Bourgeois Bacchanalia?


 

Glyn Max1783197412-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_well, Drinks with Dead Poets: The autumn term, Oberon Books, 2012. Hardcover, 200 pages.

$20 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

Drinks with Dead Poets was a delightful surprise. A professor of poetry called ‘Glyn Maxwell’ turns up in a mysterious village to teach a term of poetry. He meets his eclectic class and directs them to readings of a series of 19th Century poets. Professor Maxwell is not sure if it is by his doing, or the organisation of Kerri, the efficient registrar, but each poet has been invited to the village on the Thursdays of the autumn term.

The conversations teacher and students have with these poets are the actual words of each poet. Each poet arrives in the village according to their personality. Nature poet John Clare walks in across the fields. Emily Dickinson, visiting from the States, arrives by train. The Brownings, Robert and Elizabeth, their relationship as ambiguous as ever, are fetched in their coach.

W.B. Yeats appears on the island in the middle of the lagoon.

Each poet behaves in character. It takes some time to warm the serious Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, but once relaxed, he speaks with great joy about the craft of poetry.

Although Professor Maxwell has been allotted a little room off the village hall for his teaching, a lot of the action takes place in one or other of the drinking establishments in the village. The professor is occasionally successful in imparting deep insights about the poets.

After a hip-hop celebrity recites a mangled version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s presence, the students tune into the idea of poetry as performance, and look forward to hearing subsequent poets read their work, with questions following.

The professor himself has limited success in asking questions or directing the questions of the audience. One of the students asks each poet, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’, and this hackneyed request is met with incomprehension, sarcasm, or gentle correction according to the temperament of the poet in residence.

By using this public reading format, the book avoids long quotations from these poets, providing representative snippets instead.

In November, the professor’s birthday is celebrated in wild style in a nearby country house. In December, Lord Bryon and the students repeat Bryon’s exploit in the Hellespont by swimming across the icy village lagoon.

The professor is never quite sure whether his class is part of the college, or an unofficial elective: poetry is taken not quite seriously by this academy. On the other hand, this professor drinks with students and even sleeps with one of the female students. He would be the subject of disciplinary hearings if he were officially on the staff! These drinks are taken with a suburban bacchanalian spirit which grows out of the playful premise that dead poets can drink with 21st Century students.

I missed out on studying the Romantic poets because of the cycle of the English curriculum at Uni. This wonderful book has partly made up for that. If you love poetry, and you are intrigued by the fantasy setting Glyn Maxwell has created, you will thoroughly enjoy taking Drinks with Dead Poets.

 

 

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Sci-Fi Twist on Reconciliation


Terra coverClaire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette Australia 2017
(304 pages)

$20 paper, $5 e-book

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Set in occupied Australia, Terra Nullius tells three inter-weaved stories: the first is a residential school for Natives run by Settler Nuns headed by a fearsome Mother Superior, Sister Bagra. In this school, Native children have been forcibly taken from their families and are given a basic education so that they will graduate to domestic service in Settler households.

The second story is the escape of Jacky from a similar place. Jacky is determined to find his birth family. He is told that they may be at the former town of Jerramungup, so proudly takes the name ‘Jacky Jerramungup’.

The third group of Natives live fearful lives in a series of squalid camps, always on the run and moving to a new location as the Settlers drive them into the desert. The only advantage of this is that the Settlers cannot live in the desert.

First-time novelist Claire Coleman, a West Australian Noongar, drops little hints that this is not the occupied Australia we know when the British Settlers occupied the land and treated the indigenous people with cruelty. About half-way through the book, she reveals that these Settlers come from a space-faring Empire, and these Natives are black and white survivors of their arrival.

The Settlers are nicknamed Toads by the Natives because they need moisture to survive. Because of the ever-present threat of Settler violence, the name ‘Toads’ is never used in their hearing.

The three main characters, Sister Bagra, Jacky and Esperance, the de facto leader of the ever-moving camp, are vividly drawn, as well as a big cast around them: Sergeant Rohan the indefatigable hunter of runaway Natives; Johnny Starr, the outlaw Settler whose little gang gathers up Jacky Jerramungup on their way to an eventual show-down with Settler power, and Father Grark the reluctant Inspector sent to Sister Bagra’s mission.

