Archive for August, 2009

jesus needs no evidence

In kindergarten & year 1 I would always thrust my hand up prematurely and spurt out a wrong answer. It got to the point where the teacher made a specific point of sitting down & talking to me about ‘letting other people have a go’. In response to this perceived failure I started hanging with the wrong crowd – it consisted of one boy, the oldest boy in the class. We would stalk the boundaries of the playground in order to do things like throw handfuls of sand at trucks; or, use concrete as an abrasive to sharpen paddle-pop sticks into knives; or we might go & shout things at the kids on the senior side of the school, urging them to chase us. I think it ended when we were caught throwing wet paper all over the roof of the boy’s toilet, & when my family moved away from Melbourne.

It seems I was always an immature child. I was enrolled in school at the young end of the spectrum because I was intelligent enough but nowadays people think differently about this sort of action. I was always uncertain of how to interact with other kids, over-thinking the simplest of friendship gestures. It’s almost certainly the reason my parents vetoed a move to have me advanced a grade in year 3. I didn’t understand why. I believed it was a deserved chance to show everyone how good at things I was.

But really. At this stage, at Forest Hill School, once a week afternoon sport consisted of football. Rugby League. There was only one class at in each year level, & accordingly all the boys in my class formed the Forest Hill Rugby Team. This was the weekly sport on offer during winter. If you were a girl, you engaged in various indoor craft like activities. Girls don’t do sport in winter. It gets muddy. I was left in the middle because I wouldn’t play league. It’s a decision I stuck with. I would wander the grounds of the school like some vampire, peering around corners, constantly afraid some teacher would lambast me for ‘non-joining’. One afternoon I was made to go & join the boys. I remember it actually being not that bad. I just joined in passing the ball around a bit. More poignant is the memory of one of my classmates saying to the teacher afterwards ‘Derek came and helped out at footy today’. Obviously I was a cause for group concern.

Narratives were valued at times though; I think perhaps this was at the end of my primary time, year 6, when girls & boys started ‘going out’, & writing ‘X 4 Y’ on pencil cases etc. We would have story-writing time. You could go it alone, or you could compose something with a friend. I believe my sense of story was valued here, because I did at times have to choose which friend I would write with from a group of eager partners. One morning two of us wrote a satirical sexual romp featuring two unpopular kids in the class. This is what I had – I would write the things legibly that the other kids could only shout at each other over lunch. We had a boy wake in bed with a girl, leap out of bed, realise he was naked, get back in the bed… & so forth. We had class excursions where our teacher would be busted with pornographic magazines. You get the picture. I assume not too many of these stories were ever shared.

My scripture workbook from this period (once a week Christianity was impressed upon us) shows that I’d expressed my awkwardness in this forum too. Alongside garish cartoons of Jesus I’d written ‘Yeah, but how many people did Jesus save, & what were their names?’ The scripture teacher had used this, as well as my many disciples festooned with fake moustaches & glasses & cigars, as evidence to claim I was not taking her class seriously. Who knows if that was true or not.

One day the whole class waited across the zebra-crossing to beat up a particularly un-liked kid. Everyone waited so I waited. I didn’t like the kid. He offended pretty much every one. But I wouldn’t have done any beating. It just seemed like a thing to do to wait there for him – it positioned you as not him. There were no teachers. There was just the lollypop lady. He wouldn’t cross the highway. He waited, for what seemed like hours, looking at us & quietly talking to the lollypop lady. There were no mobile phones in these days. He looked scared. Eventually we dispersed & I have no memory of if there was any fallout.

It was somewhere near this time that someone threw a rock at me across the dirt track as I rode my bmx home. I realised later it had made an indent in my stackhat, possibly an inch deep, no doubt enough to have killed me had I not been wearing it. What could I have possibly done to deserve this? Me, potential arbiter of all things, gentle over-thinker & teller of biting un-truths?

