The Erratic Reader – II


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”

 

and:

 

“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.

 

The Erratic Reader


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.

 

 

Let’s start:

 

 

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.

Keeping Quiet

A young poet friend shared a poem with me. Gabriel Garcia Marquez declared the poet – Pablo Neruda – to be the twentieth century’s “greatest poet in any language.”

Such an accolade claims plenty poetic licence: does Mister Marquez read Sanskrit? Korean? Swahili? Arrernte?

Never mind: I think Mister Marquez is a good judge.

What is this power of the artfully selected offering of words?

This power that rivals music?

Read the poem; best of all, have someone read it aloud to you while you sit with your eyes comfortably closed:

Keeping Quiet Pablo Neruda

 

Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language; let’s stop for one second, and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines; we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea would not harm whales and the man gathering salt would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.

Paint Me As I Am

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.

                           – Miles, aged 11


Waiting for the Barbarians

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.

Those people were a solution of a sort.
 

In Canberra, they are circling…


(P V Cavafy, trans Daniel Mendelsohn)

 

“Daydream Believer: Rats dream of a better future”

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:

  40

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:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
 

 

During Wind and Rain

 

During Wind and Rain

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.

 

Thomas Hardy: During Wind and Rain