It used to be simple, large
self-supporting God with worldfinger on
all the pulses, lifting dozey new Adam
out of the clay under the surprised light. Then
proposition and inquisition untuned
the pulses, squirted back the mud,
crosseyed the saints, racked
sweet fanatic poets between lambchrist
and tigerchrist, candle and stake.
Accounts are rearranged,
the winners win. St Paul’s is sideswiped
by the parade of the tallest and tech-best towers.
A few church mice unaccountably strong of stomach
come with soup and patience to the dark arcades
where losers piss themselves
off the edge of memory.
This morning the fingerless mist lay
over asphalt and brick, over grass and gravel
spreading yourself thin but everywhere here.
Fetching the paper I thought I heard you sigh
or laugh in the mintbush by my gate
and who was it flipped the petals, hiding under a single
petal, little god? But when I turned a wet leaf
there was only a websoft texture,
an intimate scent
that troubled my fingers till someone ground the coffee.
from: the Passion paintings, (Poems 1983 - 2006), Aileen Kelly, John Leonard Press, 2006.
I can't remember now who recommended Aileen Kelly to me as a poet I should feature at La Mama Poetica back in the years when I ran this longstanding Melbourne poetry venue. What I do remember, still, from that night is Aileen's poem, 'My Brother's Piano' which gave voice to Sigmund Freud's sister, a promising concert pianist who was forced to practise on a silenced piano so as not to disturb Freud at his work. It says something about a poem that you can remember it some fifteen years after you first heard it. That poem contains the elements that I've come to expect from Aileen's poetry - an acerbic intelligence and wit, fierce compassion and deft wordplay and lyricism.
Aileen taught poetry for years in various places - although taught is possibly the wrong word. She unlocked poetry for many people who returned again and again to her classes. I attended some of these - both formal classes at the Victorian Writer's Centre - and informal sessions held at her home. I was also involved in a peer workshop group with Aileen and other prominent Melbourne women poets. Aileen was a profound influence on my own teaching practice and remains an equally important influence, both in her work and her friendship, on how I think about conducting my own life and the challenges the world throws at me.
I'm going to be featuring poems over the next few months that have taught me both something about poetry and about living. This is an incomplete and idiosyncratic selection and I hope to say something about the poems that explains, at least elliptically, what it is in them that resonates with me.
'Simple' begins with a bit of a rollercoaster history of western religion, that resolves into that elusive moment where the patriarchal and hierarchical capital 'g' God becomes the 'little god', 'thin but everywhere here' and yet still unknowable.
The subject of this poem speaks to me. For some years I attended Meeting for Worship at the Religious Society of Friends, too ambivalent to become a member but, nonetheless, grateful for the hour of mostly silent, communal worship and the f/Friendship of people who led their lives with an emphasis on spiritual life and social justice. The 'little god' of this poem and the intimate moment of something like worship reflect my own uneasy struggles with spiritual life.
As a poet, I love how Aileen has condensed so much into those first two stanzas using just the odd word here or there - dozey Adam - the unmistakeable visual reference to the Sistine Chapel, the 'racked' sweet fanatic poets, the deft juxtaposition of 'lambchrist/and tigerchrist candle and stake' and then, those church mice at the end, slightly prosaic and grounded in their humble acts. The third stanza gives me back the 'little god', not found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or anywhere, perhaps, except in my own examination of the miraculous, everyday world.
You can read more Tuesday poems if you start here.