Nature and Antiquity in the Work of Martin Harrison

Berndt Sellheim


For I have learned

To look on Nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes

The still, sad music of humanity…[1]


In a letter responding to the death of poet and natural historian Eric Rolls, Martin Harrison notes in Rolls’ work an awareness of the “two great presences, Nature and Antiquity”.[2] The terms of these two presences, which Harrison acquires from Wordsworth, he goes on to nuance as “the claims of nature and the claims of ancient understanding”.[3] Implicit in Harrison’s statement is that he himself shares such an awareness, or a version of it, and with a contribution that is now underlined by the finality of his death in September 2014, the ways in which these two presences are pillars in Harrison’s own writing become only more apparent. In his essays, and during appearances at seminars and readings, he would return to these subjects again and again. In his poetry, the phenomena and interplays of the natural and cultural worlds provide much of the immediate subject matter and many narrative surfaces. These poems move fluidly through human and animal worlds, taking to the winged byways of small birds and various forms of insect life, to marsupial dens and snake hollows. The place of ancientness is also rooted in these textures of anecdote and narrative, as well as within the extensive reach we find in the poems’ varying engagements with, and departures from, inherited poetic structures.

Ancient understanding is a broad church in Harrison’s work. His writing seeks a dialogue with Australia’s Indigenous inheritance, just as it opens toward the philosophies of East and West, through ideas and creative forms that stretch into the literate memory of antiquity. It recognises the ancient cultures of Britain just as it acknowledges the presences of Indigenous people who were, up until almost two centuries back, the custodians of the land on which Harrison’s house in Wollombi, “Shantipur”, was built. In “Country and How to Get There”, he notes the relatively early arrival of graziers into this area, in the 1820s, noting also the extent of carvings and rock paintings there, a fact that testifies to significant aboriginal habitation prior to what was no doubt a traumatic and bloody act of “dispersal”. He also draws our attention to the European traces one finds in Wollombi. History is not a single line that drops plumb through the years, but the endless sedimentations of successive moments, each of which maintains some claim on how the present is manifest, but all of them integrated, subtle; reliant, if we are to recognise them, on our ways of looking.

The place where I am writing this essay, for instance, appears at first sight to be a place in nature, in the wilderness, in the bush. Once you know about it, however, you do not forget how several hundred metres away is that fence-line of one of surveyor Mitchell’s early 19th Century projects, the Great North Road. […] The truth is that the appearance of the land here has been utterly transformed by clearance, by farming, by regrowth, by abandoned house sites, by floods. […] Even Aboriginal historical presence can no longer by itself identify the full shape of the remembering here, no matter how much Aboriginal absence creates the play of terms, the dimensions of feeling, the endless repeatings and no less regular memory failures which build the deepest context by which this place is a place.[4]

This model of ancient presence, in which the most visible shapings of the land are seen as a part of its “memory”, but do not determine the deepest contexts by which a “place is a place”, echoes interestingly amongst Wordsworth’s Lakes District druidic stones. In an interview in Cordite with Adam Aitkin from 1997, Harrison comments that “in this country you have got to have a many-levelled sense of place […] They do have multiple histories – they have Aboriginal histories, early settler histories, contemporary histories and so on. You’ve somehow got to keep those sides of things together.”[5] This capacity to remain open to the palpable presences of the land is therefore in part a mode of attunement, an openness to this many-levelled way in which a place might be understood.

The degree to which the terminology that Harrison is deploying in the Watermark letter may or may not line up with Wordsworth’s is also interesting. Harrison was familiar with the Lakes District, that mountainous region of mirrored lakes with which Wordsworth’s work will ever be associated. As natives of Britain, and both “Cambridge men”, for whatever that’s worth, the area’s celebrated fells form part of their mutual conception of what “the natural world” is composed of, are part of the strata from which contemporary western ideas of “nature” draw their meaning – a meaning for which Wordsworth is, in some part, responsible. Although the term “nature” was not contested in Wordsworth’s day, as it might be within some present-day discourses, Harrison shows little interest here in worrying over whether we can refer to something like “nature” in a straightforward, uncritical way.

