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Category Archives: poets and poetry

Sunday Floating Life photo 33 AND Friday poem 18

Is that confusing enough for you?

Peter Skrzynecki’s “Immigrants at Central Station, 1951” was the subject of my tuition session yesterday. The coachee is doing the ESL course in English. On my way I took some pictures of Central from the perspective of the speaker in the poem – as I read it anyway. (We read the poem carefully so he could see why I had chosen my angles.) Of course it isn’t 1951 any more, but I do vividly remember migrant camps, and Central Station in the 1950s. What follows the poem is a sketch commentary around that HSC topic de jour — “Belonging”.

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Immigrants at Central Station, 1951

It was sad to hear
The train’s whistle this morning
At the railway station.
All night it had rained.
The air was crowded
With a dampness that slowly
Sank into our thoughts –
But we ate it all:
The silence, the cold, the benevolence
Of empty streets.

Time waited anxiously with us
Behind upturned collars
And space hemmed us
Against each other
Like cattle bought for slaughter.

Families stood
With blankets and packed cases –
Keeping children by their sides,
Watching pigeons
That watched them.

But it was sad to hear
The train’s whistle so suddenly –
To the right of our shoulders
Like a word of command.
The signal at the platform’s end
Turned red and dropped
Like a guillotine –
Cutting us off from the space of eyesight

While time ran ahead
Along glistening tracks of steel.

Peter Skrzynecki’s “Immigrants at Central Station” describes a family who with other families has just arrived in Sydney from a migrant camp in western NSW. The poem is about the poet’s own family. As well as describing the scene, the poet tells us a lot about their feeling of not belonging in this new place and their fears about the future.

Their journey to Sydney had been through a night of rain, cutting them off from the landscape they were passing through, making them feel uncomfortable, and echoing their feelings

The air was crowded

With a dampness that slowly

Sank into our thoughts –

The families each huddle together not just for warmth but also because the only sense of belonging they have left is to the family and their few possessions represented by their luggage. In this city whose cold “benevolence” has controlled their lives for years now they feel anxious and lonely. They do not know anyone in those “empty streets”. They don’t even really know where they are going next, or what it will be like when they get there. They feel like “cattle bought for slaughter” or people about to face the guillotine. They have had very little choice in life up to now. But there is nothing they can do except to accept what they are given.

But we ate it all:

The silence, the cold, the benevolence

Of empty streets.

The whistle of the departing train which had left them at Central is a “sad” sound – the poet uses the word twice. The tracks back to where they came from are also tracks into their future. Like the steel of a guillotine blade the tracks are “glistening tracks of steel”. It could be though that the last image offers a little hope, as “glistening” does suggest light.

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— Photos – Neil Whitfield 1 November 2009

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Friday poem 17: Judith Wright

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Australia 1970

Die, wild country, like the eaglehawk,
dangerous till the last breath’s gone,
clawing and striking. Die
cursing your captor through a raging eye.

Die like the tiger snake
that hisses such pure hatred from its pain
as fills the killer’s dreams
with fear like suicide’s invading stain.

Suffer, wild country, like the ironwood
that gaps the dozer-blade.
I see your living soil ebb with the tree
to naked poverty.

Die like the soldier-ant
mindless and unfaithful to your million years.
Though we corrupt you with our torturing mind,
stay obstinate; stay blind.

For we are conquerors and self-poisoners
more than scorpion or snake
and dying of the venoms that we make
even while you die of us.

I praise the scoring drought, the flying dust,
the drying creek, the furious animal,
that they oppose us still;
that we are ruined by the thing we kill.

Photo by Graeme Greenwood

 

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Friday poem 16: W B Yeats “When you are old and grey…”

A lovely classic, but also a classic put-down in its way.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2009 in Irish, poets and poetry

 

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Friday poem 15 & For the fifty million dead — 2: W H Auden

It has to be at this time seventy years later: W H Auden’sSeptember 1 1939”.

Auden and Isherwood sailed to New York in January 1939, entering on temporary visas. Their departure from Britain was later seen by many there as a betrayal and Auden’s reputation suffered. In April 1939 Isherwood moved to California, and he and Auden saw each other only intermittently in later years. Around this time, Auden met the poet Chester Kallman, who became his lover for the next two years (Auden described their relation as a "marriage" that began with a cross-country "honeymoon" journey). In 1941 Kallman ended their sexual relations because he could not accept Auden’s insistence on a mutual faithful relationship, but he and Auden remained companions for the rest of Auden’s life, sharing houses and apartments from 1953 until Auden’s death. Auden dedicated both editions of his collected poetry (1945/50 and 1966) to Isherwood and Kallman.

Here are the first and last three stanzas:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright 
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
***
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
 
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Posted by on September 4, 2009 in British, Europe, events, poets and poetry, writers

 

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Friday poem 14: not really a poem!

