A Different Kind of Light Though Something's Not Quite Right in Paradise
When the deputy editor of a national Indian newspaper came to see me in Perth, Western Australia, the first question he asked was, “What is it like being a poet in paradise?”. The editor had been in Australia for two days and had only seen the lush and artificially green suburbs of Perth in late Spring. The pleasant climate particular to this time of year, the apparently homogeneous spread of wealth, and the sense of space that is characteristic of urban sprawl where such a thing as owning a quarter-acre block is still possible, made it seem a long way from the inequalities and extremes of Madras.
My reply, at first, surprised him. A tainted paradise, a garden after the Fall, I joked self-consciously. The subtext to the conversation we then had was the difficulty of forming a representation of another’s culture without merely making of it an object. Both being from Commonwealth countries, we were of course familiar with such tendencies.
I heard some weeks later that he referred to this conversation when talking with other Australians; that it was then that he began to see Australia in a different light, as I had once had to in visiting India. Paradise was merely a concept of an advertising agency, a well-oiled publicity trick, one that relied on the visual. The editor’s response had been a visual one. It is true that he was aware of Australia’s wealth in natural resources, of the fact that it was under no immediate threat of military incursion, that it enjoyed a high standard of living, and its people generally enjoyed access to those consumer goods by which people consider themselves well off or not. He may have even heard Australians themselves describing it “as God’s own country”, or an infinite number of appropriations and variations on Donald Horne’s “The Lucky Country”. Military pride, a sense of mateship (comradeship), giving a bloke a fair go (treating your neighbour as you would expect yourself to be treated: do unto others as you would like them to do unto you) and so on.
Of course, what he hadn’t been told was that the Australian Commonwealth was built out of the disenfranchising of indigenous people, and in cases such as that of the Tasmanian Aborigines, genocide. That the land has suffered horrendously, that only a fraction of the forests that had stood before European settlement (or invasion) remain, and there are concerted efforts to have large chunks of these converted to wood chips. That there is a malevolent streak of racism that stretches back not only to the conflict between native and settler interests, but to that between the Irish and English.
Australia is a migrant nation. Many peoples on the face of the earth are represented in its population, through the long-term presence of Chinese labourers and later entrepreneurs and students, the post-war migration of Southern Europeans, particularly Greeks and Italians, and so on. What is best about Australian society is its diversity. For a poet, this is a cultural wonderland. But the core of the population is still Anglo-Saxon and ostensibly of British stock. There are many who would like to keep it this way. From shortly after Federation and through to the early ’70s, Australia had a policy unofficially known as The White Australia Policy 1 – that is an immigration policy that sought to ensure that the bulk of the population remained both white and European, particularly British in origin. The Asiatic peoples were portrayed as a single unit, and propagandised as “The Yellow Peril”. There have been unsubtle calls to reinstate something like this policy. What is becoming known as the “Hanson phenomenon”, after a particular politician, has alarming ramifications. Just as Australia has been coming to terms with the realisation that it is physically more a part of Asia than of Europe, an upsurge of anti-Asian sentiment has arisen.
Pauline Hanson, a popularist politician from Queensland and a member of the House of Representatives, has, from her first day in Parliament, when she gave a blatantly racist inaugural address that was both anti-Asian and anti-Aboriginal in content, sought to create discord and bitterness in Paradise. She has even spoken of the possibility of civil war. The media have played this up and, in the way all such popular causes work, have played on the bigotry and hatred that lurk at the base of the human psyche. Shortly before I left Australia to return to Europe in October 1996, a telephone poll (for what that is worth) had registered a 97% approval rating for her racist rantings. The refusal of the right wing Federal government to condemn her outright, thereby implicitly defending her “rights to freedom of speech”, has led to accusations of collusion. Statements from the past have been dug up, and the suggestion has been made that Pauline Hanson – owner of a fish and chip shop, divorced, and your “typical Aussie battler” (one who struggles on against the odds: the “backbone of the country”) – was really an unwitting stooge of greater and even more malevolent forces. What is at issue here are the questions of both political and cultural sovereignty. What is our heritage, who owns it, and what do we want it to be?
