Gwen Harwood was an Australian poet and librettist. Gwen Harwood is regarded as one of Australia’s finest poets, publishing over 420 works, including 386 poems and 13 librettos.
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Famous Gwen Harwood Poems
In The Park
She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.
A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt
Someone she loved once passed by – too late
to feign indifference to that casual nod.
“How nice” et cetera. “Time holds great surprises.”
From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon…”but for the grace of God…”
They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing
the children’s names and birthdays. “It’s so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive, ”
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”
Daybreak: the household slept.
I rose, blessed by the sun.
A horny fiend, I crept
out with my father’s gun.
Let him dream of a child
old no-sayer, robbed of power
by sleep. I knew my prize
who swooped home at this hour
with day-light riddled eyes
to his place on a high beam
in our old stables, to dream
light’s useless time away.
I stood, holding my breath,
in urine-scented hay,
master of life and death,
a wisp-haired judge whose law
would punish beak and claw.
My first shot struck. He swayed,
ruined, beating his only
wing, as I watched, afraid
by the fallen gun, a lonely
child who believed death clean
and final, not this obscene
bundle of stuff that dropped,
and dribbled through the loose straw
tangling in bowels, and hopped
blindly closer. I saw
those eyes that did not see
mirror my cruelty
while the wrecked thing that could
not bear the light nor hide
hobbled in its own blood.
My father reached my side,
gave me the fallen gun.
‘End what you have begun.’
I fired. The blank eyes shone
once into mine, and slept.
I leaned my head upon
my father’s arm, and wept,
owl blind in early sun
for what I had begun
Shadows grazing eastward melt
from their vast sun-driven flocks
into consubstantial dusk.
A snow wind flosses the bleak rocks,
strips from the gums their rags of bark,
and spins the coil of winter tight
round our last meeting as we walk
the littoral zone of day and night,
light’s turncoat margin: rocks and trees
dissolve in nightfall-eddying waters;
tumbling whorls of cloud disclose
the cold eyes of the sea-god’s daughters.
We tread the wrack of grass that once
a silver-bearded congregation
whispered about our foolish love.
Your voice in calm annunciation
from the dry eminence of thought
rings with astringent melancholy:
‘Could hope recall, or wish prolong
the vanished violence of folly?
Minute by minute summer died;
time’s horny skeletons have built
this reef on which our love lies wrecked.
Our hearts drown in their cardinal guilt.’
The world, said Ludwig Wittgenstein,
is everything that is the case.
The warmth of human lips and thighs;
the lifeless cold of outer space;
this windy darkness; Scorpio
above, a watercourse of light;
the piercing absence of one face
withdrawn for ever from my sight.
So the light falls, and so it fell
on branched leaved with flocking birds.
Loght stole a citys weight to swell
the coloured lofe of stone. Your words
hung weightless in my ear: Remember me.
All words except those words were drowned
in the fresh babbling rush of spring.
In summer’s dream-filled light one sound
echoed through all the whispering
galleries of green: Remember me.
Rods of light point home the flocking
starlings to wintry trees, and turn
stone into golden ochre, locking
the orbit of my pain. I learn
the weight of light and stone. Remember me.
In the space between love and sleep
when heart mourns in its prison
eyes against shoulder keep
their blood-black curtains tight.
Body rolls back like a stone, and risen
spirit walks to Easter light;
away from its tomb of bone,
away from the guardian tents
of eyesight, walking alone
to unbearable light with angelic
gestures. The fallen instruments
of its passion lie in the relic
darkness of sleep and love.
And heart from its prison cries
to the spirit walking above:
‘I was with you in agony.
Remember your promise of paradise,’
and hammers and hammers, ‘remember me.’
The tenth day, and they give
my mirror back. Who knows
how to drink pain, and live?
I look, and the glass shows
the truth, fine as a hair,
of the scalpel’s wounding care.
A round reproach to all
that’s warped, uncertain, clouded,
the sun climbs. On the wall,
by the racked body shrouded
in pain, is a shadow thrown;
simple, unchanged, my own.
Body, on whom the claims
of spirit fall to inspire
and terrify, there flames
at your least breath a fire
of anguish, not for this pain,
but that scars will remain.
You will be loved no less.
Spirit can build, make shift
with what there is, and press
pain to its mould; will lift
from your crucible of night
a form dripping with light.
Felix culpa. The sun
lights in my flesh the great
wound of the world. What’s done
is done. In man’s estate
let my flawed wholeness prove
the art and scope of love.
The Glass Jar
To Vivian Smith
A child one summer’s evening soaked
a glass jar in the reeling sun
hoping to keep, when day was done
and all the sun’s disciples cloaked
in dream and darkness from his passion fled,
this host, this pulse of light beside his bed.
Wrapped in a scarf his monstrance stood
ready to bless, to exorcize
monsters that whispering would rise
nightly from the intricate wood
that ringed his bed, to light with total power
the holy commonplace of field and flower.
He slept. His sidelong violence summoned
fiends whose mosaic vision saw
his heart entire. Pincer and claw,
trident and vampire fang, envenomed
with his most secret hate, reached and came near
to pierce him in the thicket of his fear.
He woke, recalled his jar of light,
and trembling reached one hand to grope
the mantling scarf away. Then hope
fell headlong from its eagle height.
