Howard is a doctor, marathon runner and author. He has written two non-fiction books, My Father’s Compass (2007) and Raft (2009). Carrots and Jaffas (2014) is his first novel. His latest novel is A Threefold Cord (Hybrid, 2107)
He called it Outback Dreaming. The poet recalled a visit he made to the remote outback community of Wadeye, where I was working. The visit happened in 2012.
The poet is an escaped rabbi (escaped in the sense that he has escaped the bullpit of the pulpit and now works in community welfare). His name is Ralph Genende.
Every year Glen Eira libraries conduct the My Brother Jack awards. My friend’s poem won First Prize in poetry. Rabbi Ralph previously won this prize ten years ago, the year of his visit to Wadeye. He says ‘this poem…born in the harshness…of an Aboriginal community is about the despair and the consolation of hope.’
Moving into the interior the tall grasses
wave me to a river
and there suddenly silently I awaken to a waterfall
small and gentle it hovers in the drifting sunlight there are moments
when peace petals into our troubled lives
leaving little blossoms
in our slumbering selves tiny messengers
from the outback
memories of a distant star reminders of a faraway birth.
Ralph writes, ‘I believe in the power of poetry to refine our lives, to bring a different lens to our wounded world.’
Once upon a time, an old man travelled by train from the goldfields to the great city. The old man took his seat and looked around. Seated at a remove in a row parallel to his sat a younger man with a bony face, his features stony and set hard. His limbs were a living art gallery of tattoos; unlike all others aboard the train he wore no mask and, when asked to show his rail pass to the conductor, he did not speak, did not move, but showed no ticket. The old man felt a sense of implicit menace, not only on account of the younger man’s scowl, but in his very silence, and somehow in his unseasonable short pants and t-shirt, as if he declared he was tougher than others, rugged up against the cold of the day.
Nobody challenged the Man of Silent Menace.
About twenty minutes into the journey the old man smelled smoke. It wafted his way from the parallel seats. He stood and looked for signs of fire. He found none. No-one else seemed perturbed. The old man hoisted his backpack and walked out of that carriage and into the next. He left behind him the smell of smoke and the Man of Menace, and we too leave them now, as they play no further part in our story. The old man walked out and into a different story.
In the next carriage the old man found an empty corner where he sat down and started to read. He heard a voice and, wondering, he looked up. He didn’t catch the words for he was an old man, but he thought he heard ‘looking stylish’.
He turned in the direction of the voice, which was feminine in register, and he found himself facing a young woman who had, indeed, addressed him. The young woman was slightly built, her hair was red and she had freckles dotting her face and arms. Her face was covered, as the man’s was, by a mask. An open laptop computer sat on her knees.
The old man, surprised, because few over his long lifetime had remarked favourably on his ‘style’, asked the woman: Did you speak to me? I’m afraid I didn’t hear clearly.
I said you look stylish.
Golly, thought the man.
Thank you, said the man.
Yes, the cool jacket, the beret. Especially the beret.
The man thanked her again, and asked, (because he was interested in such things), What are you writing?
A story, she replied. I hope it will become a novel. Would you like me to read you some?
The old man said yes, I would. Thank you.
The old man thought, What a fearless young person!
The young woman now picked up her computer, her pink tote bag, her backpack and a fluffy jacket and removed from her corner diagonally opposite the man’s, and sitting herself down opposite him, almost knee to knee, started to read.
The young woman read musically and expressively. Her story told of a father and his young daughter. The father, a magician, delighted his daughter with the magic he practised. He created a world where her mind dwelled in fantasy. The father commanded his daughter never, never to open the trunk which contained his magician’s materials. His tone was tender but firm. The man departed, leaving the trunk in the care of his daughter.
The daughter felt tempted. She too wished to work magic, for she knew that despite the doubts of many, magic was real, its actions were everywhere to be seen, if only one had eyes to see.
The temptation was stronger than the daughter’s resistance. In truth she did not try to resist; she wanted to do what her father did, she wanted to know what he knew.
The girl opened the trunk.
