TEXT review

Song of the wind-up birdman

review by Susie Utting


A Frances Johnson
The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street
Puncher and Wattmann, Sydney 2012
ISBN 9781921450525
Pb 80pp AUD24.00


The title of a poetry collection can suggest so much to the reader; the Table of Contents too. A. Frances Johnson’s The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street is a recent example of the thought and care a poet can invest, indicating directions and connections she would like readers to explore, before the opening poem. The title, The Wind-up Bird of Moorabool Street immediately invites associations with Haruki Murakami’s eighth novel, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. This is an ‘account’ by a voice (Toru Okada), lost between the real and unreal/surreal, between cultures (he is never specifically identified as Japanese), between time zones (future, present and past), in a text that swings out of the chronological and back again, in an ever spiralling journey, seemingly downwards. The novel is contemporary, funky/topical and experimental, in content and literary form. Johnson’s book of poetry is similarly intriguing, for some of the above reasons.

As a long time resident of Victoria, the Barwon references are immediately evident to me. Moorabool Street is well known to AFL followers as the home of the Cats. The upstream branches of the Moorabool River trickle around the Great Dividing Range before joining the Barwon, down to the sea. Johnson’s landscape referencing is precise, yet somehow ‘globalised’ by the association with the Japanese novel. The Moorabool River’s flow and wildlife are presently under stress from farmers and local businesses with access to its waters. Indigenous inhabitants traditionally believed this area to be the home of the cooloo, a night bird that could be heard but never seen, like Murakami’s Japanese counterpart. The noun ‘Birdman’ in the title infers some kind of fusion, the natural world of the avian, with the human, a possibility Johnson invites us to explore in some of her poems.

As a poet/critic T.S.Eliot was intrigued with the concept of time and the constancy with which it changes in relation to the absolute stillness of eternity. In ‘Four Quartets’, he conveys his perceptions of how the past intersects and influences the present and, in turn, the future, and how intricately mankind’s survival is interdependent on all these changing constancies and constant changes.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.           

Go, go, go, said the bird : human kind
Cannot bear very much reality. (Eliot 171)

Eliot understood one of the poet’s concerns is to articulate such insights, for the personal, cultural and spiritual reasons he outlined in his critical essays. Johnson seems to share the above concerns, as well as a respect for birds. Many poets share this fascination. Birds perceive the world in ways of which we humans can only dream.

The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street is divided into three sections: ‘wind-up future’, ‘wind-up present’ and ‘wind-up past’. The reversal of chronological order mirrors the disjunction of time found in Murakami’s novel, where the present is split by past narratives describing war atrocities, from the Japanese rather than the Western viewpoint, again reversing anticipated Western literary outcomes. Okado’s journeys down the well occur in surreal interspersed sequences, possibly in the future; we never really know. It probably doesn’t matter. Johnson’s first poems depict future wars after which the world may return to ‘A place for animals to rest quietly’, as before the Flood (‘Future Ark’ 27). Time future in time past or the other way around.

References to birds flit in and out of all sections. The artificial, self-destructive birds of war in the opening poem ‘Microaviary’ are contrasted with birds local to the Barwon area. The second poem of ‘wind-up present’ is ‘Gang-Gang: Callocephalon fimbriatam’ which ends with the lines, ‘We are so terribly alike, confess / blood and present circumstance / so often drive us, yellow-tailed / to chew the veranda posts down’ (34). The complementary ‘Black Cockatoo: Calyptorrhynchus funereus’, which opens the third section, implies the survival of the avian, despite how ‘They once flew too close to heat or ice’, yet somehow ‘The stripped, cratered hills will be theirs / no matter how we foul them, no matter how we die’ (57). But it is the eponymous ‘Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street’, strategically situated in the centre of the collection, whose existence is ambiguous, if not tenuous: ‘Each day you take flight / double-breasted, with a tie / caw-caw-caw your urgent office chat / Your flight instincts are made over into “acceptable departures”’ (38).

The final section sketches, in different poems titled ‘Europa’, ‘Wallace Line: A letter to Alfred Wallace from Charles Darwin' and ‘Poison Cake, Benalla’, different interpretations of natural history and subsequent colonial abuses of the indigenous human and natural environments. It also continues the meme of the loss of the call of the poet to alert the human world through language. ‘Listen Century’ (23) exposes the arid isolation of the poetic voice while the penultimate poem, ‘We are So Far South of “South of My Days”’, dedicated to the poet sisters Judith Wright and Oodgeroo Noonuccal, recalls how they were able to sing for country and be heard. Perhaps Johnson’s carefully nuanced voice, through her own skilful use of language, may help to rectify this in present day downtown Geelong, and the rest of the world.


Works cited

Eliot, TS 1977 ‘Four Quartets’, The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot, Book Club Associates, London: 171-183. return to text



Susie Utting is presently studying for her doctorate at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Her collection of poems, Flame in the Fire, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2012, and is reviewed in this issue of TEXT.


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Vol 17 No 2 October 2013
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste