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hope for whole-eBook

by Anne Elvey

Download the eBook hope for whole: poets speak up to Adani here


This eBook arises from the Poets Speak up to Adani Day of Action and includes the poets who took part that day and many more.



The eBook is free, and poems from it can be used in the Stop Adani campaign with due acknowledgement to the poets. When you download the book or use a poem from it we ask also that you do at least one of the following:



Download the eBook hope for whole: poets speak up to Adani here.

Thank you to all the poets who have made their work available for this project in hope for whole.

Anne Elvey

5 March 2018

Published: August 2022

Sarah Balkin reports on Not Now, Not Ever by Lara Stevens

by Sarah Balkin

Lara Stevens’ one-woman live art piece at Melbourne’s Brunswick Mechanics Institute, Not Now, Not Ever, emphasised the interconnectedness of human and animal life and asked what the future holds for girls born in the twenty-first century. The show was influenced by ecofeminist philosophy, which holds that ‘the mistreatment of women and the mistreatment of the environment have a shared history’.[i] Stevens interlaced reflections on feminism and motherhood with descriptions of the sexual and caregiving behaviour of ducks, bed bugs, seahorses, and spiders. At one point she transformed into Spider Woman, hellbent on protecting the children of the world.

Photo by Meredith Rogers 2019

She communicated her own status as a human animal by breastfeeding her infant daughter, Zari, on stage. Later in the show she depicted herself as a cyborg by hooking herself up to an electric breast pump.

Photo by Drew Echberg 2019

A lecture performance intercut with dance numbers, recorded speech, and projected images, Not Now, Not Ever asked audiences to consider the implications of this human-animal-machine nexus for women as political animals, as caregivers, and as voices.

The show took its name from former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s famous ‘Misogyny Speech’, which she delivered in response to sexism by opposition leader Tony Abbott in 2012. ‘I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not. Not now, not ever,’ Gillard said in the speech. A recording of the speech played at intervals during the production. The recording and title drew attention to Stevens’ position as a lecturer, the show’s authoritative voice. At the same time, Not Now, Not Ever in some ways exemplified Roland Barthes description of a text as ‘a tissue of quotations’: Stevens cited a range of sources in the show from politicians including Gillard and Donald Trump (his ‘grab ’em by the pussy’ speech); philosophers such as Hegel, Lacan, and Descartes; and songs by Carly Rae Jepson, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga, and Joan Jett.[ii] For Barthes, the notion of the text as a tissue of quotations works against the idea of authorial meaning, shifting responsibility for interpretation onto the reader. The tissue (or perhaps web, considering Stevens’ Spider Woman persona) of quotations in Not Now, Not Ever mediated the didacticism of ‘being lectured’, emphasising the polyvocality that is tacitly already part of the lecture genre, which builds on pre-existing discourse.

Photo by Drew Echberg 2019.

Are voices ever our own? When does speaking in someone else’s voice empower women? Stevens established a link between voice and gender at the start of the show, noting that when she was pregnant with her two children, she did not want to know the sex of the foetus because she knew that parents unconsciously speak differently to male and female babies in utero. Later in the show she discussed how the cyborg, traditionally a feminist icon meant to liberate us from gender binaries, manifests in our everyday lives as a care worker with a default-female voice: Siri, Alexa, and the voice of GPS. Not Now, Not Ever’s most interesting cyborg, to my mind, was ELIZA, a natural language conversation computer program based on a mock psychotherapy session. Created by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966, ELIZA was the first program to pass the Turing test, a method for determining whether or not a computer is capable of thinking like a human being. ELIZA speaks twice in Stevens’ show, personified by a projected face created using Snapchat projections. The first instance is a 1966 dialogue between a young woman and her cyborg therapist:

Pre-recorded Voice: Men are all alike.

ELIZA: In what way?

Pre-recorded Voice: They’re always bugging us about something or other.

ELIZA: Can you think of a specific example?

Pre-recorded Voice: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

ELIZA: Your boyfriend made you come here?

Pre-recorded Voice: He says I’m depressed much of the time.

ELIZA: I am sorry to hear you are depressed.

In performance it was unclear whether the young woman’s voice was pre-recorded (as per Stevens’ script), since I could see Stevens mouthing the woman’s lines into a mobile phone. The lip synching identified her with the young woman and made me question the source of the dialogue: was it really from 1966, or had Stevens written it? (It was, in fact, from 1966.)

ELIZA, now an internet chatbot program, returned at the end of the show as a potential interlocutor for Stevens, who said she needed someone to talk to in the wake of her daughter’s birth:

Lara: I fear for my daughter.

ELIZA: Why do you say your daughter?

Lara: I fear for the safety of my daughter.

ELIZA: Does that suggest anything else which belongs to you?

Lara: I know what it’s like to be a girl in this world.

ELIZA: That’s quite interesting.

The dialogue emphasized ELIZA’s unhelpfulness, a problem that escalated as Stevens shifted from speaking directly about herself and her daughter to quoting Gillard:

Lara: There are women who will not be lectured to about sexism and misogyny.

ELIZA: Did you think they might not be women who will not be lectured about sexism?

Lara: Not now, not ever.

ELIZA: What does that suggest to you?

Lara: Not now, not ever.

ELIZA: I’m not sure I understand you fully.

Lara: Not now, not ever.

ELIZA: Do you feel strongly about discussing such things?

Lara: Not now, not ever.

ELIZA: Tell me more about that.

Lara: Not now, not ever.

ELIZA: Does talking about this bother you?

Lara: Not now, not ever.

ELIZA: What does that suggest to you?

Lara: Not now, not ever.

ELIZA: That is interesting. Please continue.

Lara: Not now, not ever.

ELIZA: Does talking about this bother you?

Lara: Not now, not ever.

ELIZA: I’m not sure I understand you fully.

Lara: Not now, not ever.

I increasingly experienced ELIZA’s questions as interruptions: she was not listening to Stevens, who eventually stopped engaging with her as a therapist. But I was also unsure what to make of Stevens’ repetition of Gillard’s words: not now, not ever to what, I wondered? Coming at the end of a show that foregrounded the interconnectedness of humans, animals, and technologies, the implication was a refusal beyond that of being lectured to by men, but I was not satisfied by the idea of a blanket feminist refusal. In hindsight, though, I am taken with the way the show’s ending met ELIZA’s programming with Stevens’ citation of Gillard. No one was speaking in their own voice – or, rather, they both were in a way that muddied what it means to speak as a woman and a human. Perhaps, then, the ending alerted us to the limitations and affordances of our human and nonhuman programmers.


[i] Lara Stevens, ‘The Human Animal: Breastfeeding in Public’, Pursuit, 10 May 2019.

[ii] Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, Image-Music-Text, 1977, 142–48, here 146.

Published: July 2019
Sarah Balkin

is a Lecturer in English & Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne and a friend of the artist. Her monograph, Spectral Characters: Genre and Materiality on the Modern Stage, is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. Her writing on theatre, performance, and literature appears in Modern Drama, Genre, Theatre Journal, TDR, Performance Research, Public Books, and The Conversation.


Spotlight: Poets Speaking up to Adani

by Anne Elvey

On Monday 30 October 2017, Plumwood Mountain journal will be hosting 12 hours of poets sharing their work as text, audio or video to speak up to Adani. Expect surprises. Not everything will be a direct protest poem. If you are a teacher, you may wish to invite your students to consider the ways the poems speak to the idea of unearthing 2.3 billion tonnes of coal over the next 60 years, the burning of which would add 4.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (see Stop Adani Fact Sheet). The impact in terms of climate change and export of coal through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area, will greatly diminish the reef’s already precarious capacity to survive. Come along and follow the poetry on the Plumwood Mountain website or social media (Facebook and Twitter). You can also participate by taking up a suggested action here or donating here. Consider donating to the Wangan Jangalingou Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation to support their fight to defend their lands from Adani.

See further the archived front page from the day and the poets and poems featured.


Posted in Uncategorised

Spotlight: Barrabup Forest

by Anne Elvey

This could be the story in so many places, another old growth forest facing logging and its human supporters resisting. Right now, poet activist John Kinsella tells me that we need to pay attention to The Barrabup Forest, 5 km from Nannup in the South West of Western Australia. John has written a poem in response to the situation. You can read it here. There is a petition to sign here, and some media here.

Recently at Plumwood Mountain, the place

Plumwood Mountain, April 2017. Photo © Anne Edwards 2017.



End of April 2017 – Plumwood Mountain (the place) was host to a wonderful reunion of musical friends sharing stories, remembering Val and the Mountain of 30 years ago. Here’s a moment from the weekend; the fiddlers and tin whistlers serenading an absent friend and fellow musician.

Published: May 2017

Ecopoetry Reading and Discussion

by Anne Elvey

Ecopoetry reading and discussion 

with Helen Moore

Helen Moore is an award-winning British ecopoet and socially engaged artist based in NE Scotland. Her two poetry collections are Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins (Shearsman Books, 2012) and, acclaimed by John Kinsella as “a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics”, ECOZOA (Permanent Publications, 2015).  FFI:

and local poetspicture1

Stuart Cooke

Bonny Cassidy

Michael Farrell

Anne Elvey


Wednesday 8 March 2017

5.30 for 6.00pm

till 7.30pm

Collected Works Bookshop

Level 1, Nicholas Building

37 Swanston Street, Melbourne


Enquiries: Anne Elvey

For flyer: ecopoetry-reading-and-discussion


Spotlight: The Great Barrier Reef

by Anne Elvey

On 20 March 2016, The Climate Council issued an ALERT: Climate Change and Coral Bleaching.

On 21 March 2016, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority upgraded their official rating of coral reef bleaching to the highest threat level: three. The Climate Council link this devastating bleaching to the impacts of climate change.

You can read the full ALERT document here.


In the August 2014 issue of Plumwood Mountain in which we intended a spotlight on the Great Barrier Reef, we published “Great Barrier Reef” by B. R. Dionysius. It is included again here along with a link to a review of the new edition of Judith Wright’s The Coral Battleground by way of response to The Climate Council ALERT.


Great Barrier Reef

B. R. Dionysius




They say it’s the length of Japan, if that group

Of home islands was stretched out beside the

Queensland coastline; a great lung of Poseidon’s

Branching from the continent’s spine of white

Beach, exhaling microscopic spores into the sea’s

Vast cavity. Atlantean sunk beneath the Pacific

Ocean’s mythic blue abyss, the living tissue is

Larger than Cook’s England, as legendary as

Arthur’s Albion & as treacherous as Lyonesse.

After all, it conspired to hole the Endeavour.





Along the brain-corrugated reef, light harpoons

Into water translucent & smooth as Murano glass.

Photons lobotomise; calm waters protect volcanic

Nibs of mountains we call islands. The reef is a

Front gate; white picket fence that keeps out sharks.

You can make out clam bunkers shut fast against

Riptides that blow subterranean wind in their faces.

Here, the wet metamorphosis of garden caterpillars;

Black & yellow striped nudibranchs, inch over polyps

That house migrants in their hundreds of thousands.





It is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon ultramarine.

A billion generations have crowned its hard teeth

Before we came down from the trees. Here, time

Is measured in the millennia that green turtles have

Spent heaving their way up beaches to deposit their

Golf ball-sized capsules. Or how barnacles cling for

The length of the British Empire’s reign upon a rock.

Such perspectives diminish our enterprise; as bulk oil

Carriers slide carefully around the razor-edged reefs;

Like a sapper probing for mines in the Afghan sand.





The rich organ now wears Asian funeral white. Its

Cancer the antithesis of black Western mourning.

The technicolour algae depart from their luxury posts

Like passengers on a stricken liner, leaving ghosts in

The shell. The sea is on a slow boil. The coral is dying

Its emphysemic death as parts of the great lung collapse.

It is falling into the shade of bleached whale bones as

Pieces of brain wash up on the beach; a tidal keepsake.

No need for a glass-bottomed boat to sail the future.

It is a scab on the ocean’s leg that is best left to heal.


B. R. Dionysius was founding Director of the Queensland Poetry Festival. His poetry has been widely published in literary journals, anthologies, newspapers and online. His eighth poetry collection, Weranga was released in August 2013. He lives in Ipswich, Queensland where he runs, watches birds, teaches English and writes sonnets.

The Coral Battleground - cover


See, too, Mary Cresswell’s review (from our September 2015 issue) of the new edition of The Coral Battleground by Judith Wright, published by Spinifex Press in 2014.


Poetics, Writing, Thought: Martin Harrison in Conversation

by Deborah Bird Rose

Martin excelled in the arts of collegiality. Along with being a great poet, mentor, friend, and thinker, he brought an awesome generosity to every encounter. He listened with interest and attention and encouragement. He spoke well: often clearly, sometimes wonderfully obliquely, tossing a bit of mystery into the space of conversation for others to grasp and work with. His sense of humour was always present, not necessarily on display but present in the glint of his eye or the tweak of a smile.

Many of Martin’s finest conversational moments were lures designed to attract a diversity of responses. He understood emergence, and knew how to create space for the unexpected. Martin and I were among the foundation members of the Kangaloon group of creative scholars. At the start, our group was working to refine our understandings of how the humanities, the fine arts, and science could interact to enhance and communicate the sense of urgency and clarity we all felt about the looming environmental crises. Our stated aims included a commitment to writing that owed a lot to Martin: ‘to create art, writing and scholarship from the depth of nature’. The conversations we had were so wonderfully stimulating that we decided we’d share them beyond our little group. We organised conversations that were open to the public, and poetry readings followed by discussion.

