Lockdown’s End

Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown is staggering towards the finish line. The case numbers are as high as they have at any time during the pandemic, but the vaccination rate is rising steadily, and I think there is just a general realisation that many people have given as-much-as-they-had-to-give and have started . . . not-to-comply.

So back to work, in dribs and drabs, we go. Back to our commutes, our shopping centres and our offices. Our parking inspectors. Our microwave-reheated lunches. Our bosses and our subordinates.

We’ll have to leave behind our new cavoodles, our business-shirts-with-PJ-bottoms, and the rainbow lorikeets squawking, squawking in the plum tree out the back.

     Walking with my brother 
after lunch - a young dog
behind a window.

Note: I wrote this haiku with my youngest brother Eveready.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

Frogmouth

Is there a more haiku-worthy Australian bird than the tawny frogmouth? They look like bits of broken branch on trees, or stone gargoyles on a church, or maybe a very grizzly looking great uncle who has fallen asleep while sitting on the couch.

One of these amazingly grumpy-looking birds has recently made a nest, and has a baby frogmouth, in a tree near the dog park in Travancore just near the Moonee Ponds Creek.

Any time of the day you walk along Mooltan Street in Travancore you’ll see a little group of people, hovering quietly around the base of one tree in particular, hoping to catch a glimpse of the baby frogmouth.

Traditional haiku poets in Japan went moon-viewing or to see the cherry trees in bloom. Here we gather to look at tawny frogmouths.

When I was down in Travancore the other day there was a photographer with a telephoto lens. We got into a (quiet) conversation and he told me that he’s set up a website called “Travancore Tawnies”. So, go, check them out.

If you’ve lived in Melbourne for a while you’ve probably noticed how many different sorts of native birds there are around these days.

Up until about 8 or 10 years ago the only birds I remember seeing in the inner suburbs were blackbirds, Indian mynahs (mynas), sparrows, pigeons, ravens, and the occasional lost seagull.

But back then, when I was growing up, most streets had no street trees; parks were mostly dead grass and dust, with one or two scraggly trees if you were lucky; and planting native trees in gardens was only just starting to be trendy. Lots of people had pet cats that they let live outdoors, no bells on collars.

The increased number of native birds in the city that we’re seeing now is not just because there are better habitat trees (and less stray cats). Other factors push birds towards the city like drought, and climate change, and loss of natural habitat in bushfires.

I can remember when I’d only heard a currawong a few times in my life, and then only on hikes or bush walks, far away from town. Then, ten or twelve years ago, when I was a grad nurse at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, there was a currawong that used to sit on the top of one of the shorter (4-5 stories high) sections of the hospital giving its haunting, abbreviated, early evening call. Now you can hear currawong all through the inner northern and western suburbs of Melbourne.

Australian Magpies used to be the sound of the morning when we went on holidays to the country. Now I hear them almost every day. These days magpies are the sound of work-days in the city too.

Wattlebirds are everywhere. Noisy miners. Rainbow lorikeets. Crested pigeons. The occasional sulphur-crested cockatoo. I even saw blue wrens when walking up beside the Maribynong the other day.

     Tawny Frogmouth –
I will be here
Long after you are gone. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Rare visitor excites Melbournians, yet it’s presence is a sad sign, Miki Perkins, The Age, 30 May 2020, https://www.theage.com.au/environment/climate-change/rare-visitor-excites-melburnians-yet-its-presence-is-a-sad-sign-20200530-p54xxp.html.

Travancore Tawnies, https://travancoretawnies.com.

Post-Apocalyptic Gastropods

     Oh Snail 
Climb Mt Fuji
But slowly, slowly!

Issa (trans. R.H. Blyth)

Reports that Melbourne is set to become the longest locked-down city in the world has me thinking strange and gloomy thoughts. Such as: is it just my perception, or are there many less snails around than there used to be?

Less little silver trails among the flower pots . . .

Less of those distinctive little holes eaten in the leaves of violets and geraniums . . .

When was the last time you, after rain, saw a garden path so covered in snails that you could hardly find a place to put your feet?

Or a big snail sliding over the top of another snail’s shell, almost tipping them both over?

Or a bowl of flat beer near the rhubarb with ten or 12 drowned snails floating in it?

An article in The Observer about the catastrophic collapse in insect populations (an estimated 75% decline in the worldwide number of insects over the past 50 years) set me wondering whether pesticides and climate change might be having a similar impact on snails, but a quick scan of the internet doesn’t reveal any equivalent articles about mass death events of gastropods.

I was also heartened to read these tweets from Alison Croggon during the week which give some hope that there are still a fair few snails lurking about:

Maybe snails are immune to pesticides and they, along with the cockroaches, will inherit the post-apocalyptic world?

At any rate here in Melbourne we finally have a “road map” out of lockdown. From about the 5th of November (Guy Fawkes!) we’ll once again be able to visit our friends, whether they live in double-fronted Edwardians with veggie gardens; or in body-corporate townhouses where backyard bonfires are banned; or all by themselves in little mobile homes. Maybe in the post-lockdown euphoria we might even be able to make a few new friends?

     After the rain
a cavoodle puppy
meets a snail. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Haiku, Blyth R. H., The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

The insect apocalypse: ‘Our world will grind to a halt without them’, Dave Goulson, The Observer, 25th July 2021.

Melbourne’s 6th COVID-19 Lockdown Extended

It’s a strange feeling:

Cooped-up, finding it hard to remember what you used to do for fun, unable to go anywhere or see anyone (except for the occasional trip to the shops for “essentials”).

But also:

Seeing so much of the people that you live with that you’re seriously starting to get on each other’s nerves, tension, simmering resentments, and hard words being said.

No end in sight.

     Cut the engine
sit in the car
enjoy the rain.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

Dragonfly Blues

Here in Victoria, Australia, we are in our 5th COVID-19 lockdown. *sigh*


The 4th volume of R. H. Blyth’s Haiku, the Autumn – Winter volume, has a section devoted to dragonflies.

