Spirit of Home

Verity La Poetry

On Sunday 10 November, twenty poets gathered at Manly Art Gallery & Museum for the 5th annual Poetry Alive reading to share their original poems responding to the Home Affairs exhibition. Their poems explored the concept of home as place, person, planet, idea, memory, refuge, dream, contested space, prison, liberation . . . the possibilities were seemingly endless. 

Please enjoy a selection of the Spirit of Home poems — by Toby Davidson, David Adès and Judy Johnson — and some of the artworks that helped inspire them. 

At the Non-Existent Statue of a Speared Arthur Phillip (Toby Davidson)

I

The first drunks of summer
are windily weaving,
and windily leaving
their minds from a can.

An empty, kicked somewhere,
skids phonically, pleading.
Public profanity
is the new placelessness:

Weak prick!
Go hard or go home.  
(But the dead!)

The local prime member shrinks,
does himself in, wades on,
shark-toothed at the scent
of blent victimhood. 

Scull, get stuck in
blue fire, white wharf
as another ramp crashes
and tongues of the earth

loosen to swim
in their
version of it.  

II

It never costs nothin’ to go to the beach,
gleams a freed, ecstatic man
to his family.

Steyne means stone. Heads over water
in hours only stone hears,
featureless, dim.

Pines relieved of their birdsong,
crawling. On, or over
the line,

promised touch— pigment where
there’s a skin
again.

III

Again, Phillip advanced,
playing father,
chiding and soothing
his pre-arranged
wounding.

His sentencing judge,
the esteemed Willemaring,
yells stay in the dock,
take up spear
or club;

Bennelong, your honourable
Counsel Assisting,
is just as impossible,

healed smooth
to prove it.

No contest?
No more will
you not
get the
point.

IV

Point, pistol, pox, plinth,
picnic, pub, parade.
‘Seven miles from Sydney
and a thousand miles from care’.
The gilled Pacific nips   

plaques for Olympians,
mixed bathing pervs
and a frilled Georgian
Bennelong, underfoot,
outside McDonald’s.

Bricked-down languages,
local and Latin, share
whale (gawura, megaptera
novaeangliae) as they
could share the sea.

A whale feast here, meat
—‘Mate’ as recorded—
canoed to the po-faced father
of galgalla and much let
between supply and deploy.

Incisions, middens,
bloodlines persist.     
Tides mark the deep 
passing through
of continuance.

V

Continuance now has a countenance, contrivance:
Bath boy of German Jakob, Lizzy Breach,
the little breacher bronzed on his block
of this block-headed Ice-Aged sea dragon of land.

Rendered due East, Willemaring’s tip West
juts like a beak from the governor’s spine;   
harbour sparks hook up his wreck of a shoulder,
ride its reverberant shaft to the pines.

Long bicorn hat unbelievably fastened,
head thrown back, but his face—we can know
the face—imminent, bulging, eyes flung agog
in a heaven of surprise. Thin rhomboid lips

frame a right missing tooth (Art’s fluke),
flashing golden abandon at those who’ll recover
from physical laws, inscrutable yet as the surf
or the Feds fanging arcs in their black ops boats—

not the friends of late lanced circulations
changing states of the glazed drawn to linger.
Winter. Masts lash for Art each electric night;
rocked just like his condescending sight.

Note: This poem variously restages the spearing of Governor Phillip at Manly Cove in 1790, drawing on accounts in The First Australians documentary by Rachel Perkins and Beck Cole, and Inga Clendinnen’s book Dancing with Strangers. Galgalla is a Sydney-area Aboriginal word for smallpox. By sheer coincidence, Phillip happened to be missing the very same tooth that was knocked out in local initiation rituals, which signalled (incorrectly) that he understood Aboriginal law. 

Sandra Williams, ‘Searching for home’, 2019, printmaking, 29.5 x 41.5cm. Courtesy of Manly Art Galery & Museum.

Hidden from My View (David Adès)

Today is a wetly new day, the heat of recent days having broken,
            a thirsty sky having turned on its tap
                                                               and forgotten to turn it off,

whilst bustling white cockatoos flap loud and low,
                                                   screech their pterodactyl scrawl above the drenched
                         urban lawns, the glistening, orderly trees.

