Dear Albury

Albury city, that regional border-hub on Wiradjuri land and site of the first migrant centre in Australia in 1947, has featured more prominently than usual in the metropolitan news of late.  When greater Melbourne went into hard lockdown due to Covid-19 and the border between Victoria and NSW was closed, Albury became the unlikely scene of backed-up traffic chaos, permit wrangling, road-closure protests and people getting fed-up and angry.

I myself have a story about getting fed-up and angry in Albury.  There was none of the chaos and anxiety around my journey, as doubtless there would be if I did it now.  Not that I could, anyhow.  Lockdown restrictions are still in place.  Melburnians aren’t allowed beyond 5 kms of their home, let alone Albury or anywhere else interstate.

A couple of years ago, in the middle of winter, I went to Albury by train to do some historical research.  There were two reasons I went by train.  The first was that I had no car and I couldn’t be bothered hiring one.  The second was that a friend of mine had said that at Albury station I’ll see for myself one of the longest train platforms in Australia, as well as the Italianate grandeur of the station building, which was built in 1881. 

I really don’t care for long platforms — they just mean more walking, right? — and ‘grandeur’ was a little rich, I thought, for an Australian railway station.  And I was worried how much of this walk I might have to do.  So checking my ticket to see which seat and carriage I’d booked I hoped I was toward the front of the train, if not in the first carriage.  Sure enough, I’d booked a seat in the last carriage, remembering how I had to take what I could get because I’d left my travel arrangements to the last minute, unlike a lot of other smarter people who’d already got all the good seats further up toward the front of the train.  Not only was I going to see the whole ‘magnificent’ length of the platform, but I was going to have to walk it, too.

When my train arrived at Albury and I walked out of the carriage I happened to look across the rail yard at a disused platform.  There was an old green tin shed with no roof and no door, and perhaps because of the angle at which I was viewing it in the disappearing light of a late afternoon in winter, the doorless doorway of the shed appeared to me as nothing but a black rectangle, a forbidding entrance into a dark, cobwebbed, creepy-crawly interior.

Much worse, though, and as noticeable as any signage displayed at the station, was the graffiti, or vandalism, spray painted below the shed on the side of this disused platform.  I’m in two minds.  I don’t want to write what I saw – I don’t want to repeat it.  And yet, to deliver the full impact of what I saw, I feel I need to document it.  Needless to say, I won’t type out the words, but let me just say that alongside a Nazi swastika and the words ‘White Power,’ there was racist hate speech directed at Indigenous Australians.  Quite awful stuff.  The platform was about four feet high, and the spray-painted hate speech and the swastika must have covered at least three feet of that (the swastika alone was about a foot square).  In other words, it was all very noticeable.

I’m well aware that racism exists and I know people are stupid or moronic or dangerous enough to do this kind of thing at a railway station.  But surely I wasn’t the only person who’d seen it and wanted it removed immediately. 

More to the point, this hate speech wasn’t so much spray-painted as it was ingrained on the side of that platform.  It had some wear and tear.  It was a little weather-beaten, as though it’d seen a few summers and winters.  It wasn’t new.  It hadn’t suddenly appeared overnight, as if someone had furtively got into the rail yard and sprayed it when all of Albury was tucked up toasty in bed.  No.  It was of a piece with the old tin shed.

Needless to say, I took several photos of it, wrenched my bag over my shoulder and walked angrily down one of the longest train platforms in the country, which was now, absurdly, the most racist train platform in the country. 

I headed for the distant station building.  I wanted to go right up to the counter and give the staff a berating.  Instead I found myself waiting in a line of several people.  The weak sun was going down and the cold was cutting.  The platform lights came on.  I hadn’t realised how long I’d spent photographing the vandalism and walking the length of the platform to the station office.  I’d only eaten a sandwich all day and I became hungry very quickly.  I still had to get to my hotel.  I couldn’t wait any longer. 

In my hotel I called the station.  The woman who answered said she had no idea who would be responsible for getting such a thing removed and suggested I contact the council.  But it was a Saturday and after hours.  Council offices were closed.  Nonetheless, I found their contact page and sent an email.  I was returning to Melbourne first thing Tuesday morning and I knew that I probably wouldn’t get a response until I was back home.  I would have to wait.  I had done my bit and left it at that.  Come Monday morning someone would read the email and something would get done about it. 

Over the next couple of days all I could think about was that damned train station.  It became an obsession because I wanted to find a way to redeem the place if only for myself.  I didn’t want to leave with that being the only thing about the city or my research time in Albury.  Perhaps the worst place to look was in the archives and to go through the colonial history of Albury.  Instead, I sought out artworks of the town and discovered The Station Yard, a 1943 painting by Russell Drysdale. 

Though it is not an ebullient painting, The Station Yard is certainly an astonishing work of art, and it’s historical authenticity is eerily indisputable.  We see an external view of Albury station at night.  There are two soldiers.  On the left one soldier has emerged out of one of the station’s dark doorways into the light.  He’s walking across the yard toward the other soldier, who waits at the back of a truck.  Wearing an oversized slicker, the first soldier looks ghostly.  He’s distorted and slightly elongated, a recurrent surrealist trope of Drysdale’s, as is evident in his iconic 1948 painting The Cricketeers, as well as in Moody’s Pub (1941), Man Feeding His Dogs (1941) and Sunday Evening (1941).  The second soldier, waiting by the back of the truck, embodies Drysdale’s other recurrent and iconic theme of lonely but calm, patient and dignified figures in remote landscapes. 

Image courtesy of

Yet Drysdale integrates both figures — both soldiers — into the surrounds of the station yard in such a way as to emphasise a certain drama of the ‘brown-out,’ a wartime measure of lights being dimmed or covered to help protect areas from Japanese air raids during the Second World War.  Although these air raids did not extend as far south as Albury, the war was still an ever-present reality there.  Albury station was used routinely for military movements and there were also several army camps in the town. 

When Drysdale moved to Albury in 1942 he would often see soldiers marching along the road or camped out on the platform at the train station, resting on their kitbags, waiting for the train.  (At this time the railway lines of Victoria and New South Wales changed gauge at Albury station, resulting in long delays.)  As his paintings from this era show, Drysdale became creatively preoccupied with the presence of war in Albury — see, for example, his Albury Platform (1943), Soldiers (1943) and Airport at Night (1944).