In Japanese haiku dragonflies are an autumn kigo (season word), so dragonfly haiku might not be entirely appropriate reading at the moment, given that here in Melbourne we are currently in the depths of winter.

He has dyed his body

with autumn, –

The dragon-fly.

Bakusui (trans. R. H. Blyth)

Whenever dragonflies are given a colour in Japanese haiku they are always red.

The beginning of autumn,

Decided

By the red dragon-fly.

Shirao (trans. R. H. Blyth)

Several of the dragonfly haiku in Blyth mention late afternoon or early evening. Do we notice dragonflies more often at that time of the day? Or is it that there is a parallel between the colour of the dragonflies and sunset colours?

Between the moon coming out

And the sun going in,-

The red dragon-flies.

Nikyu (trans. R. H. Blyth)

Some of the haiku focus on other characteristics of dragonflies, like the size of their eyes:

The face of the dragon-fly

Is practically nothing

But eyes.

Chisoku (trans. R. H. Blyth)

About this haiku Blyth notes:

This is what any child might say, but for that very reason, near to the kingdom of poetry.

Dragonflies fly with abrupt changes of direction as though they are constantly changing their minds.

The dragon-fly,

Swift to the distant mountain,

Swift to return.

Akinobo (trans. R. H. Blyth)

A number of the dragonfly haiku quoted in Blyth mention graves, stones, walls (and an “uneventful” village) presumably as a point of contrast to the busy flight of dragonflies.

Old graves;

Red dragon-flies flitting

Over the withered shikimi.

Anon. (R. H. Blyth)

In his notes on this haiku Blyth states:

The shikimi or Chinese anise has a small white flower in summer. The flower smells sweet, but is poisonous. Nevertheless, sprays are offered before the Buddha. The old grave, the withered offerings, the dragon-flies rustling to and fro, - what a scene of thoughtless significance?

“Thoughtless significance” . . .? Sometimes Blyth’s prose is quite poetic and you need intuition, rather than analysis, to approach his meaning.

These haiku seem to establish that in Japan dragonflies are red, but here in the south eastern part of Australia I think most of the dragonflies I’ve seen are blue. Maybe some are yellow and black? Or yellow/green? But mostly blue.

Note: I do not have a good source for identifying Australian dragonflies, but a quick scan of the internet shows some have evocative names like: Swamp Bluets; Blue Skimmers (the female of this species is greeny-yellow and black); and the Tau Emeralds. The name Tau Emerald conjures something of the jewel-like appearance of many dragonflies.

My skim of the internet also revealed a few red species of Australian dragonflies but I don’t think I have ever seen any. So, here is a blue, south-eastern Australian, dragonfly haiku:

     Home, where I grew up –
swans are black
dragon-flies are blue. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Haiku, Blyth R. H., The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

Aussie Rules

Warning: post contains generalisations, misleading statements, false attributions. It is basically bull-twang.


Australia is divided by an invisible line.

North of the line, in Queensland and most of New South Wales, people play rugby, a game that is not understood by, and is of no interest to, the people living in the rest of Australia.

In the rest of Australia (the southern part of New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory) people play and watch Australian Rules Football, often called “AFL” or just “Footy”. Australian Rules is extremely chaotic game, brutal and graceful in equal measure.

I have previously posted a haiku I wrote about AFL football here, but writing haiku about the footy is a far from new idea. A haiku poet called Rob Scott, AKA “Haiku Bob”, has been doing it for years. He also helps organise a yearly AFL Grand Final Kukai which is basically a bunch of haiku writing footy fans, composing haiku and posting them to a shared thread, while they watch the AFL grand final. Things can get a bit ragged as the game goes on.

Here are a few of the haiku I contributed during the 2020 grand final (for context Victoria was then in the middle of a months long COVID lockdown, and no one was allowed to have guests to their houses to watch the game).

     The afternoon of
the first night grand final –
bugger all to do.
     The Tigers win again!
watching a replay
of last year’s game.
     The 2020 AFL grand final –
the 1st grand final he’s watched
all by himself.

And to finish up here is a footy haiku I wrote in cricket season:

     the off season -
nothing to do
but write haiku

Post Script: there was a rumour during the Second World War, when a Japanese invasion of Australia was thought to be immanent, that the government had a secret plan to abandon the rugby playing states in order to defend the rest of the country. This rumour has never been substantiated.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

The Footy Almanac, https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/author/haikubob/

The 2020 AFL Grand Final Kukai, https://australianhaikusociety.org/2020/10/12/the-2020-afl-grand-final-haiku-kukai/#more-13608

The Australian War Memorial, https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/homefront/brisbane_line

Against Agapanthus

     Winter sun –
the dead heads on hundreds
of agapanthus plants.

This is the second agapanthus haiku that I’ve written and published to this blog this year (find my previous effort here).

To be honest I’m not-too-fond of agapanthus. They’re bloody everywhere. Agapanthus must be the all-time most popular flower for councils, and corporate landscapers, to plant. In parks and formal gardens; on median strips and traffic islands; beside wide concrete driveways leading to twin car garages; showing through the safety fences of in-ground pools; and surrounding the car parks of tilt-slab retail barns, growing out of the scoria, next to low treated-pine log fences: agapanthus.

Oh God, I’m a completely obnoxious snob.

Agapanthus are obviously cheap, widely available, pretty hardy and low maintenance, and hence . . . everywhere. They’re overexposed. A bed of agapanthus essentially means: just make it look OK, and have it done by tomorrow, and, oh yeah, our budget is half what we said it was going to be. But this isn’t what agapanthus have always meant.

Trove is a wonderful website where you can access digitised copies of old Australian newspapers and other media, and there I came across a black and white photo of five agapanthus stems in a glass vase from the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, dated 4-Nov-1938. The caption on the photo reads: “AGAPANTHUS – the flower of love, a winning entry by Mrs M. Burton in the cut bloom section at St Paul’s Caladium Show” (the name Agapanthus come from the Greek agapē, love, and anthos, flower).

