Margaret Bradstock is a major Sydney poet, but she is none of the things that we might anticipate as belonging to someone deserving of the spotlight in Australia’s premier city. Bradstock is not brash, experimental or obscure. Her poetry is characterised by a richly evocative use of language as she creates her historical narratives, which often explore Australia’s maritime and colonial past. As Bradstock recreates her historical cast of mariners, whalers, convicts, Rum Corps and parsons, she prioritises the requirements of the dramatic, revealing her protagonists as being misunderstood, flawed and ‘battling against the odds’. Many of Bradstock’s poems remind me of Judith Beveridge’s monumental sequence ‘Driftgrounds: Three Fishermen’ that also evokes the storm, conflict and degrading violence of so much maritime industry and history.
Bradstock is postcolonial in her values, and would be criticised by many on the Right for her ‘black arm band’ view of colonial history, however, she sometimes seems to blur the line between balancing the imperative of exposing the role played by violence in dispossessing First Australians with a determination not to appropriate their Culture and voice. One example of this in Brief Garden is ‘The Whispering Bones’, a poem that ‘recreates’ the voice of an Aboriginal man who died from cholera in the Wybelenna camp before being dismembered for settler collectors and museums. This is a powerfully angry poem, but is it the role of allies to speak on behalf of those silenced? This is a poem that might have been written in the third person, thus avoiding some of the problems of voice. My feeling is that it probably should not have been written by someone without acknowledged familial links to this person’s Nation, or without their explicit consent. Certainly, First Australian readers should be warned about the presence of this poem, before opening Brief Garden. It is too shocking and traumatic.
Although it pains me to read this poem, I have loved Bradstock’s work for so long, starting with her Ginninderra Press work (The Pomelo Tree:2001 and Coast: 2005) before the deeper love of her Puncher & Wattmann masterpiece, Barnacle Rock (2013). Bradstock is a significant and irreplaceable voice.
The first half of Bradstock’s Brief Garden is an interrogation of Australia’s colonial past through recreating such voices as Watkin Tench, William Hodges, George Augustus Robinson and Ann Rumsby. The book opens with these individuals pitted against a vast open ocean with no safe harbour in sight:
There are many seas, organ-pipe rocks.
Sometimes we drift for months, and wake
to the dog-watch of the night,
on our lips the bitterest taste of land.
Our anchor-snared ship
perched on the ocean’s skin,
we hear the hull’s creak, keening
of the lines, fancy we hear voices
through the thunder of waves
knowing they’re the cries of sea-birds,
the boom and boom of breakers upon rock.
Cloudlands rise from the mist
saw-toothed peaks emptied into the sky
vanishing as we approach
the sun’s glare, a shifting sea
with nothing at its centre, the motion
of a rocking island.
This poem is such a dramatic recreation of the voices of these navigators, and the use of alliteration and imagism is utterly convincing in evoking their fears and misunderstandings as they approach waters and lands new to them. The ‘emptiness’ of this open ocean amplifies shockingly the sense of foreboding and fragility.
Eventually every voyage ends in wreckage or safe harbour, and sometimes there is an artist at hand to document history. Bradstock begins her poem ‘William Hodges – View in Pickersgill Harbour, Dusky Bay ca. 1776’:
Failing three times to enter through the Heads
Cook sailed Resolution into Dusky Sound
anchoring in Pickersgill Harbour
the crew at rest after their Antarctic voyage
the ship in need of repairs
an acre of forest cleared on Astronomer’s Point
to push back the wilderness.
There is a direct matter-of-factness about this opening stanza that cleverly exposes the values of superiority and entitlement, of reducing Country to a set of resources ready for extraction. I had not heard of William Hodges before reading this poem, and am not familiar with his painting, but after reading Bradstock’s poem I feel an intimacy informed by postcolonial imperatives. And Bradstock’s poem concludes unforgettably:
Rainforest gives way to a different canvas
as x-rays of the artwork reveal icebergs
erupting like grey and white volcanoes
into a rowdy sea, then painted over
(a palimpsest in whited-out palette)
the first known sketches of Antarctica’s terrain.
Perspective shows Resolution’s sloping deck
a ghost-ship in the background, inserted
dumbstruck, into that ice-bound frame.
That final image makes history, for the first time (yet again) as it alludes to the avalanche of colonialism about to destroy decency, Country and home.
The inimitable heart of Brief Garden is its fourth section, especially ‘The Pearl Divers’, ‘The Moon via telescope’, ‘Skywatchers’ and ‘Earth Hour’. These represent not only a change in subject matter but are major poems, poems that deserve to be widely anthologised and treasured. The middle section of ‘The Moon via telescope’ reads:
2. Occultation of Saturn. 14th May, 2014
It’s at its brightest, all oval-shaped storms
and frozen rings, particles of rock and ice
whirling forever like a fairground Ferris wheel.
From your back verandah
focussed on Saturn racing away from the moon
the bent moon rising and rising
criss-crossed with black branches
its craters visible from here, we feel it.
The absence of stars, shifting emptiness of space
harks back to the big nothing.
This poem is wonderfully memorable in celebrating a moment of connection between two people, but the significance of the shared experience is pitted against such a vast ‘emptiness’ that existentialist angst is also strikingly evoked. Bradstock has such a way of dramatizing the fleeting and fragile aspirations of individual lives.
Bradstock is a poet of historical maritime narrative, but she is also intensely interested in the beauty of coastal ecologies and what threatens them. One of the final poems in Brief Garden begins:
Beyond Head of Bight
Matthew Flinders charted this coast
stunned by its loveliness.
Unending Bunda cliffs, towering over a vast
unspoiled ocean, iconic curve the longest line
of sea-cliffs in the world; a nursery for
sea lion colonies to raise their pups,
seasonal home to southern right whales
great white sharks, humpbacks, bluefish tuna
white-bellied sea eagle, and albatross.
What’s not to save?
In Brief Garden, Bradstock asks us many questions. Often these involve the role of violence in the dispossession of First Nations, but she is also interested in dramatizing the abuse of power and penal threats that pervaded so many displaced colonial lives. Bradstock is a poet of environmental and psychological degeneration and loss as she documents the consequences of living in a vanishing Edenic garden.
Margaret Bradstock, Brief Garden. Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann, 2019. ISBN: 9781925780413