Abundant Insight: Les Wicks Launches Margaret Bradstock’s ‘Brief Garden’

Brief Garden by Margaret Bradstock , Puncher and Wattmann 2019, was launched by Les Wicks at the Friend in Hand Hotel Glebe NSW on 2 February 2019.

A few months ago, I was talking with a translator, both of us marvelling at what a bastard language English is. The sheer weight of words from 100 sources, the way words with very different meanings can sound exactly the same and how others can vary in their context. This is a writer’s delight. The book we’re here to celebrate today is Brief Garden. I didn’t realise until well into the book that the title comes from a twist around an actual Brief Garden arising from a legal brief but the phrase so perfectly sums up all that this book is about.

Human occupation of the planet is, in geological timeframes, a brief garden. First Nations’ sole occupation of Australia was a brief Garden. White occupation of the land has been a brief Garden. So too, our individual lives. We are each here for so few decades then we die. The shape of the garden we tend across this stint is our gift, our legacy. The tools are our insights, our fascinations, empathies, action, investigation and exploration. This title weaves the book together marvellously.

Margaret quotes some John Upton feedback shouting “the language is ordinary”. The poem doesn’t quite make it clear whether he was referring to one of her poems specifically but upon encountering the line I was drawn back again to the fundamental voice adopted by this extraordinary poet. On the explicability scale, her work can be read as direct, sometimes ostensibly prosaic. You will exit none of the poems in this collection scratching your head wondering what they are about at least on a peripheral level. But that’s missing the point completely. This is a finely drafted collection with subtle linkages across the poems and the sections all building to a unified picture of struggle, mistakes, curiosity and insight.

I love the way the poems bounce along quite unselfconsciously then turn to smack you across the face with startling observations and imagery. Look at the line from ‘Henry Whalley’: “…navigating blind, in search of a continent.” Or ‘Time and Motion’s’ “we carry with us/all the forsaken places” and ‘East Coast By Night’ “Beyond each loss/you stand upon the cliff again”.

The book is divided into five sections. I found it an interesting choice that she chose not to give them names, names that would herd the poems therein into some marshalling yard of uniform comprehension. Instead, she allows us to see each to take shape naturally with her gentle guidance. Another sign of a poet at the peak of her game, in complete control of the reader’s journey.

Section 1 is resolutely historical. We are given an astonishing insight to the timbre of the entire book in ‘William Hodges – View in Pickersgill Harbour, Dusky Bay ca.1776’ — a historically important natural landscape painted over with the Eurocentric exploration scene. Fascinating, the true value is beneath the surface painting. This really feeds the reader! It’s what the first section, probably the whole book, is really about, that innate human urge to explore/engage, that innate human capacity to fuck it up. One of the foci of this section is George Augustus Robinson, a classic example of someone “navigating blind”. Here are explored the impossibility (from the white perspective) of connection between competing language and custom plus the fundamental issue of land.

Much focused around Tasmania, the outrage is clear and honest. But also, three-dimensional. The sealers and whalers were unforgivable for the crimes they committed against the first people, but their lives too were an extremity of hardship. The racial exploitation and annihilation were unerring, while at the same time a mixed-race Henry Whalley was esteemed.

The next part explores the family history. Still a fascination for so many, particularly of our generation, this subject veers close to the edge of overdone. But the skilful craftsperson that Margaret is didn’t of course let that happen here. The family background is multisided, built with insights and more than a few chuckles… “Leaving the grandsons waiting on the road/outside, as the day waned into nightfall,/not least of the traditions he established/              for future generations.” ‘George Henry Bragge (1861-1935)’. “Each generation has its scholar-gypsies/its changeling children” ‘DNA’ — Margaret Bradstock is no exception!

Third section roams widely in contemporary decades, exploration of the land, personal passions (like bike riding and year-round ocean swimming which I share – “the water, once you’re into it, is all there is” – ‘Keeping Your Head above Water’). I know from my own researches that that the Eora introduced the swimming culture to the Sydney Cove settlement, Margaret explores this affinity with the sea so beautifully in ‘Barangaroo and the Eora fisherwomen’ against the backdrop of a typical overdevelopment. Farewells to Martin Harrison John Upton & Gurrumul are crisp, generous, real. ‘The Prodigal’ is a particularly powerful, personal poem.

Section 4 takes us via a circuitous route to another Bradstock passion, astronomy. There is no banging of cymbals, no garish floodlights (they ruin the night sky). Experience/observations are just put before us with the clarity of a lens, a researched and explored facet of human experience. And then she brings it all back to the broader span of history and contemporary issues facing the planet… “New worlds swim into our sight/ like hedgerow prominences on the sun,/we need the ‘glint’ of rainbows from their oceans” (‘Other Worlds’).

Finally, we pivot back to the earth knowing “The sky’s a shepherd’s warning” (‘Drought’). Anywhere Bradstock looks we see a world under threat – “Somewhere, sea-lions stretch out/on a rocky island, as the world/ that survives grows smaller.” (‘Hubbard Glacier’) and “In the waters above Hawaii/ you could see right into the depths/ skeletal as xray artworks/ collages of modernity/ debris all the way down soft-drink bottles/pieces of junk the size of a truck” (‘Broken Ocean’).

A dominant theme throughout this collection, the current state of the environment is put before us, daring us to act effectively, condemning inaction. Humanity still struggles/bungles/slashes through its garden. We thought we built, though much is broken. But still there is hope, persistence: “like the old woman/who carries the sun/ and the moon in her string bag/to plant in the sky”.

This book has no belly laughs but bucketloads of smiles. There is no hectoring but an abundant insight. After reading it we feel helped through the grief and can march forward with a quiet determination. Brief Garden is now launched. Sail on with her for one mighty voyage.

 – Les Wicks

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Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication in over 350 different magazines, anthologies & newspapers across 29 countries in 15 languages. His 14th book of poetry is Belief (Flying Islands, 2019). He can be found at http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Brief Garden is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/brief-garden/