Margaret Bradstock, ‘Barnacle Rock’ launch by Chris Mansell
Chris Mansell launches Margaret Bradstock’s Barnacle Rock, 4 Aug 2013
It’s great to be here to help launch Margaret Bradstock’s Barnacle Rock for a couple of reasons: the first is that any book by Margaret is cause enough for celebration, a new one especially so, and the second to praise Puncher & Wattmann - and thereby David - who has been publishing so many excellent new books of poetry.
I’ve admired Margaret and her work for a long time –in her work as a writer and as an editor, she has a broad perspective. There are plenty of poets who can whip up some good little lyric riffs and bundle them all together quite niftily and they’re rather pleasant and/or a bit irritating. Sometimes they can leave you feeling a bit enervated and left out because they are writing from a world with which they themselves are not really engaged. It’s a bit of a game. That can be ok. Fine, but what I really liked about Barnacle Rock is that it is deeply embedded in the landscape and the history of the place Margaret lives in. Sydney, in this book, has deep history and personal history. It is unsentimental and deals with contentious topics and contested ground.
This is reflected in the structure: five sections which move further and further along the historical continuum. The first of these I found most challenging because my knowledge of history is sketchier than it should be. It’s a deeply Australian book. You have to be here/know here to understand it really. The book begins with the near misses and just-hits of early European (Dutch etc) exploration which, largely, wrote the continent off as a useless bit of real estate with no prospect for gold, uncongenial, uninteresting.
There are some we are familiar with, and some not. De Surville’s explorations (ending in 1770 with his death in New Zealand) intertwine (as they did in actuality) with Cook’s. The poems shift point of reference/point of view. Sometimes they are from the point of view of the French (in this case), other times from Cook’s, other times from the point of view of named Aboriginal groups. This last point is important I think. The indigenous presence in these poems is not ‘aboriginal’ (lower case, generic) but specific. There is a place already occupied, already known.
These poems proceed with quiet imagery which does not draw attention to itself; it serves the movement of the piece, the events and flow of the poem eg ‘Ships that Pass…’
A moment moves to its completion,
its sudden drift
etchings of land-birds on water.
Laid low by scurvy,
each day someone dies
Or, later, Banks’ description of the Illawarra escarpment (‘scraggy hip bones…’), then the comment: ‘The artist’s transmutant gaze//adds or subtracts detail…’. This theme recurs throughout the book as European explorers go about ‘giving names’ to places and geographical features.
There is a lovely confidence in this book. A sure hand. I love the quality of the language in ‘Antarctic Circle’ - not ornate, subtle eg of the burning cold:
Sails frozen into sculptures
frost-burn sears like flame.
The southern continent
an impenetrable wall of ice.
Ice blue as glass, mast-high
glaciers the size of harbours
the rim of that growling sea.
Nothing human survives. Nothing grows.
If you don’t pay attention you’d miss that elegant productive ambiguity at the end of that stanza. Nothing can prosper/nothing itself expands into the space.
There are subtle cultural echoes through the book. This one is of course the echo of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ which was written after the explorations that Margaret is writing about. Coleridge was inspired by these explorers’ accounts too.
And again, ‘Moons of Jupiter’ from d’Entrecasteaux’s journey and a view of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania and with the evocation of
Two of them singing the same tune
at once, but always
one a third above the other,
forming a concord,
they celebrate our transit.
They had good reason to, of course, but ‘transit’ here refers to the leaving of the explorers and to the explorers’ astronomical observations - in this case an observation of the moons of Jupiter (that they missed). Here also is an opportunity missed and an illustration of a quiet sort of compactness in the imagery that you have to pay attention to.
And there are quirky bits of history that make you smile: Ludwig Leichhardt in ‘Letter to William Nicholson…’ Leichhardt arrived in Sydney (in 1842 and 1844) and you see through his eyes - the subject-matter making strange what is now the ordinary eg the ‘sinuous roads to the farmlands/of Redfern and Chippendale…’
But more seriously, what follows is a quote from Leichhardt’s journal:
the heart of this dark continent is my goal,
and I will not give up until I get there.
which makes you wonder if Leichhardt’s view was coloured (literally) by descriptions of exploration of Africa (Conrad’s Heart of Darkness came out later in 1899) and overlaid this on the Australian continent - a less physically dark one could not be imagined. I loved this whole section - with its exploration of true myths of Australian discovery, but I will move on, otherwise we’ll be here all afternoon.
As I mentioned, ensuing sections move further away in time and closer to the personal/individual. With the long perspective, it’s important, I think, to read this book from the beginning to the end, not that it’s a continuous narrative, or anything like a continuous narrative, but that the images and the concerns of the early poems reappear in their modern iterations in the later poems. The early poems underpin the later.
I was born in this town, and have certainly written about it enough. I liked this book for giving me a different understanding. It is not as if I didn’t know about the explorers etc but Bradstock’s repeated images of water, of exploration of various kinds, mean that when she swims in a later poem, we recall the history, near and far, of the earlier ones.
This is explicit in the title poem, ‘Barnacle Rock’. It is rhythmically very confident, addressed to ‘you’, future then present, which carries the mirage of a sail , now a potent thing because of the history we have heard, the sailors’ stories, the explorers’ stories, which precede it in the first section.
There is an interesting shift in point of view, one of the many, and then ‘A man and his shadow/stride across skyline/in the footprints of worn sandstone.’ Who this man is, is not explained. The shadow of history, those who have gone before, iconically male, but with unexplained intention, becomes powerful.
And again in a contemporary view of the Harbour in ‘Wheel and Turn’:
Lit-up ferries/ tow their own darkness.
If you could choose your past where would it be?
meaning both where and when. This, it strikes me, is an essential contemporary question.
At the end it is neatly tied up with:
is for the birds.
(The end of no 2 of this suite).
This is presented as a throwaway line, but it isn’t. Nostalgia of course not being simply a longing for something past, as it is often misused, but a longing for home. The use here is a combined question: What is the past? Where is it and when?
This is characteristic of the best of Bradstock’s endings: you think you know where the poem is going and then there’s a deepening of the idea, turning the line, which rebalances the poem altogether.
There is a lot more to say about this book, but you’ll be grateful to know that I’m not going to say it. It has a deep intellect behind it, a subtlety of execution which repays close attention and is the work of a confident poet at the top of her form. I enjoyed this book like I enjoy a well-cooked meal. It was satisfying; it gave me something. And I can’t ask much more than this. I can, of course, ask more of you − that is, that you buy and enjoy the book.