I’m also extremely interested in (some would say overly curious about) the events and circumstances of other people’s lives, and how these are rendered into art, into writing. One of the fundamental aims, and challenges, of my own writing is to convey lived experience, in all its intricacies, with all its inexpressibles.
And I have a profound interest in relationship, in how people relate not only to each other but to the multifarious inhabitants of the earth, and to the natural world itself.
All these factors shaped my call for submissions for this issue of Plumwood Mountain, in which I asked for poems about “how humans engage and interact with the earth – physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually … from the broader sweep of humanity down to the most intimately personal”.
I was curious to see how poets would respond. Once I’d printed out the (anonymous) submissions, my eye fell on the poem on the top of the pile, “Reading the frog economy”. It was energetic and nostalgic (“In my memory I flick every rock and find a frog deposit”); it confided; it joked; it contained serious warnings. I suspected I had an interesting and fruitful read ahead, and I was right.
Before I talk about the poems I selected, a few words about the ones I did not. I eliminated straight away some very good poems that were not, by any stretch of the imagination, ecopoetry. Other poems began strongly, or contained an arresting image, or several, but did not maintain this energy through to the end; many good poems were let down by weak endings. There was – understandably, in submissions to an ecopoetry journal – a lot of strong feeling about the damage humans are doing to the environment. I am all for strong feeling, and against that damage, but any poem that felt moralistic, or told the reader what to think, I passed on.
That still left plenty of good poetry to choose from.
One of the things that consistently grabbed me was striking imagery within a strongly rendered poem. So we have “those bees hunkering down in a brown cone of ownership” in Heather Taylor Johnson’s “When the bees came”, and Anders Villani’s “Black Rock Desert”, where “The sun, just-blown glass, rises / over bear-fur mountains”. There are currawongs as “pall-bearers carrying away the remains of night” in James R. Harrison’s “Currawong soundscape”. Or from Linda France’s “Watching the Perseids with Sue”:
When the rocks
and ice started falling, pencilling
the vast star-strewn ceiling
with their brief lines of light,
long vowels shot out of our mouths,
With some poems, the rhythm shone out, as in Phillip Hall’s description of an Indigenous dance event at Borroloola, where “DanceSite shakes-a-leg and stomps / a country whole” (“We have the song, so we have the land”). Or the subtler pulse in Anne M. Carson’s description of pulling up Golden Ash seedlings in “Elegy for a tree”: “feeling the stem’s wiry strength / the moment of grip before release, how life hangs on”.
I also couldn’t resist a quirky syntax that served the poem well, such as in P. S. Cottier’s above-mentioned “Reading the frog economy”: “Every suburban bog housed their evening pukpuks of attraction, their sudden bursts of swim.” Or Kit Kelen’s “Day thirty-five: Under the weather”, from “At Ålvik”, “the man with the pipe is raking his leaves / he’s a little factory – wind has his whiff away”.
Some poems contain succinct (and occasionally beautiful) descriptions of ecologically significant concepts. The supplanting of the natural world by human constructions of the natural world is elegantly encapsulated in B. R. Dionysius’s “Travelling”:
Where there should be striped marsh frogs
are megafauna effigies of striped marsh frogs …
Stenciled honeyeaters perch on a rock cutting.
In other poems something endearingly human is artfully expressed – for example, in Meera Atkinson’s entertainingly existential “Ant Familias”:
An ant expert who keeps ants in a Tupperware container in a lab said she doesn’t have
empathy for ants because they “don’t get discouraged or care”, but I do:
have empathy, get discouraged, care.
Or Julie Maclean’s perspective on the sand flats and salt bush in her aptly spare “Mungerannie”:
I marvel at the repetition
the clinging on
and the way I manufacture
kindness in needle bushes
parasols against the sun
In Les Wicks’s “Dangar Island”, the island itself seems shambolically human: “Beaten up, its fists are raw from self-harm. // Then it wakes up naked & whole again.”
Some poems conjured an atmosphere that drew me in. Kit Kelen’s “Day thirty-five: Under the weather”, mentioned earlier, begins alluringly though slightly ominously:
the weather has come
after only a season
the weather is back
there’s a mood now
I think it’s the weather
Kathryn Fry’s “The muddied path” summons a meditative mood:
To have time to know the way light enlivens
texture, with you summing up the rocks and soil,
narrating the eras …
In my call for submissions, I asked for poems that were “engaging, intelligent, provocative; lively, rowdy or meditative”. I got all that, and more.
This selection of poems begins with the earth – “a mottled blue opal” – as seen from space (Louise Steer’s “View from a distant porthole”), and traverses diverse territory including the flats of Nhill, a desert in Nevada and a Scandinavian city, and varied topics, from shooting stars to interspecies flirtation. It ends with the cosmic–domestic of Alison Flett’s fine poem “Vessel III”, which directs us to notice:
the way the outside
acts upon us all the little physical touches so that we carry
the universe in our skin in our tiniest of bones.
I hope some of these poems act upon you as they have on me.
Tricia Dearborn’s poetry has been widely published in literary journals including Meanjin, Southerly, Overland and Cordite, and in anthologies such as Australian Poetry Since 1788, The Best Australian Poems (2010, 2012) and Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets. She was joint winner of the Poet’s Union Poetry Prize in 2008, and has received several grants from the Australia Council’s Literature Board. Her most recent collection of poetry is The Ringing World, published by Puncher & Wattmann in 2012.