My mother died on the sixth day of February, 1997, and before I sold her house I brought those possessions of hers that I wished to keep to my home; among them was a large brown leather bag containing letters, cards, notebooks, and a large manila envelope. I opened it, curious about what I might find. Still folded, creased, and with the paper starting to look discoloured, were the letters I’d written to my parents in 1967 and 1968 while teaching for fifteen months in a small school at Jeogla in the New England district of New South Wales; there were also letters from my next school at Kunghur, on the Tweed River, at the foot of Mount Warning. Altogether, there were over eighty letters. I put them into chronological order and read them. I knew that I had enough material for a book.
Thanks to Roger Furniss, that book was published in 2014 and was called Appointment Northwest, being a memoir of my appointment to a one-teacher school, an experience that changed my life and led to the discovery of people, places and poetry; it was launched at the Polish Consulate in Woollahra in October and the Reader’s Companion Bookshop in Armidale in November. Emeritus Professor John Ryan, a former teacher of mine at the University of New England, did me the honour. There was little buying response from the public to the book until Andrew Riemer reviewed it in the Sydney Morning Herald in June 2015; the review was called ‘The Life Lessons Learnt by an Unsuspecting Teacher’. The same review appeared in the Canberra Times under the heading ‘A leisurely remembrance of a vanished world’. The response to the reviews was instant and surprising. Telephone calls, emails, letters from people that I knew but mostly from strangers – men and women who had been taught in a small school or had been teachers themselves. They came from Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Melbourne, regional New South Wales, regional Victoria, even far north Queensland, from Townsville, from a man who was a Cowboys fan. All expressed gratitude for writing about a life they’d experienced once and thanked me for recreating it for them.
Among the surviving poetry magazines in my library is a copy of HOBO,Issue 6, August 1995, published by Black Lightning Press, with guest editor, Kris Hemensley. I’ve kept that magazine for two reasons. Firstly, the cover poet is Joan Mas, former partner of my first publisher, Roland Robinson. Secondly, there is an interview/conversation between Michelle Griffin and Seamus Heaney. When asked about the necessity of poetry being able to surprise and the teaching of poetry formally, Griffin asks the question, How do you reconcile that? To which Heaney replies, ‘The writing of poetry is a mystery.’
After Appointment Northwest was published, I left it alone, remembering these were letters that my mother had saved without telling me; but also because the book is the story of a family’s loss of a son and my failure to keep a promise.
However, five years later I did read Appointment Northwest again; I also read Seamus Heaney’s interview with Michelle Griffin and something in what I’d written caught my eye. Alongside certain poems I’d write the word VOICE. It materialised nearly always next to poems about water as represented by rain, creeks, waterfalls, mists but especially the River Styx – so much so I began annotating it whenever it appeared. Halfway through the book a pattern began to emerge; by the end of the book the pattern was established. A progression of ideas, expressed through individual poems that are woven in the narrative confirmed that the ‘writing of poetry is a mystery’ indeed, and one that I believe is also a gift. By the end of the book I realised I had no need to feel guilty about not keeping a promise and explaining the details of a family’s loss of a son. The family, as represented by the mother, would not have minded the story being told of how their son died, as I would discover.
I prefaced Appointment Northwest with a quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Enoch Arden’, being the story of a sailor who, like Robinson Crusoe, was shipwrecked on an island but who, before he is rescued and returned to England, discovers a world he never knew existed. Mountains, trees, vegetation, birds, and wildlife. He becomes self-reliant, independent. He discovers a New World ‘under the ways to heaven’. An old life is left behind, a new life begun.
Rain had brought me to Jeogla in 1967, from when it started falling outside Tamworth, coming over the Moonbi Hills until I reached Armidale; after two more stops along the way I reached Jeogla in rain that alternated between downpours and drizzles, punctuated by bright bursts of sunlight. At more than one place I would slow down and see the road ahead not as an unending grey strip of bitumen but as a river, a highway of water that flowed to the east, to the coast and into the Pacific Ocean. Often against my will, but in my imagination, I would force myself to drive into that river, out of it and alongside it. I would sing or talk to myself for company, for encouragement. I was following orders, as it were, from an employer, but I was also following a river that was indicating the direction my life was taking: like a chick breaking out of its shell, instinctively, just doing what had to be done without thinking about it.
Often a poem came from a direct argument or conflict that I had with the voice and there were many of those, a kind of stand-off with what the voice said I should do – and what I thought I should be doing. The voice always won. Sometimes the debate came on the spur of the moment. Sometimes it was after a period of time; after an experience had occurred and I was being prodded to write about it. Time and place had moved on but the voice, the urge, the impulse to write became so insistent it could not be ignored any longer.
One Saturday, when the weather was drizzly, I decided not to go into Armidale but thought I would visit a river that I knew flowed in the district, a short distance past the school and where I hadn’t ventured by myself before. Locals often referred to it. The river was called the Styx.
Leaving my car under a tree at a bridge alongside the Styx River sign I walked over the bridge to the far side. The rain had stopped falling. Straightaway the air smelt differently; it was more earthy, mossy, colder than at Jeogla. Stepping down along the river I passed over rocks, wet boulders, feeling the icy water at my feet. I heard whipbirds, black cockatoos, saw king parrots in the trees above me, waterhens running in and out of the undergrowth. The river dipped quickly and I stumbled, standing in water up to my knees. Smaller birds twittered in the tree tops. From listening to locals and reading about it I knew the Styx was formed by water falling under Point Lookout and joining up with the Chandler River, eventually flowing into the Macleay River and to the east. Trees taller than I could have imagined loomed over me; it became darker. I could see less of the sun. In parts the river broadened out, then became more narrow. I saw rainbow trout ahead in a pool, swimming languidly among floating leaves. I edged forward, not knowing what lay ahead; but it was more of the same. Tall trees, vines, undergrowth, bird noises from every direction. I was moving closer to the coast, at times waist deep in water; but as long as I kept the far bank in sight I knew I was safe. Only when I saw a sign that read Little Styx River and another that read Wattle Flat did I stop. It indicated a possible campsite and that might mean people. I still wanted to be alone. I hadn’t brought a watch and didn’t know what time it was; but from the position of the sun it must have been late afternoon. The return journey was uphill and would take longer. I stopped, drank slowly from the river, and turned back.
By the time I returned to my car I was shivering. I needed to dry off and get warm; as I drove in the direction of the school I realised I hadn’t seen another human being all afternoon. I also remembered I hadn’t told anyone where I was going.
Inside the school I lit the heater and took off my jacket, shoes, beanie, shirt, socks and hung them over the backs of chairs. I could put up with the discomfort of wet trousers and underwear. An hour was all I needed. I made a cup of tea and sat as close to the heater as I could.
After an hour the schoolroom was warm; I was preparing to leave when images of the river began to float across my eyes – the leaves, trees, boulders, stones, fish, as well as images of the New England ranges that had accumulated in my brain during my stay.
I heard a voice in my head, the same voice that always brought on the impulse to write, to put my feelings and thoughts into words. Picking up a writing pad and pen I wrote:
If time and frost have spared these hills
why should hands curb the stream?
Deeper than sound in a bone’s hollow
has the river cut into this flesh of earth.
The waterfall, crashing out of forgotten centuries,
throws up an arc from inside the sun.
In pools of thorn, deep as an eye’s lens,
rainbow trout and water-hen glide
through ripples of leaves that, once seen,
wash into the mind’s sleep, reshaping a dream,
unearthing the destinies of voices and stars.
Families lie scattered along banks
of yellow clay, biding sleep and winds of summer
with words the colour of sunflower seeds.
I shall never walk the bottom
to disprove its name and origins – confirming
myths of Hades or the stories
brought back by people from the city.
Let myths and tales remain
in the colour and shape of trees,
in the sound of hail breaking against granite –
sunlight piercing the eyes of trout:
winds threading their needles
around tableland chimneys and doors.
Let myths remain, with their gullies and secret ferns,
and begin journeys along rivers as this
only when conscience and self
look to lands beyond the earth of hard flesh:
beyond the bridge spanning day and night
where Charon himself is a passenger
and the mouths of the dead are empty.
And you, all journeys ended, knowing time has come
for waterfalls to be silent, fall
on your knees to drink from the river.
As time and frost slowly enter your blood
no draught of hemlock could have tasted sweeter.
The poem was a ‘clean write’, straight through, on two pieces of paper, without a pause. I listened for the voice that had challenged me, goaded me into writing. I heard nothing. I folded the poem and put it away. The fire had died down and my clothes were almost dry. I dressed and left.
That night it started to rain, lightly at first, then heavily and I imagined it sweeping across the surrounding paddocks. I saw it falling over the forest that I travelled through along the Styx River. This rain was feeding the creeks and rivers, the tributaries of the larger rivers that ran into the sea. I was in bed, reading Dylan Thomas’s ‘Manifesto’, being his reply to a young man who questioned why he wrote poetry. I understood it all, especially the ending. He said he wrote poetry because of his love of words. ‘Words were as the notes of bells, the noises of musical instruments, the noises of wind, sea, and rain…’
I arrived in Jeogla on Sunday, January 29 1967 and my last day of teaching was Friday, 15 March 1968. The next morning I left for the far North Coast, to Kunghur, on the Tweed, to take up my new appointment.
In the fifteen months I boarded with the Sloggett family – Carrie, Elmo, their son Gerald, and Carrie’s mother, Mrs Annie Williams – Carrie had become like a second mother to me; in that time and, in the subsequent years , between leaving Jeogla and completing my Master of Letters degree in 1986 at the University of New England, I visited her while attending residential schools and sometimes even stayed overnight. On one of these occasions, in April 1988, she told me the details of Gerald’s death in a Forestry timber camp in 1972 where he had been working with his father and was hit by the branch of a falling tree. He died in his father’s arms. Sixteen years it had taken for her to tell me the details because, she said, in between long, deep pauses, ‘you have a right to know’.
In my fifteen months at Jeogla I had two of my poems published in a national poetry magazine and I commenced my studies, as an external student, at the University of New England in Armidale. Associate Professor John Ryan was one of my lecturers in the School of Arts and I maintained a friendship with him for decades after graduating with my Bachelor of Arts degree in 1975. Together with my high school English teacher, Brian Couch, he was the most inspiring teacher I had. What I did not know was that I would take Jeogla with me emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Jeogla became part of my mindset, my thinking, a reference point at which questions of identity, existence and eternity were questioned; it was a sanctuary to shelter in when I felt threatened by forces I could not cope with; it was like I had tapped into a source of purest water, from deep within the earth, that offered itself to be drunk, in the form of poetry to be written.
This experience was best illustrated on the night of 4 June, 2003 when I received a telephone phone call from Carrie’s sister, Olga, in Armidale to say that Carrie died that day. I had promised her that I would come to her funeral, but when I asked Olga when that would be, she answered: tomorrow. By that stage I was teaching at Western Sydney University and explained I had a lecture and three tutorials tomorrow; I couldn’t make alternate arrangements that quickly. Why the hurry ? It was the long weekend and the family did not want to wait until next week. Did she suffer? I asked. No, Olga, replied. She went peaceful.
Not long after Carrie’s death I made enquiries through the Armidale and Dumaresq Council to locate the burial details of Gerald, Elmo, Grandma and Carrie. All were buried in the Presbyterian Section of Armidale Cemetery. Rows, lots, dates of death and ages at time of death were also provided.
In 2010, I was invited by the English staff at the University of New England to lecture on my poetry as part of an HSC seminar being held by the School of Arts. Arriving the day before, I was picked up from the airport and taken to my motel only to find my room was not ready. It had been raining in Sydney and it was raining in Armidale. When the rain eased and my room was prepared I asked if I could be driven to the cemetery.
It started softly but insistently – that inner voice that I now associated with Jeogla, Wyatts Creek, the Styx River and Weeping Rock – began speaking as soon as we entered Memorial Avenue with its red trees blazing in the cold autumn light. My lift returned to the university.
