grave sites

The Australian poet is, at last, taking nationality for granted.

—Tom Shapcott and Rodney Hall



In his “Terra Australis” (1949), Douglas Stewart problematises the notion of an “Australia” when imagining a conversation between Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós (1563–1614) and William Lane (1861–1917), a utopian who founded the Australian Labour Movement before relocating to set up a “New Australia” (in Paraguay). When writing that “[t]he wind from Heaven blew both ways at once / And west went Captain Quiros [sic], east went Lane” (section 4, lines 23–4), Stewart asks us to consider by which means might we come to define a “country”? His poem asserts the awkward possibility that there is no Terra firma to the Terra nullius and, if looking to locate a place, Australia remains unlocatable. Country as epistemological state? Country as existential crisis.


Meanwhile, in “Australia” (1943), AD Hope figures the landscape as a “woman beyond her change of life, a breast / Still tender but within the womb is dry” (line 8). In a canon that reflexively stages literariness as a performance of comparisons (Australia as antipodean simulacrum), Judith Wright similarly connects land to a trope of maternal failure, writing in “Train Journey” (1948) that “I looked and saw under the moon’s cold sheet / Your delicate dry breasts, country that built my heart” (lines 3–4). Not exactly motherless, but perhaps unhappily adoptive and mother-tongued in English, do these unacknowledged legislators at the outposts of empire remain consigned to no more than a plaintive role?


In James McAuley’s “Terra Australis” (1942), the poet famously labels Australia a “land of similes” (line 5), as if it is settlers who have been displaced, their poets thereafter duty-bound to seek for local verisimilitudes amalgamating recognisable models from the so-called mother country. Plato, anyone? McAuley (lines 11–15) programs his imagined landscape with a suite of kinetic presences:

[…] the angophora preaches on the hillsides
With the gestures of Moses; and the white cockatoo,
Perched on his limbs, screams with demoniac pain;
And who shall say on what errand the insolent emu
Walks between morning and night on the edge of the plain?

McAuley’s setting is Miltonic, postlapsarian, a chthonic drama at play while trees proselytise and fauna shifts inscrutably through the scenes of the text. What we are invited to see is a transported canon liminally at large inside McAuley’s symbolically ordered places. To wit: poem as ambit toward Indigenisation (settlers like Indigenes); in this text’s off-kilter core, McAuley centralises English canonicity qua poem as ontological hostile takeover bid.


Talking of war: up for grabs is nothing less than constitutional states of deep consciousness parlayed into plausible, nationalised syntax. Is there an element of paralysis or compulsive repetition to the endless commemorations of our war dead as if, in the erased absence of other candidates, the ANZACS and so called “diggers” et al. figure spectrally as apostolic founders of a federated imaginarium? These have long been wielded as Australia’s first and foremost hero-emblems, voyaging abroad in order to be enshrined at home. If culture is cultura, a connectedness through tilling and cultivating lands (etymol.), then no-one will miss the irony of these prototypical soldier-descendants of colonising settler-stock being shipped offshore in order to dig elsewhere, and by these means usher into our collective imaginations the phenomenological states of being-Australian.


Other thoughts on AD Hope’s “Australia” (1943): some will feel dismayed at the poem’s ironic but tone deaf presentation of “monotonous tribes” (line 13) stretching across spaces apprehended as empty (of culture and histories qua connection). What is to be made of the poem’s ambit toward distinguishing Australian-ness? Hope pokes fun at those “cultured apes” populating the so-called old world (line 27) in favour of a specifically Australianified mind freed from “jungle[s] of modern thought” (line 22). The poem proposes that such an apparatus need no longer perform as merely second-hand European machinery, but may instead shift prophetically (that is, poetically) across what Hope hopes is a new world inviting sustained intellectual exploration. Alas, no such luck. This cerebral whitewashing thumps through its assembled quatrains in thoroughly inexact pentameter, as if Hope cannot formalise beyond the inherited modes of an Englishised music. While his themes invite the emergence of differentiated subjectivity, his unadventurous music reasserts subservience. Poem as lyric facsimile.


