DAVID ROWBOTHAM - WAR POEMS AND REVIEWS
WAR POEMS by David Rowbotham
("After The First Great War" is the Key Poem)
AFTER THE FIRST GREAT WAR, c.1270-1260BC
Greek against Trojan,
caused by the Judgment of Paris,
Shepherd-Prince of Troy,
his fatal prize, Helen of Sparta
Written after reading “Ulysses” in David Malouf’s Untold Tales.
In the days when apparitions walked,
when gods and graces took human form
and figured human faith,
feared and undying and mighty on the earth,
they were the gift of logfire’s kingdom come.
Rapt minstrels with hexameters and harps
composed royal mountains in Spartan halls
and bestowed the warmth of walls.
Always let blind Homer in;
his is the harp of the seraphim.
Whoever dreamed in Ilium,
when a shepherd’s father banished him,
that the summer of Troy would still be doomed?
With his crook and his pipes among the rocks
in the sun with hexameters slept the pawn,
while robed with luminous beauty
the blood of the world came on.
The rustle of fate on fire was as crisp as love
at his throat, and he woke too aware to move
or be warned what Olympus had done.
These three came and stood in a smile
among the sheep, my exile,
festooned with Europe and Asia, with the bribes and
estates of myth,
and with Greece the vessel of myth,
and the wife of Sparta I had to steal;
and it seemed that, when I stole her,
I had stolen them all.
I fled to my father’s golden wall
as the fleets of revenge drew Greece about
like a swarm to a swarm to choke two kingdoms out.
Now row after row, gods gaze on gods.
From helmeted hills and lion gates like prides
no glory in any sword goes home
on the swollen plains of Ilium.
The war is dying now.
Put me on earth again, he said,
Ulysses that sad king, and make me a slave
in the house of the humblest man,
not high ruler of all these dead
vigors of the Islands the vultures have.
To my cave in the summit of a book
plunging to the speechless carriageways I took
that are dumb to time and the tale of every lord
of heroes dying now,
Paris, dismembered, comes fumbling to be restored;
and maims the same events.
Above roofs fabulous for no fables
armies in the carnage of the word
bleed epics into Trojan squabbles;
and conundrum with a poleaxe walks among the tents.
To the cave in the sky the streetlamps fly
like pollen lit up by the night that blows
the walls of trumpets I blew at Troy
that are dying now,
their tale with Helen waxen in the winedark now:
and the war so long, Helen said,
Paris is just a shepherd of the dead;
and it sent home heroes no Ithaca knows,
among those dying now.
Nothing so old can save us now.
Nothing so far can be us now
nor anything so near see us now,
not even the patience of Penelope’s eyes
promising kingdoms for the sad king
in the cave in the skydark dying now;
dying in my judgment: that a war
would be worth this fairest star
the thousand ships were launched upon
dying now with an ebbing tongue
and a king too drowned to win back his ruined home.
To my cave in the sky the finest dust has come
from lotus kept for the honeycomb,
and from golden trumpets blown by Troys
and heroes dying now
the saddest thing I know.
Only as it dies can the story sing
Helen like the swan,
and the pollen of the lamps sets like wax
in the trumpet of the sullen pawn,
quartered and puzzled by the last poleaxe.
Time after time poets from their pitched camps
gaze at sung gods doomed on the dying roads
of an Ilium locked by ironrods;
and, launched at the hounding shadows, they too sing
saving the gods of the lamps.
To sing, so that these fall back - these
fangs in shadows that bay and snarl
against the littlest trespass
of a magic mountain in an uttered Muse -
is to seize guardian entry for the troubadour at the wall
who tells the legends as tales untold
withheld from the world as new;
when even Ulysses, whose blind dog old
and dying is the one live thing to know
his animal return, howls the warning that all wars hold.
And is it I who am dying now?
My witness lamp in my skyroom shivers
like kingdoms before they turn to ashes
in the heat of fangs or vulture leathers,
and his own howl chokes Ulysses,
a martyr to himself as broken vessels are
that figure all their power.
Human they inhabit the tapering hand
that my pen in the grace of a mountain tugs
like a sail that hangs on a poleaxe cutting logs.
