Author Archive

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Les (Murray) between drinks

The dynamic Kathryn Hummel has a project going, called “Friends with Drinks”. If you have anything artistic to contribute on the theme of drinking with friends anywhere in the world: words, images, whatever, have a look at her tumblr page and submit, submit, submit. Kathryn kindly published my “Art of Boozing” yesterday:

The Art of Boozing (after Elizabeth Bishop)

There is also a Facebook page and a SA Writers’ Centre blog page

Submission are via the tumblr page.

 

tent of indigenous people

Image from National Library of Australia

I’ve just started an online course entitled “Whitman’s Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster“, through the University of Iowa. I haven’t read a lot of Walt Whitman – he wasn’t on the British school curriculum when I was a boy. And the course is not so much an in-depth study of Whitman, as an investigation into the ways in which we might create art, be it prose, poetry, photography, artwork around the subject of loss, death and disaster, using Whitman as an example. Whitman wrote extensively about the American Civil War and the earlier Mexican War.

Assignment one requires:

“In words or images, compose a response to a “rupture” in a particular history – an event that you think was a defining moment at a particular place, a moment when something seemed to break open or to be dramatically exposed, a moment of dramatic importance – and use a constraint to shape your response.”

I did some further research on massacres of the Australian indigenous population during white “settlement”, and came across descriptions of horrific events in South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, near the town of Elliston. This was 1839 / 1849, around the same time as Whitman wrote about the Mexican War.  The assignment required use of a constraint, such as a poetic form. For this I chose to model Section 34 of Whitman’s “The Song of Myself”.

 

—————-

The Elliston Massacre

(after Walt Whitman)

Now I tell what I knew in Elliston in my early youth,

(I tell not the massacre of Appin,

Not one escaped to tell the deeds of Appin,

Fourteen and many more are dumb yet at Appin)

‘Tis the tale of the murder in cold blood of a hundred or more of Aboriginal men, women and children.

Rounded up by local farmers, angered by the disappearance of but four sheep.

Four sheep and the death of a hanging judge, was the price they took in advance.

The alleged sheep killers already hanged, further retribution was served on the tribe.

They were the Nauo people, who had lived on those lands for tens of thousands of years, subsisting, deeply connected to the spirit of the land.

Matchless trackers, skilled hunters of native animals.

Peaceful, proud people.

Strong, dark, drest in possum and kangaroo skin.

The morning after the hanging judges death, the policemen roused the farmers. On horseback they rode to the Nauo camp, herded all the Aboriginal men, women and children like they would herd cattle, and drove them off the high cliffs of Elliston. From babies to old men and women.

Any who tried to escape were cut down by whip, stick and gun. It was beautiful early summer.

The work commenced about seven o’clock and was over by ten.

None obey’d the command to submit for they knew they would be killed anyway.

Some made a mad and helpless rush over the cliff to their doom, some stood stark and straight and were driven over.

A few fell, shot in the back.

The maim’d and mangled were lifted and thrown to the rocks below.

Some half-kill’d attempted to crawl away. They too were despatched with bayonets or batter’d with the blunts of rifles.

A teenage girl and two small boys survived, by hiding in the saltbush. After the horsemen left, the children peered over the cliff edge but saw only battered bodies on the rocks one hundred and fifty feet below. And some further bodies rolling in the surf.

They set off on foot for Streaky Bay, and with them the tale of the massacre spread. The Aboriginal people they met were terrified, and immediately left, lest they too be massacred. They walked as far as Talewan, the Bight, Yardea, the Gawler Ranges and Ooldea. No Aboriginal person has lived in Elliston ever since.

The cliff is now known as Blackfellas Cliff.

I was one of those small boys, hiding in the saltbush.

That is the tale of the massacre of the Nauo people.

====

The constraint I used was to adopt Section 34 as the model, and superimpose on it details of two massacres of aboriginal people that occurred in South Australia in 1839 and 1849. The two South Australian massacres were remarkably similar, both involving the rounding up of Nauo people and driving them over a cliff. The above is not meant to be a historical record, but conflates details from both massacres. It is therefore a work of fiction, written as a ‘version’ of Section 34 and acknowledging Whitman’s work.

There are several sites with information about the Elliston Massacres, including here

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016

 

clubbable

Sometimes you just want some pulp fiction, a “whodunnit”, an easy to read detective novel. That’s my excuse for spending time reading this book. I’ve given it 2 stars, but it could easily be one star. Really it’s rubbish, but I have to admit I kept reading it to see “whodunnit?”.

