My Writing

Granddaughter & Grandmother Poem

My granddaughter is weaving a web
of desire, her shoes clapping
the undersides of a chair.
She waits for six candles
to be lit on her grandmother’s cake.
From a match they glow in their soft
bodies of wax: two pink, one green,
two yellow, one blue. Candles in spirals that
decorate the baking of butter, apple and cinnamon.
She takes up the custom, learning now
by age, by each year’s celebrations
of cousins, of mother, of father.
When we blow from different depths,
candles light our journey, as if this
is a tiny avenue aflame with moon shadow
and we are walking hand in hand.
We are in a dream bell of polished thoughts,
when a wisp of smoke disappears,
staring, smiling at each other.

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Bedroom

A suitable room for sleeping, well housed, a kind of delightfulness without any complaining if the measurement is right. A window is a wide veil and that means a spectacle of shadows and very likely a verdant view below. An arrangement might be two bedrooms of different colours particularly a purple room with a wise chair for thinking. It is so necessary to sit without custody or betrayal when the mind has no vacancies. In a green room there is nothing wasted on waking only suitable bedding is never white and that means changing with special attention if there is no spring or stream to clean, for cleaning is a tradition of gallons given away. Too much devotion to water means reduction and is not lessening in an age of lessening. The main action is washing wearing, renewing and certainly a bedroom is not for eating. It is a soft place for reverie if the mood is right, a right place for dreaming and a good place to order titbits of secrets in repose.

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Rainbow Lorikeet

You are the fields of red
and the blue tulips of Izmir.
You are the harvest green of the Punjab,
the orange turban of the Hindu
and possibly the setting glow at dusk.

However, you are not the black swan
that pecks below your tree, the seedless grapes
on the picnic table, and you are certainly not
the cockatoos suddenly in flight.

It is possible that if you changed existence,
and were not just a bird in its rightful place,
you would be the blue origami on a Willow plate,
even the bridge, the fleeing lovers, crossing.
And anything else that’s blue like the two immortal doves.

But apart from all this blue, you certainly are
the fields of red, stylized tulips, the yellow at sunset.
And you are the wavering lines of harvest green
in the Punjab, and the orange swirled on top
of the Hindu’s head.

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Silverfish

Not as lucky as a Las Vegas dollar
nor as silver,
but if you look inside panelled rooms
there may be several silverfish
touring endlessly in the house
of a miser or in one of those 19th century
cottages where the rain soaks North Somerset,
bookshelves covered in trench coats.

You know that silverfish chew into glue,
plaster, paint, photos, sugar, coffee,
hair, carpet, clothing, dandruff,
book bindings and paper (and that’s
a lot to get through in a week!)

Imagine one slippery silverfish
in the musty library of a French poet
travelling through paragraphs of Reverdy,
John Donne, Simone De Beauvoir or Sartre,
his hunger moving toward simile and speech,
words curling into little white ropes
and lifting from the page,
one letter at a time.

∂∂

Monarchs & Homeric Thought

There are Monarchs roaming the eastern-side of the Rockies. Some are about to land on milkweed in Texas, or rest on flower nectar in the fields of Oklahoma. Monarchs often pose their wings on vines, flapping out their canopy of orange, and black veins; their six legs clinging to the crown of prairie flowers. Monarchs are simply the supreme aviators of the Nymphalidae world, flying through rain, the deep canyons of Mexico. They adapt their technique of flight as mimicry, or dread, fearing a disappearance of milkweed as chain saws rip through the Amazon. And so aligning their paths with the earth’s magnetic field, they rouse themselves to birth new Monarchs in Hawaii, Australia or New Zealand (where milkweed grows). One is in awe of this butterfly, the many naturalists, and all the universities who have brought you this as you make a note to self that forethought is the electricity of learning. One butterfly, especially named Danaus after the great-great-granddaughter of Zeus, flew to him as a shower of golden petals. Imagine the gorgeous trail of her bright orange gown, dusting him down with its edges of velvet and accent of pearls. Zeus more likely, at that very moment, and distracted by the calm landing of her appearance, possibly thought about the hopelessness of war, the calamity of another god’s ruin, or his position on the throne, causing him sleepless nights. Vexation brought to a halt in the beautiful flutter of golden wings. And what of Homer? In The Odyssey he speaks of black wine, the sky as bronze, a wine-dark sea, and darkening Cyclops’ purple sheep. And the most incredible thing that you could imagine is, that in 1100 BC, he saw the colours of fruits and berries in the palette of fields and trees, especially the colour of a bee’s hard labour in a Monarch’s wing.