Stories never stop when ships drift home,
and home like Troy is fallen,
nor after the death of the Tiber’s swan
to a galley’s arrow from a Spartan song,
stealing again my Helen - and Greece for the march of Rome.
USAGES: This poem belongs to David Malouf, whose Untold Tales convinced me the Trojan War had not before been used as such a modern metaphor for ultimate carnage and waste. I wanted just such a metaphor for a series of poems on war; so I used it, hoping the embezzlement would be accepted. As in Tennyson’s retelling of what happened “far on the ringing plains of windy Troy”, the poem uses the Roman name Ulysses for the Greek Odysseus, even though Homer, teller of the Iliad and Odyssey, was Greek. It uses Troy to refer to the city, and Ilium to refer to the kingdom of Troy. It observes the premise that the first Romans used the Greek gods and, renaming them and their places, took over Olympus, their home. It observes the common relevance to Greek and Roman myth of Europa’s Europe and Asia, offered as one of the bribes to Paris, son of Priam the king of Troy; and it makes way for an entertained notion that, after Troy, and in spite of Romulus, surviving Trojan joined with Greek to found Rome. The “cave in the sky” refers to a room by night in a hilltop house where the poem was written, overlooking an amateur town whose worthies hide from history, having none. -D.R.
(1) New And Selected Poems 1945-1993, by David Rowbotham, Penguin, reviewed by Manfred Jurgensen, The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, January 5, 1994.
This is an overwhelming collection by a major Australian poet whose art has never received the recognition it so richly deserves.
David Rowbotham’s New And Selected Poems generously illustrates the range and depth of his craft. It includes many of his best poems from the years 1945 to 1993, combining selections from eight previous volumes with new poems presented under the evocative title “Honey Licked from a Thorn”.
What makes Rowbotham’s poetry so powerful is its masterly combination of formal virtuosity and a passionate sensibility. No matter what its subject, the reader is profoundly moved by the poet’s sheer humanity and his compassionate love for all creation.
Rowbotham writes as a traveller “in retrospect and prospect” who knows that our “sight” is “informed of its coming blindness”.
An acute consciousness of mortality pervades most of his writing, not only in his later collections. The result is a profoundly poetic as well as spiritual awareness of the uniqueness of experience.
Places and objects, man and nature correlate and coincide to reveal an often unexpected oneness, a sense of belonging, a vision of possible meaning. Rowbotham is at his best in sharing the surprises, the challenges and the comforts of such discoveries.
“I urgently wanted to put down in words the country I came from, the Darling Downs, to which I might not have returned,” writes Rowbotham describing his early poetry immediately after his demoblisation in 1945.
There is a great deal of his native landscape in his verse, right up the recent poem Australian Scene 1938, and war remains ever present, haunting in its unresolved brutality but also as reminderof the possibility of survival.
Poems are to Rowbotham a “brief weapon of time”. The war is not over. At 70, it may not be surprising that the poet’s attention has been drawn more and more to death. In the final of his most recent poems he projects his own as a casualty of war, reconciling loss with belonging, despair and faith:
Make my last post, lest I forget,
sound on a sunset bugle
of a soldier in silhouette
who, in the realm of the grace of the real eagle,
shall lay down his song
and, giving it up, belong.
There seems to have been less faith in the recently demobilised poet.
Pray speak beauty.
But dust first spoke.
Rowbotham’s faith asserts itself graduallly, almost bashfully; yet evidence of its growth is to be found in all of his collections.
A key symbol of Rowbotham’s poetry is the “star in the universe”. He invokes a wide range of reference, from a poem about “pop stars” (Howl, stars! Hurl decibels) to the memorable First Man Lost in Space (I live with death, as with a star). In the end it is the imminent death of the earth star he is mourning.
The poet’s religious beliefs are hinted at in the celebratory plaint of perhaps his most moving lines: “And a great star is standing by. I have gone through the kingdom’s eye.” Rowbotham’s verse is mourning death.
If this is “conservative” poetry, it is the art of life. Rowbotham addresses himself to the great themes of human existence, and he does so with humility, grace and craftsmanship. A great many contemporary “poets” would do well to enter his apprenticeship.
