Alyson Miller Reviews berni m janssen’s between wind and water (in a vulnerable place)

By | 23 January 2020

The poetic patterning employed by janssen produces an eclectic series of characters, whilst emphasising the power hierarchies which determine who might speak, and who is relegated to silence and absence. Within the complexes of authority and resistance examined in the collection, it is impossible not to read between wind and water in colonial terms, and further, to frame the struggles of the community as an ironic reflection of the history and experiences of Australian’s First Nations. While poems such as ‘civilised world’ meditate on greed, pollution, consumerism, and inequality in general terms—‘we live in inequality growing why great idol faith in capitalism as economic social and ethical system culturally unjust inequitable gap between richest and poorest increasing’—its lamentations are so universal as to be meaningless. It is an exhortation to betterment, to recognise the ways in which an ‘elite minority’ maintains a ‘stranglehold over economy political process and media’, and the need to ‘wake up civil eyes’ in order to agitate for change. These are pertinent, if not cliché, observations of cultural and ecological degradation, yet perhaps one of the underlying difficulties of between wind and water is that it is indeed trapped within a ‘strange echo chamber’, one that fails—or refuses—to acknowledge the fissures endured by First Nations communities as a result of colonisation and white settlement. The fury of residents such as Dusty and Lou and Fay and Mattie, the desolation felt by Evan when forced to leave ‘our home, our bedrock of seventeen years’, Dan’s melancholy inability to ‘find the word’, and Leon’s dirge about the ‘titans of industry’ offer haunting articulations of pain, but there is also something achingly privileged about these anxieties and expressions that belies the history of the land on which the conflict over safety, peace, and wellbeing takes place.

In these terms, while the paratextual material makes clear that janssen’s work is protest poetry based on dismantling the ‘encroaching industrialisation of the landscape’ and the contentious health implications of ‘the white giants’, it is also possible to read the wind turbines as a metaphor for European invasion. The windmills are repeatedly described in terms of their enormity, ‘majestic white towers spun blades / turning turning now into this is the way of the future’, an inescapable presence on the horizon which threatens to engulf its surroundings. The types of gardens, farms, and houses devastated by this technology are Western inventions, which vivisect the landscape according to an echo of some European dream. The corporate consumption of land speaks to decades of forced displacement, while the silencing of those crying out against injustice is perceived as little more than crazed conspiracy theory: ‘They wear tin-foil hats to protect them from the noises they cannot hear.’ The impetus to ceaseless movement which plagues the sleepless community suggests an imposition of change, a promise of a future vision despite the will or interests of those upon whom it is being inflicted, while the distress of those victims is frequently depicted in terms of a profound sense of the loss of both self and home. In the non-prophetic poetic sequences of Cassandra, for instance, such sorrow, violence and betrayal are articulated in a language that is markedly postcolonial:

When our bones cells flesh knowing denied dismissed we are all reduced as 
humans when our homes are trespassed by others we all reduced as humans my 
small voice no longer knows home, the haven of body and place we betrayed abandoned 
this is not the first time nor the last where humans choose to believe that which does 
not challenge their world as they are seeing it.

Indeed, despite what Vera suggests, the horror of the windmills is a damage that has been done before: an ‘old story’ that exists in the gaps between the wind and the water.

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