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

By | 1 December 2013

The unusual, active image of the Head which opens the poem’s final stanza stresses the ambiguity Webb attaches to this word: here it is both perceiving eye, and the centre of the Harbour’s waves which spread away from it in ‘reconnaissance’. The ‘grappling ridges’, which are ‘lulled’ may be those of the suffering mind: ‘pain’ is ‘visited by an art’, which returns us to the connection between the poet himself and the figure of the Aboriginal artist. The poem shifts its focus at this point, and Webb’s choice of words here is most significant. At one level these lines describe the harshness of afternoon light on the bays west of Ball’s Head, with the ‘near-white’ sun again figuring as the God of Judgement. But within the framework of black-white relations the poem has established, words such as ‘lawgiving’, ‘court’ (used as a verb, but end-stopped ambiguously), and particularly ‘treaty’, are loaded with associations. In the poem’s concluding lines, nature itself pleads for its own revival with a ‘hungry eloquence’, described in extremes which are almost psychic states: ‘Tortuous on hillock, simple in cave’.

The poem reaches its rhetorical climax in line 65, where the light in the ‘burned-out scrub’ directly recalls the Word entering into and speaking from nature in Exodus 3: ‘imminence’ – not a misprint – suggests both the quickening towards sunset (and implied rebirth), and a pun on ‘immanence’, the creative principle ‘Alive’ within the universe itself. The final movement of the poem shows nature, in the figure of the shark, reclaiming itself from the colonisation of ‘hammers and drills’ and ‘whistling nine-tailed years’. Webb himself appears at the end as a participatory agent in this reclamation, utilising the powers of memory and artifice to restore a lost history to ‘this old road and rock-face’.

Since Webb’s time it has been accepted that the rock-carving at Ball’s Head does not in fact represent a shark, but a whale with a man inside. As in Western mythology (the story of Jonah) this was interpreted by aborigines as an image of cure, and Ball’s Head was seen, by implication, as a place of cure. It is paradoxical that, in spite of this confusion in imagery, Webb’s poem moves towards a correct interpretation of the real meaning of the site, working to heal the conflicts between the original inhabitants of this land and white invaders, between man and colonised nature, as well as the conflicts which beset his own mind. ‘Ball’s Head Again’ should not be mistaken for a poem of topographic description. If Ashbery’s gleaming collaged surfaces can be peeled away to disclose the familiar landscape of a New York skyline, Webb’s complex wordplay creates its own imaginative world that hovers above the Harbour like a vision, ‘a counterfeit of reality more real than reality’.

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