Why we want to stay in bed on rainy days and read books (or at least talk to work colleagues about how good doing such a thing would be ideal on ‘days like today’). A final explanation.

There’s nothing better than curling up warm & cosy on a wintry day. Better yet if the day is profuse with rain. These are the times you just love to be snug & warm against the elements. But a vantage is always necessary on the outside world, or else some other physical reminder that the weather is grim, some signal of difference. A shaft of bracing air periodically dusting your face – while the rest of you is huddled amidst blankets – will do. Or the more immediate & famous occurrence: the window offering a morning view of a stormy sky, accompanied by the sonic reminder of rain on glass pane. A complete cocoon wouldn’t offer the sensory experience of ‘juxtaposition’, and therefore will prove inadequate. There must be a small archer’s gap in your parapet.

Every now & then I daydream about constructing the experience. Outside the university café there is an artificial lake, and I particularly remember one grey & drizzling day when I sat near the café with a coffee (undercover of course). I imagined floating a bed into the middle of this lake. There I would lie snug while water & rain mingled just past my nose. I wrote a poem about the idea. The poem was clichéd & didn’t do the image justice.

Similarly if I see a grand view, I imagine having a house poised somewhere in the elevated landscape. I create fantastic bay windows where one might recline in warmth & watch such things as mist pool around distant cliff & troughs of land. I don’t anticipate such positioning would be inspiring in any artistic sense; I simply think it would be comfortable, nice.

The most simple explanation for that just described would be to say that warmth (with a vantage on, & proximity to, wetness & gloominess), & security (with a vantage on, & proximity to, vastness & wilderness – scope), both of these things offer us a sense of human mastery while still allowing enjoyment of a brief immersion in natural power. (Being caught out in the rain isn’t so great when it will probably kill you. Climbing a mountain is difficult if you have to pitch a tent & kill a snake to survive. We want to enjoy these aspects of existence, but, you know, comfortably.)

But staying in bed reading books while it rains outside also offers us a glimpse of ourselves as more than products of our social roles. The grandeur of the chaos outside, balanced against the solid warmth & security of the individual inside, foregrounds a strong (warm / happy) sense of the individual. & it allows a vision of happiness, because ‘oneness’ with the vast chaos is suggested – annata / ‘no-self’ bringing about paradoxical freedom from any constricts of ‘the self’ – but at the same time your relative positioning makes you feel secure in your own skin, symbolically represented by the blankets, or the four walls.

There’s a rarity to such occasions too. There are demands on our time. Meteorology still isn’t exact – we can’t plan effectively for a rainy morning in bed with a good book. And not many of us live in mountain retreats. Hence we value the experiences anecdotally like gold. The experience of ‘juxtaposition’ is the real currency of feeling.


this review of the best aus poems 2008, is rather interesting. firstly, because simon patton starts out by saying ‘Since, on the whole, I found the poetry less than satisfying, I would like to discuss in some detail the weaknesses of contemporary Australian poetry, before moving on to some of its successes.’

and wow he does discuss those weaknesses. one has to give initial credit for this type of review (which could only be published online) simply because patton does outline his views at length. even if you don’t agree with some of his criticisms, you can’t say he hasn’t provided evidence for the stance. (i did think the removing of names amusing though…)

i think i probably liked more of the poetry in this volume that patton did. but having said that, i don’t think i’ve read a review of these ‘best ofs’ that really asked what their critical function is within australian poetry. & it’s good that someone attempts that.

& of course, the real vanity of my post revolves around the tipping point which made me think ‘yes, i should blog this link’: it is the very small section where patton outlines what he does like in the collection. he firstly isolates pam brown‘s ‘train train’. this is the poem i selected as editor, way back in 2007, for fourW. i think i’m the real winner in this review. & i want everyone to know this. i know a good poem, even if peter rose (& a lot of really good australian poets) don’t.

but then i do like those adamant shapes too… guess you can’t ‘win’ every review.