Let it be said: the ANZAC myth is first responder to the emergency of national emergence, and Les Murray seems happy to contribute to the mythographying. “Visiting Anzac in the Year of Metrification” (1975) recounts a trip to Çanakkale, the poet believing he is on terrains Manning Clark famously terms a “sacred site” (1994:461). The poem’s weird diction (lines 77–84) aestheticises an ideal (and resoundingly myopic) vision:

Those shelterless hardscrabble cols
where even the Heads get knocked, were best
assaulted in youth: we were handiest,
the climbing was overt and in vogue

and done with friends, in company.
Pioneering there, building with planks,
we showed the battler style to Death
among hoarse screams and rosemary.

Amid the slippages, readers are kept on unsure footings: do these concluding stanzas depict the poet’s visit, or play out scenes of ANZAC soldiering, or both? While age may have wearied the poet in a landscape “best / assaulted in youth”, Murray’s venerations simultaneously situate the origins of the “battler” as working-class or colonial land-based hero relocated to warzone, while also placing himself in their footsteps, hearing in their echoes a resonance with which this poem attempts to harmonise. History is made present, time’s barriers collapse, and these spatial, linguistic sites shudder as if portals channelling immanence. By these means, fealties will concretise and narratives of nationhood are enforced. Murray’s poem issues from a jingoistic mode of dark tourism, the text inviting us to imagine ourselves into ecstatic states of empathy. Surely we’d be churlish to refuse the invitation? No. The poem is a mere rapprochement of the legitimacy of colonisers fighting — anywhere will do — and the soldiers in this text perform on behalf of the so-called motherland, unable to see beyond inherited, subservient roles in which denouement will require, from many, no less than the feat of their deaths. Murray’s poem reinforces a thanatogenics as our lore and immemorial tradition. His imagined Australianalities are not only willfully narrow but banalising, proffering a false ontology.


Writing in the late twentieth century, David A Kent asserts that “Australia has been involved in more major conflicts for more years than any other industrial nation” (1985:155). Ask yourself: has Australia ever been antebellum? Now try altering the perspective — history as contingent, history as contestable — and ask yourself a different question: has Australia ever been postbellum?


Anecdotally, Murray is said to have joked he was “the last of the Jindyworobaks” (Elliot 1979:283), that group of predominantly Caucasian male poets (Rex Ingamells, Ian Mudie, Roland Robinson, et al.) whose appropriationist program proposed, at best naively, to enshrine colonial creative producers as if “Aryan Aborigines” (Tout 2017:141). The Jindyworobak group was more than merely an early agglomeration of aggressively nationalistic eco-poets; Ingamells and his cohort set out to articulate their difference from English settlers so as to legitimise claims to Indigenising place by means of [a] misrepresentation (Indigenous stories as their own), [b] appropriation (Indigenous terms brought into English syntactical structures), and [c] annexation (literary hybridisation as strategic public and cultural space-taking). Clearly, Murray’s joke was off. When Ingamells asserts in Conditional Culture (1938) that “[w]hether convicts or freemen, most of our early settlers were misfits here” (1938:2), his logic lies in attempting to fit, be suitable for, or relevant to, or consonant and congruent with lands that were invaded, then forcibly and genocidally possessed. His proposed means of “fitting in” are breathtakingly amnesiac:

“Jindyworobak” is an aboriginal [sic] word meaning “to annex, to join,” and I propose to coin it for a particular use. The Jindyworobaks, I say, are those individuals who are endeavouring to free Australian art from whatever alien influences trammel it, that is, to bring it into proper contact with its material. (1938:4–5)

Here is an aesthetic program that not only steals words and stories from carelessly unidentified Indigenous languages, but proposes to do so in order for colonisers to position and present themselves as ersatz Indigenes. The disingenuousness is shameful; this program that reasserts colonial blindness qua anxieties of unbelonging is neatly encapsulated in Murray’s later assertion, arriving in the poem “The Boeotian Strain”, that “we’re country, and Western”. An impoverishment of the heart; underlying such reflexively paranoiac sentiments there exists “a continuing desire in the white Australian imaginary […] for a species of cultural racial syncretism” (Mead 2009:560), which would reinforce the privileging structures of colonial oppression.


