The voice floated across my lonely motel room in Darwin. The sound of slow sweet lament suited my mood in that anonymous room in a lodging for transients. The voice sang of home, of home lost, of home dreamed and remembered. In that room, at that season – the three weeks of mourning for Jerusalem and the Temple – the voice sang to me of loss, my own and the singer’s.
After a period working on Elcho Island I had arrived in Darwin at day’s end, had wandered blindly about the Darwin Festival, blindly had selected this CD of Elcho singers. Later, in the light I read their names. I recognised ‘Yunipingu’: hadn’t he been Australian of the Year? But this would be a different Yunipingu.
Only a couple of years later that floating voice had percolated through the ears of the entire nation, seeped into our being and changed us. Distinctive as didgeridoo, his voice was recognised everywhere. His solo album was the cultural event of the year. Realising how a voice had become the sound that we recognised ourselves by, I wrote. “Australia is becoming more Australian.”
Born in 1971 the singer passed away last week. He died during the three weeks of mourning. I listen to ‘Warwu’ and I feel for my country, impoverished. The singer has passed from us. So much loss, so many, so young.
click on this link to hear him singing 'Warwu': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhkMP89rRMk
Emerging from my early morning train I follow the subterranean tunnel that will lead to a city lane and daylight. There by the stairway stands a figure in the dimness, a fiddle at her chin, a bow in her right hand. I catch a glimpse of a t-shirt emblazoned with a black skull on a ground of brilliant white. A musician is playing Bach in a catacomb in Melbourne.
The musician plays. Later she will answer my query: “It’s Bach, one of the minuets.” Like any commuter I hurry by. A piccolo latte later I return to the tunnel. I have, after all, ten minutes of leisure, ten minutes free from scampering from screen to screen. I stand at a remove where I watch the slow bowing of her right hand and the nimble darting fingers of her left.
The musician plays. I don’t recognise this music, something slow and languid; liquid sounds flowing, flowing, peak hour crowds hurrying, hurrying. The musician plays, the commuters exit and I stand and I listen. In my hands I hold ‘Review’ from the weekend paper. Between melodies I read a poem by Judith Beveridge. The poem, titled ‘To a Garland Maker’ starts:
‘It must be good to be a garland-maker –
Your daughters carrying water, working with you
Braiding feathers, shells, leaves…’
Somehow the poem clinches the moment for me. Some obscure connection takes place. Perhaps it’s simply the gladsome encounter, unexpected, with the beautiful. I drop a bank note into the musician’s empty violin case. Between pieces I approach: “Please forgive my enquiry… what else do you do? In music, I mean?”
“I’m at the Conservatorium. I’m studying.”
I withdraw and the musician plays again. Once again sounds drawn by slow bowing to an unhurried tempo, once again sounds not of this century nor of the last. Is there perhaps defiance in her choice of the unfashionable, of the non-popular? Most mornings the busker in this tunnel is a singlet-clad Springsteen, twice this girl’s age. But his music is far younger. His guitar case fills quickly with coin and notes.
My ten minutes of slow pass quickly. I’ve been in reverie, prompted by the playing and the poem:
who will adorn you at your funeral with blossoms
picked at dawn.’
Following the poet’s images of daughters and aged mothers a vision comes to me of this same girl, three score years in the future, her delicate face coarsened by years and care. As I walk away my mind takes me to an elderly lady I know. She suffered a stroke a few years ago and recovered all movement but her speech was affected. Now words tumble from her mouth in lively disorder. My friend knows what she wants to say but her brain plucks the wrong word from her lexicon. The old lady has much to tell but her speech trips her up. She lives alone in the old family home, her gaiety unquenched.
In my reverie I hear the fiddler with her slow music, I hold the poet’s images of garland-making daughters, of disfiguring time, and of an old lady who cannot talk straight. Yeats wrote of ‘Gaiety transfiguring all that dread’. It is art I suppose, the access to beauty, that brings us to the sunlight.
Most Saturdays I walk with my father. Saturday is shabbat, when I go to shule (synagogue) in the morning and walk home alone afterwards. It is this walk that I take with Dad. It works like this: services at the shule of my choice finish around noon-thirty – precisely the time my family will be gathering at home. No-one wants to risk coming between a Goldenberg and her food at meal time; too dangerous. So just a few moments before the congregation sings the concluding hymn, Adon Olam, I duck out of shule and hurry homeward.
