A Patch of Ground

As a teenager I deplored nationalism. I read Marx, Kropotkin and Bakunin, and wondered what it was to be an “Australian” in a “settler society”. I had seen enough racism, both in the city and in the country, to know that white Australians were so uncertain about their place there that they had established what amounted – politically, socially, and economically – to systemic discrimination against any who threatened their hegemony. I didn’t believe it was possible to excuse any white, myself included, from complicity in this exploitation and marginalisation.

As I grew older I realised that even within this white community there were degrees of racism; an Anglo-Celtic background was socially more acceptable than an Italian or Greek one, despite the fact that a system of discrimination also existed within the Anglo-Celtic binary. Then, toward the final years of my schooling, the prejudice against Asian immigrants by all other “Australians” was in full swing. This prejudice had come with settlement, of course, and after all, “ours” was a country that had developed a White Australia policy just for the purpose of excluding Asians. When I left school I would take to removing right-wing anti-Asian propaganda from lamp-posts and fences, propaganda that had been posted by Jack Van Tongeren’s National-Front-inspired “ANM”, which operated in Perth and Fremantle. On one occasion an associate of mine had her foot broken by an ANM soldier. Australia is and has been since settlement a nation of division.

Some of my earliest poetry explored the divisions between the “Irish” and the “English” on the Goldfields of Western Australia. In the poem “Voices from a Region of Extraction”, I wrote, in the persona of a miner’s wife:


And I said that if my church isn’t good enough,then I’ll be damned if I’ll go into hers.

I often talk about International Regionalism – the preservation of regional identity and integrity while being part of a global village. I emphasize the need for lines of communication between regions, for the formation of a common space for discourse, a “neutral zone”. For me, nationalism is the coagulation of a group of independent regional identities into a block with more common interests (whether real or perceived, chosen or imposed) than others in the global village; a coagulation that absorbs the power of each region in order to build up the strength of a “centre”. Up until now, nationhood has been spatial and identified with a particular area (country) containing varying degrees of internal regionalism – the web may well be changing this. I would argue that nationalism is the natural enemy of regionalism. Nations have capitals. Regions might have, but it’s not implicit in their definition.

I say this because for me, as a poet often identified with a particular space (wheatbelt Western Australia), questions of regionalism and conversely nationalism often arise. Even more so now that I am based in Cambridge, England – a fact that particularly confuses the binary. Does my absence from the space I primarily represent lessen the “authenticity”, relevance, and integrity, of work associated with this, especially in terms of work written about that space in (or from) Cambridge? For me, the key is the global village, and how dislocation might increase the focus on the originating space. It’s that “further one moves away the closer one gets” thing again. And being in a situation of having ambivalent, if not confused, notions about belonging in the first place, this becomes doubly true. Being there, wrapped up in the guilts of occupation, of one’s relation to a disinheriting process, precludes a genuine feeling of belonging in any case.

I remember as a child being told by rural friends and cousins that The Farm was Australia. This says a lot. Apart from the occupation of Aboriginal lands, wheatbelt Western Australia was fairly racially homogeneous – that is, Anglo-Celtic and wanting to keep it that way. I recall jokes about Italians, market gardeners and red Dodge trucks. Of Sicilians with penchants for knives and stabbing people (Anglo-Celtic whites) in the back, and so on. Then, it was the Italian or Greek market gardener as the Other. Later, it would become the Asian market gardeners with their “exotic” vegetables, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, etc. One of my strongest memories from childhood is the association of the flag with guns. A friend of the family would often take me into his “reloading room” in which he kept an arsenal of guns. He was a competition shooter and a collector. He had a huge Australian flag hanging from his wall. Not unusual. I was to see it again in my teenage years, often accompanied by a Eureka Stockade Southern Cross and, not as strange as it seems, a Confederate flag. A school friend from Geraldton High School (a town about five hours’ drive up the coast from Perth) whose father was a gun fanatic (right word), regularly mixed jargon of a perceived (American) “South” with separatist (WA has always been strong on this) and Nationalist talk into a rightwing convert-the-young rave. The son read Michael Herr’s Dispatches over and over and over – ignoring its irony for his own racist and paranoid purposes: a worry!

