Rosalind McFarlane Reviews Caroline Caddy

10 January 2011

Burning Bright by Caroline Caddy
Fremantle Press, 2010

A well known Western Australian writer, Caroline Caddy frequently explores culture as both familiar and unknown in her work. The most common of these explorations concerns the interaction between Chinese and Australian cultures. Her latest collection Burning Bright continues this theme, whilst also including poems that explore the south of Western Australia. The relationship between Australian and Chinese landscapes is vital in this work as the urban, rural and natural landscapes of the two are contrasted, compared and explored in depth. Caddy focuses on similarities that are often overlooked, while also documenting the varied and complex relationship that can develop between different countries and their landscapes.

Creating a space that is both recognisable and uncanny, Caddy explores landscape in her early poems with both understanding and a deep seated wonder, the combination of which gives her poems great intensity. What may strike the reader as strange, though, is the incorporation of China into this landscape. This is not a China hungering for Western Australian mining outputs, nor is it a figure in Australia’s ethical discussion about dealing with a country that does not have the best human rights track record, a discussion that must also take into account Australia’s own history. Rather, Caddy depicts similarities between China and the south of WA in landscape. ‘Written from the South Coast of Western Australia’ demonstrates this succinctly as remote places in China are presented first as exotic, and then as similar to the remoteness of southern WA, a connection that surprises both the reader and the poet’s persona when it is revealed.

In ‘Wave Rock’ Caddy depicts being invited to China:

We stand staring out into the distance
                                          that is sometimes freedom
                                                                                     and sometimes not
each lifting a foot     pretending to step over
                                     then side by side and facing north
                                                                               into the winter light
come to China with me you say
                                                as if it’s a realm
                                                                         of eternal sunshine.

Here China takes Australia’s typical mantle of eternal sunshine. While such a description as a realm of eternal sunlight can certainly be seen as metaphorical, its reference to “realm” and the detailing of sunlight creates an aspect of landscape. Since this description takes place at Wave Rock, a significant landmark for the South West, Caddy suggests more than an emotional or metaphorical connection between Australia and China; rather this connection appears based in landscape.

Following on from this suggestion the collection includes poems written in China. However, the references back to the Australian landscape continue. In ‘Riders Qing Hai’ the opening description of plains with sheep, along with the way Caddy emphasises the dust of the place, is reminiscent of the Australian pastoral landscape, although the appearance of mountains and ice remind the reader that this is China. ‘Urumqui Xin Jiang’ is one of the collection’s most enlightening poems. The death of Caddy’s travelling companion’s father is mirrored in the death of Deng Xiaoping. While personal and public tragedies are often used to make statements about the nature of grief and the equality of death, what is startling in this poem is the way in which the death is indicated specifically through landscape. Upon returning to Beijing, after learning the news of the father’s death, Caddy describes:

              Coming from the airport we see the flags
                                                    scarlet     whipping in the wind
                                                                            lining rooftops and streets.
Out of touch we ask the taxi driver.
Deng Xiaoping died yesterday
                         and the flags     thousands of them all over the city
glowing in the level sun
                     some so huge they flow in the wind like oil
                                                                 rippling and giving off light.

It is not the news that informs them about the death of the public figure, but the urban landscape. This is drawn out further by the way the flags interact with the wind, rooftops, streets and Caddy’s description of them moving like oil and “giving off light”. Such a heavy focus on landscape, both urban and natural, as well the movement and meanings contained within the poetic landscape, highlight the importance of place to Caddy as a form of unity. Here China and Australia are united in the experiencing of death, as the urban landscape conflates the death of the public Chinese father figure with that of the father of the poet’s travelling companion.

The emphasis on the landscape of China fades in the latter parts of the book as the increasingly welcome setting of the south west of WA becomes central. Throughout the poems Caddy makes her home in this landscape, both rural and natural, as both a resident and a poet. Here Caddy explores the changing relationship we have to landscape. Her exploration of the landscape as home in this section is both compelling and honest in its depiction of a place that becomes known. Naturally as this happens, the depictions of China, presented before as half known and half unknown, become less dominant.

That is not to say that China is completely forgotten. It reappears as influences along with the places that surround it in ‘Songs’ and then intermittently in these latter poems, including ‘ ‘Oh Holy Night’ Christmas in China’, ‘Burning Bright’ and ‘The Tibetan Cabinet’. Intriguingly, in ‘Burning Bright’ Caddy mentions places to the poet’s north, and she invokes many traditional European and/or North American images including “fir and birch and aspen” as well as “moose reindeer and bustard”. Yet she states that out of all the northern countries “only one had the tiger”, an animal she describes as: “Under my hand something that is me and is not me. / Where it goes I go”.

In ‘Wave Rock’’ China is discussed while facing north, and the tiger certainly is a symbol for the nation. As such Caddy appears to suggest that China is a part of her, something that is and is not her. This suggestion is emphasised by ‘Burning Bright’ being chosen as the title of the collection. In this way the influence of China and its surrounds becomes more subtle as the poems unfold, and suggests yet another facet of the poet’s relationship with both China and Australia.

The collection ends on ‘dawn’, a piece reminiscent of beginning a journey. While reading through Burning Bright is a journey in and of itself, the poem does suggest that the relationship between urban, rural and natural landscapes that Caddy explores really is only the beginning. Caddy appears to be at pains to detail a real relationship between the places based on personal experiences, with all the changing perspectives and circumstances that such a relationship entails. Caddy explores the way landscapes can be a part of you even if they are not always present. It is a wonderful collection of poetry that challenges the reader to consider how they view their own and others’ physical environments, again and again.

Rosalind McFarlane is a poetry editor for dotdotdash.

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