When it comes to a prayer or a song a Goldenberg is not one to short-change his Maker. So, striding like my father before me, I sing that song as I walk, feeling anew the melody I sang with my father through our decades of shule-going together. In fact, Dad and I shared two different melodies to Adon Olam, one of them quite beautiful, the other even lovelier – or should I say – slower, sweeter, more expressive of longing. We loved them both, I love them still, and so I sing – first one of the two, then the second.
When I was a timid child I attached myself devoutly to the final lines of this song:
Into His hand, I entrust my soul
While I sleep and when I awaken;
And while ever my soul remains with me –
The Lord is with me – I will not fear.
But of course I did fear. First I feared the wolves and the bears that would come for me in my bedroom from the grim tales of Europe; later I felt afraid of snakes, of adults who shouted at me, of the world. I felt safe with Mum and with my dreadnought father, and – more perilously – with my risk-taking brother Dennis. I did a lot of fearing and I seized needily at the comforting closing line of Adon Olam. I’d sing it to myself when I walked alone in the dark.
Dad sang sweetly, his light tenor voice rising high above the circumambient baritone drone of fellow worshippers. He’d look intent as he sang, for music spoke to Dad more truly than words. Dad always claimed he didn’t like poetry, but he loved song. Music reached Dad in his secret places of abiding anxiety, it inspired him and carried his hopes, his love of life, his belief in beauty.
It was late in Dad’s life that he surprised me, speaking once of Adon Olam: Whenever in my life I’ve felt afraid, that last line has come to me. As a child I’d sing it to myself when I was walking alone in the dark.
Now a man walks home alone. Approaching threescore and ten he walks, still vigorously, as his father walked. He sings softly as he walks. Adon Olam swells in his throat. His voice slows to climb the penultimate arc of old melody, he holds that high note, then allows his voice to fall, to slide peacefully, into peace.
The man walks home alone but never alone.
· *’Walking with my Father’ was a chapter title in my first book, ‘My Father’s Compass’ (Hybrid, 2007). That memoir recorded my life with my father that had ended with death at a great age, a few years earlier. It was that book in which I first went public with my (possibly regressive) ancestor worship.
My father said, “I don’t like poetry.” But he recited whole stretches of Shakespeare and odd fragments he learned at school. They shaped his thought and ferried it forward until he died, more than threescore years after his schooling ended. And Dad loved song, singing sea shanties to us through the hours of boat trips and long drives in the country. Dad imagined song was not verse and persuaded himself he ‘didn’t like poems.’
Many feel the same: confronted with verse they shrink and expect to be baffled by this often complex, always dense mode of expression.
Some poems however are quite straightforward. In First Class at Leeton Public School, Mrs Paulette announced, “Today we will learn a new poem. It is ‘Ding, Dong, Dell.'” I raised my hand: “I know that poem already.”
“Good, Howard. Please recite it for the class.”
“Ding, dong dell,
Pussy’s in the well:
How can you tell?
Go and have a smell.”
“Howard, leave the class immediately.”
Whether in the original version, that features Little Tommy Thin as the malefactor, or in the Howard version in which putrefaction proceeds, the lines race along in straight lines from straightforward beginning to clear ending. The charm is in the music and in the energy-packed compactness. Next to a picture and a graph, a poem is often the most efficient mode of conveying experience.
If you are like me, you might be daunted by lengthy poems. Try this one, a shorty:
I, Too, Sing America
Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
I know too little of American verse, but the phrase, ‘I sing America’ rings a bell. I think it was Walt Whitman who wrote a poem by that title. Here the poet claims American folk memory – together with Emily Dickenson, Whitman is said to be the most original of American poets – and with graceful economy and marvellous power, protests against his exclusion to the kitchen of America, ‘when company comes.’
If you like that, try the even shorter, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
I found both poems in ‘The Great Modern Poets’, edited by Michael Schmidt (Quercus). The CD enclosed inside the front cover features all the poets – from Yeats T S Eliot to Plath – reading their own work. Langston Hughes sings his lines with a jazz rhythm and in an accent faintly redolent of the Caribbean. Buy the book, listen to the CD and weep for beauty.
