Vale Bruce Dawe, Australia’s ‘Poet of Suburbia’

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Kevin John Brophy, University of Melbourne

“Katrina, I had in mind a prayer, but only this came,” Bruce Dawe wrote to his infant daughter, new-born, in intensive care, her life in the balance, declaring as poets must that their poems are the best and only real gift they can give.

I did not know Dawe, who died aged 90 on Wednesday, but I knew his poetry from my first years of reading poems. For decades, the first contemporary poems many Australians read were his.

Born in 1930 in Fitzroy, a failed student after attending seven schools, he worked as a labourer like his father, a farmhand, a postman, and spent a year on the University of Melbourne campus where he became a poet and a Catholic. He joined the RAAF in 1959.

As well as publishing a growing list of books, he studied part time until he achieved a PhD. His teaching life at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education and the University of Southern Queensland lasted from 1969 until 1993. By then he was easily Australia’s most well-read and well-loved poet. His death this week is a significant moment for poets and readers of poetry.

Poet Bruce Dawe reads Little Red Fox.
National Film & Sound Archive

A skilled mate

We know that poetry is somehow central to our nation’s soul, but mostly we like to keep its presence at the margins. In living memory, Les Murray and Dorothy Porter managed to bring poetry to wide audiences, but neither of them so broadly, neither of them prompting the passion of Dawe’s many readers.

When it comes to poetry, readers know pretty quickly what is authentic. Dawe’s poems are real enough to talk to you with one arm over your shoulder, or sit beside you, inviting you to look with them at what this whole damned creation is doing now.

But he couldn’t have survived as a poet by simply being genial. His poetry always held a deep steadiness of purpose in its gaze. This was his special skill. He was able to bring us in to seeing for instance how “the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry” (from Homecoming) when dead soldiers are freighted home.

He was uncannily capable of making poetry that talked plainly but still mysteriously about the most extreme of our experiences: funerals and suicides, drowned children, a mother-in-law’s glorious death falling out of her chair at a barbecue, the last nail being driven into the body of Christ (“the iron shocking the dumb wood”), the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, or the hanging of Ronald Ryan.

You cannot read his poems without finding some personal connection to them too; my grandmother who once held a telegram announcing her son’s wartime death, and whose home was opposite Ronald Ryan’s bloody shootout on Sydney Road, had seemed to me to have had her life marked by images in Dawe’s poems.

In Australia, we know there’s another job requirement for any poet worth their salt, and that is a dry and thoroughly demotic wit. Dawe’s hilarious At Shagger’s Funeral is just one gem that Lawson would have been proud to have chiselled out.

Tests of time

New themes of gender, ethnicity, identity politics, the explosion of poetry since the avant-garde experiments of Fluxus might seem to leave Dawe’s poetry suspended in a historical moment, but this is to say no more than what happens to every strong and distinctive poet.

No one wrote poetry quite like Dawe. Lots of poets took inspiration from him too, many without realising it – the vibrant “street poetry” movement in Melbourne through the 1970s and 80s, morphing into performance poetry and spoken word – each take their impulse from Dawe’s confidence in poetry’s place as a voice for, about, and from life as it’s lived by the most desperate and the most ordinary of us.

The bravery of his poetry, its wit and sensitivity to the world are there in one of the most stark and touching love poems you could imagine reading:

Hearing the sound of your breathing as you sleep,

with the dog at your feet, his head resting

on a shoe, and the clock’s ticking

Like water dripping in a sink

– I know that, even if reincarnation were a fact,

given the inherent cruelty of the world

where beautiful things and people

are blasted apart all the day long,

I would never want to come back, knowing

I could never be this lucky twice …

(from You and Sarajevo: for Gloria)

He has been praised for the technical achievement of blending the colloquial with the lyrical, something he often got “right”. But beyond this deftness, his poems always reach towards our most humane responses to the world.

We know from our present troubles as a nation, as a planet, and as a species, that we need poets as right and true as Bruce Dawe to continue this sometimes visionary and sometimes laughably inadequate work. The Conversation

A mural dedicated to poet Bruce Dawe in his birthplace Fitzroy.