I’ve only occasionally caught bits of TV episodes of “Dalziel and Pascoe”, who are the detectives in this novel. I’ve heard positive reviews of it, and of the books. This book was the first in the D&P series.

It was written in 1970, and shows its age. The attitudes of the males seem almost prehistoric, though this might be exaggerated by the rugby club environment around which much of the action centres. The women are not much better, mostly being sex obsessed housewives who go to the rugby club to flirt with men.

What astounded me most was the incredibly clumsy manipulations of plot and character in order to achieve a solution to the crime. Stray characters and events are introduced at seemingly random points in order to enable an event to occur, or a piece of information to surface, or an item to be found. It really did remind me of the Cluedo game: Colonel Mustard in the library with the lead pipe. The eventual explanation of the murder was so ridiculous as to be laughable.

The book served its purpose in keeping me occupied for a few evenings, but doesn’t make me want to read any more by the author. Perhaps the sort of thing to read during a long airport stopover.

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I heard about “Beatlebone” on a RTE (Radio Telefis Eireann) radio review of the best Irish books of 2015. It was rated in the top 10 of the year. The story sounded intriguing: a fictional recreation of John Lennon’s visit to my father’s home county of Mayo, in the west of Ireland. Lennon actually did buy a tiny island, Dorinish, off the coast of Mayo in 1967 for less than 1700 pounds. He only visited it once, but encouraged the “King of the Hippies”, Sid Rawle to establish a commune there in 1970.

In “Beatlebone”, Lennon is desperate to get to Dorinish for three days of solitude, to try to regain his sanity. In the process, he is driven around by a darkly weird Irish driver, Cornelius, who seems intent on delaying more than assisting Lennon. There are interludes in strange country pubs, in Cornelius’s house, at an Achill island hotel, the Amethyst, which is inhabited by three even weirder inhabitants and in a London recording studio, where Lennon is trying to record a new, experimental album.

During the journey, Lennon delves into his childhood, the loss of his parents, his time in an orphanage and his teenage sexual encounters. We learn about ‘scream therapy’ and ‘ranting’. Perhaps the most amusing interlude is his ‘ranting’ session with the inhabitants of the abandoned Amethyst Hotel.

Barry seems to have been influenced by my favourite Irish comic author, Flann O’Brien (I once lived in the basement of the house in Blackrock where Flann had lived), in particular by the brilliant “The Third Policeman” – the driver, Cornelius would fit well alongside the third policeman himself. But for me, Barry does not achieve the construction of a dark, bizarrely humorous world as convincingly as Flann did. The idioms used, both Liverpudlian and Irish don’t always ring true. The characters are not as well drawn. The story is not as funny. Clearly Barry is also channelling James Joyce with lengthy ‘stream of consciousness’ passages.

In the very middle of the book, Barry inserts a chapter of commentary about his own trip to Mayo, which gave him the idea for the book. On coming to this chapter, I thought I’d reached the end of the book, and that this was an author’s endnote. Why he chose to put it in the middle of the book I have no idea. Didn’t work for me.

‘Beatlebone’ held my attention until about halfway through and then I became impatient. Perhaps the mid-book author’s note was disruptive, or perhaps it’s just not that really interesting or well told a story.

beatlebone

Beatlebone

2015 in review

Posted: December 30, 2015 in poetry

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,900 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

TransAtlanticTransAtlantic by Colum McCann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Colum McCann’s “Transatlantic” uses characters who travel between America and Ireland during major historical events: the first flight by Alcock and Brown from Newfoundland to Galway in 1919; the public speaking tour of Ireland by ex-slave Frederick Douglass in 1845; U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s brokering of the Good Friday agreement of 1998. The novel loops back and forward in time and between continents, tracking descendants of the main characters and showing how their predecessors’ actions affect their lives.

Clearly McCann has done significant research into these events. By looking at them from ‘inside the heads’ of the characters, McCann does not try to fool us into a belief in complete historical accuracy – rather he is imagining a possible perspective on the inner lives of these major figures. I found the depiction of Belfast towards the end of ‘the Troubles’, particularly convincing, maybe because I’ve spent time in Northern Ireland. He never names George Mitchell, but the portrait is a highly empathetic one.

In the acknowledgements, at the end of the book, McCann thanks George and Heather Mitchell and Tony Blair amongst others, for their help in writing the book. For a novelist to gain direct access to such major figures is remarkable.

