Essay by Judith Rodriguez
At the end of World War II, Judith Wright was thirty, and less than a year off publishing her first book. Australian literature was still dominated by depictions of country and bush life of The Bulletin writers of the 1890s: Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and their contemporaries. Despite the achievements of such writers of the 1930s as Katherine Susannah Prichard (Brumby Innes, a 1920s play; the novel Coonardoo, 1929), Xavier Herbert (Capricornia, 1932) and Eleanor Dark (The Timeless Land, 1941), the iconic Australian characters remained the man from Snowy River, Mulga Bill and the drover’s wife: examples of endurance, of efforts to prevail against isolation, unforgiving terrain, drought and flood. Judith Wright’s Collected Poems (Angus and Robertson), first published in 1994, would reflect a different world with expanded, subtler concerns.
Judith Wright’s ancestors were cattle-raising pioneers of the Dawson Valley in Queensland’s hinterland. The family later moved to New England, where Wright was born in 1915. In the war years, after university study in Sydney, she returned to help on her father’s station where she became deeply involved with the land.
In 1944, Wright moved to Queensland, where she worked at the University of Queensland and assisted in the office of Meanjin, Australia’s first great literary journal, founded in 1940.
Her first book, The Moving Image (Meanjin Press, 1946), is preoccupied with New England and its history. ‘Northern River’ is ‘my river’, Wright claims, home of birds, the vine, the lilies, and native as well as imported farmed animals. It inspires rapt recall:
the river speaks in the silence,
and my heart will also be quiet. (p. 6)
‘Country town’ moves into history, with bearded shepherds – some ex-convicts – homesick for England, singing round the fire. With an assurance uncommon in first-book poets, she announces issues by-passed by most of The Bulletin’s writers, that preoccupied the poet all her life. Wright’s country is not just a site for heroism or misery. She balances her deep personal belonging there and affection for it, with an equally deep consciousness of responsibility – rare accomplishments in earlier Australian writing.
The works from The Moving Image included in Collected Poems speak of the formation of Wright’s sensibilities, her contemplation of Australia’s evolution, environment and history, her passionate engagement with both inward and outward aspects of life. It accepts the legacy of guilt as well as the need to belong.
Only the rider’s heart
halts at a sightless shadow, an unsaid word
that fastens in the blood the ancient curse,
the fear as old as Cain. (‘Bora ring’ p. 8)
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. (‘South of my days’ p. 20)
After the publication of The Moving Image, while still living in Brisbane, two significant things happened in Wright’s life: she met Jack McKinney, whom she would later marry, and published Woman to Man (Angus and Robertson, 1949). Like her first collection, Woman to Man contains longer works, as well as some of Wright’s most celebrated poems, including ‘Woman to man’, with its sudden, unforgettable move from dignified statement and rich metaphor:
This is the strength that your arm knows,
the arc of flesh that is my breast,
the precise crystals of our eyes.
this is the blood’s wild tree that grows
the intricate and folded rose.
…to personal cry:
Oh hold me, for I am afraid. (p. 27)
‘The blind man’, like the moving short poems ‘The sisters’ and ‘The twins’ engages with the lives of others. They urge us past clichés, past the distancing of age or contempt for ‘ne’er-do-wells’, to see memories, relationships, frustration and hurt at work in the lives around us. Wright’s empathy is perhaps given its most intense form in ‘Metho drinker’, a deeply compassionate poem about a waster on the edge of society whom Wright finds not out of range, whose weakness and urges become part of the poet’s (and thus the reader’s) world.
‘Eli, Eli’ (p. 44) evokes the inner suffering of Christ rather than the usual Christian preoccupation with his humiliation and hurt on the way to crucifixion. He agonises for a world of people needing to be saved from ‘the river’ – their busy courses in life, their alienation from love.
In 1950, Wright and McKinney moved to Tamborine Mountain in South-East Queensland, which would become her home for almost two decades. It was different country: not open grazing land, but rainforest, teeming with animal and bird life, the subject of many of her poems.
