Zenobia Frost: Salt and Bone; Phillip Gijindarraji Hall: Sweetened in Coals

Salt and Bone, North Hobart: Walleah, 2014, 63pp.
Sweetened in Coals, Port Adelaide: Ginninderra, 2014, 77pp.

Two likeable first books with completely different orientations: the one inner-suburban and concerned with the contemporary, the other set in places as far afield as the Blue Mountains, Gordonvale and Borroloola and, though dealing with the present, keeping an eye on the perspectives of geological time.

Much of Zenobia Frost’s Salt and Bone is concerned with the inner, older suburbs of Brisbane an area to which, as a long-time resident of Paddington and Auchenflower, I’m always attracted. It is the world of possums, VJ walls and apocalyptic summer storms. The book has a handsome cover: a line drawing by Bettina Marson of the steps and verandah of a “Queenslander”. But one wouldn’t want to give the impression that this is all the book is about, or its most important contribution or even where its best poems congregate. Salt and Bone is organised so that the poems about these suburbs are framed by poems which are quite different – though they reflect consistent interests. Also not all of the poems based in inner-suburban Brisbane are overtly about an attempt to “capture” the quality of suburbs like Toowong – they are a long way from Laurie Duggan’s poetic anthropology – but, in their detailing of personal experiences that take place there, capture it they do.

“Civic Duty”, dedicated to the Civic Video Store in the suburb of Rosalie, is about the phenomenon of video stores, something that already seems no more than a brief flicker in historical time, like sound cassettes and VHS:

. . . . .
But one day Civic Video
will close and on that day
there will be nothing:
neon-gone – a glowing
museum set piece.
Whatever killed the dinosaurs
is killing Civics. Already paleozoic,
Blockbuster never saw Rosalie
craft an ark of empty video cases . . .

The four poems of “Belonging Quartet” are exactly about the complex ways of “belonging” to a city, and begin with the tradition of housesitting, here in the older, stumped suburbs: “I lie in the clawfoot, / reading the ceiling’s pine calligraphy. // I eat, I sleep, I talk to possums / who won’t talk back”. And another poem, “This is the House”, while not specifically located in the inner suburbs – it might well be semi-rural – identifies these wonderful houses perfectly:

by a trellis with runner beans
ochre hens and guinea fowl
. . .
see shelves of books and post-it notes
that climb the walls like cubist vines . . .

“After Midnight: Toowong” is a classic piece of portraiture that will resonate with anyone who knows the suburb in summer:

The night’s swelter
cut with lemon myrtle,

we slink
between ibis-legged houses
and wakeful graveyard.

Possums troupe feats – wire
to teeming wire, with tails
                          inking the sky.

At night these dark hills
are waves to carry us. We belong

To the hour of the curlew -
to the blues of its determined song.

Of course, Toowong is the site of inner Brisbane’s major cemetery, a fact that helps to unite these suburb poems with the more morbid poems that introduce the book. I say morbid but the issue that needs examination is the extent to which the concern with graveyards, death and black magic is a lifestyle issue (and hence trivial) or an obsessive theme (and hence, for any poet, crucial).

It’s certainly a consistent theme and appears most openly in poems like “The Hobby” dedicated to a Russian whose particular obsession was exhuming bodies and taking them home as companions:

. . . . . 
my bevy, twenty-nine exotic birds
there’s barely room for me against my desk
there’s barely room anymore at home . . .

He is described as “a cemetery archaeologist” which might be no more than an attempt to dignify a very quirky fetish but which adds a consistent perspective to the poems which are in one way or another about death. The dead lie in cemeteries, they can be visited and they can also be uncovered: and they have secrets to tell. Two of the inhabitants of Toowong cemetery are the McKenzies a tragic couple of the twenties. When her husband was questioned by police over a suspected business scam, the wife suicided – sending a letter to the police before doing so. Later, the husband shot himself by her grave. The pair are celebrated in a two part poem, “The McKenzie Pair”, written in a three-line, unrhymed version of the pantoum. Less tragic but nonetheless quirkily powerful is the story told in “Cimetière des Innocents, 1786” of the breakdown and closure of that famous Parisian cemetery, and the fate of the recently decomposing dead who had formed enough fat to be “carted off / to make pure soap”. In death, the poem says, there is an inversion of ranks “and thus a lord / may come to scrub / a floor or else / a peasant’s pants” and, it concludes, “the end of us / is slow and strange, / forgettable – / and wet”.

