There are some of my father’s poems that always feel right. For me, his deeply lyrical sense is at its most affecting when held within a poetic framework. One of the most strongly felt poems Coming Into The Clyde is for the most part a description of a magical landscape. The point, coming only in the last two lines, has all the more impact. His observations are acute – a whole picture in a single phrase: “and the sunlight is cut by the blade of dark” (The Tunnel). For him, as he describes it, life was “all a waking wonder and a pain of joy”(Come Death Suddenly). We, his children, would have been embarrassed by this phrase in conversation with him. But it was true. And his dry, at times sardonic humour was a good balancing element.
If I had to choose a representative selection, it would definitely include Coming into the Clyde, Space Window, Ballad of Old Sox, Message to my Grandson, Canberra Autumn, Flying to New Zealand, Forestry, Colours, Pause, Rain after Drought, The Gull, Creation, Metamorphosis.
The feeling of imminent war, the thoughts of those involved, as well as the aftermath are vividly evoked in such poems as The Tunnel, The Tactician, Come Death Suddenly, Alone, Australia 1914, and of course The Jervis Bay.
Poems of loss are many – not least his own acute loss of his beloved wife (Willow Tree Two Years After) and much earlier, of their first child (Surmise). The loss of friends is marked in such poems as Banquet, the loss experienced by friends in Relativity. The loss of animals, whether pets or intruders, also produced poems (Farewell to Skye, Mousetrap). Open to dispute on its details, his poem The Extinction of the Tasmanian Aborigines nevertheless is a genuine expression of the horror he felt on first reading an account of a national loss.
Michael often chose to see the world from a perspective beyond it. Poems reflecting this include To Our Grandchildren, Splitting the Red Box, Canberra Autumn, To J S Bach, The Old Convict Church at Port Arthur, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, The Honey Man and Milton Blind.
His humour had a great appeal. Talk to the Willow reflects the generations of schoolmasters in the family. Ballade of Suburbia (written at school) and the post-war Punt Counter-Punt were enjoyed by his contemporaries, while Equal Rights for Emus has a quasi-political tone which could never be accused of being rarified. He loved and was amused by his grandchildren, usually supplying a birthday poem, even if the recipient was only one, as in Anna-versary. And for as long as I can remember, he relished fitting words to tunes – the less likely, the better. A Lambeth Garland supplied the other half of a commission I received for a song cycle for vocal quartet and piano duet, marking and celebrating the renovation of the Lambeth Palace Garden in London in 1989.
Penelope Thwaites Jackson