Sunday, 1 September 2013

‘Good Friday Seder at Separation Creek’ by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

This is a paper on the poem ‘Good Friday Seder at Separation Creek’ by Chris Wallace-Crabbe written for the symposium in his honour held at University College, Parkville, on Saturday the 31st of August 2013. A shorter version of this paper was read at the symposium itself, to meet the set time limit of ten minutes. The poem was first published in the poet’s collection ‘Rungs of Time’ (Oxford University Press, 1993).


Separation Creek is a pretty inlet with its own hamlet on the Great Ocean Road halfway between Lorne and Apollo Bay. The exact reason for the name remains inconclusive, maybe something to do with the early timber industry, or something brought back from France in 1918. It is a weekender, which is why the family in this poem is down for Easter holidays. The title warns us that complexities and ironies abound, for the family plans to conduct that most ancient of Jewish familial obligations, the seder meal commemorating the Passover in Exodus, on the most holy day in the Christian calendar, Good Friday. Separation is not only the name of the creek, an innocent enough thing seemingly, it is also a theme of the poem.

The moon has a flat face,
yellow Moses peering over the chine
of our neighbourhood mountain. Growl,
goes the rough surf. Our backstage mopoke
may have guessed that we lack
shinbone and bitter herbs for the occasion
while nuggety Joshua, gleeful as ever,
nicks off to his bedroom in order to find
the tucked-away afikomen. His brother
is all tricked out in Liverpool strip,
as red as Karl Marx but much fitter.

The moon, beloved of poets, maintains its presence throughout. It is the full moon after the equinox, time of Passover and cause of countless church synods called to determine the date of Easter. We find the Otways have a range of beings with ambiguous religious meanings. Moses himself is a presence, albeit the benign albedo light of the moon. One of the sons is Joshua, Hebrew antecedent of the name Jesus, who is found nicking off (a verb with its own religious connotations) to find the bread for the seder, part of the game of the ritual. Karl Marx, who said religion was an opium, makes a guest appearance. The word “fitter” hints unsubtly at that other threat to Victorian religious certainty, Charles Darwin. But it is the presence of the mopoke, or boobook owl, that catches attention, reminder both of the ancient Australian reality of the locale of Separation Creek and of the owl as, at least in Western tradition, the symbol of wisdom. It is the mopoke that tests the poet’s guilty awareness that they do not have all the required food for a genuine seder meal, thus asking is this a proper seder? An essential clue to the poet’s view of the whole process is in the word “backstage mopoke”, a comic reference to the spooky sound of an owl hoot, but as well acknowledgement that this is theatre. Ritual, even of this laid back nature down the coast, is a form of human theatre and humans understand relationship at one level as theatre. The surf itself goes Growl, like a character from Maurice Sendak. 

Braggart moon floats loftier now,
a white queen dragging the tides along
like a cloak of crushed velvet.
No rest for the wicked: surfers are camped,
or shacked, all the way from Pisgah to Sinai.
If they read, it is airport novels
with titles embossed in gold, but not the scriptures,
not crazy Nietzsche, certainly not Oscar Wilde
who shrugged and scribbled, ‘what comes of all this
is a curious mixture of ardour and indifference,’
and believed all art is entirely useless,

or said, or thought, or wrote, that he believed it,
a plump serious chap who lived
beyond religion on the Plains of Art.

Why surfers, that innocent breed who spend their days riding waves, are singled out as wicked seems unjustified, unless we hear the poet using the saying “No rest for the wicked” (the phrase is from Isaiah) as Australian drollery, a reversal or ironising of normal usage. He both means it and doesn’t quite mean it at the same time: he’s “deadly serious”. The surfies read works “embossed in gold”, something our culture once reserved for the holy writings, e.g. medieval illuminations, but is now used for cheap novels; another sign of separation from traditions. The poet invokes three bodies of writing with special religious connections: the Scriptures, those testaments to God’s work; Nietzsche that polemicist against Jewish and Christian teaching; and Wilde, who would replace religion with art, though Wilde did write De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The poet calls Wilde “a plump serious chap”, thus making a very relevant literary reference to the opening words of the novel Ulysses, but is this how we normally think of Wilde? Is a poet a person who just shrugs and scribbles? Is the poet delicately putting forward a proto-creed of his own in these lines? Or adopting a relative position? Keeping the options open? He certainly acknowledges he lives in a state of separation from the certainties offered by the religions of his upbringing. But this will not stop him being involved.

