Wright Vociferous – ‘Birds’ and ‘Skins’ – Physiognomy, Identity and the Wild Spoken Word

1 February 2018

‘Birds’ is a particularly personal poem for me, having been a proud mother of a transitioning transwoman, the depth of identity – and right to respect – simply level. The recent resounding YES (a public survey to assess Australians’ feelings about same-sex marriage) confirms that the majority of us recognise equality in dissimilar others (marriage equality as over-due, historically definitive and resolute as 1967’s Aboriginal Rights referendum; and also as precursory). Wright’s philosophical ‘clear stone’ of identity, the intrinsic ‘I’, very tenderly resonates. Its last line’s aspiration to ‘be simple to myself as the bird is to the bird.’ is everyone’s. To be authentic. It’s also a lesson as to how to write through rage to clarity and reason … how to be direct, to make yourself clear. My poem, ‘The Munchian O’, inspired by American presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s mystifying question of September 2016, ‘And what is Aleppo?’, recently published in ISLAND Magazine (The Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize), follows, in excerpt in the lines below, that activist tradition of conscience and fury.

Yes, that was me in the revolutionary belt; Che replicated, hung around my hips,
with beret, beard, cigar; without. A man behind me in the bus queue,
slicker than acronym, thought it was an opener.
I thought it buckled like the knees of his fellow med students,
those gathered sweetly, like pastries, in skirts, as Che read Neruda;
as Che, in sublimated Rolex, in philos. fatigues, anti-poetry, machismo, lucido, placido,
simpático, lit Sartre’s emulous cigar. Olvido.
A tongue and groove, an apostolic, a love knot of sorts, propagandist
florescence, this delicious poesy ring binds with a repeated line
like Of earthli joyse thou art my choys
 from that bow-lipped guerrilla.

Like Judith Wright, I’m lucky enough to live surrounded by birds. I like to name them loosely and lightly as an inchoate, diverse, shifting group of ‘birds’. My main interest is not classification. Raucous cockatoos, including the graceful, almost rowing, loping-flighted, and more dulcet, black, kamikaze parrots (who, high on sugar, gleefully wait to ambush me in a weeping bottlebrush as I walk up the lane some mornings, the more distracted I am the more they shriek and swerve, it’s not serious aggression, it’s just because they can), fairy wrens, honey eaters, frenetic peewees, sparrows who luxuriate in cool sand baths, etc. Birds. I have great affection for them. Especially the pleasingly, almost generically named, blackbirds, the smouldering brown females, who live, apparently, a driven, purposeful, high speed, roller coaster life. They find quick abandon in any water, chancing in my dog’s water bowls. They nest, it seems, continually, dramatically and obviously, though they attempt, and fail at subtlety as they dive and re dive into conspicuous nests – in jasmine, apple trees, lillipilli, photinia, wisteria, within the unfurling lace of tree ferns to feed their demanding young, seemingly, tirelessly. Their familiar repertoire, morning and evening, is simply display variation, digression, and progression, of territorial defence and bawdy procreative commitment. Like poets, they have a ‘we’, ‘us’ concept, as well as an ‘I’, and unquestionably like poets, are compelled to speak, to call and answer. Song is their being.

In Judith Beveridge’s introduction to The Best Australian Poetry 2006, as guest editor, she makes one of her typical, salient observations and speaks of one bird she would hear several times during the day after she’d moved to a ‘heavily treed suburb of Sydney’.

Within that rattlebox flock there is one cockatoo whose call is distinct and separate from the others. And when I hear it I am amused, amazed, bewildered, and, in a strange way, reminded of the poet – that maverick voice breaking step with the rest. The sound this cockatoo makes suggests that its story is sorrier, more besetting than that of its flock-mates: for it must once have been someone’s pet, and thus confined to a cage. Whoever kept it has taught it to say ‘ribbit ribbit’ – as though it were a cartoon frog. … I often wonder what the other cockatoos make of it, and I also marvel at the fact that it hasn’t discarded this call, despite its now being part of a flock and free to be raucous.

Let’s go as far as upturning this with an assumption that human language, the spoken word, is a derivation of birdsong. Following that Wright saw it as ‘the human contribution to the natural world’ and ‘the vast symbol of man’s relationship to the universe’, let’s posit the female prehistory, numinous songlines and the proactive presence of birds in the Australian landscape where biologist and author, Tim Low, in Mark Horstman’s Catalyst program ‘Where Birdsong Began’, states, ‘The fossil record and the genetic record would imply we had smart parrots and songbirds in Australia at least 10 or 20 – maybe longer – a million years before you had intelligent apes. So, in Australia, you would have had the most intelligent organisms in the world.’ Michelle Hall asks, ‘why female birds don’t always sing’ and Les Christidis imagines, ‘The rest of the world is quiet, Australia is buzzing and singing. And then suddenly it starts moving through to the rest of the world.’ Let’s focus on the female …

As singers and women, who, contrary to contemporary discouragement, aversion and mass hysteria, do age and evolve, our songs are, by nature, of renewal and self-transformation; both primary and transformative.

While preparing for this panel, Wright’s age-specific poem, ‘Skins’, caught my eye as a friend of mine, Lindy Morrison from the legendary band The Go-Betweens, had just turned 66. She’s in this month’s Rolling Stone, as a ‘living legend’, where, she says, when asked by Barry Divola about her reluctance to be interviewed, again!, especially after the relentless 16 hours of interviews which constitute Kriv Stenders’ recent Umbrella Entertainment documentary, The Go-Betweens: Right Here, ‘I cleansed myself of all my anger and all my nostalgia.’

Again, I quote her, ‘I’m just so over it.’
Her reflective concluding thought is characteristically both provocative and incandescent, ‘but what man ever did approximate his art?’

I emailed ‘Skins’ to Morrison – subject: ‘the feisty Judith Wright’ – and quickly received ‘brilliant’, ‘and I think I will use that line of hers when people ask me the same dull questions’.

That’s a nice perpetuating thought considering their intrinsic parallels. And I love how the poem improbably alludes to drumming …

Skins

This pair of skin gloves is sixty-six years old,
mended in places, worn thin across the knuckles.

Snakes get rid of their coverings all at once.
Even those empty cuticles trouble the passer-by.

Counting in seven-year rhythms I’ve lost nine skins
though their gradual flaking isn’t so spectacular.

Holding a book or a pen I can’t help seeing
how age crazes surfaces. Well, and interiors?

You ask me to read those poems I wrote in my thirties?
They dropped off several incarnations back.

Incarnations, correspondence, parallels … as a young social worker in Brisbane in 1972, Morrison was the second full-time employee with the newly formed Aboriginal Legal Service, and, now at age 66, among other things, is gigging with a new collaboration.

Parallels, correspondence, incarnations …

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