Monday, February 8, 2016

A Test to Pass ~ Homage to Jim McAuley

It was my island too, my boyhood’s home,
My ‘land of smiles”...
  --  A.D. Hope, In Memoriam: J.P.M., 1976

James Phillip McAuley (1917-1976)
Like many tipplers who have gone Down Under, when I think of Australia I immediately think of the pubs. How nice to be able to go back to one. (Though in the mind only – alas!)  Now I feel the sudden urge to pay homage to one of my favourite Australian poets, James McAuley.

The pub I would like to go back to in this, my modest exercise in reminiscence, is not particularly distinguished by anything other than personal associations. It’s in Hobart, Tasmania, which “was my island” too, as well as McAuley’s. It’s solidly “fair dinkum” – very Aussie, quite plebeian and truly philistine. The poet, whose name and work I am bringing into a most unlikely association with this pub, happens to be one of the most uncompromising enemies of the “fair dinkum-ism” and philistinism Australian poetry has produced. Although in a sense, he is a “dinkum” poet (“dinkum” meaning “authentic”) he is utterly contemptuous of the raucously self-conscious “fair dinkum” tradition in Australian writing. You know that “temper-democratic-bias Australian” kind-of-thing.

The pub was called The Crescent. The name certainly didn’t do justice to the grey grubby
“she’s-alright-mate” suburban dive that it in reality was, The Crescent. Well, being a good Muslim, when I thought of the crescent, the Islamic paradise promised by the Prophet immediately came to mind. And, I had a vision of paradisal rivers cascading with aqua paradiso.  “Know that paradise is beneath the shadow of the sword.” So goes one apocryphal prophetic tradition; and paradisal swords are always crescent-shaped – at least, to my mind.

Although, I am not really nostalgic for the place, poetic justice demands that I go back to it. I wonder if it’s still standing there in the cheerless part of North Hobart. I remember well the oppressively salubrious air of suburban contentment; but I also remember equally well the splendour of the snow-capped Mt Wellington that dominates the old convict town, graced by the big beautiful River Dewent.

Tasmania – known as Van Diemen’s Land in the old convict days – may be in Hal Porter’s obscenely suggestive words in The Tilted Cross, “an ugly trinket suspended at the world’s discredited rump.” But to me the “ugly trinket” is what the “monotonous tribe” of “second-hand Europeans” of AD Hope’s notorious poem “Australia” have made of one of the world’s most beautiful islands.

Tasmania is the island of majestic rivers, beautiful lakes with white sandy beaches (one of them, Lake Peddar, was drowned by the Hydro Electric Scheme during my time on the island), organ- piped mountains and impenetrable forests. The island is both part and not quite part of that huge hunk of a continent to its north, that “woman beyond her change of life, a breast/Still tender but within the womb is dry.” (AD Hope, “Australia”). This Tasmania had nurtured into boyhood the imagination of Alex Derwent Hope, and nurtured into late lyric simplicity the poetry of James McAuley. Neither Hope nor McAuley were born in Tasmania, and yet that beautiful island was their “land of similes.”

In a small unexpected way it was mine, too. And I have a personal claim to the island as well as a “poetic” one. Two of my daughters were born there; one of them is now part of the earth of the island, as much as Jim is, and it is appropriate in more ways than one in Alec’s elegy on Jim, that island of similes should be the ground and focus of meditation:

This island which your lucid poet’s eye
Made living verse: wildflower and sedge and tree
And creatures of its bushland, beach and sky
Took root in poetry,

Until a world to which your poet’s mouth
Gave being and utterance, country of the heart,
Land of the Holy Spirit in the South,
Become its counterpart.

How it came about that an innocent student from Malaya was transported to that unheard of place down under – to study English Literature of all things! – is a long story much of which is not pertinent to my present purpose. But there I was, dumped like a bewildered convict on the island of Van Dieman’s Land, and made to serve hard labour for the unnatural term of my student life – all thanks to the well-organized mercies of the Colombo Plan.

