The Age Of Vigilance

David Gilbey

Australian Book Review April 1994

…Be tough

and dream. It’s your only chance.

Imagination precedes fact.

Born in Toowoomba in 1924 and serving in the RAAF in the second World War, David Rowbotham has produced nine books of poems, four of prose (stories, novel, monograph), worked collaboratively on an autobiography while employed at the Brisbane Courier Mail for thirty-two years, partly as the arts editor and partly as founding literary editor.

New and Selected Poems contains thirty-seven new poems, collected as ‘Honey Licked from a Thorn’, plus selections from all eight previous volumes of Rowbotham’s poetry. Most of these are now out of the print and it’s thirteen years since his previous book. This then is an opportunity to ‘redefine and restore’ his verse. His prefatory note explains the significance of the title:

…here is a book by a survivor who served among multitudes of young men and women whose tomb is the South-West Pacific … Providence gave me what it did not give them – a life time.

This is an impressive, solid, deliberate collection – not especially easy to read and the poems are not immediately dramatic or fashionable. But here is a strong sense of an intelligent, if brooding, mind behind the poems. Rowbotham invites us to read them as a ‘last post’ of a ‘soldier in silhouette’ against an encroaching darkness.

The book begins with the poet as a kind of cool, optimistic traveller:

For the reason I write, I travel

in retrospect and prospect

to level the brief weapon of time

at the contracting future.

It ends with a sense of, if not wisdom, then cautious awareness:

having seen the young pursure the proverb

‘A wise man climbs Fuji once’ …

I share the blows of peaks on Kamakura,

believing that, since my return,

I have entered the land and age of vigilance.

In ‘Honey Licked from a Thorn’ doctors and sickness figure prominently as the poet’s sense of mortal frailty confirms his perception of moral uncertainty. there are some fine, short poems on America, suck as ‘Rio Grande’ and ‘The American Right… of the people to keep and bear arms’:

She became, as they say, a crack shot.

And whenever she aimed she wept, enraged,

because she was machinery.

Key poems fluctuate between a sense that wisdom is, like Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer, knowable and ordinary, as in ‘Of Use’, a poem celebrating his parents’ gift of a tradition of utility (‘My father made shoes./ His hammer hammered use.’). Elsewhere there’s an encounter with a railway workman:

I like him.

There was a humility in him,

and some kind of permanence.

At other ties truth is plural and elusive:

more than one wall makes a room..

many tongues express the fullest sounds.

Perhaps the central concerns of the collection can be seen in the anthologised ‘E = mc2: Einstein at Princeton’ where the poem meditates on the consequences of the ‘great ravine of vision’:

The eyes burned black:

inextinguishable fire internally consuming,

and the underlapping pain

left marks like papyrus on paper.

Sometimes Rowbotham articulates a sense of contraction and disappointment:

Now in the long universe we weathered,

ready to fall we feel

all perimeters at last

delivered to particular steel.

I remember Ken Goodwin’s description of Rowbotham’s work as ‘edgy, introverted, ill-at-ease …  but always toughly intelligent’. ‘Honey Licked from a Thorn’ continues to invoke the notion that poems are part of a process of finding wisdom out of pain and struggle. Even if it’s only transitory:

Brief plumage achieves its honey, the rose

blooms once, and people being seizes

from seasons’ instances –

even if seizing at straws – praises

David Rowbotham should be nominated for a Patrick White prize. His work is considerable, impressive, lifelong, and he has not had due recognition for his contribution to Australian poetry.

David Gilbey lectures in English at Charles Sturt University and is the President of Wagga Wagga Writers Writers.