Sunday, May 31, 2009

Forest Sculpture Walk Seems Anti-Forest to Me, Sorry...

By John

Just saw a short on SBS featuring the Northcliffe ‘Understory’ forest project. I was the initially successful applicant for the position of poet-writing-the-forest and pulled out due to my distress at the mistreatment of the forest involved. Bulldozing a chunk to make an arts centre, hacking a path through dieback sections of the forest. I went down for a meeting with the Northcliffe organisers and though some considered my concerns, they rejected my requests for dieback treatment areas and so on.

While in the town collating material for my poems to feature in the forest, I interviewed some more radical members of the community and heard of their concerns regarding the forest being used for an arts exercise with the forest coming second and the ‘artsy’ stuff coming first. Various ecological concerns were voiced, and I realised that to contribute to the forest project would be to violate everything I believe in. Rare parrots would be disturbed, banksia dieback (banksia is a sentinel species for dieback) would spread in the making of the path (or boardwalk as it turned out to be), and the intactness of this small piece of forest would be disturbed — carved up by the walk and the movement of people.

The best kind of sculpture in the forest environment/ecology is surely ‘created’/’evolved’ without human intervention and is chanced upon (if ‘discovered’ at all) and left alone: not constructed and revisited treating the forest as if it’s a ‘creation’ for humans to use as an art gallery (basically acts of mimesis, anyway). This is the triumph of aesthetics over nature, and the ecology that is appended to make for good consciences is a lie. The primary local argument for this was that it was better than logging it — this is true, but it should be added that the piece of forest concerned was a gift to the town and basically outside logging jurisdiction. To leave it intact and to keep invasive ‘artsy’ hands off it would seem altogether the right thing to do.

Anyway, my withdrawal meant other writers filled the space and provided poems anyway. There are many who would disagree with my post here, pointing out that at least some kind of preservation and understanding of the forest is being expressed. Maybe, but I feel that when the ‘arts’ are served first, the forest will always come second. I don’t doubt at all the good intent of the participants, but I do doubt the efficacy of the endeavour with regard to the ultimate health of the forest and the creatures that inhabit it. It’s a question all arts practitioners have to ask themselves: I guess many would see my view as both self-defeating and unrealistic.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Random Access Clarifications

By John

One hundred and sixty years ago today (i.e. on May 23, 1849), Thoreau, according to Raymond R. Borst’s essential The Thoreau Log: A Documentary Life of Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862, ‘Surveys land in Lincoln near Sandy Pond Road which he wishes Emerson to buy because of its beauty (Moss, 7).’ Although he probably means ‘surveys’ in a more general sense, the subtext is still of division and possession. This issue of surveying has always bothered me, and I tried to critique it in my poem ‘Figures in A Paddock’ back in the late ’90s. I bring it up now because of the matter of removing fences and opening boundaries for the movement of wildlife (and, for that matter, people — but the caveat on that is if they’re moving through to interact with place without damaging: that’s where questions of preservation become complex: caveats make for contradictions).

Yesterday, BHP announced the first uranium mine in Western Australia. This is the beginning of another end. I want to declare loud and clear, that not only will I protest this in my poems, but I will be seated where they are going to mine, speaking my poems as they cart me off. Land and rights, and permissions and access, are matters not only of consensus (of which there can be none), but of the long-term rights of all traditional peoples/custodians. Because the corporate state has constructed a set of conditions by which people have to rely on its largesse for basic human requirements, the need to profit from such mining activities becomes normative and seemingly necessary. If the land wasn’t under pressure in that way, and community choices could be made without the imposition of a ‘you will do this or lose’ (at best) scenario, the state/corporate conditions/equation would be less likely to succeed in its tyranny.

Let’s not for a moment believe mining companies and their government apologists are operating for the wellbeing of communities (local or otherwise). The entire dynamic of money, employment, security, rights, and wellbeing is a ploy to control: create the necessity in order to offer ways of fulfilling it.

As for ‘progress’, when we have another benchmark for this in whichever field — tomorrow, next year, a decade from now — few would envisage turning back the clock to today. It’s circular logic, that will be deployed against the Neo-luddites whenever the opportunity arises.

At this moment I am watching a female western spinebill doing somersaults outside the window. Its curved beak is an entirely adequate and all-encompassing technology. The irony of typing on this laptop as I prepare to go offline and off-computer: well, it’s a log-book of a planned and permanent movement to find better ‘technologies’ (by which I mean less sophisticated and less reliant on industry: in other words, ‘simple living’ alternatives). They are ‘pre’, they are outside the notion of ‘progress’, and their usage is part of a desire to ‘de-technologise’, but yes, essentially they are technologies in themselves. Yet that’s semantic, because what I am clearly trying to do is step away from material ‘progress’ and to say one reaches a point materially that is more than adequate; that in fact the damage done far outweighs the ‘human application’ regarding the ecological. A manual typewriter rather than a computer (a technology that doesn’t need to ‘develop’ to achieve the same end results), a pen or pencil more often than not. Paper made from non-tree sources. And so on...

