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.  



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

Advent’s Four Last Things: 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!

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





Advent’s Four Last Things: DEATH


In the New Testament, resurrection is key. Its light transforms all the life described there, placing all things under its spotlight, and revealing the extent of God’s love for us.

Without shadows, it is hard to see death in its full harshness. It’s there, of course: the young man at Nain, Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, are all stone-cold dead. Lazarus has been dead for so many days that there’s a stench. Jairus has brought in the professional mourners. The townsfolk of Nain are already wondering what will happen to the bereaved widow without a man to belong to. (Luke 7:11, John 11:39, Mark 5:38.)

The New Testament depicts death as final and irreversible. Lazarus is not sleeping. Jesus told the disciples plainly, “Lazarus has died.”’ (John 11:14)

A humorous old spiritual, The Deacon Went Down to the Cellar to Pray, has a chorus which claims ‘You can’t get to heaven on roller-skates, You’ll go right past them pearly gates.” Underneath the humour there’s a serious point: If you fail to take death seriously enough, you’ll miss out on the resurrection.

Despite popular culture’s love-affair with murders, we are reluctant to talk seriously about death. Our unexamined fear of death makes Western society especially vulnerable to, say, Al-Qaeda’s acts of terror.

At Christmas-time when absence scratches at people’s wound of loss, our unfamiliarity with death prevents us from providing comfort and community to the bereaved.

Death has the last word. We are the stronger for facing its power. Classics like Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying admonish Christians to face death full on as a powerful way of growing spiritually.  It’s not good enough to say that we will be raised with Christ. First, we die. We must experience the reality of death: no-one escapes it.

Eugène Ionesco’s play, Exit the King, is a powerful meditation on death. The King comes to realise that the whole world dies when he dies. Trees, people, stars, the universe, all disappear with me, me! he complains. Each death is indeed an appalling loss. Each individual is of cosmic worth, and her or his unique talents and personality are plundered from the world at death. All ceases to exist when we die.

As Christians, we shout, ‘Death may have the last word, but God has the last last word!’ God reached into the tomb where Lazarus’ earthly remains were starting to rot, and brought him back to the world of the living.  Jesus himself was dead and buried: gone from existence. Yet God called Jesus back into existence so triumphantly that the raising of Jesus is a guarantee that, if we stick with him, we too will be called back into life (I Thessalonians 4:14), a life that is even more glorious than this life.

Believing in resurrection is not enough. It’s like being sure that Houdini will escape from the water-tank. Of course, he will: that’s the nature of illusions. But our dying is real, not an illusion. Jesus, like us, was born to die, and it is only in the spiritually-bracing acceptance of death, death as final act, that we can open to the possibility of being raised from the dead.

Our response can only be ‘Alleluia’.

Raising of Lazarus, Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (Wikipedia)

Advent’s Four Last Things: HELL


To be trafficked, and forced to live and work where you have not chosen; this is hell. Your captor counts your value in dollars, not in your humanity, and so treats you with the indifference a bad tradie treats his tools.

To be in pain, constantly without end; this is hell. Pain holds your body prisoner and you are unable to live as you wish because of the pain.

To be abused, and to live with memories of abuse; this is hell. Someone you trusted violated you and treated you just like a willful child stomping on a toy.

In his Divine Comedy, Dante describes the descent through the circles of Hell (L’Inferno). In a region called Ptolomea are those who have been thrown deep into Hell for treachery to their guests. These are people who insinuate themselves in a position of trust and use that power to take advantage of their victims. Significantly, Dante believes that these people die at the moment of their crime; their body may live on, but their soul is thrown immediately to this bottom part of hell.

In the world of Dante’s poem, there’s justice in this punishment. The Australian churches now must allow justice to be dealt both to the perpetrators of sexual abuse, and also to those who, by action or inaction, covered up those crimes.

I want to give little oxygen here to perpetrators, however.

Rather, consider the hell of being a victim of abuse: the inability to trust; the devaluing of the self; the trauma of being violated, and the secondary, and sometimes worse, trauma of remembering it. There is a shocking trauma for those who recover a memory long repressed. There’s the ongoing trauma of flashbacks and dreams. Relationships take on extra challenges. Some victims become hypervigilant, expecting at every moment something bad to overtake them. Taken together, this is hell lived out in daily experience, like a young woman trafficked, or the person experiencing high levels of pain every day.

Is ‘victim’ the right word? Many prefer ‘survivor’. While a person remains without hope, then they are in hell: they are a victim of the violence done to them.

Being destroyed by abuse, or corroded by pain, or forcibly held become hell when the victim can see no way out. This person understands that their situation will go on unchanged for ever. It is hell, and one of the four last things: an ultimate reality.

Christian faith reveals God who can undo the final reality of death. Death, the end, is no longer the end. The God who has power to raise Jesus from the dead has power to release victims from hell. The person who believes there is a future becomes a survivor, literally, one who lives beyond.

Christian faith bears witness, in the hells which people experience, to the reality of hope. This is the key which unlocks the door of hell. Hope is the secret ingredient which explodes the murderous captors of this world.

