December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Under the rainbow serpent

By |2022-11-16T03:04:16+01:00September 20th, 2022|Apulian Days|
According to Aboriginal tradition, it was in the time of the Dreaming that great spirits, such as the serpent, shaped the world.

he poet arrived at my doorstep on a rainy winter’s night, like the traveler in Italo Calvino’s story, led by a dear friend of mine, a professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the University of Salento, who knew of my interest in Australian literature. I remember being immediately struck by the poet’s conversation, by his calm voice and serene smile. A few years earlier, I had translated a small anthology of stories of the Australian Aborigines. I presented him with a copy and I discovered that he was a lover of Aboriginal traditions and culture. Thereafter we found an inexhaustible source of conversation — a conversation which was from time to time enriched with new topics. We kept this conversation going through the exchange of letters across the oceans. Paul did not use the computer; he wrote his letters by hand and relied on a typewriter to put his poems on paper.

Paul Sherman was born in Brisbane on December 1, 1933 and graduated with a B.A. and Diploma of Teaching from the University of Queensland, where he also studied journalism. He was a journalist and high school teacher, a prolific poet, a playwright, and an actor. He had staged several plays by Shakespeare and by Australian authors. Over the years, Paul had traveled widely in Australia, Hong Kong, France, Ireland, and Italy, delivering lectures on Australian poetry and Shakespeare. His scholarly works reflected both his enduring commitment to the arts and the academic rigor which complemented his creativity.

Paul Sherman in Salento.

When he went back to Brisbane, Paul Sherman wrote me, including a few of his latest poems with the letter, something he would continue doing over the next nine years. His elaborate yet natural versification, his innate elegance of language and his ability to portray, with a few swift strokes, the splendid Australian landscapes, fascinated me. I also discovered Paul’s remarkable ability to depict, together with the landscape, visions of the surprising stories connected with it. They were stories dating back to the ancestral time called “Dreaming” or Altjiringa, as the Aborigines refer to it. But what most “gobsmacked” me was another poem that was enclosed with the letter, “Somewhere under the rainbow serpent,” dedicated to me, of all people, and Bernard Hickey, his great friend and fellow countryman, the man who had brought him to my Presicce address a few weeks earlier.

Paul Sherman returned to Italy the following year and I jumped on the opportunity of inviting him to visit my students at the school in Gallipoli (the Salentino one, not the one in Turkey, of course!) where I taught for almost my entire career.

A few weeks before his visit, Paul had sent me a letter, containing as usual, a poem. This time it was “The Mangrove Man Crocodile File.” It was the story of a blind crocodile, led among the Queensland swamps by a “Mangrove Man.”

Stay away from the creek when the moon is full

and the high tide fills the deep salt pool

stay away from the creek, or you might see

the mangrove man step out of his tree.

        Mangrove leaves in his matted hair

        mouth gaped wide in a grisly grin

        don’t trust that grin – beware, beware

        the Mangrove Man with his stinking skin.

Beware his step, beware his smile

as he guides Shoo Ko the Crocodile.

Shoo Ko the Crocodile big and strong

from tooth to tail he’s many feet long.

        More cunning and crafty you’d never find

        but Shoo Ko the Crocodile, he’s blind.

        He lost his eyes in a deadly fight

        when a rival Crocodile challenged his right

to share the depth of the deep salt pool

(Paul Sherman, “The Mangrove Man Crocodile File,” from: Under the Rainbow Serpent, translated and edited by Aldo Magagnino, Edizioni del Poggip 2015.)

My kids had translated it into Italian in a series of happy workshop-like lessons, laughing a lot in the process, as everyone suggested solutions to render each verse in Italian and in a passable poetic form. At the time, one of my students was a blind girl, something of which Paul Sherman was totally unaware. Gabriella took active part in the translation, though she had no idea of what a crocodile was like. Her classmates had the illumination of bringing her a few plastic or rubber crocodiles, which she took up on her lap and caressed for some time. Then she grasped a transparent acetate sheet, a worn out pen and produced a wonderful etching of a crocodile, with sharp teeth, scales and “lashing tail.” The result moved and stunned everyone. Gabriella produced two copies of her work of art, one for the poet and one for me, which I still treasure.

Whenever Paul sent me typed copies of his poems, I would enter them in a word file in my computer. In time, I collected about fifty poems. I selected thirty-two of them, translated them into Italian, adding notes and an afterword, and decided to publish this collection in English, with Italian parallel text. The idea was to make a surprise gift to the old poet, with the help of some mutual Australian friends, to celebrate the award that Paul had recently received from the Australian government for his contribution in the field of art and literature. In the meantime, I had received an alarming message from Australia: Paul had become ill and his condition was deteriorating. I speeded up my efforts and managed to have the book, “Under the Rainbow Serpent” (Edizioni Poggio Imperiale, 2015) published early in March 2015. I sent a copy to Paul by special courier.

Gabriella’s crocodile.

I used Gabriella’s crocodile etching for the cover illustration. Sadly, by the time the book appeared, Gabriella was no longer with us. My lovely pupil had died of leukemia a few years after Paul’s visit. When I relayed the news to Paul, he dedicated a delicate poem to the girl he fondly remembered. I included it in the volume.

Paul died on May 4, 2015, aged 85. Shortly before his death, his last play, “Anzac Bikkies: Bittersweet,” was produced by Arts Theatre Brisbane to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Anzac Day, the ill-fated landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli, in Turkey, on April 25, 1915.

With more than 60 years of commitment to poetry, Paul Sherman can certainly be numbered among the most prolific and long-lived Australian poets. As he wrote in an article published in the “Queensland Writers Centre Magazine” (2009), in “my early teens I was bitten by a snake. The snake was 10 syllables long. The poison has remained in me till my present [75] year.” The verse that “bit into him” was a passage from “Henry VIII,” in which Cardinal Wolsey describes his political decline: “And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer.”

They told me that the ailing poet was moved to tears, when he saw, printed on the cover of the book, the lively crocodile that Gabriella had so meticulously and miraculously produced for him nine years earlier.

It is commonly said that sometimes teachers learn from their own pupils. I learned a lot from a young girl who had never “seen” a book, but could read Italian, French, and English, running the tips of her little fingers on the dots of a Braille raised script, on a thick white paper page that would be perfectly blank for the rest of us.

About the Author:

Aldo Magagnino was born in Alezio (Apulia). After a career as a teacher of English he now works fulltime as a literary translator. He now lives in the Apulian town of Presicce, a few miles from Santa Maria di Leuca, land's end of the Italian boot, with his wife, two dogs and a variable number of cats.