But of all his paintings The Station Yard perhaps best articulates the presence of war in Albury as something ghostly, not quite tangibly there but present all the same. 

I couldn’t stop looking at it.  I fell into it, tumbling.  Its grittiness and drama of night and darkness intrigued me.  It beckoned me in as I tried to keep my distance from the building’s dark portals – Was it fear or some atavistic terror lurking in those dark, gaping spaces?  Step inside them and vanish forever into the horrors of war.  Mesmerising too was the sour yellow of the lights illuminating the yard. 

By inscribing a subtext of a sense of awe and dread and emotional intensity, The Station Yard transforms Albury station from a place of waiting and boredom into something full of suspense.  The black with sombre blues and reds in the sky, the dirty pink of the campanile, the gritty façade of the building and of course, those dark doorways and arches, all create an emotionally charged wartime atmosphere capturing a sinister intensity between arrival and departure.  Actually the painting seems to imply that it’s not the soldiers doing the waiting but the war; that the war is waiting for them to be delivered into the death and destruction that lies far beyond the dark remoteness of Albury.

Having gone to Albury to do some historical research I ended up contemplating Drysdale’s eerie evocation of a war-time railway station. Then it was time to leave. 

The vandalism was still on the platform.  My train pulled up.  Passengers disembarked and station attendants cleaned out the carriages for the journey to Melbourne.  An overweight (and out-of-breath) attendant stepped from the train onto the platform.  I went up to him and mentioned the hate speech.

‘It’s right there,’ I said, pointing to the platform across the rail yard.

He sighed, apathetically. 

I said I’ve written to the council.

‘I guess it’ll get sorted then,’ he said.

‘Yes.  It needs to be removed.’

‘Well I can’t get down there and do it myself,’ he said with a dismissive laugh.  ‘Too much health and safety.’

‘Health and safety?’

‘The contractors.  Council will probably pass it on to the rail corporation.’


‘But the rail corp might have to pass it on again.’

‘Really.  Why?’

‘The rail corp may not be able to get a contractor.’

He seemed to know a lot about this kind of thing.  I said I should have spoken to him when I first called about it.

‘I don’t work the phones mate.’

Of course not.  I asked why a contractor.  ‘Because the work’s in the rail corridor.  It’s where the trains move in and out.  It’s over the tracks and there’s a whole bunch of health and safety rules to comply with.’

Health and safety again.  I said I won’t expect a quick result.  ‘Best not to.  They’ll probably have to arrange a protection officer as well.’

‘Huh?  A what?’

‘A protection officer.  He’ll have to be down there with them when it gets done.  It’s all health and safety mate, you know how it is these days.’  Health and safety.  Health and safety.

‘But what about the emotional and psychological health and safety of the people offended by that bloody racism,’ I said. ‘It’s ridiculous how noticeable it is.’

He stared right through me.  As he walked away he said, ‘Don’t get bloody aggro at me mate.  I didn’t put it there.  It’ll sort itself out.’ 

He was right.  He didn’t put it there.  But he walked past it every day and did nothing about it.

A week or so after getting back to Melbourne I received several replies from different departments all in some way connected to the bureaucratic and corporate bodies governing interstate and country railways.  I was assigned a case number and thanked for providing ‘feedback.’  One or two of the replies apologised for any distress the vandalism may have caused, while taking the opportunity to spruik an ongoing commitment to customer satisfaction.  But none mentioned any action to remove the hate speech.  When that finally came through, this is what was said:

Your complaint about the graffiti in Albury railway has been acknowledged and now we are happy to confirm that we can source a contractor to undertake the works for us.  As they will be working in the rail corridor we must comply with health and safety rules and we need to arrange a protection officer to help us with that.  Our supportive team will let you know the final outcome.

But they never did.

A visit to Aradale Asylum

We’re approaching the town now.  A spire.  Some rooftops.  There’s a large establishment looking like an outpost on a hill to the north.  To my travel weary eyes it looks like a fort built long ago by the Portuguese on the west coast of Africa.  Perhaps something in Benin — the Fort of St John the Baptist of Ouidah, which played its part in the slave trade.  I haven’t been there, but the night before taking this trip to Aradale Asylum, I was watching Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde, a film about a Brazilian slave trader who operated the fort in the early 1800s. 

Actually, the establishment looks nothing like a Portuguese fort.  My mind is playing tricks on me, it’s neural nets still out at sea in the filmic and baroque language of Herzog’s historical pastiche. 

In fact, the large nest of high-walled buildings on the hill, elevated above a thicket of trees, is Aradale Asylum.  I’ve arrived.  The train idles for entry into the town.  The engines whir and we’re rolling again.  The main road beside us curves into town.  We follow it.  Aradale appears and then disappears as we dip into lower ground. Large industrial sheds rear up to block the view.  There’s no shortage of sheds out here, 200kms west of Melbourne.  To the south I see a church in really good nick.  We’re late arriving at the station.

In Aradale I meet a man named Dale.  I refuse my mind’s insistence to mention the doubling of Dale.  Dale’s an ex-librarian.  His eyebrows are part of a state-sponsored regrowth initiative.  His face is round and kind, his nose a bulb.  He’s the only other punter there for the tour.  Our guide is an amiable fellow with a patchy beard by the name of Mick. 

Beginning in 1867 and operating for one hundred and thirty years, Aradale Lunatic Asylum, which was later classified as a Mental Hospital, took two years to build. 

We move through Art Deco spaces, a smell of dust and piss and mould.  The place is run-down.  No money has been put into it for years.  Locals vie for funds to keep it restored, but without success.

Out in the grounds the sun is hot.  It’s late April, 2019, and still feels like summer.  As Mick strings together one anecdote after another I seem to be rather preoccupied — transfixed is the word — by bees, many of which have gathered outside a vent on an Art Deco wall.  What are these bees up to on this bright sunny day?  Why that vent?  There are other vents.  I can see them.  The closer I look (and Mick and Dale have gone on ahead without me) the more I can see they’re flying in and out of the horizontal ventilation strips high up on the building.  It occurs to me that while watching these bees I’m actually lost in reverie, thinking of a time twenty years before when I was at university and renting a flat from a beekeeper. 