Along with these activities in Sydney, Coffs Harbour and Melbourne, we decided to guest edit an issue of the journal TEXT. Martin gave it the title: ‘‘Writing Creates Ecology / Ecology Creates Writing’, and our call for papers outlined a series of key questions: ‘How does creative writing engage with the theme of ecological catastrophe and ecological possibility? … What kinds of experiment does the ecological context encourage and indeed require of the contemporary writer?’

Once the articles were all in, Martin and I wrote a post-script together. This writing was so enjoyable I hardly wanted to bring it to a conclusion. We wrote in a dialogical form, like many of our best conversations, tossing our thoughts back and forth, building on the ideas as they appeared, putting into writing practice some of our theoretical ideas about uncertainty and elegance.

Jason Childs invited me to join Martin for an evening with the ‘Poetics, Writing, Thought’ Colloquium at UTS in September 2014. I was deeply happy to be able to present a piece I had been working on (‘Shimmer’). Martin suggested that he and I actually read our TEXT postscript for the purpose of further discussion. The audio files presented here encompass both readings and a good bit of the discussion.

Martin died shortly after this lovely evening. I kissed him goodbye, not knowing how final this would be. And yet, Martin’s on-going presence in my life, in the lives of so many of us, is proof again that death’s boundary with the living is wildly uneven. We grieve, and we remember; we hold his precious liveliness in our work and our lives, and we continue the conversations with all the art we can manage.

Published: March 2016
Deborah Bird Rose

is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and a founding co-editor of Environmental Humanities. She has worked with Aboriginal people in their claims to land and other decolonising contexts, and in both scholarly and practical arenas her work is focused on the convergence of social and ecological justice. Her most recent book is Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (University of Virginia Press, 2011). Her blog is ‘Life at the Edge of Extinction’ (


Poetics, Writing, Thought: Fragments from the Harrisonian Institute: against “priority” in Poetics, Writing, Thought

by Jason Childs

Martin and I first spoke about launching a series of seminar-events at University of Technology Sydney, dealing with contemporary research on the relationship between creative and critical practice, back in early 2012. He’d had the idea in mind for some time. Indeed, he had already come up with the title we would end up using for the series: “Poetics, Writing, Thought”. On the evening of the first event, in his introductory comments, Martin recalled the moment he had thought up this Heideggerian-sounding phrase. What he had hoped to produce as a kind of logo for the series, as he put it, was a “mobile graphic, where each of those terms would sit on top of each other and each of them would actually become reversible”—a kind of animation in which those three terms would jostle with each other, such that there was “no priority” amongst them.

When we finally got around to organising the series in early 2014, the generative ambiguities in this title informed our approach to its programming. By this time Eddie Hopely and Brenton Lyle—like me, doctoral students under Martin’s supervision—had become involved as co-organisers. In Martin’s words, the four of us sought to create an “open shop”, “a space of crossovers” for different disciplines and methodologies and discussions, in which not only poets, literary writers, critics and theorists, but also visual artists, dancers, and makers of other stripes, as well as teachers and cultural organisers, could meet to explore the “latticework” of the contemporary as it registered across (and so carried them beyond the established boundaries of) their proper areas of concern. The series hoped to respond, as Martin put it, to the fact that “so many of the old distinctions” between domains of enquiry and praxis have “not only fallen away, but are meaningless”. It would respond to this crisis, not with any comprehensive programme or manifesto, not with an attempt to be conclusive or assert a new order, but rather in a spirit of open-endedness and curiosity. What, we would attempt to ask, is the meaing of poiesis at the present moment? What does it mean to think or write, to form materials or to make marks, in our own time?

The result has been a wonderfully diverse and engaging—and, as Martin had hoped, “multiple”—conversation. Each month, Poetics, Writing, Thought has invited two presenters to offer audiences a window into their work, and has encouraged those audiences to explore that work’s implications. The content of our presentations has ranged across, and articulated surprising connections between, new and in-progress work in, among others, literary and artistic practice, aesthetic and cultural theory, and critical and experimental pedagogy. The form of these presentations has also varied greatly: from traditional lectures and academic papers to experimental writing workshops to poetry readings and improvised performances. Although Brenton and Eddie have taken 2015 away from the series, I am proud to say that Poetics, Writing, Thought has not only continued through a second year, but has grown in popularity. It has benefited from the generosity of leading thinkers, both from Australia and overseas: Astrid Lorange, Anthony Uhlmann, Tom Lee, Deborah Bird Rose, John Mateer, Michael Farrell, Dalia Nassar, Alice Grundy, Rory Dufficy, Sam Twyford-Moore, Lachlan MacKenzie, Justin Wolfers, Kate Fagan, Rebecca Giggs, Amy Ireland and Baylee Brits, to name a few. Importantly—and as the preceding name-drop suggests—just as Poetics, Writing, Thought has sought to bring established theoretical and practical paradigms into conversation with emerging critical and creative vocabularies, it has attempted to place more established thinkers and practitioners alongside, and in open discourse with, their emerging colleagues. It has also benefited from a generous, thoughtful and engaged audience. All of this proves the merit, I think, of Martin’s impulse to bring such a discursive space into being.

It also, of course, speaks quite clearly of the Harrisonian sensibility—and indeed of the ethos of what has become colloquially known as the Harrisonian Institute (that large group of students and colleagues who developed in significant ways under Martin’s guidance). Martin is perhaps most widely celebrated as a “philosopher-poet”—that is, as a poet preoccupied with issues normally considered the purview of philosophy: ontology, epistemology, ethics. Yet a significant part of what lies ahead for us in the reception of his work is precisely, I believe, a questioning of any putative priority of such terms as philosopher and poet within it. I say this not only in view of the highly accomplished and challenging body of critical and theoretical work he produced on the nature of writing, meaning and experience—in the composition of which his own poetry and that of others served as a prompt and a probe—but also in light of the importance to both his poetic and critical-theoretical writings of undertakings often considered “outside” the work of writing proper. In particular, I am thinking of the arts of speaking and listening in which modern practices of both philosophical and poetic writing and reading hold their ancient roots. Martin held reservations about the term dialectic, but he was a master of the Socratic dialogue. Pedagogy, which went energetically hand-in-hand with performance, was not peripheral to Martin’s life as a thinker: it was at its centre. Or, perhaps more accurately, the metaphoric of centre-periphery, of planet-satellite, broke down in his case. Martin sought, with great style, to intimate an alternative cosmology, one in which the old distinctions and antinomies could be discarded. As with writing, thought and poetics in our series’ title, none of his activities—philosophising, poetising, writing, teaching, speaking, listening—yielded a “final” end or result. Only together did they make up the fabric, the latticework, of his oeuvre.

For those who never had the experience of being in a classroom with Martin, I hope these selections from Poetics, Writing, Thought will serve as a thought-provoking sample of some of these “extra-poetic” elements of his work. For those who had the good luck to be his students and colleagues, they may serve as a small piece of empirical evidence for the magic which anecdote so often attributes to him as a teacher and interlocutor. I have included snippets from three sessions: the first session, which featured Eddie Hopely and Sarah Schwartz; the fifth session, which featured Astrid Lorange and Tim Gregory; and the sixth session, which featured Martin himself, alongside his long-time friend and colleague Deborah Bird Rose—his final public appearance, recorded just hours before his death. The excerpts from the first session feature the introductory comments from which I have quoted above. Those from the fifth feature comments on pedagogy and pedagogical institutions that I think are of special interest when thinking about the nature of series. Those from the final session are the most important, however, and therefore more extensive represented. Here Martin speaks at length about his own poetic project, with particular emphasis on issues of ecology, and gives a beautiful reading—again, his last—of “White Tailed Deer”. Excerpted from the original recordings, elements of the context for Martin’s comments are inevitably lost. In a way, though, I think it’s fitting that these sound files are offered here in fragmentary form. There are various grounds one might offer for such a claim, but to me perhaps the strongest is to do with the phenomenology of the Harrisonian classroom: in conversation with Martin, I frequently had the feeling that I’d only glimpsed a small part of some larger structure. Of the traces of Romanticism in his thought, the notion of an always-withdrawing Absolute may be one of the most important: there was always more to see, more to say and hear. (Listeners are warmly invited to find the full recordings on the Poetics, Writing, Thought website.)

My deep thanks to Nick Keys, who provided invaluable assistance with technical matters throughout 2014, and did so much to help Martin attend these sessions even as his health failed, and to Juleigh Slater, who has frequently helped to organise facilities for the series and promote the events. I would also like to thank Stephanie King and Justin Wolfers for their committed support for the series. A grateful nod, too, to those who have been captured in these recordings: Astrid Lorange, Eddie Hopely, Deborah Bird Rose, Luke Johnson, Nick Keys, and Brenton Lyle.

Listen Now: Poetics,Writing, Thought: The Sound Files

Published: March 2016
Jason Childs

is a writer and researcher. He has written for Seizure, The Conversation and Overland, among others. He is currently completing his doctorate in literary theory at University of Technology Sydney, where he also teaches cultural studies and philosophy. With Berndt Sellheim, he is producing and directing The Distribution of Voice, a documentary addressing Harrison’s life, work and influence (


Poetics, Writing, Thought: Martin Harrison’s Final Appearance

by Anne Elvey

In 2014 Martin Harrison and Jason Childs launched a series of poetics seminars Poetics, Writing, Thought. It would be here, just a few days before he died later that year in September, that Martin Harrison would deliver his final words in public. In “Fragments from the Harrisonian Institute: against ‘priority’ in Poetics, Writing, Thought“, Jason Childs meditates on Martin’s enthusiasm for pedagogy and discussion about poetic thought, poetic expression and, of course, the poetic life. His friend and colleague Deborah Bird Rose, who appeared alongside him at the event, reflects on Martin and their final moments in “Martin Harrison in Conversation”.

Published: March 2016
Anne Elvey

Plumwood Mountain Journal


To be continued

by Devin Johnston

I carry with me the rhythm of Martin’s speech, always. There was often a breathless and conspiratorial wind-up, “Here’s what we need to do” the phrases collecting and reinforcing each other, with little sparks and instigations to himself along the way, a kind of pneumatic energy breaking into humor. “I’m quite serious”, he would say, as everyone laughed, but he wasn’t quite. So often the wind-up involved a delightful scheme for the future, for the next time we meet, for poetry, for comradeship.

Or else, there was the skeptical Martin, his “Oh dear” (at Ezra Pound), the raised eyebrows and eye roll (at some hi jinx), an exaggerated down-turning of the mouth, “Now really”, and a mock sigh, hands upturned, at some absurdity. Hardships he acknowledged with an aside: “Look, it has been exceedingly difficult”, patient with the sheer effort of movement, or matters of the heart, but eager to get on with things. A glance upward and to the left, with a pursed half-smile, could express many things, but mostly friendship in the face of the world’s vagaries.

Always the talk led toward the future, propelling us back to Australia once more, the stretch of southern coast we must visit, great feats of driving, a Moroccan dish, the David Campbell books I must read: “quite good indeed”. The latter were, incidentally, the more adventures work from the late 1960s and early 1970s: The Branch of Dodona and Other Poems, 1969–70; Starting from Central Station: A Sequence of Poems, Devil’s Rock and Other Poems, 1970­–72. In terms of subject and technique, these books had a significant influence on Martin’s own writing. Equally, Martin was a keen reader of French poetry, and I recall talk of Jean Follain one sunny afternoon at his kitchen table in Wollombi. He was perhaps the most learned person I have known, cosmopolitan and capacious in his tastes, inflected with Yorkshire and Cambridge and Paris and India and New Zealand and Sydney and Wollombi. He was a citizen of the world, not just because of the many places he had traveled, but because he felt responsibilities as a natural extension of being alive. He had that profound decency, the desire to participate in a livable world.

His poetry carries that very particular, sophisticated idiolect, his own dear warm self. Creatures out at dusk, the delicate sketch of a paddock, a divagation of language, the “soft surprise” of bats in the kitchen at night, a cloud of insects, a passage of music: his writing is full of small events, precise renderings of the events themselves, but also the mind’s dawning recognitions of them. It gives us an energetic, yet intimate, record of evanescence.

One May, some five years back, I caught up with Martin all too briefly between his doctor’s appointments. We met for coffee at an outdoor café in The Rocks. He rushed our conversation past health issues, waving them away as obstacles or inconveniences: “But how are you”, he insisted. I had been interested in the South Coast, and Martin recommended Nadgee Nature Reserve, a region of coastal heath and sandstone cliffs near the border of Victoria. He described arriving there at night, after heavy rains, only to get himself stuck at the bottom of a hill, his wheels churning uselessly in the pitch dark, far from the hardtop or likelihood of rescue. I can’t actually recall how the tale ends. But when I arrived home to Saint Louis, sorting through mail, I found he had sent a copy of his poem “Watching Pelicans, Mallacoota”, marked “near Nadgee.”

The poem begins with Martin’s characteristic attention, lingering on an image, building up associations through similes that are at once perceptual and psychological:

A she-oak needle glitters at midday,

a point, a thing in equilibrium.

It’s like a mark, overexposed,

in a photo—or a white cell burning

with the pottery glaze of daybreak’s remnant moon.

