by Joshua Mei-Ling Dubrau
The most anticipated highlight of this trip for me was a chance to revisit the small town of Mallacoota just past the NSW/Victoria border, and Croajingalong National Park. I hadn’t been back since my daughter, the half-a-teenager flopped over a table in Braidwood two posts ago was about eight months old. Mallacoota is an inlet town with creeks and lakes curving and pooling out into the ocean. Everything is pretty low key; the river aspect means it’s remained more of a small fishing town than a beachfront high-rise development. The prevalence of brown and orange in the décor of the pub where we stayed are testament to this. It’s an Instagrammer’s delight: Everywhere you turn, there’s a rustic boatshed, or a sunset reflected in the water off a jetty, or a local dog everyone knows by name (Kendall, in fact) pleading for a bit of your bacon and egg roll outside the café.
By the time we got there, in the course of a slow day’s drive, I’d already taken about a hundred photos and videos on my phone, and started and discarded about twenty poems in my head. Staring out the window on long car trips triggers an ekphrastic style of thinking, even when you aren’t taking photographs, especially when passing through varied scenery in a relatively short space of time. Mental snapshots accumulate. Three thin sheep sucking lichen from a rock. The way that disused rail tracks snake off into a future past, the vision lost and re-glimpsed with the curves of the highway. The poetic moment, that first whiff of objective correlativity arrived several times an hour, sparked by the pairing of visual stimuli with sensory experiences. The thirty-five degree heat of the air between Goulburn and Braidwood drying my tongue; the haze on a Colorbond bus shelter. The bowed patience of a horse standing in a bleached paddock / my own attempted zen in the face of a failed stereo and no air-con.
But the moments became attached, linked by virtue of their common ‘momentness’. I started to wonder what relationship they have to each other, and to me, driving through them; creating them, in fact, by my observation. I started to think about the unfurling distance in relation to the progress of human life. Here I was, making this trip again, but with a different partner, the same (but yet so different) child, and a different version of myself. There have been ups and downs this year. Some sense of personal achievement, for me at least, was riding on the social success of this holiday journey. Already I had put myself as a potential poetic voice right in the position I talked about in the last post, that of the speaker in the scenic mode.
I didn’t want to use the landscape to tangentially evoke my quote-unquote innermost inexpressible feelings. So I gave up on the road-trip as snapshots, and the road-trip as metaphor. The ‘poetic moment’ had kept shifting. I tried to imagine how many times it must have shifted for T.S. Eliot in the construction of ‘The Waste Land’ and perhaps even more so, ‘Prufrock’. The poetic moment is, in my personal lexicon, the initial spark between an idea (image, sight , phrase, event, feeling, noticing of a set of similar circumstances) and the first burst of language that comes with that. For me, they never come separately. I can honestly say that not once have I sat down with the idea that I wanted to write a poem about something, but no cluster of words at its nucleus yet. I don’t know (but would dearly love to) how this works for others. In any case, I think this is where my fondness for the ‘objective correlative’ arises. For me, when Prufrock compares the ‘evening spread out against the sky’ with ‘a patient etherized upon a table’, this is a poetic moment, something that could spark the beginning of a poem, as well as a metaphor. Two remarkable and very different poetic moments occur consecutively in:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
The claws are not a metaphor for the observation of lonely men, yet there is the sense of some kind of understanding of them, or belonging to them. The first moment is based on the visual, the second on the imaginary. Either could also have been an impulse to begin the work. This is how I use Eliot’s theory of the objective correlative, seeing it as multiple poetic moments coming together to build an emotional landscape, rather than constituting links in a linear chain leading to the endpoint of a single emotion…
Our second day in Mallacoota, we headed out to Croajingalong National Park. It curves around the base of the continent, right along the coast between the border and Melbourne. A solo walk, six kilometres return from one secluded beach at Shipwreck Creek to the even more secluded Seal Beach. A solo walk did not denote a holiday failure for me, as long as everyone else was happy to be at base camp reading Kindles and / or taking selfies in the back of the ute.
Writing about the Australian landscape and my relationship to it is not at all a large part of my repertoire, particularly when it comes to lyric rather than narrative poetry. I feel uncomfortable claiming a relationship of ownership of or kinship with the land to describe an emotional state, and at the same time I worry that feelings of resentment about my discomfort might creep in to my writing. So I was looking forward to two hours of unthinking observation of nature.
The track, described as ‘following a creek to a secluded beach’ and having ‘amazing rockpools’ at the end, wound across hot, open heath for the first two-thirds of its lengths. My inability to put up with the flies quickly dispirited me. Everything looked the same. A dull scrub, punctuated by clumps of short trees. Except for wrens, I saw few signs of animal life. That was the first three hundred metres. After that I started to notice the subtle shadings in the palette of greens and browns and yellows. I started to feel more in tune with the landscape, noticing changes in the thicknesses of foliage, distinguishing birds by call, not name. My eyes started to open to the gem-like sprinkling of flowers and new foliage – gemlike!? Why was I thinking in these terms of commercial trade and acquisition? Was there a poem there? A poem about my inability to connect with the landscape in any terms other than those of colonialism, capitalism or taxonomy?
In the final hundred metres, the sandy scree running down to the final hook of the tannin-stained creek, I ran into a family on their way back up. I couldn’t even write a poem about the solitary nature of the experience any more!
Down on the beach, I felt none of the elation normal to having reached a destination. Where was there to go / but back / to the carpark? Another hour / of not belonging anywhere.
So I went for a swim, and that clear coldness and the sensation of being thrown around in the wilderness surf changed everything / I left the land and stepped into the water
Looking back / at that judgmental rock face
its bitter pits and scars more hard-fought than [how does this turn into war?]
its bitter pits and scars more hard-won(?) than my own [why am I in this?]
I don’t even dive / just let [does anyone actually know how to use these breath breaks? / the flour sack [sheep and arsenic? how did they get there? because I’m pale?] / of my body
roll and tumble in the billows [billows? might as well sing rule Brittania;
Australian poems in English just don’t WORK] folds / of that cold gown;
let the sea decide my guilt.