Alexis Wright: Carpentaria, Artarmon NSW, Giramondo, 2006

Alexis Wright

Indigenous Australian author Alexis Wright won the Miles Franklin award for this powerful and consuming novel about her northern Australian homeland of the interior country surrounding the Gulf of Carpentaria. The setting of the novel is the fictional mining town of Desperance, a remote community divided by an upwardly socially mobile white community  (Uptown) led by the racist and violently corrupt mayor Stan Bruiser and the ineffectual and sleazy policeman Truthful. Uptown is   supported by the mine and its politely racist families would prefer the indigenous community would either come over to their side or just go away.  The dispossessed indigenous community is also divided within itself by ancient family feuds between families who live on different sides of the town…Norm Phantom’s mob in Pricklebush on one side and every other indigenous family on the other side (The Westsiders).

Wright’s pulsating organic writing manages to create a depth of reality which engulfs the reader with its passionate perfumes and more often the stinking odours of rotting fish, windswept dust or poisonous odoriferous winds and water from the mine. The writing has elements of magic realism intertwined with ancient Aboriginal lore of the bush, the plants, the sea, the rocks, the history, the rivers, the climate, the past and indeed the future. The image of the stranded Elias at night sitting in his boat in the middle of an inland lagoon in the middle of the scrub will be fixated in my mind I suspect for a very long time. 

There are key figures who engage our sympathy – the anti mine terrorist Will Phantom, the sexy and sleazy Angel Day, the prophetic cult leader Mozzie Shipman, the tragic fisherman Elias, the old man who knew everything Joseph Midnight, the Bohemian priest Danny with his souped up black Valiant and many others. Wright’s deft touch includes mystery, wonder, humour, spirituality, pathos and hope all mixed up in a kaleidoscope of colour and mixed emotions.

Norm Phantom is the lynch-pin of the narrative but his is an ambivalent and equivocal figure. His sea-lore and mystical fishing and navigating skills and his ability to communicate with the deep see Groper fish fills the reader with admiration and wonder as do his artistic skills demonstrated in his transformational fish collages.His common sense rejection of his fire-brand son Will’s terrorist approach to the mine helps us to see him as a progressive and thoughtful indigenous leader, someone who could make a difference as shown by his saving of his grandson Bala. On the other hand his liaison with the desirable but dangerous Angel Day and his apparent indifference, even hatred of his children including his inability to act on his own disgust with the libidinous Truthful’s lust after his daughter and his reliance on a visionary knowledge of the future rather than any direct  action begin to make us wonder whether his lack of action is the cause of some of the town’s misery.  His epic sea journey to see Elias appropriately laid to rest in a deep sea Groper Fish sea cave is mesmerising and memorable as is his Old Man of the Sea untidy and dangerous journey back home. 

The pace of the narrative varies radically. We are drawn unerringly through hair-raisingly fearful and rivetingly physical escape and attack narratives that you cannot put down until you reach a climax..including the sickening attack on Kevin and the three young petrol sniffers. But then comes the slow, deeply moving and intense scrutiny of the harshly beautiful Carpentaria landscape with its tyrannical climate changes, obliterating cyclones, dangerous floods and heat and vast consuming distances. This is landscape painting of the highest order, well and truly ready to match both Patrick White and Alex Miller.  

This text fills the reader with a sad longing for what might have been in the development of our young nation; shame for the murder, racism and damage inflicted on indigenous communities by “civilised whites”;  wonder at the brooding force and power of the natural physical order of the north and a genuine fear for the fragility of the fraught relationship between an ancient civilisation and its relatively recent arrivals. I was both exhausted and exhilarated when I finished this substantial Tolstoyan-like massive novel.  5 stars.

John Wyndham: The Day of The Triffids, Ringwood AU, Penguin/Michael Joseph,1971. (1951).

Englishman John Wyndham was a classic 1950s Sci-Fi writer also responsible for the  The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos. The Triffids are stinging plants that have evolved the ability to walk. A 24 hour shower of eerie green lights has blinded pretty well the whole of England and presumably the world enabling, the Triffids to begin to gain control. The story is about two accidentally sighted survivors who had missed the light show. Bill and Josella meet on the street, fall in love and through sadness, horror and many adventures begin to raise a family in the ensuing chaos of a totally broken England, but only just. The future remains uncertain as diverse colonies huddle together fighting hunger, disease and predatory behaviour by other groups.

The book raises interesting questions about the power of sight and how precious it is and how helpless most of us would be without it.  It is also a powerful commentary on the tension between helping others and surviving yourself. It is also a study of human drives and personality types. Interesting to compare it with the C21st  more hardcore approach of current post-nuclear story tellers like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Henry David  Thoreau: Walden, or Life in the Woods, Everyman’s Library: London, J M Dent/New York, E P Dutton & Co., 1912 (1854).

Henry Thoreau

One of the “American Transcendentalists”, and protege of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau was a prolific essayist, poet, philosopher, sometime teacher and manual labourer. His father had French ancestry from the island of Jersey and his mother was the daughter of a Puritan Minister. Brought up in Concord, Massachusetts, then a country of woodland, lakes and pastures, he graduated from Harvard College  but refused to pay the $5 to receive his certificate.  Thoreau had little interest in career and wealth and would have been a common labourer and something of a drifter, refusing to pay taxes and therefore occasionally imprisoned, he survived on odd jobs and occasionally teaching. He was fortunate to have the support of Emerson who encouraged publication of his articles, employed him from time to time and provided the land for his wooden hut which be built close to Walden Pond. Thoreau built and lived in this isolated one room hut for two years, planting a bean field, and fishing and hunting.   Walden is the story of these two years. Thoreau never married and died of tuberculosis at age 44, never having travelled outside north-eastern America and Canada. 