Another find on Trove that mentions agapanthus in the context of love is the following article published in the Brisbane Courier-Mail on 29-Dec-1939:

YULETIDE WEDDING

Sexton–Dempsey 

BLUE hydrangea and white agapanthus decked the Albert Street Methodist Church on December 22nd when Miss Margaret Dempsey, only child of the late Mr J. J. Dempsey, and Mrs Dempsey formerly of Junction Park and later of Southport School, was married to Mr Cecil Sexton of Cairns. 

GIVEN away by her uncle, Mr H. Rennie, the bride wore a street-length frock of aqua blue broderie Anglaise made with a swing skirt and finished at the neckline with a spray of tuberoses. A large white picture hat and white accessories completed the ensemble. 

Mrs Frank Daly was matron of honour, frocked in lemon floral sheer, finished with a spray of mauve agapanthus and white gardenias, and she added white accessories. Mr Frank Daly accompanied the bridegroom.

The Rev. H. M. Wheller officiated. Mr Archie Day was organist, and Miss Firth Edmonds sang. 

At the Hotel Canberra, where the reception was held, Mrs Dempsey received her guests wearing a tailored bolero ensemble of navy and white, with a white hat, and she pinned a spray of crimson rosebuds on the corsage. 

Leaving for the honeymoon, before proceeding North to her future home in Cairns, Mrs Sexton wore a frock of floral germaine with a honey-toned hat.

Side Note: Agapanthus are apparently often called African Lily or Lily of the Nile in the old country (who knows why, because they aren’t lilies, and they come from South Africa which is nowhere near the Nile).

Here is another agapanthus haiku that wrote back in summer when their flower heads were green and purple, instead of dead and brown, and waiting to be cut back, as they are now:

A single agapanthus head 
growing through
the wrought-iron fence.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Agapanthus, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agapanthus

Brisbane Courier-Mail, (accessed via Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/40891356#)

Rockhampton Morning Bulletin (accessed via Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/55999372?searchTerm=Agapanthus)

“To Be Weak Is Miserable”

Here in Australia headlines and social media news feeds have made for grim reading over the past few weeks: men’s sexual violence against women (and in particular the Brittany Higgins case); the Australian Government cutting welfare payments; rising tensions with China . . . the USA approaching and then surpassing 500,000 COVID-19 deaths . . . and conspiracy theorists protesting the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccinations . . .

. . . but, especially . . . and the role of . . . and our collective failure to . . . and . . . and . . . and . . .

. . . how long can you keep your mind fixed on massive amounts of trauma that you feel powerless to change? After some hours, or days, I felt the need turn my mind to things safer and more mundane.

I switched off my laptop, put down my phone and took Barney, our cavoodle, for a walk.

We walked down through some areas of Flemington where the footpaths and nature strips are not-too-well maintained; past odd-shaped little corners of land where people dump the rubbish they can’t be bothered taking to the tip; and along the railway line where the weeds grow waist and chest high.

     broken thistle
milk sap wells
to the surface

On Milk Thistles

What we call milk thistles here in Melbourne, Sonchus oleraceus, are commonly called sow thistles elsewhere in the world. When we were kids we used to put their milky sap on warts. Apparently their bitter leaves can be eaten in a salad (I’ve never tried).

Often you find milk thistles growing next to another very similar plant. This second plant has tougher, woodier stems; tougher, darker green leaves; and more (and smaller) flower heads.

One other distinctive feature of this second tougher plant, is that it has round white seed heads like a dandelion’s puffballs, but whereas a dandelion’s puffballs are dense with feathered seeds and almost opaque, this tough milk-thistle-like plant’s puffballs are compromised of just a few feathery seeds and so appear translucent and lattice-like.

For a long time I’d assumed examples of this second plant were just older milk thistles, perennials rather than annuals, left alive for a second season to grow old and tough.

But over the past couple of days, while I have been avoiding social media news feeds, I have been filling in my spare hours comparing photos of milk thistles online, and I’ve come to the conclusion that these tougher milk thistles are a whole seperate species, Lactuca serriola, sometimes called Prickly Lettuce or the Compass Plant.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

A Snake in the Grass

A week or so ago I went to the 8th Koorie Art Show 2020 at the Koorie Heritage Trust at Federation Square. 

Lying on a low dias when you enter the first room was a fabulous, glistening sculpture of a Red-bellied black snake by Charlie Solomon, made from what looks to have been a single large twisting limb of a gum tree.

I’ve seen red-belly black snakes a number of times when bush-walking in Victoria. Their backs are usually shiny black like patent leather although they can get a bit dusty sometimes. Their undersides are sometime bright red, as depicted in Charlie Solomon’s sculpture, but other times more as a dull pink colour.

Black snakes get a few mentions in Australian literature, for instance it is a black snake that invades the house in Henry Lawson’s famous story “The Drover’s Wife”, but the only work I know of that refers specifically to a red-belly black snake is this poem by Judith Wright:

The Killer

The day was clear as fire,
the birds sang frail as glass,
when thirsty I came to the creek
and fell by its side in the grass.

My breast on the bright moss
and shower-embroidered weeds,
my lips to the live water
I saw him turn in the reeds.

Black horror sprang from the dark
in a violent birth
and through its cloth of grass
I felt the clutch of earth.

O beat him into the ground
O strike him till he dies,
or else your life itself
drains through those colourless eyes.

I struck and struck again.
Slender in black and red 
he lies, and his icy glance 
turns outward, clear and dead.

But nimble my enemy 
as water is, or wind. 
He has slipped from his death aside
and vanished into my mind.

He has vanished whence he came,
my nimble enemy;
and the ants come out to the snake
and drink at his shallow eye.

The snake, no longer a physical threat, moves inside the poet’s mind (becoming a memory and a symbol). Wright’s poem reminds me of this haiku by Kyoshi:

The snake slid away,

But the eyes that stared at me

Remained in the grass.

