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

 

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First Notes of the New World


An Easter sonnet for my friends who are musicians and poets:

First Sprung from the Dead

The cloth which yesterday so reverently kept
our Lord’s head, is today lying by itself;
the shroud appears like the bed where he has slept,
pillow face cloth arranged on the rock shelf.

The tomb is ordered, the Paschal setting
is not a wild off-planet getaway:
the presence who has folded the netting
has artfully followed the Passion Play.

Easter’s presence/absence on limestone set
covered in the linen weave of white cloth,
powerful mystery in quietest calm yet:
Life bursts from silent Yahweh Sabaoth.

The folded cloth, the ordered tomb resound.
The living Jesus in measured singing found.

  • John 20:1-14
  • empty-tomb-good-evidence

Education in Christian Character and the Dean


First published in the Anglican Messenger, March 2016.

Nearly every week from 1938 to 1972, an elegant lady clutching a music case caught a tram from Perth College. The tram trundled down Beaufort Street to the ABC then situated in the Stirling Institute buildings in the Supreme Court gardens. Dorothea Angus, Head of Music at Perth College made over 250 broadcasts for the ABC performing solo, as well as with contralto Phyllis Everett and violinist Vaughan Hanly. She played concerti with the WA Symphony Orchestra, for example under Henry Krips, Mozart’s A major piano concerto (K488).

Her night-time performances followed a long day of teaching from 7.30 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. and a practice hour until 5 p.m.

She preferred to perform Australian composers like Miriam Hyde. As a star student in Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium she had made a compact with Hyde and other fellow-students to exchange new compositions. With advance access to Sydney-based composer Dulcie Holland’s piano music, Dorothea encouraged her students to learn Australian music for their exams.

But much more than that, Dorothea instilled in the girls at Perth College a love of music. With the WA Symphony Orchestra established properly in the 1950s, Miss Angus began a Friday night tradition of bussing girls to concerts. I was with the boarders in 1975 as they went wild for WASO’s rendition of Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia’!

Dorothea opened up a bigger world up for her students. In the classroom she talked about music around Australia, and she introduced a world expressed in beauty and art. Her own person, always elegant and fashionable, impressed the girls. The stylish Miss Angus was a fascinating contrast to the Sisters dressed always in habit, veil and wimple.

Dorothea was not a straightforward Christian. In her previous appointment in Adelaide at St Peter’s Cathedral her talents as a world-class organist appear to have been eclipsed by the internal politics of male chauvinism. When I met Dorothea towards the end of her life, I found her always willing to engage in a robust and sceptical discussion about Christian faith. She was deeply interested in it but unable to admit to a commitment to it.

At Perth College, Sister Rosalie, the Principal, often crept into Dorothea’s practice room to enjoy her playing. I can imagine her friendship with Sister Rosalie included similar discussions.

‘Gus’ or ‘Fungi’, as Miss Angus was called, is still remembered with affection by former Perth College students nearly 40 years after her death. A half-dozen still meet annually to salute her memory.

Dorothea championed Australian music to the public. As an artist, she felt a responsibility to share generously her gift with the school and the church. When I met Dorothea she was playing hymns for services in Balga Parish despite a paralysis in her left arm. Her disability frustrated her. She could easily have excused herself, but would not.

To Perth College she brought not just music skills, but education in character. Through her own forceful personality, she modelled character. She opened a wider world to the girls in her care. She chewed into Christian faith, examining it, discerning the truth for herself. Agnostic she may have been, but her respect for Christianity was imprinted on those she met.

I am more optimistic than the Dean, who argued in the December Messenger that church schools were failing in their central task of Christian formation (he and I have been chaplains to the same two church schools!) I believe that our church schools have been deeply enriched by teachers of integrity and longevity – like Miss Angus – who have imbued Christian character in their students.

*****

An article focusing more on Dorothea Angus’ musical achievements appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Limelight magazine.

Why Should Franciscans be interested in poetry?


FRANCISCANS DISCOVER HOPKINS
1. SHOULD FRANCISCANS BE INTERESTED IN POETRY?

• St Francis was influenced by the troubadours. His interest in troubadours probably started on journeys to France as a child.
The troubadours:
o Sang in Italian or Provençal (French) and not Latin.
o Broke convention by singing love songs to ladies beyond their status.
o Used popular harmonies and rhythms.
St Francis wanted to be able to sing love songs to God with the same language of intimacy. He liked the fact that ordinary people could enjoy popular song styles and understand both words and music. Churchy Latin was remote.
Brother William SSF (Can it be True) was a modern Franciscan troubadour. In the late 60s and early 70s in Queensland William wrote ballads and songs and performed them at rallies with thousands of young people.
• Saint Francis was influenced by Sufi poetry. He wanted to travel to Morocco, Spain, and he succeeded in travelling to Damietta, all centres of Sufi poetry.
The Sufis:
o Wrote love poetry to God.
o The “whirling dervishes” got themselves into an ecstatic meditative state.
o Lived in covenanted communities.
Saint Francis asked Leo to whirl to determine which way to proceed at a crossroads. He was intrigued by ecstatic prayer, and he wanted to know more. Some scholars like Idres Shah believe that he came away from his meeting with the Sultan in Damietta having quizzed the sufis there.
Poetry expresses deep insights about God. The best theology is poetry. Good poetry is theology.
It is often difficult to discern the boundary between hymns and poetry. The poet-priest, George Herbert wrote Let All the World in Every Corner Sing, as a poem, but it makes a great hymn.

Sufis
Sufis