And there was I in The Crescent one bitterly cold winter evening drunk on Tasi’s celebrated Cascade, and the poetry of Alec Hope and Jim McAuley. What a combination! Goaded by my equally drunk mates, I had jumped on a bar stool and brazenly swilled the “pure sardonic draught” that had fecundated the satiric minds of Alec and Jim, the minds that have produced the notorious poems. “Australia” and The True Discovery of Australia.

The first, which burst into print in 1939, had long become one of Alec’s most scandalous poems. “Its reputation has pursued me like a bad smell,” I remember Alec murmuring once. The second, a satirical narrative that takes off from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and published in Jim’s first book, Under Alderbaran (1946), was not as notorious as Hope’s poem; its notoriety was I believe eclipsed by another of Jim’s sensational efforts of the Forties, the Ern Malley hoax.

The two poems were heady stuff to my adolescent mind.  I can still feel the arrogant fervour with which I thundered and hissed those offensive lines into the astounded faces of The Crescent regulars – RSL diggers, honest clerks, and good suburban chappies all. I wasn’t merely reciting; I was drunk enough to dare mangle the lines by peppering my reading with my insufferable running commentary squeezing salaciously sadistic pleasure out of such lines as these by Hope:

And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber state
Where second-hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.
(want to know what “pullulate” means,
Cobber? Let me tell you…”)

The ringing verse modulating, in my drunken reading, into the quieter, but no less brutal wit of Jim’s:

Meanwhile, as you’d expect, their arts are poor
As if dust had leaked into their brains
And made a kind of dry-rot at the core.

Knowledge is regarded with suspicion.
Culture to them is a policeman’s beat;
Who, having learnt to bully honest whores,
Is let out on the muses for a treat.

The Hope-McAuley picture of Australia was still, basically, true as late as the early Sixties when I was a student there. Things, I’m glad to report, have changed since then, partly as the result of the “uncringing” of the infamous Aussie “cultural cringe” and the accompanying belated release of the Great South Land from the suffocating clutches of Victorian England. (The verses of Jim’s I quoted above have, however, an applicability to our present situation here in Malaysia, where the mini Mullahs and the mini Molochs – some of them calling themselves writers! – are threatening to bind us to an insane form of “cultural cringe” fourteen centuries out of date).

My free recital at The Crescent, needless to say, was not appreciated. “Throw that bloody wog out!” (Or was it “Abo”, not “Wog”? Because I remember I was often mistaken for an Aborigine; and Aborigines in those days were not permitted by law to darken the doors of Aussie pubs. No, not “Abo,” I think: that was in Adelaide where there were still a few of them left.  In Tasmania there were none left, it being one of Tasi’s claims to historic fame that its early white settlers successfully exterminated the entire native population of the island.)

And so I was bodily lifted by the burly, hairy ape of a barman and thrown out into the street to lick my own chunder loo by the gutter. You see, I had not only insulted Australia Fair; I had done so in the lounge room of the pub (unforgivable – with all those genteel ladies present: women were not allowed in the bars in those days, Australians being very protective of the gentler sex). If the diggers had known that the obnoxious “Abo” happened to be a beneficiary of Australia’s Foreign Aid to Asia, they would probably have lynched this ungrateful Boong (another cute name for us, Asiatics). It was bad enough that my Aussie mates, long-haired “hippie” rat bags some of them, had staged a walk-out in protest against my eviction. They too apparently never darkened the doors of The Crescent again.

That incident, so predictable in its antipodian absurdity, coloured my long sojourn in Australia. That was how I first stained the innocence of that little corner of Australia’s cultural backwater. That was how I sealed my passion for the best of McAuley’s and Hope’s poetry. And that was how my lasting ambivalent attachment to the Lucky Country began.

I went to Tasmania from Adelaide, and one of the reasons for the move was the presence of Jim McAuley as Professor of English at the University of Tasmania. Jim was lured into academia in 1961 at the rather late age of 44, after years of teaching a discipline totally unrelated to his vocation as poet. For fourteen years he was a lecturer at the Australian School of Pacific Administration, an experience that had no doubt taught him a lot about the realities of government and politics , and which must have influenced his notorious political conservatism of the late Forties and after; in the Thirties he was like many writers, more or less a radical. The period with ASPA was also significant for Jim’s personal and poetic development: he formed a lasting attachment to Papua and New Guinea, and came under the decisive spiritual influence of the Archbishop of the Territory, Alain de Boismenu – both of which are beautifully celebrated in the poem "New Guinea," included in his second book, A Vision of Ceremony (1956).