Amid the constant drip and trickle
                                                     I have sloughed off all the skins of my former selves,
                                                                gone like shadows in the dark,
and stand naked, feather-light, my body familiar, a stranger wearing it.

Where did I go, in the cacophony of family life, and who is this, now,
                                      in a suddenly empty house, strewn with the tailings
of other lives?

I want to hear the poetry of the almost silence I once thought
                       cleaved to me like a lonely ghost, I once thought I had had too much of,

just as all the paths I took, took me far from the path I thought
                                                                                                      I was taking.

For years I wanted to compromise my long solitude,
I wanted unknown territory until it became too much so,
                                                                             until I no longer recognised myself,
                                                  the life I had led myself into with no prospect of retreat,

the life that has gone on vacation for a few days, leaving me with my nakedness,
a window to prise myself open,
                                                  to see if I have become empty in the giving, or if

something wild and hungry is growing, untended, unkempt, hidden from my view.

 

Jude Hungerford, ‘Home triptych’. Courtesy of Manly Art Gallery & Museum.

Not Far (Judy Johnson)

after WS Merwin

After decades of stepping over
the threshold of our home 

after deaths and divorce, the bafflement
of those years before we knew each other

glued together with the edges
of wisdom not quite lining up.

After misunderstandings and bad luck
and forgiving and not forgiving 

and all we went through to find love

I will not relinquish you to dementia.

So after I visit the unbearably you
not-you in that nursing facility

I come home alone

and conjure you whole from half
a packet of peanuts you left unfinished

on your office desk, and thin air.

There’s your heft in the chair
your gaze full of recognition rather

than the vacancy I have come to dread.

And my name which you have not
spoken for so long

is now easy on your tongue 

and I have not lost you 
and I will not lose you

you of whom I had heard
with my own ears since the beginning

for whom more than once
I had opened the door
believing you were not far.

 

Julie Nicholson, ‘Home on Pittwater’, 2019. Courtesy of Manly Art Gallery & Museum.

Listen to Judy Johnson read ‘Not Far’

Feature image: Joanna Gambotto, ‘Refuge Cove’, 90 x 150 cm, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Manly Art Gallery & Museum. 


Toby Davidson reading at Spirit of Home 2019

Toby Davidson is a resident of the Northern Beaches and a senior lecturer at Macquarie University. His first collection Beast Language (Five Islands Press) has been anthologised in Contemporary Australian PoetryThe Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, The Weekly Poem & Best Australian Poems.

David Adès reading at Spirit of Home 2019

 

David Adès  returned to Australia in 2016 after living for five years in Pittsburgh. He is a twice Pushcart Prize nominated poet and short story writer, and the author of Mapping the World (Wakefield Press / Friendly Street Poets, 2008), the chapbook Only the Questions Are Eternal (Garron Publishing, 2015) and Afloat in Light (UWA Publishing, 2017). David won the 2005 Wirra Wirra Vineyards Short Story Prize and was commended for the 2008 Fellowship of Australian Writers Anne Elder Award for Mapping the World. 

David has been a member of Friendly Street Poets since 1979. He is a former Convenor of Friendly Street Poets and co-edited the Friendly Street Poetry Reader 26. He was also one of a volunteer team of editors of the inaugural Australian Poetry Members Anthology Metabolism published in 2012. His poetry has been published in numerous journals in Australia and the US, as well as in Israel, Romania and New Zealand. David’s poems have been read on the Australian radio poetry program Poetica and have also featured on the US radio poetry program Prosody. He is one of 9 poets featured on a CD titled Adelaide 9. In 2014 David won the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize. His poems were also Highly Commended in the 2016 Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize and a finalist in the 2016 Dora and Alexander Raynes Poetry Prize.

In conjunction with WestWords, David runs the ‘Poets’ Corner’ Reading Series which provides a platform for one poet each month to read poetry and talk for an hour on a theme of their choice.

Judy Johnson reading at Spirit of Home 2019

Judy Johnson has published six full length collections and several chapbooks of poetry. She has won the Victorian Premier’s Award for poetry and been shortlisted in both the WA and NSW Premier’s awards. Her latest book, Dark Convicts, concerns the life and times of her two African American First Fleet ancestors.