Days of Christmas

Published : Monday, October 29, 2007 | Label: Essays  


Earth has its own old rituals. They visit us, sometimes, in the midst of ours. They come suddenly, violently. Often, where I live, in the Blue Plateau, it’s fire that comes at Christmas. Not this year.

These days are sung by coal-black birds.

December in the plateau is the season the black-cockatoos fledge their young. In the days before Christmas, a pair that has nested by our bungalow at the edge of the scarp for as long as I have lived here, and probably much longer, feeds its young one on the cones of the black pines. The three of them strew the ground and batter the jeep with ransacked seedcases, which drop to the ground and lie like exploded grenades.

These birds by my house are the yellowtails, Calyptorhynchus funereus. Mourning is their habit. Their cry is an unearthly, world-weary keening. ‘Whyla’ is what it sounds like, and that was the name the Gundungurra used for them. ‘They sing all our grief,’ Judith Wright wrote of them. But that is just projection. What they’re doing these days of Christmas is weaning their child. They’re teaching her to fly. They’re making ready to abandon her to the sky above the plateau and whatever fortune she can make.

With a tired kind of grace, with the languid wingbeat that is also their habit, this couple leads its young one, from treetop to treetop—from silvertop ash to pine to peppermint gum to pine—as though they were decking the boughs and ringing the house with song. It’s not a happy song. It’s more a wail than a wassail. It’s an incantation; a spell; a sad kind of carol, singing Christmas in.

‘So me horse jumps sideways about ten feet,’ Jim is saying, turning in his saddle so I can hear him, ‘and I hear this thump on the ground behind his back legs. I turn to see the snake gettin’ up to have another go. Bloody great brown. Missed again, thank Christ, and Bully gets us the hell out of there.’

It’s the week before Christmas. I’m riding with Jim down in the Kanimbla. It’s where Jim lives, where he’s always lived. ‘Kanimbla’ means battleground. It’d be a pretty place for a battle. But not today. My elder two children are trailing behind us through the lean scribblygums toward the creek bed. The sky is blue as all eternity.

Summer in the grasslands is the season of the brown snake, the second most poisonous snake the world knows about. Jim’s good at finding them, and so far he’s been good, or lucky, at eluding them, thanks mostly to horses. But no one’s snake-proof. His time may come, though he’s not losing sleep worrying about when. He’s just telling me one of the stories that makes this valley and his life in it what they are.

This was the brown snake’s country long before it was his. Or the horses’ or mine. And they defend it like mad. It’s good country, though it’s dry and getting drier. I’d defend it, too.

Down at the mouth of Butchers Creek, where the snake struck and missed, where Jim and Dave should not really have been riding, but were (they’ve been riding it all their lives but now it belongs to Sydney Water), Lake Burragorang has fallen so far that the men find a tank, listing in the silt. It should be twenty feet under water, where it’s been for fifty years. But seven years of steady drought all over the plateau—the dam’s catchment—have taken half the dam back and left it like this, a diminished thing uncovering its old secrets.

The tank’s a relic from the War. They’d have used it, Jim guesses, to snig the timber they felled from the shoulders of the valleyfloor when they dammed the river in the fifties. And then they’d just have left the tank to drown, along with a hundred odd years of pastoral life in the Burragorang, along with a hundred thousand years of Gundungurra grass songs before that. All this so a city on the coast might prosper. Which it has.
But the dam’s down below forty percent, where it’s never been since it was made. And no one in the city is as worried as they should be. ‘I don’t know what they think they’re going to drink when the water runs out,’ says Jim.

Back in the yards, Jim says, ‘Got time for a cuppa?’ I sat I do. He puts on the kettle. As we sip tea, he says, ‘sometime we should get you together, with this woman Mary, old Ron Flynn’s sister. They grew up in the Burragorang, you prob’ly recall. Mum sees her pretty often in the home where she is now. Judith and I went along the other day, to see her for Christmas, you know. You mention any place in the Valley, this creek, that ridge, that river bend, and Mary knows who lived there, who they married, when they died. It’s all gone now, but Mary, she hasn’t forgotten anything, all these years.’

Someone ought to get those stories down, I say, before she goes and takes them with her; before her life ebbs and they’re lost for keeps.
The weather’s changing. Out in the paddocks and in the trees at the foot of the escarpment, the wind is getting big. It’s coming hard out of the south. It bangs the gates against the rails of the yards outside; it sets the shed quaking around us. The kids are looking nervous. ‘Better close that door,’ Jim says, getting up, ‘before this thing takes off.’