(btw, would reattaching all the names to patton’s review make his attacks on poems seem more personal? a pirated version of a poetry review…)

you have to make me

In the beginning there is spring and an evening of warmth. Stories about how things end, terminally, tend to begin with a beginning, like it or not. Some heat remains in the side of structures when you touch them, as you do; parties always spring up in response to the weather and the excuse is greeted with the enthusiasm of impromptu guests, and so people will arrive with ready-made gestures, glints in the eye, slaps on the back, et cetera – fresh glistening bottles held aloft and bulkier six-packs carried by the hip; I ride the 28 because here on the bus one might consider suicide. I do this for what seems like ‘ever’. But a different street arrives and I think about sex, then groceries, then finally literature versus pop-culture (I come to no conclusions). My state of mind is quite good – sure. I’m not looking for trouble. There will be people of a wide and varied eccentricity to meet. That’s cool. Living often has some kind of point. There will be girls glowing with all the colours of spring dresses. I sit there on the back seat. A cigarette behind my hand, I blow smoke out the window. It feels good. This was to be expected.

People are swilling around the house. Old friends discussing commonalities with confidence; new friends checking the place out, admiring various views and pieces of obscure art. I’m neither an old nor new friend and don’t know the host at all. I hope I’m correct in assuming who the old and new are too. This could possibly be important later, say, if I’m in some trouble and need a friend. For now I push through people, doors, stairways, and no-one seems to care. One of the bathrooms (the only room not offering any type of view) contains a bath around three metres long. It’s packed with ice and all sorts of drinks: to this I add my bottle and remove a better one. The bath is really quite astounding. I wonder at the scope of the other bathrooms. Anything seems possible. Dan told me at work where this party was, and he arrives in due course, suitably drunk.

He is confident and familiar but manages to recognise me and engage me. ‘Andrew,’ he says with joviality, glancing above the head of someone in front of him and taking a few steps to gain earshot. ‘How are you? Great you could come along. Did you find the place alright?’ I’m happy about this exchange even though my name is not Andrew, as you know. Dan will report later that I seemed happy. I tell him about the empty bus, the short walk through a maze of semi-urban streets, the obligatory tree and grassland. He looks impressed but I think perhaps it’s my habit of injecting excitement into the banal. Old friends tire of it. They quickly move on to new and more relevant reading material. ‘You know I love how you get something out of everything you do Andrew,’ Dan says, confirming the previous intuition. He is thoughtful for a second. ‘I would have been bored shitless catching the bus. But I must introduce you to Alex when I find him. He is quite a character. And his wife Madeline: you’ll find her intriguing, believe me.’ I picture her shrinking heads for a hobby, or performing nude gymnastics. Dan takes advantage of my pondering to drift off into a procession of people that are waiting and ready to get his opinion on some matter. He is obviously more successful in the workplace than I am. The ambient scent now changes to cooling sweat and English after-shave. What was it before? I wander over to inspect the art-works. They are there to be looked at. All is wonderment.

A young man is already giving a guided tour of sorts. He is tanned. His hair would look messy from surfing but it’s swept back with some kind of product. He professes to know quite a bit about the various pieces and people are listening to him. Many of them drink champagne. ‘And this is one of the later works…’ he says in one of the brief snatches of words I manage to catch. ‘Yes I would never have thought to look at it like that,’ says someone standing nearby. I am closer now. The surfing art-critic tour-guide has the hands of a construction worker. He smiles and leads the group over to the next piece, telling them in a knowing manner that they will ‘feel the whole range of human emotions before the evening is over.’ I wonder if these people are tourists, not party-guests at all. One girl near me has a camera around her neck. I follow them and try to become part of their group for a while. The surfing art-critic clearly knows a lot about this art. During a convenient lull I ask the girl with the camera if she knows the leader of this group. (The glory is in the details.) ‘I just met him in the front garden when we got here,’ she says. ‘He was admiring the circular driveway. Tom, my husband – he’s the one standing closest – just so happens to have landscaped the yard. He’s very good friends with Alex you know.’ She talks while still looking at the paintings. ‘And did you bring the camera to photograph your husband’s work?’ I ask, trying to connect. Frantic qualification ensues before I can stop it spewing forth: ‘You don’t work for the social pages do you?’ ‘Don’t make me laugh,’ she says, finally looking at me. She doesn’t laugh. She turns back towards the leader who is talking again. His talking calms listeners.

