The Poetry of Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas and Robert Harris – a lecture delivered by Robert Adamson, CAL Chair of Poetry at the University of Technology Sydney on Thursday 27 June 2013.
I. Michael Dransfield
I’m the ghost haunting an old house, my poems are posthumous.’ Michael Dransfield
Dransfield’s first collection of poetry: ‘Streets of the Long Voyage’.
Before talking in detail about his poetry I want to give you some idea of what Michael Dransfield was like in person. Here’s a description of Dransfield in the 1970s by Rodney Hall: ‘Michael was tall and thin with a long neck and small face. He appeared to have been equipped with feet a few sizes too large. And yet there was a grace about him, not just the charm of his personality, his generosity and talent for friendship, but a touch of physical radiance also. He had that essentially youthful quality of being at the same time gangling and personable. Perhaps the two most lasting impressions were of his fine hands and his sweet smile under a downy dark moustache. When he grew excited and shed the mock- American incoherence of hippydom, he spoke beautifully.’
I was close friends with Michael and spent many hours with him and his partner Hilary Burns. Visiting them when they lived in the ‘cardboard cottage’ Balmain and ‘The Loft’ in Paddington. When Michael turned up at 50 Church Street, Balmain, the house where we edited Poetry Magazine, he knocked on the door and introduced himself. He told me he had just finished a manuscript and wondered if I might publish it. He said he could write twenty poems in a night, but at the time, I didn’t believe this. It was around midnight when he asked, ‘Oh man, can I sleep on your floor tonight? ’. David Rankin who was sharing the house said, ‘Why not use the couch’.
It wasn’t long before I learned that he could indeed write many poems in a day. Some would turn out to be keepers, however this ability to create spontaneous lyrics wasn’t as much a gift as a handicap, the way facility can be for some artists. He needed tough and critical friends around him but I don’t think he was ready for the critical part. He returned the next day with a manuscript and submitted 20 or so poems to the magazine. I read them and thought there were a quite a few poems that were good enough to publish. My co-editors, Martin Johnston, Carl Harrison-Ford and Terry Sturm weren’t so easily impressed, but they eventually agreed to publish some of Michael’s tighter, less romantic poems. The first one we published was:
memorise what you see
it may be gone tomorrow
everything changes. Someday
there will be nothing but what is remembered
there may be no-one to remember it.
wherever you stand is ground zero
a moving target is harder to hit
Looking through back issues of Poetry Magazine and New Poetry, I must say the editors’ decisions made a lot of sense, Michael’s poems continue to read well after 40 years . There are major poems like ‘Geography’ and ‘After Vietnam’ along with fine lyrics like ‘Mosaic’ and ‘Environmental Art’.
Rodney Hall, his editor, claimed Dransfield was one of the few contemporary Australian poets to have “a genuine popular following among people who do not otherwise read poetry”. Hall was poetry editor of The Australian (1967 to 1978) and published many Dransfield poems in the literary pages. Bronwyn Lea, poetry editor at the University of Queensland Press, Dransfield’s publisher, said his books sold more than the other titles in their poetry series. It’s forty years since Dransfield’s death at the age of 24. His books are still widely read and discussed. He wrote almost a thousand poems during his short life. There were five books published posthumously, including the Collected Poems and a ‘Selected Poems in 2002 by John Kinsella. Also the excellent extensive biography by Patricia Dobrez, Michael Dransfield’s Lives remains relevant.
We look for influences when trying to understand where poets come from. Michael Dransfield absorbed the usual ones for his time, Tennyson, Swinburne, Coleridge, contemporary Americans like Alan Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, the French symbolist poets, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Another poet who had an influence on Dransfield , often overlooked, is Salvatore Quasimodo. A Nobel Prize winning poet who died on the 14th June 1968 in Naples. Michael made a note of this in his diary at the time. A poem was eventually published in The Australian : ‘Death of Salvatore Quasimodo’, Dransfield was 16 years old when he wrote this poem.
Death of Salvatore Quasimodo
Scattered symbols in the garden;
leaf-statues murmur like conspirators,
a grasp of grass-stalks
reaches over the ground;
shattered visions of summer harden
and the turbulent
shiver of wind
will pound at any door.
Homage is a presumptuous gentility
to offer—how may it
replace the loveliness of being,
of being in a resolved species.
who gives veins to link agreeing
areas of sundown, has a new poem
but not a tongue to say it.
These lines make clear how self-aware Dransfield was, : ‘Homage is a presumptuous gentility to offer—how may it replace the loveliness of being’.
He uses Quasimodo’s tight compacted forms as a way to help cut back on rhetoric. Another early poem, ‘still life with hypodermic’ adopts the Italian’s skeletal forms. This poem seems in its pared back way, to describe terminal addiction— but it’s for shock value, demonstrating a fine balance between skill and imagination.
still life with hypodermic
It’s alright for a while.
bliss becomes need
and enough is insufficient.
You make the run,
it’s cool for a while.
insufficient eats you out
you start to
you can’t get up.
That’s what they call
Referencing the hypodermic in a still life sets up the interior of the poem as a shooting gallery. However the next two sections of Streets of The Long Voyage contain some of Dransfield’s best poems. The poem that mentions Schubert is tellingly sub-titled ‘an invention’. However, it’s one thing to compose an invention including conceptual references and Schubert’s name and another to write a poem that imagines its author as a terminal addict. Some of the best early poems, imaginative landscapes, seem more powerful than the early drug poems because they ground themselves in some experience from the world around the poet in suburban Sydney:
a study in time
on planes of light
waking among empties
in a gutter somewhere
climb past street level
using your eyes as scaling-ladders
to capture every rooftop.
Then lasso a wild bird, something free,
even a gull. Higher than Everest
you spill out among rainy hours into chasms of breathless sky
unattainably far from the moderns who, accustomed to miracles
of science, no longer look upward.
When you come to a world
tell who ask that your business is living in artspace;
teach them that to fly means
rising slowly from the depths, with a vision of
some eyelid saint, like Lucifer, and as beautiful,
but still with this aura of distance and perception
to isolate him from the predators.
Dransfield often writes in this, seemingly easy manner, some of his poems have such a light touch it’s easy to dismiss them as being lightweight. His lines are carefully wrought, each line gets progressively longer like broken iambic pentameters,
a study in time
on planes of light
waking among empties
in a gutter somewhere
climb past street level
using your eyes as scaling-ladders
to capture every rooftop.
Then lasso a wild bird, something free,
until we hit line eight, then there’s the halting rhythm of ‘using your eyes as scaling-ladders/ to capture every rooftop. Dransfield’s slightly surreal, deliberately askew image introduces the poem’s message, in this case to ‘to isolate him from the predators .
‘lines for a friend, 1948-1965’ was written for Michael’s closest school friend, Robert Falkenmire, who died at the age of 16 from leukemia. An event that was a trauma for Dransfield. Three years later in a diary entry of September 1967, the day following his own 19th birthday, Dransfield wrote ‘Robert Falkenmire would have been 19 today’. According to Patricia Dobrez, later in the same month, Dransfield was troubled by suicidal thoughts. He wrote to Shapcott and appears to blame himself: he saw good and evil separated into two camps, the dead and the living. Michael was alive, while his friend was dead: Dransfield felt that he was the unhallowed and unworthy one.
lines for a friend, 1948-1965
‘Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath.’
Over before you knew it,
misdiagnosed and done for,
you became some ashes a little plaque a case history;
paintings you did are lost, also your poems,
nothing but ashes in a wall of dead is left.
You will not see again the way
the morning sun floods down O’Connell Street . . .
perhaps you are the sun now;
Childhood was the salt edge of the Pacific,
was the school under the old trees;
soon they disposed of you.
I went to the funeral you and I were the only two
there really the only two who knew the gods had gone;
death and morning the only two,
damned because poets.
Over before we know it,
we pack our lives in souls and go
out with the tide the long procession
the ant the elephant the worker the child
even those doctors who stood around will die sometime,
their money cannot buy them out of it.
We know what is to come a silence teeming
with the unfinished spirits good and bad,
and how we’ve lived determines what we’ll be
next time around, if time’s not buried with us.
