Jeremy Balius and Corey Wakeling, eds, Outcrop: Radical Australian Poetry of Land. Fremantle: Black Rider, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-62840-894-2.
A Windfelled Feast beyond the Fence
Corey Wakeling and Jeremy Balius have curated a thought-provoking collection of poetry in Outcrop: Radical Australian Poetry of Land. Well-known names such as John Kinsella and Jill Jones will entice readers to this text, as will the presence of recognized poets such as Ali Cobby Eckerman, Kate Fagan, Michael Farrell, Fiona Hile, Duncan Hose and Claire Potter. These writers, and many of the other twenty-one contemporary Australian poets included here, have made a stinging contribution to the strengthening posthuman project to situate the human more aptly. Outcrop does this in free and fertile ways, but there is a recurrent theme of a deeply haunted warred-upon land that will not be dominated by white settlement, and further, that the painful dissonance caused by this scarring deserves and will be given voice.
The passions within this anthology provide fresh insights for readers aspiring towards a more participative and open cohabitation with the nonhuman world. These new ways of understanding the human are offered most directly when the poems’ responses are contingent on nonhuman encounters. Such moments assist reading towards what it might mean, humanly, to be situated in a more collaborative position with the rest of the world.
The multi-directional ways in which Outcrop questions limited ideas of human ascendency and human time gives this collection a political energy, made all the more powerful by the writers’ preparedness to let readers do their own work with their poems. The collection’s density demands close attention, and it is threaded with wry self-deprecation. Michael Farrell’s “The Structuralist Cowboy” is a case in point. To speak of stations “bigger/than Deconstruction” (134) is wittily suggestive of the post-conquest possibilities that give this collection its verve.
Tim Wright, like Farrell, twists the vernacular to achieve new subject positions, and this strategy is particularly effective in “The Farmer has floated in the grounds”. His well-judged lapses gesture towards a newly complex non-humanist world of “it” as he wilfully confuses subject and genus towards new meanings. These posthuman marks are particularly generative of rich ontological capital when Karl shapeshifts uncomfortably between boy, dog and, perhaps, spider (147). The delayed kicks and absences in Wright’s syntax do different work in “Chants” but again, spaces are left to reveal the complexities in the world as humans can know it (148–50). Wright, like the other poets collected in this text, is acutely responding to the “crises of pastoralism” described in Wakeling’s introduction (8). None of the poets here directly diagnose Anthropocenic damage, but the effort of this work, as a whole, is to create a positive change in the ways dominant humans create discord in the vulnerabilities of the world.
John Kinsella makes no bones about negative human impact in “Coop”. He incises the habit of nostalgia by a speaker who revises contemplations of childhood as artifact, making a macabre “museum” out of what was once a kind of “Egg fervour” (174). Kinsella portrays a vicious past, contained, like the coop itself, in corporate agriculture, where even the most private of farms are branded with the “ore” of “New Agriculture” (Conlogue). The petroleum industry’s “Golden Fleece” creates a humanist enclosure. Kinsella codifies but does not privilege the differences between diversified and non-mechanical farming (“Old Agriculture”) and industrial farming. He has no truck with any kind of pastoral ideal. The “coddling paradise” of the chookshed is only a thin line up from the “Head-chop and dunk in blanching feather-loosening strife” foreshadowed by the sardonic parenthesis “(unsavoury to say ‘slaves’, such happy chooks)” (175). This is a powerful poem. While Outcrop draws strength from its diversity, it is given ethical direction through the lifeway in Kinsella’s words.
This is not to suggest this anthology is in any way didactic. Wakeling aptly describes the collection as a series of “poetic experiments” that create new “possibilities of land as subject” (19), and indeed, from an ecocritical perspective, this laboratory generates innovative explorations of relations with the other-than-human. There are no fenced-in representations of the landscape here. Rather, these poems listen to what is being communicated beyond human sense-making, then voice this with visceral impact. This emphasis on the corporeal leaves behind limited humanist representations that can be understood, with help from Fiona Hile, as a hollow and slippery “stairwell of abstract” (“Grand Hotel”, 177).
Astrid Lorange pulses towards the concrete territory of the posthuman with lilting intent. In “WOLVES ARE SWARMS” all are parasites. Wolves, bees and ants work their way up skirts, transgressing the boundary of species through her speaker’s being with a quickening growth. These words might even be read in themselves as a “thong of wasps and they’re punchy for a suckle” (95). Lorange takes metamorphosis further, with cloning, in “SONG GOAT”, where goat, lamb and speaker fade and flesh into each other. The speaker is gleefully aware “subject bias” is being subverted here (97). Her poetry sings to the posthuman tune through unsettling not-quite anthropomorphisms.
Human/human relations are also present in this collection, drawing ecopoetic strength from posthuman emplacement (Mathews). Kate Fagan’s “Hawkesbury Elemental” does this beautifully where her speaker makes the point that to be non-phosphorous matter is to be “shit without reflectors” (158). This limit in human existence is a lack shared with other non-reflective matter. Humans are, with other worldly creatures (Haraway), just so much dirt, excess, waste and growth material. Like Lorange, Fagan does radical work by finding commonalities within difference. This is, as Tom Tyler has argued, a liberating way to move beyond humanist conceptual boundaries.
Shifting fixed ontologies is a slow grind and, as Wakeling indirectly suggests, consciousness stuck in the groove of human centrality can be eased into movement with the introduction of the “hallucinatory” (12). Nicola Themistes’ “Horizontologies” is exemplary in this regard. The tangents and ricochets in her poems come at the reader with nipping word bites that can be read again and again just for the delight of her dreamy word slides. “The tits are alive! cried she, aghast at the doppeldialogues ekesing out the left gripple” (27). Her understanding of the impoverished world humans are creating is brilliantly positioned in the image of a “burlish breeze” (28). This conflated horror of a gale of mushed up fish, and the terror of fish-poor polluted currents muddied by those who keep their heads in the air, has much of the ecoprophetic productivity described in Kate Rigby’s ecotheological theory.
