Jill McKeowen (1959 - 2022)
Jill McKeowen (1959 – 2022) was a writer of poetry and essays, and a passionate believer in the importance of literature. After a childhood under the wide skies of the Central West in NSW and teenage years at Umina Beach on the Central Coast, she lived in London, Sydney and Townsville, before settling in Newcastle. She quickly became a stalwart of the local writing community, serving on the Board of the Newcastle Writers Centre and the committee of Poetry at the Pub, as well as being an enthusiastic supporter of other poets and active in groups dedicated to both the writing and reading of poetry. For twenty years she was also a teacher of academic language and literacies at the University of Newcastle.
A perfectionist in everything she did, Jill was slow to publish her own work. Although she was a regular reader at Poetry at the Pub and her poems had appeared in anthologies of commended work for prizes such as Grieve and the Central Coast awards, she wanted her poems to be exactly right before she attempted to gather them into a collection. A shock cancer diagnosis in 2021 was the spur she needed to finally complete the manuscript which became her first book.
Jill had initially titled this impressively polished manuscript Transience. It included heartbreakingly moving poems about her father’s cancer and death, as well as writing which charted her search for a sense of her own identity and place. Keenly intelligent, but also tender and intimate, the book records the details of very recognizable Australian lives, troublingly settled on what she called ‘deeply storied ground’ but blessed by childhood memories of a family with ‘love behind its purpose (always)’.
In the end, the title Jill settled on was Sunday Morning, Here, a title which coincidentally brings us to the final place where she lived: her house and garden in Newcastle, where she greeted the morning sun with ‘birds calling up the day …’. It was a place where she felt grateful for the fact that she could follow her belief that nothing was real until it was written. She could be glad each day to ‘arrive at a page’ and ‘linger an hour in (her) daily practice’ of writing, whilst also noting wryly the necessity of ‘the garbage truck roaring by.’
I have a vision of Jill, from one of my earliest meetings with her, which keeps returning to me. Long before I knew her as a poet, Jill had contributed an essay to an anthology called Global Delights: a compilation of recipes and creative writing about different cultures and their food. With typical care and compassion, she compared the luminous celebrations of Greek Easter with what she saw as the closest thing to a spiritual celebration Australia had: Anzac Day.
To celebrate the book, the contributors were invited to a feast at the Greek Community Centre. After all the tarama and souvlaki and probably a lot of wine or retsina, someone – possibly Voula, the woman Jill had written about – began to dance on the table. It was a rather riotous scene, and Jill was enraptured. She clapped and laughed and loved this. Like her poetry, Jill’s essay in Global Delights was thoughtful and empathetic, but so much of what makes her writing remarkable is encapsulated for me in this moment: her love of life for what it is, chaos and all; and a desire to record it, clear-eyed, in words that would keep it real, and unforgotten.
My last meeting with Jill was at the 2022 Newcastle Writers Festival. She was in her element, going to as many sessions as she could. She was so full of delight and enthusiasm, cramming her days with new books and encounters with writers, that even those of us who knew about the extreme health challenges she had been facing were shocked to learn of her death just three weeks later, on Anzac Day.
Fortunately, the editing and final preparations for Sunday Morning, Here had already been completed by this stage. Jill McKeowen’s long overdue first book was published by Flying Islands in December 2022 and had its first launch at Watt Space Gallery, Newcastle, on December 11th: almost exactly one year after Jill had tentatively emailed me the first draft of the manuscript, and just two days after what would have been her 63rd birthday.
Sunday Morning, Here
“And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?”
Wallace Stevens, ‘Sunday Morning’
Here there’s no complacency, but ease
in winter sun splayed on cane verandah
chairs and me, lingering in pyjamas
with my honeyed fruit and coffee, having
it all in birds calling up the day
like silver coruscations on a morning
wide sea. Flashing ribbons blue-
orange-green, a pair of lorikeets
settles in grevillea’s pink effusion
to the east. I’ll plant trees where
the view is houses stacking down the street,
a curving slope of weatherboards and windows
facing sunrise thirty thousand times
now, resilient, rendering daily praise
as hushed sleepers stir and wake within.
The sun is arcing north. Across the road,
electric power poles and wires stand
like slant crucifixes, dead and weathered
wood askew in hard ground. The old chaos remains. Life endures, and I,
too, content with sensory measures here, now understand something of the soul
in transfiguring rain, the chanting wind,
a haloed frangipani on the path,
the pilgrimage of wood-smoke to the stars.