My tutor at Adelaide University, like Jim a Catholic convert, was an admirer of the poet turned academic. And when for personal reasons I was forced to make an escape from Adelaide, he suggested that since I seemed bent on learning all about poetry I should go to Tasmania and sit at the feet of the famous McAuley. I had wanted to go to Sydney, that Sodom Down Under – no doubt because of the bright red lights there – but I allowed myself to be persuaded by my tutor, though I must confess the name of James McAuley was then not at all familiar to me. To that god-forsaken island, whose existence I had barely heard of, I therefore went. It was like going to the South Pole, I thought. But it was a decision I have never regretted.

The reason why my Adelaide tutor was so persuasive was the existence of another “poet” whom a group of Adelaide’s angry young avant-garde literati had been hoaxed into publishing. The “poet” was the famous Ern Malley, whose creator was none other than Jim McAuley. Jim, so he claimed, concocted, in one beery afternoon, Ern Malley’s modernist masterpiece The Darkening Ecliptic, and, impersonating in a cute letter the dead “poet’s” sister, sent it to Max Harris of the noisy Angry Penguins (an avant-garde journal of the time published in Adelaide). Harris published it with the blessing of no lesser person than the then formidable English poet-critic, Herbert Read.

In a mad concoction of The Darkening Ecliptic. Jim was assisted by fellow poet Harold Stewart[1], and, of course lots and lots of good Aussie beer, plus all kinds of stray publications that happened to be around, including, so legend has it, a U.S. Government Report on the extermination of malarial mosquitoes! The Ern Malley hoax hit the international press: it was the first time, I suppose, an Aussie poet ever had that kind of luck, and the last too no doubt.

A man with that kind of reputation was actually occupying the Chair of English in Tasmania – well, it was worth a try to sit at his feet, I thought; I might learn a few things. Learn, I certainly did, and a lot too, but not without some resistance at first.

Like many young literary innocents, I had come to the University infected with vague utopian longings and an equally vague fascination with literary modernism. What the first year undergraduate didn’t know when he made his hijrah (emigration) to Tasmania was that James McAuley was an implacably sardonic opponent of both. The fact that the Ern Malley affair had dealt a cruel, near fatal, blow to the avant-garde movement in Australia didn’t really sink into my head; the idea that Jim was responsible for a hoax that had hit headlines was more impressive and important to me.

I soon had serious doubts about Jim, the political conservative with his stubborn “reactionary” ideas, though I never made the mistake of thinking that he was some kind of reactionary hyena, or, to use that awful fashionable label actually flung at him on many occasions, a “fascist pig.” This was the violent Sixties I am talking about, the era of Vietnam and campus revolt. Most of my close mates were New Left; one of my closest was actually a professional student in his late 40s dedicated to revolution, who was maintained in one degree course after another by his hairdresser wife. None of these friends could understand why I thought highly of the “fascist pig’ and even liked him. Though I found Jim, the political conservative, insufferable at times, the literary conservative was something else. And my enormous respect for the man was not confined to literature, where, because of his anti-modernism, there were also serious differences of attitude. I also respected his political courage, his willingness to confront the anarchic rabble.

Just remember how many quiet sober professors in the Sixties were cowed into spineless fashionable submission by the scruffy demagogues of the campus – and you will appreciate the moral courage and intellectual spine it took to be a McAuley. Jim was anything but flabby; you could see his no-nonsense vigour in that strongly moulded face, the piercing eyes that stared at you from deep sockets, and that firm masculine walk of his that I thought so characteristic of the man. In spite of my vague “leftist bias”, he taught me to despise those flabby academic liberals and ritualistic radicals who, when it came to the crunch, didn’t really know what they stood for; and so chose to swim with the tide, deluding themselves that they were for “revolution”, but utterly ignorant of the face of the beast. (Jim wrote a pointed little poem called “Liberal or Innocent by Definition” which all fashionable academic liberals and radicals should read.)