The idea of “ancient understanding” might strike us as somewhat esoteric, and, in Harrison’s case, it carries with it an explicit recognition of Indigenous cultures and their relation to colonised lands that it does not carry in Wordsworth. Yet at the same time, the emphasis the 19th Century poet places on conservation, on the forgetting and subsequent obliteration of the exquisite traces of land’s prior inhabitants, sees more confluence in understanding than we might otherwise expect. The marks wrought first by the druids, and then by the history of agriculture (mostly sheep farming) and quarrying also give The Lakes some of the specific traits of wildness marked by industry that Harrison draws our attention to in Wollombi. Harrison’s “ancientness”, then, carries much of that emphasis of historical trace and continuance that is to be found in Wordsworth. The Lake’s District essay follows ancient paths and architectures, highlighting the interlacing of the natural world with the artefacts of culture, artefacts which offer some trace of the ancient within that emerging modernity inhabited by the 19th Century romantic poet:

corn-ground intersected with stone walls apparently innumerable, like a large piece of lawless patch-work, or an array of mathematical figures, such as in the ancient schools of geometry might have been sportively and fantastically traced out upon sand […] rude stones attributed to the Druids, are the only vestiges that remain upon the surface of the country, of these ancient occupants.[6]

The parallels that Wordsworth draws between landscape and concept systems like geometry also find echo in Harrison’s work, as does the locating of structures of meaning within a natural environment that may or may not be shaped by human habitation. Wordsworth writes of the need to secure “scenes so consecrated from profanation”,[7] and in the Watermark letter, which was, it’s worth noting, composed during a visit to the Wordsworth Centre at the University of Lancaster, Harrison comments on the enormous contribution Wordsworth made to the cause of conservation. “One of things I have been doing”, he writes, “is looking at the way in which Wordsworth’s poetry made major – arguably the major – contribution to the preservation of this extraordinarily beautiful area of the north of England. Yes, writers and poets sometimes can win the long term battles to protect the environment.”[8]

A characteristic of 19th Century romanticism is the transformation it offers the concept of “nature”: pushing back against the scientism of Enlightenment thought, romantic poets such as Wordsworth present nature as redemptive and spiritual, possessing an intrinsic value of its own. One aspect of the romantic ideal that lies at the heart of this transformation is the more conscious integration of the human sphere with the natural: and so Wordsworth learns to hear in nature the “still, sad music of humanity”. The nature / culture parallel that Wordsworth (and, for that matter, Harrison) deploys in his work both enacts and demonstrates such enhanced integration. It seems difficult to overestimate the importance of this change. Isaiah Berlin describes romanticism as “the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred, and all the other shifts which have occurred in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear to be in comparison less important, and at any rate deeply influenced by it”.[9] With this in mind, the power of Wordsworth’s contribution, more than its argument for the conservation of the Lakes District per se, is found in the way that our view of such land is transformed by the poet’s sight. I think we can position Harrison’s work within this continuum of transformation. In making this claim, it’s obvious enough that I’m not ghettoising his work within an antiquated aesthetic or conceptual network: the rethinking of “nature” that opens with romanticism continues to evolve, and Harrison’s contribution does not repeat a 19th Century emphasis, but extends a line of inquiry that the romantics initiated, incorporating as it does contemporary insights that span many disciplines, including philosophies of language, phenomenology and poetics.

In Harrison’s poetry and critical work, the interrelations of ancientness and nature are coupled with a reflection on, and foregrounding of, the phenomenological immersion that is our meeting point with such presences. Extending from this is an inquiry into the meaning of that moment of reflection – the nature of this “mind” that reflects. The sensory and extra-sensory boundaries of this engagement are the boundaries and playthings of Harrison’s poetics, boundaries that are equally alive and responsive to the objects and pressures that characterise contemporary modernity as they are to the minutiae of our engagement with the natural world. They are also its ground, its foundation, for what we find in Harrison’s poetry is not transcendentalism, an othering of nature by which its spiritual elevation gives it the radiance of a world outside or beyond our own. Rather, such radiance (and the natural world is indeed radiant as it is evoked in Harrison’s work) is derived from its insistent sensuality. What is evoked is not a sphere beyond, but our sphere – richer, fuller, more meaning-laden than is often recognised.[10]

In the poem “Red Marine”, for instance, I am struck by the feeling that Harrison is speaking back to Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West”,[11] a poem he was immensely fond of, and that Harrison’s abrupt opening directive, “The meaning of that moment must be found”, follows on from Stevens’ poem, sets about addressing the question which Stevens directs to the mysterious Ramon Fernandez. Yet where Stevens’ “inhuman” “plungings of water and the wind” are a singing that goes “beyond the genius of the sea”, from a singer for whom “there never was a world … / Except the one she sang, and singing, made”, for Harrison it is the red hinge of a baffled sail that directs and pins meaning to the sensory moment, to its locale. The “meaning of the moment” may remain outside conceptual structuring, open-ended, yet it is decidedly of that place, of the body that is its witness: it is the physical world that lies beyond the maps we might make of it. The task, therefore, as Harrison sets it out, is not to look beyond the world, but to look more closely at the world we inhabit. It is the corporeal fact of that world, the self-generation of its trees and grasses, the physical traces of those who have come before, perhaps the interaction of buoyancy, wind and sail, which reveal to us the meanings toward which Harrison is gesturing, meanings that are no less palpable within everyday experience for their irreducibility.

There is such delicate precision in the way that Harrison describes not only the various phenomena of the natural world, but also its edges, its histories, the inexplicable, the almost explicable, the perhaps explicable. The “claims of nature” are audible within such phenomena, but we need to search them out, to look and to listen, in order to be open to that “many levelled” sense of place they are located within. In the poem “Roads”, also from The Distribution of Voice, he writes:

Against the primitives of snowing,

Against nothing,

Colour, sound, smell, are all

A kind of sloganeering,


Unless there is a way to find

A further depth,

That high-pitched note within the wiry wind,

That cloud-shadow motion on earth close-up, on distant


Although his work seeks this “further depth”, it is a depth that remains within the “wiry wind”. In this way, Harrison constantly brings his poems back to the sensory, back to the real, back to the concrete fact of country, with its creatures and plant life, its weather, and those material tracings of ancient presence.

The role of language in such an act of attunement and response is vital. In his essay “Country and How to Get There”, Harrison interrogates the local significance of the term “country”, noting how, with the absence of the definite article, its divergence from British and European notions of “the country”, which are “more apposite to a 19th century novelist like Turgenev”, are foregrounded. The word then carries the “technical, intimate and surprisingly mystical”[13] emphasis of the Australian lexicon, an emphasis that is derived, in part, from “the influence of Aboriginal land practices and Aboriginal ancestral sensor of custodianship”.[14] Such an influence, Harrison notes, is “often underacknowledged”. He continues:

he word’s use oscillates all the way between how an Indigenous Australian might use it to describe where he or she comes from through to the self consciously academic adoption of the term as a tool to shift perception of ownership, care and environment within the larger geopolitical terrain of national life and ideas. “Country” is a word which upsets the neat overlaps of meaning in terms like “land”, “property”, “farm”, “home”, “district”, “landscape”, separating these meanings out from each other and stressing how each brings with it its own slant of non-Indigenous colonial history.[15]

Ancient understanding might come down to us, then, not only in the material tracings of ancient cultures within a landscape, but in the adoptions of those cultures’ modes of understanding within contemporary discourse. “To understand the connectedness of human presence across time goes to the heart of that matter of how the words ‘country’ and ‘land’ and ‘countryside’ connect up.”[16] The degree to which we hear the claims of ancient understanding is therefore partly dependent on our linguistic sensitivities.

Although there is a strong emphasis on locale in Harrison’s work, there is also a keen attunement to the histories that contemporary poetry intersects with. Such histories extend well beyond the English romantics: in Harrison’s conception, poetry is an art that traverses literary pathways that wind back through ancient Sumerian verse, that might be open to the song cycles passed down through countless generations of Indigenous Australians, to the histories imbedded in ancient Greek literary forms, through Indian and Chinese poetics, through a multiplicity of voices of celebration, oppression and exchange, some bloody and some sweet. Harrison felt, I think, that part of the poet’s task is a vital positioning of him or her self within this historical flow, contributing to it, steering it, redefining it. One key aspect here is the way that the past constructs our modes of engagement with the present: the structures of how we look at and interpret the world, how we write, and even how we think, are the inheritances of culture. In the 1997 Cordite interview, Harrison comments that “the classic Horatian definition of pictoria poesis has to be rethought from generation to generation”.[17] One part of this process of rethinking is poetry’s adaptation to the geo-cultural conditions of place, its endless series of responses to the present that are necessarily responses to the past. One way to frame the present is as the fecund accumulations of history, all that has come before, laid out before us in this moment of perception. Within this framework, “the claims of nature and the claims of ancient understanding” are vital, even unavoidable, aspects of our phenomenological engagement.

Such rememberings of country are not of some transcendental ether, the spectral mists that might remain of a spirit realm after its adherents have been driven off or butchered. They are present in the living memories of the land’s inhabitants, as paintings, carvings, the altered landscape; the corporeal extensions of a body of thought that are still present in the land, if only we look in the right way, if only we are open, and in some cases authorised, to see them. Yet, as in “Red Marine”, one element that makes Harrison’s work unique is the ways in which such materiality directs us toward the interstices, opening across multiple dimensions, and toward those unnamed aspects of country that “make it what it is”: that which may lie outside our usual ways of looking and interpreting the material world, but which has a presence within that world, should our ways of looking be up to the task. Harrison’s poetry seeks to keep us looking, to maintain that sense of place where one trace of the past is not understood to cancel out another. He sought to break down tired dualisms, to bring things into relation, rather than opposition, so that these different elements might be seen concurrently. “What’s your sense of writing the Australian landscape as a certain unravelling of myths rather than a reinforcement of, say, the country-city divide?,” Adam Aitkin asks him in 1997. Harrison responds: “That dialectic has worn itself out.”[18]

In Harrison’s poems, we frequently read rapid shifts back and forth between descriptions of the “natural” world and the “cultural”, with the structures of organisms and formations of weather juxtaposed with the duco of a ute, or a pool’s chlorine. Interstices are emphasised, expanded, given life; those spaces that are always, ever between, but are opened out by branches, by twigs, and then overlaid with those of that most specific and vital of cultural creations, language. In “Leaving Tasmania” he writes

I think of space between two twigs

Caught there as nothing, touched

By contexts, delicate to fix.

