R.D. Wood, Land Mass. The S Press, 2016.
In his afterword to Land Mass, Robert Wood observes:
There is a vast body of poetry and poetics on land. From the pastoral to the idyll to the eulogy, it could be said to be one of the definitive and dominant themes of the art. There are poems about love; there are poems about death; but land, as that place-thing, has been a foremost concern for poets working with and in ‘Australia’. (117)
I am one poet for whom this observation is certainly true, but my approach to place is very different from the one developed by Wood in Land Mass. I write a conventionally lyrical free-verse of particular places where I have lived, investigating narratives / memories tuned to the orientations of ecopoetics and postcolonialism. There is almost no narrative in Land Mass. And the emotional attachments conjured in a memory of a particular place are also minimised. Land Mass is a remarkable philosophical reflection on the semantics of place, it is a language-play that investigates (in the abstract) the plants, minerals and animals of place from a myriad of sources: poetic, anthropological, historical, popular and scientific. The impact of this is certainly demanding and complicated but also, because of its originality and concentration, highly rewarding and challenging.
Land Mass is written in three long sections: ‘OCHREPIT’, ‘CROWNLAND’, ‘BREADFIELD’. And while there is a brief afterword there are no other explanations or author’s notes to help a reader. This is perhaps surprising given the breadth of allusions and cultural research that has underpinned this text but Wood trusts his readers and quickly has them immersed in his project. Wood’s language is dense and he often employs the strategies of the list poet as he scatters his lines across the page, often hyphenating words in unusual ways, to advance his experiments in the abstraction of place. So ‘OCHREPIT’ begins:
heart everyway, stop
heart, the everyway
name of turtle, name
run-bird talks two-two, skin,
young fish spear along glutinous,
country fish swimming along
fire run along, black goanna black
no whip and owl, own it
bonefish and bullroarer
cash-bomb of truth, bartered
spent against elkamore
grub in tree-rub, hit
brush sand brush
dog find it
wallabay, euro, tail
mallee country, big belly
brother to a large blue morning bird
credit where debit’s dew
The colloquial rhythms of these opening lines echo a crowd of life forms gathered around a campfire in the darkness and in turns chanting their lines in some ritualistic performance. What is also clear from these lines is the sly and comic edge that Wood often employs in these word plays, for example that pun on ‘dew’, where he sums up ecology’s fecundity, that ‘big belly’. The flow of Wood’s thoughts is as subtle as the confluent movement of those swimming fish that morph into flying spears that morph into fire runs becoming black goannas before the final ironic ‘cash-bomb of truth’. This is a startling image of environmental warfare and of corporate and state sponsored greed.
Section Two of Land Mass, ‘CROWNLAND’, begins:
confess that songlist barrier great
lode-recession, triple A
tiger, lion, wolf, bear, worm, moth, gnat, mozzie
heaven, earth, wind, air, water, fire, men, gods
cattle, birds, herbs, trees, beasts, ants, moon
grammar, ritual, math, astrology, logic, star, sky
rice, barley, austerity, faith, truth, continence, law
a buttress of intake
boast round and bath down
soil sand and crow is
crawl-granite, infernal and devoid
ragged hat and piled
summer’s haggard call
clarion-fiend and coolant green
realism’s dusty track
a subcrocdilian vitality
dust bat; war call
There is so much irony in the title ‘CROWNLAND’: what protection has ever been secured for First Nations and Country under the pernicious and acquisitive English monarchy? And Wood also uses humour to good effect in these interrogations as he slyly positions such notions as astrology alongside math and logic. There is also a clever touch of the mock-heroic in the opening ‘om / exalt / praise-claim’ which is quickly deflated by lamentation for a roll call, the ‘songlist’, of human-induced wild extinctions (that ‘great / lode-recession’). And if the elements of the list poem might seem to suggest hidden meanings and deep psychological resonances, in the author’s reasons for inclusions / exclusions on these lists, this is an expectation that is cleverly undercut by the juxtaposition of apex hunters (tiger, lion, wolf bear) with those pesky gnats and mozzies, and by the jarring placement of ‘moon’ at the end of the line which is otherwise so terrestrial: ‘cattle, birds, herbs, trees, beasts, ants, moon’. Some of Wood’s imagery is also visually striking (especially that ‘crow is / crawl-granite’) and the knotty image of that ‘subcrocdilian vitality’ along a ‘burnt / realism’s dusty track’ is so unexpected. What does it mean? And how can the ‘vitality’ of an apex hunter in our waterways be secured along a burnt and dusty track? This is indeed a ‘war call’, and the mystery resonates in our consciousness long after we have closed Wood’s book.
In the afterword to Land Mass, Wood writes: ‘any land word-game needs to pay attention to the perspicacity of experience and the historical density of existing discourses’ (117). Wood’s complex and challenging book achieves this with sly irony and subtle humour. This is not a book for a lazy summer afternoon. Land Mass is not always easy to inhabit, leapfrogging as it does from idea, to concept, to sensation, to action, from tiger to mozzie, but Wood interrogates the irrationality of our incapacity to dwell with justice on this earth. This poem sequence is a jagged journey through place and through thoughts.
Phillip Hall worked for many years as a teacher of outdoor education and sport throughout regional New South Wales, Northern Queensland and the Northern Territory. He now resides in Melbourne’s Sunshine where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. Phillip’s poetry and reviews can be seen in such spaces as Best Australian Poems, Cordite Poetry Review, Plumwood Mountain and Verity La while his publications include Sweetened in Coals (Ginninderra Press), Borroloola Class (IPSI) and (as editor) Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Blank Rune Press). UWAP will publish Fume in February 2018.