But it could be.

1705 017In Redfern Park

In the latest South Sydney Herald Adrian Spry contributes this on the back page.

Utopian Dream

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan…

On a drear early morning, mid-year and hand-numbing cold. Greyness seems juxtaposed upon grey. The morning mist shrouds the Waterloo towers, making them seem ceilingless. They seem to climb heavenward forever.

Walking – walking downhill. My normally constant chatter with my children is missing. We are all lost in our own thoughts. Coming to terms with the start of a new week. The start of a new day. The grind of everyday life.

Crack!! My eyes snap to the right! What was that? A pistol shot? Ahhh…

Comprehension dawns as my eyes give credence to my mind’s film. I take in the scene.

Martial artists on the basketball court. The “crack” is the snapping of fans in unison as the three artists perform the tai-chi Kata or dance. Brightly coloured as oriental fans are. Exotic. Ancient. As we watch we seem to lighten. Awaken.

And now I notice the green of the grass. The towers and buildings. I see the gardens bright. I sense all this world around me.

Ahh yes… with smiles we three carry on. As we bend the corner into Cooper Street my daughter laughs and skips. My son smiles on. My daughter speaks. “Dad, those Chinese people look great.” They do. Yes. The rhythm of life.

God is great.

 

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Friday poem 13: Emily Dickinson

1406 010 

There’s a certain slant of light

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything,
‘Tis the seal, despair, —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ’tis like the distance
On the look of death.

I found this on The Englewood Review of Books. Now there is an interesting site. I commend it to anyone who thinks they know what US Christianity is all about. Go there and have your stereotypes challenged.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2009 in America, poets and poetry, religion, USA, writers

 

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June review catch-up 3 — “Sylvia” (2004)

sylvia

star30 star30star30star30star30a  I watched this partly out of HSC-related duty, but also out of interest. I have to say I was very impressed by its accuracy and fairness. The lead review (at the moment) on IMDb pretty much sums up my reaction.

In 1998, "Hilary and Jackie" explored alleged episodes in the short life of cellist Jacqueline Du Pre and her pianist, now also conductor, husband, Daniel Barenboim. Despite very very good acting the film was largely a descent into the basement of scurrilous storytelling by relatives of the dead musician. Whatever the truth of the claim that she bedded her sister’s husband, the movie said nothing about the couple’s meteorically brilliant early careers. It was slanted voyeurism writ large.

Director Christine Wells has taken a very different and insightful tack in exploring the life of poet Sylvia Plath and her marriage to Ted Hughes, a poet with laurels garnered while Ms. Plath was still starting up a not very steady ladder to recognition.

Plath, an American, met Hughes in England. A short courtship was followed by marriage and then two children. The relationship was tumultuous and eventually it foundered because of Sylvia’s underlying emotional instability followed by her husband’s desertion to another woman…

Wells takes a sympathetic view of Ted and Sylvia, not joining in the political debate over feminism and Sylvia’s supposed maltreatment by Ted. Sylvia in this film is brilliant but also terribly brittle and her inner demons are not caused by a brutish or callous husband. As Platrow portrays her, I believe accurately, Sylvia was seriously and chronically depressed with life events worsening but in no regard initiating a downward spiral. Today she would probably thrive and be both prolific as a poet and happy as a person if successfully maintained on an effective anti-depressant.

Ted, played by Daniel Craig, is a bit transparent – loving but somewhat distanced by his own quest for fame. He hectors Sylvia to write more, annoyed that she bakes instead of composing verse while on a seaside vacation. He’s supportive but also blind to the deepening reality that he is dealing with a woman who needs help, not critical comments about non-productivity.

The supporting cast is fine but this is Paltrow and Craig’s film. She has a strong affinity for England and its culture (I believe she has moved there) and she gives the role deep conviction and understanding. It happens that she somewhat resembles Sylvia but the true recognition is internal and intellectual. And emotional, let’s not omit that…

"Sylvia" sets the record straight as Paltrow acts the part of a woman – mother as well as poet – who slowly loses control of her life while her husband reacts first with confusion and later with the self-protective armor of withdrawal.

Hughes went on to publish many fine poems and he became poet laureate of England, a post he definitely wanted and enjoyed (Hughes was one of the very few modern and relatively young intellectuals who was a convinced monarchist).

Not long before succumbing to cancer, Hughes published "Birthday Letters," an attempt to show through years of verse the nature of his relationship with Sylvia. Whether viewed as an apologia or a last record – and chance – to give his side, it’s an impressive work. And "Ariel’s Gift" by Erica Wagner is must reading for those who want more than a film and sometimes potted articles can provide. It analyzes the poets’ relationship through the prism of Hughes’s writings, most unpublished before "Birthday Letters." A recent book, "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage," by Diane Middlebrook, is also recommended…

The movie is M15+ in Australia.