Again we are drawn to spaces that are yet to be, perhaps never can be, made into places; contextual, delicate, their linguistic and extra-linguistic elements playing in and out of their physical properties and presences. In “Letter from America” in the volume Summer, Harrison writes of “how things sing between themselves and their names”,[19] emphasising the linguistic mode or aspect of such potential interstices. There is an echo here of the interpretation that 20th Century phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a thinker whose work Harrison read closely, gives of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In the essay “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”, Merleau-Ponty argues the Saussurean diacritical theory of the sign – that the sign’s meaning is not found in correspondence of signifier with signified, but rather with its divergence from other signs – sees meaning arrive only at the “edge of signs”; for Merleau-Ponty this implies an “immanence of the whole in the parts”, a phenomenon, we are told, which “is found throughout the history of culture”.[20] Thus for Merleau-Ponty, Saussure does not prefigure the potential groundlessness of language that will be emphasised as his work is taken up by later post-structural theorists, but rather an “opaqueness”, in which such instability permits the sign to be conceived of as opening both to a world that is in itself meaningful, and toward other signs. Harrison’s linguistic interstices too are not origins of semantic failure, but are suggestive of greater possibility, of the meaning-rich spaces in which new meanings might come into being, or the physical spaces that fall outside our attention. In Harrison’s much-read poem “A Word”, the arbitrariness of a bird’s appearance, the contingency by which one thing or another might appear before us, is played against a corresponding linguistic instability. The poem remains marvellously open-ended, and might even be read as an insistence on Derridean différance, but the Merleau-Pontian reading seems more fitting when the poem is considered as a part of the larger whole of Harrison’s work, of these movements between the natural world and these interstitial spaces that Harrison returns to again and again. In this way, language retains the capacity for new acts of naming, with the interstices of the physical world mirroring, speaking back, to the linguistic.

This openness finds formal expression in the chapbook Music, Prose and Poems, in which Harrison rapidly shuffles narratives and formal arrangements, evoking a sense of meanings and poems coming into being on the page. Music offers something of a departure from the more rigorously formed lines of Summer and The Kangaroo Farm, with sections of prose interspersed with a variety of textual arrangements, fragments of poems, single lines, broken lines, couplets, and tercets, at times breaking off abruptly, as if mid-thought, at others offering several paragraphs of essayistic explorations in which the temporal, lived moment of the senses is both subject and point of inquiry. As Stuart Cooke notes, one of the striking aspects of the writing in Music is the way that, although it appears on the surface as a radical departure from the more rigid formal structures of Summer, on closer reading we see it as a continuance of the thematic and stylistic concerns of Harrison’s earlier writing, building on that work, extending it, offering what Cooke describes as a “sensual, subjective understanding of perception”.[21]

Such sensuality, as a response to the material, local, sensory world, can also be conceived of as a bridge between cultures, a place where we might join in mutual recognition and difference. Just as it is our physicality – a need for shelter, a love of food, the desires of skin – that frequently act to unite us with cultures and peoples that, on the surface at least, appear vastly different from those we are accustomed to, such cultural differences, even barriers of language, frequently melt away when engaging the concrete stuff of our physical, sensory beings: acts of love or the baking of bread. This is not to say that cultural and mythological reference points disappear in the face of the natural world – I am thinking particularly here of the overlap of subjective, mythic and geological structures in Indigenous belief systems[22] – but that despite these varying reference points, our phenomenological immersion in the natural world, our reliance on it, our sensitivities to it, reveal our commonalities also.

Taking the historical in a more general sense, Harrison frequently spoke of poetry as a long game, seeing cultural memory in terms of what work would remain, what would be remembered, after fifty years or perhaps a century had past. Just as he remarked in the Watermark letter, he emphasised elsewhere that what comes down to us, what we inherit, is in part what we choose to fight for. In “Winter Solstice” he writes of

the Coldor black mercury fountain made for the Republic’s


it would have been lost in time – all the energy to maintain,

restore, re-build, quite lost –

had someone not thought to reinstall it, tracing its flowing vortex back

through those years of war.[23]

Literature, for Harrison, is always a conversation with history, even if that conversation exists not within the subject matter, but only within the textures of the work – the way a contemporary ode might speak back to Homer, for instance, or a contemporary fragment might echo what comes down to us of Sappho: a poem’s language, its formal arrangements, even its apparent rejection of such forms. Yet the kind of awareness that Harrison adopts from Wordsworth and emphasises in the work of Rolls is to do with an explicit presencing of nature and ancientness that obviously extends deeper than a nod of recognition toward moments of shared literary inheritance. Rather, as with Wordsworth, there is an ethical imperative that originates from our sensory engagement, our openness to what it has to say about not only the present, but also the past, which is to emphasise that what nature and ancient understanding confront us with is not merely their presence, but their claims. And on some occasions, we must fight for such claims to be recognised.

