Monday musings on Australian literature: A dry or not so dry continent?

It’s rather ironic that  in the last week or two when I’ve written a couple of posts about Australia’s image* as a “sunburned land” (Barbara Hanrahan) or “sunburnt country” (Dorothea Mackellar), the image the world has been seeing is somewhat opposite – a raindrenched land. Then again, Dorothea Mackellar did also write that this is a land “of drought and flooding rains”.

So, I thought this week I’d share a few images from current poets – from The best Australian poems 2009 book which I was given a year ago. For most of these poets the imagery might come from the land and the weather, but the subject is not necessarily so …

Sarah Day‘s poem, “A dry winter (Some observations about rain)” is particularly poignant – though no less real – given current events:

… This rain moves on swiftly
leaving sun and silence in its wake …

And the poem ends with

Mostly too little rain falls here.
There is only the silence of the sun.

Even in winter after low skies
and the impression of rain

for days and weeks, the earth is dry as dust
under trees. Cracks refuse to close up

in the cold months. This makes rain exotic.
Something to pay attention to.

John Leonard’s “Rain in March” captures the cleansing effect of rain. His poem ends with:

Chirping crickets and autumn peepers
Trilling with the carolling of magpies
And currawongs, and a brief clamour
Of cockatoos.

In the muted darkness
The front passes, single drops
Spitting from a matt black sky –
Rain has washed through the world,
A faint, cool wind lifts
Branches heavy with wet leaves.

“Fred’s Farm” by Astrid Lorange is about more than the land, but it starts with

yes this is a field of gunmetal glinting like weather
an entire ecology of dead thistles mapping a drought

That imagery rather sets a tone doesn’t it … The poem is not so much about Fred’s farm – a self-consciously neutral title – as the poet’s stream of consciousness reflection on remembering a past. She’s a new young poet and one to watch…

Road to Hermannsburg, Central Australia

Road in Central Australia

For Robyn Rowland too, in “Is the light right?”, landscape and weather are closely related to mood, but there’s no simple polarity to the imagery. The water, for example, is “blood-warming” but “dark”. Her poem ends:

What if tomorrow, light is too big when it comes,
never a shadow to rest in,
no blood-warming pools of dark water to drink from,
sky never again boot-black and anxious,
and I forever driving through burning day
along ten thousand miles of loneliness.

In “The orchardist”, by Petra White, the tough needing-to-be-irrigated land breeds tough farmers. Here is a description of the landscape, with “we” being fruit pickers:

At night we walked the river, following its curves
that wound us out to where a redgum
stood marooned at water’s edge, fossilised in thirst

And then the farmer:

All day the farmer circled on his tractor, mad as a bull-rider,
lurching on thick dry mud-tracks…

Finally, a poem that harks back to the terrible fires in Victoria just two years ago, reminding us again of the extremes wrought by our “drought and flooding rains”. The poem is titled “Kinglake“, a town which bore the brunt of the Black Saturday fires. It’s by Fiona Wright and she concludes her poem about the devastation with:

Your orchard eaten into black dust.
I send you irises,
and try to write
some kind of greening.

This post is, I know, rather bitsy-piecy. The poems, which vary in theme and style, aren’t necessarily my favourites in the collection, but they show that sun and water still pervade the Australian consciousness even if the purpose to which they are put, poetically speaking, has diversified. I may return to this book in the future … but in the meantime would love to know if there’s particular imagery that represents your nation’s “being”, or, if you’re Australian, whether agree with what I’ve written?

* After all, wasn’t Bill Bryson’s book on Australia published overseas as A suburnt country?

10 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: A dry or not so dry continent?

  1. It is those extremes, from the fires to the floods that make it so difficult for those of us who aren’t living with this on a daily basis to even begin to comprehend. We have had our own floods in the UK in recent years and for those caught up in them they have been every bit as devastating, but at least we don’t have to face the other end of the spectrum. Thank you for these poems. One of the great joys of blogging is coming across writers from other parts of the world you would not otherwise encounter. I shall look out for them in future.

    • Thanks Annie … yes, I was thinking of England. Quite a lot of early Australian art and poetry were “seen” through English eyes: paintings of the Australian landscape often use the soft colours of England which didn’t necessarily accord with the Australian light the painters were actually seeing; and 19th Australian poetry likewise often “saw” landscape with English eyes (such as Kendall’s Bellbirds which I mentioned in a recent post).

      I think you’re right, it’s the extremes that is a differentiating factor here.

  2. I particularly like Robyn Rowland’s and Fiona Wright’s poems (or excerpts… for all I know the rest of those poems are written in acrostic form 😉 ) I think the main “image” that sticks in my mind about Australia is the particular shade/s of green we have – the brown-greens and the silvery-greens. That might be your fault, though, for not taking me to the beach enough as a kid 😉

    • Or, for liking greens? You are right about the greens, anyhow, for whatever reason you are aware of them!

      I like the Rowland in particular too. The Astrid Lorange one is good too but a tricky one to excerpt – not to mention to fully comprehend. But, I like poems like that. (In fact, if you Google Astrid Lorange you’ll discover an interesting young woman … )

  3. I feel for the people in Queensland, dealing with the floods and all.
    It’s going to take time to get their lives together. I hope that the insurance companies cooperate, that the contractors are honest, that the drywall doesn’t have any toxic materials, that the looters get punished quickly, and that the government doesn’t hire Dr Blakely as an advisor.

    In New Orleans area, lots of people got sick when the new drywall released fumes. Many contractors ran off with people’s money and did no or shoddy work. The looters didn’t just take food, but TVs and IPods.
    I know a Holocaust survivor who didn’t get all the money that he deserved from his insurance company. Dr. Blakley is rude and did nothing to bring order to the city.

    • Oh thanks for sharing Isabel. New Orleans is very much on our minds as we see what is happening here. I hope the insurance companies behave well too – the government has got off on that issue quickly and has met with them. I suspect there is more cohesive organisation happening here but it probably won’t all be smooth sailing either.

    • Oh, you are keeping up! Yes, it is Victoria now. They are both states. Australia primarily has 6 states and 2 territories (one being the Australian Capital Territory which is “a bit” like DC).

  4. In this world one gets what one pays for and Caveat Emptor rules. One can’t be hard on the insurance companies. In our dealings with them they have always been fair. IF they don’t play the game by the customers who have insured adequately then we must demand that they be dealt with – otherwise we who have the good sense or brainpower to be aware of what the situation requires just have to look out for our less fortunate fellow citizens who are suffering, and dig deep, hoping they will learn their lesson for the future. But for the present let’s not judge anyone too harshly but help as much as we can. Those Brisbane volunteers humble me.
    (PS Whispering gums will vouch for the fact that I have no insurance company axe to grind.)

    • That’s true she doesn’t. I heard a good Insurance Company story today. A young woman whose car was lost/damaged in the floods got her pay out from the insurance company and they didn’t ask her to pay her youth excess because what happened had nothing to do with her being young.

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