The Stakes of Settlement: Fences in Ned Kelly and Michael Farrell

By | 1 August 2021

What is it that distinguishes honesty from knavery, but the hard and wirey line of rectitude and certainty in the actions and intentions? Leave out this line, and you leave out life itself; all is chaos again …
–William Blake, Outline in Art and Life

William Blake’s articulation of the ‘bounding line’ as ‘the great and golden rule of art, as well as of life’ may seem a far-fetched place to start an examination of the poetics of the fence in Australian poetry. The line’s cosmic necessity and ethical force were being asserted by Blake in the context of a long-running dispute amongst art theorists as to whether outline or colour was the predominant element in the pictorial arts. But my mind reverts to this quotation when thinking about the cathected attitude to lines, boundaries, and fences that is emblematic of the settler-colonial establishment in this country in both its agrarian and suburban contexts.

Signalling possession, privatisation, and productivity, the fence was one of the main props by which a cadastral grid (comprised of adjoining rectangular land parcels) was imposed on the Australian landscape with the effect, as Denis Byrne has observed, of putting it ‘in immediate dialogue with the landscape of England’.1 Wire fences began being rolled out in the 1870s and Byrne offers us a stark reminder of how much a turning point this may have been in settler-Indigenous relations:

Wire fences made the cadastral grid a visible, tangible reality on the ground, where previously it had existed for the most part only on paper in the minds of white settlers. It seems unlikely that Aboriginal people understood the full extent and nature of their dispossession until wire fences fixed the grid onto the face of the land.2

Rather understandably, fences have featured prominently in recent Australian art that does attempt to capture something of ‘the full extent and nature’ of this dispossession – from Lin Onus’s 1985 painting Fences, Fences, Fences to Phillip Noyce’s 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence. As these works suggest, fencing is not simply a matter of exclusion and displacement; indeed, the regime of spatial discipline that fences impose is shown to be complicit in other regimes of regulating the individual and social body: that of incarceration and, ultimately, eugenic extermination.

In speaking of fences in the Australian context, then, one finds oneself rather quickly in fairly deep water. I’m not a strong swimmer and I won’t be plumbing its depths in this essay. What I will do is offer a series of thoughts about the poetics of the fence using two related case studies, one taken from a colonial context (Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter, which I read, after Farrell, as a poem), the other contemporary (a selection of poems from Farrell’s I Love Poetry). In examining what I call the fence poetics of these two texts, I’ll try to draw out some questions about genre and how genre helps configure history (literary or otherwise). But in particular, I want to focus on the way that the fence gets used (and abused) as an efficacious symbol of the stakes of colonial settlement.

  1. Denis Byrne, ‘Nervous Landscapes: Race and Space in Australia’ in Making Perspectives on Race, Place and Identity, ed. by Tracey Banivanua-Mar and Penelope Edmonds (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2010): 103-128, 105.
  2. Byrne 108.
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