Readers will find comfort and inspiration in Rowbotham’s writing, along with a keen eye for social and moral issues, a humane wit and (dare one say it) a love of country. This collection demonstrates Rowbotham’s clearly established status as a classical Australian poet.
- MANFRED JURGENSEN
(2) Essay on David Rowbotham, by David Myers, Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Central Queensland, Rockhampton, Australia. Originally the preface to Rowbotham’s recent publication, The Ebony Gates: New and Wayside Poems, Central Queensland Press, 1996.
David Rowbotham’s poetry forges a philosophically disturbing vision of the mind as a mirror-image of the world’s threatened civilizations. He creates haunting and sometimes almost adventurously defiant spirit-scapes where lesser poets would only see land-scapes. His poems take you – as Erich Heller once said – on a journey into the interior in a way that is seemingly effortless. His words and his vision are as fresh and as forceful as the brushstrokes of Vincent van Gogh and he penetrates into the menacing chaos of human evil as boldly as the late paintings of van Gogh once penetrated into the menacing chaos of nature.
These new and wayside poems by David Rowbotham roam the globe. But he begins (and ends) in his beloved hometown of Toowoomba. For his family and friends in this Queensland country town he has an enduring love which springs from his childhood and which has lasted all his life. His apostrophe to "The Farmer’s Wife" expresses his humble admiration for a way of life, a garden of Eden almost, from which he feels he has been rejected.
I shall never make an image
as she in teapot size,
brewed sleep in a steam of sunshine
below the lupins of her eyes.
But once he begins his journey through history and myth and around the globe, he seems overwhelmed by pessimism and uncertainty. His mistrust of a new world of hi tech is leavened with some bemused humour in his poem about “the town that went to war with the computer”:
The whole bush was deleted by a genocidal touch
that wiped me from the map; for the town was mine.
I blinked and the lot blew up.
His odyssey takes him across the Pacific to Hawaii, to Berkeley, the Mississippi and Minnesota, to war-torn Europe and the fire-bombing of Dresden, on to the Aeolian Isles, unexpectedly to Japan’s shinto shrines, and finally to the ebony gates of Scheherazade. Rowbotham is by his very nature an intercultural poet of the globe embarked on a voyage of discovery. The epigraph which he has chosen from Heredia is fittingly that of a voyager-discoverer who sees “new stars climb from the depths of the ocean into an unknown sky”.
He evokes the 1906 San Francisco earthquake with a disturbing image which typifies the ever new threats and dreads that confront the voyager:
The pain of gravity in a maelstrom
centripetal to the planet’s core;
and the dragon’s jagged mouth grows dumb.
His poems are rich in love and generous in admiraton. Countering the pessimism which he feels from his study of human history is a sinuously sad humour at the human lot. His hatred of totalitarian ideologies and of the power-drunk warmongers of history is not counter-balanced by religious faith. Indeed Rowbotham is almost jauntily blasphemous in his vision of the apocalypse:
I believe in God the Father
of the Continental Drift...
faith goes down in the ocean
and earth’s last man is left adrift
like a waterlogged mariner on a mast,
and the continents sail past.
The true spiritual consolation which Rowbotham offers is homely, rural and almost maternal, and very appropriately is cast in traditional folk-stanzas of four simple lines:
You climbed among my branches.
You plucked my fruit of gold,
still full of sweet tasting
now you are old.
I am the grave you come to,
and you shall sleep in me
the sleep of the brave and the living,
for I am the great tree.
But many of Rowbotham’s poems show none of this spirit of consolation and belonging and some of the poems do not yield up their meaning easily. They invite re-reading and pondering, and the reader is provoked, particularly by the puzzling syntax and the unexpected conjunction of images and allusions. I felt that I had been verbally lured into the unsettling and original chaos-world of the poet-thinker, and no matter how agitated I became, there was no easy door marked Exit by which I could escape.
