From Petra White, Ecopoet: O’Connor’s ‘Pilbara’, So Long Bulletin, 2011:
Ecopoetry is a recent movement, formally beginning in the early 2000s. It now has a Wikipedia entry and a Neil Astley anthology, Earthshattering: ecopoems. Ecopoetry, sometimes referred to as the new ‘nature poetry’, takes a distinctly ethical position regarding human relationships to nature, and considers human responsibility, rather than seeing nature as a passive reflector of human emotions. But poetry that considers our responsibility to ‘nature’ or the natural world, is not new. Astley’s anthology includes figures such as Wordsworth and Clare, for example. In Australia, Mark O’Connor has been consciously and explicitly writing what is now known as ecopoetry since the mid-seventies. O’Connor’s poetry, about the ecology of a number of Australia’s natural regions including the Great Barrier Reef, the top end, various forests, and most recently the Pilbara, has always had a distinctive multi-faceted approach to the natural world, going beyond mere ‘nature poetry’ and taking in science, philosophy, history and semiotics. He has always been concerned with ethics.
Sometimes I find him hard to read. There’s his ego-challenging tendency to focus on an insect or a flower, with little or no reference to Me or My Wretched Soul That Seeks A Mirror. Perhaps for this reason, O’Connor has always had a mixed reception in Australia. This is unfortunate: he is one of the best – and most radical – poets we have.
Pilbara is a book-length poem of a certain epic grandeur. The Pilbara, in northern Western Australia, has some of the world’s most ancient natural landscapes, dating back two billion years, and covering over 400,000 square kilometres. When O’Connor visited the Pilbara, he was accompanied by the geologist Andrew Glikson – a kind of Virgil, if you will, guiding him through the geological layers of the region, which at times expand to represent layers of human history, at other times not. Though Glikson, I should add, is hardly ever present as a character in this poem.
When I glanced at page 8, I thought I read ‘deep euphoric greens’ – and was quite excited by that description. It said, on second reading, ‘eutrophic greens’, meaning rich in nutrients. Such linguistic double-takes are not uncommon when reading O’Connor. On the same page, we have the ‘maria of the moon’ – referring to lava flows, not the madonna, but equally a source.
The poetry is highly visual: and there is often a sense of drama here that will be immediately familiar to us all from the many documentaries that prance across our 50-inch plasma screens. O’Connor is visually as vivid, and then some. And there is none of the voyeurism of the BBC camera. What is made in words is made for the first time. Early in the book, a Sturt Desert Rose is born and dies with intense drama.
Tough and refined,
of the watery family of hibiscus,
named ‘Rose’ in days
when folks still grew a single rose.
The cup’s petals, rigid but slanted aswirl,
Ice-lavender, silk-laced thinness,
are this desert lady’s dowry;
her bridegroom, death, comes in the night;
no space for coyness.
She’s the ice-maiden who keeps
open as long as life lasts
to the hive’s brawling pandars,
the night’s hairy hucksters.
cup of petalled crinoline
demurely skirts a deep, selective quest
too major to conceal.
Boldly the petal-struts shiver in boisterous breeze
that tests them to destruction.
The organs within must trust
their craft of moisture-stiffened veins
to sail that desert air.
Lavender ice-mantles, edge-on, can-can in the breeze.
Delicate veins and folded tissues
fence the inner purse and pollen trap.
If ever a bloom played semiotic games
this signals in human.
Fire, hoof and heat ensure
this beauty’s print is fugitive
as cudded fibre
on a camel’s tongue;
and soon must come the seeds.
So human brides make argosies of outlay.
Their cloth pavilions point and do not point
at ‘what they would have hit’, a trick
the cross-dressed, red-petalled bullfighter adores;
and her whirling petals semaphore
to where a single whorish thrust and quiver
gifts her the bee-borne gametes that will seed
the future’s dust.
As the last worker withdraws
her compound eye still points
to the nanoworld within:
a slow, bandaid-ish unpeeling
of spiral gene-bands that rebuild, re-join
to grasp the future in a heat-struck second
– the carpel’s carpe diem.
