No One Anywhere Wise Enough

Noni Durack talks to David Rowbotham

Australian Book Review April 1994

David Rowbotham: I am full of anger at this time of my life …anger that there is no one – no one anywhere wise enough to be in charge, certainly not our politicians. I have contempt for politicians who have so little knowledge of this century, of its history. My mates and I were grabbed for the last war. I enlisted but…

Noni Durack: There are other forms of ‘grabbing’ than conscription.

Yes, we went to war because we were told we were doing the right thing. We believed we were doing the right thing. Many of my friends did not come back. Many who did return died within ten or fifteen years because of their injuries, or carried on their live with difficulty, maimed by them. Tom Uren was the only ex-serviceman in Parliament – the only one who understood the hellish experiences men went through. Now he’s gone.

It was the same-maybe worse-for the generation before ours. My uncle, born in the 1890′s, was blown up at Ypres. That trench warfare … men standing in grey mud – the corpses of their comrades lying in it … the noises the corpses made – crows gathering to feast on the carrion. The sweep of history passes on or should pass on through generations but politicians ignore this.

And you fear another war?

The crows gather again. Last time most of us realised that none of our ‘leaders’ knew what they were doing on the battle-field or off. I think my greatest fear is that this ignorance – this ineptitude could be even worse if there’s a next time.

Your war poems are as threatening and disturbing as any I have read. Your anger is as fresh in 1993 as it was just after the war.

Another thing makes me angry… I’m appalled at the paltry petty poetry that is being brought out. You can write about pots and pans and everyday trivia but poetry should deal with larger issues. Douglas Stewart always told me ‘ write about what you know’. I believe you should write about what you don’t know, about what’s lying in your unconscious, the dark side of the moon. You have to dig for it, find it even if it’s black and depressing. It’s the core of truth. And poems need to be passionate, inspired by emotions of value, not trite and pathetic. They must also be utterly honest.

Your ‘Darling Downs’ poems are lyrical, joyous…

I loved the Downs. Still do. I was born in Toowoomba and had an extraordinarily happy and secure childhood there. How my father, cobbler, and my mother managed to rear my sister and me through the great depression and give us such a serene life, I don’t know. When I left for the war I didn’t think I’d come back. After three years in the islands, it was over. I thought, thank God I’m Alive. I couldn’t wait to return and put into words what I felt about that country. I was exultant. My life had been given back to me as a bonus. I also felt an obligation to make it of use.

My first introduction to your poetry was a lyric about the Downs published in the Argosy – most unusual to find an Australian poem in that august English journal. I always associated you with the joyous, singing eulogies to the natural world. I found your later poems disconcertingly different – challenging. For instance those in the 1993 ‘Travel’ section of the new anthology. They have an underlying, mystifying excitement and menace.

I wrote them after having the greatest fright of my life. I was in London – my very first visit. I’d been getting haemorrhages in my eyes. The specialist there told me these lead to blindness. Apparently such trouble is common in ex-servicemen who had subsisted for long periods on poor or very scanty food. I thought, here I am, maybe going blind, and I’ve seen nothing of the world. So I set out to see the world and I was damned glad to see it- always remembering that even with treatment I could face blackness. I refer to blindness often in this section. Its threat added an edge to my enjoyment of foreign places. You obviously picked this up. Then after all those wonderful experiences I came home to find the condition had been arrested. I didn’t lose my sight, I’m a survivor.

There is a lot of talk now about ‘the typical Australian’. Would you describe yourself as typically Australian.

It might sound pompous but I’ve decided I belong to the world, not one nation ‘The world is my oyster’, as Shakespeare said.

There are various recurrent themes in this anthology – that of the war is the strongest reappearing as late as 1993 in ‘The Rattle’.

Death on the battlefield, in the air, at sea, as often been described but death in war-time hospital as I described in ‘The Rattle’ rarely…

It is very grim and telling, as are many of your poems but they never have the bleakness, the hopelessness of Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’.

Eliot was a most intellectual, gifted poet but he got in with that Bloomsbury lot. He ended a ‘kept man’. No, I would like to be remembered as a positive force, not a bleak one.

Your poetry many not be bleak by neither is it meek. You don’t disguise your pet hates. You lampoon politicians with deadly skill and critics even more cruelly.

I know a lot about critics. I see them from both sides since I’ve often acted as a critic.

You still don’t like them?

No

You speak of your anger and deliberation but there is an outpouring of love in every section of this volume- affection for the ordinary worker in the field or city, for your mother and father, great-grandmother, grandchildren, and of course for the natural world. You should surely be, as shown in this latter respect, one of the first ‘greenies’.

I’ve been lucky – I’ve had a second chance at life. I had a father who was patient and steady, a loving mother. I’ve had plenty of reason to love.

Despite living in times of change and uncertainty, you appear confident of order and continuity. In the poem written on the death of your mother you say, ‘Your departure makes me sure / there is a destination.’

We all have to suffer our doubts. Some people make a blind dogmatism of their lack of faith – their agnosticism or nihilism, but if you sit at the death of someone as close as your mother you cannot deny them a heaven.

Your last poem in the 1993 group, ‘Silhouette’ sounds like a farewell to poetry.

I’m approaching my allotted span. I may not get the chance to write more. ‘Silhouette’ is a shot at my epitaph.