A connection to the landscape: Richard James Allen launches ‘Sandpaper Swimming – Going After Burke & Wills’ by George Watt

Richard James Allen was supposed to launch Sandpaper Swimming: going after Burke & Wills by George Watt, Flying Island Books, 2019, at the Poets’ Picnic at Markwell in December 2019. Unfortunately, as he was in Santa Fe New Mexico he was unable to do so and Sandpaper Swimming was launched in absentia

I hope this book launch is being held outside. If not, I advise you all to take a moment before whoever is reading this in my place goes on, to go outside. Look at the trees of the Australian bush. Really look. Are you looking at them or are they, in infinite patience, looking at you?

This books starts at a key turning point in the story of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition to cross the continent of Australia from bottom to top, the four man “final push” for the Gulf of Carpentaria from “the main depot at Cooper’s Creek”. Before leaving, gathered with those who are to stay behind, “they sang, encircled in moon- mad shadow / under giant boughs of a Coolabah” 

Trees haunt this book, looking on with the ‘careless’ jaundice of the oldest continent itself at the folly of those Jonny-come-latelies who are ill-prepared but would conquer:

In the face of this, the giant tree sat
passively as it had for many years,
a hopeful stripling when the pious Cook
set foot on the shores of Botany Bay,
two thousand dry kilometres away. 

The trees know many things these explorers can’t even begin to imagine:

If trees have a certain deep consciousness,
they sense inscrutable spirits of place,
and grow to fill and own surrounding space.
But if this ancient tree knew, as trees may,
it gave nothing away beyond presence.
Its stature signified a gnarled patience,
boughs a giant’s deformed akimbo thighs,
many arms with bending elbows reaching
for violent blues of the summer skies. 

And the Burke and Wills saga, an integral step in the timeline of ‘heroic failure’ as a definition of the Australian story which reaches its zenith in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, has at its narrative centre a tree. This is the tree where supplies were famously ordered to be buried should the adventurers not return from their dash into the mysterious north. This is the tree at the foot of which stories of mis-timings and miscommunication and undying rancour were buried. This is the tree, where, with tragic consequences, the two parties would eventually miss their rendezvous by hours. This is the tree that “became the stuff of legend: The Dig Tree”. 

This is a book about legends and how we inhabit them and they inhabit us, haunted by trees which have their own language of time. Sandpaper Swimming: going after Burke & Wills is a travelogue in search of history, in search of authenticity, in search of that ever-illusive chimera, Australian national identity.

Reflecting the genuine complexity of such a quest, this book in its structure jumps between the ‘assumption clusters’ of different eras. Scenes from the iconically over-confident, under-prepared, and ultimately ill-fated white Australian enterprise to conquer, tame, map, measure, control, master the Outback, are counterpointed by scenes of jealous and judgmental rival contemporaries, casting aspersions and nasty little asides from the safety of their city clubs, and layered with scenes from the author’s childhood in the 1960s as he takes part in a boy scouts expedition “going after” but apparently never finding “Burke & Wills”.

The book’s search concludes in the present day, where, one might argue, the author has, in his own way, and particularly through his memories of a young Indigenous boy who took him off on a private odyssey in his childhood, finally found them.

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I suspect that this book will be the subject of several PhD theses, which take their analysis much deeper, but at first glance here are some of the threads of this interweaving that stand out to me.

George Watt is interested in how different people think – the mythologies, philosophies, habits of mind, patterns of thinking and non-thinking that characterise different eras, cultures and individuals within these. At the personal level, for example, he draws clear character distinctions between the brutish, impulsive Burke and the more sensitive, thoughtful Wills. This can be seen in the cruel practice described in ‘1860: Pegging a camel’. Wills is empathetic:

With a keen eye, Wills watches him
shaving the stick to a sharp point.
During the short operation,
Wills subtly fingers his own nose…
He wonders now how he’ll react
when someone else tugs on his rope.

Burke has no empathy:

Burke downplays the whole ritual,
…oblivious to the beast’s grief:
“It’s their lot to bear. Roars of pain
can fly off to God knows where.”