But it’s Jim the teacher of literature and poet whom I want to recall in this essay in homage, though it is true that the public figure cannot be separated from the teacher and poet; in all three roles he was distinguished by full-bodied convictions, by the firmness of his stand.

The fact that he was a practicing poet, and that he didn’t become an academic by taking the usual route, was one reason why he was such an unusual teacher.  His approach to the teaching of literature (he mainly taught poetry) was refreshingly non-academic. His were the only lectures I never missed, and I was quite incorrigible in my belief that most lectures were a waste of time, preferring to spend my time in either the pub or the library. Quite the best part of Jim’s lectures was his reading of the poems we were supposed to study. He had a wonderfully firm voice, sensitive and precise in placing and articulating the stress, alert to the subtleties of rhythm and pace.

I owe him a great debt in arousing and sustaining my appreciation of the resources of traditional metrics. He and Hope, obtusely and misleadingly dubbed “neo-Augustan,” are well known in Australia as the most consistent and articulate defenders of traditional metrics. But reading their essays, incisive and revealing though they are, is nothing like listening to one of the practitioners demonstrating the virtues, and unsuspected subtleties, of a convention much taken for granted.

Jim may have been rather infuriating in his impatience with much of modern poetry, but the author of  The End of Modernity certainly knew how to demonstrate the strengths, and what he would claim was the indispensability of the forms and intellectual-aesthetic assumptions of traditional verse. He never tired of stressing the importance of order and fidelity to the idea of “rational discourse” in poetry. Jim was a great enemy of the sloppy and the irrational, vices he associated with certain forms of self-indulgent romanticism. But that didn’t mean his notion of poetic discourse was narrowly “classical” or “rational.” To get some idea of what he meant by poetry as “rational discourse,” one has only to read that early poem addressed to the well-known critic and friend, the late Vincent Buckley:

Scorn then to darken and contract
The landscape of the heart
By individual, arbitrary
And self-expressive art

Let your speech be ordered whole
By an intellectual love;
Elucidate the carnal maze
With clear light from above.

Give every image space and air
To grow, or as bird to fly;
So shall one grain of mustard-seed
Quite over-spread the sky

Let your literal figures shine
With pure transparency:
Not in opaque but limpid wells
Lie truth and mystery

It is worth comparing this poem, An Art of Poetry, to an even earlier poem, The Muse, which is addressed to Alec Hope. It is to be noted that Jim’s commitment to rational discourse or poetic lucidity was informed by a sense of the mystery at the heart of things, as well by the need, desperate in an age so irrational as ours, to cling to hard-won ideas of intellectual and spiritual order. He would say: it is no way to understand the human condition, or to celebrate life, by surrendering to the forces of the irrational – both in matters of ideology and poetic form. Let us, he would say be sober in our drunkenness with both the blessings and the terrors of existence:

Living is thirst for joy:
That is what art rehearses
Let sober drunkenness give
Its splendour to your verses
(To Any Poet)

The voice of the poet must not be the wilfully idiosyncratic voice of the self-conscious individual intoxicated with his own oddity:

Compose the mingling thoughts that crowd
Upon me to a lucid line;
Teach me at last to speak aloud
In words that are no longer mine.

I cannot over-stress the gifts that Jim offered his students in this matter of understanding what the craft of poetry – poetry in traditional forms at least – is all about. His sense of the value of order and lucidity informed his teaching in a variety of ways. Where he found how atrociously impossible the hand-writing of his students was, he actually spent an entire lecture, complete with demonstration on the art of hand-writing. (He himself had a beautifully crafted style.) When he discovered how ignorant even Third Year students were about metre and scansion, he immediately gave a series of lectures on the difficult subjects. The lectures, lucid and revealing in the best McAuley manner, were later published in book form: A Premier of English Versification (Separately published in the U.S.A. as Versification: A Short Introduction). Jim McAuley on meter is to me only equalled by the American critic and poet Yvor Winters. Jim and Winters had quite a few things in common; both were implacable enemies of the shoddy and the irrationally obscurantist. I remember Jim urging me to read Winters’ Forms of Discovery as soon as it came out by showing the draft of a review he had written of it.

