Seeking the Romantic Amongst the Horror of the Civilized: Patrick McCauley Reviews ‘Poems 1957- 2013’ by Geoffrey Lehmann

Poems 1957- 2013 by Geoffrey Lehmann UWA Publishing, 2015.

LehmannGeoffrey Lehmann has published twelve books of poetry, one novel, two children’s books, and five non fiction books (including two anthologies of Australian poetry as an editor) during the last fifty years. This volume, Poems 1957-2013, Lehmann says ‘contains all the poetry written by me that I think is worthwhile including in a book’. It is divided into five sections, ‘Simple Sonnets’, ‘Earlier Poems’, ‘Nero’s Poems’, ‘Spring Forest’ and ‘Later Poems’. Apart from some of the Later Poems – all the poems have been published before, but many have been re-worked, and the organization of the work has been re-imagined. For example, ‘Simple Sonnets’, is presented first and separately, as fourteen sonnets – as if the titles of the section itself were a further sonnet ( and indeed a reading of the titles produces a syntax of Ern Malley proportions) The reader is drawn into a strange dream like world where the travelers never seem to arrive. The sonnets all have seven rhyming couplets without a volta. Sonnet XIV, for example draws the reader into a timelessness :-

These song birds flocking in the citron sky
have always been here” said the passerby.
“Time has no end and time does not begin.
Child, no one made the world that we are in.

These are indeed strange sonnets set in a European, perhaps seventeenth century world of horses and dragons and unrequited love. They are completely different from any of the other sections within this volume (or any other Australian poetry ) , and I agree with Geoff Page that they are ‘unique’. They seem to seek a Blakean romanticism that has been otherwise absent in Australian poetry. However, unlike Page, I enjoyed the relaxed patrician air of the patriarch which has largely been banished from poetry, even if it is a simulated vision as Nero or Ross McInerney. In fact Ross reminded me of Voss and I was surprised to be reminded on more than one occasion of Patrick White.

The second section, titled ‘Earlier Poems’, includes the poem ‘An Image which was first published in the London Magazine in 1958, when Lehmann was only seventeen. This poem together with the poem ‘Emperor Mao and the Sparrows’ (which explains, remarkably, that it was Mao’s dream of sparrows stealing his harvest, and the subsequent sparrow massacre, that led to the Great Chinese Famine) helped establish Lehmann as somewhat of a prodigy in NSW in the late sixties and early seventies. Throughout the ‘Earlier Poems’ Lehmann shows us the development of what Peter Goldsworthy calls ‘compressed ventriloquism’ and Geoff Page refers to as, his use of ‘masks’. Lehmann develops a deep empathy for the magisterial animals that were slaughtered during the Roman Empire in the name of progressive civilization. He inhabits the mind of Marcus Furius Camillus, Governor of Africa, as he traps and transports lions and dolphins to Rome for their slaughter and entertainment.

A Voyage of of Lions
Sea water stained with lion’s blood,
Our arrows caught a lion
Escaping in the foam.
The crowds edged cautiously back to the quay,
And so our convoy of lions set out
For Rome and arenas foul with blood

The reader can see the emerging of Lehmann’s ability to inhabit the past. He can enter the mind of Nero or Pope Alexander VI with ease and integrity. Every poem is worth reading and every poem rewards the reader.

InThe Trip to Bunyah: A Letter for Les Murray he notes

Your father has the gift, he hears the voices –
Memories licked into shape like cigarette papers

and in ‘Elegy for Sonnets he manages a vast understatement about the demise of the family (or chivalry or romance or love).

The sonnet is a house that’s been destroyed.
And more than sonnets: marriages, real houses

Lehmann maintains a strong contact with visual art and particularly painters, as can be seen by the stunning (and revealing) Charles Blackman drawing on the cover ( and also his dedication of Nero’s poems to Salvatore Zofrea). In the poem Roses we are given an idea of his aesthetics:

What matters is a rose grew in wild places
And that all space is immanent with roses.

Lehmann continually seeks the romantic amongst the horror of the civilized. He assumes the persona of the patriarch, the father, the tyrant and the Emperor (and later in ‘Spring Forest’, the outback farmer) We see him as father and single father, we seem him as a lover and as rejected and alone with his children. He seeks the Renaissance man (Homo Universale) and his vision is powerful, profound, male (unapologetically) and extraordinarily beautiful. He may be one of the last rural male poets to dare to use the word ‘cunt‘ – just once. InSpring Forest’ we are introduced to Mr Long who pops in and out of several poems.

