Rosemary Nissen-Wade: Aussie poet and teacher of metaphysics – a personal view
My bestie nicknamed me SnakyPoet on her blog, and I liked it. (It began as
'the poet of the serpentine Northern Rivers' and became more and more abbreviated.)

Friday, November 09, 2012

Philip Martin, Poet

After I moved away from Melbourne in 1994, many people I'd known lost track of me. In some cases this meant that I did not learn until later of the deaths of friends (even some I was still in communication with) because no-one knew where to contact me to let me know.  One of those was Philip Martin, who died in 2005. I had not been in communication with him for some time. His health had declined and he was in a nursing home — but before that he had a rich, full life. He was a good friend to many, and I'm honoured to have been one of them. He had, as his long-time friend Keith Harrison noted in his obituary, 'a gift for friendship'.

When I was growing up, my Dad used to bring home every issue of Meanjin Papers, as it was then called. It was started by Clem and Nina Christesen, and quickly gained (and kept) the reputation of Australia’s foremost literary journal. It was devoted to poetry, and chose its contributors with impeccable taste. I remember the excitement of reading the latest poems from Judith Wright or Gwen Harwood — two of our greatest poets ever — and many others who became famous names, but then were just getting their start. (Gwen Harwood, for one, was acclaimed back then as a promising newcomer.)

One name I started noticing was Philip Martin. I loved the sensitivity and cadence of his verse. I had a notebook in which I used to copy down my favourite poems wherever I found them — an eclectic collection from many eras and countries. Some of Philip Martin’s poems went into it. Then, in the sixties, when I went to university — the University of Melbourne — I was delighted to find his poetry featuring repeatedly in its literary journal, Compass. I think he must have been on the faculty by then, perhaps as a tutor. He would still have been quite young.

By the time I met him in person nearly 20 years later, when he joined the Melbourne Branch of the Poets Union, he was a lecturer at Monash University, in the English Literature Department of the Arts Faculty, and had published two volumes of poetry. (There would be three more and he also published works of criticism.) I was, by then, already an ex-librarian, wife of an abalone diver and mother of young schoolboys, just beginning to make a name for myself as a poet. Imagine how overwhelming it was for me to be hobnobbing with someone whose work I had so greatly admired for so long! Philip was the nicest man, and over the years we became good friends. 

When the Poets Union decided to compile a Directory of Australian Poets (published in 1980) four members of the Melbourne Branch did the work on behalf of the Union: Philip Martin, Bill and Rosemary Nissen (my then husband and me), and Lyndon Walker. Philip and I did the proof-reading together, working nights and weekends in my home office, while Bill cooked meals for us all and served endless cups of coffee. Philip christened him ‘Jeeves’, and in return Bill dubbed Philip ‘Squire’. There was a lot of laughter, and sharing of confidences — such as his rekindled love with the romantic partner of his youth, Sydney academic Jenny Gribble.

He suffered a severe stroke quite early in their subsequent relationship (in 1988). They had been flying back and forth between their respective cities, where they were engaged in responsible and fulfilling careers; but after that he was unable to continue in his job and went to live with Jenny in Sydney. He did in time recover sufficiently to resume writing poetry, attended at least one poetry festival that I know of (at Montsalvat in 1992) and did some teaching at the University of the Third Age. It must have been in 1992, probably during that same visit to Melbourne, that I last saw Philip in person, and introduced him and Jenny to the new man in my life, Andrew Wade, whom I married in 1993. We corresponded for a while after Andrew and I moved to northern New South Wales, but gradually lost contact. When he died, no-one would have known how to get in touch with me, or even that I was unaware of his passing. 

