If you regularly enjoy reading this blog, you should thank Jonathan Shaw.
In 2004, Sydney’s Hogarth Gallery hosted a show of work from Aurukun. The arts coordinator there at the time, Natasha Shaw, accompanied several of the artists down south for the opening. Her uncle, Jonathan, attended the show. (Her sister, Paula, was also working in Aurukun at the time, or possibly had recently left: she later wrote a memoir about her experiences as a school teacher in the community, Seven Seasons in Aurukun. Natasha went on to work briefly at Balgo after Stephen Williamson and Sam Togni’s departure.)
Uncle Jonathan, proud and delighted, wrote about the exhibition on the blog he was keeping, in those days called Family Life.
Harvey and I purchased a work from the show (long-distance), and a couple of days after the opening, went searching the web for reviews and commentary. That’s when he stumbled on Jonathan’s write-up, passed it along to me, and got me hooked on the adventures of the Sydney branch of the family Jonathan was recording. Eventually, I wrote to tell him how much I enjoyed his stories and book reviews. He was delighted to discover a reader who wasn’t a personal acquaintance, and suggested that we meet up for dinner the next time we came to Sydney. We did, and the friendship has flowered, and prospered, ever since. It was Jonathan who inspired me to start blogging, about two months after we met, and who taught me much about how to do it well in those early days.
In the years since, Jonathan has “retired” and devoted more of his energy to his literary pursuits (I’ll include his blog, revivified and now dedicated more to serious reading and writing overall as Me Fail? I Fly!, among them. The new title is an anagram of “family life,” further demonstration of Jonathan’s unceasing delight in language.) He has become a published poet, and each November has engaged in his personal variation on the month’s many writing challenges, which he has dubbed LoSoWriMo, or the “Local Sonnet Writing Month.” For the past three years he has set himself to write fourteen fourteen-line poems in 30 days, and he has succeeded admirably each time.
What I enjoy about these poems the most is their engagement with what another fine poet, Randall Jarrell, called “the dailiness of life.” Jonathan’s subjects can often be called “mundane,” but in a positive sense: they are about his world, and ours. They are snapshots of Sydney and beyond. And above all, they are snapshots of a playful, inquisitive intelligence bringing language and structure together for the delight of creation.
In keeping with the theme of this blog, I reproduce one of this year’s sonnets, inspired by Jonathan’s encounter with Ross Gibson’s 26 Views of the Starburst World: William Dawes at Sydney Cove 1788-91 (UWA Publishing, 2012), which was in turn inspired by Dawes’ encounter with the Dharug language.
Sonnet 9: William Dawes and Patyegarang
He lived apart to study stars
and drew dark students to his table –
students and ambassadors
who drank his tea so he was able
to write their words down, turn their breath
to marks on paper. War and death
were soon to dominate this story
but then there was a kind of glory:
she said, ‘You shade me from the sun.’
She said, ‘We’re angry, fear the gun –
Gulara, tyérun gu̇nın.’
The future loomed with genocide:
these marks show some opposed that tide.
Jonathan has collected three years’ worth of these sonnets, along with selected doggerel (of which he is a past master) and a modern mock-epic Dunciad based on Alan Jones’s so-called “apology” to Julia Gillard for claiming that her father died of shame over her public performance of her duties. November Sonnets and Other Poems arrived in the mail this week, much to my delight, and I wanted to be the first on record in reviewing it.
The “painter” of my title today is Jonathan’s partner Penny, although to be truthful, she is more a printmaker and sculptor to date than a painter. (She is also responsible for the cover photography for November Sonnets.) A student at Meadowbank TAFE, Penny has been instrumental in organizing and leading the Save Art in TAFE movement in NSW of late. In her prior career, Penny ran a consulting business that did much good work in Aboriginal health affairs, and she remains deeply committed to exploring Australia’s intercultural history. The image below (entitled Remembering Coniston, 2011, c. 75 x 150 cm) is based on her research into the Massacre, and I hope she won’t be cross with me for sharing it, as I find it to be an altogether extraordinary example of the printmaker’s art. Happy New Year to all, and my sincerest congratulations to Jonathan and Penny in realizing their creative dreams.