One day old, job done,
all that butterfly frippery wilts;
the desert roses droop, dry-crumpled
litter underneath their bush;
the umbrella’s papery ribs,
that fought the desert’s trade-wind
– blobs and wads of crinkled tissue
The flower here is being carefully constructed in language, which at the same time it throws off, and is allowed to throw off. While its petals may resemble ‘bridal silks’, it is the flower who is being compared to the bride, not the other way round. And the near awkwardness of such a comparison here, with a flower that seems almost monstrous, is surprisingly haunting.
This book has a classical sense of fate, an awe and respect for harshness and fragility. It is a book about time, survival, chance, beauty, the sublime, death, unintentional human cruelty, human indifference, limitation and folly. Much contemporary poetry tends to be more aware, or rather, more seeking of, our small place in the world. O’Connor assumes no such place. This is a world that is indifferent to us, yet vulnerable to being damaged by us. And at the same time we are part of it. Human influence on the land is described as something intricately caught up among all of the other possible environmental influences that this land has to make sense of. In ‘Flying over the Fortesque Plateau’:
Green-grey spinifex alternates with red rashers of land rubbed raw
by cattle. Fences invisible from the air, two or three strands of wire,
produce these changes – or sometimes a dry creek that stops a grass fire.
O’Connor is undeniably environmentally and morally conscious. Lines such as ‘Enough for now / if humans leave what’s left alone’ might grate. And he is at times irritatingly didactic; but I find myself forgiving this. O’Connor’s environmental didacticism is not that of the 21st Century hippie. It is stated as fact; it comes as part of a delicate way of seeing. O’Connor’s poetic influences are classical – though he is undeniably modern, and post-modern. A precursor to O’Connor, whom he has acknowledged, can be found in the Ancient Roman poet Lucretius, whose long poem ‘On the Nature of Things’ attempts to turn the eyes of his contemporaries away from their dogma about gods, and become gods themselves, by understanding, through careful observation of nature, how things simply are.
In breaking away from the Romantic idea of nature as a refuge for human suffering, a backdrop for human dramas about the sublime, O’Connor prises open new possibilities, new ways of seeing, and speaking of, what is there. The Pilbara is not there to soothe the troubled spirit (or body). The opening poem, effectively an epigraph to the book, establishes this: ‘The mirage is underlined with a faint grating of haze that signals “Don’t believe me”. Trees and lakes on the horizon have a neat underline of blue that seems to say “I exist somewhere, elsewhere, not here perhaps. If in distress don’t crawl this way”’.
Why not? What does it matter which way you crawl, or what the trees might say? Surely their posited ‘rejection’ is just as humanised as their imagined embrace. What is being set up here is, if you will, a deliberately ‘unnatural’ attitude towards nature. An unconditioning, a will to see it as ‘other’, which makes it possible to begin seeing it at all. Yet human, indeed domestic, associations are what language is made of, and O’Connor doesn’t try to escape this. The land in winter ‘smells of a kinder wetter time’; there is ‘an even no-mow lawn of spinifex’.
Even the ‘poet’ in this poem is not exclusively a human poet. On ‘Knox Gorge’, the lines: ‘A singer sitting on a rock / I saw such things: and sang / with a broken reed, one winter’s day.’ Is the singer O’Connor or a creature? It seems unimportant, and the song temporal (not inconsequential): ‘I sat and felt the rock and I were one, /though one had been here longer than the other. / Though one was in more hurry to be gone.’ To sit and feel – something – is human, and oneness is what we can feel. And elsewhere: ‘We, and the bird, and the river height / conjoin; an instant fix, in time and climate / across a million same-ish years’. What is important here is the sense of scale: both geological and temporal. On page 31: ‘My eye slips/ to Caligula’s years, archived / some metres higher.’ There is a grandeur in this baffling apprehension of scale. O’Connor does this frequently throughout the book, such as in ‘At Hearsons Cove’:
Ancestor-figures, scratched on the gabbro’s outer rust
prefiguring the Pharaohs
decay to that granular substrate
where a lemon wattle waves.