While being, on and off, part of this environment, and deeply attracted to “the land”, and wanting to translate its seemingly indifferent beauty, I was trapped in a negative appraisal of place. I just didn’t like its nationalism, the way “its” people thought of themselves. The pride and exclusionism. Still, I respected tenacity and the ability to adapt – the strange combination of conservative flexibility. These traits are so much part of the Australia’s self-perceived national identity, and consequently “our” nationalism, that they are clichés of complicity. I am an Australian, no matter where I am, and despite my fear and loathing, I’m part of the place. It’s a love-hate relationship. Even now, years later, I have to go back to rural WA to get my landscape fix!

For a couple of years in the early eighties I worked on wheatbins in the northern wheatbelt town of Mingenew. This was a popular way of making money for students – and it was during summer holidays that I did my stints. I had spent much of my childhood and teenage years in rural spaces so it seemed the natural thing to do. I was comfortable among wheat and trucks. I loved the landscape. I knew and understood the farming community. I left partway through my second tour. The racism, or maybe one should say nationalism, was rampant. I would later write in the poem “The Millenarian’s Dream”:


Intaglioed on the silo wallsthe cat and its litter inflected

the bloodier face of wheat: ASW,

Australian Standard White.

They hooted and cheered

in the pub that night, washing

it down straight from the tap,

while in the limelight

a stranger had sat, marking

dust and twisting a glass,

clenching a fist, wiping

rust from his lips.

I had become a stranger in my own community. When I heard of a bunch of “the boys” burning out a local Aboriginal family I decided to leave, but not before I was beaten up. A visiting South African white who spoke of shooting “Kaffirs” with his AK47 was lauded as a hero. A visiting “Pom” was persecuted, and “if any gook sets foot in this town we’ll blow his fucking head off”. They were going to defend “their patch of ground”! These were “the boys” – early twenties-so possibly unrepresentative of the community as a whole, but where there’s smoke…

One way of resolving these issues poetically for me has been through palimpsesting the landscape I now “occupy” with that I’ve left. IÕm often tempted to think of myself as being involved in some self-imposed exile, but that’s disingenuous. It would be truer to say I feel exiled through not being able to identify completely with the national character; but then again even the most misrepresented “redneck” would have difficulty identifying with what it is to be an Aussie, that media-constructed, socially-constructed ID that could just as well be an advertising logo created by Saatchi and Saatchi in London! This “palimpsesting” is a kind of reverse colonising process. I impose a reading of wheatbelt Western Australia over fenland Cambridgeshire. [The results of this will appear in a Macmillan book on postcolonial identities edited by Tim Cribb, appearing next year.]

The pastoral I write has always been “radical” or “anti”. I don’t seek to idealise this community. But I am part of it. The poetry wrestles with this dichotomy. It is poetry of paradox. To illustrate the issues I’m outlining I’ve written a “Virgilian” eclogue using an Australian rural scene but subverting the regional “identity”, or at least the nationalist reading of this identity. For Australian “pastoral” we might read settler bucolics of self-actuation. In this “Second Eclogue”, I have the “voices” working against the hegemony of rural identity and its attendant patriarchy. Race and gender issues are at the core of the “conversation”; the ecologue works consciously against its competitive origins.


Second Eclogue(Paul is delivering a load of grain to the local wheat bin. He is at the weighbridge, talking with Jenny, the weighbridge officer.)


This load will be slightly under, the cops are up the road –
last year I went for a pile – they don’t give you a break!
Is that a new guy down there on the grid?
Have they taken on an extra hand or are they replacing
someone who didn’t pull his weight? Looks Chinese to me.
Gee, they’ve got half the world working in this place.


Yeah, and the weighbridge officer’s a girl! What’s the world
coming to, eh? Soon it’ll start affecting the yield.


