Archive for October, 2017


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I will whisper to the roaring wind
and wrap my arms around you tight
tell me your darkest, fiercest fear…
I know it all will be alright.
Let me share my blanket,
light your own candle from mine.
We’ll vigil here, the long night through,
and pray tomorrow might be fine.

Talitha Fraser

Each step I am blind

lost and found park bench

Each step I am blind
In faith, I follow
listening for the Song
listening for the Singer.
Maybe that’s the Mary thing to do.
Kneel, right here where I am,
lean against You and
ask all the questions
why God? how God?
when God?

Talitha Fraser

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Sung beautifully at a L’Arche Black Rock community gathering… I come thinking: “what might I have to give this community?” and instead receive abundantly. What do the sights, smells and touch of the flowers and leaves have to tell us? It could have been a Credo gathering and I’m heart-glad there’s this and other shade tree places yet to discover… do you need a shade tree place? Do you need a place to go? You are welcome here.

I need a place, a shade tree place
I need a place a new cool waterhole
I need a place, a shade tree place
A sanctuary for my very soul
I need a place where I can go

I need a place, a shade tree place
I need a place where the swallows swoop low
I need a place, a shade tree place
Today is seems such a long way,
Way down the road
I need a place where I can go

Something there, inside of me,
is trying to wake me up
Something there, is shaking my shoulders to see
The rocks and the tree and the centipede

Land, O  land, you keep calling to me,
Come and sit with me a while
Land, O land, you keep calling to me,
To rest in the grace with the lorikeet

I need a place, a shade tree place
I need a place a new cool waterhole
I need a place, a shade tree place
I need a place where the swallows swoop low
I need a place where I can go
I need a place where I can go
I need a place where I can go

 

From “A Sanctuary of Soul” – A writing collaboration between two Australian artists – songwriter John Coleman and poet Noel Davis. They met in Alice Springs in 2013 where many of the works were written. It explores themes of the Australian bush/desert, silence and the vulnerability and surprising fruits of meditation.

graffiti brunswick skylines a dead tree feels the rain all the times I read the sky this peace

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the world tells me | day after day | it’s not okay to be me | to
be loved, to be accepted, to be sought | I need to become all I
‘ought’ to be but no template is free | form free fall | free for
all | this is the land of the free, or the brave | you think you
can save someone | maybe it’s you

when you’re drowning
a cry for help might kill you.

 

Talitha Fraser

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A short introduction to the life and work of Stevie Smith for the Spiritual Reading group meeting at the Carmelite Library in Middle Park.  After a short talk to contextualise the work of the artist we read some of the works aloud and hold shared discussion reflecting on what they might mean…

Stevie was born Florence Margaret Smith in 1902. At 3 years of age, the marriage of Stevie’s parents broke down and she moved with Mum, Ethel and big sister Molly from Kingston Upon Hull, Yorkshire to Palmers Green in North London. Contact with her father, who was in shipping, became single line postcards saying things like: “Off to Valparaiso, Love Daddy”

Contracting tuberculosis peritonitis  at 5, Stevie was taken to a sanatorium at Broadstairs in Kent for 3 years. Being separated from her family was hard and Stevie has said that this is when her preoccupation with death and fear arose.

When Stevie’s mother Ethel became ill, Madge Spear, affectionately referred to as “The Lion Aunt” came to live with them, raising Stevie and Molly.  A feminist who had no patience with men, formidable Aunt Madge raised a family of women attached to their own independence counter-cultural to the ruling Victorian idea that “father knows best”. When she was 16, Stevie’s mother died.

Stevie studied at Palmers Green High School then went to Mrs Hoster’s secretarial academy – the North London Collegiate School.  It was around 17 the “Stevie” moniker came into common use arising from riding in the park with a friend who commented that she reminded him of the champion jockey Steve Donoghue.