We stand around for a while. It would be nice to be a part of something, if only to be remembered for that. But then the group moves along and she moves with them. I try to move with them, only to find myself muscled out.

Alex confronts me in the bathroom with the ice. ‘You motherfucker,’ he says, a glint of insanity playing about his eyes. ‘Hold on,’ I say. I can be very placating at times. I back into a corner. I nearly fall over a basin. ‘I don’t know you.’ He is not placated. ‘I’m Alex. You’re in my house, drinking my beer. I saw you talking to my wife.’ He is intent; he fixes me with a gaze. ‘I’ve talked to a few people,’ I venture (a cowardly way of speaking; I shudder to think of the retelling). But then a girl walks in. (There’s always a girl.) Alex turns and smiles, tells her about a special bottle he has down in the cellar, then slaps me on the back, even winks suggestively at me over his shoulder as he leaves with the girl. From down the hallway I hear him asking her if she’s met his wife. I get another beer. Alex is destined never to mention me after this evening.

The scene outside is beautiful and poetic but she’s talking of bad things. (She isn’t Alex’s wife. Some things will never be explained. It seems no-one has ever met her. I picture a woman pale and translucent from a lack of sun, tied to a chair in a basement. It really doesn’t matter.) But this is Jen and she has a history of her own, it isn’t attached to the party in any way. Apparently boyfriends beat her; agents have ripped her off. It’s almost post-card perfect as swimmers emerge and frolic. The ocean is dark in the night and faces get half-lit up when passing the fire. And there’s an optical illusion of moon to decorate our scene. I’m obviously happy by now to sit back. Even though when I think about things (then and now) nothing much in the way of drama presents. A couple of incidents – but nothing soul-destroying. I’d talked to people; people had talked back to me. So what happened? Jen seems to be the girl of your dreams from a movie that you would love until an actual meeting – her life such a mess of anxieties, much worse than your own. It becomes apparent she is a girl of contradictions. You might wonder how she ever appeared so beautiful and other-worldly. She is really drunk and her voice is quavering. Her story involves things (I maybe told myself then) that you don’t speak of to someone you’ve just met. But then I don’t tend to meet many people. Especially now. Perhaps this is how people really behave. Out in the world.

She takes the joint and says it might be too much for her. She smokes and then lays back. I have to stop myself imagining the pitch rolls of dizziness that might soon become nausea and a violent need to go home to your own bed. I look out at the sea as I smoke. It’s good to decide this is a good thing. In this instance I let the colours and electric dots impress themselves upon my vision. Enjoying the sensory alertness of being so tired. People still swim or emerge from swimming. There is no end to the party; Jen quietly vomits next to me. In the end I start thinking there can be no end, and I cannot hope to emerge. There’s usually a coherent whole to give evenings shape: even the out of control ones would end with the retelling:

‘last thing I remember was saying lets play for beers, then I woke up in Annandale, curled up in a corner hugging a bottle’.

Ha. Good times. Now though, things can’t just end here with the retelling because it precedes the events. I’m in temporal trouble. I’m stuck in this Friday and it’s almost refusing to melt into that ‘The victim was returning home in the early hours of Saturday morning when…’ newspaper column. You don’t even read those things fully, unless there’s some sexual deviancy in the recount.

Jen is no help – now or later. Dan must be confidently lost. Alex lost his mind in the ice-room, seemingly or not. I’ve lost my monthly bus pass. I don’t mind the long walk, even at this time of night. Things always turn out well for me. The beach sand is fine and silken. Silken as.

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