Tag Archives: poems about place

QLD Writers Week Feature #7: Nathan Shepherdson

It’s the final day of QLD Writers Week 2011 and what a great week it has been. We have explored the big sky country of Western QLD, felt the pull of the Brisbane River, looked into the dark corners of Fortitude Valley and tasted the salt of the Pacific as it hits the headland at Byfield National Park. And finally, we walk through the landscape of Nathan Shepherdson’s mind and into the majestic Glasshouse Mountains.

Words instead of geography

Am I the wrong poet on the right bus? I don’t consider myself a poet of place. Even as a general question it’s a difficult one to answer? An Italian friend/poet/translator Massimiliano Mandorlo recently asked me to send him books by Queensland poets. In the end I took the easy way out and sent books published in Queensland by poets living in Queensland at the time of publication. Some of the poets still lived here, some didn’t. Others lived here, but were not born here, and still had very strong connections elsewhere. Only a couple were born here and still lived here.

In Italy dialect is solidly built into the language, so regional traits can be very distinctive. Matt Hetherington tells me he can pick a Queensland poem because it often mentions mangroves. I’d never thought about this myself, but did find one example in my own work:

this mangrove seed
is a four page book
full of waxy definitions
of its own green

This verse comes from my Marian Drew piece. It’s not emblematic usage more botanical metaphor. (I’d been looking at a seed while watching my son swim at Mooloolaba). Tom Shapcott still associates and is widely associated with Queensland. His most recent book is called Marcoola. His head is an archive of facts and experiences relating to Queensland. He hasn’t lived here for over 30 years, but is one of this state’s best poets.

So the question of place in my work does not have a simple answer. I am a poet living in Queensland, not a Queensland poet. (This question of course was asked by Graham Nunn who to my mind is a Queensland poet living in Queensland). I’m just as likely to be wandering around in a language or a landscape. I live at the Glasshouse Mountains. A remarkable place. Remarkable because of what they are and what they represent. If there is a place for them in my work, it’s to remind me of my insignificance. I accept that I am dust with a pulse and a temporary passport. It’s easier to witness something if you’re not there. We invent perception to invent ourselves.

Taking stock as at 9.08pm on 6th October 2011, the sum total of lines in my work describing the mountains is four. The lines are from i had a dream i was talking to Lawrie Daws on the phone:

volcanic cathedrals
encircled by the fossils of worshippers yet to be found
gargantuan punctuation
marked out in a sentence that reads the curve of the earth

This signals a type of failing in my creative process. The lines do not name the mountains. They have wonderful names – Beerwah, Ngungun, Coonowrin, Tibrogargan among others. Considering them as words instead of geography, they come from a different language, and my culture was an invading one from a different hemisphere. Now eight years after writing the poem I see a small syllabic crossover between Tibrogargan and gargantuan. The second starts where the first ends. This simple statement could apply to cultures, languages, time, individuals, or breathing. Maybe that’s where I am. Breathing too is a constant and enjoyable presence in my life, but I don’t necessarily need to describe it on a regular basis. The landscape I live in describes itself very well without my intervention. I’m pleased to be part of what I don’t belong to.

The four lines come from a long poem focussing on the painter Lawrence Daws. Perhaps in a splintered way I was supplanting my descriptive inabilities into his success? Daws has incorporated the Glasshouse Mountains into his work with profound skill and intelligence for over 30 years. However Daws acknowledges that where you are is also a metaphysical point of departure. Talking about his 1978 work View of the Himalayas from the Glasshouse Mountains, he says “This is my spot, from here I can look out and see the whole world, you know. That’s why I did (this) painting. This is a place where I can feel free to move in any direction, and react in any particular way. ….I like to be able to ramble mentally”.

In one way my poem was an attempt to understand the process of painting, but I couldn’t avoid what Daws painted. It’s not uncommon to record what something looks like, but it is uncommon to capture what it is. To work out what something is (in this case a landscape) you have to dismiss yourself in the presence of something that is virtually eternal. Daws understands the temporal nature of creativity and the thoughts required for its production. He had to become the chair he was sitting on in order to get the best view.

Lawrence Daws and Geoffrey Dutton were very close friends. Geoffrey Dutton also lived at the Glasshouse Mountains in his later years, near the base of Coonowrin. Here are the opening lines of a poem he wrote about that mountain:

Magma that froze
In the volcano’s throat . . .
Even geology
Turns into poetry.

Dutton moved here in October 1991. My wife and I also moved here in 1991. Unfortunately I never met Dutton. In his autobiography Dutton states simply “Working here is working in paradise”. Dutton obviously had a more straightforward relationship to this landscape than I do, as his beautiful sequence Moving to the Glasshouse Mountains attests. Perhaps either with brush or word you need to remove yourself from the landscape before there is any hope you will find (or attempt to find) yourself in it?

Twenty years later I’m still here. In geological time this is only a moment. In that moment I am still accompanied by my wife and now also accompanied by two children, four books and a dog. Inside my work-day train I am delivered to Brisbane by stainless steel envelope. I see a back-view of Tibrogargan from my house, and from the train look directly into its mythological face. The sky has it under surveillance. It’s a dark-stone mirror on which I reflect but in which I cannot be reflected.