Dransfield’s family enrolled Michael at Sydney Grammar School. Within a year or so, he started collecting prizes for his poetry . He did a lot of reading outside the school’s requirements, one book that made a big impression was Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’, He writes about it in his diary: ‘ it was then my mind came into its own, and the analytical thought processes, though limited at the time and concerned with injustice, rather than greater concepts, began to grow and flower. It was then that my poetry began to improve and to become more than a mere pastime. It was my true voice, and I taught myself to speak, and to sing.’
Dransfield enrolled as an Arts Student at the University of NSW. He started to attend folk music venues around the Sydney and became friends with Pip Proud who had a hit single and an album at the time. Maybe this is where Michael got the idea of making a living from poetry, if it could be done with pop songs, why not poetry? Dransfield was ahead of his time in his decision to be a professional poet. What poet in this country before him tried to make a living from poetry alone? In his early years Les Murray, around the time of Dransfield’s first book, was employed at the National Library with translation work. Something Les said recently would have appealed a lot to Dransfield: ‘Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment.’ Before Les Murray, Henry Kendall comes to mind, though in his case being a professional poet wasn’t a choice, Kendall found it difficult to hold down a job but through his poetry he found supporters. The question is multi-layered. The acting out of the role of ‘poet’ is a complex business, it can be seen as a rebellious act, or as John Forbes once said, it can lead a poet into a position of becoming a ‘socially integrated bard’. In the 1950s and 60s established poets hardly mentioned their employment, even on the backs of their books they pared away personal details, you’d be lucky to come across their hobby or sport.
His poem ‘Like this for years’ deals more realistically with the idea of poetry as a profession, it speaks of attitudes many Australians have towards people who themselves a poet. There are similar concerns in a poem written by Hart Crane, from his home town Akron, Ohio in 1921, Crane wrote:
The stars are drowned in a slow rain,
And a hash of noises is slung up from the street.
You ought, really, to try to sleep,
Even though, in this town, poetry’s a
Hart Crane’s lines are the reverse of Michael’s bravado. Being a poet in Australia could easily be seen as the ‘ultimate commitment’—firstly there’s no money in it, secondly to call yourself a poet in some quarters would be to engender ridicule. When Hart Crane wrote these lines about his home town he was 22 years old, the same age as Dransfield when he wrote ‘Like this for years’:
In the cold weather
the cold city the cold
heart of something as pitiless as apathy
to be a poet in Australia
is the ultimate commitment.
When y’ve been thrown out of the last car
for speaking truthfully or mumbling poems
and the emptiness is not these stranded
endless plains but knowing that you are completely
alone in a desert full of strangers
and when the waves cast you up who sought
to dive so deep and come up with
more than water in yr hands
and the water itself is sand is air is something
you realize that what you taste now in the mornings
is not so much blood as the failure of language
and no good comes of singing or of silence
the trees wont hold you you reject rejection
and the ultimate commitment
Dransfield’s first volume was published in 1970, the second in 1972. I can’t help thinking in hindsight, he should have waited another year before publishing a third book. He might have caught up with himself, and not tripped into his next phase as a ‘drug-poet’. However, a few months after The Inspector of Tides was published in 1972, Sun Books, released another volume of Dransfield’s work entitled Drug Poems. I remember thinking this was a mistake in terms of the feedback it would create for Michael. The publisher was determined to cash in on the alternative culture of the times . The overall production of the book was cheap, as opposed to the economical yet sleek design of the UQP paperbacks. Don Anderson was the only critic who had something positive to say about it: “They are hard, clear, disciplined, fully realized poems, which add to his already considerable reputation”.
I believe Michael Dransfield took a wrong turn when he decided to play out the role of the drug poet. Dobrez writes in her first chapter : ‘ we witness the ‘Imagineer’, with one eye turned towards the waiting journalists and critics, surreptitiously manufacturing his own myths: the ‘poet who dared to be different’; the poet who was a traditionalist and a rebel, member of a fantastic patriciate and a man of the people; the poet of the ‘drug world’ who lived ‘in the underground’; the passionate social critic; a sublimely deluded younger Francis Webb; someone ‘terrifyingly close to genius’.’
Tom Shapcott used the phrase ‘terrifyingly close to genius’ to describe Dransfield in his influential 1960s anthology Australian Poetry Now. This was immediately ridiculed by Michael’s peers and followed him for the rest of his life.
