Review by Barry Hill

[Poems for America was reviewed by The Australian’s Poetry Editor along with other works published since September 11, most notably John Updike’s Americana and Other Poems.]

Australian poets usually have to come to America from the outside, battling their way through historical categories and travelogue sensations.  David Rowbotham, a former literary editor of Brisbane’s newspaper The Court-Mail who has been publishing poetry since 1954, makes a point of telling us that he has two grandsons in the US who are ‘American-minded’.  Hence a volume that has the manner of a poet’s novel about himself as well as being a missive to and for America.  The most intimate poem addresses his American grandsons, post September 11:

Go out and watch,

and tell me what

we came to be:

Too much

for a world to judge,

there was pain,

sale red,

and a baleful age

beyond the sea.

Rowbotham’s weakness is a tendency to badgering doggerel, but just when you think he has gone too far he can pull images and energies together:

Baghdad’s caliph invokes

the olive grove;  his dove’s

about, there’s no messiah

but sands of unbelief

in blindfold fire.

(‘Baghdad & Manhattan’)

Beneath the noisy surface of this poem is a Karantzakis grip on life-and-death struggles of personal life and empire.  Rowbotham, an old soldier at 78, offers a grim address for our times when he says, in a poem about the US Civil War, ‘you make me.  I am war’.  What’s of interest is a veteran Australian poet using America to further create the wild coherence in himself.  -  Barry Hill, The Australian

Review by Barry Hill


From the Weekend Australian Review, p.12 Books, September 2-3, 2006

Heading:  “The greenhouse effect”

By Barry Hill

The Brown Island and Other Poems

The Cave in the Sky:  Poems at Eighty

David Rowbotham

Picaro Press 16pp and 32pp, $5 each

It’s often said that some writers write too much, which is true.  At the same time their greenhouse tendencies can’t be denied, especially when they produce orchids out of one pot in 10.  David Rowbotham is like that: his poems turn up in many of my mailbags and no single publication could keep up with him.   But in each season there is a poem that has to be taken, a growling inimitable poem about, usually, history, his sense of which is saturated with the presence of war.

Rowbotham fought in the Pacific in World War II, and so, unlike our present generation of political leaders who have spruiked us into permanent war, he has a right to speak in certain ways.  In general, he echoes Matthew Arnold’s sense of ignorant armies gathering by night.  As well, he adopts a point of elevation – his mythic bent makes me locate him somewhere over the ancient Mt Macedon – from where he makes bardic annunciations.

“Distant, distant, go the guns of bone

beneath the surrendering sand;

nothing else will surrender in the end.

Gone, the wars that were ours, but the guns remain.

We burn.  the work’s a cannon-ball again.”

(I Cup Your Face)

Rowbotham is a poet with many distinctions and 12 books behind him.  These chapbooks are a handsome way of keeping him in print.  The Brown Island contains some of his less urgent poems:  Brisbane scenes, domestic ruminations, most drawn from earlier publications.  The Cave in the Sky has more recent work – Poems at Eighty, as the subtitle says.  if I reach 80 and am half as powerful, I shall take a leaf out of them.

(David Rowbotham will read his poetry at the Brisbane Writers Festival on September 15)

Barry Hill is The Australian’s poetry editor.

The Australian Copyright @ Sydney 2006.