Community and the Search for Self
'Beyond a window, its bottom tier hitched Like a skirt at a beach, this verandah waits. Pretending no absence, resting on this reef, Will I find at last my life floating out Like a dream just this side of sleeping? Here between the house and the world: A space, stripped, open to air A room, rippled above and below A home like a safe, dry hollow in the heart Of an ocean.' ‘A Dream of Refuge,’ Jean Kent
The lure of an authentic identity associated with a childhood experience of a local place and the corresponding threat of the narrow-minded parochialism that comes from a static culture continues as a theme of post war poetry. David Rowbotham develops a clearly affirming interest in the numinous potential of a local life within a regional landscape and community in his early volumes of verse.
The metropolitan reception of his work and its influence on the subsequent development of his writing, however, is indicative of the problems that beset writers interested in regionalism.
Rowbotham was born into a family of boot makers in Toowoomba on 27 August 1924. He attended Toowoomba Grammar, worked as a clerk in the Toowoomba foundry, won a teacher's scholarship which took him to Brisbane, and then taught in western Queensland. He served as a wireless operator in the RAAF during the war and then spent some time working on the land. He studied at the University of Queensland where he won the Ford Memorial Medal for poetry and later at Sydney University where he picked up the Henry Lawson prize for poetry. After a trip to Europe in 1951 he returned to Toowoomba and a journalists position on the Toowoomba Chronicle. From 1955-64 he worked for Brisbane's Courier Mail and then accepted a senior tutor's position in English at the University of Queensland. Later he returned to the Courier Mail to become its inaugural arts and literary editor. He lives in Brisbane where he continues to write.
Rowbotham's poetry appeared in newspapers from the mid 1940s and in the early 1950s Douglas Stewart published his work in the Red Page of the Bulletin. The poet's verse was also represented in Angus and Robertson's Australian Poetry (1953), George Mackaness' Poets of Australia and several Jindiworobak anthologies. His first collection appeared as Ploughman and Poet in 1954 and several further collections followed including Inland (1958), All the Room (1964), Bungalow and Hurricane (1967), The Makers of the Ark (1970), The Pen of Feathers (1971), Selected Poems (1975), and Maydays (1980). He also published a collection of sketches and short stories Town and City (1956) and a novel The Man in the Jungle (1964). [i]
Ploughman and Poet is a series of lyrics which explore the relationship between the settler farmer, the poet and his adopted geography. The title comes from the final stanza of the opening poem 'For the Darling Downs':
O territory of dreams, O love that is old,
Ploughman and poet share your heart of gold
In winsome flashes only; but with hopes and fears
Both draw seeking furrows down the years. [ii]
A number of the poems seek, almost Les Murray like, to represent the complex, troubled, and yet numinous intimacy, which characterises localised settler cultures and their rural geographies. As in 'Old Peter' for example:
When cattle in the casual hills call dumbly
Through the trees and with awkward shuffles humbly seek
The valley in the afternoon, he counts
Their silhouettes against the gully twilights,
Follows them along the track and sees
Them through the sliprails; with a captured gesture
Of brown hands slaps them into clicking bails
And talks of bitter seasons he remembers,
Of death and dust, of sharp bone breaking the hide,
And crows encircling desolation. Beyond
These silky-oaks he built his first defence
Against a wilderness, and deigned to stay;
Mastered his span of earth in a way and rode
The hills till the land gave up its secrets, harshley,
And the farm was won. [iii]
In poems such as 'Hometown', 'The Farmer's Wife' and 'Kitchen', Rowbotham explores the spiritual associations of quotidian, domestic and local cultural practices. In 'The Farmer's Wife' he writes: 'I will never make a poem/As the farmer's wife made tea'. The making of the tea is both a simple domestic ritual and a social function and it is the poet's consciousness of this local artifact which reveals his poetic sensibility: 'I shall never set soft magic/In my moment, like this wife;/From the farmland cup she gave me/I drank all time and life' [iv] . 'The Kitchen' revisits the theme of a fulfilling domestic order lovingly describing the internal architecture of home and the self assured woman at the center of it: 'Her eyes smile through memories of forty years/Of love as the old fashioned clock with its scratchy chime/Hoards another hour with those gone by/And the calendar counts another day in time' [v].
Singing the local place affirms the subjects' intimate connections with a 'natural' cultural order and this represents the full presence of an authentic identity which offers spiritual fulfillment as a compensation for mortality.