My landlord the beekeeper lived in a large split-level house in Brisbane and my flat was attached to his house.  He kept bees down in the yard.  My bedroom window opened out, high up above the lush green yard.  When I was at my desk reading World Lit. and philosophy and writing another critical essay, I would see him in the yard tending to his beloved bees.  There was quite a distance between my bedroom window and the bees down there on the other side of the yard, but nonetheless, on those warm days when I had the windows open bees would fly into my room, as though on visiting rights.  Actually, they came there to die.  In the summer months when I went out I left the bedroom windows open, and arriving home I’d always find dead bees on the bedroom floor.  Once, a bee had got so far through the cavernous interiors of my little flat that I found him dead just inside the front door.  Was he trying to get out the front?  Or more to the point: What was this martyrdom? 

Pondering this question, lost in speculation, I catch up with Mick and Dale.  We move in and out of sparse empty interiors with high ceilings and great walls that entomb you in a mausoleum-like silence.  Opening the doors, dead leaves whoosh.  Through a darkening passage we break into the light and come to an atrium.  Sunlight penetrates the glass, saturating the place with a cinematic aura.  The floors inside the atrium and in many of the buildings are strewn with rubble and dirt and leaves and small dead branches.  The outside world has broken in and made itself at home.  To top it all off I’m just waiting for water to start pouring down.  But there’s been no rain.  Mick tells us there’s been no rain for months.  The last was a brief, intense, downpour that was over in less than thirty minutes.  It was a wall of grey, he says.  Flash flooding in town.  The asylum flooded.  Possum shit coming down with the water through roofs and stewing in mucky pools on the floors.  Less than thirty minutes then nothing.  The rain stopped like turning off a tap, he says, predictably, and hasn’t been back since. 

We move on through long halls lined with narrow rooms, or cells, either side.  Former homes for the incarcerated.  A sadness wells up in me. At the end of the long passage there’s a cramped and spooky stairway.  We brush away the cobwebs and make our way up.  Dale’s telling me that when he was laid off from a city university library a few years ago, borrowings were down forty per cent and staff morale even more.  He’s happier, he says, being out in the country, living under the sky’s overwhelming scale, hours away from the city and closer to wineries.  Even the isolation is reasonable, he says. Mick then points out the winery on the grounds of the asylum.  We make a point of seeing it.  Dale’s grin is one for the ages. 

It’s a hot day. The sun is searing and intense. We spend a bit of time in the shade of an enormous and majestic Algerian Oak.  Mick says the tree was planted when the asylum first began.  It’s an impressive tree.  We all seem to flock to the Oak like disciples seeking solace from the sun.  And I wonder, as we head back inside and climb more stairs and walk more lengthy halls to the Head Psychiatrist’s office, if the staff in these quarters where the Bigwig spent his days felt that they too were disciples of a sort. 

In the office there’s a dank and mildewed smell reminiscent of all the other rooms and passageways in the old asylum.  I go to the psychiatrist’s large window and look out across the grounds and beyond that to the country.  Of all the derelict rooms and abandoned spaces in Aradale this office is of course situated in a prime location.  It’s on the top level at the front of the main building and overlooks the great lands to the east. 

From this great window I can see what the taxi driver on the way to Aradale described to me as The Pregnant Lady.  I had only asked what the name of the hill was as we drove in its direction.  ‘That’s what we locals call it,’ he said.  ‘She’s lying on her back.  Can you see?’  I got the idea, but he went on.  ‘There’s her profile, too,’ he said, pointing a finger.  I could see the protuberances of chin and nose.  ‘And there,’ he said, tracing on the windscreen with one hand while navigating a round-about with the other, ‘are her …’  I get the picture, I said. Say no more.

The last room we visit is the safe room.  Aradale provided up to four hundred jobs at one time in its history, and this room is where the staff came to get their wages.  The safe is a secured closet.  But what’s more interesting, I discover as I look around the cramped room — cramped for a reason, to keep everyone out at once — are the line-thin cracks that over many years, indeed, over a century and a half, have been spidering out like an entity across one of the walls.  In this silent little room tucked away in a dark corner of the asylum the building itself has chosen its canvas on which to trace its own Gothic Wall Dreaming. 

Back outside, Aradale over, the sky an implacable blue and everywhere a breathtaking stillness, I make my way to the train station and remember what Mick said as we relaxed in the shade of the giant oak tree, that the medication given to certain female patients in the asylum made them allergic to the sun.  An awful irony for an Aradale patient.  But perhaps one day it’s this kind of irony we may all have to endure, driven crazy in a burning world.

Review of Journey to Horseshoe Bend, by TGH Strehlow

This was first published in Sydney Review of Books, July 2016, under the name of Paul Galimond.

By the late 1960s, when T. G. H. Strehlow was writing what would become Journey to Horseshoe Bend (first published in 1969 and reissued in 2015 by Giramondo), he had already produced key works of Australian ethnology, such as Aranda Phonetics and Grammar (1944), Aranda Traditions (1947), and many articles and papers on Australian Aboriginal societies. His magnum opus, though, proved to be Songs of Central Australia, which was written between 1945 and 1953 but not published until 1971. In the words of Strehlow’s biographer, Barry Hill, Songs of Central Australia would become ‘a huge, marvellous, astonishing gift of a book’. It is also a very commanding work. With great care and thoroughness it transcribes the musical structures of Central Australian song while drawing extensive parallels between those songs and the Western poetic tradition. One example in the book of this comparative approach is when Strehlow argues that Indigenous Australians have in their own way achieved an ideal similar to that expressed by William Wordsworth in his poetry. He quotes from Wordsworth’s ‘Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm, painted by Sir George Beaumont’:

Ah! Then, if mine had been the Painter’s hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet’s dream …

Strehlow then argues that something akin to this ‘gleaming light of poetry’ was what ‘transfigured the landscape of Central Australia for the natives into a home fit for their totemic ancestors’. Journey to Horseshoe Bend is about a passage through that totemic land, but the book’s poetic precept derives from Wordsworth, in particular, the poem ‘My heart leaps up when I behold’:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man:
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The child is father of the man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

The child in this poem is ideally formative of the kind of man the poet will become and would always like to be. He is what Wordsworth called, referring to his childhood self, ‘Thou child of joy’, a phrase which appears in ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’. In this poem we read:

To me alone there came a thought of grief;
A timely utterance gave that thought relief.