We come up from the city to our house in Katoomba on the day before the day before Christmas. Daniel, our baby, starts screaming at Penrith, halfway here, and he has hardly stopped since. This is how it’s been for a month. I go the pharmacy in town and get something for colic. It seems to work. Or something does. He finally stops wailing at nine and sleeps. We wrap some presents and put them under the tree. We follow Daniel to bed.
That night, Maree’s recurring dream recurs. She wakes and tells me on the morning of Christmas Eve that a tidal wave took her in the night.

Macquarie Island’s a long way from Katoomba. It’s the northern end of the Macquarie Ridge, which runs under the ocean like a long scar tissue from New Zealand to the edge of Antarctica. It is where the Pacific plate is grinding anticlockwise against, and slipping beneath, the Australian plate. Macquarie Ridge is the contusion these two contending plates gives rise to, and it’s rising a couple of millimetres each year. Macquarie Island’s the bit of it—a piece of the ocean crust pushed up by the dirty dancing of the continental plates—that made it above sea level. It did that only recently: six hundred thousand years ago or so. It’s a new land. And it’s a long way from finished.
It was two in the morning of Christmas Eve when an earthquake shuddered the Macquarie Ridge five hundred kilometres south of the island, close to where the ridge runs into a third plate—the Antarctic. Not one of the staff of the Australian Antarctic Division on Macquarie Island stirred in their slumber. No seismic waves swept over Tasmania, though buildings on that island shook for a full fifteen seconds. But thousands of kilometres north by northwest, Maree was swept away in her sleep.

Earthquakes loose themselves along the Macquarie Ridge every other year. They are its recurring dream. The ridge is one of the margins along which the earth is remaking itself. It’s one of the places where the mobility of the earth’s surface is manifest; where plate tectonics can be observed in the wild. But it’s a long way from anywhere. An earthquake near Macquarie Island is no one’s idea of news. This one should have been, though.
Something big—a quake of 7.5 or more on the Richter scale—can be counted on every other decade along the ridge. But this one on the morning of Christmas Eve was the largest earthquake there since 1924; and, at 8.1, it was the largest earthquake anywhere since one that killed a hundred people in Peru in 2001. It was larger than the quake that destroyed Bam in Iran on Boxing Day 2003. Had it happened under Sydney, the city would have fallen to the ground. Had it happened in the plateau, our cottage would have ended up on the floor of the valley.

As it happened, nothing happened. Not yet. The earth went on revolving without losing a beat. Christmas Eve dawned on the plateau. And Maree was washed up on its shore.

Six storms roll over us that afternoon. They sweep across the plateau from the southwest. The sky congeals and blackens in heavy winds and lets loose heavy showers of rain. Between storms, I hear the birds keening, but Daniel’s keeping fairly quiet. His brother’s asleep, but the little bloke’s raging against the dying of the light, so, when I think the weather’s cleared, I put him in the Bjørn and walk him up the drive and out onto our street. I mean to walk him asleep in the arms of the afternoon, and he surrenders almost as soon as I leave the house. His head drops against my chest, but I carry on.

I walk straight into the heaviest and suddenest storm of them all, and I have to run for shelter under the awnings of the new house that’s going up on the corner. Daniel sleeps through the din, and through the rougher music of my running, right through the cold, hard drops of rain that hit us like shot. I stand under the fierce percussion the afternoon makes upon the awning, and I watch how much water courses the roof, spills the eves, floods the downpipes on its way to the stormwater drains and, in time, to the valley. This is an inundation. It’ll help the dam rise again, enough to retake Jim’s tank.

The rain that falls in the half hour I pace here with my sleeping child would keep this house in water for a couple of months—not that they’re catching it. That’s an old habit we’ve lost and need to recall. The rain eases back. I wait for it to fall away to nothing, but it comes on again, heavier. The next time it fades, I run for home. Who knows when this might end?

On Christmas Day, I miss my exit. We’re making for mum and dad’s on the motorway. I take the next exit and backtrack past the university. I point out to Maree where six lanes of traffic now run where Christie Park once slept, where I spent my childhood playing soccer inside the circle of the sandy trotting track and the scribblygums that hemmed it all in. This place was not especially important to me, but because of its effacement, I find myself able to understand the grief that others feel when their homeplaces are drowned or burned, or blown to bits or swept away; when the face of the earth is altered and somewhere becomes nowhere. I find myself saying this, this
Christmas day in the morning.

