In a Subjunctive Mood by David Harris

Book Review by Dymphna Lonergan

David Harris: In a Subjunctive Mood, Ginninderra Press, 2017

RRP: $18.00.  59pp

ISBN: 9781760414344



Quizás – Perhaps.
‘It takes the subjunctive,’ she says.
Spanish is more careful with
The richness of its grammar.
The verb in the subjunctive mood
carries uncertainty, mystery,
explores the conditional – the imaginary.
Perhaps, perhaps,
Would that it were true!
If only…
If it were possible…
Once upon a time…
Perhaps, with subjunctive –
What better way to start a story
or a poem?

‘It’s never too late’, would be David Harris’s motto if he needed one. This octogenarian linguist from Adelaide with Tipperary ancestry took up a Fulbright scholarship for this year’s daonscoil at Rinn college, Co. Waterford and also published his first book of poetry (in English), In a Subjunctive Mood,  with Adelaide’s Ginninderra Press, the title taken from its first poem (above).

There are thirty-one poems in all, representing Harris’s interests: language, art, classical literature, science, eating and drinking, travelling, childhood and boyhood memories. His light touch reflects his playful approach to a range of topics. ‘Wolfie’s Tale’, for instance is his response to a supposed Mongolian  cure for haemorrhoids (the application of a powdered wolf’s rectum).  ‘Hell of Wool’ has the writer struggling to stay focussed and awake during a Writers’ Week session in ‘dappled sunlight’. In ‘The Law’, Harris takes us from the act of watering to Einstein’s theory as he imagines himself as a drop of water in a ‘silver pathway’ where Einstein was once ‘a beam of light’.

The frustration in capturing the moving image is the subject of ‘Bull shoot’: ‘Keep the camera at the ready, and/ no bull will appear./Putting away the camera/makes a bull appear’. The poem ‘Shopping’, a visit to ‘a weapon-selling fair’ plays with form, ‘the boundary between prose and poetry, a short story, but entirely in iambic poetry rhythm’, while ‘Shop Fever’ appropriates John Masefield’s ‘Sea ‘Fever’ with apologies:

I must go down to the shops again,
for the call of consumer pride
is a loud call, and a clear call
that cannot be denied.
And all I ask is a faithful friend
with a focus on consuming,
whose joy in life is to spend and spend
on glamour and on grooming.

Harris is also a traditional Irish amateur musician, playing the tin whistle regularly at the Celtic music sessions at the Irish Club in Adelaide where he also attends Irish language classes on a Monday evening. It is clear from the poem ‘Guinness’ that he has spent many a time at a bar observing the pouring of the pint of plain.

Though the lower part is clearing
and the head forms on the crown,
all the bubbles are not rising
all, it seems, are falling down!’

Harris concludes that

Life is like a fresh-poured Guinness
murky, roiling darkest beer.
When all around, it seems, is falling
wait, and it will all come clear.

Sound words for the rest of us too.

Two Australian poems stand out: ‘Namatjira images’ and ‘Hawker Creek’:

Namatjira images

Ghost gums, scattered trees, bare hills, open plains.
Memories flood in
from the storehouse of experience
to add what the painting cannot show.

A cooling breeze relieves the heat.
Boots crunch on the rocky path.
A swig of cold water tastes of nectar.

Drawn ever deeper by the artist’s skill
into scent, that most evocative of senses.
Smell the bush, aromatic, spicy, dusty.

Deeper still, now feel the spirit,
timeless harmony of ancient people,
ancient land. This is country.

Hawker Creek

Long walk to get here.
Quiet. Hot.
Just bush sounds,
a rustle, a distant crow.

The slab of pink marble
from the gorge wall
fell across the creek.
Shattered into pieces
millennia ago.

Water bubbles now
between smooth boulders,
flowing deep, green
through pink crevasses.

Old as the hills –
600 million years.
Water flows, gurgles, splashes.

The creek is alive,
refreshes me,
as it has always done for visitors,
from dinosaurs to people.

So I am here.

The blink of an eye
in this land’s time.
And yet the creek
puts its loving care
into the task of
cooling my feet.


Dymphna Lonergan is a member of the Tinteán Editorial Team whose regular Friday daytime Irish language class in Adelaide includes David Harris.