When my sequence, ‘Verandah Poems’, was a co-winner of the National Library Poetry Prize in 1988, I was thrilled. I was 37 years old then and struggling to get a first collection of poetry published.
Thirty years later, I’m still very happy and grateful for the prize. I could hardly believe my good luck at the time, and having judged quite a few poetry competitions in the intervening years, I’m even more aware that luck does come into these things. Fortunate timing can make such a difference. If there had been different judges, or if I hadn’t had the right piece of writing finished at the time, this might never have happened …
Still, this was a life-changing event. And this anniversary weekend of the presentation of the prize at the National Library in Canberra feels like a good time to remember that good luck, and to also remember the poems. Here they are!
(i ) Nuzzling No Man’s Land
With hands of iron sheltering its forehead,
the verandahed house scans distance.
Three miles out of sight, along a black road
which bogs, bountifully, creating holidays
whenever wind teatowels the ridges
and lightning singes heaven’s afternoon scones
– in a school hardly bigger than a kitchen
seventeen children sit, like the squat black irons
on Gran’s hellish wood stove
waiting to sizzle and smooth the world.
Here we will learn letters. Here I will learn
to live with a space beside me –
a burn through each hour – as if a face
has vaporised in the heat above the downs
glimmering through the distance and miraging
finally – as small as a postage stamp
in the corner of a hospital window.
I peel the image of my father from the glass.
From this house, wish letters back.
For this, to plank the space around me
to stand on air and reach an arm
with all its hairs in sunlight raised and trembling
through a hole in the world –
I learn words.
The alphabet goes to obedience classes.
It copies tricks, begging to be used.
But what can a child do with such an acrobatic pooch?
High-jump it over the contented laps
of cats – that tide of purrs swamping porridge?
Yap it at the heels of brothers –
grenading grapefruit, trowelling trenches,
their secret armies safe under Jerry helmets?
Awninged now, shaded by years,
I squint into that distance and see
the medicine never rolled in a page
plangent as the perfume of pennyroyal plugged
into lavender glass bottles
lost for decades in the dump –
For this I go back, retreading boards
where storms school earth in the blurring of horizons
and verandahs of words cover nothing.
Rain sizzles all over that unsmoothed world.
A dog creeps from its no man’s land beneath a bed.
Tensing, muscling from present to past,
I pick up a pen. Words growl
around my head. Into brutal, blameless sky
the dog leaps.
( ii ) A Running Board on a Twenties Roadster
On his verandah, framed in grey dusk,
alone every evening my father leans.
Faintly in the far view, like sparking ash,
the city’s first lights. Surrounding, paddocks mattress
the old volcanic hills – sick stars
fall and rest there.
This verandah is small. But inviolate
in its exhausted light: his running board
at the edge of our chugging house.
Sounds – shifting of darkness
through leaves; chimpish chatter –
children, chooks and pets
chased inside for the night;
sharp static interrupting
a song somewhere and mother
in the kitchen, at war with meat –
slow pulses flicker
like memories of a motor
as he rides into the waiting dark.
A seesawing sixteen-year-old,
sometimes my feet weight back to his world.
Before I knew him, my father
rose above a long scarf of knitted silk –
ghosted into photographs in a Twenties roadster.
His unknown backseat passenger,
now I fill the frame of another window.
Sheep in this paddock broaching suburbia
chalk the shadows where we play
at playing tennis. Down long corridors
of rambling vines, white roses flutter
like nurses, dutifully in the dusk
tucking bruises under their veils.
Clouds, cruising by my window,
stop at the slightest glance of light.
On his verandah, framed in grey dusk,
my father’s face floats like a moon.
My father is ‘communing with nature’,
he says. We never dare interrupt.
He never speaks of what he sees
or feels. But coughs. Often.
As mist wraps his lungs,
his white handkerchief, a collapsing fist,
closes on a colour as painful as any word.
On his running board, every day
he leans into the rush of sunset
like a match, longing to be ash.
His limbo zone:
neither with us nor without us.
He has been ill so many years
someone is always expecting him
to fall off. We never dare
speak of that.
In the camphor laurels a koel carols.
Sirens shudder the dark leaves:
the earth is still though the house rushes.
Though a flaw shudders the warp of dusk
an edge cracks off the world
the house goes on, headlights blazing
idling . . .
Faintly from the far view, I watch
fog scarve its silent euthanasia
long after his verandah is black.
( iii ) Under a Roof of Rippled Tin
Under this roof of rippled tin,
days are deep and shady.
Looking out: over acres of wheat and sunflowers,
sorghum and lucerne – a sensible succession
of crops – there is always a buzz.
Stings of heat and insects. Shimmers of sweat
and oil. Dialogues of machines and men
under the sky’s frank blue.
Approaching the verandah,
boots scrape off acquiescent mud
or sulking, black dust . . .
sun folds behind the trellis
of grape leaves’ open palms
as into the house, laconic voices breeze.
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.
Here emotions prowl, leaning
away from us on leashes.
Anger and joy, despair and hope
tangle in the shadows in exhausting
fights. Standing by the sideboard
before dinner, unscrewing the Scotch
and draining a glass of sun –
or waking from someone else’s
barbwire dream to a morning
of blistered Saos, balmed with butter,
no one mentions this. No exclamations
occur, uncalled for or unwise. No tears
spoil the teacups’ dollshouse dams.
Under this roof of rippled tin,
there is space to dance and kill.
Deep in shade, I see long arms of wisteria
twist their torture endlessly
muscling in on air and arguing with railings.
In the house, someone shakes open
a sheet. Clouds, like eiderdowns,
float from the sky. On this verandah
there must also be room to forgive
as the wisteria stretches to sun, hanging there
mauve fisted shadows which break
in the shock of light into blossom.
What a wonderful achievement Jean and I bet you can’t believe it’s been 30 years. Where does the time go? My favourite passage is from “Approaching the verandah” and ending with “this space between wariness.” So much in this suite of poems.
Thank you, Debbie. You are so right about the startling passage of time! It’s so good to know the poems still have appreciative readers.