From the social and political landscape of the Australian Paradise, to the physical one. Without precise geography, but with a particular image of place in mind, I recall examining a travel feature in one of the weekend supplements from an English newspaper last year. My wife and I read incredulously an article that purported to describe the Australian Outback, this all too homogeneous entity in which people all spoke with the same accent and Aboriginal people all looked, talked, and behaved the same. Myths were recounted and a few created. Sure, the photographs were representative, but you could tell that they’d developed them in such a way as to highlight the primary colours, to emphasise the contrasts between the drab European light and the brilliant and exacting Australian light. They had taken the stereotypes and written the piece to order. This was the Australia the adventure-starved English person might want. This was the colonial visualisation of a far-flung chunk of empire. For the writer of this piece Australia was a land of extremes, completely without subtlety. There was Sydney, sure, the great Metropolis with the atmosphere of a cosmopolitan frontier, but then there was everything else – the great vast centre of nothing but rugged natural beauty.
As a poet it would be ridiculous of me not to paint with an imagery of extremes. For Australia, at least on the surface, IS this. It is a place of flood and drought, of deep, deep blue skies and red earth. It is a place of hardship and also wealth. The poet thrives on such oppositions. The academic and critic George Steiner recently asked me how I could write away from my source of inspiration, and I said that I subscribed to the philosophy that the further one moves away, the closer one gets. Simone Weil’s “Every separation is a link” is my motto, and is actually used as an epigraph to an early “landscape” poem of mine, “Links” 2 .
Landscape, I should say, has always been a physical and conceptual entity, an effort to impose a kind of cordon sanitaire between the body and intellect, that I see as an example of social engineering. Regarding the clarifying nature of distance, it is the difference that allows one to focus. In experiencing my first full European winter, I write extensively about bush fires and drought, two features of the Australian environment. What is at work is a kind of Blakean system of contraries – for the dark there is light, etc. An early poem of mine, “Finches” 3 , of the same vintage as “Links”, speaks of the “hot snow of salt”. I am writing similar lines now. That line came out of visiting Scandinavia in the early ’80s and writing about Wheatlands, a farm near York, about a hundred kilometres north-east of Perth, where I spent much of my childhood. In this “paradise” that is Australia, the land has been so devastated by European occupation that vast tracts have been laid waste by salinity. Salinity is the result primarily of deforestation – by removing the trees and scrub, there is no longer the feeding on ground water that there once was, and hence the watertable rises. With it comes salt leached from the soil. It breaks the surface, kills the remaining vegetation, and renders the land useless.
I have a love-hate relationship with these beautiful but arid zones. The formations of salt crystals, the waterbirds that stalk the flats, the scarce but resilient wildlife that makes a home against all the odds. I admire these creatures deeply, and there is an incredible beauty in this burning white desolation. I’ve heard overseas visitors describe it as what they’d imagine another planet to look like. Wheatlands was becoming increasingly affected by salt when I was a young child, but the wise move on my uncle’s part to begin a program of tree planting has meant that there is little salt left today, and in its place, something of a haven for wildlife.
Regarding the “hot snow of salt”, seeing snow in the Northern climes brought back the saltpans of my home in Australia. Ironically, it brought back seeing Australian summers. Both salt and snow can have a devastating effect, both are blank and pitiless, but both have a great beauty in the intensity of their whiteness. They have associations of dread and pleasure. This duality is what attracts me. The making of an image from disparate elements is what I see as the basis of metaphor. Without the experience of looking from another place this image would not have been possible. Having said these things, I also said to George Steiner that it is nonetheless good to go back and breathe the airs and sense the light of this most unique of places.
In 1995 my volume of poetry The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony 4 was published in Australia. It has proved to be one of those rare occasions in the poetry world where a book has been critically successful and has also sold well. By poetry sales’ standard, extremely well. It is appearing shortly in Britain and is being translated into numerous languages. The paradox of its success is that it seems to be those very things the book is ironising that appeal to the general reader.
