TEXT review

From silence into song

review by Sarah Pearce


Leni Shilton
Walking with Camels – The Story of Bertha Strehlow
UWA Publishing, Crawley WA 2018
ISBN: 9781742589701 
Pb 150pp AUD22.99


Walking with Camels – The Story of Bertha Strehlow by Leni Shilton is a gorgeous, subtle rendering of the both brutal and starkly beautiful Australian desert, and those relationships that exist and are formed within this landscape. Shilton’s verse novel charts Bertha Strehlow’s transformation from a naïve and shaking girl, determined to follow the man she loves into unknown territory against the advice of loved ones, into a woman possessed, damaged and strengthened by the desert. Shilton’s rigorous research, bolstered by found poems and historical and biographical notes, grounds the poems in a moving reality, filled equally with suffering and joy.

The poems that depict Bertha’s time in the desert are spare and simple, filled with tiny details of everyday life, such as the way the ‘creatures scratch the canvas / and the wind brushes the tent walls’ and ‘ice coats the basin, the kettle / and my swag / as the cold creeps in’ (46). In ‘The train’, visceral details of the harsh new environment are juxtaposed with a tender moment between lovers:

The windows jam with dust,
crawl with flies
my throat clots with hot air,

but my new husband and I
gaze out the clouded window,
hold hands,
and when no one looks
he kisses me. (17)

Shilton’s depiction of the vast landscape, with its towering magnitude, emerges as counterpoint to the simple minutiae of daily life. Poems such as ‘The Silence’ and ‘Poetry Reading’ evoke the vast brutality and emptiness of the Australian desert, and Bertha’s pervasive feelings of isolation and smallness. The map Bertha follows forms ‘a pattern of unfamiliar marks / across vast spaces’ (14), and ‘All our walking / in ‘undiscovered country’ / becomes discovery of / emptiness, / silence’ (36). Bertha herself appears a tiny figure, but one that continually creates her narrative against and through this landscape.

One of the narrative threads upon which this novel hangs is that of the romance between Bertha and Ted. Shilton’s carefully crafted vignettes of the two capture their passion, ‘hands, faces / given up to the heat’ (22), as well as their difference, demonstrated when reading poetry to each other:

I want to read words of love,
but his poetry fills the air
with its threats of hollow men
marching through death dreams. (34)

In ‘Traces’, one of the final poems, before Ted has left her, Bertha asks:

When will I look up
and think only of me
– of my children.

Wake in the morning
not dreaming of the desert,

when does the red
stop falling from
the pockets and hems
of my clothes,

when does it
finally wash from my body? (104)

Shilton crafts the desert as indelible, marking and capturing Bertha forever, even through the process of dissolving their relationship. Naturally, Ted himself and their shared experiences also prove to be somewhat indelible.

Music dances softly through this verse novel, as explicit subject and implicit thread; it draws the points of past and present close together, links husband and wife and later eviscerates the space of loss. Two poems are titled ‘Gramophone’ – the first describes a dance between Ted and Bertha, his murmurs of ‘coloured dreams’ that drew her away from everything she knew (27), and the second, the final poem of the collection, details Bertha’s savage loss and grief in the desert and as the consequence of her separation from Ted. There were ‘four babies lost to the desert / three who stayed’ and Bertha’s sad yet sanguine voice explains that though ‘she prayed our children, the adventure / would hold him to me’, ‘his dream took in more than desert’ (112). Following Ted’s betrayal and departure, Bertha must ask her son to turn off the gramophone, because the memories it dredges up, of ‘songs of Central Australia’ and of a time ‘when I thought his love / and God’s love was all that was needed’, are too painful for her to bear. Though Bertha has survived the desert, she never escapes it; Shilton inscribes this enduring grief in the simplest of phrases – much like the dust and the flies in the desert, Bertha’s grief and loss are an inseparable element of her life’s landscape.

As much as the novel is an exploration of Bertha’s experiences and initiation into the Australian desert, and the relationship between herself and Ted, it also forms a meditation on silence: the kinds of silence which confront Bertha in the desert and eventually come to hold her, and the kind of silence enacted by her role as wife to a famous and driven linguist. Silence, in the beginning, is ‘aching’ and ‘pulses / with expectation and destruction’ (36). It is a force, a state, that holds Bertha apart from others, and from the land itself:

No one understands me
in the silence
of the bush
with no one to talk to
and no one who will listen. (39)

Silence also mediates the growing distance between husband and wife. Some time after her first miscarriage, Bertha waits at the waterhole for Ted to return and asks:

If I call, will he hear me?
But my strangled throat
twists in its tube. (72)

And a little later, the devastating admission that:

I pull sounds
from your words –
but there is nothing,
just the space between
holding some unknown
truth to climb into. (108)

The miscarriage itself marks a turning point in Bertha’s life; faced with mortality, and surviving to birth again, Bertha gains a fierce strength. Shilton uses ‘I speak from under the earth’, the only prose poem in the novel and a stark slab of text, to mark this transformation, in addition to the absolute and immovable nature of the experience. The words here bubble over, like a tidal wave filling the horizon, and bespeak her new connection with the sky, the wind, the birds, dingoes, ants and stars, but most of all with the desert itself, which ‘is its own animal, alone and desperate’ (65). Ted and Bertha’s relationship in fact seems to wane as Bertha’s intimacy with the desert waxes.

What Shilton is able to do through this elegant and spare rendering of Bertha Strehlow’s life is to give her a voice: to represent Ted and the desert and her illness and her strength through Bertha’s eyes, and to place her in the very centre of the poetic narrative. Shilton transforms Bertha’s historical voice, ‘a whisper / barely heard’ (72), into the ringing literary chant of a woman who strips alone at the waterhole to finally:

…sing like I’m the only one in church
and my voice echoes back to me
from the rocks
clear and loud’. (86)




Dr Sarah Pearce is an emerging performer, poet, writer and academic from Adelaide, South Australia. Her work has appeared in Aeternum, Outskirts, Meniscus and Writing from Below, and she has occupied residencies at the Adelaide City Library and FELTspace gallery. She writes about embodiment, love and those ways in which we relationship with each other.


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Vol 22 No 2 October 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker