Sunday, November 8, 2009

Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero

Divisadero, as its clunky Spanish title unintentionally implies, will divide your opinion at the same time it hovers in the memory long after you finish. Magnificent as well as overblown; embarrassing, yet also intense and ultimately moving; filled with moments that belong in a Mills & Boon romance counter-pointed by mind-blowing feats of linguistic energy and narrative multiplication.

It's a wonder someone can be this great and so lushly bad all at once. What you can't fault Michael Ondaatje on is his ambition – and the restlessness beneath it.

My first impression on finishing this book, though, was strangely extra-literary. What is it about suicide that so obsesses Michael Ondaatje? All through his novels there is a fascination with self annihilation, with the urge, at best, to disappear and reinvent another life, or give one-self up to destructive fates.

According to Anna, his main narrator in Divisadero, “sometimes we enter art to hide within it. It is where we can go to save ourselves, where a third person voice protects us.” If that is so, it’s the dark stuff at the root of - and increasingly hidden by - Ondaatje’s florid gifts that may well decide what it is you prefer to draw from this book.

Will it be the deep violence and fragmentary accelerations; or the beautiful poetics and romantic lattices of plotting and character? Is it the early, wild, unsettling Ondaatje of Coming through Slaughter (1976) you like most? Or the later, lyrically rich Ondaatje of The English Patient (1992), the Booker Prize winning novel, and then film, that made him a literary superstar?

In Divisadero those preferences can be measured almost entirely along gender lines: by whether you favour the parallel tales of Anna or Coop. Anna is an academic researching the life of a deceased poet and novelist called Lucien Segura while staying at his deserted manoir in rural France. Coop is a cardsharp who misadventures among ‘60s dropouts (“hippies are living proof that cowboys still fuck the buffalo”) in the casinos of Tahoe, Nevada.

Inevitably Anna and Coop’s thoughts turn to each other and their upbringing on a Californian farm in the 1970s. Divisadero opens with a winter reverie of this farm as Anna watches her adopted sister Claire riding in the snow as “she persuades the horse down through the whiteness alongside crowded trees”. We meet the girls’ father, a stoic widower who allows rare moments of intimacy when he falls asleep on the sofa and Anna climbs up beside him to “lie like a slim dog in his arms”.

The choice of language is typical Ondaatje: ‘persuades’, ‘like a slim dog’... here is a writer who uses every note musically, who can knock you sideways with a single word, and most certainly a phrase.

As teenagers Anna and Claire form a love triangle of sorts with Coop, who is just a few years older and lives and works on the farm. Their world is shattered when the girls’ father finds one of them together with the boy. We flee with all three into adulthood, and from the scattered vantage points of Anna’s literary research in France, Coop’s gambling adventures in Nevada and Claire’s work as a legal investigator in San Francisco we re-gather who they were and what they have become.

Depending on whether you define Ondaatje’s first book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid as a novel or a narrative collection of poetry (it was subtitled ‘Left Hand Poems’ so that probably decides the matter), Divisadero ranks as his fifth novel. Born in Sri Lanka and educated in England before emigrating to Canada at age 21, Ondaatje seemed at the apex of a re-appraisal of narrative strategies and novelistic form when he burst on the scene with Billy the Kid (1970) and then the remarkable Coming Through Slaughter (1976), an imagined autobiography of the life of the early jazz musician Billy Bolden: “When he bought a cornet he’d shine it up and make it glisten like a woman’s leg.”

In a discontinuous method that was similar to Billy the Kid, Ondaatje tracked Bolden’s descent into madness and obscurity through a mix of poetry, narrative, song, photographs and documentary fragments. Coming through Slaughter remains the author’s trimmest and most shattered, as well as shattering work. At least some its energy undoubtedly derives from rumors of a personal breakdown and the end of his first marriage at the time it was written.

Ondaatje followed through with Running in the Family (1986). Part memoir, part dream of return to his boyhood home in Sri Lanka, this non-fiction work showed Ondaatje tracking down the ghosts of his family in what was once known as ‘Ceylon’ – and, of course, the stories and memories he had grown up with or tried to repress, most of all the exploits of his alcoholic father. It is one of the best ‘travel’ books ever written, overflowing with the sensual beauty of Sri Lanka, a country whose outline the author compares to “the shape of a tear”.

Since those books Ondaatje’s novels have grown larger, richer, more ambitious and inevitably more frustrating. Set in the 1930s and ‘40s of Toronto, Canada, In the Skin of the Lion (1987) broke him to an international audience with its streaming paens to work, love, dynamiting, bridge-building and the lives bound up in the monuments and history of a city. Arriving on the heels of Running in the Family it also marked a more fluid voice for Ondaatje, moving away from his devastatingly fractured early style and a focus on individuals into what he now termed “an interest in community”.

The English Patient would go on to confirm as one of the world’s leading novelists, submerging – or is that refining? – his early radical style even further. It’s now been seven years since Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje’s last novel, which felt in many ways like a re-write of The English Patient - more controlled, better edited, and somehow less energetic despite the obvious commitment behind it.

Ondaatje still seems to be trying to get out of his narrative cul de sac in Divisadero, though it feels much closer to a breakthrough than Anil’s Ghost ever did. Yet he retreats into scenes and themes so familiar we’d accuse another writer of plagiarism if they tried it: a deserted house that is occupied temporarily (like the villa in The English Patient); an aerial scene that involves architecture and a rope harness (like the bridge building in In The Skin of the Lion, or the mural scene in The English Patient); the use of a past story and a damaged mentor to overlap a present tale (again, like The English Patient).

You put down Divisadero a little stunned by this almost gratuitous and unnecessary repetition. Pondering the reverberations of an overheard radio broadcast in Divisadero where the author of Sophie’s Choice is heard to say, “You know I think I have already written the most intimate and profound book I will ever be able to write. I don’t think I can go as far as that again. From now I should try comedy. Comedy is not easy, I know. But at least it is not the same road.”

It could be that the poet in Ondaatje is so trapped by his own particular obsessions with image and metaphor that he can no longer support his narrative interests as a novelist. And yet Ondaatje is notorious for his depth of research, be it the five years he spent at perusing the journals of explorers in the library of the Royal Geographic Society for The English Patient, or the time he has clearly spent among gamblers to gain a working grasp of Texas Hold ‘Em poker for Divisadero.

Certainly Coop’s story forms the most compelling thread of Ondaatje’s latest book. And though background broadcasts of the First Gulf War and the Iraq invasion feel forced as a political theme, it’s thrilling to see Ondaatje engage with contemporary American culture in a way that’s reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s highly paced moves in No Country for Old Men. Let’s put it frankly: Ondaatje’s best writing has always been connected to his American obsessions – the American West, jazz music – rather than his European longings and the cultural self consciousness this can effect in him.

This self conscious note is almost inevitably struck during Anna’s story, reaching absurd lengths when she encounters a gypsy called Rafael whose “pockets always held a few herbs, basil or mint, so he could rip off a heel of bread and create a meal wherever he was.” By the time Rafael is playing guitar like Django Reinhardt and we are meeting his mother ‘Aria’ the whole thing sounds like something dialed in from Gypsy Romance Central.

In these moments we see Ondaatje’s tendency to lean on rich language to do the work that believable character and dialogue are failing to achieve. And yet Ondaatje finally triumphs in this strand too as Anna’s story dissolves into the extended tale of Lucien Segura (or it his tale that dissolves into her telling?) and we witness how the French writer’s childhood, later experiences of war and a frustrated love affair echo all that has later transpired in the lives of Coop, Claire and Anna.

At one point Ondaatje has Anna reflect what could serve as a manifesto for the entire novel, and perhaps all of his work as a writer: “Everything is biographical, Lucien Freud says. What we make, why it is made, how we draw a dog, who it is we are drawn to, why we cannot forget. Everything is collage, even genetics. There is a hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross.”

Ondaatje’s use of over-shadowing, echoing elements of plot and language, along with his sense of psychological collage in the storytelling, are all used in an attempt to bind Divisadero – the results are unsuccessful, though sometimes emotionally powerful.

In the end, however, Divisadero still feels like the work that it is: four novellas woven together to form a literary house of mirrors: from Anna’s stay at the French manoir in all its sensuousness and pretentiousness, to the wild yet overly-compressed gambling stings that Coop is enmeshed in, to Claire’s even sketchier role as a mediator, to the beautifully extended, concluding life of Lucien Segura, and his final observations from a fragile row boat on a pond, of “birds in the almost dark… flying as close to their reflections as possible.”

Much as I was incredibly moved by this closing image, it also signals the romantic narcissism that drowns as much of this book's poetic energy as it releases. Divisadero isn’t just about the divided lives of its antagonists, you see – it’s a reflection of Ondaatje's own profoundly splintered abilities and vision as a poet and a novelist.

- Mark Mordue

* This review was first published in an edited form in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books, May 19th, 2007.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

He Dead

Hey man,
your secrets are going to be buried with you now
or burnt
or hidden in the trees
for birds to find.
One way or another
you’ll become the story
of bones scattered by a runaway
across the sky
fragments that turned into stars
and made a Milky Way.
Back here on earth
I’ll never know what happened
that night:
whether it was rape,
whether you took part.
I want to know…
I’ll just remember
the chilly, thin sound of begging
and water from a broken tap,
“please don’t, please stop”,
the blackness of the sub-tropical night,
a community rioting,
us all trying to escape by the moon,
me so white
I moved like a ghost
among the fists and feet and light.
I did not exist.
I was not touched.
When the door opened
and a fat black boy
came out crying,
a hand over one eye,
talking about “those animals”,
the crimes were all scrambled.
Eventually you were pulled too
from this place,
muttering “I did not rape anyone”
in that kind, sweet, sorry voice of yours,
but it was hard to believe you
even though I wanted to believe,
and later chose to forget.
That night the moon turned yellow
as we escaped
and everything clung to us.
Conversations bit one another,
broke into shouting.
In town we refueled
and soon the law of fists came
but its hand was broken.
Under the florescence
conspiracy and rumour burned
and those few of us who were white
had no place
no rules
only our instinctual wrongness
and an inkling of its meaninglessness.
We drove and drove,
fell asleep by the roadside
with fires burning,
woke up in their ash and smoke
as if we had fallen
out of a bad Dream.
You were banished on an aeroplane
while whirli-whirlis turned
weary and sullen
and powdered with dirt,
and we went on.
Time passed,
eventually we met again.
I shook your black hand, felt your hand,
wondered about forgiveness and complicity,
about what happened.
I listened to you play guitar
that kind sweet sorry sound:
you sent my eyes skyward
and I thought of birds flying.

- Mark Mordue

* Poem first published in Meanjin, 2006, Volume 65, No. 3

- Image of a whirly whirly in the distance near Red Hill is taken from ABC Broken Hill website as posted by Ron Josephs.

= Skull images from W. Ramsay Smith, ‘The Place of the Australian Aboriginal in Recent Anthropological Research’, Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. Proceedings. 1907. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. It was commonplace for anthroplogists of the era to use skulls and teeth for research, sending many back to museums in Europe and the UK. Aboriginal people are still trying to retrieve the skeletal remains of their ancestors so that appropriate burial rites can be given.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Golden Age of Rowland S. Howard

Rowland S. Howard
Oxford Art Factory,
Sydney 22.10.09

What cost? When the former Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard walks into his song ‘Pop Crimes’, the title track to his new solo album, his first record in ten years, it’s as if he is barely there.

His band sound nonetheless grand, luxuriously shaded and spacious. They’re a serious night act distinguished by Mick Harvey’s (ex Bad Seeds/Birthday Party) loose-feeling, jazz-tinged drum approaches, which appear to verge on primitive collapse, then punch through with unmistakable drama. It’s a rhythm roped tight by Brian Hooper (ex Beasts of Bourbon/Kim Salmon and the Surrealists) on bass, who makes you feel every string being played, pulled, and more than anything lifted up, an erotically animal sound full of guts, guts. This is one hell of a rhythm section to have at your back.

On violin J.P. Shilo (ex Hungry Ghosts) has a distracting crop of rooster-headed hair that makes him a dead spit for the guy from Eraserhead. It’s a look that comes off as vaguely ridiculous, then vaguely intimidating. Shilo’s sound is your classic pulsating-and-falling-away, violin swim-and soar, alarmed and melodic at once. It makes me think of warnings that a submarine is sinking, of panicked birds and stars, of dead Russian composers (of course, of course, of course); sometimes it’s pretty too, in a brief and urgent way, small cuts of necessary light within the band’s smoldering attitude.

Great music is always like this, don’t you think, a kind of narrative for your dreaming mind? You can already tell these people know how to take you places.

But out front the song has passed and Rowland S. Howard appears unable to raise the bar and match his band’s energy – which makes for a depressing picture. The audience here is surprisingly young and hip, the room is packed, drawn maybe by an old story: that Howard was – and they’d both HATE this comparison – the Keith Richards to Nick Cave’s Mick Jagger in The Birthday Party. How somewhere back in time when that band were terrifyingly good, it was Howard’s unique guitar sound, his use of distortion and feedback, a smoking cigarette perpetually hanging from the lips, his bird-like looks, that were all the very definition of incendiary rock ‘n’ roll cool.

These days the coinage of his face is more wasted Roman Emperor, death’s door thin, hedonism’s cautionary message, shocked monkey. The bird of youth has flown, that’s for sure. A devastating article in The Age less than a year ago had shown Howard to be a broken man, wasted by years of addiction. Of recent years Howard admitted: “I’m a person who is totally governed by my emotions. I just don’t have the ability to hide what I’m feeling. I would just walk around the streets of St Kilda [Melbourne] sobbing. If someone asked me how I was, I would just break down, unable to speak. It was impossible for me to work.”

Inevitably something about this evening augurs in the phrase ‘come-back’, or more nervously, a hoped-for-yet-unlikely resurrection. Just when the night seems ready to slide towards such pathos from the start, Howard turns and delivers ‘Dead Radio’ and the band somehow comes together, finds another level. It might sound trite to say this, but there’s some kind of love going on here tonight. Some desire by his fellow musicians to raise Howard up to where he should be if he can make the climb. And contrary to initial expectations, Howard can.

So then, first song well played with the star barely flickering out front; second song genuinely stunning. The set moves this way and that, affected less by obvious talent and fine material than Howard’s physicality, his inability to seize the day as often as he might. The stage prowler of the past is certainly long gone. But Howard has his moments anyway: ‘The Golden Age of Violence’ is epic; ‘Life Is What You Make It’ is a knockout blow with its moral self-delivered; and in a typically half-there, half-not-able-to-make-it-way, ‘Ave Maria’ becomes special too, the final lines ringing out like Howard has just lost the love of his life and discovered it was his destiny from the beginning: “And you would later say / We didn’t dance upon our wedding day / Ave Maria”.

It makes me think about how hard it is to just be good, let alone great. And how this is both a good and great evening, for all the limitations that spring from Howard’s diminished vitality. It also delivers inevitable flashbacks to Birthday Party days when Howard lunged about the stage sending out shafts of white noise that the band erupted over like demons: “prayers on fire”, remember? Though he seems oddly embarrassed by it these days, Howard always had a counter-pointing knack for the poppy and the beautiful, as [the pre-Birthday Party] Boys Next Door’s ‘hit’ ‘Shivers’ – which he wrote – showed.

Filtered through some underground musical muslin, classic pop-rock textures continue to inform Howard’s songs today: the Roy Orbison yearning in that nasal, droll Lee Hazelwood nearly-singing voice of his; the early 50’s rock ‘n’ roll menace that still shines off his guitar sound; that Spector-like sense of drama and space in the arrangements; the heart-of-darkness, Velvet Underground spirit of hedonistic affection that runs across the songwriting; the spaghetti Western, fly-swatting tensions and sweaty textures that affirm the musician as an urban cowboy out on the Existential range.

Howard tells all these song stories as if there should be a coffee and half-spent cigarette in front of him: as part confession, part fucked up love letter and excuse, and even a type of lie too, a delusion matched at other times by the rawest of admissions. It would be easy to say then what we were watching here is the ghost of the man, someone who used to really be something romanticizing himself. But that’s surprisingly not true. Physically depleted and older, lacking confidence in his own revealingly sweet way: yeah, it’s all there for us to witness. But Howard also displays flashes of the old plumage and dark grace, and something deeper, even poetic, a sort of greater vulnerable truth about himself now. The wounds of time, I guess, that make his best songs stronger than they’ve ever been. Like he sings it, “Life’s what you make it. Yesterday’s hero – don’t you hate it? Life’s what’s you make it. Don’t backdate it. Celebrate it.” Here’s to his health on that valedictory note. And if it holds out, the golden age of Rowland S. Howard after all.

- Mark Mordue

* Wrote this on spec, impulse, whatever. Doubt I can get it published anywhere as it's not a 500-words-or-less judgement call. Figured a few of you might be interested in it anyway. Hope so.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I once asked Tom Waits if he felt fatherhood had affected his songwriting in any way. "Well," he said, pausing to consider the full weight of the question, "it's harder to find the ashtrays."

It's as good an observation as any on the mysterious rites of fatherhood. For though I'm a non-smoker, I can sympathise with Waits's predicament. My baby boy is now a full year grown, and, as he graduates from crawling to walking and into a whole new world of reaching, I am finding our entire house is also on the move.

When I look for anything these days, it is either chaotically below the ankles (this is his world: plastic, battery-operated, relentlessly tuneful, jigsaw-scattered, surprisingly bookish and marked by delicate thuggery) or safely above the waist (our world: full of glass and poisons, precarious, haphazard piles and a toilet into which I really wish he would stop throwing things.

My partner is meanwhile trying to find some time to look into the mirror again. After losing so much of her hair (a common experience) because of the physical trauma of birth, she finally feels as if it is growing back towards its natural state. It was always one of the most beautiful and distinct things about her (it's true, men can fall in love with a woman because of her hair), and I understood why it grieved and upset her to see it fall out by the handful while she battled our baby boy's sleeping and feeding problems and this new and not always perfect ideal of herself as a mother.

I, too, examine myself in battle-weary terms: the midlife gut, the back problems from lifting my son, the less than stylish, food-flecked, sleep-deprived way I appear. Vanity may not be killed off with parenthood, but it is certainly given a battering. The same goes for that sense of whom one is or was, and the self worth that this "originality" previously involved. As a parent, you now live for another, but you fear, sometimes, that you may have lost yourself in the bargain.