Some critics have argued that the ‘timely utterance’ here is in fact the poem ‘My heart leaps up’, which Wordsworth wrote shortly before ‘Ode’ in March 1802. ‘My heart leaps up’, then, is a poem for the revival of a childhood joy — a joy that can ward off grief and remind one of the wonder of being alive. In Journey to Horseshoe Bend Strehlow aims for this Wordsworthian poetic renewal of childhood joy and its attendant affirmations of life over death and hope over despair, but within the context of Central Australia.

Journey to Horseshoe Bend tells the story of the journey Strehlow made with his family and others in October 1922 from their home at Hermannsburg, one hundred and thirty kilometres southwest of Alice Springs. They were hoping to go all the way to the railhead at Oodnadatta, and then by train to Adelaide, where Strehlow’s father, who was suffering from dropsy, could get medical assistance. Horseshoe Bend was to be a stop along the way. The route they selected — the shortest route — was south, along the dry riverbed of the Finke River and through the Britannia Sandhills. The heat was cruel and the journey unforgiving; his father suffered greatly.

Given the personal circumstances informing the book, one would expect to find first-person narration and a focus on personal experience. This book is anything but. It is not a subjective account of a journey. Strehlow writes a third-person narrative and characterises his fourteen-year-old childhood self, or persona, as ‘Theo’. Thus the story is told as though it happened to someone else, focusing more on external life and events than on feelings and memories.

Theo is hardly present in the book. His appearances are brief, Strehlow using them to evoke that Wordsworthian sense of delight in natural beauty and innocence:

Sitting near the edge of a thick fringe of bulrushes, he watched the black-and-yellow butterflies flirting about gracefully among the blue flowers that grew along the damp bank of the quiet pool, over whose calm waters delicate-bodied, red dragon-flies were hovering in quest of water insects. … From time to time the faint whisper of a summer breeze sighed through the rustling stems and sharp leaves of the bulrushes, and then the clear outlines of the trees and the surrounding cliff walls temporarily lost their mirror-like keenness. The twittering of small birds sitting on the tree branches, the cooing of the large-eyed crested rock pigeons on the stony ground below, and the occasional rush of wings as a flight of long-necked ducks with gleaming green-and-black feathers skimmed low over the water: these were the only sounds that filled the ancient scene with their gentle, age-old music.

Here Strehlow is renewing the child’s joy, the child who is ‘conscious only of the peace and beauty of one of the loveliest landscapes he had ever seen’. But this is only a passing awareness within a much larger consciousness of land and history as Strehlow situates the child and his innocence within an adult world of tragedy and horror:

[T]he race whose love and imagination had given to Irbmangkara its rich store of songs and myths had gone sadly down in numbers since the advent of whites. Theo recalled Jack Fountain’s remark that until the turn of the century the figures of aboriginal hunters had often been visible in the Finke valley upstream and downstream from Irbmangkara, stalking animals that had left the game sanctuary precincts of the sacred site.

They are camped at Irbmangkara, and Strehlow provides a detailed account of massacres connected to that place, ranging from revenge killings between regional groups of Aranda people to the white men who later invaded the land, men who wielded what Strehlow calls ‘a mercenary attitude’, which is based solely on use-value. Use-value is a quality upheld and deemed worthy insofar as it finds its material application in money and power. As Strehlow writes: ‘generally speaking, civilised man normally associates dignity only with power and with money. Even fellow human beings who are lacking in power and in money tend to be regarded as inferior creatures, fit for all kinds of exploitation’. One example Strehlow gives of the ‘mercenary attitude’ is that of Mounted Constable W. H. Willshire, who was eventually arrested for murdering Arrente people. Yet as Strehlow tells us, Willshire was later freed by the verdict of a Port Augusta jury, which had listened to a speech on Willshire’s behalf made by ‘Sir John Downer, Q. C., who had been premier of South Australia from 1885-87, and who was to hold this office again from 1892-93’.

Though Theo may be an attempt by Strehlow to reprise a sense of his childhood as ‘Thou child of joy’, his remoteness from the narrative seems to mirror his remoteness from his father (there is no exchange between them in the book). Strehlow is not concerned with telling us how Theo feels (and therefore how he himself felt) about his dying father. He instead goes to great lengths to show how important his father was, not so much to him (though he was), but to everyone else who had held the man in high regard as an admired and well-respected community figure. The book is actually a kind of gift to the legacy of Strehlow senior:

Hermannsburg had become a symbol not only for aboriginal welfare but for aboriginal rights and aboriginal dignity under Strehlow’s management. Would, or rather could, there ever be a successor to equal him?

In Journey, Strehlow’s father Carl wrestles with his Lutheran faith, and parallels are drawn between his inner struggles (‘an all-exhausting battle of his own heart’) and those of the figure of Christ during his last night in the garden of Gethsemane. And the father’s cry of despair at Horseshoe bend — ‘God doesn’t help’ — is seen by Strehlow as representing, ‘in a way, a free version of the psalmist’s despairing cry, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me”?’ Interestingly, and in keeping with an objective narrative style, Strehlow reveals the growing awareness of his father’s death without reference to personal memory and emotion. Instead, he records his father’s plight through the analogy of Job’s trials and sufferings in the Old Testament. That Job was a man whose patience and piety were tried by undeserved misfortunes is telling, for as Philip Jones observes in the ‘Afterword’ to the book, ‘Strehlow had sought to attach blame for his father’s catastrophic condition to the Lutheran hierarchy’s apparent negligence in delaying his evacuation from Hermannsburg until it was too late’.

But this is not a personally religious book, despite descriptions of religious discourse and Christian belief. And although there are depictions of his father’s religious doubt by way of biblical reference, Strehlow’s concern lies more with what he calls ‘storied land’, that is, with the mythical ancestral lands of the Australian Aborigines. Yet even here religious feeling is not the point. In fact, Journey to Horseshoe Bend is a very secular work, for the book sees literature (or narrative, or writing) as the vehicle by which a loving attention, that abiding sympathy, can be achieved. And anyway, the land for Strehlow is metaphysics enough. The ‘storied land’, that is, which is everything, is ecology, nature, religion, myth, metaphysic, song, art, and poetry.