Jenny's eulogy for Phillip follows. When I did find out about his death and contacted her, with the idea of writing something about him, she kindly made it available to me. That was some years ago, but I found it difficult then to write anything. One reason for doing so now is because I am featuring Philip in my weekly online column 'I Wish I'd Written This' for Poets United. I like to include, in those necessarily brief articles, links to other online material about the poet concerned. In Philip's case there's not a lot, although he was an important poet. There is the wonderful obituary by Keith Harrison, an Australian poet long domiciled in the United States; a blog post by Warrick Wynne; a very brief Wikipedia entry; and an interview conducted when he was at Penn State University, USA in 1987. (A link to poems by Philip Martin turns out to be very inferior verse by someone else of the same name.) This eulogy gives a fuller sense of the man than I could do. I had thought to cut it a little, removing references to personal friends — but after all, the context of those references provides insight into the person Philip was.

Reflections on the Life of Philip Martin

It’s hugely comforting to be with this gathering of our friends in this city, this university, this Chapel, so much the right place to celebrate Philip, the miracle he was. I feel that I, too, have come home. He would want me to begin by saying thank you for being the precious friends that you are.

 Many who would want to be here have sent messages of love and grief: Keith Harrison from Minnesota, Patrick McCaughey from Yale, David and Laura Gribble and Marie and John Finnis from Oxford, Jenny Sanders from Cambridge, Patricia Samson from Inverness, David Robarts and Helen Dallimore and Margaret Walters and Deirdre O’Day from London, Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Liz and Robin Grove from Venice,  Don Bowak and Mardi Reid, Fr John Eddy, and Janice Tynan from Canberra, Margaret Fulton, Caroline Jones, Geraldine Doogue, Joe Castley, Jane Adamson and Fr Daven Day from Sydney, Bruce and Liz Dawe from the Gold Coast, Gemma O’Callaghan from Hobart, Maggie O’Callaghan from San Francisco, David and Jocelyn Bradley from Philip Island, Bett Collings from Port Fairy, and in Melbourne, Barbara Tucker and also Peter Hollingworth, whose Companions of the Brotherhood of St Laurence in the1980s sustained Philip’s commitment to social justice and to ecumenism.

But it’s just as well that no one seems to need the Jesuits. Their strong presence is a reminder of all that they have done for Philip: at Xavier, in the Newman Society, and for us both, here in Melbourne, and in Sydney, in our parish of St Mary’s North Sydney, and the Riverview Community. I thank each one of them for coming, and in some cases flying, here today. To quote one of the happier typos in the Death Notice as it appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Jesuits have been our ‘Refuge Service.’ It is an appropriate blessing that Fr Peter Quin could come down from Brisbane to celebrate with and for us: Peter, who has walked through the dark tunnel with us every step of the way.

Well: the late Philip Martin! A joke he much enjoyed, being invariably and incurably late. It would always be ‘Sorry! Just ran into a friend’ or ‘much business with the passing hour’. ‘A creature of excess’, he liked to say. Long before he read Henry James he took to heart Strether’s advice to Little Bilham: ‘Live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.’ Stories of Philip’s late nights or early mornings abound: the Nossals are fond of his exit line about just going home now to read the Russians before morning. The Gribbles like the one about Philip and Jim at dawn in Stirling Street, disputing the exact configuration of the milky way, inadvertently kicking over and breaking the morning milk bottles.  Just to contemplate what Philip fitted into any working day, from the morning write in his journals, to the teaching, the phone calls, the consultations, the reading of manuscripts, the meetings, by chance or by design, the performances, the letters to friends or to complete strangers, here or anywhere in the world, made you aware of how exhausting it could be to be a person on whom nothing was lost. Philip responded to, and recorded so fully, the concerns of his personal and historical moment in his conversation, his letters, his poems. At the same time, he was a one-man party, though he really did need an appreciative audience for his best performances. Patrick wrote from Connecticut in 1988: ‘we needed you bounding around with your instant fizz of friendship and warmth’. Fiona Bury, who rode away more than fifty years ago now, meeting Philip again in 1986, wrote: ‘You haven’t changed much, I’m glad to find – instantly the hub of some convivial circle, constantly aware of what was going on at the periphery, waitresses and passing strangers drawn into orbit. I did wonder whether such a constant outpouring of nervous energy ever drained you or whether you can recharge reciprocally.’