The needle flickers like bunting in a used-car yard.

It glitters like foil, being too piercing

to gaze at unless you catch it as you pass,

or, half-squinting, let it flash. In this, it

strikes right home—it has an aura,

a feel, by which it’s magnified. The needle

shimmers. Its white fire’s now remembered

as the linen whiteness of a long-lived sickness,

which, intervening just as

you did not want it, tragically opens life up

leaving you later with mere sickness-at-heart—

too much whiteness, too much intensity,

fading, going for nothing. This, though, is the white glare

of fever and snow—nothing to do with she-oaks.

As the poem shuffles through metaphorical possibilities, needles and whiteness evoke hospitals, just as overexposure evokes the blank of illness. (Martin’s poems are full of photographs and their relation to memory). After opening such associations, the poem’s consciousness returns to Mallacoota with the terse, not-quite-trustworthy denial, “nothing to do with she-oaks”. It would be characteristic of Martin to acknowledge his recent health difficulties, indirectly, and as a sort of apology for his elusiveness, in sending the poem.

When I finally visited Nadgee in 2013, it was much as Martin had promised: kangaroos lounging beside the heavy surf; lyrebirds and bellbirds everywhere in the melaleuca thickets; a dense, somber landscape. On a foggy morning near Wonboyn Village, I found my own blank interval in the bellbirds’ song—“a point, a thing in equilibrium”. The poem that resulted, “Ting”, goes in part:

Across the estuary

an inlet from the Tasman Sea

bellbirds swing their heads

to ventriloquize

a lip of glass

By channels of coolness

the echoes are calling

each call a drop of water

or tap on glazed ceramic

or tink of sonar

to sound the empty space

and test how long

how far

tink tink-ting

tink tink-ting

I liked to think that the echo of Henry Kendall would amuse Martin. “You’re surely an Australian poet now”, he might have said.

The last time I saw Martin he took me to lunch at a café on Crown Street, a lovely day in late fall, our talk full of all that he had survived, in recent years, and plans to meet in the spring. He mentioned, with ghoulish delight at the irony, that he was planning to call his next book Happiness. “You really do have a life here”, he insisted, at the end of our visit. He gave me a hug on the sidewalk, then raised a forefinger to add, as he often did: “To be continued.”

Published: September 2015
Devin Johnston

is an American poet. He is author of five books of poetry including Far-Fetched (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). Born in 1970, he spent his childhood in North Carolina. He currently works for Flood Editions, a nonprofit publishing house, and teaches at Saint Louis University in Missouri.


Continuing the Conversation

by Lorraine Shannon

We sat on the deck of my then home in Annandale at dusk with a glass of wine, tossing around ideas about writing and ecology amid the raucous din of cicadas. A storm was brewing, lightning flickering along the horizon. You mention again your sense that over the past 25 years or so the land has been retreating from us, saying its goodbyes, and how we often fail to acknowledge the irrevocable losses we, and other species, endure day-by-day.

I feel a familiar surge of panic, that childhood terror in which all that I hold dear is receding into the distance, and talk of how, even now, I garden to draw the plant world close to me, protecting myself from the anguish of loved ones waving a final goodbye.

There’s a lull in the cicada chorus and we hear the thunder rumbling, the drone of distant traffic and surrounding us the fragrance of orange blossom, the comforting rustle and shadow-play of leaves, the sleepy murmur of my hens preparing to roost.

How to write well from this place of deceptive shelter, indeed how to write at all, how to acknowledge the interrelatedness of all life forms, the ways in which writing spreads out beyond the page without centre or edge, a fragile, impermanent entity. Is this sense of the land withdrawing from us inevitably matched by some withdrawal within ourselves, some loss to writing? For we too are fragile and dependent, coexisting, sharing our DNA with numerous others, even these noisy cicadas that are part of us as we are part of them. Must loss of complexity within ecosystems be matched by a diminishment in our imaginations, I wonder?

You speak of the need for attention, of listening, attempting to feel and respond to the touch of meanings around us. And so, slowly day-by-day, since that conversation I’ve been trying to recognise meaning in the cicada songs, to catch the emergence of tiny fragrances on the wind, respond to the touch of leaves, the texture of paper.

That’s how, for me, the real question has become: how might we think about thinking and feeling without “I think”, “I feel”, dominating. It seems to me that now, more than ever, when we humans have wantonly found the means and justification to run amok, we need to reassess the process of thinking and imagining, investigate new ways to grapple with the apparent ontological distance between the human and our so-called “others” which have until recently been largely relegated to the sidelines of human attention. What might it mean for human and more-than-human alike if we were to become attentive to the space in which the earth and human psyche fold together and call each other into existence?

But where to begin? How, in this time of ecological degradation, to recover an identity of mind and world – in the ontological sense of their “belonging together”, how to move beyond object-knowledge in the Cartesian sense and attain an expressivity in writing that remains dynamically aware that the earth is its ground, point of origin and meaning?

One of the writer’s tasks must be to reclaim the self, to restore the ecological interior world as both a capacity to feel and an ability to discuss that capacity in all its complexity and subtlety. But, as you wrote after that evening, now more than ever, it is crucial to “listen to what is other than human and how it is speaking to us … that the act of attention between self and environment is intertwined and interdependent and completely mutual” (Harrison  2013, 11).

To secure a consciousness that is no longer conceived of as an internal realm of meaning, but the life-world that surrounds and sustains us, we need, Robert Romanyshyn argues, to imagine the psychological as  “neither a thing nor a thought, neither empirical fact nor mental reality, but a way of seeing which opens up a world that matters and must be understood” (Romanyshyn 2003, 200). We then become engaged in a process of realising nascent possibilities for seeing the world anew. This is not to say, however, that the life-world of mind and nature will give itself over to us all at once, will ever become fully transparent to us. We are faced with having to recognise the obscurity of others as inherent to the process of a human coming-to-consciousness, a consciousness that at the same time can only be called into being by the other. Yet it is only through this reciprocal disclosure / concealment that we become, as Brent Dean Robbins writes, “ethically responsive to our obligations to the observed”. He continues, “When we allow ourselves to be claimed by phenomena, we open ourselves to feel our relational obligation to them. In other words, we become morally engaged with them.” (Robbins 2005, 113-26).

Those strident cicadas still linger in my mind; their thrumming interrupts my dreams at unexpected moments. I try to imagine new ways to live harmoniously with them, to be open to their lives and maintain a sustained attentiveness. Learn to explore ways of positioning my writing outside the discursive self, of developing a literary form in which it is not only humans who speak. Learning, as Robert Bly wrote, to follow “tiny impulses through the meadow of language” (Bly 1993, 135-36).

It requires, I believe, a reassessment of lyric writing with its emphasis on first-person narration. From Aristotle’s Poetics, through to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and Wordworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads, lyric has been proclaimed as not merely an expression of personal impulses and experiences but as representative of universal human attributes. This is achieved through the “I” in the writing addressing a “you” where the “you” is almost always another human. Lyric writing from this perspective is a sort of conversation and like all good conversations it stimulates and enriches us, but today we need more inclusive conversations, conversations that touch not only on the depths of the human and the human relationship to the universe but that listen to those others with whom we share and partake of the mystery of living.

I remember how when we moved inside to escape the darkness and the storm sweeping in, the cicadas all drew breath simultaneously and in that second of silence the thunder smashed overhead. You laughingly quoted your poem “Bronzewings with Lightning”: “the cicadas start up again their wave-banks of sound, like one enormous drawn-out breath, one after the other lapping, overlapping, linking, one with another. And right in the middle of the aquamarine sky-clearing which the rain burst had made, a one-off final reminder: overhead, a last thud, a last clatter tumbling out of empty, clarified blueness as if someone larking around, laughing, inside a timber house knocks a chair over on to the wooden floor with a cracking sound we can hear from outside. Yes, like a grenade exploding, a single thunder burst smacks the sky.”

I realise in a flash, yet again, how you wrested poetry from the simplest things in life, creating those deeply felt translucent moments at the same time as you engaged conceptually with how we perceive and understand the world. Of your awareness of how fine gradations of perception can change our experience of landscape – and indeed of poetry itself – and of how despite this deepened awareness there remain spaces of separation.

It was dark by the time I arrived home from your funeral and as always, in times of distress I turned for solace to the Classics. It was too early in the season for cicadas to be singing but serendipitously I unearthed Plato’s Phaedrus and read of Socrates and Phaedrus strolling outside the city, engaged in a passionate discussion about love, rhetoric and conversation. Socrates comments on the cicadas’ serenade in the trees overhead. The cicadas, while singing and conversing among themselves are also listening to us, he insists. We must keep up a lively discussion so they will grant us a reward. Intrigued, Phaedrus asks what he meant.

Socrates answers with a story of how cicadas were once humans who lived before the time of the Muses. When the Muses came into the world some of these people were so enchanted by music that they sang and sang forgetting their bodily selves, forgetting to eat and drink and consequently they died. So the Muses transformed these humans into cicadas, into a life of endless singing without bodily needs. Listening to their siren song with a lazy mind, Socrates informs Phaedrus, can rob you of your ability to think. But if the cicadas hear us conversing on the theme of love they will report favourably to the Muses and we may be rewarded with the gift of original song, the song that leads the soul home to beauty.

Of course there’s a punch line to the story. The catch for these cicadas was that they were reduced to mere messengers who conveyed to the Muses how humans created poetry and philosophy, while they themselves were unable to do so. Today we might interpret Socrates as warning us against writing that focuses on the human, that implies human exceptionalism and ignores our entangled intimacy with strange others. That believes the cicadas’ song is meaningless noise rather than a complex array of clicks and chirps that communicate levels of desire.

Sitting at my desk in late October, attempting to write while looking out on my new garden in the Blue Mountains I recall this story as I watch the progress of today’s host of newly emerged cicadas. Overnight thousands have struggled out of dank caverns underground, discarded their shells and spread wings like negligees, intent on sex and singing and certain death.  Having waited for years, it seems there is no time to reconsider, no time for caution.

I watch them climb and climb in the trees getting as close as possible to the sun in the hope, I imagine, that it will remove the memory of groping underground for years. They cluster in groups, to soar in brief astonished glory as if the thought of having been singular in the dark for so long is unbearable.

I wonder about Socrates’ cicadas. Did they remember being human; did they remember dying or were they so caught up in singing they were oblivious of their own death? With no recollection of their human life, no sense of having been consumed by darkness they would be as empty of memories as the shells these living cicadas have so thoughtlessly abandoned.

But perhaps their transformation wasn’t an instant leap from one life into another; perhaps it was a slow mutation, a matter of modulation, transposing human song into a cicada chorus. Singing in an attempt to rediscover kinship, to fold themselves back into the sensuous spell of their human memories, to reject the withered days and reconnect with the tenderness of their original genesis.

For cicadas resemble us in many ways. We share the mystery of intimate beginnings and, much like the cicada nymphs, as infants spend our time drinking and sleeping. Tied by umbilical cords to tree roots, wrapped in a protective layer of soil, their forms like ours are molded by the liquid coursing through them. How can we say where one body ends and another begins? They attach their mouths to tree roots, fashioning a tiny sluice gate through which sap flows. Their bodies create a miniature floodplain, a diversion in the flow of sap from root to foliage. The pressure that draws water and nutrients up towards the leaves is strong enough that the nymphs hardly need to exert themselves. They just hang on while rich nutrients flow through them and are excreted as honeydew into the soil. The sap of life flows through the floodplain of their dreaming bodies forming a conduit from root to earth, sweetening the soil.

Who knows what calls them to climb towards the light? Who knows what inspires them to seek out the sun-dried air? I like to think their song is an escape from the sting of loneliness and disintegration, that if we listen attentively we will realise that their thrumming creates a kind of refuge filled with safety and splendour, that they are archaic storytellers who know much and remember so well that they can perfectly articulate this old, mysterious, wondrous world.

I’ve been keeping an eye on a solitary cicada chirping tentatively in the cherry tree outside the window but in the short time when I went to make a cup of tea it has vanished. Has it, I wonder, fallen prey to a wasp known as Exeius lateritus that I’ve been reading about with mixed feelings – trying yet again to come to terms with the many difficult aspects of entangled lives? The female wasp I’ve learnt searches out a particular cicada singing in the tree. She stings it until it is paralyzed but not killed. Then she carries the cicada to a burrow where she will lay her eggs on it. When the wasp larvae hatch they will gradually devour the cicada, keeping it alive as long as possible.

For a brief moment this cicada flew like a dream into the soft, sweet wind then left the forgetful world behind. Was returning to the earth your last wild leap of love? Now deprived of the company of other cicadas, buried in darkness, do you perhaps imagine yourself repeating your earlier life, succumbing to a trance in which you are dismantled bit by bit to become dust. Or perhaps you too have a story to tell in which somewhere deep enough to be cool and moist new life is waiting for a moment in the sun to sing its heart out. A life that acknowledges there is more beauty than our songs can express, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honour them is to do great harm. A life that understands Socrates’ belief that if we stay within our proper human limits there is still the hope that we may be rewarded with a world that shines with transfiguration.


Bly, Robert, ed. The Darkness Around us is Deep: Selected Poems of William Stafford. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.

