A Book of Answers XXIV: Gwen Harwood

This remarkable and rather terrifying poet won my heart in Hobart at the house of Murray Todd, for whom this book is an act of homage. Some years later she celebrated the event in a poem, “To A.D. Hope” in her second book, Poems/Volume Two, and some years after that again, I, always dilatory, got round at last to the reply I had contemplated immediately on reading her delightful tribute.

I quote only those stanzas of it to which mine is a relevant and enthusiastic answer.

To A.D. Hope

We spoke of early childhood, memories, dreams:
you told me of one dream in which you took
your place before an orchestra, and themes

sprang instantly from your composing mind
into the belly of each instrument;
players obedient to no score combined
while you beat time, composing as you went,

to realize your changing harmonies.
Dream, parable: the marvellous translation
of thought to act; light that the spirit sees
flashing through its material creation,

thought shaping with serene authority
the world of sense—a happy dream indeed.
Was it perhaps what Adam lost, when he
and his free-thinking partner felt the need

for some good salty Angst, and left the air
of paradise for ever, with the black
hangdogs of melancholy and despair
sniffing and snivelling round them on the track

But who would call his primal state a blessing?
Who would not bite the fruit, and bear the change?
How could the heart in an unprepossessing
coma of innocence have shown its range?

Who in full manhood would remain sincerely
a child in a child’s Eden, and as dumb?
And who on earth would sing, if song were merely
an effortless warbling until kingdom come?

Poet as hero, nobly present in
the flesh, now half a continent away;
friend, at whose triumphs won and still to win
I’ll stand rejoicing, though I cannot say

all that I owe, I grapple through the same
night-watches with self-doubt, suffer the long
torment of waiting for a word to name
grief that must be resolved in healing song:

To Gwen Harwood

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest and Providence thir guide.
(Paradise Lost XII, 646–47)

Out of that noble music which you made
Around my name and our lost innocence
And round our mystery viewed as a skilled trade,
One image remains and haunts me ever since:

That dream-talk, sitting on Murray Todd’s divan,
Gwendolyn’s gondola drifting down my dream,
Towards a new version of the Fall of Man,
Prompts me to variations on your theme.

Given the unbidden rapture of the bird,
Would not most poets reject the gift? you ask.
This one, at any rate, would have preferred
Always the effort, the agony of the task;

And, even on my dream-podium, expressing
My symphony with effortless ease and range,
Would I, you wonder, count that gift a blessing?
Would I not bite the fruit and bear the change?

Of course I would, and welcome my damnation,
And walk rejoicing in the sacred fire.
But there’s a second parable in creation
Which goes beyond nostalgia of the mire;

For there’s a sense in which Original Sin
May be redeemed by art in its effect.
Whenever I hear an orchestra begin
Some miracle of the heart and intellect,

The Jupiter Symphony, the B-minor Mass,
Integral, augural, triumphant, whole,
I see two dead hands still beneath the grass
With all these living hands in their control;

I think of all these players who partake
Of all that wretched outcrop of the Fall,
And how their human imperfections make
In the long run no difference at all.

One organism imposed on all these lives
Abolishes individual fallen man
And, from the weak and even the wicked contrives
Perfection springing from its master plan.

My dream was but a parable of what
Nature, or God, on a much vaster scale
Does with us all, whether we will or not:
The providence of life which does not fail.

Who beats time, who composes? We must guess;
But poets perform that music, this we know.
Dear Gwen, this answer is my happiness
To hear my fiddle made eloquent by your bow.

Poet as sybil, poet as woman and muse,
Poet whose smiling friendship lights my way,
Eden is all around us, where to choose
If only we keep time and learn to play.

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