Why do I walk on tiptoes when I first step into icy blue?
                                 As if my waist
must stay above the lapping line,
                                                  as though
caution will keep me safe in this task
which infants undertake with glee?
The slow preparation,
the gasps as underneath we plunge:
all this is ritual, and we are drawn to it
as ducks to streams –
salt or chlorine always say
Summer, whatever the temperature of air,
however pervasive the shade.
And here bamboo lines the pool, and palm
fronds droop like willows thirsty for drink:
the scene is stamped, Paradise
in shades we are trained to recognise.
Not all is familiar or belongs:
pindan dust falls to blue floor
and outside smudges the bitumen.
My coast is not this coast;
the sun sets for me the other way.
Though strange the air and stranger the days,
all water says, I am home.


IMAG0657Upside-down-like, you bulb from earth –

your beauty breaks in root-like branches.

Spindly fingers reach to sky,

gaunt and stretching, delicate,

your certain trunk a monument,

a stout and stolid testament

to passing years, millennia.

Shedding pods to paint; a home,

yet prison; sacred; den for slaves –

drawing, standing, reaching out –

a sign for us of hands which hold

in spite of everything.

An Absolutely Ordinary Poet

Image from http://www.clivejames.com
Image from http://www.clivejames.com

February now over, it is time to offer one final celebration of Les Murray’s poetry, before moving onto our next – and final – poet in the 12 Poets Project. Here is a short reflection on some of the qualities I value most in Murray’s work. I hope it is a fitting conclusion to our month spent in his work.

Les Murray – An Absolutely Ordinary Poet

And as March gets under way, it will soon be time for us to open up the work of a quite unexpected poet: former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, the Welsh-born theologian and writer Rowan Williams. I first encountered Williams’ affinity with poetry through his translations of his eighteenth-century countrywoman Ann Griffiths’ work, only to find that he had written much of his own. I am looking forward to sharing it, and my responses to it, with you this month.

First Things Last (After “Incorrigible Grace”)

For my next response to Les Murray’s poetry, I’ve chosen a deceptively simple four-line poem as my starting point. I suspect Murray’s poem speaks for itself. I hope that mine does too.

First Things Last
(After “Incorrigible Grace”)

Saint Vincent de Paul, old friend,
my sometime tailor,
I daresay by now you are feeding
the rich in heaven.
(Les Murray, “Incorrigible Grace”)


Grace gives surprise, like sunshine reversing floods,

like the plenty of a crop we did not sow,

a brown trickle amidst faithless dirt,

or tears that wash unbelief to the ground;


like a home found, unexpectedly, on Samaritan turf,

a harvest of smiles when we have paid only in frowns,

the mercy of a hefty but finite price for carelessness,

of lessons learnt in coins, not in souls;


or like the men who wait at the platform, tablets poised

beneath their noses, soon to learn

from the woman in the beanie with

absolutely nothing to her name.

Passacaglia in G Minor (After Les Murray’s “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”)

For those who have not encountered Les Murray’s poetry before, his work always strikes me with the way in which it blends profundity with earthiness. One of his most beautiful poems for me is his “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”, a description of a man crying in the middle of Sydney’s city centre, his tears somehow a rebuke and a gift to those around him. I’ve tried to capture some of this in my own poem, which is also inspired by a magnificent piece of music which I heard performed for the first time at the Brunswick Beethoven Festival last week, Biber’s “Passacaglia in G Minor”. This recording doesn’t quite capture how it sounded and felt last week, but it might help you imagine what I’m expressing through the poem.

Passacaglia in G Minor (After “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”)

In the paddocks and the laneways,
over hills and silos and Sydney Road cafés,
the strains carry, in 40-degree-pain,
as the waiting place, expecting change, mourns and gathers
hay-bales, dust and tumbleweed – a man plays violin and speaks
with four bass notes, weaving in and out, attuned with tears.

It catches first commuters’ ears. The 19 Tram is locked by cars;
stopped at Albert Street, their minds slow to receive the faint
refrain. Some turn their heads, others stay
motionless, as though they’ve not heard. The wind
blows their papers, rustling; neighbours feel the tension
within the cushioned, vinyl seats. All have surely heard.

Some halt in the street. Walking here, there, shopping bags
poised inside inattentive hands, they pause. Where, they ask,
their eyes adance, is that tune? As though caught somehow
within the breeze – here lifting, there drooping, catching all
at traffic lights and crossing roads. Moving in and out,
the tune intrigues, now familiar, now new. What does it

mean, this unexpected crying violin? Children stop,
their parents’ hands tugged to sudden standstill: babies cry
and mothers gasp. Silent as the heart, the street pulsates,
attenuated evening mood drifting over tram-lines
as somehow the violence of this violin declares
the night into unexpected submission.

It gathers too across V-Line tracks and over hills,
this shouting, whispering, crying violin. Suited men stop
where they left their keys and wait; in the fields, the workers
wipe the sweat from brows and think, no sound to hear
yet pulsing through the earth, the cracks, the gaps, the fissures
and the hopefulness of the heat-waves’ final day.

And far into the earth’s dry heart, the strains now drift,
now mine, now desecrate the well-trained patience of
the stoic afternoon. Deep into the ear it goes
and pierces where the soul is still, and cries and cries.
The noise is war! And still on Sydney Road it plays
and men and woman stop their tracks to hear,

silent tears gathering in the twilight of their minds.

Operation Jazz

Who comes here? They have grey hair mostly, to
Complement these grey wristbands. The weekend
Set aside for jazz, I suppose they hail,
Like us, from the city - a pause taken
At the very busiest time of year.
For some, no time off is needed, it's true.
Others, though, must pause their schedules right when
The workload and the pollen counts prevail.
Smooth tunes and scattered words relieve some tears,
But weren't these once the sounds of urgency?
No-one here has freedom which depends
Upon how well they improvise in C,
Slaves only to the violent winds which scatter
From near and far, to here in Wangaratta.