What I now understand of traditional metrics I owe almost entirely to Jim, a knowledge that helped me to understand what he was fighting for in his own poetry and Alec in his. It’s a great pity that many of my leftist fellow students who read poetry, didn’t warm to Jim’s verse, not a few of them dismissing it as “academic” or “old-fashioned.” I suspected that the reason for their lack of enthusiasm was their simple inability to hear the poetry. Somehow the voice of James McAuley, the intransigent ideologue and “Cold War warrior,” got in the way of their hearing even of the non-political poems, which actually constitute the bulk of his Collected Poems. I suppose the same reason accounts for what Vivian Smith, poet and critic, says it in his monograph on Jim, “of the six most important modern Australian poets ... McAuley is the most reluctantly admired.”

Jim’s unusual virtues as a teacher were not only revealed in his unconventional professionalism and clear-headed distrust of bullshit of all kind; they were also revealed in that passionate commitment of his to definite viewpoints and the willingness to say so in no uncertain terms. A qualification is perhaps required here: Jim’s passionate commitment to strongly-held views on literature and politics never in my experience made him forget the unspoken contract between the teacher and his students. In the public sphere he was a relentless and dedicated “propagandist,” but never in the classroom. As he himself said in an interview he gave me as editor of the campus newspaper: “I find it difficult to formulate a clear code of academic conduct in this matter. The nearest I can get to is to say that the academic has the ordinary rights as a citizen to be politically active, but he also has the professional duty to teach honestly and treat his students with complete fairness, and to respect their opinions. I hope I would be as opposed to a right wing lecture polluting the academic process as I am to a left wing lecturer doing so. Total objectivity can’t exist. One can only hope that one’s students do recognize that one is trying to be honest. I think most students like to feel that their teachers are capable of having definite views." (Togatus, Vol. 40, no.9, 1969).

Jim’s other striking virtue as a teacher was that, though he could be a terror with his piercing eye (especially if you came late to his lecturers and walked right into the middle of his reading), he never kept his distance with his students. It was one of the pleasures of my student days that every time we students threw a party and invited him, he seldom failed to come; and when he came he really came to enjoy himself. Often, he would stay until the early hours of the morning, telling us amusing anecdotes or giving impromptu lectures on Solzhenitsyn, say, who was of course a must, or on some insufferable cult figure like Herbert Marcuse, who would of course be dismissed as a dangerous crank. Sometimes he would be drunk, but quite pleasantly – and I must say he was an even better teacher then, for alcohol only made him more recklessly lucid and sharp.

He was an incredibly busy man; it’s amazing that he could find time for us students, to drink and be merry with us in fraternal unselfconscious abandon, totally unrestrained by his professional status. It might be thought that there is nothing so extraordinary about this. But I teach at a university which is governed by ancient almost feudal, notions about the proper relationship between lecturers and students; it’s a pleasure therefore to recall those wonderful unstuffy days in remote Tasmania.

Yes, Jim McAuley was a remarkable and, to me, even a great man, and a very unusual teacher. When I heard of his death late in 1976, I was in Denmark, uncertain of my own future and full of doubt about my profession as a university teacher of literature. I remember going out to walk across the snow-covered field behind my father-in-law’s place, soon after reading the letter than brought me the news of Jim’s death. As I sat down on the snow under a bare elm tree in that desolate part of Jutland so mercilessly exposed to the inscrutable sullen sky (“Here everything lies naked and uncovered before God” – Kierkegaard), I thought of my teacher and of the poet I was privileged to have known. A number of well-remembered poems, a few from Under Aldebaran, but mostly from my favourite volume, Surprises of the Sun (1969) came naturally to my mind. The ones from the latter volume came blazing, resonant with well-remembered echoes of his precise subtly-cadenced voice.

The volume contains the poems that Jim came to write in the late Sixties; they are poems about his childhood and youth in an emotionally and spiritually deprived home in a Western suburb of Sydney, about his school-teaching days in the mining and industrial town of Newcastle, and about his marriage in 1942. These “confessional” pieces were a bit of a surprise because of Jim’s long-standing distrust of that mode of poetry, a mode that requires more than the usual tact because of its ego-centred tendencies and proneness to self-indulgence. I remember him being hard on Robert Lowell for what he considered his typically American kind of “confessional perversity.” When I hazarded the guess that Lowell had probably unconsciously influence his decision to write his own “confessional”” poems, his answer was a gritty denial.

