THE SUNDAY POEM

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 37 Judith Wright
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Born New South Wales in 1915, a key influence (like the brilliant Gwen Barwood, born 1920, who died in her 70s) on younger Australian poets, Wright was given the Queen's Gold Medal for poetry in 1992 and is the only living poet nominated by Australia's Herald Sun as "Australian of the Century". Her big theme is the Australian land: its flora, fauna, men and women, its "tribal story, lost in an alien tale". She turns white Australian guilt (at being an invader culture, wasting land conserved by the culture it despoiled) into a universal theme: alienation, the self's violent distance from the world it inhabits. Recalling her grandfather's encounter with the ghost of an aboriginal warrior, she is a stranger "unloved by all my eyes delight in", unlike, "the blue crane in Cooloolah's twilight" who has fished here "longer than our centuries". Passionate, lyrical, meditative, sensual work; many collections since 1946; one British Selected.

In 1985, she wrote "Human eyes impose a human pattern". In this 1946 poem, she reads animal pain through the human filter of ancient epic, flinging Homeric compounds (drinker of blood, swift death-bringer, wild singer, insane Andromache, maker of elegies), archaisms of vocabulary and phrase (slain, many a warrior's mouth), declamation (with what crying you mourned him) and construction (for your lament the night was too brief, or veiled with blood her body's sun - inverted speech-order which puts noun and verb before adverbial phrase, and nouns before their verb) at animal death.

For a poem about a spoiled body, we start with spoiled grammar. Twisted and spoiled make you think the grammatical subject will be the dingo, but the main verb is crushed and its subject is they. If this really were Greek (or Latin), you could hive off the two first lines from the mainline grammar with an "absolute" construction: "Here (with your hide spoiled) they crushed ..." English can't do that: its flexibilities are different. Lacking the grammatic sophistication of inflection, it has to use extra words like "with". Twisted, which ought to go with the subject (they), describes the subject's victim. This English-language poem, humming with Greek epic resonances, gets across its message of alienated, damaging interconnectedness by damaged, alien grammar. Its basic mode is archaic too. It works mainly by apostrophe - not the comma in the air which stands for a dropped letter (as in "isn't"), but the other sort, the second-person address (as in Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale": "Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!"). The apostrophes desperate poet, wild singer, insane Andromache pair the dingo with her mate, the drinker of blood, the rebel one. He was the theme of her song. After here you lie all apostrophes stop. In the last two lines (like lines on a grave) the dingo is third- person, the lover who is slain. She mourned and tolled him; her lament was too long for the night. Now she is not a singer but the object of song, getting mourned herself. She is no longer addressed; her brightness is veiled (like mourners carved on a tomb): in blood, and in the poem's last two-line epitaph.

This block poem is one whole shout of pain, identifying with the animal, but its structure is a careful human pattern. The first six lines ('abcdec') are followed by four which pick up some of those rhymes ('bdae'). You comes in the sestet; I, in the quartet, addresses the dingo as colleague (I heard you, poet), asking did you hear me? Heard and hear wrap desperate poet: the poet's voice of urgent pain is centre of all hearing. Cry echoes I and is echoed in replying (which itself partners crying): I is an echo itself, a human I (who thinks of Homer, human deaths, human wives going mad with grief, the women's laments for Hector which end the Iliad) echoing the animal howl. You might also say warrior suggests a third heroic group whose song has been crushed: not just dingoes and Greeks but aboriginal warriors (like the ghost "At Cooloolah"), whose ancient songlines also echo through these dark ranges.

Voice from the hills repeats the 'abcdec' design with fresh rhymes. But in the first half, hear picked up fear: the 'b' was repeated in a seventh- line rhyme, the first line of the quartet. This 'b' line is now missing: the block poem is not regularly hewn, six-four, six-four. In the first half, the sestet closed on night was long. But the last line of the second sestet opens with the poem's emotional climax, insane Andromache (Hector's wife in Homer), and runs on into the next (to end, as before, 'dae', lie, slain, sun). The structure gets a feel of balanced closure but through inequality. Yet on balance, reciprocity wins. Like dingo and poet, the poem's two halves are nearly equal, if not exactly. The human redresses the balance: after male dingo as human warrior, come moon and stars seen in dingo-important terms: bone, white shorn mobs huddled and trembling. (Think sheep.) This poem is about the rough balance its form exemplifies, balancing love and cruelty, archaic past and immediate present, animal and human, erudition and nature. The torn dingo and her mate are dead. But via human identification with animal, light (stealthily) triumphs over dark. Though full of blood and grief, the poem moves from sunlight hide to stealthy sun, ringing its own darkness (dark ranges, many a night, the night was long, the long night was too brief) with sun.

a Ruth Padel, 1999

'Trapped Dingo' is taken from A Human Pattern: Selected Poems (Carcanet)

Trapped Dingo

So here, twisted in steel, and spoiled with red

your sunlight hide, smelling of death and fear,

they crushed out of your throat the terrible song

you sang in the dark ranges. With what crying

you mourned him! - the drinker of blood, the swift

death-bringer

who ran with you many a night; and the night was long.

I heard you, desperate poet. Did you hear

my silent voice take up the cry? - replying:

Achilles is overcome, and Hector dead,

and clay stops many a warrior's mouth, wild singer.

Voice from the hills and the river drunken with rain,

for your lament the long night was too brief.

Hurling your woes at the moon, that old cleaned bone,

till the white shorn mobs of stars on the hill of the sky

huddled and trembled, you tolled him, the rebel one.

Insane Andromache, pacing your towers alone,

death ends the verse you chanted; here you lie.

The lover, the maker of elegies is slain,

and veiled with blood her body's stealthy sun.

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