 Philip was generous with his energies, monitored them closely and was disappointed whenever they seemed to be running low. Magnanimous himself, he was hurt by perceived lack of magnanimity in others. But he always told his wrath, and pretty quickly, it did end.  He needed, as he gave, much encouragement. He liked to quote the young Mozart: ‘I will play for you, but first you must love me.’ I think particularly of the encouragement given, over so many years, by the three graces (whose graces include caring for Philip while I took holidays): Joanne, Heather and Kate who will say Philip’s prayers for us: Joanne of the generous imagination, the intelligent heart, the endless patience and wicked sense of humour, the long and deep knowledge of Philip and love for him; Heather back from London, bringing with her all her resources of insight and love, her just, always being there. And Kate Llewellyn, muse, fellow poet, unfailingly dear friend, who has sustained us with fruit cakes, poems, intuitions, laughter. In recent years there has come a second Kate, also a poet, my student and friend Kate Flaherty, to be Philip’s research assistant and companion and reader, whose response to news of his death was to write for ten hours. How he would approve of that! Here’s part of what she wrote:

Philip died yesterday morning.

When we cry at the death of another, we cry for lost parts of ourselves – for parts that are quickened only by that other light, that particular presence. Philip’s company was spacious. In my hectic October weeks I came and sat quietly with him for an hour or so on several occasions. There is no-one else in my life whose company is of just that kind. I told him this: that it was lovely to come and sit and read a story and reflect. He said he was glad because he ‘never knew’. I asked what he meant and he said he never really knew what people thought of his lectures. This made a sense to me because I had just been talking, nervously, about a paper I was about to give. There was always a shared undercurrent.

We read short stories by Muriel Spark; small, amusing ones. Philip laughed out loud at The Snobs. Carefully forming his phrase he explained ‘Well…I’ve known such people.’

With Philip there were many shared points of reference, points of light, lying just under the surface. His imagination turned constantly in worlds that I cherish. While some days he was unsure of the way to his room, he was never at a loss to append the final lines to ‘…Riding Westward’. He had his compass. He knew what was pressing and what was passing. I too am confused by corridors and most happy to collude with his priorities.

Poetry was his basic unit of meaning. Reading his poems aloud with him revealed the lucid, self-effacing joy of communion. He was knitted to the middle of life by a weight of well-ordered words. I think that, early in life, he must have dropped fathoms into the deepest sea bed and never lost anchor.

I wish I had time to name all the people and events that made our years in Balmain not only workable but stimulating, open, still on a varied scene. Helen Noonan is here to sing to us, reminding me of her dedication to the project of collaborating with Philip and Di Campbell, inspired research assistant and devoted companion and carer in the nineties, on a libretto based on his play for voices, ‘Saul and the Witch of Endor’.

It will come as no surprise to anyone here to know that Philip planned this funeral, down to the last detail, in the mid 70s. He was particularly clear, you’ll notice, on the matter of  translations. Preparing the Order of Service has kept him ‘coming constantly so near’. His absolute confidence in the resurrection of the body is the large theme of this mass.

He answered to many names: to Phil in the family. At Xavier he was, of course, Bones. To Chris (Wallace-Crabbe) he was ‘Horse’, prolonging one of the funniest jokes in Philip’s entire career as wit. To Patrick he was often, with affectionate irony Mr Martin, in honour of their early teacher-pupil relationship. Kate Llewellyn called him Phillipos, always. There are many Philips we remember now: the often troubled darkly romantic young poet, the eloquent lecturer and broadcaster, the post-stroke Philip with his light diminished but never dimmed, learning to read and write and walk again and to enjoy life on different terms, wheeling around Oxford and Ireland, sketching the harbour from our eyrie in Balmain, and finally, as vascular dementia encroached, the old self  flickering in and out, the old mad sense of fun, the sharp delighted observation, the uncanny prescience.

