By DAVID ROWBOTHAM
A selection of David Rowbotham's Poems, written in the author's 70s, and published by The Australian newspaper June 1998-June 2001
The most recent of David Rowbotham's poems which The Australian has accepted, "The Revenge of Carthage" has now been placed first on this webpage because it marks the poet's continuing appearance, in his 77th year, in national newspapers and journals. His big dramatic poem, "After the First Great War", based on the Trojan story, will appear in Southerly magazine, Sydney University, in December 2001. His publishing history covers more than 60 years. On retirement from company journalism in 1987, David Rowbotham kept on writing prolifically despite the illness that forced his departure. He is the oldest poet, author and journalist still practising in Australia, and holds many honours, offices and prizes. He remains an inspiring presence to other writers; and now has a younger generation of readers.The links on his website indicate the extensive work in prose and verse that he has done since the vital postwar years when, as a veteran, he played an important role as one of a group of new Australian writers who provided a renaissance in Australian literature. He still writes in the same Queensland house which he and his wife have occupied for 28 years.
The Great Depression
I must craft what I can to remake what her pedalled
drilled for, cloth mastered by a machine.
The woman was a humdinger.
So whenever I watch her working by the wood-stove I see
my mother the dressmaker an empress of clothes
as rich as the primrose bee.
Neighbours for miles around lined up to be measured
for a few worn shillings carefully treasured
by the dresser, who scrubbed floors too.
Her hands: as gnarled as my father’s who worked in the
he planted dynamite on the dole,
he spaded dirt, his soul
revolted and broke. He also was a humdinger.
Cloth and dirt. Cloth and dirt.
But hummed away the Singer.
And nightly on the wash-house bench, Thump!
went a bootmaker’s hammer, repairing the man,
and neighbour’s shoes for shillings.
They were young, and I the bewildered one who knelt
at their knees for stories they heard when as young,
and for songs, for they were singers.
Cloth and dirt. Cloth and dirt. And the times
to conquer. They walked me amongst the wattle
and fought to win me the battle.
The wounds they suffered taught me the craft of cloth
and the scrub of floors and the use of hammer
and spade, and they were remade
in me, the boy who sold clubbed vermin in old
tobacco tins to council men
for pennies: penury, for a child.
But none sang of this on summernights of laughter
where singing neighbours sat down before
the stars were crossed; nor after.
Cloth and dirt, cloth and dirt and vermin
till the boy was taken by the war.
Left dumb, were the man and woman.
* Note: In my country-town childhood, rats and sparrows were lumped together as vermin, and the council paid for the extinction of both, as possible carriers of the dreaded polio that struck down thousands of children
(The Australian’s Review of Books, June 10, 1998. The appearance of this poem galvanised public interest in poetry in the ARB. The editor of the day, Kate Legge, reported “a huge response” from staff, the reading public, and other poets. The author received letters and phone calls from cities along the East Coast, ranging from North Queensland to Tasmania.)
I saw a lame man running down a hill
of snipers and as he ran he stumbled and fell
but would grab at a tree to haul himself up again,
and keep running till he reached the armoured plain
where the rest waited and shot him just the same.
He stood, then stumbled and fell for the last time,
where the running strongest were the turreted ones
among helmets that could have done with them as friends.
The day was a sound of tanks and running guns,
and sputtering fire from the remnants that mark ends.
In the blaze of a shot-down heaven, the day was a hell
scorching an armoured plain and a snipers’ hill;
and the day was full of running; the day was full
of men running nowhere into the muzzles of guns.
(The Weekend Australian Review, New Year, 1999)
THE GRAVE OF AN UNKNOWN SOLDIER
AND THE GARDEN OF ARLINGTON
The garden of Arlington brings me to my own
grave among wounded gums and broken stone.
Not knowing whom, I served with some of these sons
from mayday coral to the nightmare Solomons
where hell came down on bravado. Everyone prayed
to Mum. The ships’ guns threw flames of smoke
into seas and coastlines bleeding green, and laid
down perimeters for the condemned to take again
the conquered islands. The carnage? Thank God you spoke.