The climax of this collection is the long poem “Scheherazade”, written as an apostrophe to Scheherazade, the archetype of the story-teller and the poet. She is Rowbotham’s ultimate inspiration, his haunting shade who always demands more of him and his poetry and defines the rifts that fracture the world:
Her resolved voice
bargaining conjured and sent me forth to fight
serpents inside the ebony gates, and isles
of shipwrecks as gigantic as her unflinching wit.
I am the mariner of her marooned smiles.
David Rowbotham has given his life to poetry. His life is in that poetry and it is rich in romance, daring and determination, but rich also in despair and the love that lies beyond despair. His final poem, “More Powerful than the Living”, which he wrote even while this collection was being typeset for publication, is both a haunting lament for our failure to communicate our love in our lifetime, and a triumphant hymn to the power of love to bring grace and solace from beyond the tomb of the mountain to the wanting hearts of the living:
But more powerful than the living,
and more sacred, are the dead,
with whom, when we were living,
so much was left unsaid.
David Rowbotham’s poems express the deeper emotions which we find safer to repress or to suffocate with the pollution of our shallow egoism and our daily trivia.
- DAVID MYERS
Professor of Comparative Literature
Central Queensland University
19 June 1996
Preface to THE EBONY GATES: New and Wayside Poems (Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton, 1996)
(3) Critique of Penguin Book of New and Selected Poems: David Rowbotham 1945-1943 (Penguin Australia, 1994), by Martin Duwell, The Australian, National Review, 1994.
David Rowbotham is one of Australia’s most neglected poets. He does not appear in any of the three recent major anthologies and is rarely given much space in surveys. He began being published in The Bulletin after the war. He was not the kind of writer you needed to read in the late 60s and early 70s. But there is a good chance that this Selected Poems will re-establish him as a poet of real achievement.
I hope so. It is a fascinating book, encompassing changes of style but retaining a distinctive voice: a mix of courtliness and hesitancy, of humility and a strong (sometimes perhaps slightly shrill) assertion of self-worth.
Rowbotham’s early poetry (up to the end of the 60s) seems to be a balancing of desires to write about his rural place of origin (often by documenting lives) and a desire to move inwards, towards an understanding of an inner life.
He says as much in the title poem of the 1971 book The Pen Of Feathers (which I see as the last poem of the first half of Rowbotham’s career). Although it is not included in this selection and may be a little awkwardly confessional, it has an authentic Rowbothamish tone to it, that mixture of hesitancy and pride that comes out in a style that is once high and homely.
When you take notice or my words take hold,
today, later, tomorrows out of of sight,
allow that I kept an individual flight...
My symbol, if I deserve one, would be shoes.
This is a lovely reference to his father’s occupation of “solemn mender of shoes” (it is also the occupation of the whole Rowbotham clan of antecedents). It also highlights the sense of his poetry always being in a state of tension between polarities, both of which have to be visited on well-worn shoe leather.
Oppositions abound. Even the titles of his early books were obsessed with them – Town And City, Ploughman And Poet, Bungalow And Hurricane.
I read somewhere that his preferred title for one of these was Farmers Of Ourselves.
Perhaps it would not have been a very good title, but it nicely demonstrates the inner and outer worlds of these early books as well as the poet’s desire to unite them.
By now, most of these early poems have not lasted well, but it is worth pointing out in passing that both the favourable and unfavourable critical treatment they received, with its pompous tone and its manic obsession with form, has lasted a good deal worse.
It is another reminder that there is a certain kind of good poet who should never accept a critic’s opinion except in trivial things.
The poems of the inner life which seem, as the early poetry progresses, to be declining into a cryptic mysticism are, paradoxically, the ones that prepare the way for Rowbotham’s later career. This is probably because the self, so rich in learned perspectives, turns out to be the best springboard for poetic expansion.
One of the ways it does this is by allowing travel to widen the geographical perspectives. The humble Darling Downs is replaced by the Pacific in Letter To Jean Chapalain (from the book Mighty Like A Harp).
As far as one can tell, it is a breakthrough poem, a poem that introduces a less tight-lipped idiom and a tendency to aim for large rhetorical statements:
None of us survive for long
the blown imminence of rippling death.