Eh, steady on, there’s no need to be like that. I was
just making an observation. I know there’s some people
around here that like things to remain the same, to not
let others in, but I’ve always said, give a bloke a go.
And a sheila too, for that matter! After all, we’re pretty
lucky when you consider that this was once somebody
else’s country. We’ve got to make room for others,
and respect the rights of those that came before us.
It’s a bit of a balancing act, but better than being
at each other’s throats. All I care about is that when people
look after their patch of ground they remember they
have neighbours. Mind you, all my mates say
I talk too much, and reckon I should get a soapbox
and set up in Supreme Court Gardens. But I never
go down to the city – I’ve enough trouble keeping up
with what’s going on in the district. It’s been a good
season though – give me a drought and IÕd
be complaining. It’ll be a magical sunset.


What I love about it here, and I’m from the city,
is the distance between horizons. It’s as if anything
is possible. The other day I was sitting in the shade
down by the A-type bin, listening to the parrots
laughing as they feasted on spilt grain. For a moment
it was as if I could understand their language.
And though I can’t recount what it was they said,
I’m sure they made me welcome,
that they accepted me amongst them. Though I don’t mind
saying, I can barely stand the heat. There’s been some
talk of storms later in the week, that it’s brewing up
that way – it’ll be a welcome relief! The ground
seems as if it’s gasping for a drink.


Yeah, I agree, it’s been a stinking week, but a storm can
wreck the harvest. Apart from damage to the crops
by wind and rain, there’s always lightning ready
to spark the tinder fields. Most years I’ve had
to drive my water truck out to a neighbour’s place
and take to the flames with wet hessian. I’ve been lucky,
the lightning’s avoided my spread – touch wood!


Well, I suppose you’re right. Maybe I’ll just sit back
with a nice cool drink this evening and think about
Antarctica. Though itÕll be hard, as conversation
gets heated in the hut after work.
The blokes find it annoying having a girl – a sheila! –
living amongst them. What’s worse, theyÕre two to a room
and I have a room to myself. Though I point out that I’d prefer
the odds were stacked the other way!
But don’t frown so much, theyÕre not a bad bunch.
Just take getting used to, or a skin thicker than cow hide!
I’d like to yarn with you all day, but if we don’t get
this truck moving through to the grid
they’ll be at me for slacking off. Enjoy the sunset!


Thanks for that. And you’re right, I’d better get a move on –
some other trucks have just rolled up to the sampling stand
and will be on your doorstep soon. Though I’ll leave you
with lines from a song that’s long been dear to me:


When the harvest sun sinks low,
And shadows stretch on the plain,
The roaring strippers come and go
Like ships on a sea of grain.


In the Australian context, the work of David Campbell is uppermost in my mind when dealing with these issues. Campbell’s work plays with “things as they are”, occasionally employs irony, but doesn’t allow for the ironising of “his” voice by the reader. His are not poems in which the reader is invited to participate. As with the poetry of Les Murray, theirs is sacred ground. Human values may be questioned, but not the authenticity of setting. They are poems that internalise landscape. The reader observes as the poet observes – through the poet’s eyes. The persona speaks with an authoritative voice. It’s not that the observed isn’t questioned – of course it is. But it’s mystery of things, (or in the case of Murray, maybe also the energy evoked by “the rapture”), that works at our imaginations, always remaining subservient to this authoritative voice. The process of questioning is essentially a “naive” construct. The critical faculty might be exercised in the georgic sense of right and wrong, but this only occurs within the framework of the constructed voice. It gives the illusion of self-questioning. In Campbell’s poem “Sowing” taken from “Works and Days” we read:


It’s all right on a still blue day sowing down a paddockWhen the skyline shimmers and lifts as if the grain

Had sprung to life already. It’s like the grateful

Shudder of conception in a big blond woman.


This is a poem of primacy (the patriarchy) and exclusion (the national purity of the European ideal). It is classically Australian pastoral. It is a polemic of national identity without announcing itself. It is a product of the nostalgia for a rural interior.