Others among these framing poems are not at all morbid and reflect other interests. “Auf Wiedersehen Spiegeltent”, for example, is about that strange, nineteenth century, magisterium-style object that appeals to the contemporary with its old-fashioned mirror-perspectives. It gets a suitably fragmented poem to celebrate its dismantlement. And the final poem celebrates the poet’s “Christian” name by being a monologue addressed by the historical Queen Zenobia to her great enemy – the Romans. In it she warns that it will be the sweet herbs and spices of the east which will both enliven and corrupt Roman blood. It’s hard not to think of this farewell piece as something of a “poem-poem”.

Phillip Gijindarraji Hall’s book, Sweetened in Coals, is made up of three sections and the best poems come at the beginning in the section called “Dwelling”. Unlike the words “Praise” and “Home” – titles and subjects of the other sections – “dwelling” is a participle as well as noun and thus simultaneously expresses a sense of process as well as a more static, abstract state. In fact the poems of this book are interestingly strung between the poles of process and state. The former are poems on the move, documenting a range of experience from canoeing in the Katherine River (the book’s second poem), following “Darwin’s Walk” in the Blue Mountains (in the first poem of the second section) to taking a group of students on a two-week hike from Katoomba to Mittagong (the second-last) and a group of children from “the Borroloola Mob” into “country” in “Concourse” (the final poem). One can imagine postcolonial theorists making a lot of this, contrasting a poetry of movement with a poetry of static vistas: the former in some sense indigenous (or at least in harmony with some of the Aboriginal song cycles) the latter the perspective of empire.

Hall’s poetry isn’t quite as schematic as this, however, and it does make some play out of the way in which, on bush-walks, sites with spectacular and revealing vistas appear. The interaction between land, native inhabitant, settler, cedar-getter and colonisers is a complex one resistant to simple moralising. In “Raising the Colours”, set in a school in Gordonvale, one of the students

              throws stones at fruit bats:
No Mr Phil, I’m not gammin,
they’re good to eat, kill cancer too.
Well, a migaloo in black country, Mr Phil’s pissed off . . .

and we can feel him wince in “Concourse” “pondering my eco spiel as they cut down / a three-metre cypress pine no mista, he burns bright / smokes them mozzies too . . . / you dig turtles with us mob / in ”˜im dry swamp”. But focussing on the abrasive moments of inter-cultural contact is always more honest and, ultimately rewarding, than rhapsodising.

One poem which explores some of the complexities of land, naming, possession and engagement is “Promised Land” about the Erskine River and the Erskine Gorge in the southern Blue Mountains. It begins with the kind of natural description Hall does well but as the poem progresses the names of the places inevitably mentioned build up a kind of momentum of alienness in that they are all biblical (Pisgah, Nebo Point, The Land of Gad) or classical (Attic Cave). To thicken the mix even more, Nebo Point and Pisgah Rock are described as being like “lammasu” – those Assyrian winged guardian statues – a further dimension of alienness which the poem itself is responsible for introducing. At any rate, you feel, the poem moves towards accommodating this growing complexity of cultures by speaking of the namers, the Warrigal Bushwalking Club of the thirties:

. . . . . 
Continuing down the yabby line,
          from creek junction to creek junction
The Erskine Gorge opens to a sandstone escarpment,
          its vast precipice consumed
By the water of this promised land
          taken by the Warrigals, land-lopers
Who came after the timber getters, and hauled
          packs and crafted mud maps intimately
Measured. Amidst the profusion of tracks and scats
          the Warrigals lived from their packs, surveying
Their wilderness – a canvas yearning pitched
          over the Dharug’s stone hearth glow.

The imported names – Mt Pisgah from which Moses sees the promised land – are, if you come to think of it, as alien to British culture as they are to indigenous Australian. And there is an irony that the first Anglo-Saxon explorers of this area take an Aboriginal name for a wild dog as the name of their club just as there is an irony that, before them, come one of the most ecologically destructive groups, the cedar fellers.

