Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ launched Etiquette With Angels, a collection of new and selected poems by Fr Andrew Bullen SJ, in Melbourne on 21 June 2018. This is the text of his address.
I was delighted and a little surprised that Andy Bullen invited me to launch Etiquette with Angels. I have admired Andy and his poetry for many years, and I owe both Andy and David Lovell, his publisher, a debt of gratitude. But etiquette, even with Angels, has never been my strong point.
Etiquette with Angels is a perfect title for this book. It is refined. So is the surface of Andy’s poems. His voice evokes the British gentleman: comfortably dressed and relaxed, a master of pleasant conversation, deferring to his listeners or drawing them out as needed.
The surface of Andy’s poems, shaped by rhythm, rhyme, modulation and fastidiousness with language, is urbane and fraternally lordly. His poems glide effortlessly like a white swan crossing a lake. Listen to the opening lines of his title poem, ‘Etiquette with Angels’.
An angel always enters from the left
and keeps its distance from whomever’s there.
Through a window a tree may be present;
often the room is opulent and bare.
A vase of flowers is usually placed
between the parties — lilies are preferred.
Dress — informal but not too casual,
for an angel wears simple wings, like a bird.
The voice is conversational and urbane. But, with good poems, as with swans, much goes on beneath the surface.
In Andy’s book, the first sign of the beating feet beneath the gliding swan is his frequent reference to silence. At first sight that is odd. Poems are nothing if not words. When spoken, words interrupt silence.
But in Andy’s poems the relationship is much more complex, as he suggests in his short poem, ‘Emphasis’.
As black on white,
or white on black imposes,
all speech is exaggeration;
except poetry: that curving line
surrounded by the silence
Within poetry lies silence. How so? This is my take on it. When you write poetry, there are three points at which silence takes over. The first point is when you are taken below the surface to something deeper, something before which you must stand silently.
Then, wanting to catch this depth, you write your poem. When you have done all you can with the poem, you are again silent, recognising how shallow your words are when set against the depth of what you are trying to catch. That is the second point of silence.
The third point of silence comes when your reader is also taken to the depth that you have tried to catch in your poem, and gasps silently at it. When that happens, we say that the poem works.
Andy’s poems do work. They often evoke that silent gasp. How do they do it? Very often, in this way. The urbane and conversational surface of the poem slows you down, lulls you into security and leaves you vulnerable to a final line that reveals an unexpected, often uncomfortable depth.
Take, for example, the poem which we shall hear later in Chris Willcock’s musical arrangement. In it the angel addresses Casper, traditionally the outsider among the three wise men, telling him he must return home by another way.
The style is conversational, confiding, accepting of hesitations and weakness. In contrast, the last line is adamantine. I’ll read the last lines of ‘Wisdom’:
The child needs no other homage
than that of the riff-raff shepherds,
yourselves with your silly gifts,
the heavens singing or your shifting star,
the warm breath of ox and ass,
Joseph’s vigilance and the arms of Mary.
You cannot prevent the slaughter.
Arise and disobey the king.
The last line nails the angel’s message, and nails the reader, too. It begins with the ceremonious, upward, seductive lilt of Arise. We might imagine, Arise, Sir Caspar, Baron of the Upper Nubian Provinces. But then comes the flat, hammered command: ‘And disobey the king.’
The reader is left in silence. So that is what answering to the name of man demands!
If Andy’s poems are like white swans gliding serenely over a lake, what lies beneath them? The waters he explores are various — domestic, the beauty of nature and art, the subtleties of relationships.
Some of the most striking poems enter very deep and murky waters. They include poems reflecting on the illness that led to the loss of his leg and its abiding effects, and a long cycle inspired by a visit to Dachau, and extending to many barbarities of our time.
Their conversational tone invites us to attend to the monsters of the deep we would rather avoid. Certainly, each time I read these poems, I have found myself hurrying through them, they are so confronting. I shall read ‘A creature of habit’, with its easy, conversational tone and the scarifying last line we have learned to expect.
