Feb 242017

Out of the Shadows of a mine (Beaconsfield, Tasmania)

A former (mature age) student of mine had, for years before I ever taught her, written and kept a variety of poems.  The first batch were originally written in a mining town (pictured above) that once, in its glory days of digging out gold, had even hosted film festivals.  Now it offers tours of abandoned gold mines and real estate is cheap.  While these poems may have languished for decades, they have now been published along with others of more recent vintage.

The student is Jean Grosse. She’s now in her 70s and she published them on her own under the title of Sparrowlands One.

The publication, at Lulu.com, of both printed and eBook, reveals how gutsy determination and lively imagination can produce poetry that enthrals readers while also giving its author, a new lease on life. The poetry released from these old storage boxes remains fresh and poignant. Poetry can pierce the heart and yet it leaves no scar. In this book the poems heal emotional scars while also framing moments of ecstasy.

Diversity of topics

The book contains 32 poems, each with a photo or illustration and a brief biographical introduction. The poems span the years from 1965 to now. The poems cover a wide range of topics from the ravages of war, bushfires, and child abuse; the tender intensities of love, marriage, and music; the wily ways of possums and teachers; the fetish for credentials; the complexity of golf; and the impact of cars on toilet training and much more! The breadth of topics does not mean that the depths of the soul are not plummeted. These poems provoke compassion, sorrow, indignation, mirth, laughter and wonder.

The sheer variety of topics, forms of expression  and associated photos all highlight Jean’s tenacity to produce the whole product – writing, formatting, editing, layout, and final publication of both print and electronic versions. To do all this, she had to learn to work with Google Docs, eBook formatting, Lulu’s publishing system, and collaborative editing.

Poetry as Therapy

The sudden death of her husband, almost 4 years ago, prompted a reworking of poetry already written as well as the writing of new poems. She expresses this situation in a moving poem called Loss and Recovery – “I can no longer hide in the seductive / folds of flurried days of no consequence”.

Part of her mourning process also involved reading the recent and magnificent re-translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (a poem of 14,000 lines) by Clive James. James translates the Italian poem into a pacy and even racy Australian idiom, which compellingly reveals the redemptive thrust of Dante’s original poem. Jean has been an avid reader of James. Sparrowlands One shows signs of being inspired by the poetic practice of James, while the whole journey of the Divine Comedy enabled Jean to review her own life against a vast canvas of emotional textures and settings.

Printed and eBooks versions are available at Lulu.com – by searching for ‘sparrowlands’ on that website.

The power of poetry illustrated

As poetry acts on emotions, merely talking about poetry in general risks deflating it into hollow commentary: the power of the poetry works by reading it – preferably aloud. Only a plunge into a poem can reveal how the poem rivets the reader’s attention and often releases lost memories. Here’s one short example from Sparrowlands One, and some specific comments about how each stanza works and how the whole poem hangs together. The poem recalls the return of a young 24 year old from the Great War, exactly a century ago. Later, Jean was one of his daughters who arrived later.

Fremantle, Before War’s End (1917)

The stretchers and wheelchairs emerged first.
Behind them, ramrod straight,
Sid forced his painful joints to march him
down the gangplank and home – a broken man.

The band struck up a tune – then stopped,
horrified at the slowly engorging procession of carnage. 
The silenced crowd watched,
many embracing their returning wounded soldiers.

Quietly, painfully coughing,
Sid marched with lowered head, 
ashamed of surviving a war still raging.

He knew that his were not the visible
injuries which had shocked this patriotic crowd.

He could not know that his marching would prompt 
a white feather in his mailbox on the morrow.

The geometry of return

The first stanza is about horizontal stretchers, circles of wheels, vertically rigid walking, and a downwards-sloping gangplank to Australia, at the far end of the world. Within the whirligig of lines, circles and movement, we get a name (Sid) and the pain (in his joints). These lines may also remind us of times when we may have had to ‘hold it together’ in some public event or procession.