Boxing Day. It’s a year since Bam fell and thirty thousand people died. I don’t remember that until later. Today is the first day of the Melbourne Test Match. For twenty-five years there’s always been the Boxing Day Test, and I’m watching bits of it on the television, when I am not being pulled outside by Henry to help him discover our garden and the path through the banksias and gums to the valley beyond.
This year we’re playing Pakistan. The sky is blue in Melbourne—that’s not traditional; that’s a miracle. Cricket is a game in which almost anything can happen at any moment and usually doesn’t. And then, suddenly, it does. That’s its genius, which it’s showing off again this Boxing Day in Melbourne. In cricket, the real game is going on, and it’s always going on, tides are turning, between balls, beneath the surface, when nothing appears to be happening at all. Like geophysics; like plate tectonics.

Two minutes before noon, getting on for lunch at the MCG, the earth trembles. Not that we noticed at the time. How is it that this oblate spheroid, the earth, can be shaken so hard it shudders from its axis as it spins and the day loses three microseconds of its length right there, and yet the trajectory of a cricket ball in Melbourne and the concentration of one man watching it in Katoomba are unaffected? The Australia plate is on the move again. But what it does this time makes the Macquarie Ridge quake look like a Sunday School picnic, like a game of cricket.

In this moment, just before eight in the morning local time, something happens that would normally take three hundred years. Along a 1200 kilometre front, the leading edge of the Australia plate slips fifteen metres under the Burma plate. The seabed on the north side of this subduction shoots up ten metres in an instant. It is a violent movement of the earth, radical and massive. Its epicentre lies just west of the northern tip of Sumatra. Islands nearby shift twenty metres north; the northern tip of Sumatra travels thirty-six metres in a split second. They feel it in Aceh and Java; they feel it way up in Thailand. As well they might. This is the fourth largest earthquake ever recorded on earth. Seismological instruments in North America, where it is still Christmas Day, measure it at 9.0 (that’s almost ten times stronger than the Macquarie Ridge quake.)

But the sudden subduction, as these scientists know, is just the beginning. Such a rending of the crust under the ocean is tsunamigenic, as I heard an Australian geophysicist put later. Such a shock makes seismic waves that cross oceans at hundreds of miles an hour; that breach coastlines with a force and amplitude correlative to the violent subsidence of the earth’s crust that got the wave going in the first place.

One dictionary of geographical terms I have sitting here on my desk says this:

Tsunamis travel for considerable distances across the sea (the wave length may be over 100 kilometres…) As the tsunami approaches the shore, the wave height increases markedly, and sometimes exceeds fifteen metres; it is thus capable of causing immense destruction to coastal settlements and severe loss of life. For example, the great Krakatoa eruption of 1883, associated with seismic disturbances, caused tsunamis that drowned 36, 000 people in coastal villages of Java and Sumatra.
—Witherick et al, A Modern Dictionary of Geography

The world and Witherick’s dictionary are just about to get themselves a more shocking example. What follows clearfells whole Sumatran villages; it claims three hundred thousand souls; it travels all the way to the coast of Africa, four thousand kilometres from where it began.

The moon is full that night. And the ocean, under that brilliant pure moon, is calm again. Along the shores of that ocean—Aceh, the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, Phuket, southern Burma, the east coast of India south of Chennai, eastern Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Mogadishu in Somalia—250, 000 people lie dead and dying, a thousand coastal settlements, villages and slums, tourist resorts and minor cities, lie wrecked like a vast defeated fleet. Three million people have no homes to go to or families to go to them with. None of them knows yet that they are part of such a vast, oceanic company. No one has yet imagined that the loss they have suffered, the horror they have survived, has been so widely shared. You would not think a wave could stretch so far. Only the moon would see the pattern of which they are all a part.

The tsunami is spent, but the story it makes, the tragedy it tells, are only just breaking on the shores of our consciousness.

