James Button Speech at Launch of Leo Meo

I am very pleased to launch this lovely little book, written for a lovely little guy – Leo Gawenda Lutz, or as he’s known here, Leo Meo. I was in Brunetti’s in Carlton this morning, bashing out this speech, when an old friend came in. He asked what I was doing and I told him. And he says, astonished: “Michael Gawenda’s written a book of poetry?”

So I guess my other role today is to try to answer a question. Why has Michael Gawenda written a book of poetry?

Michael has been my friend for about 25 years. It has been a great friendship. Before that, like many people, I knew him through his writing, especially the long features he wrote for The Age that would always leave me with a far deeper understanding of the subject than I had before I began reading. Here was a writer who was brave, who never said anything less than exactly what he thought.

As I got to know Michael, I realised that this determination to be clear and tell the truth – to say what you mean and mean what you say – was something like a holy commandment. This is a guy who in the ‘80s spent a week or two with the Fitzroy cops, heard them say a whole bunch of racist things, put all those comments in his article, then went down to the police station the following day to explain why he had done it. I’ve never known a journalist to do anything similar. He once wrote a column arguing that the director Scott Hicks had misrepresented the truth of the pianist David Helfgott’s family life in order to embroider his story. I was sitting next to Michael on the Monday morning, when Scott Hicks called. He was shouting so loud down the phone I could hear it. Michael didn’t lose his calm. He just said, “I’m sorry but that’s my opinion. And I think the evidence bears it out.”

Over coffee one time, I was fretting about a piece of writing that required me to say tough things about another person – something I don’t find easy. Is the piece fair? I kept saying. Michael said something I’ve never forgotten: “It doesn’t have to be fair, James. It only has to be true.”

It can be bracing if you’re on the end of this honesty. In the mid-90s I had just got back to The Age after five years away. I was feeling a little insecure. One Monday morning we had coffee in The Age canteen and he said: “James, that feature of yours on the weekend. I didn’t understand a word of it. You didn’t tell us what was going on.” He was absolutely right. The upside of that approach is that if he tells you a piece of yours is great, you know that’s what he believes.

Another story. I organised a lunch between Michael, Bill Kelty and David Wheadon, who had been an assistant coach at Essendon. I thought, they’ve all followed the Bombers, we’ll talk about footy, a bit of politics, it’ll all be nice.” Within two minutes of sitting down, Michael and Bill are having a ding-dong argument about whether NATO should have expanded into the Baltic states! Michael’s going, “I can’t agree with you Bill.” And Bill’s talking out of the side of his mouth: “Hang on Michael, I’m not saying that…” And I’m thinking, how can I get them talking about the Bombers?

It’s because ideas are not a parlour game to Michael. He talks about them with a kind of urgent, smouldering intensity. When he was editor of The Age, I would see him standing outside the door onto Lonsdale Street, smoking, living in his furious now. And my God, is he impatient! “Did you get my text, James?” And I’m thinking, you only sent it me an hour ago. But over these 25 years my life has been only enriched by this intensity, his desire to burrow to the heart of things.

Where does he get this from? Maybe from his Dad, Chaskiel. A weaver in Poland, a worker in a carpet factory in Melbourne, a socialist who saw Soviet communism for the monstrous mistake it was, Chaskiel was also a big reader, and he talked to his son about what he read. Why Isaac Bashevis Singer was a much inferior writer to his much less known elder brother, for example. There was also an aunt who would stand outside the house waiting impatiently – clearly a family trait — for the Yiddish newspaper, Der Forverts, to arrive from New York. The house was full of books, in English and Yiddish. It even had a copy of collected Shakespeare in Yiddish, in which the translator of Shakespeare had written on the title page: “Translated and improved by Moise…”

From boyhood, Michael was also a huge reader. He read Lawrence, Hardy, Dickens, Dostoevsky. But above all he loved poetry. He loved TS Eliot. Then at about sixteen, he stumbled upon some of Eliot’s rank anti-semitism – “The Jew squats on the window sill”, and so on. It destroyed him. How could a writer whose thoughts and words were so sublime be capable of such ugliness? He realised, I imagine, that words could kill, and that there were people in the world who hated him just because of who he was. Such realisations, I’m sure, put iron in the soul, and shape who you become.

Of course, Michael wanted to be a writer. But I’m not sure being a writer was ever going to suit his temperament. He needed to be out in the world, interviewing, arguing, testing his ideas, looking at the lives of other people. He felt the pull of public life.