At the same time, Rowbotham’s sense of the perspective of his own life becomes clearer and he is able to write poems about, for example, his war experiences.
He seems sensitive to the way in which our lives can be determined and shaped by odd early events, so that only from a perspective of age do those experiences not so much make sense as assume their rightful centrality.
The tension that drives these last three books, Mighty Like A Harp, Maydays and Honey Licked From A Thorn, is no longer inner versus outer, but great versus small. The emphasis is on perspective, and this note is sounded in the first poem selected from Mighty Like A Harp.
This, my first wren, is the first still.
As a boy I gathered it up
to flutter in my heart; and Brooklyn Bridge
is mighty like a harp.
All in all, New And Selected Poems:1945-1993 is such a surprise that it leaves you a bit breathless. It documents a career which grows from inside and which increases in significance as it expands and develops its own momentum and coherence.
- MARTIN DUWELL
BRIMSTONE BUTTERFLY LADY
They are like the war dead.
They are falling every day.
They are going missing, going
They are like another city.
They are the roofs of Cairo
made of the lost and brought down
at rest Arab man.
They are like the lilypad
and the booming Yosemite lake
where a petal’s overturning
into the noose of an eagle’s gosling eye.
And graves and roofs come into the lake
till it hangs like a black claw dangling
wet beige sand waste that birds like kites of hunger swallow,
and that’s the war dead’s pillow.
On a beautiful shore
in the sweet by-and-by,
sing the congregations of yearning,
unready for the mangling mirage:
like drained gothic glass that splinters and sinks
fatigued impossible saints of Cologne, brimstone
and stares us out: and we gather conquered at the
going never ready.
Scene: artesian, with a windmill sun.
From the church there was a locust swarm of ringing
like smoke beginning,
and the through road looked
as if it ought to halt;
somebody might want saving.
The town rolled over and dozed on.
Don’t interrupt my Sunday.
From what we know about Monday
on the metal road that smoked
with scorched bells and bungalows
and the whole Shebang upheaving
with the day before that burnt it down,
it was another road’s fault.
The scene: windowboxes of Greenwich rose.
Plague Manhattan gobbled a fuse.
Along the road that Sunday
a little man went walking
with an invisible wife,
and walked backwards into the tomahawking
battery that gave in to the coloured beads
of powwow then walked off
into the cave stopwatches save.
Don’t interfere with our life.
Invisible like his wife next Monday
oneday he’ll know he needs
from the road that runs like a hunting knife
through dozings-on where the same plague rang,
the littlest shadow nothing gives Shebang.
THE BRIDE OF GREENWICH TIME
The Greenwich morning that you married a pauper and put
money in his hands, was something he forgot.
Flax in the fields and the meadowlark of Ely
together sounded warning with calamitous beauty
and the tenor bells in the steeple passed it on,
clapping the air: Now Look What You’ve Done.
But all the same the ribboned car was there
to carry you away, your transport to care
in the arms of your own poor prince of Troy and siege,
of flax in the fields and the meadowlark at large.
It was a time that you would never forget.
It was a time that you would grow old to regret.
It was your Greenwich time of withheld dividends
once he knew that he held you, like money in his hands.
Seldom the words the scene,
and seldom the words the man,
but he swings his scythe like a sworded quill
at lightning that flicks like flying glass
the summit of Fuji-san.
Let them, as Shinto unsheaths itself to shine,
be spring, cave, and scooped crevasse,
and spell out all the samurai dead
climbing along an erupting line
to a gong of golden brass.
To see these words as a mountain, sleep
at the mountain’s knee, gaze up
at perfect miles of aspiring snow
that the ages make profound;
and mourn the samurai.
Perfection carved them, with swords scything
over the Fuji-shrine till steel
struck steel and lightning; and nothing
so exalted as the snowdumb mass
of the god of the gong of the golden brass.
In a jungle of slaughter and mistakes,
of scythes and swords and absent gods,
what I heard were a man’s words
whimpering for villages and lakes
and a woman loving him.
I did not know his name,
nor, in its long crevasse, his tongue,
but with his sounding eyes he said
that he was one of the samurai dead...
Climbing along eruption, my memory holds his head.