Similarly, a contrast of cultures is found in the Aboriginal and White attitudes to ‘the other’. The Indigenous people “never know why strangers come”, but they accept that “no matter, they will at some point / appear”. They are instructed to be careful, patient, non-threatening:

In the absence of a shared tongue
we might have to gesticulate.
If so, do not appear frantic.
Communication’s not easy,
but two questions must be answered:
why do your people come our way;
how long do you intend to stay? 

While, on the other hand, ‘Whitefella Burke on strangers’ says:

The blacks will be very troublesome,
And if they annoy you at all,
shoot them at once.

Signs and meanings are often uncomfortably jumbled. In his childhood, he marvels at the site of “young blacks follow a flat football / aloft, necks bent to keep it in their sight”. After a visceral image of jumping out of a truck, raising red dust to “smells of heavy engine oil”, this vision is almost Chagall-like in its grace. But immediately afterwards we get “Torn t-shirts tout Coke, Mortein Aerosol, / Minties, and Happy Little Vegemite. ” And even more disturbing than this pollution of natural physical exuberance with capitalist marketing, we get a stark vision of white power:

Little Leader thus: “They may think this is fun,
playing in the dark. Poor misguided fools.
They don’t yet know that we control the rules.” 

For some time this is a book of folly, of foolishness and mistakes made, of crumbling certainties and questionable belief systems. Struck inside the occasionally flashingly illuminated darkness of the back of a truck in the middle of the Australian bush, the only interpretive images the young narrator can call up are from English fairytales and American movies:

I half-dream we’re inside a black dragon
with truck-light eyes and a comet-tail wake,
or crouched in a Conestoga wagon
shooting Indians for Hollywood’s sake.

A church, which in Burke and Wills’ time still had resonant power “on this edge of the so-called world, / fronting the half-known, then the absolute”, is by the sixties “abandoned, slowly crumbling / into itself”. The decay of the symbolic images of an already by then increasingly outmoded set of beliefs is described in reverent detail, leaving “silence here…understood through the magpie’s gurgle”.

Official language has become devoid of its authenticity. The “Big Leader” of the scouts, reflecting the self-satisfied emptiness and fear of conviction of Australia in the pre-counterculture sixties, is constantly speaking in empty chants that appear ironic and funny but are actually just bullying and manipulative. “His favourite song” (a throwback to T.S. Eliot’s ‘hollow men’ coming out of the despair of the Great War) is “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here.” And yet he also seems to echo ideologies that lead into the Second World War. He is attractive, “a furred, blond creature from Norse myth”, “a centrifugal force, drawing me / inexorably towards him”. His game of baptism becomes a mock drowning, he is a rebirth of the brutality of Burke in each era.

*

Relief comes through the more sensitive Wills, who discovers, in one of the highlights of the book, ‘1860: Wills bathing alone at Swan Hill’, a liminal connection to nature that is “neither night nor day, that time / between the real and the imagined, / between waking and dreaming. This is followed, in the 1960s, by the author’s discovery of Indigenous culture. The turning point in the narrative is his connection with the young Aboriginal footballer, mentioned earlier, ‘crossing the gulf’ of the “fifty thousand years between us”. When the boy takes him where Wills really died (“My mob know his gunyah [bush hut] here. White fellas ‘em don’t know much.” ), he gets a glimpse of the timeless: “all was absolutely still, quiet / as the universe held its breath”. After returning to his scout camp, witnessed by the “ghost gum trunks…swaying guardians”, he thanks the boy with the gift of his watch, “a well-used Timex”. It is a beautiful moment, conscious of its own irony: “this a double-edged sword, time Western in miniature, / gifting him our precision, our sense of order” .

