Clever Poems, Wise Poems

•May 28, 2016 • Leave a Comment


[Poem written after a poets workshop 2007. Aragon was a French surrealist poet of the 1920s/30s. ‘The Man from Snowy River’ is a famous Australian bush balled read in every school. Took the photo of a shop window in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, in the same year.]

Clever Poems, Wise Poems
‘It is now possible to use the word ‘infinity’ again in poems.’ (Poets Workshop 07)

Rule 1
grab with the first line
punch with the last

Rule 2
a word with three shades of meaning
is better than one with two
a word with two
better than one with one
a word with none
will get you published
(note the clever punch line)

Rule 3
it also helps if you have done
a few years of research
before writing that sonnet

if you couldn’t be bothered
either fake it
or write a poem
like this
one asking:

is it conceivable
that someone could perform say
even The Man From Snowy River
in such a way
that your hair would stand up
on the back of your neck
and the angels shout from heaven
as loudly as they did
from the infinities
of Aragon’s coffee grinder?

or that the mumbling fat man
in the red T shirt
on the blue seat
at Fairy Meadow station
on the day I left
the poets workshop
is still rocking
wiser poems to himself
than all the celestial choirs
of cherubim and seraphim
keening the icy winds
that ruffle the hairs
on the eyebrows of God?

we will never know

A Thousand Kilometres from the Capital. Two Parables

•May 24, 2016 • 2 Comments


[Recent poem based on two true stories of people in Russia and China which I found in a book and on the internet. The heroes of the everyday, far from all ‘politics’.]

A Thousand Kilometres from the Capital. Two Parables


In her tiny house without water
or gas, a thousand km from the capital
a woman in a Russian village
is alone with her memories.

Here winters are so bone-splitting,
bus-preventing, long, & death is not
putting in your potatoes soon enough.
It does not matter if the capital is
Red, White, nomenklatura, oligarchs,
what happens there just another movie
on her tiny TV tucked in embroidery.

Her happiest memory is the poetry
of her wedding day: the lilacs
were blooming & nightingales
singing in their branches
as they walked home from the registry.

A daughter now married & gone,
a few years of domestic content
& backbreaking labour paying
kopecks before Vadik hit the vodka
& died at forty two. Sixty,
she fears growing old, would like
someone to talk to of ‘other things’.

Now she stands before the fragrant
luminescence of an early lilac
like an icon. Then, turning, half-smiling:

‘Shall I cut you some before you go?’


Two friends in a cracked mudbrick village
in China, a thousand km from the capital
are preparing to set off for their daily
work. Jia Wenqui lost his arms in childhood,
Jia Haixia his eyes sixteen years ago.
Wenqui is Haixia’s eyes, he his hands.

As for the last thirteen years, whichever
Red Princeling ruling in Beijing, Wenqui’s
strong back will carry Haixia across the river
to the barren once riverstone and sand.

Haixia will dig a hole, drive in a stake.
Wenqui will lift a bucket from the river
with a stick hook between his teeth.
While Haixia holds the sapling, Wenqui
will upend the bucket with his foot
and tamp the soil. Asked why, they say
their ten thousand trees are green
soldiers guarding their beautiful village.

They say they are doing it for
the environment, future generations.
They say it’s hard on the purse
but they are ‘so delighted spiritually’.
They say when they are working
together they don’t feel disabled at all.

Sometimes, for a lark, Wenqui lifts
blind Haixia on his back, his head
pushing him into a close embrace
with one of their planted poplars.
They are always laughing.

Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying)

•May 22, 2016 • 2 Comments


[Older essay of mine, not so much about literally dying as about the art of living including a constant dying to things and selves. The poem at the end references three Australian road signs. The ‘RTA’ was the Road Transport Authority. The famous painting of peasants dancing is by Pieter Bruegel].

Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying)

The foetus at some point senses that the time has come. The time to move on. To leave that lovely warm, secure home of the womb in which all its needs were, if it was fortunate, fulfilled. This dwelling has now become somehow constricting. It needs to break through the shell of its walls. It sends out the chemical messages to its mother that will begin her contractions and the painful expulsion into birth.

We seem to follow this pre-natal model throughout our post-natal lives. Just like lobsters and spiders or Kuhnian scientific paradigms. While the snake can simply shed its skin, lobsters and spiders must actually break out of theirs, their protective exo-skeletons, when these have become too old and constricting. When they do, their bodies are at first very soft and vulnerable until they harden.

