meditations with passing water
Poets have always written about rivers, from early classical Chinese poets two and half thousand years ago to seventeenth century Japanese zen poets to twentieth century deep ecologist Beat poet Gary Snyder and many others since. It's been a poetic topic for aeons. Increasingly rivers have become the site of multiform destruction of urban and rural communities devastated by the rampaging speed of careless hyper-industrial development and climate change. This has driven poets to become more psychogeographical than nature-loving. Australian Kate Middleton's Ephemeral Waters (Giramondo, 2013) follows the course of the Colorado River in North America. Contemporary Chinese poet Yang Jian's Long River (Tinfish, 2018) registers lost environs – a dead pig floats in a river that no longer flows through the mountain that is no longer there. In 1999 Brisbane City Council funded the production of a mixed media CD Blackfellas White fellas Wetlands (Poetry and music from Boondall Wetlands) by B R Dionysius, Liz Hall-Downs and Samuel Wagan Watson. Two decades later, living and writing in Brisbane, Jake Goetz cites Dart, UK poet Alice Oswald's 2002 book-length poem about the Dart River in Devon, as an influence. But I don't think any of those poets have so consciously used the Situationist technique of psychogeographical dérive to write a river in the way Jake Goetz does in his four poem sequence meditations with passing water.
Dérive – so what is this curious word? The late fifties' Letterist International's Potlatch journal gives some of its resonances. Its Latin root derivare means to draw off a stream, to divert a flow. Its English descendants include the word 'derive' and also 'river'. Its whole field of meaning is aquatic, conjuring up flows, channels, eddies, currents, and also drifting, sailing or tacking against the wind. It suggests a space and time of liquid movement, sometimes predictable but sometimes turbulent. For the Situationists in Paris in the 1950s the word condensed a whole attitude to life, an ethic of drifting. The practice of dérive is more than just an urban walkabout. It's a practice connected to the discoveries of the qualities or elements of any block of space and time.*
So, to the Brisbane River – the old, old, long winding river that passes sluggishly through the capital city of Queensland after a 344 kilometre flow from the north at Mount Stanley, on the Great Dividing Range, before merging into Moreton Bay. The river, as Goetz records, is known by the indigenous peoples as 'Maiwar'. I searched for its meaning and found that 'Dandiiri Maiwar' roughly translates as 'meet at the river'.
This sequence of poems combines effectively into one long work. It begins with an artful and sometimes heady prologue set at Kurilpa on Brisbane's South Bank – 'tensing its liquid body / the river carries / the syntax of the city / on its back' (3). A passing ferry is filled with Chinese tourists 'grasping for eternity / in a camera / posing like mangroves' (3). The cars moving along the roadway across the river are likened to 'glistening metal bees / pollinating the CBD' (3). As the irregular lineation cascades down the page the poet becomes reflective, critical, observant. All kinds of people move through or into the stanzas. They're walking, exercising, cycling, going to or from school as, occasionally, the poet speculates philosophically, even quoting Feuerbach on truth and profanity and connects the idea to the various activities, behaviours and appearance of the passers-by, under 'the wind that is a hand / that brushes the hair / of jacarandas' beneath the corporately branded city buildings 'Suncorp / SANTOS Telstra / mercure // ... two Germans / and their idea of a "ganz furchtbar" city' are 'watching a myna being dragged / across pebbles by a crow / that navigates the red innards' (4–5). Nature, red in tooth and claw. The haughty phrase ganz furchtbar means something like 'entirely dreadful' or 'totally horrible'.
The prologue is a rush of situational imagery and thought that becomes mildly glossolalic
in being human and from a nation
on a groaning earth
that fluctuates like an excess of alcohol
in the stomach in pulsating lights
exploding stars exhaust wielding cars
trails of lava of history of piss of crac
king rocks that slide into water
in the all or nothing equation
of the universe
the passing water
of Maiwar of Brisbane
on which so much depends
Moving smoothly around in time from the past, from then to now to now and then, the poem encompasses geological change like volcanic eruption and the splitting of ancient Gondwana, as well as recent histories like ticket-of-leave convicts and the 19th century arrival of the so-called discoverer, the New South Wales Surveyor-General John Oxley's ship against an imagined cinematic backdrop of 'the smoke of the Jagera’s fires / rising up ' (7). The Jagera and Turrbal people are the custodians of the land where this work was made. The scene is set for the poem-to-come.
The poem's predominant elements are collage and subjectivity. Collage of this kind was one of Laurie Duggan's techniques in his influential book-length poem The Ash Range, about Gippsland, Victoria, in 1987. Here, as Jake Goetz drifts, records, reflects and reports, the work becomes a kind of documentary that's been deliberately distanced from dry academic research and stretched organically into a complex artistry. Goetz also uses poetic devices like graphic stanza design or mimetic visual lineation to quickly impart his content. In the 'Note on the Text' he says:
The intersection of texts ... relates to the process of writing being the most central aspect of the poem – to form a river of language constructed out of the river's language – intertwining my physical and mental digressions with its movement, history and surrounding environment to challenge the way one might write about a specific place. Ultimately I feel this makes the poem move haphazardly: between being immersed in a subject, and one's inability to be anything more than relative to that subject; of building a myth around a place, and being unable to do anything more than negotiate observations; of grasping, being unable to grasp; of not being obsessed with perfection, but living (writing) and its creation. (64)
The Brisbane River often floods. The section 'Highgate Hill to Hamilton / The Flood of 1823' opens 'on Gladstone Road / iron roofs glisten / in the sub-tropical sun / a canopy to a forest / of dead trees dissected / by cement streets / a suburban photosynthesis / in the South Pacific' (9). Here Goetz reminds us of a recent ecological personification in our region:
New Zealand’s Whanganui Rivergranted legal status as a person
after 170-year battle
flowing 145 kilometresfrom the Central North island
to the sea …
This legislation recognisesthe deep spiritual connection
between the Whanganui Iwi
and its ancestral river
Then he returns to the local and the public bus he's riding 'chucking exhaust / into the very structure / we could never erect' (10).
Over three decades ago, in his influential book Dissemination, the postmodernist philosopher Jacques Derrida contended 'we find ourselves unable to represent "place" itself except by metaphors'. This certainly still occurs in romantic 'nature poetry'. That is poetry of 'place' that registers a kind of psychopathology where the psychological is imputed into the landscape. The consequence of Derrida's and others' postmodern insight allows the people who appear in meditations with passing water to speak for themselves and permits the poet a scopic investigation of the ancient and recent culture of a living, messy as well as productive, bounteous waterway.
Climate change, the northern coral reef, and John Oxley's record of surveying are woven into the poem between cascading stanzas. Oxley notes the river's mangroves and its muddiness, its abundant molluscs, its topography and its extent. These paragraphs' typographics are made with spaces that form the shape of a river running through the text. Then Goetz again returns to contemporary signs – birdlife, discarded beer bottles in the mud, plastic bottles – then he turns the poem towards the past with headstones in a South Brisbane cemetery recording the fates of various people including 'Patrick Kenniff, Australia’s last bushranger / Ernest Austin, the last man / to be hanged in the state / and Elen Thompson, the only woman / ever hanged in Queensland' (16).Then he moves back to contemporary memory via verbatim quotes ' … the river got dirty after the war / before it was as clear as the surf at Coolangatta / it was green like the ocean water' (16).
