelBrendanKathrynDennisDavidPhilipKieranRebecca‘. I was the middle child of five, and more than once my mother called me MichaelEddieElizabethMaryAnnJohnny.

Brendan Ryan’s poetry is deeply rooted in place, specifically in what this book calls blister country, in western Victoria. The three books of his that I’ve read return again and again to his early life on a dairy farm, to what it means to live away from it as an adult, or to revisiting it, even if only to drive through. It’s a rich vein that yields poetry about natural and human landscapes, about cattle and working with cattle, about living in a big Catholic family in a rural community, about masculinity as a son, a brother and a father, about memory and meaning, the powerful interplay of place and identity. In ‘Self-portrait':

These paddocks have made me,
shaped the way I look at mud around gateways.
[…]
I watch myself walk ahead
into paddocks and more poems.
[…]
__________Sisyphus had nothing on this –
pulled to the farm I grew up on
walking through paddocks I can’t live with.

This book is in four sections. ‘Blister Country’ sets the scene with a series of poems about that landscape – it’s a landscape full of figures seen in close-up: kangaroo hunters, abattoir workers, dairy farmers, the ghosts of Aboriginal people and the squatters who slaughtered them, fire fighters, holiday-makers, cattle, and the now urbanised poet, his daughters, and his insistent memories. ‘Cowshit’ is in this section.

‘Travelling through the Family’ and ‘True Confessions’ get more personal – portraits of family members and unsparing accounts of relationships in the former, and in the latter an ‘I’ who is much more in the foreground. ‘Walking through Family’ is in the former, ‘Self-portrait’ in the latter.

‘Driving’ comprises dozen or so glimpses of the world as seen from a moving car, including the world inside the car – the driver’s reflections on where he has been, where he is going. I read most of this book when I was in New York City, for a couple of weeks, and finished reading it back in the familiar surrounds of Marrickville. Marrickville isn’t exactly dairy country, but still derived serendipitous pleasure from the second last poem of the book, the sixth of a series of ‘Driving Sonnets’, which ends:

______________________________Here,
my worth is judged when I open the pub door.
The town generations escaped from, in dreams return to.
Just in from New York, I cannot compare its avenues
to this wide main street that knows too much about me.

It’s not ‘I love a sunburned country’. It’s not patriotism. It’s not nostalgia. It’s not Judith Wright’s ‘my day’s circle’, ‘my blood’s country’, or if it is it’s much more specific, and not at all romanticised. I’ve pretty much lived in cities since I was sent to boarding school at 13: Brendan Ryan’s poetry doesn’t so much make me pine for the country of my childhood as regret that my relationship with it was terminated so abruptly.

Bill Willingham’s Legends in Exile

Bill Willingham, Fables Vol 1: Legends in Exile (Vertigo 2012)

140123755XIn my former life as an editor of children’s literature, we regularly received manuscript stories and plays that rang the changes on classic fairytales – the wolf as a good guy slandered by dodgy pig developers or, far too often, a frog who is nothing but a frog but tricks a princess into kissing him anyhow.

Bill Willingham’s Fables belongs in that tradition. The many lands of fairytales have been invaded by a monstrous Adversary, seen only in flashback in this first book of the series, and the survivors of his onslaught have now lived centuries-long lives among the mundanes (that’s us) in a film-noir inflected New York City. At least, the action of this book takes place among those who live in New York – we are told that others, who can’t pass as human, live in enclaves upstate.

I expect that later volumes will tell the story of the expulsion. Here we are plunged in medias res, and the workings of the Fable community are revealed to us in the course of  a murder investigation. Rose Red has vanished and her blood is all over her apartment. Bigby Wolf, almost always human in form, is the hardboiled detective who investigates. The main suspects are Bluebeard (who is engaged to Rose Red) and Jack, of beanstalk fame (who has been her boyfriend for a long long time). Old King Cole is the figurehead mayor while Snow White does all the community’s real administrative work. Beauty and the Beast are a bickering couple with a difference – whenever she is angry with him, he starts to revert to his beastly appearance. Prince Charming is a parasitic conman. Pinocchio is a real boy, who is permanently enraged for reasons you might be able to guess.

It’s all good, knowing, M rated fun. The art, pencilled by Lan Medina and inked by Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton, serves the story well, tactful with the violence, restrained with the comic transmutations, moodily noir when it has to be, and just every now and then completely over the top.

Sonnet 14: Time and motion

I know the rule is that I have to post 14 sonnets in the month of November, for a very loose definition of ‘sonnet’. It’s now the 1st of December, but this sonnet offers its own justification.

Sonnet 14:Time and motion
Fourteen sonnets in November,
a poem every second day.
But here we are, it’s turned December,
Sydney’s in a summer way
and I’ve failed to meet my quota,
arrived a day late, missed the boat. Uh,
wait a sec! There’s wiggle room,
an argument against my doom.
November’s numbered days are thirty,
but that odd mid-Pacific line
meant I had only twenty-nine.
And I can claim, not playing dirty,
my first was done in New York. Quite!
In New York now it’s nine last night.

 

Sonnets 12 and 13

I couldn’t shoehorn this into 14 lines. It’s shoe-horned anyhow. It was a fabulous evening at the Lincoln Center.

On attending a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor by the American Classical Orchestra

For me, once, Mass was sacramental,
the cosmic human sacrifice
made present. Hymns were incidental,
and often bad: almost a vice
for Credo, Kyrie or Sanctus
to stand apart. A concert yanked us
from colloquy with the divine
to savouring the prayers like wine.
Now, I’m among the non-believers,
see sacrament as metaphor,
know this world’s it, there’s nothing more.
I seek no Gods, not even divas,
yet there is more than taste to art:
some sacred music scruffs my heart.

Tonight, from start to Agnus Dei
seemed one long plea for mercy. Bach
was not a happy-clappy chap, the way he
Gloria’d – whistling in the dark –
and, in the Credo, crucifixion
overshadowed resurrection
(jauntiness to make you weep
at your life’s margins). Herd the sheep
of doubt into Faith’s fragile pen, or
face the raging storm outside!
‘Who takes away the world’s sin,’ cried
a solitary counter-tenor,
‘Have mercy.’ Then all plead as one:
‘Give peace!’ This prayer is never done.

Sonnet No 11

A dependable source of pleasure when travelling is the frequent micro-moments of disorientation: for me in the US they include glimpses of cars in traffic with empty space where I expect a driver, ‘Shaw’ and ‘shore’ not rhyming, entrée as a main course. Most of these moments pass almost subliminally. I doubt if I would have noticed the one that set this poem going if I hadn’t been reading an essay on Australia’s convict period on the plane home. Speaking of micro-disorientation, I don’t suppose many of my readers – Catholic or otherwise – will know the hymn to the Immaculate Conception the poem quotes: it should be enough to know that it exists.

Sonnet No11: Let’s not call the whole thing off
We say ‘transport’, you say ‘transportation’.
At school I sang, ‘My soul today is heav’n
on earth, oh could the transport last!’ Elation,
I parsed the hymn to say when I was sev’n,
could be reached on a bus (shades of Totoro!),
a bus that might not run again tomorrow.
A moment’s puzzlement for little Shaw,
not so much pun as latent metaphor.
But ‘transportation’ told a different story:
Endeavour led to exile, chains, the lash,
a First Fleet weighed down with old England’s trash,
invasion, dispossession, death, no glory.
No wonder my town shuns the longer word,
prefers to leave those murky depths unstirred.