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A Different Direction – a short story

There were days when he had little strength, moving forward with stiffness. He had a new home with squared windows and a robust roof. Yet he felt imprisoned after the entirety of green, the forest and the open sky. Although he walked under the same clouds, his garden had shrunk to an allotment size.
He sighed into the dismal drama of his life and battled on. Sometimes he heard his dead wife’s laughter, but that was an illusion. He knew no one in the convoy of early morning walkers and only had the company of his shadow when circuiting the park. A few dog owners drifted past, nodding, others crooned about Pippa or Bluey, and were often less impassioned about the weather. When they were gone there was nothing more to add. It would have been easier just to ring an empty bell. At night he watched TV, its flashes of colour and noise livening up the room.
One evening he watched a program that gave him an idea to visit his local tavern.
The main bar was dark and musty, mostly men his age seated on stools. On Friday nights he went along hoping to meet a new friend, but one regular, who had previously spoken, continued to crouch over his beer, the glass propping up the sadness in his face.
Come this Saturday, the bartender said. We get a good crowd and usually a country music band. You’ll have fun.

The night wasn’t what he expected, and it brought a change to his face. A younger crowd greeted him. Handshakes and shoulders touched like a bridge. In that crossing, he encountered the simplicity of conversation over a round of beers. He noticed, above the hubbub of music, laughter and voices, all the young men sported beards. They were impressive, neat and tidy, colourful and not at all housing breakfast crumbs, toothpaste or foreign bodies.
It’s the new rage, said one fellow. Why not grow one and join the club?
He went along every Saturday night. Why hadn’t he thought of wearing a beard before? In all his eighty years he had lathered and shaved, rinsed and patted.
Overnight the hairs inched forward beginning as little brown wisps. He looked like Benjamin Disraeli. When it had grown and bushed out he resembled Sir John Forrest. On days when it grew long and unkempt he was Gandalf.
The young men invited him to car trials, quiz nights, beard contests, and to zero birthdays. Mostly, it was a thirtieth or fortieth and the talk revolved around shapes, styles and colour. There was the Johnny Depp, the David Beckham, the Santa Claus, the goatee, the short-boxed and the stubble. Words like ‘soul patch, terminal and mouche’ suited his sensibilities. The men told him about a city barber where he could have his beard trimmed and coloured, but if he couldn’t afford that, there was the beard trimmer at K-Mart.
Each morning he splashed water on his face, and gazed at himself in the bathroom mirror. He was not a bearded Anthony Hopkins or George Clooney, but it was easy to see what had taken place. His old look had gone in a different direction while his new existence stared back at him with a neatly trimmed moustache and a bristling, silverfox beard.

∂∂

This is a university essay from my undergraduate days!
The Anti-Heroes in Peter Cowan’s & Patrick White’s Short Fiction

