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Talking Tasmanian Literature in the Faroe Islands

This is the paper I gave at The Tower at the End of the World Conference in Torshavn, Faroe Islands, in May 2017. It was exceedingly well received, though very many people couldn’t calibrate their aural senses to my north west coast twang! Among a conference full of exotic people, I was by far the most exotic – almost a Thylacine.

The paper examines what I think to be the most increasingly toxic fault-line in Tasmanian society: the bifurcation between those clinging to an old paradigm of industrial development and all the assumptions about life and nature that go with it; and those who find ineffable and transcendent meaning within the very living tissue of the island. Most of Tasmania’s creative community, and especially so its writers, are within the latter paradigm, and give powerful oppositional voice to Tasmanian discourse.

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‘Balding Nevis’

This is my favourite paper, and exists in article and essay versions.  The one posted here was published in Geographical Research in 2008.  It clearly refutes the notion that the sawmilling and specialty timbers communities are 100% supportive of exploitative industrial logging, and offers is a dramatic corrective to accepted wisdoms in my island’s ongoing hemorrhaging over the fate of the forests.

The paper reports ethnographic research I carried out in the sawmilling communities of the Upper North Esk.  I loved these  gentle, passionate people – and when you read the quotations embedded in the paper you’ll know why.  I’d really like my old mate, George Harris, to read this – though I know he won’t.

Hay is going to the Faroe Islands to talk about Tasmanian Poetry!

Ever heard of the Faroe Islands? They’re half way between Scotland and Iceland, more or less, and as far as I can tell, they are most famous for puffins, sheep and magnificent woollen jumpers. And that they still whale. It’s basically a vertical-cliffed protrusion of basalt. And it rains a lot.

I’m going to an event, part literary festival, part academic conference, with the title ‘The Tower at the End of the World – Islands and Literature‘. I’m not there as a poet – but I intend to read poetry at every opportunity. Meanwhile, if you’re interested, here follows the abstract of what I’ll be spouting.

 

MEMORY IN A FRACTURED ISLAND: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE LITERATURE OF THE ISLAND AT THE END OF THE EARTH

The island of Tasmania is introduced. Almost literally ‘the island at the end of the earth’, its turbulent past and divisive politics (over radically opposed future ‘dreamings’) are outlined, and a landscape saturated in an inherent passion is described. The conflicted past manifests in a determination on the part of economic and social elites to blur history – to reduce the island’s past to a series of whitewashing clichés, and to engage in a systematic forgetting. The best-known literary engagement with Tasmania’s ambiguous past, its conflicted present, and the deep elementality of its natural world, is that of Richard Flanagan, 2015 winner of the Man Booker Prize for his novel, The Narrow Road to the North. Flanagan’s fiction is structured around an insistence that the past not be elided but be confronted; its darknesses and ambiguities looked full in the face. The paper discusses the central place within Tasmania’s literary corpus of Flanagan’s first book, Death of a River Guide, in which he resurrects suppressed narratives from the past, installing those narratives at the front of a reluctant community’s idea of itself. Flanagan notwithstanding, though, the real keepers of the island’s communal memory are its poets. Tasmania is really ‘an island of poets’, and some of that poetry is presented. It is noted that Tasmanian poetry is self-consciously an island poetry, engaging with the particularity of the island in which its authors ply their craft. It is a poetry of ground and heart, unambiguously Tasmanian, though structured around familiar island tropes – the sea, the littoral zone, a psychology of boundedness, but with an awareness that those island bounds frame a startling and unique past. Above all it safeguards the passage of the past through the fraught present and into the future, insisting that the present cannot be understood without an understanding of the shaping influence of the past. Memory is contested in Tasmania, then – and this is not only a matter of ‘whose memory’, but also one of the very relevance of remembering, period.

Image: 2016 Shing Lin Yoong, THE PUFFINS OF MYKINES IN THE FAROE ISLANDS.

I’m Driving: Laughing Jack to Hobart

Laughing Jack Lagoon is at my back.

Suddenly there is     shatter.
Shatter        cluttering to the horizon.        .

Some treefern survive.
Arched fronds nod a knowing,
cast it on the wind.

The broken voice of the land
dreams it back,
the quick complexity
before the Shatter.

No-one means to wound our dreams.
But they do.

This piece nipped away, that.
The land lost by a thousand cuts.

In the drinkeries of Hobart we fire up,
spray our helpless grief about.

One more and leave.

What is will be.

Nothing to laugh about, Jack.

Pioneer Cemetery, Zeehan

A poem by Pete Hay

Posterity, in this town, was of no account.
You’d not have thought to die here –
the idea was to salt it away and leave,
to be remembered, in God’s good time,
elsewhere.