There is a poem by Les Murray, “Brief History” from Subhuman Redneck Poems, that could be seen to illustrate the easy movement of the georgic into the polemic. Here is a poem that might well be polemical yet proffers itself as not only satire, but satire on satire. Satire might disguise polemical intent. The poem has something in common with Bruce Dawe’s urban pastoral tone. Dawe is not generally recognised as writing “pastorals” and in many ways might be seen as representing the consciously “urban” voice. Or, if not the urban, at least the country town, as as opposed to the voice of the countryside. Wherever the backbone of the People is, so is the Dawe voice. What is it that Les Murray has found so inviting in his work?

Murray is quoted on the back cover of the fifth edition of Sometimes Gladness as writing in The Age: “Dawe is universally loved… he’s the senior poet of Australia. He’s a first-rate human being – not that that would necessarily make him a good poet. His poetry has an unfussed kind of eloquence, wonderfully pitched so it will speak to people of little education or great education. He has a perfectly judged middle voice.” One recognises in this the classic tropes of nationalism and nationalistic writing. There is the authority figure, representative and custodian of the common good, the mouthpiece through which all may speak, etc. It is interesting to juxtapose this with Murray’s role as rural shaman, preserver of the spiritual heartland, translator of the natural, spokesperson for God. Here the chthonic meets with the ethical; in Dawe ethics are derived out of the common and national good. Dawe might be read as a variety of georgic poet.

With the oversimplification of what the Australian pastoral is (ie anything not urban!), the finer categories of pastoral are easily ignored. Radical pastoral, neo-pastoral, urban pastoral etc. In England the urban pastoral is not rare. Peter Larkin has discussed the urbanisation of rural spaces and the emergence of a new kind of “landscape” poem from this, as I too have done on the British poetry email discussion list through May, June, and July 1997. Pastoral, primarily, becomes a form in which the spatial interacts with the “moral”. It is the ethical exegesis of space and its rendering into form – visual, musical, and linguistic.

The Murray poem might be read as a polemic dealing with what it is that constitutes the “Australian”, as a poem of national identity. In the poem we confront a play with the ironising faculty of the authoritative voice. This voice is feigning self-irony but is actually retaining its moral high ground. It is a poem that works within the postcolonial discourse by working against the “othering” process, though it also mocks a system of thought that establishes such a discourse. It classically has its cake and eats it too. It refuses the label of “racist” or “nationalistic”. It has to do with cultural sovereignty.

The question becomes: what constitutes a national sovereignty? The Murray poem is about the discourse concerning the preservation of space. And a space whose “short history” is supported by a history longer than the colonising spaces that “created” it. It is potentially a pastoral point of confluence between the dreamings of the settler culture and the Dreaming of the indigenous – an act of giving the dominant culture an authority through connection with the colonised cultures. Consequently, the satire is linked with a semi-mystical tone that distracts the reader from this legitimising process:


Our one culture paints Dreamings, each a beautiful claim.Far more numerous are the unspeakable Whites,

the only cause of all earthly plights,

immigrant natives without immigrant rights.

Unmixed with these are Ethnics, absolved of all blame.

All of people’s Australia, its churches and lore

are gang-raped by satire self-righteous as war

and, from trawling fresh victims to set on the poor,

our mandarins now, in one more evasion

of love and themselves, declare us Asian.


Either way, it is the irony that destabilises any specific reading.

Recently I was asked by Antislavery International to support an Indigenous response to unsympathetic legislation going up before the Australian Senate regarding land rights for Australian Aborigines. At a press conference I read the following poem:


To The Non-Indigenous Peoples of AustraliaIt’s the great excuse – it wasn’t us, you can’t blame

us for what happened two hundred, a hundred

and fifty, or even a hundred years ago.

We didn’t hunt them down and remove their children.

We didn’t come in and take the place.

But in truth, that’s what we’re doing – all over again.

Everything we do is based on suppressing their interests.

Who’ll take the blame for what’s happening now?

Who’ll accept that lock-ups and jails are still places of death?

Here’s our chance to be different, to have a conscience,

to know the difference between wrong and right.

For it’s that simple. The rest of the world

can see this – why can’t we?

Let me tell a story, a story close to the bone –

about a white family that was forced to sell up

after working the land for a hundred years –

leaving it nearly tore them apart.