Our ways of seeing, hearing and understanding are neither neutral nor natural; this is a principle objection to the argument for a phenomenological reduction that might take us back to “raw” ontological experience, back to the primordial soup. Harrison does not articulate an openness on an idealised, unmediated primordial. Nature resists an act of translation, and we remain built from the cultural world, from a world that has taught us, via our interactions with it, the act of interpretation: that world which we build with our words, with our cars and air-conditioners. Merleau-Ponty states that “tout est fabriqué et tout est naturel chez l’homme”.[24] This interplay, between what is natural and what is “fabricated” or human-made, between nature and culture, is ever present in Harrison’s work. As human beings, our engagement with technology, from the earliest use of sticks, shaped stone flint, through to fibre-optics and the internet, is an essential facet of our being. It informs our modes of sensing, guides our being-in-the-world. In the poem “Lizards”, Harrison interrogates a moment of sensory awareness, and this reciprocity is taken up as the poem’s central concern.

But what occurs

Is complex here, because

The man is cut by what he is,

By where he looks – as if a camera


Shoots his view. His thoughts

Are filled with news,

Traces, the quivering

Things which build these running forms


Into a tenuous net

Of lit-up words. Once more, lizards dart

Upon dark skin

And pattern what the world will say:


Now he is thinking

Of space like a

Hand-held shield, mobile with stars

And stony tracks. Now, of them.[25]

It is interesting here that “[t]he man here is cut by what he is, / By where he looks”, that our attention is drawn to the overlap of a historical, cultural, formed self, and the sensory opening that is itself trained into contemporary modes of seeing: “as if by camera”. Such “training” is not only the news, the “facts” of our world, but the structures by which we interpret the present. It is telling that within this characteristic shift, between the natural world and the constructions of culture, there arises the issue of mediation. The meditation on mind that lies as a central element of Harrison’s poetics is here to do specifically with the nature / culture nexus.

It is worth emphasising that, for Harrison, this question of mediation does not reduce the human subject to a cultural construct, built of online and televisual perceptual channels, of partisan media and city traffic, with, perhaps, England’s rolling hills, or the dust-dry heat of Eucalypt bush in the blasting Australian summer, in there, somewhere, about the edges. Such forces play a part in how we interpret and respond to what we perceive, yet guiding multitudinous layerings of perception are the choices we make in how we look, how we may or may not open our senses to what is around us. For although there may be no neutral way of seeing, there are many ways of looking, of responding to the varying aspects of the spaces we inhabit with our perceptual, and conceptual, apparatus. Within this question of mediation there is also a promise: the promise that poetry might make a difference.

In the poem “Lizards”, the key is found in the poem’s curt final line: that the observer shifts his awareness without shifting his gaze, moving from language’s “tenuous net” to space itself, and then to “them” – a contemplation of the things as they are presented to the senses. Humans are complex; language is complex; the formation of thought is complex; what makes them possible is this capacity for movement, from the news into stars and stony tracks, into their interstices, then back. The complexity of this relationship is a clear point of fascination for Harrison, and much of his late critical work is concerned with thinking through a model of language and meaning into which such complexity might be integrated, a model that does not hit the potential dead ends that emerge when meaning is seen as principally textual. In his doctoral thesis “On Composition: Five Studies in the Philosophy of Writing”, Harrison moves “through to an engagement with non-classical views of writing (such as Derrida’s) as well as into theories of writing linked to cognitive and phenomenological views of meaning”.[26] This emphasis on cognitivist and phenomenological accounts of meaning is worth emphasising, for it signposts Harrison’s formulation of meaning as an ongoing act of cognition and sensory immersion. Although there may not be an exclusively raw primordial state, which we might mine for such ontological secrets as we can unearth, neither do we merely see what we are “trained to see”, or think and speak only within a field of predetermined lexical structures. There is more here than mediation, more to it than the constructions of culture, the trained camera of the eye. As he puts it in “Red Marine”, our sensory opening upon the world can, at times, be “More total, more for the body than the eye”. The sensing body, embedded within the world, is an active participant in meaning’s formation, and that body’s attunement is in part a question of its reciprocal exchange with cultural objects like poems.