To many people, me included, Surprises of the Sun was indeed full of surprises. In some ways the book was a welcome departure from the “predictable” style and preoccupations of his middle, consciously Catholic, phase. Perhaps “departure” is not the right word here; for it can be argued that the poems in that book are stylistically at least, the proper final fruits of his long poetic endeavour. The vein of lyric simplicity, so pronounced in Surprises of the Sun, had in fact been with him from the beginning; it could be felt beneath the more formal, ceremonial or discursive language of his middle

The poems that came to my mind as I mourned the death of my teacher, there in remote Jutland, were not all great stuff. But every one of them was special to me then; they were more immediately meaningful because of the difficult situation I was in at the time. Stray lines came through the freezing wintry air like the true surprise of the winter sun. Some of them had the simplicity of colloquial statements made truly felt and memorable by the full context of the poems, the well-remembered music and tones. Jim, in his last phase really had this facility of making simple statements about hard simple truths that are almost epigrammatic in force; the well-cadenced lyric mode in which such statements are realized explains the force.            

I think Jim had, more often than not in his last phase realized his “persistent desire to write poems that are lucid and mysterious, gracefully simple but full of secrets, faithful to the little one knows  and the much one has to feel.” (Introduction to his own selection of his poems in the book edited, A Map of Australian Verse.)

It was no effort for me then, without his books around in Jutland in December, 1976, to recall such lines as these:

Some like me are slow to learn:
What’s plain can be mysterious still.
Feelings alter, fade, return,

But love stands constant in the will:
It’s not alone the touching, seeing,
It’s how to mean the other’s being.

                             (One Thing At Least)

The much-loved poignant poem about his parents, Because, I remembered in its entirety. Although I never had bad luck, to have a father like Jim’s, (“My father had damned up his Irish blood/ Against all drinking praying fecklessness/ and stiffened into stone and creaking wood./ His lips would make a switching sound, as though spontaneous impulse must be kept at bay”) the poem spoke to me then quite directly. The complex re-enacted feelings it tries to come to terms with are not the sort confined to the parent-son relationships, and are therefore something with which one could empathise. And the stark honesty of its perceptions, so painfully wrung from the past that still haunts, is compelling because it’s deeply felt and realised with poetic tact and precision and resource; prose-like but made taut by concealed bindings.

I never gave enough, and I am sorry;
But we were all closed in the same defeat.

People do what they can; they were good people,
They care for us and loved us. Once they stood
Tall in my childhood as the school, the steeple.
How can I judge without ingratitude?

Judgement is simply trying to reject
A part what we are because it hurts.
But the poem that really made me question myself as I lay “naked and uncovered before God” under that bare elm tree in Jutland was Self Portrait, Newcastle 1942, which I must be permitted to quote in full. The last but final verse, I remember, sent a sharp chill down my spine, even more than the re-enacted terrors of the middle verses:

First day, by the open window,
He sits at a table to write
And watches the coal dust settle
Black on the paper’s white.
Years of breathing this grime
Show black in the lungs of the dead
When autopsies are done;
So at least it is said.

Sunset over the steelworks
Bleeds a long rubric of war
He thinks he knows but doesn’t
The black print of the score.

He, like the sullied paper
Has acquired no meaning yet.
He goes for long walks at night,
Or drinks with people he’s met

In sleeping panic he shatters
The glass of a window pane.
What will he do with his life?
Jump three storeys down in the rain?

Something, guilt, tension, or outrage –
Keeps coming in nightmare shape.
Screams often startle the house:
He leaps up the blind to escape.

By day he teaches the dullest
Intermediate class:
He gets on well with them, knowing
He too has a test to pass

With friends he talks anarchism,
The philosophical kind,
But Brief an einen jungen
Dichter speaks close to his mind.