Patrick White and Peter Cowan are two contemporary writers who changed the face of the Australian short story from the traditional 1890s styled literature. Many of their short stories reflect a mid-twentieth century society, a changing landscape and certainly different rural and urban identities. Through their prose they subvert the paradigm of the traditional hero (Henry Lawson’s bushman) in order to focus more on the inner lives and personalities of their characters. They include the anti-hero or the ‘outsider protagonist’ – those outside of society’s norms. In their individual style and setting, both writers invite the reader to look beyond the ordinary, the conventional, the hero-archetype to the extraordinary character, the ‘anti-hero’ as part of an unconventional face of Australia.
In comparing and establishing certain anti-heroes in both White’s and Cowan’s texts it must be stated that the term — anti-hero— in itself is problematic. I have discovered that in the few reliable criticisms available on their short stories this particular terminology seems to be omitted. Rather they use the term ‘outsider protagonist.’ Therefore, as the term ‘anti-hero’ is difficult to define solely because of the many and varied ways in which it is used, from villain, non-conformist, rebel to odd-ball, I shall use both the terms ‘outsider protagonist and anti-hero.’ Furthermore, in Roger Rollins’ book Hero/Anti-Hero (1973) he defines the anti-hero as ‘a literary character who does not conspicuously embody any value system except his own private one, which is frequently in conflict with that of his society.
In terms of the ‘outsider protagonist,’ David Myers in the Peacocks and the Bourgeoisie of Patrick White’s Shorter Fiction, suggests that grotesque and absurd characterizations are often to emphasize the moral contrast between the way of life of the outsider-protagonist and conventional society. The absurd, outsider protagonist, ‘relates to the theatre of the absurd and epic theatre, both of which aim to shock rather than to lull, to trouble rather than console.’ So, it seems, the characters in both authors’ works generally relate to these two theatres. Rollins also argues that the unconventional character or anti-hero, ‘is not necessarily a contemptible figure.’
Whether we view characters in literature as contemptible is purely by choice. Certainly, Cowan delves into the violent nature of the despicable anti-hero, and confronts readers with a potency of silence, but never romanticizes the human condition. According to Elizabeth Jolley in Silences and Spaces (1987), ‘Cowan never pronounces judgement or offers answers.’ Patrick White, on the other hand, took the view that the Australian novel was not ‘necessarily the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’ and so to make certain lives more colourful and interesting he wrote about the extraordinary behind the ordinary man and woman. With the advent of modernism, after the war, White’s style (and this is a generalisation of his short fiction) is satire, vulgar farce and surrealism mainly set in the fictional, suburban Sarsaparilla. Cowan’s style, according to Julie Lewis (author/biographer), is visionary and experimental – minimalist before the term was applied to a literary style. Bruce Bennett in Peter Cowan – Critical Essays (1992) prefers to call it ‘interior dramas of people set in a landscape of limitless spaces and silences.’
In White’s short stories, Clay, Five-Twenty and Down at the Dump, he invites us to appreciate the uniqueness of his quirky characters partly as an affront on the conservative stronghold of conventional behavior. Peter Cowan, in his spare prose in The Island, The Red-Backed Spiders and Canary, reveals the selfish, introverted, violent anti-hero who often displays the darker side of their nature in a text that has a subtle, sub-text of meaning.

Before discussing Whites’ stories it is important to note that Dennis Haskell in Myths, Heroes and Anti-Heroes (1992) sees the anti-hero in Western society as victim and worrier, man struggling to survive without faith or commitment, connected only to his own private struggle. At the same time, he explains that while the hero in literature is a serious business, when it comes to humour there is a ‘contradiction of terms.’ One of the strengths and weaknesses, says Haskell, ‘in our Australian cultural life is that we don’t take anything all that seriously,’ and according to Haskell where there is satire, there is the comic hero. As White’s style is satirical we can identity most of his eccentric characters as either comic heroes or farcical anti-heroes.
In White’s story Down at the Dump (The Burnt Ones)- 1964), the Whalleys are the anti-heroes. They emerge as rough and uncouth individuals who revel in visits to the dump. Juxtaposed with the Hogbens, who are the respectable bourgeoisie, cold and materialistic, they emerge as cheerful and feckless giving new life to discarded objects. Daise Morrow and Ossie Coogan, the eccentric couple, are central to White’s theme of love. They are the odd pair defying society’s expectations in finding comfort in one another. Daise, the woman with the reputation for asking men in for a beer, copulates with Ossie, the ‘snivelly-nosed’ alcoholic who has a past of lice and homelessness. In the realism of the text, White suggests that ‘there is a possible lid for every pot’ and ‘where there’s a will there’s a way.’ Daise initiates the relationship with Ossie Coogan by pressing him firmly to ‘her diddies.’ It is an act of defiance against the gossips of the town and their so-called codes of behaviour. In relation to setting, White’s plan, it appears, shows Daise, ‘the loose woman in floral cotton,’ as more of an activist in society or practical do-gooder. She rescues Ossie from ‘the horse-stall amongst the shit’ to wheelbarrow him to ‘a softer bed of physical charity.’ Even in this contrast of Daise ‘enjoying the good things in life — men and flowers,’ with an ‘old scabby deadbeat’ the authorial stance does not moralize. Rather, White reveals a compassionate woman in a cosy domestic setting of ‘baked potatoes by the fire’ picking Ossie from the dung heap, wheeling him along the street for all the world to see. Daise is the rebel with a cause! However, in the context of the setting, at her funeral, she is portrayed as the anti-hero, having the community with all their moralising, good Christian values, ‘hoping to make an honest woman of her.’
David Myers in the Peacocks and the Bourgeoisie, maintains that the character of Daise, as sexually non-conformist, is White’s way of satirizing the ‘bigoted, class-climbing pursuers of respectability’ who are the sexually frigid in our society. In contrast the author ‘sympathizes, although often ironically, with the alkies, the failures and the non-conformists,’ highlighting that even an alcoholic can be reformed. For the readers, however, White does not renege on his promise to deliver us lovable anti-heroes through his irony. Even in death Daise lectures the ‘real no-hopers’ about love.

