Fruitful day on Monday — 2 — Sunday night TV led to a journey into great Australian poetry and memories of Sydney High

Last Sunday night ABC premiered a riveting and scary miniseries set in a country town: Savage River. 9/10 from me!

On Facebook I wrote something just a bit strange:

I venture to suggest I was the only person in Australia (aside from perhaps this poet who may have watched) who instantly recalled Robert Gray’s “The Meatworks” — and I am delighted to find it online

Most of them worked around the slaughtering
out the back, where concrete gutters
crawled off
heavily, and the hot, fertilizer-thick,
sticky stench of blood
sent flies mad,

but I settled for one of the lowest-paid jobs, making mince,
the furthest end from those bellowing,
sloppy yards. Outside, the pigs’ fear
made them mount one another
at the last minute….

The poet had at one time actually worked in this place.

My note went on:

I did have some contact with Robert Gray over the years, starting with the time he was working in a Paddington bookshop in 1982 when he told me Patrick White had come in recommending Neos Young Writers, of which I was an editor, through to his generously coming a few years later to talk to my class at Sydney Boys High. Taught his work to the Class of 2000 as well.

Robert Gray 1978
Christine Godden

I think Robert actually spoke to a combined class and this was perhaps the class of 1986 when they were in Year 11. Or it may have been in Term 4 of 1999 when the Class of 2000 began their actual HSC year.

I do recall he did it at no charge, and also that he said “Some people take photos. I write poems. My poems are my photo album.”

Among the most moving of Robert Gray’s poems, for me, is “Diptych” — a pair evoking his mother and his father and their life in Coff’s Harboiur on the north coast o NSW. Here is part of the portrait of his father, an alcoholic and a rather irascible man:

… And yet, the only time I heard him say that he’d enjoyed anything
was when he spoke of the bush, once. ‘Up in those hills,’
he advised me, pointing around, ‘when the sun is coming out of the sea,
standing among
that lifting timber, you can feel at peace.’
I was impressed. He asked me, another time, that when he died
I should take his ashes somewhere, and not put him with the locals,
in the cemetery.
I went up to one of the places he had named
years earlier, at the time of day he had spoken of, when the half-risen sun
was as strongly-spiked as the one
on his Infantry badge,
and I scattered him there, utterly reduced at last, among the wet,
breeze-woven grass…..

This is discussed in the opening part of this wonderful interview done just two years ago by English Buddhist poet Maitreyabandhu (Ian Johnson).

Robert has aged — but so have I! Refers to some wonderful poems, starting with “Diptych”. Great interview by a well-informed English Buddhist and many shafts of dry wit from Robert Gray.

I then recalled the wonderful class of 2000, particularly one member of it:

That is Xiang on the left.

When I taught his poems (including “Diptych”) to the class of 2000 one class member, Xiang, was originally from China — in fact less than five years in Australia. He was on his mother’s side a descendant of the family of the last Emperor of China (“there is a hotel in Beijing that was my great-great-great-aunt’s palace”) and at that time a Tibetan Buddhist. His grandmother had been in the Ministry of Culture in 1989 and refused to endorse the crackdown. The family as a result were sent to Gansu Province where Xiang encountered Tibetan culture. Xiang related well to Robert Gray’s poems and saw the Buddhism instantly.

The class went one day to a HSC lecture day at the Sydney Hilton where Robert was speaking about his poems and of course Xiang was there and had a chance to talk to Robert. I asked him after how he had felt about it. He just said, “What can I say?” He was deeply moved. He achieved a good pass in English too, though his thing really was Maths — despite the fact that he had been speaking English for four years or less and the only way in Year 11 1999 he had been able to cope with The Scarlet Letter was by reading a Chinese translation.

Mind you he then told me just what was wrong with the translation….

In some Remarks on poems for the HSC Robert Gray wrote:

My poetry is full of images, because I want to particularize every natural thing that appears in it, out of respect, you might say. In my poems, nothing is a symbol for anything else. Everything has its own worth and is presented directly. The overall effect is one of clarity and light.

‘Journey, the North Coast’

You will notice at once the rhythm of this. The variety of line-lengths makes it an example of free verse. The poem imitates the swaying movement of an overnight train (but not too heavy-handedly, I would like to think).

Also imitative is the poem’s narrative plunges down the page, without the hindrance of stanza-breaks. The poet finds the experience of waking in the country exhilarating, as is shownin the sensuous imagery used.

There is fleetingly evoked a contrast between the country morning of a holiday and the rented room in the city, where he has lived out of a suitcase. The shadow of the furnished room is carried along with him.

Moments in my eBook Library — 13 —  more random choices

In the previous post in this series I told you about the “Read a Random Book” option in my eBook Library on Calibre. The “random book” I settled down to read is Henry James, The Aspern Papers (1888). One should savour Henry James. He is not suitable at all for speed reading. In fact that is one of the delights he offers. He would never write shorty choppy sentences like these. Or such tiny paragraphs. Which brings me to another feature of Calibre, which I have been using on The Aspern Papers.