Given the rough-and-tumble nature of the universe, perhaps it is inevitable that we need to soon again develop a new shell after experiencing the extreme vulnerability of just having slipped out of the old one. And perhaps the breaking open of old shells is hard work. For after all, we have often accumulated so much, invested our splendid old shells with such meaning, just grown so comfortable with those ragged old suits we have worn for so long.

But the time comes, as inevitably as the tide, the time for change, the time for breaking up and out of the old so that the new may emerge. The tide drags the dead old things off the beach and deposits some new surprise: a castaway rubbing his salt-stung eyes, a shell-born Venus, a cryptic message in a dark green bottle.

Old ways of thinking and feeling, mind cages, old notions are things we have long cherished. This can also have a more general cultural dimension. Thomas Kuhn’s influential theory of scientific progress (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,1962) is based on a historical notion of scientific theories or ‘paradigms’ that gradually outlive their usefulness until they are, usually after much resistance from the adherents of the old paradigms (this process constituting a ‘crisis’), eventually outgrown, discarded and replaced by revolutionary new and more adequate paradigms, which then undergo the same process.

Nineteenth century English physicist Faraday’s accurate description of this process can be applied both to this Kuhnian scientific development and to its equivalents on the personal level of the individual:

‘In our conceptions and reasonings regarding the forces of nature, we perpetually make use of symbols which, when they possess a high representative value, we dignify with the name of theories […] Such conceptions have their advantages and their disadvantages; they afford peaceful lodging to the intellect for a time, but they also circumscribe it, and by and by, when the mind has grown too large for its lodging, it often finds difficulty in breaking down the walls of what has become a prison instead of its home. (Cited in Walter Benesh, An Introduction to Comparative Philosophy)’

This pattern would seem to apply not just to cerebral mind prisons, however. Some prisons are a little closer to the bone and strongly anchored in body and emotion: old, often infantile, coping and defence mechanisms that have long served their purpose and are now constricting further development. Sometimes, perhaps mostly, these splendid constricting shells we need to break may be our very own personalities. ‘Personality’ or ‘character’ may be home-grown interior architecture that is inherently ambiguous. It would seem to be both (in the Freudian view) a complex conglomeration of all our neurotic defence mechanisms and a useful form of necessary armature in a difficult world, as well as (in the more Jungian view) a gnarly weathered expression of what we like to feel is our inherent nature.

James Thornton (A Field Guide to the Soul), would tend to the latter view and also see the shell of ‘personality’ not as static but as serial and changing, as a means used by a higher-level of self or identity he calls ‘awareness’:

‘Our personality is the armature that our awareness uses to move through the world. We employ our personality at each point in our evolution and growth. We have serial personalities. We exude them like a lobster its shell.’

Of course, we usually tend to forget that ‘we’ are not our shells, our personalities, our egos, and spend much effort defending and maintaining them. However, our evolutionary momentum, our personal growth imperative keeps up the pressure on these shells of personality. They will start to feel tight at some point when they are no longer adequate to new demands or challenges presented. We call this a personal crisis because when our armature is shattered ‘there is always the terror of stepping out of our old protective skin.’

Moreover, this shattering of our old ideas of ourselves is not a once-and-for-all event but an ongoing necessary process during life, a process culminating, or seemingly culminating, in an opening and widening spacious enough to contain the world. According to Thornton,

‘growth requires that we surrender this idea again and again […] And even though the new skin allows a bigger view, we will again make the mistake of taking it for who we are. So the growth and shattering goes on. Our heart is broken open, again and again, until it is big enough to hold the world.’

Thus, there would seem to be an art of letting go, an art of dying or ars moriendi to the old in this process of living and growing. Part of this art would seem to be realising that all stability is temporary, only to be shattered by the next growth imperative. Calcified aspects are broken open, reconfigure, begin to calcify again, are broken up again, and so on…

And, of course, we are neither snakes nor spiders and lobsters. We cannot simply leave our old coverings behind on the sand and move on, much as we would perhaps sometimes like to do so. Our dying to the old and growing into the new – our difficult ars moriendi that is our ars vivendi too – requires a more complex art.