Perhaps there is a fragment of Kierkegaard in my view when he says “Just like plunging a finger into the soil to recognise what land we’re in, I poke my finger into life: it has the odour of nothing.” I don’t see this as a negative. The magnitude of the cycle we’re a part of allows us no opportunity to compete with it.

So is the place where you are right now depicting your presence or your absence? Which would you prefer? Somewhere else could also be here if it consents to your invitation. The landscape flies over its own memories. You just happen to be in some of them. 

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Postscript

In the best tradition of self-contradiction I felt dissatisfied with the fact I had only written four lines about the Glasshouse Mountains in twenty years. The mountains are an important part of my daily life. I do walk around them as an adjunct to either creating or resolving certain (or uncertain) thoughts. So I used Graham’s question as challenge to respond. Taking stock (again) as at 11.01 am on 8th October my Glasshouse image repository has increased in size but is still small. The following work was written yesterday. . .

 
what odour in light (glasshouse triptych)

I

what odour in light
before it was stone

a handful of mountains
purchased before memory
when clouds carried new water
or reconciled invented gas
into chemistries of licked chance
folding all as if soil
was a fresh conglomerate
of egg whites and lava
in a sunset beneath the earth
where red would not be abandoned
within an endless speech
of unmeasured violence
a temperature is set in space
with enough breath
to rehydrate an ocean
and recognise the brittle grey
where energy sufficiently departed
allows the footprint of an insect

on its death
a mountain
extends it death

and to this point
is complete time
found in a leaf

II

in what magnitude
is landscape a skin
grafted to an eye

words made over
in the wrong language
before which
i present myself
in order to be expelled

this is the place
we lift up rocks
looking for tongues
in the hope
of never finding them

i followed their names
back to the mountains
but knew without question
they would not speak to me
if i spoke to them

a mountain
has the luxury
of hiding
in its own form

and this lungless family
knitting tears into creeks
have suffered our thoughts
into farmland

III

tear holes in space
until bones
fall out of the seasons

mountains sing
in a voice
only fossils will hear

trees will burn anyway

when an ant
finds food
it finds itself

on rhyolite & trachyte
shadows divorce the sun
until they’re in love

we murder absence
with our presence

we crawl into a cave
and find silence
dining on flies

thoughts are mortar

the lifespan of an apostrophe
depends on its ability
to abbreviate more than words

landscapes occur
in the memory
of a climate
without memory
is evidence just
conceived in the fact
that it is here
following itself in to
chasing itself out of
regenerating graves

this language
is an introduced species

the mountains move
when we’re asleep
whisper their faces
onto elastic maps
that will never exist

nathan shepherdsonoctober 2011

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Nathan Shepherdson has won the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize twice (2004, 2006), the 2005 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Award, 2006 Newcastle Poetry Prize and 2006 Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award. His first book Sweeping the Light Back into the Mirror (UQP 2006) won the Mary Gilmore Award in 2008. In 2008 he released ‘what marian drew never told me about light’ (Small Change Press) and his most recent collection, Apples with Human Skin was published in 2009 by University of Queensland Press.

 

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QLD Writers Week Feature #6: Helen Avery

Day #6 of QLD Writers Week is here and once more, we are looking westward, into the ageless landscape that Helen Avery calls home.

Old Beyond Age

The world is intense.  It has always been my best friend so I have never been afraid of solitude.

I have always immersed myself in whatever place I happen to be in.  I spent much of my childhood belly up to the sky, belly down to the earth and I have never lost the need for that kind of  intimacy.

So the places that inspire me most are those where I happen to have spent the most time on skin to skin terms.  I’ve been a farmer for most of my life so the earth has never been extraneous. I have worked with it, on it and my dependency has been entire. I have travelled over it and my eyes have always been open.

 I live on the other side of the coastal ranges where the landscape rolls out like a worn swag blanket. I like dust and mud beneath my feet.  I like laying my hands against trees and stone.  I like learning the names of plants and of the processes of creation that laugh at our paranoia about measuring time in fractions of seconds. I love the feeling of enough space around my shoulders that I can see the curve of the planet against the rest of space.  I love the spin of seasons so subtle I can scent change on the wind and feel it on my skin.

It’s not about beauty or lack of beauty.  It’s about awareness of where we are and the absolute exposure of the mind and the senses to this.  It’s about somewhere old beyond age, something battered and wrinkled and unashamed and beautiful and vibrant beyond belief or definition.

How do I capture this for a reader? If I could, I would write without words, trace poetry on the wind.  As it is, all I can say is that, I try, because it is in me to write and I love words.  If they disappear on the wind like vapour … then that is okay and as it should be. 

by Helen Avery

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Heading home

In the pre dawn I leave the ocean
at my back and drive west
looping over the coastal ranges.

Darkness hooks on
the harsh call of the first crows
and is drawn back from the valleys

leaving them drenched in mist and chill
until the sun eases out of the somewhere
ocean behind me and dispenses the day.

Beyond Boguntungun eagles swing
off the tails of thermals and the hills
and the dry scrub roll and flatten.

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Helen Avery is a poet for whom a sense of place is as natural and essential as drawing breath. The ‘Outback’ holds iconic status in the national psyche but it is not a museum relic. It is a vibrant part of contemporary Australia. It is the honesty of a natural environment that exposes both landscape and those who live there with stark clarity that drives Helen to write and perform with sensitivity, passion and deep respect.

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