Monday, 25 August 2014

Robert Gray - Haiku style

The once only time that I have posted our Australian poet Robert Gray (you remember, Salvation Army Hostel, back in June 2013), belies how much I truly love and admire this guy’s work.  I have this thing where if I love something, I try not to revisit it too often for fear of losing the fascination, becoming too familiar so there’s no intrigue, no mystique, afraid that the appeal will become diluted.  But now is the time for me to sample some Robert Gray because I’m going on holiday for a few weeks so I need to hone my observational skills for when I’m out there capturing daily journal entry scenes and events.  Having said that, I’m still not going to post my favourite Gray poem.  No, I’m going to post what I practice on.  I’m practicing on capturing pure objective experience – like taking a photo – and Robert Gray would have to be one of the best imagery/descriptive poets to learn from.  So I’m reading over a number of his Haiku style poems – Haiku is a Japanese style of poetry where in a short burst (3 lines; 17 or so syllables), two images or ideas (usually from nature) are joined together by what is known as a kireji (cutting word).  The idea is to capture and convey objective experience, with-holding from any analysis of what stands behind the images you have seen – with proper Haiku, the reader will leap to his/her own perfect interpretation.  So here is a sample from Gray, simply titled, 15 Poems.

15 poems
(Robert Gray,  1945 - )
The curtains blowing
open, a sock stretched apart,
wide meadows.
Following a van up
a winding forest road. Swallows
flit between us.
Darkness, lake-hush;
a rowboat, allowed to drift, bumps
the starlight.
As if the sun
out of boredom has doodled weeds ……
a backyard.
This moon, the last
tilted sauterne, in a glass
that’s firelit.
A definition
of art deco: in black and cream
the butterfly.
Boiling water
poured from a saucepan
into a water-bottle’s neck.
On the edge of your mind
the waves fall.
Wintry sunlight;
the dry, plastery legs of a woman
in tennis skirt.
Dark bedroom. Listening
to a rain-wet tree  -  its lovely
Homesick for Australia,
a dream of rusty Holdens
in sunlit forests by the highway.
A cathedral interior –
these long tapers of rain lighting
candles on the twilit river.
Staved-in, the old rowboat
we had as kids
has foundered this last time
in a field of grass.
Wire coat-hangers,
misshapen, in a hotel wardrobe.
Steamy afternoon sun.
Cold swimming pool,
plastic blue. A bare tree’s reflection,
Its roots x-rayed.
Two magpies stepping
on the verandah. A ploughed hillside,
smoke and cumulus.
In his working life, Robert Gray was once Writer in Residence at Meiji University, Tokyo, so it stands to reason he can write a pretty good Haiku.  But what I do like about 15 Poems, is that each one is a true-blue Aussie Haiku.  Gray has replaced cherry blossom seasons and awakening of sweet oriental love with ‘rusty Holdens’, backyards, magpies and verandahs – and I can feel it!  It speaks directly to my experience as a country Australian.

My link to Robert Gray’s, 15 Poems is a number of short bursts I’ve scribbled over time on the back of shopping dockets, beer coasters, tissues and scraps of paper in the car – but don’t take my effort as a study in the Haiku form – I guess its verbose Haiku with sometimes a touch of analysis.  I wrote From Belmont & Back – 10 Poems as an exercise in instinctive observation – on your normal day, getting to work and back home again, take a snapshot, quick observation.  Haiku – it’s a fun exercise and it sharpens your powers of observation. Now I’m ready for holiday!

2014.  I get up, I go to work, I come home, nothing happens in my life; every day I see my world.
                                  Belmont & Back – 10 Poems.
Still of the dawn,
high on a hill, way out to sea,
lightning bursts without noise,
will there ever be,
any more of those,
grand naval battles?
A pile of musky shoes,
cracked and weary leather,
randomly arranged,
on the floor of my wardrobe,
viewed through a glass panel, they
might serve as equal reminder,
“Arbeit Macht Frei”.
Parrots arrive out of control
with schoolyard chatter,
before the bell is rung.
One lands on the balcony rail,
turns, lifts a feathered tail
and quickly drops calcium lime,
like a schoolboy re-dressing
from having run to the toilet.
Commuter morning,
an old street woman,
shouldn’t need to do that,
pulls a wheelie bin over,
reaches for whatever’s inside.
A suburban hunter,
emptying and resetting her traps.
Grass grown halfway up the back,
of a floral club settee,
too soon for clean-up day.
Near here, another Fantastic furniture deal
and a flat-screen TV,
will have taken over a house.
Barrel bodied man in Mayfield
gone to early retirement,
comes out on his verandah.
One plastic ribbon from the fly curtain,
catches and trails over his shoulder,
like the lash of a whip tickling flesh
in a moment before it is cracked,
Jack Russell from the cement,
outside the Sunnyside Inn,
keeps a one-eyed watch,
on his master’s mobility scooter,
moves up to the lambs-wool seat,
now the days are changing to winter.
Distracted, a DIY builder
progressing a villa-board shed
once started
along the house boundary, instead
pauses to examine and squeeze
at an old scab
on the end of his elbow.
Popped bonnet,
of an early model Ford,
or Commodore,
commands public concern,
but its only for males
to stand and ponder stare,
as might a heart surgical team,
down at the engine bay.
Never before a sky that colour blue,
nor sandy clouds
spread across an inverted beach,
that the traffic descending to Belmont,
instead of the usual bullying,
slows to a reverent crawl.
                                                           J. O. White

