Kate Fagan

Mountain, mountain, mountain,
marking time. Each
nameless, wall beyond wall, wavering
redefinition of
horizon.
– Denise Levertov, from ‘Into the Interior’ in O Taste and See[i]

It takes a long time to write precise things.

Mountain, mountain, mountain. This is the only way Levertov can describe what her speaker is thinking and feeling in the poem ‘Into the Interior’. Which interior? And is the observer a guest or stranger there?

Each mountain is a marker of time and place. But ‘mountain’ is also an average, a changeable outline imposed on a living system. For a second Levertov’s poem stills the wavering horizon. Then it encounters another mountain and the walls move again. Levertov is unsure if precise words can hold the ecologies that anchor this poem’s perceptual field. They stay nameless. But her opening line enacts the interiority of mountain ­– something un-metaphorical, something musical in its repetition. Mountain, mountain, mountain. Poems and their words are seeded in the material substance of the earth.

Three years ago I had the rare honour of being invited by the Sydney Writers’ Festival to perform poems and songs inside the Jenolan Caves, a place of lasting significance to people of the Gundungurra Nation who know it as Binomil or Bin-oo-mur.[ii] Also reading on that clear autumn day was Lionel Fogarty, a Yugambeh poet born on Wakka Wakka land. The inimitable poet Dermot Healy was reading, having flown from County Sligo in northwest Ireland for the festival. So was Devin Johnston, co-founder of Flood Editions, who was visiting Sydney from St Louis with his family. Bronwyn Lea travelled from Brisbane for the event, which was hosted by David Brooks. Everybody read poems about birds and children. Our shadows were surreally tall.

I steered my guitar case along narrow fissures and up the iron ladders that rung us into the mountain. I followed Uncle Lionel and Dermot, who coughed on the ladders in the limestone chill. We climbed into the interior of the so-named Cathedral Chamber to perform. Dermot once commented: “When you say the word moon, you’re talking about four thousand years of moon […] Sometimes when you look at the landscape you actually hear the unspoken words that are in your head, that have been handed on to you.”[iii] Moon, mountain. Unspoken yet heard in the head’s interior. Lionel singing, Dermot reading, a child chattering like a thornbill.

In last month’s Southerly blog, Bunurong writer Bruce Pascoe in ‘Cry for my Heart, Dance for my Soul’ considers intrinsic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander links between language and Country, embodied in lore twenty times older than four thousand years of moon and essential to the earth’s survival:

Aboriginal lore contains everything needed for human survival, planetary survival, and it’s time we applied those old protocols, those old decencies, that ancient conservatism and restraint […] Look closer to home for an answer Australia and don’t go all squeamish just because it was first dreamed by a black mind.[iv]

Everything in Australia was “first dreamed by a black mind” and to pretend otherwise is to extend the colonial project in neo-colonial terms. As Waanji author Alexis Wright reminds us, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are “living with the stories of all the times of this country”.[v] Multiple realities and timescales exist here in every mountain and cave and tree and suburb.

Our reading inside the Jenolan Caves was moving and remarkable. It was also a deeply unreconciled experience. For a few hours a band of poets from different corners of the world gathered inside a mountain, inside a place and language mostly unknown to us. I paid respects to the past and continuing elders of Binomil while seeing my own strangeness beside the iron trappings of Victoriana. The caves were humming with water.

We regrouped after the reading to share a lively dinner, punctuated by Dermot’s wild songs and banter. That same night the stunning serial poem Ruby Moonlight by Yankunytjatjara and Kokatha poet Ali Cobby Eckermann won a double honour at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, receiving both the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry and Book of the Year. Ruby Moonlight was published first in 2012 by Australia’s leading Aboriginal publishing house Magabala Books, and again earlier this year in Chicago by Devin Johnston’s Flood Editions. The poem is told through the eyes of Ruby who is the sole survivor of a colonial massacre of her entire family.

It takes a long time to write precise things.

When I was a small child music ruled our house. We had no television. I listened hundreds of times to the 1967 live album Miriam Makeba in Concert! which features an electrifying version of A Piece of Ground. Makeba in her introduction identifies the song’s author as “a young white South African by the name of Jeremy Taylor”. With immaculate timing, speaking over the band as they pick up her vocal riffs, Makeba says: You’ll have to excuse me ladies and gentlemen, but in the case of my country South Africa, one has to be specific. Such precision is impossible to forget.

I wasn’t planning to write about mountains. But they drew me to Levertov’s poem ‘Inside the Interior’ and its post-settlement trouble with the specifics of naming. I live roughly thirty kilometres in an east-north-easterly line from Jenolan. That distance doesn’t translate to travel, due to an intricate weave of looping roads through and around the Blue Mountains. Where I’m sitting now to type the air is hazy with pollen and sharp with birdsong. Last week my children and I were surprised by two lyrebirds scuttling over a curve as we rounded Cliff Drive in the late afternoon. I stopped the car and flashed my hazard lights, opened all the windows, risked a road block to hear the cascading call of courting lyrebirds. One scratched, one sang. We breathed the same air as the birds.

