Holly Friedlander Liddicoat reviews meditations with passing water by Jake Goetz

meditations with passing water

Jake Goetz

Rabbit Poetry


It’s a sophisticated piece of work that imparts its subject matter through its form. This is what I distinctly remember from first reading Jake Goetz’s ‘meditations with passing water’, in one sitting, in 2018, and what still rings true on re-reading five years later. The opening lines flow and hum like currents—lines jut out from left to right, lap at page edges, then recede. Their layout instantly brings to mind gentle river waves. This flow-form continues throughout, a steady constant.

flexing against sky
ripples of sun and cloud
      knead through greens
and browns

‘meditations with passing water’ is a series of four long poems that chart experiences of the Maiwar (Brisbane River). It is not an exhaustive history. I’ve often referred to it as a book-poem in four parts, but Jake has just as often disagreed with me. In both ways, the poem-parts connect to share the river’s stories—focusing on contemporary experiences of the Maiwar, juxtaposed with British colonisation and its enduring legacy for both the traditional custodians, primarily the Jagera and Turrbal peoples of the Brisbane catchment, and others that live at its shores. As a Sydneysider living in Brisbane at the time of writing, Jake explores the river’s ‘mutterings’ by using the psychogeographical concept of dérive, undertaking many unplanned journeys through the landscape and juxtaposing these with text from scientific textbooks, found texts, newspaper articles, texts on First Nations and colonial history, and John Oxley’s 1823 Governor Report.

As a title, ‘meditations with passing water’ captures the book’s essence. If you get a chance to hear Jake read from this work, his aural performance adds further depth—the gentle, slow readings of each line lull you along the river, where you are buoyed by sound and feel. The form underpins the meditative feeling—the narrator is always meandering along the river bank, watching, “a group of Kiwis swimming in T-shirts / smoking cigarettes” (4), “each apartment Coles pram-pushing mother” (7), “two bottles of XXXX / covered in mud” (13). River as meditation. Walking along river as meditation. Sound of lapping water as meditation. 

Yet the idea of a river’s meditative calmness is juxtaposed with meditation’s truest aim—the making of mental space to find deeper meaning. What does a river do? It feeds. It houses. It runs. It stagnates. It floods. It dries up. It sustains and kills fish. It dreams. It divides. It’s the graveyard for trolleys, bodies, tires, oily mess. “it carries / the syntax of the city / on its back (30).” As a receiver of human decisions, it tells a thing about a psyche.

Jake finds our psyche by contrasting contemporary experiences of the Maiwar and its western archives. In the here and now, Brisbanites jog along it; donut, jetski and boat on it; suicide into it; as plastic bottles bob forever alongside. Its is very Brisbane—through its named local heroes (Uncle Sam Watson, Darren Lockyer, David Malouf, (Ken) Bolton, a little (Liam) Ferneyian experience) and unnamed. Brand names are markers of ongoing colonisation and signal the omnipresence of capitalism—they are always popping up, always visible, mostly because they are literally towering over the river (Meriton, Santos, Telstra, Suncorp, Mercure, Marvel). The branding of housing (Mercure, Meriton) and “RIVERFRONT APARTMENTS COMING SOON” (32), “ZEN cranes meditating on apartments” (20) showing it’s all for sale. Company omnipresence grates uncomfortably against ‘corporate responsibilities’—for example the 2017 newspaper text reporting our once national darling, Qantas, letting 22,000 litres of toxic foam flow into the Maiwar.

for what is Brisbane as a river
      but that man
            holding a signed figurine
      of Darren Lockyer
            in his hands
Gold Coast bound on origin night

Contrasting this with historical markers, Jake returns to concrete form, carving whole rivers of negative space out of colonial archives. The balance of archival poetics with the everyday is what makes this book exciting and accessible to a contemporary reader. In the second poem-part, “Highgate Hill to Hamilton / The Flood of 1823”, Jake quotes from John Oxley’s early recordings of his ‘discovery’ of the Brisbane River. Textually, distinct images of tributaries are carved out of text blocks. These concrete images, over and over again, reinforce that this is a poem-book about a river. And then, throughout the section, the river overpowers language, the source text becoming harder and harder to read. By removing more and more words from the original text to create the engorged river-image, the historical narrative becomes corrupted by the river—the Maiwar charting its own course regardless, reinforcing its place. 