They’d cleared and shaped the place, it was a portrait

of themselves, they’d poured their hearts and souls into it.

On a summer evening they’d look out over

the paddocks, over the burnt stubble, over

the stands of mallee, through a flock of sulphur-crested

cockatoos, into the rich red sunset.

They left to slaps on the back and sympathy

and the words, “It’s a hard place – beautiful

but unforgiving.” Their sorrow was understood.

They were not hated for their loss.

But what if this land was them?

What if this land had invested its spirit in them?

What if the land and these people couldn’t be separated,

were one and the same. That when plant grew

or animal died it grew and died in them.

That by tearing them apart we left a dead place,

a place without spirit, destroyed the reason for its being.

Until we face up to what we’ve done and are doing,

until we make moves to put things right,

we’ll be less than a people. History for us

begins with facing up to what we are.

Two hundred years back we thought we had it

to ourselves. Now, the world is watching.


In this poem the settler nation is brought to account by itself. The “Us” is a conscious play against our internalised “Other”. It intones guilt by usurping authority – authority is not denied but made collective responsibility. National traits of a “fair go” and the classless society are played upon. The voice of the poem doesn’t externalise, or condemn without condemning itself.

What is unusual about this poem in terms of my own poetics is that it is blatantly polemical in approach. I had once said I would never do this. The poem seeks to outflank the actions of metaphor and structure by “speaking” directly. Interestingly, the responses I’ve had to it have primarily come from Aboriginal writers asking me to discuss the issues or to look at their work. Another poem dealing with similar subject matter but set in a far more “ambivalent” light, meta-textual in its equivocation regarding the nationalistic aspects of the pastoral voice, is the poem “Heading South through The Long Paddock”.


Heading South throughthe Long Paddock

for Tom Flood and Dorothy Hewett

On the last day of November

I journey to see my brother,

the tyres sticky on the asphalt

as the ground thunders

with grain trucks.

The fly-blown carcasses

of kangaroos fester like boils

and I think of the times

I worked on the wheatbins,

two seasons in hell,

trapped in a hut with a bunch

of boys who had to be boys

even though they probably

found it hell as well.

It leads me to think of Tom Flood,

and his mother Dorothy

who grew up in this territory,

who set the dead sea of wheat

against itself, growing green

under the sapping sun

long before belly-dumpers

and tip-trucks rolled

along this road. The grain here

is mainly oats and barley

though some wheat spills

from the augers – but not Oceana Fine

which belongs to another place

and another time. Soon I’ll hear

how the cover of my book

was ripped from its spine

by some Nyoongah mates

of my brother’s – they reckon

that tractors and ploughs

are bad for the land,

and they’re right.

But this is the heritage

I bring with me,

and there’s no denying it.

The windrows layer the hills

like enormous elegant snakes –

the art of humans is always

deceptive. I shouldn’t be ‘saying’ this

but intimating or illustrating

by allusion or association –

I should find a new language

that will burrow deep

into the conscience

as if it were a maggot

in a sheep or kangaroo carcass,

as if the conscience

were a piece of mangled meat

hit again and again by trucks.

Knocking some sense into it

some smart arse might say.

But this language would have to be

like everything I see,

but understood by those

who can’t or haven’t seen.

For it’s them I’d want to tell.

For it’s a story, it’s my story

as well. Like eucalypt blossom

luminous in the upper atmosphere,

like another season laying

itself over this one,

like unspoken family histories

that might account for it

but don’t need to. I pass

a silo, and a dead numbat.

They’re rare, and the stripes

are like a warning. Later

my brother will tell me

there’ve been heaps

around this season; he’s

been out in the bush

with his girlfriend, maybe

near the Devil’s Backbone,

which is a place sacred

to her people, but now called

what the farmers in the district

call it. And as I drive

through the long paddock

glass wheat stalks deflect the sun

and the paddocks shimmer;

dams glower like blue windows

in a false surface. The long paddock –

where sheep are grazed in a hard season,

where dogs work the space

between fence and road,

and a red-capped parrot sits

among a flock of twenty-eights.