Over the next few weeks I want to write about a web of conversations that happened in the Californian spring of this year, when thirty-three Australian poets assembled in Berkeley for a festival and conference called Active Aesthetics (Innovation and Aesthetics in Contemporary Australian Poetry and Poetics). We were met by an equal number of American poets, mostly from Berkeley and San Francisco. Across four days we read poems and papers together and swapped books and ideas. It was the largest flock of Australian poets anyone could remember gathering in one offshore spot and certainly in the United States.

To reflect upon what emerged from our Berkeley encounter, I first needed to follow Bruce Pascoe’s thinking and “look closer to home” to better understand the ground from which that event grew. As I write this a male golden whistler is hopping through lime green viburnum leaves less than five metres from my head. The evening Active Aesthetics finished two dozen poets bunched along a sidewalk on our way to eat. We stopped to gasp and exclaim at a ruby-throated hummingbird as it hung lightly in a flowering shrub by the roadside. We took pictures and filmed on smart phones. Ali Cobby Eckermann smiled and said, it’s crazy that a single bird can seem so exceptional.

Two years ago the admired American poet Lyn Hejinian visited Australia to speak at the CWWA conference Contemporary Women’s Writing and Environments. She was struck by the vitality of critical conversation among young writers, and by the papers of her fellow keynotes Alexis Wright and Deborah Bird Rose. As the conference closed Ann Vickery and I shared a drink with Lyn before all three of us read together at a performance organised by Ella O’Keefe, upstairs from Collected Works. Famous for her energy and generosity, Lyn declared at some point: I know so little about what’s happening here. Can you help me bring a group of Australian poets to Berkeley?

We immediately began collaborating with Lyn and some of her closest colleagues and graduate students from the University of California in Berkeley to invent and realise Active Aesthetics. To fathom interest in an exchange we knew would be significant, Ann suggested we circulate a call for papers. It identified a swag of topics that seemed of mutual urgency to our respective writing communities, regardless of differing aesthetic expressions and social frames. Among them were ecological crises, worlds of species presence, persistent colonialism, race and sovereignty, the surveilled life, Asia-Pacific regions and networks, transnational and transcultural thinking, aesthetic work under late capitalism and the apocalyptic lyric. We were amazed so many poets wanted in.

Establishing a keynote panel on Contemporary Aboriginal Poetics was an early, fundamental step in choosing horizons of thinking for Active Aesthetics. We expressly didn’t want to reproduce a literary phenomenon in which “contemporary” or “innovative” poetry becomes a screen for a discourse of white privilege. This would be a diplomatic trade of cultural stories. What versions of Australian poetics would be taken to Berkeley? As a convening group we felt the most relevant and truly contemporary Australian stories about ecology, crisis, language, place and ontology are those in dialogue with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and literatures. Such conversations have profound bearing on ways of comprehending the cultural work of poetry – its facility for precision, its capacity for acknowledgement, its formal and reparative possibilities.

In the days before Active Aesthetics began, the acres of shelves in Moe’s on Telegraph Avenue were a magnet for many of us. The bookstore’s toppling interiors and stripy awning felt unchanged since I’d visited as a doctoral student 18 years before – only this time, the Flood Editions reprint of Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight was the first book I picked up. Denise Levertov’s O Taste and See was the second (“A song / that can be sung over and over, / long notes or long bones”).[vi]

Moes

Moe’s

I also bought Regarding Wave by Gary Snyder, yet another copy of Earth House Hold, and a 1928 illustrated American copy of the Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde which bears the dedication: “TO ALL PRISONERS”. The next day I bought Diane di Prima’s Loba and two collections – Stranger in Town and Language   Arts – by Cedar Sigo, a San Franciscan poet who grew up on the Suquamish Reservation in the Pacific Northwest and studied at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. We would hear him read the following night. I folded these touchstones into my luggage.

message birds tap
at windows

guardian birds circle
the sky

watcher birds sit
nearby

fill my ears with
bird song [vii]

[i] Denise Levertov, O Taste and See. New York: New Directions, 1964. 63.

[ii] The official website of the Jenolan Caves includes these details in a series of pages written in collaboration with the Gundungurra Tribal Council.

[iii] Dermot Healy, from a tribute on the Sunday 8.30 program with John Bowman, Raidió Teilifís Éireann, first broadcast 13 July 2014, 2’32”.

[iv] Bruce Pascoe, ‘Cry for my Heart, Dance for my Soul’, Southerly blog, 13 September 2016.

[v] Alexis Wright, “On writing Carpentaria”, reprinted from “Harper’s Gold”, HEAT 13 n.s. (2006), 1-17. 2.

[vi] Denise Levertov, from ‘Love Song’, O Taste and See. 6.

[vii] Ali Cobby Eckermann, from ‘Tjulpu’, Inside My Mother. Artarmon: Giramondo Publishing, 2015. 49.

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