“Listen, all of you, I’m not leaving, except those who want to be left, and even those aren’t so sure they might be parting with a bit of themselves. Listen to me, all you successful no-hopers, all you who wake in the night, jittery because something may be escaping you… Truly, we needn’t experience tortures, unless we build chambers in our minds to house instruments of hatred in. Don’t you know my darling creatures that death isn’t death unless it’s the death of love?”

White tells us that love transcends death and even in death, the unconventional woman or anti-hero can tell us more about love. Moreover, in his stream of consciousness, the authorial voice reminds us where the hatred lies. According to Martin Gray in Flaws in the Glass – Patrick White (1991), White’s message is All You Need is Love and his strategy presents a soft-centred message to show the bitter truths about human nature; its strange mixture of attraction and repulsion. Ossie too, remains the anti-hero while an unredemptive community still sees him as the repulsive crybaby ‘rubbing snot from his snivelly nose’ at Daise’s funeral. Myers notes that Ossie loses his confidence as the mountain boy riding to his ‘magnificent river’ when left alone to stand dried up near one last pothole of ‘thick yellow mud.’
In contrast Peter Cowan’s short stories have similar themes of short-lived relationships. In the Canary the setting is of journey, road, car and beach. Kevin and Sue meet at the beach. They make love in the front seat of Kevin’s car, but it is not a charitable love of warmth and matronly friendship like Ossie and Daise in Down at the Dump. Instead they are young, insecure and cold from surfing. Sue reveals a scarred face to Kevin but the hurt runs much deeper. On the surface she has learnt to hide her disfigurement through years of running away. Inwardly, she is the archetype of the injured child. Cowan paints her as ‘small, thin, fragile like a walking sweater.’ She is the little canary with a broken wing forever being injured by others, her own peer group, the bikie gang or whoever she takes up with next.
Kevin is the employed fisherman one minute, and the unemployed surfie the next. He is the outsider protagonist, who is never committed to any cause or service. He’s the anti-hero who runs part-time on the gas of the dole cheque where his boundaries are limitless. He is the archetype of the transient surfie with a desire for sand, surf and the next wave. There is no commitment to save Sue from her past, present or future, not even from the louts she has been abused by. She is just a convenient fuck. According to Elizabeth Jolley in Silence and Spaces – Peter Cowan, Sue is the property of a bikie gang, always on the move, ‘the small figure on the beach, and she is the emotionally and scarred little canary.’
Similarly in Peter Cowan’s The Island – An Australian Selection (1974) both characters in transitory scenes of city dating and island hopping, are the anti-heroes who move close but never quite connect. David is the self-centered executive who seeks to escape marriage of ‘conventionality and a strange bondage of distaste.’ His dilemma is that he feels trapped by his wife, ‘hating the way she did her hair, with its fair, set waves, its stiffness.’ Yet he wants the best of both worlds, his freedom and a life of ‘extravagance’ with his expensive flat, latest car and deep-sea fishing.’ He is the anti-hero who leaves his wife alone to explain the break-up of their marriage to family and friends. In the surface realism of the plot, there are physical polarities for David. He needs to move from one form of female (his wife) to using the services of another without getting involved. The setting shifts from a mind fixed solely on his own desire for freedom, then to a mind in contradiction about Jane’s looks, ‘her deep-blue evening dress had an attraction that he [did] not expect. Even though the island is part of the setting, it is a fantasy island that is short-lived. At the end, David is back with his thoughts of her ‘over-made up features.’ The story also reveals themes of distrust and lack of communication and this becomes more apparent as the relationship teeters on the edge of their business deal. And for David it is purely an affair of convenience. Dorothy Hewett, on The Island in Cowan’s Moral Universe – Peter Cowan (1992) suggests that:

In a typical Cowan scenario, the man appears to be wary of, or incapable of, change or decision, the woman waits, nothing happens…in these stories man is often the outcast, the ultimate outsider, an escaped prisoner on the run.