Similarly to the “cairn of words” in JS Manifold’s poem “The Tomb of Lieut. John Learmonth, AIF” (1945), Douglas Stewart’s “Sonnets to the Unknown Soldier” (1941) perform the labour of a “special ‘poetic language’, a ‘language of the gods’, a ‘priestly language of poetry’.” (Bakhtin 1981:287) And like Murray’s poem, Stewart’s precursor text (sonnet 7, lines 9–14) also lionises ANZAC soldiers at large in the world in order to legitimise a myth that overwrites space inside the Terra nullius:

When the Australians crashed singing on Tobruk
He sang the loudest and was the first to die;
And he will sing and fall and fight again
Many times before the white dawn breaks on the world.
Look in the darkest past and the darkest future,
And a man goes down into hell to bring fire for mankind.

Both poems are monoglossic structures commanding worshipful, immanent silence. But what if we were to replace the placeholder “Tobruk” with “Van Diemen’s Land” or “the colonies”? In Stewart’s celebration of an epically heroic death-drive, the evolution of a bone fide Australian is to be no less than the cosmic event of whiteness rising out of darkness qua civilisation settling structurally (indeed racially) into place. While Stewart’s reasons for a “white dawn” cannot be known, in the 21st century it is hard to read this sonnet as either innocuous or innocently phrased. The text’s newly Promethean day is no antipodean version of Sturm und Drang, but is instead as odious as any ideological program seeking to promulgate the future with massed columns of Übermensch.


Question: can this country lay claim to an “inter-war years”? Published in 1936, PR Stephensen initiates his toxic screed, “The Foundations of Culture in Australia: An Essay Toward National Self-Respect”, with a protracted amateur analysis of poems entered in Cambridge University’s Chancellor’s Medal (1823) and written on an assigned theme, “Australasia”. Stephensen excludes from his analyses any commentary on form, style or mode, cheering instead the chest-thumpingly capitalised, italicised lines (1st instalment, section 13)

from William Wentworth’s poem (which placed second in the competition, behind an Englishman):


Has poetry always lurked somewhere in post-settlement politicisations of Australianality? Stephensen feverishly foregrounds Wentworth’s text in order to buttress “a background of strangeness, of strange beasts and birds and plants, in a human emptiness of three million square miles”. His goal? “Culture in Australia, if it ever develops indigenously, begins not from the Aborigines, who have been suppressed and exterminated, but from British culture” (1st instalment, section 1). Stephensen would have us accept the right of creative producers to nationalise identity according to a eugenics promulgating the logic of a “whiteman’s continent” (1st instalment, section 23).


Headily revolutionary and sidestepping the formulaic either/or confinements of the Athenian/Boeotian dyad (Murray contra Porter), poets populating Australia’s Gen ’68 attacked with fervour the genre’s stylistic, discursive, political conservatisms. Here were poets clambering from the ivory turret of mere ideas into local versions of the world, and from this locus an ethics emerged, necessarily revealing those epistemic systems in which power, unequally distributed, propped up the idea of an “Australia”. The so-called “poetry wars”: were they ever really definitively settled, or was it merely CEASEFIRE that was declared?


If asked to locate an emblematic ur-poem written by an Australian poet during World War One, teacher-turned-soldier Leon Gellert’s sonnet “A Night Attack” (lines 1–4) demonstrates the formal contours of his innate terror:

Be still. The bleeding night is in suspense
Of watchful agony and coloured thought,
And every beating vein and trembling sense,
Long-tired with time, is pitched and overwrought.

