Essay by Matthew Condon
Bruce Dawe’s first collection of poetry – No Fixed Address – was published in mid-November, 1962, by Cheshire, when the former farm labourer, gardener and postman was 32 years old.
When the 54-page volume hit the shelves of Australian bookshops, I was just eight months old.
In 1969 Dawe released Beyond the Subdivisions. At that precise moment I was deeply embedded in Brisbane suburbia, a seven-year-old punting a plastic football up and down the footpath, exploring surrounding bushland and roaming seemingly across the landscape of Dawe’s poems.
When I was climbing trees, Dawe was writing this: “I have to be careful with my boy. / When he says tree it comes out hazy / very green and friendly and before I’ve got / the meaning straight he’s up there laughing in it, / or working on the word for aeroplane / which is also a little above his head / so that he has to stand on tiptoe to touch it…”
Then in 1979, he produced Sometimes Gladness: Collected Poems. It was this dazzling omnibus of Dawe that made me want to be a writer. It allowed me to understand that what was around me could be material for fiction.
I wrote Dawe a fan letter. He responded with a lengthy reply of encouragement. It was one of the most important letters of my life. I read it so often the envelope fell apart. I reveal this tenuous connection with the poet not out of ego, but as a way of expressing how intrinsic Bruce Dawe has been to this writers’ journey. How his work has mirrored one person’s suburban experience since birth. It is precisely this that has made Dawe’s work so appealing and enduring – he writes about all of us.
In a newspaper interview given a week before the appearance of No Fixed Address, Dawe said of his work: “It’s not hearts and flowers stuff for a start. I write about the things I care about.” He has also said: “I write about people, who interest me more than anything else, because I’m one of them.” I write about people because I’m one of them. It is as good a summation of his work as any.
Interestingly, Sometimes Gladness was not universally applauded on publication. In The Canberra Times, fellow poet Kevin Hart described Dawe’s poems as “ideal for teaching to high school students”. Hart added that “collected” works deserved greater critical scrutiny given it was “a body of work, a statement, not only of intention but also of how well that intention has been realised”. He concluded:”…the Collected Poems reveals a tendency to slightness, a versification which – until now – I was prepared to characterise as purposefully rough but which now strikes me as slapdash and tuneless, and a disconcerting sentimentality which spoils some of the more ambitious work.”
Time has a way of sorting out the value of writing (and literary critics), and Dawe’s work has survived for many reasons, but above all, I suspect, because of its inherent truth. Truth doesn’t spoil.
Another ingredient to his work’s longevity is its approachability. The poems arrive without trickery or the latest technique en vogue. They are what they are. And the quality has remained consistent throughout a long career.
Dawe himself wrote in the preface to the sixth edition of Sometimes Gladness (2005): “The poems chosen for this new edition mark no departures in either style or substance. The lure of the ‘new’…has never greatly appealed to me. That particular will-o’-the-wisp I leave to more energetic souls. And, at a time when the contemporary poetry scene is like a city-to-surf marathon, I am happy to think I did my running in less hectic circumstances…”
He has been quoted as comparing his craft to that of a labourer, for example, constructing a wall. The bricklayer uses bricks. Dawe builds his poems with words. The metaphor in many ways goes to the heart of Dawe’s work. His art is of the people. This is underlined, too, by his subject matter. Gaze about your own home. Or glance out the window. You will find something Dawe has crafted a poem about.
He has over the years been interested in everything from dogs and nature and the weather to manual labourers, criminals, politics, childhood, friendship, love, life and death. He has written about kettles and dictators, football and funerals. He can be wickedly funny, deeply satirical and fantastically romantic. He is brilliant on children, and one of the best we have on love and loss.
But I think where Dawe stands alone is his preoccupation with the passage of time. In his poem, “Enter Without So Much as Knocking”, he manages in 62 lines to encapsulate one human being’s entire life – from the maternity ward to the cemetery. “Blink. Blink. HOSPITAL. SILENCE,” he begins, as a child ten days after birth is taken home in his mother’s arms.
Dawe describes his “economy size Mum” and his “Anthony Squires-Coolstream-Summerweight Dad”, a shopping trip, and the growing child’s memory of a late show at the local drive-in where, on a clear night “…he could see (beyond the fifty-foot screen where / giant faces forever snarled screamed or made / 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.”
His life taken later in a vehicle accident, the protagonist is given a “nice ride out to the underground metropolis”, the cemetery, where the annoyances of daily living don’t exist. “Six feet down nobody interested,” Dawe concludes. “Blink, blink. CEMETERY. Silence.”
Dawe is also fascinated with the transition from childhood wonder to a sort of weary view of the world that comes with adulthood. He writes of that moment of “fragmentation”, as he calls it, beyond which we “learn where we belong”.
In “Happiness Is the Art of Being Broken”, he writes with equal poignancy and helplessness: “Happiness is the art of being broken / With least sound. The old, whom circumstance / Has ground smooth as green bottle-glass / On the sea’s furious grindstone, very often / Practise it to perfection.”
This short but powerful poem on ageing and dying ends with Dawe describing senility as “an ironic act of charity”, and with all human identity lost, “we serve / As curios for children roaming beaches, / Makeshift monocles through which they view / The same green transitory world we also knew.”
In all its horror the poem is incredibly moving, presenting the grind of life, the bleaching out of what makes us unique over time, to end up a useless plaything in the hands of children. It is the cycle of life and again the destructive passage of time. Again and again Dawe crystalizes not just the loss of childhood innocence, but its precise, mysterious moment.