Trenches swaddled the green dead who spaded in,
and many of these you must imagine here
among the shade of trees that stand in state
and want to shelter them - too late - with a great
camouflage: the green leaves of Arlington
in a soft and amber fall; and in the garden
Armageddon looks on them all with stillness
dug from a trench as deep as an unstaunched gun,
and I, the visitor, salute grave evergreen
and wounded gums that an unknown woman waits among.
(The Weekend Australian Review, October 9, 1999)
THE DEVIL OF THE PICNIC TREE
If seen from treetop level
the world is far enough away to kill you
with a fall. Be more careful than the bird.
Let the sky that is low yet as high in its flight still
with its colours, treeleaf-green, earthen-ware, and the
in the wind go by. Trust in the tree you heard;
and you heard it then. It holds me like an arm
in the same limb that holds you; I have been sent to save
for the climbs that are mine, and it is the world I
and all my pitfall ages, having survived
the devil of the picnic tree. The climbing is nearly
but I am assigned to be here to see that you
stay up, go on; else what shall I do with my shadow?
Even the falling shadows are ours from the picnic tree.
(The Weekend Australian Review, July 1, 2000)
LOG CABIN FEVER
Living is like honey licked from a thorn.
The log cabin that he built at Ebenezer,
booming Jerusalem into his beard, burnt down.
Into its ashes he hewed the heraldic one.
The snake among the hardwood slithered back.
In the burning bush that was my mother’s cradle
he’d made an enemy, the smouldering stake
of a mad hatter as hard to grasp as a snake.
With his quiet wife he killed the snake and raised
five sons and taught them how to build hard farms.
The war killed them as love had killed the snake,
with venom, and hid them where the poppy blooms
and grief grew its fatigue in landscaped stones.
Hidden years later the hatter slithered out of a tree
in his bones.
(The Weekend Australian Review, September 9 and September 30, 2000. The double publication has never been explained, but is unique in Australian literary history.)
“I thought I’d give him something else
in the middle of his meal to think about.”
The year no autum fell she walked
snowblind by the Black Hills of Dakota
into the bear that rose and cuffed her.
The blow scalped her, and raked her face,
taking away an eye, leaving her
afterwards manlessly alive,
hardly able to speak.
The bear embracing fell on her
in snow that cushioned them both, and began
to eat. Dying, she played dead.
Not minding, he kept munching.
Any witness would have seen
the most fearsome of winter beasts lunching.
Opening one eye she looked at him.
Puzzled he paused and returned the look.
Then raising her only useful hand
she gave his nose a tweak.
Twice puzzled, upright he beat a retreat
hind backwards, his intelligence challenged, changed,
his view of her as prey surprised.
His mind, enormously engaged
by its alteration exercised,
made him so suspicious that he stood
watching her, swaying, and growled
when calmly she aimed at his grizzly snout
the sign of a finger up yours
buster. He roared and lumbered off, fast,
mighty, but amazed by a not uncommon
tuck in he could not take.
When, restored, she told her story,
her head encased in plate, one cheek
half grafted with surgeon’s plastic, a black
patch for a Spanish eye guzzled,
and for an arm and hand prothesis,
her brown disfigured beauty brought
listening men to a pitch of lust,
the flesh of this maimed woman who thought
to die the year no autumn fell
was so desirable. One
by one they fell on her, and nuzzled,
till she chose to give them something else
in the middle of their meal to think about.
Watching, they rose, stood swaying, like bears
around her marvellous body, twice puzzled,
finally beating a retreat, suspicious,
because she tweaked their noses.
(Sixtieth Anniversary Issue of Southerly Magazine, University of Sydney, October 1999.)
* In the two-year period stated above, more than 100 new poems were written, from which a new book, tentatively entitled "Pacific Star", has been compiled. The volume is awaiting publication.