As the name would suggest, the work is set in a rural environment, and explores the relationship between those who work the land and the land itself. But unlike Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony with its Romantic ideals, the book maintains that there is no idyll, that there is no balance in which Nature is the supreme hand. As I have noted, the Australian environment has been extensively altered and damaged by European incursion. If anything, balance has been destroyed. The imposition of European farming methods and husbandry has not suited this harsh and fragile continent. The notion of the ordered and harmonic Virgilian landscape is not relevant to the conditions in most of Australia, despite what people there and elsewhere would like to think. The rebuilding of a little England or a little Italy on one’s own turf is a false dream. And as I’ve also noted, the ownership and inheritance of land is a questionable thing, especially when one considers that the land was forcibly taken from other peoples whose relationship with the land was so entire that they universally spoke in terms of the land possessing them rather than the other way around.
It is disturbing to note that it wasn’t until the 1992 Mabo decision (Mabo V Queensland [No2] (1992 CLR 1)), that there was any official change of attitude. Through this decision, the High Court maintained that “the common law of Australia recognises a form of native title which, in the cases where it has not been extinguished, reflects the entitlement of the indigenous inhabitants, in accordance with their laws or customs, to their traditional lands” 5. The Federal Government passed the Native Title Act in 1993, to put the rulings of the Mabo decision into effect. Until this monumental decision, Australia had been officially seen as a blank, as Terra Nullius, a land open to claim. The distressing thing regarding the Mabo decision was the social reaction that accompanied the decision. Despite a general feeling among the bulk of Australians during the ’80s that it was time for some form of reconciliation with the various Aboriginal peoples, with talk of a Treaty and such, the Mabo decision brought a huge backlash.
Much as in the “Reds under the Beds” scare of the’50s and ’60s, right wing politicians (and a few bigoted ones from the left) have built a sense of fear and antagonism out of the notion that indigenous people would be “claiming people’s backyards”, that such claims would dissolve the fabric and integrity of the Commonwealth. Mining companies have gone in with both arms fighting. When all is said and done, the claims have been so tied up in red tape through the courts that there has been and is likely to be nowhere near the positive result for indigenous people that there should be. In The Silo 6 there is always an unspoken guilt at the basis of every poem. It is not a polemical book, so the guilt is implied rather than said directly. Except for in one very simple poem which goes:
Sale Of The Century
This town-site was “bought”
from the Nyoongahs
for a sack
of white flour
and a bent
It should be said that I am also of the rural environment I examine, criticise, and admire. What I admire is the resilience of its inhabitants across the board, its refusal to be beaten by the harshest conditions. But herein lies its tragedy – it resists, but often its methods actually bring further hardship. This is a bitter irony. The garden exists, but its hold is tenuous and can be wiped out by a persistent drought, and an inheritance can become as dust. What non-Aboriginal Australians (as Veronica Brady describes them) don’t have is the understanding of the intense power that is to be found even in dust. The dust is their trauma, it is the encroachment of the undoing of civilisation as they perceive it. There have been some wonderful poems on the subject!
The undoing of the rural myth in Australia, through creation of an anti-pastoral poetry, strikes at the very heart of Australia’s claim to a national identity. Along with the Anzac myth, the myth of the country’s wealth being created from the wool on the sheep’s back is central to its self-image. To tamper with this is to tamper with the powers of Nationalism, and also the power that lies behind such popularist discourses as those centred on Pauline Hanson. It is true that her unofficial and official constituencies are largely suburban, and this is where the bulk of the Australian population is to be found, huddled along the fertile coastline; but its codes and credos are built out of a nostalgia of the bush “battler”, of the pastoral inheritance, of a kind of confrontation with an anti-sublime. My poem “Ring of Bright Water” examines this myth of rural nostalgia while the poem “Heading South through The Long Paddock”, which recently appeared in my book Lightning Tree 7, considers my own role in dealing with these myths and considering what “place” and identity mean to me. 8
I’d like to finish this brief commentary from within the frame of Paradise by considering the Murri poet Lionel Fogarty. A white Australian might say “the Queensland or Brisbane poet Lionel Fogarty”, and such an inaccurate description of place and identity would reveal much.
There is a poem of Lionel Fogarty’s that I’ll note as a possible starting point for discussion: “Remember Something Like This”. It concerns the nature of memory, the flexibility of time and space, and examines the specificity of incident. There is a communalising of the “lyrical I” taking place. The poem resists prosody, and enhances a recolonisation by entry into the public place (as per the Western Continuum) as entertainment and art, as shown in this extract:
Where’s this and that, you know.
So they find out where him came from
by looking at the tracks.