Mr Long sometimes humped his swag for far off places
drinking metholated spirits, shadow boxing
and trying to kiss people.
I’ve tasted his johnny cakes

We hear the voice of Ross McInerney (1918-2010), Lehmann’s late father in law and inspiration, in many poems, and perhaps, the alter egos and dreams and fears of that part of the outback male, or the mad Emperor (in ‘Nero’s Poems) or Charon sweeping up the carcasses of slaughtered animals, that is simple, vulnerable and intelligent. Throughout the whole five sections of this work Lehmann remains vulnerable.For example, in the poem ‘Heat, Ross exclaims:

It’s night – heat without light

and in the poem ‘Witnesses, he notes:

we are witnesses of the conflagration
the fires are happening already all around us
Our possessions and protests are useless/
our despair is useless

There is the repeated image of a kerosine lantern, and many other literary devices throughout this life’s work of poems. Each piece is crafted and the book reads easily drawing the reader into strange other worlds and spaces. You could read this book for a very long time. It is accessible, lyrical, crafted and profound.

Lehmann attended the Shore School in North Sydney and graduated in Arts and Law from the University of Sydney in 1963. He worked as a lawyer, an international tax advisor, an academic, a writer/journalist, and a farmer. Lehmann is a straight shooter, unusual amongst a generation of psychadelic minded NSW poets with dark pasts, and American dreams. In the poem ‘Menindee’ – Ross tells us:

This planet which tries to house
half the men who have ever lived
Wants no one in particular
It does not want you either

Ross McInerney .. sleeps on an open verandah outside the house. I’d bet that Lehmann actually does sleep on an open verandah, just outside the house and his family … ready and vigilant against the great outback of the Australian diaspora and Australian poetry … to protect his family against the anti humanism of a post modern obscurity. An Emperor, farmer and a father… somehow solitary with his gift. In his poem ‘Advice to Young Poets he indicates the level of commitment required :

Murder your mother
Go live in a flat
And forget who you were

Along with Les Murray, Bruce Dawe, Robert Gray, Robert Hughes, Clive James and a number of others, Geoffrey Lehmann continues to explore the Australian male outsider into its numinous laterals and outbacks. There seems to be a romanticism of sorts amongst this genre of Australian writing, which now resides mainly in rural NSW and which can perhaps trace its origins back to Kenneth Slessor (Judith Wright, Patrick White). Eventually, the poets that matter do seem to find their voices, Geoffrey Lehmann found his when he was seventeen and seems to have spent the rest of his life trying keeping up with them. I read this book in a week because most of the time, I couldn’t put it down… and I have never before been able to say that about a book of poetry. Ideally it should be read over some time – there is plenty to ponder and meditate, and certainly it is a book I will go back to again and again.

 – Patrick McCauley


Patrick McCauley writes poems and essays, grows tomatoes and goes fishing around Clunes Victoria.

Poems 1957- 2013 is available from


A Curious & Casual Blend of Metaphors: Nathan Hondros Reviews ‘Nightswim’ by Justin Lowe

Nightswim by Justin Lowe Bluepepper 2014

NightswimAccording to the brief biography at the beginning of Justin Lowe’s new collection Nightswim, the poet’s origins are part inner-city Sydney and part European. This isn’t notable in itself, even considering Lowe’s childhood spent on the Spanish island of Minorca; Lowe finished a tertiary education in Australia, then spent years back on the continent working odd jobs and on his writing. Then, once again, he returned.

Nothing unusual here.

However, somewhere along the road, these two geographical threads of Lowe’s formative life resolved into an Australian poetry of unusual lineage and a refreshingly clear and confident understanding of its place. In fact, much of Lowe’s work verges on an invigorating and casual disregard of its Australian-ness. What a relief to read poetry that isn’t anxious or overly concerned about its hierarchy in the world.

It seems I come across much Australian poetry that’s locked in an anxious struggle with its Australian origins. Years ago, gripped by this anxiety, we imitated the mid-war English poets until the Beats and the New York School gave a new generation of poseurs a style to riff on. I’m as guilty as anyone of pretending to be Frank O’Hara, I suppose. Then there were other currents and vogues, each more post-modern and avant-garde than the last.