Indeed, some of the most inspired writing in Journey to Horseshoe Bend is in Strehlow’s narratives of ‘storied land’. Many ancestral stories relating to animals — wallabies, emus, fish, birds, snakes — are lucidly and meaningfully given. There are accounts of important Aranda ceremonial sites and their local myths, and the waterholes along the Finke River valley are shown to be points of travels of the ‘Unmatjera-Aranda fish ancestors’. The smaller permanent pools also have ‘mythological episodes attached to them’. Yet there is pathos here too. ‘This wealth of sacred traditions,’ writes Strehlow,

had been comparatively easy to preserve during the pre-white days. The wide and fertile Finke flats carried a profusion of the larger game animals, in particular of kangaroos, emus, and rat kangaroos; and the sandhills were rich in carpet snakes and all those smaller marsupials that stood in no need of drinking water. Since the Britannia Sandhills had, in the old days, yielded these additional highly prized food supplies, the middle Finke Valley dwellers had once been a very numerous group. There had never been any dearth of males who could be called upon to preserve the rich local heritage of myths, songs, and ceremonial acts from one generation to the next.

Strehlow also imbues the narrative of ‘storied land’ with some evocative nature writing:

The flourishing desert oaks, standing well-spaced apart, looked magnificent. Their straight, dark, ridge-barked trunks rose to an average height of from twelve to fifteen feet before the first strong, crooked branches were reached; and the many hundreds of young desert oaks which soared up around the big trees in the form of slim, straight saplings showed that the Britannia Sandhills had enjoyed a long run of good seasons in recent years. … The fresh bluish-green needles of the desert oaks contrasted with the shiny dark-green leaves of the willow-foliaged ironwoods, and with the grey-green leaves of the mulgas. The spinifex tussocks on the flats between the dune crests, expanded by a succession of excellent years till each spiky clump touched its neighbour, were in full ear; and the swollen spinifex seed-heads closely resembled the heavy ears of a waving, ripe cornfield.

Journey to Horseshoe Bend is intensely a book of land. It is, among other things, a compendium of nature writing, but nature writing connected to the wider complexities of ecology and the history of settlement. Strehlow might begin, for example, by noting a closely observed detail such as the ‘resinous scent emanating from the bulging tufts of spinifex which the donkeys kicked with their plodding feet’, and then go on to meditate how this ‘resinous fragrance drew attention to the … dangerous waterlessness of the huge inland sandhill regions’. He might also describe signs of recent abundant rain in the desert oaks, ironwoods and mulgas, all ‘clad with luxuriant foliage’. Or perhaps he’ll note the quality of the soil in wide silt flats, and how ‘the dense network of roots under the cane grass tussocks had enabled the ground covered by them to withstand the gouging action of the ripping, tearing floodwaters’. He’ll observe, too, the way in which ‘nature had used the soil differences to put a sharp line of demarcation between the habitats of … two kind of eucalypts’, and how the river gums demand ‘clean white sand for their roots, and the box gums … clay soil’. Finally, he might remark on the negative impact grazing has had on the land — the great increase of dust and flies — and how ‘the whole country had been powdered and churned up by the twin-clawed hoofs of hundreds of wandering cattle’. But Strehlow will then also interleave the ecological with the mythological. Thus, the narrative can go from the smell of spinifex and observations on rain totals to Theo contemplating the haunting loneliness of a moonlit landscape, where the scene is no longer the adult’s one of environmental awareness but, as night falls, the child’s one of ‘the spectre shapes of the iliaka njemba that had frightened him as a child’.

So it is that Journey to Horseshoe Bend is a skilful and clever essaying on different orders of reality. The narrative shifts and layers various modes of writing and areas of enquiry. Whether it is the fairy tales of childhood, environmental degradation, the fate of ‘half-caste’ women at the stations and missions, the local histories of pastoral settlements, or even human loneliness and cruelty — all of which are featured — this book marvels at rediscovering the child’s landscapes as it describes the more worldly or historical ones of the adult.

Actually, Journey is a thoroughgoing work of selflessness, one given over to the histories and hardships of others. In this respect it achieves a deep abiding sympathy, one that goes beyond (yet while no doubt still including) the sympathy of subjective feeling to a loving attention to country, a term — specifically an Indigenous Australian term — that unifies both the natural and the metaphysical. According to Roslynn D. Haynes country is an interrelationship between three sets of entities:

the Ancestors, spirit beings who created and continue to nurture the land in which they dwell; all the biological species, including humans, that they created; and the living, sustaining land. In this triad the land provides the vital nexus between the physical and the spiritual, between temporal and eternal, since, as the dwelling place of both supernatural beings and living creatures, it connects both realms.

Conceptually, Strehlow’s narrative expands on this triad. His book is witness to the relationships between spirit beings, the living, sustaining land, and the Aboriginal people for whom these things are so vital and important. And Strehlow knew first-hand what such interrelationships meant. He was born in Ntarea (the Aranda for Hermannsburg) and brought up and educated alongside Aboriginal children at the Lutheran Hermannsburg mission. ‘German was his mother tongue; Aranda that of his youth; English running between them’, writes Barry Hill in the biography, Broken Song.

As for Theo, he comes to the fore only as the book concludes, experiencing ‘an overpowering sense of loss’. And as a great thunderstorm hits Horseshoe Bend, ‘the rain that was falling on his father’s grave had come to represent the symbol of life’. Theo awakens now to an affirmation of life and to the strength of a positive response to land, to how he is ‘linked indivisibly with one special site in the country of his birth’; and he entertains ‘the hope that some day he might return to his own Aranda country and steep himself in its ancient traditions’. Steep he did. The result was Songs of Central Australia, a work, as already mentioned, of poetic grammar that shows ‘parallels’ between Aranda song and the Western poetic tradition. ‘In pointing out these parallels’, writes Strehlow,

I have not had any desire to suggest any special affinities between the Aranda and the old European traditions. My intentions have been quite different. … The European parallels are designed to achieve a more sympathetic attitude in the mind of the white reader towards aboriginal verse and toward the aboriginal world of ideas. For once it can be shown that some of these apparently crude, cruel, strange, or disgusting ideas were once to be found also in ancient pagan Europe, then more thoughtful readers may hesitate to reject them as utterly valueless.