This complexity, our many ways of seeing and looking, only underlines the ethical dimension of our sensory openness: the television we watch, the music we listen to, the poems and novels we read, all these things guide our awareness, our sensitivities to the world around us. Poets can sometimes win their battles to preserve the environment, and perhaps they influence more outcomes than they know. Because the poet’s work helps to determine the act of interpretation: how we look at the world, and, ultimately, how we respond to it. In recasting our attention to the endless flow of lives about us, to the memories and knowledges that connect cultures to places, Harrison’s work inscribes our sensory modalities with an ethical imperative. Harrison avoided prescriptiveness, avoided reduction, so I see the kind of ethics that we might extract from his work here as “merely” to do with connection, with honing our attention to the presences, to the claims, which surround us.

I would like to close by offering a few personal, somewhat tangential, remarks. Martin Harrison commences the collection Summer with a Greek citation, which he identifies as fragment 119 from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.[27]  Harrison records this fragment as follows: … ειναι γαρ χαι ενταυθα θεους … Curiously enough, however, Fragment 119 from Heraclitus is generally accepted as being: ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων. The fragment Harrison cites in fact comes to us via Aristotle, and, more significantly, via the German metaphysician Martin Heidegger. In “The Letter on Humanism”,[28] Heidegger sets out to respond to a series of questions put to him by Jean Beaufret, which address, amongst other things, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism. In his response, Heidegger diagnoses both Sartrean existentialism and humanism as stuck within metaphysical thought, which is, for Heidegger, a historical formalisation (and thus not “true” thinking) that has led to the “homelessness” of humankind and the forgetting of the question of Being. In Heidegger’s conception, metaphysical thought leads to an understanding of nature as a resource under the dominion of humankind.[29] One other relevant point of critique here is Heidegger’s dismissal of Sartrean atheism, which he offers not to assert a Christian godhead, but, put simply, to keep a space open for “the holy”: “in the name ‘being-in-the-world’, ‘world’ does not in any way imply earthly as opposed to heavenly being, nor the ‘worldly’ as opposed to the ‘spiritual'”.[30] It is the German romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin who Heidegger identifies as addressing this “homelessness”, transcending both humanism and metaphysics with his non-metaphysical poetry. Heidegger notes the usual translation of ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων as a “man’s character is his diamon [/fate]”, but, he goes on: “This translation thinks in a modem way, not a Greek one. ἦθος means abode, dwelling place. The word names the open region in which the human being dwells.”[31] Heidegger goes on to cite Aristotle, who offers the account of Heraclitus we find excerpted in Summer.

The story is told of something Heraclitus said to some strangers who wanted to come visit him. Having arrived, they saw him warming himself at a stove. Surprised, they stood there in consternation – above all because he encouraged them, the astounded ones, and called to them to come in, with the words, “For here too the gods are present.”

With this epigraph, then, Harrison directs us not only to the famously cryptic pre-Socratic, but to at least three further names: to Aristotle, and more significantly, to Heidegger. Through Heidegger, we are directed to Hölderlin. For Heidegger, Hölderlin offers the chance of non-calculative engagement with the natural world (and, for that matter, humankind),[32] and Harrison is here drawing our attention to a mode of poetic sensuality that can be seen as an opening upon, a possibility, rather than merely an aesthetic endpoint. There is a more technical discussion to be had concerning the ways in which Harrison’s ecology and phenomenological attentiveness may and may not fit with the ontological conception of dwelling we find in Heidegger, with its quasi-theological fourfold of earth, sky, divinities and mortals, but this is not the place for it. Suffice it to note that Heidegger’s foregrounding of the historical aspect of our thinking has many resonances in Harrison’s work, and Harrison’s choice of epigraph articulates a recurrent theme: the presence of what we might think of as “holy” within life’s everyday pleasures. Heraclitus words locate us in rich philosophical soil, but they also get us into the dirt, into the everyday stuff of being alive. It is into these pleasures that Harrison’s poetry constantly draws us, reshaping our modes of feeling, probing the nature of the sensory act, drawing the eye beyond what is expected. Even if we find Heidegger’s claim to do with metaphysical thinking overemphatic, his emphasis on poetry’s capacity for the creation of new meaning, its enabling new ways of looking and reconfiguring the terms by which the world is understood, continues to be valuable, and Harrison certainly found it so.