Aboriginal 'history' and recent struggles for rights, recognition and sovereignty are threaded throughout the poem – sometimes highlighting complications of different local lore and local law. Goetz presents a 2017 newspaper report:
Calls to remove Aboriginal flag
painted on major intersection
Residents recently woke
to a huge Aboriginal flag
painted on the road
at the intersection
of Vulture and Boundary streets
Uncle Sam Watson said those responsible
were expressing their anger
at indigenous people being forced
out of the area by gentrification
A Queensland spokesman said
it was hard to enforce the law
on Aboriginal land
“it is an offence to graffiti council roads
but it becomes convoluted
when it comes to Aboriginals
who are considered the traditional owners
of the land.”
Halfway through the book doubt creeps in to Goetz's process -
perhaps the negation
of knowledge of progress
of the fixity of things
is what this poem is after
(did i ruin it?
not the place
or the poem
but the myth)
the country as myth
The poet's recognition of the problem of 'myth' is integral to his process of making poetry and opens a space for thinking through any methodological quandary. A few pages on, after tackling a brief history of water frontage property, Goetz is again writing beyond doubt –
by the real Pinken-ba (New Farm)
‘place of sea turtles’
storm clouds low and thick
hold the sun
turn water a deep green
and still in the distance
as the prolongation of colonisation
into language as change
to emancipate the imagination
and realise the relation
to pl a ce
for ‘us’ and ‘them’ to evaporate
like vomit in the sun
to be water in unison in this creation
where to do nothing but comprehend
With the ever-present city's Australian flags on high-rise buildings and its developments looming over the poem, Goetz's dedicated surrender to the haphazard affords a probably unintended yet distinctly smooth interspersal of the historical and the contemporary. Queensland's particular old architecture, ship building, Scottish coal ships arriving in the 1920's, cyclones bringing steamers in to port, ancient mineral deposits becoming a quarry, the bridges – William Jolley, Kurilpa Walk and Storey – where 'between 1990 and 2012 / 88 suicides have been recorded' (31) are ingeniously patched in alongside river breezes, mythic Aboriginal dancing eels, sport – Darren Lockyer, captain of Brisbane Broncos rugby team – together with Brisbane poets Liam Ferney, and David Malouf 'calling / from the windows' of a Queenslander to flying foxes and possums (24), along with a Cancer horoscope predicting 'an outing that you thought as purely educational / may prove to be fun' (26) – 'an Ibis atop a palm tree / surveys the city––Meanjin / 'a place shaped / as a spike’ (27).
The book has a coda – 'The real unDiscovery (Sydney to Brisbane)' (55–61). Jake Goetz is making his journey, in this case, a plane flight from Sydney to Brisbane. Above the Blue Mountains he imagines the journey back into the early nineteenth century via the tale of a Mancunian brick-maker convict, Thomas Pamphlett, who, since his transportation, has continued a life of minor crime and subsequent punishment in the New South Wales colony. He absconds and is caught various times before he is eventually employed, with three other ticket-of-leave convicts, on a boat carrying cedar from Newcastle to Wollongong. The boat is caught in a wild storm that continues for days, causing them to drift without sails in a direction they suppose is south. Without a compass they steer via the sun. They have no water and drink rum for a fortnight. Dehydrated and deranged, they spot land but decide to stay clear when they see 'the natives around their fires'. They drift even further out into the ocean. One of the convict sailors has died. After brief considerations they reluctantly throw him overboard. Having been lost in the Pacific Ocean for around three months they find a bight with a fresh water stream. The surf there is rough so they set their boat adrift then jump into the waves and struggle towards shore. They believe they are south of Port Jackson but they've actually landed on Moreton Island (Moorgumpin). Assisted by local Aboriginal people they borrow a canoe and cross Moreton Bay (Quandamooka) to pre-white-settlement Cleveland in the hope of finding Sydney. These three ticket-of-leave men arrive 'on the banks of / a large river' in June 1823 preceding John Oxley's entry to the Brisbane River by six months.
Jake Goetz. meditations with passing water. Rabbit Poet Series, 2018. ISBN:9780648109990
*Thanks to McKenzie Wark for his writings on the Situationists that provide clear explanations of terms.