So we all know the story. He edited The Age, was a foreign correspondent twice, won a bunch of awards, even got a gong – an OBE, wasn’t it Michael? He got to hang out with some pretty famous and interesting people. People like the 70s feminist novelist Erica Jong. When he began his interview with her he said, “Do you mind if I sit a bit closer, I’m hard of hearing.” And she said: “That’s the most original pick up line I’ve ever heard.”

Michael was such an archetypal public man that when he turned 55 he went out and bought a red sports car. He took me for a drive in it, and as he’s speeding up King Street he says, “James, I’m going to play some music.” I thought, here we go, what’s this going to be? Bon Jovi? Accadacca? And he puts on Leonard Cohen! It was a thinking man’s mid-life crisis.

It was a big career. But if you get to shape the world, the world gets to shape you. Take on power and you take on the disciplines, conformities and constraints that go with it. You put on the suit. As a journalist and an editor, Michael wrote and spoke with great authority. But his public voice was mostly impersonal, a touch withheld, even at times a bit stiff. He avoided the personal pronoun. He did not work the internal, ambiguous, reflective and risk-taking voice that creative writers need to work if they are to speak their truth. Newspapers are not the place for that.

All that clarity comes at a cost. Spelling things out, blunt, concrete reporting, does not prepare you for the strange music of poetry.

A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us, Franz Kafka said. Michael’s journey from journalism to poetry in the past seven or so years since he retired is the search for a different voice, a private voice — private yet spoken publicly, that’s the paradox of writing.

He began with Rocky and Gawenda, a fine book of essays, based on walks with his dog Rocky on St Kilda beach, that would meander from thoughts on public life to reveries about the life of a dog. A book that was half journalism, half meditation, a man no longer shaping the world but shedding his old skin.

Then he moved to writing poems in Yiddish – he even studied VCE Yiddish! — and writing songs, two of which are on the wonderful, haunting album, The Bashevis Singers, which features Michael’s wife Anne and children Evie and Chasky singing, blended with a recording of Anne’s wife singing in Poland at the age of 13.

And he wrote a piece for a Malthouse production about the Dybbuk, the monstrous, possessing spirit of Jewish mythology. In this hallucinatory piece, it is afternoon and the writer is at the computer, struggling with words. He notices that too many of his sentences have the same rhythm and structure. He writes: “I was a journalist for too long. For too long, clarity had been everything.” And in the late afternoon light, he falls asleep.

When he wakes – if he does wake, though he insists it is not a dream – the writer sees a strange procession of people out his window. An old woman carrying a chicken to be slaughtered for the Sabbath. A poet wearing a shirt from Poland or Russia of the 1930s, with a tear in his eye. And – squatting on his window sill – T.S. Eliot. He has been turned into a moulting pigeon.

And as these visions come, his computer is possessed. The cursor is typing lines of beautiful Yiddish, lines the poet whose face was ate the window wrote before he went to his death.

What is happening in this piece? It is not clear, and that’s the point. The writer, emerging on the other side of sleep, is shucking off logic, letting disconnected images alone do the work. Stripping life back to simple, deep things.

Michael has taken these impulses to a whole new level in Leo Meo.

This book is born of two miracles. The first is that Evie and David had their child quite late in life. As the essay at the beginning of the book recounts, Michael was about to leave the delivery room when, Evie, already deep in labour, gasped: “Stay, Dad.”

When Leo was born, for one terrifying moment he failed to breathe. He was purple. Then the midwife grabbed him and performed the second miracle. Chuckling now – I like that word – she placed him, still purple but turning pink, onto Evie’s chest.

The grandfather is watching this with a kind of trembling, rapt attention. He writes: “When Leo came, I felt a deep sort of visceral memory of the past and I had a vision of the future when I was gone.”

In that moment, he resolves to write a poem every two weeks for the first year of Leo’s life, so that Leo will have a record of this year, and a record of his grandfather, long after that man is gone. What else, he writes, “could a writer of some talent, yes, but not immortal, not even close, ask for?” This thought is the animating idea behind this book.

So it is a book by a grandfather for his grandson. But it is also a book by a man who did not know his own grandparents. Neither Evie nor Chasky knew Michael’s parents, and were small children when Anne’s parents died. And the grandparents of so many other people that Michael and Anne know were killed in the Holocaust. “We are a grandparent-less generation,” Gawenda writes. So this is a book about remembering, about restoring the goodness of life when three generations are alive together.