Now, over a varnished tabletop
we recite the special dealings that a people
had with He-who-is while quitting Egypt,
but it does feel quaint to have this on Good Friday,
a day whose very name has the kids
wondering if the language was taken ill
at its coining. Those big waves barge home
out of a Matthew Arnold metaphor

while the grained beach stands in for Zion,
offering peace of mind. No sweat
this evening, with our salt stars sailing
through the black text of pinetree branches
and that mopoke murmuring its bafflement
in the very face of the Torah,
sitting on the shoulder of mortality.

‘Quaint’ is a momentous word in this poem. An Orthodox Jew would use various words to describe the Passover seder, but ‘quaint’ would not be one of them, because even though an ancient ritual practice, the meal is central to Jewish identity. The seder might be defined as ‘quaint’ by Christians, in the sense of old-fashioned, because in their tradition the main ritual meal is the eucharist, the commemoration of what happens at the Last Supper and on Calvary. Both meals are an invitation based on faith, which may be why the poet alludes to that famous 19th century poem ‘Dover Beach’, a poem about loss of faith. The poet is indicating a sense of separation from these traditions he knows so well, yet he is cognisant of the fact that all of these ritual meals offer what Separation Creek offers, “peace of mind.” Tellingly, the poet does not tell his children that the day in question is called Good in Christian tradition, at least in English religious tradition, because Christ through the Cross brings redemption and salvation. Neither freedom from bondage nor the actions of grace are affirmed in the poem, though human desires, playfulness, the beauties of the empirical world, and historical reality are affirmed. Perhaps the poet is a Pelagian, but he continues:

It’s a gorgeous night. And there we go:
Diana of the fibros cannot show us that
history is a polychrome figure,
thorned, gassed and smeared with blood.

This poet makes endings that take us into a whole new space, a whole new way of seeing the rest of the poem. The easygoing Australian chill-out “It’s a gorgeous night. And there we go” gives no warning of what is going to happen next. The unexpected figure of Diana comes before us, goddess of the moon and woods, and fibrocement houses apparently, but there not to show us what she’s made of but what she cannot do, which is to place us in time. The poet leaves hanging at the end of the poem, in midair as it were, an unnamed figure we have no trouble recognising. Thorned and bloody, we know this is the victim enunciated in the Gospel narratives, but he is also gassed, not a Gospel word. Why? Because between the writing of this poem and Marx, Nietzsche and Co. are two historical disasters where ‘gassed’ has crucial meaning. The first is the trench warfare of the Western Front where thousands of innocent men were gassed to death, or survived the gas and guns to come home and work on projects like the Great Ocean Road that runs through Separation Creek. The other is the destruction of the European Jews, known as Shoah, in the other Great War of the past century. Both of these tragedies have informed modern memory and challenged our means of commemoration. Which is what, it seems to me, the poet is doing. He will partake of the seder meal, quaint though it may be, in order to share in the memory of human existence, with its need to belong and its sense of separation. 

And without being too irreverent of Jewish practice, I offer this midrash of the poem by Chris Wallace-Crabbe in gratitude for his thoughts expressed, his language honoured, and his experience vivified in words.

The following two addendum are abstracts of other papers, other ways of reading the poem.

