At St Brendan's

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Selected poems

 

At St Brendan's

At St Brendan's chosen boys were lugging

A commotion of milk crates into the sun.

On days like this,

With blisters of tar already softening on the road,

The nuns would curdle in the heat

Shifting their stays by habit;

Sometimes, a bead of sweat

Would tempt their brows.

 

Cooped in our desks,

We steered our wilful pens

Over acreages of white pages

And lines ruled red,

Attended by the ticking of the classroom clock

Or beneath the thunder of

'Come out here Brian Burns!',

So, when the bishop came

He plucked the exercise book from my desk

To run his princely finger

Over my exact constellation of blots,

And, somehow, Sister Agatha,

Through her frowned mouth

Made a noise that was

A close cousin to a hiss.

 

In those drowsy mornings we would endure

The chant of Gregorian tables,

The electricities of mental arithmetic,

The dirge of the sixpenny catechism,

And getting hit with something launched by Brian Burns.

At midday we rose in courtesy

So that the Angel of the Lord might declare unto Mary,

And that we might be spared

The wrath of communists

And the dreaded breath of polio.

 

In the yard we were playing Jets,

Arms straight back,

Elegant banks and turns,

And a lavish stuttering of guns,

Until a gang of boys started chasing a tennis ball

And in packs and hordes we all joined in

Shouting rules and prohibitions

And allowances as we ran.

In the fog of incense of Friday's Benediction,

Through the sound of shillings

In the shiver of the scrupulous bells,

The hymn would break through

At the elevation of

Of Father Lynch's hands,

And the words 'O salutaris hostia'

would rise in their own solemnity.

 

Through all of this

We squirmed on the pinch of wooden knees,

Or fell to the temptation to crane around-

And were stopped in the bead

Of sister Agatha's tiny eye-

Or, sometimes, a quiet boy's eyes would drift

Within the sea- glass of St Brendan's window.

Then on one Friday,

In the quietus of the grand recession,

With the censers limp

Dawdling in tired hands,

When the great face of Father Lynch

Had passed, resplendent in red,

A lone tennis ball

Made a stately progress

Down the centre aisle.

Brian Burns!

 

The Woolwich Ferry

Today, there was no threat of weather in the captain's eye,

So, the sergeant ferry forded the harbour with shoulders back,

Sparkling through its secret easements of way,

Past a boy who was coiled like a languid worm

At the end of a jetty,

Dawdling his rod in the waters,

Playing patience with the sea;

And past the turtle-back dinghies

Stashed in their secret covies,

Towards the wharf at Woolwich.

 

These promontories and spits of land

That wend their ways into Sydney Harbour

Are haunted, still, by the ghosts of lean, manacled men

Who were kept in inventories to endure,

Stooped to life under the chain of sentence,

And commanded to build walls

In stone the colour of wounded flesh.

Now the land is prosperously grassed,

The walls aligned in a pinch of domestic privacies.

 

And so, we stepped our land-legs

On to the Woolwich pontoon —

A small sea-house for waiting in —

That was charted with timetables and ordinances.

At the ferry's bump the pontoon dipped in curtsey

As the ferrymen

Lugged land and water close,

And there was a swooning in our knees

As we made our way aboard.

 

As the ferry made its crossing

Through a late flotilla of yachts

And their wake of tired conversations,

We heard the call of a high, homing seabird,

And, from Cockatoo Island,

The whooping cough of a venerable machine

Fading in the remnants of its shift.

 

Finally at dusk, we rounded the last point,

And there,

Above the staunch ramparts of stone,

In the arc of a children's metronome,

Reared the great mythology of steel

That spans, in majesty,

All vessels and talk that are harboured here.

 

In the fading of the light,

The land seemed but parenthesis

Between the water and the sky,

As a late regatta of seabirds

Chalked with white the evening's grey,

Beating the bounds of dusk.

 

 

 

 

Grant FraserGrant Fraser is a lawyer, poet and filmmaker.

Topic tags: poetry, nuns, school


 

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Existing comments

Such memories expressed so poetically! Our Brian Burns was Jimmy. His knowledge of Latin was non-existent. In response to the Litany of the Saints in the High Mass, his understanding of the request to pray for us, "Ora pro obis', expressed in an angelic soprano voice was 'Gawd I need a piss'. Jimmy's response hovered lark like above us, echoing around the ethereal vaults in the hope that if God and his saints didn't hear it the first time they would pick it up in the echo. Jimmy's prayer wasn't answered but earned a good clip in the ear from Brother Ryan. We came from an enriching culture - such a shame that our tribe exists no more nor the penchant for humour which we have suffocated under a blanket of political correctness and "reform". The Woolwich Ferry is also wonderful!
john frawley | 15 January 2018


Bravo Grant, What wonderful word pictures you paint. This January as I eased my ageing old feet back into work shoes, I remembered my childhood....the first week of February we doffed the sandles and thongs and squeezed our sun-hardened feet back into those horrid lace up school shoes. The end of the holidays and the pain!
LYnne Bliss | 16 January 2018


"And oh, how pleased his lordship was, and how he smiled to say, / 'That's good, my boy. Come, tell me now; and what is Christmas Day?'" Ah, Fr Hartigan, we miss you, you crusty old codger with your Shandrydan and your talk of 'the Regans and the Ryans / And the whole mob of O'Briens'. They have changed the rules of poetry since your time. But I think you would have had a soft spot for Brian Burns.
Frank | 16 January 2018


Thank you for your evocations of that era of Australian schooldays. They conjured up pictures for me, not of nuns and priests, but State School teachers and classrooms. John Swyzaski lives again for me through your words and that era is somehow redeemed through your poetry.
Rod Horsfield | 16 January 2018


I've never read a poem so evocative of my schooldays. For me, it's Tommy Seed at St Patricks, Geelong West ! Every line rings true. Love your writing, Grant. Have gone back to read all your contributions to Eureka Street and now doing a search for a book. Thank you !
Tessa McMahon | 18 January 2018


Clever and well realised, Grant. I can clearly remember a similar 50s education at my Catholic primary school. Some much to activate the senses and quicken the pulse. Well done.
Kathryn | 18 January 2018


Fine, evocative use of language, Grant!
John | 25 January 2018


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