During Tasmanian Living Writers Week in August 2006 I was invited to speak on the subject of Writing about Place. I’m posting the transcript of my talk here, with a few extra poems thrown in as illustrations of how Place features in my writing. This piece describes my understanding of the subject back then, but it’s a topic I’m continually learning more about …
What is writing about place? This very broad subject can include writing about nature, landscapes and environments, local histories, travel writing and personal responses to our surroundings.
How does place affect my writing? Reflecting on this topic I realised there are several ways that Place features in my poetry, though I only occasionally set out to write about a specific location. One is a personal response to nature, where the outer landscape takes on a significance for me that can ‘stand in’ for an inner state of being. Another is through projects I’ve been involved with, and a third is my involvement with haiku. I’d like to touch briefly on these three aspects.
I’ve always had a strong relationship to the natural world, growing up barefoot and barely clothed on Sydney beaches and living in the wonderfully lush semi-tropical climate of Northern NSW where it’s always summer – before moving to Tasmania during a prolonged drought. The wind blew every day, lifting the topsoil from the farm paddocks into clouds of dust and driving it out to sea. Writing then was a way of coming to terms with this very different environment. A very early poem expresses my dislocation:
This landscape keeps its distance:
denuded hills, carbuncled
with scaly outcrops, don’t invite
the spread picnic rug
the grass-pillowed head
contact between earth and toes.
Wind lives on these slopes,
sleeps fleetingly in cavities
of ringbarked gums, in tunnels
where their roots once ran,
weeps on the gouged clay banks
of dams and frets the fringed
black wattle trees. Briar roses
are snarled with crimson hips.
But when mist silences
all sound but the plover’s cry,
the swamp hen’s wheezy gasp,
hills and rocks dissolve in haze,
lichen drinks fresh colour out of grey.
I walk through walls of cloud,
damp on my skin. I can begin
to believe in gentleness again.
At the end of my talk I’ll read another more recent poem about living in Tasmania – to show how my view of the place has changed. It took some time for the landscape here to seduce me. Some of the writing projects helped to draw me into the particular beauty of this island and to appreciate its features. Three very different projects involved similar approaches. Go to the place, feel it, listen to it, taste it, smell it, learn its geography, its flora and fauna. Try to enter it as fully as possible and let it enter you.
One of these was the Poets & Painters exhibition in 1996 – a tribute to Gwen Harwood. I collaborated with the artist Jock Young and because his paintings were mainly sea paintings, and the sea is also a potent metaphor for me – we chose the area around Bruny and the D’entrecasteaux Channel as our focus. As well as reading Gwen’s poetry I visited areas she had written about, and tried to open up to and to connect with the spirit of these places. Here are two poems that I wrote for that exhibition.
Solstice: Bruny Island
Late evening, sea-blown rain. Light
falls through misted glass. Sky’s
a gull grey, rain’s a flurry of feathers
brushing the iron roof. Sparrows’
monotonous cheep and the soft
rustle as you turn the pages
of your book, make silence deep.
Waves wash the beach. The sound
licks memory’s wounds.
Unuttered grief the canvas stretched
taut across the frame of years.
Nine o’clock. Night shadows fill
the clustering eucalypt and pine
but sea and sky, wet through,
still gleam with light. Gently
our cabin rests on its dune-grass bed.
Sheltered, warm by the fire,
we do not speak – hopes, fears.
Fragile beads, moisture from our breath,
glitter on the window pane.
“What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally” – Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
The things we gather from beaches,
bring home, scatter on window sills,
ledges, in patio and garden beds –
in our core the wild edges
where borders fray and bleed their colours
into sky and sea.
We gather from beaches
Sophia’s messages randomly strewn
on dimpled sand – stippled starfish, crab claw,
carapace, this coiled shell, this pitted
pumice stone, a piece of coral,
driftwood, feather, bone.
Day washes over us, rippling
tide pools, swaying fringed green weed.
Across the sweep of sky light spills
a palette of turquoise, aqua, gold, grey –
gull flight, surf crest, the ridged water’s
bright salt shimmer.
At our feet, the jetsam of other lives
transformed, sea-smoothed, scoured clean.
Hair wild with salt wind, eyes dazzled with sun,
our footprints following – for a moment
we can see where we’ve been. All childhood’s here,
the world’s long morning.
We carry them home, gifts we share
with each other: a headful of space, the taste
of briny air, name of a bird, cloud’s shape.
Fragments we salvage from the wreck. Poems.
Designs for patterning the dark, promises
Writing poems for the Mountain Festival collaborations meant lots of walks on its many paths from its peaks to its gullies, as well as extensive reading, researching and talking to experts about its social, scientific and botanical histories.
The Lover’s Eye
for Eric Beach
I knew a man who wrote
his lover into the mountain
when she could no longer climb
its tracks, hot with the scent
of eucalypt and pepper berries.