How all this love and pain and struggle and rage measure out into some modern concept of fatherhood is not easy to pin down. I know the magic of my son's kiss on my neck as he nuzzles into me (and mostly fails to bite me with his four teeth), and the way he can glow like a saint when he sees me walking in the door. I know the crushing weight of sitting alone in a park, sobbing, thinking I am not going to make it, hoping no one sees me and finds out how hollowed out and broken I really am. That, if I don't recover, my family will be lost and, along with them, everything my life might be worth.

It seems to me modern fatherhood is this half-hidden thing, subsumed in glib and not especially flattering television images, our own strangely male inclinations to deep silence, and those private relationships with our fathers and mothers that shadow whatever we might like to be (or not to be) as a parent.

Certainly, the story of fatherhood is the story of the father as a son, and also as the father of a son or a daughter. I guess each of us has a story like this that we are trying to carry on and yet change in some way.

When the National Fatherhood Initiative in the US reviewed prime-time television on the five major networks a few years ago, it found that fathers were rarely portrayed. When they were, it "was usually either as a competent man yet uninvolved father, or as an involved father yet incompetent man".

The fact is that motherhood, understandably necessarily, even is the main focus of parenting and any idea of what is sacred or crucial adds to this diminished view of fatherhood. I don't think it's too much to say we are standing in the shadows.

As much as I love Homer Simpson, perhaps something decent and intelligent and confessional from the horse's mouth is needed to update our image of ourselves, to clear the decks. Slowly but surely, I'm beginning to believe this "something" is emerging.

Ian Sansom's The Truth About Babies: from A-Z (Granta Books), while owing some debts to Nick Hornby's writing, is one small attempt to fill in the gaps combining a diary, a philosophical reference guide, a compendium of wise words, witticisms and interesting facts, and a literary attempt to grapple with all aspects of modern fatherhood, from the banal to the sublime.

In his introduction, Sansom admits to an early desire to write a big book on this subject because "when you think about babies you don't think small. You think big. When you think about beginnings you soon get to thinking about immortality." What came about instead was this shoebox reality. Notes scrawled after his child had gone to sleep. Things stitched together on the run.

Sansom begins with a chapter called "Advice". "Are we doing it right?" he asks of first-time parents, answering, as all first-time parents do, with: "We're just doing it."

He then passes through a series of alphabetically arranged chapters that have a mock-reference authority to them. The headings include "Baby Monitor", "Clothes", "Comparisons", "Depression", "Driving", "Fear", "Friends", "Hate", "Motherese", "Shit", "Sincerity", "Sleep", "Touch", "Truth", "Violence" and, finally, "Zero" (which consists of this brief note: "A cup of tea and a slice of cake, spotted with wax, and the year's gone. Like snow in the hand. You're one").

In the chapter "Strangers", he writes: "I go to a party. I am introduced by the host to someone who has also recently had a baby. Apart from that fact we have nothing in common. We have nothing to talk about. We struggle for a few moments exchanging and comparing basic baby information: age, sex, sleeping patterns. Then we give up and go our separate ways, find other people to talk to, people with whom we have something in common."

Sansom relishes these droll opportunities and the humour they allow. At various times, he describes his son as looking "like a Las Vegas Elvis" in his white sleepsuit, then, by turns, Charlie Brown, Picasso, a gangsta rapper and even the late Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery.

I empathise with his astute eye for the mutability of his child, a phenomenon of growth in the first year that is breathtaking. People are always looking for whether our boy has his mother's or father's face, each of our families seeking out, with vigour, the primacy of their own stock. The most striking observation, though, came from a woman friend who told my partner: "When he smiles he's like you and when he's serious he's like Mark." I can't tell you how often I have thought about that comment, what it means, what it says about us and who we really are.

Every now and then, Sansom hits you with something harder, like his chapter on "Violence", where he describes trying to calm his child at night and its refusal to be calmed. Very quickly the scene escalates to him shaking the baby till it cries. "I stop shaking. I lay you down in your cot and walk out of the room. I am ashamed. I don't tell anyone." Given its diary nature, the book is inevitably Sansom's dialogue with himself as he grapples with fatherhood and what it means. It is also a prolonged love letter and time capsule for his child. In this way, it is about the deep, mucky, contradictory material of real love, the highs and the lows of fatherhood that are never entirely resolved.

This desire to write a letter or diary for one's son seems to be something of a male attribute, as Peter Carey's A Letter to our Son (1994) might also indicate.

But once I say men are the ones obsessed with this kind of message-in-a-bottle, and possibly monumental, outlook on parenting, I am forced to acknowledge the obvious, as Allison Pearson put it in an English review of Sansom's book: "Remarkably little of any power or depth has been written about this adventure, one of the greatest life has to offer, because in the past babies were the sole preserve of mothers. And it is in the nature of mothers not to have time to write stuff down. Worse, they are considered to have no experiences worth recording."

One sees, then, that writing itself can be act of selfishness. I read with cautionary distress Sansom's contrasting use of Bertrand Russell's pleased notes on fatherhood, in his Autobiography (1967-69), with his daughter, Katherine Tait's, observations later, in My Father Bertrand Russell (1975): "He played at being a father and he acted the part to perfection, but his heart was elsewhere and his combination of inner detachment and outer affection caused me much muddled suffering."

When I talked about this with Warren Ellis, the violinist from the rock band Dirty Three, he described how a journalist had asked him "if it was true, as Cyril Connolly had put it [in Enemies of Promise], that `there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall'?" With just a hint of anger, Ellis told me: "How could I answer that in any other way, without showing disrespect to my son, than to say `no'?"

Ellis admits, though, that coming to terms with fatherhood took a while. Indeed, it was not until the birth of his second son that he felt he could embrace it fully. "Seeing all four of us in a room together for the first time was a moving experience," he says. "I didn't get that so much from the first birth because I was so terrified. I wanted all this incredible outpouring of emotion when Jacky was born, but I just panicked. We had all these feeding problems with him at the start, too. You think the most instinctive things should come naturally, but it doesn't come naturally at all. I felt like I wasn't part of the human race. I still find it confusing some times. But nothing can describe the feelings that it involves. I just think as a father you have to wait longer for those things to become clear."

Eventually, I ring a close friend, Michael Sherman, a far more experienced father than I am, for advice about what being a good father means. He says: "I wonder if we ever fully get there. I often slip into being a person and not a father." His eldest son, Max, has Down syndrome. "It gets exaggerated with a disabled child. But every day I have to get him up and get him dressed for school. I'm 44, he's 11. Sometimes I get so frustrated and say to myself: `Can't you just get up and dressed for school yourself!' He will never learn to do that. I'll be dead and he will still need that help. In that kind of situation it's really hard to let go of `me' as a person and what I expect of other people. But, from the moment they come out, a child is another person and you have to recognise it. It's really hard to give them that grace.

"I can't think of the medical word for it, but among his problems Max has something that basically means his head is not fused to the top of his spine. So, for five years, he could not go on a swing at all. And he loves the swing. Every time he goes on one on his own now, in the one moment I am so proud I feel like crying and on the other I'm saying: `Hold on tight!' I'm so frightened, and he's saying: `I will, Dad', like: `Leave me alone!"' Michael laughs about it and I feel like laughing and crying along with him. As he says: "Being a parent, you get so mushy. That's the deepest thing: the emotional part of your life becomes so much bigger and you can't control it. The total love, the violence, the pride, the madness."

I likewise find myself moved by the most saccharine films close to tears in I Am Sam or filled with fantasies of revenge and panic and an aching empathy for the parents whenever I hear of children injured or killed. Let alone the nightmare of pedophilia, a crime that also angers me for what it means to be an older male in this society, soiled by the prevalence of this sickness as if it were some form of original sin blemishing all men.

No matter how turbulent all this has been for me as a man, a writer and a working dad, I thank my lucky stars I have always worked from home. No man not at home with his partner can understand how difficult raising a child is, especially if the baby is not "easy" (parental code for a good sleeper). The funny thing is I have learnt how to be a father, am still learning, by following my partner's lead. She shows me what to do, helps me make it there. I'd hate to underestimate that.

Like many working fathers, my own father was often not around while I was growing up. As a boy, I recall, I'd keep my mother company as we drove Dad to work on the midnight shift. I'd watch him walk into the giant steel mills of Newcastle, his smallness panging me with loneliness for him.

Sometimes I worry about this tendency myself, about the pressures I feel to be a provider, a wage earner, and where it might take me in the world. At the same time, I reflect on any hint of selfishness masked within that drive, that in some way I might be putting my career before my family and excusing it with a false feeling of sacrifice. The best I can do is be aware of that duplicity, to try to find some democracy of action in the home, as well as contribute some love that adds up to dishes done, garbage out, nappies changed, and a closeness that never ends up withering into what Paul Kelly once sang: "I've lost my tenderness. I've taken bad care of this." (Careless).

I well remember my father's burning words to me on his hard labours and my blossoming education as a young man: how he didn't want me to "end up" like him. As a working-class man, he saw education as a way of lifting me up and out of the struggles he felt condemned to. When I reflect on his efforts, and my mother's, I feel a profound debt to my privileges, my luck, and an obligation to somehow convert all that into something of worth for my own son, to help propel him while avoiding laying any burden of expectation on his shoulders.

