Times and Seasons – 2021 in Poems

As Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us, ‘there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens’. Just as surely, there is a poem for every one of these times and seasons.

In 2021, I put this premise to the test. When I wrote my weekly email to my siblings, I sought out a poem to reflect the spirit of the day. Sometimes the poem related to the physical season, sometimes to political events, and sometimes it captured past/present synergies.

Here’s a taste of my poetic journey through 2021’s times and seasons.

January – ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ by Maya Angelou

January 2021 saw the inauguration of a new president in the US. The occasion witnessed a powerful poetic statement from Amanda Gorman (‘The Hill We Climb’), but I chose to acknowledge the event by going back a few decades to Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. On that day, it was another black poet, Maya Angelou, who addressed the crowd with her words – ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’.

Source: PBS Learning – ‘Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise

Angelou’s poem ends like this:

Here, on the pulse of this new day

You may have the grace to look up and out

And into your sister’s eyes, and into

Your brother’s face, your country

And say simply

Very simply

With hope—

Good morning.

Beginning a new year with grace and civility seems like a promising idea.

February – ‘The Summer Day’ by Mary Oliver

Summer in the southern hemisphere drew to a close. I had begun my poetic month with Macbeth’s rather depressing view that life is ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (Act 5, Scene 5, Macbeth, William Shakespeare), but I ended it on a more uplifting note – Mary Oliver contemplating the culmination of the season in ‘The Summer Day’:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

March – ‘I Am Woman’ by Helen Reddy

Joining a groundswell of grief, pain and frustration, I attended the #March4Justice Rally on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra on 15 March. Helen Reddy’s anthemic ‘I Am Woman’ was belted out with gusto – no harmony, just full-throated unison.

You can bend but never break me

Cause it only serves to make me

More determined to achieve my final goal

And I come back even stronger

Not a novice any longer

‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul.

Later in the year, on 30 November, the Australian Human Rights Commission tabled Set the Standard: Report on the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces. It remains to be seen how many of the 28 recommendations, aimed at making Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces ‘safe and respectful’, will be acted upon.

April – ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’ by William Whiting

In April, I watched the live telecast from St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, of the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. One of the hymns sung during the service was the naval hymn, ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’, a melancholic prayer ‘for those in peril on the sea’.

Eternal Father, strong to save,

Whose arm does bind the restless wave,

Who bids the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep;

O hear us when we cry to Thee

For those in peril on the sea.

On the eve of the funeral, soprano Alexandra Stevenson sang the hymn in an empty Portsmouth Cathedral, in a tribute to the prince.

I know the hymn’s focus is on endangered human life but, whenever I hear it, my thoughts turn also to imperilled marine life.

Flower arrangement, St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle

May – ‘Last of His Tribe’ by Oodgeroo Noonucaal

First Nations peoples were on my mind in May.

I was the proofreader for Larry Brandy’s Wiradjuri Country, a children’s book published by the National Library of Australia. Brandy’s beautiful picture book weaves connections between landscape (and skyscape), plants, animals, peoples, and stories in the region centred on three rivers: Wambuul (Macquarie River) in the north, Marrambidya (Murrumbidgee River) in the south, and Milawa (Murray River) through its heart.

Larry Brandy reading from Wiradjuri Country

Also in May, I attended a book launch for Anita Heiss’s Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray, an historical novel set in Gundagai and Wagga Wagga in the mid-19th century, told from the perspective of Wagadhaany (Wog-a-dine), a young Wiradjuri woman.

When Aunty Elaine introduced Heiss’s book at the Canberra launch, she asked us to remember all the Aboriginal writers who had gone before. I thought of Oodgeroo Noonucaal and, later, of her poem ‘Last of His Tribe’ about Geerbo (Willie Mackenzie), the last Darwarbada man. It is a poem that speaks of great loss:

I asked and you let me hear

e soft vowelly tongue to be heard now

No more for ever. soft vowelly tongue to be heard now

No more for ever.

You singer of ancient tribal songs,

You leader once in the corroboree,

You twice in fierce tribal fights

With wild enemy blacks from over the river,

All gone, all gone.

In the work of authors like Larry Brandy and Anita Heiss, and through the dedication of people like Dr Stan Grant and Dr John Rudder in the Wiradjuri Dictionary, some words and languages and understandings are being restored.

June – ‘To Know the Dark’ by Wendell Berry

Autumn turned to winter, and with the change in seasons the mornings grew darker. Wendell Berry’s ‘To Know the Dark’ reminded me that there is much to be learnt from the darkness. Like the light, it, too, can bloom and sing.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

And is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.