Yes — read aloud. In a computer-generated female voice, but pretty good considering.

Seems there has been a movie made of The Aspern Papers, and not all that long ago!

A very different American classic popped up in the next round of random books — in the wonderful eBooks for free one used to be able to download from Adelaide University. I grabbed many a one as each monthly offering came out, but that rich source has now dried up.

One of my party tricks as an English teacher even at Cronulla High in the 1960s was to read “The Black Cat” aloud to my classes — rather well I like to think. Certainly the kids were always quiet as when I did so… It is in that collection.

Also from the Adelaide collection came an Australian classic which in fact I re-read with pleasure last year: Joseph Furphy’s idiosyncratic Such is Life.

Chapter i
Unemployed at last!

Scientifically, such a contingency can never have befallen of itself. According to one theory of the Universe, the momentum of Original Impress has been tending toward this far-off, divine event ever since a scrap of fire-mist flew from the solar centre to form our planet. Not this event alone, of course; but every occurrence, past and present, from the fall of captured Troy to the fall of a captured insect. According to another theory, I hold an independent diploma as one of the architects of our Social System, with a commission to use my own judgment, and take my own risks, like any other unit of humanity. This theory, unlike the first, entails frequent hitches and cross-purposes; and to some malign operation of these I should owe my present holiday.

Orthodoxly, we are reduced to one assumption: namely, that my indomitable old Adversary has suddenly called to mind Dr. Watts’s friendly hint respecting the easy enlistment of idle hands….

The last in this set of random books is also Australian, an interesting account of service in World War 1 published in 1918: By-ways on Service: Notes from an Australian Journal by Hector Dinning.

Hector Dinning served at Gallipoli, in France and in the Middle East during World War I. In the Fruitful Granite he describes the life he led in the four years before the war as ‘an academic life (and a very interesting life of its kind), interspersed with coaching and free-lance journalism of a sporadic sort’. His occupation was described as Teacher on his enlistment in the AIF in 1914. After the war ‘impatient with a life indoors’ he became an orchadist near Stanthorpe, Queensland. During the 1920s, Dinning held a position as a tutor at the University of Queensland. In the 1930s and 1940s Dinning was a journalist with the Telegraph in Brisbane.

Dinning’s non-fiction works include Nile to Aleppo : With the Light Horse in the Middle East (1920).

In this chapter he deals with the evacuation from Gallipoli, an amazing story less often told than the famous landing.

CHAPTER VII
EVACUATION

There will be a leavening of Egyptian in the Australian vernacular after peace has broken out. It will persist, and perhaps have a weighty etymological influence—at any rate on the colloquial vocabulary. “Baksheesh” will be a universal term, not confined to sketches of Oriental travel. “Baksheesh” is merely one of the many grafted Arabic terms, but it will be predominant. “Sae’eda” will be the street greeting (varied by the Sikh “Salaam, sahib”). “Feloose kiteer,” “mafish,” “min fadlak,” “taali hina,” “etla,” and the rest of them, will be household words. Other phrases, not remarkable for delicacy, will prevail in pot-houses and stable talk. Forcible ejection from a company and polite leave-taking will both be covered by an “imshee”; there will be “classy” “imshees” and “imshees” that are undignified.

Such an evacuation as was effected at Anzac was distinctly “classy.” When first the notion of evacuation was mooted there was misgiving. We were with our back (so to speak) to the sea, hemmed in in a narrow sector of coast, with no ground whatever to fall back upon. There was no one who did not expect disaster in evacuating a position such as that; the only debate was as to degree. What would it cost us in lives and money? And there was a greater fear unspoken—the hideous reflection that an evacuation would make almost vain the heavy losses of eight months’ fighting. Everyone hoped against a giving-up. But soon there was no mistaking the signs of the times….

Moments in my eBook Library — 6 — An Anthology of Australian Verse (1907)

Yes, we had one and many poems in it my mother would quote from memory. I am sure it would originally have belonged to her father, Roy Hampton Christison, a teacher.

Edited by Bertram Stevens, it even has a Wikipedia entry to itself, so influential was it.

An Anthology of Australian Verse (1907) is an anthology of poems edited by Australian critic Bertram Stevens. The editor notes in his introduction that the book is “A selection of published and previously unpublished verse” representative of the best short poems written by Australians or inspired by Australian scenery and conditions of life, – ‘Australian’ in this connection being used to include New Zealand.

In her more maudlin moods — not that frequent — my mother would sometimes allude to this one:

Thomas Bracken. — Not Understood

Not understood, we move along asunder;
 Our paths grow wider as the seasons creep
Along the years; we marvel and we wonder
Why life is life, and then we fall asleep
        Not understood.