And yet the desire for a full natural presence expressed in these poems is a mark of romantic alienation which is characteristic of the poetic subject. This note of 'desolation', as John Strugnall points out, is subtly present in a number of poems which deal with the themes of change, experience and the passing of a traditional way of life (Strugnall 24). Toowoomba and the Darling Downs seem to operate as the spirit place which grounds a poet who must now sally out and meet a wider world:
Dogs thrive, and boyhood's school needs painted rooms,
And small-town culture fashionably booms
When tenors or pianists challenge provincial ways
And step from Progress into stand-still days.
Oh, somebody keep this hometown not unchanging
But ever memorable, that when the heart is ranging
Beyond its citizenship and the old-pensioners,
The droll and the dear may make eminent the years. [vi]
David Malouf describes Rowbotham's early work as 'subject poetry', that is poetry which describes a particular subject such as 'birds, plants, trees, animals … or landscape', as distinct from poetry which dramatises the first person pronoun [vii]. The self dramatising poetry is, according to Malouf, characteristic of a transformation in the Australian poetic tradition from around the late 1960s. This transformation significantly influenced Rowbotham's later work and the forces pushing him in this direction are there to be read in the reception of his first two volumes of poetry.
Douglas Stewart praised Ploughman and Poet for its 're-creation of [Rowbotham's] home country' but some other reviewers saw regionalism as an insufficient subject for the poet's lyrical gifts. Geography and community and identity may well be the signatures of a regional writing but the metropolitan experts required the full interiority of an introspective and universal subject. The Sydney Bulletin believed that 'the best and deepest poems … are not the most typical. 'Dust', 'Mist' and 'The Bushman's Girl' … are excellent lyrics of desolation … but it is … fertility which is the fundamental theme of Ploughman and Poet [viii]. Rowbotham himself has argued that the 'pulse of locality' distinguished Queensland poets from their southern counterparts and made them 'less subordinate to foreign 'schools of thought', more independent, even among themselves' [ix]. Nevertheless his second volume Inland makes more explicit use of landscape as a metaphor for the poet's interiority.
Metropolitan critics, however, continued to descry the 'obsession with landscape'. Gustav Cross writing in the Sydney Morning Herald declared that 'sensitive evocation is not enough.
We expect the poet to make experience meaningful' [x]. G.W.K. Johnston was even more to the point: 'the better Australian poets … escape from inanimate nature into human nature or else … relate stocks, stones and sheep adequately to humanity' [xi]. Rowbotham left the Toowoomba Chronicle for the Brisbane Courier Mail in 1956 and his third volume All the Room is much more concerned with the alienating effects of the modern world. It is indicative of the tensions between the metropolitan and the local that the interest in a localised cultural geography which marks the early work is gradually superseded by an increasing interest in the vocation of poetry. [xii]
Rowbotham's transition from a regional to a capital city is reversed by Bruce Dawe's movement from Melbourne to Toowoomba. Dawe was born in Geelong on the 15 February 1930, he left school at 16 and after a series of odd jobs returned to night school to complete his matriculation.
He received a teaching scholarship and attended Melbourne University for a year during which he met a number of emerging Victorian poets and converted to Catholicism. After failing the end of year exams he returned to odd jobs and for some time he worked as a postman. In 1959 he joined the RAAF and four years later he was posted to Harristown, Toowoomba where he met his first wife, Gloria. By this time Dawe had already published his first book of verse No Fixed Address (1962) [xiii]. In 1968, after a brief stint in Malaysia and then Melbourne, he resigned from the RAAF and returned to Toowoomba, where he lived until relocating to Caloundra in the year 2000. Initially he held a teaching appointment at Downlands College, but by 1972 he had been appointed to a lectureship in English at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education [xiv]. The University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba nominated him as an Emeritus Professor upon his retirement in 1993.
Unlike Rowbotham, Dawe's formative influences did not emanate from the suggestive geographies of the Darling Downs. Dawe adapted a number of the themes and strategies of the New American Poetry in reverting to vernacular idioms for the representation of the perplexities of everyday life for ordinary Australians [xv].
He was also heavily influenced by catholic anti-communism and the abuse of power and language is a frequent target of his satirical verse. Dawe often adopts the mantle of a public poet who passes comment upon topical events within the public sphere. Unlike Essex Evans, however, his public poetry is more often than not a poetry of protest at the expediency and hypocrisy of institutions and their public representatives. A strong social conscience and a related interest in the spiritual potential of ordinary suburban life are hallmarks of his work.
