Ivan Head, The Magpie Sermons: Poems 2005-2017, Sydney: St Paul’s College 2017.
Hardcover. Available for $35 from firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewed by Ted Witham
This collection of nearly 50 poems is the second for Ivan Head. Dr Head is a West Australian priest, former director of AIT and Canon of St George’s Cathedral, who has spent the last 27 years as Warden first of Christ’s College in Hobart and then of St Paul’s College within the University of Sydney. He and his wife Christine are now moving into retirement in Sydney.
Many of the poems have been published in Quadrant (where Les Murray is the poetry editor), the West Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. Their presence in those publications suggests their high quality.
Ivan is a poet who celebrates birds and flowers, trips by train and trips to London and the US. In some the words tumble just to celebrate language:
Montezuma met a Puma going to the fair
Said Montezuma to the Puma let me taste your ware.
Said the Puma
No I prefer my fare rare and so he ate him then and there.
Many of the poems are complex with multiple levels of meanings. I enjoy recognising the double- or triple-meaning, but also knowing there may be more levels that I don’t get. In Swan River, Ivan reflects on boyhood memories of throwing a kylie, or thrusting a home-made gidgie towards a Cobbler. And then:
A boy knows that prawns rest beneath the sand by day.
It is like knowledge of the Pleiades.
Under the Narrows Bridge I stood for hours and left a line out all night just in case
Something big went past.
After the series of Noongar words and the reference to arcane knowing, the pleasure of ‘Something big’ might mean a fish to catch, or, it might mean deep knowledge of culture, Aboriginal and Western. And it might mean something even bigger.
An undercurrent of Christian faith and theology, which on occasion rises to the surface level of the poems, holds them in a strong web of meaning.
Ivan has a strong ear for the music of words, their sound and rhythm. All his poems are free-form and show the influence of modernist and Beat poetry.
I found real pleasure in their Australianness. The poems are about the plants and animals of Cookernup (near Bunbury), Perth and Sydney. They are about our childhoods in the 1950s. Even when the subject is not directly Australian, Ivan’s attitude is. He punctures pomposity. Here he reduces the English Reformation to Henry VIII’s armour.
…. And now he’s gone,
the ghost isn’t in the machine.
Just the carapace remains
And what the commentator
gawks at for the screen
is the gigantic iron cod-piece
With nothing in it.
The Magpie Sermons is printed on quality high-gloss paper and bound simply in a hardcover embossed with gold leaf.
Poetry lovers will enjoy reading, and re-reading, these poems of celebration, irony, contemplation and joy.