I liked Terra Nullius very much. An atmosphere of dread induced both by the Settlers and the difficulty of surviving in the desert pervades the book. The West Australian settings are familiar but changed. The characters are never reduced to caricatures: most Settlers genuinely believe that the Natives were not human; the Native characters are clear individuals.

The pacing is well-handled. Towards the end, I couldn’t put the book down I was so afraid for Jacky and Esperance, and with reason!

It is a didactic novel. I suspect that Australians sceptical of Aboriginal claims will not be convinced by its premise, and may even be annoyed by its ideas. However, it will appeal to people looking for reconciliation and deeper insights into our shared history, settler and native.

Re-blogging for today: Thomas the Twin


This post originally appeared in my Advent 2015 blog.

******              *******         ******

He’s the Twin. In Aramaic the name Ta’oma means ‘Twin’, and so in the Gospels Thomas gets the Greek nickname Didymos “Twin”. But whose twin is Thomas?

the-apostle-thomas-1311blogSome say he had a twin sister Lydia. But to be remembered only as ‘The Twin’, is it possible that Jesus was Thomas’ twin? There is certainly a tradition that claims Jesus and Thomas were twins. Maybe even identical twins, as didymos also means ‘double’.

Thomas could have been Jesus’ double. It’s an intriguing possibility. It may explain why of all the disciples, Thomas was prepared to say, ‘Let us also go [to Jerusalem], that we may die with him.’ (John 11:16). Thomas certainly wanted to stick close by Jesus, even when he didn’t understand where that would lead. ‘Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” ‘(John 14:6)

And the need for physical closeness to his twin was also apparent when he reached to verify his physical reality after the resurrection. The gospel-writer never refers to him as ‘Doubting’, but always calls Thomas ‘the Twin’ (John 20:24) when Thomas cries out ‘My Lord and My God!’ (John 20:28).

Twins have a special bond, closer than that of most siblings. We can learn from Thomas to also be twins of Jesus, at our best prepared to share his road, but also feeling safe enough to share our bafflement, ‘Where are we going?’ ‘Lord, can it be really you?’ Above all, to wonder that the One to whom we are so intimately bound can also be ‘My Lord and my God!’

What a twinning!

 

  1. Imagine that you are the twin of Jesus. What characteristics do you have in common? How can you keep close to your twin?

 

  1. What baffles you about Jesus? What are some aspects of following Jesus that make no sense to you?

 

  1. Many of us have been Christians for a long time. Does our familiarity with Jesus make it hard to see him as ‘Lord and God’ and therefore to be filled with awe before him?

 

Use Thomas’ words ‘My Lord and my God’ as your prayer.

Easter Hymn


My new Easter hymn had its premiere at St Mary’s Busselton at the 8 a.m. Eucharist this morning. Apparently it went well.

New Eternal Breath

Christ is risen! He’s been sprung
from the once locked prison of death.
Christ is risen to be sung
With our new eternal breath.

Christ is ris’n! Women and men;
animals on farm and wild,
Christ is ris’n! Magpie and wren,
voice of life, sing to God’s Child.

Christ is ris’n! With cosmic power,
the old order overturned,
Christ is ris’n! Aleph and Taw,
For us endless life has earned.

Christ is ris’n! Noongar* and white
in Christ’s death are reconciled.
Christ is risen! All made right,
God’s life-giving power has smiled.

  • * or Koori, or black folk
    Ted Witham  2018
    7777 (Savannah TiS 219(i), Easter Hymn (with alleluias))

This, and others of my hymns, can also be found at http://www.franciscanhymns.wordpress.com

 

 

 

Poems A Head


Head coverIvan Head, The Magpie Sermons: Poems 2005-2017, Sydney: St Paul’s College 2017.  

