BOOK REVIEW / The green-voiced bird is still singing there: 'Collected Poems' - Judith Wright: Carcanet, 25 pounds

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NOTHING has ever been loved as much as it deserves, wrote that great 17th- century poet and mystic Thomas Traherne. And the least loved place of all must surely be my home state of New South Wales, the 20th-century Australian poet Judith Wright, now in her 80th year, might have added.

Wright's forebears arrived in New South Wales in 1828. The colony was barely 50 years old, and those two determined and well-to-do colonisers, George Wyndham and his half-Huguenot wife, laid claims to portions of land that came to equal in size the largest of the English counties. They established a vineyard. They bred livestock. They experimented with crops. They procreated energetically.

But, above all, they benefited mightily by the dubious legal claim of terra nullius - that the coloniser be allowed to seize the land of his choice because it has no rightful owner (this claim came under challenge again in the Australian High Court as recently as 1992). So much for the rights of the aboriginal peoples whom the colonisers dispossessed - blown away like so much dust in the wind.

To explain all this is to set Judith Wright in her proper context - as both poet and activist on behalf of the native peoples of Australia, their customs, their dead and dying languages. It is also to give the give to Yeats' fantastic notion that a poet must necessarily choose between a life of action and a life of contemplation.

Judith Wright published her first and most famous collection, The Moving Image, in 1946, and a number of her best-known and most anthologised pieces - especially the marvellous 'Nigger's Leap, New England', a rhetorically charged, high-singing account of the murder of a group of aboriginals by a gang of whites - first appeared in that collection.

Unfortunately, she had the ill luck (from the point of view of her poetry) to fall in with a wayside philosopher called Jack McKinney, who was later to publish a book of ambitious intellectual synthesis entitled The Structure of Modern Thought with a little help from his friends. A new cloudiness seemed to enter the poetry; airy abstractions transformed it into something vatic and almost Blakean - but not for too long, thank goodness. In 1962, she published Birds, a collection shot through with humour and close observation; evidence, everywhere, of the poet's quick eye. And that eye has remained sharply focused.

In spite of the almost overwhelming burden of guilt in this book, and the ceaseless reiteration of the fact that her forebears had lived dishonest pastoral lives, and of the need for her, 150 years later, to expiate that guilt through action and the witness-bearing that is good writing, what always wins out is her endless fascination with all the details of that beautiful stolen spirit-land itself: its entomology; its geology; its plant-life and its insects. The witnessing becomes a kind of sacred task - part of an individual's search for wholeness or an assertion of 'the holiness of being', in her own words. But the task itself is always executed with an uncluttered clarity, a clean simplicity.

The threat of the disappearance of the oriole serves, in a poem of the Seventies, as an augury of some final, irreversible catastrophe. Fortunately, that green-voiced bird is singing still in those parts, though less full-throatedly these days.