Amid those conflicting hopes and fears, I find that becoming a father is sending me back to my own family to my parents, my sisters and my brother to heal some distances I've allowed to grow in following my own life path, to make my renewed belief in the bonds of family stronger so that my son does not journey, un-tethered from his sources, to then get lost in some way in the wider world. It is very much my understanding that my son truly does belong to "us", as much I want him to know he is as free as a bird.

Even with such natural distances between us, my father's words of advice have lingered and given me direction when I least expected. One: "Never vote for the Liberal Party." No great surprise there from a working man who has done his fair share of union work, but at least with enough latitude to let my vote go anywhere but conservative. And two: "Son, never worry about getting the sack. It was always the best thing that ever happened to me." Not that this has been a common factor in my father's life. Dad was just trying to say don't be afraid of change, especially when it seems unpleasant or is forced upon you. Better things are always ahead.

Dad was right, of course. Every time fatherhood gets hard or even impossible, moments and then whole days of joy arrive. It's usually the simple things, like when my little boy and I are having a bath together or I am chasing him up the stairs, step by step, laughing. Or when we are watching early morning TV on the weekend and a clip for Eminem or Holly Valance(his favourites) appears on Rage and we turn up the volume and dance to the lullabies of the moment him, his beautiful mother and me, raging along, punching our arms in the air, shouting "hey".

It feels to me, right then, that the family who dances together stays together, and that's about as wise and happy I can be as a father for today.

- Mark Mordue

* This story first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrumn 'Essay' section under the title 'About a Dad' on March 29, 2003. It was later republished by Culture Now in New York on 17th July 2009.

= Black and white family photo with my father and my son taken on the back streets of Glebe in 2003 by the very eminent Australian photographer Michael Wee (he's a good cook too).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Pico Iyer is Lost

Pico Iyer is lost. It’s a condition he uses to great effect in his increasingly internalised travel books as we find him on the road to somewhere he’s not sure of. Wandering through dark and foreign backstreets or along paths tinged with feral emptiness, sensitised to a world in which he almost always appears to be, even in the company of such luminary figures as Leonard Cohen and the Dalai Lama, somewhat alone in spirit.

“For me,” Iyer says, “being a traveller means setting yourself new challenges even when you are sitting at your desk.” In that sense it’s also about “the foreign places inside ourselves.”

His first book, the 1988 travel collection Video Night in Kathmandu, announced a major new talent. By 1995 the Utne Reader was placing him alongside Noam Chomsky and Vaclav Havel in a list of 100 visionaries worldwide who could change our lives. With his last collection, 2004’s Sun After Dark (subtitled Flights Into The Foreign), a kind of deeper, darker brother to 2000’s The Global Soul (subtitled Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search For Home), he confirmed his place — if that’s not too ironic a word to use — among the finest travel writers we know.

Iyer’s limpid literary style, blessed with an essayist’s logic and a mystic’s openness to the inexplicable and the poetic, seems custom built for the profession. He nonetheless observes “the mark of a travel-writer is that he never wishes to be called a travel-writer — Jan Morris is a historian, Bruce Chatwin was an anthropologist of sorts, Naipaul is a writer on the legacy of colonialism, Paul Theroux I see primarily as a novelist. A travel writer is someone who doesn’t feel comfortable within the straightjacket of any definition. So I’ve never considered myself really a travel-writer, so much as an observer of cultures converging, or a describer of what’s new to me, and strange.”

The two of us began our correspondence a year ago when Sun After Dark was released, at first by email, then over the phone for an interview, and by ongoing email since that time. Somewhere along the way we became friends. As a fellow writer I’ve been struck by Iyer’s desire for comradeship as well as his ongoing faith in the affinities between people — and how that can be woven into a new form of community internationally. Not for Iyer the terse one liner, the lower case rush. He writes letters. And he writes them to you.

Born in England in 1952 to Indian parents who later migrated to the USA, Iyer spent his childhood in California before returning to England to be educated at Eton and Oxford. It’s a background that causes him to say he is “a bit of a weird mongrel.” In the past he has also called himself “a global village on two legs.”

The author now lives with his female partner in Nara, a city identified with the rural traditions and artistry of old Japan, where he shuns both car and bike and prefers to “travel by foot”. In-between global travels that take in annual visits to his mother who still lives in California, he regularly stays at a Benedictine monastery outside of Los Angeles where he has spent “two weeks in spring and two weeks in late winter every year for the last fourteen years. I travel a lot but I also need stillness. I look out from the monastery and see a great expanse of sky and ocean and there’s nothing but tolling bells. It kind of complements all the movement in my life.”

Iyer tells me the impact of digital communications and the World Wide Web has deeply affected how one should approach the task of travel writing, a problem of pacing as much as content. On a personal level he says he is part of the “pre-computer generation,” meaning he has a preference for taking notes and writing initial drafts longhand, “then and there, while the place is still inside me and I can see, smell, taste and hear it. There’s something about the energy of moving your hand across the page, the rhythm, a human connection. The whole movement of writing on computer is different. There’s a staccato to the keys. I noticed it first when I started using email for stories and a different self emerged, more metallic and chill.”

The bigger picture is that when he first went to countries like Tibet seventeen years ago “people had very little access to the place. Now there have been movies about Tibet, people can access images on the net,” the amount of information is simply greater. With this comes the danger of what he calls “the illusion of knowing” this can create, a kind of false intimacy with the world. In the specific case of Tibet it made him want to return and “explore the inner Tibet, take a more inward way of looking at it.”

This notion of internal voyaging and his appreciation for the molten condition of modern travel writing, “the way fiction and non-fiction have become blurred”, the radical movements within the best writers’ work that somehow embraces history, memoir and journalistic insight, are all inciting him forward to try new things. Which is why Sun After Dark had terrifically haunting pieces on Yemen and Bali set beside encounters with the author Kazuo Ishiguro and a literary appreciation of the work of W. G. Sebald (whom he calls “the prince of intimations,” a phrase that could well haunt the aspirations he has for his own writing).

In truth Iyer says he’d like to do something akin to what Paul Theroux managed in My Other Life and My Secret History, “which are his most interesting books — and his most interesting travel books — where he creates a character very much like himself, as if it were a novel.”

Which is not to say Iyer abandons observational acuity for the inner search. Twenty years as a travel writer have conditioned him to a keenness of eye and ear the envy of many journalists. His more recent stories testify to that strength as much as any internal voyaging.

In ‘A Haunted House of Treasures’ he brilliantly evokes a visit to the war-ravaged monument of Angkor in Cambodia with broad historical and natural detail as well as sudden gestural shocks like “the little girl who put a water pistol in her mouth and pulled the trigger.” In another recent story, ‘The Khareef’ he sweeps you up into the dark velocity of physically distant but absolutely entwined worlds as moves through Yemen then back to the USA just prior to September 11. The promises and dark ironies of global interconnectedness are throughout his work. Iyer talks to me about how “America’s destiny is caught up in the Middle East but no one ever goes there.” Which make “the role of the writer is to penetrate the other” that much more vital.

Lately, Iyer tells me he has been following U2 and the Dalai Lama (who likes to call him “Pinocchio”) around the world for a new book project, though it is still taking shape as he contacts me from London, L.A. and wherever else he can find an internet cafe. “I suppose my theme, and my interest, in recent times has been trying to see the global reality forming all around us,” he says, “to travel from Syria to California to Easter Island to Japan, and to find what there is redeeming in it, at some level much deeper than markets or machines. And two of the obvious forces for good who are doing this on a much greater scale are U2 and the Dalai Lama, with their very different attempts to balance hope and realism, to make ‘hope and history rhyme,’ to paraphrase the phrase Bono took from [Irish poet] Seamus Heaney. So this year I decided to spend what time and money I could save following these messengers of hope.”

“I just read Bono's book of recent interviews last week, and was constantly impressed that he speaks lyrically for the same battle with conscience and determination not to let the world get him down that the Dalai Lama does. He cites the Dalai Lama twice, speaking about how all life is a preparation for death, and [how] he wrote his great gnarled ballad ‘One’ for a Tibet Freedom Concert, noting, as the Dalai Lama might, that we're ‘one, but we’re not the same.’”

When I read letters like this from Iyer I’m immediately aware of the fan in him. But there’s more to it than that. There’s his belief in the heroic, the poetic, the possible. That as human beings we’re all still making it up as we go along, and the best and luckiest among us have a chance to make at least some of it up for all of us. In that larger frame, the lyrics to ‘One’ aren’t just part of Iyer’s literary and personal conundrum, they’re a grace note for the communicators among us.

“It sounds pretentious, perhaps, but having written at length about Easter Island and North Korea and Bhutan and many other places, I get more excited these days writing about jet lag, or dream-states, or travels to the night, the unconsidered corners of the clock,” Iyer says. “I want to make travel writing new again for myself, and exciting. I want to expand it to cover something more, and deeper than a physical world that is already covered far too intensely.

“One of my great heroes among travellers is Thoreau, who ‘travelled widely in Concord,’ as he put it. And I've always felt that travelling is really just a case of being moved, being transported; the physical movement is only an easy way to catalyze the inner movement, which is what really stays with one. And so the realms of spirit, if that is what you wish to call it, are as inexhaustible as anything in Tibet, and I do much of my travelling now while just sitting in one room for months on end, or walking around my neighbourhood, or returning (as I am now, writing this to you) to the town where I was born, and trying to measure the shadow it casts inside me, and the person who emerged from its strange climate. ‘It matters little how far you travel,’ as Thoreau wrote, ‘the farthest commonly the worst. What is important is how alive you are.’

