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Tuesday, 15 May 2018

In which I declare a debt to my mother

In the middle of 2012 I stopped writing journalism for publication in magazines because it was taking up too much time looking after mum. I had to take her to doctors’ appointments and make sure she got to see the specialists who had become critical for her continued wellbeing. Older people need more medical care than younger people. But what I didn’t foresee is that this pause in my published output as a journalist would usher in a period of sustained creativity for me as a poet.

Looking back now it is extraordinary how much verse I produced in 2013 and in the first months of 2014. I see poems of sustained quality appearing in those months and I am astonished at my productivity then. Mum was doing well, although she was old. We had made out her power of attorney to give me the ability to make decisions on her behalf if anything happened that necessitated it. The diagnosis of dementia which would bring a close to all of this creativity wouldn’t happen until March 2014. In the meantime, I was pumping out the sonnets like a man possessed by some form of salutary demon.

I was living at the time in an apartment overlooking a park where men would come several times a week to practice sport. There were rugby union teams playing on weekends and American football teams practicing on Thursday nights. When the men came to play their sports they drove up in their utilities and parked them in the bays next to the field. I would walk down to mum’s place in the late afternoon every day by way of the local streets. There was a man on a balcony of some housing commission units on one corner who would call out to me rudely if I didn’t answer his greetings, so I had resorted to using a different route. On it, the bush turkeys were often out and about, stalking along the footpaths and the grass verges like bishops in their dark livery, their red wattles flopping about like little sacks in which they kept their prayers. With their big claws they would make huge mounds out of leaf litter in which to deposit their eggs, and stalk down the street every evening looking for food.

At mum’s place I made dinner for the two of us. I had part of a bottle of wine while cooking as mum sat on her easy chair watching the TV. She had favourite programs. When the time came she would watch ‘Midsomer Murders’ and we would laugh at the strange sound the editors put in the soundtrack when some invisible, fungible bird would cry out at night in the forest and make an eerie, forlorn sound like a man calling out at the moment of his death. It was always the same bird call at some dramatic moment at the beginning of an episode that was designed to elevate the sense of drama for the viewer. Some nights, mum’s housekeeper would join us for dinner and she would stay the night in the spare room in mum’s apartment. On these nights after I left, the two of them would sit watching TV together. The ABC’s ‘Doctor Blake’ would form part of their evening schedule.

For me, after eating I would walk home down the street, which was darkening with the advancing hour as the stars came out to light my way. Once home, as often as not, I would have some more wine and write poetry. But the best time for writing was in the early morning. I would wake sometimes before dawn and sit in front of the computer tapping away as the sky brightened in tone and as the birds emerged to stir the day into being like a posse of cosmic cooks intent on preparing a special dish for the world’s delight. Some of them would sit in the paperbark tree that posed loftily in the middle of the park, and sing loudly as the sun rose in the east over the ocean that my room faced, beyond the park’s confines.

There are astonishing poems appearing as a result of the lucidity produced as a result of this peaceful daily regimen. I would sit typing away in solitude, while mum slept on and took advantage of the early hours to embellish her dreams with otherworldly insights I would never hear about. In the mornings at a certain hour every day I would arrive at her place via my usual route and eat the breakfast that her housekeeper had prepared for us, and plan out the day. Between June and July 2013 I wrote a longer poem of over 1600 lines in heroic couplets but most of the poems were sonnets in the traditional Shakespearean style.

The Adobe Acrobat file the following poem was made in appeared on Christmas Day in 2013 and the poem itself had been written on 28 July 2013. It is titled ‘Dawn (after Donne)’.
Since the clouds are moisture in the sky’s eye
we can see the universe has a fond
regard as it gazes relentlessly
on the world today; its purview surrounds 
the entirety of things including
you there asleep as the pale dawn unfolds
like an expectant flower that holds you in
its must: the petals red, the pollen gold. 
Since the clouds are tinted pink we can see
that the universe seeks to emulate
your face still soft with sleep; your dreams decry
its bothersome interest in your fate 
and fly up to darken the horizon
so the clouds drift along urged by birdsong.
The repetitive phrase beginning with “since” emphasises the formal structure of the poem, with the classical volta at the beginning of the third stanza employing the same grammatical formulation as the poem’s initial point of entry. You can see the trope of the birds entering at the end in the final couplet, which is linked to the preceding narrative without any punctuation, reinforcing the poem’s dramatic energy and strengthening the final image.

The poem is compact, neat, powerful and evocative. It belongs to the family of love poetry but it manages its inheritance in a self-conscious way, revelling in the work that its predecessor brought to the canon, but building on Donne’s achievements by mastering the trope of the poet addressing an artificially embodied element, in this case the clouds and by extension the whole universe. Donne had only addressed the sun in his famous poem. By describing the dawn as a flower, the poet furthermore takes possession of the visible world in an imaginative and ambitious way. The poet is at the centre of the universe in the poem, just as every person is at the centre of their own.

The second sonnet I wanted to show here in order to illustrate the productivity of those months, approximately 15 months in total, leading up to March 2014, is titled ‘Shower and light’ and it is dated 5 February 2014. The file it was taken from is dated the same day, showing that by this time I had become accustomed to making PDF files from the poems I wrote in MS-Word as soon as they were written.
And when the sun comes out the wet roadway
turns into a mirror like flesh, dimpled
with irregularities, to display
the sky in blue and white like a simple 
word, self-evident, comforting. Below
the earth’s skin resides the organism
that foments the confusion that we know
from all the things that we cannot fathom 
and so it is showers that best reflect
what it is to be alive: the dull flow
of small events that confuse the prospect
and congregate like moths to fool the glow. 
A moment in time can bend like a bow
and aim at a form the earth may not show.
The initial theme of the sun making patterns on the roadway is broken with the beginning of the second sentence, beginning with the word “below”. The volta at the beginning of the third stanza is insistent, starting with the conjunction “and”, introducing the conclusion. In the final couplet, this conclusion is led to its logical end-point, using a metaphor from hunting: a person holding a bow that contains an arrow pointed at a target.

The image of the aftermath of rain showers that the poem contains, which had been inspired by my walking down the street looking at the wet roadway, constitutes a fine analysis of the complexity inherent in the partial understanding of the universe that is bequeathed to us by our senses and by our limited understanding of the world. I see this poem, which contains a range of metaphors and turns of phrase, as neatly summing up the point in time in which it was written: a time still filled by my mother’s love and her stabilising influence. She was the point on the existential compass I oriented myself to at the end of every day, the point I directed my steps to when daylight started to fall. In the years since I have been bereft of such a stable focus.

But it strikes me that the other thing that is different in my life now from those months is the presence of nature up close. Then, the magpies and kookaburras and banana birds would come to my balcony as part of their daily rounds. A possum would sometimes greet me in the dark in winter if I came home after the sun had gone down, and near the back gate it would traverse the horizontals of the block's superstructure on its padded feet. After writing the first draft of this post, I went to bed and in the early morning just before I woke up, to employ the trope of bird life once more, I dreamed I was an eagle flying around a room. Two men put me in a cage and I woke up to my usual surroundings and the light coming in through the lowered blind over the window that faces the city to the east.

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