As contemporary readers, we keenly feel the irony of the chosen text, the instability of western logic. “There was no appearance / of the River being / even occasionally flooded” (30). And yet in 1893, “Sunday morning in Brisbane never dawned / on so much desolation” (53). And then again, we now know, in 1974. 2011. 2022. With climate change and increased urban density, the risk of extreme flooding is likely to increase. History as teacher is being degraded, words harder and harder to read, the meaning murkier, the bottom difficult to see—“the negation / of knowledge / of progress / of the fixity of things” (29). As the greens turn to brown, we are threatened by our inability to see and act clearly—“a culture is no better than its woods (Auden)” (54).

the rise  to work   and fall as a city
that forms around   across   beneath
beyond yet
always from this river

To find ultimate meaning through meditation you must sit through the discomfort. Meditation is intensely challenging—your body hurts as you sit for long periods unable to move, your mind shrieks at you that you can’t do it, while sometimes being in the stillness releases all negative thoughts—and the point is to sit and breathe anyway. Like a sore body, the collection offers an uneasy feeling of place, “being from a nation / on a groaning earth / that fluctuates like an excess of alcohol / in the stomach” (6). Natural disasters are frequent, like the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef (10), cyclones near wrecking ships (27), “I don’t think people are aware / just how bad it is” (11). At the core of this, Jake struggles with what it means to live on unceded Aboriginal land. He moves between reportage about an Aboriginal flag painted on a major intersection as an angry response to gentrification (18), to records of the atrocities committed by early settlers, to asking if he, or “this” (poem?) has “ruined it”—the idea of “country as myth” (29).

That discomfort is metaphor for life, and meditation teaches that reconciling with that feeling is a path to freedom. This is the real heart of the book—that by delving into the discomfort/shrieking feeling of colonial impacts we can perhaps find a deeper truth. Perhaps a different way of engaging. Jake is not overtly didactic. But history is, if we allow it. The discomforting (more than discomforting) reality is the destruction our nation was built on, the myth like life buoy we settlers cling on to, and the destruction of climate that will relegate us to history if we don’t act fast and immediately. The Jagera and Turrbal people consider the Maiwar “the source and support of life in all its dimensions—physical, spiritual, cultural (Gregory 1996, p.2)” (Note on the text, 62). We must reconcile our relationship with Country, with climate, with First Custodians in order to (re)build a wholistic and ongoing life and a new relationship with this place.

Being with this discomfort, being open to change, to other ways of being. To deeply understand the intersections of the river and life, its interconnectedness, the looping in on time and space. The dreaming stories shared, how the first Mairwah (platypus) came to be. The polluting of the river that sustains us. Our complicity in our own destruction, as if we were above and beyond nature “a comfortable residence / smashed against the Victoria Bridge / like an egg in a strong man’s hand” (51). For all of the destruction the river has caused through flood, for all the destruction we cause it and its First Peoples, both offer us other ways of being (“the water was that clear / that we used to have a competition / to find the penny first in amongst the nice clean boulders”) (16). For the convicts that first arrived in Brisbane before Oxley, shipwrecked and lost, the Quandamooka people looked after them. Convict Thomas Pamphlett records that a local man stayed the night to “keep up the fire…” (60) and

            nothing could exceed the kindness with which
                  we had been treated by the natives
who had lodged us in large huts by ourselves
                   and given us as much fish as we could eat

The ongoing generous, openhanded spirit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country. Our ongoing failure to rise to the invitation of compassion, reconciliation, of truth-telling. Our slow rise and response to what Country, its rivers, are telling. For us to bring our water-particle bodies together as a course for change. ‘meditations with passing water’ does not offer us explicit answers—rather shifts through the Maiwar’s sediment, lays bare the layers for us to see, to feel, and to know.
HOLLY FRIEDLANDER LIDDICOAT has previously been published in Cordite, Overland, Rabbit, Southerly, The Lifted Brow and Voiceworks, among others. She’s edited poetry for Voiceworks and the UTS Writers’ Anthology. Rabbit Poetry published her first collection CRAVE, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Mary Gilmore Award. In 2022 she undertook a Bundanon residency and in 2023 her unpublished manuscript Doghouse was shortlisted for the Helen Anne Bell Bequest.