Strehlow devoted much loving attention to knowledge deriving from Aboriginal Australia. Songs is a book of vast erudition and technical knowledge, an encyclopaedic work spanning many fields of enquiry and interest, and yet woven throughout is sadness, mourning for the destruction of Aboriginal culture and society. And though the story of Journey is sometimes told through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old, the narrative, as Melinda Hinkson notes, in fact turns, like Songs, ‘upon a lifetime of acquired knowledge and careful research’.

What ‘Thou child of joy’ was for Wordsworth, knowledge was for Strehlow. Not knowledge as a comfort to the soul but as an amplifying awareness of being alive. Journey to Horseshoe Bend is the story of Theo’s awakening knowledge of the wider historical complexities of not only who he is, but also where he is, and the significance of that. And his rite of passage is one of intellectual purpose and ambition, curiously coinciding with his father’s painful death. Whether such ambition was ultimately the means by which to deflect personal grief, the reader cannot tell.


Roslynn D. Haynes, Desert: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books, 2013).
Barry Hill, Broken Song: T. G. H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession (Knopf, 2002).
Melinda Hinkson, ‘A Mythic Last Journey’, Arena Magazine (No. 140, Feb/Mar 2016, pp.51-2).
T. G. H. Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (Giramondo, Classic Reprints, 2015)
— Songs of Central Australia (Angus and Robertson, 1971)

On the couch: Three Australian poems

I’m going to look at three short Australian poems.  Despite each of them being about something or having a readily identifiable subject matter (a train journey, middle age, a trip away to an old estate), I’ll look at them for how they can give us insight into the nature of artistic inspiration and creativity or the process leading to the poem’s creation. Of course, every strong poem is probably its own record of the inspiration and creativity that brought it into being.  But how?

‘The Night-Ride’, by Kenneth Slessor

In ‘The Night-Ride’ the poet is travelling at night by train across the Australian continent and has just arrived at a station town.

Gas flaring on the yellow platform; voices running up and down;

Milk-tins in cold dented silver; half-awake I stare,

Pull up the blind, blink out — all sounds are drugged;

The slow blowing of passengers asleep;

Engines yawning; water in heavy drips;

Black, sinister travellers, lumbering up the station,

One moment in the window, hooked over bags;

Hurrying, unknown faces — boxes with strange labels —

All groping clumsily to mysterious ends,

Out of the gaslight, dragged by private Fates.

Their echoes die.  The dark train shakes and plunges;

Bells cry out; the night-ride starts again.

Soon I shall look out into nothing but blackness,

Pale, windy fields.  The old roar and knock of the rails

Melts in dull fury.  Pull down the blind, Sleep.  Sleep.

Nothing but grey, rushing rivers of bush outside.

Gaslight and milk-cans.  Of Rapptown I recall nothing else.

Slessor’s poem is a simile for artistic inspiration.  A poem comes like a journey by train at night when you wake suddenly at the station and see through the window for a brief moment on the platform certain figures and objects in the gaslight.  And to take this idea further, the figures and objects are like the words, or the language, that come to you in a moment of poetic revelation.  But then the train begins again and the station, or the moment of insight, is gone.  There is nothing but grey emptiness, and you recall little of the artistry that had so intensely possessed you. 

Critics have read ‘The Night-Ride’ as one of Slessor’s statements on city versus bush.  Slessor had a disdain for the emptiness outside of cities, especially outside of Sydney.  For Slessor, Sydney was full of poetry and the world outside it was not.  There was a certain charm and magic about Sydney and his poems are full of images of the city.  In ‘The Night-Ride’, moving out of the station into the emptiness of the bush is certainly depicted as a move away from civilisation and into tedium and barrenness.  Critics have also noted the imagery of darkness and light that pervades the poem: the light of the station; the darkness of the outback, or the bush.  I think, however, that this is Slessor’s great poem on the inner life, on how poems get made out of the interaction between that inner life and the poet’s observations of the ‘outside’ world.  Indeed, if there is any point to the oppositions which critics have noted in the poem, apart from establishing poetic contraries, then it is surely the interaction between them which takes place within the observer, the poet observer.

In Canto XIV of Don Juan, Byron writes:

                                    a bard must meet

     All difficulties, whether great or small,

          To spoil his undertaking or complete,

     And work away like spirit upon matter,

     Embarrass’d somewhat both with fire and water

Great and small; spirit and matter; fire and water; spoiled or complete; pride and embarrassment — all of Byron’s pairs of opposites are in Slessor’s poem, either explicitly or implicitly.  (Pride could be the poet’s pride of completion: ‘It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from / when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty’, writes Czeslaw Milosz in ‘Ars Poetica’; embarrassment for not being able to recall anything of significance of Rapptown; sleep being spoiled, and so on.  The other opposites are of course more obvious.)  But after the grand fact of inspiration they seem mere elements of composition.  It’s as though the objects of the ‘outside’ world are nothing other than the inner consciousness of the poet, as though the poem is trying to show how what one sees is contained within one’s consciousness — that while these objects and people and events may have a material existence independent from oneself, they are at the same time inseparable from one’s consciousness and active awareness of them.  I am thus reminded here of Pablo Neruda’s poem ‘A Dream of Trains’: ‘I was in my seat and the train / was running through my body, / breaking down my frontiers.’  And Slessor’s punctuation seems to embody these shifting states of consciousness.  The first half of the poem is a catalogue of observations punctuated by semi-colons and long dashes, which echo the long pauses or breaks in the observer’s half-awake state; while the second half is mostly commas, signalling a more fluid awareness ruminating on what has suddenly appeared.

But the key experience underpinning this poem is the fleeting nature of poetic consciousness.  There is a revelatory breach in awareness at the station — there is an illumination.  But when ‘the night-ride starts again’ it’s as though time had stopped and life has suddenly resumed (the station thus becomes a metaphor for time standing still, at least according to the poet’s consciousness).  The poem therefore seeks a kind of philosophy on the spontaneous or instantaneous moment, which for the poet is also one of creative inspiration.  ‘The Night-Ride’ is about the pure products of the imagination as they emerge seemingly out of an illumination to possess the poet before taking their leave, before their echoes die, after which the observer is then left to recall and compose.  Indeed, the last words of the poem — ‘Of Rapptown I recall nothing else’ — are a kind of admission that one cannot remember how a poem came into being.  Perhaps one or two objects (a few words at most) are remembered for getting what might become a poem going, but afterwards, the initial experience is a blur and composition must then necessarily turn to motifs of darkness and light, city and country, ‘mysterious ends’ and ‘private fates’ in order to record the inspiration and give it poetic form.