At this point the storyteller closed her laptop and looked up at the old man with a question in her gaze. For his part, the old man had fully entered the world of the story and was sorry that it had stopped. He felt surprised at himself for, being a prosaic old man, he held no belief or interest in the world of magic. He said, I like your story. I liked the atmosphere you created and I’m interested in your characters and in how their relationship will play out. If I had been reading this story I would want to read on. I’d want to learn what happened next. There will be consequences of the child’s action, and I imagine, of the father’s trust or his trial of the child.
The young woman smiled with pleasure.
The old man ventured: I’ve published a few books. Wow! Where can I find them?
You can check out my blog.
Your blog! Wow!
The old man asked if she was a student. She said I’m doing a degree in Creative Writing and Film, at uni. The man asked the author where she had boarded the train. She named an exquisite mountain village in the vicinity. She went on to describe the farmlet where she and her fearless brother were raised and still live. She spoke of the animals, all of which bore names, she spoke of her creative parents – musicians – who passed on the gifts of music to their children. She said, Dad mowed a maze into the acres and acres of grass behind the house. We grew up in enchantment and imagination. As she spoke she glowed with recall of a childhood of wonder.
The old man thought the woman’s lived idyll somehow echoed the idyll she created in her story. He asked, do you make music too? Oh yes, we all do, we play and sing. I’m in a band. We’re going to cut an album. I write my own songs. Would you like to hear one?
Yes. Choose a sad one.
In asking her to sing to an audience of only one, the man was testing the limits of the young person’s boldness. But she gave voice, sweetly, to the story of an intimate friendship which ebbed and flowed in pain and closeness and ended in estrangement. I hate you/ I love you – she sang. The old man found the song and the singing unexpectedly pleasant. He anticipated the usual tuneless jingle and the usual trite lyrics, but this was bright and sweet and heartfelt, without becoming mawkish. He said as much.
The young woman was greatly pleased. She confided in him about her current girlfriend, throwing in, as if to assure the old man or herself – but I’ve had a boyfriend before her. We were together for four years. I realised I’m not binary.
The old man asked, Would you like to hear a poem? It’s a poem about a weeping man, he said. Probably a sad man, like the person in your song. Yes, please, she replied.
The old man read to her Les Murray’s poem, An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow. The young woman listened without moving, stunned by the music of the lines and the breadth of the poet’s understanding.
Wintry sunshine lit up the little freckles on the woman’s arm. The old man recalled with love his freckled sister as a little girl and the lines their mother used to quote: Glory be to God for dappled things…
The train pulled into the platform. The passengers disembarked. The old man said, Make sure you tell me when your book is published, then he turned left. Taking up her pink carry bag, flinging her pack onto her back and draping herself in her fluffy jacket, the young woman turned right.
In the half-light of dusk in the cavernous space of the railhead the old man set out for the long escalator which rose up and up and brought him to an elevated level. He exited the building, looked about him, realised he was lost and returned to the roofed space. Here he took a downbound escalator (this is really a ‘descalator’, he thought to himself) and rode to the platform level. Still lost, he looked about him, wondering.
Before him stood a young woman. The woman was slightly built with fine freckles and reddish hair. The two exchanged surprised smiles.
The old man thought, this is twice upon a time. The man asked, Which way is Spencer Street?
That way, she said, extending an arm.
Thanking her, he turned to go.
Behind him a voice asked: Would you hug?
Would I hug, he wondered.
She opened her arms wide. The man felt diffident, unusually awkward. Uncertain of today’s etiquette, too-conscious of how others might see him, he held her by her bony shoulder blades while she held him firmly for a time.
Seventy years had passed before the Prussian-American Charles Bukowski entered my life. (It happened by the beach, at the southernmost tip of our continent: Wamoon was the place’s ancient name.) It was my birthday and an author friend drove three hundred kilometres to present me with the book. I asked him to stay the night. He limped down to the ocean, immersed himself to the waist, then drove back home where he was writing five books at once.
