Lost Places by Carl Rickard
Perrin Creek Press, 2005
Sea Wall and River Light by Diane Fahey
Five Islands Press, 2006
Carl Rickard's Lost Places and Diane Fahey's Sea Wall and River Light are distinctly Australian, both in their themes and as products. They indicate something about how writers living in Australia see their place in the world, and how they try to make themselves heard. This is an increasingly difficult task – the economic imperative tends to absorb the creative into advertising or publicity, and poets in this country are so marginal as to be almost invisible, or at least viewed with suspicion or pity by their job network advisors.
One could, of course, discuss the indefinability or multiplicity of 'being Australian' – especially in the area of the poetic, where the normal logic of borders and hierarchical associations become fluid, or dissolve under the weight of complex experience – but that may require a major digression from reviewing these two books. Regarding the first title, a few years back, Carl Rickard left his home and went in search of the neglected, subtle truths of Australian places. He visited the Nullarbor, Tennant Creek, the Grampians, South Bruny Island, Brisbane, Loxton, and many other places, all of which have of course been found a long time ago. But Rickard's journey was the sort of travel that was also internal, an experiential experiment with what might be a spirituality unique to this continent. Lost Places is the result – it consists of over forty short chapters, each a response to his experiences in these particular places.
The text is a combination of prose and poetry, sometimes one collapsing into the other, a kind of textual spoken word, perhaps. Reading the work can be satisfyingly unsettling. It has a rhythm and repetition that lulls you towards, though not completely into, reverie; as in 'Vacant Lots in Cooktown':
Whatever is in your head when you arrive, this beautiful shitty town's way will seduce you. You will realise you are powerless to do anything but to surrender to its calm. // This town is a teacher. This town has a lesson to show you. // The lesson this town teaches you is a simple one: // You will learn that nothing matters. // You will realise that nothing matters. /// And the thing is, that it's only when you realise that nothing matters- /// -that you can ever hope to come across the things that matter.
Weighing in at nearly three hundred pages, Rickard's book is no short journey either. The book was originally intended as a series of zines (cheaply produced chapbooks), but was later combined together and supplemented with additional material. There are also a large number of photos, all reproduced in black-and-white due to, I assume, economic rather than an aesthetic reasons. In this sense, Lost Places is itself a kind of zine – the pages seem photographed; the language is idiosyncratic, conversational and earnest. Rickard wants us to experience what he has found, wants to make sure we get it. In 'Calling Out from Kata Tjunta', for example:
Down on the far side of the circuit, I felt uplifted and full of joy. All the domes stretching out into the distance, it seemed to me an enormous amphitheatre of mystical inspiration. The land felt like it was calling out to me, subconsciously reminding me of important things. I felt so uplifted it just made me feel like I wanted to run away away away to the far-flung domes, run out away from the marked track, out into the desert- Then I would have run out of water, then I would have got lost, then I would have been acting irresponsibly in this very important space.
No, this is no drug-addled beat narrative. This is a slowed-down repetition of experience. It does not embody the energy and affect of these places, rather it reflects upon them, explaining and filling in details. Rickard wants to bring us to South Bruny Island, to the Nullarbor, to Brisbane, and yet in much the same way as photography the framing and reproductive technique cannot bring us to the place, only to the perspective of the artist. The subjective element is crucial to this writing, which raises a crowd of related, perhaps unanswerable, questions. Why publish a book? Couldn't this collection of writings remained as a series of zines? Or, especially bearing in mind the necessarily accompanying photos, should it have found a place on a blog somewhere?
Throwing aside all these concerns, Lost Places is an engaging, complex and subtle evocation of the pace and energy of under-heralded Australian places. It reminded me of my desire to explore this huge land, and to do so as a traveller rather than a tourist.
Diane Fahey is in one sense a sibling of Carl Rickard, but is also in another world entirely. Her latest and eighth book, Sea Wall and River Light, is a collection of seventy fourteen-line poems set in and around Barwon Heads in Victoria. It seems the result not of restless searching but of calm observation. The poems seemed drawn gently out of the life of the place – they carry the energy of it within them, as in 'Upstream':
I have tracked the river to where the mangroves
take hold and the bird life gets serious –
a kingfisher, totemic on a pole;
pelicans cruising low – three wing beats then
a glide; sacred ibis gathered in a field
as if on a contemplative picnic.
Fahey appreciates the shifting light and business of the seasons – plant, animal and human animal. She watches and records simple events with a warmth and a gravity that actually inspires the reader to observe their own places in a similar spirit.
Fahey is intensely aware of what she is doing with language, and confident within its domain. She is clearly a careful, ruthless and intuitive editor of her own work – her words glide across the poetic line, duck-legs paddling frantically and unseen beneath the clean surface. Her way with meter and the sound of words is breathtakingly adept. The level of this skill is such that it threatens at times to disrupt that surface – the poems hover between the naturalness of their subjects and the constructed nature of language. In 'Headland', for example:
Like stone, the body carries at its core,
in its textures, a history of becoming
and erosion. Here, limestone covers
dark silt from volcanoes; there, scar tissue
of the intolerable: fissured rock plates.
Time eats deeper into some lesions;
others fill with the detritus of life –
And yet the reader, or at least this one, at times would find the ease and seamlessness of the poems unsatisfying, as if there were not much at risk, or as if surprise was unlikely. When, in 'The Spring News', a dolphin is found stabbed to death, I was almost glad – at long last, some disruption, something inexplicable. Of course, Fahey builds up to this moment, and responds to it, with the same measured, thoughtful tone. Her restraint and subtlety is entirely appropriate – emotion and reflection is most powerfully evoked by what is not said. It is a beautiful and unsettling poem. It is also a reminder that this book rarely strays outside the slow shifts and events of the coast, or outside the kind of philosophical musings that such a focus tends to bring up, as also seen in 'The Spring News':
an unthinkable death that someone – blood-streaked
mind powering the knife – managed to think.
One of the dancers, the guiding spirits, stopped.
When will we ever understand ourselves?
My other qualm would be the occasional line break. Fahey is an accomplished poet, so when re-reading I tended to look for the significance of her enjambments, and was a few times bemused, for instance where a phrase is cut after 'of' or 'to'. In addition, the intense compression of sentence structure in these poems has allowed a few punctuation typos to slip through. These are trivial reservations, though; and what remains after Sea Wall and River Light (and Lost Places, for that) is the tone and speed of the poetry's music, a reflection of the places the poet has been.
Which reminds me, to return, of the place of the poetic within the modern Australian economy. Poetry is not published by multi-national companies flush with proof-readers and the luxury of excess time. It is a transparently human activity – the immense work behind the book seeping into the text itself. It deals in, and brings to the surface, many things the mass market finds difficult to fully accommodate – the momentary, the subjective, the slippages inherent in sentience and in communication. Both Lost Places and Sea Wall and River Light, each in their own way, are intriguing and welcome explorations of Australian landscapes – geographic, personal and cultural. They embody ways of seeing that the freeway, the guided tour and borders (Borders?) cannot capture.
Andy Jackson is currently working on a collection of poems on unusual embodiment and identity.