I found the graves, Elmo and Carrie side by side, Grandma and Gerald behind them. I took photos of the trees and graves. The voice was rising in urgency, Write, write while you’re here.
I spoke to Elmo, Grandma and Gerald, one by one, as I would have when I was living with them.
Finally, I stood at Carrie’s grave and told her why I didn’t come to her funeral. I apologised for letting her down and asked her to forgive me.
The only response was from the birds and wind blowing through the red trees.
Rain started to fall, and a first line came into my head, a second and third. The poem had arrived with the rain. The voice was speaking non-stop, Write, write.
Day. Night. Darkness. Light. The time could have been any of these.
A single impulse drove me.
Hurrying, I left the cemetery, half-running, half-walking over ground already wet with leaves and flowers, crimson rosellas flying ahead of me, while the rain got heavier. The words kept coming, images also – as if my brain had taken the photos it needed to keep the momentum flowing.
The distance was a lot further than I anticipated, and by the time I got to Room 4 of the Westwood Motor Inn, I was breathless, wet, face and hands dripping water.
I sat down and wrote:
Impossible not to see them
once you cross the railway bridge
and enter Memorial Avenue –
the rows of red trees
along the cemetery’s perimeter:
maples, claret ash, liquidambars –
cotoneasters where rosellas
hang upside down and feast
on berries like clots of blood.
The breath of next month’s winter
hangs over them already
but they seem intent on proving
that winter is a lie –
that neither winds nor frosts
are permanent afflictions
and disappear as quickly as they arrive.
A family that I once boarded with
at Jeogla lies buried
beside the trees – mother, father,
all “born and bred” in New England
where I came to work
and left when the work was done –
where I once considered
settling down but didn’t
for reasons I still can’t explain.
The mother dead at ninety-three years of age,
the father at seventy,
grandmother at eighty-five
and the son at twenty-four.
On his headstone
it reads, “Accidentally killed
16th February 1972”.
All of them buried
In Loving Memory Of.
What can I do but pray ?
Or be content to live on the memory of a single day
when we sat down and ate a meal together?
The wind pauses
and brings a moment’s peace –
but still leaves my questions unanswered
hanging from the branches of red trees.
Leaving a ground strewn
with decaying leaves
I leave Memorial Avenue
and walk back towards the railway bridge.
The poem was written very quickly. The voice that urged me to write had become silent. All I could hear was the sound of rain on the roof. Or maybe it was falling inside me? I found it hard to tell.
By the time I had published Old/New World, my ‘New & Selected Poems’ with University of Queensland Press in 2007, the number of poems about the Styx River had risen to four; they were spread over forty years and I would number them, as if to give each one a separate identity; and yet, as I continued writing in response to the voice in my head, I sensed this was not the end of them.
Weeping Rock is a cliff formation in the New England National Park below Point Lookout; while teaching at Jeogla I was taken for a picnic lunch by the Burleigh family from the Oaky River Hydro Dam at Wollomombi to the lookout and afterwards, we trekked to the rock, to see this natural phenomenon, like a prehistoric growth pushing up from the forest floor.
The vegetative growth was reminiscent of the Styx River environs: tall trees, ferns, vines, mist, birds too numerous to name, sounds that were primeval yet belonged to the twentieth century as much as we did. Arriving, we stood at the bottom of the rock and felt its wetness, smelt it, saw the water streaming down its face. I remember becoming very cold, shivering, wanting to escape, to leave the place.
In September 1968, six months after the school was closed I returned to Jeogla. The building was deserted. The keys had been taken away by Public Works. All I could do was walk around it and peer through the windows. The yard was overgrown with weeds. Sheep and cattle had eaten whatever flowers were left growing. The building was a ghost.
But I felt a need to go back and retrace my steps to where I had been once before, and where I sensed an affinity to, even though the place held a dread that I could not understand.
When I arrived at Point Lookout the view was shrouded in mist, moving in from the coast like a form of amoebaean life, settling on everything it touched. I found the track that I followed with the Burleighs and was soon standing at the foot of Weeping Rock, that huge wall of basalt that confronted me as it did before, the same green face – with silver water trickling out of the earth above me, running over ferns and plant life, trees, stones, seeping into the earth.