Michael Dransfield became addicted to the role he played as much as he did to any substance. I think he was a born poet but his gift wasn’t up to the role he asked of it.
I wrote these lines in an elegy to Michael in 1974:
I see the hours we once walked through
those lived-in hours, spread across the tide,
we asked for a rotten deal and that’s what we got.
Beautiful, ineffectual rebels of an imagined sky,
We searched among the long dead for the living:
Shelley, Blake: they were the harder stuff.
That idea of ourselves as poets was an addiction
more terminal than any opiate the chemists could refine.
Dransfield wrote his thousand poems in less than ten years. Many written in his teenage years. There are other fine poems that I haven’t mentioned, I wanted to concentrate on different aspects of his work— his technically facility, his imaginative reach and the almost magical lightness of touch that allows a translucence to shine through his lines, light that penetrates the often dark subject matter. His most successful poems are lyrical sequences such as ‘Geography’, here’s a section of it, part III —which is a good poem to end on:
In the forest, in the unexplored
valleys of the sky, are chapels of pure
vision. there even the desolation of space cannot
sorrow you or imprison. i dream of the lucidity of the vacuum,
orders of saints consisting of parts of a rainbow,
identities of wild things / of
what the stars are saying to each other, up there
above the concrete and the minimal existences, above
idols and wars and caring. tomorrow
we shall go there, you and your music and the
wind and i, leaving from very strange
stations of the cross, leaving from
high windows and from release,
in the forest, the uncharted
uplands of the spirit
The envelope containing the last letter that Michael Dransfield sent to Robert Adamson. The letter is now held by the National Library (image supplied by Robert Adamson)
2. Vicki Viidikas
Condition Red – Viidikas’ first collection. UQP Paperback Poets No 18. 1973
Vicki Viidikas was born in Sydney 1948. (The same year as Michael Dransfield.) Her parents split up when she was a child and her mother moved to Queensland where Vicki went to school until she was 15. She came to Sydney and studied art for a year, took a series of casual jobs as a waitress, then employment at Abbey’s bookshop near Sydney Town Hall. She started writing at sixteen and never stopped. Writing became her passion and her life. She was a pioneer as a young female poet in the pre-baby boomer generation of predominantly male poets in Sydney, the first of us to be published in an established journal. She was 19 when her first poem was published in Poetry Australia. Vicki was one of only three women to be published in the University of Queensland Press’ initial paperback poets series of 20 books.
Robyn Ravlich produced an hour-long documentary on Vicki Viidikas for the ABC program The Open Air in 2005 : Feathers/Songs/Scars along with a program on Vicki’s writing for Poetica. In her introduction, talking about the Balmain writers of the sixties and seventies, Robyn says, ‘Vicki Viidikas was one of our best writers whose light burned bright and early, whose incisive wordplay illuminated the condition of women defining themselves in and out of relationships. She remains a vivid presence in absence, Vicki was a free spirit then and her poetry reflected it.’
Vicki Viidikas published four books, Condition Red (1973), Wrappings (1974), Knabel (1978) and India Ink (1984). During her writing career she traveled widely through Europe and India. Vicki lived in India for more than a decade, where she wrote poetry and a novel and studied the cultures and religions. She continued to write prolifically through the eighties and nineties, right up until her untimely death on the 27th November 1998. She was 50 years old.
Her writing records her search for freedom and her quest for belief. Also her preoccupation with hard drugs and other dangerous experiences she encountered along the way. Freedom was central to Vicki Viidikas in her life and writing. She strived for freedom on her on own terms and saw it as a right that had to be imagined and fought for, something to be renewed each day as it was lived:
This is from ‘Letter to an Unknown Prisoner’ a late piece written in 1990.
So even as her Israeli friend took to sea on a battleship, she wrestled with asps and profanities, she bargained with the anarchy of her soul, she tried every distraction and sensation to quieten her troubled dreams; no stopping of armies, no pardons for prisoners who’d be loaded up by the cops, no mercy for the murders of boat refugees, no saving of forests or the nurturing of different languages— Nothing but tolerance would change the course of her winds … Freedom, to unlock denial; freedom, that incorrigible weapon.
