Australian Poets # 3 – Geoff Page’s ‘The Deputy’
June 26, 2014 — 5:32

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: Australian poetry Canberra Canberra writers poetry  Comments: 4

This is the third in my series of posts about Australian poets. The first two are  Suzanne Edgar and Joan Kerr.





Geoff Page is one of Australia’s best known and widely-published poets. He is based in Canberra and has published twenty-one collections of poetry as well as two novels and five verse novels, and has won many awards. Rather than include a lot of biographical information in this post, I suggest readers follow the link to Irma Gold’s excellent interview.



The Deputy

for J.F.


Driving daily into work,

he feels them equally as pressures,

atmospheric almost,


one more urgent than the other

but pressure all the same.

Both could justify a life,


one with what the young retain

and carry with them through the years,

the other more diffuse


and closer to the core,

resonances rising

from something deeper down,


more opaque than God perhaps,

rhythms, lines and images,

a gift that needs real readiness


before it can arrive.

Of course, one may excel at both.

No doubt a man may serve two masters.


Last year he taught them Doctor Faustus,

the senior class he still keeps on.

He thinks about the famous bargain,


the heavy freedoms of its power,

the good opinion held so widely,

the parent-teacher nights and, yes,


the jokes he makes at school assemblies

to show he’s serious.

At home though there’s a desk


With untouched paper and a screen,

an ideas file, a journal,

a mix of discipline and licence


to bring in pocket money only,

scuffling below the dole.

A friend of his has chosen this,


insecure and frugal

and prone to bitterness.

A third has signed a smaller deal,


holding off from higher slots

if ever they were offered.

Who is his Mephistopheles?


It’s not the principal.

He thinks perhaps they are collective,

these senior teachers who respect him,


who cannot let him go,

who see that he can make things happen

and keep a keel on course.


To them, this other life he has

is hardly more than self-indulgence,

a foible or some pleasant extra,


a flourish or addendum

to make a CV more compelling.

His watch says 8 am.


He turns into the car park now,

an hour before the world begins

its unforeseen complexities,


its smoke and mirrors of the human,

the needs that only he can meet.

The car is small and European,


very fast from nought to ninety.

He walks towards the building…

and sees, back home, that writing desk


patient in its shaft of light,

the blank page and a keyboard waiting,

the pressure of the poem.


‘The Deputy’ appeared in Meanjin 2, 2014. Thank you, Geoff, for allowing me to reproduce it here, and to Meanjin for publishing it.

I read the poem with an instant, deep feeling of recognition. In sixty-three lines, it says an enormous amount about the life of art, the choices and hard bargains, and the ways these are carried within a person life-long.

The voice is quietly authoritative, unsentimental, uncomplaining. The deputy headmaster, who is also an artist, must weigh up and doubt and compare, and go on doing so. This is his destiny. But it’s not an intellectual exercise – the pressures are heart-felt.

And the last line is superb, shining undimmed by the teacher’s daily, ‘other’ life, yet given meaning by it and by the poem as a whole.

I was reminded of the last stanza of Yeats’s ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, and ‘the half-read wisdom of daemonic images’ with which Yeats comforts himself, while understanding that Page’s poet/public man is a very different character.

A wonderful poem! I hope many readers get the chance to discover and enjoy it.


The Villanelle in Australia – Suzanne Edgar
July 25, 2013 — 8:21

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: Australian poetry Canberra writers poetry villanelle  Comments: 3

Last May, ABC radio national’s program, Poetica, focussed on the villanelle.

The villanelle is a very old poetic form, medieval in fact, but it has become popular with contemporary poets in Australia.


Women with wallaby


In this blog post – the first of several I plan to write about poetry, which I love reading, but don’t write myself – I am focussing on the Australian poet Suzanne Edgar, who has this to say about the villanelle.

“The villanelle is an old Italian lyric form that was originally sung; it needs a consistent metrical musicality.  There are rules about its rhyme scheme, the refrain lines and their position in the poem.  The refrain needs to be strong enough to carry the emotional load of its repetition. My villanelle ‘After Drought’ was written in a joyful mood, during a downpour of summer rain.  It was included in Mike Ladd’s `Poetica’ program.”


Photograph by Judith Crispin

Photograph by Judith Crispin


How sweet it is, the sound of falling rain
after years of unrelenting dry,
I thought I’d never hear the sound again.

The falling plays a favourite refrain
as soft as stroking, quiet as a sigh.
How sweet it is, the sound of falling rain

that soaks the bark and leaves a greenish stain
as if it had been coloured with a dye.
I thought I’d never hear the sound again.

Deep ruts are overflowing in our lane
and clouds are spreading froth across the sky.
How sweet it is, the sound of falling rain ‑

new droplets form on wall and window-pane
making shapes that glitter, blend and die.
I thought I’d never hear the sound again

of steady raindrops humming in my brain
their plaintive rhyme; for no one will deny
how sweet it is, the sound of falling rain.
I thought I’d never hear the sound again.