Kyoshi (R. H. Blyth)

… the article “Forgive, but Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalitarianism” on the Haiku Foundation website discusses Kyoshi’s collaboration with Japan’s totalitarian government during the Second World War, a government that persecuted, imprisioned and tortured free verse haiku poets that it considered insufficiently patriotic.

No shade on Charlie Solomon; or on Judith Wright, although the Australian Museum would not approve of her destruction of the snake; or on Henry Lawson, although I know there have been some recent negative critiques of him; but Kyoshi on the other hand . . .

     Didn't Basho say
go to the snake
     to learn about snakes?     🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Red-Bellied Black Snake, Australian Museum, https://australian.museum/learn/animals/reptiles/red-bellied-black-snake/

Haiku, Blyth R. H., The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

The 8th Koorie Art Show 2020 (exhibition), The Koorie Heritage Trust, 5 Dec 2020 – 21 Feb 2021.

Henry Lawson’s Mates, The complete stories of Henry Lawson, Henry Lawson, Currey O’Neill, 1979.

Red-Bellied Black Snake (sculpture), Charlie Solomon, 2020.

Forgive, but Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalistarianism, Udo Wenzel interviews Ito Yuki, Juxta 1.1, March 2015, The Haiku Foundation, https://thehaikufoundation.org/juxta/juxta-1-1/forgive-but-do-not-forget-modern-haiku-and-totalitarianism/

Collected Poems, Judith Wright, Fourth Estate, 1994.

Eldorado!

I spent the last week on holiday with my family in the Ovens Valley, in the little town of Porepunkah. It was hot all week so much time was spent swimming.

While my brother and sister-in-law, my niece and nephew, my son and daughter, and my wife, were all swimming in a deep hole in the Buckland river, I sat on the bank wondering to myself what the river might have been like prior to European settlement. The river looked like it had been dredged, and probably dynamited, in the search for gold. The bed of the river was large fragments of stone – no sand. The banks of the river were steep, made of uneven jagged bits of rock, and overgrown with European weeds: purple-flowered scotch thistle, the rusty stems of docks, and blackberries just coming into fruit.

There is a much larger dredge hole at Eldorado near Beechworth. There the dredge is still sitting derelict in the middle of the flooded dredge hole, like a strange castle that has subsided into its own moat. Eldorado was deserted when I visited.

The Tronah Dredge Hole at Harrietville, “Lake Tronah”, on the other hand is a popular place for swimming. It’s probably about as big as the playing surface of the MCG and there is no rusting machinery (at least, none visible above the surface of the water). On this side of the dredge hole there is a little jetty that a bunch of people, kids and adults, were jumping from into the cool dark water. On the far side a rope hanging off a tree that was preferred by a group teenagers, loud music playing from a speaker. Out in the middle, groups of people were floating on lilos, inflated rings and paddle boards. God only knows how deep the thing is.

  Drop slow gum leaves
to the surface
of the Harrietville dredge hole

Actually, an environmental history of bucket dredging in Victoria published in 2018 notes that the Tronoh dredge could go as deep as 130 feet. Despite disrupting 156 acres of the Ovens River, and creating extraordinary quantities of tailings (much of which has never been remediated), the Tronoh dredge barely broke even.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

The Environmental History of Bucket Dredging in Victoria, Davies P., Lawrence S., Turnbull J., Rutherfurd I., Grove J. & Sylvester E., The Journal of Australasian Mining History, Vol. 16, October 2018.

Paulownia Trees & The Moonee Ponds Creek

The City of Melbourne has a wonderful website called Urban Forest Visual where you can look up the species of all the trees planted in the streets and parks of Melbourne. Browsing this website the other day I was surprised to find that there are paulownia (or pawlonia) trees planted in Chelmsford Street, Kensington, only ten or fifteen minutes walk from my house. A paulownia tree was referred to in a haiku by Ransetsu in my post on Japanese Death Poems.

Here is a slightly different translation of the same haiku from The Classic Tradition of Haiku edited by Faubion Bowers:

A leaf falls;

Totsu! a leaf falls,

on the wind.

Ransetsu (trans. William J. Higginson)

Bowers offers the following explanations:

Just as “blossom,” when not modified, means cherry flower in haiku, “one leaf” is code for kiri. Kiri, a member of the figwort family, is the Pawlonia or Empress tree, named after the daughter of Tsar Paul I of Russia (1754 – 1801). A fast grower, it reaches a height of 20 feet in two seasons. The faintly perfumed wood is used in making clogs and clothes chests. The leaves drop throughout the year. They shrivel, turn yellow, and yield to gravity. Their falling symbolises loneliness and connotes the past. The large purple flowers in early autumn are deeply associated with haiku because the three prongs hold 5, 7, and 5 buds respectively. The blooms and their bracket of leaves form the crest of the Empress of Japan. Totsu is an exclamation supposedly uttered when a Zen student achieves enlightenment. The sound also imitates the dry crackle the pawlonia leaf makes as it scratches the ground on falling.

Paulownia is also mentioned more than once by R. H. Blyth, in his famous four volume work on haiku. Blyth seems to disagree with Bowers’ interpretation of the word “totsu”. When discussing the Rensetsu haiku in his first volume, Eastern Culture, Blyth writes: “Totsu is a Zen exclamation, expressive of grumbling, of anger”.

In volume three, Summer-Autumn, Blyth has this to say on the paulownia: “The flowers of the kiri or paulownia have something in them harmonious with what is old, low, spread out, peaceful, monotonous”. These haiku by Shiki are given as examples:

Flowers of the paulownia blooming;

Old mansions

Of the Capital.

Shiki (R. H. Blyth)

The low roof

Of the store-house;

Flowers of the paulownia.

Shiki (R. H. Blyth)

There are no old mansions in the area of Kensington around Chelmsford Street, but there are plenty old store-houses and factories (mostly being converted into residential apartments), and at the bottom of Chelmsford Street runs the Moonee Ponds Creek. The Moonee Ponds Creek … it sounds like an idyllic little waterway doesn’t it? And probably it was before the European settlement of Melbourne. Now, for most of its course it is a concrete drain; poisoned by the tannery that used to be at Debney’s Park and other heavy industry; and overshadowed not by ancient gum trees, but by the massive concrete towers of the the Citilink overpass.