It’s included in the recently published book ‘Vicki Viidikas ‘New and Rediscovered Martin Edmond has written a very fine review of it in the latest Mascara Literary Review (http://mascarareview.com/martin-edmond-reviews-vicki-viidikas-new-and-rediscovered-2/). He notes Vicki’s use of the phrase ‘incorrigible weapon’ and says it’s ‘a weapon that she seems to have used, both in writing and in life, in every possible manner she could devise’. Edmond picks up on some important aspects of Vicki’s writing and describes it perceptively: ‘the lack of self pity, even of regard, is both bracing and disconcerting’ and that ‘this brave, reckless, honest, insouciant, hyper-aware voyager, discloses herself primarily as wound or, less surely, scar.’ Edmond goes on to say he was not surprised to find her in the later stages of the book, ‘describing the country of addiction from the point of view of an insider, a long-term resident, and ultimately someone who will find it impossible to leave. There are many kinds of addict and many reasons why people become addicted; one, certainly, is that heroin is a great salve of mental pain’. Thinking of Edmond’s final point here, it’s interesting to look at the poetry Vicki wrote before heroin. Here’s a stanza from ‘Cracked Windows’ one of the poems in her first book, written in a relatively stable period of her life,
…………Back there somewhere
the treacherous head has stored its history,
that innocence of not knowing
has changed beyond repair, mirrors
refract a thousand meanings
…………The head distorts what it can’t bear
Those lines were written before she wrote ‘Punishments and Cures’ a poem she thought of as a breakthrough, it draws from the experience and the trauma of a woman being raped. When I think back over my long friendship with Vicki, it seems to me this was a wound that didn’t really heal. Being raped at a young age became more than a wound, or even a wound that healed as a scar, it became a source of hidden rage that lasted a lifetime. Here’s the poem :
Punishments and cures
Did you want me to bungle,
should I have trumpeted about landscapes
buckling overnight . . .
Knotted your head into ribbons
laced with my memories?
Should I have raved and gone dramatic
should I have asked you for pity?
I would have hated you then —
I would have told what you already feel
Don’t ever give me
a raincoat for Xmas,
because rain is external
and Xmas doesn’t matter
Antiseptic would do the streets good,
but don’t talk about prisons — we know
they are no use . . .
Some things are born funnels
without any minds — what do we do about those?
Do we issue T.V.s and dark cells,
what do we do when the rain hurts?
You see he twisted
a broken bottle at my throat,
his head an empty funnel
the inside rusted — something
too human to be recognized.
Next morning his V.D.
still throbbed beneath his sex . . .
We can’t punish what isn’t there
I cant thank him or hate him,
get him put back in jail
for doing what he did before
There was running through bushes
that had faces and trapdoor hands,
feeling my breath waft off,
as if it would never come back
What can we do about funnels?
Rust is impossible to scratch off
and did he cure his V.D.
that priceless souvenir
he needed so much to give me?
Perhaps it’s true what he said,
that all women are ugly . . .
One feels that
when you become a four letter word,
and afterwards, there’s some private festering
not always cured by a doctor . . .
Maybe I shouldn’t have cried the first time,
and maybe I shouldn’t have pleaded the second
Vicki thought a lot about what she was doing formally, she read widely and absorbed the writers she found interesting, she learned from the French Symbolists, English Romantics, the modernists, various New American Poets and even the Surrealists, however she was always careful to retain her own style. Vicki wouldn’t let her work be reduced by these aesthetics or any combination of them. She often said she made use of her subconscious imagination as much as raw experience. Some of her prose was creative reportage, she wasn’t convinced by the purely imaginative. One of the most passionate arguments I ever had with her came about when I quoted a line by Wallace Stevens: ‘The imagination, the one reality in this imagined world’. Vicki thought this was incredibly limiting whereas I thought of it as liberating. She had things to say about life as she had experienced it, and Vicki was determined to write about those things.