I learned Bukowski belonged to the Dirty Realist movement in Los Angeles. I wasn’t surprised. He had authored over sixty books (five at a time?), one of which was titled, Notes of a Dirty Old Man. On account of that title, the FBI kept an eye on him.
Here’s the first poem to take my eye, ‘Are You Drinking?’
washed up, on shore, the old yellow notebook
I write from the bed
as I did last
will see the doctor,
“yes, doctor, weak legs, vertigo, head-
aches and my back
“are you drinking?” he will ask.
“are you getting your
I think that I am just ill
with life, the same stale yet
My doctor mind interrupts, interprets.
‘Washed up’ – is he depressed?
‘I write from the bed’ – probably depressed.
‘will see the doctor’ – THE doctor, one known to the speaker, one who knows the speaker: is this patient a regular? a recalcitrant? An incurable?
‘weak legs’ – alcohol and nutritional neglect will lead to muscle wasting, thin weak legs below the large belly groaning with ascitic fluid;
‘vertigo’ – alcohol again, damaging the back end of the brain;
aches’ – the hyphen, why the line change? Who
‘and my back
hurts’ – who, in this human herd, has a back that doesn’t hurt? Or a head that doesn’t ache?
‘vitamins’ – often critical and urgent when an alcoholic comes to medical care; nutritional neglect can lead to vitamin B deficiency, with brain damage resulting.
All these items, concrete and specific: Charles writes from personal knowledge. Nothing abstract here.
I read on:
even at the track
I watch the horses run by
and it seems
I leave early after buying tickets on the
“taking off?” asks the mutuel
My wordlover’s mind wonders – mutuel – is this a typographical error?
The dictionary assures me it’s not: this office bearer at the race track checks bets, sells tickets, pays out cash where due. In Australia he’d be a turf accountant, a bookie’s clerk
‘‘… if you think it’s boring
out there”, he tells me, “you oughta be
And now, in this moment in the story, in a poem that doesn’t bother to rhyme, that refuses all song, that wastes nought by way of capital letters and punctuation, reserving them for the speech of the doctor and the clerk, now the engine of strong feeling fires:
so here I am
propped against my pillows
just an old guy
just an old writer
with a yellow
Listen as the engine roars in to high fear: I’m intruding here with bold print:
walking across the floor
Feel Bukowski’s fear. Something which has the power of motion. Some thing, some beast, some force, some terror.
Feel the poet alert, listening, paralysed in his fear. Feel his tension rising, rising, as the something comes nearer and nearer. What does he fear?
What fear is this that drives the poet to drink, that send him again and again to the doctor, what fear is it that dulls even the power and the thrill of ‘the horses that run by’?
oh, it’s just
A space, a breath, a moment grabbed from the fearful something that surely will come –
The fearful something came for Charles Bukowski on March 9, 1994. He was 73 years and seven months old.
Bloody newspapers! Having settled into my summer of crime I had little patience for newspapers or the news. The Weekend ‘Australian’ felled a forest in my palm. I looked sourly at the ‘paper’s unrelenting jaundice, directed uniformly in denunciation of the new mob who will steal government from the present mob. In this mood the ‘Australian’ deplores democracy. Deploring busily myself, I turned to the non-news. This is to be found in ‘Review’, the newspaper’s excellent weekly look at books and pictures and movies and dance and music and television shows. In short, the arts.
Looking cursorily I leafed through the pages. As I did so I felt cursory; the accursed ‘Review’ was full of attractive material. I came to poems. Poems are hard, like algebra. Unlike algebra the trick is not to try to solve a poem, first listen to the music. Here (‘Review’, page 22) was Barry Hill, himself guilty of poetry, reviewing a book by another poet, Paul Kane. No, I hadn’t heard of him either. Kane’s book, ‘A Passing Bell: Ghazals for Tina’, is a lament for the poet’s wife, Tina, who died a few years ago. Barry Hill likes the book; I loved Hill’s review. I want to give you a taste of Hill on Kane on Tina, but what to choose? Better, what to omit? Not a word is dispensible. Here, at random:
It comes in the form of ghazals, the ancient lyric common to the Sufi poets writing in classic Persian (or Arabic, Turkish or Urdu), whose lines fell down the page in couplets that came to rest with a fresh mention of the beloved or the Beloved (sometimes called Master).
