COLLEEN Z BURKE The Waves Turn: a memoir. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir
The Waves Turn provides a valuable lens though which to explore the intertwined histories of folk music, Irish heritage, and political activism.
Poet Colleen Z Burke writes in her Prologue that her autobiography offers readers a glimpse into:
… the elusive, taunting, yet mesmerising landscape of the past set against the backdrop of a working class, Irish Catholic, Bondi childhood in the post-World War II decades of the 20th century.
The era includes the restrictions of the Menzies years and the social revolutions of the 1960s and 70s – cultural changes to which she was close, through her participation in the fringes of Sydney’s Push, involvement in Australia’s folk music scene (including her marriage to prominent musician Declan Affley), and activism on multiple fronts. Burke’s life becomes a valuable lens though which to explore the intertwined histories of folk music, Irish heritage, and political activism, traversing themes such as class, religion, gender relations, and personal commitment.
She ponders her own beliefs, reluctant to subscribe entirely to any system. She’s not a libertarian, she says:
I had more of a social conscience and interested in anarchism, veered more to socialism. I respect individual moral choice, while advocating and getting emotional about ‘unity is strength’, collective action and the importance of unions.
Her arrival at this point of view is tied to early-1960s Sydney and its specific combination of people and influences:
On Sundays after we’d been to the Domain, listening to spruikers, eccentrics and politicos, Marie and I attended 6pm Sunday Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral …
After Mass, we walked up William Street towards the Cross, sometimes seeing Russian films such as Ivan the Terrible, The Battle Ship Potemkin and Crime and Punishment at the Communist centre in William Street …
… I decided I wasn’t going to go to church anymore.
As Burke reveals, the realities of her Irish-Catholic childhood were frequently harsh. Her factory-worker father was a serious gambler, sometimes losing his entire pay. Her beloved mother, who did domestic work for rich families, provoked fear and shame with her episodic ‘alcoholic madness’. And because her mother was a divorcée, Catholic nuns and priests terrified young Colleen by telling her that her parents would ‘sizzle and burn in everlasting hellfire’.
The author describes herself as a private person, but this is always a complicated and contradictory portrayal. She is ‘solitary and withdrawn’ as a child, so shy and uncomfortable with ‘new faces, crowds and noise’ that she runs home in the middle of her first day of kindergarten. Yet in spite of her shyness, young Colleen participates ‘enthusiastically’ in concerts, and as a young adult publicly performs songs and poetry.
Books provide an escape into alternative realities: ‘other worlds, other lives, blocking out our fears and insecurities’. Then, when she is around 12 years old, the budding poet receives both cash and recognition when one of her poems is published. After she leaves school at 15, writing poetry gives her the creative stimulation lacking in her ‘women’s work’ – typing.
But cramped living quarters in the two-bedroom Bondi family home present obstacles:
Poetry was alien at home and there was no space or privacy to write. I didn’t want to expose it, or me, to criticism, ridicule or Mum’s prying eyes.
The narrow opportunities offered to women, and the compounding issues of class and lack of education are strong threads running through the book. When she expresses a desire to continue her studies, her mother responds: ‘Girls should marry and have children. What do they need an education for?’
Yet Burke never gives up her struggle to achieve creative recognition, education, satisfying work, and supportive relationships. In spite of repeated advice to be less ‘personal’, she has now published 11 books, received awards and two Varuna fellowships, and taught writing. And in the face of financial and other setbacks, she completed a Bachelor of Arts in the days before the Whitlam government made tertiary study more accessible.
Her relationship with her late husband Declan Affley, at the heart of the book, remains frustratingly obscure. The gangly folk singer is presented as gifted, charming and charismatic while at the same time he is selfish and irresponsible. In the chapter in which Burke begins to focus on him, she writes of his ‘deep resonant, mesmerising voice’, along with her own wariness and skepticism of him. She admits that, even at the beginning of their relationship, she does not believe he has written letters to her – as he claims – while at sea in the Welsh Merchant Navy. In those early days, she has a ‘gruesome, dangerous’ abortion after he convinces her that ‘he didn’t need to use condoms because he knew when to withdraw’. There are infidelities, he is bad with money, he drinks heavily and there is a constant stream of musicians and revellers at their house as Burke tries to study or, on work nights, to sleep.
But they remain together, in spite of Burke’s sincere feminist beliefs and her obvious frustrations. As she says, ‘Our relationship was unequal.’
Clearly they share passionate interests, and he seems to open possibilities for new experiences, such as their trip to Ireland and London in the early 1970s. But the emotional dynamic that holds them together is not explored. Possibly the relationship was always too complicated and baffling for Burke to capture in writing.
Or perhaps it is simply that here, Burke’s focus is on the big picture of the era rather than the details of personalities and interactions. Certainly the pared-back, evocative poetry scattered throughout the memoir indicates a different focus in her writing, and different strengths.
But the result is that, sadly, all the big, loud Push personalities, the folk singers and musicians, the activists, tend to appear as lists of names rather than vivid portraits (‘Paddy McGuiness, Darcy Waters, Judy Andrews, Dick Appleton, George Molnar, Brian Jenkins, Don Ayrton the singer …’), with occasional names singled out because of tragic fates such as suicide or drug addiction. Similarly, while the names of important venues and locales – coffee houses, pubs, music venues – are captured as historically significant, the individual places and their atmosphere are not described.
This throws Burke’s Bondi childhood into sharper focus, with its vivid smells and atmosphere (the ‘smell of piddle, perfume’ through an open toilet door, for example). It also seems to confirm Burke’s shyness, her instinct for self-sufficiency. Rather than allowing chaotic, noisy circumstances to overwhelm her, she maintains a determined, cool, critical distance. Among the confident, posturing Push personalities at the Royal George Hotel on Sydney’s Sussex Street (now the Slip Inn), she observes, considers, and only occasionally speaks up:
I usually kept opinions to myself. If I felt strongly enough about an issue I expressed my views, but mainly liked to watch, listen and mull things over before making judgements.
Burke presents a milling, noisy crowd, reflected in microcosm by the Royal George patrons: ‘socialists, anarchists, artists, Irish folk and blues singers and a bunch of alternative people – an eclectic environment’. And immersed in the hubbub, there’s Burke and her steely determination. It’s a self-portrait that holds the reader at a distance while feeling paradoxically intimate.
Colleen Z Burke The Waves Turn: A memoir Feakle Press 2016 paperback 398 pp $39.95
Jeannette Delamoir is a Queenslander and former academic, passionate about writing, reading, culture and food.
You can buy The Waves Turn here or at selected independent bookshops.