The sound of rain: a constant, pink noise that hurtles behind these poems. Like the elemental soundtrack to a Bill Viola film, water clattering on stone.
The deluge holds a fundamental role in myths of apocalypse, but in those it comes tinged with judgement—a cleansing function, like fire, to reset order on Earth. It’s the sort of rain that Travis Bickle yearns to see in Taxi Driver, to wash down the Babel-like modern metropolis.
In the poems I’ve selected for this issue, however, rain brings a different set of associations. It starts in the mountains of Indonesia, as worldly cares and toxins gush down to the city. In Renée Pettitt-Schipp’s poem, ‘Thought from a Motorbike in Heavy Rain in Ciumbuleuit’, a rider experiences a levitating moment of release while descending closer and closer to the ‘drains’. For with rain, comes plastic: a new element and a newly mythic emblem of destruction.
Many of the submissions to this issue rehearsed a familiar position of lament, elegy or grand fatalism in the face of habitat destruction and climate change. I was looking for a more constructive response to these issues and the way we describe them. Pettitt-Schipp’s poem relaxes into gravity, for example, whilst ‘Elegy for Microplastic’ by Jack Bastock dispels the half-life of degrading plastics by pitting them against the longer-lived ‘cosmos’. Read these poems alongside Allan Lake’s ‘Plastoral’, a counter-pastoral that documents the conspicuous pollution of waterways by plastic bottles. Lake piles them up into a clinging, bobbing landscape of their own, bringing to mind Louise Paramor’s assemblages of domestic plastic items. What style, then, can be salvaged from these materials? John Clare is dead, so what perspective can poetry bring to an orison of plastic?
One way of reading Lake’s document poem is in the spirit of bad environmentalism, an admission (and sometimes an exorcism) of multiple idealogical positions that pass through each of us. It is a refusal of dogma in favour of ambiguity, and it requires the audience to work out a conclusion. Helen Moore’s ‘Making Inroads, Two Voices’ expands on this approach in her consideration of a paved world: the seamless mass of the SUV contains as much healing power as the plantain, both of them able to overcome bitumen’s suffocation of earth. Less ambivalent is ‘hibiscus synthesis’, by Maria Sledmere. Sledmere is dancing at the end of the world, but this is no apocalypse-porn: rather, the poem becomes an innovative recipe, a way of making do with new techne, synthesising species that may be lost. Don’t panic, Sledmere seems to be saying, keep inventing.
This freshness, this ability to express a scene of dread with hope, is seemingly magical. There is hardly anything mystical about it. Murray Bookchin questions what he calls ‘mystical ecologies’ that promote an ideal of ‘“wilderness” as distinguished from humanly altered areas of the planet’ and that view climate disasters or mass suffering such as famine as kinds of retribution dealt by Gaia upon fallen humanity.[i] We have seen the danger of this reductiveness locally, in the ‘black and green’ debates between Indigenous land owners and activists, recently explored in Timothy Neale’s Wild Articulations: Environmentalism and Indigeneity in Northern Australia. Many of the poems here seek to complicate the binaries of human / natural or urban / wild. Some of them view these concepts critically; others, like Giles Goodland’s ‘A River’, represent a spectrum of organic expression that offers refreshment to feelings of frustration or disappointment in destructive human activity.
The other peril of mysticism in ecological thinking lies in creating ‘socially harmless surrogates for dealing with the authentic problems of our time.’[ii] The passive goodwill and concern of privileged middle class writers and readers (and editors!) makes a mockery of Micronesians losing land to rising sea levels, or Ngarrindjeri woman arguing for their protection of Kumerangk. In this light, poetic mysticism comes close to the dark magic of capitalist and politically corrupted media in creating harmful alternative realities that infect the population when they are believed.
I wanted to see what other ways contemporary poets might represent the possibility of ecological agency than these. Each of these poems uses the power – and the privilege – of expression as a way to invoke and affirm human agency in the face of compromised ecologies and their obscuration for capitalist and domineering ends. As Les Wicks concedes in ‘Iron Rain’, ‘To be true is ridiculous’—and yet. The ‘pack or herd’ society of humans is able to harness itself to more powerful possibilities, to reflect and to redirect, indeed, to ‘restore’ futures.
Bookchin argues that ‘ritualistic behaviour must be practised knowingly, indeed, more so than has ever been the case in the past because the mass media have made us terribly vulnerable to new methods of social control.’[iii] The poem is a form of ritualistic behaviour: the poet invites us into the illusion of language, spell-like, for a window of time; within that duration we participate in the social contract of language (regardless of the mode) in good faith. In Annette Skade’s ‘Brownfield’, the speaker ‘scratched a form in the grass’ as a kind of sanctuary, a circle. When it works, this intensified, concentrated ritual of communication re-energises belief in collective power, even if that collective is comprised of merely poet and reader. When it works, we readers believe in the reality of the poem for a few minutes. And it’s precisely this limit, this return to the authentic problems of our time, our non-poetic reality, that makes the poetic space all the more charged with potential.