‘After Drought’ was first published in Quadrant (June 2008).  It inspired a piece of textile art, exhibited by Lynne Taylor at Fairfield City Museum & Stein Gallery, N.S.W., in May 2009.  Ian MacDougall composed music for it which he’s sung (with viola, violin and guitar backing) and recorded on a CD.  This is in the School of Music library, A.N.U.  The CD was played on `Macca All Over` (ABC RN) on 3 March 2013.

The more sombre `Resolution’, in Edgar’s collection The Love Procession (Ginninderra Press, 2012), involves a domestic argument that goes around and around in circles.  “It should not be read as strictly autobiographical though,” says Edgar. “Matthew Arnold’s words are always on my mind: `The despotism of fact is unpalatable to the Irish.’ ”





love procession cover


We’d argued through a long and foolish fight.
Though there was nothing useful left to say
it simmered in the evening’s muted light.

He’s always bloody sure he must be right,
the sort of man who’s bound to get his way –
we’d argued through a long and foolish fight.

I shoved our tell-tale budget out of sight
to read again some later, peaceful, day.
It simmered in the evening’s muted light.

He swore he had suspected I was tight,
repeated it was high time I should pay.
We’d argued through a long and foolish fight.

I took the bills and set each one alight
till they, and I, became an ashy grey
that simmered in the evening’s muted light.

Because I couldn’t face a sleepless night
I sold some shares and paid up straightaway.
We’d argued through a long and foolish fight
that ended in the evening’s muted light.


Edgar comments that “Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled (Arrow Books 2007) provides witty advice about the villanelle as a vehicle for  ‘rueful, ironic reiteration of pain or fatalism’. I recently finished the rather mournful ‘Lament’; it has the refrain,

‘Thinking, tonight, of all the books we’ve read,
I know we’ll miss ourselves when we are dead’.

Wendy Cope, however, has written some amusing examples, see ‘A Villanelle for Hugo Williams’, in her Family Values (Faber 2011). This poem displays the form’s rules in the guise of advice to another writer who’d got them wrong!

Other old French forms I’ve used are the rondel, ‘River and Rock’, and the triolet, ‘Malunggang’, both in The Love Procession. Once the formal pattern for such poems is in place I will overlay it with naturalistic or colloquial diction and tone, to avoid any effect of rigidity. This approach was also used in the petrarchan sonnet ‘Corteo d’amore’ which begins that book.

Poetry arises from watchfulness and alert waiting. There remains the exciting, rejuvenating work of refining. I would hate to be labelled a formalist, a modernist, or any other `ist’.  It would be restrictive, whereas I feel free to write in any way I like. I agree with Camus: ‘Poetry that is clear has readers. Poetry that’s obscure has commentators’. I mistrust the current vogue, particularly among academics and their imitators, for writing poems in which meaning is cerebral, convoluted and difficult. They write only for the page, have turned poetry into words.”
















Sandra Mahoney Goes Digital
April 2, 2013 — 22:51

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: Canberra Canberra centenary Canberra writers crime fiction crime series ebooks electronic crime  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 0


My Canberra crime quartet is about to go digital – all four books at once! I’ll be offering special deals and giveaways and using this blog to let readers know about them.

The first three, The Trojan Dog, The White Tower, and Eden, are published by Wakefield Press in Australia, and the first two in America by St Martins Press. I’m glad they’re being released as ebooks this year, when Canberra turns a hundred.

I lived in Canberra for thirty years before returning in 2008 to Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, where I grew up. Writing a mystery series was one of the things I turned to, to try and understand Australia’s national capital both as the city I loved and as a seat of government that is often misunderstood and derided by the rest of the country. I decided early on to write four novels, one for each season, beginning with Canberra in the grip of a hard winter and ending with The Fourth Season, which is set in autumn.

I’ve always been fascinated by the physical aspects of the city, the way the clear inland light seems to promise truth, the way it shines on the Parliament’s enormous, overbearing flagmast. Canberrans have in their mist an imposing castle on a hill; they must struggle to define themselves against it, even if they do this subterraneously. The fact that inland Australian light shines brightly on our castle, that it is seldom veiled in mist like Kafka’s, makes it more, not less mysterious.

All four books feature Sandra Mahoney, and I’ll pause to say a word about her name, which has a good literary pedigree, as in The Fortunes of Richard Mahony; and an architectural pedigree as well, as in Marion Mahony Griffin, whose superb drawings were submitted along with her husband’s prize-winning design entry and are held in the National Archives. I’ve added an ‘e’ to my protagonist’s name, but that is neither here nor there; I often think about literary and architectural traditions when I’m writing about Canberra, and in some ways see my Sandra as an heir to them.

