Thursday, 14 November 2013

Charles Causley - Timothy Winters

I’ve been wanting to post this well known poem by Charles Causley for some time.  It’s called, Timothy Winters.  I love the poem for a number of technical reasons – the rhyming, a four feet five feet rhythm and a voice that I guess is Cornish (Charles Causley came from Cornwall), so it makes you want to recite it in your best British accent.  Then there’s the entertaining sense of humour and the nice hook at the end, ‘come one angel, come on ten: Timothy Winters, Lord.’
Charles Causley was a schoolteacher, and this poem certainly stands testimony to the belief that if I am to be a poet I should write about things I know or have observed.  Well, OK, about the things I know, as well as what I have considered toward my observations, together with what my emotional response is to them.  I think that’s how I’ve come to select Timothy Winters for this post.  I’m thinking how society treats people wrong sometimes, especially from lack of justice within our social systems.  We all have a built in sense of what is fair and of what makes something wrong – sometimes we need reminding of it.  Here in our news in Sydney we have public outcry from the parents of an innocent young boy who was walking with his girlfriend through the city when he was ‘king hit’ and killed by some thug who went on attacking other victims on the same night.  The thug received a prison sentence of only four years on good behaviour.  I know revenge is not a part of justice, but I feel for the parents – at their faith and trust in the system and how they can’t help feel they’ve been let down.
Let down and duped by the system – the legal system, the political system, the welfare system.  Poor Timothy Winters, needing all the help in the world makes social justice and the school’s prayers of petition look like a joke when he, “roars ‘Amen’!”
Timothy Winters
(Charles Causley – 1917 to 2003)
Timothy Winters comes to school
With eyes as wide as a football pool,
Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:
A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.
His belly is white, his neck is dark,
And his hair is an exclamation mark.
His clothes are enough to scare a crow
And through his britches the blue winds blow.
When teacher talks he won’t hear a word
And shoots down dead the arithmetic-bird,
He licks the pattern off his plate
And he’s not even heard of the Welfare State.
Timothy Winters has bloody feet
And he lives in a house on Suez Street,
He sleeps in a sack on the kitchen floor
And they say there aren’t boys like him any more.
Old man Winters likes his beer
And his missus ran off with a bombardier,
Grandma sits in the grate with a gin
And Timothy’s dosed with an aspirin.
The Welfare Worker lies awake
But the law’s as tricky as a ten-foot snake,
So Timothy Winters drinks his cup
And slowly goes on growing up.
At morning prayers the Headmaster helves
For children less fortunate than ourselves,
And the loudest response in the room is when
Timothy Winters roars ‘Amen!’
So come one angel, come on ten:
Timothy Winters says ‘Amen’
Amen amen amen amen.
Timothy Winters, Lord.

At first reading, this poem may appear to be a swipe at Christian belief, a mockery of religious process, a suggestion that the Lord is powerless and blind to reality.  But I don’t think that is what the poem says.  If it is a swipe, then it is a swipe at one individual’s (the headmaster) and the system’s (school) blindness to recognize that there is already one among them who is in immediate need.  Yes, Timothy Winters roaring ‘Amen’ is a joke but it is a joke on the system that goes through a ritual of morning prayer yet never thinks that it should bear true witness.
I haven’t read much of Charles Causley.  He was an English poet, born in Cornwall.  He served in the Royal Navy during WWII so he must have been a decent sort of bloke and because of that I’m keen to read more of his work.
I wrote my poem for this post some time ago.  It comes from what I observed in the press, my consideration toward that situation and my emotional response to it, which was a sense of injustice and social misunderstanding.  I don’t know, a lot of times I can’t help but feel for the underdog no matter what shit he’s in or what he’s done.  Don’t let the bastards win man!
2000:  Listening to the news, I couldn’t help but feel the anguish and hurt of a man in a hopeless situation.

What About the Man

A man snatched his son
at Port Norlunga and
took him to a warehouse
in Lonsdale.
The man had been living there
since being estranged
from his wife,
it was a custody battle.
The man
threatened to set fire
to himself and the boy.
Police said there was a smell of fuel in the area.
They had to surround the factory with a SWAT team,
ambulances, fire engines
red hoses run out
police negotiators.
They got it all for television
on the six o’clock news,
you could see the news reader thought
the man had done something wrong.
She was calm
on the side of right
and was caring
and beautiful.
The soft and sweet potential
of a mother’s love
assured us the man gave himself up
and was taken into custody.
Everything was OK,
the boy was re-united with his mother,
a happy ending to a nasty situation
thought the lovely news reader
And she carefully smiled to assure us
that the woman was good and loved her son
while the man
was led away by two very official policemen.
will be charged
with abduction
and endangering life.
what about the man
who snatched his son
at Port Norlunga!
                                   J. O. White

Monday, 4 November 2013

Les Murray - Cotton Flannelette (bush fires)

