A walk along the beach on just about the shortest day of the year, tiny waves pulsing in from nowhere, hypnotic.
What do you learn when you consider this landscape as it once was?
Hard to say, but I thought there was something worthwhile in the consideration of that idea, as there I was, on a cold and showery Saturday morning, joining perhaps thirty others, to watch the launch of a series of heritage signs at a local beach: the appropriately named Fossil Beach, ten minute walk from my home, and a place I’ve written about before.
What did we expect I wonder?
We saw signs unveiled and launched, and we heard first-hand, the stories of the family who excavated this place. Those who told the stories were children then and returned to the place. They told of regular weekends spent unpacking the debris of the past.
We heard of the shifts in the earth that sent this place askew, pushing fossils out of the base clay, the layer called Balcombe clay, and how few places there are where you can see the evidence of how such things happen.
We heard of the indigenous people who live and ate here and walked these tracks and of the shells they left in heaps through the thousands of years of their passing. We heard how their oral history of a great flood matched the geological records of the bay filling, a thousand years ago.
Then, with settlement, industry; a short-lived cement works whose remnants lie in broken stones intriguingly half-hidden in the bush; this is progress you might be seduced into thinking, putting these stones together which have already gone to pieces.
Later, we heard of a young woman artist who painted the ruins of the cement works, a Romantic gesture like Wordsworth’s salute to the ruins of Tintern Abbey. She was eighteen, taught and influenced by the colonial artist Eugene von Guérard. An expert talked lovingly of the perspective and the frame; she’d spent months researching the provenance of the frame; what Melbourne company might have made this.
What do you learn from all this? Maybe you learn about the layers. First the primeval. The geological, the tectonic.
Then indigenous, their stories of the Bay as a great, open swampland, before the ocean rushed in, that ancient memory story, now backed by scientists.
How quickly progress became nostalgic in the art of the ruined romantic landscape.
And, finally, stories of the near-present, the place bordered up with warning signs and cyclone fencing, for years you couldn’t get in.
We listened to the speeches with rain coming in bursts from over the bay. Looked at the arrangements of rocks and the place where the tower was. A month later, and two of the fresh new heritage signs have been ‘tagged’ by some teenage vandal eager to leave his incoherent layer to all this as well.
When I typed that title I almost changed it. Remembering Les? I didn’t know him and I didn’t want this title to be a misleading invitation to some reader, eager for memories and anecdotes (there’s just one) but when I heard of Les Murray’s death this week I took a bit of time to remember what he meant to me as a poet over the years and also as an editor who supported my work.
When I discovered that poetry was still alive and real, and began reading and exploring poetry seriously for the first time, undertaking an MA at Monash University I soon discovered Les Murray. I wrote a minor thesis on the development of the long poem in Australia, from 1960 to 1980. It was an age of national re-evaluation and the study began with work like Captain Quiros by James McAuley and ended with Les Murray’s rollicking narrative of sonnets, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral. I read a lot, including all of Murray, and grew to love his breath-verse, his gorgeous verve with words with favourites like the early Driving through Sawmill Towns andThe Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle and one of my very favourites: The Broad-Bean Sermon.
Murray is often described as the ‘bard of the bush’ kind of writer but more precisely I think he’s a fine poet of place, and was a big influence on me opening my eyes to ways of seeing the very particular. His sense of locale, of the landscape and history of the place, a strange conservative environmentalist (like another distinctive Australian voice: Eric Rolls?) I loved his inventiveness, his wit and his way of turning the familiar into this wonderful surprising thing (almost) trapped in language.
From the late 1980s as I was working hard towards the publication of my first book of poetry, I was writing furiously and sending poems out to all corners, lot of times without success. Murray had begun as poetry editor of the conservative magazine Quadrant in 1991 and was receptive to my work, as I was hugely admiring of his. I copped a little flak from publishing in that journal from some quarters, but Murray’s endorsement as poetry editor trumped any concerns I might have had about the politics of that journal. Murray published seventeen poems of mine over the next few years and I was always grateful for that support and endorsement. One of the poems of mine he published was this one:
NORTHERLY IN EARLY SPRING
Outside, the wind in the trees
sounds like the sea,
but warm; a northerly
uncomfortable among the grey
still bare brooms of poplars
that line the rim of this paddock.
