Destroy Kansas to Reveal Oz: from John Ashbery to Francis Webb

By | 1 December 2013

Little wonder, then, after this complex display of interconnected meanings, that the speaker should muse that he has ‘grown a little feeble over thinking’. But even here, the lack of a pronoun leaves the reader unclear as to whether it is ‘I’ or ‘you’ being referred to. There is further complication as the role of ‘voice’ is assumed by ‘a swept ocean’: who then is this ‘lonely cadging old mate’ who is ‘talking and talking’? If it is the ocean which ‘talks and talks’ by the repetition of its waves, then ‘three-quarters drunk’ could refer to the tide. However, ‘soused with blackmarket hate’ is again complex in its associations, suggesting at one level the Aborigine destroyed by illicit liquor; or it could be an indigenous hatred of ‘our weeks, our months, our forgetfulness’ – the European division of time, which dooms us to a perpetual present in which memory is lost, particularly the memory of colonisation. Indeed, at this point the stanza transforms itself into a lament: the black man is figured as a patient for ‘surgery’, which is ‘the summit of a dying’. In the two questions which move the stanza to its conclusion, what is at stake is the connection linking man to nature. The ‘agile young sunlift faculty’ (an image of leaves turning towards the light) is contained within ‘The Head’ (either the mind or an immanent nature). ‘Carried on the back of its enemy’ suggests both the Aborigine’s need for white support, and the need for this small harbourside reserve to be spared from urbanisation. The risk is that nature, lacking a celebrant, will turn away (‘turn cold shoulders’) from its ‘mission’, will deny its own ‘surf/self’. The complexity of connotative overtones within this dense wordplay creates its own reality, as Ashbery suggests.

In stanza two Webb positions himself directly within the world of the poem, ‘returning’ to discover his own place as a subject of the Harbour’s ‘will’:

A road hard involved with the Harbour’s will
Was the road of my days returning.
While this secret house, always so shadily ritual,
Reclaimed its grounds,
Moveless coal-cranes contrived their nightly warning:
Wrists of rumour at a flinching, defenceless sky
And paralysed old coal-freighter left to lie.
Now cruised to the roadside the aboriginal’s shark;
Here a man brushed death from his wits, and what the rock
Affirmed was at once beyond death. We have laid its passion
Within abject bounds
As a value; the fence cries out for a brush and crumbles;
But these cool hesitant lines, swift arrowhead symbols,
Will embalm a figure of truth –
The few innocent, infinite hours of a vision.

The ‘secret house’ of Webb’s childhood is described as ‘shadily ritual’, recalling the primordial connections which once bound man to landscape. The phrase ‘reclaimed its grounds’ seems peculiarly loaded in this context, and can be read as an assertion of Aboriginal rights to land, as well as a personal statement of the power of memory. The modern, secular world which surrounds Ball’s Head is an industrial landscape which threatens ‘a flinching, defenceless sky’, as if human progress were an attack on a weakened God; but it also threatens man: the ‘paralysed old coal-freighter left to lie’ seems metonymy for the industrial worker abandoned after his labour has been exhausted. This is immediately contrasted with a depiction of a different kind of labour: that of the Aboriginal artist immersed in his creation. The artist who ‘brushed death from his wits’ not only affirms life (and is restored to sanity), but that which is ‘beyond death’ and ‘infinite’. The shark which ‘cruised to the roadside’ is a direct emanation of the natural into the human world, through the agency of the artist’s ‘cool hesitant lines’. What Ashbery terms the ‘real reality of the poet’ offers a spiritual truth that exceeds temporal limitations and supercedes history.

The poem’s second section is a sustained meditation on the Harbour landscape, and is Webb’s attempt to recreate the visionary act of the Aboriginal artist, to rediscover his ‘mission’. That this is figured ambiguously as ‘the Head’s creation’ serves to emphasise the unusual alliance between mind and world enacted here. The setting is an afternoon in December when the sun reflects most harshly: the midday sun in Webb’s poetry often stands for the Old Testament God of Law (a ‘lawgiving’ is referred to later), and ‘12 o’clock sun’s last word’ conveys similar implications (the ameliorating ‘blue’ is the colour of Mary). We are presented with a world in flux, still in the process of creation, undergoing ‘metamorphoses’: the ‘ticking green’ heard in the scrub suggests the pulse of a deeper rhythm within the natural world, which has consequently become ‘strange’. This is once again contrasted with an urbanised setting – the ‘bloodless limbs’ of the Harbour Bridge; and Pinchgut, exemplifying the brutalities of white colonisation:

After daylight’s overworked infantry,
Advancing, or tossed in retreat, upon their path,
Gave 12 o’clock sun’s last word to farthest sea,
Was given the Head’s creation. Strange ticking green
Huddled in its scrub; all its wind-wrestling grey
Laid open on rocks, kept the gaunt qui vive for the gums.
And strangest the blue, the spirit
Of its working, in metamorphoses:
Polish of armour for the Bridge of bloodless limbs,
And for Pinchgut headlong to rewrite
A monstrous history on tame water; but softening
For Kirribilli, whose raw new stones cannot quench
Her moss-draped recollection.

And strangest blue where the Head might venture to launch
Reconnaissance toward Goat Island: now
Those grappling ridges were lulled under the blue
(Pain, the brusque colours, visited by an art),
About the ruined Magazine. Leeward of Greenwich
This blue was near-white for the lawgiving and treaty
Of the Harbour’s final hours.
Yet final the Head, with all his blue drama to court
And gently persuade the eyes of an audience, gently.
Rain threatened mirthlessly, time threatened.
O within this land a hungry eloquence
Tortuous on hillock, simple in cave.
The upright flagstaff and the leaning fence
Could hear it – even was lightened
The burnt-out scrub by an imminence, called Alive.
All the hammers and drills of night after night,
The cross-grained rainfalls, the whistling nine-tail years
Stir up the shark on his rock. Let him cast loose,
Be filled with them, welter in peace or war,
Be twisted and turned, be lifted up and let fall, 
Have weeds in his teeth at the end of a day’s scavenging,
And come home with the blue players, as now in December,
To this old road and this rock-face I remember.
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