Reclaimed Land: Australian Urbanisation and Poetry

By | 1 December 2014

9. Light, stone, subtitle

This essay is indebted to Michael Farrell’s scholarly work on ‘unsettlement’ in poetic texts from Australia, work that also begins with Harpur. His and Philip Mead’s critical readings of local writing have sought to offer a counterpoint to the critical rhetoric of nation-building; and with this in mind I can’t help but see the advancing presence of urbanisation in local poetry as a receding figure. Unsettling the city, dwelling in its ruins, these poems depict a post-urban condition. What is this condition?

Into his sequence, ‘Towns in the Great Desert’ (2013), Peter Boyle drops a cryptic image of settlement:

In a cubicle made of light
two men unpack a box 
filled with stones.1

This act of unpacking foretells urban density and suburban sprawl. The box speaks of moving, the cubicle of limited space, the stones may be foundations; yet in the light they will cast shadows in the formations of a city. In that shaft of light the men appear to be god-sent, but there must be some mistake – for, as Boyle tells us earlier in the sequence, ‘Of this town they say/ ‘The gods never came here.’’2

Of course, what destiny is manifested depends whose gods ‘they’ are talking about. The city’s gods are not those of progress, as Boyle reiterates: ‘Going nowhere is the art of our navigators.’3 His speculative desert cities are sometimes the subjects of dreams, but the boundary between sleeping and waking is unclear until the penultimate poem in the sequence, in which the speaker appears to wake and a long drought is broken. Instead of the waking/falling state, however, signalling a return to familiarity, the dreaming continues flatly into a waking life of perpetual metamorphosis:

Waking up Chinese
I decipher the ideograms
on the herbalist’s half-open door:
‘town that steps across time
to be both now and vanished’.

Whilst it dismisses the possibility of a monumental city, this writ is an epitaph that floats, projected over the urban surface like a screen caption. Behind that caption, the poem’s picture changes from a spinning, suspended and unirrigated city – a castle in the sky – to a scene of dismemberment and renewal: ‘The desert blooms from every fracture of my bones.’4 The writing cancels itself out.

10. He builds his dark home

In the local tradition of lament, lost country is recalled and then papered over with words that describe urban settlement. Conversely to post-urban poetics, the mode of the lament effectively enacts urbanisation as the lanes of words drown out memory (thus also preventing elegy). An example of this is Hal Porter’s ‘The Revenante’ (1968), which jauntily zips from the ‘lonely Wattle Land’ of colonial times past, to the ‘plastic jonquils’ of the space age, satirising the view of a pre-war generation standing in demented witness to twentieth-century urbanisation.

Handing over the country, the lament’s key tones are of regret and resignation: the city is a fait accompli. ‘The Native’s Lament’, anonymous, is perhaps the earliest example of such dramatising. Published in 1826 in Hobart, it closes with the Blakean image of settlers forging ‘dark chains’ whilst Indigenous voices withdraw to the mountains. There is plenty problematic about this representation of a wistfully retreating Aboriginal population – as though it could have simply relocated and as though it did so unresistingly.

The lament, though, does identify something wriggling within Australians’ poems about the city. Their view of urbanism need not be defined by colonial settlement – think of those large smokes behind the coast country of Gippsland, or Nguyen’s ‘hybrid’ tower – but it is dominated by the definitive urban experiences of deracination and coexistence. The effects of these human experiences are visited upon the edifices and foundations of the city itself.

11. Polis/police/peace/poesis

It was a disturbing rise in the instance of peacefulness that provoked, in 1828, a certain someone in Hobart, Tasmania to write a long prose reply to the lament.

Towards its end the anonymous author invokes the presence of poetry in the newly paved city – with a twist. In their imagination, it’s not anodyne verse that will narrate what the good burghers of Australian cities now call ‘the melting pot’. No; the more comfortably settled an Australian city appears to become, the more mercurial the nature of its poetics:

Our street ballads are converted into the clang of chains, or chain gangs, which is what old Cicero, the Roman, meant by the music of the spheres, though he did not venture to say so. It is what logicians and lyrical love poets call, a concatenation of ideas. The days of Ovid’s metamorphosis have returned upon us, and transformations more mighty and more astonishing than ever that noble poet recorded, are everyday occurring amongst us. Heigho! heigho!5

The gang-clang defines much poetry about Australian urbanisation. Where the growth of urbanisation might seem to be destined and infinite – ‘Chained like a splice of DNA’, as Martin Harrison puts it – local poetry sees a reverse cosmogony, into disorder. Distinct from the modernist poetics of jostle and flow, this tradition projects itself beyond the immediacy of urban experience. I am thinking of poems that represent an un-polis-ed street, like the un-policed Bull Town – poems in which the nature of a city is unmade.

In this representation of urban life, the state dream of assimilation only produces ‘identity fogged’. This is the phrase of Indigenous Tasmanian poet, Jim Everett. In his poem, ‘The Teaching’ (1990), Everett’s treatment of language and form is comparable to Lionel Fogarty’s estranging of English from itself. Everett examines the goal of urban life with bemusement, and suggests that its centre cannot hold:

funny scene with deadly sting sure as hell not what is real with all the mixes being one on the dollar line alone and it is clear they separate when culture is that that will not blend6

In 1988, the same year of nationalist commemoration in which Mudrooroo poetically unbuilt the settlement of Brisbane, Everett’s collaborator Karen Brown documented the same city’s land rights protests. In the ‘mid city heat’ the rough wool of urban fabric is teased out, becoming ‘black, red and yellow,/ perspiration dripping’, frayed to the point that city law simply melts away:

shoppers on sidewalks staring, another turn into a nameless street, Black faces with emotion showing, the urgency, wanting and dignity, as they marched across the bridge, past the boys in blue, impassive faces of white Australia, the end is near, the voices fading, it’s back to Musgrave Park, and celebrations.7

Before the power of the march, the city’s streets become ‘nameless’; the police go unseen; white Australia is muted of emotion.

Brown’s lines, ‘the end is near/ the voices fading’, evokes a scene of the marchers disbanding to celebrate in the Park. The specificity of this locus is important to the poem’s significance: Musgrave Park is well-known as a place of protest occupation, a function that reinscribes its history as the site of a buried bora ring and, later, a camp made alongside the colonial city to separate Aboriginal people from the urban centre. But there is another layer of meaning to Brown’s couplet. Her final lines might be read to indicate ‘the end’ of the city and its voices, as they slip away into the mental and material background of an Indigenous present; or, perhaps, as they metamorphose ‘back to’ the ground.

12. Off-ramp

In proximity to the urbanisation of Australia, one poetic response has been an historically continuous insistence upon the impermanence of the city. The urban landscape is seen through from a hovering place, a floating deck, or a spot tumbled down in the ground. This view may not really see ‘Australia’ at all.

All of this noticing reminds me that poetry is instinctively for making trouble. It is the scanty vine of ruin and division. When, from the grave, Charles Harpur tells us ‘it is still well’, he comforts the cities of the future with compost.

  1. Boyle, Peter, ‘Towns in the Great Desert (5)’, Towns in the Great Desert, Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann, 2013, p15.
  2. Boyle, ‘Towns in the Great Desert (2)’, p12.
  3. Boyle, ‘Towns in the Great Desert (3)’, p13.
  4. Boyle, ‘Towns in the Great Desert (10)’, pp21-22.
  5. Anonymous, ‘The Lament’, p4.
  6. Brown, Karen and Everett, Jim, The Spirit of Kuti Kina, Hobart: Eumarrah Publications, 1990, p27.
  7. Brown and Everett, p25.
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