Friday, January 6, 2012

I Wish I'd Written This

For Shelton, who always embraced ‘the seeming wonder of being alive’

and it’s comforting to know that though you’re gone
you’re never gone, have left the flowered
words on pages so even those not yet born
can know you – larrikin wit, friend to dips
and artists, patron of prisoners,
forgiver of sins

shelley, in my memory you’re always laughing,
your arm around my shoulders at the leinster arms,
eyes alight, crooning, ‘lizzie hall, have ya written us
any more of those wunnerful poems, girl?’
the more ‘respected’ elders might grope a young
poet’s tits, but all you ever cared for were the words
– their best order, exactitude, capacity for beauty –
and these you made in defiance of all
the sordid ugliness of the world

and there were wild parties at mountain view
me, dosed with tinctures brewed by your muse
and that filthy, filthy nyandi
the laughter and bullshit that accompanied
a case or three of VB, cold afternoons
by a woodstove as the wind whipped
all around, while you pulled books from shelves
to drop in my eager hands, never large enough
to hold all that self-taught wisdom at your command

‘to the sauna!’ you’d demand
and we’d rise, grab a beer
and shed our clothes, make poems
of the sweat and cedar boards
then run redskinned to the herb garden
to plunge into the old cold water bathtub,
a baptism

always, to me, you’ll be fitzroy’s king
barroom bard of underdog and crim,
of murdered girl, koori pride, throwing
your words to the street and the wind
for the price of a beer and a smile
while frontbar punters crowed ‘shelley,
mate, another poem, stay awhile’

and you do, to we who knew you,
stay, unforgettable, your tousled,
addled head, that childlike joy of living
spread across your gorgeous, defiant mug ...

i’ll bet you’re still on the lookout for adventures,
booze or drug, still spinning tall stories
to those mates you’d thought long lost, for you
will never be gone, and i expect to meet again
in poet’s heaven, (where you’ll be propping up
the bar, no doubt, and singing satchmo-style
to fallen angels), anon.

Liz Hall-Downs

dips = pickpockets
the leinster arms = a hotel in Collingwood, an inner city suburb of Melbourne. (In the USA — and, I gather, in the UK too — poetry performance venues tend to be coffee shops. In Australia they tend to be pubs.)
nyandi = koori word for marijuana
VB = Victoria Bitter beer
fitzroy = an inner city suburb of Melbourne
koori = what Aboriginal Australians in areas of south-eastern Australia call themselves
mug = face

This elegy is about a mutual friend, the much loved Australian poet Shelton Lea, affectionately known as Shelley to his friends. (Expect more about him in a future post.) She has brought him to life! The poem appears in the anthology All Travellers We: Poems for Shelton Lea (Melbourne, Eaglemont Press, 2008), available from Black Pepper Publishing and from Readings.

I first knew Liz as the young Melbourne performance poet recollected along with Shelley in the above poem. She wore lacey black mittens and carried a slim cane. ‘How elegant,’ I thought, ‘What individuality!’ — not realising the reason for them.

Her latest collection of poetry, My Arthritic Heart, was published in 2006. A review, which you can read in full here, says: 'The preface to My Arthritic Heart calls the book an autobiographical account of the poet's struggles with Rheumatoid Arthritis, but the poetry, like all good poetry, transcends its subject.' 

Yes, it’s wonderful stuff — searingly honest, powerful, even beautiful. Her own eloquent words on the book and its genesis, plus several of the poems, are here. At present there is one second-hand copy of the book available at Abe Books for whoever is first to grab it, and it is still available from the PostPressed website. 

I’m glad to know from Liz herself that she finds life good these days. She and her husband Kim Downs (writer, musician, technician and sculptor) live on a bush property in sub-tropical south-east Queensland and look after a number of native birds, particularly various kinds of parrots. Liz and Kim are both musicians. They were formerly two members of the Cathouse Creek trio; more recently have become SWAMPFISH, a roots-blues-alt-country duo. 

Online biographies say:

Liz Hall-Downs has been reading and performing poetry in public and publishing in journals, since 1983. She has been a featured reader at countless venues across Australia, has toured the USA, and has had work published and broadcast on TV and radio in both countries. As well as poetry, Liz writes fiction and essays and has worked as a community artist, writer-in-residence, editor and singer. 

To which I add: She holds the degrees of BA in Professional Writing and Literature and M. Phil. in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. Currently, instead of poetry, she is working on a novel and enjoying her music and gardening.

Her earlier publications include Fit of Passion, book & cassette, with Kim Downs, 1997; Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands with B.R. Dionysius & Samuel Wagan Watson, published online 1996, released on audio CD, 2000; and Girl With Green Hair (still available from) Papyrus Publishing, 2000. (Click on poetry on the lefthand side.)

You can read more of her poems online at:

Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).


  1. Very nice article, Rosemary. I enjoy learning about the poets you choose each week, plus your personal reminiscences.

  2. new vistas keep opening through such wonderful poets, who are also, such fascinating personalities!

  3. Since this post first appeared, Liz has informed me that two of her books are still available from the publishers, and corrected a couple of details about her musical and academic activities, so I have tweaked the post accordingly.

  4. Great profile Rosemary - and a very smooth, smartly woven tribute poem by Liz.


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