John Upton reviews Barnacle Rock by Margaret Bradstock
By Margaret Bradstock
ISBN (paperback) 9781922186126 (e-book) 9781922186133
Reviewed by JOHN UPTON
‘You will go back through the quiet bush’, says the eponymous poem in this collection, ‘past Aboriginal middens / rainbow lorikeets nesting / in tree knolls / to the uninhabited beach’ (Barnacle Rock). And during this journey through time and space, the reader encounters a full-length portrait of Australia – geographic, social and moral. The examination is close and critical. The title’s metaphor imagines white settlement and society as a layer of barnacles fastened to this continental rock, and the book explores ecosystems of beach, basalt and brutality. There’s elegance in the writing, freshness in the imagery and pace in the telling, but there’s also heart – Margaret Bradstock cares about Australia, and the direction in which it is headed.
The collection is in five sections, each focused on an aspect of the story: early white contact, settlement and exploration; landform and landscape; a personal suburban life; a closer focus on Sydney’s landscape of water, beach and cliffs, with a lighter tone and a sprinkling of humour; and an enraged protest about the direction of the country and the world with issues such as global warming and the nuclear industry. Bradstock’s favoured free verse trimeter gives past and present a unifying heartbeat. The collection offers a generous 120 pages of poetry and gathers in a busy lifetime’s work and thought.
In the early exploration poems, short lines, vaulting detail and quick dips into historical fact give a pace like a stiff wind behind a clipper ship. Some might argue that these poems are irrelevant to the theme, but they provide a context. An introductory piece ties Marco Polo to Captain Cook, Donald Horne and today’s Bra Boys: ‘Life’s a beach, all right … waves rolling in forever / and the slide of sand. / The “sacred geometry” of ocean’ (Country of Beach). Then we’re back to a Portuguese shipwreck in 1520, and a 1522 map showing a sunfish like ‘a dinner plate with staring eyes / bird’s beak of a mouth / fins like trencher handles’ (Sunfish). There are Dutch traders, British buccaneers, French scientists, and a mad thrust by Captain Cook into Antarctic waters that grimly prefigures a heroic expedition led by Douglas Mawson a century and a half later.
We also encounter convicts in chilling penal conditions: ‘Six months in irons, 100 lashes / for rebelliousness, insolence, refusal to work / the flogger dipping the Cat’s tails in sand’ (Convict Davis, 1824). The rhythm is edging now into five-beats, free verse but based on English poetry’s comfortable pentameter, which emerges fully-fledged in the early Sydney colony of Leichhardt As Headland: ‘Rum, horseracing, cock fights and prize fights – / Sydney’s a city now, known smugglers / and thieves accepted as city councillors’. As the nation matures, Douglas Mawson is in Antarctica, with vivid imagery as ‘Adele penguins confer like tribal elders’, and a line of people is ‘a papercut of small black figurines / in a vast expanse of white-out’ (Mawson: The Heroic Era).The salient detail of big, heroic deeds is rendered in memorable but economical language, understatement reflecting the character of the men involved. Colour and movement were not the issue then, nor are they here.
The second section introduces the Australia of landforms – Glasshouse Mountains, Recherche Bay, Uluru, Katherine township, the mental landscape of Sidney Nolan and Ern Malley – and, interestingly, the language is back in that three-beat free verse pattern that comes, I think, most naturally to Bradstock. The section opens with The Promised Land (p.44), a group of four short poems in which landforms become religious symbols. The second poem, Asylum In Eden, sees the light after thunderheads and wonders: ‘does it pre-empt the covenant / perhaps, or yellowcake? // Asylums offer sanctuary / but quickly become prisons. / Was it like that in Eden / fall upon fall of cages / in a stairway of descent, simulating / the free fall of angels?’
We’re also in Sydney’s geography, with high-rise plate glass windows occupying air once owned by pterodactyls, with black rats jumping ship ‘like absconding sailors’ to introduce bubonic plague, and Barnacle Rock, a 31-line summary of this sweep of history and landform, where ‘A man and his shadow / stride across the skyline / in the footprints of worn sandstone’.