In any case, the Sufi exalted the visible as a song to the invisible.
Hill’s language is pregnant, heavy with knowledge and understandings, gravid with a scholarship I can only envy. Hill chooses the following lines by Kane:
“He never meant to write this, it simply took shape and wouldn’t let him go until it was over. But it will never be over for him, his heart inscribed with the name of the beloved, Tina”
“At night I lie awake and call to you,
but you don’t reply, except in silence.
The night bird is not silent but sings
A simple single note. His mate does not sing back.
I do not understand this silence, as if God
Has departed and taken you with Him.
I have no words to form a prayer
That could reach you or Him.
Two wine glasses sit on the counter top –
One is full then only half full.
Without emptiness the glass could not exist.
If you should speak, Tina, the glass would shatter.
And back to Hill:
…Meanwhile, the ghazals, their pace and suspension, create a sense of time stretched to some mysterious limit, or of language floating on the waters of emptiness. “What words are these that well up like tears not shed?”
It took me quite some time before I could go back to Peter Temple’s ‘Dead Point”, my first Jack Irish novel. My first, definitely not my last. And now I’m on to Jane Harper’s ‘The Dry.’ Bloody crime writers writing literature. It’s enough to drive a man to Algebra.
Every so often I feel the urge to tell the world what I’m reading. I’ve thought, I’m going to write and tell the world about this essay, that novel, this poem, but I’ve almost never done so. The explanation is I’ve been too busy reading to jot down my reactions to the written material. And now that I’m actually beginning, it’s not because you need to know what I read and what I think, but because I need to nudge someone in the ribs and say, golly, wow, how beautiful, how sad, how simple and true, how complex and elusive! In short I enjoy a treasure most richly when I can share it. The loneliest person in the world must be he who looks up and regards El Capitan and has no companion to share the wow.
I’ve found the most effective way to make someone yawn is to read a poem aloud. This doesn’t stop me from doing it; the power and beauty of a poem so often compels me.
My day starts with a package of poems. These are psalms, attributed to David, the poet-warrior king of ancient Israel. I read these religiously. Like all actions that are ritualised, the ritual intended to enhance meaning can bleach it out of sight. I regret how often I bleach out beauty through simple inattention. But when an accident of biorhythm or a pang of piety actually slows my recitation I can stumble across purple passages* like this:
Praise God from the heavens
Praise Him from the heights
Praise Him all His angels
Praise Him all His hosts
Praise Him sun and moon!
Praise Him all starry lights!
Praise Him the utmost heavens!
Leviathans and all deeps
Fire! Hail! Snow and Mist
Wind of storm
All work His word
The mountains and all Hills
Fruit tree and all cedars
Carnivore and Behemoth
Creeping thing and bird on the wing
Earthly kings and all nations
Potentates and all earthly judges
Youths and also young girls
Old men together with young lads
Let them praise the Name of the Lord…
While you yawn let me tell you how I love this tumbling catalogue of beings and phenomena, its plenitude, its richness, as the poet, God-drunk, calls the roll of the universe; how he brings into chorus every voice (Creeping things! Snow! Leviathan! – did David imagine what we now know and record – that the great whales sing?) – his imagination fires his love into hyperbolic song. After King David I had to wait for Gerard Manly Hopkins for such spiritually excited verse.
As I remarked above, golly.
*The translation is my own. Don’t blame King James.
A poet sent me this poem. It is a poem I could never write. It is the poem of a spirit stronger, freer and bolder. When a poem as true as this comes my way I feel I know the poet, I’d recognise him by the beauty of the poem. I marvel at the freedom he claims and I rejoice for him, while holding my breath as he skelters along life’s unseen edge. My timid spirit prays, ‘o let him not fall off the edge.’