Hardcover. Available for $35 from 48header@gmail.com 

Reviewed by Ted Witham  

This collection of nearly 50 poems is the second for Ivan Head. Dr Head is a West Australian priest, former director of AIT and Canon of St George’s Cathedral, who has spent the last 27 years as Warden first of Christ’s College in Hobart and then of St Paul’s College within the University of Sydney. He and his wife Christine are now moving into retirement in Sydney. 

Many of the poems have been published in Quadrant (where Les Murray is the poetry editor), the West Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. Their presence in those publications suggests their high quality. 

Ivan is a poet who celebrates birds and flowers, trips by train and trips to London and the US. In some the words tumble just to celebrate language: 

Montezuma met a Puma going to the fair
Said Montezuma to the Puma let me taste your ware. 
Said the Puma
to Montezuma  
No I prefer my fare rare and so he ate him then and there.  

Many of the poems are complex with multiple levels of meanings. I enjoy recognising the double- or triple-meaning, but also knowing there may be more levels that I don’t get. In Swan River, Ivan reflects on boyhood memories of throwing a kylie, or thrusting a home-made gidgie towards a Cobbler.  And then: 

A boy knows that prawns rest beneath the sand by day. 
It is like knowledge of the Pleiades. 
Under the Narrows Bridge I stood for hours and left a line out all night just in case 
Something big went past.  

After the series of Noongar words and the reference to arcane knowing, the pleasure of ‘Something big’ might mean a fish to catch, or, it might mean deep knowledge of culture, Aboriginal and Western. And it might mean something even bigger.  

An undercurrent of Christian faith and theology, which on occasion rises to the surface level of the poems, holds them in a strong web of meaning.  

Ivan has a strong ear for the music of words, their sound and rhythm. All his poems are free-form and show the influence of modernist and Beat poetry.  

I found real pleasure in their Australianness. The poems are about the plants and animals of Cookernup (near Bunbury), Perth and Sydney. They are about our childhoods in the 1950s. Even when the subject is not directly Australian, Ivan’s attitude is. He punctures pomposity. Here he reduces the English Reformation to Henry VIII’s armour. 

…. And now he’s gone, 
the ghost isn’t in the machine. 
Just the carapace remains 

And what the commentator 
gawks at for the screen 
is the gigantic iron cod-piece 

With nothing in it.  

The Magpie Sermons is printed on quality high-gloss paper and bound simply in a hardcover embossed with gold leaf.  

Poetry lovers will enjoy reading, and re-reading, these poems of celebration, irony, contemplation and joy.  

 

 

9661-004-427119f4
Narrows Bridge 1963

 

Last Things – and more Last Things


At church yesterday, it could easily have degenerated into a heated argument about the end times. ‘What did I think of Trump deciding that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel?’ was the question that initiated our discussion.

We quickly agreed that:

  1. Tel Aviv was of no importance in God’s plans.
  2. If God could work through Cyrus, I said (Isaiah 45:1-13), he can surely work through Trump. ‘And Darius,’ added my interlocutor quickly (Ezra 5-6).
  3. My interlocutor argued that making Jerusalem the capital put paid to the two-state solution. I replied that it is not beyond human ingenuity to have two states and a Jerusalem capital. One possibility was that Jerusalem could be capital of both Israel and Palestine. Surprisingly, he conceded this point.
  4. I learned from my friend that Mr Trump had spent time with African-American churches in the South. We agreed that it is easier to see the worldly influences on the President than the Christian ones.

I tried to argue that our modern idea of the nation-state was not the same as the Bible’s. I don’t think I won that point, even though it’s obvious to me that the ‘goyim’ (nations) in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are more tribes than geographical locations delimited by boundaries.

As we talked, my companion revealed a belief that God’s plan included a battle, presumably on the plains near Jerusalem which some scholars identify as Armageddon. I agreed that this agenda could well have been pressed on Mr Trump by his evangelical supporters. It may even have been the reason that Trump’s ‘recognition’ of Jerusalem as the capital was precisely to hasten this outcome.

This is where I part company with my friend. Obviously, there is likely always to be violence in the background as God’s plans are played out – that’s human nature, sadly. It is unlikely, however, that God would intend violent collateral damage (such as the destruction of the Palestinians), or that God would choose violence to further God’s plans.