The “too” in Heraclitus’ fragment is also telling, for it emphasises not a denial of the spiritual realm, a reduction of “what there is” to what is measurable, but rather an opening out of transcendental possibility from the everyday. In the days that followed Harrison’s death, as we discussed the appropriate extent and nature of religious ritual in the funeral service, Sydney poet Nick Keys mentioned that Harrison had once said to him, emphatically: “I’m not a materialist. Things are not just what they are. That’s too simple.”[33] And Harrison did leave space for the transcendent within his work. The sense of a shimmering beyond is at the edge of every word: “Anyone up this early – it’s just after dawn – is going to be overwhelmed by the glimmering of things” he writes in a poem with that most quotidian of titles, “Breakfast”. But as he goes on, we see such shimmering draws from the physical universe, as Harrison brings a landscape into being with an evocative act of naming, one thing at a time. “The grasses, the rocks, the bluff and its shelves, inland lakes, casuarinas, some sort of mountain ash, I’m not sure which. Then the black-veined opalescent smear of lake.”[34] And so I read his comment to Keys as emphasising what is an essentially romantic idea: that things can not be reduced to their physicality. Yet, as with Merleau-Ponty, that physicality is the place from which all else is evoked: it is, so to speak, what we have, what we are given, in the senses. What makes nature radiant here is not that it is spirit, but rather, that it is flesh, that its glimmer is overwhelming just the same.

The interstices Harrison evokes create a space for whatever might be beyond the physical universe, for a radiant world that makes manifest such spirit as we might locate in it, but such radiance finds its origin in the smallest, most everyday, of things. In a broad sense, this idea might bring him closer to pantheistic or indigenous belief structures than the largely abstracted, transcendent notions of the god we find in most of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and certainly in conversation he expressed a knowledge of, and sensitivity towards, many different modes of spirituality. He complained to me more than once, in that exasperated, charming way he had, about a new house that had been built at the end of his “drive” at Shantipur – that is, at the end of the furrowed trail that leads out from the house, running between the two paddocks of his neighbours. Those responsible for the new house’s construction had stuck it on the ridge point, right on the rock, without any consideration of how it might be integrated with the environment, without recognising that the rock on which it was so plonked was “clearly sacred”.

Some weeks before he died, I went to see him at a hospital in Hornsby. It seemed, at the time, to be one of his better hospital stays. He felt well cared for, felt that they knew what they were doing, knew how to deal with him. As we sat outside on a communal patio that looked out over the hospital’s bushy garden, a priest arrived. The man immediately commenced the rituals of mobile liturgy, focussed on a group of patients nearby, but with an open demeanour of inclusion by which others gathered there might feel a part, should they so wish. There were three in his main congregation, French Polynesians, with wild grey electric wire for hair, and the priest placed the Eucharist in the mouth of each. Le corps et le sang du Christ. I could hear Harrison muttering along. Although I don’t think he had much patience with the exclusions of most organised faiths, his sense of the spiritual was broad and forgiving, and, unsurprisingly, nuanced and complex: he liked the ornate rituals of Catholicism – all those robes and incense. He had great respect for Daoist practice. He admired the sense of custodianship that arrived with the integration of land and spirit in Indigenous belief. Within the British spiritual tradition, he was most drawn to the open-ended searchings of the Quakers, and he cites a Quaker verse during the Poetry Writing Thought seminar[35] he attended some two days before his death. Such spiritual traditions are the closest many of us get to something like ancient understanding in our modern, technologically mediated lives. Just as with his poetics, in his spiritual leanings Harrison was disinterested in “tired old dualisms”. In this tenor of openness, the tracings and insights of the ancient might then be integrated into phenomenological experience: to find the gods in nature, and nature in the gods. Which is to say, I suppose, that despite all that’s written above, I still see Harrison as a spiritualist, a kind of open-hearted, universal gnostic. After the priest had gone, and he had watched me squirm a little in my heathen skin, he turned to me, smiling slightly, and said: “It’s a good thing to do.” “What?” I asked. “Pray?” I knew what he meant, but for some reason I needed him to say it. He nodded, very serious a moment. “Yes.”

[1] William Wordsworth, “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey“, in Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, 2nd ed., Routledge, New York, 2005, p. 113.

[2] Martin Harrison. Unpublished Email, sent to The Watermark Literary Society. Friday, November 02, 2007. The email was forwarded by The Watermark Literary Society to Robert Adamson, following Harrison’s death. For convenience, I’ll refer to it in what follows as “The Watermark Letter”.

[3] Harrison, “The Watermark Letter”.

[4] Martin Harrison, “Country and How to Get There”, in Who Wants to Create Australia?, Halstead, Sydney, 2007. pp. 105-7.

[5] Adam Aitken and Martin Harrison, “Adam Aitken Interviews Martin Harrison”, Cordite Poetry Review (1 November 2014), accessed 30 April 2015.

[6] A Guide through the District of the Lakes in The North of England. Longman & Co., Moxon, and Whittaker & Co., London, 1835 [1810], pp. 236, 258.

[7] A Guide, p. 270.

[8] Harrison, “The Watermark Letter”.