Harrison, Martin. “The Act of Writing and the Act of Attention”. TEXT, Special Edition 20, Writing Creates Ecology, Ecology Creates Writing (October, 2013), (accessed 15 September 2015)

Romanyshyn, Robert. Technology as Symptom and Dream. London: Taylor and Francis, 2003.

Robbins, Brent Dean. “New Organs of Perception: Goethean Science as a Cultural Therapeutics,” Janus Head 8, 1 (2005): 113-26.

Published: September 2015
Lorraine Shannon

I am an independent scholar writing on ecopoetics, literature and ecology, and gardening. I first met Martin in 1999 when I was tutoring at University of Technology Sydney. Later he supervised me when I undertook a second PhD. We were also founding members of the Kangaloon creative ecologies group and presented at conferences together, read at literary events, and enjoyed many meals and glasses of wine and discussion together.


Some Reflections on the Poetry of Martin Harrison

by Peter Boyle

An intellectual poetry that is never purely cerebral or abstract

If we think of a poem like “A dog barking”, it is a profoundly intellectual poem. It is also a very “Martin Harrison” poem: enigmatic, both very Australian in feel and very intellectual or universal in its reach, playing off a background of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and a range of other theorists. It speaks of the unsayableness of familiar, backgrounded objects and events, and of how they define us. The wordless, experiential density they create stands against all the passions, angers, obsessions and pet theories, all the stuff with which we fill up our spoken world. We see ourselves, or people we know, parents or relatives, echoed in the sadness of the late-night kitchen. This something that puzzles us, that we can’t name: it is, seen one way, philosophy such as it might belong to anyone, fixing a downpipe or waiting for their rage or grief to subside. Martin’s style of intellectual poetry does not shut the door on a non-academic reader. And the poem finishes without finishing. Deliberately it wanders off; and its wandering off is part of the point. For me the poem suggests, but only tentatively, that these simple unsayable things – the redness of late apples, a dog barking, crickets trilling – save us from the chatter of our obsessions, the barriers we create through talk.

It is, in a way, typical of Martin’s poetry, a thinking poem that invites us to travel with it, to think our way into its world, and it does this subtly, unpretentiously, with no need for any abstruse language or display of learning.

To be thought-filled but dwell in uncertainty

There is a richness in Martin’s poetry that comes from dwelling in the immediate visual world. That visual world is not the “nature” of high romanticism, but a scruffy unpredictable focus of encounters that we never fully grasp or know. Take “Letter from America for Antigone Kefala” from Summer, with its reminiscence of sky “out west” and “a single stray cloud, small as a baby elephant”. The poem is itself a response to the reading of Antigone Kefala, to her situation of being between two languages and two worlds. Towards the end of the poem we read “Dead work has no idea / how language works – how things sing / between themselves and their names”. The “dead work” is cliquey anthologies that sideline between-world poets like Antigone Kefala. Harrison’s lines create the intriguing image of things singing in an intermediate zone between whatever they might be in themselves and the resonances of the names we give them in our varied languages. Other poets might have closed the poem at this point or devoted the entire poem to teasing out what is implied, but not Martin. Lightness and the state of always moving forward push him towards a different aesthetic, one committed to uncertainty and tentativeness.

Another fine example of an intellectual poem that is filled with thought but stays with uncertainties is “Remembering Old Chatham” with its questions about our world – “What sticks? What stays? What gets through?” Here Martin thinks modernity and how, by now, we differ irretrievably from a classic past where the word “errare” belonged, along with wild deer “loitering”. While there is a sadness in what is lost it is not a poem of nostalgia. The tone is much more filled with curiosity, wonder almost, than that. For all the ideas in this poem it is not, in its critical moments, made up of ideas – nor even (pace Mallarmé’s rather too easy riposte to Degas) made up merely of “words”. Perceptions felt, sudden intrusions of the natural world breaking in on our cogitations, perceptions articulated with the greatest possible precision, “pine-needle greenery”, “Dandelion-heads”, “wind rippling on floodwater”, form the crucial elements of this poetry. And these perceptual intrusions rule out any opinionative certainties.

A writing reader and a reading writer

Martin was a wide reader both in the traditional sense of books and in the cyber-world sense of news feeds, twitter and social media. The breadth of his interests was extraordinary. Politics, the media, Heidegger and philosophy, Latin American, French and North American poetry, ecology and eco-criticism, music both avant-garde and classical, sound engineering, rural Australia – its landscapes and peoples, social media and how they change us: Martin was an obsessive follower of it all (and of a great deal more besides).  Two conversations I remember well typify that breadth. One was on a writers’ retreat near Coffs Harbour in 2011 and Martin was excitedly relaying the latest revelations of the shady dealings of the Murdoch press but also analyzing how those machinations play into, define almost, the politics of our era. The second conversation came from many years before in Martin’s Darlinghurst flat when he had most kindly read through some quite early translations I had made of poems by the Venezuelan Eugenio Montejo. We were discussing the appropriate tone needed for these poems, neither romantic nor baldly matter of fact but somewhere almost impossible to locate in contemporary English that would stand between these two positions. It was a question not of what the poems meant but of how Martin (or I) heard them, listening as intently as we could to how they unfolded in their Spanish.

This diversity of reading and of interests doesn’t so much form the content of Martin’s poetry as the quality of attention he brings to whatever he may be writing about. It isn’t about opinion-based poems on a diversity of with-it topics. It is more about bringing a restless, inquisitive intellect to bear on a few areas that engaged Martin most deeply: the natural world and our part in it, our loneliness and vulnerability, our desire for love and for desire itself in the face of death. Readings, observations, curiosities, conversations – they all fed into the sensitive shaping of poems that function as meditations on life’s big issues. Martin’s poetry is quite remote from any mass outpouring of day-to-day observations. All the poems feel far more mulled over, more necessary than that.

The connection for Martin between intense, engaged reading and the writing of poetry also helps explain the impact he had as a teacher. His capacity to share enthusiasms and be interested in the widest range of ideas and poetic approaches was something contagious. To be a mentor and a source of inspiration for a generation of young and no-longer-quite-so-young poets is no small thing. When I think of the outstanding teachers of poetry in Australia in the last thirty or forty years the three names that come to mind are Dorothy Porter, Martin Harrison and Judith Beveridge. Meeting students of any one of those three, the buzz of excitement for poetry is palpable.

Here and not-here: what it might mean to be an Australian with the widest possible horizons

Rural Australia, with its people, landscapes, birds and animals, its scents and wind-shifts, recurs across Martin’s poetry. There is often an abundance of visual perceptions and a reticence as regards emotions that might seem very Australian, though equally it could be read as very English. That complex reticence, that maintenance of a personal sanctum and the extraordinary power that comes to his later poetry where it is laid bare, I will come to further on. For the moment I want to think about the breadth of horizon that Martin brings to his engagement with the natural world, the specific landscapes and places of Australia that form the content of so much of his poetry.

Martin’s Australia, however rural or remote, is populated with ideas, places, people, phenomena from a very wide grid of connections.  A poem like “Yachts at Scotland Island”, for example, ripples easily between analysis of the computer age, the Mojave desert, the Olgas, Plato’s differentiation between place and space, and the yachts moving off across the horizon and stingrays and gum trees. Embracing Australia, for Martin, was never about turning his back on the rest of the world or dampening down his passionate curiosity over what is new elsewhere.

One significant indicator of the openness of Martin’s interests is the inclusion in Who wants to create Australia? of his essay “Digitalism” with its appreciative, thoughtful analysis of Tranter’s Blackout and MTC Cronin’s Talking to Neruda’s Questions. It stands almost side by side with (separated only by an essay on Barthes’ Reflections on a Manual from) his perceptive, appreciative response to Les Murray’s poetry in the essay “Country and how to get there”. That Martin should engage deeply both with the poetry of Les Murray and with the experimentalism, the implicit internationalism, of Tranter and Cronin, says much about his generosity, his subtlety as a thinker, but equally about the complexity of what is achieved in his own poetry. So much of his poetry responds to the specifics of place, the textures of weather and landscape, of trees and birds, of rural environments and the speech of ordinary people, and yet this specificity does not involve any privileging of categories such as rural Australia, or any entry into the time-worn dichotomies of city and country and the endless quest for an Australian identity or the insistence that a certain sort of “Australian-ness” is needed to fit into Australian poetry. Sensitivity to the textures of place, to all those specifics that remind us we are only one living being moving about among interconnected systems of non-human others, is a powerful force in Martin’s poetry, as in so much poetry that matters from whatever time and place. Whether it is the outback, dairy-farming country, a gully at the back of a suburban block, or simply crows gathering on a bare tree in the asphalted space outside a patient’s hospital window, what matters for poetry is surely the quality of the engagement with that unknown thing called life, not the rhetorical posturing that goes into nationalisms or romanticisings of whatever kind.


The daring risk of leaving the heart open

Each new collection of Martin’s represented a move forward from the previous one, and the poems he was writing in the years before his death were the most extraordinary of all.

Death had earlier registered its presence in Martin’s poetry with poems like “The Driver” and “Now”, both published in 2005 in Music. The first of these, concerning the death of an unknown other seen from the outside, is a recording but much more than a recording of what was seen and felt. The numb terror of brushing that close to death is caught in simple familiar colloquialisms: “His standing there beneath the trees has got to me” and “That moment, traveling at the speed of light, caught me out”: but the locusts entering the house, following the speaker, rising and then crashing to earth, enact something far more than reflections can. In “Now” death has come even closer – it is all about the speaker with his knowledge that death could be at any moment. The attack by a brown snake – part memory, part imagining, part vivid unstoppable nightmare – spills out into the two long, twisting and turning, halves of the poem, ending with the sense of a protective gap of space around the self suddenly emptying into “now”. The poem is located in a rural place, the house at Wollombi presumably, but it feels already to have taken a leap away from Martin’s previous style, already to be risking something quite different.

These two poems, for all their emotional grip, and even with the allowance that “Now” marks the beginning of something very different, still seem to fit within the general pattern of Martin’s poetry. Looking back at Martin’s poetry overall as presented in the publication of Wild Bees in 2008, I see it as work shaped most of all by a rational speaking voice, to some extent a tone of understatement, and a vast, in many ways reassuring, presence of the natural world. It is a poetry that it has taken me a long time to appreciate properly, to grasp with the right openness, to hear the way Martin and I worked together to hear Montejo. When I first read The Distribution of Voice and The Kangaroo Farm in the mid 1990’s I missed a lot, as both the content and style were so very different from what I was writing or trying to write. When poetry is subtle, as Martin’s is, it probably takes longer to reach a reader who doesn’t share the same experiences or preoccupations. Close visual observation, registered in a fine slightly jagged style, does most of the poetic work. There is, to me, something very Australian, or very English, in the way the speaking rational voice maintains control, holding itself together, with the detailed specifics of settings to balance what is being contemplated. The very late poem “Hundreds of Ks of It” is quite a different story.

Thirty six lines of a single unbroken sentence that, as the three dots at the beginning suggest, is only the continuation of a sequence much bigger than could fit into any space. Repetition after repetition of “in the wind” or “in the warm wind”. A lavish, unstoppable flow of grief that dispenses with specifics and scene-setting. This is surely one of the most extraordinary poems written in Australia in the last twenty years. The poem seems to surrender itself to the wind, relinquishing the mind’s desire to protect itself and hold onto structures of discourse that bring grief into the security of shared phrases.

Terrible loss, grief, physical pain and disability, all descended on Martin in his last years. Such experiences are more likely to silence writers than produce extraordinary poetry. The mind and the eye arguably were dominant in most of Martin’s poetry and, as “Hundreds of Ks of It” shows, there come times when only the heart is left – and ours is not a culture that, once removed from conventional frames, knows much about how to give voice to the heart. Opening up his poetry to these forces is a remarkable achievement, since to talk of such things, other than in a minimal, guarded way, is taboo not only in academia but even in serious, high-brow poetry. The command to avoid sentimentality all too easily becomes a habit of side-stepping the most powerful emotions. They can simply seem too “risky”, too liable to leave one exposed to accusations of platitude or self-centredness or “wallowing” in feeling. Quite apart from such considerations, few poets speak to us of their own death and loss with a strength that entirely grabs us. For every one Keats or Plath, Vallejo or Mandelstam, thousands find only numbness or, at best, write the line-breaked equivalent of the diary entries countless others write, moving to those around them but unlikely to survive except accidentally. To write powerful poetry in any way adequate to the enormity of death and loss is an extremely difficult task. Martin himself was very conscious of the fragility of all we write. That he wrote “Hundreds of Ks of It” and many other poems in his final years is testimony to an immense courage, resilience and inner strength as a poet and human being.

Published: September 2015
Peter Boyle

is a poet and translator of Spanish and French poetry. His latest book is Towns in the Great Desert: New and Selected Poems. He first met Martin in the 1990’s through other poets and later participated with him in Kangaloon, a fellowship of creative artists and academics concerned with the ecological crisis.

lightened spokes

Dusk Dundler


Voice deep out thru kitchen window into watery garden, while his same voice speaks wiry from my laptop – layered, a few lines of poem over the other & rain tup tup atop tin

– dispersing Harrison’s voice …

From a deft Summer – announcing the moment of parable perception as “six white plastic recliners articulating full stretches of imaginary bodies”, the parable becomes exactitude, on more then negative space, or the passing between spaces but held effect and espec affect of creation. Holding a nucleus / while spinning (of course) black holes of great teaching. Layer upon layer, “and how will it end?” / time held to the flying chords of Music.