McCann writes beautifully. Each period is conjured up convincingly: a lengthy and horrific description of Douglass’s trip across Ireland during the Famine; Alcock and Brown’s flight and eventual landing on the west coast of Ireland; Mitchell’s negotiations in Stormont – these are passages which have great authenticity.

A book well worth reading, which encourages you to dig deeper into the events on which it is based.

View all my reviews

mccann

I heard Colum McCann interviewed this morning on ABC RN. It mainly concerned his new novel “Thirteen Ways of Looking”, which Michael Cathcart (admittedly prone to hyperbole) describes as “the perfect book”.  You can listen to the podcast here.

But I was also intrigued by mention of his “Letter to a Young Writer”, and went looking for it. Here it is, and I think it contains brilliant advice:

Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted. Be subversive of ease. Read aloud. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Be ready to get ripped to pieces: It happens. Permit yourself anger. Fail. Take pause. Accept the rejections. Be vivified by collapse. Try resuscitation. Have wonder. Bear your portion of the world. Find a reader you trust. Trust them back. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language—character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge. Push yourself further. Do not tread water. It is possible to survive that way, but impossible to write. Transcend the personal. Prove that you are alive. We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate. Become your own voice. Sing. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write towards that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Restore what has been devalued by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Make vision from the dark. The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation. Hope and belief and faith will fail you often. So what? Share your rage. Resist. Denounce. Have stamina. Have courage. Have perseverance. The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pen, but don’t forget the red one. Allow your fear. Don’t be didactic. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone, preferably towards beauty, hard beauty. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Don’t panic. Trust your reader. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you—even your life—but not your stories about your life. So this, then, is a word, not without love, to a young writer: Write.

crime Lord

Posted: November 7, 2015 in film review, prose poetry
Tags: ,

I went to see “Legend” yesterday, with my 19-year-old son. The film is about the notorious London East-End gangsters, the Kray twins, who ‘ran’ London in the 1960s.

I was aware of the Krays as a teenager in London, and read some fascinating books about them. Even on paper, you could sense their power, their charisma, and their downright evil.

The film does a good job of portraying these characteristics. Tom Hardy plays BOTH Krays, in an astonishing piece of acting. He even manages to make the twins look different, and projects the differences in their personalities: Reggie, the hard-nosed businessman who menaces more often than man-handles; Ronnie the psychopath for whom violence is often the first resort. The complexity of their relationship is well presented. It also shows the fear-based esteem in which they were held in their community. Nobody is completely evil (although Ronnie must have been close) are they? Perhaps the only criticism is that the role of their mother is downplayed, whereas in the books I’ve read, she was a dominant figure in their lives.

A few years ago, I wrote a prose poem loosely based on one of the Krays, although it could equally apply to any other gangland figure: the Richardsons for instance, who were the Krays’ rivals in London at the time. It alludes to the almost Christ-like status of such a gangster:

crime Lord

   Do you remember how nobody spoke when he came into the pub? And nobody dared look up in case they caught his eye. Every bloke in the place bowed the head when Reggie walked in. Almost genuflected. As if he was Christ Almighty. And how he would intone a low “evenin’ to you boys”. To which we would all respond in murmured unison “and to you Reggie”. And how he would sit at the bar with his back to us for an hour or more. And beckon anyone he wanted to commune with. To sit on his right hand side. To discuss whatever was troubling him. In low prayer like whispers. To sing his praises. To get his blessing. And how he followed Jack into the gents one night. There was a bit of shouting, a bit of sobbing as Jack confessed. Begged salvation. Then a lot of screaming, followed by silence. Except for the sound of taps running. And Reggie came out, but Jack didn’t. The barman offered up a whisky, which Reggie duly sank before leaving. Didn’t pay of course, never paid. And how I was the one went in to see about Jack. Found his body. And blood all over the walls. Do you remember? The place would never relax, even after Reggie left. Like some part of him was still present. Listening, watching over us, all-powerful. He’s dead now of course. Died, for his sins, in the nick thank God. And how a multitude turned out for the funeral. Not sure if it was in honour or for the salmon sandwiches afterwards. Or to say “good riddance”. But if it was “good riddance”, no one was saying it out loud. Afraid he might rise from the dead perhaps. They all bowed their heads like they did when he was alive. And nobody spoke. I remember that.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015
franklin

Sir John Franklin and his crew were captured in this 1847 painting by W Turner Smith called The End In Sight

Some years ago, for some reason which seemed logical at the time, I got rid of my record player and quite a few of my vinyl records. Thankfully I kept a fair number.

