Prolific in his youth, Max Harris's poetic output was dramatically reduced by the savaging of the Ern Malley Affair. He produced only a few slim volumes in the ensuing years - although his verse was included in all major anthologies of Australian poetry and was studied in schools. After his death, when the National Library of Australia published The Angry Penguin - Selected Poems of Max Harris, he was acknowledged as one of the greatest lyric poets the country has produced.
The gentleness of Jesus
And the meekness of the child
Are false ideas. Christ was fierce
And we breed our children wild.
The spring girl who is dreaming
In the branches of a tree
Knows something of the charnel-house
And modern psychiatry.
The poor old ancient dribbler,
Cigar ash on his vest,
Thinks his seventh stage of life
Not much worse than the rest.
There is an ache of discontent
In milktooth and aged gum,
So let's give praise for coming days,
Padman, Pfeiffer, and Kerr,
These are dead ones,
Poets I used to know,
Dead eight years or so.
I have left until now
To mention the fact,
They were best left alone
Until a love was grown
That would place them
Within the flow of time.
Dead eight years or so.
Without reason, without rhyme.
Mithridatum of Despair
We know no mithridatum of despair
as drunks, the angry penguins of the night,
straddling the cobbles of the square,
tying a shoelace by fogged lamplight.
We know no astringent pain,
no flecking of thought's dull eternal sea
in garret image, of Spain
and love...now love's parody.
See - chaos spark, struck from flint
and the plunging distemper, flare in the dawn's dull seep
of milkcart horse, morning horse
chaos horse, walking at three to the doors of sleep
with the creamy poison.
from nine to five,
all life immure.
and still alive.
we know no mithridatum, nor the remembered dregs of fear,
the glass stands dry and silted; no end is near.
Your Eyes Content Me
Your eyes, turning in sorrow, content me,
For there is in them a new and silent sorrow
As if your eyes, seeing that content,
Turn to, dying, that sorrow
Spent people live in as, dying,
They rest in some prior deathbed,
Accepting, loving, in that hour
The sorrowing eyes that are yet content
In the love that comes in the loss of love -
Love occasioned, sorrowed, and relinquished.
Because, in loving, in man's sorrow,
The heart's settling and dying content us,
All is relinquished, determined
By time and sorrow paid
And laid within its bed of loving,
Except love. Your eyes content me.
Seven the things that tempt us,
Nine the time of day,
Two the distance between us
And there is one way.
Green the thought love rests in,
White the thought that parts,
Black the shadow tests us
With our destroying arts.
A sign is enough to live by,
A shape we make in air;
A long line of time we follow.
Does it lead us anywhere?
Bud in Perspex
The bud in perspex by my bed
Every time I move my head
Turns a deeper shade of red.
The Mogadon that brings me rest
Put me to a nightly test,
Dreams that sort out bad and best,
A nightly mugging of the mind
Extortions of a brutal kind,
Forces unevenly aligned.
A chemical brings to the light
Facts that come alive at night.
Proving I do wrong to right.
The rose in perspex by my bed
Watches each move of my head.
It will bloom when I am dead.
The Tantanoola Tiger
There in the bracken was the ominous spoor mark,
Huge, splayed, deadly, and quiet as breath,
And all around lay bloodied and dying,
Staring dumbly into their several eternities,
The rams that Mr Morphett loved as sons.
Not only Tantanoola, but at Mount Schanck
The claw welts patterned the saplings
With mysteries terrible as Egypt's demons,
More evil than the blueness of the Lakes,
And less than a mile from the homestead, too.
Sheep died more rapidly than the years
Which the tiger ruled in tooth and talk,
And it padded from Beachport to the Border,
While blood streamed down the minds of the folk
Of Mount Gambier, Tantanoola, of Casterton.
Oh this tiger was seen all right, grinning,
Yellow and gleaming with satin stripes:
Its body arched and undulated through the tea-tree;
In this land of dead volcanoes it was a flame,
It was a brightness, it was the glory of death,
It was fine, this tiger, a sweet shudder
In the heath and everlastings of the Border,
A roc bird up the ghostly ring-barked gums
Of Mingbool Swamp, a roaring fate
Descending on the mindless backs of grazing things.
Childhoods burned with its burning eyes,
Tantanoola was a magic playground word,
It rushed through young dreams like a river
And it had lovers in Mr Morphett and Mr Marks
For the ten long hunting unbelieving years.
Troopers and blacks made safari, Africa-fashion,
Pastoral Quixotes swayed on their ambling mounts,
Lost in invisible trails. The red-faced
Young Lindsay Gordons of the Mount
Tormented their heartbeats in the rustling nights
While the tiger grew bigger and clear as an axe.
'A circus once abandoned a tiger cub.'
This was the creed of the hunters and poets.
'A dingo that's got itself too far south'
The grey old cynics thundered in their beers,
And blows were swapped and friendships broken,
Beauty burst on a loveless and dreary people,
And their moneyed minds broke into singing
A myth; these soured and tasteless settlers
Were Greeks and Trojans, billabong troubadours,
Plucking their themes at the picnic races
Around the kegs in the flapping canvas booths.
On the waist-coats shark's teeth swung in time,
And old eyes, sharply seamed and squinting,
Opened mysteriously in misty musical surprise,
Until the day Jack Heffernan made camp
By a mob of sheep on the far slope of Mount Schanck
And woke to find the tiger on its haunches,
Bigger than a mountain, love, or imagination,
Grinning lazily down on a dying ewe,
And he drew a bead and shot it through the head.
Look down, oh mourners of history, poets,
Look down on the black and breeding volcanic soil,
Lean on your fork in this potato country,
Regard the yellowed fangs and quivering claws
Of a mangy and dying Siberian wolf.
It came as a fable or a natural image
To pace the bars of these sunless minds,
A small and unimpressive common wolf
In desperately poor and cold condition.
It howled to the wattle when it swam ashore
From the wreck of the foundered Helena,
Smelt death and black snakes and tight lips
On every fence-post and slip-rail.
It was three foot six from head to tail.
Centuries will die like swatted blowflies
Before word or wolf will work a tremor
Of tenderness in the crusty knuckles
Around the glasses in the Tantanoola pub
Where its red bead eyes now stare towards the sun.
Five people are enough. I see them,
A conflagration of roses, at any time of year.
They are at play amidst a secrecy of green age
Whether they are sternly budding or whether
They are defying the sun to burn them in the heart.
They are sweet and feminine, or dancing a gavotte
To the rhythm of the invisible weather.
Thereby it comes to be that I am ageless.
And will be watching their laughter and care.
I have named them, as befits a good rosarian.
There is Von and Sa, Ryder and Sam, and
Peter, Paul and Mary. Let the weather do its worst.
I shall not let it harm them.
They shall prosper within my gnarled shade.
At least, that is what I choose to think.
If this is not so, the years will have been
A Waste. Like Elizabeth Browning I shall count the days
and the ways.
There will have been enough. I shall look
To all the watering they will read.