We, apparently, are required to not simply cut off and discard, but to integrate the old into the new. No simply throwing the baby out with the bathwater for us. Although this is possible and frequently done, to do so is asking for trouble down the track. The thrown-out baby has a nasty habit of continuing to squeal away in the background and warp and spoil all our present pleasures until it has been fully acknowledged, held and accepted, i.e. integrated.

Transpersonal philosopher Ken Wilber formulates this process a little more abstractly. According to him, the successive stages of individual psychological development all dance to a threefold rhythm that follows a kind of Hegelian dialectic of identification, dis-identification and integration.

First, like children, our own identity is largely formed by identifying with someone or something. Then, growing up, in an opposing movement, we are obliged to dis-identify with what we have been hitherto identified with from infancy onwards. Finally, to achieve maturity, we have to integrate the two previous movements, i.e. not spitefully, immaturely, cut off, suppress or throw away the dis-identified, but rather ‘negate and preserve’ or ‘lift up’ (aufheben) this material into a higher integration with the newly identified. Then the whole process starts all over again.

So, we take up the shell, the bath water, the green old bottle even as we are excited by our new Venusian shape, new self or the cryptic new message in the bottle we are so busy deciphering. We pocket them, knowing they are part of ourselves too, albeit old, albeit obsolescent. We have now understood their erstwhile functions and hung them up lovingly in the spacious closet of our selves. Our selves that already feel the distant tide mounting once more on that feint horizon…

Meanwhile, to help us on our way, there may be signs. Metaphysical signs, road signs.


Ever noticed the metaphysics of road signs?
The ever present reminders strategically placed
by the neon-orange mystics of the RTA?

Indeed, reverend! A pulpit
at every freeway exit. A million fingers
raised across the country.
A million RTA Moses booming
that our Golden Calf is doomed.
Repent! The End is Nigh!
One wrong turn and we will sigh
into that fatal speed
of our oncoming fate.
(Retrace your steps to That Point.
Decide again. That way is Home…)

Give pause, pilgrim! Let life resurge
your hard bent back. Drink deep
now so your cells can swim. Breathe
in…. Grass is green again, the eye
unclouded, free of thought. The ear
birdsong, open as a frameless door.
Nothing to do but stop. Cease.
Life shall carry you over
to that other shore.

What hallelujah of final release from division!
The eternal fight of I and I, of suck and spit,
Ended! One road now, shining,
Endless as it snakes our way
among round green hills. One path now,
pathless. Beyond crossroads, lines, signs.
Straight as light, wheel-round,
it bends into its own sweet nothing
that is the final stuff of flesh.

Three Political Narratives

•May 19, 2016 • 9 Comments

follow the leader wear levis ad

[Elections everywhere. This is an attempt to broadly summarise three main political narratives in key policy areas in most democracies, but with a special emphasis on their Australian versions. The contrasting single policy points in each narrative are mainly pitched at a median level, neither too general nor too specific. There will be legitimate quibbles about details and omissions (especially around the third narrative), but I have tried to present the main points as I see them. The third narrative is, taken as a whole and despite some overlaps with the first two narratives, outside the hegemonic mainstream narrative of the first two, based as they are around parties and elections. This is because, although many of the points of the third narrative are just reforms or ‘structural reforms’ that can be implemented within a capitalist system up to a certain point, it is as a whole outside the whole mainstream mindset, i.e it is anti-systemic, post-capitalist, transformative. The latter narrative of course gets almost no mention in the corporate media during elections or any other time. Self-management (or autonomy, participatory democracy) is of course based on an attitude that is the opposite of the political consumerism linked to all parties and elections and to online ‘clicktivism’. I’m sure the lists can be extended, quibbled with and modified, but I was just trying to get the gist in concrete policy areas (not in basic values, principles or further-going possible institutional re-structurings). The Levi ad is a US one from the 1950s, and the pedantic, curmudgeonly grammarian in me notes the wrong use of the apostrophe for a plural as already present.)