“Whether I travel, how I live, where I go and what I choose to look at are all, ultimately, just ways of trying to keep myself alive, engaged, and not in the rut that travel tries to shake you out of. Travel, again, is another word for transport, and transport really just a way of talking about travelling into other selves, the counter-lives, and alternative selves we visit do rarely in the normal run of things.”

“I think that degree of intimacy and unsettledness, what we share with those closest to us, is how we can take travel writing deeper, and make it something more than just a collection of digital slides from our trip bicycling across Gambia. It's how we give it a landscape as rich and mysterious and unfathomable as those worlds that fiction and poetry have traditionally occupied. When you look at the great travellers of today, whether Kapuscinski or Naipaul or Sebald, all are bringing an intensity of questioning and engagement that lifts their writing to the level of the highest reportage or poetry. Putting themselves on the line — at risk — they are venturing everything in their attempts to wrestle their demons and the world’s to the ground.”

- Mark Mordue

* Above story first published in The Weekend Australian Travel 'Flight Deck' section, Febuary 12th 2005; Planet Magazine in San Francisco, Spring 2006; and Kyoto Journal, Japan, Issue No, 67, 2007.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sichuan HOT!

Chongqing is exploding. Dubbed “the invisible city” by The Guardian (UK) newspaper because so few people outside of China have heard of the place, it sees some 1,300 people a day flooding into its precincts, around half a million new residents a year. That makes Chongqing the fastest growing urban conglomeration on the planet, a vital wheel in the Chinese government’s ‘Go West’ campaign to regenerate a feudally impoverished and underdeveloped interior – and an increasingly potent equal to the great eastern cities of Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai.

Located on the merging veins of the Jialing and Yangtze, it is also upriver from the Three Gorges Project, the world’s largest dam, the building of which has helped drive the immigrant rush into the city as well as power its almost insane expansion. Once a part of the Sichuan province, Chongqing has simply become too big for that state to handle. It's now an independent ‘municipality’ with some 31 million people living in both the city and the surrounding hills and farming regions into which it is spreading like a fire.

Inevitably the young artists of Chongqing manifest this energy: a clamor, optimism and virulence the likes of which the West has not seen the nineteenth century days of the Industrial Revolution. These artists are all products of the Sichuan Fine Arts Academy where the acclaimed likes of Zhang Xiaogang were previously trained during the 1980s. Against the grain of other all-pervasive Chinese teaching institutions, the Academy has now produced a new wave of graduates distinguished by the radical variety of their individual styles rather than a group or generational signature. It’s a development attributed to the liberating influence of their two Masters, Yang Shu and Chen Weimin.

Yang Shu’s own paintings have the organic mysticism of a Kandinsky to them if Ralph Steadman had been holding the brush, lotus-like abstractions with a violent, off-kilter undercurrents coming at you across the canvases. Chen Weimin’s work is saturated in colours – bright blues, sponge pinks, luminous yellows – that appear to reconstitute the buildings and advertising iconography of Chongqing into a psychedelic vision circa San Francisco 1969. Summaries are always glib, but Yang seems to chart the hilly vertigo of the city’s frantic road life, its endless noise and rural-shattering expansion as something phantasmic, deeply internalized; while Chen depicts a scenic actuality of eye-popping beauty and radio-active consumer absolutes, a city soaked in its own urges.

With Yang and Chen’s guidance a showcase exhibition of a generation under their tutelage has been put together called ‘Sichuan Hot: New Painting from Chongqing City, China’. The title makes an obvious reference to the famously spicy and eye-wateringly intense hot-pot dishes for which all of Sichuan is justly famous. It has been assembled by the curators Ray and Evan Hughes of the Ray Hughes Gallery in Sydney in partnership with Simon Wright, the Director of the Queensland College of Art Gallery at Griffith University. Already ‘Sichuan Hot’ is shaping up as one of the most cutting edge displays of contemporary Chinese art in the world today, though all three curators are quick to state that while Yang and Chen provide “an impressive entry point” as Wright puts it, “the exhibition is really an emerging artists’ show – it’s also less about contemporary ‘Chinese’ art than contemporary art internationally.”

Li Li is the best known of the group on those terms, with successful showings already in Hong Kong and New York. She regularly depicts herself as a pony-tailed girl in flat-planed cartoon situations, gleefully taking to rainbows with a flame thrower and devouring trees in a stoned reverie like some giant panda, or dismembering herself in eerily detached pastel settings. Zen Hong is perhaps the most restrained of all the artists by comparison, producing austere, highly detailed architectural facades in monochromatic grids with nothing more than a pen and a ruler – work that curator Simon Wright finds overwhelmingly “painstaking and on a level of obsession I still can’t work out”.

Li Hua’s rough and blaring abstractions meanwhile suggest comparisons to Hundertwasser, works so ropey and dense they appear ready to slide off the canvas to the floor. Her studio partner Li Bin Bin creates a more floating mix of vine-like DNA and Mandelbrot fractals that blend organic and digital terrains. Both artists give off the impression of looking inside an aquarium, one wretchedly, colour-fully polluted, the other odd and futuristic. Liu Wei Wei’s work is from somewhere else again: voodoo figurines that suggest Jean Michael Baquiat and the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ on a glam-rock bender.

This is from China? Really?

Evan Hughes elaborates on this eclecticism by explaining how all three curators found themselves “reacting against this idea there was a Chinese style of painting”, not to mention the market-driven mania that has reinforced it. Just when Beijing and Shanghai seemed to be playing themselves out in the long aftermath of the Cynical Realist and Gaudy Artist movements of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Chongqing opened their eyes again to other possibilities. “I’ve never seen my father be so committed or work so hard on a show,” he says of the ‘Sichuan Hot’ show. “Never.”

For Ray Hughes the exhibition is the pay-off to “an energy that has been feeding me for fourteen years” ever since his first thrilling visits to the Mainland, which would go on to establish his Sydney gallery as the bridge-head for modern Chinese art in Australia. Hughes has shown works by major painters like Liu Wei, Liu Xiaodong and Qi Zhilong, and continues to maintain relationships with some of the most important Chinese artists of the era as well as idiosyncratic choices like the Luo Brothers and Chang Xugong that have proved equally astute and enduring.

He nonetheless likens arriving in Chongqing to how he felt visiting New York in the 1970s. The camaraderie of the young artists, “the labyrinth of studios,” “this scene happening”; all in an extremely hilly city of aggressive vibrancy he repeatedly describes as “like something out of the street-scenes in Bladerunner”.

Historical resonances add another undercurrent to this atmosphere. Chongqing is said to have been the site for the war-like 11th century BC kingdom of Ba, famed for its short, and ferociously effective, curved swords. Nearby is Fishing Town, one of the three great battlefields of China, “the Place That Broke God’s Whip”, where the Mongol hordes were turned back during the Song Dynasty. The same warrior spirit would make it the heart of resistance to the Japanese invasion in World War Two, and the provisional capital of China under Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang forces. Whenever the country has been in trouble, it seems, it is Chongqing that has closed its fist and turned the invaders away.

Along with automobile and motorbike manufacturing, the military still plays a big part in the city’s industrial life, and there is extensive coal mining across the region. Given its hilly setting and the mountains that surround it, Chongqing climbs upwards as much as outwards, and remains unusual for a Chinese city in that there are virtually no bicycles to be seen on the streets. Car ownership doubles every five years – and with the World Bank ranking 16 of China’s cities among the 20 most polluted in the world, Chongqing consistently languishes among the worst offenders despite ‘clear-sky days’ and a recent shift towards cleaner hi-tech and I.T.-related industries.

Many of the artist’s studios bear witness to the city’s military history, massive work spaces that have been developed out of former tank lofts and now serve the more creative warrior spirit. “Most art schools lay down train tracks like Tootles. Here there was a green light to go and chase something and I liked that,” says Ray Hughes of visiting the Academy. “There wasn’t a focused look. It was lashings of freedom. People were going in their own various directions. These guys (Wang and Chen) gave them the license to explore. This bunch of kids is China’s next wave,” he adds without a shadow of doubt; then he begins to laugh. “[My son] Evan likes to say their Cultural Revolution wasn’t Mao it was Microsoft.”

Evan Hughes laughs with him. He is, of course, himself a representative of a generational shift in the curatorial energy of Sydney. Evan Hughes talks in a long spieling rush about what he saw in these artists’ paintings, and does so in a way that is highly attuned to their youth: “There are no references to Mao in their work. No references to the Cultural Revolution. Unless it made some impact in their lives there is no reason for them to clasp on to such things. Instead it’s the city itself and things like the internet, cable TV, the mass reproduction of cartoons from Japan, the affects of design in everything from new magazines to architecture.”

“You have to remember this generation in their early teens only knew oppressive State buildings, design and mass media before. With the internet especially they began seeing all these images that people in the West take for granted. It all comes out of mass communication. Artists of importance in China previously told the stories of repression and opening. These kids have seen the explosion of pop culture, urban clutter, the destruction of open environments.” It’s these streams that give the show its international flavour – along with what he calls “the story of the explosion of China in terms of its urban landscapes.”