[9] Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, London, Pimlico, 2000. pp. 1–2.

[10] Harrison’s final appearance at University of Technology Sydney for the Poetics Writing Thought seminar series (with Deborah Bird Rose, on the evening of Thursday 4 September 2014, just two days before his death) is illuminating here. The seminar concerns itself, in part, with the sensory moment that Rose describes as “shimmer” – by which she names the playing of reflected and refracted light in the vision. “Shimmer is literal”, comments Harrison at one point, “I’ve seen it.” Harrison identifies various aspects of this sensory effect, noting the way that it is foregrounded in non-western art, including the New Zealand Māori tradition. One of his points of emphasis is to do with the importance of the visceral in art, and there is a discussion of what he describes as “dimensionality” with regard to phenomenological engagement with country. This session was recorded by Jason Childs, a doctoral candidate of Harrison’s, and, at the time of writing, is still to be posted on the Plumwood Mountain website.

[11] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, Vintage, New York, 1990, p. 128.

[12] “Roads”, in The Distribution of Voice, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1993, p.57.

[13] Martin Harrison, “Country and How to Get There”, in Who Wants to Create Australia?, Halstead Press, Sydney, 2007, p. 101.

[14] Harrison, “Country and How to Get There”, p. 101.

[15] Harrison, “Country and How to Get There”, p. 101.

[16] Harrison, “Country and How to Get There”, p. 106.

[17] Aitken and Harrison, “Adam Aitken Interviews Martin Harrison”.

[18] Aitken and Harrison, “Adam Aitken Interviews Martin Harrison”.

[19] Martin Harison, Summer, Paper Bark Press, Sydney, 2001, p. 50.

[20] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”, in Signs, trans. Richard C. Mcleary, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1964, p. 41.

[21] Stuart Cooke, “Liminal Narratives”, Jacket 28 (October 2005),, accessed April 30, 2015.

[22] On the matter of Indigenous Law, for instance, Deborah Bird Rose cites a senior Yarralin man, Doug Campbell: “You see that hill over there? Blackfellow Law like that hill. It never changes. Whitefellow law goes this way, that way, all the time changing. Blackfellow Law different. It never changes. Blackfellow Law hard – like a stone, like a hill. The Law is in the ground.” (Dingo Makes Us Human, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2000,  p. 56).  This common root of all beings in earthbound Law (which, considered at an atomic level, is quite literally true) only reinforces this point. Rose also cites Hobbles Danayarri: “Everything come up out of ground-language, people, emu, kangaroo, grass.” (Dingo Makes Us Human, p.57). Thus although our cultural reference points may differ markedly, our commonality is revealed in our corporeal beings.

[23] Martin Harrison, Wild Bees, University of Western Australia Press, Crawley, 2008, p. 181.

[24] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, Éditions Gallimard, Paris, 1945, p. 549.

[25] “Lizards”, in The Distribution of Voice, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1993, pp. 10-11.

[26] Martin Harrison, “On Composition: Five Studies in the Philosophy of Writing”, PhD Thesis, University of Technology Sydney, Sydney, 2010, p. 8.

[27] Heraclitus, Fragment 119, in Martin Harrison, Summer, p. 7.

[28] Martin Heidegger, “The Letter on Humanism”, in Pathmarks, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 239.

[29] For an account of Dwelling and the “enframing” (Gestell) of nature, see in particular Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”, in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell, London, Routledge, 1993.

[30] Heidegger, “The Letter on Humanism”, p. 266.

[31] Heidegger, “The Letter on Humanism”, p. 269.

[32] There is significant literature positioning Heidegger’s thought within the framework of ecological thinking. See, for instance, Michael E. Zimmerman, “Rethinking the Heidegger Deep Ecology Relationship”, in Environmental Ethics 15,  no. 3 (Fall, 1993), pp. 195–224. For a text that uses Heidegger for “environmental ends”, see Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth, Picador, London, 2000. An interesting path through Buddhist / Heideggerian negativity and into the deep ecology of Arne Naess (Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy, Shambhala, Boston, 1990) can be found in Zimmerman’s essay “Heidegger, Buddhism, and Deep Ecology”, in The Cambridge Companion to Martin Heidegger, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 240–69.

[33] Conversation between Martin Harrison and Nick Keys, cited in an email exchange between Keys and Sellheim, 16 May, 2015.

[34] Music, Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2005, pages unnumbered.

[35] See note 10, above.


Berndt Sellheim is the author of Beyond the Frame’s Edge (Fourth Estate, 2013) and Saint Vitus Dance (Fourth Estate, forthcoming). He has taught poetry and philosophy at various major Australian universities, including University of Technology Sydney, where he taught with Martin Harrison, and his poetry and critical work have been published internationally. He recently completed his first collection of poems.

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