Stevie suffered depression all her life that expressed as nervousness, shyness and intense sensitivity.  Straight out of the Collegiate school Stevie became a secretary at a magazine publishing company, and eventually became the private secretary to Sir Neville Pearson with Sir George Newnes and Newnes Publishing Company where she worked 1923-1953.  In this time Stevie had published 3 autobiographical novels and 4 of the 9 volumes of poetry published in her lifetime.  The themes of her work traverse: loneliness, myth and legend, absurd vignettes, war, human cruelty and religion.  Stevie’s line drawings, which she called her “higher doodling” often weren’t published with her poems, that happened later when collected works were published, and the pictures weren’t necessarily drawn to go with particular works but she would merely pick out whatever seemed appropriate.  They often lend a note of whimsy to words of touching depth or sharp parody to her satirical set-downs.  Stevie used comedy to talk about dark things and used the tools of her craft to resist domestic ideology around class, religion, marriage…

While her early novels and volumes of poetry were a great success, the work of the 1940s and early 1950s had been less well-received. She was seen as eccentric and the style of her poetry out-of-fashion.  One account suggests Stevie invalided out and was given a full pension following a nervous breakdown at work that led to her attempting suicide at her desk after an incident threatening her boss with a pair of scissors but another says perhaps more discretely that Aunt Madge became bedridden and Stevie left work to care for her. Stevie perceived death as she did god, someone perhaps to have a dialogue with ‘scolding for taking her loved ones and those whom the world will miss’, someone she had to acknowledge and comes to terms with the existence of. Stevie has said that she was “so consoled by the idea of death as release” that she didn’t have to commit suicide it was enough to know that death was there to look forward to. This god death is often expressed as kinder in her writing than the God of church and religion.

A come back after the period 1953-1955 when Punch was almost exclusively the only established periodical willing to publish her work. Stevie undertook a collaboration with Elisabeth Lutyens and Heidi Anderson when she struggled to find other outlets for her writing.  The arrangement and performance of her poems between her own readings were very engaging for audiences and led to Stevie eventually developing her own unique performance style of singing her poems.

Between readings Stevie would often sing, using sonorities and tonalities for effect, 2 or 3 of her works to familiar tunes she borrowed from Anglican hymns, folk melodies, popular music hall songs, a military march or tunes she made up in these styles.  While setting hilarious captions to the table book “Cats in Colour” in 1959 was I’m sure, a highlight, it may have been surpassed by receiving the Queens’ Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969. The last decade of her life saw her increasingly in demand to give readings not only to societies but schools.

Stevie died from a brain tumour 7 March 1971

Katherine Firth’s thesis on “The MacNeices and their Circles: Poets and Composers in Collaboration” provides insightful context of the time and place of Stevie’s writing.  The influence of modernism in the 1920s-30s had a destabilising effect on meanings – skilled practitioners were able to create works that reflected their own ambivalences, scepticisms and self-criticisms and you see a lot of this in Stevie’s writing – especially on the subject of religion.  Resisting her High Anglican and Tory Aunts’ influences with her lefty friends. This group of friends were influenced by Aristotle’s writing on poetry on the root word for poetry and action being the same so there was a sense that the words should be working to explain or impart something.

While Stevie lived a largely secluded and celibate life, aside from a few flings with both men and women, Stevie was a resolutely autonomous woman and rejected the idea that she was lonely.  Intimate relationships with friends and family kept her fulfilled. This was a time of cliques and gangs – groups of writers, producers, painters, composers, performers and critics that interacted socially and professionally in overlapping circles while retaining distinct identities.  Stevie corresponded and socialised widely with other writers and creative artists. She was chief bridesmaid and Louis MacNeice the best man at the wedding of the novelist Olivia Manning to the poet Reggie Smith. George Orwell was close and Sylvia Plath a fan.