July – ‘The Olympic Games’ by J. W.

The COVID-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics kicked off in late July 2021, and I unearthed a piece of doggerel published in The Bulletin on the eve of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The writer welcomed the ‘athletes undaunted and well-tried at home’ to the ‘land of the blossoming gum’ and expressed the hope:

And when all is over – the laurels are won

And the athletes return from the games –

Then Melbourne will be, when the cheering is done,

Among the most cherished of names.

Whether the poet’s vision was realised or not is a matter of conjecture. Sydneysiders would surely disagree. But, in Melbourne’s defence, I would note that the southern city was named the World’s Most Liveable City for seven successive years (2011–1017).

August – ‘Life Cycle (for Big Jim Phelan) by Bruce Dawe

By late winter, Australian Rules Football is getting down to the ‘business end’ of the season. No poet has better encapsulated the place of Aussie Rules in the hearts and minds of Victorians than Bruce Dawe in ‘Life Cycle (for Big Jim Phelan)’. (Although much of Dawe’s illustrious career was spent in rugby league country (i.e. Queensland), he was born and raised in Melbourne.)

When children are born in Victoria

they are wrapped in club-colours, laid in beribboned cots,

having already begun a lifetime’s barracking.

They will not grow old as those from the more northern states grow old,

for them it will always be three-quarter time

with the scores level and the wind advantage in the final term.

I claim iconic status for Dawe’s ‘Life Cycle’. It was first published in The Age newspaper in 1967 and still appears regularly in Australian poetry anthologies.

September – ‘Foreign Lands’ by Henry Lawson

With many Australians unable to leave even their local communities, international travel was the stuff of dreams, so I tapped into Henry Lawson’s ‘Foreign Lands’. When Lawson wrote the poem, in 1897, he harked back to even earlier (frankly, imperialist) times when ‘the world was wide to travel, and the roving spirit strong’. He thought those days were long gone, but he did suggest an alternative:

Ah, my girl, our lives are narrow, and in sordid days like these,

I can hate the things that banished ‘Foreign Lands across the seas’,

And with all the world before us, God above us – hearts and hands,

I can sail the seas in fancy far away to Foreign Lands.

Adventuring ‘in fancy’ remained the lot of most travel-starved Australians.

October – ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire

My movie club, restricted to free-to-air streaming services, watched Rosemary’s Way on SBS on Demand. The documentary tells the story of 2021 Australian of the Year Local Hero Rosemary Kariuki’s volunteer work among migrant and refugee women in Sydney. From people experiencing trauma and isolation, Kariuki coaxed shy and hopeful smiles. There was a glimmer of hope that their journeys to Australia would lead to new friendships and a new place to call home.

Home’ is the title of a poem by Warsan Shire, a British poet born in Kenya to Somali parents. The poem begins with these words: ‘no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark’. It ends like this:

you have to understand,

no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

who would choose to spend days

and nights in the stomach of a truck

unless the miles travelled

meant something more than journey

Source: Freedom from Torture

November – ‘An Alternative Geometry of the Universe’ by Maggie Wang

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (commonly referred to as COP26) was held from 31 October to 13 November. As a conference tie-in, young poets were asked to respond to the UK’s COP26 presidency theme of ‘Nature’. The winning entry was Maggie Wang’s ‘An Alternative Geometry of the Universe’.

Used with permission. Open Government Licence v3.0

Wang’s poem traces a cycle of the natural world from the purchase of cherries to clouds that ‘tessellate … across the mountains’, and from salmon-chasing bears to the bees that follow them. Eventually, the poem comes full circle and returns to the ripening cherries:

On the way, they [the bees] will have passed an orchard beginning to bloom

and dipped their tongues between the petals as they flew.

In their wake, the sky will have swarmed heavy with pollen

and the scent of sugar thickening into cherries.

December – ‘Simeon’s Farewell’ by Norman Habel

Summer returns at year’s end and, with it, the approach of Christmas. Australians are used to Christmas carols and stories with chilly, northern hemisphere settings, from Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ where ‘frosty wind made moan’ to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol where Scrooge is compared to bitter winds, falling snow and pelting rain.

In 1980, Norman Habel published a poetry collection, to accompany paintings by Pro Hart, that set the Christmas story in the Australian bush. One of these poems is ‘Simeon’s Farewell’, an account of the aging prophet’s vision on meeting the baby Jesus.

Being a prophet is rough

and bloody lonely at times.

We are called to shock people

into seeing the cold truth,

the ugly selfish ways they live,

knocking others to boost themselves,

grabbing power by crushing hopes,

and hunting blacks as vermin.