When she first started writing Vicki said she wasn’t aware that what she was doing was writing poetry. She thought she was writing down her problems so she could work them out. The only poet she knew well at that stage was Gerard Manly Hopkins. She left school so early she had to educate herself, gradually she set exercises in reading for herself—she collected new words as she encountered them, then wrote down the words and their dictionary definitions in notebooks . She shared poetry through her husband, the painter Robert Finlayson, who gave her books that they discussed together. Then through her work in the bookshop purchased more books of her own. She gradually moved from prose into free verse, her first poems were rather didactic and tightly written. She gradually incorporated irony, hyperbole, black humour and a kind of surreal whimsy. Here’s a poem that uses her formal skill, it’s laced with irony and catches her intelligence in full flight, it’s called ‘They Always Come’
When they have taken away
the childish laughter and dogeared books,
peeled off the last mush embrace,
given the girl
her lipsticks, hair rinses and pills
When they have poured back the drinks
as long as empty deserts,
returned the spurs to the one night stands,
taken off the overcoat
and riddled her bed with song
a mirror smothered in lips,
a vacant room with stale cigar ash,
an unpaid bill for a Turkish masseur,
a woman’s glove by a handsome typewriter
charleston dresses of the mind
with their fringes running like blood,
a list of men’s names
from childhood to eternity,
they’ll dig the very fluff from the floorboards,
examine the stains on the manuscripts
Which drug did she take?
Which pain did she prefer?
What does the lady offer
behind the words, behind the words?
Their criteria will be:
so long as she’s dead we may
sabotage and rape
Vicki published her first poems during the period Germaine Greer was publishing in Oz magazine. Greer published The Female Eunuch in 1970 . Vicki Viidikas published Condition Red, her first volume of poetry with the University of Queensland Press, in 1973. Vicki was beyond radical politics by this stage and on her own journey. One of her first attempts at writing a longer sequence of poems, had the working title, ‘A Woman in Search of The Holy Grail’.
Preparing for this lecture I went back through all her books and re-read them. The recently published Vicki Viidikas New and Rediscovered contains much previously unpublished work, along with properly edited selections from her best prose. I have always had a high opinion of Vick’s poetry but it came as a shock to realize I had underestimated her prose. Her prose turns out to be her poetry. There are some truly exceptional pieces in this book; ‘The Chimera’ and ‘A Modern Snow White’ are unforgettable stories, it’s easy to agree with the particular comment made by Christina Stead on the book’s jacket, the phrase is: ‘Tremendous talent’.
Vicki Viidikas. (Photographer unknown).
3. Robert Harris
A portrait of Robert Harris by Spooner which appeared in The Age on the 16 April 1993.
Robert Harris was born in Melbourne in 1951. His mother died of heart failure when he was six years old, his childhood was made difficult and his schooling disrupted. At 18 he enlisted in the Australian Navy to further his education . Harris was discharged in the early seventies and published his first book Localities when he was twenty two. After attending poetry readings at La Mama he became involved with Overland magazine of which he eventually became the poetry editor. He married and came to Sydney in 1974 where he became involved in New Poetry, the magazine I was editing at the time. Morry Schwartz published his powerful book Translations from The Albatross during this period. It was Robert’s first attempt at writing a book of poetry as a living-composition, with its experimental poem sequences and the linking ballads. Translations from The Albatross was beautifully illustrated by Garry Shead.
The book that followed this was The Abandoned, a luminous volume of dark music, a book I cherish and think of along with Francis Webb’s The Ghost of The Cock. At the beginning of the section entitled ‘Complex of Abandonment’ Robert Harris placed a quote from St John Perse: ‘They called me the Dark One, and I dwelt in radiance’ in his poem ‘Going the See the Elephant’ he alludes to an abandoned child.
Going to See The Elephant
An elephant dances by itself
……………………………Toes to toe, the foot across
More than chains have completed the ring
………………though here, on an evening of the circus
……….the deaf performer under the skin
……….Toe to toe, the foot across
………………………as a heart’s
as an elephant’s
………………dancing by itself
……….there’s no harm at all but the harm
no damage done but the damage
……….& children ride that Ella-funt chained in
the welders are clapping like madmen in their coffins
Deaf to a withheld cardiograph
An elephant dances by itself
………………Where two people are there are doubtless two
elephants dancing by themselves
………………the children who point Small elephants
dance inside them
The great leaves flap and do hear darkness instruct
……..and the great leaves flap enacting first
the stanza’s initiator whose thought is thunder
the Sandman’s seven-league-booted conspirator
……………………………….toe to toe, the foot across
…………..deaf to fascistsi blowing fire
and that madman who spoke of ‘the cream’
none of them nor I was there in the Company carpark
An elephant dances by itself
& haunts me and is different from
the consciously bantering nurses or
There is only the man there who sees the showering
the Plant like a great florilegeum burst
apart before everything ebbs.