We must believe in hell because it is part of people’s lived experience. We are invited, however, to grasp hope, because hope turns victims into survivors, and eventually into joyful survivors; hope destroys hell.


Advent’s Four Last Things: HEAVEN II

A young mother, grieving for the death of a baby, asks the question, ‘Will I be reunited with my Olivia in heaven?’

An elderly widower expresses certainty that he will be with his bride in heaven.

It’s almost as though Christian faith depends on after-death reunions of loved ones. The guidance, however, that Scripture gives us on this is vague and contradictory.

So, the totally honest answer to this question, especially as no-one has returned to tell us, is that we don’t know. But when faced with the direct question, ‘Will we be reunited in heaven?’, I hesitate.

Of course, the temptation for us pastors is to give the easy answer, the answer that people want to hear. The reality, however, is that we understand so little about life after death: what does time mean in life and after we die? What does resurrection mean for us as individuals? Will there be a different experience for those who do not identify as Christians? How will we connect with those from whom we have been estranged in this life? Cynical Sadducees asked Jesus a similar question, ‘In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’ (Matthew 22:28)

Many people believe firmly that the church teaches that we, as individuals, will be united after death with loved ones. Many clergy taking funerals, without directly endorsing this view, allow it to stand as an implication of their pastoral message. I understand this prevarication: we are motivated to tell good news. I am deeply uncomfortable, however, with its dishonesty. This teaching falls short. There is better news.

The idea that we will be united with loved ones after death springs from a good place: it is an idea that the best God has given us in this life is love, and the one thing that we should expect from the eternal God is ongoing love.

In this life, we love with our bodies: we make love with our spouse with our body; we are present in the body to our friends. When we are absent from our loved ones, we project our bodies through space to continue the contact – our image on FaceTime, our voice on the telephone, our hand-writing in a card. These symbols of our body tell our loved one that we yearn to be present in the body.

Death destroys the body. Dust we are, and to dust we return (v. Genesis 3:19). The body is then transformed in resurrection. We know almost nothing about what Saint Paul calls the ‘resurrection body’, only that we would be a ‘foolish person’ to imagine it to be the same as our current body. It is as different from the natural body as the wheat plant is from a grain (I Corinthians 15:36-37)!

Love, after death, will also be the same and categorically different. While our bodies can love gloriously, God promises a love after death that is different in degree and in expression:  a much better love. All bodily limitations to love will be removed and transformed. Who knows whether we will rise as individuals, or as love promises, somehow joined in love? Or something entirely different, and, as yet, unimagined?

My plea is that we settle for more than the idea that we will be reunited with loved ones, and that we take the Bible at its word (I Corinthians 2:9, quoting Isaiah 64:4), that God will exceed our imagination as to how wonderful love in the resurrection will be. It will be heaven!



Advent’s Four Last Things: HEAVEN I

‘Twenty thousand kilometres; two thousand dollars.’

Like us, the signora in the pensione had travelled to Assisi for Christmas. Her annual highlight was driving herself 60 kilometres. She had never been further from home than her annual trip south.

She kept wondering aloud in Italian the statistics of our journey:

Venti mila chilometri, duemila dollari. Venti mila chilometri, duemila dollari. 

The world is a big place, and our overnight flight from Perth to Italy had disguised how huge the distance to Assisi is. It is, as for our friend the signoraa cause of wonder.

Scientists tell us there are 300 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. The size of one star, one sun is hard to imagine. The trip from Perth to Assisi would take only a fraction of the sun’s circumference. 300 stars are hard enough to imagine, but 300 billion… Then, astronomers estimate, there are between 100 billion and 200 billion galaxies. How many stars there must be.  My digital calculator puts it at 4.5e16 stars. The number is meaningless, staggering in its scope.

Many scientists then tell us that our universe may be one only of an infinite procession of universes, coming in and out of existence at a fantastic rate. At this point, I’ve lost the power of imagination completely. The best I can do is stand outside and gaze at the night sky. I see red Mars, 10 years of rapid travel away. I see bright Southern Cross 350 years ago, its light just now reaching me, light that started on its journey when Charles II finally became king and the 1662 Prayer Book was promulgated.

This colossal creation can be a starting point in our journey searching for heaven. No, I am not suggesting that heaven is a place, perhaps hiding behind one of Saturn’s moons or in a 10-lightyear distant galaxy! But such a startling and amazing universe can flex our sense of wonder. Like the signora at Assisi, we can contemplate over and over the complex and awe-inspiring cosmos of which we are part, and yield to wonder.

This is the universe our God is creating. Spectacular and lovely.  A Creator God of such power has intentions. He has an agenda that his beautiful universe should more and more reflect God’s own qualities of love and goodness.

And if God is prepared to pour Godself into the making of such a spectacular and lovely universe, we can begin to imagine how wonderful are God’s intentions for you and me: to be more and more the love, goodness and beauty we discern in the physical universe. In fact, God promises it. God promises that we shall see face to face. (I Corinthians 13:12) God promises that his agenda for us is better, more delightful, more caring than anything we can imagine, just as his universe is more than we can imagine (I Corinthians 2:9)

Venti mila chilometri300 billion stars, God of a wondrous universe. Let us find heaven in our wonder.