That inner voice was there, suddenly, this time urging me to hurry back to the car, past the trees and ferns. I took pen and paper from the glovebox and wrote:
Only after reaching the bottom did we stop
and listen to the drifting echoes –
as long-dreaded farewells when words are lost to worlds
in the embrace of death: of flesh with unimagined earth.
From cracks and blotched furrows the water
trickled silver on to ferns, grass and flowers
where, bordered by moss in crevices,
icicles remained unchanged from winter frosts.
A cool spring it had been: and the same now,
miles and years and gorges away.
The rock’s water seeped noiselessly into
the chasm from boulders and forests of gum –
streamed, as if the years in grief had come to claim
our presence: turn bone to rock and flesh to moss.
Fifty years after leaving Jeogla and the Styx River district the poems about them continue to be written. Why? Is this an example of what Seamus Heaney meant by saying ‘The writing of poetry is a mystery?’ Can one stop it if one tried or will the inspiration, and the desire to write, just die of its accord? Will that ‘voice’ disappear when it has exhausted itself? I am now a grandfather, no longer the young man in his early twenties who was sent from Sydney into the northwest of New South Wales in order to fulfil a contract that required three years’ country service. Sydney is my home; and yet I cannot stop thinking about Jeogla and how much I love the area.
I was struck by this dilemma and raised it in a recent poem , ‘Conversation about Jeogla’, with a friend whose opinions I respect and value. Why do you think? I asked. In the poem, she replies, ‘Your heart took root there and is still growing.’
I thought, Can the heart take root
in the soil of air
or only from the tendrils of memory ?
Instead, I asked her, ‘Can I love two places
equally – Sydney and Jeogla?’
A mother of twin boys, she replied, ‘Yes.’
If the answer to the number of poems written about the Styx River in the past could be found anywhere, it lay in the fifth of these, written on 1 April, 2019 and again, as a response to the voice that urged me to pick up pen and paper and write. I was sitting in my car outside the school where my two youngest grandchildren attend, and I was doing the afternoon pickup:
‘Styx River (5)’
I first read the name at school
and researched its origins
in books about Greek mythology –
as if I needed to discover
something essential in my life.
When I was appointed to
Jeogla Public School
as the teacher-in-charge, I learnt
that a river by that name flowed
through gorges and forests not far away.
I made several trips
along the river with the people
on whose property I boarded –
but one time I went alone
knowing I had only so much time to travel
and was afraid of getting lost.
Decades later, alone, I often sit
and remember what I learnt
about darkness and light, water and stones –
the fear that some people call primeval –
that clasped my heart like a hand of ice;
and I wish I could forget its name
but know that I never will –
because I also learnt
that the Styx River was only the first step
to the last river that has no name.
I knew I had reached the end of my journey, after fifty years, the moment I finished that poem. I knew what Plato meant in The Last Days of Socrates when he writes about the place to where all the rivers of the world flow. Seamus Heaney’s comment about writing poetry made sense. There was nothing else to know.
And yet, and yet (to use a famous phrase of the Japanese haiku poet Issa), it was not the end of the search as it seemed. Ironically, the end brought me back to a beginning, to a memory of rain that fell into the river that has no name before I even knew it existed. This time there was no urgency in the voice, just a request, to reveal the mystery of a poem as it was being born, as it was brought into the light:
‘First Night at Jeogla’
Before going to bed I stood
on the back steps of the house
that was my new home – under a light –
while rain fell out of the darkness
on to hills and paddocks I couldn’t see.
I tried to imagine the highway
that brought me from Sydney
and wondered how far back
the rain was still falling.
Had it passed the Moonbi Hills
and the forests I’d driven through ?
Thick clouds hid the stars.
A few lights were dots in the distance
and these were farmhouses, I assumed.
I breathed in the wet scent of the night
and felt it enter my bloodstream
as if bringing a message from my parents.
I said to myself, How long can I stand here
breathing in the New England air?
“As long as you like”, the night replied.
The rain kept falling like small diamonds
under the back steps light.