The showers are still pouring, onto ‘The Gulf’ by Chantelle Mitchell, where ‘ones and zeroes that rain down upon us in a steady never ending stream’ are just as much a concern as dying coral. In this poem, the urgency around one climatic event – the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef, for instance – is floated on a competing market of concerns about environmental health, personal wellbeing, and media veracity. It is an unusual trick, this panning-out, this turning-up of the volume against a focalised issue. You might read it as a symptom of millennial anxiety, you might also read it as a deceptively gradual reminder that dying coral is a social problem. These poems attempt to speak for themselves, reducing the canvas of global crises to little lives, local challenges, individual struggles.
In ‘you, your light’, Mitch Cave uses the intimate genre of a love poem, finding in romance a new way of seeing bodies and their potential. None of these poems represent ‘sacredness’ because this meaning is difficult to communicate to an open audience where profanity or ignorance intrudes. However, these poems do contain some of the qualities of the sacred, invented anew by each author for their own ritual. One such quality is ‘excessive meaning’: these poems ‘exist both to represent something in the world … and also at the same time to articulate something far less tangible but more directly relevant and involving’. This quality produces a ‘social’ experience of collective belief.[iv] Stuart Cooke’s remarkable, sweeping ‘Late World, Humid’ is one of those epochal poems of hard yearning. Typical of Cooke’s current baroque style, the excess of its tropical ecology accumulates a series of ‘facts’ that cannot be ignored; in their continuous morphing of one thing into another they gain momentum and velocity—squashing down the final lines, which suggest defeat (‘can’t’) as well as a statement of triumph. The telluric weight of these facts is heavier than ‘the heavy west’, which is no longer consuming but being fed. In the turn of a line is the turn of colonial legacy, suddenly reduced and needy. This idea is answered by ‘cellular sovereignty’ in ‘golem’ by Rory Green; a poem that imagines the deeper tug of persistence within damaged ecologies. For Green, the mangrove is a perennial structure that will rise to meet its second nature, swallowing the forms back into its creative mud.
A large number of submissions were poems of defeat or despair rather than seeking empowerment through form and language. Jennifer Mackenzie’s ‘Ganesha Lost to View’ is an exception to these myths of disintegration. While the poem’s title and narrative suggests the overturning of the Panjan islanders’ spiritual locus, actually Ganesha resists the invaders’ brutality as long as possible; it is the extended moment of resistance that I responded to in Mackenzie’s vision. Resistance, even when it seems to end in defeat, is often written out of histories and here Mackenzie reminds us that it can reveal the weakness of the successor. Likewise, in ‘Smashing it all to pieces and bringing it all back’, Georgina Woods alludes to the history of Bunjil, imagining a new story of a wedge-tailed eagle rearranging the urban environment, leaving people ‘meandering’ in shock as birdlife returns to restored habitats.
Bookchin asks vaguely (and directly echoing the Romantics) for the integration of poetry and science; but how does this illuminate the poems in this issue? His argument for an improved integration of human technology with more-than-human ecologies invites poetics into the constructive zone. Perhaps it is that charged moment of ‘utopian thinking’ permitted by the poetic space, where anything may happen, that is needed to invigorate science. Its lack of consequence, its harmlessness as a testing site for possible realities, is precisely its usefulness as one of many responses to lived struggles. We need the impossible.[v]
I was attracted to poems that questioned their own magic capabilities whilst enacting them. Little traces of doubt, like a crack in the voice, make the poets’ persistence all the more moving. Kate Middleton’s ‘Ghosts’ permits the surface of evaporating, ‘standing water’ to invoke a memory of greater flows. Adam Stokell shows us the actual in ‘Guidelines’ – drolly listing the incredible brutalities we can expect in neocolonial Australia – and, with a volta, turning back upon them with the ‘scrummed enjambement’ of a poem. It is a small, imaginary triumph, but we are cheering Stokell as he summons the agile text to do his bidding. By comparison, ‘In remembrance of disappearing towns’ is a sequence by Claire Albrecht from which I’ve chosen just one poem, ‘camberwell’. Here, the poem participates in a verbal pun of ‘locking the gate’ against voracious mining expansion into farming land. The act of locking happens once in the farmer’s refusal to submit, and a second time in the poem’s witnessing of this refusal; like binding a spell, the poem reinforces and delivers its subject. The second last line, ‘like a storm closing in’ is ambiguous—does it describe the encroaching mining, or Wendy’s steadfast reversal of power?
