Dennis Haskell reviews 'The Land’s Meaning' by Randolph Stow

Randolph Stow, who died in 2010 aged seventy-four, must now be considered part of the Australian canon, whether that concept is conceived broadly or as a smaller cluster of Leavisian peaks. This status derives from his eight novels, which include the Miles Franklin Award-winner To the Islands (1958), the celebrated children’s book Midnite: The Story of a Wild Colonial Boy (1967), the much studied The Merry-go-round in theSea (1965), and the book that many (including me) think his masterpiece, Visitants (1979). However, Stow’s first major award (in 1957) was the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society for his collection of poems Act One (1957); he later won the Grace Leven Prize for A Counterfeit Silence: Selected Poems of Randolph Stow (1969), and he wrote poetry for most of his life. Stow said of his novels and poetry that they were ‘very closely related’, ‘one … just a different version of the other’. Thus, John Kinsella and Fremantle Press deserve commendation for bringing us Stow’s poems in the most comprehensive selection yet published.

Stow’s poetry has received less notice than his novels have, partly because after his first two volumes, Act One and Outrider: Poems 1956–1962, he was never ‘especially interested in their publication’, thinking them ‘mostly private letters’ addressed to an individual lover or friend. Selecting them is no easy task, since Stow disowned many poems from Act One when he prepared his first Selected Poems, A Counterfeit Silence, and was happy to shift poems from their original context when it suited. Building on the earlier work of Stow’s major critic, Anthony Hassall, John Kinsella has made an admirable fist of this and makes clear the process he has followed in his substantial (almost sixty pages) and fascinating Introduction. Kinsella also outlines his frustrations, mentioning, and even occasionally quoting, poems that he wished to include but could not because permission was withheld. Kinsella describes Stow’s work as a ‘slim body of poetry’ that ‘weighs more than most oeuvres many times its size’, but clearly he would like it less slim; the poems comprise approximately 130 pages of this 230-page book, which also includes interesting excerpts from the novels, Stow’s libretti, and other appendices. The copyright holder, Stow’s sister, feels she is following her brother’s wishes, but a canonical author warrants a Collected Poems complete with annotations, and we have pathetically few of them in Australian literature. Only a Collected Poems can give us a full picture of an author’s work, and poets’ reputations are based on their best work; the quality of ‘Tintern Abbey’ is not lessened by Wordsworth’s sonnets for Queen Victoria.

‘A canonical author warrants a Collected Poems complete with annotations, and we have pathetically few of them in Australian Literature’

Kinsella characterises Stow’s poetry as ‘Haunting, lyrical, mythical, spiritual and anchored in place’ – all adjectives that seem apt. The place is principally the West Australian landscape and seascape of Stow’s childhood in and around Geraldton. It is a land of ‘seashells and sandalwood’, ‘sandhills and haystacks’, a ‘waterless country’ in which ‘days of rusty wind / raised from the bones’ of dead men ‘a stiff lament, whose sound / netted my childhood round’. Stow declares it ‘My sad-coloured country, / bitterly admired’, a place of ‘agonised delight’ that showed country children ‘the underlying cruelty of being’. In interviews, Stow stressed that he was a ‘fanatical realist’, concerned to get details of the external world right and render them viscerally. One of his best-known poems is ‘The Singing Bones’, a hymn of praise to ‘sand-enriched lay saints’ such as Leichhardt, Gibson, ‘and Lawson’s tramps’, noting ‘No pilgrims leave, no holy-days are kept / for those who died of landscape’. This might have seemed a surprising late-Bulletin piece but for two things: its critique as well as praise for ‘ritual manliness, embracing pain / to know’ and its transformation whereby ‘Out there, beyond the boundary fence’ becomes a mental and psychological space, ‘unmapped, and mainly in the mind’. Crow-laden desert landscape in Stow’s work is both literal and an objective correlative for the torments of the mind.

