My File of Bloody Good Poetry #4: South of my Days
JUDITH WRIGHT (1915-2000)
South of My Days
South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite -
clean, lean, hungry country. The creek's leaf-silenced,
willow-choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.
O cold the black-frost night. The walls draw in to the warmth
and the old roof cracks its joints; the slung kettle
hisses a leak onto the fire. Hardly to be believed that summer
will turn up again some day in a wave of rambler roses,
thrust its hot face in here to tell another yarn -
a story old Dan can spin into a blanket against the winter.
Seventy years of stories he clutches round his bones.
Seventy summers are hived in him like old honey.
Droving that year, Charleville to the Hunter,
nineteen-one it was, and the drought beginning;
sixty head left at the McIntyre, the mud round them
hardened like iron; and the yellow boy died
in the sulky ahead with the gear, but the horse went on,
stopped at the Sandy Camp and waited in the evening.
It was the flies we seen first, swarming like bees.
Came to the Hunter, three hundred head of a thousand -
cruel to keep them alive - and the river was dust.
Or mustering up in the Bogongs in the autumn
when the blizzards came early. Brought them down; we brought them
down, what aren't there yet. Or driving for Cobb's on the run
up from Tamworth - Thunderbolt at the top of Hungry Hill,
and I give him a wink. I wouldn't wait long, Fred,
not if I was you; the troopers are just behind,
coming for that job at the Hillgrove. He went like a luny,
him on his big black horse.
Oh, they slide and they vanish
as he shuffles the years like a pack of conjuror's cards.
True or not, it's all the same; and the frost on the roof
cracks like a whip, and the back-log breaks into ash.
Wake, old man. This is winter and the yarns are over.
No one is listening.
South of my days' circle
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.
my days' circle the city of Brisbane in southeastern Queensland, where Wright lived, married and worked from 1944 to 1948.
South of my days' circle Wallamumbi sheep and cattle station near Armidale in northeastern New South Wales, where Wright spent the majority of her child- and young adult-hood
I like this poem for its lack of koalas and gum trees. Wright's Australia ignores the tropes of north and west, of outback and sweeping saltbush plains and blistering bloody sunlight. Instead, this "lean, hungry country" of hers has "bony slopes wincing under the winter". (The New England tablelands of northeastern New South Wales, where Wright grew up, are similar in climate and terrain to the Monaro high plains of southeastern New South Wales, where Wright grew old).
South of My Days recalls an age of innocence, a complacent time when real-life heroes, like Breaker Morant or Simpson and his Donkey, merged, without strain, into Banjo Patterson's "Man From Snowy River" and "Clancy of the Overflow". Wright's "old Dan" is part bullshit-artist and part keeper of the national memory. He contributes to a mythology that is attractive to its believers, not despite its obvious half-truths, but because of them. Reassuringly vague, a job we might get around to thinking about later in the week, it sounds about right. A work in progress with, hopefully, more funny stories to come.
But in the end "old Dan" is told to shut up. "No one is listening". After a while his stories have become repetitive. They just don't seem to lead anywhere.
Judith Wright wrestled with this make-believe national story earlier than the rest of us. In prose, she traveled from The Generations of Men (1959) to The Cry for the Dead (1981). This was a personal (and presumably painful) journey along the road of disillusionment with her forefathers.
And in poetry...
Nigger's Leap, New England
The eastward spurs tip backward from the sun.
Night runs an obscure tide round cape and bay
and beats with boats of cloud up from the sea
against this sheer and limelit granite head.
Swallow the spine of range; be dark, O lonely air.
Make a cold quilt across the bone and skull
that screamed falling in flesh from the lipped cliff
and then were silent, waiting for the flies.
Here is the symbol, and the climbing dark
a time for synthesis. Night buoys no warning
over the rocks that wait our keels; no bells
sound for her mariners. Now must we measure
our days by nights, our tropics by their poles,
love by its end and all our speech by silence.
See in these gulfs, how small the light of home.
Did we not know their blood channelled our rivers,
and the black dust our crops ate was their dust?