In ‘If the phone rings don’t answer it’, Magdalena Ball figures knitting as a stay against ‘uncertainty’. It’s a metaphor for the poem, which, Scheherazade-like, must continue looping and talking a protective screen while the sinister phone rings. The speaker admits to the fallibility of this defence: ‘as if’. We feel the fragility of this momentary delay. Similarly, in the prose poem, ‘The Tree I Call Tiger’ by Elizabeth Tyson-Doneley, there is a peripheral sense of impending trouble, that someone will ‘mind’ the speaker’s need to metamorphose in and out of first and second natures; but in its wonderfully freeing conclusion, albeit perhaps a lonely one, ‘nobody minds at all’ and the speaker has gained an ability to walk through the walls that separate them from the more-than-human. These two poems illuminate Aden Rolfe’s invocative, daring ‘Those that at a distance resemble flies’, which also incants the hypothetical ‘if’ as a creative and destructive weapon against empire and its legacies. Balancing the poems that ward off the loss of habitats, water and food resources, are those that ward off social ecological dissolution.
In his 2006 essay, ’Australia is not an island’, John Mateer invites a paradigm shift in Australia’s neocolonial images of environment:
If Australia is appreciated as a network of islands, the colonial metaphor for acculturation—that is, the ‘development’ of the Land with all its attendant technologies of picturing the landscape, clearing the bush, dispossessing the Natives—can be replaced with another, more ethical set of metaphors, a collection of terms more in keeping with current experience in this region. Those metaphors would be those of travel: art as magical and commercial cargo, culture as the trading of information and values, galleries as airports or trade fairs, the practice of the artist as a means of diplomacy and as a technique of survival after marooning or shipwreck.[vi]
In this issue we have poets from Canada, Ireland, England as well as Tasmania, the Central Coast and more. Rather than being nationally related, the worlds they make in their poems share Mateer’s sense of an archipelagic human society. Poetry becomes a tool for warding off isolation. As Giles Goodland puts it in ‘Atlas’: ‘Here’s to everything that is not us’. This highlights the influence of Deborah Bird Rose on the way I’ve interpreted these poems’ ideas and images. Specifically, her belief in the ability of humans to renovate their ontological and historical traditions has guided my choice of poems that search for psychic and expressive resources of patience, self-reflection, change.
Humour makes these poems possible. The theme of this issue incited poems of parsimoniousness and anger; a place where folks felt permitted to put other humans in their place. But a charm is supposed to be persuasive; we should feel its changes taking us over. In ‘Splash’ (the title reminds me of the hedonism in Luca Guadagnino’s film A Bigger Splash, whose namesake is David Hockney’s famous painting of a vapid LA swimming pool), Les Wicks’ speaker has thrown their lot into the ocean. This is a post-Forbes, post-Howard review of Sydney coastalism, in which ‘life & decay metastasise equally’. It’s not so much relaxed and comfortable as itchy and watchful. At Cronulla in southern Sydney (adjacent to Cook’s landing point at Botany Bay), the status quo is in a condition of flux between applause and justice. This is my hometown, where once settlement was taken for granted but now, post-riots and in a new era of growth, its identity is rapidly changing. Wicks’ poem seeks comfort in the littoral environment, taking guidance from its motion.
With a more wry tone, Judy Annear’s ‘kd’ alights fleetingly on a promising illusion of language—for a phrase to be other than it is, a wishful projection onto the words presented to us. Compare this to Shari Kocher’s stealthy celebration of the poetic space as ammunition. Kocher argues for a peaceful resistance that happens in the body and the mind; an intellectual virus as the poem lands in us. Her control of pace and structure delivers the first contagion. Read it with ‘Immiseration’ by Marian de Saxe, whose ‘firm, scrawny arm’ writes its message of resistance upon water—resistance through immersion in the virtual reality of poetry, not with fingers in ears but with a hunger for the energy that may be found in poetry’s microcosmal focus. De Saxe illustrates Jennifer Maiden’s concept of poetry being able to provide ‘trochaic’ (on/off) release from too much reality, in order to return to it.
While we’ve been reading, the rain has stopped.
[i] Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy, AK press, 2005, 17.
[ii] Bookchin, 20
[iii] Bookchin, 54
[iv] Ken Gelder and Jane M Jacobs, Uncanny Australia, Melbourne University Press, 1994, 99.
[v] Bookchin, 106-107
[vi] John Mateer, ‘Australia is not an island’, Meanjin 65.1 (2006): 89-93 (92).
Bonny Cassidy is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Chatelaine (Giramondo, 2017). She coedited the anthology, Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry (Hunter Publishers, 2016) and is Feature Reviews Editor for Cordite Poetry Review. Bonny leads the BA Creative Writing at RMIT University, Melbourne.