But words could not push back
the shadow, like the fist of a giant
ramming his chest, or stop
the clouds catching in his throat,
the ice entering his veins.
When you look through the lens
of a microscope or with the focused
eye of a lover you can read
the mountain’s dreaming.
Through separations and migrations,
long winters, seasons of refuge,
traces remain: inscribed in leaves,
the breath of small white petals,
the folded hills, and boulders freckled
as a shoulder bared to the sun.
The black currawong, patient
on a fire-whitened branch,
bears it in his wings.
The third of these projects was a series called Death by Falling, which explored the early colonial system in Van Diemens land, and the life of the bushranger Matthew Brady, a popular folk hero of the 1820s. I imagined myself into the places he frequented. I travelled to many of them and spent time there – noting atmosphere and visual and sonic landscapes. I read accounts by early settlers and others about the settings I was exploring, both physical and social. As well as developing an awareness of the historical layers of this island – which in some areas are still palpably present -I was gathering a hoard of impressions, sight, smell, taste, touch, sound – the gateways through which we apprehend our world – in order to build as clear a word-picture as I could on the page.
Absconding into the Woods
(to receive 100 lashes and labour 6 months in irons)
Smells, like yeasted dough,
rise from the damp of the rain
forest. Its rich peat soil is layered
with wet leaves and crumbling logs.
Trees are scented – pine, lemon, sassafras.
Paperbarks shed their skins
and fungi gleam, orange and silver
against the browns and greens.
Light, fractured by a mesh of ferns,
falls like the sun’s last rays
through the stained-glass windows
of a vaulted church.
Rot and regrowth, death and life,
cycle and recycle. I have but one stay
on this earth before my bones turn
to clay and my thoughts disperse
like mist, like leaves.
In the woods at night it’s black
as pitch – blacker than the bowels
of a prison hulk, blacker than a man’s
dark thoughts when past all hope
of love, black as the ache
of absence, blacker than falling
over the edge of the world.
And the rushing noise is a blackness
in your ears as rivers turn in their beds
grinding the stones in their path
like a man grinds his teeth in his sleep.
There’s no sleep here. Wind is awake
in the leaves where huge-eyed creatures
shuffle through the forest litter that exhales
warmth at your feet. The stars are far
away. They cannot see or hear you
and they have no mercy.
For any of this research and direct experience to translate into a poem, I need to filter the facts through my own emotional responses, to find a ‘heart connection’ that will allow me to write from the place where poetry begins.
For a long time now I have been engaged with haiku, the nature poetry of Japan. These very brief poems are concerned with what is happening at this moment, in this place – recreating experiences that make connections between the temporal and the eternal. They rely on closely observed detail to suggest and evoke emotion. The practice of writing haiku is a way of being present to my surroundings and to the imagery of the natural world. My book Walking the Tideline is mainly set around the beach where I live at Lauderdale.
the wet rocks splashed
in evening shade
lupin leaves still cradle
drops of dew
snagged in the branches
of the leafless willow–
The anthology from the Watersmeet haiku group is full of imagery taken from Hobart and its surrounds.
the green shallows
broken by spears
of seeding grass
It is difficult to avoid some aspect of place in my poems, because for me the physical and sensory details are integral to the emotion or experience the poem is trying to give voice to. As writers we are continually observing and imbibing our surroundings and storing them away. When we come to the page the images are there in our hoard, ready to be used, like the pigments on a painter’s palette, to give our writing texture and colour.
Rather than writing about place, I strive to write the poem-as-place, and to communicate that space/place through attention to sensory detail. Through imagery of the known and the familiar, poetry can lead us to the landscape beyond the landscape. It can give us access to deeper dimensions of being, as we attempt to locate ourselves within the varied and enigmatic and profoundly rich territory of our inner and outer worlds.
Often the particulars of place are strongest in our minds when we are distant from them. To finish, I’ll read a poem that was written when I was in the Blue Mountains at Varuna when the old English gardens were at their autumn best, and thinking longingly about Tasmania, which has become home.
At home late strawberries will ripen
slower than blue-tongued lizards steal
beneath the bird netting.
The weeping cherry will discard each leaf,
parsley and silverbeet bolt to seed,
honeyeaters drain nectar from the last red grevillea.
The Cootamundra wattle will hoard its gold
to lavish our midwinter with opulence.
(all text copyright Lyn Reeves)
Exile, Beaches and Solstice: Bruny Island published in Speaking with Ghosts (Ginninderra Press, 2002)
Absconding into the Woods Published Island May 2002
Haiku published in Walking the Tideline and Watersmeet:haiku (Pardalote Press, 2001 and 2005)
The Lover’s Eye and Absence published in Designs on the Body (Interactive Press 2010).