Songs From a New Place

Selected poems from Australian poet Sue Cartledge

Category: Talking to the gods

Seeking Henry Kendall


The Henry Kendall Memorial, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. Photo copyright AusEmade Pty Ltd.

Henry Kendall

I went to visit Henry Kendall

in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens,

seeking his help with a poem.

His memorial, etched with quotation,

was not encouraging: “All my days

have been the days of a laborious life

“And ever on my struggling soul has burnt

the fierce light of this hurried sphere.”

The seat was wet. I cursed him and left.

Later, in the fernery’s green shade, lines

of my poem slipped out

between the dappling fronds.


This poem is ostensibly about the Australian poet Henry Kendall, but it’s actually about my love of Sydney’s Domain and Royal Botanic Gardens.

Henry Kendall was a much-loved Sydney poet from the mid 19th and early 20thcenturies. To mark the centenary of his birth, in 1939 an Art Deco-style memorial was built in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens. Made of local sandstone, it has a wooden seat backed by a wall with two winged horses framing that particularly gloomy quotation from one of his poems.

Growing up in Tasmania, I knew absolutely nothing of Henry Kendall; we studied English poets and a few Anglo-American ones: WH Auden, TS Eliot. The only Australian poet we read was Henry Lawson. However, I understand that generations of New South Wales schoolchildren have learned and loved Kendall’s poems describing the beauties of the bush.

Since moving to Sydney 20 years ago, I’ve become very fond of Sydney’s Domain and Royal Botanic Gardens as places to walk and meditate in. Kendall isn’t the only Australian poet commemorated here; there is a statue of Henry Lawson on a hillock of the Domain overlooking former naval base at Woolloomooloo. Every year a group of enthusiasts celebrate Lawson’s birthday, singing some of his poems set to folk music, (often competing with the sardonic screeching of white cockatoos).

More contemporary Sydney poets are marked by copies of their poems encased in glass in a grove of young eucalypts, or in parts of the Botanic Gardens referenced in their poems. It would be a huge honour if ever one of my poems was recognised in this way, but I don’t think this one will make the cut.

Over the  years I’ve taken several photos of Kendall’s memorial, but none have turned out useable. It’s remarkably hard to photograph! The photo above is better than any of mine.

I’ve also taken many, many photos inside the fernery, trying to capture the light and shade, and particularly the ripples on the pool. This is one of my better ones.

The typed document you can see at the bottom is a copy of one of Eileen Chong’s poems, about ferns, written in that fernery.



The fernery at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Photo copyright S Cartledge




All Art is Analogy

Stone gods small

This is a poem I wrote about 5 years ago, after having coffee with an elderly painter. He clearly enjoyed having an audience, and was very forceful in his views. I went home and wrote the first draft while the memory of his words stayed fresh.

This poem is in my ‘Talking to the gods’ section of Songs from a New Place. Not that I considered this artist a god—far from it, although he was a skilful portrait painter. But he clearly suggested he was channelling his god, so this seemed the right place for it. All Art (one version was also called Flat People) is another of my “ekphrastic” poems (poetry jargon for poems in response to some art form). You’ll find some more on the Talking to the gods page.

 All Art is Analogy

All art, all language, is analogous, he said.

Nothing we make or say is real, true,

only what’s in here, banging his chest between

the braces over his blue checked shirt. Only feelings are real.

And colours.

because you squeeze them from the tube to the palette,

from the brush to the canvas

without alteration. They are what they are.

 Trust your hand, he said. I thought it should have been

trust your eye.

It’s as well he said hand, for my eyes are untrustworthy.

Blurry and doubled, they lie to me.

Nothing that I see is true. My vision is analogous

to the distortions within, because nothing is real

except what’s here under my ribs, behind

the breasts moulding my yellow tee. Who’s there?

Passion? heartache? loss? fear?

Trust your hand. Bypass the planning mind.

 When the artist and the sitter come together, they create

a new person, he said. A novel offspring from their union:

the artwork.

A flat person, alive in its painted canvas skin.

“I believe in God when I’m painting,” he quoted; then: God

didn’t have time to create flat people, so we artists do the work.

I’m a thinking animal, I replied. No god within.

My flat people crawl out of my brain

onto my page.

They writhe and wrestle with their sorrowful joys,

seeking their truth in the tumbled landscape of my language.

  Yet, nothing I say is true. It never happened. It wasn’t me.

I was someone else at the time. I’m a writer:

can you really trust my hand?

I’m a metaphor junkie, simile needlepricks scab my lines. I’d say

anything for a fix – jokes, puns, lies, mutterings from my subconscious,

the literal bloody truth.

My mouth spurts liquid blossoms across the paper’s sand

black purple, blue-green, bile yellow, rust,

pigments of decay

taken as read.