Not understood, we gather false impressions
 And hug them closer as the years go by;
Till virtues often seem to us transgressions;
 And thus men rise and fall, and live and die
        Not understood.

Not understood! Poor souls with stunted vision
 Oft measure giants with their narrow gauge;
The poisoned shafts of falsehood and derision
 Are oft impelled ‘gainst those who mould the age,
        Not understood.

Not understood! The secret springs of action
 Which lie beneath the surface and the show,
Are disregarded; with self-satisfaction
 We judge our neighbours, and they often go
        Not understood.

Not understood! How trifles often change us!
 The thoughtless sentence and the fancied slight
Destroy long years of friendship, and estrange us,
 And on our souls there falls a freezing blight;
        Not understood.

Not understood! How many breasts are aching
 For lack of sympathy! Ah! day by day
How many cheerless, lonely hearts are breaking!
 How many noble spirits pass away,
        Not understood.

O God! that men would see a little clearer,
 Or judge less harshly where they cannot see!
O God! that men would draw a little nearer
 To one another, — they’d be nearer Thee,
        And understood.

Typical of the 1890s:

Andrew Barton Paterson — The Old Australian Ways

The London lights are far abeam
 Behind a bank of cloud,
Along the shore the gaslights gleam,
 The gale is piping loud;
And down the Channel, groping blind,
 We drive her through the haze
Towards the land we left behind —
The good old land of “never mind”,
 And old Australian ways.

The narrow ways of English folk
 Are not for such as we;
They bear the long-accustomed yoke
Of staid conservancy:
But all our roads are new and strange,
 And through our blood there runs
The vagabonding love of change
That drove us westward of the range
 And westward of the suns.

The city folk go to and fro
 Behind a prison’s bars,
They never feel the breezes blow
 And never see the stars;
They never hear in blossomed trees
 The music low and sweet
Of wild birds making melodies,
Nor catch the little laughing breeze
 That whispers in the wheat.

Our fathers came of roving stock
 That could not fixed abide:
And we have followed field and flock
 Since e’er we learnt to ride;
By miner’s camp and shearing shed,
 In land of heat and drought,
We followed where our fortunes led,
With fortune always on ahead
 And always further out.

The wind is in the barley-grass,
 The wattles are in bloom;
The breezes greet us as they pass
 With honey-sweet perfume;
The parrakeets go screaming by
 With flash of golden wing,
And from the swamp the wild-ducks cry
Their long-drawn note of revelry,
 Rejoicing at the Spring.

So throw the weary pen aside
 And let the papers rest,
For we must saddle up and ride
 Towards the blue hill’s breast;
And we must travel far and fast
Across their rugged maze,
To find the Spring of Youth at last,
And call back from the buried past
 The old Australian ways.

When Clancy took the drover’s track
 In years of long ago,
He drifted to the outer back
 Beyond the Overflow;
By rolling plain and rocky shelf,
 With stockwhip in his hand,
He reached at last, oh lucky elf!
The Town of Come-and-help-yourself
 In Rough-and-ready Land.

And if it be that you would know
 The tracks he used to ride,
Then you must saddle up and go
 Beyond the Queensland side —
Beyond the reach of rule or law,
 To ride the long day through,
In Nature’s homestead — filled with awe:
You then might see what Clancy saw
 And know what Clancy knew.

Much is missing from that romantic nostalgia… Where are the First Australians, for example?

Post script

I got curious about Thomas Bracken, so turned to Wikipedia! Turns out he was a Kiwi!

Thomas Bracken (c. December 1843 – 16 February 1898) was an Irish-born New Zealand poet, journalist and politician. He wrote “God Defend New Zealand“, one of the two national anthems of New Zealand, and was the first person to publish the phrase “God’s Own Country” as applied to New Zealand. He also won the Otago Caledonian Society’s prize for poetry.

The Maori first stanza is a later addition.

One of the greatest poets of the 20th century in the entire English-speaking world

Big claim, I know, but I stand by it. In good company too, including that of poets.

Bloody hard finding someone just reading Judith Wright aloud for our pleasure! It is all po-faced cribs and analyses, and as one who even briefly exchanged letters with her I suspect she would hate that! There are even videos in Hindi! Mind you it is great to see she is appreciated in India apparently.

And at last I find READINGS!!! Thank God. From someone also on Dharawal Country — in Shellharbour! Where my mum and dad married.

My mum once had work published in the Sydney Mail alongside Judith Wright aged 13! In fact that is what my correspondence with Judith Wright was about, way back around 1966-7.

South Of My Days

South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite-
clean, lean, hungry country. The creek’s leaf-silenced,
willow choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.

O cold the black-frost night. The walls draw in to the warmth
and the old roof cracks its joints; the slung kettle
hisses a leak on the fire. Hardly to be believed that summer will turn up again some day in a wave of rambler-roses,
thrust it’s hot face in here to tell another yarn-
a story old Dan can spin into a blanket against the winter.
Seventy years of stories he clutches round his bones.
Seventy years are hived in him like old honey.