Three Political Narratives

1. The Neoliberal Business-as-Usual Narrative (Australian Laborals)

Jobs, growth and prosperity
Carbon Trading, minimal emissions reductions
New and continuing fossil fuel support
Some support for renewables
Agribusiness support (‘get big or get out’)
More roads and infrastructure
‘Innovation nation’, STEM, service jobs, start-ups, ‘flexibility’
Public service reductions
Welfare tightening for the poor
Middle class and business welfare maintenance
More free trade and foreign investment
Maintenance/increase of military spending
Maintenance of balance between US alliance and China trade
Less foreign aid
Border protection
Business-as-usual party government (lobbies, backrooms, musical chairs)

2. The Neo-Keynesian Green New Deal Narrative (Green progressives)

Green jobs, green growth and prosperity
Greater emissions reductions, carbon trading
No new fossil fuels, cutting of fossil fuel subsidies
Massive support for renewables
Support for move to more sustainable agribusiness
More public transport and infrastructure
Green ‘Innovation Nation’, Green New Deal
No public service reductions
No welfare tightening for the poor, some increases
Reductions in middle class/business welfare (‘reducing inequality’)
Less or renegotiated free trade
Decrease in military spending
Less US-obedient foreign policy
More foreign aid
Onshore processing of asylum seekers, more intake
‘Reclaiming democracy from corporate influence’, ‘more accountability’

3. The Eco-Socialist Alternative Narrative (anti-capitalists, radicals)

Green jobs, reduction in working hours, guaranteed minimum income, non-growth/de-growth/steady-state economy

Radical emissions reductions (350 ppm), state regulation of emissions caps, energy rationing

‘Fair earth share’, ‘living more simply’, ‘ecological/climate justice’

Rapid phasing out of all fossil fuels by all means necessary

Massive support for renewables, especially community-owned and -managed

Support for re-localisation of food production and many other parts of the economy

More public transport and locally owned infrastructure

‘Transition to a Sustainable Society’, ‘Eco-Socialism’, ‘Self-Management’, ‘Re-localisation’

Natural reductions in centralised public service bureaucracies via re-localisation

Elimination of most social welfare via a guaranteed minimum income

Elimination of all middle class and business welfare and subsidies

Fair trade instead of ‘free’ trade, greater self-sufficiency at all levels

Radical decrease in military spending, for example via restructuring into smaller purely defensive units

Independent foreign policy (leaving of the US alliance) based on international law

More foreign aid, especially as direct, community-to-community mutual aid

Multilateral solutions to migrant flows, especially via direct sustainable development aid

Introduction of participatory democracy in government, economy, education…at all levels

Whither Humanity?

•May 17, 2016 • Leave a Comment


[Another shot at a very short and very general orientation, written for a local discussion, the topic having been suggested by others. Took the graffiti photo about six years ago in a Melbourne laneway].

Whither Humanity?

‘Wishes are the memories coming from our future.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

In considering such a huge open question as ‘whither humanity?’, rather than too quickly leaping to answers, perhaps one can focus on trying to first find some good specifying questions around this important question. We know that the way we frame questions or issues will inevitably determine our answers. We might sense that if we ask Business-As-Usual (BAU) questions, we will necessarily come up with BAU answers. Equally, we might sense that if we ask more ‘non-BAU’, more creative, questions, we might come up with more creative answers. Here is my attempt at the latter, starting with two Socratic questions about the two words in the leading question.

1. What does ‘humanity’ mean in the question ‘whither humanity’?
Is there a humanity ‘going somewhere’ at all?
Is ‘humanity’, as a subject or agent (as in ‘whither humanity?’), something that already exists, or is it something yet to emerge, to be (self-) created?

2. Does ‘whither’ mean ‘is, or might be, going’ (presumably on current trends/trajectories)?
Or does it mean whither it ‘should be going’?
If the latter, what are our criteria, our values, for determining our ‘should’?
If ‘whither’ implies a direction, or perhaps even a goal, what do we think humanity’s direction or goal could be?
If we think there might be a direction or goal, what grounds or evidence do we base that on?

You might like to now have a go at thinking about your own answers to the above questions before you check out mine…

My own answers might go something like this.

Ad 1: Humanity

‘Humanity’ as a conscious subject or agent of history does not yet exist. It is something yet to emerge, to be (self-)created. There may, however, be various signs of it emerging. It could be defined as the central challenge or task of this stage in human evolution. (Definition: a ‘conscious subject’ is one who ‘calls the shots’, ‘rules’, is self-governing or ‘autonomous’).

