Margaret Bradstock, ‘Barnacle Rock’ in The Australian

Free-form excursions to the high ground

IanMcFarlane reviews Margaret Bradstock's 'Barnacle Rock' in The Australian


American journalist and sometime poet Don Marquis memorably compared publishing a book of poetry to throwing a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for an echo.

Even allowing for the fact he was also a humorist, I suspect his metaphor carries weight, which prompts me to suggest that reviewing poetry, given its tenuous relevance to contemporary culture, may be compared to deconstructing a performance of Waiting for Godot in an empty theatre during a blackout.

Poetry today is a minority art, largely, I suspect, because of a yawning (pun intended) gap between the lofty perceptions of an increasing number of insiders who wish to write it and the everyday reactions of a diminishing number of outsiders who bother to read it. And there’s the rub: while most of us can readily agree we need poetry to sustain a civilised culture, the position is less clear when it comes to the tangled task of unravelling function from form.

The three handsomely produced collections under review are useful examples of poetry’s contemporary direction. They are all products of sophisticated intelligence, with concerns ranging from historical exploration to narrative memory and redemptive aesthetics.

The poems are closely focused, often vivid and generally accessible; driven by an undeniable sense of artistic sensitivity, although never quite managing to escape the implicitly satisfied tang of having occupied a literary high ground.

The text in all three collections is almost entirely expressed in a stylised form of free verse, and while I have no particular problem with this — other than to suggest (perhaps playfully) that by removing chosen line breaks and idiosyncratic spacing, the words can morph towards charismatic prose — it implies a deliberate avoidance of rhyme. Perhaps this shouldn’t matter although, personally, I like to think it does.

Traditionally, poetry with the power to invoke Wordsworth’s “still, sad music of humanity’’ was arguably considered to be the mother tongue of English literature, although more recently its voice has been muffled by many things, including the white noise of a fatally distracted “look at me’’ digital generation. I’ve loved poetry all my life but find it hard to resist the notion that somewhere around the middle of the 20th century it was lured into a labyrinth of self-indulgent jiggery-pokery and is still struggling, with honourable exceptions, of course, to find a way out.

At this point, it may be appropriate also to confess a long-held scepticism about the process of writing anything worthwhile having become far too aware of itself. In short, a risible proliferation of creative writing courses and literary festivals, coupled with the predictive prejudice of peer-group expectation, inevitably becomes detrimentally counterintuitive. Writing well is crucially linked to individual personality, and more difficult to achieve than most people may suppose, while poets need to find a vocation before measuring an occupation. Creativity can be sought, and certainly encouraged, but soon becomes hopelessly entangled with artifice when simply assumed, or attempting to be taught. Suffice to say, there’s a damn sight more involved in being a writer (especially of poetry) than wanting to be one.

Margaret Bradstock is a Sydney poet, critic and editor with a well-deserved literary persona, established through many years, having been an Asialink writer-in-residence in China, co-editor of Five Bells and a member of the board of directors for Australian Poetry. Barnacle Rock is her sixth poetry collection and displays a keen eye for the visceral context of some groundbreaking history, embracing the discovery and exploration of Australia. It’s easy to forget that James Cook’s Endeavour was one of several arrivals to the fabled shores of our “great south land”, which had been also noticed (painfully as well as disdainfully) by captains of Portuguese, Dutch and French ships, and Bradstock’s opening poem, 'Country of Beach', deftly corrals a broad compass:

Portuguese navigators
stunned by waterspouts …
Mercator’s Beach the golden province
its window-pane maps
or Horne’s the lucky country.
Maybe Cook’s Terra Nullius still,
with its new-coined Straya Day.
Life’s a beach, all right,
Bra boys controlling the surf
waves rolling in forever
and the slide of sand.
The “sacred geometry’’ of ocean.

Between the wonder of early Portuguese navigators and the bravado of latter-day Bra boys, Bradstock charts her poetic course, from a pre-colonial wilderness to threats of radiation and climate change. Personal pronouns lend individual passion to history; as in Moons of Jupiter, where the voice is that of Jacques Labillardiere, a French botanist who kept a diary during the d’Entrecasteaux expedition of 1792: “We set up an observatory tent,/ forges, repair yards, a village,/ but miss the satellites,/ Bonvouloir so disappointed/ he weeps like a child.’’

Elsewhere, lines from Leichhardt’s journal give a haunting resonance to a longer poem concerning mid-19th century colonial impressions and expeditions, and Mawson: the Heroic Era takes us under the snow into the 20th century: “In the morning, I buried him/under a pile of snow-blocks./ Mertz, you deserved better than this,/ the rough cross made from runners/ of the cut-down sledge.’’ I like these poems; they’re fluently inventive and elegantly paced.

Ian McFarlane, The Australian, March 15, 2014

Read the full review in The Australian

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