Poetry Spotlight on Bruce Dawe

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Continuing on with the month of Mondays in May dedicated to poetry and poets, today’s subject is Bruce Dawe. As far as I’m concerned, Bruce Dawe is Australia’s greatest poet and making a statement like that could potentially spark heated debate given the other candidates: Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson, Les Murray and several others.

The three Bruce Dawe books in my collection are This Side of Silence: Poems 1987-1990, Condolences of the Season: Selected Poems and Sometimes Gladness: Collected Poems 1957 to 1997. So I have a good selection of Bruce Dawe poems to showcase and demonstrate his genius.

There is a real sense of Australian-ness to Bruce Dawe’s poetry but then he mixes it up with sentiments, ideas and language that are universal. He can also come across as a real writer’s writer but then throw in something that everyone will recognise as brilliant writing, regardless of their poetical knowledge.

Some of his poems I’ve included here in their entirety because an extract will just not do them justice. Happy reading!

From “And a Good Friday Was Had by All”:

Orders is orders, I said after it was over
nothing personal you understand—we had a
drill-sergeant once thought he was God but he wasn’t
a patch on you

From “Head for the Hills!”:

‘Head for the hills!’ And before you could say, ‘Whose shout?’
The pubs were empty, sentences hung in mid-air,
Bar-flies, not even bothering to wipe the froth from their whiskers,
Were out of the door and running,
Old age forgotten: to see them cover the ground
Was, if nothing more, an inspiring example to youngsters.

“Kiss of Death”

What I fear from you
Elegant ladies who move
With stately step and
Heads held high, eyes clear
Around and about your ordered
Drawing-room world,
Is not these delicate facts in themselves
(The tune you are moving to
Finished long ago).
Primp as you will your
Concept of yourselves
(Stand in a pose by the mantel,
Shoulders just so,
Toy with a wine-glass,
A chivalrous opponent, words)
—But of your charity
Regard my feelings:
Promise me one thing only—that the next
Slim volume you take up with a rapturous cry
Shall never be mine
—I am too young to die…

From “Katrina”:

We do not know, but fear
The telephone call from a nurse whose distant sympathy
Will be the measure of our helplessness. Your twin brother’s
Two-month-old vigour hurts us…

From “Life-cycle”:

And the tides of life will be the tides of the home-team’s fortunes
– the reckless proposal after the one point win,
the wedding and honeymoon after the grand final…

“Good Sport”

Good sport, she laughed about her weight
And jogged about the court in shorts,
Her butt the butt of many a joke
—She turned the other cheek in sports
Which left her flustered, sweating, still
So quick to rally to the wit
Of friend or stranger you would swear
If anything she welcomed it…

Her husband, then, was most surprised
To find, returning from a trip,
She’d hanged herself, in what for her
Was thoroughly bad sportsmanship.

“Prison Alphabet”

Behind the walls
the walls begin,
behind the bars
are bars
A can make a knife of tin
B can cut out stars
C can get you what you want
a needle, drink or smoke
D can laugh through broken teeth
E can tell a joke
F can fake a heart-attack
G can throw a fit
H can write a letter home
as quick as you can spit
I can con the chaplain
J can con the ‘con’
K will know someone to ask
just where your wife has gone
L can keep an eye out
M can pass the word
N can hear the gospel truth
and then forget he heard
O will know which warder
can be got at—and the price
P will offer nothing
but a lot of free advice
Q will want no part of it
R will not be told
S will roll a cigarette
and shudder with the cold
T will hum a lonely tune
U will turn his back
V will lie as still as death
W will crack
X will read his bible
day by holy day
Y with eyes like torches
will burn the bars away
and Z, poor Z, will think the walls
must end where they begin
and that a man, outside, will be
the same as he went in.

All of these poems are from Condolences of the Season, described as containing “the best of Bruce Dawe’s earlier books… The unavailability of his first three books has made such a selection a necessity”. And here’s a few more to search out if you take my advice and make your own exploration:

“Two Songs for a Bicentenary Year”
“On First Being the Subject of a Question in a Late Afternoon Television Quiz Programme”
“On the Present Chinese Government Suppression of Student-Worker Dissent” particularly the fifth of the five poems that comprise this subtitled “Description of an Idea”
“Unless Things Change”
“Planning a Time-Capsule”
“A Literature Teacher Looks Ahead”

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