Birthday Song (Apologies to Sylvia Plath)

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Today would have been the 95th birthday of my maternal grandfather who passed away nearly nine years ago: a man who influenced me and my writing more than one poem can express. Still, I couldn’t let the day pass without acknowledging it in some way, especially while I’m in the midst of writing about my family and childhood. So, for what it’s worth, here is something little to say that I love him still.

Love sets me writing like a Grandfather clock:
Love of him as much as anything else.
While his van is parked in our drive, I sit
With a cup of Twinings tea as he tells
Of Abel Magwitch, and Crusoe, and which
Works of Dickens’ he has never read.
I stuff words and stories wherever they fit,
Dreaming of graveyards and convicts. In bed
I compose my own Kidnapped, see pages
Like plates of delicacies, shelf-tables spread
As feast before me. I taste the ages
And grab pen to write: first of Samurais,
Then peace – whatever the mind engages –
In words like airboats breaking through the skies.

My childhood with Sting

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Well, he once rhymed “cough” with “Nabakov” and poetically asked, “Hey Mr Brontosaurus, have you got a lesson for us?” And now Sting has unknowingly inspired my latest writing project.

The inspiration came via this TED Talk and interview he did in 2014 about how he overcame writer’s block. What was Sting’s answer to his affliction? He realised that he was getting in the way of his work – that there was too much of him and that he needed to step aside and let others speak. How he did that is his story to tell, and you should let him tell it – the TED talk is a compelling listen. But in short he started tapping into the stories of the community that he grew up in, the community he’d been so eager to put aside when he discovered his own artistic potential.

I guess it’s fairly common for a writer to be full of themselves. I don’t want to be. What struck me about Sting’s story was the realisation that it could so easily be true of me. And so, while on holiday with my wife in southern Queensland where I spent ten of my earliest years, I conceived of this new project: My Family and Other Landscapes, a tribute to the places and people that formed me. I can’t guarantee that I, like Sting, won’t get in the way of my work doing its job. But I hope I can honour a few other people and places on the way. I hope you can join me as I post some of the poems I write and start announcing soon ways that you can be involved.

From Ashes: No glitch

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No glitch in the creation plan and yet

my mind skips and repeats over old tracks

as though, as though in early days a scratch

a fleck of dust crept in, crept in, upset

the balance of it all. With every beat

the tension in these ancient grooves – this wax –

threatens now to jump, to echo back.

What function is at fault? What needle head

was broken at the start? What plan, what plan

has bred this error in the early heart?

Unglitch, unglitch; return, reboot, play true;

the data will cohere when they are scanned

beneath the eyes that made your every part

and never will the glitching past win you.

 

Childhood (After Peter Steele’s “Star Man”)

For those who follow the church calendar, we are now in the season of Epiphany, the brief time between Christmas and Lent. Peter Steele’s cycle of poems “Rounding a Year”, deals nicely with this season, especially the strange in-between period where Jesus has been born but is not yet approaching the Cross. I’ve used today’s poem, a response to part of Steele’s work, to reflect on this stage of Jesus’ life.

Childhood (After "Star Man")

Strange as it must have been to grow as a child
   in the world which was his child, he grew,
we're told, and "became strong", "filled with wisdom":
   street-wise, perhaps, the way a kid has to be,
with all of these Romans around, yet wise also
   about the lines and shades of truth,
the textures of the soul, the contours of the earth,
   wise to know a true word when spoken,
being himself the Word. The Magi knew
   true wisdom when they saw it, but Herod
      would stumble on wisdom like a rock.
Yes, his father taught him which nail to use,
   how to use this chisel to shape this space,
how to manipulate the sternness of stone -
   yet those lessons were scarcely needed,
symbols, perhaps, of how low he had come,
   that he should take advice from a man
whom he himself had formed and shaped like clay.
   If he grew in wisdom and knowledge, perhaps
it was more like a waking than a learning - that
   moment of remembrance after a dream,
      the knowing assertion of light into a tomb.

Star Man - Peter Steele

What did they tell him about the early days?
   The infants taken out, the scramble
across a border, another sojourn in Egypt,
   the being strangers in a strange land,
anxiety as something gnawed like bread -
   was that the story? And what became
of all the star-talk they'd heard from camel drivers
  and their curious masters, who fished in bags
for the dulled flaming of gold, for smoky gum,
  for myrrh to mask mortality, while
     the child dozed as he needed?

Grown, a day's work done, the tools consigned
  to peace and shavings, he'd stroll and gaze
at the many nail-heads fixing a darkened fabric,
  the well-made world above him. And knew
as little as that vast array of siblings,
  hacks and drudges, who comb us all
towards coherence. Thumbs in his belt, he watched,
  but not to see the spill of fires
from whose old dust we're beckoned out to be,
  much less to think, as some would say,
     that in him all was made.

(From Peter Steele, The Gossip and the Wine, 2010, John Leonard Press)

Home

One of the stranger questions for me to be asked is, “Where do you come from?” Depending on which part of my semi-nomadic childhood is being engaged at the time, answers to that question can vary greatly. Do I say: Ballarat, where I was born, southern Queensland, where I went to Primary School, West Gippsland, where I went to Secondary School, or Melbourne, where I moved for University and have now lived for 12 years? The last week, I have been revisiting my southern Queensland childhood with my family. Today we went back to Mt Tamborine, the small town at the northern end of the Gold Coast Hinterland where I lived from ages 1 to 7, and, unsurprisingly, it brought back many memories of who I was as a child and realisations of how it shaped the adult I have become. Today’s poem reflects in a way on that, and comes accompanied with a photograph from my first school.


Home

The grass grows as you watch it;
            the soil explodes
with volcanic past, rich red
            and deep.
The trees bloom: now pink, now green,
            now jacaranda-violet;
the seasons change in shades
            of leaves
and incremental tones, the light
            dappled in the afternoon.
Palm trees sit amongst the ferns
            and I
imagine in the trunks and bowers
            of beeches, cedars,
faces of the past, of kings
            and poets, men
with dreams in eyes, their mouths
            full of thought and
full of life. The soil explodes
            with volcanic past;
the grass grows as you watch it. I
            explode with life
ahead of me; beneath my feet,
            the rich, deep earth
                        of home.

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