It is difficult to describe the impact made by Thoreau’s writing in Walden. In exalted prose and some poetry he describes the natural wonderland of forest, pond ( a very large pond), plants and animals that greeted his daily woodland ramblings. He still regularly visited the local village and had many visitors to his hut but by and large he lived his solo life for two years. Everything comes under scrutiny …the sounds of the forest and bird life, the seasons of the lake including the iced up winters, his rumination on solitude, philosophy, early history of the area, his bean field, food (“this slimy, beastly like, eating and drinking”), religion, loons, poetry, business,  fires, the harsh winter cold, the beauty of ice and the rapture of Springtime. Every now and then we glimpse his immense learning. Comfortable in Greek and Latin with an exhaustive knowledge of Greek mythology, he is equally at home with the Hindu mysticism of the Bhagavad-Gita as Cato or the Bible. He read widely in travel literature and had a vast knowledge of global geography and history without ever leaving the North American mainland. His writing about meditation and thinking would today be described as writing about mindfulness.  The dream-like writing leads the reader on gently and instructively and although the minute details of birds and fish and ice might seem unnecessary, somehow he continues to engage interest.

There are some classic sentences in Walden that live today most especially perhaps: The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (p5).  He asks: will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? (p98) He quotes Confucius: Virtue does not remain as an abandoned orphan; it must of necessity have neighbours. (p119) 

He was consumed by the idea of solitude and the individual. I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing my experience but taking no not of it…when the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a word of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned. This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbours and friends sometimes…I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. (p119)  He cared little for money..for I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days and spent them lavishly.  (P169) Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth. (p174).  He valued “siting and doing nothing” above all: Enter ye that have leisure and a quiet mind, who earnestly seeks the right road. (p257); In a pleasant Spring morning, all men’s sins are forgiven. (p277). About Springtime he writes: There needs no further proof of immortality. All things must live in such a light. O death, where is thy sting?”  He ponders the inscrutability and mystery of existence:  At the same time we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable…

Walden closes with the simple sentence: I finally left Walden September 6th, 1847.  But he then adds a chapter entitled Conclusion which is much more didactic and philosophical. He challenges his readers to take hold of life and celebrate its beauty. The universe is wider than our view of it (p282). Thoreau encourages us to be explorers .. Be a Columbus…open new channels, not of trade but of thought…there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an islet , and yet unexpected by him.  (p283)  He opposes Mirabeau’s opposition to the sacred laws of society and defends just government (p284). He writes: however mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorer when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. (p289).  Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul. (p290) Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. (p291) Thoreau closes with Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn.  The sun is but a morning star. 

Walden is a tale to be read slowly and thoughtfully, not rushed through. Thoreau was a massive fighter against slavery and an environmentalist well before Rachel Carson. A philosopher who is clear, consistent and easily understood! How rare is that?   5 stars.

Peter Jones: Imagist Poetry, London England, Penguin,1972.

Peter Jones

In the first decades of the C20th poetry, like art, underwent a massive change in form, structure, and just about everything else.  Prefigured by Japanese Haiku poetry,  Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, Gerard Manley Hopkins and the French vers libre Symbolists including Rimbaud and Mallarmé, a small group of American and English poets gravitated together and began to produce a radically new form of cut down and highly compressed and intuitive poetry. They  came to be known as “The Imagists”, a name coined by Ezra Pound. 

The American poets were Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), John Gould Fletcher and Amy Lowell, and the British poets were Richard Aldington, F.S. Flint and D. H. Lawrence. Five volumes were produced: Des Imagistes, edited by Ezra Pound, Some Imagist Poets 1914, 1915 and 1917 all edited by Amy Lowell and finally a much later Imagist Anthology of 1930 edited by Richard Aldington.

The editor of this collection, Peter Jones is an English and Classics teacher, publisher, poet and literary critic and has created a fascinating and accessible collection of poems and a careful and well documented introductory  study of “the imagists” and associated poets including Edward Storer, T. E. Hulme, Skipwith Cannell, John Cournos, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams.

Imagism is a poetry of intuition rather than description and it was written in  free verse with a radical rejection of traditional poetic devices, especially alliteration and metre as well as a revolt against Victorian moralism. It is the poetry of presentation,  not representation and a kind of accurate mystery (Aldington). It owed a debt to Bergson’s philosophy of image and intuition and had a tinge of the metaphysical around the edges. At the same time it ran straight into the horrors of WW1 and a deeper sense of evil challenged the evanescent sense of mystery and awe in their later works. Although this group had dispersed by the 1920s they laid a foundation for a major new direction for much C20th poetry writing, well and truly preparing the way for the exceptional genius of T S Eliot who was also influenced by Pound and who came on to the organising committee of the Imagists towards the end of its life.

Peter Jones touch is light and easy to understand just as many of the poems are elusive, complex and difficult to understand. Jones includes both positive and critical responses of the day and a useful feature is his inclusion of poems already written and then rewritten by the same poet in the Imagist style (usually severely cut but achieving a pleasing and favourable result. Jones also includes the Prefaces to the 1914 -17 collections, biographical notes on each poet represented, a useful  bibliography of the texts discussed in the introduction and a very useful  guide to further reading regarding the development of Anglo-American poetry up to the 1960s. This is altogether a marvellous collection of diverse materials and a very helpful introduction to a group of less well known poets with the exception of Lawrence and Joyce.  4 stars.