Three poems with introductions for Reading the River: Martin Langford

Index - The virtual Reading the River reading
Reading the River virtual reading April 2020: Martin Langford

Feral – Background

‘Feral’ could probably be about any of the river towns up and down the east coast, but it was actually written with Brooklyn in mind. I had gone to school in the area, and even, in a previous life (in the seventies) taught in it, so I had some idea that some of the kids from up the river didn’t fit the mould of the model student. I’ve always thought the physical life, however, was something to trust, compared to the endless flux and positionality of the world of words. As the city life increasingly seemed to be drifting away from its physical origins, places like the Hawkesbury became an important psychological counterpoint.

The city, in comparison, seemed to be turning everything into some form of currency –not necessarily money, though certainly that – but always something that was tradable: a position, a skill, a part in a narrative. Ultimately, all these reifications converged into an endless search for power. The problem with power, however, is that it loses touch with the things it built on in the first place – the world beyond the sign, which is also the world it continually seeks to return to – with places, in other words, like the Hawkesbury.


Part of me’s glad there are always, in river towns,
kids who don’t quite get to school: who spend
half their time down the jetty – gossiping,
taking the sun; hunched between knobs
of a peeling angophora; the peace without signs
of the afternoon breeze on their skin.
Feral, authorities say, as if they would rather say,
Forfeit. Select and delete – of all those
who don’t share their culture: who don’t care,
for instance, how well they can read or add up.
Hanging with blokes down the rail. Or
sweet-talking one of the girls into staying home too:
taking a boat out to one of the islands, to sit
with a pile of fresh oysters and see what unfolds.
As if all those other things – paperwork, school;
the dead hand of pleasure postponed –
were too much near a river. As if, while the place
still told tales – strange fish, or drug-boats, or bodies;
while creek mists or kisses re-surfaced
through clear daylit moods; as long as the heron
of silences still picked through shell-grit,
and discarded brick, in the weightless, stained creek:
this oral world was enough. Cranky, perhaps,
a little apart from the law. But attuned to the tides:
a rhythmic unfolding of actor, location, event.
Not graded, shrunk, made to order: translated
in cities – where others are re-born as data,
the sensual’s replaced by the known;
where anxious crowds shuffle, perplexed,
through the lost world of signs. Where everyone hunts
for the power which is knowledge – baffled,
and somehow let down, by the closure in power.
Where the ghosts of the pale rooms of thought
are still haunted by tides.

from Be Straight With Me, Island, 2001


Calna Creek – background

When we were kids, we swam in Calna Creek, the creek which flows in the gully between Mt Colah and Mt Kuring-gai, and Hornsby Heights. We didn’t know it was called Calna Creek. We called it the Leechy, though I have no idea why – no-one I knew ever saw a leech down there. It wasn’t much of a creek – the pool we swam in wasn’t the greatest swimming hole – but it was enough to seem like a bit of an adventure to a bunch of kids. Unfortunately, just above the swimming-hole, they built a sewage works, and that was the end of that. The sewage works wanted all the water in the creek, except during the heaviest downpours.

This is really just a poem about a disappointment I imagine being replicated countless times all over the world, as industrial or population needs come along and wipe out some favourite bit of country that no-one afterwards even remembers was there. A personal and specific dismay, replayed in variation form over and over.

I have always, moreover, thought of the health of creeks as being one of the key signs of the overall health of an environment. Sydney must have had the most beautiful creeks all through the sandstone country but there’s not much left that isn’t piped away, or choked with exotics. Eventually, I would like to think, every creek will have a creek-steward, with legal powers to make sure it is being looked after.


It is almost unimaginable
that in this sweet, tough, spiked-leaf and quartz-run-off country
where settler and native are both almost wholly inaudible,
there must have been once, enough discourse
for someone to look-hear and mimic the mouth-shapes of cal-na.
Beside it, the settlers drove cart-tracks
on which to fetch produce from farms up the Hawkesbury:
Berowra Waters Road to Pearce’s Corner, Fidden’s Wharf.
We used to call it the Leechy: our creek – like how many others,
tumbled and gouged through the delta-veined bedrock of Sydney.
The shaded and clear-trickling gift of a worn-sandstone music.
A stepped imagination braiding plenitudes.
Now, there’s a bubbling of sewage ponds, right where we swam.
The track’s choked; the creekline’s stained pot-holes
and baked-lichen ledges: a thin, scummed and glittering backbone –
up through the dried-up swamp – eaten-out vertebræ –
up past the hills round Mt Colah, and on, to the sea.

from Ground, Puncher and Wattmann, 2015


Deerubin – Background

 Deerubbin is the First Nations name for the Hawkesbury. Re-nam ing is a complex issue, and some of that complexity will be apparent from what follows. I first took offence to the idea of using Lord Hawkesbury’s name when I found he was leader of the pro-slaving faction in British politics during the 1790’s, arguing against Pitt when slavery first appeared as a hot topic. How could a river as beautiful as this be named after someone like that? Most of his early instincts seemed reflexively conservative, and his response, as Prime Minister (by then Earl of Liverpool), to the Peterloo Massacre, in 1819, was to suspend habeas corpus and the right of assembly. However, he later became more liberal, and he seems to have played a constructive part in putting Europe back together again after the Napoleonic Wars. Even though, in 1807, he had argued against the abolition of slavery, his opinion seemed to have swung around in favour once the laws were in place, and for much of his tenure as Prime Minister (1812-1827), he oversaw an increasingly comprehensive Atlantic blockade. Pitt may have lost the political battles, but, with Wilberforce, had won the battle of opinion. In 1824, it was Liverpool’s (ie Hawkesbury’s) government that argued for the abolition of slavery at the Congress of Vienna. So although the young Hawkesbury that Philip named the river after hardly deserves the name-gift of such a location, the older politician oversaw an administration that probably did more to stop the slave trade than any other.

What one should make of all this is difficult to know. One could simply argue that we should revert to the First Nations name. But we won’t, presumably, be doing that with all names, and whether we would want to include the Hawkesbury on that list is something, I suspect, people will be arguing about for a while yet.

When I wrote the poem, I probably should have paid more attention to his later career. That said, I still think naming is ‘heart-work’ – it’s just that it’s not always as straightforward as it might seem at first.


When Phillip announced
this pearl flux
would be named
for Lord Hawkesbury –
it wasn’t the river breeze
stroking his cheeks that inspired him.

Later, His Lordship
was head of the pro-slaving gang.

A gift for a punk
for the sake of that Arch-Punk, Necessity –

of water as lit and itself as a mind without words.

As if names weren’t heart-work –

a frayed bid
to work language clear of position,
chafe power to transparency –

what other path will we beat
to the circle of friends?

from Ground, Puncher and Wattmann, 2015




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