As an itinerant who ultimately found home and family in a regional culture Dawe is an interesting figure to examine in a regional history. The importance of location to a fulfilling family life is implicit in 'Drifters', a poem inspired by the poet's itinerant childhood:
One day soon he'll tell her it's time to start packing,
And the kids will yell 'Truly?' and get wildly excited for no reason,
And the brown kelpie pup will start dashing about, tripping everyone up,
And she'll go out to the vegetable-patch and pick all the green tomatoes from the vines,
And notice how the oldest girl is close to tears … [xvi]
And yet he is wary of the narrow parochialism that often results from the insularity of a torpid stay-at-home culture. The stasis that characterizes the city of Toowoomba held some appeal for a nostalgic Rowbotham, but for Dawe it represents a self-complaisant regionalism:
You can smell the peace up here.
The proportion, the narrowness.
Traitor, traitor whines the piano-wire voice
As you swing past the Welcome sign
To find nothing is changed…
This is a city which is all present:
It moves, but oh so slowly
You would have to sleep years,
Waking suddenly once in a decade
To surprise it in the act of change.
Saturday night, in the main street kerb,
The angle-parked cars are full of watchers,
their feet on invisible accelerators,
Going nowhere, fast. [xvii]
The ambivalent character of the regional city is imagined in another poem through ruminations on a recognizably Toowoomban experience of fog. The thick blanket fog which regularly blurs the mountain city is an excuse to snuggle up close with self and family in a cosy appreciation of domestic security. Yet as the fog lifts it prompts 'wonder/about the farther view'. For some 'the fog is not our comfort' and 'what it conceals, now shambling/ forward into our snug history/ will prove on closer acquaintance not to have/ our welfare … at heart at all'. [xviii]
The local fog metaphor can be read facetiously as a prophetic allusion to the controversial policies and pronouncements of the long-term premier of Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Petersen's autocratic, anti-intellectual and intolerant style seemed to personify the pernicious effects of regional parochialism, for Dawe during the 1970s (Goodwin 133). 'The Vision Splendid' is a satiric monologue in which the self-righteous politician surveys his State from the vantage of the parliamentary annex: 'the city smokes like a plain, mica-points/of late sunlight run glittering like sparks in the stubble/O Jerusalem, Jerusalem I have been firm and just/as these things are understood in the assembly,/crushing the ungodly …' [xix]
Self righteous religious dogmatism and an associated social and political complaisance are characteristic of Bjelke-Petersen's Queensland in general and the Range city of Toowoomba in particular. The theme is taken up again in 'On Bad Days' with a telling note of personal exasperation and a wry conclusive switchback on the christian fundamentalists. The small town paper, the small crowd which turns up to a civil liberties protest, and the epidemic of charismatic churches are all indicative of the 'totalitarianism of the banal', 'the condominium of the crackpot', 'the averted gaze' and ' the resolutely buried head' which characterize this 'small city' in which the poet has 'been chosen/ to spend what is laughingly called my life'. The poem concludes with an ironic word from Christ which makes a nice reposte to those settlers who imagined the place as God's country: 'I go to church, and a cramped Saviour/winces on His cross, saying, When I first came here,/I admit, I was hopeful, too …' [xx]
Dawe's adopted city nevertheless remains capable of feeding his interests in the numinous possibilities of the urban moment. In 'Today', for example, a day spent visiting the prize gardens during Toowoomba's famous carnival of flowers prompts the realization that the present might offer a fulfilling moment as rich as any that might lie far off in an oft looked to future. Dawe clearly missed the less ordered working class suburbs of Melbourne from which he drew the inspiration for many of his earlier poems and this sense of nostalgia for the great metropolis is not quite put to rest by a whimsical poem, 'The Affair'. The poet's feelings for the Victorian capital are explored through the metaphor of a failed fling with an older woman: 'Twelve years down the line,/what's left of our love? Very little. Only in dreams/do I wake up and say: 'I can afford you now!/ I'm on my way! I'm on my way!' [xxii] Lest we think that such a poem indicates that perhaps the mountain city was growing on the expatriate Victorian it is best to keep in mind that while 'The Affair' was cut from the next edition of Sometimes Gladness, 'On Bad Days' and 'Provincial City' were retained.
The poetry of Jean Kent also remembers the Darling Downs as the intriguing landscape of childhood. In her skillful hands the evocation of regionalism reveals the gendered nature of its different use by male poets and their cultured metropolitan critics. Kent was born at Chinchilla on 30 August 1951 and educated at the Glennie Memorial School in Toowoomba in the mid to late sixties.