Droving that year, Charleville to the Hunter,
nineteen-one it was, and the drought beginning;
sixty head left at the McIntyre, the mud round them
hardened like iron; and the yellow boy died
in the sulky ahead with the gear, but the horse went on,
stopped at Sandy Camp and waited in the evening.
It was the flies we seen first, swarming like bees.
Came to the Hunter, three hundred head of a thousand-
cruel to keep them alive – and the river was dust.

Or mustering up in the Bogongs in the autumn
when the blizzards came early. Brought them down; we
brought them down, what aren’t there yet.
Or driving for Cobb’s on the run
up from Tamworth –Thunderbolt at the top of Hungry Hill,
and I give him a wink. I wouldn’t wait long, Fred,
not if I was you. The troopers are just behind,
coming for that job at the Hillgrove. He went like a luny, him on his big black horse.

Oh, they slide and they vanish
as he shuffles the years like a pack of conjuror’s cards.
True or not, it’s all the same; and the frost on the roof
cracks like a whip, and the back-log break into ash.
Wake, old man. This is winter, and the yarns are over.
No-one is listening
South of my days’ circle
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.

And this is a poem I admire: Judith Wright, Woman to Man (1949). Australian. And how many poems were there in 1949 describing a woman’s experience of pregnancy?

Woman to Man

The eyeless labourer in the night,
the selfless, shapeless seed I hold,
builds for its resurrection day—
silent and swift and deep from sight
foresees the unimagined light.

This is no child with a child’s face;
this has no name to name it by;
yet you and I have known it well.
This is our hunter and our chase,
the third who lay in our embrace.

This is the strength that your arm knows,
the arc of flesh that is my breast,
the precise crystals of our eyes.
This is the blood’s wild tree that grows
the intricate and folded rose.

This is the maker and the made;
this is the question and reply;
the blind head butting at the dark,
the blaze of light along the blade.
Oh hold me, for I am afraid.

In January 2021 I posted on Facebook:

An extraordinary, powerful poem. Don’t let the N-word put you off: it is there for a reason and only a total idiot would want to change it!

Another meditation I am offering for Australia Day. Some of these may appear in my next blog post.

Also celebrating the one some have called Australia’s greatest poet ever.

On this blog: So Australia Day again — #4:

I can’t be bothered adding to the current ten seconds of controversy on social media about Australia Day, so let me clear the decks. 1) ScoMo has made a series of lame statements on the subject of Cricket Australia, who I think should be congratulated. 2) Awarding a top gong to Margaret Court is sheer madness — unless making mischief is the aim. 3) 26 January is a significant day in this country’s history, no matter who you are, and there are multiple stories, all valid, in it. But none more so than to contemplate the effect of that day and realise that we are still nowhere near having properly come to terms with it. 4) I prefer 1 January. 5) No matter how righteous folk get, I am yet to meet someone who chooses to return to where their family came from — assuming they know — in order to return things to pre-1788 conditions. 6) We should all be reading Dark Emu.

OK: poems and songs. That’s the way to go. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visitors are advised that some of the following items contain images and voices of people who have died.

In particular:

Bora Ring

Judith Wright

The song is gone; the dance
is secret with the dancers in the earth,
the ritual useless, and the tribal story
lost in an alien tale.

Only the grass stands up
to mark the dancing-ring; the apple-gums
posture and mime a past corroboree,
murmur a broken chant.

The hunter is gone; the spear
is splintered underground; the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still.

Only the rider’s heart
halts at a sightless shadow, an unsaid word
that fastens in the blood of the ancient curse,
the fear as old as Cain.

Written during World War 2, published 1946.

The following student video modifies and adds to the poem, which I am not so happy about, though the resulting work is in itself excellent. I do fear that the video makers did not fully grasp the meaning of the final stanza, which of course refers to Genesis and the story of the first murderer. On the other hand, the students, who are of Chinese background, have done a really good job and are also examples of one of Australia’s greatest glories, our successful — compared with many places — multiculturalism.

A close friend of Judith Wright was the Indigenous poet Oodgeroo.

Aunty Oodgeroo Noonuccal — source

In her last years Judith Wright lived near Braidwood NSW. See this from Green politician Christine Milne. Christine reads from Judith Wright’s work at the property, Edge, where the great poet spent the last years of her life. Christine is working to protect the property to be used as Wright intended.

I was drawn back to Judith Wright’s work by two recent reading experiences, the first on The Conversation.

Judith Wright is a giant of Australian letters. Though most famous as a poet, she was also a very fine writer in prose, and it is this dimension of her writing that is brought to life in a new selection of her non-fiction.

The second through the many references to her in a recently published book from ANU Press: Persons of Interest.