The process of continuous rewriting whose paradoxes are detailed here is called a palimpsest and this is the title of another, quite different poem that precedes “Promised Land”. Here, instead of the strange movement of following the land until the alien names alter the poem’s direction – which I think is how “Promised Land” works – we have a straightforward, contemporary Australian poem with a “position”:

. . . . . 
once bora grounds
- illuminated tors - 
their eminence now fractured
and made to bear transported gatherings:
Sturgiss, Nibelung, Donjon;
whilst the Budawang’s signature,
Dithol – woman’s breast - 
coyly named Pigeon House
from the Endeavour’s helm - 
a clear sailing,
white washed over
and over -
palimpsest.

It’s a poem which looks at Cook’s voyage with a vista-like perspective on the past. And, although there is a lot going on to keep the poem afloat – the settlement that Cook’s voyage heralds is a “white wash” – it seems to me a far less successful poem than “Promised Land” exactly because it is such a static piece, based on a worked-out understanding which it then exemplifies. “Promised Land” is a sinuous process because it gives the impression of discovering itself as it goes along.

Another poem worthy of a brief comment in this opening section is “Dystopian Empire” which records two old women fighting in Borroloola, to the amazement of gawking miners and grey nomads. What is odd about this poem is that it is written to recall Les Murray’s “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”, in which – students of Australian poetry will know – bypassers gather to stare at a man weeping in Martin Place. Murray’s fifth stanza: “Some will say, in the years to come, a halo / or force stood around him. There is no such thing. / Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him / but they will not have been there . . .” becomes:

Some will say, in the years to come, that the young
blackfullas lit up their ganja, or sniffed,
at the spectacle; the expectant mums pissed
as coconuts fermenting in sand:
but that soapbox’s bent boss-eyed.

The poem finishes on a note of cultural conflict: of the ignorance of white outsiders of the influence of spirits amongst the dispossessed:

What do munanga know of salutarily singing Country?
Of the numinous mischievously stirring strife
amongst already sabotaged custodians whose kujika’s scorched?
Who will tearfully sing him, big business, with millad mob
in the dirt, pressing forwards, hoping for peace?

This makes sense but the question remains of why the thing is written over, Murray’s poem palimpsest-style. Is it a homage or a mocking comment that to experience the uncanny you just have to get out of Sydney’s Martin Place?

The poems of the second and third sections of Hall’s book don’t live up to the best of those of the opening one. The poems of “Praise” are inclined to be a little one-dimensional and those poems of the third section which are about his own rich domestic life are in a well-known conventional mode. It’s good that poetry can document the domestic component of our lives (and it should go on doing so) but it isn’t a mode which will excite other poets by its possibilities. That’s not to say that there aren’t many good pieces here. I have a soft spot for “This Creation” in the second section: it is a celebration of the way in which the activities of flying-foxes (mainly, I presume, shitting out the seeds of fruit they have eaten elsewhere) help to reseed the Daintree:

          I hear them at dusk,
                    those spectacled flying-foxes wheeling,
streaming into pockets of remaindered rainforest;
          an archipelago paradise
                                        where hardwoods are flowering
          with syrup, easing pollination, and musky
                              squabbling camps for those black
          leathered angels seeding
a Daintree, gallantly reclaiming
                                                        the Garden. 

“Black leathered angels” is a lovely image – though it might be said to be an Old Testament one, itself derived from Babylonian myth, and thus implying a whole history of cultural borrowings and seedings – and shows Hall at his best.

In Sweetened in Coals the methods and movements of the verse itself is varied in a way which might also reflect the opposition between static observation of vistas and movement. In the preliminary poem, “Carpentaria Running the Flag”, we get a full-scale rehearsal of precise observation fed into strongly tactile consonants and a very intense syntactic movement. At least we do in the beginning: the poem finishes by tailing off into limp abstractions:

Heat radiates off the back-broken
bullish escarpment where lost cities rise
as columns of silica crusted in iron
above pocketed zinc seams, gouged cattle plains
and salt flats; a back-country driven bony
even as floods flush north to the Gulf
and I cast bait, slipping past crocs and luring barra
on bloodied lines; a channelled
shimmering verdancy as those caught thrash
on sand before being parcelled in paperbark
and sweetened in coals amidst bunched
golden beard grass and cathedral mounds; the Savannah Way
a graded fence line vanishing into the rusted
landscape where a charged sphere percolates
                                                         Indigenous space.

Somehow this seems to encapsulate the strongest and weakest elements of the poetry. If “Dystopian Empire” recalled Les Murray, this recalls Anthony Lawrence. And it is hard not to feel that Lawrence is a better model for the “I move through the landscape” poems that Hall wants to write.