She spent her youth in and around the Darling Downs before taking a degree in psychology from the University of Queensland and moving further a field. Like Dawe, Kent likes to use domestic metaphors to suggest the paradoxes and significance of ordinary human life. She might also be compared with Rowbotham, however, for her tendency to revisit the familial relationships of her youth in association with a richly remembered experience of vernacular architecture and local geography. After describing her father's characteristic location on the verandah of the family home, for example, she later broadens the significance of the house into a more general metaphor for the laconic subjectivities of rural people:
This is the country
Where feelings stay unspoken.
In the home paddock of the head,
Harvesting is private. Between the ripening
Thoughts and the reality of speech,
there is always this silence
this space between warzones
bordering us as the verandah
boards the deep space
between the heart of the house
and the world. [xxiii]
The Darling Downs is a place frequently recollected in Kent's poetry. It functions as a linguistic, symbolic, historical and geographical location with which the poet attempts to imagine the limits and potentialities of subjectivity. Sometimes the region is recollected through the memories of early childhood as a comfortable but limited world which has the potential to somehow confine personal development. In 'From the Bottom of the Range, The View' the poet recalls climbing to the top of the Moreton Bay Figs where she could imagine herself as an explorer in quest of a view beyond the horizon: 'How far can you see?' the children ask, 'How far?/ But always the mountain was in the way. The Great Divide.' [xxiv] The scene shifts to the property of her grandparents on the other side of the Range, but the question remains the same:
(How far can you see? How far?)
But always … the same smalltown reply:
I can see Toowoomba. I can see the Range. And here
on the other side of the creek in 1963
Old Jack behind a draughthorse
is ploughing a paddock
for potatoes. [xxv]
When the poet remembers adolescence and school in the Garden City of Toowoomba it is to recall the impulse to escape in search of wider horizons and the fulfillment of her adult potential. 'In a Provincial City Cycling to School' shows an appreciation of Dawe's 'Two Ways of Considering Fog': 'Cycling to school, I disappear in fog./My home vanishes behind me,/rapt in a monstrous hug. I grow old/passing houses where children I knew once/are leaving now for jobs.' [xxvi]
The children go to the unrewarding jobs typical of small towns, jobs in the 'Foundry' where David Rowbotham worked for a time as a frustrated clerk, or jobs 'selling shoes in Pigotts'. When the cyclist passes the 'house of the girls/whose mother died' the fog becomes 'shrouds of white' to which the city now summons them. The cyclist is brought 'back to earth' by her arrival at school' and this prompts a summative statement grounded once again by a geographical image and the concluding line of Dawe's 'Provincial City':
Down the length of this country like a zip
Connecting inland to coast, mountains lie-
And we are locked in the neat teeth, in this city
Going nowhere, fast. As the morning rises I walk,
weighted, through my dreams of leaving. White fog
As with the verse of Dawe, however, it is Kent's facility for revealing 'the spiritual and regenerative qualities that infuse everyday objects and experiences' which enable her to discern the recuperative powers of an identity grounded in a regional geography [xxviii]. This is a poet who uses the rich potential of language for the articulation of apparent difference. The web of articulations which structure each poem serve to reassure an uncertain subject of their place in the scheme of things. Kent's subjects include divorce and infant death and her poetry provides a mechanism for working through stressful and potentially disabling experiences. The end result is a more humble and reflexive perspective than that which characterizes the daring imagination of explorer children in the treetops or adolescent cyclists in search of a wider destiny. When the mature subject of difficult adult experience returns to the cultural geography of her childhood it can sometimes present as a form of spiritual consolation unimaginable to younger, less experienced subjects.
Childhood can be remembered for its enriching associations with a pastoral landscape and the domestic architecture of parental and grand parental houses. The return to the place of childhood is a typically romantic trope and the object is the rediscovery of a set of elusive and yet immanent relations which harbor secrets of the self and family. In 'A Dream of Refuge', for example, the 'grandparents' house floats like a ferry' which draws the poet, a 'tired board rider', to 'broad, dry decks'. This 'ferry trip … for holidays, becomes suddenly like sleep-free and timeless: as we fall into its dazzling coma.' The poet's experience of her Grandparents' house is mediated by memories of 'my family in gentle battle' and the consoling effects of the familial emplacement in a house set in its landscape exists in a suggestive tension with the realization that refuge is not a long term proposition and sentimental nostalgia can erase the struggles that are a part of every local history. The verandah returns as a liminal motif which holds the pros and cons of location in a productive even numinous tension:
On distant mirages, my grandparents' house
Floats. It appears beside me
While I'm balancing oddly,
Teetering between turns in my life.