What made up my mind some years ago were the pleas of Palestinian Christians: wouldn’t you imagine that God had a better plan than their destruction? As I thought about that, I realised that God would not plan the destruction of any Palestinians, Christian, Muslim or Jewish. On the contrary, God wants all Palestinians to flourish.

I cannot countenance violence because in the Bible Jesus accomplishes his victories only by non-violent methods. Love your enemy, Jesus insists.

‘You have heard that it was said, love your neighbours and hate your enemies, but I say to you, love your enemies.’ (Matthew 5:43-44).

This non-violent love is for me the end of my searching the Scriptures; the point where I come to when I have exhausted all other possibilities for God’s plans.

My interlocutor of yesterday, however, at the end of his searching the scriptures, finds four points, including God’s use of violence, that indicate when the end of all things is at hand. I didn’t argue this point with him; I doubt I could change his mind.

I don’t spend energy searching for indicators of the end-time. I take seriously Jesus’ injunction that we ‘do not know the day our Lord is coming’ (Matthew 24:42). Why spend time on a search that will end up being fruitless?

The thing about God is not his timing at all. For God, all time is one. We are not to worry about when God is coming, we are to be concerned about whether we are ready today. We show our readiness by loving our enemies as well as those who love us (Matthew 5:46-47).

refugee_camp
Refugee Camp

Advent’s Four Last Things: JUDGEMENT


JUDGEMENT

The last judgement takes place on the first page of the Bible: ‘in the beginning,’ speaking of the creation, ‘God saw that it was good… God saw that it was very good.’ (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 24, and 31 (‘very good’). God’s judgement that creation is good is a refrain that echoes throughout the first chapter of Genesis.

tob_ Hebrew letters

The Hebrew word ‘tov’ is full of rich meaning. The meanings of ‘tov’ include ‘righteous’ and ‘right’ as well as ‘fitting’ and ‘beautiful’. ‘Good’ is a good translation of ‘tov’ if we hold in our minds both moral and aesthetic goodness.

God’s judgement is that what God has made is morally and aesthetically very good.

Michelangelo’s great painting gives us a picture of a ‘last judgement’ taking place at the end of time, with the righteous received into heaven and the wicked being cast out of Christ’s presence. [See below.] It is a powerful but misleading metaphor. The ‘last judgement’ in the New Testament is not so much an apocalyptic judgement at the end of time as the revelations of the ultimate judgement. The Latin word ‘ultimus’ means both ‘last’ and ‘ultimate’. Ultimately, the wicked are never close to Jesus, the good always proceed from his presence.

Jesus’ imagery of sheep and goats show what has been right and beautiful from the beginning to the end of time. It is always good to feed the hungry; it is always good to visit the sick and imprisoned; it is always good to clothe the naked. It is always bad not to (Matthew 25:31-46). It is always wrong and ugly to refuse to give to those in need.

My Grandad once sat me down on a pew in our little bush church and admonished me that God is judging me now as he always will right until I stand before God at the end of time. (I must have been naughty to get that lecture!) I don’t remember Grandad telling me, that, in the end, God’s judgement of me is that I am good; I am very good.

The good news is not some version of Father Christmas where the good will get their presents and those who have been naughty will miss out. The Last Judgement as described in the Bible is far more serious than that. The Judgement is that God’s world ultimately reflects the nature of God, God’s goodness in the richest sense of the word (Genesis 1:27). In the end nothing can extinguish that light (John 1:5).

The baby Jesus embodies the Last Judgement. Despite his poverty, homelessness and human vulnerability, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and magi are judged by the infant Jesus. He brings out their goodness. The death of Jesus spotlights human cruelty, greed, jealousy and fear. It shows them for what they are, and that evil cannot stand against the love that flows from God’s goodness.

The Ultimate Judgement is for all time: goodness was the judgement in the beginning, we judge the present by the standard of God’s goodness, and goodness will be the criterion until the end of time. It is a judgement not of punishment, but of grace. Our response is not fear, but joy.

A joyous Christmas!

michelangelos-last-judgment
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), The Last Judgement (1536-41)