Gellert’s adjectivally inflated iambics situate the war as peripherally close to a disembodied, synecdochic collective of whispers shifting abstracted parts (the eye, the ear, footsteps, the hand, the mind) toward a looming fight. The poem places us into heightened states of vigilance, and in so doing centralises anxiety as its motif. Written in 1915 after Gellert was wounded at Gallipoli, the poem forecloses its view onto explicit horrors, preferring instead to focalise toward the “wicked glows / That wait and peer” (lines 6–7). In each end-stopped line in the concluding sextet, the poet sets a walking meter to newer uses, his narrative racing iambically — as soldiers charge, terminally — toward undefined enemy lines in darkness. Simply put, Gellert’s poem formally and faithfully fills a literary structure transported halfway around the world (Australia) then back again (Turkey), and his sonnet more or less assumes “the guise of a reproduced, lesser version of British culture” (Rudy 2017:4). Of course, the text can be read as being unwittingly imbricated with colonial modes: suppose Gellert’s text were reframed and set a century earlier, somewhere in the pre-federated British colonies. What then could we make of the “whole black landscape swarm[ing] / With shapes of white and grey” (lines 7–8)? What of the “coloured thought” and “strange forms” (lines 2, 5)? Lyricising within a colonially determined imaginarium, the text is partisan in ways the poet cannot have anticipated. Gellert’s argument asserts a mission-bound, obliging loyalty (at any cost) which of course includes, in the nineteenth century, all manner of atrocity against Indigenous others declared, at the point of British possession, to be mere outliers (those whom Agamben would term Homo sacer, extra-sovereign non-subjects able to be “killed by anyone without committing homicide” (1998:103). Lest We Forget what? Lest We Forget whom?


On the face of things, Hope’s “Australia” (1943) is a mocking self-effacement of the colonial experience; but the poem is also “devastatingly ignorant of anything other than a whitefella, civilising view of settler culture” (Harrison 2004:287). One wonders on the affects that become available when Hope’s accusatory evisceration of Australian dumbness is misread, purposefully, so that his gaze no longer judges colonisers but instead is read as surveying colonised others. Even our nuances must be carefully clear. In Munaldjali, Mutuerjaraera (1995), the indefatigable Indigenous poet-activist Lionel Fogarty insists that there remains an inescapable “disease of stupidity in [colonisers’] language”, and his guerrilla poetics militate a mode in which he uses “English against the English” (1995:ix). Which kind of turn is this, one wonders (possible answer: of course, it is a turn both away from and toward formalistic ministrations of the Australian soldiering myth). In “Capitalism: The Murderer in Disguise” (1980), Fogarty dedicates his poem to “ALL the brothers and sisters who have been fighting since the invasion of the white man, for our FREEDOM and INDEPENDENCE”, and he unapologetically instructs his non-indigenous readers: “[l]ook pig / what you do to our people.” (lines 55–6). Final question: by which means to confabulate an alternative, authentic Australian mythos?


Works cited

Agamben, G 1998, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen), Stanford University Press.

Bakhtin, MM 1981, The Dialogic Imagination (ed. Michael Holquist), University of Texas Press, Austin.

Clark, M 1994, A History of Australia (abridged by Michael Cathcart), Chatto & Windus, London.

Elliot, B 1979, The Jindyworobaks, Queensland University Press, St Lucia, Qld.

Fogarty, L 1995, Munaldjali, Mutuerjaraera: New and Selected Poems, Hyland House, South Melbourne.

Harrison, M 2004, Who Wants to Create Australia? Essays on Poetry and Ideas in Contemporary Australia, Halstead Press, Sydney, NSW.

Ingamells, R and I Tilbrook 1938, Conditional Culture. FW Preece, Ltd, Adelaide, SA.

Kent, DA 1985, “From the Sudan to Saigon. A Critical Review of Historical Works”, Australian Literary Studies, vol. 12, no. 2.

Mead, P 2009, “Nation, Literature, Location”, The Cambridge History of Australian Literature (edited by Peter Pierce), Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, Vic.

Rudy, JR 2017, Imagined Homelands: British Poetry in the Colonies, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Shapcott, TW & R Hall 1968, New Impulses in Australian Poetry, Queensland University Press, St Lucia, Qld.

Tout, D 2017, “Encountering Indigeneity: Xavier Herbert, ‘Inky’ Stephensen and the Problems of Settler Nationalism”, Cultural Studies Review, vol. 23, no. 2.

Dan Disney

Dan Disney has lived in Korea for the last dozen years, where he teaches with the English Literature Program at Sogang University, in Seoul. Together with Matthew Hall, he is the editor of New Directions in Contemporary Australian Poetry (Palgrave 2021).

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