Sad news this week, with the passing of Australian poet Bruce Dawe.
Like many Australians of my generation, Dawe was my first taste of contemporary poetry. His collection Sometime Gladness was a school staple in the 1980s. Unlike many of my peers, for whom using two forms of cutlery in the same meal was considered forensic proof of poofterdom (1980s. Rockingham. Because homosexuality was something to be feared and beaten, often with cricket stumps or boots, based on nothing more than a certain level of intelligence and perhaps not liking AC/DC that much. At least in my case.*), I fell in love with both Dawe’s work and poetry in general. It’s a love that has never left me: in my day I’ve been reader, writer, and performer of poetry, with a handful of sales here and there to salve my somewhat notions of credibility.
(*Turns out, I was friends with at least two homosexuals during high school. I didn’t find out until some years later. I know one of them is alive, well, and happy. Which makes me glad, because life must have been a particular kind of fear-flavoured hell for them, being in that school at that time.)
For a student whose notions of poetry had been formed by picture books, Pam Dawes, and a peculiarly English working class notion of what counted (Shakespeare, the Romantics, early Australian bush poems, and rhyming), it was like dropping a word-bomb into a crowded mental marketplace.
Suddenly, words didn’t exist solely to fit metre or rhyme. Each word of a poem could be a weapon, a symbol to pile upon other symbols until the whole thing came clattering down in a tsunami of intertextuality and social commentary. Fuck your daffodils: this was poetry about consumerism, the pointlessness of televison wars, and the middle class wasteland.
Of course, I was in my very early teens, and this was the early 80s. We were all going to die in a nuclear war. I’d discovered the Goon Show, and Monty Python, and Salvador Dali. Joseph Heller and Alice Cooper were peeking over the battlements. Surrealism, Dadaism, and abstract reasoning were like orgasms for my Little Britainer frontal cortex. (Orgasms were peeking over the battlements, too.) (Maybe don’t think about that one too visually).
I was ripe for plucking. But it was Dawe whose words plucked me.
The poem that did it for me was, like it was for so many of my time who find themselves in the same place, Enter Without So Much as Knocking. It is a stunning piece of social commentary, a brilliant piece of wordplay, a truly pyrotechnic explosion of thoughts and ideas crashing across the page in a form at once jaw-dropping and somehow familiar. If you’ve never read it, I’ve reproduced it with the permission of absolutely nobody at the bottom of this post.
But the one I want to share first is the one that truly captured my soul. It is a paean to loneliness, to solitude, and to the sense of otherness that we carry inside. Dressed up in a suit of gentle science fiction sensibilities. Oozing warmth and understanding. With a last line that, if I’m brutally honest, I’ve been reaching towards with far more of my own written works than I’m probably comfortable admitting. It’s deceptively simple, and so complex I can find new resonances every time I read it. It’s not just one of my favourite Dawe poems, after well over thirty years. It remains one of my very favourite poems of all.
ADVICE TO AN INTERPLANETARY VISITOR
When you find him,
that last citizen,
hiding wherever there is left to hide,
too timid to surface,
living on nuts or whatever was at hand
when the flash came —be kind to him, comfort him,
break the news to him gently
that he is the sine qua non, the ultimate reason for everything.
Let him walk where he will,
let him reassure himself with trees, yes, and the light
walking between them, let him listen
to waters conversing like children, the rain
telling its secular tears, let him lose himself
in what was, roaming
the city streets where wires hang
like ganglia, let him touch things
and remember. Soon enough
logic may cross his brow
like an evil shadow.
When you find him —give him your alien kindness,
stroke him with feelers of love.
(This particular text sourced from Westerly issue 3, 1967)
I’ve met and worked with some brilliant Australian poets: Les Murray, Dorothy Hewett, Sarah French, Anne Brewster… there’s a good list. I never met Bruce Dawe, and never worked with him. But he will always be a central pillar of my karass: without ever knowing it, his works fundamentally shaped my thoughts, ambitions, and modes of expression in ways that I’m still learning to control.
His loss is a great, but his legacy is greater.
ENTER WITHOUT SO MUCH AS KNOCKING
Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.
Blink, blink. HOSPITAL. SILENCE.
Ten days old, carried in the front door in his
mother’s arms, first thing he heard was
Bobby Dazzler on Channel 7:
Hello, hello hello all you lucky people and he
really was lucky because it didn’t mean a thing
to him then…
A year or two to settle in and
get acquainted with the set-up; like every other
well-equipped smoothly-run household, his included
one economy-size Mum, one Anthony Squires-
Coolstream-Summerweight Dad, along with two other kids
straight off the Junior Department rack.
When Mom won the
Luck’s-A-Fortch Tricky-Tune Quiz she took him shopping
in the good-as-new station-wagon (£ 495 dep. at Reno’s).
Beep, beep. WALK. DON’T WALK. TURN
LEFT. NO PARKING. WAIT HERE. NO
SMOKING. KEEP CLEAR/OUT/OFF GRASS. NO
BREATHING EXCEPT BY ORDER. BEWARE OF
THIS. WATCH OUT FOR THAT. My God (beep)
the congestion here just gets (beep)
worse every day, now what the (beep beep) does
that idiot think he’s doing (beep beep and BEEP).
However, what he enjoyed most of all was when they
went to the late show at the local drive-in, on a clear night
and he could see (beyond the fifty-foot screen where
giant faces forever snarled screamed or make
incomprehensible and monstrous love) a pure
unadulterated fringe of sky, littered with stars
no-one had got around to fixing up yet: he’d watch them
circling about in luminous groups like kids at the circus
who never go quite close enough to the elephant to get kicked.
Anyway, pretty soon he was old enough to be
realistic like every other godless
money-hungry back-stabbing miserable
so-and-so, and then it was goodbye stars and the soft
cry in the corner when no-one was looking because
I’m telling you straight, Jim, it’s Number One every time
for this chicken, hit wherever you see a head and
kick whoever’s down, well thanks for a lovely
evening Clare, it’s good to get away from it all
once in a while, I mean it’s a real battle all the way
and a man can’t help but feel a little soiled, himself,
at times, you know what I mean?
Now take it easy
on those curves, Alice, for God’s sake,
I’ve had enough for one night, with that Clare Jessup,
hey, ease up, will you, watch it –
Probity & Sons, Morticians,
did a really first-class job on his face
(everyone was very pleased) even adding a
healthy tan he’d never had, living, gave him back for keeps
the old automatic smile with nothing behind it,
winding the whole show up with a
nice ride out to the underground metropolis
permanent residentials, no parking tickets, no taximeters
ticking, no Bobby Dazzlers here, no down payments,
nobody grieving over halitosis
flat feet shrinking gums falling hair.
Six feet down nobody interested.
Blink, blink. CEMETERY. Silence.
(This particular text taken from Poemhunter.com)