Australian poem 2008 series #12 — Judith Wright recycled for Anzac Day

25 Apr


Judith Wright (1915-2000) is one of my favourite poets. “The Company of Lovers” was written during World War II and I think captures the feel of the time as many lovers were separated by the war. It is not one of her better known poems.

We meet and part now over all the world;
we, the lost company,
take hands together in the night, forget
the night in our brief happiness, silently.
We, who sought many things, throw all away
for this one thing, one only,
remembering that in the narrow grave
we shall be lonely.

Death marshals up his armies round us now.
Their footsteps crowd too near.
Lock your warm hand above the chilling heart
and for a time I live without my fear.
Grope in the night to find me and embrace,
for the dark preludes of the drums begin,
and round us round the company of lovers,
death draws his cordons in.

You last saw that posted on April 25, 2006; it has gone on to become my most enduring post with 1,926 visits so far.

The poem appeals to me as a very junior member of the Home Front from 1943-1945. 😉

On Judith Wright

PN Review, a highly reputable UK poetry journal, editorialised on Judith Wright in 2000.

She did in Australia, and with fewer literary resources, some of the things that Adrienne Rich and Eavan Boland do in the United States and Ireland. She marked out a space, not only for the experiences of women in poetry, but for the experience of other voices that history had driven to the margins. Was her celebrated ‘Lament for Passenger Pigeons’ influenced by Eliot? Stevens? Dante? Its themes are ecological, feminist avant la lettre. Its generic nature is not quite satire, or elegy. The poem, whatever its antecedents, is largely her own in theme and genre.
She was born in the year of Gallipoli, in New South Wales. World War I shadowed her early years, her history happening on another side of the world. Then the Depression, and World War II which actually touched the continent of Australia. These facts overarch the early and middle work. Her antecedents were English, French, Scots, ‘pastoralists rather than farmers’ – owners of shire-sized ranches where sheep were raised. Her father was an enlightened landholder. Early on she was made aware of Aboriginal dispossession and the brutal inequity of the terra nullius position of the national government. ‘Niggers’ Leap’, ‘Bora Ring’ and other poems explore the theme, and the ‘clearances’ which in the interests of making pasture altered the ecology of her country for ever.
Her later books, Alive (1973) and Phantom Dwelling (1986), discover Australia in a uniquely resourceful way, and The Human Pattern, a selected poems which she saw as essentialising her work, is one of the defining collections of the last century both in its trajectory and its accomplishment. In ‘Notes from the Edge’ she declares

I used to love Keats, Blake;
now I try haiku
for its honed brevities,
its inclusive silences.
Issa. Shiki. Buson. Basho.
Few words and with no rhetoric.
Enclosed by silence
as is the thrush’s call.

The main verb disappears, the poems seek stasis. A Human Pattern ends with ghazals, ‘The Shadow of Fire’, which in its condensation owes a debt to oriental verse, and in formal choice to Persian. She aligned herself, after decades of working in European forms, with cultures nearer at hand: she came to Asia. In ‘Dust’, a ghazal from the sequence, she puts her new approach to the test:

In my sixty-eighth year drought stopped the song of the rivers,
sent ghosts of wheatfield blowing over the sky.
In the swimming-hole the water’s dropped so low
I bruise my knees on rocks which are new acquaintances.
The daybreak moon is blurred in a gauze of dust.
Long ago my mother’s face looked through a grey motor-veil.
Fallen leaves on the current scarcely move.
But the azure kingfisher flashes upriver still.
Poems written in age confuse the years.
We all live, said Basho, in a phantom dwelling.

Between the ‘construct’ of European nature and the ‘reality’ of the Aboriginal contact with nature a gulf opened. How could a poet of the privileged classes bridge it? Being a woman helped; being a woman of liberal temperament and strong character. The women she wished to reach, writers in particular, welcomed her, especially Oodgeroo (Kath Walker), whose work Wright championed.

On Anzac Day

I really don’t think I can improve on my  Late Anzac Day thoughts of last year!

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Posted by on April 25, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, OzLit, poets and poetry


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