A dolorous thing on an evening of the circus
If an elephant stops dancing
Harris refers to a ‘withheld cardiograph’—to me this suggests a metaphoric mention of his mother’s heart failure: especially when followed by the lines ‘the Plant, like a great florilegeum burst/ apart before everything ebbs.’ The subject of this poem could be the representation of a six year old Harris with his mother watching an elephant at a circus. Especially with the word ironically spelt out as Ella-funt, and the final lines : ‘A dolorous thing on an evening of the circus/ if an elephant stops dancing.’
Robert Harris’ poetry takes a hard look at human suffering caused by social and economic disparity. He worked all his life at physical jobs, from undertaking (actually carrying corpses) to digging graves. At one stage Harris and John Forbes worked together as furniture removalists. An entry in Robert Harris’ journal records this period of his life:
‘I don’t mind working, yet I have to say that during the present recession, I’ve had three jobs which were not unionized and they have all been hateful. And you work, you work for people who are friendly and people who distrust you. And the people are your job.
A woman who refuses a driver a glass of water one hot day. People who feel guilty about the fact that you’re doing physical work for them, and people who misinterpret the load so that, at the end of an already long day, you’re confronted with a stove, all right. It was cast in Philadelphia in the last century and is well above every legal limit for any human being to carry. I’ve been working for 20 years and I’ve been sacked twice. I don’t mind work. The job drives out all inclinations to write. There’s nothing to do when you get home but try to get over it.‘
In the mid eighties Robert received a Literature Board Fellowship to write a book of poetry . He spent this precious time in a small town on South Coast of NSW where he did some of his finest work. It was during this period he became acquainted with the Yuin people who lived at Wallaga Lake, here’s one of the poems:
2.15pm Vic’s discharged from hospital
with eighty kilometres to hitch-hike home,
with a couple of smokes, nearing fifty.
The road climbs out of town around
Mumbulla mountain and onto the windy plateau.
If you stop for him you find him far along it,
walking towards the purple hills.
The cars that pass him float across the rises.
The day is open as a palm and glitters.
6.30pm Eileen and Joanne are in Tilba
playing pool with a couple of whites
and Teddy and Frank from Deniliquin,
they’re visiting for a couple of weeks
Eileen explains in the back bar
reserved for tentative friendships
like these. Everybody does his best,
there are a couple of good cues,
there is another bar you mustn’t go in.
11.00pm or some time thereafter
poking along the river’s floor
comes torchlight. Behind it wait
spears at bow and stern,
behind the spears are memory,
fire bedded on pebbles in bark canoes,
behind the fire torches, men.
In the rocking boat that hunts for a knife
is an eel around a spear, hissing.
The ending of this poem works in a similar way to the Francis Webb’s poem ‘The End of The Picnic ‘, where the poet sees Cook’s longboat as the ‘devil’s totem’ gliding silently across the bay, taking us back through time to be alongside the Aboriginal people on the shore at La Parouse as the English planted their flag. Harris takes us back even further to ‘the rocking boat that hunts for a knife’—before knives existed here. The final two stanzas turn the poem slightly and it tilts into a complex bend of thought.
During the same period on the South Coast he wrote the book A Cloud Passes Over containing several provocative religious poems, these were a breakthrough for Harris and opened up new territory—he cuts loose old affections and sees the world very differently from this poem on:
Isaiah By Kerosene Lantern
This voice an older friend has kept
to patronise the single name he swears by
saying aha, aha, to me.
The heresy hunter, sifting these lines
another shrieks through serapax and heroin
that we have a culture.
These are the very same who shall wait
for plainer faces after they’ve glutted on beauty,
a mild people back from the dead
shall speak the doors down
to the last hullo reaching the last crooked hutch
in forest or forest-like deeps of the town.
Those who teach with the fingers and answer
with laughter, with anger, shall be in derision
and the waiting long, and the blue and white days
like a grave in a senseless universe.
I believe this wick and this open book
in the light’s oval, and I disbelieve
everything this generation has told me.
