Landscape Poetry?

The Dyott Range has been heavily weathered – its eroded remains reach a highpoint at approx 1500 feet (457 metres) above sea level with Mount Bakewell, known among indigenous locals as Walwallinj. It’s the main topographical feature of the region in which my family live. It is the centre of my poetry, certainly over recent years. It is also the ‘burning reminder’ that nothing in this ‘landscape’ can be taken for granted, and none of it can be owned. Indigenous Australians talk of the land owning them, rather than them owning the land, and this should be a universal truth. They talk of themselves as custodians entrusted with a responsibility for the land’s physical and spiritual health. Non-indigenous Australians have, generally, paid scant regard to this truth. Yet no text that has come out of the land, or is a response to the land, can be separated from the land itself, and the implications of colonisation and occupation.Ê One of the most famous documents in Australian literature is Marcus Clarke’s introduction to the poetry of Adam Lindsay Gordon. There he seeks to define the mood of the Australian landscape from the European (especially British) Australian perspective:


What is the dominant note of Australian scenery? That which is the dominant note of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry — Weird Melancholy. A poem like “L’Allegro” could never be written by an Australian. It is too airy, too sweet, too freshly happy. The Australian mountain forests are funereal, secret, stern. Their solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle, in their black gorges, a story of sullen despair. No tender sentiment is nourished in their shade. In other lands the dying year is mourned, the falling leaves drop lightly on his bier. In the Australian forests no leaves fall. The savage winds shout among the rock clefts. From the melancholy gums strips of white bark hang and rustle. The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Great grey kangaroos hop noiselessly over the coarse grass. Flights of white cockatoos stream out, shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes burst out into horrible peals of semi-human laughter. The natives aver that, when night comes, from out the bottomless depth of some lagoon the Bunyip rises, and, in form like monstrous sea-calf, drags his loathsome length from out the ooze. From a corner of the silent forest rises a dismal chant, and around a fire dance natives painted like skeletons. All is fear-inspiring and gloomy. No bright fancies are linked with the memories of the mountains. Hopeless explorers have named them out of their sufferings, Mount Misery, Mount Dreadful, Mount Despair. As when among sylvan scenes in places

“Made green with the running of rivers,
And gracious with temperate air,”

the soul is soothed and satisfied, so, placed before the frightful grandeur of these barren hills, it drinks in their sentiment of defiant ferocity, and is steeped in bitterness.Ê Australia has rightly been named the Land of the Dawning. Wrapped in the midst of early morning, her history looms vague and gigantic. The lonely horseman riding between the moonlight and the day sees vast shadows creeping across the shelterless and silent plains, hears strange noises in the primeval forest, where flourishes a vegetation long dead in other lands, and feels, despite his fortune, that the trim utilitarian civilisation which bred him shrinks into insignificance beside the contemptuous grandeur of forest and ranges coeval with an age in which European scientists have cradled his own race.Ê There is a poem in every form of tree or flower, but the poetry which lives in the trees and flowers of Australia differs from those of other countries. Europe is the home of knightly song, of bright deeds and clear morning thought. Asia sinks beneath the weighty recollections of her past magnificence, as the Suttee sinks, jewel burdened, upon the corpse of dread grandeur, destructive even in its death. America swiftly hurries on her way, rapid, glittering, insatiable even as one of her own giant waterfalls. From the jungles of Africa, and the creeper-tangled groves of the Islands of the South, arise, from the glowing hearts of a thousand flowers, heavy and intoxicating odours – the Upas-poison which dwells in barbaric sensuality. In Australia alone is to be found the Grotesque, the Weird, the strange scribblings of Nature learning how to write. Some see no beauty in our trees without shade, our flowers without perfume, our birds who cannot fly, and our beasts who have not yet learned to walk on all fours. But the dweller in the wilderness acknowledges the subtle charm of this fantastic land of monstrosities. He becomes familiar with the beauty of loneliness. Whispered to by the myriad tongues of the wilderness, he learns the language of the barren and the uncouth, and can read the hieroglyphics of haggard gum-trees, blown into odd shapes, distorted with fierce hot winds, or cramped with cold nights, when the Southern Cross freezes in a cloudless sky of icy blue. The phantasmagoria of that wild dreamland termed the Bush interprets itself…

This othering and fear of the unknown, fused with a Victorian occultism, resonates throughout the Australian literature of the late nineteenth century, and indeed earlier and later. But this is not the bush I recognise, and it’s not just a matter of time having passed. Many still view the Australian forests and deserts as places of the ‘other’, where the rules of the Clarke geo-psychology come into play. The forests are where people grow dope and murderers dispose of their victims; the desert is the place you drive into and perish, to be found six months later a few miles from your car (even the radiator drained for water).