Walking to shule early on a shabbat morning in spring, walking along, swinging along, here’s my neighbour approaching, walking along, swinging along, along with Jarrah his handsome, brainless hound.
We discuss the terror raids. A Sydney paper runs the headline: SYDNEY UNDER SEIGE. I wonder aloud about a climate of alarmism. Hugo trusts the government to protect the people. I trust any government to protect itself. We agree to disagree.
Walking long, swinging along Meadow Street, swinging towards the park, there’s a man ahead of me, singing. He’s walking along, singing along, singing aloud, singing with sunny uncaring, his ears clasped by headphones. A brown man, tall, a head of tight dark curls, his voice ringing out in the swinging morning.
I walk behind and I wonder. What is this singing, what the tongue, what type of singing? Some droning, drawn-out notes, long phrases, thick gutturals: might be mid-eastern, might be something different..
I swing faster, draw alongside, address the singing man; ‘What are you singing?’
The singing man smiles, stops his singing, removes his earphones. ‘Listen’, he says, his accent unemphatic, possibly sub-continental. He clasps my ears with his ‘phones. Soft rushes of sibilant sounds – unaccompanied percussion – fill my ears.
‘That’s not the music, that’s just the rhythm, the backing. I make the music, my song…’
‘Is the song your own? Do you compose it?’
‘Yes.’ Another smile. “I will record it in a sound studio, make a tape and try to sell it.”
‘What are you singing about?’
‘A beautiful girl, so beautiful she shames the sun.’
‘Will you sing it for me?’
The man smiles, replaces his earphones, bursts into song, full-throated, and we swing together along Meadow Street. The singing man creates waves of sound, rhythmic, patterned. I can discern the lines, pick out sound rhymes.
It is lovely.
‘Will you translate for me?’
‘” Do not go out ino the sun, my beauty,
Do not go into the sun;
If you go into the sun, my beauty,
The sun will look pale,
You will shame the beauty of the sun”‘
‘Thank you. That is beautiful.’
We swing together along Meadow Street. When we reach the corner, I say goodbye. ‘Good luck with your song.’
I turn the corner, heading for the park and for shule beyond.
The man calls to me, ‘Have a good shabbat.’
Once upon a time a redheaded warbler sang a song to a crowd of people gathered to hear her and readings from a book about two red-headed twins. The singer was Clare Bowditch, songwriter, mother of twins-plus-one, social activist, philosopher and entrepreneur.
The reader was Howard Goldenberg, author, GP and marathon runner.
In this 3 minute video Howard reads from Chapter 1 of his novel ‘Carrots and Jaffas’, a book about two identical twins whose intimate bond is ruptured when a kidnapping occurs.
Please let me know what you think. Should I publish an audio book?
A roomful of people in the dusk of the inaugural Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival, expectant, keen to hear and discuss “Carrots and Jaffas”. I anticipated we’d be fewer. I should have known Emily Lubitz (from Tin Pan Orange) and Martin Flanagan (journalist) would attract people. But Emily sent a series of text messages.
2300 last night: “Howie, we might need a rain check. My waters just broke. I’ll see the doc before tomorrow’s gig. Am keeping my legs crossed.”
1100 today: “Howie, I’m in hospital but not contracting. I asked the doc can I duck out for a couple of hours. She looked at me as if I was crazy. Still hoping I’ll be the elephant in the room.”
1300 today: “I’m contracting. If it’s a redheaded boy we’ll call him Jaffas or Carrots.”
So, no Emily.
Martin Flanagan, journalist, novelist, anthropophile, led a conversation about the book, about my choice to turn from serious non-fiction to the novel, about stolen children – the ultimate wound, about twinness, about the problems and pitfalls of the whitefella writing about blackfellas.
An audience of committed, highly informed and compassionate people engaged us in a conversation about the interfaces between Australia’s first peoples and later comers. They explored the curious and recurrent engagement of blackfellas in Jewish affairs that started with William Cooper, and the reciprocal engagement by Jews in Aboriginal advancement.
Martin and our audience created an atmosphere of the most distinctive quality. Humans and their stories, people and their dreams, the mystery and the sanctity of the Dreaming, the heritage that is memory, the sacrament that is storytelling – all these were raised up and seen at their height.
We went home fulfilled.