He rejoiced in community and belonged to many. Born in 1931 to Harry and Lorna Martin, Philip learned his love of words  from his father (also a poet) and his grandfather Frank Talbot, flamboyant, gregarious and proudly Irish, a theatrical entrepreneur who brought to Melbourne performers of international calibre and opened the Atheneum Theatre as a venue for the flowering of British films in the 30s and 40s. The separation of Philip’s parents shortly after the birth of his sister Janice caused lasting trauma, especially for Janice, and her estrangement from him remained a source of great sorrow and some guilt. Its effect on Philip was to make him permanently wary of marriage, and it was not until the 70s that he formed the close loving relationship with the sculptor Rozsi Lados that gave him such intense happiness and a new confidence. It also opened up a rich vein of creative engagement with Europe, in particular, nourished by Roszi and her family in Budapest, with Hungary and Hungarians. It is no accident that this period of his life marks the access of his maturity as a poet. His poetic preoccupations broadened, making ‘lines between the hemispheres’. But though he was enchanted and enriched by the Scandinavia of his friends Lars Gustafsson and Tomas Transtromer, friends and collaborators, and the New World liberation he always experienced in the academic community in Northfield Minnesota, his travels helped him to recognize how Australian he was, how committed to ‘an Australian poetry which reflects a wide consciousness of human experience.’ His passion for music, about which he was discriminating and knowledgeable, led him further to explore that wide experience. The writing of his unfinished poem based on the Romanian conductor Celibidache brought a somewhat stormy relationship with Celi, and took him more than once across the world in pursuit of performances, tapes, new friendships. His enthusiasm for the Axion Esti of Theodorakis prepared him warmly to welcome the Greek members of our family, the late, wonderful Nellie Tsouyopoulos and her daughter Laura who became our daughter-in-law, Laura’s  father the composer George Tsouyopoulos and his wife Flora, and, in due course, our grandchildren Anna and Timmy.

The birth of Simon and Rachel to Janice and Don Bowak brought great joy. He delighted in Simon’s early inventive contributions to the language of the tribe, and his later brilliant stories and drawings, and in Rachel’s emergence as a major sculptor in steel. Immersed as she is in Philip’s poems, Rachel finds herself often influenced by their themes, as the stunning piece on the cover of this Order of Service shows. Philip’s move to Sydney enabled us to see more of Simon and Rachel, and I thank them, and Don and his wife Mardi, for their loving support of us both over the years. Philip brought me also many new  cousins, and the Lawsons and the O’Callaghans are represented here today. Jim’s and my children, David and Helen Gribble (or Dallimore as she became when she took to the stage) were also very precious to him. The last thing that brought a smile to his face last week was a photo of them horsing about in a punt on the Cherwell. David was always up for any mimicry, word game or verbal joust launched by Philip and Philip often found himself in the audience for Helen’s honing of her craft in the domestic performance space.

Philip was a devoted son to Lorna, his exacting but most loving mother.‘Well, dear son, at last we’ve found the right one’ she’d say as they moved house yet again: ‘twenty houses in forty years’. The family life of Philip and Lorna was enhanced in the 1950s when Bruce Dawe, then a postman and part-time university student, came to live. Comic routines from those days remain in the repertoire, and the friendship forged then is abiding. Bruce was still flying down from Brisbane to see Philip as recently as last year, until his own health made it difficult for him to travel. But he’s here, now, and we’ll be hearing from him later in the mass.

 Philip’s family life extended well beyond the nuclear, of course. The Nossals, the McCaugheys (who took him to their capacious heart when he was a resident tutor at Ormond), the Lee Dows, (Philip seemed to spend Christmas with you all: I don’t quite know how this was managed, but I do believe it) and the Minchintons, my sister and the late much-missed Ken, and our nieces Katie and Sarah. Minchinton hospitality overflows, as ever, and will take us through to the end of this long day (please see the invitation inside the back cover.) I shall never forget, in fact I remember as though it were yesterday, each vivid detail of the support you all gave us, in the six weeks Philip spent in Monash hospital after the stroke in 1988. Nor indeed shall I ever forget the constant presence of that other family, the Monash English Department , so dear to Philip, and he so dear to them. Somehow, you all got us through it.