The publicans had other ideas.
The sag-timbered mines had other ideas.
So we are here, we who drowned, we who drank,
we here by default, having died in the mud of the Somme.

The living were generous and they mourned well.
We had memory at our heads, nicely scrolled in stone,
nicely etched in good Huon pine.

But the living left,
for this was a town for vagabonds.
They left, and their leaving was the beginning
of the forgetting.
Fire came next, for this is fire country.
Gorse came, and thicket scrub.
And there was the end of the forgetting.

You are here, say, to find the grave of James O’Grady,
your great-great-grandmother’s brother-in-law.
Miner, good union man,
had a funeral that the AMA stumped,
and a stone.
Yes, he’s here, old rough and surly Jim.
He’s here somewhere.
Good luck finding him.
If he’s over there you’ll need to get through the swamp,
and watch out for old Joey Blake – that’s his domain.
So good luck with that.
If he’s this side the swamp likely the gorse holds him.
Or, more probably still, the fierce lick of summer fire
doused all that signals a life on this earth,
just as, no doubt,
in another place it took his soul.

If you’re so set on saluting James O’Grady,
James O’Grady who you never knew,
do it here, then, by the road.
Rather mourn for us all in a smeared out, unfulfilling way,
we who had not meant to be here,
and leave James O’Grady safe with us
and our unremembrance.

White Words

A Poem by Pete Hay

Published in ‘Silently On The Tide’ (2005)

 

…could feel the weakness of… big/local govt… what sort of culture…
will not be available… best sort of market we can… people have a global…

This is an age of data and dead hills.
This is a time of envenomed meal for the mouth.

.              In the newsroom they are all a-lather:
will interest rates move,
the current account take a dive,
will a j-curve pigstick that lionised moneymover
.              who took the nation to the cleaners
.              but had a red shot at a yacht race?

Today I learned:
.              of the poised scythe
.                           of technocratic joblessness;
.              of the unstable acid plant
.                           just a demon’s foul fart from the CBD;
.              of mechanics by the plantful
.                           dying of organ rot from lethal de-greasers;
.              that half the planet’s avifauna
.                           face obliteration’s fell axe within fifty years.
But not on the Moody’s rated, deficit-funded news.

This is a time of words for the killing.
.              Friendly fire. Collateral damage.
.              Icons of a chameleon language,
.                           smog-thick and sly.

This is a time for worship of those whose Midas lives
.              are built upon Blacktown, Broadmeadows, Bridgewater,
.              and upon the hourly extinction
.                           of a unique craft of life.

When the majesty of life is degraded to resource.
When it is those who defend the lifeworld
.              from the privateers of a marauding market
.                           who are accused of the ‘locking up’.
When goodfellows-all are freely chosen
.              to ease the small death of wonder today,
.              and the harder death tomorrow.

Words.              Words.              Walled within words.


After Peter Stephenson, White Words 1, 1991, oil on canvas; White Words 2, 1992, oil on canvas; White Words 7, 1992, oil on canvas.

Beautiful Firetail

A poem by Pete Hay

.             Wounded sun, light leaking down.
Winter rules the growling beach, this treacherous
stretch I have trudged, lead-footed, with the dog.
It is ungraspable, a thing of surge and storm,
.             of sly, surreptitious shift.

.             In the wide dry land
beyond this island off an island off an island,
fates are being ravelled. Today,
broken and fretted as the island edge,
.             we vote.

.             The body politic
hacks and gripes. Switch metaphor: to clay
resisting the mould of fractious opinion, porous,
wanting adhesion. The sand wraps me in guilt.
.             Somewhere there should be paradise.

.             Guilt, then, its vague dis-ease.
Is it down to the cruel and joyous, grit-gripped wind
as it scalpels the dimpled Channel water?
It is a day to be as out of sorts as the nation.
.             It is not a day for metaphysics.

.             I trap the dog,
tramp the dune hollow to the shack-shackled road,
stride north, the dog Larry-happy on his string.
The wind is trapped within taut morning pines
.             cleaving beach from road.

.             Wetland
backs the creek, enjoys its sodden carnal time,
its temporary teal, nut-breasted, its lapwings,
the white-faced heron, mere sharp stick,
.             steeled and angled suspicion.