The first collection Wright published here was The Gateway (Angus and Robertson, 1953): rich and varied in its dealings with natural life, intertwined with love and fear and childbirth. ‘The cicadas’ is remarkable in the way it juxtaposes the threat of death with the relentless urge to create life using the life cycle of the cicada. The insect labours to find the light, to be a ‘wild singer’ like the dingo. Its struggle from the ‘motherly-enclosing’ ground, reaches toward ecstatic vision and the creative, participating joy of the poet:
This is the wild light that our dreams foretold
while unaware we prepared these eye sand wings –
while in our sleep we learned the song the world sings.
Sing now, my brothers, climb to that intolerable gold. (p. 100)
The Gateway intensifies Wright’s consideration of love. ‘Fire at murdering hut’ (p. 72) is a re-sensitising, an agonising exposure to hurt.
In ‘Legend’ (p. 99), a repurposing of old folk-tale tropes – gun, sword, evil-omened blackbird – hints at Wright’s burgeoning interest in myth and legend. The poem follows a blacksmith’s boy, with his black dog and a black hat on his head, as he confronts all threats and comes home with the rainbow over his shoulder instead of a gun. A promise of hope (as in the Biblical story of the rainbow after Noah’s flood), rather than the intention to kill.
Mountains jumped in his way,
rocks rolled down on him,
and the old crow cried, ‘You’ll soon be dead.’
And the rain came down like mattocks.
But he only said
I can climb mountains, I can dodge rocks, I can shoot an old crow any day,
and he went on over the paddocks.
What freshness, finding the young hero not among the hedges and copses of England, but striding our paddocks! The confidence with which Wright creates this bush derring-do exemplifies the greater thrust of The Gateway, in which she links the fruits of nature with human joy, love and understanding.
Wright’s intense focus on the natural environment is reminiscent of some early nineteenth century Romantic poetry; for instance, Shelley’s ‘Ode to a skylark’, where the bird’s song is not just nature at work but an emblem of hope and liberty. But rather than just contemplation, her preoccupation with nature led to an enduring engagement with environmental activism and conservation efforts. She worked to create nature conservation bodies, being particularly concerned by damage to the Great Barrier Reef and to Fraser Island, home of the last pure-bred dingo stock. Some critics have said that Wright’s activism made for a deterioration in her later output of poetry, but readers of Birds (1962), Five Senses (1963), The Other Half (1966), Alive: Poems 1971–72 (1973), Fourth Quarter and Other Poems (1976) and Phantom Dwelling (1985), all published by Angus and Robertson, can hardly feel short changed.
Among the many causes Wright made room in her life as she grew older – issues she perceived as vital to the health of the land and of society – the extension of human rights and dignity to the Indigenous people of Australia was a constant. The Moving Image addresses the persecution and relegation of Indigenous people in ‘Bora ring’, ‘Nigger’s leap, New England’ and ‘Half-caste girl’, and later collections.
While not a common focus of attention for Australian poetry before Wright, some of her predecessors did address Indigenous issues: Henry Kendall’s ‘The last of his tribe’ (1864) – a title used again by poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal – and Mary Gilmore’s ‘The myall in prison’ (1932), for example. Gilmore, brought up in Wiradjuri country, knew that men with guns assembled for a day’s sport were after human ‘game’ as well. Indigenous issues would not begin to find real prominence in Australian poetry until the publication of Noonuccal’s collection We Are Going in 1964 (Jacaranda), under her non-Indigenous name Kath Walker.
Wright’s ancestors in Australia – pastoralists and members of the squattocracy (British-originating graziers, typically granted large swathes of land) – appropriated Indigenous country in central Queensland, a proceeding always accompanied by displacement of Indigenous people.