Paint Me As I Am
Why don’t you paint me as I am?
Running and reading, with waves and
Sand tangling in my hair.
With fire in my hands.
Paint me as a surfer, catching opportunities like a wave.
Paint me without dark paint, for I am not
only shades of grey.
Paint me somewhere else, where dew moistens leaves
and the chilly air circulating around me that
makes every fibre of my being feel alive.
Paint me with my wrinkles, for those are signs of me laughing.
Paint me so my tears and scars don’t show.
Paint me with my nightmares but most of all, paint me with my dreams.
In Washington they’ve arrived and taken up residence
What is it that we are waiting for, gathered in the square?
The barbarians are supposed to arrive today.
—Why is there such great idleness inside the Senate house?
Why are the Senators sitting there, without passing any laws?
Because the barbarians will arrive today.
Why should the Senators still be making laws?
The barbarians, when they come, will legislate.
—Why is it that our Emperor awoke so early today,
and has taken his position at the greatest of the city’s gates
seated on his throne, in solemn state, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians will arrive today.
And the emperor is waiting to receive
their leader. Indeed he is prepared
to present him with a parchment scroll. In it
he’s conferred on him many titles and honorifics.
—Why have our consuls and our praetors come outside today
wearing their scarlet togas with their rich embroidery,
why have they donned their armlets with all their amethysts,
and rings with their magnificent, glistening emeralds;
why should they be carrying such precious staves today,
maces chased exquisitely with silver and with gold?
Because the barbarians will arrive today;
and things like that bedazzle the barbarians.
—Why do our worthy orators not come today as usual
to deliver their addresses, each to say his piece?
Because the barbarians will arrive today;
and they’re bored by eloquence and public speaking.
—Why has this uneasiness arisen all at once,
and this confusion? (How serious the faces have become.)
Why is it that the streets and squares are emptying so quickly,
and everyone’s returning home in such deep contemplation?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some people have arrived from the borderlands,
and said there are no barbarians anymore,
And now what’s to become of us without barbarians.
You may scoff, human reader, but I, Rattus rattus – also known as black rat, ship rat, roof rat, house rat, Alexandrine rat, old English rat – I have my dreams.
I dream of a time without scoffing humans.
I dream of Old Hamelin, my home town, Hamelin to which I shall not return, not until the burghers beg forgiveness.
Meanwhile I live in the cleft of the rock, together with the lost children of Hamelin.
I dwell in Xanadu, of which you can only dream:
…that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see me there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
I have a dream
that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
I dream with smiles
On my rodent lips;
I dream my dreams
Of sinking ships.
The rat dreams:
All day in the one chair
From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged
In rambling talk with an image of air:
Vague memories, nothing but memories.
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
Like Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, I defied my wife’s advice. She said, as I mounted the bike, ‘they predict wind and rain. Don’t go.’
I did go and a pleasant ride it was through darkened streets, shining in the streetlight. Clouds muffled sound, the traffic was not yet up or much about, my old legs pedalled a judicious way and I felt cheerful and vindicated, like Julius before the Rotunda. My rotunda struck with fine – indeed wifely – force in the park, about fifteen minutes out from warmth and shelter.
The wind was a whip that circled and struck, now flinging the bike broadside, now howling head-on against me. I pushed the pedals and nothing moved except a wifely voice saying she told me so.
I could still feel my fingers but they were not the fingers of one alive. My face stung, my shapely legs experienced piloerection within the all-weather tights that now sogged and flapped. My nipples froze and I knew I’d never breastfeed.
I thought of Thomas Hardy, the voice of winter’s wintering and I was warmed and cheered. I saw beneath my wheels ‘the sick leaves reel down in throngs.’ I bethought myself of my loved ones, both those warm and safe and those lying outdoors, as ‘down their carved names the rain drop ploughs.’
Remembering a loved poem is like meeting a loved friend. Hardy wrote ‘During Wind and Rain’ in 1917, five years after his wife died.
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face …
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat…
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See the white storm-birds wing across!
They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee…
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.
They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs…
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.