‘Middle Age’, by John Forbes

‘a frozen turquoise statue of options’

                                    sits on the shelf

                           almost invisible now

under the sand blasted pretence

of your day-to-day routines, its only use

to keep those bits of paper

that arrive through the mail

from getting lost or blowing away.

Where’s the present tense

                           now that we really need it?

Where’s the jungle?  You are as sane

as absolutely crystal clear TV reception

can make you, as if Sisyphus

exchanged his rock for a frisbee

& had to learn

all sorts of hand signals overnight

                           each one meaning

a different thing had gone wrong somewhere

& turquoise was just

the colour of the morning sky

                           you barely glimpse

as he rushes out to play.

What time is more ironical than that of middle age, when life may not have turned out as you had once expected, or would have liked?  Certainly not old age, which is too close to death; nor youth, when you’re too busy doing all the things you think you should be doing.  Middle age is when true reflection kicks in, when you begin to look back on your life.

In ‘Middle Age’ there is a sense of what has been.  When Forbes writes, somewhat perplexingly, ‘Where’s the jungle?’, we may well ask, What the hell does that mean?  In an earlier poem from the 1970s called ‘Admonitions’ (‘Middle Age’ was written in the 1990s) we read, ‘When you’re raining in my heart it’s gorillas’.  The jungle in the later poem might then refer to the wild (indeed, romantic) feelings of the heart which are no longer alive or teeming within.

And yet before all this we encounter the line, ‘Where’s the present tense / now that we really need it?’  In middle age the past tense is too much with you, is too domineering, and as the poem seems to suggest, you begin to feel the weighty Sisyphean struggles of life, the daily toil.  The ‘boulder’ now feels heavier than it ever did; or you simply become aware for the first time that that is what you’re doing, and have been doing for quite some time now. 

But in the poem, Sisyphus exchanges his rock for a frisbee.  We can read this as Forbes saying that life can change from one state to another quite quickly and dramatically.  But this is also, I think, a statement about the kind of poem that wants to say something about life, the kind of poem Forbes doesn’t want to write, and perhaps (thankfully) cannot write.  It’s as though, on the one hand, there’s a type of poem that is like (or about) pushing the boulder — a heavy, weighty, ‘grown-up’ metaphysical thing that discloses personal struggle; while on the other hand, there’s a poem that’s like abandoning the rock (if that’s possible, yet Forbes’s poem rather whimsically implies that it is, at least in poetry) to become something much lighter, inconsequential and playful, where certain tricks and signals can be learned for different gestures of flight.  So ‘Middle Age’ suggests that one source of poetic creativity and inspiration is a moving away from heavy, weighty, earnest kinds of poems to a more ironic and playful style of writing. 

For Forbes, the writing of poetry is an act of vacating or decamping from your own fraught situation as you see it.  Creating a poem is a letting go: a letting go of the idea that your writing should lay claim to a greater stake of your life.  Instead, you should rush out to play — or go on your nerve, as the New York poet Frank O’Hara famously described his method of composition — and grab what you can along the way.  And like Slessor, this is very much a form of spontaneity, without which, we may surmise, there is no poetry.

‘Shore Acres’, by Sarah Holland-Batt

August, driving from North Bend,

from Empire, we saw how the waves gut

the bluffs until they are pocked, whole

scoops of rock being pawed out by water.

But this year nothing moves at Shore Acres;

the water is static as land, and stripes

of foam bone its slate like a corset.

We are here for the end of movement.

You stay to watch the ocean.  I go back

to the Japanese garden.  I only want to see

stillness where I expect it, the sombre willow,

the colossal Monterey pine; I sit,

making myself limestone and basalt,

on the grounds of what was once the summer

house of a pioneer shipbuilder.  Now it is nobody’s

private estate, but the home of a gardener

who pulls yellow roses through the mist

in hedged circles.  I think I am stone

as the arrowheads of pines vanish

into the understory of cloud.  I have stopped

longing for whatever it was I desired

and have given in to the body’s basic need

for rest.  Bare feet, bare face, I wait

at what I imagine to be a shrine’s gate

gathering the kind of force required

to stop loving, as only stone can.

There is a listless mood throughout this poem, a loss of feeling.  There is exhaustion and unease.  A couple is on a trip away to an old estate.  We can surmise theirs has been a busy time prior to this little vacation — ‘We are here for the end of movement’; giving in to ‘the body’s basic need / for rest’.  In fact, the exhaustion is so complete, so total (and this is indeed a poem of totalities) there is no real energy left to desire.  All wants are off the table.  And in a place of peace, beauty and leisure, where one might actually expect wild passionate freedom, there is only a sense of standstill and restraint: ‘the water is static as land, and stripes / of foam bone its slate like a corset’.  It is as though, this poem seems to suggest, there will be no expansion, no more going outwards, but only constriction and a turning inward.

As a figure for loss of feeling, stone is a cliche.  But Holland-Batt gives the trope a naturalistic bent.  The speaker is not only stone but limestone and basalt, so there is indeed something sedimentary going on here.  The poet is wanting to get to the understory, the sedimentary level of what the problem is, of why she feels nothing.  And perhaps one way of doing this is to go as far as possible into the problem.  In other words, become it entirely, go further in feeling nothing so that there is nothing left of yourself (‘gathering the kind of force required / to stop loving’). 

Obviously, inspiration is not forthcoming for the speaker.  And there is degradation, or a scaling down of expectations: what was once a private estate is now home to a gardener.  But what, then, was the inspiration for this poem?  Was it the sombreness, the listlessness, the exhaustion?  Was it the body’s basic need for rest (an epiphany of sorts)?   Was it loss of feeling?  I think this is a beautifully inspiring poem on the loss of inspiration and how that is so powerfully inseparable from our emotional lives (especially more so for a poet).  The fact that the poet can write a beautifully inspiring poem on the loss of inspiration testifies to poetry as a renewal of life and a record of Being.  Wittgenstein once said, ‘It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.’  Holland-Batt’s poem may or may not be mystical — though, there is a need in the poem to relinquish all devotional feeling — yet it does present a problem of caught between the how and the simple fact of is.  And it seeks to give inspiration (not to mention loss of inspiration, and the despair that comes from that) some ontological importance.