These first two sections account for half of the book. The third section pulls the focus tighter, into ‘the detritus of domesticity’, life in the suburbs where ‘rust never sleeps’ (Patrolling The Balustrade For Rust). The focus upon ‘then’ and ‘now’ moves from broad history to personal memory – journeys to Marseilles, Bali, Vietnam: ‘If you could choose your past / where would it be? / back in the seventies, fifties[?] / … / I climbed the Bridge once … poised on the brink of something / burr of a wingbeat / the city gridlocked beneath us. // We feed coins into the automated / pay station / locate the car’ (Wheel and Turn).
The section ends with two strong pieces on the poet’s father: ‘You hear your dead brothers / calling from a different lifetime / their blackbird voices’ (Ask Not), and‘You drift in and out of memory / in and out of sleep / a receding tide of the river’s delta / … / A foghorn sounds on the river. / Wanting to be gone, you are still here’ (The River).
In the fourth section, the focus is again upon ‘place’, but the lens is set even more tightly – we’re now on Sydney’s beaches and headlands, in and on the water of ‘the glittering city’ (Morning, Bondi Beach). There’s sly wit: ‘Your board stands idle / behind the washing machine / … / another bottom of the harbour scheme’. That wit is on show again in Harbour Tolls Are Changing With the Times as it mourns Slessor in affectionate parody: ‘no ships’ bells or ventricles of light // the harbour flicking over / echoes a machine’s voice / North and South Head // a border crossing now. / You are upside down in the water / words written on the ocean floor’. This poem later suggests the reader ‘google underwater.com.au’. The tone in this section is playful, the happiest in the book. But it’s setting us up for something very different.
The fifth section is a howl of rage, just seven poems, but the lines are longer and the rhythms pound. In the first poem, The Catechism of Loss, nuclear radiation has been loosed upon the world: ‘Lost cities hammer out makeshift plans / the flattened landscape stripped / of its clockwork trappings’. In The Ranger Mine we’re told that for 30 years about 100,000 litres of contaminated water a day has been leaking from the tailings dam into fissures beneath Kakadu. In The Sure Extinction we’re warned that ‘The North Pacific garbage patch / is the graveyard where marine plastics gather / like nylon shirts in the wardrobes of old men’. In Walking in the Wetlands there’s more wonderful rage as she invokes Eliot, flaying the sad, self-centred anguish of Prufrock:
There will be time / before rain lashes against the skin of sea / melding into horizon / time to take in the Picasso exhibition / another journey, a Doris Lessing novel. / Rivers of ice that run forever / tectonic plates that shift and shift again / their earthquakes gathering force / won’t interfere with our idea of Christmas: the chant of carols, / feel-good donations’ (p.112).
The mood softens a little in the final three poems, but the threat is still there. Bees and polar bears struggle in changing environments. ‘Autumn arrives early, while we’re still not done with summer / or summer with us, sending me back to the bay’ (How Large Each Death Will Be). The collection ends with the cycle bending towards another winter: ‘Everything is waiting and still / this tenuous, fragile feeling / like a hand-held soapstone sculpture’ (Mississauga: Spring and Fall).
Because it’s a portrait, this collection limits its scope, forms and style. There aren’t villanelles and technical virtuosity. Thematically, it identifies important and topical issues – climate change, degradation of the land, the value society places on what it has inherited, and what all this means for Australia’s future. It’s a sober balance sheet, and one that isn’t optimistic, but it’s a grown up perspective – gloomy while still relishing life. Margaret Bradstock fulfils the mission of the evangelising poet – to seize and hold the attention of her reader, to fascinate and enlighten, and to address spiritual hunger in a satisfying way.
JOHN UPTON is a theatre critic. His poetry has appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra Times, Quadrant, Famous Reporter, Eureka Street and other literary magazines.