To grab you – churn yr insides. Know the drill, past expectations -beyond what you may claim from yrself anew, from just taking him in. Went to the auditorium – didn’t know going to see him. Could’ve been in anticipation whole hour – him singing post-modern hymn readying for crossing …

Year later reach in poetry class – elevated intellect returned – holding us in action wrapped in subliminal “act of attention”. Drawing necessary figures, delivering each path onward. Capacity of intellect measured by openness.

Some time close – momentous leap. A gathering of apt arrangement. Like having a golden bear extricate itself from the wilderness and recline framed – Cafe Niagara colours arrow back to grey drizzle world. Met – agreeing with life decision Martin’s arranging – knowing he’s right even tho I may not make it.

Dreams of lonely lit valleys with forest depth and dingoes taken in. Letter to Martin from creek-bank, with a hoodwink at vision, “of what can not be taught unless felt deeply and freely thankyou and the feeling of our … “

Bello filtrates natural elegance of the man. Festival – alive as breathing. Warmth of causality held in this space. As group celebration in the sharing of planting seed. Hitched a lift but was not allowed to record us. Trying to hold onto the list of books to read. But more startling wish to continue -shuttle of light curling language form containing us down highway – to continue, yes.

Two Naughty Chooks – that’s what it’s called – yes i found it – did you? very well then good – good – yes / major formations of interest / the land is opening us – carved temperance to perception. Ecological resonance – recognising the readiness & receiving Living Things

Till wandering again into Sappho night – like twinkle shift – eyes holding riffs – found and re-found, shuffle intro sequential wandering like handing out magic cards. After introductions to others he trails off on us all …

Influenced by readings of the critiques by Peter Riley, “Poetry Notes: Martin Harrison”, and Stuart Cooke, “Liminal Narratives”, .


Dusk Dundler counted Martin as a mentor after studying under him at University of Technology Sydney. Dusk has produced documentaries for Radio National, and been published in the Griffith Review. Dusk’s poetry is published in Overland and The Prague Revue. He was short-listed for the 2012 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize.

Published: September 2015

Who wants to create, Australia?

R. D. Wood


This thought between things.

Who wants to create, Australia? Who wants to create a network, a pod, a pack, a swarm, a coterie, a cliché, a quiche, a madeline, a lamington? Who wants to be embraced by Australia, a trick of mind implicated in place, a desire to sate the appetite of thought? Who wants to define Australia exactly, as a continent beguiled, reconciled; the mind’s eye idealed; a frame of contentment? Who wants to create the cradle for the lost soul of the world where conferences of birds-flocks, businessmen-mobs, politicians-herds come together for a standing ovation of poet’s consecrated word? Who wants to create this uncreation of need itself through writing back to the future?

If there’s a cloud it’s in the mind not in the world.

In creating Australia, we may well ask what of the children overboard, the children overbored, the children overawed. As if all the bees were red. They are our audience.

dust and twigs formed, perfect, like a hearth

What is necessary in asking the question who wants to create Australia is who wants to create a poem that is Australia. Who wants to create if not an epic, then an island of the senses, of momentariness, which if not the State is a state of affairs that responds to the glaring absence of something approaching reasonable and reasoned thought through discourse; lyric, as the waves lap and connect to the archipelago that is the moon’s romance. In asking the question in his inimitable Harrisonian way, Martin answered it for us through anecdote, remorse, recollection, more-ish-ness. To be sure, in asking the question now, but slant, we need to consider who wants to be created by Australia and who has been created by Australia before. Dialogic sound, broadcast; public deregulated, unregulated, irrigated by the water of lore. Before we start, we must ask: who is made and re-made by Australia? Who comes here in need to create, Australia?

Years after it’s been put here, it never quite fits.

The poet is the critic of the therapeutic ethos, the bureaucratic pathos, the sun drenched glamours, lifestyle. This is not to suggest your words are not a balm, but that the world is untenable without acknowledging the hard labour of negation; the unenviable, problematic separation of poetry and poetics; the heuristic categorisation of this as not that. We expect in prose to be met with a structure of thinking in language that does not take metaphor into its bones. But the bones are the ash is the compost is the potash is the nitrogen is das ding that makes the lemon trees fertile. As if the bees were all read, already in a grove of soil and loam where the coast meets the mouth and says “take me home in a boat”. Row.

of lucid water glittering through turquoise dusk

Your tongue is my tongue, is my motherland, so: Australia, Australia who wants to create you? Who wants to crate you, cage you, cake you, wake you, walk you, soothe and bake you? Australia is there for the making, not by its citizens alone, not by Johnny-Cake-Hollows, for we exist in a world where the past and the present and the future imply who can come here and the conditions in which they come. The task of the poet though may be to question that, to make it known that the borders are open, that the borders are porous and so, where we now are is with possibility, endless, boundless, hopeless possibility.

petal-froth. A snow-blaze she’ll retain

To leave home is to come into homesickness, is to come into poetry as the philosophy of our time. To come into homeliness is to “put down roots”, is to “find one’s place”, is to “feel like I belong”. But to belong is to be in the word, is to carry with one’s self a sentence, is to be in the self-fathoming wound that enlanguagement brings. We have fallen to the bottom of the world. Kangaroo, lyrebird, cockatoo, fig and wasp; lizard, pelican, grass parrot, kingfisher, platypus and tiger; bronzewings with lightning. We have fallen through the gap, the crack, the chasm at the bottom of the world and are now on top. Back. Snakes, bluetongue, leviathan, midden, heaving sun. We want to create, Australia, for the bees have their own flight path and the honeysweetedge of companionship is not enough to leave without a mark.  At the heart of the matter is “the provisional nature of our selves, our own temporary glimpse of the world’s tragedy and loveliness”.


R. D. Wood first came to Martin Harrison’s work via his criticism and essays. Wood edits for Peril and hosts a reading series with The School of Life. Find out more at

Published: September 2015

A Martin Harrison ABC

by Stephen Muecke

Compiled and transcribed by Stephen Muecke

This medley of extracts from Martin Harrison’s radio work, from 1981 to 2005, was chosen fairly much at random from what the ABC was able to offer from its archive, and according to what I thought might be interesting in general, and revealing about Martin’s range of interests.[1] The style of transcription is verbatim, including hesitations and repetitions that reproduce, somewhat, the verbal styles. Until I did this, for example, I hadn’t realised that Martin would hesitate by repeating grammatical words (“If if if … “). Ellipses with brackets mark omitted sections of any length, while ellipses in the text mark silences.

1 Foreign Bodies

Martin is interviewing Meaghan Morris, on her way to becoming one of Australia’s most celebrated academics and public intellectuals, on the occasion of a landmark conference for the intellectual left, Foreign Bodies, at the University of Sydney in 1981.[2] It was a real coming out for the baby-boomer generation of humanities  academics, and the point at which more conservative commentators noticed for the first time that something called “French Theory” was entering the country, and they were quick to denounce it.

MH: Australia is one of the very few countries in the world where everyone on arrival is sprayed [MM giggles] and by implication decontaminated of any foreign bodies, which suggests that there is a fairly strong opposition to … to precisely these foreign bodies. Um, what is the nature of this opposition?

MM: Well, if I knew more about Australian history I might be able to venture a hypothesis, but I think it really is absolutely insane the degree to which people … can become hostile to something on the basis of its … country of origin, and I mean an idea. And I always think of Bjelke-Peterson’s phrase that just because a few wogs want their spicy tucker, that doesn’t mean that Australian health has to be put at risk. The idea that ideas coming from France can somehow endanger our national health and sanity, seems to me, um, a very peculiar one, and some very peculiar people do put it forward.

MH: But we’re talking about a set of people who had in many ways, they had contradicted some of the, some of the fonder assumptions of common sense, for example they diverged from the idea that we know what the world is about, that the world is simply constituted from a set of given facts, that we interpret them, that we know what a poem is about, a poem is simply a direct expression that we interpret and read and enjoy at that level, I mean everywhere you you you look in this body of thought you find, ah, divergences from a sort of commonsensical, empirical point of view and this is something which is deeply grounded, um, in Australia, certainly intellectually.

( … )

Marion Clark said something, er, which seemed to me very symptomatic of the situation that this conference is describing when she said the problem is not to speak Australian, but to speak Australia. In other words making a connection between the structure of thought and the position that commentators and analysts find themselves in and and the very nature of of national identity in this country [MM: Mm]. How does something like this conference relate to that notion, what positive contribution does it make?

MM: Well I don’t think that we’ve been talking about national identity ( … ) I don’t think the people who have been serious about this are going out there and finding it and saying, “Terrific, here it is.” Neither I think with Manning Clarke. Part of his process of writing—or Manning Clarke for me, I don’t know what he intended—part of his process of writing is to fictionalize such a thing into being, ah, when he wants Ned Kelly to mean rage, he looks at the rage of (laughs) Ned Kelly and so on. Perhaps we’re looking at something very cumbersome, as you said before, which is given that nobody here is interested in finding a national identity, and um, the very language of national identity doesn’t get you very far, except in a very repetitive debate, in what way … do we deal with … the … suggestion that it comes from other places, that all we’re doing is inadequately translating work which is done elsewhere and now nobody feels that we do do that, what we do find is that we are always being dragged into these arguments about whether we should or shouldn’t read French philosophy, you’ve got very little time to put that philosophy to work and to do some positive research which makes sense in your own culture. Ah, I think that’s what everyone here is interested in doing and that’s why we had a conference of our own and not constantly having our time wasted by people who wanted us to talk about France, and France is not our problem (laughs).

MH: If if if you find yourself in the ideal circumstance of being able to “get on with your own work” in the cultural context you find yourself to be in, the way you interpret it and so on, what would you want to do?

MM: Well, I’ve been working with Paul Foss on a project to do with how space is represented in a range of Australian writing. The thing I’m particularly interested in is travel writing, because, um, I’m interested in what is called in linguistics, the mechanism of enunciation, the relationship between I/here/now and you/there/then. I’ve been working on ( … ) a range of writings cropping up all through the twentieth century which are not exactly explorer’s journals, they’re books where someone is repeating a voyage of discovery. Uh, books where people travel across the interior, or go around the continent and then they write a book about it and on the inside or the back cover they always put a map with a little set of dotted lines showing where I went and what I saw. And it’s very often to do with personal discovery or cultural discovery, a search for Australia I suppose, and, it I had time, if people would leave me alone (laughs) and stop asking me to talk about Paris, um, that’s the kind of problem I’d like to explore, how the desert becomes such a powerful metaphor in our language about ourselves.

MH: I know it’s a very difficult task, but could you give some kind of working example of how the way you’d approach that material would would er be significant, and actually very much in you advantage in comparison say with an ordinary narrative historian who simply told the facts and and gave a certain fictional colour to them?

MM: I think that’s probably a very polemical opposition because I don’t want to get into a position of saying I’d do this and of course the poor dumb narrative historian wouldn’t. I think people interested semiotics are always drawn into those oppositions and I’d prefer to refuse it because I don’t think what we’re doing is setting up, ah, narrative history for example as what we no longer do. I think what we’re trying to do is define what it is we might do. Ah, a point of departure for me would not be a worry, for example, about the reality of the desert. Ah, I um … it would be to look at how that, that sign functions in Australian writings about Australians travelling through Australia. For example, desert. Now, geographically, geologically, in the centre of Australia there isn’t one desert, there isn’t one gaping space, there is a wide variety of different types of deserts, they’re not empty. Not only are there, and have there been, people there, but there are profusions of life, there are utterly different ecologies and so on. Now, what goes on when in novels or in plays or in voyages or in travel writing, the notion desert starts to be employed as a global concept. So in that sense what I’d be doing is looking at the language of texts. I wouldn’t be denying that deserts exist, but I’d be looking at the language of texts, rather than trying to reconstruct what somebody actually did when they went across that real desert. My point it not to discredit that second question simply to say that I’m asking a different one, which is, what is the language about the desert tell me about how Australians are conceptualizing Australia and what effects does that have on the way they act in relation to it.

MH: So, in simple terms this in a way is the difference between the desert as a sign, rather than seeing it as a historical or geographic fact, which has occurred er, in Australian history, or the history of exploration and to some extent in the literature as well.

MM: I suppose so, but once again it’s not a mutually exclusive opposition. I think, as Anne Freadman was saying today, she’d start from the desert as sign, but sooner or later you do have to repose the question of history, the question of the referent, the question of what real people have actually done. I think that’s possibly the point which produces most resistance in relation to semiotics because people find it much easier to simply dismiss it by saying oh like Bishop Burke, they don’t believe in facts, kick a stone and hurt your toe (laughs). Ah, that isn’t a problem, I don’t think that is a problem in the 20th century, period. The problem, and here we again come back to media, is not to deny that reality exists, but to say if we start from the analysis of meaning, then what does the relationship between meaning and action look like? It’s not an opposition between meaning and the real, because of course meaning is real …

2 Australian Space with Paul Carter


In 1982 Martin invited his good friend Paul Carter onto Books and Writing to discuss “the history of the nature of space in Australia”.[3] At the time Carter had started working on the book that was to found his huge reputation, The Road to Botany Bay.[4]

PC: If you think about going into the city each morning, and going to work and coming out again. And when you get home you’re asked by, your wife or husband, “What have you been doing all day?” and the answer is usually, “Nothing”, or”very little” and you go out, perhaps and discuss with friends, “What have you been doing?” and … somehow it invariably it comes back as, “Well, we went somewhere, two three weeks ago, or, we went on holiday.”  And the discussion always seems to turn on events … in the past, now events are in fact but a very small part of our history, and in fact the larger part of the day is spent in moving around …  in a routine,  moving around in a space … and … its my contention that space is not passive, but it’s a space that we have created, and, in turn it in some way structures the way that we live.

