Judith Rodriguez: The Feather Boy & Other Poems

Glebe NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, 136pp.

It’s a sad fact that The Feather Boy is Judith Rodriguez’ final book of poems. She died late last year. It comes after a long publishing lull. Once having gotten underway as one of the four Brisbane poets of Four Poets in 1961 (where she published as Judith Green) she published books at a fairly conventional rate up to her New and Selected Poems of 1988, but after that her publications became rather sparser. The Feather Boy is really a retrospective collection of poems written after that date – as she says on the book’s cover “These are poems of nearly thirty years”. The cover also apologises for the resulting lack of “a tightly-themed book” before going on to say that the times demand a book of varied concerns and interests as do the variety of “people encountered”. There is a clue here to the book’s genre. It seems to me to be a “final book”, a certain kind of “late work” in which the author allows him or herself a good degree of latitude. I was struck by the similarities with Gwen Harwood’s final book, The Present Tense with its “Six Odes for Public Occasions”. In Rodriguez’ case this means including poems which lash out at the outrages of the period and those that celebrate friendships – usually those in which the friend has already died. Comic doggerel poems get to be included (the annual ASAL parody nights have a lot to answer for here) whereas they would have never made it into earlier, “straighter” books. All in all, there is a certain unbuttoning in poetic matters and a focussing on the humane values of friendship as the dark comes ever closer and everything is pared down to essentials. In fact, friends – in this genre – perhaps replace children as the centre of intimate interaction, presumably because, in advanced age, one’s the children have long since metamorphosed into separate and probably reasonably distant human beings.

The first “unbuttoning” involves Rodriguez allowing herself to be furious, in verse, with the public issues of the last thirty years. This is a case of the poet joining the broader community and sharing their outrage. The period from the late eighties to the present is, in Tacitus’ words, “rich in disasters . . . horrible even in peace”, although compared with periods of equivalent length – 1914–1945, for example – relatively light-on for horrors. There are poems about suicide bombings, pre-Fitzgerald corruption in Queensland, Abu Ghraib, and the imprisonment of the Uighur writer Ilham Tohti. The most important and desperate of these for Australians was the boat-people “crisis” initiated by the arrival of the Tampa with its rescued refugees. In retrospect it is a central event in Australia’s history, reminding those who blandly assumed that Australia was a country of decencies (albeit, fairly dopey decencies) that it could show another face. Though John Howard will obviously bear most of the opprobrium of history – for encouraging and cashing-in politically on this sudden revelation of a hidden dark side of Australian culture – both political parties, at different times, followed the ugly trail of demonization.

Everyone knows the poetic problems that these issues present. A poet, wishing to, at least, express their personal anger is required to find an angle that will result in something better than mere journalism or demonstration slogans. But this raises the paradox that a sophisticated, nuanced and angled approach to some public event – the kind of thing that poets and readers of poetry expect – aestheticises the event itself, replacing the rawer emotions of horror or outrage by the altogether more comfortable one of aesthetic pleasure. Rodriguez’s poems in the first section of The Feather Boy work most of the familiar techniques ranging from eloquent repetitive syntactic patterns to angled, symbolic approaches. “Boat Voices” is the largest attempt here, mixing recorded speech (sourced from newspapers) with comment but I don’t think it can be said to be a successful sequence. “To Sleep, 1986” is a lot more successful because just as the title is ambiguous – a poem addressed to sleep or a poem about the experience of going to sleep – so the entire piece is built on ambiguities. The horrors the poems touches on – “necklacing” in South Africa and the abandoned citizens of Chernobyl (another problem for poems of outrage is the way in which events are reduced to a single verbal tag, a use of language that a good poet would be very resistant to) – are nightmares but they also, in Australia, tend to take place while the southern hemisphere is settled down in sleep. Horrors in the northern hemisphere are, in other words, nightmares that Australians wake up to.

The most intriguing of the poems in this section seems the most oblique. “The Feather Boy” is the first poem of the book and gives it its title. That’s being foregrounded with a vengeance. And yet it is so acutely angled that it leaves me, at least, not at all sure of its drift: in this it recalls Murray’s “Dog Fox Field”. There is a footnote to the poem which adds a little context: a “feather boy” was a child used by partisans to follow up an assassination and the material of the poem comes from Paul Valent’s Child Survivors of the Holocaust. The child’s task was to hold a feather under the noses of the dead, dying and unconscious and count to a hundred. If the feather stirred the victim was either unconscious or trying to fake death and the boy’s task was to call out to one of the men who would then cut the victim’s throat – “If I call, / a knife makes sure”. The poem itself doesn’t declare its sympathies – Polish partisan murder detachments and German occupiers seem alike ethically unattractive to innocent outsiders – but it does allow the boy to speak of himself as acting for the oppressed – “And I call, for us crushed in hiding, // for all of us scattered, parents, cousins, our fates / feathers in war’s updraft”. The poem is built, metaphorically, around the notions of calling and breath, and, as a result, one wants to approach it interpretively as a poem about the role of poetry itself in these ethically fraught situations. That would accord with its being placed first in the section. But it remains rather elusive: it could be saying that situations of horror (the Nazi occupation of Poland) produce such a distorted world that a situation in which a child become the arbiter of life and death is not to be judged simply. It might also be saying that a poetry attempting to deal with contemporary outrage shouldn’t be expected to behave like a polite lyric in an anthology.

