Six Urban Songs: the Patrick White Song Cycle for Soprano and Orchestra

If you only have a few seconds, look at Patrick White’s song #5.
It is bizarre and tragic all at once.
“I wonder if any of you ever recognized this Pole . . . “

This reaches out across countries and ages to a desperate man, so abused by war and displacement.
(I’ll get the audio up very soon now.)

Patrick White gave me permission to do as I wished with these poems, so here they are.

Six Urban Songs: the Patrick White Song Cycle for Soprano and Orchestra


First performed by Elizabeth Harwood with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra
in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, April, 1986


(Heavily perfumed, sensuous, slow)

listen if you want to hear
not a story not even an anecdote
rather to get with a sensation
of Sydney in the days of trams and dreams
when the frangipani was ground against the ox-blood wall
and tomcats sprayed the tunnels of lantana
before beginning to make love 
in Sydney

I bound my love with flax
down amongst the Chinamen’s gardens
the gardens reeking of poems unwritten
in sea-gardens of night and Sydney
sea swishing and wishing against
intentions and invisible sand
to discover the message buried there
not in bottles but mouths
of possessive sea anemones

our hair grew stiff with salt the milky
moonlight flowed along the veins
to Moreton Bay and beyond its armpits
hair hanging heavy down
Sydney Sydney Sydney ohhhhh
dreamers dissolve their concrete pillows
reason is a contraceptive
we abandon to fulfill



(Superficially chatty, with undertones of anxiety)

We are happy! We are happy!
Why shouldn’t we be? We have ev-rything:
The Bendix, the Dishlex,
The Mixmaster, and the Holden Special,
We have the telly to replace our thoughts.

But what if
Breaks down – 
Leaving us with the clock, the clock,
And our hands have forgotten?

Don’t be silly! We are happy!
It can’t happen – 
Not in Australia,
The Bendix Man won’t let us down.

Silly, silly, silly to think,
When the Bendix, the Dishlex and the telly . . .
We have the Saturday bar-B-Q,
Or have we fallen 
Out of the electric frying-pan?



(Oppressive, finally asserting itself in discordant jubilance)

Sunday we drove out to watch the river.
It was in flood, they told us;
They told us it would be something to do.
Se we took a bottle of beer, and bought a couple of burgers,
We pulled up and watched the river flowing
From parts we didn’t, and didn’t want to know.
It got cold down along the brown river.
The water began turning up dead men’s faces.
Good job we didn’t have to recognize the dead men.
It was only part of the Sunday show.

We have a river of our own flowing the other side of the wall;
We can listen to metal belting hell to arrive,
Smell the petrol taking the emptiness out of air.
As feet grind pavements to life, behind the blinds
People are getting into one another’s arms.

What price the muddy flooded river
Flowing from nowhere to nowhere!



(To glitter as cheaply and cruelly as city lights)

Rhinestones fall out easily,
But exhilarate until they do –
The pretty rhinestones
On Sydney’s neck.

Rhinestones and glass are replaceable.
So why worry? Why worry?
And her neck is velvety

She wasn’t throttled – was she? – 
The one they found under the Bridge?
No. She simply died 
Of Rhinestones.

We’ll find another as
Cheap and pretty to
Glitter at night
At Sydney.


(Sourly matter-of-fact over depths of loneliness and pathos)

At the five o-clock session
At the Magnifico-Splendid,
A Pole took his axe
And began to chop.

O Elizabeth Taylor, O Richard Burton!

The Pole chopped,
He chopped a lady in the fourteenth row,
And she was marzipan.

O Lwow, o Cracow!
The pines are bending under snow!

He chopped a second lady and a third,
And they were sisters,
In raspberry syrup and marshmallow.

I wonder if any of you 
Ever recognised this Pole
Standing on the landing,
Listening, under electric light?

Ooooohhhhhh!! Nh-ooooo!

He chopped the gent in the mac,
Whose teeth flew out in sheer surprise.
The usherette from Marrickville
Is wearing an eye on her dainty shoe.
In the seven-and-sixpennies
The plush has begun to expire,
But isn’t that the purpose of plush?

Ohhh yeeehss – perhaps!

Chop, chop, chop, chop, chop!

O Lwow, o Cracow,
The pines are bending under snow!

And a judgment is approaching.
The sprucer spruces, all in blue – 

O Fabjious Taylor and Cuddles Burton,
What more can you tell of love and death?

If I only knew the victim,
My tears of frozen blood might flow
Out of this cinerama drama.
But I lost his name,
In Lwow, or Cracow,
Long ago.



(An explosion and a prayer)

God made everything.
Then he made the nuclear physicist.
He made him in his own image,
And put on the palm of his hand
A world of light
To play with.

O Lord, do not forget
The flowers of the field are still with us,
Pushing through the asphalt,
Waiting to be trampled on,
Or shrivelled up 
In the heat of the moment.

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