Friday, April 3, 2020

Wild Fridays #13: The Living Dead

the head next to mine on the pillow       
                                                                                              for Gloria
When I awoke in the morning
There on the pillow beside me lay the moth.
His fluffy head was still tucked down
Like a late sleeper’s, but the eyes, those fascinated
Lamps that had drunk so deep of light
During the night, the eyes were dull.
And a soft powder had fallen
From the tattered wings folded
In the high final dive.

I might have been, perhaps,
The last thing he saw as the light flooded
His gentle body—why, yes, it could be
I was a big thing in his life at the last,
Enigmatic as an Easter Island statue,
Before the tide took him out
To where there is only flying
And all the filaments are friendly.

– Bruce Dawe (1930-2020)
from Condolences of the Season: selected poems. Melbourne, Longman Cheshire, 1971.

Bruce Dawe died just before midnight on April 1st, survived by his second wife and the four children of his first marriage.

Although he was 90, I’m saddened and shocked, as is the Australian poetry world in general. He was one of our most popular poets as well as one of the most critically acclaimed, and his work (widely taught in schools for decades now) will surely live on.

He himself left school early – but after some years in the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) went to University as a mature age student, eventually obtained four degrees, and became an associate professor at the University of Southern Queensland. The University goes into detail about his literary career here. Wikipedia gives more biographical details. 

He is known for creating a poetry of the common man, written in the vernacular and dealing with the ordinary minutiae of life. Some of his best-loved poems are social commentary, including many with an anti-war theme. He is often funny and/or satirical, and can be caustic.

A Sydney Morning Herald article from 16 years ago quotes him:

Poetry for me doesn't come from some divine inspiration, all that sort of thing. I don't believe all that romantic stuff. A poet is not a shaman. My 'inspiration' comes from certain things that will take hold of me, bugging away at me, maybe national events, or maybe local things, or something really personal like love.

I write a poem to sort something out, to come to terms with something, from the need to get that something inside out there, so that we can see its shape, its character. Sometimes when we see its shape, whether it's something good or something bad, it can help. Art is therapeutic, in a way, for all of us.

Fiction writer Laurie Clancy, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald 11 years ago, said of him:

He writes about major issues, true. But he is not afraid of the day to day, of what critics like to call the quotidian, and every experience, even the apparently minor, is grist to his mill.
He writes about deadbeats and drifters and the homeless, about popular culture, from Gary Cooper to Butch Cassidy to Australian football, about "the rowdy carnival of sparrows" as well as the Dogs in the Morning Light. In Homo Suburbiensis he writes affectionately about the mundane nature of suburban life.
I would say he is the most Australian of poets – which makes it difficult to know what to share of his work. English speakers on different continents may think we speak the same language; but not really. I’ve found in the past that I have to be careful what Australian poems I share here. Some which I think are splendid just can’t be communicated properly to anyone of another nationality. Dawe’s best-loved poems tend to come into that category, for both their language and their allusions, even though to Australian readers they are eloquent and far from obscure.

The tender poem about the dead moth, though, will hopefully touch all hearts.  It’s not his most famous, nor is the one which follows, but I find them beautiful – and it’s perhaps fitting I should choose a poem about death to honour his own passing. So let’s finish with this one, about sleep, from the same book:

letting go of things

Beautiful, ah always so 
—this letting go of things, this
kneeling, no, prostration of the spirit,
in rehearsal of our last
mysterious release, the sacrament of death,
drifting now as then at evening’s end,
consciousness calling quits, the body’s abrupt
mechanism slowing, slowing, workmen going home,
acquiescence of limbs at the approach of Id,
the garrulous old night-watchman, taking over,
settling down among the weird
luminosities of sleep, guardian of the shadow-factory,
God’s confederate I trust, and must.

Beautiful, O beautiful to be thus
a source of pleasure, if involuntary,
something for an old man to doze over,
to be young again in the dark warm with voices
alive with quicksilver kisses, tears,
tigers running through dream-woods
and impossible poetry.

Books by and about Bruce Dawe can be found at Amazon; including several children’s books he wrote, some of which are available as audiobooks. The paperbacks of his poetry are available at Amazon in the USA, UK and Australia (I haven’t looked elsewhere). Unfortunately none are in Kindle editions. A few of his poems may be found at PoemHunter (where he is listed as Donald Bruce Dawe, his full name by which he was never known).

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright).


  1. Another poet who is new to me. Thank you for sharing, Rosemary.

    1. Impossible, I think, these days, to know all the wonderful poets there are around the world. I'm happy when I can introduce people to new ones.

  2. I really liked your poem and poet choice. I too have felt sorry for those small creatures flying around in the night, window shopping to be near the light within. June bugs by the hundreds lay dead on the porch, their futile bodies waiting to be swept up and put in the trash, dustpanfuls at a time. Like the bodies dying in our cities of the dread COVID 19. Both have breathed their last and now with no control nor sense go back to dust and fertilizer.
    I had not heard of Bruce aka Donald. I envy his life of writing, mine has only begun in late retirement. Even though not so good and never will get acclaim, I love to write, all my life I loved to write.

    1. Whether we get such wide acclaim or not, it is good that we get to do what we love — and even better if some other people enjoy our efforts.

  3. Thanks for introducing this poet to us. I love his words and way around what we call a poem.

    1. Hello, Yvonne. Thanks for commenting. I'm glad you like his writing.

  4. Thank you for letting me know about Bruce Dawe. I have not heard about Bruce and his poetry. Perhaps i was more schooled in British poetry, then pointed across the pond to American works. It seems Oz have many great poets, but have limited exposure over here.
    I liked what he said about why the need to write poetry, 'to come to terms with something, from the need to get that something inside out there'. I really loved the poem about the moth, with all those little details, and it left me wondering who is 'Gloria'.
    Perhaps i may resonate with his works, when i read them, for i too like to write about the dead-ends and junkies and the trodden. :)

    1. Gloria was his first wife, who died in 1997 after they had been married 33 years. He found love again, remarried and said that he was 'twice blessed'.
      Unfortunately there is little of his work to be found online.

  5. In these days of loss, when reality seems to be more real than ever, Bruce Dawe's poetry feels like just the thing. Not just because there is necessary wisdom to be found in poetry that embraces life as it happens, and shares it in words all can understand, but also because it might inspire some who might've never written to take a chance and birth a poem. "Art is therapeutic", indeed... and poetry knows.

    Thank you for the introduction, Rosemary. And may he rest in peace.

    1. Thank you, Magaly. I find I can go back to his work again and again and it always enriches me.

  6. Thank you for introducing us to Bruce Dawe's poetry, Rosemary! I feel deeply the connection to the world, to the universe, to the human mind and stream of consciousness in his work. His use of language goes beyond what we call imagery, rather he portrays what we see and feel using sensory input. I feel he pays more attention to detail than the average poet.

    May his kind soul be blessed and may he rest in peace. Amen.

    1. You've clearly read him with great attention! Your comments on his poetry are very apt, and you are quite right in discerning his kind soul. He was a very nice person!

  7. Thank you introducing me to this poet. Both pieces were sweet and charming, words which don't come to mind automatically when thinking about poems with death as the theme. From that bit by Lawrence Clancy and Dawe's words, he seems like the sort of person who could really find beauty everywhere.

    1. He was pretty amazing. But he could also call out the ugliness of life too,when he felt that needed addressing. What I most wish is that I could show everyone his humour, one of his most inspired and most characteristic qualities – but it's so based in the Australian vernacular, I fear you just wouldn't get it.


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