Creativity blooms as poet stares down death

by Des Houghton

The Courier Mail February 11-12 2006

“DO not go gentle into that good night”, urged Dylan Thomas, in his great poetic exhortation against choosing an easy death.

Queensland’s unlikely literary lion, David Rowbotham, has taken the poet’s words to heart, producing a new volume of poetry at the age of 81.

Rowbotham admits some words in The Cave in the Sky: Poems at Eighty (Picaro Press) deal with his own mortality.

And why not? Twice he has stared down death to complete his task.

He had his first heart attack in the 1980′s, and when stents were inserted in his ailing arteries in 2001, his doctor told him he only had two years left.

He said he had another heart attack last year and two more stents inserted in “emergency circumstances”.

“Given just two more years of life in 2001, I am now entering my fifth, so that’s not bad,” he said.

“I think this (book) is my last chance. I don’t think there will be another one. I do hope you don’t find the poetry depressing, though.”

It isn’t. It teems with life and lovely imagery.

“I think I am a narrative poet,” said Rowbotham, who was born in Toowoomba, the son of a shoemaker.

“If you tell a story you can lift that language, and people can get something out of it.”

He has delighted in receiving a letter from his old pal, David Malouf, who praised the poems for their transparency, ease and nobility, Malouf said the works were “the sort of achievement that only comes to a poet, if it comes at all, when he has freed himself of everything”.

Rowbotham has written “at least” 26 novels, essays, short stories and books of verse during a life spanning academia and journalism.

He said he had outlived most of the Queensland’s good poets except Val Vallis. (Vallis, ages nearly 90, told me this week he hadn’t written for 10 years.)

Rowbotham says his old mates hardly recognise him because he has been bloated by his cortisone medication.

It was in 1956 that Rowbotham published his first book of verse Ploughman and the Poet (Lyre-bird) although The Bulletin had been publishing his words since 1945.

But he was 10 when he read his poem at Toowoomba’s East State School. It was a tribute to a frilled lizard he had seen in Queen’s Park en route to school, and he caused uproar when he pulled the creature from his pocket to illustrate his verse.

I met Rowbotham at his hilltop home at Holland Park and he took me to the “cave in the sky” in the title of his new volume. It is a room at the rear of the house with views past Loretto Convent and back to the CBD skyline.

The eyrie is littered with a writer’s tools – books, pictures, magazines and cuttings and a computer. He went blind, but laser surgery restored enough of his sight to allow him to go on. The computer allowed him to increase the size of the typeface so he could see what he was writing.

The title poem begins:

I’ll be sorry to leave the cave in the sky

in the house on the hill called goodbye

because the old are dying. Old

in my lustres, I look on my masterworld:

on the simple things we have

that we still love, but can’t outlive;

deep vistas. green rooms

and leaning chairs.

If memory lives, then memory cares.

Rowbotham became a journalist in 1952 at the Toowoomba Chronicle and joined The Courier-Mail three years later.

“I was given the freedom to write features but I wasn’t going anywhere so I left to go to Queensland Uni to get a BA. I had gone from the frying pan to the fire.

Rowbotham eventually became a senior tutor in the English department.

“As a journalist I was always an outcast,” he said.

He said the university was full of strange and vicious people who spent their time doing as little as possible.

“I’m afraid to admit I learnt how to hate out there,” he said. He left the university in 1969 to return to the Courier to become the literary editor and for many years was a highly respected – and critical – drama critic.