Terrors and loneliness, both from the past and in the present, doubts and pretence, were all faced with non-defeatist, gently ironic honesty. And “deeply submissive / To the grammar of existence / The syntax of the real” (Credo), the poet knew too that life must be accepted as a gift to be celebrated in poetry with joy. The beautiful landscape of Tasmania, his “island of similes,” gave him frequent moments of epiphanic joy. The spare, firmly sensuous, deceptively flat but syntactically well-structured short poem In The Huon Valley is an example of such moments of epiphany. I quote only the second and third verses:

Juices grow rich with sun,
These autumn days are still:
The glassy river reflects
Elm-gold up the hill,

And big white plumes of rushes.
Life is full of returns;
It isn’t true that one never
Profits, never learns

His faith in his God gave him strength to confront the complexities and contradictions of existence; but the faith was never easy with him, as is generally assumed, especially in the last phase of his poetic career. Not with the man who could say, in reference to Milton’s belief about the role of evil of the world, that he had “no talent for comprehending the thoughts of God. The mystery of evil remains terribly dark to me, even in the light of faith.” The sense of the terrible inscrutability of evil – evil inherent in the human condition, not merely social and political evils – is strong in some of Jim McAuley’s poems. See, for example, that terrifying narrative A Leaf of Sage.
And it was no surprise to me to discover that one of his very last poems should be this very moving farewell to life:
So the world has come at last:
The argument of arms is past.
Fully tested I’ve been found
Fit to join the underground.

No worse age has ever been –
Murderous, lying, and obscene;
Devils worked while gods connived:
Somehow the human has survived.

Why the horrors must be so
I never could pretend to know:
It isn’t I, dear Lord, who can
Justify your ways to man

Soon I’ll understand it all
Or cease to wonder: so my small
Spark will blaze intensely bright,
Or go out in an endless night.

Welcome now to bread and wine:
Creature comfort, heavenly sigh.
Winter will grow dark and cold
Before the wattle turns to gold.

                                                                                                Explicit (Quadrant, December, ‘76)

“No worse age has ever been” – yes, true perhaps; but equally true is Jim’s full-bodied commitment to the present, the now, “Yes now, in the deepening spaces of the dusk” (Spring Song). Another often repeated assumption about Jim is that he was besotted with the past. This assumption is grossly simplistic. Tradition was very important to him, yes, but:

Not if it means to turn
Regretful from the raw
Instant and its vow.

The past is not my law:
Queer, comical, or stern,
Our privilege is now.

St. John’s Park, New Town

It is the same spirit that dictated his editorial for the inaugural issue of Quadrant: “In spite of all that can be said against our age, what a moment it is to be alive in!”
Yes, how the man loved life and the moment he was privileged to live in. I remember one occasion when Jim’s sheer lust for living was memorably revealed to me. It was 1970 I think, the year of his first serious illness that less than six years later was to kill him. He had just been discharged from St Mary’s Hospital; and looked horribly emaciated. Though he had been instructed to stay at home to recuperate, he insisted on joining a group of students on a weekend skiing trip up Mt Field in Southern Tasmania. We went in his yellow-and-white Holden station wagon, with him driving. I remember before we left, his wife, Norma, telling him: “Now don’t you stay up all night talking to your students.” But that of course was exactly what he did. After tramping around in the snow all day (he didn’t, or wouldn’t, ski), in the evening in the ski lodge he performed in his usual McAuley manner, not as if he had just survived a very serious operation. He was up all night. One by one, we dropped off to sleep, leaving Jim and one entranced girl student by the fire.  At about 5 am, I woke up and heard him with one arm around the girl’s shoulder (paternally, of course), murmuring into the smouldering fire: “… the heart of man is savage … and lonely …” And marvellously sturdy too, I should add. His certainly was: lonely, savage, sturdy and capable of much generosity and gentleness.

February 1984

[1] Harold Stewart, I last heard, had seemingly gone the way of Zen. Now apparently domiciled in Kyoto, he writes little poetic gems in the manner of the Japanese haiku.  I sometimes wonder what the ghost of the Catholic McAuley thinks of his fellow hoaxer in the garb of a Zen monk. But since Zen, with its love of zany humour and outrageous practical jokes, is conducive to creative hoaxing, I imagine Jim is smiling a secret smile of understanding at his friend and fellow poet.

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