The afternoon of the next day, I walk with my friend Roland into a burned heathland above the place they call the Landslide, where the escarpment gave way in January 1931 and slid into the valley, demonstrating just how the deep valleys of the upper mountains got to look the way they do. Charles Darwin stood near here in 1836 and thought that the ocean must have flooded these valleys to make them look this way. But this is one place the ocean never came and is never likely to. The landslide, from the plateau’s point of view, was nothing out of the ordinary. This is how the cliffs retreat. This is how they turn themselves into a valley and, in time, a plain. This is another way the earth remakes itself. But up here, it’s an event we’re only just getting over.

Roland has been painting out here lately. Everything you want to get hold of—and never can—about the plateau is here: ironstone sculptures, ochre scarps, the plunge to dense grey-green woodlands, the elusive bulk of Solitary, the indomitable amplitude, the blueness of the very air.  And today it’s all gathered here under a cloudless cobalt sky in which the winds storm. We find it hard to stand. The wind, rushing up out of the valley, is pushing us back. We can barely hear each other speak.

Where the grasses grow up out of the blackened ground, I find these delicate flowers, which in all the world grow only here on these few escarpments in the sandstone plateaux. The pink flannel flower comes up only briefly and only when the plateau gets its litany of fire and wind and following rain just right. As it has these past eighteen months. It’s a blessing to find the flower, and to know what it tells you. This is one small way the plateau celebrates what it is. It’s how it remembers.
A week later Roland sends me a birthday card he’s made from a drawing he sketched near where we floundered in the wind. His valley floor is so alive, it looks like the sea’s broken in.

Days pass. Off Sumatra and up into the Bay of Bengal the ocean bed is hectic with aftershocks. The plates are bedding themselves down. The body of the earth is not still. It never is—particularly here. But the sky above is calm and clear, and so’s the angry sea.

Each day, in the bright blue western sky of morning, my son Henry finds the same moon, reduced a little more and a little more, until it is, after a week, a ghost of itself, a slender crescent. It is the same moon, of course, that looks down on the dead and the displaced; but my boy has as little idea of the horror the moon joins him in, as does the moon herself. The moon, going about her monthly ritual of birth and death above us all on our tremulous planet, can still cause him joy. That’s no comfort to anyone, I guess. But it tells us that gladness and terror coexist every moment in the world, under sun and moon. It’s not that the earth, its restless plates and ocean waves, don’t care; it’s not that they hate us. It’s that what becomes of each of us is just an example of what the world is—each tear and smile, each life and death is part of its natural history.

Each day in the plateau we wake to sunshine, to beatific days that are dreaming up another drought, and we wake to news that the toll has risen by a factor of ten. Apart from grieving and giving, it’s hard to know what to do or what to think. One had never imagined that an event so enormous, that annihilation on such a scale, so thorough and so swift, was possible without some human agency. One is subject to the world, after all. One’s time will come. But what, in particular, does a man say who spends his days asking whoever will listen to remember the natural world; to remember it in our politics and prose, and in our daily lives?  This was not the world he had in mind. No, this was part of it. But it is, of course, the very last thing he wished the world to do. To do to these people. 

In Melbourne the test match runs on. On its third day, the players run black tape around their white sleeves, about their upper arms. It is a sign of mourning, a mark of respect. In Galle in southwest Sri Lanka, there is a cricket stadium that looks now like a tip. Its grass has been blasted away, its stands stolen. Car bodies, an overturned bus, sheets of tin, corpses and the branches of trees are strewn about the decimated circle of it. A few months ago in a test match on this ground, the leg-spinner Shane Warne took a wicket and broke a world record. There is no reason at all why the tsunami might not have rolled into Galle that day, rather than on these days of Christmas, when Warne is bowling in Melbourne. And he knows it. Its what his armband says, among other things.

By the fourth day, the estimates of the dead have jumped to over a hundred thousand. A journalist walks with his cameraman along the south coast of Aceh in northern Sumatra and finds the ruins of a village, where once ten thousand people lived, where now just one man remains. Here the waves, which elsewhere swept five and even fifteen kilometres inland because the land let them, pushed fifty metres up the limestone cliffs behind the town, swamping it, and then rushed back out to sea, taking the town and its people with them. This happened twice. Nothing is left that could be called a town.

