Go West, young man

BlueHighways

I was headed out down a long bone-white road, straight as a string and smooth as glass and glittering and wavering in the heat and humming under the tires like a plucked nerve. I was doing seventy-five but I never seemed to catch up with the pool that seemed to be over the road just this side of the horizon. Then, after a while, the sun was in my eyes, for I was driving west. So I pulled the sun screen down and squinted and put the throttle to the floor. And kept on moving west. For West is where we all plan to go someday. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: ‘Flee, all is discovered.’ It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.
It was just where I went.”

Robert Penn Warren [1946]: All the King’s Men.  Harcourt, Brace and Company.

RIP: Natalia Gorbanevskaya

The death occurred last month of Natalia Gorbanevskaya (1936-2013, pictured in 1967), Russian poet and Soviet dissident, and one of the Moscow Seven, brave opponents of the occupation by forces of the Warsaw Pact of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.  From 1975 she lived in exile, initially in Israel and then in France.  For most of this time she was stateless, and did not have a passport until 2006, when granted Polish citizenship.   As in the 19th century, Russia disowns its best and brightest children.  The Economist has an obituary here.
There was more than this one protest against the invasion, with over 200 people involved in protests elsewhere in the USSR and across the Eastern Bloc.  A list of 160 Soviet protesters against the invasion, prepared by Memorial, is here.  The courage of the Moscow Seven and these others has been recognized by the Czech Republic, but not yet by the Russian Federation.   Indeed, Russia has still to apologize to Czechslovakia for the invasion.
From Gorbanevskaya’s poetry (translation by Daniel Weissbort):

The crime has not yet been expunged,
the hour of truth has not yet struck.
logs in the stove still ticking over,
although the fire’s already out.

Poem: Poem VI

A poem by Derek Jarman (1942-1994), written in 1965:

Poem VI
The days are numbered,
For us, and the old man
collecting pennies under
the bridge.
For he is in disguise
and has attended the concert –
before us,
But now he plays his
violin in a way which
demands our sympathy.

(From Sketchbooks, reprinted in The Observer Magazine, 2013-08-25, page 25).
Previous poems here.

Poem: Cape Cod

A poem by George Santayana.
Cape Cod
The low sandy beach and the thin scrub pine,
The wide reach of bay and the long sky line,—
      O, I am sick for home!
The salt, salt smell of the thick sea air,
And the smooth round stones that the ebbtides wear,—
      When will the good ship come?
The wretched stumps all charred and burned,
And the deep soft rut where the cartwheel turned,—
      Why is the world so old?
The lapping wave, and the broad gray sky
Where the cawing crows and the slow gulls fly,
      Where are the dead untold?
The thin, slant willows by the flooded bog,
The huge stranded hulk and the floating log,
      Sorrow with life began!
And among the dark pines, and along the flat shore,
O the wind, and the wind, for evermore!
      What will become of man?

Poem: The Old Bush School

This poem is by John O’Brien, the pen-name of Fr. Patrick Hartigan (1878-1952), a Catholic priest who wrote about bush life in New South Wales last century.   His ADB entry is here, and he is commemorated with an annual festival at Narrendera.  This poem is memorable for the line:  “And a nickname fitting better than the name their mothers gave”.
 

