Lyn Chatham reviews Concerning a Farm by Robert Wood

Robert Wood, Concerning a Farm. Buladelah, NSW / Macau: Flying Islands Press, 2017. ISBN: 9789996557217

 

Lyn Chatham

 

Concerning a Farm, a collection of fifty eight, mainly short, free verse poems, is a pocket sized volume, but shows large ambition and breadth. It is the third book published by Robert Wood, the Western Australian poet whose previous publications are History & the Poet: Essays on Australian Poetry, and Land Mass, a hundred page poetic history of Australia.

The title, Concerning a Farm, is explained by Wood in his section of the book, A Note on the Text. He states that his writing involves, ‘not only a poetry of place, but also the cultivation of ground that allows experiments to flower(100). Each poem has either a site (for example, Yosemite), town, city, state, country or continent referenced, and there is one lengthy work to finish, ‘unexplored like heart’ about the world. Most of the places – some of which, the author acknowledges he hasn’t visited – are familiar ones but there are also lesser known Australian towns and suburbs included. Most of the places are urban areas. The methodology behind the creation of the poems is a constrained one, as in much of contemporary poetics. Wood notes that he researched poems that mentioned each featured place – either in ‘real, imagined or discursive terms’ (100) – and then selected words and lines, from those works for his poems. From this ‘compost’ he ‘could turn over the soil, plant seeds, watch seeds grow’ (100). As to be expected, such a freshness of style will challenge readers regarding syntax, lack of narrative and juxtaposition. But, also to be expected, individual lines and sections, from such a rich reserve, are often striking and memorable.

Ecology and history are themes throughout the collection. Birds, other animals, water and trees are common motifs. The front cover illustration of the text is Crayfish by Watanabe Shōtei, crayfish being species that are very intolerant of pollution and other human-generated fouling of their environment. In terms of history, colonialism, in particular, seems of interest to Wood.        

A few of the poems are overtly about the current predicament of the earth’s climate. ‘Unexplored like heart’ concludes with the lines, ‘for we were born with it / for we owe it / and you were there holding out your hands’ (98). ‘Rarely feverish the shadows of a tunnel’ about Patagonia contains the unequivocal lines, ‘seeing the end of the world upright / happening and heating … a debt to the dark officials / the priests of wreckage / the air sewage’ (67). The last line of this poem, ‘you heard the paint thrashing’ (68) is a stunning allusion to development. Wood’s judicious use of personal pronouns is important in making these pieces  meaningful – either when talking about humanity as a whole, or an individual, ‘we’ and ‘you’ are implicated in these scenarios.

The effect of development on the human population and on the environment is shown in several of the works. The world’s fourteenth most densely inhabited city, Delhi, which regularly has water shortages, is referenced in ‘the populace of composition’ – ‘Chant the water / ripen the water … decant the water … with the warm luxuries of / the marble water / the ivory water’ (69–70). ‘The madness of no parting’, about the Gold Coast, contains the lines, ‘the clarity we want / to relax from this misery glint of ourness,’ (34). These lines work on the level of a conflicted relationship as well as seeming to refer to being captive to over-development, the light ‘glinting’ off the high rise. In ‘blue shelter’, in relation to Brisbane, after references to the penal settlement of the city’s origins, the last line alludes to human settlement encroaching on the environs – ‘shrinking / in the surround sound where the poison reaches now’ (40). ‘Palms the come out’, regarding Paris, references the early habitat of that city – ‘the creek spotted with leopard, unencumbered by / stone / locks’ (53). ‘Gold start’, concerning Phuket, contains few words but effectively outlines the effect of development on the environs and native species, as in, ‘goodbye past / past buffalo’ (84).

The impact of an introduced species to an ecological system is also covered in the text. ‘Shallow restlessness whingeing for pleasure’, regarding Sydney, mentions curlews, ibises and magpies, but the most potent verse includes the lines: ‘mynahs / appetites lifted onto heights, flash / bright, wingtipped, you want to break / the whole pacific’ (19). These birds have been categorised as the third-most-invasive species in the world, this characteristic likely due to the alteration of habitat that occurs with human urbanisation.

Some of the poems incorporate ecology with history, in detailing experiences of the Indigenous populations of Australia and New Zealand. The poem, ‘blue as kite’, on the subject of Auckland, includes the lines ‘the imagination of invasion standing … eye to eye in the line of sand / that we drew for them’ (22, 24). Cultural destruction is referred to in ‘stranger uncle’, about Cherbourg, an Aboriginal settlement in New South Wales. At Cherbourg, different cultural groups were forced to live together, each having to abandon their own language and learn English. The last stanza: ‘maddened hopping / misery punishing, / weary wisps / pushed white, death exposure / end yes’ (31–32) is devastatingly effective. In ‘steadfast corporate minstrels we know the delay’, about Australia as a whole, Wood assembles a comprehensive suite of verses covering the first white settlers, their impact on the Indigenous population and the effect of permanent populations’ expansion on the environs. The following lines carry much weight – ‘swaddle the hessian … iron the blue tortoise and tar into the tall grass … perilous the dreaming … cradle the betrayal and pure the what’ (44, 48).

Wood is adept at using several poetic devices. There are stunning similes, such as in ‘green upland detail’, when describing river fowl on The Hawkesbury – ‘damp they chuckle / at threads for / mudflats meridian / translucent as the morning of howling life’ (16) and in ‘paperwork range’ about Cape Town‘peaceful as the slow war’ (25). In ‘eternity asked of the tall’, regarding Yogyakarta, ‘planeload / of pinkness’ (64) is a perfect combination of alliteration and metaphor. And there is much musicality in the poems because of the constant use of assonance, as shown in the title, ‘suitable blue’ in reference to Mecca.

It is exciting to wonder about all the editing decisions that Wood made to create his poems of place. These poems are inventive and sophisticated. Wood does not like such writing to be seen as experimental, but whatever this work is termed, as readers we should be grateful for his research.

 

Lyn Chatham lives in Geelong, Victoria. In 2005, her book, Martino’s Story, was shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Her poetry has been published in Australian journals, including Offset, Other Terrain, Blue Dog, blast and foam:e. In 2018, her poetry chapbook, Artisan, was published by Melbourne Poets Union.

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