Margaret Bradstock Reviews Phyllis Perlstone’s The Bruise of Knowing

By | 7 October 2019

Monash’s career is hindered by other forces, notably the anti-Semitism of Colonel Dean Pitt, the 1893 ‘Crash’ after The Great Boom, and the later conspiracy of historian C E W Bean and Keith Murdoch against him. These themes continue on into Part 2, which is otherwise dominated by Monash’s response to the First World War and Gallipoli. The opening poem, ‘1910’, again employs a photograph as symbolic of the relationship of the central protagonists. Monash is photographed in London:

a stiff white dinner shirt
rigid evening dress determines
the black and white brightness of before


the camera records a moment −
the lines of his mouth
the success he's aimed for

Victoria, on the other hand, ‘the line from forehead to throat / the lens on the tilt of her head, holds / a gaze quietened’. In a letter four years later, before sailing to Greece, Monash lets her know:

He wants
this chance to be honoured −
ambition can be
instilled within
what he was "best, happiest at"
guiding men to a goal −

Photographs are referenced in ‘Monash Landed on Gallipoli’, ‘On Gallipoli’ and ‘Later’ to depict the war scenario, to contrast ‘the genius of Monash’s stare … to scan, horizons assailable to thought, / close-up’ with that of the soldiers:

… contained in an obliqueness to things
as if
deliberately not focusing −
and officers standing at the edge of the barge


the illusion is they steer themselves
are in control

At the same time, Monash ‘has to look at and bear / not speak of what he had forewarned −/ the thousands dead’. This experience is linked to that of the ‘once engineering tyro’ and his response to the man killed during the construction of King’s Bridge.

The following poem, again at ‘Barangaroo reserve’, stands with the writer-researcher outside her work, encapsulating both the poet’s methodology and her title for the collection as a whole:

Sea swell and high shooting spray
are the first things I notice, then the breeze
and the ring around the tree I'm sitting under −
all these rocks about it
shelter feelings −
yet the sea pulling beneath us
earth's flowing cloth
dragging its press of boats
puts me in a long moment of riding
what I've come upon − photos
and writings of the past
except that leaves of grass and trees are soft incendiaries
on the slowness
that dissipates the bruise of knowing

Perlstone then inserts several poems based on letters (‘Again Monash Writes to Vic’, ‘Monash at Gallipoli Writing to Vic’) underlining the conflict between Monash’s need to command and his horror at the loss of life, the wreckage that is war. These conflicting feelings culminate in ‘Messines Ridge 7 June 1917’ and ‘Passchendaele Disaster’:

Monash foresaw it all
had seen it
with Godley's rushed unplanned
pushes         on Gallipoli

The poem ‘Two more photos August 1918’ is elegiac in its juxtaposition of ‘The Australian soldiers faintly visible in small groups in sepia colour print’ with ‘the stillness in humps of clothes’:

we see them, fixed in their distance
as soft gestures                                            on paper
yet now too
as if, inadvertently, we're walking into a room
that they've arranged themselves in               for sleep −
their deaths' immediacy
lodged shades of who they were once

The final section of the book depicts Monash as promoted to General in England, where he weighs up the fame for his efforts versus ‘the lost / luminousness − of lives annulled’. Back in Australia, the war ended, there’s no place for him, ‘no given rank / or position in a future to reward him / no post that a government might organise’. Yet ‘He knows he’s best at planning and creating −/ establishes The Victorian State Electricity Commission’. While Perlstone’s account doesn’t mention it, in 1929 The Institute of Engineers awarded Monash its highest honour, the Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Medal, and in June 1931, Melbourne University gave him the Kernot Memorial Award for distinguished achievement in Australian engineering. That is, he’s honoured for his contribution to engineering, but not as a General:

While Billy Hughes, Australia's Prime Minister
could promote Monash to four-stars

he fears Monash will be a rival at home;
decides instead he will organize the soldiers

returning −                       delay him until after elections −
upsetting Charles Bean the war historian

who sees this as ever more prestige
for the Jewish Sir John Monash

The penultimate poem, ‘1931’, is Monash’s last Anzac Day. For him:

It was grief's ceremony still

to strain − to reach out
to the soldiers who were alive

The Afterword, ‘A Short Peace’, returns us to the poet’s world: ‘For the moment / the sea is slate blue; ferries smooth or even slow over it /…. where water laps away the city’s dryness’.

The Bruise of Knowing presents a fascinating account of the life and times of an important figure in our country’s history. Perlstone’s poetry is innovative in its own right, telling Monash’s story in ways that bring to light themes of power and bigotry, the after-effects of war and ambition, and the knowledge that one might sometimes have been wrong.

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