The Old Bush School
‘Tis a queer, old battered landmark that belongs to other years;
With the dog-leg fence around it, and its hat about its ears,
And the cow-bell in the gum-tree, and the bucket on the stool,
There’s a motley host of memories round that old bush school –
With its seedy desks and benches, where at least I left a name
Carved in agricultural letters – ’twas my only bid for fame;
And the spider-haunted ceilings, and the rafters, firmly set,
Lined with darts of nibs and paper (doubtless sticking in them yet),
And the greasy slates and blackboards, where I oft was proved a fool
And a blur upon the scutcheon of the old bush school.
There I see the boots in order – “‘lastic-sides” we used to wear –
With a pair of “everlastin’s” cracked and dustry here and there;
And we marched with great “high action” – hands behind and eyes before –
While we murdered “Swanee River” as we tramped around the floor.
Still the scholars pass before me with their freckled features grave,
And a nickname fitting better than the name their mothers gave;
Tousled hair and vacant faces, and their garments every one
Shabby heirlooms in the family, handed down from sire to son.
Ay, and mine were patched in places, and half-masted, as a rule –
They were fashionable trousers at the old bush school.
There I trudged it from the Three-mile, like a patient, toiling brute,
With a stocking round my ankle, and my heart within my boot,
Morgan, Nell and Michael Joseph, Jim and Mary, Kate and Mart
Tramping down the sheep-track with me, little rebels at the heart;
Shivery grasses round about us nodding bonnets in the breeze,
Happy Jacks and Twelve Apostles hurdle-racing up the trees,
Peewees calling from the gullies, living wonders in the pool –
Hard bare seats and drab gray humdrum at the old bush school.
Early rising in the half-light, when the morn came, bleak and chill;
For the little mother roused us ere the sun had topped the hill,
“Up, you children, late ’tis gettin’.” Shook the house beneath her knock,
And she wasn’t always truthful, and she tampered with the clock.
Keen she was about “the learnin’,” and she told us o’er and o’er
Of our luck to have “the schoolin”‘ right against our very door.
And the lectures – Oh, those lectures to our stony hearts addressed!
“Don’t he mixin’ with the Regans and the Ryans and the rest” –
“Don’t be pickin’ up with Carey’s little talkative kanats” –
Well, she had us almost thinking we were born aristocrats.
But we found our level early – in disaster, as a rule –
For they knocked “the notions” sideways at the old bush school.
Down the road came Laughing Mary, and the beast that she bestrode
Was Maloney’s sorry piebald she had found beside the road;
Straight we scrambled up behind her, and as many as could fit
Clung like circus riders bare-back without bridle-rein or bit,
On that corrugated backbone in a merry row we sat –
We propelled him with our school-bags; Mary steered him with her hat –
And we rolled the road behind us like a ribbon from the spool,
“Making butter,” so we called it, to the old bush school.
What a girl was Mary Casey in the days of long ago!
She was queen among the scholars, or at least we thought her so;
She was first in every mischief and, when overwhelmed by fate,
She could make delightful drawings of the teacher on her slate.
There was rhythm in every movement, as she gaily passed along
With a rippling laugh that lilted like the music of a song;
So we called her “Laughing Mary,” and a fitful fancy blessed
E’en the bashful little daisies that her dainty feet caressed.
She had cheeks like native roses in the fullness of their bloom,
And she used to sing the sweetest as we marched around the room;
In her eyes there lurked the magic, maiden freshness of the morn,
In her hair the haunting colour I had seen upon the corn;
Round her danced the happy sunshine when she smiled upon the stool –
And I used to swap her dinners at the old bush school.
Hard the cobbled road of knowledge to the feet of him who plods
After fragile fragments fallen from the workshop of the gods;
Long the quest, and ever thieving pass the pedlars o’er the hill
With the treasures in their bundles, but to leave us questing still.
Mystic fires horizons redden, but each crimson flash in turn
Only lights the empty places in the bracken and the fern;
So in after years I’ve proved it, spite of pedant, crank, and fool,
Very much the way I found it at the old bush school.

Poem: Up-Hill

Posting The Lost Man by Judith Wright yesterday reminded me of another poem about the journey of life:   Up-Hill, by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), sister of the pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  This poem was first published in 1861.

Up-Hill
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yes, beds for all who come.

Poem: The Lost Man

Judith Wright’s poem, The Lost Man, was written about James Guthrie Westray, a survivor of the crash of the Stinson in the McPherson ranges of SE Queensland in 1937, who died after falling over a waterfall when hacking through the jungle to seek help.   The “gold bird dancing” refers to the aircraft, although the poem may also be read as a description of our journey through life.  The religious allusions, including the pun in the last line, are immensely powerful. This poem has been set to music by Ross Edwards.