God says some people are bastards,

stuck-up heartless bastards.

And we get no thanks

telling people truths like that…

Perhaps the close of the year is a time to seek out today’s prophets and listen carefully to ‘the cold truth’.

A Poem for Every Time and Season?

Yes, I did find a poem to add to my sibling-email each week in 2021. The selected poems weren’t all serious. I included a good smattering of nonsense from Edward Lear and Spike Milligan, and I re-visited childhood with selections from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, A A Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

And now, it’s time to sail into a new year. I might join Edward Lear’s Jumblies (‘They went to sea in Sieve, they did, / In a Sieve they went to sea’.)

Source: Edward Lear’s Complete Nonsense (1996), Folio Society

Links and Sources

And, not forgetting those brave seafarers, ‘The Jumblies’ by Edward Lear.

Gleanings from #HNSA2021

Another conference shifts from the physical to the virtual. More dodgy internet connections, more barking dogs and chattering children, more partners crouching in screen backdrops, more collective groans.

Hang on. Just back up a minute.

Not everyone feels that way. Let’s be honest: a virtual conference is an introvert’s dream. I know many people are chafing at the bit, desperate to return to in-person gatherings, but I’m not one of them. For introverts like me, a virtual conference is, as Mary Poppins would say, ‘practically perfect in every way’.

Not only do I avoid travel and accommodation costs, I also avoid actual people. No more standing in solitary isolation at break times admonishing myself for my anti-social preferences, no more repeat visits to the conference bookshop to avoid conversations with strangers, no more disappearing outdoors on the pretext of needing some fresh air.

For me, virtual has much to recommend it. And the 2021 Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) conference, held online for the first time, did not disappoint.

The conference theme was Recovery: Restoring, Reconciling and Re-imagining Lost Histories. My conference gleanings fall into two further ‘Re-’ categories: Research and Realism.

Research: Resources for Writers

How do historical fiction writers discover what Sydney’s Liverpool St looked like in 1909 when Foy’s department store moved there from Oxford St?

How do they know what food was served on the SS Great Britain when she sailed away from Liverpool in 1871, bound for Hobson’s Bay, and with Anthony Trollope on board?

How do they find out whether buttons were used in everyday clothing in 13th century England?

Authors at the HNSA conference proffered their favourite tips and resources and, because they were speaking from their own homes, they could readily pluck items in hard copy from their shelves for ‘show and tell’. Here are some of the resources recommended at the conference:

Dictionaries and Thesauri

Geraldine Brooks held aloft her weighty, two-volume Historical Thesaurus of the OED. The thesaurus ‘works as a taxonomic index of language history … it is not just for looking up synonyms – instead, it can be used to explore the different words used for a particular meaning over time’. You can take a 15-minute virtual tour of the thesaurus to learn more.

While the first edition of the thesaurus was published in print format, the second edition is available here. Perhaps your protagonist is strolling through the English countryside in 1150 admiring the Spring blossom on a crab apple tree but, wait, was it called a crab apple back then? The answer, according to the historical thesaurus? It was a wergulu or a wuduaeppel or a wudusuræppel. (I do love a thesaurus.)

Screenshot from the Historical Thesaurus of the OED

Images

Kelly Rimmer recommends looking at photos to understand an era. I would add that, (pre- and post-photography), paintings and newspaper illustrations are another way of getting a feel for a setting and a society.

Tom Roberts (1885). Bourke Street, Melbourne

Think of the 16th century games depicted in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games or the activity in late 19th century Melbourne in Tom Roberts’ Bourke Street.

Trove

Catherine Jinks calls Trove ‘a miracle’.

Trove combines the collections of Australian libraries, universities, museums, galleries and archives. Many of its resources are digitised including newspapers (mostly up to the early 1950s), Government Gazettes, maps, pictures, photographs, music, letters and interviews.

Reference Works

Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth likes to ‘deep dive’ into the social history of the eras she writes about. How do you know where/how people went to the toilet in a particular historical period? Kate uses reference books like Sally Magnusson’s Life of Pee: The Story of How Urine Got Everywhere.

Experts and Scholars

Alli Sinclair lauds the knowledge of experts and scholars. Her experience in writing The Codebreakers was that experts want to share their knowledge. Professional associations and university departments are a good place to start when tracking down specialists.

Alli Sinclair

Aggregated Data Sets

Jock Serong recommends the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Enter a word or phrase into the viewer to see its occurrence in a corpus of books over a period of time.