Through the dark house he ran, sobbing his loss,
to the last clearing that he dared not cross:
the bedroom where his comforter
lay in his rival’s fast embrace
and faithless would not turn her face
from the gross violence done to her.
Love’s proud executants played from a score
no child could read or realize. Once more
to bed, and to worse dreams he went.
A ring of skeletons compelled
his steps with theirs. His father held
fiddle and bow, and scraped assent
to the malignant ballet. The child dreamed
this dance perpetual, and waking screamed
fresh morning to his window-sill.
As ravening birds began their song
the resurrected sun, whose long
triumph through flower-brushed fields would fill
night’s gulfs and hungers, came to wink and laugh
in a glass jar beside a crumpled scarf.
So the loved other is held
for mortal comfort, and taken,
and the spirit’s light dispelled
as it falls from its dream to the deep
to harrow heart’s prison so heart may waken
to peace in the paradise of sleep.
So hungry-sensitive that he
craves day and night the pap of praise,
he’ll ease his gripes or fingerpaint
in heartsblood on a public page.
The ordinary world must be
altered to circumvent his rage.
He’ll tell, with stylish Angst of course,
the inmost secrets of our bed.
Words are far worse than drugs; there is
no hope of surfeit or remorse.
The world lies wide, and warm. No kiss,
no child, no prayer will keep him here.
I’ll wash the floors. He’ll watch the stars.
I’ll salt his life with common sense.
He’ll suck my sap and vigour down
the crude mouth of his private hell.
Visions have no equivalents.
He’ll die of drink and candy bars.
The snails brush silver. Critic crow
points his unpleasant beak, and lances.
Resumes his treetop, darts below
his acid-bright, corrosive glances.
In the hushed corridors of sleep
Professor Eisenbart plots treason.
Caretaker mind prepares to sweep
the dusty offices of reason.
Eisenbart mutters, wakes in rage
Because crow’s jarring c-a-a-r-k-s distress him.
His mistress grins, refers to age
and other matters which oppress him.
He scowls purse-lipped. She yawns, and throws
Her arms in scarecrow crucifixion.
Clear of the hills, light’s wafer shows
In world-without-end benediction.
She makes him tea. He sips and calms
His Royal Academic temper,
While Life and Day outside shout psalms
In antiphon … Et nunc et semper.
‘Thought Is Surrounded By A Halo’
Show me the order of the world,
the hard-edge light of this-is-so
prior to all experience
and common to both world and thought,
no model, but the truth itself.
Language is not a perfect game,
and if it were, how could we play?
The world’s more than the sum of things
like moon, sky, centre, body, bed,
as all the singing masters know.
Picture two lovers side by side
who sleep and dream and wake to hold
the real and imagined world
body by body, word by word
in the wild halo of their thought.
To Rex Hobcroft
Wind crosshatches shallow water.
Paddocks rest in the sea’s arm.
Swamphens race through spiky grass.
A wire fence leans, a crazy stave
with sticks for barlines, wind for song.
Over use, interweaving light
with air and substance, ride the gulls.
Words in our undemanding speech
hover and blend with things observed.
Syllables flow in the tide’s pulse.
My earliest memory turns in air:
Eclipse. Cocks crow, as if at sunset;
Grandmother, holding a smoked glass,
says to me, ‘Look. Remember this.’
Over the goldbrown sand my children
run in the wind. The sky’s immense
with spring’s new radiance. Far from here,
lying close to the final darkness,
a great-grandmother lives and suffers,
still praising life: another morning
on earth, cockcrow and changing light.
Over the skeleton of thought
mind builds a skin of human texture.
The eye’s [art of another eye
that guides it through the maze of light.
A line becomes a firm horizon.
All’s as it was in the beginning.
Once more he tried, before he slept,
to rule his ranks of words. They broke
from his planned choir, lolled, slouched and kept
their tone, their pitch, their meaning crude;
huddled in cliches; when pursued
turned with mock elegance to croak
his rival’s tunes. They would not sing.
The scene that nagged his sleep away
flashed clear again: the local king
of verse, loose-collared and loose-lipped.
read from a sodden manuscript,
drinking with anyone who’d pay,
drunk, in the critic’s favourite bar.
‘Hear the voice of the bard!’ he bellowed,
‘Poets are lovers. Critics are
mean, solitary masturbators.
Come here, and join the warm creators.’
The critic, whom no drink had mellowed,
turned on his heel. Rough laughter scoured
his reddening neck. The poet roared
‘Run home, and take that face that soured
your mother’s lovely milk from spite.
Piddle on what you cannot write.’
At home alone the critic poured
gall on the poet’s work in polished
careful prose. He tore apart
meaning and metaphor, demolished
diction, syntax, metre, rhyme;
called his entire works a crime
against the integrity of art,
and lay down grinning, quick, he thought,
with a great poem that would make plain
his power to all. Once more he fought
with words. Sleep came. He dreamed he turned
to a light vapour, seeped and burned
in wordless cracks where grain on grain
of matter grated; reassumed
his human shape, and called by name
each grain to sing, conducting, plumed
in lightning, their obedient choir.
Dressed as a bride for his desire
towards him, now meek, the poet came.
Light sneaked beside his bed. The birds
began their insistent questioning
of silence, and the poet’s words
prompted by daylight rasped his raw
nerves, and the waking world he saw
was flat with prose and would not sing.