Talking Tasmanian Literature in the Faroe Islands

This is the paper I gave at The Tower at the End of the World Conference in Torshavn, Faroe Islands, in May 2017. It was exceedingly well received, though very many people couldn’t calibrate their aural senses to my north west coast twang! Among a conference full of exotic people, I was by far the most exotic – almost a Thylacine.

The paper examines what I think to be the most increasingly toxic fault-line in Tasmanian society: the bifurcation between those clinging to an old paradigm of industrial development and all the assumptions about life and nature that go with it; and those who find ineffable and transcendent meaning within the very living tissue of the island. Most of Tasmania’s creative community, and especially so its writers, are within the latter paradigm, and give powerful oppositional voice to Tasmanian discourse.


I’m Driving: Laughing Jack to Hobart

Laughing Jack Lagoon is at my back.

Suddenly there is     shatter.
Shatter        cluttering to the horizon.        .

Some treefern survive.
Arched fronds nod a knowing,
cast it on the wind.

The broken voice of the land
dreams it back,
the quick complexity
before the Shatter.

No-one means to wound our dreams.
But they do.

This piece nipped away, that.
The land lost by a thousand cuts.

In the drinkeries of Hobart we fire up,
spray our helpless grief about.

One more and leave.

What is will be.

Nothing to laugh about, Jack.

Girl Reading Lorca at the Mirador San Nicolas

A poem by Pete Hay

Published in ‘Girl Reading Lorca’ (2014)


Granada, Lorca writes,
draws to its ancient walls and waters
those of a temper
melancholic, contemplative.

At the Mirador San Nicolas
the coral white of the tower
unbearably focuses the day’s high heat
on the brown body of a woman
who sits reading Lorca.
She is walled within the poet’s world,
alone with the breeze that comes
from the old hills of the Alhambra.

The Church of San Nicolas
is so clean, so white,
it surely casts no shadow.
It has summer’s uncomplication.
The girl reading Lorca ignores it.
She would spurn, I imagine,
this meditation on the simple,
hearing, more complexly,
all Granada singing at once:
rivers, voices, foliage, processions…

A gang of bikers comes to the Mirador,
all beergut and noise, with hair
as stiff and gunmetal as their Harleys.
They roister with backs to the Alhambra.
They do not see the bonfire of saffron, deep grey,
and blotting-paper pink of its walls.
None are reading Lorca.

The girl reading Lorca ignores the bikers.
How she does this is as mysterious as the town.
The heat and the glare and the blackjacket noise
batter my inner gates.
I seek the city’s hidden song,
its lilt on the wisps of the wind.
Granada is withdrawn, enclosed,
apt for rhythm and echo,
the marrow of music.

I want to peer over her shoulder
to read the poem she reads,
but that would be misconstrued.
Does she sleep the dream of the apple?
Is she a dark child,
wont to cut her heart on the high sea?
Does she read the great poet
into the walls and small surprising streets
of a city fit for dreams and daydreams,
a city with an atmosphere full
of difficult voices, an air so beautiful
it is almost thought?

The girl reading Lorca reads on
through the surging heat.
She ignores San Nicolas and the bikers –
and, it occurs to me now,
she also ignores the Alhambra.
The bikers straggle to their Harleys
in a fug of merriment; roar away.
The girl reads on.
We consult maps, strike
through the heat for Puerta Nueva,
for we must leave, but Granada remains.
Eternal in time, but fleeting
in these poor hands…

I look back.
In the day’s high heat
a girl is reading Lorca.

An Oral History Interview with Alf Frimley, 97

A poem by Pete Hay

Published in ‘The View from the Non-Members’ Bar‘ (1992)

In country towns, photos of sporting teams survive best.
The eyes are glazed hollow in this one,
As is the way, once they have died, with people in photos.
Arms pumped, stern-faced, the “Premiers ‘05” are demigods:
A chaos of townsmen rings them around,
Envious acolytes flaunting a delegated glory.
In one face living eyes shine young and keen
Amid the gaunt solemnity of those now dead.
Alf Frimley, 97, identifies his brothers:
“That’s Horace.  Harry.  And that there’s Teddy –
E was a marvellous footballer, Teddy –
And George – e was a good long kick,
By cripes e cd roost her…”
Frimley sporting prowess was a legend in the town.
It has new legends now,
Raised from the shallow loam of its memory:
“The War” marks the nether of that –
A sea-wall dividing tangible past
From the ocean of a history without shape.

“I worked for a bloke, old Bert White,
Up Moore’s Plain Road.
I worked his farm over, pickin, doin the dirty stuff;
By the end I cd hardly breathe with the asthma.
Old Bert said for me to fetch water frm the hole
And I said be blowed.
He said well y cn take a week’s notice then
And I said well that’ll do me…”
To the finest forest in all Australia
This town, as a cancer, came.
Alf Frimley knew it brash and skittish,
Remnants of the great stands still waging resistance.
He can conjure the dead shops and cottages,
Pattern the changing streets.
He can tell me this;
In my little black box, I can prison it.

“My father was a ploughman for Quiggins, a good one too.
Oz was a boatbuilder.  Bert.  He died on the Somme.
Charlie was a tailor, and then at the sawmill.
Teddy. Teddy was a driver for the Garners;
He drove the mail to Rocky Cape.
Then e was in Ab Garner’s bakery,
But the doctor pulled im out’v there, e couldn’t stand the flour.
Then e was in the sawmill – e lost the tops off two fingers..”
I have memories vivid from my own boyhood:
Alf Frimley cobbling cheery
In the dim and low back room of his Boot Repairs;
Alf Frimley cornetting the Anzac Day “Last Post”,
A cracked and wailing soul’s song, shaping the town’s grief.
He still sees every home match; a fixture.
But Alf Frimley will, one day, leave us,
The raw young town with him.
Over tea my thoughts turn to place,
Its speech, the fleeting sadness of it,
The regretfulness in the river-flow of its leaving.
I wish Alf Frimley gday,
The unused tape bullying my confusion.
Outside the wind is up.  Tomorrow?
Tomorrow we’re playing away.

I like this early poem. and it was important to me – it began an emotional engagement with the town on the North-West Coast of Tasmania where I grew up, which I left in my teens, and about which I harboured deeply ambivalent feelings. Writing this poem set me on the path to resolving these ambiguities.  It also inspired an abiding interest in the deployment of everyday vernacular in ‘literary’ poetry.  In the image, Alf Frimley, my great-uncle, is the young man in the back row second from the left. My grandfather, Alf’s brother, is second from the left in the front row.