For example, if your characters are meeting for a sexual liaison in World War I Sydney, it’s unlikely to have taken place in a motel room – the word ‘motel’ does not start appearing in books until the mid- to late 1940s.

You Tube

Kate Kruimink suggests YouTube as a way to hear the music of a particular historical period.

For her novel A Treacherous Country, in which her young protagonist sails from England to Van Diemen’s Land, she listened to recordings of sea shanties via YouTube. (Captain Halyard has multiple compilations of sea shanties and folk songs on YouTube. You can get a taste of them here.)

Jock Serong and Kate Kruimink

Cartoons

Mirandi Riwoe suggests cartoons as a source for discovering what people were really thinking.

An example highlighted by Riwoe is The Bulletin’s 1886 depiction Chinese people. Phil May’s cartoon (complete with a recognisable Henry Lawson smoking opium) is titled ‘The Mongolian Octopus: His Grip on Australia’ and it encapsulates The Bulletin’s and the wider community’s attitude in the late 19th century.

Phil May. ‘The Mongolian Octopus: His Grip on Australia’. The Bulletin, 21 August 1886, pp.12-13.

Fieldwork

Despite the extraordinary array of resources available today – both online and in hard copy – nothing beats research ‘on the ground’.

In yet another impact of COVID19, more than one HNSA conference panellist revealed cancelled plans for research trips to overseas destinations during 2020 and 2021. Expect 2022s international flights to be crammed with historical novelists.

Realism: Historical Authenticity and Accuracy

How do historical novelists balance detailed research with captivating fiction? Because, as Sue Williams succinctly puts it, ‘readers don’t want to read the research’.

Perhaps writing historical fiction is a bit like being on a seesaw. The author begins with the seesaw weighted down on the side of research but finishes with the story solidly on the ground and the research sitting lightly in the air.

The Seesaw. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

And it needs to be remembered that the historical record is both incomplete and subjective. It can only take the novelist so far.

An incomplete record ‘recovered by the imagination’

During her conference workshop Research and Fieldwork, Mirandi Riwoe referenced Hilary Mantel’s take on historical fiction: 99.9% of human activity never makes it onto the record and ‘can only be recovered by the imagination’ (History Extra, 28 July 2020).

The fiction writer, says Steven Carroll, needs to ‘take history by the hand and lead it into the land of supposition’.

Steven Carroll

The subjectivity of history

Travelling into the land of supposition offers the novelist scope to remove some of the filters entrenched in the written record.

Pip Williams

Pip Williams reminds us that ‘it’s wrong to think that history is true and fiction is not’.

Non-fiction writing is subjective; historians and eyewitnesses write from (often unacknowledged or unrecognised) perspectives.

Historical fiction is important, says Williams, because the ‘official’ record is often inadequate to answer the questions we’ve got about history. It doesn’t necessarily tell us the ‘why’; the novelist can posit a thesis. As Carroll puts it, we need to ‘invent a doorway’ to do the things that history cannot.

Here’s an example.

In the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the words of women are largely missing. Where are the words of the scullery and the birthing room, asks Williams?

If those words were not found in a written source, they were omitted from the dictionary. Even the words that are included are generally sourced from the writings of male authors, and then filtered through the minds and morals of male editors and male lexicographers.

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Random House

Williams invented a doorway. In The Dictionary of Lost Words, she breathes life into the words that fell through history’s cracks.

Remembering

On a sombre note, Kelly Gardiner reminded conference participants of the deaths in 2020 of esteemed authors Jesse Blackadder and Liz Corbett.

The HNSA has established a mentorship in Corbett’s name. The mentorship, ‘for a previously unpublished author from Australia or New Zealand’, will help an author develop an unpublished historical fiction manuscript for young adults.

Julie Janson – Keynote Address

It would be remiss of me not to mention Julie Janson’s keynote conference address. (It was the only session where I missed being physically present in the conference room with other people. I’m sure I wasn’t the only virtual attendee who clapped at the end of the address.)

Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug people, and a playwright, novelist and poet, took as her theme ‘the role and responsibility of historical novelists in recovering lost, overlooked or deliberately erased histories’. She asked whether the genre could ‘play a part in achieving truth in reconciliation’.

Janson concluded her address by suggesting three specific measures to aid reconciliation: change the Australian flag, change the national anthem and change the date of Australia Day.

Links and Sources

If you were unable to attend the conference but would like to know more, the online recordings will be made accessible, for a fee, for a limited time. Check the HNSA website for details.

Conference sessions

The following sessions from the 2021 HNSA conference are referenced in this post:

Other Authors and Books

Images