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this book is to share with contemporary readers this glimpse of a way of seeing and comprehending beyond traditional Western rationalist modes. This idea is gracefully encapsulated through the character of Ludwig Becker, the artist on the expedition. He not only believes “that black and white are kin”, in Burke’s eyes a “vexatious and galling sin”, literally reversing the traditional framing of the white figures in the centre and the black figures in the periphery of his painting. He not only (a radical thing to do at the time) brings “down-to-earth” humanity to his Indigenous figures, not portraying them as “chimpanzees” or “The Nobel Savage”. He also finds a connection to the landscape that isn’t predetermined by classical rules of painting:

Endless miles of burnt, yellow-ochre plain.
Desolation. No golden section here
behind the design. Something else arcane
guides the artist’s hand over this austere
scene, half land, half sky, space equally shared,
the horizon cutting through the centre,
a salt flat knife line.

In the end, Wills dies, with a similar moment of communion with nature, letting go of everything that has haunted him, including, it is hinted, the “buried things” in his sexuality .

…I’m now beyond the sharp claws of pain.
No longer plagued by ambition, rules, even love.
I just am, not more or less, insignificant,

but not so. Something like a brief wind or an ant
or a comet tail lost in an arc of glory.
When lost, did Cousin Harry also find this … peace,

something close to bliss. As if a globe of translucent
crystal that holds the whole universe shatters
into many tiny pieces. Ultimately each one

is beyond description, perception, or belief.
For after its heart-shattering end, its very
absence suggests it may never have existed at all. 

*

This book contains many more secrets than I have offered glimpses at. But I suggest you purchase a copy and discover these for yourself.

Some questions you might ask yourself include: what is the meaning of the title? How much do you have to know about the story in advance? Is Burke a totally unredeemable character?

As much as trees, this is a book of songs about songs. What are George Watt’s conclusions about these in his extraordinary ‘2019 Epilogue’? What is the function of beginning and ending the book with the scout signature tune ‘On the Crest of a Wave’?

And finally, is the author a witness, a historian, a storyteller, a fabulist? All of the above?

Sandpaper Swimming: going after Burke & Wills is a carefully researched poem in the way that Kenneth Slessor’s classic ‘Five Visions of Captain Cook’ is a carefully researched poem, crafted with one eye for the arresting story and the other for the arresting image. But George Watt is lucky enough to be writing in a time, in an ‘assumption cluster’, when we have begun to grasp something, which most of those living in the earlier periods about which he writes had yet to do, about what we have to learn from the planet’s oldest continually surviving culture.

From far away, across time zones and space, I declare this book launched.

 – Richard James Allen

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Richard James Allen is an Australian born poet. His latest book is The short story of you and I (UWAP, 2019). His writing has appeared widely in journals, anthologies, and online over many years. Creator of #RichardReads, an online compendium of Global Poetry, Read Aloud, he has written nine earlier books of poetry and edited a national anthology of writing for performance. Richard is also well known for his multi-award-winning career as a filmmaker and choreographer with The Physical TV Company and as a performer in a range of media and contexts.

Sandpaper Swimming: going after Burke & Wills can be ordered from https://flyingisland.org/

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El Asombrado by Les Wicks

El Asombrado es el libro XII de poeta australiano Les Wicks de poesía. Contiene una selección de trabajos en los últimos 15 años en español e inglés. Los poemas son traducidos ingeniosamente por un maestro – G. Leogena, viviendo en Medellín, Colombia.

El Asombrado is Australian poet Les Wicks’ 12th book of poetry. It contains a selection of work over the past 15 years in both Spanish and English. The poems are artfully translated by a master – G. Leogena, living in Medellin, Colombia.

…la mezcla de gambas-en-el-barbie, Cerveza rancia y tangas suburbanos, con un lirismo sofisticado y la apertura a la naturaleza… cosecha poéticas trufas; línea tras línea parece haber llegado toda. John Watson, Southerly

Wicks trabaja sus ideas a través de imágenes en lugar de discusión. Los poemas son viscerales; cada uno en forma hacia una experiencia emocional. John Upton, Mascara

…the mixture of prawn-on-the-barbie, stale beer and thongs suburban, with a sophisticated lyricism and openness to nature… harvesting poetic truffles; line after line seems to have arrived entire. John Watson, Southerly

Wicks works his ideas through images rather than argument. The poems are visceral; each shaped towards an emotional experience. John Upton, Mascara