review by Amelia Walker
Three new collections featuring the Australian rural landscape – Open Door (Kinsella 2018), Broken Ground (Armstrong 2018) and Rondo (Wallace-Crabbe 2018) – together provide a rich portrait of the thematic and aesthetic diversity in Australian rural landscape poetry today. In order to contextualise what these books offer, I would like to first consider the history of post-invasion landscape poetry in Australia, then discuss Kinsella’s, Armstrong’s and Wallace-Crabbe’s new works in turn. The term post-invasion is one I use to acknowledge the extensive, rich and varied traditions of poetry among other creative and literary practices by the many different groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people whom I recognise as the rightful owners of the land on which I am privileged to read, write and live.
In 1892, Henry Lawson wrote: ‘I am back from up the country – very sorry that I went –’ (Lawson 1912: 137), thereby landing the first blow in an eleven year literary spar with fellow poet AB (Banjo) Paterson. Paterson’s response poem, ‘In Defence of the Bush’, scathingly concluded:
Although possibly more playful than serious, the public debate significantly established – or at least reinforced – a cultural myth that would bear upon Australian poetics well into the 1900s: that the bush and city were opposite and opposed. This myth entailed assumptions concerning cultural, political and aesthetic qualities supposedly associated with poems of rural versus urban landscapes: bush poetry became considered masculine and urban poetry feminine; poets who wrote of rural landscapes were expected to be relatively conservative both politically and stylistically, whereas poets writing about built-upon landscapes were deemed more likely to push against socio-political constraints and literary traditions (Kinsella 2013: 43).
This polarised view of urban and rural poetry reductively misrepresented poets and poems in both categories – never mind those who straddled the two or considered other places and themes entirely. Indeed, the myth even misrepresents Paterson and Lawson themselves, who were both more complex and diverse writers than the simplistic binary suggests. Yet the myth was influential. For a time, to degrees, it made itself true, for once established in the collective cultural consciousness, it compelled aspiring Australian poets to knowingly or unknowingly work within its parameters: as late as the early 1970s, Melbourne or the Bush still seemed, for some, an essential choice to make (Wallace-Crabbe 1974).
For Kinsella, radical pastoral poetry is crucially an ethically-engaged activity: a mode of poetic resistance against the unjust treatment of animals, including human animals, and our world; a means of imagining better ways to be. Experimentation with poetic form is likewise key to the radical pastoral approach: this enacts symbolic resistance against socio-cultural and political constraints, and is also a means of opening up language so as to open up thought about more ethical ways to live and be.
Kinsella’s new collection, Open Door, tunes his radical pastoral poetics-as-politics towards ‘a consideration of belonging and unbelonging, of living in the Western Australian wheatbelt while the Australian government closes doors to refugees’ (13). Also prominent throughout the collection is the plight of the Australian ringneck or ‘28’ parrot, the numbers of which are dwindling due to clearing of land for agriculture. The poem ‘“28s” – Possession’ reveals how these majestic ‘birds of the volte’ have been forced to seek survival by imitating other species:
Notable in the above is Kinsella’s evocative use of enjambment to fracture the grammar of sentences in ways that evoke the ‘out of kilter’, haunted scene he describes. This is a technique Kinsella applies throughout the collection, often together with use of wordless spaces or lacunae, for instance in poems such as ‘Dispersal’ (42), ‘The Open Door?’ (66), ‘Volute’ (110-114) and ‘I Don’t Own Sheep But I Still End Up Rounding Them Up’ (142-3). The gaps in these poems seem to signal things unsaid and/or unknown: things that it is perhaps too hard to say or face, or possibly things that have been censored, forgotten, lost or destroyed. These blank-yet-not-empty spaces remind us, the history of Australia since invasion is a history of erasures, of violent denial.
Given Australia’s cruel history, it was good to see Kinsella’s front-of-book acknowledgement of the Ballardong Noongar people as the owners and custodians of the land on and about which he writes. This should be the standard for all books written and/or published in Australia. Kinsella’s recognition of Indigenous sovereignty resonates throughout the collection, in which he frequently acknowledges and grapples with the problems of his own privilege as a non-Indigenous white-skinned Australian – an important example that more of us should follow.
If the radical pastoral can be considered an emerging tradition in Australian poetry, then Steve Armstrong’s Broken Ground extends this tradition along exciting new trajectories. As in Kinsella’s work, environmental issues feature strongly, as do the brutal ongoing consequences of colonial invasion. For instance, in ‘Deadman’, Armstrong writes:
Also notable in the above excerpt is Armstrong’s use of enjambment. Like Kinsella, he makes poems strain against their forms in ways that seem to symbolise the Australian land straining against post-invasion farming, mining and pollution among other unsustainable practices. Yet Armstrong’s work also crucially differs from Kinsella’s. One way it does this is through the strong sense, in Armstrong’s work, of the personal and lyrical. For example, the poem ‘In Black and White’ begins by offering readers ‘A photograph, a fading Kodak of a boy’ and proceeds with anecdotes of the photographed figure’s early life:
In ‘Growing Up to Reconciliation’, Armstrong writes candidly of the day he learned a vital truth of his ancestry:
In many poems of the collection, Armstrong writes of the still-ongoing symbolic, systemic, epistemic, cultural and actual violences committed against human and animal life and land in Australia since invasion. Armstrong’s poetic perspective of lived experience that makes this an important book for non-Indigenous Australian residents to read and learn from.
The third book this review considers, Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s Rondo, differs from the other two in that it was published in the UK and appears primarily aimed towards British readers. While Armstrong and Kinsella, in their different ways, focus strongly on damage done to land and life in Australia, Wallace-Crabbe tends more often to sketch scenes of Australian natural settings where beauty survives despite so many threats. For instance, in ‘Near Ferntree Gully’ he observes ‘some downright glorious colours’ and uses an inventive simile to describe a ‘crude bush track’ cutting ‘like a cake knife through cheddar’ (25).
Reflecting the sense of the rondo as a musical form in which themes and motifs are cycled, re-cycled and re-made, Wallace-Crabbe includes many references to cultural influences including Thomas Hardy (18), Lewis Carrol (19), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (72), Wallace Stevens (50), Robert Browning (63), John Keats (68), WH Auden (72), Seamus Heaney (74), GM Hopkins (80), and DH Lawrence (87). I must confess, the insertion of these starkly homogenous figures into an Australia already so rampantly colonised rendered me somewhat uneasy. But that is reflective of my personal stance, which, I acknowledge, is not everybody’s. Wallace-Crabbe is, after all, one of Australia’s most recognised and celebrated living poets, known for the lyrical beauty and accomplishment of his poems. Through lines and stanzas such as this one, from ‘Red, Red Rose’, it is easy to understand why:
Hence it may be observed, through the new books from Kinsella, Armstrong and Wallace-Crabbe, that poetry of the Australian rural landscape today is diverse indeed, offering something for readers of far-ranging tastes and persuasions.
Amelia Walker is a lecturer at the University of South Australia. She has published four poetry collections. She also publishes poetry-as-research, including a recent inquiry into issues of pedagogy and privilege in the recent TEXTSpecial Issue No 53, Identity, politics and creative writing, edited by Natalie Kon-yu and Enza Gandolfo.
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Vol 23 No 1 April 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker