Saturday, February 11, 2017

My American

Many a night that summer she left Dr Archie's office with a desire to run and run about those quiet streets until she wore out her shoes, or wore out the streets themselves; when her chest ached and it seemed as if her heart were spreading all over the desert. When she went home, it was not to go to sleep. She used to drag her mattress beside the low window and lie awake for a long while, vibrating with excitement, as a machine vibrates from speed. Life rushed in upon her through that window - or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within, not from without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once all contained in some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardour and anticipation.

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (1915)

The last few weeks have been filled with the madness and terror of the ascension of the new President of the United States, whose name shall not enter the attic.

At the same time that I was reading with horror of each new day of madness, I was reading Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark.  The experience was like diving into a cool pool. This portrait of the artist as a young woman, not a writer, but a singer, and the descriptions of the desert places where she grew up, and her time living in a cave once lived in by ancient cliff dwelling people, the wisdom and the intelligence of the writing which is so graceful and natural it seems not merely written but spun from the stuff of the earth itself, is a reminder that America does not need to be made great again.

It has always been great, from the culture of the indigenous peoples to the work of its great artists like Willa Cather.

Friday, January 27, 2017

' I prefer gardening'

In May 1938 Eleanor drew plans for a workroom for herself in the garden.

When it was completed,  Reference  books on Australian history sat on her bookshelves. There was

"another cupboard above for cups and saucers and loaf sugar ... And a tea caddy and some biscuits, so that I can occasionally invite a specially select and favoured visitor to afternoon tea or supper. And a window box all around my bow window. And two brown boronias outside my front door. I covet a brass door-knocker, but as the one great salient point of the whole thing is that nobody is ever to knock upon pain of death, I think I shall have to do without it."

From 'Eleanor Dark: A Writer's Life', by Barbara Brooks (1998)

Eleanor and Eric Dark's house, Varuna, has been a writers residence since the early 1990s, generously gifted to Australian writers by their son Mick.  I spent a couple of weeks there in 1993, where I finished a novel, 'The Serpentine Belt'.  Not in Eleanor's workroom in the garden, but in a sunroom off the large bedroom at the top of the house which had been theirs.  I have rarely worked or slept as well. And no one was allowed to disturb those of us who worked there.

Eleanor would have approved.

But now, it is those brown boronias I'd like to ask her about, if she were still alive.  Two outside the door is a nice touch. Brown boronias have the most beautiful scent of any plant, for those of us who are able to smell them, and not everyone can. They are from Western Australia, and are notoriously difficult to grow.

Before I read this biography of Eleanor Dark recently, I had planted two brown boronias myself, on a retaining wall outside our dining room, where wide French doors open the room to the garden. They were flowering when I put them in, and have not yet been through a winter and into another flowering season. But I'm taking care with them, mulching them well and surrounding them with rocks to keep the roots cool.

And impulsively, I bought another recently, one not in flower, which is on another wall outside the kitchen window. If all goes well, heavenly scent will waft through the back of the house in spring.

I read that Eleanor hated housework, and would rather be gardening. I concur. And so I would like to ask her how the brown boronias went( they are short lived, only about five years at best), but did they thrive and flower during that time?

I met Eleanor once, when I was about 19, in 1970. She was fifty years older. It was at a meeting of the Federation of Australian Writers, in Sydney, where I went, only once, with someone I knew casually. I got up that night and read a futuristic, intense story I'd written and had published as a teenager. When I sat down, a woman sitting behind me leaned forward to introduce herself. ' Hello, I'm Eleanor Dark,' she said.

Oh. The author of The Timeless Land, I thought, overwhelmed by meeting a Famous Writer. I probably said nothing sensible. She was a formidable woman. Writer, socialist, feminist, conservationist, socially and politically aware far ahead of her times. In the 1970s, we were just catching up with the kind of ideas she put forward in her books.

Now, I might say, I am SO delighted to meet you. Now, about your brown boronias ...

Friday, February 19, 2016

This compost

I turned the compost heap over yesterday. It was beautiful, dark and rich and as sweet as a good fruit cake. Full of life, too, earthworms and slaters, which scurried away from the  light( sorry, little slater). It was a slow, quiet, meditative job for me.

And as  I do, I thought of the great compost poem by Walt Whitman, and went to seek it out.

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas'd corpses,
It distils such  exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal,annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

' this compost' by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, the 1892 deathbed edition

A tale of black turtle beans:

A week or two ago I went  to buy black turtle beans from the food co op. At the cashier, I said, why do I feel no confidence when  these organic beans are from China.

