TEXT Review

Easter time thoughts on space and place

review by Tess Brady



Who wants to create Australia? Essays on poetry and ideas in contemporary Australia
Martin Harrison
Halstead Press, Sydney, 2004
ISBN 1-920831-20-7
110pp, Pb AU$29.95

Easter is as good a time as any to reflect on Australia as we have created it - the demonstrators are predictably doing their bit for the national identity in the desert, and John Howard contemplates releasing long-term refugee detainees. It's all very seasonal, very biblical. Then the TV news brings in the comic. Demonstrators are arrested for flying kites, but that too echoes and a Google search reveals kite flying to be a politically volatile activity. It seems the Taliban, amongst others, also banned the act of flying kites.

These are not hang gliders we are talking about here but toys, the kind of kites we might take to a park with the dog and kids and run along trying to get airborne. We might have made it from paper and string and lightwood or assembled it from plastics and hard-to-understand instructions. We might have put colours on the tail or painted butterfly eyes on the kite itself.

So it has come now to this - in this place kite flying has become overtly political. This place. This desert place, this city place, this government place, this jail place, this park place, this desk place. In this sense of place, in this Easter Australia, I read Martin Harrison's book of essays Who wants to create Australia?

The collection draws together many of his essays from 1997 to the present day. Several have been previously published, in earlier forms, including in TEXT, so, as co-editor of that journal I was familiar with Harrison's work. The drawing together in one volume however gives each essay a new presence and following his thoughts in this chronological way is like revisiting a photo album of conversations. It is a great pity that the collection is marred by poor editorial and too many typos, something Halstead Press needs to take responsibility for.

Harrison is concerned with perception and seeing, with the naming of a kind of private and national self within a political, theoretical, physical and imagined place. And all of this is worked as the background to the business of writing, specifically as a poet, but it can be read in a broader arena. He says '...poetry and the idea of teaching poetry are inescapably positioned, between the practice of a craft and inherited knowledge, between creative imagining and philosophical thinking' (p24).

There is much here for the teacher of writing and the collection might make for lively discussions in senior classes whose members are interested in exploring their own poetics. In 'Land and theory' he explores an adverbial reading as a shadow narrative. 'The gap between experience and narrative, the space of the absent adverb, remains apparent. The problem of mode and mood does not go away. In the end it is what tells us that this time, this place, are real' (p36).

In 'What can poets teach?' he reflects on the new technologies and how they modify the way in which a poet might engage with the poem. I would have liked a little more here, perhaps a further essay not so much on the marvels of hypertext but rather an exploration of the more intimate relationship between the writer/poet and the computer. Harrison is a deft hand at the intimate in such debates.

Martin Harrison writes with clarity and vividness using his own narratives along with examples from other poetic voices to tease out his ideas. The text is always readable. For example, after handling some of the complexities of metaphor he writes:

The study of poetics is, in this sense, a study of what might be termed "realisation". It is about bringing to consciousness one's own and one's work's relationship with its setting, with its time whether in the large sense of period or the more immediate sense of biographical experience'. (p98)

My personal favourite in this collection is the final essay 'Country and how to get there' I too had moved from the city in order to investigate some private understanding of place and country. I too live in an environment where layers of black and white settlement have come and gone, where to turn the soil is to unearth traces of the past. And this is true of ideas, of values as well as of physical location. Harrison works this territory making sense of it - he writes:

The fact of so much already non-existent, so much already vanished, could suggest that country inevitably demands that we understand the relationship between openness, wilderness, habitation and travel as a series of transformative experiences of place, both across time and through multiple senses of environment and place. Even the most deeply and intuitively acquired senses of time, land form and weather cannot help but be historical. Here history might mean recognising detailed micro-structures of recurrence… (p106)

And so I am indebted to Harrison as I personally explore place and more immediately as I struggled with this Easter time, trying to make sense of deserts, protests, releasing of prisoners, memory of the old stories and the politically volatile nature of flying kites.


Tess Brady is co-editor of TEXT.


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Vol 9 No 1 April 2005
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady