Some wandered in deserts; I strayed
Among Antarctic beeches and Bunya pine,
Silver ferns and blood red soil, where I made
Kingdoms and mountains from my trampoline.
Some languished at sea; I saw an ocean
Outside my window when the Easter rains
Flooded the side path, and gazed at the scene
In raptured delight. I frittered hours
On the back garden wall; others wailed.
My haven-home moved with me; others lost
Home with house and place. Love never failed
My nomad days; yet love carries a cost.
It demands I reach out as I am held,
And make new home where the world has repelled.
Did you know that Melbourne has a Brooklyn?
Mostly factories, but behind the freeway
Nestled amidst houses there’s a church, in
Low-ecclesiastic cream brick. Today
On my way to work I saw it, vacant
Being Wednesday. But on Sunday there’s family.
And I smelt the Spotswood Vegemite plant
With its playful chimneys; a child might be
Filled with yeasty dreams to live there, growing
Up on that street where happiness ferments.
My first home was a tambourine, singing
Its jingling sounds in south Queensland silence.
So I’ll write here for these other unknown homes,
For everywhere that’s never had a poem.
As a child, I only knew this as the place
where my grandfather was born, the name full
of bright, fiery growth like I saw near home,
our forests full of ferns both red and green.
In history class I learnt this was the scene
of old but living wars, fought, neither won
nor lost. The push of present crime, the pull
of family heritage, rendered this space
neutral. I neither sought it nor fled. Now
in morning light it is still. History stays
where we like it, asleep. Waking, it stings.
Can we find, beneath these sleeping things,
the Redfern when the speech was made? Those days
are passed. The past echoes anyhow.
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.
Essendon is drenched today. On Albion
And Buckley where my Granddad learnt to walk,
To talk, lies last night’s deluge in puddles,
In screen of watery sheen, while vermillion
Morning climbs the eastern sky. When we talk
Of heritage, does it sit in huddles
Like these? old buildings nestled in new ones
And the streets changing names, permanent as chalk,
Captured somewhere in memories like muddles?
Sometimes, when brain’s geography failed,
He fancied himself back on these streets,
And spoke of St Thomas’s where he’d been hailed
As Stupid Stuart. What memory repeats
Is mystery; beneath rainy road is soil
That, pre-Alzheimer’s, Granddad learnt to toil.
As part of my new writing project, My Family and Other Landscapes, I’m setting myself the challenge of writing one sonnet each day for the next few months. I won’t post all of them here, but I’ll make semi-regular updates and select the best to put together a book from them. Here is today’s effort.
He tells stories all the time: some are true,
Some are not (the most fun is had from these);
And on some garden afternoons he weaves
Stories of made-up distant lands, and you,
Adventurer you are, embark into
His terraced Sydney woodland. Though he leaves
You off on your sojourning (and may heave
A sigh to see you occupied, it’s true),
He’s there in every game, and will stay
When games are done and memory is all:
Turning compost by the garden wall,
Tilling soil for poetry to grow.
The life of mind is given birth right here,
Where joy springs out of safety, ever clear,
The love that held, will hold and won’t let go.
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.