.             Ugly scrark of wattlebird.
Cuticle moon in a wasted sky. Stiffy’s Creek
is beach-strangled, scumbrous; the dog, thirsting, pulls for it.
But there is a tussocked secret on the bank. It springs forth,
.             a lightning strike of light,

.             shakes out glory,
its flanks barred like a comic burglar, eyes anime-round.
It flimmers the sedge, a pure unlikely package,
a miniature brilliance to catch the breath. It bares
.             the signature arse,

.             the ruby mooning
of a bird of peerless verve. The firetail
unstoppers the balm of love, celebrates, as it seems,
the fathomless flair of nonconforming
.             splendid life.

.             We reach the creek.
Here is the firetail’s curtaining reeds. At the road’s verge,
car-struck, blood-beaded, is the firetail’s cold mate,
all painted ruined love, this flight, I now see, a fleeing grey grief,
.             a heart-clutched death.

.             We vote.
We order our silly, futile affairs,
launch our budgeted assault on the quick and tangled world.
Our works puff us up. I stare upon beautiful death.
.             Know it too real.

All the Beautiful Dead

A poem by Pete Hay

Published in ‘Physick’ (2016)

 

Down dark corridors

the beautiful dead

step from their rooms.

 

They watch me pass.

They would have me stay,

hear their imperative word.

 

Where there are tails,

tails bob like nodding-grass –

I do not know what they mean.

 

Those who stand erect plead

with eyes of portent,

of expectation.

 

Some venture a smile,

their smiles slight

and uncertain.

 

I do not know what it is they want.

I pass on by

and know this as failure.

 

Their eyes brush my back

with gentle, knowing

reproach.

Cranky Fan

A poem by Pete Hay

Published in ‘Physick’ (2016)

 

Here is her nest,
his stem-and-glass pride
lacquered in spiderspun silk.

And here my trickster friend
flairs his cardsharp hand,
her geisha flutter of fan.

My friend the blithe tumbler
snaps up midges on the stall
of his mad jinking flight.

She pipes on the rise,
this little reed of song squeaked out
as he dips and joggles down the creekline.

He is all tail to wag the bird,
and irrepressible – as random as amoeba.
She dances the jig of his light life.

I watch – I impossibly watch.
He is metaphor for distance,
for vast, evolutionary plotways.

In the grief of my time,
ironshod and slow,
I watch my cranky, delirious friend,

her weightless bounce,
his spinwheel progress,
the sauce in the spray of her tail.

I watch as he flips from sight.


It is impossible for the naked eye, even the experienced naked eye, to distinguish between the sexes of the marvellously erratic cranky fan’ (the grey fantail – so called, though it is a charcoal black). It is a favourite, irrepressibly cheery bird of my island bush.

Girl Reading Lorca at the Mirador San Nicolas

A poem by Pete Hay

Published in ‘Girl Reading Lorca’ (2014)

 

Granada, Lorca writes,
draws to its ancient walls and waters
those of a temper
melancholic, contemplative.

At the Mirador San Nicolas
the coral white of the tower
unbearably focuses the day’s high heat
on the brown body of a woman
who sits reading Lorca.
She is walled within the poet’s world,
alone with the breeze that comes
from the old hills of the Alhambra.

The Church of San Nicolas
is so clean, so white,
it surely casts no shadow.
It has summer’s uncomplication.
The girl reading Lorca ignores it.
She would spurn, I imagine,
this meditation on the simple,
hearing, more complexly,
all Granada singing at once:
rivers, voices, foliage, processions…

A gang of bikers comes to the Mirador,
all beergut and noise, with hair
as stiff and gunmetal as their Harleys.
They roister with backs to the Alhambra.
They do not see the bonfire of saffron, deep grey,
and blotting-paper pink of its walls.
None are reading Lorca.

The girl reading Lorca ignores the bikers.
How she does this is as mysterious as the town.
The heat and the glare and the blackjacket noise
batter my inner gates.
I seek the city’s hidden song,
its lilt on the wisps of the wind.
Granada is withdrawn, enclosed,
apt for rhythm and echo,
the marrow of music.

I want to peer over her shoulder
to read the poem she reads,
but that would be misconstrued.
Does she sleep the dream of the apple?
Is she a dark child,
wont to cut her heart on the high sea?
Does she read the great poet
into the walls and small surprising streets
of a city fit for dreams and daydreams,
a city with an atmosphere full
of difficult voices, an air so beautiful
it is almost thought?

The girl reading Lorca reads on
through the surging heat.
She ignores San Nicolas and the bikers –
and, it occurs to me now,
she also ignores the Alhambra.
The bikers straggle to their Harleys
in a fug of merriment; roar away.
The girl reads on.
We consult maps, strike
through the heat for Puerta Nueva,
for we must leave, but Granada remains.
Eternal in time, but fleeting
in these poor hands…

I look back.
In the day’s high heat
a girl is reading Lorca.