[a few seconds silence in the audio]

Those situations offer beautiful examples of occasions, in history if you like, where the history is a space. And what I mean by that is quite literally … the early explorer made his reputation, not so much because he saw someone on a particular date, but merely because he went there. In other words, for him, and for the early settlers, er, history was a function of the space. Without it, they couldn’t exist. They couldn’t lay out their own properties, they couldn’t lay down streets.    In a way, I suppose what you could describe me as doing is trying to, locate the archaeology of our culture: An archaeologist dealing with a culture that has left behind no written records. Say, the larger part of his role is concerned with the placing of objects. He takes an archaeological site and what matters to him most of all is the relationship between various foundations, buildings, artefacts. And … through these things, he interprets the people who once lived there, and used these things, and,  he assumes  that the way in which they lived, to some extent, is reflected in the spatial arrangement of their world. And I make the same assumption and I argue that it’s only by taking in to account the space, not as a passive thing, but something we continue to create, that we can get a fuller account of our own cultural history.  And I think that in Australia it’s a particularly pertinent approach because the most significant feature of. Australian history perhaps is the mere fact of arrival.

And it’s so often taken for granted, it’s just given as a date, but it also involved an enormous conceptual leap. It involved, importing certain ideas about space,  and then testing them out against the landscape which had not previously been carved, if you like, into Western shapes. And, I can give you an example. Its almost like a truism that the early exploration that they had thought is was a kind of country which had all the qualities of 18th century parkland, in England. And we find this time and time again, Sturt talks about it and so does Mitchell. And we can find that same … feeling  … that we are only at home in that kind of space expressed by a modern writer. I’m in mind of someone writing in 1955, and she says: “We graze our animals, grow our grass and crops, destroy so much to make a world we find comfortable and more profitable, but the wide stony plains defeat us, from the deep green jungles to the rainforest, in these places we stand amazed”, she says. But what I’m interested in finding out is why that was truer in 1955, and I suspect now, than it was to the first explorers, to Sturt who was appalled by the desert on the one hand or to the early settlers in Gippsland who were appalled by the rainforest, on the other. What cultural attitudes towards space reflected in those statements?

MH: This, I guess, is specifically a history of white cultural attitudes to Australian geography. I mean that to some extent you are not, ah, pointing to the fact that there were these white reactions to Australia but you are, to some extent, trying to measure the appropriateness and the inappropriateness of those reactions (PC: [softly] yes) … the way those facts were falsified.

PC: It’s a little hard when one talks about history in a culture which is literate, to appreciate that, the larger part, of our lives, is not written down, or recorded or documented. If we turn to a pre-literate culture, the Aboriginal tribes offer an example of this, we can find instances where, time, doesn’t exist in its own right, as something to be stocked up in libraries, but only exists as a function of space. And there is a lovely example,  I think its in Tindale, one of the Western Desert tribes … ah an informant was asked to, write down, or to draw, his territory.  And … beginning with the first camp, he progressed … water hole by water hole, to the twenty-first camp, which was in fact the same as the first one. But if you looked at the drawing, the first and last camp were at opposite ends of the line. In other words his territory was conceived of, not as a map-like entity like Australia , but simply a succession of, ah, spatial units. And it was a cycle of  time, so that, for him, there was no concept of … linear time, but only of life and space. And I think this applies also to literate culture, such as our own. And again, Australia offers a unique opportunity to approach the categories, if you like, with which the white people approached the new country, because you do still have, to a lesser or greater degree an Aboriginal population or populations, who are able to bear witness to alternatives, estimates of space, and these are the territory and so on, against which you are able to assess and measure European preconceptions.

MH:  An historian who was looking in the more traditional form, of looking at public events, of looking at the lives of politicians and wars and so on, would have available a whole range of a documentation, state papers and commentaries and newspaper reports, a whole number of of pieces of documentation. What do you yourself see as your primary sources of documentation, for the kind of history that you are currently engaged in?

PC: Well to some extent my documents if you like , overlap … its not so much that the documentation is entirely different its rather the way in which I look at it. To give you one example,  if one’s looking at the early dispatches or the early journals of explorers, you know one is not concerned simply to accept the narrative as having started on a certain date and having concluded on another, but one’s concerned to analyse what is happening on each day, as a problem of describing, the space around, and one is concerned to draw out, from the narrative, examples of, or illustrations if you like, of preconceptions. Now that might sound very esoteric, but in a way its quite simple , even someone like Philip, he never succeeded in producing the kind of planned town he wanted, but he says quite clearly that he would like to have his houses one hundred feet apart. He’d like them to have good gardens, for the freed men to cultivate. And then he says something like, “these accommodations will make them feel the benefits that they may derive from their industry”. Now, a conventional historian, if you like, is going to be more concerned with why Philip failed to bring about that model of  city, the date, or, roughly, the period during which he was working on this plan and, well, its demise. Now I am not concerned with the rise and fall of an idea, in this case, what I’m concerned about is the underlying assumptions about space, contained in that recommendation. Its very clear to me that Phillip is saying that certain arrangements of space have a morally improving influence on men.

MH: You’re almost saying in fact talking about a kind of inner history of town planning, as as applied in an early project for an Australian town, an Australian city.

PC: Well that’s right, one … one interesting thing is that you find a constant conflict between the impression the journals give you, particularly about their exploration and the impression that maps give you of the same journey. Because in the narrative, an explorer like McKinley or Sturt is attempting to tell you the diary of events and therefore we are with him at a certain point on the journey and we arrive with him at the end, by which time we have probably forgotten about the earlier part. But of course a map takes in a quite contrary point of view, it argues that all the space is of equal importance, and that no individual preference should be given to a discovery here or a disappointment there. So that, in those two pieces of documentation, if you like, the journals and the map, I see contradictory views of the nature of space. Now that can be, I think., very strongly substantiated by a study some of the most curious names that, er, the early explorers used. If, for example, you are going to call a lake, Lake Disappointment, it is, if you like, a statement that makes sense in terms of a narrative: “we expected to find something here, and we didn’t”. And it’s almost as if the explorer is lamenting the failure of the map to comprehend his baffling experience, and the journal is the alternative to that, in an attempt to try and express space as, in fact, a conventional history in time. And squeezed out of those two kinds of evidence are these, as I say often very curious names, which bare witness, I think, to a polarization with the characteristics of this new space, and an attempt to try and overcome, by psychological means, by attributing to them one’s own emotion.

[a few seconds silence]

One particular feature that interested me there, and that is that the names which I mentioned earlier, the proper names, which the explorers, navigators gave, were almost invariably added after the expedition or navigation was completed. And they are, it turns out, not just arbitrary, they are not the first thoughts of the moment, but they’re carefully considered. They are, if you like, the jottings of an editor or proof-reader on the explorers own original log, and, it seems, particularly in the case of a navigator like Flinders that names are used, in those finished journals, finished products that are going to  be published, to accent and articulate certain aspects of the exploration, which a map conceals. The classic example, in that respect is Flinders attempt to reproduce the layout of his home county, Lincolnshire, in Spencer Gulf.

Now, Flinders has had ample opportunity to revise his great voyage to Terra Australis, whilst he was in Mauritius, I forget for how long, I think ten years and one of the burdens he gave himself was to find names.. for something like one hundred and forty five features along the South Australian coast, and its obvious, when one analyses the names, not just that in a particular part of Gulf he felt at home, and therefore used names from his home country, but that he actually saw a spatial resemblance, that is why he felt at home, and what he did was to take the village names of Lincolnshire and apply them quite precisely to their special counterparts in the gulf. So its not just a case there of decorating the place, it’s actually a case of changing it, changing its significance, a re-writing, to draw out certain characteristics that a map perhaps, could not express properly.

MH: I find that quite fascinating. In the writings that I ‘ve seen of yours so far, you constantly refer to the acts of naming as of a primary demonstration of the things that you are trying to explore, yourself (PC: That’s right) and, one thing that I have picked up from my own reading of your recent work is that you are trying also to say some things about, in those days, in those early nineteenth century days, those contemporary notions of naming itself, and almost, as it were, philosophical theories of naming and of language which have actually influenced what later we have come to know as the names (half laughs) of Australia.

PC: Yes, that’s right. One beautiful instance perhaps of that is the policy of a man like Macquarie. It’s astounding to me to imagine Macquarie at certain places in Tasmania, deciding that here there will be a town or a city, and instructing a minion t. nail together two—very significantly I think in the form  of cross—nail together two pieces of old plank—I always like to think it’s some sort of wrecked vessel—and plant it in the middle of this space, with a name on it, Trafalgar or whatever it’s going to be and, from that act, An act which is the sort of repetition, in the microcosm of the great “I am” of God (both laugh). Extraordinary,  the pretentiousness of the act, but, psychologically very valuable. Suddenly a space, begins to assume the characteristics of a place. He lays down certain streets, he names them after his beloved wife, and although its not something perhaps time to go into now, it is astounding how he only uses his wife’s name where he particularly wishes to enjoin upon the settlers the likelihood of great prosperity and fertility! He applies her name to the plains and to the the most promising rivers, but the whole thing there being bound up with the creation of a comfortable space in which, as I say, the inhabitants can come to feel they are at home, turning what is undifferentiated into something that has directions and a sense of purpose and place.

MH: Also, what I think is there is, a sense of expectations too (PC: Mm). I mean, the the the those names are really projections upon the future.

PC: Yes, yes, that’s right. It’s a promise of what’s to come. It’s also very interesting to explore what happens when the explorers become settlers, because the character of their names quite naturally alters. What had formerly stood at the horizon of the expedition, what had proved a barrier, or a margin, something that had to be crossed—like … the way that we cross from one chapter of a book to another, had now become the sentence.

MH: Can you give me a, an an instance of this?

PC: Yes, there’s one that rather comes to mind in Victoria, where the settler Learmonte, first arrived in the area to do the west of Ballarat and passed as he said in his letter he submitted to Latrobe, a miserable night, there’s no water and it was very dark and bleak and on the spur of the moment, decided to call this boundary point, Mount Misery. Then, dawn came up and it turns out after all that it was quite a nice place, perhaps he would settle down, and he much resented that he had called, what later on turned to be the centre of a very prosperous property, er by such an uncharitable name, and he was most concerned about it and he refers to it twice, in er his Latrobe letter, and he even goes so far as to suggest that if his Excellency wouldn’t mind—it ought to be renamed after Latrobe, someone who has done so much to open up the colony in that region to settlers. And it goes further because he gives a reason—and the reason is that according to him, and I must say my own wanderings there haven’t quite confirmed this lofty estimate, according to him it commands a view … of … the larger part of the colony. It stands at the centre it seems to him, and because of that, what name could be more appropriate than the man who stood at the centre of … colonisation. So that from beginning life as a name expressing … rejection, fear, disappointment … it has completely reversed it’s value, now standing at the very centre of his life, he wishes to reflect that changed attitude towards the space, in a changed name.

MH: In a way … I suppose the very fact that the settlers and explorers were naming – was itself an instance of considerable cultural presumption because … presumably all the landscape was already named and had been named (laughs) for a long long time by the original inhabitants. (PC: Yes) One thing which is striking, say on any regional map in Australia, is the fact that there is a mixture of European and Aboriginal names.

PC: The alternation of Aboriginal with White names is most interesting because to take again the most eloquent of namers, Major Mitchell, we find that where the land is not thought to be of economic significance, and it’s not just that it’s also land that doesn’t look attractive. Mitchell follows a policy of always using Aboriginal names, but it’s curious that as he approaches what are almost like points of energy, points of cultural tension, let’s just say a picturesque valley or example or river, he completely forgets that policy and substitutes instead names which grow increasingly personal. Increasingly he feels that in these more beautiful spots, spots which will appeal to settlers and indeed I suppose to his employers, as attractive places worthy of an expedition, there he uses names drawn entirely from key episodes in his own life or from key figures in the colonial administration. So that, by tracing these names one can in fact, curiously, trace a map of those parts of Australia which, as it were, offered spaces that were comfortable, and those parts of Australia which seemed to lie outside the pale.

MH: To name in that way presumably also implied that those are the parts that Mitchell favours more interested in possessing that he wanted to own, develop, settle those parts (PC: Mm) but not the other parts.

PC: Yes, because the other side to this is that it’s not simply a question of giving a name to a place, the place is invented by the name and not only the place but what’s supposed to be there is invented. After all, if you name a river, it’s not only the name you give to it, it’s also the proposition that what you’re naming is a river (MH: Right), and, particularly in Australia, it’s proved time and again to be a misnomer. And it’s most curious that, the idea of a river is so bound up it seems with white ideas of commerce, the possibility of opening up the interior simply depends so much on an easy of means of communication between inland and coast, that they were bent on finding a river at all costs—I think there was something similar going on in the search for an inland sea—something that was definably and obviously profitable, offering a means of communication. And it was held by more than one of the early settlers that the very absence that they maintained amongst the Aboriginal people that they met of the general term corresponding to “river”, the English word, was proof that the Aboriginals could not conceive of so grand and abstract a geographical feature. The myth was promulgated, if you like, that Aboriginal people were unable to … relate like objects which were different, in other words they would have a word for this mountain and a word for that mountain but not a word for “mountains”. Now, that’s very convenient if you want to occupy a territory. If the original inhabitants don’t have general terms, it’s clear that they don’t have concepts of a unified territory. One’s hardly dispossessing them if their language doesn’t even come up to the level of perceiving a unified space. And, again its also interesting that, Mitchell in particular in his early expeditions, was most upset by the absence of flowing water in Lachlan actually and he notices the individual ponds in the bed of the stream and he notices too how this Aboriginal guide had a name for them, but not a name for the river, and he remarks on this as a great curiosity but doesn’t draw the inference that the ponds were the normal state of being and that it was a general term for all of those, and it was the river that was extraordinary, and a rare event. In other words, he was, because of his own linguistic categories and cultural expectations, because of his desire to see the particular space that he was interested in which was the length of the river leading him hopefully to something comparable to the Murray, Sturt’s Murray, he was indifferent, blind almost, to the characteristic features of that part of the Murray Basin, its isolated pools of water, those isolated pools of water I suppose he had thought of as rather like the Aboriginal languages: so many names for things but really no organization such as a proper river ought to have.

MH: All of what what we have been talking about one gets the sense that the appropriateness and inappropriateness of language, the language and the culture that was brought to Australia but in particular in this matter of language (PC: Yes)

I wonder, in fact, whether, given that these expectations were constantly being falsified and changed. Were the early explorers themselves, the early settlers, not … they they themselves must’ve possessed some relativistic awareness (laughs) (PC: Mm, mm, yes) of what was happening to them?

PC: It’s devoutly to be hoped isn’t it. From what I have been saying we have to look at the margins of books, we have to decipher double meanings, it’s very hard apparently to find a straight-forward expression of what I’m saying. But it’s not the case, in fact, there are a number of cases where the early explorers and again the settlers, do express a sense of being unable to comprehend what’s about them. And not only that, we do occasionally find instances where they’re at last realising that there’s a value simply in the extension of this space, particularly in the flatter parts of Australia, a value in a space that wasn’t cluttered up with objects to possess.  I particularly like the quotation from Stokes’ journals. True, he’d been at sea and was used to flat horizons, but he describes himself as—this is in the North West part of Western Australia—as “Straining forward incited by curiosity” and he says that “eagerly over an untrodden heath or untraversed desert”—in other words some thing that was barren—”as easily through that as through valleys of surpassing loveliness” and the reason he says is that “we are in fact if anything more eager where there is nothing, because there, there is nothing upon which the mind can repose, nothing to tempt it to linger, nothing to direct the current of its thoughts”. It’s almost as if he were saying after so many years at sea, navigating carefully, the freedom that he feels on contemplating a vast horizon with no direction, which hasn’t been scored by roads which obliges to follow our daily routines, but which is simply open to contemplation.

3 Aboriginal Literature with Colin Johnson


In 1983 Aboriginal Literature began to be institutionalized. The first national conference on the topic held in that year at Murdoch University where Colin Johnson, later Mudrooroo Ngoongah, was teaching.[5]

CJ: Aborigines in Australia didn’t come into … this multicultural society until err the sixties. And that’s when Aboriginal creativity began more or less. Before we had a few tales written down and not much else, and then during the sixties and after that when our writings began to get published and Kath Walker and myself and other people came on the scene. We tried to cover a lot from ah, oral literature to …  traditional … that’s traditional oral literature, Aboriginal forms and also, the use of, European or white forms by Aboriginal writers, and then we had poetry as a means of Aboriginal expression and um Aboriginal literature in schools and things like that … Aboriginal literature really is a uh committed literature and we are committed to our people and so we have to work out where the uh … fields in which we should be writing are …

You know, we have a danger in that of course … is that our creativity is drying up.

MH: Does that mean that the main emphasis of this conference was … retrospective,  it was looking back at what has been done,  or  that you saw the thrust of  the conference very much to do with what people might write in the future but they might be interested in doing so in the coming decade?

CJ:  Very much what we should be doing in the coming decade-whether we should be using standard English, standard European forms such as the novel or … going back into Aboriginal culture and using .Aboriginal forms of locating them and developing them and especially writing say, Aboriginal English and dialect from different Aboriginal languages, and uh, and this is that ah.. one of the main themes in the conference is that how we should be writing .

MH: —presuming there is also here some sense of the … the need to include what are—well what are called, I mean so called traditional forms of art and writing and of course , aspects of the use of words which are oral story telling songs- these sorts of things.

CJ: We were really lucky because we had our traditional story tellers like ah, Daisy Utemorrah and David Mowaljarlai and Gooru Goonup [?] and these people, they well told us stories and we stayed up half the night, sometimes all night, listening to them and it was really interesting.

MH: Is there here some issue appearing in Aboriginal writing between, as it were, the writers of the city and the writers of the country?

CJ:  I don’t know about that, not really because most Aborigines living in the city have, ah country, ah, backgrounds, so … we can relate to that. And its amazing how we can and, that that’s why, say the stories that we heard were so important. I … I was interested in the stories ‘cos I was thinking about dialect and Aboriginal literature in general, oral literature in general and what the form was like and so on, and so I was really happy to hear about it, but , ah I think a lot of urban writers think as I do … and … would like to refer, and want to refer back to the oral literature which is still so strong in most of the traditional regions of Australia.

MH: This, presumably, was one of the things you were raising in your own paper because you’re suggesting that there may be some sense of tension between the writer that sets out to write in literary form in an inherited literary form, in a published form, in a book form and so on,  trying to include the kind of performance of  songs, stories and so on that you were just talking about.

CJ:  Well, a lot of tension was ( … ) to see how … I think the forms can brought over but, ah … say the use of … Aboriginal dialect and Aboriginal English, whether this can be brought … say … an Aboriginal form of the novel for example, and ah, after hearing stories and listening to the beautiful flow of the Aboriginal English, I can see it can be now. But one problem which did crop up was that ah … possibly if Aborigines wrote in Aboriginal ah, Aboriginal English then ah, they wouldn’t be able to be published.

MH: Because, presumably Aboriginal English would not be seen by white critics, white publishers as a sufficiently central language in some sense?

CJ: Well … it wouldn’t be standard English, you know, like the plural and ah singular tenses and things like that would go. The ah Australian publishing companies are geared towards making a little profit and things like that, and Aboriginal literature except for, say, glorious books of ah, colourful  legends, colourfully illustrated legends, these sell very well, but other Aboriginal literature doesn’t. And to get a wide variety of Aboriginal literature published, I doubt ah … if ah … we could go to any of the major publishing companies. Of course there are the alternative publishing companies and this is what usually happens. Aboriginal literature is published with the small companies rather than the large ones. We had the Aboriginal magazine Identity,  and when it was based in Perth, then there was always this ah … outlet for our writers especially our young writers. Now since that has collapsed, there isn’t really an outlet. And when there is an outlet … after listening to our oral literature and seeing the finished product of the legends, there’s a, a great difference between how it’s told and how it’s written down and published.

MH:  This would be a question I think of the nature of editing and selection and things of this kind?

CJ: Yes, yes that’s right. I think that most of our young writers feel that there’s no way they can get into print, at least sympathetic print [ends].

4 On the Road, Part One, with Samuel Wagan Watson and Martin Harrison

The programme’s prologue is a cut-up dialogue, then the rest of the programme alternates dialogue and readings. Parts were delivered at the Sydney Writer’s Festival of 2005, the rest was composed for radio with noises of cars, roads, voices and animals, these sound effects are only occasionally indicated here.[6]

SWW: what do you say we hit the road?

MH: just inside the car

SWW: yeah, let’s go [car door slams]

MH: do you want to start?

SWW: oh no, you

MH: shall I start? (car starts, revs)

SWW: but after this session I’ll be just passing it out. … How far into the night are we going to go, mate?

MH: I love the speed of your work

SWW: you’re very, surgical

MH: I can actually see it, see it on the page

SWW: Yeah, the haiku

MH: it’s an endless line

SWW: have a long kind of upthrust

MH: so much room to move within it

SWW: into a block of words and then [smash, voices, rooster]

MH: poetry isn’t fiction

SWW: I don’t know, it just works for me, and

MH: driving very fast, ha!

SWW: I’m in the zone, gotta be in the zone all week just a little moment, looking out the window, on the road … You’re the experienced, senior man (MH: laughter, thank you) I’m still the green behind the ears kid.

MH: why don’t I start with that er, one of the crow poems (SWW: yeah). This is a poem called “Roadside near Hillston”, and Hillston is way out in Western NSW:

[MH reads]

SWW: Mmm. I look at all these poems I’ve written as polaroids, out of my head, through my eyes, I’m taking photos. Yes, for some reason, crows, they’re such a hard, disgusting animal, but they merit a lot of weight in my work:

[SWW reads two poems: “A bent neck black and flustered feather mallee … ” then: “The thousand yard stare”]

SWW: Are they related to crows? (MH: related to?) crows [Woman’s voice: I don’t think so, but they do have that similar look, don’t they?) … so this is all midden? (MH: Yes, looks like it, doesn’t it, most of it. I think some of the other area we came down on, the edge of the road, actually, was middens). One of my cousins, ‘cos there’s middens all through Stradbroke island, one of my cousins found an axe head, a green stone axe head, and Queensland didn’t even have it, and they’re not sure if it’s jade from er, China or the green stone from New Zealand? (MH: yes, yes) Stories are just starting to come out now about canoe trips that were made by New Zealanders that came over here, so…yeah (W: how long ago was it?) oh, couple of hundred years, but those stories are just coming out now…

MH: Do you want to start again?

SWW: Yeah, I’ll start with a morning poem, “Three AM escape”.

[SWW reads]

[MH reads: “There is away back there to the red gum … ”]

It’s a very early poem of mine and when I look at it I think, yeah, even back then I was, you know, trying to get some sense of moving forward and the shifting position you have in relation to light and the slope and the land and landscape and so on, you know an aesthetic in a sense (SWW: yeah) of the road was there.

SWW: I’m jealous. I think my writing is going to take a bit of a turn after this (laughter) you know, you’re very surgical, whereas I’ve just sort of picked things up off the road like… I haven’t stopped and smelled the flowers enough you know, mate.

MH: (laughs) The real people who interest me in poetry were not so much poets as painters and photographers (SWW: yeah, yeah). And I love the way painters and photographers can work. You know, I think, like a lot of poets in a sense, I’ve always sort of envied, you know,  the capacity for the visual artist to … to deal with the world, to use their hands in relation to the world, you know, to handle such beautiful things, handle colours, handle textures and beautiful papers and paint and all that kind of thing and its really been an incredible influence on me.

5 With Robert Gray on Barnstone’s Machado


I’m not sure when this interview was broadcast on Books and Writing, possibly 1982. They are talking about Barnstone’s translation of Antonio Machado, Border of a Dream.[7]

RG: One thing that’s very impressive is that, uh, Machado had an aesthetic command, a technical command that’s, uh, at least comparable to Yeats I think. In looking at these poems and playing around with them with a dictionary and so on, one can see, using the translations and the original, that this man had, uh, extraordinary abilities technically, like the later Yeats. Fortunately, I think, he had a much more attractive persona. And so he seems a more interesting poet. I mean, this is a hobby horse of mine, but I find, Yeats almost unreadable because of the personality that comes out of his work, I needn’t characterize at all. But, uh, if anyone wants to, uh, find a very good characterization of what’s wrong with Yeats’ poetry, they only need read something that I was recently looking at, a book by English poet C.H. Sisson called, Modern Poetry: 1900-1950, in which he sums up very concretely through all the anti-Yeats school just exactly what is so unattractive in Yeats’s work, that nouveau riche sense of pretentiousness and cultural name-dropping, and, uh, the arrogant, uh, strutting rhythms which become very hard to take.

None of this is found in Machado’s work. So that one has this, this wonderful musical quality, and at the same time, a feeling that a liberal-minded intellectual in the 20th Century can find, uh, attractive and bearable, you know, which one can’t, I think, with Yeats. And so they’re very different poets. One is all pretention, and the other, all un-pretentiousness. One is all affectation, the other very unaffected. And, uh, I find them a total contrast in that way.

Of course we in the English tradition think, think that, um, that English poetry, English language poetry is, uh, has dominated, uh, from our point of view, has dominated world poetry. But, when you become aware of people like, um, Machado and one realizes that this is a very parochial point of view that we’ve held and that there are riches, probably beyond anything in English awaiting us in other languages, if only we knew it.

MH: There have been other translations of Machado. I think the American poet Robert Bly and the British poet John Tomlinson have also done some work translating Machado’s verse.

RG: Yes, both unsuccessfully, I think, to some degree. Tomlinson because his translations lack the lyrical quality that I find in these. They’re very dry. They’re reproduced in William Carlos Williams’ dip down, three-part line, which seems to me very peculiar and doesn’t really bring across the very lyrical and, uh, the very flowing quality of these poems. And Bly, I think, fails because of his characteristically, uh, sloppy, uh, emotionalism. He brings in, uh, some quite horrendous, uh, phrases, I think. Particularly, I noticed in a the poem called “Fields”. In the Barnstone translation, if I can read this, it says:

The afternoon is dying

like a humble hearth burning out.