Music of witness

In the second stanza, music captures a moment of the cascading flow of wounded bodies down a gangplank. The cadence of the words capture this flow. Then the sound surrounding the flows gives an outsider’s view: a band had  ‘struck up a tune’ bearing witness to and alas, was then interrupted by, the utter horror of  unrelenting flow of so many returning soldiers’ maimed and stretched. One can hear the last faltering puff into a trumpet and see mouths agape in shock. Here, the stanza can remind us of times when we avoid seeing horror by simply closing the blinds or crossing to the other side of the street.

Hiding pain

The third stanza of the poem now delves behind the name and the pain to reveal a hell: the shame of Sid having ‘got out’ sooner, than War’s end. The macro ‘war still raging’, in trenches far away, continues to reverberate through the micro ‘quiet coughing’ from soggy lungs. Are we alert to recognising when perhaps a twitch that tells of terror that could be momentarily calmed by a tender touch?

Missing the signs of sickness

The fourth stanza starts with an implied contrast between the visible injuries, particularly from war, that can produce such visceral anguish and outpourings of compassion with cases where the injuries are hidden. For Sid had no stigmata of external wounds that could frame patriotic actions on battlefronts far afield. Without witness, his hidden wounds further stiffen Sid’s joints that yearn to relax. On the one hand we feel compassion; on the other, the poem prompts us to review our disposition to probe any sense of plight that lacks high visibility. A simple “How are you?” can make a big difference.

Plight versus flight

The poem ends with a final punch to the being of a man already emaciated by war. This final blow – comes not from a crowd of close relatives or family at the gangplank – but from those mothers and sisters walking through the city streets of Australia, whose men had died or been badly wounded in the Great War. In these streets such women could be affronted by the sight of apparently able-bodied men returning before the war had been won, or worse, never having gone in the first place. Such men ran the risk of being given a white feather by a passing women as a public rebuke for cowardice: the men,  particularly if they had indeed gone to war, were left to recoil in anger, then reduced to bouts of defeated silence. Jean’s father, like so many other fathers then, carried all this pain in the solitude of shackled silence. Here, the stanza reminds us to hold back on quick judgments based on hearsay or convenient conjectures.

Why the poem works

Overall, the power of this poem comes not just from its theme (perhaps the poem may have been better titled as “Dying Man Walking”). The power also comes from the lack of predictable ‘rhyming’. Typically, we expect poems to rhyme in some neat pattern. However in this poem (and indeed others in the book), various rhythms and unpredictable rhymes crisscross the emerging meanings in the poem giving them more texture.  To reveal this, read the poem aloud and the heartbeat of the poem will elicit emotions and perhaps reorient the you to history, judgements, and the tyranny of distance and contagious disquiets.

But on reading this particular poem aloud – pausing at its turning points –  another theme also emerges from in the undertow of rhythms: a daughter’s homage to a father who had stayed so silent so long. In case you had not counted: the poem contains exactly 100 words - one word for each year since the event it captures happened. Such disciplines – from both father and daughter!

Buy the book!

As the eBook version of Sparrowlands costs just over $5 (US) on Lulu.com, this one poem reviewed here really is Jean’s ‘two bobs worth’ (i.e. 20cents)! Each poem in the book can be a tonic, far cheaper than therapy. Many of the poems offer a solemn yet heart-warming salute to an era of Australian history that does not need to fade so fast.

In these multi-tasking times when ‘staying in touch’ too often means getting phone calls anytime and anywhere, SMSs, Facebook alerts, emails, and social media notifications, poetry gets us in touch with ourselves and indeed others we could never have met. Good poems shift us from dealing with deadlines, dangling conversations and humdrum duties,  by recharging our capacity to find, and face, destinies.

As Auden put it, poetry can enter: “In the deserts of the heart” and thus “Let the healing fountain start”.

Sparrowlands One has heart and gives hope.


  One Response to “Punchy Poetry”

  1. It is a humbling process to hear my poetry ‘speak’ now after so many years of being afraid to do so.
    Where there was fear, there is now in joy in knowing that what I experience of life and share may give others a wry smile and renewed courage, along with snatches of hope.
    Perhaps more importantly, this enlightening review and other responses to my poetry inspire and encourage me to further publishing endeavours – roll on Sparrowlands 2!

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