Kevin John Brophy, Emeritus Professor of Creative writing, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Great time to try: travel writing from the home

James Hammond/Unsplash

Ben Stubbs, University of South Australia

Being in isolation might be a great time to try something new. In this series, we get the basics on hobbies and activities to start while you’re spending more time at home.

While many are cancelling treks to Nepal, putting dreams of Venice on hold and wondering what we can substitute for a tropical beach escape, it is worth remembering we’re not the first who have had to rethink the notion of travel.

There is a precedent for thinking about journeys in a more imaginative sense: travel and the near-at-hand.

Vertical travel and travel writing – where we immerse in the spaces around us in greater detail, peeling back layers of history, botany and culture – goes back to the late 18th Century in Turin and a man named Xavier de Maistre.

De Maistre wrote A Journey Around My Room while imprisoned in his bedroom for six weeks after he was caught fighting a duel in the north Italian city in 1790.

Rather than sulk through his imprisonment, he decided to challenge the popularity of imperialist travel writing and he wrote a travel book about the contents of his bedroom. De Maistre observed his surroundings, detaching and looking with new eyes to give the reader an alternative perspective on what travel could mean:

What a comfort this new mode will be to the sick; they need not fear bleak winds or change of weather. And what a thing, too, it will be for cowards; they will be safe from pitfalls and quagmires. Thousands who hitherto did not dare, others who were not able, and others to whom it never occurred to think of such a thing as going on a journey, will make up their minds to follow my example.

De Maistre’s room became a place with latitude and topography.

He immersed in the scenes of the paintings on his walls and saw his bed as a vehicle for imaginative transportation alongside his dog, Rose, his trusted travel companion. De Maistre was so taken by the journey that he subsequently wrote A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room to “revisit the country which I had formerly so delightfully travelled through”.

Writing of a microcosm

There were many inspired by this new style. Heinrich Seidel refocused his apartment into a microcosm where each item had a history and an interconnected story. Similarly, Alphonse Karr produced two volumes and 700 pages focused solely on his garden where he lived in Montmartre with his pet monkey Emmanuel.

In Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), the author lived alone and in seclusion in a log cabin at Walden Pond; George Orwell meticulously captured the intricate details of weather, vegetable production and an egg count in his domestic diary from the early 1940s.

Read more:
Why philosophy is an ideal travel companion for adventurous minds

This notion of rethinking space and valuing the mundane as an ethical and creative choice acts as a counter to the assumed importance of distance with many travel(ling) writers of the era.

This has not diminished in the modern era.

In Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey (2007), James Attlee extends the notion of close travel or “home-touring” as he walks along a solitary Oxford street.

A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary (2009) sees Alain de Botton at a desk in the departure hall of London Heathrow’s Terminal 5, confined for the duration of his stay, to understand the airport both as a destination in itself and as a location with a distinct culture.

Meg Watson’s essay Another life in Paris for The Saturday Paper focuses on her experience inhabiting another person’s space as an Airbnb guest in Paris:

On my first night in Canelle’s bed, I watch Midnight in Paris and drink rosé from one of her stained teacups. In a classic display of unabashed French nonchalance, the bedroom door is nothing but a clear panel of glass.

Within the intimacy of the apartment, Watson shows the reader a closer and more nuanced perspective of Paris. Simultaneously, the voyeurism of this approach also allows the reader to appreciate the sameness of many travel experiences.

Tips for your own close travel

Look intimately

Take a closer look at the items around your house.

Especially if you have things from previous travels, take the time to reflect on the item’s journey, write its story, or look through the photos of that period– it might even involve some research of your own, discovering what the pattern on your Moroccan mirror means, or the significance of the Easter Island statues on your bookshelf.

Smell deeply

Stroll through your garden. Take a closer look at all the plants, the soil and the trees. Look closer again.

By sifting through my own soil I discovered shards of 100-year-old-bricks which prompted my journey towards a better understanding of the history of my state.

Remember the outside world

Look out your window. Just as many have in Wuhan, Barcelona and Rome, conversations with new encounters, impromptu music performances and shared meals and experiences (even over a fence or across a road) are much of what we search for in conventional travel.

This new dimension can bring surprising togetherness.The Conversation

Ben Stubbs, Senior Lecturer, School of Creative Industries, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.