In Northern Sumatra, survivors, refugees now, stumble toward the capital Banda Aceh, where the sea became a black river, pulled the city apart and dragged it, broiling, seething, through the streets and ruins, and where now hundreds of bloated corpses float in the harbour with broken boats and sewage and the roofs of temples; where disease and wreckage and the rich smell of tropical death wait for the flood of refugees that’s coming this way. Two-thirds of the people the ocean killed (over one-hundred thousand of them when counting stopped) it killed here, in Aceh province. Their homeland was the first thing in the waves’ path. An independent people struggling for its freedom, a fishing people, a fervent, warring people, they’ve made the mistake of loving since time began, and inhabiting, this contentious ground where three tectonic plates converge. It’s nobody’s fault. We do not choose or homelands. They choose us.

More stories reach us now, more than we can handle. It’s a miscellany of misery: the boys playing cricket on the beach at Chennai, taken by the first wave, scattered and lost; the Indonesian mother who has to choose which of her children to let slip so that she can stay afloat with the other; the Indian Tamil who drops his three-year-old son when the wave dumps them, and then watches the retreating water drag his small son away to sea, arms still reaching for his father.

Just to avoid the usual cliché, let me say, the waves did not come without warning. The animals seemed to know what was coming. Dogs refused to walk their usual walk on the beach. A day before, the monkeys disappeared from the temple by the beach in Sri Lanka, and the elephants took to higher ground in a wildlife refuge where, the next day seventy tourists were overwhelmed. The birds fell silent. Though we are animals, too, of course, it’s been a long time since most of us tuned in to the frequencies the other animals still pick up—or to the animals themselves. Besides the warnings the animals gave, there was the very last warning from the sea herself. Not that this warning did much good either: it was too cryptic; it gave no one much time; and there was nowhere much to run, even if you were fast enough. On the beaches on Boxing Day morning, a couple of larger than average waves washed in and surged higher than you’d have expected. Then they were sucked back fast, leaving, in some places, a kilometre of sand exposed, where there had only ever been water before. Only the wisest and most cautious souls could resist the impulse then to stay and look at the flapping fish and the wet desert the ocean had left behind. And that’s where most people were when the seismic waves surged in, turbid, loud and terrible. And people ran then, but mostly it was too late.

It was an Old Testament moment, a fabled, horrid, otherworldly occurrence, utterly natural and yet apocalyptic—enough to make one believe in hell, if not in heaven, if one had the time. But it was neither; it was just the earth at work.

The ocean took them all—Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, rich man, poor man, scientist, thief; pantheist and materialist; the old, the young, particularly the young, the men and the women, particularly the women; it took them all without ceremony.

The fathomless sadness of each of these stories, any one of which in normal times might break your heart, gets lost in the flood of others—tens of thousands of other tragedies just like it—that makes a crescent half way around the world on Boxing Day 2004.

On the fourth day of Christmas an economist in Washington DC suggests the tsunamis could be a good thing for the afflicted countries. There’s normally a bit of a boost for battered economies in a reconstruction phase. There’s a fisherman on a Sri Lankan beach, among his ruined nets and family, among the swelling corpses that were his friends and the flotsam that was his village; I’m looking at a photograph of this man, and it doesn’t seem like the good news from DC has reached him. I don’t think he’s realized that his stocks are about to rise.
But that’s economics for you: human life stripped of humanity and life and graphed. Someone’s already graphed the tsunami effect. Those are waves the markets understand.

In Melbourne, the test match ends one day short of its term. It was an unequal contest. Another begins, four days later, on my birthday. This is the season, in my life, of births and celebrations; it is the season, in my land, of cricket and its slow, old rituals.

There is only one mournful cry now in the tall trees about the house. The black cockatoos have abandoned their child. They have let her go, as they always do about now, as nature insists, and they have gone where I guess they always go to get on with their own life together. Next September, the sky-gods willing, they’ll be back, and this girl will be gone on to her fortune. Just for now, she’s lost, and she’s telling anyone who’ll listen. She doesn’t know how lucky she is.

A week has passed since the earthquake. They’ve stopped counting the dead. They’re hurrying to bury them now, without as much dignity as they have time to afford. The HMAS Kanimbla—a battleship named for a valley, a valley named for a battleground, a valley I love in this plateau where I live—is deployed to Aceh to help with the living and the dead. It goes in peace. Many others go in peace, too. There is something to be said for wealth—and the economics that propagates it—at a time like this. Without it, there could be no helicopters and water-purification systems, no portable hospitals and food-drops and communication systems, there could be no such unprecedented tide of giving. It might also be said, of course, that the poverty of the tsunami’s victims is the price they pay for our wealth. So we are only giving them, too late, what we have already taken.