The Lost Man
To reach the pool you must go through the rain-forest –
through the bewildering midsummer of darkness
lit with ancient fern,
laced with poison and thorn.
You must go by the way he went – the way of the bleeding
hands and feet, the blood on the stones like flowers,
under the hooded flowers
that fall on the stones like blood.
To reach the pool you must go by the black valley
among the crowded columns made of silence,
under the hanging clouds
of leaves and voiceless birds.
To go by the way he went to the voice of the water,
where the priest stinging-tree waits with his whips and fevers
under the hooded flowers
that fall from the trees like blood,
you must forget the song of the gold bird dancing
over tossed light; you must remember nothing
except the drag of darkness
that draws your weakness under.
To go by the way he went, you must find beneath you
that last and faceless pool, and fall.  And falling
find between breath and death
the sun by which you live.

 
Photo:   A pool on the Stinson Walk, Lamington Ranges National Park, Queensland.  Credit:  Life Cycle.

Ein Deutsche Hamlet

Earlier this month, I caught Schaubuhne Berlin’s Hamlet at the Barbican London.  What an amazing ride!  This was Hamlet as a comedy – contemporary, knowing, witty, and alive.   I imagine the experience is the closest we could come to a modern version of the experience that Shakespeare’s own audience would have had.  The play was presented in German (mostly), with English surtitles.

The performance began with the words from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, ending with “and perchance to dream”.  Was all that followed, then, a dream?   We were confronted with grainy, silent black and white images of people in dark formal dress, like newsreels of pre-war Eastern Europeans.  Again, was this a deliberate allusion, perhaps a reminder of the last time we all were happy innocents prior to a great crime.   Only after some time did we realize that the film we were seeing was not some collection of past newsreels, but live shots of the actors at the back of the stage, taken by young Hamlet wielding a hand-held video camera.

The first scene of the play then was the burial of old Hamlet, with lots of theatrical dirt and hose-pipe rain.    The dirt and often the rain were present throughout the performance, like some muck that stuck to everyone regardless of how often they cleaned it off.  The funeral degenerated into farce, and then the real fun began: the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude was presented as a typical Balkan wedding, with kitschy music, belly dancing, drunken announcers, and even  –  a very funny touch of realism here – someone firing off a machine gun.  We learn this was Laertes!

Much of the humour, in the German theatrical tradition perhaps, was slapstick and not to my taste.  Why did Hamlet have to wear a fatsuit, for example?   Some of the humour, however, was witty and clever.  Three times the actors turned to the audience, the house lights going up, and we then became part of the action.  The best of these times was during the late soliloquy of Claudius (Act 3, scene 3) – when he seems to confess:  “O my offence is rank, it smells to Heaven.”  Claudius played this scene as an episode of a Jerry Springer show, coming down as the compere into the audience to ask our opinions of the offence.

Several times, too, the actors pretended to lose their place or forget their words (in German), so looked up to the English surtitles to see what they should be saying next.  Similarly, great fun was had when the court was informed that Hamlet intended to stage a play.  Well, Claudius was informed, not so much a play as a theatre-piece (“theaterstuck”); Claudius repeated this word with all the disdain one can imagine a man of his age and class having for avant-garde theatre.  This was very funny.   Even the final death scene, although mostly serious, was played for laughs, with all us knowing that it was an act and not for real.

Because the cast was small (six actors), there was much doubling.   A different coloured wig transformed Gertrude to Ophelia, and the transformation of the actress, Judith Rosmair, from a middle-aged, Jacqueline Kennedy-lookalike  to teenage girl was immensely convincing.  Her voice, her words, her stance, her mannerisms, her movements – all changed, and instantly.  And how clever to allude to Mrs Kennedy-Onassis when portraying Gertrude!  Hamlet was played by Lars Eidinger.