Free to download as an eBook! Here is my copy in my Calibre Reader and Library.

But back to the poems. Three more.

Friday poem 17: Judith Wright

25 SEP 2009

dust14

Australia 1970

Die, wild country, like the eaglehawk,
dangerous till the last breath’s gone,
clawing and striking. Die
cursing your captor through a raging eye.

Die like the tiger snake
that hisses such pure hatred from its pain
as fills the killer’s dreams
with fear like suicide’s invading stain.

Suffer, wild country, like the ironwood
that gaps the dozer-blade.
I see your living soil ebb with the tree
to naked poverty.

Die like the soldier-ant
mindless and unfaithful to your million years.
Though we corrupt you with our torturing mind,
stay obstinate; stay blind.

For we are conquerors and self-poisoners
more than scorpion or snake
and dying of the venoms that we make
even while you die of us.

I praise the scoring drought, the flying dust,
the drying creek, the furious animal,
that they oppose us still;
that we are ruined by the thing we kill.

Photo by Graeme Greenwood

Next, the magnificent Woman to Child (1949)

You who were darkness warmed my flesh
where out of darkness rose the seed.
Then all a world I made in me;
all the world you hear and see
hung upon my dreaming blood.

There moved the multitudinous stars,
and coloured birds and fishes moved.
There swam the sliding continents.
All time lay rolled in me, and sense,
and love that knew not its beloved.

O node and focus of the world;
I hold you deep within that well
you shall escape and not escape-
that mirrors still your sleeping shape;
that nurtures still your crescent cell.

I wither and you break from me;
yet though you dance in living light
I am the earth, I am the root,
I am the stem that fed the fruit,
the link that joins you to the night.

Finally:

Follow up

You won’t do much better than this lecture. I well remember her objecting to her poetry being made into objects for study and instruments for torturing school children. Paradoxically I taught her poems, and hope I never made them instruments of torture.

The lecturer, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, is a poet himself.

Once more looking at my April 2007 archive after 15 years

Various selections from the month’s archive.

Alana Valentine is a playwright to watch…

That is if Parramatta Girls, which I saw last night, is anything to go by. It is indeed a “must see” as many comments to be traced from that Google Search indicate — Trevor Cook on Corporate Engagement for example:

This is a great piece of theatre, one of the best plays I’ve seen for awhile. The subject matter is often harrowing but the treatment is full of compassion, wit and understanding. The cast work very well together and there are no ‘weak’ performances. If you can get along to see it you should. Its on at the Belvoir until 22 April.

Except you won’t get in; Parramatta Girls is sold out for the rest of the season.

The Sydney Morning Herald is typical of most reviews: The spirit triumphs in this healing journey.

…The director, Wesley Enoch, has created an unflinching, powerful and moving production full of surprising mood changes, peaks and troughs and with a keen eye to the perpetuating cycles of abuse. Ralph Myers’s stripped-to-the-bone set, with its stacks of metal chairs, starkly symbolises the ruin and discarding of souls. The talented cast does great justice to the material, not just being feisty, fearful and loud but persuasively revealing the stains, regrets and shameful emotions that have singled the characters out and, in their later lives, brought them together.

Skinner’s portrayal affords Parramatta Girls much of its spark and spine, as does Leah Purcell’s as the charismatic Marlene, especially in the climactic rooftop riot scene when she reclaims power even though it means time spent in isolation. Annie Byron gives a remarkably brave performance as tough, soft-centred Gayle while Genevieve Hegney delights as Maree, an innocent who mocks authority and whose spirit-crushed presence lends a tragic dimension.

Parramatta Girls is desperately sad, honest, humorous and uplifting. It is a triumph for Valentine and company. On opening night, when former inmates joined the actors on stage for the curtain call, there were tears, smiles and slightly embarrassed bows; an extraordinary moment of life and art blurring and uniting as one.

One small but important point struck me. Near the end of the play one of the Aboriginal ex-inmates has obtained her records but can’t read them; she gets another “Parramatta girl” to read them to her. The official account, it transpires, includes a number of convenient bureaucratic lies… The play of course is rooted in oral history, though not in oral history alone. It has been very carefully researched. That moment in the play resonated with the History Wars, however. I think it very clearly showed the danger of the purist Windschuttle approach to history; indeed I am sure it was meant to.

I went with a group from South Sydney Uniting Church, having turned up on spec as I hadn’t actually applied for a ticket. Fortunately Andrew had a spare. 🙂

I was able to fill in Andrew and Dorothy on the latest on Lord Malcolm too. Dorothy was especially touched when I told her about Lord M’s Easter Sunday writing project, that by his computer (as I noted yesterday when I went to Lord M’s place on an errand) sits her blessing.

Later

I told Lord M about the play when I visited him today. Lord M had an Aboriginal partner, now deceased. It turns out that partner was the cousin of Wesley Enoch, the play’s director.

