What are we to make of Martin Langford’s Ground? It has been reviewed in other places, including many still freely available online periodicals, which cover the contents of the book in a more straightforward manner. In this review I want to focus on Langford’s historical framing – what it includes, what it excludes and what it makes possible. In this way, we can see that the poet is a type of historian. Rather than poetry as history or the poetry mapping change over time in form, style, voice, Langford uses the material of history as his major source of content. The evenness of how it reads the past is itself a choice, and though there are inflections of pop culture (Bert Newton) it is for the most part situated in a middle register of knowledge – the stuff of school text, of common sense, as opposed to deep archival research, arcane footnotes or mythic proportion. It does not seem like the work of a specialist then except when it comes to how it is expressed.
In the vocalisation of the poems, one is struck not only by the fairly consistent pagination but also by the recurrence of concerns and modes of speech. We are apprehending what ‘Australia’ is but the valences of that are subtle, probing, dispassionate rather than being embroiled in the Henry Reynolds/Keith Windschuttle paradigm. One knows that Langford is not only a skilled and able guide then, but approaches a feeling of objectivity when it comes to ‘the nation’. And yet, there is often slippage between the nation and pre-Federation with the periodisation being general rather than specific.
If one were to read Ground with an eye on the past however, one would know that ‘Australia’ does indeed have violence in its marrow, but Langford does not deal with this irrationally. Dispossession is a fact, an angry wound, yet the consistent flow and knowing generosity enable one to see through to what we might yet make here. It reads as profoundly empathetic and caring without collapsing into the more obvious camps of the History Wars. In 'To Say one is Australian’, Langford writes:
To say one is Australian is a simplification. They are endless, the varieties of country: porous position-dependent. Which ones did you mean? And elisions lead straight to power’s questions. Like What is the market? Or How can we outcome this scrub? They translate the earth to a field of abstractions we own – who gaze, plumped aloft, on a jet-stream of tropes at smoke and iridescence in the amethyst you cannot, ever, touch.
‘Australia’ it would see is that network of power distinct from country, land, earth, it abstracts the material base not only into language and dialogue (the questions) but also into ownership, gazes, and something you cannot touch. This specific use of country, as something not of the nation and with roots in an Indigenised perspective, finds a similar expression in ‘The Country Where Nobody Sings’ where Langford writes towards the poem’s ending:
Prose settles over our lives like a cloud of unbeing. We would make ourselves still for the fine print, and stare out at love ... Once there’d been tyrants in mills who’d admonished all singing. We do not need them: we govern ourselves.
This is not prose that settling device of nation, but country as some sort of imagined place, a big enough concept in which we can pour our hopes and dreaming. This allows not only a decolonising impetus that runs throughout Ground (if one knows how to read for it) but also a true republicanism that would not gloss where we are now. Langford seems to suggest, in the titular poem, that we might find this common ground, this polis, this hope, in ‘dancing’ or rather because this is written matter, in the poetic metaphor of dancing, somehow coming together as individual bodies in light of song. That is a hope I can believe in, and the corporeal poetry that is encouraged by Ground means that somehow we might all just get along, not as some naïve well wishers but as citizens cognisant of our past as the material of poetry and in our very bones.
Martin Langford, Ground. Glebe, NSW: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015. ISBN 9781922186751