He agreed.

 Not even the Chinese want to eat food from China, I went on. Look at baby formula.

He explained that the supplier had changed the source, and they were stuck with them. If I were you, he said, I'd buy the regular ones from the USA.  A lot of customers weren't happy with the Chinese ones.

Oh. I hadn't seen them, I said, so he showed me where they were, and I changed them.
On the way home I reflected that there wasn't much of the earth left where the soil was untainted. I even have doubts about the soil in Australia ( and in truth I'm not that fussed on buying organic food anyway).

Whitman's poem is about how the earth takes all our sickness and corpses, and corruption, and cleanses  them. It's a feeling  you could only have in the nineteenth century. Now, I feel we are overwhelming the world, burdening it with so much that it can't recover.

Anyway, today

Today I put the compost around the the strawberries, and the raspberry bush, and the blackberry. I gave  some to the chard, and the lemon and lime trees. Everything likes compost.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

One dragon's dream

What to give a new grandchild?

New copies of books his father liked was my decision.

One dragon had a dream
That two turkeys teased him,
Three tigers told him off
And four frogs seized him.
Five cranky kangaroos hopped around and fenced him in
Six stern storks tried him and sentenced him
Seven slippery seals off to jail they juggled him
Eight great elephants in balloons they smuggled him
Nine nimble numbats sewed him up with three
Then a team of ten turtles towed him home to bed.

The entire text of ' One Dragon's Dream', by Peter Pavey

Even almost thirty years later, I can still recite the whole text, though for some reasons seals have been changed to 'sea lions'.

The illustrations are baroque in their detail, and, as a counting book, you have to search for a number of objects that accord with the number of animals. This becomes delightfully complicated. Where is that last platypus? Or button.

This Australian book is subtly Australian in its content. Certainly, there are kangaroos and numbats, but there are also tigers and storks, and a dragon.

I think most book creators insert personal references for their own entertainment. In this case, on the page with three tigers, there are three signposts pointing to Kooweerup, Mount Eccles, and another place in Victoria whose name I can't remember, as I am writing this without the book to hand, sitting in the shade in a park in Blackheath, with the smell of spring blossom all around.

Peter Pavey, the author information tells us, is now a walnut farmer in Victoria. I think it perfectly reasonable that after writing one brilliant book, and another one or two, one should retire and do something else entirely.

Also for the as yet unnamed little boy:

Each Peach Pear Plum, By Janet and and Alan Ahlberg, which is a favourite of his cousin Ellie

The elephant and the Bad baby, by Elfrida Vipont, with illustrations by Raymond Briggs

Mr Gumpy's Outing, by John Burningham

And for Ellie, just because it it nice to send a new book, The Terrible Plop, by Ursula Dubosarsky, illustrated by Andrew Joyner.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

My place

Today's the first day of spring. I've just spent my first full winter in the Blue Mountains. In our garden the first bulbs are already out, muscari, or grape hyacinth, a couple of jonquils, and a little blue flower I can't identify. None of these were planted by us; they are the legacy of a ninety year old house.
There is a huge old Japanese maple in the back yard, with the smallest of budding leaves.

But up north, where I lived almost forty years, I know the magnolia in our previous garden will be gloriously flowering. Here, our newly planted magnolia is only showing the smallest of new buds, leaf or flower I can't tell. In the north, the irises will be already in full flower, while the ones I brought with me have not even budded. The hippeastrum will have produced enormous bright red blooms. We have different flowers here. The English violets I brought with me have never looked so good.

Spring comes later here, where it is further south, and higher up.

When I first arrived here, everything seemed strange. I read an interview with the American poet Gary Snyder, and wondered where my place was.

Interviewer: you think that sense of place is primary for the poetry?

Not  in any simple or literal way. More properly I would say it's a sense of what grounding means. But place has an infinite scale of expansion or contraction. In fact, if somebody asks me now, " what do you consider to be your place?" My larger scale answer is, " my place on earth is where I know most of the birds and the trees and where I know what the climate will be right now, and where I have spent enough time to know it intimately and personally."  So that place for me goes from around Big Sur on the California coast all the way up the pacific coast through British Columbia, through southeast Alaska, out through southwest Alaska, out onto the Aleutian chain, and then comes down into Hokkaido and the Japanese islands, and goes down through Taiwan. Now that's the territory I have moved and lived in and that I sort of know. So that's my place.

Gary Snyder, from ' Beat Writers at Work' edited by George Plimpton. The Harvill Press, 1999

More recently since coming here, I realised that though the cold climate gardens favoured by Blackheatheans are foreign to me, the plants of the native bushland are not.

I spent my youth in Sydney, which begins at the foot of the mountains where I'm now living. Then, I was very familiar with the Sydney sandstone heath country that surrounds the city in the National Parks, and the bushland where I live now is almost identical. So that when I go into the bush ( as we in Australia like to call our wild country) , only a stroll really from where I live, I meet many of my old friends and I know them by name. There I can meet dampiera stricta, a shy wild flower dwelling close to the ground, and the various acacias, or wattle trees, and banksias, and eriostamen, and epacris. A new friend is epacris reclinata, which reclines over rocks, with its small, red tube shaped flowers. Almost all the flowers in the Australian bush are small and non spectacular, so knowing them is good training for noticing the beauty in small things.

I think now that this is also my place.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Sylvia Plath

There hasn't been much music in the attic lately. Hasn't been much of anything, though I'm still reading and listening. (The attic is now, strictly speaking, a library. I've become a Luddite, and my only access to the net is now an iPad, which I take to the library for their wi fi. I sit here scribbling away privately like some latter day Jane Austin, with people coming in and out. It's a small library, just two small rooms, here at Blackheath.)

This week I went to see Ryan Adams at the Sydney Opera House, and the experience was sublime. Two hours of rapture. I have his latest album, 'Live at Carnegie Hall', and I suspected that at one point he would sit down at the piano and sing 'Sylvia Plath.'

I wish I had a Sylvia Plath
Busted tooth and a smile
And cigarette ashes in her drink
The kind that goes out and then sleeps
for a week
The kind that goes out on her
To give me a reason, for well, I dunno

And maybe she'd take me to France
Or maybe to Spain and she'd ask me to
In a mansion on the top of a hill
She'd ash on the carpets
And slip me a pill
Then she'd get me pretty loaded on gin
And maybe she'd give me a bath
How I wish I had a Sylvia Plath

And she and I would sleep on a boat
And swim in the sea without clothes
With rain falling fast on the sea
While she was swimming she'd be
winking at me
Telling me it would be okay
Out on the horizon and fading away
And I'd swim to the boat and I'd laugh
I gotta get me a Sylvia Plath.

(Repeat chorus)

I wish I had a Sylvia Plath

It's better with the music ...

You'll find it on the album titled 'gold' and other of his albums

Friday, June 19, 2015

The poetry of kitchens

I'm trying to love my new kitchen.
It has a wobbly floor, an old hopper window, the brown painted frame all scratched and worn, and mouldy in parts. The view is of a straggly, almost leafless fuchsia, and our neighbour Bill's tall green colourbond fence. I stoop there at the ancient kitchen sink, my hands sunk in suds.

The walls are an unattractive yellowy browny pale green. There is an old brick chimney, in which sits our brand- new stove. We have put up makeshift open shelves for cups and herbs, and have an old tall bookshelf  along one wall for putting kitchen things. There are some saucepans and plastic things in three cardboard boxes atop a card table jammed in one corner.

The only nice feature is the pressed-metal ceiling. When we tear this kitchen down, after all danger of a late spring snow has passed, this is the only part we will salvage, perhaps using part of it as a splash back above the benches. It will be a quotation from the old kitchen, a nod towards its history in this 1920s house.
I've been trying to see the beauty in this kitchen, because after all, most of my favourite poems are about things that people would find unremarkable, or ugly. I'm thinking about the white chickens and the red wheelbarrow of William Carlos Williams,  and his broken green glass between the walls of the hospital. I'm thinking of my own Sophie, from My Candlelight Novel, who wanted a poetry of kitchens. I can't quote from her as the book is still packed away somewhere in our recently- moved-into house, but I remember she wanted a poem about the squalor of  under-the-sink.

Ah, the squalor of under the sink! I know it well. The only thing I will put there are  a few cleaning things, ironic, as I regard it as too squalid for anything else.

But we have put up posters to cheer the place up. A Chagall, ('Paris through the Window')',  a dance poster from Sydney in the 1970s( a parody taken from Delacroix 's Liberty leading the masses), one for the Ray Price Quintet, and one of our own ( in my period as a member of the Without Authority poster group) urging people to deface tobacco billboards.

And I  have my life size chook made by our friend John Waters on the mantelpiece, my collection of old China Easter egg cups,  and my collection of tiny cats. And of course, some cat bowls for my real cat, Louis.

So it is quite a homely kitchen, despite its inconvenience and dilapidation,  and one day perhaps I will write a poem to it.