At this stage of a public performance, Philip would usually indicate that he knew he’d gone on quite long already, and was in fact winding up, though the process could still take some time. Quick notes now from material he prepared for a Robyn Williams broadcast in 1983. ‘Brought up a Catholic, and still a Catholic, in a European or Post-Vatican II way. My teachers at Xavier were mostly Jesuits, but one was a layman, the poet Joseph O’Dwyer. But for him (and of course the Grace of God) I may not have started writing poetry…University of Melbourne, 1951-62: first in Law (dropped out of that at the end of ’52), then Arts 1953-59. Publications Officer on the Registrar’s staff 1956-60, finally tutor in English 1960-62. That University, in those years, was an excellent place to be: poets (especially Vincent Buckley), intellectuals who didn’t hide in their rooms but gave tongue to their ideas, the Newman Society and its emphasis on integrating the intellectual and the Christian-spiritual life. Buckley I greatly admired, not only a poet but an example of what a Catholic who was a poet and an intellectual might be, must be, seen as a unity. He preached, almost literally, a Christianity in which the Incarnation was central. I’m very much a product, no, a child, of this house and its values….A.N.U, 1963: on A.D. Hope’s staff. Formed a lasting friendship with him. Monash 1964. Especially since 1968 I’ve been glad to be there and no longer at Melbourne: I needed to ‘leave home’ and spread myself.’

 Melbourne in the fifties produced poets  in abundance (that extraordinary burgeoning and interchange between Buckley and Jones and Wallace-Crabbe and Simpson and Steele and Dawe and Harrison and Martin and Strauss and Kemelfield and Deacon) in the fertile and disputatious ground of an English department cannily held together by the late Ian Maxwell, who descanted for us on ‘the supreme themes of art and song’ and including not only Vin Buckley, but Sam Goldberg, Maggie and Jock Tomlinson, Pippa and David Moody, Bill Scott, Tom Dobson, Hume Dow,  Keith (‘ah-what shall I say’) McCartney, who gave us all so much and so unstintingly. And Melbourne meant us, the fourth year honours class of ’59, which included Joanne, Margaret Walters, Germaine Greer and me, and Philip and Chris who joined us as MA qualifiers. Germaine kept a salon in her loft in Grattan Street, and a score-board on which she mimed the runs that were taking any one smart one of us closer to a tutorship. In the end we all became tutors, Germaine in Sydney, from which place she more or less kept on going until she ended up in the fens. We mimicked, satirized and fed from our teachers, ‘loved each other, and were ignorant.’

I met Philip when I was a nineteen-year old second year student, and, as my circumstances changed, so did the nature and power of my love for him. I have also admired him, but never so much as in these last seventeen years in which, without a word of bitterness he endured the deficits left by the stroke, the broken hip that followed shortly after he’d got on his feet again, the increasing discomforts and indignities of six years in the nursing home after he began to need twenty-four hour nursing care (though he found great comfort there in the reassuring presence of my dear mother, in the last year of her life). Yet these seventeen years of leave-taking in Sydney have been a bounty: ‘there was no winter in’t.’ I have had ample time to prepare for this day.

‘What’s behind it all’, we would all ask ourselves, back in ’59, in the words of a graffito Philip found somewhere. Philip and I wrestled with that question a bit more strenuously, post-stroke. But we generally came to rest in the simple, infinitely complex words of Dame Julian: ‘Love was His meaning.’ And just before Philip lost consciousness we were able to convey to each other a large measure of what we understood by that. Luke the beloved physician, patron saint of physicians, surgeons and painters, was looking out for us, I reckon, in this merciful transition from the old life to the new, on the Feast of St Luke.

Jenny Gribble