Recently, as part of an anthology of Western Australian writing I have been preparing, I came across a volume entitled The Lure of the Golden West by Thomas Sidney Groser, Late Honorary Secretary and Senior Brother of the Brotherhood of S. Boniface, Western Australia. Published in 1927, but recording experiences from the turn of the twentieth century, Brother Groser’s text contains the following observation:


There is scarcely a more lovely picture imaginable than a West Australian Bush in the Springtime. Pink is perhaps the prevailing colour – certainly where the ‘everlasting’ predominates. But flowers of every other colour of the rainbow are there – white daisies; pale blue leschenaultia; red, blue and cream orchids; scarlet and yellow kangaroo paws growing to three feet in height on slender stems; purple and mauve heather; golden buttercups and wattle – to mention but a few. The rich green undergrowth of Spring-time, and the evergreen and flowering eucalyptus trees, form a rich setting for this glowing pageantry of colour. The indigenous trees of Australia never, perceptibly, lose their foliage.Marcus Clarke, a prominent and familiar writer of the Antipodes, alludes in his books to some peculiarities of Australian scenery. But he writes of the Eastern States, and knew nought, apparently, of the glorious South-west. His pictures are often weird and fantastic in the extreme. They contain very much that is true, but very much on the other hand that is totally inapplicable to many parts of the Continent. (216)


Brother Groser then quotes Clarke’s piece exactly as above and adds:


In all that is fantastic, weird and melancholy, to my mind, this picture of Marcus Clarke’s, itself, takes some beating. But then, it must be remembered, it is a word painting for the preface of a volume of poems whose author was melancholy in the extreme. It was a melancholia which was responsible for Gordon’s premature and self-inflicted death. But though temperamentally unstrung, Gordon put his soul into his writings, and justly won for himself an enviable reputation as a true songster. He possessed a keen sense for manliness and natural beauty. Between his poems and Marcus Clarke’s Preface to them, there is as much difference as between chalk and cheese. Yet despite this criticism of the weird pen-painting above, after making due allowances for the peculiarities of Eastern conditions, there is a great deal in it that is true and applicable to certain parts of Australia. (219)

The disclaimer built into the last lines is interesting. I also look to a disclaimer, but for a different political reason. For me, the problem is not in the recognition of the weird, the melancholic, the grotesque, but in the application of those to an othering of indigeneity. The weird, the melancholic and the grotesque are aspects in my personal seeing that I cherish, and search out – realising that such values are those of my experience and disposition translated into my interaction with the land. I can also see Brother Groser’s bright flowers, but for me they are a beauty tainted by the horrific history of colonisation and displacement.

Critics have consistently remarked on my work that it is too concerned with death, and that in it (even) death has become so prevalent that it is not the ‘mysteries’ of death itself being explored but the basic recognition of its necessary presence. This is, in part, true. Death is a variable around which life is measured. In a colonial environment (and colonisation can be ‘post’ only in discourse, not in reality Ñ recolonisation is how indigenous presence is continually suppressed, ‘assimilated’, denied, or controlled). Furthermore, the rural spaces I have spent much of my life in have been devastated by European farming practices – the destruction of the topsoil and the removal of trees and scrub (that would normally keep the water table down and prevent salinity leaching up to the surface), has led to widespread salt. Now here’s the paradox – salt is a terrible thing, and yet it is also a natural part of the environment. But through abuse of place, it has spread and replaced the scrub that once kept it at bay.

Salt occurs a lot in my poetry. Its negative side is obvious, but more subtle is its beauty – a crystalline kingdom of apparent nothingness, it becomes a stage for a theatre of absurdity, a different kind of poetic language. I write loss and destruction, lovingly. I write people whose viewpoints are very different to my own, who politically oppose me as I oppose them, but I celebrate the difference. Out of the destruction comes something fresh and vital. For me, poetry is a sublime thing, but also gritty and angry. It can do something. It is awareness and the blood flowing through veins. It is the unseen stream below the surface sought by the diviner and found to be running salt.

The gendering of place also fascinates me. Groser alludes to the maleness of his way of seeing. For me, gender is among other things a complex and interchangeable way of seeing the land. The use of maleness or femaleness or hermaphroditism in my poetry is meant to show how mobile our interaction with place is. Every difference in ourselves vis-à-vis community will change the way we experience the land. Women in my poems often use a ‘masculine’ language as a way of destabilising the patriarchy, and a character like ‘doll boy’ ironises the feminisation attributed to his gayness by the ‘blokes’ of the community. For a small Western Australian wheatbelt community, gender identity locates itself on every level of casual or official interaction.

I am interested in re-examining the same events and places over and over again – at different times, under different circumstances. I am interested in the interstices of the macro and the micro, of the twig and the tree. I am equally fascinated by the way things that don’t seem to fit create their own language of belonging. On my desk at the moment is a photograph, taken by my mother, that shows a section of mud and stone wall – the remnants of a house destroyed near Meckering during the massive earthquake that ripped apart the fault line in the late ’60s. My cousins spent that night in their station wagon as the family farm shifted, wells lost water, and gullies opened into small canyons. The birds and other animals went silent, the weather patterns temporarily altered. What’s unusual about this piece of red mud and grey granite wall, open to the ‘pure’ blue sky, is the V of plaster that still adorns it. It is decorated around the top of the wall with a trompe l’oeil cornice of neo-Etruscan arch frescoes. The plaster-work probably comes from the late nineteenth century, and would have been part of a large federation-style bedroom or parlour. It is an anachronism inside a modern intrusion. The ironies fold in on themselves. These ironies drive my poetry. The fence-post hacked out of the magnificent wandoo, the sheep entangled in barbed wire. As a vegan, I am appalled by the mistreatment and use of farm animals, but these things are intrinsically part of my poetry – sometimes presented with political sympathy, at other times in a matter-of-fact, that’s-how-it-is manner. The metaphors take over, and the slippage is where the poem locates itself.

