He was my favourite poet through high school. He died on April Fool’s Day. Not corona virus – not everyone does – but old age. I didn’t know till today.
The obituary says Bruce Dawe was a postman. A poet. A gardener. An academic. An airman. A Vietnam Vet. He had four university degrees (BA, MLitt, MA, PhD). All acquired through part-time study. He won a swathe of literary prizes. I didn’t know that either, but I’m not surprised.
We read ‘Homecoming’ and the ‘Not So Good Earth’ and learned about irony, war and death. He wrote about death a lot. (Ironic that he lived to ninety). And footy. And cornflakes. A suburban poet. Our poet. Our conscience. Constantly protesting life’s inequalities. His prolific, staccato style appealed to those of us baptized in Shakespearean sonnets, Romantics who rhyme. (Is it still a poem if it doesn’t rhyme?’)
‘The forests sigh and fall’
I dip into the forest by Ingalla Falls for fresh air, exercise. A city of pine trees eighty feet high. Fire tracks like empty highways during Covid-19. Several trees have toppled. Knocked others over, as they crash to the ground. Jenga. ‘The forests sigh and fall,’ agrees Dawe.
A bank of ferns. No deer here though, in this antipodean forest. No ‘bummer of a birthmark Hal.’ (No Larsson either). A single kangaroo starts up at our heavy tread on pine needles and bounds silently away. A gorge disgorges a creek over jagged rocks. Wind whips through the pines, sounds like waves crashing on the beach. The harsh shrieks of black cockatoos catch at our ears.
“Alert! We see you squatting there, like a warning light in your bright red fleece. A call of nature. But beware, nature might call for you. Brown snakes, bull ants, nettle rash on your bare behind. More than you bargained for.”
‘Like butterflies in the socket of a skull’
Common brown butterflies careen through the air, like sparks from a fire. Dolly Parton wrote a song about butterflies and love. ‘Soft and gentle as a sigh.’ Dawe used them as a stark simile of war. The juxtaposition of watching kids play hide-and-seek in WW II pill-boxes in Penang: concrete bunkers with slits where soldiers hid with machine guns. Waiting to annihilate the unwary.
Years ago, I watched a TV program. A Queenslander, tightly permed, rotund. In a sweater with a butterfly embroidered across her ample breast. Teaching English to post-war refugees escaping the not-so-good-earth. ‘Say bu-a-floy’ she demands of her petite Vietnamese students, pointing at her chest. They dutifully mimic her nasal tones, her broad Ocker accent. More like butterflies than she will ever be in her caterpillar skin.
We trudge up a steep track, a hill laid bare. A Gallipoli of pine trees. ‘Grey trunks and limbs litter the paddock like a battlefield,’ Dawe wrote eloquently. (He wrote a lot of anti-war poems.) Fairy land has been exhumed. Turned to mud and stubbled trunks, like broken teeth. Yet golden mushrooms grow into the light, in this bald space in the centre of the forest.
We pass a dead digger. I recall a picture book ‘Are You My Mother?’ A baby bird has lost his mother. Until the ‘Snort’ puts the baby back in its nest, where its mother is waiting.
We emerge below the tree line. Paddocks have turned green overnight. Ironed out by rain. White blobs dot the hillside. A line of narrow gumtrees stand shoulder to shoulder along the hilltop. Catch the sky between their fencepost trunks.
It is ANZAC Day. A national day of remembrance for Australians and New Zealanders, to commemorate those of us who served and died in war or conflict. We say together ‘they shall not grow old as we that are left grow old,’ Our fallen. And ‘the vanished eyes of the skull wink with young laughter, the jaws are mottled with lichen,’ weeps Dawe.
Today, at Gallipoli, a lone Turkish gardener lays a wreath.