Paulownia trees 
near the Moonee Ponds Creek –
no leaves left at all. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Haiku, Blyth R. H., The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku, Bowers, F. (Ed.), Dover Publications, 1996.

Urban Forest Visual, http://melbourneurbanforestvisual.com.au

Doomscrolling

As the Melbourne COVID-19 lockdown drags goes on and on, I’ve been finding it less easy to follow my own advice about how to live a happy balanced life. Instead I’ve found myself: exercising little; drinking more than the Better Health Channel recommends; and staying awake long into the night “doomscrolling” (when you keep scrolling through all of your social media feeds looking for the most upsetting news about the latest catastrophe).

Days seem to blur into each one another.  Dietary choices becoming less interesting, less healthy, and at times … bizarre. 

A couple of nights ago, with only a handful of ingredients left in the house, we found ourselves sitting down to a cobbled together meal of takeaway BBQ chicken, steamed dim sims, and a lovely plate of the first new season’s asparagus blanched and dressed with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. 

I drank two or three beers and fell asleep early while the rest of the family watched a movie. 

I woke, as the others were going to bed, and I took myself off to read on the couch in the lounge room. Soon enough I found myself browsing the Twitter feed of podcast host Cam Smith (@sexenheimer) who posts selected highlights from the most deranged Australian conspiracy theorists. Amusing highlights included:

  • A rough looking fellow, with a shaved head and a handlebar moustache, who claims to be an ex-professional wrestler and who was challenging Shane Patton, the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, to a bare knuckle fist fight in the middle of Federation Square, “one on one”. 
  • A rather dishevelled character, who is apparently the lead singer of a INXS tribute band, who when confronted by police at a protest against the Melbourne lockdown, leaped into Albert Park Lake to escape … only to find the lake was less than waist deep and so had to make his escape by wading. 
  • A man from Tasmania with scraggly facial hair, who had made himself a top-heavy Ned Kelly helmet out of corrugated iron. 
  • A woman in a headdress, who was claiming that she and the “other witches” she knows have work permits to allow them to pass through police checkpoints during the lockdown, and also that she has made a spell using her “womb blood” which will cause Daniel Andrews to resign (so far ineffective). 
  • And a very earnest young man, who was claiming that his father had attended the St Kilda Road police station and charged “the entire Victorian police force with criminal fraud and misprison of treason”.

Of course, not all of the conspiracy theorists were as benign or amusing as these examples, but still I read on, and on, late into the night …

I woke up suddenly, sometime in the early hours of the morning, befuddled, anxious, uncomfortable from sleeping on the couch, and needing to pee. This presented something of a dilemma to my fuddled brain: 

Should I try to sneak into the ensuite without waking my wife? No, I’d inevitably wake her and then she wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. Then in the morning I’d take her a cup of coffee and say, “how are you”, and she would reply, “tired”. After a meaningful pause she might add, “I didn’t get much sleep”. Best avoid the ensuite.

The other option was to use the main bathroom, but the problem with the main bathroom is that this is where the puppy sleeps. If I woke the puppy he’d be full of energy and want to play, and honestly, that was the last thing that I felt like I could cope with.

One other possibility suggested itself … I remember when my brothers and I were kids that Mum would say that it was OK for us to go outside and pee on the lemon tree (is uric acid good for lemon trees?), but some things that were acceptable when you were seven are not so acceptable when you are in your forties, and trying to maintain a last few shreds of dignity.

     Peeing in the garden
I recall
Asparagus for dinner.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Better Health Channel, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/alcohol

Urban Dictionary, https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=doomscrolling

Daffodils

The daffodil is recognised internationally as the symbol of hope for all people affected by cancer. Cancer Council chose it as our emblem as the bright yellow colouring heralds the return of spring, representing new life and growth.

To Cancer Council, and those affected by cancer, the daffodil represents hope for a cancer free future.

daffodilday.com.au

Cancer has been in my thoughts a lot since my cousin, Dave Sheehan, died of lung cancer earlier this year (it is always in my thoughts to some extent because I work as a cancer nurse), and it is probably because of Dave’s death that the titles of a number of poems by Philip Hodgins caught my eye when I was browsing the Australian Poetry Library recently:

Room 1 Ward 10 West 12/11/83

Room 3 Ward 10 West 17/11/83

Room 1 Ward 10 West 23/11/83

Cytotoxic Rigor

Here, if you can bear it, is the one of Hodgins poems that really got to me:

Leaving Hospital

There was no joy in leaving. Nothing was resolved.

Blood and bone were shot and death had shown

a way with words beyond the usual sophistry.

Wounded by prognosis I had brought people together

and encouraged conversation. It didn’t help.

The right debates were held alone each night

After the chatter of the last drug trolley down

the polished corridor. It was impossible to match

death’s vocabulary. I gave up and got ready to go.

No amount of speachmaking could reassemble

those disparate friends or justify all that fuss.

On the steps I felt the hospital’s immensity

behind me. I thought of how this blood, this

volition would bring me back here to die

in stages of bitterness and regret. I turned around.

The doors are open.

Philip Hodgins

Very grim. 

“ . . . the hospital’s immensity behind me.”

Blunt, three or four word sentences, as brief as lines from a haiku, but with no images from life in them: no birds; no sun or rain; no daffodils.

The abrupt change of tense at the end. 

The Australian Poetry Library says that Hodgins was born in Katandra West, near Shepparton, in January 1959, and died in Maryborough, in August 1995, of chronic myeloid leukaemia. Among his poems there are some about farming; and few about AFL football; and quite a lot, like those mentioned above, that are based on his experiences with cancer . . .