As Ben Etherington wrote recently in the Sydney Review of Books: ‘It seems all Australian poets took the same two courses at university: “British and Irish poetry from Wordsworth to Heaney” and “Modern American poetry from Whitman to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E”’ (same courses the critics took, by the way).

At times, the antidote to this cringe seems to be wave after wave of reactionary and sickly parochialism in which we make a parade of our Australian-ness: pastoral poems of wildlife and landscape and half-hearted philosophical meanderings through contemporary Australian cultural and political phenomena.

Of course, there has been our own brand of innovation in the meantime, notably Les Murray’s distinctive voice that is at home in Poetry magazine as it is in Bunyah. See also my recent review of Andrew Burke’s latest collection.

Justin Lowe’s poetry is just as ambitious. He is working a vein that neither resents nor idolises its geographical origin, but instead accepts it. It’s from this standpoint that we might make a poetry that is unequivocally new and ours. His is the kind of creativity accessible to poets for whom being Australian is not a live issue (just as it wasn’t for Brett Whiteley as a visual artist and, ultimately, it wasn’t for Patrick White as a novelist). Why should being Australian be something anyone should care about, here or elsewhere?

That the poetry in Nightswim grew out of Europe and Newtown grunge and has now escaped to the Blue Mountains is a matter of fact, and not much besides. It’s not a source of conflict to be grappled with in a poem, or to be overcompensated for by an appeal to our distinctive natural environment. There are forms and influences in Lowe’s work that I understand through reference to my own life, far away on the West Coast; I don’t need to appreciate this poetry only through a narrow context of place.

It is only through such a sensibility that Lowe is capable of poems such as ‘Nightswim’; there is a curious and casual blend of metaphors at work in the poem, which finds ideas such as a ‘…kookaburra hunched like Apollo…’ Lowe’s voice is wise and reflective, but he also has an effective expressive register; poems move between narrative and the most beautiful and natural of lyrics without a seam. He has also mastered a pleasing disregard for what in contemporary poetry might be considered ‘on trend’.

‘Gulgong’, one my favourites in this collection, is an interesting example of this resistance to voguishness. It employs religious imagery to drive itself to a lyrical conclusion; the writer has ‘the burning knees of a supplicant’, and contemplates the sleight of hand involved as ‘God works the latch’.

What’s more, a man of a certain age writing poetry about the haunted houses of relationships can’t be described as en vogue, but he’s sure as hell more interesting that many of the poets who supposedly are. Take this, from ‘Eternity — for Tania’:

finish what you are doing
and I will talk you through my sleeplessness,
the red orange green kite tails
the traffic lights strew in the rain.

This is beautiful craftwork, and it’s wrought like this through most of the poems.

Lowe admits to getting a start in the writing of poetry by knocking up song lyrics for a series of bands. This prior relationship also plays a role in his latest work, especially in some of Lowe’s titles. ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ obviously refers to the Ike and Tina Turner song, ‘Closing Time’ is also a song and an album by Tom Waits, and ‘Sunday Morning’ perhaps refers to the Velvet Underground’s anthemic masterpiece. Lowe’s titles also allude to other works, such as ‘The Glass Canoe’, the great novel by David Ireland.

Many of the best poems in this collection are the one pagers delivered with punch, along with phrases and lines Lowe should be famous for; lines that are hypnotic, and worth repeating to yourself, as though they were in fact song lyrics.

…the inevitable dog
barking at the malicious gossip of its chains

–  ‘Australia’


the murmur of love’s worn tyres

– ‘At World’s End’


…the sadness of things rises
in me like stale bread

– ‘Vallejo’

My surrealism sensors were on high alert in many of these poems. Lowe’s poetics are infused with the female form, and have a straight-forward but dreamlike character that delves directly into the nature of consciousness. In ‘Closing Time’:

four days from here
a city will be found,
a new drink discovered,
and a strange girl rescued from the rain.

There is frequently a love of the city and an appreciation of the bush, but both subjects are attacked to reveal their metaphysical importance rather than as an exercise in wordplay.

