In How to Make Gravy, Kelly tells the story of the day that one of his first royalty cheques arrived. At the time, he was living, a bit like Harry Potter, under the stairs in a crowded shared house on Punt Road in inner Melbourne. He walked three kilometres to buy a beautiful collected Shakespeare with which he had fallen in love. It cost $34, ‘‘a princely sum at the time’’.
Kelly still has the book. More than that, he has fed deeply on its contents and set quite a bit of Shakespeare to music, especially his sonnets. Shakespeare may be the most represented poet in Love is Strong as Death, but not because anybody else told Kelly that this is what anthologies are supposed to do. The same applies to his inclusion of pieces from the King James Bible. Kelly’s setting of Psalm 23 (‘‘Meet me in the middle of the air’’) is exquisite. Yet he is not a court musician. Kelly likes to discover things for himself, sometimes at considerable personal cost.
Scripture was part of his upbringing and he writes gently about his mother’s faith. There is quite a lot of religious poetry in Love is Strong as Death, all of it transcending complacent moralising, all of it sublime. ‘‘If I reach for the good book as I die, it won’t be to pander to the priest … it will be to read The Song of Songs one more time.’’ Indeed, Love is Strong as Death gets its title from that part of scripture. At the same time, this anthology includes the poetry of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and lyrics by such Indigenous writers as Kev Carmody and Archie Roach.
Kelly seems to have spent his life on the lookout for words to provide a bedrock on which to build a life and more than a life. In How to Make Gravy, he muses on the fact that the work of poets from Akhmatova to Hardy to Keats to Ovid (all of whom are included in Love is Strong as Death) may be ‘‘filled with birds and beasts and beds’’ but ‘‘they all want to make the thing that floats above time, that belongs not to the seconds, minutes, hours, days or centuries but to the ages’’.
He also tells a simple tale of being at home with his kids during the day and watching the DVD of a movie called In Her Shoes. Towards the end, Cameron Diaz recites a poem by the American e.e.cummings (‘‘I carry your heart’’). Kelly may be relaxing in the school holidays but his antenna is always up. He uses part of that poem in a song called (The) Foggy Fields of France and carries it into this anthology. He compares Cummings to Australia’s John Shaw Neilsen, who is also included. Likewise, Kelly happily acknowledges the debt of his song Gathering Storm to Thomas Hardy’s She hears the storm. And so on.
Kelly swims in an ocean of words. He loves them. This is surely a huge part of his genius as a songwriter. It also makes this anthology such a wonderful experience. Many of the poems will be familiar, many of them won’t be. But these words all contribute to a sense of a life beyond words.
Michael McGirr is the dean of faith at St Kevin’s College in Melbourne and author of Books that Saved My Life (Text)