David is the epitome of the ultimate outsider who cannot sustain a lasting relationship with either his wife, or a new woman. He is on the run because he is entrapped in one world trying to reach another. He constantly evaluates Jane in terms of her looks. Her ‘lack of artifice; her eyes heavily accented and grotesque eye shadow were something he did not particularly like…her features, the way she made herself up…which she seemed unconcerned to disguise’ are a constant obstacle to his fantasy.
In many of his texts, says Margot Luke in All the Lonely People: Cowan’s Early Fiction (1982), ‘Cowan gives images of the brutish, bullying or merely insensitive men who are the destroyers:’
The constantly recurring outsider figure is an idealist, often a spectator shying away from decisive action. He feels in tune with the natural world but, faced with social situations, leaves behind a trail of missed opportunities or, having come close, cannot old on…The ideal aspire to, and occasionally found, by the man escaping from loneliness or a bad marriage is his female counterpart: aloof but sensitive and responsive…Finally there is the daemonic woman sexually voracious, physically repulsive, almost an alien life form.
Not quite alien life forms, but red-backed spiders if near enough will sting, even kill. The title of Cowan’s The Red-Backed Spiders – The Unploughed Land (1958) suggests a story of damage, but the damage is more human than insect. The boy’s father emerges as the anti-hero of ‘querulous and sarcastic’ temperament, damaging mainly his family with his attitude and bitterness. Set in a backdrop of an isolated wheat-belt farm with its ‘dump of bits of old machinery, old tyres, rusty kero tins and the tins and bottles from the house,’ the tone and mood is one of despair and disharmony. In Cowan’s sub-text deeper tensions and emotions run through the farm with its ‘slow yields and indifferent soil.’ The conflicts and frustrations of the boy’s father are never quite resolved and he is the abusive parent who vents out all his anger on his children. We sense, from the realism in the text, that Cowan understands the violence and accumulative damage inflicted on families. The setting is all too real, like the man’s abrupt hit with ‘the flat of his hand’ to his daughter’s head and again ‘across his son’s, so that he stumbled, and then kicked him.’
According to Freud’s theories, the man’s behaviour is the symptom of anxiety. Freud saw that uncontrollable human behaviour was not just motivational, nor solely due to outside forces, but that it stemmed from the id – the nervous system. It was this kind of anxiety that intrigued Freud the most. Those who collapse under the weight of it all, and lose their temper are exhibiting neurotic anxiety. Freud believed that ‘life was not easy,’ and for those who lose control the whole survival of their ego is in jeopardy. So, as readers we can either rejoice or be saddened by the man who surrenders without a fight to the bite of the red-backed spider. The silent sub-text suggests that the boy’s father got what he deserved, at the same time perhaps, we see a deeper disease; that of failure and despair. As Rollins suggests, the anti-hero is not always contemptible, and we can look beyond the abnormal behaviour to see the tragedy of loss and more.
This is the brilliance of Cowan’s sub-text. It is not a matter of what has been written, but what has been left out. Even the narrator in the story shows empathy for the boy’s father as he ‘began to feel sorry for the man. He had a kind of hatred that had turned against those who were around him…but it was a hate that had turned, too, in against himself.’
As with Cowan, most modernist authors do not offer any solutions, however critics give varying insights into thematic concerns. It is good to have their comments in books that they probably laboriously slaved over. Meyers maintains that in White’s short stories the moral task is to celebrate the uniqueness of the individual as ‘a counterbalance to the conveyor-belt uniformity of modern mass society.’ He adds, that the climax is often related to the search of the outsider for an ecstatic insight into a fleeting moment, as with Mrs Natwick in Five-Twenty. Ella Natwick’s fleeting moment is her sexual encounter with Mr. Five-Twenty. After having lived in strict servitude with Royal she suddenly finds a god to worship amongst her cinerarias. As readers we are not repulsed by her unconventional behaviour, no do we worry about this unusual setting of passion amongst her ‘famous hollyhocks.’ Myers suggests that White abandons any beauty in her sway to sexual passion to make it farcical. Taking it further, White deliberately shows the farcical to reveal the downtrodden woman. It is farcical for any woman to have spent so many isolating years in servitude with a tormenting, ungrateful Royal (even his name suggests a pun on servitude) – never enjoying sex, affection or the possibility of children. Her sudden fever with Mr. Five-Twenty is the result of her repressed sexuality, having lived in denial from Royal’s narcissistic fear of sex, – his complaints about her ‘wet kisses.’ What is not dignified is Ella putting her invalid husband on the toilet. What is not dignified is the mental abuse she experiences while he shakes his newspaper at her, ‘like an old white battered brolly.’ This repression and suffering is part of the setting. Ella drags her eiderdown-coat down the path to her prized ‘holyhocks, sunflowers and vegie patch’ because they are like her children. Ella is the anti-hero, the victim of years of mental abuse, the enslaved woman, never reaching her potential as a sexual woman or mother. She is the extraordinary female, captured by White, as the catalyst of a repressed, suburban life. Farcical and grotesque, ‘like copulating turkeys’ in amongst the cineraries, she is out of control with Mr. Five-Twenty. Even the authorial voice in the last line, suggests that Ella remains a victim of loss – ‘she must have killed him by loving him too deep, and too adulterously.’
The farcical is even more pronounced in some of White’s other work, especially in his book Three Uneasy Pieces where his stories like Dancing with Two Feet on the Ground and The Age of a Wart are full of wit and humour. Haskell suggests that we take our love of ‘down to earth humour’ one step further with our tall poppy syndrome, using any form of pun or satire to deflate ideas of grandeur. So, in terms of White’s satirical style, his comic heroes are already deflated by circumstance. In White’s story Clay, the whole text is a pun on difference. The setting is a surreal world filled with eccentric behaviour, like masturbation, sexual tease, perversity, artistic creation and suicide. So, the story cannot be taken too seriously. I disagree with Myers who suggests that Clay turns compulsively inward to insanity. Clay is just homosexual. If anything the story Clay is a satire on difference, not just homosexuality, but difference per se, as in Mrs. Skerritt’s speech patterns and the tedious mundanity of Marj. Clay knows he is different. It is a text about the repression and oppression of difference. The surreal Lova (White’s play on words, Lova for ‘love) is the emergence of Clay’s feminine side. Myers notes a parallel with Heseltine’s view on the water imagery used by Patrick White to indicate ‘moments when two lives seem to flow together into a single stream of being.’ So, Lova and Clay are one of the same. Even the authorial voice in the last line suggests, ‘because everyone knows that what isn’t isn’t, even when it is.
Whichever way we view the text either as a serious struggle ‘of a drying and a dying’ or a pun on difference, we know that Patrick White was homosexual. It stands to reason that somewhere in his art he would enlighten us about the struggle of difference, and the irony I suggest – is the difficulty unraveling his surreal text. Barry Argyle in Patrick White (1967) suggests that in Clay ‘fantasy is confused with whimsy, a riddle which the oracular wisdom of the last line does not resolve. It is White’s most unsatisfactory story, possibly because it suggests a parody of his best.’
Both Patrick White and Peter Cowan embrace the anti-hero in their short stories. Both writers depict anti-heroes/outsider protagonists as eccentric, fearful, comical, yet real people in the community. In style and setting they are different in every respect, but as modernists they never romanticize or idealize their world. In a changing world of literature from the traditional 1890s of Henry Lawson to the mid-twentieth century style, both writers go beyond the ordinary from that ‘dreary, dun-coloured social realism’ to the extraordinary, where readers can enjoy certain grains of truth.

Helen Hagemann Copyright © 2001

Helen Hagemann holds a BA in Writing from Edith Cowan University and an MA in Writing from Edith Cowan University.