‘Humanity’ as an unconscious subject-object exists as a highly differentiated, complex phenomenon split into myriads of often competing groups and elements often caught up in different world views and states or stages of consciousness: in traditional or consumerist world views, in differing fears, voluntary slaveries, in various old and new oppressions and heteronomies of class and culture. Humanity in this sense is the object of immense structural forces of class, power, wealth/poverty, technology, custom and ideology which repress or hinder its becoming the subject of itself and its own evolution.

Ad 2: Whither

I think the whither humanity ‘is or might be going’ question can be answered by viewing the current trends that make up the trajectory of BAU: collapse, either slow or swift, of both the biosphere as a human-friendly life space, and of the global economy and/or liberal civilization.

The Big Four Threats in this regard, all preventable, are: (a) increasing shift from liberal democracies to authoritarian police states (b) systemic economic collapse/depression, (c) climate chaos/sixth great species extinction, (d) war(s) waged with weapons of mass destruction. All four are linked to the inherent wealth-and-power drives and contradictions of the global industrial-capitalist and the international military-imperial system.

As for the ‘should be going’ and direction/goal question, I would argue it should be, or should be more consciously, going towards One World Consciousness and the Good Society.

My own eight key criteria/values for this One World Consciousness and the Good Society would be:

• Ecological sustainability of all social and economic activity
• A fair earth share (‘simpler living’) for all individuals and between nations
• Maximised social equality and the right to cultural and sexual diversity for all
• Post-capitalist cooperative economies driven by human and ecological welfare, not profit
• Collective/public ownership of the commons
• Maximising freedom and participatory democracy in all social domains at all levels
• ‘Bread and roses for all’, i.e. institutionally securing universal human rights for all
• Abolition of all WMDs; strict adherence to the rule of international law between nations

Grounds for arguing such a desirable direction for humanity are of course manifold and cannot be detailed here. Let us merely step back and try to get a wider evolutionary perspective. Most would at least agree that human socio-economic evolution can be very broadly divided into three main stages: pre-industrial, industrial, post-industrial (culturally: pre-modern, modern, post-modern, and also, in Ken Wilber’s terms, pre-rational, rational, trans-rational, and pre-personal, personal, transpersonal). We are of course now within the ongoing, traumatic, ‘revolutionary’ transition period between the last two stages.

If this rough periodization is accepted, most would agree that human cultural evolution has entailed a gradual widening of average human consciousness from identification with the family, clan and tribe in the pre-industrial stages to identification with the nation in the modern/industrial stage, and that the inherent logic of this development has seen this identification gradually widening out to some form of ‘transnational’ One World consciousness as the post-industrial/post-modern age dawns.

Economically, technologically, culturally and genetically we are obviously moving towards ever greater global integration. The larger issues can no longer be solved on a national basis (economies, climatic and oceanic change, migration and refugees, war and peace). They can only be solved world-centrically.

This widening as a conscious process, is of course still confined to as yet small, albeit increasing, sections of the world population, with most in almost all countries still very much wedded to the tribe- and/or nation-identifications of the previous two stages. There is no ineluctable determinism to this widening process. Collapse and widespread regression to narrower, earlier stages of consciousness are always possible.

Seen from such a perspective, however, the key educational and activist question would thus be: how can we all further the process of global average consciousness evolution towards that of One World and the desirability, and objective possibility, of the diversely universal human dream of the Good Society? How can we all, as Rilke says, feel our desires for the realisation of such a dream like strong, magnetic memories flooding in from the future?


•May 14, 2016 • Leave a Comment

death-of-conversation on train Babycakes Romero

[Poem from 2015. Photo by Babycakes Romero from a sad photo series of people using phones while ‘together’ which he entitled ‘The Death of Conversation’. The poem is not about the actual people on the photo of course.]


she is
at him

he is
out the window

he is scanning the city savannah
alert to movements, shifts
in the field, shadows congealing
into predator or prey

he is

she is

she adores him
she is sensitive to his every
movement, facial twitch,
clearing of throat

his boredom sits over her
like a cloud leaden
with lightning

he sits wide-legged
tends to smoke
flick his phone

she tends to fidget
push back her hair
stroke her phone

under his indifference:
a need to control
a need never to show
his need to be loved

under her suffering:
resentment at
her need to be loved

he has got her
by the soul’s sweet

she has got him
by the balls
he feigns

they smile
into their


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