Monday, 11 August 2014

Yusef Komunyakaa - Hanoi Hannah

I take my poetry before I take my music.  I will follow a poet before I follow a musician.  For me, poetry is more capable of a linguistic rhythm, a natural expression of speech, an attempt to express the human spirit.  I don’t always get that from song lyrics sung.  When I do happen across words to a song that I like, it’s more likely that I will read it or recite it as poetry.  Having said that, there is something about a song and music that can preserve emotional memory so that every time you hear the particular song again, even years later, you’re taken back to being nineteen or whenever, and you recall the smells, the taste, the vision, the history of events that once played out in front of your eyes while you were transitioning with that music.  My favourite poem for this post does some of that.  It centres on the Viet Nam war and offers nostalgia through a weave of popular song titles and artists who would have been well known to American troops at the time, along with typical propaganda lines from ‘Hanoi Hannah’ (real name, Trinh Thi Ngo).  ‘Hanoi Hannah’ who was given her nickname by American troops, was a North Vietnamese radio announcer who broadcast propaganda in English.  The poem is by the American poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, and is titled, Hanoi Hannah.  Komunyakaa himself, served in Viet Nam so writes from experience.  Here it is, Hanoi Hannah.

Hanoi Hannah
(Yusef Komunyakaa,  1947 - )
Ray Charles!  His voice
calls from waist-high grass,
& we duck behind gray sandbags.
“Hello, Soul Brothers.  Yeah,
Georgia’s also on my mind.”
Flares bloom over the trees.
“Here’s Hannah again.
Let’s see if we can’t
light her goddamn fuse
this time.”  Artillery
shells carve a white arc
against dusk.  Her voice rises
from a hedgerow on our left.
“It’s Saturday night in the States.
Guess what your woman’s doing tonight.
I think I’ll let Tina Turner
Tell you, you homesick GIs.”
Howitzers buck like a herd
of horses behind concertina.
“You know you’re dead men,
don’t you?  You’re dead
as King today in Memphis.
Boys, you’re surrounded by
General Tran Do’s division.”
Her knife-edge song cuts
Deep as a snipers bullet.
“Soul Brothers, what are you dying for?”
We lay down a white-klieg
trail of tracers.  Phantom jets
fan out over the trees.
Artillery fire zeros in.
Her voice grows flesh
& we can see her falling
into words, a bleeding flower
no one knows the true name for.
“You’re lousy shots, GIs.”
Her laughter floats up
as though the airways are
buried under our feet.
You know, I started writing this post more than a week ago now.  I’ve never read anything else by Yusef Komunyakaa – never heard of him until this poem was in a rock and roll and poetry anthology amongst forty poetry books a bloke was selling on Gumtree for twenty dollars the lot down at Budgewoi, but that’s another story ….  So I really like Hanoi Hannah – not only for how it reads, but because it takes me back to a familiar era.  Right, wrong or indifferent, we had a war, we had music and it’s great that somebody captured the memory of that as poetry.  So I’m interested in Komunyakaa, and I decide to do some research before I go and hit the ‘post’ button, and I’m struck by a couple of events in this poet’s life.  First, I feel he’s almost family when I discover Yusef was once married to an Aussie novelist, Mandy Sayer – married for 10 years – a bit of Aussie influence must have rubbed off in that time, surely.  Then I read of tragedy when another wife, Reetika Vazirani (also a poet), murdered her and Yusef’s two year old son before taking her own life – such tragedy.  It stuns me, the stark events that surprise in the lives of successful and public poets.  Here I am, private, not read, and spared such trials of which I doubt I could find the strength to endure.  It causes me to approach the work differently.

Reading Hanoi Hannah, I’m reminded of my own time when the songs had to be played over and over again, burning a track in my memory, accompanied by a video of current events recording in real time, when my emotion was my heart and I burst to express it, not just to tell of it, and it’s the music that relives itself in the poor attempt of my words.
My poem for this post is a piece I wrote many years ago when I was a very young sailor being ferried in an era of special song.

1972.  Six month ANZUK deployments ‘up top’.  Vietnam was still on but winding down; for us, anyway.  The daily routine at sea was relaxed; shorts and a pair of sandals; lazy days; good days; we looked forward to port visits.

70’s at Sea
Those were the days
of suede leather coats
beneath brown fur collars,
wine colored burgundy suits
in a page boy style,
The Carpenters on reel to reel,
‘Such a feeling coming over me,
there’s won-der
in most every-thing I see’
in a deserted
dark bar
on a road
between Chong Peng & Nee Soon,
lonely for companionship,
ceiling fans in nondescript rooms
on sultry
tropical nights,
days of blue at sea,
blue sky
with silent vapour trails of B-52’s
departing, closing VietNam,
hot days,
lifeless in the South China Sea,
asleep on a Burbank fender
Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood
Some velvet morning ……
when I'm straight
I'm gonna open up your gate
and maybe tell you 'bout Phaedra
and how she gave me life
and how she made it in ………’
big tall negroes
in full length leather coats,
soft grey
& wide-brimmed hats
hand slapping
on street corners in Wanchai,
beautiful asian bar-girls,
laughing chatty,
you crazy,
them mens crazy,
spend too long in the jungle,
beer bourbon & coke
sick on sour whiskey
staggering back on board,
dreams of home & white young girls
who care,
The Sandpipers ‘Come Saturday Morning’
to role play with Liza Minelli
over & over again,
hot days in boiler room air-locks,
breath taken away
with the dry steam heat, ‘flowers
growing on the hill,
dragonflies & daffodils,
learn from us
very much,
look at us
but do not touch,
Phaedra is my name ………..’
taken away by the dry steam heat.
                                                             J. O. White