I now have the portrait of that cousin of Wesley Enoch on my wall here in West Wollongong — a reminder of Malcolm.

Award-winning playwright Alana Valentine has woven together the true stories of women who were once Parramatta Girls into a masterful tribute to their courage, humour, strength and optimism.

UTS Alumni on 29 March 2022 published this:

“I really believe that UTS taught me that sometimes it is good to be a tool for other people’s vision. And that it doesn’t always have to be about you.”

Alana Valentine (BA Comm, 1983) is one of Australia’s most celebrated playwrights whose visionary work puts the human experience squarely on centre stage. Alana has spoken of how deeply she values the trust placed in her by the marginalised communities she has worked with – on pieces such as ParramattaGirls – to share their experiences on stage, and it’s this dedication to telling important Australian stories that saw her win both won the 2021 UTS: Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Award and joint Chancellor’s Award for Excellence.

I have been privileged to have met Alana through the South Sydney Uniting Church connection.

Wise words from a young gay American

[There was a blog*] here on WordPress that I was led to by a bit of random surfing, and I am glad to have found it. C**** is “your garden variety, 18 year old queer guy living in Houston, Texas.”

…I am the perpetual student who hates structured education, most of what I know of value I taught myself or at the very least was instructed in away from the walls of my public schools…

I am cynical about oh so much, but still can muster eternal optimism that things can be better (if only people were more like me). Sarcasm and gallows humor are my trademarks.

I love old movies, kitsch, crooners from the 40s and 50s, geezer pop and rock, country music that is not heard on the radio. Hyper masculinity both fascinates me and bores me. I love camp in small doses. My theology comes from books, the saints, the patriots, the movies and drunken ass dances. My politics are liberal but I can’t abide most liberals, and [am] suspicious of them as always waiting for you to trip, but I will have none of their foolishness! Did I mention that I am a wee bit bombastic?…

Teachers need that little dose of reality from the first sentence sometimes just to keep a sense of proportion.

I am referring you to this blog though for one entry in particular, which is not to say the rest is not good because it is in fact a very good blog, especially in the world of teen blogs. In its own way it is as good as the remarkable MyScribbles, the Afghan blog, whose author is around the same age. The cultural context of course is very different. (That reminds me: Ahmad still hasn’t posted this year. A real worry that.)

The entry in question is Choices Made And Not Made.

What set of circumstances do you suppose occurred where I might have had a choice to be gay? Do you imagine that one day I awoke and just up and decided “today I think I will become homosexual’? Do you think I might have made a critical error on “Career Day” in high school? Do you suppose that I chose to become a pariah just for kicks? That I somehow found it appealing to face harassment from bigots, the religious right and those compensating for their own inadequacies. Do you suppose that I would choose to become a lesser citizen that is denied the rights granted to my heterosexual brother, including the right to marry the one I love? When was I asked? Why is it with 90% of the population heterosexual, no one on that side thought to ask me to choose to be straight?

I admit that wasn’t an answer when I answered the question with rhetorical questions. So here it is. I did not choose to be gay. Whether genetic, hormonal or some yet to determined factor, its not important how I got here, I am here and I accept and embrace who I am in its totality as how I am supposed to be. Long before I knew what gay was or had a clue what sex was, I had attractions to other males. It wasn’t a sexual attraction at first it was something more fundamental than that. Its easy for those who view gay as being bad to dismiss us if they can reduce it to sexual acts alone. That being gay is just an easy way for sexual gratification. It is deeper and more profound than that. Its as much an emotional attachment as heterosexual males and females have.

Choose to be gay? No, but I did come to a realization that I was gay, that these feelings had a name and I decided to accept that as part of who I am. It is as much a part of me as a heterosexual’s sexuality is a part of them. Its not how I define myself, but it is there and shapes who I am, and that I do choose to accept and own it with no apology.

My family accepts me as I am. I was blessed with a family that loves me unconditionally… Sadly, my experience isn’t as common as it might ought to be…

I choose to be many things in my life. I choose to try and live my life honestly and to be a good man, that not only my parents would be proud of me, but to live my life in such a manner I can take pride in it. I choose not to live a life in the margins. I choose to try and be a good son, brother, friend, citizen and one day a partner to a man I love. I choose to be a strong gay man. Those are the REAL choices I make.

I did not choose to be gay. I accept my sexuality, own it and do not choose to hide it.

I REFUSE to be defined by bigots, to be limited by prejudices, nor to be denied my place at the table of life. I refuse to have you or anyone else debate my life. I refuse to suffer foolish arguments, banal one liners or the rants and ravings of zealots. I refuse to let my life to be ruled or dominated by homophobic rants or raving. I refuse to live my life in fear of those that choose to live their life coccooned in their hatred.

I choose also to live my life with dignity and honor to the best of my potential. That, my anonymous friend, is how I define “normal.”