Last week, I got around to buying another record deck, dusting off the vinyls and re-discovering my old music. I lived in Ireland for several years, in Dublin. My parents are Irish. I’ve loved Irish music since I was in my teens. One of the vinyls I’ve played several times this week is “Promenade” by Kevin Burke and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill. I’d forgotten, of course, what a great album it is. It was made in 1978. They were young men, but at the peak of their creative powers. Masterful musicians. There are several standout tracks on the album, but the one which always ‘gets to me’ is “Lord Franklin”. It is a traditional song, which surmises the dream which Lady Franklin may have had when her husband went missing, searching for the North West Passage. Franklin and 129 men on his two ships, Erebus and Terror  were apparently stranded for three years in the frozen north, and all eventually perished in 1847.

Going onto the internet, and looking for the later achievements of Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, I was then shocked to find that he had died in 2006 from a fall at his home, at the age of 54. I was deeply saddened by this – not that I ever met him, or saw him perform live, but that song has been part of me for many years; part of my youth I suppose.

Further browsing then told me that one of Franklin’s ships had been discovered only last year, around Queen Maud Gulf. “I am delighted to announce that this year’s Victoria Strait expedition has solved one of Canada’s greatest mysteries, with the discovery of one of the two ships belonging to the Franklin Expedition,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The location fits in exactly with Inuit stories at the time of Franklin’s disappearance, which were discounted as the worthless ramblings of savages by the authorities of the day.

There are many versions of the song, “Lord Franklin’, but none as beautiful, to me, as the Burke / Ó Domhnaill version. Here is a live recording from 1982, with a nice introduction by Mícheál :

Wilson 'Iron Bar' Tuckey

I’ve written several political poems in the few years I’ve been writing poetry. Some have been about specific political players, others about social issues. I think I can say that every poem I’ve written about a politician has been followed by their eventual demise. I’d like to take some credit for the departure of Thatcher, Howard, Abbott, Wilson Tuckey; less keen to think I had any part in the self-destruction of Rudd and Gillard. The life of a political leader in Australia can be short and sharp these days.

Before writing poetry, I had written song lyrics for the South Australian Trade Union Choir. One was “Yes, we have no Osamas” – it took a few years before Bin Laden eventually left the scene. I wrote one about the Hindmarsh Island Bridge affair and one about working conditions (around the time of the ill-fated so-called “Workchoices” policy).

I think the first political poem I wrote was about Wilson Tuckey, pictured above, a particularly obnoxious right-wing, Western Australian politician. As a publican, before entering parliament, he was convicted of assault after striking an Aboriginal man with a length of steel cable. I wrote the poem (in 2009) in response to a challenge to write a love poem from an unusual angle; hence “Wilson Tuckey, I love you man”. The last stanza is:

Wilson Tuckey, I love you man

you show us what it means to be Australian

some call you redneck, some say you’re not cool

but you are our bedrock, you are no fool

you are the brown substance of this wide, sunburnt land

and that’s why, Wilson Tuckey, I really, really, really love you man.

Tuckey lost his seat in 2010.

thatcher

I wrote one about Margaret Thatcher and Chilean mass-murderer, General Pinochet in 2013, which imagined the conversation between the two when Thatcher had Pinochet round for tea at Downing Street. A snippet is:

How do you take your tea Mr. Pinochet?

Please stay for dinner? We have a buffet.

With all sorts of meats, spare ribs and jugged hare.

When you burn a dead body, is the flesh very rare?

Thatcher died a few months later.

abbott

Last year I wrote one about Tony Abbott, modelled on a Billy Collins poem. It imagined undressing the then Prime Minister, and concluded with:

And I could feel his tremor

as I pulled them clear of his ankles,

left him there spreadeagled, naked.

Can still hear

his cry of abandonment,

the way a man completely out of his depth might cry for help

the way newly weds might cry on hearing their union is invalid

the way a child might cry as it sees its mother sink beneath the waves

the way a man dying of shame might issue a last mournful howl.

Just a few weeks ago, Abbott was deposed by his own party.

These poems are now past their use-by date. I was delighted that I had a chance to give the Abbott poem one final outing just a few weeks ago as guest poet at the Friendly Street Halifax Cafe gig. It will now be consigned to history, like its subject (though he shows signs of not going quietly).

Can I claim any part in the demise of my subjects? Well I will anyway, even if it’s just for making one or two people think about the subject of the poem. So, if you are going to write a political poem, air it as often as possible while the topic is still relevant. They are very perishable commodities.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015