Kinsella wants to argue for Stow as a post-colonial writer, driven to these torments by awareness of the horrors done by his ancestors to the Indigenous population, and is critical of those who read Stow’s work as expressing existential angst. The essay is often insightful, written by someone with close personal experience of Geraldton and Stow country. However, on this issue the essay says more about Kinsella than about Stow. Existential angst seems to me everywhere in Stow’s life and work. In the very first poem included here, ‘The Farmer’s Tale’, ‘death spelled out a splutter of white bones’ in a mix of violence and futility that seems to be associated with sexuality rather than colonialism. The ‘land’s dark blood’ and an awareness of the savagery of nature are there from the beginning (see ‘As He Lay Dying’), without any mention of white–black relations; Stow, in interviews, rejected the view of ‘Australian white society’ as ‘distasteful’ and rejected any interest in ‘social or socialist realism’. He was never a social, much less a political, writer.

Probably the most admired of all Stow’s poems is that taken by Kinsella for this book’s title, ‘The Land’s Meaning’, a poem dedicated to, and once illustrated by, Sidney Nolan. Its opening two lines – Stow often wrote in this stanza form, but was reluctant to call the lines ‘couplets’ – are striking and often quoted in discussion of his work: ‘The love of man is a weed of the waste places. / One may think of it as the spinifex of dry souls.’ Stow’s poetic mode tends to be deeply metaphoric; he has commented that the poem is a ‘wry sermon preached on the text of the solemn first two lines’. The poem ends wryly and anecdotally, when a man who ‘was bushed for forty years’ returns from the land outside the boundary of civilisation, ‘his eyes blurred maps / of landscapes still unmapped’ and ‘gives this account’, and this account only:

… I came to a bloke all alone like a kurrajong tree
And I said to him: ‘Mate – I don’t need to know your name –
Let me camp in your shade, let me sleep, till the sun goes down.'

This seems as ‘private’ as any report of exploration, physical or mental, might be. The poem’s use of metaphor and anecdote keeps the reader off-balance throughout, but the opening metaphor seems to me more surprising than true. Too much poetry since modernism has gotten by through getting the reader etherised upon a table. One may, I suppose, think of the love of man ‘as the spinifex of dry souls’, but why would one? In another poem, ‘Feasts’, Stow mentions ‘the sort of limbo I live in’, and, although the poems presenting the sea are gentler, his poetry frequently proclaims a sense of solitariness, lostness, and waste. The ‘grief of time’ is often felt; nature goes on – ‘crows are eternal, white cockatoos are eternal’ – but human nature is transient. Stow, who began an MA thesis on Conrad, seems never to have quite believed in civilisation, and seems to have felt, like Alastair Cawdor, something of a visitant in his own life. Kinsella perceptively notes that ‘a biblical template isn’t too far below the surface’ of Stow’s poems, but central lines in ‘The Land’s Meaning’ have desperate young explorers

sending word that the mastery of silence
alone is empire. What is God, they say,
but a man unwounded in his loneliness?

This is ‘God’ made in man’s image, but the ending of the poem suggests that God, or whatever God might represent, cannot be known and that this unknowingness should be accepted – a turn from epistemology to ontology. Stow thought ‘maybe we are absolutely irrelevant to the purposes of the universe’.

This acceptance seems to lie behind Stow’s interest in ‘silence’, apparent in the title of his own earlier selection, ‘A Counterfeit Silence’, and in the gnomic poem ‘From The Testament of Tourmaline’, with its claim that ‘the diversions of time dull, blind and spoil the mind’: this seems to me absolute rot. Nevertheless, silence has long been a fascination for poets – perhaps because, as Stow said, ‘Verse is a sort of torment’ – including for Keats and the French Symbolistes in whose work Stow was well read. It is an interest easily misunderstood: in an interview with Hassall, Stow stressed that his poems attempted a depth of communication that mimicked the silent communication close friends and lovers could maintain.

Stow’s poems can seem baffling rather than communicative – Hassall describes the reader as ‘almost an intruder’ – but they are also suggestive and intriguing: there is never any doubt that real content and motivation are there. Stow’s interests in myth and fairy tales, in Renaissance literature, and in masks are all apparent – sometimes too apparent – and his work can be too literary. However, at its best, Stow’s poetry is distinctively his, in all its considerable variety, presenting a ‘grievous music’ drawn from ‘the hungry, waiting country’ that is more the landscape of the psyche than of the Australian desert.

Published in September 2012 no. 344

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