Having said all that, there are some poems in this collection that may have benefited from the kind of pressure a good editor can bring to bear. For example, the frequent use of ‘whispers’ could be edited back; it’s a word that lost its effectiveness long ago.

But this seems like nitpicking. This is a headstrong and determined collection. Even the flaws seem forgivable as they belong to the self-made ethos permeating this collection.

It was perhaps in Sydney’s Newtown, and close to the music and arts community of the 90s, that Lowe developed this sense of self-determination that is also common among the musicians of this era. Why bother with the rigmarole of labels and publishers when we have the means of getting the work out there ourselves? Why try to ‘fit in’ with a middling stable of contemporaries? Lowe has released his own work over the last few years and his Bluepepper website is now a staple for readers searching for new and good poetry. Living now in the Blue Mountains, I can imagine Lowe sitting above ‘the scene’, allowing himself the possibilities of that freedom.

So, this is an Australian poetry that has an uncharacteristic origin and international outlook. It’s not stewing in the juices of its own scene, as much Australian poetry seems to be; it is not a reaction against currents in the art, nor does it propose one. Lowe’s poetry is more mature than this. It has carefully considered the generation that went before, but has skilfully avoided its self-indulgent excesses (aforementioned ham-fisted nature and pastoral poems that wallow in their Australian-ness, or post-modern doggerel).

The best Australian poetry will come from poets like Lowe who’ve stopped longing to be elsewhere or pretending to be entirely here, and who ambivalent to the particular continent where they happen to be marooned. They will have stopped pretending to be New York School or French Symbolists or Punks or even Australians.

Like Justin Lowe, they will be all of these things and none of them.

– Nathan Hondros

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Nightswim is available from





The Ultimate Commitment: The Poetry of Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas and Robert Harris by Robert Adamson

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'.

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:

Ground Zero

wake up
look around
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.
Keep moving
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.

The Sicilian,
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
fall over
until eventually
you can’t get up.
That’s what they call
terminal addiction.

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
begin horizontally
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
begin horizontally
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;
perhaps not.

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
Bedroom occupation.’

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
is survival

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,
from clearings
in the forest, the uncharted
uplands of the spirit

The envelope containing the last letter that Michael Dransfiled sent to Robert Adamson. The letter is now held by the National Library

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

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 ( 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

They’ll find
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

They’ll see
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).

Vicki Viidikas. (Photographer unknown).

3. Robert Harris

A portrait of Robert Harris by Spooner which appeared in The Age on the 16 April 19931993.

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
……by rhythm

………………………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

sway —

…………..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
obedient realism

There is only the man there who sees the showering
spectrum revolt
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:

Wallaga Days

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 likewhere taller..becoming an English word

it is magenta……….between the petalsinterplay 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 differencesacute, as though

they were ouselves….and strangely to ..Returning, ..we can
still clung, freely……, and apart…… .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 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.

Michael Dransfield

Vicki Viidikas

Robert Harris


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Language and Chatty Syntax: Andrew Burke reviews 1953: A verse narrative by Geoff Page

1953: A verse narrative by Geoff Page UQP Poetry Series (2013)

1953Geoff Page has written a rich-veined poetry novel entitled and set in 1953. I read it once over the course of many busy days and was so interrupted by daily events, I went back to it and read it again slowly, taking notes and writing comments. As a child, I picked flies to pieces and disrobed caterpillars, with much the same result. Maybe I’ll just tell you what I think.

I must tell you, openly and whole-heartedly, I enjoyed it. I read it and reread some poems that jolted my memory, and, as Frank Moorhouse says on the back, stopped me in my tracks. (Yes, I remember 1953.) I’ve read many ‘verse novels’ and liked only some of them: Seth’s The Golden Gate for his dexterous use of the sonnet form; Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid for its vibrant lively language and the great use of detailed research; Murray’s Fredy Neptune for its depth of narrative and strength of poetic; Amos Oz’s The Same Sea, for its sensuous writing and application of narrative to bring alive historic conflict. I’ve also read many verse novels that have been inspired by these successful works and found the majority of them wanting, the poetry weak. My vision of a successful ‘verse novel’ is a strong narrative written in good poetry. My version of good poetry may not be yours, but that’s the way the poetic foot rambles.

What makes a novel? Setting, characters and plot are the bare bones. So let us look at 1953 through these elements.