I met Judith Wright in the 1970s, among the stacks and catalogue files of the National Library of Australia. I asked what she was researching, and she replied that having written The Generations of Men (Oxford University Press, 1959) about her family’s history in the Dawson Valley, she was setting the balance right by researching the concurrent presence of Indigenous people there. Her research resulted in The Cry for the Dead (Oxford University Press, 1981). This insistence on justice and human feeling inspired her activism right up to her much-noted participation in a march on Canberra in 2000, for reconciliation between Australia’s Indigenous people and colonial and immigrant descendants.
Wright’s corpus is an expansive one; Collected Poems spans more than forty years of her poetic output. Much of this has been extensively commented on; though there are a few poems that I find remarkable in ways not already noticed. Take ‘Flying-fox on barbed wire’ and ‘Gum-trees stripping’, for example, from the 1955 collection The Two Fires (Angus and Robertson) – a reference to Heraclitus’s description of the world as ‘an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling and measures going out’. ‘Flying-fox on a barbed wire’ follows her poems of pity for the hunted dingo and her primeval fear of the snake, though it is much less stark. It describes how some humans find the little bat snared on a wire fence, and free it into a nearby tree. Wright chronicles many domestic and everyday events, and often reads deeper aspects from them, as with the flying-fox encounter:
…go to your country night; and we,
accomplice to day’s enemy,
too must forget
that we and the Devil ever met. (p. 132)
‘Gum-trees stripping’ counters the oft-repeated assertion of early colonists that Australian nature was somehow contrary to the way it should be – that is, as it exists in Europe. These foreigners spoke of ‘songless bright birds’; they missed the fragrance of European flowers; they felt that the irregularly shaped gum trees and the strange native animals were somehow wrong. Wright’s gum tree may be thought to ‘look like humility, or this year’s wreck of last year’s love, or wounds ripped by the summer’s claw’. Wright finds ‘reasons past the edge of reason’, on observing
…the red, the rose,
the stained and sculptured curve of grey,
the charcoal scars of fire, and see
around the living tower of tree
the hermit tatters of old bark
split down and strip to end the season… (p. 133)
These apparent injuries are stages of a different cycle of life. Some eucalypts need fire in order to pollinate and seed; and the ‘season’ of some varieties ends with fallen strips of bark rather than falling leaves.
Shadow (Angus and Robertson, 1970) contains a number of poems in memory of her husband, Jack McKinney, who died suddenly in 1966. There is also a new-found, wry laughter, in ‘Poem’ (p. 267), ‘Advice to a young poet’ (p. 269), and ‘At a poetry conference, Expo 1967’ (p. 270).
Wright was conscious of her part in Australian poetry, and its part in world literature. In ‘Brennan’ (p. 403), from Phantom Dwelling, she writes
Walking the streets of your poem
you told dead Mallarmé…
Here’s your great book,
finished at the ends of earth.
It’s the story of Man.
The linguist and literary scholar C. J. Brennan (1870–1932) wrote celebratory poetry that stemmed from the French symbolist movement; an unexpected and difficult mode for Australian readers. In The Other Half (Angus and Robertson, 1966) are poems to more popular poets whom she probably knew – Queensland sea-poet John Blight (p. 225) and the sensitive and idealistic John Shaw Neilson (p. 235), who died in 1942; in Alive (Angus and Robertson, 1973), one to Mary Gilmore (p. 321), who died 1962. In choosing to write to these very different poets of different generations, Wright illustrates her own wide range, so evident in the Collected Poems.
A final note: Judith Wright was profoundly deaf from her early twenties and completely so in the last decade of her life, but trained herself to read aloud clearly – if with a slightly odd timbre. In ‘Counting in sevens’ (p. 384), she attests to receiving ‘some strange gift’ every seven years. Her deafness perhaps continued a certain childhood isolation, orphaned of her mother. Was it a blow or a gift, a quiet space perhaps, in which to pursue insights, inner sights? Either way, remembered sound gave us profound musicality in her poems.
Arnott, Georgina. 2016. The Unknown Judith Wright. 1st ed. Perth: UWA Publishing.
Brady, Veronica. 1998. South Of My Days. 1st ed. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
© Copyright Judith Rodriguez 2017