Because I have lived in the UK and USA since 1996, the dominant features of landscape become points of focus from afar. Another point of reference is the Needlings, which looks down over what remains of my uncle’s and auntie’s farm, once part of a massive ‘settler’ property. I have described or conveyed the Needlings in a poem (‘Inland’) as a stone theodolite. It measures distances in reverse – that old and wise adage, the further we move away, the closer we get. Landscape is the appropriate word for me, as it’s about human mediation of the environment.

My work is an anti-pastoral, attempting to tackle the contradictions and uncertainties, with an ecologically-inclined politics, but also an eye to ‘how it is’. Language is another landscape, and where these two planes meet is where abstraction and, I feel, enrichment, come into their own form of focus. My mother’s property is at the base of Mount Bakewell, and my bedroom there looks out onto an ancient extinct volcano. The bushland atop is the only ‘alpine’ environment in the wheatbelt, and is the home of a very rare species of orchid – unique, they say – as well as other plants, and probably animals. That’s at the peak, the irony being that government communications equipment leads to the summit being semi-protected by nature reservation laws, while the base and a good deal of the slopes of the mountain are leased farmland, destroyed by cropping and stock.

Bats fly down from the mountain at night, and during the day, in very warm weather, paragliders illegally take off from the mount. From the workshed behind the house I record all flights that cross my eyesight. I transpose into my journals, and onto paper via a manual typewriter. A wagtail flies into the shed, bobs out again. ‘Twenty-eight’ parrots drop fruits from York gums and a flock of pink-and-grey galahs swerves into view with the setting sun, purple on the ‘purple mountain’, as a mid-nineteenth century poet described it. It is a place of immense spiritual significance to the indigenous people, and when it eventually joins the smaller mountain across the valley, the end of the world will have come.

I am making connections with landscape in mid-Ohio, but I can’t do this in the same way that I can in the place of my childhood memories. A hybrid landscape arises – a composite world in which deciduous black walnuts cross-pollinate with salmon gums. A red tanager and a cardinal morph with elegant parrots, and the ironies of living among seas of genetically modified corn do not escape me. But I am connecting, because land is land, and its codes, though so different, are based on the same speech. This ‘benign’ exploration is exciting, stimulating, and fraught with potential disaster. The benign can become the intrusive, the possessive. But that’s also the case where I come from. I retreat to language, a language of poetry obsessed with the real, with observation, but digressing into the abstractions of a hybridised world that becomes its own place.

Apart from a love of the land, I am fascinated by the way stories are told and observations presented. I teach poetics and literary theory, always grounded in praxis, in examples. GŽrard Genette’s ideas of duration in narrative, the relationship between the ‘time of the tale’ and ‘the time of its telling’, serve my need to revisit place and circumstance from different angles. The shortest event might take the longest time to tell, the longest event the shortest in the telling. Many of the events portrayed in my poetry – if not all – have a concrete set of references, but they also generate their own internal references and timescale. The story exists independently of its telling. I stick photographs over my walls and recreate the places I’m not in. There’s no nostalgia for them; I don’t miss them, they’re just a fact. They’re there, painful as well as rewarding. They’re ingrained.

My brother’s sheep dog, Shep, stares away from the camera. He’s heard something – possibly the fox that was barking in the scrub near the mountain. It’s evening, that time. The fox, like the dog and the photographer, are late-comers to the place. They know no other, though, no matter how far they wander. There is an ongoing thirst for reconciliation. Dry for years, a few tufts of blond grass edge the gravel pit. The warped claws of a massive York gum, uprooted by a storm years back, grasps at the ochre. It is singed at the top, and split – now lying semi-horizontal. Twisted up. A lightning strike. As a child I was struck by lightning – thrown off my feet. My auntie says my eyes stuck out on stalks, and ever since then I’ve looked and looked and looked. I can see the ant on the chip of rose quartz, I listen for the creatures that burrow away from the heat. The dugite suns itself, confident.

One of the storylines I keep rolling through my imagination is the story of the map. I collect map grids of the Avon Valley – my home place. Aerial and field data; scale 1: 50 000; horizontal data; vertical data; contours; depressions; trigonometrical station (Mount Bakewell, Needlings…); stream perennial; stream, intermittent, stream mainly dry; telegraph line; waterhole or soak; clay plain; flood plain; creek or brook; tank or small dam; spring; sealed road; unmade road..The smothering of another people’s or other peoples’ tracks, their dreaming, their ‘songlines’. ‘Dunmore’, ‘Avonside’. The destructive, delusive overlay. ‘Note: The representation on this map of any road or track is not necessarily evidence of public right of way.’ York, Sheet 2234-11.Ê Between Cold Harbour Road and Station Road a number of creeks begin. It is a place of sources and ends, and reclamations.