The second idea behind this book is that not only Evie and David, but everyone in this family, has helped to make Leo. And everyone is celebrated in a poem. Even Rocky gets his own poem, which I think he insisted on. And as he writes, Gawenda can feel his own father, Chaskiel, at the tip of his typing fingers, reminding him what it means to have lived long enough to write poems to a grandchild.

There’s a poem, Pickle Dreamtime, about making pickles for Leo. And as he does he remembers sitting on his mother’s lonely knee. For a thousand years his people have made pickles. What better embodies the inheritance, both sour and soul-filled, of being a Jew than this vegetable that is “snap hard and pimpled, adolescent and green, salty like a gentle sea”. At last, the pickle has found its Muse!

But the star – of course – is Leo. Leo with fat fingers, fierce grip, glorious laugh. Talk about besotted grandparents! One poem simply begins, “Oh Leo.”

“The way your cheeks swell. The way your mouth contracts…I count in sighs. In throaty farts. In grunts and rhyming cries.” The poet counts Leo’s every day, every hour, every minute. And as he does so, he counts his own.

Which brings me to the three most challenging poems in the collection, the three poems about God.

The first — God I Forgive You – starts by posing a question. The book of Genesis says that after creating heaven and earth, God said: Let there be light. But the Book of John says: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

So which is first: light or the word? The things we see and sense, or the vast, ancient architecture of thought and word that we have built around the things that we see and sense? In the poem God first said, let there be light, “then in a panic changed his mind. The Word, My Word, before the Light.”

It’s as if even God cannot trust light alone. Instead, he gives up “the swooning sighs/of new born baby cries/the silent music of the spheres/the singing of eternities” – he gives all that up for the word. This is a God who has collaborated in the confusion of the world. A God who has done too much thinking!

Of course the poet is also trapped in words. But then this boy is born. And the poet writes, “I was of words made, until you unmade me.” And then God himself asks for forgiveness, and cries: “I was mistaken. Trapped inside my endless mind.’ And He recants: “Before the Word, let there be light. Before the Word there must be light.”

And for the poet two things happen. He sees God. And he forgives God. Because stronger than God, “trapped inside his fearful mind,” is this laughing child, whom the poet sees “reigning” in the wisdom of his eyes.

Another poem, In the Book of Life, explores that impossibility: an atheist’s prayer. “On Yom Kippur a week ago/I prayed to only God knows who/For extra time to be with you/Another year I hoped would do.”

And finally, perhaps my favourite poem: Ten Years From Now. In which the writer, having sung to this child in his mother’s womb, which is also a daughter’s womb, wonders whether they will still know each other in ten years time. “Oh God dear God/Do let it be.” Because ten years from now is “beyond my life expectancy.”

For this atheist — or at least this agnostic – these poems stirred some thoughts. It’s hard for most of us to feel God in the world. Certainly the bearded man in the sky feels like a human fantasy. But is it not also true that when we gave up God, for entirely sensible reasons, we gave up a lot? For one, we gave up a link to our fathers and mothers, who did feel God, back to the beginning of time. Maybe they got it wrong but did they – all of them — get it all wrong? That’s a bit of an arrogant position, isn’t it?

And we gave up prayer. What is prayer but a movement beyond the self, a calling to a power in the world that is beyond ourselves? To call to that power does not automatically mean to surrender our own. Now we can no longer pray. The universe is silent, and when we are desperate for consolation, an end to pain, we have no one to turn to but ourselves.

So what have we got in these poems? A man who has passed his Biblical allotment – three score years and ten – thinking, “I’d better have a bet each way”? A man who hopes that his poems might make him immortal, at least for one reader? A man who writes: “I lie in hope that you might be, my passage to eternity.”

I believe much more than that. I think we have a very rational man, although one always alive to music and mystery, for whom the idea of God has been brought to life – very late but very powerfully – in the presence of this little boy. A man who hopes not so much that his words will live on after his death, but that God might come to him now. And who for the first time has the faintest sense that she might, or even has.

And who has now dared to put these deeply private, tremulous thoughts into words. Words that you and I and others will read. That’s brave, Michael. I think you’ve pulled off something quite remarkable. I think you’ve got further to go on this journey into poetry. But you’re on the road.

So it gives me great pride and pleasure to launch Leo Meo. It’s a book to read. It’s a book to sing. It’s a book to knit up the unravelled thread of the generations. It’s a message in a bottle, scrawled with the wild hope of a castaway that a reader lies across the ocean. I hope you all get pleasure from the reinvention that is at the heart of this book. And see that for this young old man, as for this boy, life has just begun.