Addenda 1: Every line of the poem contains further senses deserving of our attention, but let us contemplate here the use of ‘polychrome’ in the second last line. This is, like ‘quaint’, a momentous word in the internal dynamic of the poem. On first encounter we are right to see this as descriptive of the bloodied victim, who is a mass of obscene colours. Just as in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish’, where named colours throughout the poem come together in the climactic final line “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow …”, so here different colours named in this poem have an associative meaning with the word ‘polychrome’. The moon itself is yellow, as it will be at moonrise, then as the evening continues, white. The poet identifies moon as both male and female in this colour code, the patriarchal God-listener Moses and the matriarchal goddess queen, and note how Diana is named later in the poem. One of the brothers is all in red ‘strip’ of a famous English football club, but a reader versed in religious imagery will see the potential sacrificed son and will hear the word ‘stripe’ also, an English poetic word of good vintage for the wounds of Christ. Gold, the only colour permitted for the actual illumination of medieval manuscript (Jewish and Christian), the required Byzantine colour of the icon, plays its own part in the poem. Gold was used in this religious art not to show off the wealth of the illuminator, but to illuminate, to draw light; gold was the closest the artist could come to reflecting the glory of the Creator. The ‘wicked’ surfers read texts embossed with gold, while the poet up the slope has a whole lot of religious and philosophical texts at his disposal we assume come from reputable presses that do not waste their time on gilt. The “varnished tabletop” is a visual cue for brown, the colour of the desert, and notice how in a poem set at night he artfully delineates “the black text of pinetree branches”. For, in nature, for the owl, that is the text, hence the bird’s “bafflement” at the texts of humans. All the colours in the poem are leads, different ways of seeing the “polychrome figure” at the conclusion, one could almost risk saying apotheosis, of the poem. The poet does not name this figure, though he does call it “history”, which is why there is reason to interpret the subject of the poetic drama as history, as much as religion. Unavoidably though, we do have to read the figure as the crucified God. The word “polychrome” has rich connotations in this reading, for Christ is polychrome, according to the New Testament. Every culture depicts Christ according to its own ideal and that includes the colour of his skin. He is, indeed, whatever colour we want to make him in order to present Christ-likeness. Also, “polychrome” is one way of paraphrasing the great and radical equalising of humanity we find at Galatians 3, here in the King James version: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” For the poet, Passover and Good Friday are in history, help us to interpret history. They are necessary signs and will not be denied, anymore than the “backstage mopoke”, “crazy Nietzsche” and the other characters in his little miracle play. Colour is one of the devices the poet uses, both in this and many other of his poems, to dramatise and explain the course of his thought.

Addenda 2: ‘Lightness’ was a word of praise used frequently at the Symposium to describe the poetry of Chris Wallace-Crabbe. ‘Lightness’ has been much on my mind too in reading the poetry over recent weeks. There is more to be said about this elsewhere, but it is a key struck by a tuning fork for the following lieder. Another way to write about the present poem is in terms of its poetic devices, in particular those that are common in the work of this poet and that show up in this poem. Some of these devices assist in the achievement of ‘lightness’. Let me point some of these out, in the order they appear. Line2. The first is the use of surprise words, be they archaic or retro or local or streetwise or whatever, to catch and keep our attention. ‘Chine’ is a good example. It is fair to say most Australian readers wouldn’t know ‘chine’ at all, it is not in common usage. It means ‘backbone’, though in fact as a geographic term it is peculiar to Dorset and means a deep ravine. The word is a perfect description of the steep rising slopes above Separation Creek, yet its presence sends readers scrambling for the dictionary, there to alert them to how such a very English word has been imported to describe such a very Australian landform. Line 11. Here the poet employs incongruity and contrast to masterly effect. To describe someone as “red as Karl Marx” is to say they are a serious kind of Socialist, at the very least. However, this is not the red of Communism but Liverpool F.C. The simile is comic, but with purpose. The separation in time and awareness between the Liverpool of Engels and the Liverpool of Lennon is achieved in four words. Brevity is the soul of it. Line 19. The use of words and phrases whose connotations in their existing sense are augmented and enlivened is a device we hear in “certainly not Oscar Wilde.” The sentence lists the kinds of books we do not expect surfers to keep in their campervans. Oscar is not in their library, certainly not. But “certainly not” is itself a Wildean locution. It not only conjures an underlying principle of Wilde’s camp decrees, it also evokes the legend of the fall of Oscar at his notorious trial, where Wilde and what he stood for was met by the English public with the stern and absolute judgement, “certainly not”. Here the phrase is so easily slipped into the syntax that it could be missed. Line 23. The device whereby authorial certainty is undermined, thereby lightening the weight of the argument and shifting the tone of seriousness, is at work where the poet asserts that Wilde “believed … or said, or thought, or wrote, that he believed it.” Well did he or didn’t he? What did Wilde do exactly? This is an expression of the poet’s own thought at work, moving around the place, trying to figure out whether if Wilde wrote this he did actually think it, and did he ever say it? The thoughts break the pattern the poem has established of being a straightforward, steady, trusted narrative. It also raises questions about the poet’s different modes of passive thought and active expression, and of how belief can even be expressed, or what is the beginning and end of beliefs. All in one line. Line 35. Australian idiom and vocabulary are constantly at play in the work of this poet, likewise the manners of speech that sometimes are immediately obvious to an Australian reader, but not always everyone else. “No sweat”, for example, would be an idiom familiar to Americans and British to mean no difficulty or no worries, but its appearance at this point in a poem about Passover could be heard without the deadpan refinement of Australian usage. How this poet uses Australian English to leaven his poetry is the subject though not of a paper like this but of a whole day of interactive reading, a whole book of arduous, ardent insights. Bonza insights, even.