Several ages come together in this image. It is of course tempting to read the lemon wattle as a small person, or a hand waving, out of this landscape of rust and decay. What strikes here is the detail: this is a movement caught in time, a small detail that is lively and waving and mortal. And tiny, of little apparent importance: but it becomes central, a movement that locates the reader in the present, and links the present to the ages past.
Indeed, many of the poems can feel apocalyptic: ‘Pilbara near Redmont’ has the lines:
Walking on the Archaean shield
of what passed for a continent then
– more often shallowly flooded,
its seas a weak salt like fish-blood.
This is expansively desolate. It is balanced immediately by the intricacy of
Kilometre heights of clastics and chondrites
washed down to fill up, line by patient scribal line,
the flat floor of a sinking sea.
There is an irony about ‘the flat floor of a sinking sea’. The alliteration seems to increase the sinking/flatness. Something particularly ‘Australian’ and thong-like about it too; this line reminds me of how relaxed and quiet this poetry can often be.
A line from an earlier poem, ‘Dot Paintings’ (in The Olive Tree: Collected Poems), shows O’Connor is fascinated by such junctures as where ‘the for sale culture meets the forever culture’. This is a meeting that cannot be avoided, that occurs over and over again, and the beauty of this line is that it is not about people – there are no imaginary people in two camps ‘meeting’, each representing a culture, or if they are, that is not so important as the idea of the cultures themselves, and the idea that most of us are in both camps, and that these are the basic tensions of humanity that have been played out since antiquity.
‘Trucked Cattle’ has a kind of Greek chorus sung by cattle waiting in a truck by a campsite. The truck is being repaired and the cattle have no water, and will have none. The ‘motif’ of ‘Earth’ as a character, or source of primal music, ‘Earth creaking like an old ship’s timbers’, pops up throughout the book, and here, the cattle’s cry is an ‘earth-shudder’. Like the earth/landscape/geology that forms a backdrop that is imperfectly noticed if at all, the cries of the cattle are on a register that isn’t experienced by the campers. The pack mentality of the cattle is mirrored in the pack mentality of the surrounding humans, who are all going about their business. There are so many ways in which the reader of this poem can hear the cattles’ cry: not just a cry of ‘bad human’, or a cry to become a vegetarian. The cry is on many levels other than this. It reverberates throughout this magnificent book.
A comment from Bonny Cassidy on Ecopoet: O’Connor’s ‘Pilbara’, 24.02.11:
I am glad of this review. I have been reading O’Connor’s “Pilbara” and also his earlier “Fire-Stick Farming” over the last few months, and I find that he reaches toward something significant in his poetics but seems to do it almost accidentally. In a way that, for example, John Bennett, presents an ongoing ecopoetic project with its own politics and deliberation, O’Connor dabbles in original ways of writing place but just as easily slips into a well-worn landscape of symbolism, archetype and poetic effect that you associate with Romanticism in this review. The example of “Sturt’s Desert Rose” is a case in point: the bloom cannot be its own plane of colour and line but must become a “desert lady”, a deflating trope of feminised country that harks back to the prettifying of place in lesser Romantic and romantic poetry. Not only is she a “refined” lady of the outback (one thinks of our Nicole, spotless yet horseback in country not far from that pictured by O’Connor) but she is the ultimate feminine: bridal, trussed and in the throes of sexual swoon; and associated with a Victorian identity (“crinoline”) that once again confuses the poetic framework that O’Connor brings to bear on Australian place.
For me, this does not decrease the interest of his work – the richest moments in this book are enough to give it unique gravitas amongst so many re-hashings of lyrical landscapes in Australian poetry. The factual prose introductions that he provides to all of the poems except the “Coda” are a challenging mash of scientism and lyricism, and he continues that combination in the verse. The “Coda” itself is perhaps the most beautiful and whole parts of the book – truly the apotheosis of what he begins in the individual poems. His personal pronoun is hazed into the elements in which it bathes (“On my back in thermal waters at midnight/…I lie north-south/…I spin, and a zigzag of stars inverts”) and the prose-anchors of the previous poems are released, allowing O’Connor’s voice to lift up and away into more abstracted perspectives.