Saturday, December 27, 2008

Wheatbelt Gothic — an aside

By John

At the Wheatbelt Cultural Festival held at Northam recently, I was asked by the brilliant and much censored artist Tim Burns, who works out of York (and with whom I hope to work with in the future), what are the origins of my wheatbelt gothic. He wondered about American writers ranging from Poe through Tennessee Williams to Carson McCullers? I wondered about recent American films like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) or No Country for Old Men (2007), which came many years after I first used the expression “Wheatbelt Gothic”, but are now certainly at the back of my mind when talking about the potential for (American) film “influence” on a an Australian wheatbelt gothic, as much as say Bunuel’s and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) imagined on a wheat and sheep farm near the Meckering faultline...

While Poe is a definitive influence on my idea of a wheatbelt gothic, and certainly Poe via Baudelaire, both Tracy and I responded (Tracy had just read aloud to the audience a Dorothy Hewett poem, at my request), that it surely sources in the work of Dorothy Hewett. This was no doubt originally subconscious in me, but as I have spent my life (from the time I was a small boy — my Mum was taught by Dorothy at university) woven through Dorothy’s work, I think this is true.

Certainly from the problematics of “Legend of The Green Country” through to “Summer Idyll” (which was the poem Tracy read our at the Festival). But when I originally wrote “Wheatbelt Gothic or Discovering a Wyeth” back in 1992 (it appeared in my 1993 book Full Fathom Five), it came out of being on the farm, walking in paddocks distant from the house, during the evening, following the fenceline back as darkness fell, and literally hallucinating galleries of “Western Art” — from Wyeth through to Hopper through to Gothic and even Gothic revival architecture. In the Wyeth original, "Christina" has a longing for the house she is struggling to reach, but inevitably will reach, in its barren field. In writing my poem, I was more concerned about the denuded landscape and the intrusion of the coloniser — house in the painting, "property" and the materials of farming in my poem (fences, sheeprun etc) — than about the willpower of the individuated "figure in the landscape" (the woman in the Wyeth, and also in my poem). It’s a poem lamenting and critiquing dispossession rather than the passions and drives of "possession". Thus "ubi sunt motif"...

This sounds odd, but back then I was still suffering heavy bouts of flashbacks, and had learnt to control the cascading colours by using an aesthetic framework — poems, paintings, films, whatever. The tension between a haunting (as style, as reality) and an almost perverse spiritual affirmation, was unresolvable. The people in my life formed part of the images, as did the reality of wheatbelt farming methods, land damage (and attempts to restore land), the conflict between condemning the colonised and being part of the colonisation, and an overwhelming consciousness that the land was marked in ways I couldn’t see or determine but intuitively or maybe intellectually knew.

Wheatbelt Gothic is style built out of damage and theft, a struggle to keep “good order” when the “natural” rebels and resists one’s presence with all possible means and contradictions. Wheatbelt Gothic is a restoration of agency within the lies of text. It is an attempt to awaken from a nightmare of Western colonisation and destructiveness that is part of who the/an observer might be. It can only be written out of a resistance to colonial heritage. A poem is a piece of propaganda — it is not a reality. It is made lifeless through its own style. Wheatbelt Gothic is a recognition of this, an attempt to restore vibrancy through recognising and participating in decay.

The wheatbelt is a large region and yet it is specific and varied in so many ways. The moment one uses a catch-all expression, it diminishes the micro. Wheatbelt Gothic is an ironising of its own generalities and thus the poems concentrate so much on specifics. Types of, precise points in time and space. The generative force behind it is, however, phantasmagorical. Sense is in superstition and fear, not the confidence of feeling good when the crops are glowing green. Real people are nowhere to be seen but they make it what it is, and receive its bounty and desiccations. The sheep are drenched and intestines cleansed.

So much poetry does this and convinces us it’s best for our health. It’s not so much that I can’t celebrate, it’s just that I want to know what the implications of such a celebration are. Yes, Tim, as Proudhon noted, "Property is theft". And so much poetry, art, and music are theft as well. The most ‘original’ work is often the most property-like. We can only be custodians, and it is incumbent on all to recognise larger, more concentrated, and more defined custodianships. Wheatbelt Gothic is a style that allows for an observation of these considerations — it has no materiality, no claim.

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