You can watch Jack’s video here
1942: Some Notes on the Poem
A few years ago I was invited to attend a poetry festival at the University of Canberra. While I was there, one of the organisers asked me to contribute to a project where poets wrote new pieces about the local landscape for a textile artist to interpret.
I have to say that I felt a bit of a fraud in agreeing to participate. What do I know about the Canberra landscape? I’m from New Zealand, not Australia, and this was my very first visit to Australian Capital Territory.
However, my mother was born in Sydney, and I have made a lot of trips across the Tasman at one time or another, so I said I would see if anything came to mind before their deadline. Sometimes I think my wife is right to label me a ‘publication whore’ – any new project that comes up I tend to agree to. I love exhibition catalogues, and poetry posters, and chapbooks, and all that species of arty ephemera.
What I ended up writing was a four-part poem about various family associations with Canberra and Australia in general. My uncle graduated from Duntroon, the Military College there, back in the late 1940s. I have a number of friends who studied at Australian National University. The first poem in the sequence, though, and the only one I really feel fond of now, is this one based on a photograph of my mother as a schoolgirl, pictured feeding a wallaby.
I put into it a lot of what I’d heard from her about her childhood during the Second World War – the sense of imminent doom caused by austerity, the Japanese mini-subs in Sydney Habour, the bombing of Darwin. It’s for this reason that I called it ‘1942’, even though it’s difficult to say precisely what year it was taken: more likely a couple of years before that.
My mother suffers from dementia, and every piece of memory salvaged from her rich life experience seems particularly important to us as a result. This photo, in particular, we only found after my father’s death, as he’d replaced all the pictures in her album with shots of his own collection of militaria. It’s one of the very few images we have of her as a child.
But the picture itself! It was so odd, so obviously staged – as she described it to us, her father was barking orders at her all the time she was holding out her hand to fake the ‘feeding’ episode. It speaks to me of lost time, a depth of emotion one can seldom attain in the everyday.
The textile artist I mentioned above, Dianne Firth, did a wonderful job of interpreting all four of the parts of my poem in her exhibition, Poetry and Place (Canberra: Belconnen Art Centre, 25 August – 17 September 2017), but this is the only part of it that I still feel a genuine affection for.
My wife, Bronwyn Lloyd, must have thought so, too, since she made it into a hinged poster work – the poem reproduced opposite the picture –for Christmas 2016. We used this one-off poster again for the celebration of my mother’s 90th birthday a couple of months ago.
“You really did me proud,” she said. She’s a hard-bitten Aussie still at heart. I’ve seldom seen her so moved.
– Jack Ross, Mairangi Bay, 2 August 2020
Jack Ross works as a senior lecturer in creative writing at Massey University. He is the author of five poetry collections and eight works of fiction, most recently Ghost Stories (Lasavia Publishing, 2019). He blogs here