. . . but, those of us with kids can’t allow ourselves to wallow in such thoughts too long. It was the first day of spring. The sun was out. I tied a green hanky across my nose and mouth (COVID restrictions) and set off to supervise my 10 year old son Wes, and his best friend Beth, as they walked to Footscray Park and back for exercise.

Footpaths, and front gardens, bike-paths, the banks of the Maribynong, and Footscray Park were full of people enjoying the sunshine and fresh air.

Neatly mown lawn -
daffodils
push through. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

About Daffodil Day, daffodilday.com.au

Australian Poetry Library, https://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/hodgins-philip

Eynesbury: Grey Box Forest

What is a box tree? Good question. Until recently I had no idea.

About half-an-hour’s drive west of Melbourne there is a small area of remanent grey box (Eucalyptus microcarpa) forest at a place called Eynesbury. 

In mid-May, a couple of weeks before the start of winter here in Victoria, my brother Theo and I, and our kids, drove to Eynesbury to explore (the lockdown for the first wave of COVID-19 had just been relaxed, and the second wave had not yet started). We parked our cars, scoffed down the bacon sandwiches we had packed, and headed off along a path into the scrub. 

To my untrained eye the grey box trees looked just like normal gums: tall, with pale grey-brown leaning trunks, twisting branches, and scraggly clumps of dull green leaves.

About five or ten minutes into our walk we came across a surprise: a baby snake. This was the first time I’ve every seen a baby snake and the first time I can remember seeing a snake of any kind this close to winter. It was, I reckon, about a foot long, maybe a little bit more; its head was dark, almost black; its body was light brown, almost translucent. It moved quickly, whipping and curving itself across the gravel, twigs, and fallen leaves by the side of the path.   

A short way further on I found a twisted, pale grey piece of branch to use as a walking stick.

     Kids, look here
a baby snake! And here's
a good stick. 🌵

“I wonder why box trees are called box trees?”, I said as we walked along, not really expecting an answer. 

“Probably because the early settlers used them for making boxes,” Theo deadpanned. 

It turns out this was not the silliest suggestion: Australian box trees were probably named for their similarity to European box trees (such as Buxus sempervirens) and European box trees do have very dense wood that is used by cabinet makers, wood turners, and in the making of musical instruments. The words “box” for a wooden container, and “box” for a kind of tree, both trace back to the same Greek source word (via Latin). So, box trees being called box trees because they are “those trees that are really good to make boxes out of” is not that much of a stretch.

I’ve always wanted to know how to identify different kinds of gum trees and other eucalypts, and despite a bit of research over the years I’m still not much good at it. This much as I have worked out (with the help of EUCLID, a database of Australian Eucalypts): gum trees have (mostly) thin, smooth bark; box trees are usually covered in fibrous, mat-like bark; and iron barks have hard, brittle, deeply-furrowed bark that is impregnated with resin.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

EUCLID, Eucalypts of Australia, https://apps.lucidcentral.org/euclid/text/entities/eucalyptus_microcarpa.htm

Shorter Oxford Dictionary (5th Ed.), Oxford University Press, 2002. 

Cassie, Sandy, Sandra

I’ve heard it said that Naarm (Melbourne) is the third largest Greek city in the world, and the largest outside Greece.

Maybe that’s true – I don’t think that there is a standard, accepted, measure of Greek-ness when it comes to cities – but many Australian’s do seem to have inherited a Greco-Trojan contempt for prophets and truth-tellers (Cassandra was the Trojan prophetess, doomed to always tell the truth but never be believed).

The past few months of drought, followed by catastrophic bushfires, followed by floods, have brought to my mind a poem my father used to quote from time to time. Here it is in full:

“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan
In accents most forlorn
Outside the church ere Mass began
One frosty Sunday morn.

The congregation stood about,
Coat-collars to the ears,
And talked of stock and crops and drought
As it had done for years.

“It’s lookin’ crook,” said Daniel Croke;
“Bedad, it’s cruke, me lad
For never since the banks went broke
Has seasons been so bad.”

“It’s dry, all right,” said young O’Neil
With which astute remark
He squatted down upon his heel
And chewed a piece of bark.

And so around the chorus ran
“It’s keepin’ dry, no doubt.”
“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“Before the year is out.

“The crops are done; ye’ll have your work
To save one bag of grain;
From here way out to Back-o’-Bourke
They’re singin’ out for rain.

“They’re singin’ out for rain,” he said,
“And all the tanks are dry.”
The congregation scratched its head,
And gazed around the sky.

“There won’t be grass, in any case,
Enough to feed an ass;
There’s not a blade on Casey’s place
As I came down to Mass.”

“If rain don’t come this month,” said Dan,
And cleared his throat to speak –
“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“If rain don’t come this week.”

A heavy silence seemed to steal
On all at this remark;
And each man squatted on his heel,
And chewed a piece of bark.

“We want an inch of rain, we do,”
O’Neil observed at last;
But Croke “maintained” we wanted two
To put the danger past.

“If we don’t get three inches, man,
Or four to break this drought,
We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“Before the year is out.”

In God’s good time down came the rain;
And all the afternoon
On iron roof and window-pane
It drummed a homely tune.

And through the night it pattered still,
And lightsome, gladsome elves
On dripping spout and window-sill
Kept talking to themselves.

It pelted, pelted all day long,
A-singing at its work,
Till every heart took up the song
Way out to Back-o’-Bourke.

And every creek a banker ran,
And dams filled overtop;
“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“If this rain doesn’t stop.”

And stop it did, in God’s good time:
And spring came in the fold
A mantle o’re the hills sublime
Of green and pink and gold.

And days went by on dancing feet,
With harvest-hopes immense,
And laughing eyes behold the wheat
Nod-Nodding o’er the fence.

And, oh, the smiles on every face,
As happy lad and lass
Throught grass knee-deep on Casey’s place
Went riding down to Mass.

While round the church in clothes genteel
Discoursed the men of mark,
And each man squatted on his heel,
And chewed a piece of bark.

“There’ll be bush fires for sure, me man,
There will, without a doubt;
We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“Before the year is out.”

John O’Brien (P. J. Hartigan)

According to Australian Poetry Since 1788 P. J. Hartigan was a Catholic priest who, as well as writing the above poem, was said to have delivered the last rites to a man called Jack Riley, who was said to have been the inspiration for Banjo Patterson’s The Man from Snowey River.

The poem’s joke seems somewhat less funny in this age of “climate denialism”. Hanrahan’s predictions come true all around us – but prophets and truth-tellers still get short shrift.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Australian Poetry Since 1788, Geoffrey Lehmann & Robert Gray (Eds.), University of New South Wales Press, 2011.

The Heap

The Settlement. Bearbrass. Bareport. Bareheap. Dutigalla. Glenelg. Narrm.

Recently I’ve been noticing that a lot of people on Twitter, who live in Melbourne, have been listing their location as “Naarm” or “Naarm / Melbourne”. Intrigued, I borrowed the Dictionary of Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria from the Flemington Library, and the words listed above are a few of the alternate names (indigenous and colonial) for Melbourne.

The dictionary spells the word as “Narrm” with a double “r” rather than “Naarm” with a double “a” but it is not unusual to find alternate spellings for Aboriginal words and names as Aboriginal languages in Victoria had sounds not used in English which made them difficult for English speakers to transcribe. In the future I’d love to see “Naarm” not just on Twitter but on our street signs, maps and government websites as well as, or in place of, “Melbourne”.

The Dictionary of Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria also includes entries for “Barebeerip”, “Bareberp” and “Bikjomangy” but these terms may have referred to the area of Batman’s Hill in specific rather than the area where the Melbourne city centre is. “Naloke” is recorded as referring to “parliament” and “Bourke and Spring Streets”. A Narloke Train Station on the city loop, anyone?

One other item on the list of alternate Melbourne names caught my eye – “Dutigalla”. The Flemington Library is just a few doors from the Doutta Galla Hotel in Racecourse Road, Newmarket. I think most residents of Kensington and Flemington assume that “Doutta Galla” is an Aboriginal term without ever knowing specifically what it means. I scouted the internet for a bit more information on the history of the term “Dutigalla” or “Doutta Galla” and found the following information on the website of the Doutta Galla Lion’s Club in Essendon:

The Parish of Doutta Galla … was reportedly named after the wife of Jika Jika, who was John Batman’s native servant. Jika Jika parish was on the east bank of the Moonee Ponds Creek and Doutta Galla on the west bank.  This is recorded in the March 1837 field book of surveyor Robert Hoddle.

Another source says that the name Doutta Galla (or Dutigalla) was the name of the tribe of aborigines on the original Batman treaty deed, signed on the banks of the Merri Creek, at Northcote. (“The Stop-Over That Stayed A History of Essendon” by Grant Aldous) 

History of Doutta Galla, Doutta Galla Lion’s Club

There was a link on the Lion’s Club website to a 1892 Map of the Parish of Doutta Galla which shows the Parish of Doutta Galla covering all of the land between the Moonee Ponds Creek and the Maribynong River, from Kensington and Flemington, though Essendon and out as far as Keilor and Broadmeadows.

And “Jika Jika”? I remember the name Jika Jika terrifying me when I was a child because it was the name given to the infamous maximum security unit at Pentridge Prison.

According to the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) Dictionary of Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria is available to order, but the order form on their website is currently disabled.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Dictionary of Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria, Ian D. Clark & Tony Heydon, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, 2002.

The forgotten Aboriginal names for 10 of Melbourne’s suburbs, Jason Gibson, Helen Gardner and Stephen Morey, The Conversation, 10-Jul-2018.

History of Doutta Galla, Doutta Galla Lion’s Club, https://douttagalla.vic.lions.org.au/History-of-Doutta-Galla

Parish of Doutta Galla, Victoria Shire Map Company, 1892, National Library of Australia call number MAP RM 2741/90, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-232022724/view

Such is Life

Another day, another exhibition.

This week we drove up the Calder Highway to land of the Dja Dja Wurrung. The town of Castlemaine, an hour and a half’s drive north west of Melbourne, always brings the folk song The Wild Colonial Boy into my mind:

There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Doolan was his name

Of poor but honest parents he was born in Castlemaine

Traditional

He comes to a very sticky end. When I was young my parents used to sing folk songs like this on long car drives. I must have been a very tender-hearted child – I used to forbid my parents from singing The Wild Colonial Boy because it upset me so much (history repeats, my children forbid me from playing Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, because I once made the mistake of explaining to them what the song Fourth of July was about).

I guess the Castlemaine referred to in the song was probably intended to be Castlemaine in County Kerry in Ireland, but in my mind and in the mind of most Australians he was born in Castlemaine, Victoria. The Wild Colonial Boy may have been originally based on a historical figure but it has undergone so many revisions over the years that it is now more mythic than historic.

Castlemaine in Victoria is a very beautiful gold-rush era town, with large beautiful churches, town hall and post office. The art gallery is art deco and also very impressive for a town of this size. We had gone to the Castlemaine Art Museum to see the exhibition Janina Green in conversation with the collection. Her hand-coloured photographs hold significant interest for those interested in haiku and related art forms.

First, there are her photographs of domestic interiors named after the Melbourne suburbs where the photos were taken. These recall haiku in their interest in specific localities and their focus on the seemingly mundane details of everyday life. Also in common with haiku each of these pictures seems to give a fragment of a larger story and leaves the viewer (or reader in the case of haiku) to fill in the rest of the story. We are drawn into the artwork and become active participants rather than passive viewers.

Another picture by Janina Green that caught my eye was the photo titled Still Life series (Klytie Pate), 1988 which is shown on the exhibition page of the gallery website. An ornate teal lamp-base with a beige lamp-shade is contrasted against a spray of yellow wattle in a vase. This contrast, of an artefact made by human hands, with the beauty of nature, recalls many famous haiku. The light catches just a few of the florets of the wattle making them shine.