O all men are one man at last. We should have known
the night that tided up the cliffs and hid them
had the same question on its tongue for us?
And there they lie that were ourselves writ strange.
Never from earth again the coolamon
or thin black children dancing like the shadows
of saplings in the wind. Night lips the harsh
scarp of the tableland and cools its granite.
Night floods us suddenly as history
that has sunk many islands in its good time.
Notes paraphrased from A.K. Thomson, 1968, Critical Essays on Judith Wright, Milton QLD, Jackaranda Press, pp. 20-21. The poem refers to a New England massacre of local Aborigines, the Cooloolah people, in 1844. White station men, avenging the murder of a shepherd, herded them together onto the summit of Bluff Rock and then drove them over the cliff to their deaths. Hence the lines "the bone and skull/ that screamed falling in flesh from the lipped cliff/ and then were silent, waiting for the flies". A local history (R.B. Walker's Old New England),names two of the mass-murderers: Edward Irby, owner of Bolivia Station, and his manager Thomas Keating.
Coming to terms with the fact that our past is not populated by democratic heroes is an uneven, untidy process. Something of Wright's confusion (and grief for her own lost heritage) is evident in her poem to Aboriginal friend, Kath Walker. We too are left destitute, wondering what is left to build a nation on.
(For Kath Walker, now Oodgeroo Noonuccal)
Kathy my sister with the torn heart,
I don't know how to thank you
for your dreamtime stories of joy and grief
written on paperbark.
You were one of the dark children
I wasn't allowed to play with -
riverbank campers, the wrong colour
(I couldn't turn you white.)
So it was late I met you,
late I began to know
they hadn't told me the land I loved
was taken out of your hands.
Sitting all night at my kitchen table
with a cry and a song in your voice,
your eyes were full of the dying children,
the blank-eyed taken women,
the sullen looks of the men who sold them
for rum to forget the selling;
the hard rational white faces
with eyes that forget the past.
With a knifeblade flash in your black eyes
that always long to be blacker,
your Spanish-Koori face
of a fighter and singer,
arms over your breast folding
your sorrow in to hold it,
you brought me to you some of the way
and came the rest to meet me;
over the desert of red sand
came from your lost country
to where I stand with all my fathers,
their guilt and righteousness.
Over the rum your voice sang
the tales of an old people,
their dreaming buried, the place forgotten...
We too have lost our dreaming.
We the robbers, robbed in turn,
selling this land on hire-purchase;
what's stolen once is stolen again
even before we know it.
If we are sisters, it's in this -
our grief for a lost country,
the place we dreamed in long ago,
poisoned now and crumbling.
Let us go back to that far time,
I riding the cleared hills,
plucking blue leaves for their eucalypt scent,
hearing the call of the plover,
in a land I thought was mine for life.
I mourn it as you mourn
the ripped length of the island beaches,
the drained paperbark swamps.
The easy Eden-dreamtime then
in a country of birds and trees
made me your shadow-sister, child,
dark girl I couldn't play with.
But we are grown to a changed world;
over the drinks at night
we can exchange our separate griefs,
but yours and mine are different.
A knife's between us. My righteous kin
still have cruel faces.
Neither you nor I can win them,
though we meet in secret kindness.
I am born of the conquerors,
you of the persecuted.
Raped by rum and an alien law,
progress and economics,
are you and I and a once-loved land
peopled by tribes and trees;
doomed by traders and stock-exchanges,
bought by faceless strangers.
And you and I are bought and sold,
our songs and stories too,
though quoted low in a falling market
(publishers shake their heads at poets).
Time that we shared for a little while,
telling sad tales of women
(black or white at a different price)
meant much and little to us.
My shadow-sister, I sing to you
from my place with my righteous kin,
to where you stand with the Koori dead,
'Trust none - not even poets'.
The knife's between us. I turn it round,
the handle to your side,
the weapon made from your country's bones.
I have no right to take it.
But both of us die as our dreamtime dies.
I don't know what to give you
for your gay stories, your sad eyes,
but that, and a poem, sister.