This was “Hamlet” done brilliantly, original and thought-provoking.   And immensely funny.   Superb!
Any earlier review of the Berlin production is here.  And a Liverpudlian blog devoted to Hamlet is here.
(HT: Benjamin Leitch.)

Shakespeare's cousins

I have remarked before that whoever wrote William Shakespeare’s plays and poetry was deeply familiar with the poetry and prose of Robert Southwell SJ, and had access to Southwell’s works in manuscript form.  We know this because most of Southwell’s output was only published after his execution in 1595, and Shakespeare’s poetry shows Southwell’s influence well before this date.
Shakespeare and Southwell were cousins, and both were also cousins to Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron and the likely dedicatee of the Sonnets.  John Klause, in his fine book tracing the influence of Southwell’s writing on Shakespeare’s own words, includes a family tree showing the family connections between these three Elizabethans.  I reproduce some of the tree below, copied from page 40 of Klause’s book.   Southwell’s mother, Bridget Copley, was a governess to the young Princess Elizabeth, so the connections to the royal family were close.
In addition, Southwell and Shakespeare were also connected through the Vaux and Throckmorton families (Devlin has another family tree, page 264).   And the family connection between Southwell and Wriothesley was in fact closer than Klause’s tree indicates. Southwell’s eldest brother Richard married Alice Cornwallis, a niece of Henry Wriothesley senior, second Earl of Southampton and the third Earl’s father, and Southwell’s eldest sister Elizabeth married a nephew of the same second earl, a son of Margaret Wriothesley and Michael Lister.  Thus, Robert Southwell was twice a second cousin by marriage to Henry Wriothesley junior, third Earl (Devlin tree, p. 15).

References:
Christopher Devlin [1956]: The Life of Robert Southwell: Poet and Martyr.  New York, NY, USA:  Farrar, Straus and Cudahy.
John Klause [2008]: Shakespeare, the Earl, and the Jesuit. Teaneck, NJ, USA: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Connections, south of my days

I have previously posted Judith Wright’s famous poem South of My Days, here.  For anyone growing up in rural eastern Australia, this poem with its stories of the great cattle droves of the late 19th and early 20th century resonates.
The SMH recently carried an obituary for John Atkinson (1940-2011), a mechanical engineering lecturer at Sydney University and member of the Matherati.  Atkinson’s mother, Gwen Wilkins, had been a university friend of Judith Wright (1915-2000) at Sydney University in the 1930s.  Atkinson’s father Tom managed a cattle station in Southern Queensland for Wright’s father, Phillip, and Judith apparently introduced Atkinson’s parents to each other.
This long-ago connection of farming families reminded me of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Stinson aircrash in the remote and treacherous sub-tropical jungles of the Lamington Ranges National Park in Southern Queensland in February 1937, a commemoration I attended.  The crash was the occasion of a famous rescue by bushman, Bernard O’Reilly, trekking alone on a hunch, recounted on the O’Reilly Guest House site here.  My father, with me that day in 1987, was surprised to encounter a work colleague also present.  It turned out that the O’Reilly family had farmed in the Kanimbla Valley in the Blue Mountains in central NSW, on a property adjoining my father’s colleague’s family property, before moving up to the McPherson Ranges in 1911.  Despite the distance (about 600 miles) and the remoteness of both locations, the two families had kept in touch through the intervening 76 years, with each new generation becoming friends.

O’Reilly wrote a famous book about his pioneering bush experiences and the Stinson rescue.  Among those I met that day were members of the rescue party that O’Reilly gathered together in 1937.
POSTSCRIPT (2011-12-23):  I remembered that Judith Wright wrote a poem about James Westray, who initially survived the Stinson crash, a poem I have posted here.
 
References:
Bernard O’Reilly [1940]:  Green Mountains.  Brisbane, Australia.
The report and documents of the official Queensland Government Inquest into the Stinson crash are here.
A remembrance of John Atkinson by a bush-walking friend is here.  Apparently, Dr Atkinson drowned in the surf.