I have long believed that Kiwi writers ignore Aussie writers and vice versa. Pity! We have a lot in common. One of my favourite Aussies is poet Judith Wright. She is one of those poets to whom I keep returning. Indeed, she is one who if I were asked which ten would you take to a desert island would be included. The other surprise would be Margaret Atwood, Canadian poet as well as novelist. Here are two Wright poems that appeal
Once as I travelled through a quiet evening,
I saw a pool, jet-black and mirror-still.
beyond the slender paper-barks stood crowding;
each on its own white image looked its fill,
and nothing moved but thirty egrets wading –
thirty egrets in a quiet evening.
Once in a lifetime, lovely past believing,
your lucky eyes may light upon such a pool.
As though for many years I’ve been waiting,
I watched in silence, until my heart was full
of clear, dark water, and white trees unmoving,
and, whiter yet, those thirty egrets wading.
The song is gone; the dance
is secret with the dancers in the earth,
the ritual useless, and the tribal story
lost in an alien tale.
Only the grass stands up
to mark the dancing-ring; the apple-gums
posture and mime a past corroboree,
murmur a broken chant
The hunter is gone; the spear
is splintered underground; the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still.
Only the rider’s heart
halts at a sightless shadow, an unsaid word
that fastens in the blood of the ancient curse,
the fear as old as Cain.
‘Egrets’ is lovely. The Australian outback is often portrayed as a harsh landscape. But it can also be lush. Waterfowl in a marsh or at a billabong, paper-bark trees, what a poetic snap-shot. And has there ever been a more superb three word phrase than ‘lovely past believing’.
'Bora Ring' is a poem. But as an artifice it also makes a political point. The bora ring is the ancient corroboree ground, in this instance, now deserted, of an Aboriginal tribe. A dramatic beginning ‘the song is gone’ grabs our attention. The dances and rites are now lost. All we have is ‘an alien tale” the colonist’s version of what happened. Wright’s use of words, ‘gone’, ‘in the earth’, ‘useless’ and ‘loss’ accumulate this feeling.
There is a physical reminder of the spot. The grass ‘stands up’ to mark the ring. ‘Stands up’ not only marks the place, it conveys a sense a sense of being counted and of being upright as if the dancers are still there. Nature reinforces this sense – the apple gums ‘posture and mime’ the lost movements and the leaves ‘murmur’ forgotten chants.
But it is fantasy to expect these things to really reflect the past. That’s gone. These hunters are dead. Their nomadic way of life is finished. Again the words accumulate the sense, ‘gone’, ‘underground’, ‘a dream’, ‘forgot’, ‘are still’.
And so the final stanza and a wrench to the present. The rider – white stockman, the poet herself, you or I? – feels a twinge of fear, remembers Cain, son of Adam and Eve, who murdered his brother. The Biblical dimension adds a further twist to the poem. We are all involved by blood and history with past wrongs and injustices. From a pensive contemplation of the scene Wright has taken us into a realm of shared guilt. In many areas of early Australian settlement the local indigenous people were knowingly annihilated.
Wright uses rhyme and half-rhyme to tie the stanzas together The shorter final line in each stanza reinforces the overall mood. It is a powerful little poem. I value its presence in my poetry granary.