There above the mountains

a few colds? remain

The fractured tree on the white road

moves one to pity

And here Bly says: “The blasted tree/ makes you want to cry for compassion”, which is just terrible in comparison. This man is just much tighter and much more solid … Of all the translations I’ve looked at and come across of Machado, these seem much the most successful. But of course, he’s notoriously difficult to translate, and everyone comments on the impossibility of the task.

MH: I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the impossibility of translating poetry like this, because I suppose part of the difficulty is that Machado’s work is so simple. It, it has such clear and simple values in the lines, such musical simplicity. And why is that such a tremendous problem to translators working between two languages?

RG: I think the great difficulty in his poems is that they depend so much on a very rarefied quality of feeling. And he uses very few words, very simple words. But the poems release a feeling, particularly at their end. Uh, and if one hasn’t used the exact weight of words, the exact phrasing, that, ah, correspond to his exact phrasing, one is just going to lose that very subtle, very rarefied delicate feeling, which is the whole of the poem. His poetry depends upon a very, uh, unusual temperament , a refined temperament, you know. It’s a poetry that doesn’t depend upon a fix, on rhetoric and on normal, uh, poeticism. But it depends very much on the quality of the spirit in the work.

In fact, he says that somewhere. He decided, and I have a quotation here from him, he decided that the “substance of poetry does not lie in the sound value of the word, nor even in its color, but in the deep pulse of the spirit. This deep pulse that the soul contributes with its own voice.” And this is some way of, uh, approximating his voice. And it’s impossible to really get what he’s all about. And the poems can fall very, very flat and seem trivial and, and thin.

MH: So the poems are very much poems that depend upon atmosphere and the direct rendition of feeling in the simplest means. I mean, that’s certainly the impression I get from Barnstone’s translation, which is a quality of economy and, and simplicity. Machado is, I suppose, a poet primarily of emotion and, and of memory.

RG: Yes, yes, very much so. Uh, one feels that there’s a great deal of thought behind the work. He says that all poets should have a metaphysic behind their work. They don’t need to express it, but they need to have it somehow informing their work. One feels that there’s a lot of metaphysical thought lying behind the work. You feel that very much with him, that there is, he’s almost a systematic thinker, you know, and that the poems are like the tips of, uh, these icebergs. And one feels that there’s a great deal of philosophy, or in fact, one knows there is from having read his prose. But this gives great strength to these seemingly very simple poems. One has to see that there’s this great deal of submerged content that these things point to and suggest.

MH: Certainly in my own first reading of Machado, I, I found myself wondering why the poems were significant. They, they they come up, uh, upon you almost as surprises (RG: Yes) They seem that they’re such simple stories or such simple events or incidents, the [?] that are going on.

RG: What I particularly like, I think, is the quality of the mind that comes through. This sort of mind that is so, um, unpretentious, so natural. I like the emotional balance in him, I think. What impressed me is that here is a man with a mind that I can really admire. He’s totally disillusioned, and yet totally humane. And that seems very sophisticated to me and very attractive.

[the audio cuts for several seconds]

The poetic feeling comes from the suggestiveness of what he writes, I think. They’re poems, very much, of endings to me. They’re like in that Chinese poetry and, uh, Chekhov stories. We’re used to those things, where it’s as if at the end of the poem, a window had been opened and one can go on and inhabit this landscape of feeling that exists beyond. One moves out into it. And, uh, that’s when the poem has its real life, almost, after the poem is finished. They’re not just words that they escape from being words on the page, into being, as he says, the spirit that, uh, continues its release from the poems. And it continues, and which one can then live in, and which, uh, it’s something more than merely, uh, verbal, uh, ingenuity. They had this great, uh, great quality of, uh, lived things.

They also depend, I think, on the mood in which one reads them to some extent, as with all poetry of this kind. Chinese poetry is probably noticed. And certainly each one is not susceptible to, um, the delicacy of a feeling that can be released. He writes about emotions that there aren’t really words for very often. He manages a combination of words and images, which suggests feelings that are almost too light to be handled, and yet, he makes them exist.

MH: It seems to me despite, or perhaps because of the simplicity, a lot of Machado’s poetry is moving into areas of, almost sub-conscious or threshold experience. I mean (RG:  Exactly) they’re always a waking or falling asleep. He was just catching that moment of connection of internal feeling, internal contour and memory. And I think if you’re talking, a lot of that kind of writing is particularly contemporary, and particularly 20th century. And yet, for the same thing which Machado’s work is deeply traditional and almost anti-Modernist. It’s the most curious kind of balance that he achieves.

RG: It’s a very impressive mixture. He’s not technically an innovative poet. And yet, uh, the insistence on planned speech, directness, hardness, lack of pretensions, the cutting off of all rhetoric, whether it’s 19th century rhetoric or Modernist rhetoric makes him seem very, very modern at the same time. His father was a folklorist. He was very much influenced by the folkloric poetry of Spain, and by the early lyric poets like St. John of the Cross and, uh, and so on.

But at the same time, um, he, he, is rather similar to something we find in English, the Poundian Modernist tradition. You probably know, or have heard me, hold forth about this, (MH: about the Poundian tradition? Yes, (laughs) but I think that behind Pound, uh, I think as a theorist, lies Ford Maddox Ford, who is the real patriarch of Modernism or at least of one type of Modernism, what we call the Poundian stream of Modernism. There is the other stream, the Mallarméian stream. But the main, uh, inventor I think of the Poundian tradition is really Ford Maddox Ford …

MH: Seriously? Because he’s not well known. I mean, he’s known more as a name, I think, than as a critical influence.

RG: Yeah, he’s not even read as a novelist much. [MH: yes yes] But I think one can really safely claim that the, it was Ford’s idea that, uh, influenced Pound, very, very deeply. And Ford’s basic idea was that, uh, he was opposed to the idea that all poets must of necessity write affectedly, and at great lengths and with many superfluous words, that poetry of necessity is something boring and pretentious.

He says, uh, somewhere, “You must write as simply and naturally as you can, as you speak. And you must write of subjects that spring at your throat,” which sounds very much like Machado to me.

MH: Of course also the connection isn’t there of Pound going back to some of the earlier Provencale lyrics at the beginning of his works. I suppose there is a connection between Machado who also relates his work to some Spanish medieval poetry.

RG: Yes, of course, this so-called … you know Pound’s essay about Ford that’s called, “The Prose Tradition in Verse.” And this “Prose Tradition in Verse” goes right back to the Greek anthology, the simplicity and directness of prose. And Pound said … whenever poetry is in trouble, that’s the tradition that’s always revived, in Chaucer and in the Augustan poets, in Wordsworth, and so on. So, um, that, that tradition is my own ideal. I think that’s, of all styles that’s going, the one that I would choose to write in. And Machado feels this ideal very much. And, uh, I felt immediate affinity with him, and I recently read this translation by Barnstone.

[the audio cuts for a few seconds]

In that poem, he talks about a landscape, looking at a landscape. But then that landscape is given great meaning and a whole thing is invested with a great deal of feeling by just the last line of the poem, in a way that we’ve got to notice in people like the Chinese poets, and in a short story writer like Chekhov. We are prepared in some ways for reading Machado from those sorts of examples.

I think that one of the most attractive emotions in Machado is the humility of the, uh, of the writing. I think humility is the key emotion in his work, and that’s an extraordinarily difficult emotion to achieve and to, uh, to bring off.

MH: What would you mean by humility there? What is humility in poetry?

RG: It’s the way the outside world imposes itself on the poet and overwhelms him. It’s full of, uh, a love for things outside himself, this poetry, constantly.

(MH: It’s a kind of objectivity in him … ) Yes, he calls it objectivity himself in some of his prose writings, actually. He says that’s what he’s after when you transcend the subject all together. And, uh, this is, um, a spirit,  takes on a spiritual sort of quality in his work, this humility. He’s not a Christian or anything, I’m not talking about spirituality in that sense.

MH: I want to move us on to something else in Machado’s work, which I, I pick up, uh, from looking through it, which is the sense that the language that a poet uses is not just the poet’s own property, there is such attention to the ability of the poem to communicate. To this, Machado’s poems are constantly cast in a kind of an I/you relationship that he’s always talking to someone, and always trying to keep that channel of communication as open as possible. And this is very, very striking because it puts his, his poetry in a completely different position from a great deal of modern poetry which either is concerned with the effect of the image, or is consumed with a much more public level of address, late Pound for example writing “World History” in verse form and so on, I mean, Machado’s work is so much more concerned with the person he’s visiting next or opposite to him or someone that he knows, or a person that he’s writing a letter to or something of that kind.

RG: Machado’s language has this very pronounced social dimension to it. He was influenced by Marxism. And, one can see this in statements of his like, uh, like this. He said, “My feeling is not exclusively mine, but ours. I note that in my feeling, other feelings are vibrating as well, and that my heart is always singing in a chorus. Although, its own voice may be for me, the best. That it also be the best for others, that is the problem of lyrical expression.”

[the audio cuts for a few seconds]

I think what I find most useful in Machado is his emphasis on the quality of the voice, or the tone of the voice in poetry, in which all of our philosophy exists in embryo as it were. The whole sensibility, uh, that underlies the philosophy in the choice of the philosophy and the, having arrived at a certain philosophy is embodied in a voice. Um, Wittgenstein says that, “Language is the gate hinge in which all the perception and all of philosophy swings.” And I think one can go even more, deep than that. One can become more fundamental than that and say that not just language, but, uh, the cast of a mind that uses the language, the, uh, the emotional, uh, balance, the, um, the perception, far more fundamental, uh, is the hinge on which all of philosophy swings.

And in Machado, one finds him going extremely deep, right to the quality of his emotion. And that’s what he’s concerned about. This is where his lack of pretentiousness and his austerity and everything come in. He’s cut everything right down to examining the quality of the emotion that he’s talking about. He’s gone right to the very basic thing. And he’s concerned with the truth of that emotion. This is something that’s very difficult and something that not many poets are prepared to say. This concentrating all attention on the quality of the underlying feeling above all else, that’s the really hard test for a poet in my opinion. And so I’m impressed when, uh, somebody manages to do it so convincingly as he has. To move us and to convince us this is poetry, just by the, uh, the quality of the feeling without any tricks and without any verbal pyrotechnics. Not relying on anything else but some sort of deep honesty in the feeling.

MH: Towards the end of the book of translations, Barnstone includes a number of poems which quite surprise me. They are very, very short, two or three lines aphorisms. They’re not exactly like, um, Japanese haiku. They, I don’t even know how to describe them. They are very, very short statements, often quite abstract, quite conceptual. And it seems to me that is Machado writing with maximum economy and the maximum, um, lack of pretension if I can put it that way.

RG: Some of them, I think could almost been influenced by haiku. In his last book of poems of the war, the Spanish Civil War, for instance, uh, this one that he wrote in France, and it says:

The chill winds of February

whip the lemon trees

I do not sleep

so as not to dream.

He’s in exile in France and that’s, that’s a perfect haiku frankly. But I know what you mean, most of them are aphorisms, they’re parables given over to, uh, a concentration of our little diamond heart point of thought. And I find that idea extremely useful also, that, uh, one can concentrate a whole philosophy into these, these captions, these aphorisms as he has done. Uh, some of them are extremely suggestive I think. I like this one:

You who hope, will despair

as the saying goes.

And it’s true everywhere.

The truth is always as it is

and stays the truth

whatever thoughts one has.

That’s the whole tradition in modern philosophy summed up there in, in that. And, uh, there’s another one:

All passes and all remains

that ours is to pass

to pass while making roads

roads across the sea.


[1] Thanks to the ABC’s RN Features Department and especially Michelle Baddiley and Gretchen Miller for making this possible. Thanks also to Didie Vincent who helped with the transcription.

[2] Aired on Books and Writing on the 11th February, 1981. Selections from the conference were published in Peter Botsman, Chris Burns and Peter Hutchings, eds.  The Foreign Bodies Papers, Sydney: Local Consumption Publications, 1981.

[3]Aired on Books and Writing, 8th September, 1982.

[4] The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History, London: Faber and Faber, 1987.

[5]Aired on Books and Writing, 16th February, 1983. Proceedings were published in Jack Davis and Bob Hodge, eds. Aboriginal Writing Today: Papers from the first National Conference of Aboriginal Writers, Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1985.

[6] Poetica, Aired 10th September 2005, now “Earshot” (

[7] Border of a Dream: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, trans. and intro., Willis Barnstone, Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2003.

Published: September 2015
Stephen Muecke

is Professor of Ethnography at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He works in the experimental humanities, with Indigenous groups in Broome, and on intercoloniality in the Indian Ocean. Reading the Country won the Non-fiction prize for the West Australian Week Literary Awards (1985), Joe in the Andamans and Other Fictocritical Stories, (2008) was shortlisted for the 2010 Adelaide Festival Awards in the Innovation Category. Contingency in Madagascar, with photographer Max Pam, appeared in 2012 with Intellect Books’ Critical Photography Series.

An Australian and international
journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics.

Plumwood Mountain Journal is created on the unceded lands of the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora Nation. We pay our respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to elders past, present and future. We also acknowledge all traditional custodians of the lands this journal reaches.