Les, Peter, John, James – and Peter

Les Murray’s poetry books fill a long shelf, and his Collected Poems (Black Inc 2018) runs to more than 700 pages.

So it was a challenge for actor Peter Carroll and theatre polymath John Senczuk to choose a group of poems for a coherent performance piece, titled Burning Want. I was peripherally involved as literary adviser. Plans for 2020 were cut short when theatres went dark.

This week the project came to life at the SBW Foundation’s Seaborn library in Neutral Bay, with Peter Carroll’s moving performance of Burning Want, supported by James Boyd-Hoare, who composed piano music to set the mood.

Burning Want flyer

The audience responded very warmly to Peter Carroll’s performance, which brought a wide range of poems to life – some tragic, some wry, a couple hilarious.

At each session, the audience included people with special connections to the Murray oeuvre. Graham MacDonald, former editor of honi soit, was the first to put a Murray poem in print, in April 1959 in the Sydney University student paper.

Property

In my secret garden/ I kept three starlings,/ In my secret locket/ three copper farthings.

One zinc-grey evening/ The birds escaped me/ And a crippled man stole/ My shining money.

The starlings wandered/ Till three hawks took them,

And now my agents/ Have caught the cripple.

Les Murray

This poem doesn’t appear in the Collected Poems, so it was exciting to have it rediscovered.

The discovery of new poems continued. After the matinee performance, an audience member produced an occasional poem that Les Murray wrote in recent years to celebrate the 80th birthday of a neighbouring farmer. A jaunty celebratory rhyme, it was full of bouncing tennis balls and references to how much joy the recipient and his wife got from tennis.

The day left me marvelling at the brilliance of Les Murray’s words, and Peter Carroll’s immersion in the very essence of the poems. Composer and pianist James Boyd-Hoare was another exciting discovery, and John Senczuk’s talent and verve always delight me.

Afterwards I was given a bunch of bush greenery to take home. I posed next to a picture of the charismatic Peter Finch. What a day!

In the Seaborn Library foyer with Peter Finch

PENELOPE NELSON

April 2021

Poetic justice? Acknowledging Grace Perry

Grace Perry – the name is not widely recognised now. But in the 1940s Grace Perry, teenage poet, was hailed as a genius. In the 1950s she graduated as a doctor and had three children. In the 1960s she founded a literary press and a poetry magazine. A prolific writer herself, she launched the careers of many others and encouraged many emerging writers through prizes and literary events.

Grace Perry, teenage poetry sensation

I saw Grace Perry occasionally at events that she had organised. Like most writers, I would turn up at cultural events without giving a thought to the administrative chores behind the scenes – the phone calls, the invitations, the funding crises, the publicity campaigns. All these things I took for granted. I bought my ticket, caught up with friends, and hoped to workshop my poems with someone well-known.

Grace Perry introduced the early sessions of the 1975 Poetry Write-In at Macquarie University. She wore a floaty, colourful caftan, and was justifiably proud of having writers present from Indonesia, New Zealand and all states of Australia. She came to some of the small seminars also. She was obviously a close friend of some of the well-known poets, but she was generous to other participants also.

I have written about Grace’s career in the Summer 2020 issue of the State Library of NSW’s magazine, Openbook, so I won’t repeat her story here. Sufficient to say that she published eight books of her own poetry, founded South Head Press, managed Poetry Australia magazine, and helped launch the careers of half a dozen well known writers.

Openbook, Summer 2020 – the journal of the State Library of NSW

About a year ago, I had an inkling, more a glimmering perhaps, that Grace Perry was a hugely underestimated figure. Her own poetry was groundbreaking: she wrote lyrical verse in her teens, but in maturity took on topics such as death, pain and heartbreak in a confident, contemporary style. Her cultural contribution to Australian literature was significant.

What a joy to find that the State Library had 35 boxes of her papers, and copies of all her books, even the ones published while she was still at school. She kept meticulous business records of South Head Press, Poetry Australia and events such as the 1975 Poetry Write-In. I was abashed to find three of my own poems in the bulging file from that event.

Grace Perry, a whirlwind of energy and generosity, deserves acknowledgement as a cultural pioneer.

PENELOPE NELSON

December 2020

The Bellybutton of a COVID Reality

by Jill Sutton

  1. Taking Time

Sometimes I just roll on a pretend ball of pastry

and scrape it off the back of my hands and

sometimes I run fingers up and down

between each other like guests at a good

dinner party and sometimes I play this is the

church and here are the people this is the

(something I’ve forgotten) and here is the

steeple and sometimes I slide the soapiness

down around each one of my ten fingers as I

cherish my beloveds one at a time and

sometimes I just make the soap bubbles burst

like a naughty child with a balloon.

Now that it’s fine to take time.

Hands by Federico Barocci
(16th century)

2. My window says

Look, I’ve framed it

Edited it down to this tidy parcel!

Rest with these red clematis leaves

The Buddha from your last house,

And the lattice fence.

I stay deaf to such stillness,

Complaining about a story

With no denouement.

3. Creatureliness

Two ducks,

Living on our pond without owning it,

Glide to the edge

To make space for dogs.

Splashing in,

They’re big, canine and careless.

Out of their depth,

Paddle now fierce,

They hold heads high and proud

To owners’ raucous applause.

When it’s over

Lonely park benches,

Elegant metal curving,

Hold this place as a font,

A quiet earthen bowl

For wetness

As we head for home.

4. Gratitude

Like pegs

Your phone calls

Pin me in the sunshine

Of your presence.

5. Majura poets connecting the dots

Breathless on the and she lay

Knocked back each time

By the poets of Majura.

Their waves,

High pounding thought,

Releasing as the virus

Becomes an Easter tide.

6. Living in place

Struggling to stay still,

And jealous of the European spring,

It comes to me:

Autumn can be a good listener.

7. Sketching

Black on white

Monastic in its shapeliness

Power in the line

Drawing the eye

To the bellybutton

Of reality.

— JILL SUTTON