We’ve had a tough few weeks here in New South Wales with early hot, dry summer conditions and out of control bush fires.  Australia is well acquainted with the fury, tragedy and loss from huge fire, unstoppable fire.  We have a network of Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers who answer the call to give up their time and risk life to fight these fires and save property and life.  Whenever, wherever there is an outbreak and the yet slow boiling brown white smoke in the distance agitates dread.  To when racing flame becomes visible metres above bursting tree tops leaping and licking to grip onto the living with fear.  We were lucky this time not to have anybody lose life in the fires, only property destroyed - more than 100 houses.  One of the landmarks near where I live somehow survived.  There’s this roadhouse at Lake Macquarie that has a big prawn out the front, fabricated, painted and stuck on top of a tall pole.  Everybody knows the landmark and refers to it as the ‘big prawn’.  You give and receive direction by following the ‘big prawn’, “just past the big prawn mate and then turn left”; “wait for me at the big prawn”; “if you pass the big prawn then you’ve gone too far”.  Well, the service station buildings are totally ruined, but that old ‘prawn’s’ still standing.  And people talk about it as if the ‘prawn’ was all there ever was, “did you hear the big prawn servo got burnt out?  No mate, it’s OK, the ‘big prawn’s’ still standing”.
The fresh experience of fire and the hero status of the survivor have drawn me to post a favourite Les Murray poem.  It’s called, Cotton Flannelette and it describes the agony of a young girl so badly burned that the country doctor has given up on her.  Only through the unsleeping absolute mother’s persistence (in the untrained perfect language) and her own plea to shake the bed does the child bear the pain, survive and live to carry terrible scarring, Braille tattoos and contour whorls.  Like a lot of Murray’s work, this poem is written from part experience.  Les Murray had an aunt (Myrtle) who had suffered terrible burns as a child.  I’m not sure if he knew how the accident occurred, but Les recalls seeing his aunt when he was a small boy and wondering about the scars that covered her exposed skin.

Cotton Flannelette
Les Murray (1938 – )
Shake the bed, the blackened child whimpers,
O shake the bed! Through beak lips that never
will come unwry.  And wearily the iron-
framed mattress, with nodding crockery bulbs,
jinks on its way.
Her brothers and sisters take
shifts with the terrible glued-together baby
when their unsleeping, absolute mother
reels out to snatch an hour, back to stop
the rocking and wring pale blue soap-water
over nude bladders and blood-webbed chars.
Even their cranky evasive father
is awed to stand watches rocking the bed.
lids frogged shut, O please shake the bed,
her contour whorls and Braille tattoos
from where, in her nightdress, she flared
out of hearth-drowse to a marrow shriek
pedalling full tilt firesleeves in mid air,
are grainier with repair
than when the doctor, crying Dear God woman!
No one can save that child.  Let her go!
spared her the treatments of the day.
Shake the bed.  Like: count phone poles, rhyme,
classify realities, bang the head, any
iteration that will bring, in the brain’s forks,
the melting molecules of relief,
and bring them again.
O rock the bed!
Nibble water with bared teeth, make lymph
like arrowroot gruel, as your mother grips you
for weeks in the untrained perfect language,
till the doctor relents.  Salves and wraps you
in dressings that will be the fire again,
ripping anguish off agony,
and will confirm
the ploughland ridges the gum joins
in your woman’s skin, child saved by rhythm
for the sixty more years your family weaves you
on devotion’s loom, rick-racking the bed
as you yourself, six years old, instruct them.
To me, it’s the repeat of the plea, O shake the bed; rock the bed; please shake the bed, that conveys the sheer agony a young burn victim must have suffered in the period when Les Murray’s aunt Myrtle was a girl.  I can’t help wondering how it happened.  The clue is in the title, Cotton Flannelette, and the lines, ‘in her nightdress, she flared out of hearth-drowse to a marrow shriek pedalling full tilt firesleeves in mid air.”  The girl has fallen asleep in front of an open fire (hearth drowse) and her nightclothes, pyjamas have heated to ignition point.  She has run and waved her arms in panic and fanned the flames even more (pedalling full tilt firesleeves in mid air).  Suddenly bursting into flame in front of a fire was not uncommon in Les Murray’s aunt’s time and even up until the 1980’s.  I can recall strong warnings about sitting too close to the fire and what to do if I did catch on fire – drop and roll, drop and roll!  In later years, manufacturing standards tightened to ensure children’s pyjamas were made from fire resistant material.  Cotton flannelette was one material that must have had a low flash point.
My own poem for the post was written many years ago.  It is from the country, is from experience and is from fire – not bush fires, but cane fire, back in the days when they used to send a raging fire through sugar cane to burn off the leaf and tops prior to hand cutting.
1980.  Growing up around Pinnacle in the Pioneer Valley surrounded by sugar cane and all activity of it’s farming.  The setting conjures back sweet emotion, but I could never have been a farmer.
I know cane.
I know cane as a kid,
Living in cane fields.
I know the sour smell of a mill,
Tall silver smoke stacks,
Belching white brown smoke,
Whisping white clouds of heat from vents,
At night in the light of scattered yellow lamps,
The huge black bulk of sheet-iron sheds,
Train tracks,
Loaded carriages and activity of the crushing.
I know the trains.
Sugar trains, ghost trains.
Counting the carriages,
Car after car of white square boxes,
Each encrusted with spilled raw sugar,
Set in crevices and corners,
Rock candy to be broken away,
While the black loco argues through the cutting.
I know the fields
The sweet smell of fresh ploughed dirt,
Rich black or red or brown,
Furroughs running straight and true forever,
Distance vast distance,
Black birds dotted far away,
Fussing and feeding,
In the clear open spaces,
Left clear and clean before the planting.
I know the fire,
Racing unstoppable through the cane,
Can hear the fire coming,
Burning cinders thrown high,
Into the dark sky,
Tall grasses beside rutted dirt tracks,
Where men wait with wet sugar bags,
For the cinder to fall burning,
Swiftly there’s silence,
And the men gather in the gloom,
To talk of the cane and the cutting.
I know hot afternoons,
Burning tops,
Row upon row of dry brown foliage,
Left over from harvested crop,
Bundles of coarse leaf in my hands,
Running the rows setting fire,
To the debris and thoughts,
Swimming away in the creek,
Cane swimming away in the creek.
                                     J. O. White