Selected by John Kinsella
National Poetry Month 2016
Letter from the Editors
Our thanks to John Kinsella for today's Poet's Pick!
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Don Selby & Diane Boller
John Kinsella's Poetry Month Pick, April 19, 2016
"On Receiving From England a Bunch of Dried Wild Flowers"
by Elizabeth Deborah Brockman (1833-1915)
Pale Ghosts! of fragrant things that grew among
The woods and valleys of my native land,
Phantoms of flowers I played with long ago:
Here are the scented violets I sought
In their cool nooks of verdure, and the bells
That fringed the mountain crag with loveliest blue;
Here are the flushing clusters of the May,
The dainty primrose on its slender stem;
And the forget-me-not—all faint and pale
As those dim memories of home that haunt
The exile’s wistful heart in banishment.
I look around and see
A thousand gayer tints; the wilderness
Is bright with gorgeous rainbow colouring
Of flowers that have no dear familiar names.
I see them closing ere the dews of night
Have touched their waxen leaflets: close they fold
Their tender blossoms through the darkened hours,
And will not open, though the fractious winds
Should wrestle with their roots and strain their stems.
They waken not until the softer airs,
Breathed from the rosy lips of early morn,
Come whispering, “lo! the lordly sun is nigh.”
But in my hand these frail memorials
Lie closely pressed; a slight electric link,
By which thought over-passes time and space,
To other hands that plucked them: other hands
That never more to any touch of mine
Shall thrill responsive. Blessed be those hands
With prosperous labours, fruitful through long years,
Of all life’s truest, tenderest charities
Western Australia, 15th September, 1868
John Kinsella Comments:
‘I look around and see’. There’s a wilful effort in this, a forcing of the self beyond the casual formulaic, the poetic gesture to keep the poem flowing. A narrative device, sure, but also an acceptance of a different embodiment in place. That in the poem, and in the poet, many stories of belonging and exclusion crisscross, and try to coalesce. In the neatness of the poem, we might be led to believe that prosody’s ultimate purpose is to package these contradictions. Certainly the poet wants to write ‘verse’, but it’s only to contain the rough edges and disruptions of writing in a space that challenges and contradicts colonial manners, the imposition of the ‘civilised’ on day-to-day life. What makes this poem different is where and when it was written. And why.
Just over thirty years after this poem was written, we read ‘Willy Willy: The Boulder Bard’ in his ‘Ode to Westralia’, noting of Western Australia (pre Federation):
Land of Forests, fleas and flies,
Blighted hopes and blighted eyes,
Art thou hell in earth’s disguise,
Art thou some volcanic blast
By volcanoes spurned, outcast?
Art unfinished — made the last
Wert thou once the chosen land
Where Adam broke God’s one command?
That He in wrath changed thee to sand,
Land of politicians silly,
Home of wind and willy-willy,
Land of blanket, tent and billy,
Home of brokers, bummers, clerks,
Nest of sharpers, mining sharks,
Dried up lakes and desert parks,
Land of humpies, brothels, inns,
Old bag huts and empty tins,
Land of blackest, grievous sins
The sense of Western Australia (massive as it is), being the ‘end of the earth’, and in this something perversely to be celebrated, was a dominant tone in verse written out of the colony.
In terms of the brutalities settlers committed on the indigenous peoples of the region, most of the newspaper verse found in early colonial papers is overtly racist, often hate-filled. Moral defence as attack? But one did find a register of guilt even if it was rendered in the ‘noble savage’ sense with touches of ‘local colour’ (this is an American term, not an Australian one regarding context and period, but the irony serves the bereftness of the situation). The poet ‘Acaster’ in ‘O’er a Native’s Grave’ (1871), writes, contesting the given bigotries of the colonial press and community:
Poor child of earth – The rising sun,
That tips the hills with mellow ray,
No more shal’t rouse thee from thy sleep,
Or cheer thee on thy lonely way.
No more with spear, and weapons rude,
Shal’t thou roam thro’ the woodland dell,
No more midst festive scenes shall sing
The wildsome songs you loved so well.