That is magnificent, C***. I have just extracted highlights. [It’s a shame it is no longer available.*]

Mind you, referriing to my reading in the past few days which has also interested Jim Belshaw, I don’t know what it is with Americans and “liberals”. To us older folk outside the US what an American labels and then worries about as “liberal” just seems normal, civilised, progressive, and even quite uncontroversial. Things like health care, for example. Even trade unions. Or at least that was the case until about ten years ago.

* UPDATE 5 May 2007

This blog has now been deleted by its author. I have therefore disguised its origin and names in it, as I respect his choice but still value what he said and wish others might read it.

2022 — And the My Scribbles blog?

See How 15 years ago my blog reached into Afghanistan and encouraged at least one teenager…. And just the other day on Facebook Ahmad, now a friend there, posted:

Forthcoming in London on 10 November 2022
Soon after of course the Taliban took over and Ahmad went into exile…

Reading the Bible

To quote the appropriate page for today from Deng Ming-Dao’s 365 Tao: Daily Meditations:

Don’t be afraid to explore;
Without exploration there are no discoveries,
Don’t be afraid of partial solutions;
Without the tentative there is no
accomplishment.

I am still in the habit of following the Daily Office Lectionary from the US version of The Book of Common Prayer, an eccentricity I mentioned on Blogspot Books and Ideas in January 2006.

Lest that seems either saintly or pretentious, let me say that I am pragmatically finding this of benefit. I get food for thought, and, doing it as I do just before sleeping, I find my nights in general have been much more restful. No, I don’t mean to say the practice puts me to sleep, but it certainly helps compose the mind.

Those of you who have followed my rants for a while know that I do not believe God writes books. In other words, I am not a fundamentalist. So what of the Bible? All along from my teen years to the present I have found the Bible inspiring, if not always inspired. So my ruminations over the Daily Office are often critical. For example, reading Galatians lately I have been struck by how exceedingly dodgy Paul’s use of the Old Testament often is. Galatians marks a key moment, of course, in which the Church became more universalist and less a sect of Judaism. Paul was trying to convince the Galatians that this was the way to go, but I can well understand some not being convinced. Another troubling feature of his argument, and indeed in the representation of the Pharisees in the gospels, is that one can see only too clearly the seeds of antisemitism there. I believe, of course, that you don’t have to go down that path, but the potential was there and in time as we all know it bore strange fruit.

So what are we to make of the Bible? Anthony Freeman addresses this on Radical Faith, and I commend him to you. “Whatever more it may be, it is never less than this: part of our world, a human product situated in a particular place, at a particular time, and in a particular culture.”…

I would also commend James W. Aageson from Concordia College on “Reading Biblical Texts: Truth, Fact, and Myth.”

It is not uncommon to hear someone say, “Let’s just read the Bible literally. Let’s forget about all this interpretation stuff and just read the Bible for what it says.” The impulse for this can be appreciated. Serious interpretation of the Bible takes a lot of effort and sustained study, and sometimes all of this effort in the end only seems to work against certain cherished and long held religious beliefs. Many people want the Bible to sustain them. They do not want to be confronted by strange and new interpretations of it. And still others are opposed to the critical study of the Bible because they think God and God’s word are beyond human understanding. They can only be understood by the power of the Holy Spirit and not by human reason standing alone. Moreover, digging into the scriptures seems to make human beings the final arbiter of God’s word instead of God. These concerns are real, and the forces that motivate them should be understood.

Even if a person is of two minds about the critical study of the Bible, however, the problem of a “literal reading” of biblical material is an issue that is more complicated than might first appear. What is meant by the term “literal reading?” What makes a reading “literal” as opposed to something else? And is “literality” the same for all types and varieties of texts in the Bible? If we are to think about this question of literal interpretation, we must address the issue of what is meant by the expression, “literal reading.” The term in popular usage seems to refer to the surface reading of the text. In this sense, “literal” refers to the straightforward adherence to the surface level of the material and its wording, the face value of the text in other words…

One final observation about the discernment of biblical truth should be made. Many truth claims, many biblical truth claims included, should, in my judgment, be subjected to moral critique. When we look at the consequences of historic and religious truth claims, what have been the social and human consequences that have followed from them? Can we discern any consequences? If so, how have these claims played themselves out over time? Are the consequences morally laudable or morally reprehensible? At a minimum, we should ask ourselves if these claims can be true when we see what they have done. When Matthew in his gospel implies that the blood of Christ is not only on the hands of the Jews in Jesus’ day but also on the hands of their descendants, can this statement have any claim to religious truth, given the way this has contributed to the horrible reality of anti-Semitism? When seen in light of the Christian gospel itself, the consequences of this rather direct Matthean implication seem to be suspect, if not altogether devoid of theological truth value, that is if the Christian gospel is in fact good news and not bad news. Moral considerations may not finally settle questions of biblical truth, but they ought to be considered.