Geoff Page sets the tone and the pace in the first poem, skilfully painting a country town circa 1953 and setting up the ‘style’ of the book at the same time:

The stories here start everywhere,
already half-way through,
a web of roots, of nodes and networks

An interesting point-of-view is used here as the author takes the reader through the town of Eurandangee as through the lens of a cinematographer (as in Arthur Miller’s novel The Misfits) –

Our view is slowly moving right,
slow enough to count the houses,
roofs grey-white and galvanised,
gardens with their shrubs and lawns
that only just remember water.
Off towards the western edge
we see the brickwork turn to fibro
and campfires out the back.
The main street’s straight as parted hair:

Through his language and chatty syntax, we feel the love and tenderness Page has for a rural Australian long gone …

The people are from brush-strokes only;
We do not see their faces.
We recognise Akubras though,
bigger brims for smaller places.
We see the European trees
thirsting in the park
though not the damage underneath.
We see the marble digger,
musing on his column.

Throughout the book, Page’s wit shines through, with an affectionate tone in the portraits of big knobs, fringe dwellers, shearers, fettlers, diggers and returned soldiers, and skylarking schoolkids under the caring eye of their school teacher. I live in a country town in NSW now, and I can still recognise his characters as I shop with merchants and negotiate with tradesmen around this town.

The setting is stopped in time: ‘a Tuesday, right on half past two, / 17th February, / 1953.’ After WWII, but during the Korean War; before Queen Elizabeth’s coronation visit but after the first Holden had rolled off the assembly line; during the time of worldwide tension called the Cold War. World events do come home to play on some of the characters here, but many continue the quiet rural lives of those generations before them. They often question whether they should have stayed or not. Well, the clock doesn’t move, but the characters do interact and go about their daily lives, as in an outback version of Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub.

I don’t know in which order Page wrote the portraits of the characters that make up the tale, but he has shuffled them in such a way as to create webs of narrative as real as in any small, close community. Nothing much happens, but there again a lot is happening, if you get my drift: there’s an affair, with rich emotions to explore through three of the main participants; there’s the results of an earlier affair for a young girl and a shifty shearer – her parents, a child born, lives changed forever; the nightmarish aftermaths of war on returned diggers and wives; a story of a ‘half-caste’ family (as they were known back then), with the mother drinking and the kids tending for themselves. The Royal Hotel is one of the central social settings, and is the stage for much class distinction of the time.

The first word on the book’s back blurb is ‘suspenseful’ – and I can’t see that. Suspense doesn’t really enter into it for me. The town is a living breathing example of a country community set back then, 1953, when sheep and wool prices were at their ‘apogee’ and there was still a choice to stay home after school was done. There is tragedy at the end, misplaced love and sex along the way, the laying of the vital railways of Australia, war in action and reaction, and a rich and affectionate portrait of a country town – but suspense? No. If anything, the characterisations are mildly predictable, but executed in such a warm-hearted and witty way that they are fresh again.

The plot, as such, is already half-way through from the first word. And absolutely about to begin with the last – which I won’t quote because it would be a ‘spoiler’. It is a difficult task to set yourself as the author: a town stopped at two thirty on a Tuesday sixty years ago, with a multitude of characters busy in their lives of loving, warring, making life and making a living – stop-framed and backgrounded, loaded – as it were – with the next events in their lives about to explode. Page moves the characters through dramatic monologues and single-character point of view narratives. It is a kaleidoscope with all the pieces coming together to create a dynamic multi-faceted tableau.

I only have one gripe. One of the best ways to breathe life in characters on the page is to give them something to say. To my mind, there should be more dialogue in these stories. Someone wise once said, ‘A character comes alive when they open their mouth’. When this happens in these pages, the scene becomes alive. I particularly like the narrative mode of poem XV. Three young women, like a bored Greek chorus, are gossiping about Peggy with character assassination and hints of an affair but no facts – the lethal mixture for social trouble in any small community.

‘That Peggy, she’s a bit stuck-up,
Now she’s married Stan, I reckon.
She’s not the girl she used to be
Back at Doctor God’s.’
The speaker, maybe twenty-five,
Rocks a pram pulled in beside her.

They talk and sip shandies, light a smoke and gaze about, before continuing:

‘So, what’s the story then?
What’s she keeping from us, eh?’
‘Or who might be a better question,’
says Number 1 across her shoulder,
off to buy the round.
The other two see what she means,
check the baby as they wait,
half-annoyed there’s nothing yet
a girl can really get stuck into.