So, considering the poem I have chosen by the early ‘settler’ poet of Western Australia, Elizabeth Deborah Brockman, we might think of where it came from. It may not be as overtly original as much other European poetry of the period, but it was extremely unusual to come out of the ‘bush’ of Western Australia at the time. Written at Seabrook, the property on which Brockman lived with her husband and children near the colony’s earliest inland town of York, it encapsulates the sense of loss and disconnection ‘settlers’ often felt in their ‘strange’ new place.
Brockman migrated with her parents to the Swan River Colony from Edinburgh where she had been born in 1833. She was seven years old. Living on a property known as Glen Avon (which I often pass, travelling from Jam Tree Gully to the town of Northam), by the Avon River, she led a bookish life and became one of the earliest and certainly most accomplished settler poets, publishing as ‘E.’ in the local church magazine. I have written a lot about Brockman, investigating colonial subtexts in her writing (there is only a small book of poems published after her death in 1914), women’s right in the colony, religious obsession and security, depression, and most importantly, I think, the fact that Brockman lived on land that had been stolen from the Noongah people, the traditional owners and custodians of country.
These subtexts are obscured in the poems, but through reading letters, journal entries (by other parties), prose commentaries in the Church of England magazine, and other snippets discovered in historical archives, one gets the typical picture of both a predictable exploitation of indigenous people and religious patronising. But I also argue there is something more than a sense of superiority and possibly guilt eating away at the edges of the sense of belonging and alienation in her poetry; that in those local flowers that have ‘no dear familiar names’, there is an acknowledgement that access is something that has to be granted, that it can’t just be taken. The flowers from ‘home’, the Old Country, she receives in the mail, sent by ship and taking six months to reach her, are the dried residue of an old life, a life of her childhood, of a country that is no longer hers. They act as symbols of the absent present, triggers of memory, signatures of her own history (and that of her colonial family) and of those left behind in the Old Country. They are dead but look (fragilely) alive, they are almost living memorials, or maybe simulacra of themselves, and her ‘othered’ self. They are signs of what she might have been. As Pierre Nora observes, ‘Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past.’ [Nora, Pierre 1989. Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire. –Representations 26: 7-25]
But the poet is also an alien in this stolen land, and for all her effort to become one, to become the place she now lives in, she can’t entirely. She is isolated by distance and by unbelonging. She is permanently temporary, and when she loses family to death or returning to England (or Scotland), the loss is doubled is spiritual and conceptual ways. The cost of this to her is immense, and to those who have been dispossessed, and though discovering this poem as a young person was an epiphany to me, especially having spent so much of my life in the region out of which she wrote, it also represents the crisis of writing poetry as a non-indigenous person in the place I know as ‘home’. Brockman says:
I look around and see
A thousand gayer tints; the wilderness
Is bright with gorgeous rainbow colouring
This wilderness is her angst and her security. In the alienation is her poetry, but also her desire for conformity. She is both recognising her non-belonging and trying to counter it. Those ‘gayer tints’ include wildflowers and trees, from donkey orchids to the blossom of York gums and wandoos, which I know so well.
Many years ago I wrote an essay on Brockman that begins:
The case of the Western Australian poet, Elizabeth Deborah Brockman, who wrote the bulk of her poetry in the 1860s, is unique. A poet of depth, grace, subtlety and controlled anger [now I’d see this as melancholy, and not a barely visible ‘anger’], her work carries a spiritual content akin to Emily Dickinson’s [now I also see this differently — the struggle to be what one is not, determination to subscribe to the manners of the Church and contingent social interactions, the struggle with depression and frequent physical isolation in a more seemingly hebephrenic way in the poems while rebelling against it; Brockman’s torments are all below the surface of her poems], and a formal approach and language-resonance that might remind the modern reader of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. These tonal signifiers are fused with an appreciation of the local, and a ‘transcendent’ sense of spatiality, linguistic and geographic hybridity, and ‘nature’. Despite being isolated in bush rural areas in the years after the founding of the Swan River Colony (1829), Brockman kept up with modern literature through regular consignments of books from the “old country”. There is no doubt she was familiar with the work of Barrett Browning (whose Poems were published in 1844 and were fantastically popular)...