He’s headed for the caves
just near milky way. 9
Fogarty comes close to creating something that is both culturally and linguistically unique. While reacting to the colonising of his Murri tongue by English, he in effect colonises English, rendering it subservient to his inheritance, to his spatiality (time/space). He sees this as a natural and necessary action. It is impulsive and decisive, a reflex action. If this sounds confrontational then I should emphasise that it is! Fogarty makes language a tool or even weapon of resistance; or even more, an offensive weapon. His is the most revolutionary of languages being used in Australian poetry. Freedom doesn’t come solely by marking territory and occupying a conceptual space, a space linguistic in nature. One must reterritorialise lost ground. This is especially true for a culture where the rites of naming are all-important in establishing a map of social and cultural identity. Where song is cohesion.
In an article entitled “Poetics in the Americas”, published in a recent issue of Modernism/modernity, the American critic and poet Charles Bernstein notes:
The invention of an ideolectical English-language poetry as a poetry of the Americas involves the replacement of the national and geographically centered category of English (or Spanish) poetry not with the equally essential category of American poetry but with a field of potentialities, a virtual America that we approach but never possess. English languages set adrift from the sight/sound sensorium of the concrete experiences of the English people, are at their hearts uprooted and translated: nomadic in origin absolutely particular in practice. Invention in this context is not matter of choice: it is necessary as the ground we walk on. 10
While this comment is in many ways transferable to the Australian condition, there are differences between the American and Australian situations. Once again, turning to Lionel Fogarty: while his language is conceptual, it is also exclusive. It does desire (and I use this in the fetishised sense!) to communicate to people other than his own, but only insofar as it will allow his people the space they had occupied and should still occupy. In a sense, this ironically makes it an incredibly utilitarian poetry, albeit as an enemy of a market place that actively seeks to deny his people’s exclusive rights to territory.
This is not to say that Fogarty doesn’t see poetry as a universal and universalising mode of language, but rather that this is something to be wary of. Bernstein refers to the Nomadic. By way of cultural generalisation, Fogarty is of a “Nomadic” people (a cuttingly reductive collective noun when used from outside the discourse), whether they “wander” or not. And the English Fogarty uses works in the way noted by Bernstein. But any use of the English base/standard, regardless of intent, is recognising, interacting with, reinforcing, and qualifying, a particular English historicity. The “fringe” should establish its relationship to the coloniser, and not the other way around, in this way reclaiming at least partial control. A kind of inversion of Homi K. Bhabha’s hybridity, as described thus – “Hybridity is the sign of the productivity of colonial power, its shifting forces and fixities; it is the name for the strategic reversal of the process of domination through disavowal (that is, the production of discriminatory identities that secure the ’pure’ and original identity of authority) . . . ” 11 – leads to the result that the hybrid plays against the centre of power which has led to its appearance, and the colonising tongue is subverted, and its power base destabilised.
By way of conclusion, I’ll make brief reference to what was to have constituted (love the word in the context!) the second part of this paper: water, body fluids, and the colonisation of flows in Paradise. Australia is the largest island continent – it is surrounded by water. It is also paranoid about a lack of fresh water. It lends itself to a fluvial reading. Rod Giblett’s brilliant Postmodern wetlands: culture, history, ecology, Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, and Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodies, are at the core of this piece, entitled “Hydrography.” I examine the work of a number of Australian poems including J.S. Harry’s “the baby, with the bath-water, thrown out”, and “talking of water”, my own “Catchment” series and “Superstitious Bookes” sequence, and an array of Lionel Fogarty pieces.
1 Policy arising from the Immigration Restriction Bill, 1901
2 Originally in Night Parrots, 1989; now in Poems 1980-1994 (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1997), p90
3 Originally in Night Parrots, 1989; now in Poems 1980-1994 (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1997), p88
4 Published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press
5 Department of Anthropology, University of Western Australia
6 The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995), p
7 Lightning Tree (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996), p34
8 The incident referred to in this poem with regard to the cover of The Silo actually happened.
9 from Ngutji (1984), in Tranter & Mead, eds. The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry. Newcastle Upon Tyne, Eng.: Bloodaxe, 1994, p449
10 Modernism/modernity, v3 no3 1996, p5
11 From “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817”, Critical Inquiry, 12 (1) 1985