In a poem by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, translated by Elizabeth Bishop, a similar problem is presented.  The poem is ‘In the Middle of the Road’.

In the middle of the road there was a stone

there was a stone in the middle of the road

there was a stone

in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Never should I forget this event

in the life of my fatigued retinas.

Never should I forget that in the middle of the road

there was a stone

there was a stone in the middle of the road

in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Never should I forget that moment when my poetic powers, when inspiration and creativity, failed me, for words cannot relate what I see in this stone on the road, which is, of course, not only a stone on the road but myself, my whole life tumbling about inside me unable to be expressed, or put into words, the right words.  The poem is only what is right before me.  Nothing more.  And yet, ‘In the Middle of the Road’ strives for some kind of philosophical resonance, some kind of ontological significance, like ‘Shore Acres’ does.

The work of the poet is then to imagine, to imagine a shrine’s gate where there isn’t one, to imagine you are a stone while knowing you are not, to imagine yourself limestone and basalt when obviously you aren’t and never can be (and indeed in this poem the mind or the imagination and the body want to go their own ways, not unlike the couple in the poem).  And yet, these are all instances of becoming something it is impossible to be.  These are, in other words, grossly unrealistic expectations and mere fancies that don’t hold up to rational thought.  Like poetry might be in the mind of the writer who is struggling with writing and wondering what it is all for and whether it is worth it, whether the fancies — the flights of imagining things it is impossible to be — are worth it.  When so much poetry has been written, and continues to be written, sometimes you have to go to the places where you expect the silence, where you might expect the poetry to come.  And yet to do so means no experimentation (though every poem is perhaps a trying out of new ideas and method) and perhaps as well no inspiration, no surprise, nothing unexpected.  But being uninspired (the idea of it at least) may be inspiration enough.  For a writer, loss of inspiration and looking or waiting for inspiration is always the understory of the life, the sedimentary aspect of Being.  And while loss of inspiration may not be what you want to say or what you want to be, this wonderful poem reveals that it’s probably something worth putting into words after all.

Talmalmo – The collector

The collector was a man named Alfred.  He lived with his wife Emma in an old hotel on a bumpy dirt road below the blue hills of Talmalmo. 

The hotel was built in the 1860s.  It began as a coach stopover and provided the services of an inn.  From Bowra to the head of the Murray, where the way was being made more and more accessible with every year that passed, it was the only licenced establishment.  The hotel must have seemed at the time a worthwhile venture.  There was a mining boom, and pastoralists were gaining a foothold.  Some money could be made.  It would serve a purpose, too.  Coaches ran along the road outside its doors.  People would stop and stay a night or two.  There would be food, drinking, lounging on the verandah.  You could take in the view, think of future prosperities.  In its beginnings, the hotel would have been a welcomed site to travellers trying to get their drays through on the long haul to Albury.  But with the uncertainty of making a living on surrounding runs, and by the very remoteness of its location and so little settlement, the hotel would never produce a great deal of profit.  It would always be a lonely hotel. Yet the beer kept coming, well into the next century. Brewery listings dating back to the 1920s record an ongoing supply to the hotel. But it would dwindle.  Alf, who bought the hotel with Emma in 1946, could get what he needed himself, in his mustard-coloured ute, driving the hour or so to Albury for the kegs.

Alfred, or Alf to everyone who knew him, had transformed the hotel barroom into a private museum.  It became a kind of Wunderkammer, a room crammed full of wonders and curios.  Step in, have a drink, listen to Alf tell his jokes and stories, and while you’re at it, pick an object, any object, and ask about its history.

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Alf in his barroom of curios

Alf’s barroom was also a kind of bush museum.  Look up!  Look up and you would see on the ceiling the jaws of a shark, crocodile skins and a stuffed goanna. Around the walls and on shelves there were Aboriginal and New Guinean artefacts; there were rifles, pistols, daggers, swords, a collection of pipes from around the world, shells, bullets, drums, spears, tankards, porcelain figurines, medicine-man stones, a joystick out of a Japanese Zero, an indicator from a submarine and, if that wasn’t enough, the long saw from a sawfish. On one of the shelves behind the large oak counter Alf kept a fisherman’s ruler, which ‘naturally tells lies,’ and there was a tiny slug of printer’s metal on which was engraved the Lord’s Prayer. A framed photograph of the monoplane the Southern Cross hung on the wall above the shelves. The tooth of a mastodon, a relic of the ice age, was used as a doorstop, and a print of the Mona Lisa was stuck to the back of the door. Of all the wonders and curios, however, Alf’s favourite was his collection of hats. They hung in a back room just behind the bar and included a silk topper, a fez, a beaver Paris beau, a boater, a fedora, a slouch, and a yarmulke. Next to these, on the wall, there was a miner’s helmet, a gas mask from the Great War, a Communist Chinese soldier’s cap and many wigs.  When people visited Alf would come out to greet them in one of the wigs, or in a hat or the gas mask — sometimes all three.

On each new visit you could fix upon something you hadn’t noticed before.  There seemed no end to the marvels in that room.  Each object contained within it an unfolding story.  Each had a material past, had come from somewhere and from someone.  Alf knew all this.  The room and he together.  Appearing in the room he disappeared, too, into a multitude of narratives, into the stories of the past contained within the curios and the people who had ushered their existence into the room. 

Then, after all this was said and done, after decades running the hotel and being in his barroom, quick changing in hats, masks and wigs, telling his stories while staring out through the barroom window across the paddocks into the deep expanse of the country, down to the winding brown river and the hills in the distance where his eyes would rest and never grow weary, Alf had a heart attack on his tractor and died.  Emma was left alone at the old hotel. Hearing the news, many people rushed to the place and looted the curios.  What was left, what Emma saw before her, went to a museum.  But to this day many items are still locked away from inquisitive eyes, for fear that someone, or someone’s descendant, may return to reclaim them.