Ultimately, Evan Hughes suggests these artists are in fact “painting about their world in a foreboding way.” Ray Hughes smiles at that idea. He doesn’t seem perturbed by the darker intimations this work may carry about Chongqing, about China, or about what it is like to be young in a world poisoning itself on all kinds of levels. “I’m forty years older,” Ray Hughes says. “Part of what you learn through the process of getting where I am is to sometimes just drop the suspicions and inhibitions and run with the optimism that’s there… I do think I’ve unearthed some pretty interesting characters as part of the visual language of the place [Chongqing].” And with a Mandarin chop of the hand he adds, “That’s my job.”

Evan Hughes uses the same Bladerunner comparisons with wry amazement, reinforcing it with a final story about a collector in London who was skeptical of Chen Weimin’s work, describing it as recycled Pop Art gestures with fresh Chinese flavours: “I thought back to the city, to its buildings adorned in pink tiles, its bright orange afternoon smog-assisted sunset, the deep British Racing green of the Yangtze River, the bright yellows of the taxis and the bright blues of the buses,” he says. “I turned from the painting to him [the collector] and replied, ‘No, it’s really like that.’… Welcome to Chongqing.”

- Mark Mordue

* An edited version of this story first appeared in Australian Art Collector, April - June, 2009

+ Sichuan Hot will be exhibited at the Ray Hughes Gallery in Sydney from September 25- October 21, 2009.

= Above artworks in descending order from the top are:

- Untitled, 2006 oil on canvas by Yang Shu
- Untitled (Pink Flower/Fireworks) 2008 oil on canvas by Chen Weimin
- Untitled, 2008 mixed media on canvas by Li Hua
- The Black Flower I, 2009 acrylic on canvas by Li Binbin

Images are copyright and republished courtesy of Ray Hughes Gallery.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hard On for Love: Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Munro

Is Bunny Munro Nick Cave’s version of Willy Loman with a hard on? In The Death of Bunny Munro the Australian rock ‘n’ roll singer and sophomore author tells the story of a sex-obsessed travelling salesman whose life is apparently spiraling towards its end. Inevitably, comparisons will be made with Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman which premiered precisely sixty years ago in New York City.

Those comparisons are not just a matter of similarly fatalistic titles and the protagonists’ shared occupation. They relate to the unsettling use of memory and self-delusion that both Miller and Cave embroider into their dramatic depictions, taking their seemingly naturalistic works into far more other-worldly and troubling places.

Cave also shares with the great American playwright a moral and political purpose in trying to give an ordinary, even unappealing man his tragic dimension: in Miller’s case this was the salesman as victim of the American Dream, sacrificed to a capitalist machine he can’t stop believing in and lying about; in Cave’s world the morality is ultimately more spiritual, the politics more personal, even if his English anti-hero is so grossly opportunistic and misshapen with desire it pushes the limits of any possibility for empathy.

There’s something else worth noting here. Miller’s work was a play of great outward seriousness and weight, a clear attempt to write a modern classic. Cave’s book is an incendiary piece of semi-pornographic, high-brow trash on the borderlines between disposability and art. The cover photo of a woman’s splayed legs calls to mind a provocative update on the artwork of 1950s pulp novels and tells no lies about the contents inside.

This begs numerous questions. What happens then when a talented rock star produces an excellent novel that is an orgy of male sexual fantasies and exultant misogyny? Will there be more to the public connection than a cross-promotional marketing campaign based on Cave’s celebrity? Is the book, in fact, an important reflection on our sex-obsessed, consumer society, as well as a satiric and tragic grotesque of the male psyche? If so, how will women respond to it? Will it ‘sell’ and to whom?

For some time now there has been a conversation evolving on the feminization of modern publishing – and with it a nascent suggestion the male reader is all but dead. Far more women buy books than men; and when men do read it is mostly non-fiction, while the novel has been left to the determining interests of the female buyer.

The literary machismo of an Ernest Hemingway or a Raymond Carver is less likely to find a mainstream blessing in this chick-lit inferno – let alone a Charles Bukowski (who Cave has attacked as “a jerk” in his recent song ‘We Call Upon the Author’) or a Louis-Ferdinand Celine (whose black humour, vernacular aggression and ecstatic misanthropy in Journey to the End of Night is a very relevant comparison for The Death of Bunny Munro).

As an internationally renowned singer and songwriter Nick Cave has been working this confrontational seam of male identity and ‘sexual politics’ for almost four decades. Not that he has ever tried to dress up his obsessions as political. They’ve been ever-present from early Birthday Party songs like ‘She’s Hit’ and ‘Zoo Music Girl’ (“let me die beneath her fists”) through to a solo career with his backing group the Bad Seeds and a litany of tracks such as ‘Hard On for Love’, ‘Deanna’ (“I am a knocking with my toolbox and my stocking”) and ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, his best-selling duet with Kylie Minogue in which Cave beat Australia’s former sweetheart to death with a rock then drowned her body all the while he proposed his undying romantic love.

Cave has become so established as a cultural icon – the Lord Byron of rock ‘n’ roll – it’s easy to forget the intensity of this dirtier stream in his work, but at age 51 he is exploring it with renewed vengeance. In a rash of recent interviews in the UK he has admitted to obsessing over sex more than ever as a theme.

That was made obvious on Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! (2008) his last album with the Bad Seeds, as well as a night-out–with-the-boys, side-band project called Grinderman. The cover art for the self-titled Grinderman (2007) album featured a hunched green baboon masturbating fiercely. Cave happily earnt himself a full house of ‘EXPLICIT’ tags for the songs captured inside. The recording is a cavalcade of mid-life male chauvinist anthems like ‘No Pussy Blues’ and ‘Go Tell the Women (That We’re Leaving)’: “All we wanted was a little consensual rape in the morning and maybe a bit more in the evening.”

The Death of Bunny Munro should carry an EXPLICIT warning too, but the provocative cover art for the Australian edition may similarly protect readers from being too surprised. Ironically, it’s the depth – not the in-your-face shallowness – of the book that is the real jack in the box.

Fans will run to it with open arms whatever, but I’d hardly be the first to have raised an eyebrow in the build-up to it when Cave’s debut novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel (1989) recently appeared on Penguin’s list of re-issued popular classics. Despite its startling riffs and ladled, hillbilly humour, And the Ass Saw the Angel was swamped beneath the turgid intensity of the mock-Faulkenerian language Cave played with. It was the work of a sprinter (a lyricist) trying to run a marathon (the novel). Thick with alliteration and imagery, a storyteller’s aural presence, it’s still better heard in patches than read in full.

Let’s be frank – for all the hype around Cave’s new novel as the most sought after work at last year’s London Book Fair, the same critical expectations were in place second time around: that The Death of Bunny Munro would feature vivid but un-sustained writing; that it would be a songwriter’s novel which never went the distance.

Instead Cave has produced a pulp masterpiece – a comment that may well damn him with faint and back-handed praise. That’s not my intention. The Death of Bunny Munro is a coherent and tightly structured page-turner, full of highly controlled writing and extravagantly rich character sketches, an often surprising as well as funny and spooky novel that is equal parts Flannery O’Connor grotesque and Stephen King horror story. By the time I had finished my only reservation was to ask why I could not bring myself to say the book was flat-out great. In the end I suspect it was because I was impressed and amused more than I was moved, though there is no doubting the emotion is there.

When Cave’s novel opens the stage is immediately set: “‘I am damned,’ thinks Bunny Munro in a sudden moment of self awareness reserved for those who are about to die.”

Holed up in a Brighton hotel room with a black prostitute whose fingernails have “the detailed representation of a tropical sunset” painted on them (as an author Cave feasts on these little details), Munro is taking a mobile phone call from his depressive and unstable wife Libby. As he tries to calm her he lays on the hotel bed sucking back tiny bottles of vodka from the bar fridge, focusing “on a water stain on the ceiling shaped like a small bell or a woman’s breast.”

It soon emerges he is in the same town as Libby, but pretending to be out on the road and unable to make it home. An undercurrent of hysteria in his wife’s conversation is, by turns, comic and cosmically unsettling – “something has changed in his wife’s voice, the soft cellos have gone and a high rasping violin has been added, played by an escaped ape or something”. Bunny secretly shares the disturbed visions she fixates on: observing CCTV footage of a serial killer with a red-painted face and plastic horns being played on the same local television news; then glancing out the window to witness a fire in Brighton, “a dark cloud of starlings twittering madly over the flaming, smoking hulk of the West Pier”.

‘The starling have gone mad. It’s such a horrible thing. Their little babies burnin their nests. I can’t bear it, Bun,’ says Libby.

By the end of the chapter his wife has hung up and Bunny is getting a blowjob from the prostitute. He realizes that a bath must be overflowing in the room upstairs as the stain on the ceiling above him keeps expanding, till he “feels the soft explosion of water on his chest, like a sob.” This seems both a brilliant image and a self-consciously writerly moment on Cave’s part, typical of his lyrical talent and tendency to excess, but we soon begin to understand it relates as much to an hallucinogenic current beginning to rush through Bunny Munro’s world view.

Like some on-the-make monster out of a nightmare version of Eastenders we soon get to see the wild highs of that first – and witness Bunny in all his over-sexed glory.

Bunny manoeuvres the Punto through the weekend traffic and emerges on the seafront, and with a near swoon Bunny sees it – the delirious burlesque of summertime unfolding before him.