The other three sections of the book – “Weather, Times, Places”, “Celebrations” and “Near and Dear” – have exactly the occasional quality that I have spoken about. The dominant impulse here is memory, a lot more interesting, at least superficially, that outrage. And Rodriguez has always been interested in the mechanisms of memory. Often, in this mode, a shortish poem acts as a kind of box in which a small cluster of memories relating to a friend is kept. The book’s final poems are about long-term memories – of father and mother. Again, in this mode, our interest in the remembered detail often has the task of keeping the poem afloat – something critical purists would deplore and “final book” authors happily embrace. But there are two poems which stand out as being better than this. Like “The Feather Boy”, they choose complexity and suggestion. The first of these is the book’s final poem, “Cordelia’s Music for Lear”. It’s position – balancing “The Feather Boy” from the beginning – should be a warning that their modes might be similar. “Cordelia’s Music for Lear” follows two conventional poems about Rodriguez’ father: moving acts of love and contrition. A passage from “Dad” will give an idea of what they are doing and how they work:

. . . . . 
At 99, frail, frustrated -
me off teaching in India -
you told my kids how clever
I’d been, a “natural”. Like Grannie,
your school-results framed and hung.
Dad, I weep at your pride.
How dear a tale. But me away, you died.

Died understood. I took
all you gave, the faith in family,
the English cousins, brothers
you hardly saw in the staggered
boarding at school . . . 

But when we arrive at “Cordelia’s Music for Lear”, two poems on, everything is entirely different:

If I tell you your liegemen wait
and your monster horse
you peer through the crazed hedge
show off bird-tufts
and paste them with licky
to a horse-skull melting like candy.
You have to laugh.

Come from the twigs, summon
the lineage of straw
colouring-in our blood
to daub your scratches.
Father, I gather
your warrior-hand all bone
in my hand’s bowl,

in my shawl, in my hair’s shade.
My young esquires
paint birds upon their shields,
each golden eye
each rainy bird-voice
a washed soul beginning.
Lie soft, be called.

The fact that we are likely to be initially confused about what is clearly a very coherent poem is an indicator of being in the same room as a real poem. Again, the poem provides some context though in this case it takes place not in a footnote but in its title since Cordelia is the loving daughter whose love is not expressed and the non-expression precipitates the tragedy. Equally, since Cordelia narrowly predeceases her father, this can’t be imagined to be a poem like “Dad” to be sung over the parent’s body at the funeral. And the setting seems to be a childhood one of rocking horses and tin soldiers rather than the adult one. It’s not a deliberately surreal work, challenging the very notion of interpretation and there may be a key to it buried somewhere in Rodriguez’ letters or interviews or comments to friends, but for a reader it poses a lot of problems, not the least the meaning of the first four lines of the second stanza. All one can say, reading as an outsider, is that the poem’s tone suggests forgiveness, reconciliation and a final peace.

“Cordelia’s Music for Lear” and “The Feather Boy”, bookending this collection, opt for ambiguity and suggestion in dealing with, respectively, relations with parents (viewed from the perspective of age) and historical outrage. The other outstanding poem is “The Reading” which opts for complexity in dealing with friendship, the third of the The Feather Boy‘s concerns. It is dedicated to Shanti Devadasan an Indian friend with whom Rodriguez read Twelfth Night in a shop in a Chennai mall. And it’s the Shakespeare which continually interacts with their friendship to produce the complexities, Twelfth Night being the play of re-unitings (while Lear is a play of sunderings) made both significant and poignant by the playwright’s loss of his son, Hamnet, a twin whose surviving sister was called Judith. Rodriguez imagines herself playing the part of Olivia and Devadasan the part of the separated twin, Viola. She begins by thinking of the unlikelihoods of this reading in regions “Shakespeare never knew” but then immediately thinks of the reach of the great creative imaginations (especially one whose first name contracts to “Will”): a poet who set plays in Venice and Egypt is already at the border of the great unknown subcontinent:

. . . . . 
                                but given
a century, only a century, who knows?
Headed east by the Serenissima -
Philippi – Actium – the Nile, our Will
was ripening toward the Mahabharata,
the gallant tales, the gold-skinned delicate-
fingered dancing god and cow-eyed girls
and partnership in a Bollywood studio. . . 

But this is a friendship/sisterhood doomed to fracture since Devadasan dies before the age of fifty and no number of sacrifices or visits can stop this final sundering. The fact that she is buried on a place called Quibble Island provides another verbal complexity – this time a nasty irony in that all literature teachers might well be buried on a place with a name like that. As Rodriguez says, it is “somehow a comment on the mess of it all, / somehow laughter from beyond”.

It has been said that complexity (as opposed to complicatedness) is one of the features of “late style”. These three poems stand out for exactly that quality among a group of poems which is marked, if anything, by a loosening of poetic stays. Rodriguez’ great poems have always been those in which a very distinctive personality manages to find the right form in which to express itself so that, far from being lyrically universal, you have a strong feeling that no-one else on earth could have written them. “Nu-Plastik Fanfare Red” is one of these (interestingly the father makes an appearance there but only as a cliché, concerned about the effect his daughter’s painting her room womb-red will have on the house’s resale value) as are the magnificent “Eskimo Occasion”, “Writing a Biography” and “An Odd Voyage”. Though I’m not sure whether many of the poems of this book would be included in any retrospective selected poems planned for Judith Rodriguez, I think “The Feather Boy”, “Cordelia’s Music for Lear” and “The Reading” would undoubtedly be included.