Beyond a window, its bottom tier hitched
Like a skirt at a beach, this verandah waits.
Pretending no absence, resting on this reef,
Will I find at last my life floating out
Like a dream just this side of sleeping?
Here between the house and the world:
A space, stripped, open to air
A room, rippled above and below
A home like a safe, dry hollow in the heart
Of an ocean. Here even the peripatetic moon
Pauses. On this lingering ledge of light
I wait, believing the tide will turn.[xxix]
[i] John Strugnell, David Rowbotham: Artists in Queensland, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1969, p.24.
[ii] David Rowbotham, ‘For the Darling Downs,’ Ploughman and Poet, Sydney: Lyre Bird Writers and CLF, 1954, p.9.
[iii] David Rowbotham, ‘Old Peter,’ Ploughman and Poet, Sydney: Lyre Bird Writers and CLF, 1954, p.17.
[iv] David Rowbotham, ‘The Farmer’s Wife,’ Ploughman and Poet, Sydney: Lyre Bird Writers and CLF, 1954, p.22.
[v] David Rowbotham, ‘Kitchen,’ Ploughman and Poet, Sydney: Lyre Bird Writers and CLF, 1954, p.24.
[vi] David Rowbotham, ‘Hometown,’ Ploughman and Poet, Sydney: Lyre Bird Writers and CLF, 1954, p.20.
[vii] David Malouf, ‘Some Volumes of Selected Poems of the 1970s II,’ Australian Literary Studies 10.3 (May 1982): 302.
[viii] The Bulletin, qtd in John Strugnell, David Rowbotham: Artists in Queensland, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1969, p.23.
[ix] David Rowbotham, qtd in John Strugnell, David Rowbotham: Artists in Queensland, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1969, p.21.
[x] Gustav Cross, qtd in John Strugnell, David Rowbotham: Artists in Queensland, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1969, p.28.
[xi] G.W.K.Johnston, qtd in John Strugnell, David Rowbotham: Artists in Queensland, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1969, p.28.
[xii] David Rowbotham, qtd in John Strugnell, David Rowbotham: Artists in Queensland, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1969, p.59.
[xiii] Ken Goodwin, Adjacent Worlds: A Literary Life of Bruce Dawe, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1988.
[xiv] Subsequently the University of Southern Queensland from 1992.
[xv] Mark McLeod, ‘Bruce Dawe and the Americans,’ Australian Literary Studies 9.2 (1979): 143-55.
[xvi] Bruce Dawe, ‘Drifters,’ Condolences of the Season: Selected Poems, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1971, p.60.
[xvii] Bruce Dawe, ‘Provincial City,’ Sometimes Gladness: Collected Poems 1954-1992, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1992, p.123-24.
[xviii] Bruce Dawe, ‘Two Ways of Considering Fog,’ A Need of a Similar Name, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1965, p.30.
[xix] Bruce Dawe, ‘The Vision Splendid,’ Sometimes Gladness: Collected Poems, 1954-1982, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1983, p.182.
[xx] Bruce Dawe, ‘Bad Days,’ Sometimes Gladness: Collected Poems 1954-1992, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1992, p.209.
[xxi] Bruce Dawe, ‘Today,’ A Need of a Similar Name, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1965, p.21.
[xxii] Bruce Dawe, ‘The Affair,’ Sometimes Gladness: Collected Poems, 1954-1982, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1983, p.204.
[xxiii] Jean Kent, ‘Verandah Poems: Under a Roof of Rippled Tin,’ Verandahs, Sydney: Hale & Ironmonger, 1990, p.15.
[xxiv] Jean Kent, ‘From the Bottom of the Range, The View,’ Verandahs, Sydney: Hale & Ironmonger, 1990, p.19.
[xxv] Jean Kent, ‘From the Bottom of the Range, The View,’ Verandahs, Sydney: Hale & Ironmonger, 1990, p.21.
[xxvi] Jean Kent, ‘In a Provincial City, Cycling to School,’ Practising Breathing, Sydney: Hale & Ironmonger, 1991, p.76.
[xxvii] Jean Kent, ‘In a Provincial City, Cycling to School,’ Practising Breathing, Sydney: Hale & Ironmonger, 1991, p.77.
[xxviii] Robert Stewart, ‘Poetry Inspired By Own Life’, Rev. of Practising Breathing, by Jean Kent, Newcastle Herald 21 March 1992, p.48.
[xxix] Jean Kent, ‘A Dream of Refuge,’ Verandahs, Sydney: Hale & Ironmonger, 1990, p.93-4.