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.
Sheltering from the rain where the tram meets the train it occurs to me I’m at a hub, the locus of the hurrying many. A good spot to promote your goods or your services or your gig. At my feet, on a patch of dry asphalt, a sort of yellow mound takes my eye. The mound turns out to be a pile of magazines, the strong yellow blazoned with bold script in magenta. It’s intended to catch the commuter’s eye.
When it comes to reading material I am my mother’s son. The printed word always lured Mum from the world of people and food and things: if it was legible Mum would leg it.
Me too. This was readable material so I read. I read CHOPPED. None the wiser I peered at the words in a smaller font. These are the words I read:
REVEREND HORTON HEAT
Hmmm. I guessed these were musical groups, bands, we used to call them. There was more:
Guantanamo Baywatch. Clever. I liked it.
Puta Madre Bros. Rude, naughty. I liked it.
Drunk Mums. Why not?
The Cherry Dolls. Chris Russell’s chicken Walk. Ho hum.
The Pinheads. If you have that originality you aren’t one.
West Thebarton Brothel Party. I recalled the two occasions I went window shopping in a brothel. That was Hong Kong, not Thebarton West.
The Shabbab. Shepparton Airplane. There’s a ring to these.
La Mancha Negra. What can that mean? Probably nothing. Word stuck, word-drunk, I always want to decode the metaphor. A mistake: listen to the music.
The Reprobettes. Pretty literate. A snob, I am mildly surprised.
Amyl and the Sniffers. Naughty again, very naughty. I am enjoying my morning’s reading.
Racing on (I hear my tram approaching) – Slim Customers. King Puppy & the Carnivore. Thee Cha Chas. Was that three or thee? The eye wants to see what it wants.
Tape Wolves. Red Brigade. Do the members of this group know much about the Red Brigades?
Itchy Scabs. I love it.
The team pulls up as I read: Double Yad. Golly. I feel no doubt at all the namegiver intends this name. Understands the acronymic coupling of the Hebrew letter yad. Knows it to be the abbreviated form of the Ineffable Name.
This evening and tomorrow the family will mark the seventh anniversary of the dying of my firstborn brother Dennis. We’ll light candles and congregations will join us in remembering him.
Two weeks before he died Dennis underwent elective surgery. I wondered if the surgery was wise. Dennis, whose life’s creed was hope, assured me: ”Doff, this operation can eventually cure diabetes. It will transform my life.”
We spoke daily on the phone – he from his hospital bed, I from a hellhole town in the deep Kimberley. Day by day Dennis seemed to be doing well. But on day four he told me: ”I’m OK but my belly hurts”. A belly ache bad enough for stoical Dennis to mention was bad enough to alarm me.
Day five, no phone call. That day the pain was worse. Dennis collapsed, his circulation failing as his abdomen filled with blood and stomach acid leaking from his wounds.
At his bedside in Intensive Care the following day we counted the tubes entering and departing Dennis’ comatose form. One into his windpipe to make him breathe; a second into a great vessel to deliver information; a third to bypass his kidneys which had failed; a fourth to drain his bladder; a fifth and sixth into peripheral vessels to deliver fluids and the hero molecules that just might save him.
The greater the number of tubes in a patient’s body, they told us, the lower the chance he would leave ICU alive.
I sat at his bedside and I watched my brother. Behind the clicks and gusts of his life machines swelled the sounds of classical music. Annette, his loving sister-in-law, thought to play that music, those patterned sounds that ever soothed his troubled breast.
I sat there and watched as nurses, tender or tough, kept my brother alive. The tough ones, resentful of something – were we too many, was this medical brother too medical, that sister too exacting, that aged mother too accepting? – made me feel small, in need again of a big brother.
Dennis turned the corner: blood pressure held firm, sleeping kidneys awoke, fewer molecules were needed. The doctors conferred and announced: “We’ll let him wake up now and breathe on his own.”
Dennis breathed and slept on. We all breathed, went home and slept.
At four in the morning my phone rang. A crepitous, rustling sound, a broken voice in windy gusts: it was Dennis: “Doff, they want to njjhrnnujicxvclbkvn”
“Den, I can’t hear you. Say it again.”
Gales and crackles and Dennis’ voice in fragments: “Doff… inaudible… they…unintelligible…the tube back in.”
“Den, are you saying they advise you to go on the respirator again?”
More gasping, a desparate heaving of voice: “Yes!” More gasping. “Is it a good idea?”
“Den, it’s your best hope. Say yes.”
That was the final phone call. Dennis and I never spoke again. By the time I reached the hospital Dennis’ coma was renewed, the respirator breathing for him. Soon his circulation collapsed again, the doctors tried heart-lung bypass (“It’s only ever been shown to work in children. It’s your brother’s last hope..”) and on the eve of Shabbat Dennis died.
I can speak or write of Dennis dying with a composure that surprises me. Even my fatal advice does not trouble me. Perhaps it was not the dying of my big brother, but his living, that calls to me and troubles my dreams.