Groups of scissor-legged school-things with their pierced midriffs, logoed jogging girls, happy, rumpy dog-walkers, couples actually copulating on the summer lawns, beached pussy prostrate beneath erotically shaped cumulus, loads of fucking girls who were up for it…

The description goes on for a few unbelievably escalating pages before Kylie Minogue’s ‘Spinning Around’ comes on the car radio to soundtrack the sexual panoply…

Then he sees a group of pudgy mall-trawlers with their smirking midriffs and frosted lipstick, a potentially hot Arab chick (oh man, labia from Arabia), and then a billboard advertising fucking Wonderbras or something and he says, ‘Yes!’, and takes a viscous, horn-blaring swerve, re-routing down Fourth Avenue, already screwing the top off a sample of hand cream. He parks and beats off, a big happy smile on his face, and dispenses a gout of goo into a cum-encrusted sock he keeps under the car seat.

On one level it might be possible to view the entire novel as one long, poisonously troubling wet dream. By the time Bunny gets home his wife is dead and he is left to care for his nine year old son, Bunny Junior. Things really begin to tilt from here on in as Bunny takes his son out on the road, leaving him in the car while he tries to flog beauty products and engages in a series of ‘grief fucks’ and ever more desperate fantasies that increasingly suggest he is losing control of himself and his grip on the world – if this unreliable narrator ever really had a grip at all.

It’s here some of Cave’s best writing emerges as we begin to see the adult Bunny Munro from his son’s perspective, as well as detect a vulnerability in the son’s situation that’s truly nerve wracking and borderline abusive. Cave himself is the father to two teenage sons from previous relationships – he also has twin sons to his current wife, the former Vivienne Westwood model Susie Bick, who are almost the same age as the son in The Death of Bunny Munro. The flickers of sacrifice and hope in the late stages of the novel surprisingly echo Cormac McCarthy’s concluding tone in The Road (Cave was employed to write a soundtrack for the film) and the same latent sense that this is a book written as a bleak, if hopeful letter from a father to his sons.

Cave has Bunny Munro mouth the repeated the statement “I think we are having our childhoods stolen from us” and in a penultimate encounter with his own father – Bunny Senior – we get a glimpse into what may have been the violence that forged his cocksure consciousness. These scenes play like a malevolent Steptoe and Son: a part of the farcical edge Cave indulges in which sometimes undercuts deeper connections even as it adds an unsettling, almost psychotic energy. As the old man shouts Bunny down he states what may well be the theme of the entire book:

‘You are beyond recall. You are a lost cause. But we might be able to save the kid’…

Cave structures the novel in three sections: ‘Cocksman’, ‘Salesman’, ‘Deadman’. It’s hard not to miss the trinity formation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit behind that as both father and son are haunted by the ghost of their wife and mother as they pursue a trail of events that hurtle towards a death of some kind. Hovering in the background on news bulletins is the footage of that devilish, red-horned serial killer making his way, incident by incident, closer to Brighton and Bunny himself.

By the end you begin to perceive that Bunny Munro is actually being set-up as something of a modern-day Jesus, or at least a man marching along the path to his own twisted Calvary. It’s something of a shock to realize then that this piece of pulp fiction is not just about sex or playing for misanthropic laughs or reveling in shock value. That’s it’s really about fatherhood and love and a quest for male redemption in a desire-wracked world. That the true intent of the novel is actually another repeated line in the book, this one from the poet W.H. Auden: ‘We must love one another or die.’ As Arthur Miller once said, “attention must be paid.”

- Mark Mordue

* This article was first published in The Australian Literary Review,
Vol. 4, Issue 7, August, 2009 under the title ‘A rake’s progress’.

- Portrait of Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue by Gerald Jenkins

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lyrics to Imaginary Songs

When I think about poetry, about my need to read it and reflect on it – and even express the odd poem here and there as if there were a more pure or direct voice in me that had somehow been switched on for a moment – I recall that it arrived in my life through pop music and rock ‘n’ roll when I was barely more than a boy.

The sounds of popular culture were never just a beat to me. They became a form of melodic literature as vital as Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, or the poetry of John Keats, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell and Kenneth Slessor that I was schooled in and ‘learnt’ to love so profoundly.

Indeed I see now that rock ‘n’ roll primed me for Keats’ romanticism and Auden’s rhymes, as well as Lowell’s confessional devastations and Slessor’s alienated urban shades. That I became so involved with Hamlet precisely because it was Shakespeare’s most rock ‘n’ roll work – for behind its iambic pentameters lies the rhythmic appeals of a young man in black, a grieving rebel who might well have been an Elizabethan James Dean in his day.

Flip forward to England in 1965 and what was Bob Dylan, really, but an electrified Hamlet come to life on those same old theatre stages, a hot soliloquist with a bad attitude and an acoustic guitar instead of a sword sheathed at his side? As the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don’t Look Back reveals, Dylan even had his loyal Horatio (friend Bob Neuwirth) and an Ophelia that he tormented (lover Joan Baez), as well as a Polonius whispering in his ear (manager Albert Grossman).

Despite Dylan’s typically elusive response to a question at the time as to whether he was poet – “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man” – the Beat writer Allen Ginsberg immediately recognized the young artist’s importance. In the Martin Scorcese documentary, No Direction Home, Ginsberg talks of Dylan’s arrival on the scene and what the older poet witnessed about his performing presence: “He [Dylan] became identified with his breath, like a shaman, with all his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath.”

It’s a brilliant evocation of what Dylan personified from the very beginnings of his startling career: a shift in poetic life away from the page back into the ether of song. In Ginsberg’s word, Dylan transformed himself into “a column of air”.

Dylan himself was influenced by this same singing awareness – by what he called the “fearless” rhyming of Cole Porter, by the archetypal power and conviction of Woody Guthrie’s folk ballads, by country music and the blues as much as the literary work of the Beats or T.S. Eliot or Rimbaud. And yet despite this history and ‘breath’, an idiot wind invariably continues to blow in from another direction, debating whether lyrics can ever be regarded as true poetry? As if everyone from Dylan to Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed must submit, cap-in-hand, to the demand their songs work silently and alone on the page if they are to qualify. A matter not helped by those hard-cover editions of lyrics from rock stars that, yes, all too often, read as lifeless if not a little pretentious and gaudy in their packaging. 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy’: And Other Misheard Lyrics by Gavin Edwards and Chris Kalb probably hitting a truer note than most when it comes to the reality of how we appreciate lyrics day-to-day.

If a white page were the only acid test, however, one would have to argue there was no such thing as poetry before the advent of Gutenberg and the printing press. But of course the links between music and poetry are not so new at all. Virgil begins the Aeneid with “I sing of arms and the man…” because Latin poetry was written to be chanted. Homer would have sung both The Iliad and The Odyssey to a four-stringed instrument he plucked for rather atonal punctuation and mood – which may well make him the first rapper of note before Grandmaster Flash with The Message (1982) and even The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron with Whitey on the Moon (1969/70). Yo Homer, Ancient Greece is in the house!

Early Gaelic and Welsh bards similarly sang of warriors’ brave deeds and perpetuated tribal stories that passed on into myth. Later these figures evolved into the minstrels of medieval times, the precursors of the folk singer and the pop artist. It’s precisely because of this history, and the musicality inherent in his language, that Shakespeare became known as ‘The Bard of Avon’, just as the Scottish poet Robert Burns – who gave us ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – is more simply known as ‘The Bard’.

To be called a bard was the highest praise such poets could hope for. Which is why it’s hard to disagree with Ezra Pound’s rather sweeping statement that, “Music rots when it gets too far from dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets to far from music.”
Yet as recently as 2008 various English newspapers were gleefully announcing that a final year English exam at Cambridge University had dared to ask students to compare ‘As You Came from the Holy Land’ by Sir Walter Raleigh with the lyrics to the Amy Winehouse song ‘Love is a Losing Game’. As if to rub salt into the wound, students were also told to compare Raleigh’s 1592 effort with Fine and Mellow by Billie Holiday and Boots of Spanish Leather by Bob Dylan (yeah, him again!).

Perhaps only a Nobel Prize winning poet like Seamus Heaney can get away with such acts of sacrilege. Asked by the BBC back in 2003 to name a contemporary figure comparable to Bob Dylan and John Lennon, Heaney said, “There is this guy Eminem. He has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around a generation. He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy.”

Most poets would kill for that kind of praise on their book covers. Inevitably Heaney was slighted for being a silly old man trying to keep up with the young. And yet Heaney’s words actually sound very similar to Ginsberg’s comments on Dylan. They likewise lean towards an appreciation of poetry rooted in breath, in something alive and not entirely pinned to the page.


My own enchantment with poetry begins with my second holy communion. It takes place in a suburban dining room with orange curtains and an over-large china cabinet, a place where I can hardly move. That doesn’t matter. There’s already a cathedral being built in my head. The Eucharist I am holding is round and large and black. It shines when it catches it the light, as if it were a dark and deep pool of perfectly formed water.

My altar is before me: a Rambler turntable with two walnut speaker boxes and quite a bit of pumping volume. The transubstantiation for me is not that of bread and wine into flesh and blood, as Jesus managed, but of my own being into song. As if I were becoming something mutable and flowing every time I turn on the amplifier and put a piece of vinyl under the needle.