The ‘planning’: I make a living from writing, and have become computer-reliant in meeting my deadlines/obligations/expectations of how text is presented. I need to change the culture of production and how my publishers and others are willing to accept material from me. It can be done, but it has to be carefully planned and discussed. October is my deadline-aim in terms of ‘home’ stuff, with my university communications following at some point when I’ve been able to lobby effectively for some changes regarding my communication with students and so on. That can be realised, I am sure.

Actually, it’s more than this: I believe that we have to rethink social notions of what is adequate and what pleasure and leisure are. But this is not ‘primitivist’ thinking: it’s poetic thinking. Poems, to my mind, are about repair, analysis, fruition, and not destruction. And ‘destructive’ poems consciously deployed bring attention, in the cases I respect, to the failure of acts of repair. I write a lot about death and destruction, but I hope this allows a reader to refocus on their role (and the poet’s role and the poem’s role) in making such things allowable.

I had an interesting exchange with a fellow poet (and one I admire) the other day, about the blurring of lines between activism and poetry. He felt they were separate acts and used Judith Wright as an example. I maintained that Wright was an activist in her poetry as much as in her general life, especially towards the later years of her poetry writing (clearly in her prose, she was). This poet-friend was talking over his reactions to my Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography, which I consider my main work of poetry, a work that is in the realm of the ‘parafigurative’, where activism and poetry go hand-in-hand. Not to be didactic, but to be suggestive, and prompt ‘action’. My fellow poet felt that one should choose either a life of activism or a life of poetry. My reply was:

"mum was a poet and i’ve been writing it since i was six. for me it was a poet becoming an activist and making the two talk with each other. i have a book on ‘activism and the poet’ out with liverpool uni press next year. i’d like to think my poems do something other than ‘tell’ - i try to create many levels of approach in every poem i write, and for every poem to be reinvented with every reader and every reading. i am writing a new intro for j. wright’s selected at the moment and think she was an activist-poet in whose work (later work especially) these elements were in synch and didn’t counter each other. poetry has a long history of activism. on our blog (mutually said) i use a coinage i came up with re metaphor and activism — the ‘parafigurative’. this is what i am trying to do — articulate a poetry of action but also ambiguity."

My poet-friend also went on to discuss the structure of my Divine Comedy, and as this is relevant to the reading of the poem in terms of local and regional activism, I’ll include my reply:

"i think there are four narrative threads in the book:

1. the template of dante
2. the movement around the block approached from different angles (per the different canticles)
3. a topology and taxonomy of place that builds and ‘collapses’ to rebuild which is intertwined with a literal history of the place – including the building of a portrait of a surrounding community (yes, williams is the right parallel in this sense, and even more so olson’s maximus re location and illustration by example and observation and snippets of history etc).
4. the interactions of the ‘characters’ involved re their epiphanies and ‘elegies’"

Now, it’s back to my Thoreau book. Have just completed two new poems. Am now in the process of developing a ‘narrative’ framework for the book as a whole. It’s a matter of reconciling surveyed areas of poems and the points of access that surround them. I guess this will make sense (I hope) when the book appears. At the moment, I am considering ‘random access’ versus a set of semantic points of entry.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ghent goes veg... once a week

By Tracy

The UK's Guardian reported last week ("Day of the Lentil Burghers") that the Belgian city of Ghent (Gent/Gand), as part of its contribution to fighting global warming and to improving human health, is going vegetarian one day a week. They began last Thursday.

According to the report:

"The city council says it is the first town in Europe and probably the western world to try to make the entire place vegetarian for a day every week. Tom Balthazar, the Labour party councillor pushing the scheme, said: 'There's nothing compulsory. We just want to be a city that promotes sustainable and healthy living.'

Every restaurant in the city is to guarantee a vegetarian dish on the menu, with some going fully vegetarian every Thursday. From September, the city's schools are to make a meat-free meal the 'default' option every Thursday, although parents can insist on meat for their children. At least one hospital wants to join in."

This is a great step in the right direction. And as one who's always believed that one of the best ways to encourage people in our spoiled, well-fed countries to try going vegan is to make them great vegan food, I was interested to read how it started:

"The Lib-Lab coalition running the city was persuaded to back the idea when Philippe van den Bulck, an outstanding culinary talent, served up a veggie gastronomic tour de force at the town hall. He is one of Flanders's top chefs and food writers, doing time at El Bulli in Spain, to many the best restaurant in the world. He is also a vegetarian."

There's a vegan quoted in the article too, and as the emphasis is on "tapping into a zeitgeist awareness of the cost to human health and the environment of intensive meat and dairy farming", and the sample food mentioned in the article includes egg-free mayonnaise, there's evidence of a vegan consciousness in the exercise too.

Monday, May 18, 2009


By Tracy

Yesterday, we picked a tree's worth of olives -- the first time I have done this. Then in the evening I began the process of pickling them (salt, water, bucket, plate) which will take two weeks.

We plan to put in a large number of olive trees at Jam Tree Gully, in an area which was cleared by previous occupants. So I hope to be picking and pickling many more such olives in time...

[Olives, before cleaning]

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Poems and their possible sources

By John

Some years ago, I edited a selection of poetry by the great Australian poet Michael Dransfield.

One of my favourite poems of his, and also one of Tracy's favourites, is a short piece entitled "Hole in the Forest". Tracy and I have had many discussions about the immensity of this little poem, in terms of both the spiritual and the ecological. For me it's the ideal activist poem, because it is entirely resistant to environmental damage like logging, and yet makes an ontological point about how loss from nature is a loss for all nature, including us.

Recently, Tracy found a copy of her old school anthology of French poetry (An Anthology of French Poetry, ed. J. R. Lawler) that was used for TAE (TEE) French in Years 11 and 12 back in the 70s and probably earlier (it dates originally from 1960, after which were many reprints).

While browsing through it, she noticed a poem by one of my favourite French-language poets -- he was born in Uruguay -- Jules Supervielle, that brought to mind Dransfield's poem because of some common elements. The poem was called "Dans la foret sans heures". She seemed to remember so, from reading Patricia Dobrez's biography of him, and I said yes it was the case -- checking Dobrez confirmed that he took French to Year 12 (scoring a B as his final grade).

It seems likely there's a connection between the Dransfield and the Supervielle poems -- different as they are -- I will leave it up to others to decide!

But this is very interesting from my point of view, as I would suppose that this anthology, if it was indeed studied at his school, would have had a profound effect on Dransfield -- not only on individual poems he wrote (maybe there are all sorts of points of contact to be traced, not just with Supervielle), but also on his poetics, which have long been known to be influenced by European poets in translation.

The argument here is that Dransfield might have been influenced also, and more directly, out of the poets he studied in another language at school, and not just in translation.

(As an aside, I also feel disgusted -- as does Tracy -- with an addition to the Wikipedia entry on Dransfield, that (uncredited) cites supposed contempt for Dransfield's work, in a very non-neutral manner. Though a later editor has put "who?" in brackets after the vague attribution, the casting of this slur as coming from "Others" means it has stayed up there and sits there largely unchallenged, which seems to us a cowardly way of posting an insult in what is meant to be an encyclopedia.

Also, the idea expressed there that Dransfield by being published prevented others having their opportunity, strikes us as ludicrous, and characteristics of the kinds of petty jealousy that seem to attend literary life for some reason.)

Anyway, back to the two poems in question.

Dransfield's is different from Supervielle's in the sense that it relies on metonymy, and his message is ultimately ecological in the 1960s "protest" sense. It is talking about human usages of the environment as symbolised by a tree and the wood that is extracted from that, as vehicle to human creativity and functionality. And though nature tries to repair the damage of human pragmatism through the ferns covering up the hole, etc., humans can't disguise, artistically or otherwise, the fact that this loss is their gain.

Supervielle is talking entirely about an ontology of nature, and though the human presence in this description of a fallen tree is merely generic ("On", or the general "they"), as it is in the Dransfield too, human values are instilled in the sense of an absence which is rendered spiritual.

The two poems resemble each other in some aspects of this ontological spatiality -- the gap in the forest, and whether it will or won't remain, can or can't be filled. Both poems are short and apparently simple, and both are about forms of loss as imaged through the felling of a tree. Both imply a kind of "protest", too.

Below is my effort at translating the Supervielle piece.

Jules Supervielle (1884-1960)

In the forest without time

In the forest without time
They are felling a great tree.
A vertical emptiness
In the form of a pillar
Quivers near the fallen trunk.

Seek, seek, you birds,
The place for your nests
In this lofty memory
While it still whispers.

(translated by John Kinsella)

Coincidentally, today is the anniversary of Supervielle's death 49 years ago.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Demythologising "Diggers"

By Tracy

Further to John’s comments on Anzac Day... I’ve been reading a memoir by the late A. D. Hope (b. 1907), in which he recounts the following story:

“One day I was sitting on a bench in Machattie Park in Bathurst when a man sat down beside me and got into conversation mainly about the war in the desert. His unit was moving north towards Damascus in the final stages of the campaign, he said, and had camped in the sand not far from a small village where there was water. In the morning it was found that a very popular officer had been robbed in the night and was lying in his tent with his throat cut. Sentries had been posted but had not noticed the intruder whose trail in the sand clearly led from the tent and back towards the village. ‘When the body was brought out,’ he said, ‘we all stopped work. Nobody said a word but we all armed ourselves and went in a body to the village, surrounded it, set fire to the houses and shot everybody who came out of the flames.’ ‘Women and children too?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘Weren’t you punished for it?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘That was the kind of war it was. Anyway a few days later we joined the main army and not long after we were in Damascus.’ ‘I can hardly believe that Australian soldiers would do such a thing,’ I said. ‘Well it happened,’ he said...”

The sad thing is that people think any side, on any war, is any different. That’s what war is.

(Quote is taken from A. D. Hope, Chance Encounters, Melbourne University Press, 1992, pp. 38-39.