Petra White Reviews Martin Harrison

By | 12 October 2015

Harrison can be difficult to quote from in chunks because his poems are often single movements, to be read in one sweep, however long they may be. A case in point is the second poem, ‘Wallabies’, a single sentence poem in free verse couplets, wandering over three and a half pages. This is tighter than many of Harrison’s looser, more open poems. This poem begins in the midst of memory and its strangeness: ‘some memories from somewhere those scattered trees/that straggle of white tree limbs like bleached bones’. He could have started with the straggle of trees, but locating them in memory is more interesting. Every person who has ever been in the Australian bush has an image or many like that in their memory – as ghostly as the straggle of trees appears in life, they are stranger still in memory, because for someone who has seen it many times, the memory can’t be located anywhere in particular, it drifts from reality. Harrison goes on to build this poem out of uncertainty and drift: ‘perhaps a line from someone else or myself/memory of the flattest waters I’ve ever seen’; as if the poem, possibly being made of lines of other’s or his own, may have already been written in the lost past, as if it is a palimpsest. This deliberate vagueness gives the poem a strange authority, arising as if from the ruins of consciousness, where ‘bouquets of white cockatoos’ have been ‘hiding in the mind’. The poem subverts Romantic subjectivity: the self isn’t in the landscape, the landscape is in the self. This is not to say the poem generalises in any way: it goes on to get highly specific, as if the images that unfold are being seen for this first time and not through memory: as if memory dissolves and reality takes over, as if the landscape is entered and reconciled or layered, intensified with the memory of it. Or perhaps memory just gets more urgent and specific; it’s hard to tell. The poem is remarkable for its richness, and the precision of its vision of landscape:

around sprays cream waterfalls of turpentines flowering
in high irrigated air-blue reaches she-oaks aspirant

with their million fingers and amber seed-flowers
spotted gums mottled as grandmothers

But quoting these few lines doesn’t do justice to a poem that is best read in full, as a long breath, couplet after couplet building the movement of the eye, and its attendant self, through the landscape that is both familiar and strange.

Harrison should be read as substantial Australian poet. His poetry is something new, something that opens up what poetry can be. Readers should snatch up this book before Harrison is consigned to the out-of-print oblivion that is the fate of many dead Australian poets.

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