Forget Coleridge and the opium-induced lines of ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…’ I was finding my own sonic nirvana at age thirteen, and anyone who tried to interrupt me was simply blown away.

I wasn’t just listening to the music either. I was digging the words, and with them every moan and jack-knife bit of phrasing, as if the accents and vocal contortions around a vowel were runes to be divined within the actual words themselves: “Hey Candy and Ronny have you seen them yet, Oooh but they’re so spaced out, B-B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets…”

It may not have been W.B. Yeats, but Bernie Taupin’s lyrics along with Elton John’s stuttering delivery in ‘Bennie and the Jets’ blew my mind as surely as Marc Bolan’s lines about a girl with “a hubcap diamond star halo” in T-Rex’s ‘Jeepster’. Language was something to be excited by, words were meant to bend and stretch into the ecstasy of sound as much as meaning. These were the lessons I was already learning from pop music.

By the time Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ was bursting out of my radio with a guitar stroke that reminded me of the rumble of a Ducati 750, I was well and truly a teenage goner: “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream. At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines…” It was song that sounded completely untamed and foreign next to everything else being played at the time, as if Springsteen’s heart were exploding from his chest to deliver this mighty story to me: “This town will rip the bones from your back, it’s a death trap. We’ll run till we drop and baby we’ll never go back.”

The leather jacket, the lean look and goatee beard: if I’m honest Springsteen was the hip Jesus I was looking for at age 15, the ultimate cross-over man between religion and rock ‘n’ roll. He confirmed the possibility that my suburban life as a teenager, my here and now in the coastal steel-town of Newcastle, was the stuff of poetry – and that it was possible for me to see that life in the very grandest of terms and paint it in words as such.

Patti Smith’s ‘Piss Factory’ and The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’ arrived later, re-iterating this same sense of working class poetics. That one could move stanzas like girders or spit a beautiful line out like a punch. Smith was actually channeling the nineteenth century French poet Arthur Rimbaud; Paul Weller was being inspired by The Who’s Pete Townsend: it all amounted to the same thing to me and in studying Smith and Weller I went back to both Rimbaud and The Who’s recordings too.

Of course I was already dreaming along to a hundred other songs as well and writing down my dreams in matching lyrical forms. Finding new eyes for my world, or if not quite that, feeling less frightened of how I felt about it and what I wanted to say because of these songs in my life.

In this writing inspired by music, as with in any art of imitation and mimicry, there was a sense of tagging along with other people’s dreams and experiences – because they connected with me in very explicit ways, or simply because there was a feeling below the words or experiences that I wanted to sing along with. Language became a kind of abstract freedom for me, a space to reach into, an accompaniment or mutual music.

So when I started to write poems at around the age of twelve, I see now they weren’t really poems at all but lyrics to imaginary songs. And that these songs of mine were mostly all beyond me: recycled bits of lyrics combined with my own feelings and free associations. Which meant I was writing about drowning with naked women and lions in a swimming pool (thanks to Marc Bolan), and neon horses (thanks to Bernie Taupin) like some jet-set teenage cowboy. I mowed the lawn for my grandmother when she told me too, but away in my own world I was the most unintentionally decadent kid in town – even if I didn’t know what I was talking about and the words were just vague semaphores for my own restlessness and dreaming.

At its most primal, the experience of writing poetry always begins as a note to the self from your unconscious. Words and descriptions that don’t always ‘make sense’, but sound good to you. Things that come ‘out of nowhere’, that are mysterious and compulsively ‘put down’. Later, perhaps, you interrogate these things when you develop into a serious writer. You see what is pretentious or false or meaningless or just plain bad. But at first, hopefully, there is a private joy and something you can’t help but say going on – even when you do not know what you are saying!

Words, phrases, ‘images’, they come like seeds to you and launch you into something that becomes a poem. Sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, sometimes completed, other times interrupted or abandoned or forgotten. But whether they rhyme or loosen in to unstructured verse, the truth is that I’m still always ‘singing’ them in some way to this very day, trying to find the tune of it all, if you like – which might well be little more than agreeing with my own ear that this is a true-sounding and good-sounding way for my voice to flow freely.


The processes of poetry in our life are certainly far more complicated than most cynics would have it. Much as I can appreciate (or try to appreciate) the craftsmanship of great poets on the page, I am clearly not a fundamentalist about what poetry is – I personally think it can be found in novels, in fine prose, in the way people speak, in our actions, and most obviously in the songs we listen to. I also think poetry is about an unlocking of the spirit within us, a freeing up of language and thinking that takes us deeper than we can fully grasp except in mere glimpses.

I’ve always liked the Walt Whitman phrase from Leaves of Grass: ‘I Sing the Body Electric’. It points to the idea of a tune in the voice, in the cadence of a poem that is most alive in the breath. It also points to something mystical in the nature of language itself, as if there is some great uniting web from which we take not only our own meanings and communications, but the values of the age and even its epochal fears, obsessions, hopes. From the brainless teenage jerk of “it’s all good” to the near trademark ring of “September 11” to far subtler resonances that sleep within the dream of language, as if language were a mystic plasticine one only has to reach in to and touch with your fingers to sense a shape already given, being born, commonly intuited.

Digital technology is certainly changing the way we communicate, learn, relax, and interact with the world, pulling us together into a strange new fabric. As we digest more and more information through the internet, through watching and listening, there a powerful argument emerging that we are becoming a post-literate society, no longer centrally dependent on the printed word.

Ironically enough the accelerating energies of global communications and modern life actually make the compacted nature of poetry on the page – as well as the short story and the novella – among the more ideal literary forms of the age. We can receive a poem in a single snap, or take in a suite of poems in one sitting like Bob Dylan’s proverbial “chain of flashing images”. The advantage of poetry in this situation lays in its song-like immediacy, and its gem-like endurance, which allows a reader to return to a poem again and again for pleasure and fresh light.

And so the enduring debate about poetry versus lyrics is just a distraction in the end. It’s actually the more dangerous and constantly parroted notion that poetry is irrelevant to modern life and all-but-dead which I am really arguing against.

Yes, we know mainstream publishing houses have dumped their poetry lists, while the sales of major poets’ works are embarrassingly small. Yes, we know that you are not likely see a book of poetry on the best seller lists today. But it may be people are looking for the health of poetry in the wrong place. That its power lies more than ever within rock ‘n’ roll as the bardic tradition continues to assert its vital place in popular culture.

I know when I hear Radiohead’s Thom Yorke telling me how he “woke up sucking on a lemon” or Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy talking about “the handshake drugs I bought downtown”, I understand – instantly – that I’m in the hands of a great lyricist. The same can easily said of Will Oldham, Lucinda Williams, Paul Kelly, M Ward, Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Conor Oberst, Tom Waits and U2’s Bono, while modern masters like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell continue to cast a gigantic poetic shadow over contemporary song writing and, indeed, much of the literary world.

If that last comment sounds excessive, I think you would find plenty of novelists and poets who would agree with me. It’s common knowledge Robert Adamson was turned on to the possibilities of becoming a poet upon hearing Bob Dylan singing while he was doing time in jail, and I am sure Adamson would find time to discuss the refined intelligence in Jackson Browne’s lyrics any time you wished to talked about them. Luke Davies was similarly inspired by Dylan, as well as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Loudon Wainwright. John Forbes leant towards more mischievous influences like the knowing ‘dumbness’ and spirited irony of The Ramones. There’s the beginning of a list if you need one.

So today when I hear Tim Rogers feeling broken up and peacock proud, or M Ward in all his insinuating dreaminess and humour, or Kings of Leon’s brand of sinful, sexual, lost-on-the-road hedonism or, yes, Bob Dylan in all his glory, I still feel alive to poetry – and to the act of writing poetry for myself.

Songs come to me from everywhere that evoke this truth: ‘Wide Open Road’, ‘Mary, Queen of Arkansas’, ‘This Charming Man’, ‘Down by the River’, ‘Sign O’ The Times’, ‘Everything’s on Fire’, ‘Cattle and Cane’… they don’t just make me feel, they make me act, make me want to put pen to paper and find new ways to ascend into my feelings and thoughts.

I have to work a little harder to bring actual poems to me that do the same thing. Songs often come of their own volition, too, which makes it easier: through the car radio, floating out a doorway onto the street. They live in the air. Whereas poems on the page must be sought out and found. Still, I’m surprised that so many poems and poets are still with me like ghosts that flare up in the mind: Les Murray eating ice from a hail storm in ‘Spring Pony’; Auden’s lonely soldier in ‘Roman Wall Blues’; the deep rage of Pablo Neruda in ‘The United Fruit Company’; Rimbaud consoling me, for reasons I don’t quite understand, as I read him by some ocean rock pools after a breakup in my twenties; Charles Bukowski’s humour and tenderness, as if he were a friend speaking to me; Rilke, early on in the Duino Elegies, when night and emptiness “feeds upon our faces”…

Leonard Cohen once said, “If you’re life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” It may be that the great modern song writers are keeping that fire alight for all of us. Or to take it back to Dylan, who remains the pre-eminent example of the lyricist as bard of the people: “a poem is a naked person… some people say that I am a poet.” Don’t you know it?

- Mark Mordue

* This essay was first published in edited form in the politics and culture journal Griffith Review - Edition 23: Essentially Creative, January 2009.