Still, the world is marshalling. It is amazing how much sadness the rest of us in the richer regions of the earth, on our more competent geologies, can bear; how much grieving we can do, how many special reports we can sit through on television, how much money we can donate, how much help we can render without any noticeable decline in our living standards, without much risk to our prosperity. There may be a lesson here. I wonder if we can learn to live generously. Can we give away more of ourselves, more of our personal security—can we make sacrifice an everyday practice, like prayer? Can we live givingly, instead of waiting for disaster and then giving, when it is too late and when no amount of giving is enough, in a paroxysm that is equal parts pity and shame?

There’s another lesson we’re sure to forget: Earth is terrible, is violent, is beautiful. She is all we have, and this is how she works. It’s good to remember that we live on such an Earth. It is good to be humble in the face of that knowledge and mindful of the grace that keeps one alive for now. For there are so many ways to die. Nature knows enough of them. And we keep thinking up more.
Each of us is only here till the ocean comes to take us back where we all began. So, let’s stand in awe of this wild world, still deciding who it wants to be. Let’s mourn the dead and give thanks that we are not among them yet; let’s give until it hurts; let’s do our work and get on with living—which is so much harder to do than dying.

On the eighth day of Christmas an archbishop in Sydney tells his flock that the tsunamis are God’s judgment upon the human race. So how does that go again? Of all the people up to no good in the world I would have thought the poor folk of the Indian Ocean weren’t high on the list. Even the tourists who were taken too were probably guilty of nothing much more than wealth and a little sloth. God’s aim must not be what it used to be, or perhaps he was just lashing out.
I’m not sure God needs such sanctimony anymore, though he could do with a little target practice.

On the eighth day of Christmas, on the way to friends on Dargan Ridge, I stop at the Mt Boyce lookout, on a whim of some kind. I stand and look down at the Kanimbla, and it takes me a minute or more to work out that I’m looking down at Jim’s place, his big green shed, the yards beside them and the house behind. This valley, which I know pretty well and claim to love, is not the same place at all from up here. This country continues to baffle and elude me. It changes its shape. It keeps becoming something else, a place I had never imagined. The world is not the place I thought I knew.


These days are strung on the plainsong of sad black birds.
These days walk their stations; they chant in plangent voice a liturgy, dreadful, violent, delicate and holy.
Listening to these birds, I find it hard to say, at first, what there is left to celebrate, what there is left to hope for, out of what the world has done, these days of Christmas. But they make mourning an art, they make it a way of life, they make it beautiful, these elegant birds in their sad raiment. So might I, if I had half their grace.
So let my work, in its voice, and my living in its gestures, recall each of these lives lost—each one a gift, each one a miracle, each one beautiful, each one as precious to the man or woman or child who lived it, and to their loved ones, as my children’s lives are to me. Let it honour the power, the dignity and mystery of the moving world. Let me be thankful that I live on a stable bit of ground, a still point. Let me never forget—if I may steal an idea from a poet —that the earth is just a slower sort of ocean, and that each day I wake to find the ground where I left it the day before—that is cause for celebration.
Places do not stand still. Creation is not over; and creation entails loss. The world is never finished becoming what it needs to be. Let me know that; let me celebrate the dynamism of the earth; let me take part in it; and let me watch my step.
Listening to these birds, this is what I think they sing: Fledge your young, if you are lucky and still have them; teach them to sing and move with grace, and let them go. Care for them till then: they will have to do better what we’ve done badly. Let yourself be moved, suddenly, profoundly, not by fear, but by the same thing that moves the earth. Go down deep into the earth toward your centre. Let yourself be broken by the plight of others. Give. Give in to the earth. Mourn. And make your days a loose kind of ceremony of quiet—even sometimes-raucous—gratitude for the unsteady ground below and the unsteadier sky above. And give thanks for each other, past and present.
Oh, and don’t trust the water. There always seems to be too much or too little of it.


1 ‘I couldn’t imagine the mountain as a/ slower kind of river’ writes James Galvin in ‘What Holds Them Apart,’ God’s Mistress, in Resurrection Update, 1997. My ‘still point’ samples another great poet, T S Eliot (his ‘Burnt Norton’). And my earlier allusion to ‘raging against the dying of the light’ employs the third verse of Dylan Thomas’s great villanelle, ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’. I cannot help hearing such incantatory lines. But it is right to thank the artists who heard and sang them first.


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