And as background:
In the colony, poetry — much of it doggerel, though with the occasional gem — featured in the various newspapers that came with the ‘settlement’ of what is now known as Western Australia. Papers such as the Swan River Guardian (1836-1838), Inquirer (Perth, 1840-1901) Herald (Fremantle, 1867-1889), and Sun (Kalgoorlie, 1898-1929) were vehicles for the development of a State and regional literary consciousness. It wasn’t until 1873 that the first book of original verse by a Western Australian poet was published, Henry Clay’s Two and Two.
It’s this connection, in what is formulaic in her verse (the ‘dew’), and the oddness of its circumstances of production, that interests me still. In the last stanza of the poem, Brockman talks of the delicate dried flowers as being ‘frail memorials’, an echo of the markers of death of the colonists in their often-isolated graves, and the memory of markers in the Old Country. What is built is tenuous. More: the markers of memorialising are not visible to the casual observer, as they involve the deaths of those whose land is stolen, and the lost graves of those who died in ‘exploring’ and colonising. No word in this poem can be read within the conventions of English-language verse; every word, as ‘pat’ as it seems, comes with a contextual kick. Those who are in the Old Country are as the dead, as she is dead to them. The stolen land is haunted by misdeeds and her loss of connection is a haunting, too. She doesn’t overtly say this, but all colonial poetry, especially that written in such profound social and cultural isolation, tends towards such complexity. The electric link is more Frankenstein than a polite shudder of a genteel religious lady. Her religion is a buffer and buffers can dissolve so easily. The last few lines of affirmation and well-wishing are reassurance, not a polite homily.
When her family collected her work after her death, the small book came with an interesting preface. I quote a couple of extracts here:
Elizabeth Deborah Brockman, the authoress of this small book of verse, has just reached the close of her long and beautiful life. She passed away at her residence at Cannington in her 82nd year. She was the eldest daughter of Lieutenant Frederick William Slade, and was born in Edinburgh in 1833. When she was in her seventh year, her parents hearing much of the new settlement in Western Australia, caught the spirit of adventure and decided to join the small band of colonists there, and to find a new home for their young children in the land of the Southern Cross.
It was during these years that she wrote her poems. Some time in the early sixties, she met and formed here a great friendship with the late Archdeacon Brown and his wife. The latter was a daughter of the Rev. A. Mitchell, and the former was at that time Rector of the Parish of York, and editor of the Church Magazine. It was in accordance with his wish, and under his encouragement, that she allowed her verses to be published in his magazine under the nom de plume of “E.” Some years later, an uncle of hers in Edinburgh, perchancing to see the Church Magazine, was much struck with the beauty of the poems, and, collecting them, re-published them in pamphlet form for family circulation.
Mrs. Brockman was of a cheerful and buoyant disposition, but at this time of her life, grief for the loss of her much loved relations, and the many trials and difficulties insuperable from the rearing of a young family — in those days of early colonial settlement — had for a time greatly injured her health, which for some years was very precarious. Her poems were the children of heartache and solitude, and a deep note of sorrow runs through most of them, but her strong religious convictions and the firm faith in God which upheld her through all the trials of her life, is the key note of every one.
This might not be one of the greatest poems in the language, and it does fit a template of similar poems written out of the colonies with a longing for the absent family and the markers of the Old World, but it is different because of where it comes from and when it was written in that place. Context is everything, sure, but it’s even more than everything here. It’s a counter to the rules she lived by, the patterns of behaviour she chose to observe and uphold. No glittering poet’s-fame for her: just a connection with her own alienation reconfigured into an expression of the loss she certainly felt but also helped create.In some ways, this is a tragic poem of chronic depression, the crisis of the colonial subject and the subjectivity of being a ‘poetess’, and of searching for consolation where no consolation was or could be morally available. It is a poem, to my mind, of what I’d call temporariness and schism in belonging. What is ‘lost’ is permanently lost. Old memorials are the false memorials over the killing fields of the colonised land.
John Kinsella is the author of over forty books. He is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, and Professor of Literature and Sustainability at Curtin University. In 2007 he received the Fellowship of Australian Writers Christopher Brennan Award for lifetime achievement in poetry, and in 2013 was awarded the Australian Prime Minister's Literary Award for Poetry.
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