Sandra is an everywoman, falling into her first investigation, and soldiering on from there. My other series characters are a Russian IT person, Ivan Semyonov, and a Detective Sergeant called Brook, who suffers from leukaemia. Sandra’s two children, Peter and Katya, also play important roles.

And my other character is cyberspace. Electronic crime features in each book of my series. In the 1990s, when I began writing it, hardly any Australian writers were focussing on electronic crime; it seems odd to look back on that now. The ACT government once planned to make Canberra the IT capital of Australia; that’s a quaint notion now as well. Yet electronic crime seemed to fit well with the place that for thirty years was my hometown – the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing, or pretending not to know – the government as the country’s biggest spender and therefore an attractive target for thieves and charlatans of all kinds – and something else, less easy to define.

I used to think a lot about Umberto Eco’s description of three types of labyrinth when working out the kind of mystery novels I wanted to write.


First, Eco says, there is the classic labyrinth of Theseus. Theseus enters the labyrinth, arrives at its centre, thanks to Ariadne’s thread, slays the minotaur, then leaves. He does not get lost. Terror is born of the fact that you know there is a minotaur, but you do not know what the minotaur will do.

Then there is the mannerist maze. As Ariadne’s thread is unravelled and followed, the Theseus figure discovers, not a centre, but a kind of tree with many dead ends, many branches leading nowhere. There is an exit, but finding it is a complicated task.

Finally there is the net, which is so constructed that every path can be connected to every other one. The labyrinth has no centre and no one entry or exit. Cyberspace is clearly this third kind of labyrinth. The computer criminal, hacker, virus king etc can be tracked, but the mode of tracking, of following the thread, soon corresponds to becoming lost in the maze, which indeed itself can become the minotaur.

I find this space enormously appealing, though its complexity has far outstripped by ability to comprehend it. Yet what also appeals to me is the traditional structure of a crime investigation – a fictional crime investigation, that is – the progression from a beginning to an end where the criminal is identified and caught. I like the tension that’s created by putting one inside the other, and I strove to create this tension in each of the books comprising my quartet. They represent a sizeable chunk of my writing life and I’m glad they’re going to have new lives of their own.


Simple acts of bearing witness – Meanjin’s Canberra centenary issue.
March 17, 2013 — 23:52

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: Canberra Canberra writers literary communities short stories  Tags: , ,   Comments: 14



Canberra has turned a hundred, and March is the birthday celebration month. Meanjin’s centenary issue was released last week and I’m lucky enough to have a story included; it’s called ‘Mrs B’. At just over 2,000 words, my story is a modest contribution, and indeed fiction is modestly represented in the issue as a whole. There are four short stories, compared with sixteen non-fiction pieces – essay, memoir, the section titled ‘Perspectives’ which begins the issue, and the superb Meanjin Papers section about Walter and Marion Griffin. Add to this the conversation with Christos Tsiolkas and the twelve poems, and you’ll see what I mean.

Does this matter? Not a bit. The qualities I look for in a good short story – originality, attention to detail, authenticity of voice – are there in abundance in the non-fiction pieces, and – it would be a surprise if this weren’t the case – in the poetry as well. I read the issue in several sittings – or rather lyings on the couch – over the weekend, and, as I sat down to write about it, I realized that it was the simple acts of bearing witness that moved me the most, the way the different contributors have of homing in and saying, ‘Yes, this is way it is; this is the way it was, and is.’

I’ll go further and say that I believe it is these simple acts of bearing witness, rather than arguments and counter-arguments, that will, in the end, dismantle the myths about our national capital, myths too well known, and enumerated by me in other places, to repeat here.

I’m not going to refer to every contribution that impressed me; this blog post is by not meant to be any kind of comprehensive review; but I’ll begin with Andrew Croome’s quiet and reverent description of Mount Stromlo after the 2003 bushfires, and his comments on the observatory’s history, as an example of the kind of ‘witnessing’ I mean. On the subject of fire, there is the excellent poem, ‘As Flames Were My Only Witness’ by Russell Erwin. And going back in time, David Headon’s ‘The Genius and the Gypsy: Walt and Marion Griffin in Australia and India’ is a piece I cannot recommend highly enough. If you read the issue for nothing else, read it for this. Headon’s scholarship, his elegant prose, and his own humanity shine through.

It is fitting that monumental buildings are given their due place, but it’s the ironic, scaled, human perspective that drew me in and made me want to read about them. Two of the memoir pieces – ‘Very Happy to be Here’ by Yolande Norris, and ‘Constructing a City, Constructing a Life’ by Marion Halligan are good examples of a refusal to be over-awed by generalised assumptions, but to state, in lyrical and careful prose, what is.

I plan to write more posts about Canberra’s younger generation of writers in the coming months, as well as Canberra’s not-so-young-any-more, but not as well known as they should be writers too.