Harbour Dusk is another poem that paints Sydney Harbour in a particular light – this time the sun is set and evening is approaching, “away off, through the strung Bridge (Sydney Harbour Bridge), a sky of mulberry, and orange chiffon.” In this poem the writer is taking a late afternoon walk with his girl and they pause at one of the many sandstone ocean walls (“stone parapet’s”) you find in public parks dotted around the harbour foreshore – if on the North Shore, then I imagine Milson’s Point, Kirribilli or Cremorne Point. If on the city side, I’m thinking maybe Elizabeth Bay, Rose Bay or Nielson Park (more likely because the writer is looking, “across … the harbour” to a “far shore of dark, crumbling bush (woodland)” – Bradley’s Head or the National Park). . However, for further appreciation of Harbour Dusk, catch a train at sunset across the ‘Bridge’ to Milson’s Point. Walk through the streets of Kirribilli to the harbour’s edge and the “empty” park. Find a sandstone wall to lay your hands on, and watch the changing colours of the sky to the west through the arch of the Sydney Harbour (“strung”) Bridge, “of mulberry and orange chiffon, mauve-grey …”.
In the last stanza there’s the line, “…. each cloven sail – like nursing sisters, in a deep corridor: some menancholy;”. The word ‘cloven’ used as an adjective must refer to the curved and cleft outline shape of a yacht’s sails; or is the writer inspired by the architectural ‘sails’ of the Sydney Opera House? Whatever, the phrase, “like nursing sisters”, further dates the writing of this poem back in the days when nursing sisters carried rank, wore stiff, starched, white veils and breezed through the wards like ships under sail. When did they stop behaving like that – was it the 1970’s? OK, so they are viewed as if in a ‘deep corridor’ (in a hospital or a convent somewhere), but what does it mean that some are, ‘melancholy’? Not all of the sisters (or nuns), only ‘some’ are melancholy, the others are not. I believe the sails of the Sydney Opera House are the inspiration for these lines. Viewed as a nurse or nun’s veil, each sail frozen in position expresses an emotion – there are some sails that are tilted open toward the sky, giving an expression of joy. There are others that bow in to themselves, appearing to be ‘melancholy’. Don’t take my word for it, come to Sydney and walk the harbour foreshore with Robert Gray.
My link to Robert Gray’s descriptive poems of vessels and harbours comes from a descriptive poem I wrote some time ago but recently dug out and re-visited. I try to be disciplined in keeping a diary/journal – have done for years. I find capturing observations and thoughts at the moment, even in the crudest form, helps to preserve emotional memory, so when you want to come back and reflect you find that your recorded entries do provide a wonderful source of creativity and insight. Here is my ‘revised’ poem, At Sea. Following the poem are the original diary notes from which I settled on the final version.
1988. On board HMAS Canberra. We’re heading down to Hobart for the tall ships race and celebrations. This particular day is overcast and bleak; a cool day, threatening to rain. The wind is cold. I hunch into my overalls, hands in pockets. We sail quite close to the coast somewhere south of Eden.