A Cloud Passes Over was a breakthrough in terms of recognition. It was published by Angus and Robertson under the editorship of Les Murray. Judith Beveridge has written this book contains ‘some of the best religious poems written in the last 50 years.‘
In 1987 Robert Harris was confirmed as an Anglican and, in 1990, he was parish delegate to the Synod. After reading A Cloud Passes Over, Fay Zwicky, who has always been a tough critic, gave the book her blessing— ‘His acceptance of the Christian faith was obviously no easy jump from scepticism to certainty’, and as she read she discovered ‘you become aware of profound intelligence at ease with its quest and sure-footed in its isolation.’ Coming from Fay Zwicky, this meant a great deal to Robert and reassured him he was taking the right direction with his continuing work.
Robert made several trips to Europe and one to America, he sought out places and libraries where some of the writers he loved had lived. With his wife Jennifer he took a walking tour and they went by foot from Germany to the U.K. Later he returned to London to study the life of Lady Jane Grey. Harris spent many hours in the British National Library and the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford. He spent time checking out the Tower of London where Lady Jane Gray had been incarcerated before she was beheaded on the block. He published Jane, Interlinear & Other Poems with Paperbark Press in 1992; it received glowing reviews and Peter Craven wrote that he considered Jane, Interlinear a masterpiece, ‘Jane’ went on to be shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize and it won the Victorian Premier’s poetry award, the C. J. Dennis Prize. There was great range in this book and Robert’s prosody was at its height: his striking wit and depth of thought ran through a thirty poem sequence for Lady Jane, and the poetry in the rest of the book was alive with his intelligence. Robert’s engagement with language was also evident in this work, each word in every line mattered to him. His years of study informed his verse with discipline and music.
Harris had discovered compelling content that suited his flexible new line. The sequence is complex and it is difficult to represent in part but I have chosen this section here because it’s brief and can stand on its own.
XXIII: In Anne Boleyn’s Garden
Bullinger, .inter alia,….purslane…….flowers war. As pink’s
warned: you are like…where taller..becoming an English word
it is magenta……….between the petals…interplay of flowers
greets Jane’s eyes..and herself, that……with the mind
Apartments to………..marchpane to dread………..expelled from
prisoner’s quarters,..Excluded from discourse,…time. Put out
to meditation on……not the weightless…..until, resigned,
the swinging steel,…exchange we make,..we take the garden
that we leave behind……….hardly sad,………..makes us grow
Botany may be dry, it’s…..only differences…acute, as though
they were ouselves….and strangely to ..Returning, ..we can
still clung, freely……..us, and apart……..name .flowers:
and maiden’s blush…….camellia,..bleeding
Less than year after Jane Interliner & Other Poems, won the Victorian Premier’s Poetry Award, one night our phone rang. I knew by my wife Juno’s response that it was not good news. I just wasn’t prepared to hear that Robert Harris had been found dead from heart failure in his apartment. Remember that mysterious line in the poem ‘Going to See The Elephant’? Where someone was “deaf to a withheld cardiograph” maybe it was a similar congenital defect to his mother’s heart condition. Robert Harris was just 43 when he died.
Two weeks before his death Robert had dinner with us at home on the Hawkesbury River. It had been a wonderful night and as he left he handed me a new poem. Here is ‘Don’t Feel Sorry About It’ I believe it was one of the last poems Robert Harris wrote, if not the last poem:
Don’t feel sorry about it, if you remember
blue Darlinghurst nights like particular quilts
a generation of painters saw
before we arrived there, or found ourselves
deciduous as apple trees. Don’t feel sorry
for our poverty, or I’ll report the mirror winks
like a man with bad teeth who has laughed
at all who dislike poetry. Be less than sad
on the day that you hear the news I fell,
they’ll nose you out, the generous, curious ones.
then rest assured that I will never tell
who left her pee in glasses overnight.
Don’t be sorry so much ambitious verse
groveled in the cities where we lived
only say for me I walked an older road
where poetry was rare and hard, and, frankly, good.
Robert Harris (right) and Robert Adamson at the
launch of Jane Interlinear at Adelaide Writers Week 1992.’ (photo by Lynn Hard)
– Robert Adamson
Robert Adamson is one of Australia’s leading poets. He is currently The CAL Chair in Poetry in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney.
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