New West End venues, technological advances and the rise in the role of the BBC in disseminating music were changing performance media.  Contemporary composers were looking to their poet-peers for lyrics, there were a range of styles of popular music and they borrowed from each other.  There was a desire convey Modernist idioms to reach a broader social and cultural context, making music and poetry relevant to the political and economic circumstances of the audiences listening. There was an idea that a poems words will do its work on someone if it is palatably wrapped as a hymn or cabaret tune.  The music groups of the day wanted audiences to be improved AND entertained.

Susan Thurman’s thesis provides this concise synopsis:

“Smith’s poetry reveals three major attitudes toward religion, which sometimes overlap: first, she is the agnostic who cannot make up her mind–she has faith in a god in whom she does not want to believe, yet she loses faith in a god in whom she does want to believe. Second, she often writes poems which confidently reject God; she is the atheist expressing approval of the decline of organized religion, strongly attacking both the Catholic and Anglican Churches. She vehemently rejects God and Christianity in such atheistic poems as being untrue, but if possibly true, then cruelly unfair. Third, however, she is a believer who replaces the Christian God of eternal damnation with what she views as a more merciful God of her own making. She tries desperately to create a God for herself in whom she can believe.” As she says of herself in her image on the poster for today’s event: “In yielding and abnegation I spend my days”.

Stevie often attracted labels like “eccentric”, “odd”, and “difficult” with causality attributed to her gender… Not Waving But Drowning is one of Stevie’s most well-known works speaking to our individual isolation within society.  Between the poem and the paradoxes of Stevie’s own life: participant or observer, believer or atheist, here to live or here to die? Cynthia Zarin draws a parallel – saying “she is at once the stranger and the traveller, both waving and drowning” – we’re going to wrap this up with Stevie reading that piece, it runs for about 2 mins and you’ll hear her at the start describing what the work was about…

References/Further Reading:

Anne Bryan. “Stevie Smith and God
Katherine Firth. “The MacNeices and their Circles: Poets and Composers in Collaboration on Art Song 1939-54”
Stevie Smith. “Some Are More Human Than Others.”
Stevie Smith. “Stevie Smith Collected Poems”
Stevie Smith. “Two in One: The Frog Prince and Other Stories/Selected Poems”
Susan E. Thurman. “The themes of God and Death in the Poetry of Stevie Smith
Cynthia Zarin. “The Uneasy Verse of Stevie Smith”

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1  Me nolentum fata trahunt is a play on a line from the Roman Seneca: Ducunt volentem Fata, nolentem trahunt. This means “Fate leads the willing, and drags the unwilling”. So, Stevie Smith’s line means “because Fate drags me, unwilling”.

 

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All rights to this work belong to the Stevie Smith Estate with Faber & Faber and have been reproduced here for educatonal purposes only.

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Sacred ground
trembles beneath
our feet
“Where do I stand?
Can I hold this?”
Do not hide but ride
for me and the earth are one.
After dark storms churning,
world is turning and
new day’s burning.
A star rises in the East.

 

Talitha Fraser

Powerless to do something

staying in bed mental health day wellbeing sunshine outside for other people but not for me loneliness

Powerless to do something
about this
you do nothing
about anything.

The loneliness
is eating you
from the inside, out.
You must not doubt
there is room for you
at the table.

 

Talitha Fraser

Get out. Get it out.

Newell's Paddock wetlands reserve footscray Melbourne stormy sky

 

Get out. Get it out. Toxic darkness enveloping/tendrils tying me down/tie me down/tie me up/what choice do I have?/I choose you. I chose you/look how well that turned out/turn up/turn it up so I don’t have to hear my own thoughts/Loving isn’t enough. Why does it keep coming back to that?/ I have to follow the road that’s in front of me to walk/Choice. Choose. Chosen/ Chosen? Who says? How can you ever know?/Is it happening to us or do we make it happen?/Hallowed and hollow. Hallowed and hollow/Gravid and grave/Beginning and end bound together in the same ritual, the same act/What will you choose?/I’m sorry. I’m already on my knees… I don’t know which way to fall now the fall feels inevitable/ The King quote says ‘you only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love’ but I gave all of mine away.

 

Dec 378