The place had its attractions
for a creature of habit, the conditions
suited me and the job had to be done.
I miss the times when we injected.
When will the doctor return
for the experiments? Let me
show you around around
but keep out of my space. I liked
it here, it gave my talents
scope. We are out of syringes
but there are rooms and rooms full
of hair, shoes, spectacles: ready for use.
Any weather, rain or shine,
was time enough for the job.
Now there’s nothing doing.
Women had a hand in this too you know;
they too like to smash things and clean them up.
Look how the square is hosed down spotless and empty
of human muck.
The contrast between the urbane voice of the narrator with its nostalgia and simulacrum of hospitality, and the horror of what was being done and thought there leave the reader silent.
So far I have shown how the urbane surface of Andy’s poems enable him to explore deep waters and to attend to monsters lurking there. But in the waters of reality are also creatures that are beautiful, humorous, playful and loving. Most of Andy’s poems reach out also to them.
Some are very funny. My favorite is ‘Mousepoem: Morsels of Divinity’, unfortunately too long to read in full. I shall read the concluding lines. Its narrator is the spokesmouse:
our visionaries have seen the dead
scurrying through the Vale of Roquefort
and scrambling over the Mountains of Gruyère;
yes, we’ll sail on dry biscuits
across the Seas of Camembert,
and we’ll reach at last our blue-veined home,
the Garden of Edam!
there, our song, our dance, will be:
“You are cheese unending
the cheese of cheeses
God is Gouda!”
Cheese is the work of human hands. The reality to which Andy responds most readily is the work of human hands and spirits.
Although many of his poems sensitively represent nature in its variety and seasons, he is most comfortably at home with paintings, other poems, churches and artefacts. He attends to their detail, explores their connection with place, with events and with the relationships that define them.
Through his poems we become their and his familiars but with new eyes to see them. I shall read a poem that moves between Gerroa and Jamberoo, both sacred sites in the Jesuit world, and focuses on a statue.
‘The Buddha of the Southern Ocean’
(for Don and Anna, in thanks)
Today, returning to my exercise,
above the beach, not quite alone,
yoga-like, I touched the earth
with hands, foot, torso; in a slight sweat
my body found itself, gesture by gesture.
Only afterwards did I realise
the Buddha at Don’s place yesterday
had a leg missing too (who knows the story?).
The right hand rested over the remaining knee
in the “touching-the-earth” attitude,
the other lay cupped above the missing thigh.
“Look at the straightness of the back, so balanced,
the closed eyes, his smile, so serene.”
The Buddha sits on the kitchen window-sill,
traces of gilt sparkle on the firm torso;
the rainforest and mist rise up behind him.
Nearby: utensils, flowers in a vase,
bags of food, bottles, a handbag.
Anna’s burnished-grey whippet tiptoes
around the airy room. The Buddha
blesses everything and nothing.
‘I am the Buddha of the Southern Ocean’.
In this as in all of Andy’s poems, the conversational and affirming tone represent Andy to the reader as a gentle, quietly observant presence.
All poems, of course, are self-revelatory. In Andy’s final poems the surface is a little tighter, less ceremonious, and the self-disclosure is more direct.
I will conclude with my favourite poem in this collection, a poem I would give my eye teeth to be able to write. In ‘Kestrel’ he returns seriously but lightly to the shaping experience of a life-threatening illness and the loss of his leg. Once again the last line opens sudden depths.
(for David Barron)
Brother, all those years ago
when I caught the eye of the angel of death,
you were there to greet me again the next day.
There were others too whose faces
we’ve recognised in the school photo,
and recalled a few names, the wintry trees behind,
soon before we’d go our ways.
Let these memories brace me,
when again, like a kestrel,
the dark-feathered one eyes me again.
I thank you, Andy, for your generosity in sharing with us your poetry, and thank David for the beauty of their presentation and the love lavished in the making of the book.
And, with Etiquette With Angels duly launched, I urge all of you to buy a copy of the collection, not for Andy’s sake, but for your own. Read receptively, these poems make all of us better for the reading.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