And nearby, wandoo brilliantly white

strikes the already hollowing sky,

while dense stands of mallet –

once an industry in Narrogin –

stand bolt upright, seeded

into chained scrubland,

the moon like a damaged ball-joint,

crops fox-red, hawks over the hay.

Here, with only the wind

rushing through the car window,

my language is of sight

and words merely compressions

of what I see: parrot flocks

seething on the ragged edge

of the soon-to-be harvested crop,

the header comb set low

and a crew getting ready

to spot that night. The images

crash into each other. Distantly

an old Nyoongah woman sings echidnas

out of their tree-stump hollows,

balled and spined

they walk out, struck by song.

The wheels hit a rupture in the road.

I struggle to maintain control.

Everything here is like something else,

because it is not as it was.


This poem has aroused most interest in readers from outside Australia who recognise the ambivalence of the “authoritative voice”. Which is not to say that the ambivalence can’t be seen by the “internal” reader, but that it is a poem where the external and internal spaces meet. It is unsure of its space. The “long paddock” is the land on either side of a road that “doesnÕt belong to anyone” (that is, it belongs to the Crown). It is considered a neutral space. The invasion of the “neutral” space (actually very much part of Aussie mythology) by the agents of occupation, the settler-invader binary, is the engine driving the poem’s metaphorical content. It is the “same” poem as the polemic. And this introduces interesting questions about reception, and perceived or targeted audiences.

It would be easy to suggest that the polemic is written for easy access and consequently a broad audience. But this isn’t the case – the poems are both written with the same audience in mind. What makes the difference between the two is our application of the notion of national identity, and what it is that the nation is capable of absorbing. An apparently direct attack as in the polemic becomes immediately threatening while the “disguised” attack in the “long paddock” poem is seemingly lost through a lack of comprehension. Why is this? I’d argue: because the reader expects to find in the pastoral poem sympathy towards settler culture. After all, isn’t that what Australian pastoral is? The polemic, while including rural material – that is, material of rural space – is clearly external. It avows knowledge and participation/interaction with this space but implies that the “voice” is now externalised. It claims kinship but betrays the national spirit.

Questions such as those addressed in this paper are at the core of my poetics and my understanding of the Australian pastoral. This “form” is a vehicle of nationalist yearning and either through it or against it we might read all Australian poetry. It lurks in the background regardless. I used to discuss this issue many times with John Forbes who argued that the Australian pastoral is a nostalgic folly and entirely unrepresentative. But this is its strength, and this is what makes it the ultimate tool of nationalistic sentiment – it is always there, allusive, chthonic, and entirely predictable in its reception, if not its content. It is my project to subvert this reception and consequently the blind nationalism that supports it.


Ode to John Forbes (or, Ring of Bright Water)The interior fights back

like the inoculated rabbit

in the Flinders Ranges

as you watch an adult movie

just to find that it doesn’t

do the trick, despite a view

from the hotel window

out over the sweeping coast,

and summer fashions

in the bar that might be

pure Sydney. In Melbourne

you don’t get as much of the beach

as you’d like and have probably

forgotten what bright water

really is; well, from Bondi

I write that Dupain’s bathers

wear style like suncream,

and despite the risk

wear little else.

Consider the resilience

of the pastoral

in the management of guilt

in which diocesan support

helps you through such

difficult times: when drought comes

or the wool prices are down

they improvise, live off their wits;

and despite the concentration

of the population on the edge

they still look inwards

when fluctuating prices

upset the budget-

those yokels from Ironbark

need a city bloke like you

to put them in their places!

And in that crucible of post-modernity,

where you helped invent the

“Sydney Poem”, they forget

the immediacy of nostalgia

that wasn’t borrowed

from the post-atomic “Fifties”,

or the belief that it was

the Americans who led

the coasties away

from the grim idyll

of the interior.

The challenge for an

Aussie otter is to glow

like neon on the balmiest

evening, to swim in company

in the unsublime waters

of the Harbour

listening to “Good Vibrations”

as container loads

of manufactured goods

make their way towards

the centre of the Empire.