The wind is a warm liquid,
unsettling, visible in waves
along the yellow-green grass, flattening
like a helicopter does or a flipper
of a diver brushing away the fine silt
Some crows, ink spots
in the high light,
are swimming like exotic fish,
suspended in it, sliding.
Their black fins, ragged,
torn along the edges,
as if something has been eating at them.
The one small anecdote? I was lucky enough to see Murray read his work several times over the years, at book launches and festivals. Once, while I was doing my Masters at Monash University, Murray did a reading for staff and students. Of course I went along and Les signed my copy of The Vernacular Republic (Poems 1961-1891) Afterwards, my supervisor suggested I join a few of the English Department teachers for a Chinese meal at a restaurant nearby: Les was coming along.
It was winter, dark, cold and I wanted to get home. I was tired, teaching full-time and trying to study and write. It was going to be a slow 45 minute drive home. So I didn’t go. I’ve always regretted it. Dinner with Les Murray. But, oddly enough, I really I didn’t, even then, feel a compelling need to meet the person because I knew so much through the poetry.
Luckily we’ll always have that.
Top: River Red Gums
Above: My copy of The Vernacular Republic, from the A&R Modern Poets series with the famously brittlely blued spines!, signed by Les Murray
Below: The broad, majestic Murray, near Mildura
Last week I walked down to the evocatively named Fossil Beach, not far from my house, and walked beyond the track and the sea-wall over a litter of sharp and chaotic rocks to where they dig for fossils.
Above: The work of fossil hunters
Fossil Beach is renowned in scientific circles for the fossils that have been found there over the years and I soon saw evidence of places where people had been tapping away, cracking open the rocks, looking for evidence of the ancient past.
But what struck me, once again, even before I reached the fossils was the layer of shells by the path, the edge of a midden in the process of being revealed.
This was a place where Aboriginal people, the Bunurong people, lived and ate and died, for thousands of years. These shells are remnants of their meals and their community.
It reminded me of a poem that I wrote ages ago when I first realised that the beach I thought of as my own, belonged to someone else, originally.
Maybe it’s worth re-sharing this Australia Day weekend.
At the end of my street
blackened mussel shells
layered under earth
on the track to my beach
I read Gwen Harwood
about Oyster Bay
is this what dispossession is?
I saw her again this morning. I wrote a poem about her over twenty years ago. I hadn’t seen her for years and I was astounded to see that familiar hunched figure ride by me on my walk this morning. She’s older now, obviously, but I recognised her immediately, the too-big helmet lopsided on the head, and especially the hunched figure pedalling by. Here’s the poem, unpublished and forgotten, until I saw her again today.
In bulbous headgear they are riding,
or walking the darkened streets
In the flat suburbs away from the bay
they are waking and running
In morning mist in autumn
they are silvery wraiths.
By mid-morning they have disappeared
into TV worlds
more real than the ghosts of the washing
luminous in the back yard
or the wind across the unmown lawn.
Around the cold streets she rides
helmeted head too big for a body
wasted by the long pedalling to nowhere,
thin legs and chest
a hunched haunted look.
She rides the daylight hours,
through the path and passage of her dreaming,
rides till she is light and flighty,
always some destination in mind
that is never quite here.
But which will be golden
I moved to a different kind of reckoning of my favourite books this year, eschewing the categorisations that have served me well for more than twenty years. What I’ve been finding is that the categories aren’t as fixed as they once seemed anyway, so this year I’ve just gone for books I read this year (not necessarily published this year).
- Jesus’s Son by Dennis Johnson (S)
- Henry David Thoreau (a life) by Laura Walls (NF)
- Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis (NF)
- The Peregine by J. A. Baker (NF)
- The Mirror of the Sea by Joseph Conrad (NF)
- His Dark Material (vol. 1, 2, and 3) by Joseph Pullman (F)
- The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (F)
- The Dark is Rising (vol. 1, 2, 3, 4) by Susan Cooper (F)
- A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Power (F)
- In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas (NF)
- Landskipping by Anna Pavord (NF)
You can read more about my reading, and past winners over at my other page here.