Importantly, the poems are understood to be anonymous and collectively owned; usually, and as a form of protection against retribution, no woman can be held directly responsible for their creation. Many are a condemnation of and resistance to the country’s absorption of an American presence, or a rallying against gendered oppressions. If shared in person, it must be in secret, with landays recited (usually sung, a proscribed practice) privately, woman to woman, or among gatherings of women, including in refugee camps. Grizwold also reported on a secret literary circle, with a telephone hotline, which could be used for the sharing of the poems with those who were unable to attend in person; and to mentor younger women in the form. The landays can also be ribald:
Unlucky you who didn’t come last night, I took the bed’s hard wood post for a man.
Certainly, as Grizwold comments, the women’s landays ‘frustrate any facile image of a Pashtun woman as nothing but a mute ghost beneath a blue burqa.’
Turning to Australia, there can be no doubt that travesties of human rights prevail here at this time. Topically, there has been the descent into atrocity again with the violent death of Reza Barati and the severe injuries suffered by other asylum-seekers during events on Manus Island this past month.
‘A sheet of paper is to me what the forest is to a man on the run,’ wrote Russian poet, political dissident and labour-camp internee, Andrei Sinyavsky, in his collection of writings, A Voice from the Chorus, made during his imprisonment of nearly seven years. Almost incredibly, it is an observation which might hold acute relevance to the experiences of asylum-seekers detained at this time under Australian Government auspices.
Aside from the refugee-rights issues, there are the indictable inequalities and histories experienced by Australia’s indigenous, poor and marginalised. For the Australian poets who might want to take them up, these ills inevitably mix with the world’s horrors, reminding us that the public resistance of poetry is not bound by a poet’s nationality and place.
Yet there is a troubling issue to be thought through by poets wanting to address the institutional travesties around human rights which prevail in this country. If the poet does not have at least indirect personal association with the impact of an atrocity, then in writing poetry of it, they assume instead the place of the bearing of witness. This can easily come across as helpless (if heartfelt), at least even a little indulgent, hand-wringing. And yet a poem will be a good poem, not because the reader can read the poet’s own experience in it, necessarily, but because of the new ‘thing’ that it makes, or colludes to make, of our immediate world.
This has made me think of what examples there might be of Australian poetry which faces up to the task of addressing such injustices – and of those poems which fail in this.
This species of inferior poem, executed glibly, inanely or just palely, falters for a number of reasons. Often, its inadequacy is due to a blatancy of emotional response that doesn’t impel the reader to a deeper comprehension of what is at stake. Or the poems fail because the poet has begun the task without an insight into why they are writing them, without thinking through why they might have the right to do so – and the densities of that right. Where there is a simplistic conflation between an event of horror and the poet’s assumption of the right – and ability – to speak of it, there goes much of this poetry. This can be the case, whether the horror has been directly/indirectly experienced, or is being ‘witnessed’.
On the other hand, where poems of moral conscience succeed, what they essentially do is remind us, intelligently and movingly, of our own humanity – and potentially too, of whatever obligations (whether civic or private) might subsist for us. Strangely, the test for the worth of such a poem might be that it speaks to our own individuality, not to agendas.
There is a strong precedent of poetry by Australian poets which has been able to ‘bear witness’ and distill communal and emotive undertows of dissent and resistance: A.D. Hope’s ‘Inscription for a War’, Robert Adamson’s ‘Canticle for the Bicentennial Dead’, Robert Harris’s ‘dolekeeping rag’, Bruce Dawe’s ‘Homecoming’, much of Oodjeroo’s oeuvre (including ‘Municipal Gum’) and Kevin Gilbert’s (‘The Soldier’s Reward’); also in a range of subjects in the poetry of Judith Wright.
I also thought of poems whose achievement and timing was endowed by a more solitary, arguably more disturbing, stance: Francis Webb’s ‘End of the Picnic’, with its unsettling and unsettled ending; Dorothy Hewett’s ‘The Hidden Journey’; Vincent Buckley’s ‘Hunger Strike’, on the IRA hunger-strikers, including Bobby Sands (and which was written at a time of vehement anti-IRA sentiment here and abroad); the destabilising tumult of Gwen Harwood’s ‘Night Thoughts: Baby & Demon’.
Poetry of ‘resistance’ cannot always be a galvanisation of communal trending, the audience already captured. In this, poetry at nub is the resisting force – to clichéd thoughts and values (of whatever political bent), to unexamined perceptions of events, histories and the self’s relations to them. Even the concepts of ‘resistance’ and ‘dissent’ cannot be colonised, but remain open to disruption and unpredictability.
Among examples of a conscious nature in more contemporary Australian poems – again, some of these speak in the light of a communal dissent – is Kevin Brophy’s ‘Salt’. From his 2013 volume, Walking,: New & Selected Poems., he addresses here, humanely yet sharply, the boat-refugee issue, and without the flaws of either false conflation or sentiment. Last year’s extended Mundiad collection by Justin Clemens, for all its satirical reflexions and at times uproarious wit, can also be seen, as a commentary on contemporary values, as politically savage. And the poetry of Lionel Fogarty remains idiosyncratic, un-pinnable, disruptive – in its agitating subject matter and its defiance of usual syntactical and grammatical ‘law’.
Tangentially, I also think of Michael Farrell’s 2011 ‘Motherlogue’, with its strange, unhinging enunciation of an apparently indigenous woman’s urban existence and her adaptions, some perverse, some subversively authoritative, to displacement. The poem appears, simultaneously, to be inlaid with inherent and anxious questions about the politic of language and voice, about their ownership, appropriation and disenfranchisements.
Different but still curious questions are also raised in poems such as Emma Lew’s ‘Lesson’ and Iraqi-Australian poet Adeeb Kamal Ad-Deen’s ‘Something Wrong’.
A poem by Alison Croggon, part 3 of a cycle titled ‘Possible Elegies’, is compacted in 47 longish-lines with no stanza breaks. Croggon’s poetry often combines subject matter of an ambitious scale with an ability to reveal its intimate and visceral nature. Her poetic intention, its wreaking of language, is highly conscientious. It addresses love, its imperative co-existent with its frailties and complexity, and the atrocities that would erase it. It also, in a meta-sense for me, offers a possible framework of comprehension to approach other poems that insist on the right to ‘entertain’ one’s conscience, as poet or reader.
The poem is also an inheritor, to my mind, of the injunction that Auden’s ‘The Cave of Making’ set on poetry:
but we shan’t, not since Stalin or Hitler, trust ourselves ever again: we know that, subjectively, all is possible.