One other work on display at the Castlemaine Gallery Art Gallery, not part of the Janina Green exhibition, stood out to me. Cook’s Landing (after Macleod) by Robert Hague. Whereas in haiku symbols often work best when they are subtle, when they feel like they evoke a half-remembered associations, the symbols in Cook’s Landing (after Macleod) are “writ large”. The work is a blue-printed china plate. The central image shows Ned Kelly anachronistically shooting at Captain Cook’s long boat, approaching the shore to make first landfall in Australia. The plate has been broken into pieces and then repaired in the Japanese Kintsugi style with golden fault lines. The plate with its clashing symbols and styles is a fair analogy for modern-day Australia, formed of disparate influences, and in the grip of the so called “history wars”.

And as for people who will try to tell you that Ned Kelly’s last words weren’t “such is life“, what can we say? Maybe just that they place too much emphasis on historic detail, and have not enough appreciation of the mythic.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Janina Green in conversation with the collection, Castlemaine Art Gallery, 2019-20.

Paper says Ned Kelly’s final words were not Such is Life, Alison Jess, ABC Goulburn Murray, 17 November, 2014.

Still Life series (Klytie Pate), 1988, Janina Green, hand-coloured photograph.

Cook’s Landing (after Maccleod), Robert Hague, 2019, porcelain, gold, brass staples, copper hanger.

A Town That Doesn’t Exist

This week I visited the exhibition ‘Velvet, Iron, Ashes’ at the State Library of Victoria.

The ‘velvet’ part of the title refers to an extraordinary gown worn by Jesse Clarke at the Pageant of Nations to celebrate Victoria’s centenary in 1934. The silver head-dress is modelled on seven electricity pylons; the cloak is green with the waterways of the Murray-Darling Irrigation Scheme depicted in silver glitter; and the dress is hand painted showing several prominent Victorian buildings.

The ‘iron’ part of the title refers to Ned Kelly’s armour and the ‘ashes’ to the Ashes urn that is the trophy when England and Australia play test cricket. Both are among the most well-known and iconic objects from Australian history. Would it be possible to successfully use symbols as well-known and impersonal as the Kelly’s armour or the Ashes in a poem as delicate as a haiku? I’m not sure …

Other elements of the exhibition include:

  • White City, the MacRobertson’s Chocolate Factory and home of the ‘Freddo’ Chocolate Frog
  • The 1934 London to Melbourne Air Race
  • The Coranderrk Aboriginal reserve
  • Portraits of Ukrainian immigrants to Gippsland

The part of the exhibition which resonated the most with me was the photos and objects from Yallourn. Yallourn was a “company town” for the State Electricity Commission (S.E.C.) in Gippsland. It was demolished in the early 1980s to make way for an open cut coal mine. My Grandfather worked for the S.E.C. and my mother’s high school years were spent in Yallourn, a town that no longer exists.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

The Australian Women’s Register, https://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs /AWE0623b.htm

‘I was the State of Victoria’ Jessie Clarke’s 1934 Pageant of Nations costume, Annette Soumilas, The La Trobe Journal 102, 2018.

Lords, https://www.lords.org/lords/our-history/the-ashes

Public Record Office Victoria, https://prov.vic.gov.au/about-us/our-blog/town-was-yallourn

State Library Victoria, https://www.slv.vic.gov.au/search-discover/explore-collections-theme/australian-history/ned-kelly

Velvet, Iron, Ashes at the State Library Victoria, 24 Oct 2019 – 12 Jul 2020.

Symbols of Australia in Haiku Poetry

Haiku …

… are observed details from nature or everyday life. They strive to be specific, individual, unique.

Also haiku …

… include a kigo. Kigo are ‘season words’. They are a form of symbolic communication.

Kigo in Japanese haiku

Many kigo in Japanese haiku are words for plants and animals, or natural phenomena like kinds of weather. Kigo contain shared cultural associations that Japanese haiku readers understand.

A translator’s notes can help English speaking readers understand the meaning of the kigo intellectually, but it is unlikely that casual readers of haiku in translation feel the full cultural significance of Japanese kigo.

Australian kigo?

It is probably not technically correct to use the words kigo in relation to English language haiku.

In Japanese haiku kigo are codified in quite a formal way with each kigo being related to a specific season of the year. Australian haiku writers do not have an equivalent system.

Australian haiku writers do often include a symbolic keyword, frequently an allusion to nature or the time of year, in the place of a kigo.

In the context of Australian haiku we may refer to these keywords as kigo.

‘Haiku Dreaming Australia’

As far as I am aware there has only been one serious attempt to make a list of Australian kigo, Haiku Dreaming Australia. The editor of the website John Bird writes with the Cloudcatchers haiku group in Northern New South Wales.

Symbolic meaning in modern Australia

The Japanese system of kigo evolved in a preindustrial country. At the time Japan had a strong “monoculture” due to more than 200 years of enforced isolationism.

Symbolic meanings in modern day Australia are much more complex and difficult to catalogue:

  • Australia is incredibly diverse and multicultural
  • Digital technology and streaming gives us access to a deluge of overseas cultural influences
  • Australia is a highly urbanised society and most people are less familiar with nature and the seasons now than they were in past centuries
  • Many words and phrases that are distinctly Australian now seem old fashioned and are falling out of use
  • Mainstream Australia barely acknowledges, much less understands or respects, the culture of the traditional owners of Australia
  • Climate change threatens to radically alter the weather and seasons in Australia and many animals and plants that we might use as kigo in Australian haiku face potential extinction.

My aim

Over the next year I will explore the use of symbolic keywords in Australia and make brief notes on this blog where I find examples of symbolic keywords being used, not just in haiku, but in poetry and other kinds of Australian writing, film, song, and other art-forms. 

I will also post brief reviews of haiku books that I read during the year.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Haiku Dreaming Australia, http://users.mullum.com.au/jbird/dreaming/ozku.html

Acknowledgement:

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which I live, and where I write, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.