Fagan’s and Themiste’s challenge to human assumptions of species privilege is a repeated position in this collection. Farrell’s “Ploughspeech” works the page and the reader in a similar direction with a well-honed forking pitch. The deep furrows in his seeding words remind readers that even when the world seems patterned by human makings, the nonhuman is always there, contesting as much as acquiescing. The rabbit dead, dread, “dered”, in the warrens created through the “intentional” of the poem, or, perhaps, the “Gap”, demands inventive readerly perspectives (139). Here, poetry is praxis.
The freedoms taken here, to think species differently, allows potential for an other world to take shape. Fiona Hile writes toward this emergence in her “Generic Golden Poem”. Her speaker dismisses garden “exclusions” (181), just as she refuses dulling expectations of what might be called either love or control. Such humanist world-making is contrasted with the more productive work of inviting newly thought plants to exist, making possible a different history, a “future composition” (181). Such an other world might set aside human judgments and dissolve false divisions like human/nonhuman. Let the couch grass run free.
Hile’s revision of assumptions about that which is to be expunged and that which is to be nurtured, challenges the humanist past. Human centrality is also ably critiqued by Peter Minter. “Pink camellia flowers fount over the 1940s” in his “On the Serious Light of Nothing”, telepathically speaking to the gardened exclusions eschewed in Hile’s work. Minter’s speaker finds this position through viewing gardens with a scything socio-historical perspective, “As if each year were a flower all of a sudden” (219). Minter’s “The Roadside Bramble” also seeks a different-than-human time, going with and beyond the bile that blackberries might rise from a landcarer’s belly. There is an ethic of respect in the imagery of “brittle thorn, a caul of dead grass, quiet rust” (220). Such work speaks to the “compassionate coexistence” Tim Morton suggests is needed to think ecologically. Couch grass, blackberries, rabbits—Outcrop provides a space for these beings to be other than enemy. As Minter writes, “each will always yield its own” (231), perhaps even ditching humans in the process. Minter’s attentive celebration of the estrangement in familiarity is a route towards taking on Morton’s challenge to meet nonhuman unfoldings on more appreciative terms.
Understanding that revelations of the nonhuman are not limited to human time demands a temporal mobility, and such timing underpins Lionel Fogarty’s work. Here, access to Gondwanaland’s past and future is layered through privilege carried by blood, rather than possession. In his “Posh Ports”, places of pause signify transport through drinking as much as mooring and unmooring, such are the flow of his words. Fogarty’s fluid time, where “1853 is like the filth of 2053” (192) lends immediacy to “MUTUAL FEVER”. In a texted yell, even with the font turned down, old language mixes with new in the reclaiming and declaiming extraordinary line, “OUR LUBRAS PASSIVELY GAVE TREMBLE” (195). The prickling conquest in “OUR” is subsumed by the “VALLEY OF FLICKERING EYES” that let nothing be laid to rest. The honesty in Fogarty’s work requires the same of the reader.
Jill Jones reads and writes with her own stoic honesty, in the bleak and beautifully observed “Arkaroola”. Her speaker’s grieving question, “What blackens my soles?” (211) prepares readers to understand this nuclear testing ground’s “afternoon radioactive ridges” (212) as a legacy of humanist lack of care. The earth both touches and is touched, as Jones shows, shaping the flavours of the past towards the future. All partake in the “Grit tasty grit” of this tested land (213). Jones’s awareness of the textures in time also gives weight to the transient immediacy of moments found in “Dry Tender Would”. The poem itself, like the “Bronze fern luminous bathed in seconds” (214), transports, yet also stills the reader, through its care-formed visions.
The tastes provided here read this gritty Outcrop as a strong, disruptive and lasting collection. Together these poems form a sweeping and ever shifting flock of “Message birds”, to borrow from Ali Cobby Eckerman’s memorable “Kumerangke” (64). Decoding the communications generated by encounter requires human attention. This attention involves, as Eckerman’s speaker notes in “Ashes”, a process of waiting “for the listening” (71). Nonhuman readiness to listen might only be discernable to a small proportion of the readied, or perhaps, only the blooded, but there is much to be gained, as Outcrop demonstrates, in leaving space for this listening world. Readers will do well to wait for such listening in the windfall gathered up in Outcrop.
Conlogue, William. Working the Garden: American Writers and the Industrialization of Agriculture. Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 2001.
Haraway Donna. “Otherworldly Conversations, Terran Topics, Local Terms.” In Material Feminisms, edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, 157–87. Bloomingon: Indiana University Press, 2008.
Mathews, Freya. Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture. Albany: State University of New York, 2005.
Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Rigby, Kate. “Writing in the Anthropocene: Idle Chatter or Ecoprophetic Witness?” Australian Humanities Review 47 (2009): http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-November-2009/rigby.html
Tyler, Tom. “Colourful Collectivities”. Bugs, Horses, Hedgehogs and Dolphins: The Diversity of Animal Ethics. Knowing Animals Reading Group Seminar, The University of Melbourne, December 2012.
Susan Pyke teaches with the University of Melbourne. Her scholarly publications focus on literary hauntings, in particular, the interaction between literature and ecology. Her poetry, short stories and associative essays are found in various journals including Southerly, Descant, Text (Writing Creates Ecology and Ecology Creates Writing), Overland and New Writing.
 Morton, The Ecological Thought, 17.