“The Last of Games” opens with the age-old suburban cry of mothers at nightfall, beseeching their children to get home, as youngsters strain against the calling and play away in Indian tents, “igloos…into the caves of ice and the caves of wood”. In their secret places children enter “the jigsaw puzzle of sun…into its fretwork,/ whether as buccaneers or fringed frontiersmen, incomplete, / the candles in invisible beards are lit with their breath, / the blood rusts on their cheap-jack cutlasses.”
As the mothers continue to shout out, the children huddle in their shelters. “Will their numbers dwindle?” Dawe concludes. “Will they run / as fast and far tomorrow? They eye each other, and falsetto voices arch over them like doom.”
The strength of Dawe, with poems like these, is that he distils common experience. I can read “The Last of Games” and be taken back to a “cave of wood” my boyhood friend and I made in his large, rambling back yard. I can see the streetlights flicker on and throw watery grey shadows in the twilight. I can hear my mother’s rather beautiful falsetto voice, thrown from the verandah of our house like the delicate line of a fly fisherman, and feel the cold pebble of surety that play was over. At least for the day.
Rereading Dawe after many years, too, it’s easy to forget his courage as a poet of politics. He was close to a lone voice during the excesses of the government of Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen from the late 1960s through to the late 1980s.
Dawe was particularly aggrieved at the draconian legislation that deemed street marches illegal and suppressed free speech. Indeed, he was himself arrested at a protest in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane, where he was teaching at the time.
“News from Judea” remains a standout. Herod – lunatic and obsessive builder of monuments, deems “There will be no more / political marches. Clear the streets / of all whose ideas are not those / of the governing party. And they did.” Dawe, with deep satire, sketches the clash between protestors and police, and even discusses changes in legislation that enabled “detention without charge” and “incrimination by silence”. But, as ever, Dawe flips the poem, and his word play, on its head with his final lines. “And Herod said again / There will be peace in all my land…/And the land became exceedingly quiet; / but this was not peace.”
It is a quality of Dawe’s work that may get overlooked courtesy of the seeming simplicity of his poems – he is in the grand tradition of being a poet of his time and recording his time, on top of being a writer, like many who have gone before him and will follow him, who asks the most basic human questions about life and death. Like a bower bird, he will pluck something before him that he finds interesting – be it an item in the news or the politics of the day – and smelter its gold.
On occasion, he has harvested from his own life. “The Drifters” is a heartbreaking rendition of a family constantly on the move looking for work. Dawe himself has said it was partially based on his own youthful experiences. Sorrow is there from the outset. “One day soon he’ll tell her it’s time to start packing.” Everything is instantly restless and uncertain. The wife heads to the vegetable patch and picks the unripe tomatoes. A child is happy at the prospect of transition, another sad. No one asks why they’re leaving and where they’re going.
Then this, Dawe’s extraordinary hammer-blow: ” – she’ll only remember how, when they came here, / she held out her hands bright with berries, / the first of the season, and said: / “Make a wish, Tom, make a wish.”‘
There are so many other qualities in Sometimes Gladness that I’d forgotten: the expert use of human dialogue in his poems; a pervasive faith in the human condition; a broad diversification in subject matter and tone that keeps his body of work fresh; and a fearlessness in tackling matters of the human heart.
In Contemporary American and Australian Poetry, editor Thomas Shapcott said Dawe’s work “at once vernacular and expressive of the new, post-war, outer-suburban hinterland.” Shapcott rightly identified that Dawe was capturing a language and a culture previously “untapped”. He added: “We had not heard ourselves so accurately before.” I would go further and say that by capturing the microcosm so accurately, he created the macrocosm. In the small, apparently insignificant detail, emerges a grand picture of ourselves as Australians.
This is a confession. As a teenager I read Dawe and he gave me a new way of seeing my surroundings. My writing to date had been predictable juvenilia, but Dawe opened the door to more grounded material, to a keener appreciation of how human beings interacted with each other and their environment. Suddenly, I was writing about what was real. Because of this, I wrote an extremely long poem in chapters, without rhyme, and I based the poem on my observations of the street where I lived. I am thankful it was never published. I called it “Suburbiensis”, in tribute (Or was it just a blatant steal?) to Dawe’s poem “Homo Suburbiensis”. My poem, and the new experience of writing in this way, took me to short fragments of fiction, then to short stories, and ultimately to full-length novels.
The door of Dawe. I am sure I am not the only writer out there who owes him a great deal. And still I learn from him. Almost forty years after that writing epiphany, he continues to give.
Take his poem, “Presences”: “This I would say: love life / for what is always beyond you, / the perfume of a girl who has gone / just as you entered the room…the smile / on the face that is turned ever so slightly / away from you, no insult intended, / so that you are never sure / whether what you saw / ever really happened…until the very last / when you know / and the pencil falls / blunted.” Dawe dedicated the poem “to my students”. I am proud to say I am still one of them.
Interview with Bruce Dawe about No Fixed Address from the Melbourne Herald, November 6, 1962.
Interview with Dawe about Sometimes Gladness from a feature article in The Canberra Times, September 2, 1995.
Review of Sometimes Gladness by Kevin Hart, The Canberra Times, January 6, 1979.
Contemporary American and Australian Poetry, edited by Thomas Shapcott, University of Queensland Press, 1976.
Readers might be interested in an interview Dawe gave to journalist and novelist Susan Johnson, Qweekend magazine, The Courier-Mail, published on Saturday, March 10, 2012, in which he discusses life on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
© Copyright Matthew Condon 2014