In these especially race-conscious times I find myself asking the man in the mirror (he is a bald, old, haggard, snaggle-toothed thing, and not a bit like me) some searching questions.
"Do you remember," I have just quizzed this gargoyle, "going to your Canberra film society's quite recent screening of the 1953 Hollywood musical Calamity Jane, set in the Wild West and starring the incomparable Doris Day?"
"Of course I do," the gargoyle enthused.
"It's one of my favourite films of all time. I first saw it when I was a boy. Its catchy and sometimes touching songs have been going around in my head for donkey's years and I remember how our film society's showing (held to honour the divine Doris, who had just died) had some karaoke qualities with some singing along with the movie's tuneful hits."
Here the funny old man in the mirror burst into a medley of the film's songs, beginning (as the movie itself begins) with Doris carolling that the stagecoach on which she rollicking across the prairie towards Deadwood City is stippled with "injun arrers thicker than porcupine quills". The region's red injun savages were inexplicably warlike.
I asked the man in the mirror if, when he wasn't singing along, he'd noticed the Calamity Jane film's treatment of native Americans.
From there, my mind on today's concerns about the racism lurking in popular entertainments (HBO's suspension of racially fraught Gone with the Wind the most newsworthy instance of this), I asked the man in the mirror if, when he wasn't singing along, he'd noticed the Calamity Jane film's treatment of native Americans.
He blushed to admit that, no, he hadn't noticed it. Then I confessed that I'd barely noticed it, either, in 65 years of enjoying the film.
Then our conversation broadened into a discussion of how difficult it is (is it even impossible?) to consume America's seductive and all-pervasive popular culture without inadvertently consuming so much that depraves, debauches and exposes us to moral danger. For example almost all Hollywood "action films" glorify righteous revenge and splatter us with virtual gore.
My haggard companion and I came to no conclusions and our discussions on these vexed issues will continue (after all we meet face-to-face every day for our manly shaving ritual).
Tomorrow, for we both have a poetic side, I may even read him Natalie Diaz's striking new poem (being much admired and quoted at this time) American Arithmetic. In the poem the native American poet uses statistics to show that her people (now just .8 per cent of Americans), the same injuns caricatured and mocked in Calamity Jane, to my great shame one of my all-time favourite movies, are in percentage terms the most-killed-by-police of all American races.
A modest proposal
Mention of strong, political poets moves me to renew my request to the Chief Minister to help create, for Canberra, a position of poet laureate or city poet.
Perhaps he, the Chief Minister, could make the promised creation of the role an election promise for October's keenly anticipated harlequinade of democracy the ACT elections. Yes, the ACT Liberals would scoff and feign horror at the idea of how much it would all cost, for Liberals hate poetry and anyway always pander to the ACT's philistines. But sensitive, refined Canberrans would rejoice and would be left fondly disposed to the Labor-Greens coalition on polling day.
Poets laureate and city poets are up and going everywhere in the UK and in the USA. So for example the designated Bristol City Poet 2018-2020 Vanessa Kisuule is getting some limelight at the moment (including, for I admire her immensely, in one of my limelit columns) because of her ripper, timely poem about Bristol's toppling of a statue of a slave trader.
Not that she is a one-poem wonder. She can write a reader's socks offs and has even dislodged my socks with an improbable poem The Portaloo Dance, 2.04am, about her queuing very desperately at 2am at a music festival to take her turn at the portaloo.
See her (and gasp) as she performs her poem Brick Me that laments the demolition of an old public building. Ms Kisuule, while I am suggesting Bristol (a bit Canberra-like and only a whisker larger than Canberra in population) as Canberra's role model in all this), is the second Bristol City Poet and with the end of her two-year term on the horizon the Bristol poetical powers that be are already seeking her successor.
There is no room in this tiny column to argue how ripper poetry by a ripper poet adds a lustre and oomph to everything and everywhere it touches, how a city's poet can give that city a pulse. But thousands of the world's jurisdictions are persuaded, and so have their bards. The terrible blandness of Canberra public life, of Canberra's public conversation, begins to oppress. The right kind of Canberra City Poet (preferably young, energetic, ideological, evangelical, anarchic, outrageous) could first search for our comatose city's faint pulse and then help quicken it to a healthy gallop.
I propose, to get us started, that young Ms Kisuule, experienced in how these things work, be invited here for a few months in 2021 to be the ACT's first poet-in-residence.
She could give us inspiring workshops on what's needed to successfully begin floating the boat of a Canberra City Poet. Then in her spare, poetical time she could write and perform characteristically frank poems about what she thinks of our tightly corseted city and citizens. Tremble, conservative, moss-covered Canberrans! The poets are coming! The poets are coming!
- Ian Warden is a regular columnist.