There’s a CD I listen to when I want to write about something serious or something true or sad. It is Disc Two of ‘Dirt Music’, the album compiled by Tim Winton and Lucky Oceans to accompany Winton’s great and sad book of that name. Two tracks on the disc speak from the darkest room in the house of sorrow. (I refer to Sculthorpe’s ‘Dijille’ and to ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’ by Arvo Part). The grief is absolute. It neither cries nor shouts nor tears its hair out. It simply quivers and ultimately exhausts itself and lapses into barely audible human breaths. And thus into harmony with life. The experience leaves me quiet, reconciled – I suppose – by sheer truth. And beauty.
What has that to do with Robert Hillman’s new book, “Joyful”? I read a passage in the later part of the novel where a character who has lost his only two children weeps silently in the utter darkness of a room in the mansion that gives the book its name. His quivering presence is sensed by his host, Leon Joyce, owner of “Joyful”. Joyce, who has been observing his own prolonged season of bottomless grief, stands, wordless and motionless. The weeping one comes to realise he is not alone. Each sorrows in silence, both men understand. No sign, no word. But something beyond words is known: the two men and the grateful reader make their way from that room in “Joyful” somehow reconciled to loss. And that is what Hillman’s book is about – its chief theme – how we humans risk all and lose all when we (inevitably) invest in passion.
Robert Hillman is not famous for misery, any more than Winton. The misery is there in the book as it is in life. But “Joyful” is also a story of the greatest vitality, the most audacious imagination, the most original characters, (from the carnal priest who absolves himself habitually, to Dally the Wordsworth-loving Iraqi Kurd, to the sexually hyperactive Tess, to the hapless Emily who cannot love any man who loves her, to the world-weary, gusset-guzzling, false-poet Daniel.) And the book is full of gems from the bowels of Hillman’s imagination that made me roar with unexpected belly laughing.
I defy the reader to get through “Joyful” without shedding tears of mirth and tears of joy. In short, I like it. I admire it. I respect it, I envy it, I treasure it. I’ll remember it.
Text published “joyful.” Howard Goldenberg will launch it at Readings in Carlton at 6.30 pm on Wednesday 7 May. Please come along.
Ten or twelve
Only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc
(from Binsley Poplars, Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Self-pity. It’s Amy Clampitt’s fault:
In her “Beethoven, Opus111” –
A poem, its title promising
Music, but its texture and girth
Thick with root and thorn, and earth,
The toil of her farmer father, the clodded
Soil his foe (and freiheit!) and moil,
She speaks of his dying, his escape
Into air, and I wondered: how will I
I smiled to imagine his “last act,
to walk on air.”
But then I remembered: one hundred and seventy
on one hundred and ten, numbers that number my days, Dread then, of a stroke broke my smile:
To sit, endless,
Helpless, in my piss
And my shit? Well
That’s how I started, how my grandruby sits,
The happiest of souls, she laughs in fits –
Why might not I subsist, exist, persist –
Unlearn, and learn and earn to laugh like Ruby?
My Mum had strokes, stroke upon stroke –
The doctors lost count; but she, like Ruby,
Knew only stroke upon stroke
Of joy: I’ve never been happier in my life, Mum
Said. And meant it. And showed it.
Mum followed Beethoven into the quiet
Of the deaf, whither I tiptoe too: there
White noise abates, music awaits,
Remembered. And you hear less bullshite.
But if a vessel, sclerotic, brittle,
But block or blow or burst,
It’ll tear, shear, shatter my brain,
And blind me: in that pain – in that pain
Would I, could I smile again – in that dark?
If I, like eyeless Jacob upon the head of Ephraim
Rest my hand on Ruby: I’d smile again
But come that stroke
That takes away words –
My words, coin of my world,
Uncoined then, mute, truly broke,
To speak no more, nor write –
Not to ask, nor thank, nor say: I think…
Nor ask, scratch that itch;
Never again speak my love? Never indite?
Mouth fail, tongue in jail,
Hand flail, pen fall?
That stroke, that stroke,
What, never crack a joke?
Self-pity is the sincerest emotion.
Whenever I wanted to read a poem to my father he’d make a face. He claimed he didn’t like poetry. I suspect it was the ambiguity in a poem that frustrated him. In fact Dad loved poems, the poems he committed to memory in his schooldays. He recited some of these often enough for them to take seed and grow inside me.
Now Dad is gone and it is I who recites his lines, learned at school around 1925:
Blow, blow, thou winter wind
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude…
Thy tooth is not so keen
Because thou art not seen
Although thy breath be rude
I see Dad’s wry smile as he continued with lines that border on the cynical.
Sing Hey Ho, Hey ho unto the holly
Most friendship is feigning
Most loving mere folly
Dad was not cynical. So what appealed to him about this snatch from ‘The Tempest’?
I think it was the music.
Lots of people think they don’t like poetry. They would never read a poem – not willingly, not wittingly.
But they listen to songs. And a song is just a poem hidden inside music.
Think of the Beatles. Think of ‘Till there was you’. Think of ‘Elinor Mackenzie’. We loved those songs, not least for their poetry.
Nobody doesn’t like a song.