As he started reading the poem from the beginning he was surprised by its description of a large shopping mall in the far northern suburbs of the city, a mall that struck him as being like a white circus tent, and by the tenor of the persona – Had he really been that earnest, that hopeful for language, for poetry? – and also by the vividness of the imagining.
The young poet, almost hiding himself in a secluded ditch, a patch of remnant bushland very close to the recently developed shopping centre and its parking lots, was trying to describe the place to himself, trying to find a language that would fit what he was seeing. He used metaphor. He alluded to other’s attempts at the same experience. He used indigenous words for the plants and trees, those alternative, autochthonous words that he had found in guides to the plants of the state. In the young poet’s mind it was night, and the tall stems – the spears – of the “blackboys” were burning, as he had read that they would be when the Aboriginal people would set them alight to ward off fearful spirits or to illuminate the way when travelling in the dark.
That section of the three-poem sequence ends dramatically, with the abrupt statement that in this place The Poet, or maybe any- and everyone, is talking with a severed head. The person whose disembodied head the poet thought he was addressing was a charismatic leader who in the conflicts of the colonial era had killed settlers. He was a leader whose name used to be widely known to the children of the state when history was still taught at schools, a controversial but heroic leader. That line from the poem would later become the title of a chapter in someone’s thesis, then the title of an essay, appearing in Australian Literary Studies. After it appeared a colleague told him: “Now you are part of the Australian canon!” Whether enviously or with derision, the poet couldn’t decide.
Now, as the poet reflected on the poem, the ideas of the student – to be truthful, he had shared those ideas at the time – and the impulse that had led to his abandoning the work, almost burying it, was a feeling, as subtle and distinct as the rising of a breeze, the onset of loss.
In an attempt to dispel these thoughts, he made himself think the opposite of what he usually would, and he started reading all the poems in the folio. He hadn’t read them for many years. It was as if there were two people reading the text, as if he had been twinned: one of them, a hopeful, excitable poet; the other a person who felt himself so silenced that he doubted his own thoughts, his own existence, questioning even his ability to object to his own forgetting.
As he slowly read the poems, he started remembering his ambition at the time: To write a poetry that imagines the trauma of this place, to be a poet who could express mourning and the resistance of language in a landscape so populated with irony that it hardly seems connected to the earth. He argued with himself, or, more accurately, with his twin: “It wasn’t naïve, it was a belief in the redemptive act of poesis.” “No, it was vanity, the desire to be a poet.” “It was a cultural and psychic necessity.” “No, you are deceiving yourself, because it was the playing out of your own issues.” The argument between them eventually became, as those kinds of debates usually do, a simple, irreconcilable conflict, and the poet started to laugh at himself, and he muttered that line by Léopold Senghor that he’d once used as an epigraph: “Ah! am I not divided enough!”
In the quiet that followed he admitted the truth to his selves: he hadn’t begun the division that led to the self-contradiction, to the silence. If anything, he had always hoped for dialogue, even if it was only with himself. Always, especially during that period before his crisis, he had insisted that all language is conversation, a calling out. He had thought that his poems would be heard as what couldn’t be heard before, as the echoing, in the silence here, of almost unimagined and continuing Aboriginal conversation. He had imagined – This is what poets do, he had always insisted when he’d taught – that his words would be an address, that his calling out could be answered with the beginning of a real dialogue. His first experience that this wouldn’t happen was an encounter at a reading with an Aboriginal writer.
When the poet had read one of his poems from the folio, a suite dedicated to the leader who had been decapitated, whose head had been sent to Britain as an exhibit, the Aboriginal writer had been visibly agitated. After the reading, when they were both being asked questions by the audience, the writer had explained that he felt there should be a moratorium on non-Aboriginal people writing on blackfella culture. The writer recounted the story of a woman who, in burying her father, felt she wished to destroy all the documents that he’d been gathering on their culture, so that, echoing the woman, in the words of the writer: “The white bastards wouldn’t get that too.”
Immediately after leaving the venue, the poet had become distressed. It was exactly the opposite of what he had intended, and the distress worsened over the following months. The poet wondered if that was right: Did that incident initiate his breakdown? He wasn’t sure, and he couldn’t be, because his memory of that time was clouded by emotions.
In response to what he saw as the Aboriginal writer’s refusal of his attempt at engagement, he decided not to publish the work, and to find a way of writing that he could pursue despite his belief that what he had done was the only way of creating poetics in Australia. For a long time he wasn’t able to write. When eventually he was again able to compose poems, he couldn’t write about being in Australia.
As he sat there looking at the collection of poems in his hands, he remembered the occasion shortly after the encounter when he had gone to walk in his favourite park in an attempt to clear his head, to revitalise himself, and it had felt to him as if the plants themselves were assailing him, as if the plants and the bright Westralian light was itself intending to destroy even the impulse that he might be justified in wanting to imagine – and he would have preferred not to use this expression – the spirit of place.