Today’s society with all its joys, ills and treacherous, luxuries took root yesterday in just such communities as Eurandangee, Tuesday , 17 February, 1953. Entire sections of your local library have texts that explore the historical, ethical, socio-logical, racial and economic themes whispered in the pages of this rich seedbed of a book, but this book has a tapestry of human emotions running through it. Go read 1953 and ponder what happens next – in 1953 and 2013.

– Andrew Burke


Andrew Burke is a leading Australian poet.His two latest nooks are Undercover of Lightness: New & Selected Poems (Walleah Press, Hobart) and Shikibu Shuffle in collaboration with Phil Hall,(above/ground press, Ontario). He blogs at hi spirits.

1953 can be obtained from UQP


Normally the yelling, screaming and bad blood surrounding literary prizes  starts after the winner is announced, when civilised discussions around who won and  why may become a little heated. For the UK based Poetry Book Society’s ‘2011 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry’ the drama has begun well and truly before the winner is announced – and the turmoil appears to be spreading.

The T S Eliot Prize for Poetry was inaugurated in 1993 to celebrate the Poetry Book Society’s 40th birthday and to honour Eliot as the Society’s founder. All shortlisted poets receive £1,000 and the winner £15,000 and the prize is awarded to “to the author of the best new collection of poetry published in the UK and Ireland each year.” The fact that eligibility is based on publication and not the poet’s nationality means that poets from outside the UK are eligible as long as their collection was published in the UK or Ireland – hence John Kinsella was on this year’s short list for Armour published by Picador and the 1996 winner was Les Murray for Subhuman Redneck Poems.

While the prize money itself is funded by Eliiot’s widow ,Valerie, and the T. S. Eliot estate, the administration costs of the prize are met by the Poetry Book Society. Unfortunately for the Society, along with many other arts bodies in the UK, it has had its Arts Council funding slashed from the end of this year.

The trouble for the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry began in October when the Society announced it had secured a ‘substantial’ three year sponsorship deal with Aurum  Funds Management. On its website Aurum describes itself as “a specialist asset manager that emphasises stable, long-term investment performance” – in short they are a hedge funds manager.

Unfortunately for the Prize, not all short listed poets where happy with the Society’s choice of Sponsor and on 6 December British poet Alice Oswald dropped a bombshell by withdrawing her nominated collection Memorial  from the short list saying  “I’m uncomfortable about the fact that Aurum Funds, an investment company which exclusively manages funds of hedge funds, is sponsoring the administration of the Eliot Prize; I think poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions and for that reason I’m withdrawing from the Eliot shortlist.” What made this more uncomfortable for the Society was that Oswald was a previous winner of the award in 2002.

But worst was to come….even before the ink (physical and digital) was dry on articles around Oswald’s withdrawal in The Guardian and other UK media, another bomb burst in the shape of Australian poet John Kinsella. Kinsella, in stating his support for Oswald’s stance, also withdrew his collection, Armour, from the prize. His reasons were even more direct: “My politics and ethics are such that I can’t accept money from such a source. I fully understand why the Poetry Book Society has looked elsewhere for funding, given the horrendous way they were treated, but as an anticapitalist in full-on form, that is my position.” He further elaborated by saying “Hedge funds are at the very pointy end of capitalism.”

While poets John Burnside, Carol Ann Duffy, Leontia Flynn, David Harsent, Esther Morgan, Daljit Nagra, Sean O’Brien and Bernard O’Donoghue still remain on the shortlist, I would imagine that prize organisers are anxiously waiting and checking the backgrounds of the remaining poets for an indication that they may jump ship as well.

While the immediate crisis is obviously throwing a cloud over the 2011 T S Eliot prize there is a larger issue here concerning the ethics of accepting ‘sponsorship’ from corporations whose activities some may find ‘questionable. These dilemmas are set to increase as governments around the world slash arts funding in the face of what could be a  second round of a Global  Financial Crisis caused by, many believe, the very corporations arts organisations will be forced to approach, cap in hand to replace their lost government funding. I just wonder what an old ex-banker like T.S. Eliot would have made of it all….

Mark Roberts