What does it mean to experience and to know Country? In her new collection, Yuiquimbiang, poet and environmentalist Louise Crisp asks us to look closely at the specificity of the country around us, to engage with it in ways which challenge both our understanding of the environment and of ourselves in relation to it.
Like the engagement with Country itself which Crisp proposes, this book demands close and committed attention, a willingness on the part of the reader to go with the poet across sometimes difficult and confronting terrain. ‘The only way I know to write is to walk. I came down through the granite boulders to the river,’ Crisp writes in ‘Walk’ (3). These poems will take the reader who is willing to follow over boulders, to lake edges, across degraded landscapes, into the beauty of blossom and bird across seasons in a poetics of movement and inhabitation.
‘Yuiquimbiang,’ Crisp tells us, is a Ngarigu word, initially misheard and transformed into the Europeanised ‘Eucambene.’ Already we have a clear sense of the poet’s desire to return to the disrespected and almost silenced languages and ways of seeing of first Australians – as well as an interest in peeling back complex linguistic, social and natural histories as suggested by the use of particular words. This creates a layering, dizzying effect as we begin to contemplate the relationship between place and its naming – and how the very act of naming might either acknowledge or colonise whatever it is that is being drawn into language.
A collection profoundly interested in place and human relationship with place, Yuiquimbiang focuses on the particularities of two geographical areas – the Monaro / Snowy River region and East Gippsland. In the Preface, Crisp notes that this collection is part of a wider project which links to her other works, and that in it she is seeking to forge a hybridity of content and style, ‘an ecopoetic form that integrates political essay and environmental poetics' (p. ix). The poems – or perhaps ‘pieces’ – involve a combination of genres: poetic description of place and its specificities, using a range of traditional poetic techniques of image, line, repetition; more geographical / naturalist language which provides different kinds of taxonomies for what is being observed; a personal, reflective voice; the quoted voices of historical settlers / colonisers; the list; the government report; the essay and its note-taking. This movement between styles, genres and voices creates a collaging effect designed to destabilise and thus to potentially re-align the reader to Country in new ways. It embodies the idea that Country is multifactorial, both laterally, in terms of its complexity of elements, as well as vertically in terms of how we understand it through time and shifts in context.
The series ‘Monaro Lakes’ (8) works its way, basin by basin, across the water spaces of the Monaro. The sub-poems which constitute the series ask the reader to consider each lake or lagoon separately – ‘Coolamatong,’ ‘Kiah,’ ‘Myalla,’ ‘Avon’ etc. – in effect, to pause in our reading of Country. The shifts in layout and style highlight the need for each to be experienced in their specificity, from descriptions such as:
the rim of the lake is at the edge of the sky where the land falls away into the Snowy Gorgeto
The edge of lake shore a fringe of Crown land ‘Un-alienated land’ – Un/ claimed for sailboats in the 1880sor
Little white bird feathers decorate the edges of iridescent green slime beyond the shoreline where a rare stand of tall sedge
with edible tubers Bolboschoenus caldwellii was recorded by Benson
twenty years ago when water last filled the Monaro lakes
This destabilising and decolonising approach to relating to Country is further explored in the beautiful and meandering poem ‘Grasses’ (29), which again focuses on the importance of specificity in order to best comprehend the world round us. ‘Even the smallest of creatures carries a sun in its eyes,’ the epigraph tells us, and this focus on particularities is echoed across the criss-crossing channels of stanzas – ‘silver fish,’ ‘old dog asleep in the shade,’ ‘1848: Hickey’s Crossing.’ As expectations are broken down, a movement between human and Country is initiated, facilitated by poeticised perception and a willingness to listen to alteric languages both within and outside the human:
Full moon goes down at dawn over the curve of Monaro grasslands Animate, inanimate the mountain moves around the country keeping an eye on things Spirit has its own song ear to the ground and its name: water You bring no fish I send no poems respecting each others’s bodhichitta
The poem ‘Podocarpus Berries’ (26), a long form, ‘prose’ poem, is one of the collection’s more overtly personal explorations. Walking and camping with her ill sister into the Snowy country, the grief and fear associated with sickness is re-understood, re-managed perhaps, in the context of engagement with the natural world:
... The full moon rose and crossed late towards Mt Twynham. My sister barely slept, facing the damp air, her lungs filled with moisture. In the morning, splashes of red like handfuls of Podocarpus berries fell from her mouth among the heath. (27)
A word, an image may be able to reshape our apprehension of ourselves and how we are always and already entwined with the world of growing and dying things
In the final section of the book, Crisp turns her gaze to her own home territory of East Gippsland, moving her poetic and naturalist attention through landscapes which, although familiar, continue to yield new understanding and respect for the natural spaces which we inhabit. The long sequence, ‘Wild Succession (Red Gum Plains 2011-2012),’ (67), uses the calendar of the human year as a framework in which to walk repeatedly through particular places. This framework takes the reader through the cycle of the seasons, the springtime blossoming of ‘purple Diuris,’ the repeated sightings of the ‘Bright murnong – Microseris lanceolata,’ the ‘weeping grasses Microlaena stipoides’, the rare reward of a ‘nodding greenhood Pterostylis nutans.’ The inclusion on the poetic line of the botanical names for the plants identified serves a complex purpose: it demonstrates a degree of scientific knowledge and taxonomy as developed by humans; like all poetic strategies, it also helps the reader to slow down, to pay attention to the rich and refracting world we are looking at and moving amongst; in addition, like the eucumbene / yuiquimbiang linguistic relationship, it also suggests that there are different ways of knowing and connecting to the world, which are in turn influenced by time, place, ideologies of power. Human naming certainly has the capacity to tell us about the world that is being described; it also tells us about the time and the place of the human doing the describing and the potential for hierarchies of knowing, where some ways of relating to the world might be seen as superior to or more important than others.
As Judith Wright – another important Australian poet and environmental activist – wrote in her late poem ‘The Shadow of Fire’: ‘Human eyes impose a human pattern, / decipher constellations against featureless dark.’ Crisp’s work takes us a long way out into the stream of the natural world, hearing its movements, allowing us to see – as much as possible – from its own point of view, understanding more of the interweaving of human and Country in creating our interdependent histories. As humans however, our reading of the landscape is always mediated through the processes of language. Recognising this framework of intelligibility, with all its limits and its possibilities, and how it offers us ways forward into a viable inhabitation of Country, is the great gift of Yuiquimbiang.
 Judith Wright, ‘Shadow Fire: Ghazals,' from A Human Pattern: Selected Poems of Judith Wright (North Ryde, Angus and Robertson, 1990), 141.
Louise Crisp, Yuiquimbiang. Carlton South: Cordite Books, 2019. ISBN: 9780648056898