Pam Brown Reviews Angela Rockel’s Rogue Intensities

By | 12 May 2020

Angela Rockel’s grateful debt to poetry and her recurring speculation of what it might mean to write, sets off a particularly literary tone. There are quotes from Anne Carson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jack & The Beanstalk, Ursula Le Guin, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Keats, David Foster Wallace, Ross Gibson and from philosophers like Michel de Certeau, Gaston Bachelard, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and others. Rockel’s research in the five years of making this journal has been eclectic, referencing, apart from literary works and philosophy, material sourced from scientific, metaphysical/supernatural, psychoanalytic, folkloric and ecological writings of various kinds.

Rockel’s style often slips into romanticism. In September in the final year of the journal, in the early morning after a storm she sees a pademelon wallaby and its joey grazing outside. The joey with ‘a rose petal held in both hands like a lettuce leaf; a dabble of paws in the water dish – it jumps away, shuddering’. She continues, ‘In the dark before speech, I am alive in the gift of breath, harsh and sweet. Life waits to enter. Here, plants and creatures survived the changes of millions of years. Humans resilient too, community formed in collision and fallout in this place crisscrossed by tracks and starred with shell middens, gridded with land-grant farms – a threshold of story’.

This is followed by one of the few poems in the book. It begins:

In the breath-room something turns
sounds come out of us, singsong,
feeling ourselves moved like that.
Line and stipple and tone
we make a song and dance and picture ourselves

Though sometimes appraising writing as she experiences it, Rockel keeps a mild detachment. The compulsion to perform ordered exercises in writing to no one, or perhaps to oneself, that is the act of diary writing, remains unexamined. In a diary the perspective is a subjective one. She writes, in a passage on cosmology – ‘Though I now understand the given categories and divisions within and between things to be a human story, naming still feels like a kind of worship … With energy of the unnameable we make language-webs; they keep us warm and we sustain ourselves. But light has pulses of its own outside control and sometimes we ourselves stand in its way. Then the blue-white glow dims to red and stories falter, partial, no longer adequate.’ These are the rogue intensities that cause her to pause. She continues, ‘In that pause – an age an hour a winter a generation – no language yet exists. Terror and freedom. Light returns; words begin to rise and gather.’

As Rockel records, speculates and considers, via description and notation, the country around her, the land and its natural workings are a commodity only as the material of the work. To publish a diary of this kind – not one that reveals the usual expected personal or psychological intimacies common to the genre – is to place the observations in a context of message in this era of anthropogenic hazard.

Never certain of purpose in my own poetry, my response to Rogue Intensities was to look for it in Rockel’s work. Is it a desire to record so as to gain and share knowledge of the changes in biodiversity in the drawn-out disaster of a changing climate? Awareness leads to action and Rockel and T do justice to the place they occupy by the reparations they effect in their daily lives. But is this journal on a grander mission – a quest for regeneration? Like the two ecological books that Rockel canvasses – Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu.

I think Rogue Intensities is a hybrid encompassing both the above and, for readers who enjoy nature writing, it provides literary pleasure in many of the sections. But I’m sceptical that there is enough social charge in this almanac to validate the claim that it’s ‘a call to action’.* For that, in this era of human hyper-exasperation, it’s necessary right now to become intensely rogue and regenerative in culture and in action. Contrarily, I’ll make a call to display outrage, agitation, dissent and to excoriate dysfunctional neoliberal political systems that ignore the perilous changes that Angela Rockel documents as threatening not only southern Tasmania but also the planet-at-large.

*A claim in the judges’ commentary granting the book the Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2019 in Western Australia.

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