Assessing biblical truth is complicated and cannot be reduced to a single notion of truth. Multiple levels of meaning and truth can be discovered in biblical material, and the critical reader of the Bible needs sophistication and flexibility in evaluating them. In some cases, the question of whether the biblical material is true or not is beside the point. It only leads one away from the significant features of the text. Yet truth claims that are made are always made within a social and communal context. Likewise, those of us who try to assess them do so in social and communal contexts. In historical and religious matters, truth is social in character, and the apprehension of it is similarly social. Understanding the social dimensions of truth is important for critical readers of the Bible, just as it is important to understand the historical and literary dimensions of biblical texts and their interpretation.

Many will not be pleased by this approach, but to me it is the only honest way to go. For example, you will see if you visit that lectionary linked in the first paragraph that I am at the moment reading The Book of Exodus, one of the most obvious features of which is that it could not possibly have been written by Moses. Another obvious feature is that the “history” in the book is clearly in the realm of legend, with elements of myth. So you can’t say the Exodus didn’t happen, but you can say it didn’t happen in the in fact various ways it is recounted in Exodus. Wikipedia (for all that it gets bagged) actually reviews this rather well: The Exodus.

If you wish to clarify what myth, legend, and/or folktale actually mean, see Michael Webster’s course material Frequently Asked Questions about Mythology.

It is clear too that when subjected to moral critique Exodus can be decidedly discomforting. There are all sorts of things, what Bishop Spong memorably calls “the sins of scripture”, that Biblical literalists gloss over. (Don’t think the Qu’ran will help, by the way; it is very much in the literalist camp when it comes to its references to Exodus. Not at all surprising in the Qu’ran’s human and cultural context of course.)

Nonetheless, as archetypes Exodus and The Exodus are profoundly inspiring. That is what they still have to offer. Oh yes, and it is a good story, and one which anyone in our culture really should know.

bullock-dray-02.jpg

Bullocky

Beside his heavy-shouldered team
thirsty with drought and chilled with rain,
he weathered all the striding years
till they ran widdershins in his brain:

Till the long solitary tracks
etched deeper with each lurching load
were populous before his eyes,
and fiends and angels used this road.

All the long straining journey grew
a mad apocalyptic dream,
and he old Moses, and the slaves
his suffering and stubborn team.

Then in his evening camp beneath
the half-light pillars of the trees
he filled the steepled cone of night
with shouted prayers and prophecies.

While past the campfire’s crimson ring
the star struck darkness cupped him round.
and centuries of cattle-bells
rang with their sweet uneasy sound.

Grass is across the wagon-tracks,
and plough strikes bone across the grass,
and vineyards cover all the slopes
where the dead teams were used to pass.

O vine, grow close upon that bone
and hold it with your rooted hand.
The prophet Moses feeds the grape,
and fruitful is the Promised Land.

— Judith Wright (1915-2000)

I still love that poem; technically it is almost perfect, in my humble opinion. But it was written in the 1940s, and looking at it through the allusions to Exodus one can’t help wondering about the Amalekites, Canaanites, and so on… Judith Wright herself certainly did, and “put a block on some of [her] poems being anthologised: poems like ‘Bullocky’” later on in life.

Reconciliation isn’t a word I like. It’s about the only word, unfortunately, that fits. But they, I think, have more of a problem reconciling with us because we are the ones who did the deed. And the fact that they can do this speaks very highly indeed for their own capacities for forgiveness and understanding. We don’t have that. That’s because we do have this problem in ourselves: a kind of guilt that stands in the way of understanding. That is a very important part of our development as a people, and until we come into a proper relationship with the Indigenous peoples, we can’t be in a proper relationship with ourselves.

Ramona Koval: You put a block on some of your poems being anthologised: poems like ‘Bullocky’. Was this related to the matter of Aboriginal-white history and reconciliation?

Judith Wright: Yes, in a way it was. That poem came from the nationalist era in which I was only able to write from a white point of view. Now that I can see what that has done to us, I refuse to allow Bullocky to be anthologised any longer because of the way it got taught. It’s a perfectly good poem in itself, I still stand by it as a poem. But it was being used in a way I disapproved of. And the funny thing was, of course, that there were teachers who wrote to me in a fury: ‘You can’t do this. It’s not possible for you to do this. We’ve been teaching it this way for so long.’ They were teaching it as though it was an aggrandisement of the whole invasion. And it was a very bad example of bad teaching of poetry. The only thing I could do was to argue that it shouldn’t be put into anthologies at all. And that, I think I kept to fairly well. It was a great illumination to me of how poems can be misinterpreted simply because the idea is opposite to what they should be.

Interesting.

2022: I still value Bible reading, among other readings, and have a range of translations as actual books or in my eBook Library on Calibre. I have not persisted however with that particular lectionary.

There you are — just THREE posts from my blog for April 2007! And some indications of later developments…