Judith Wright

Literary biographers and their intended subjects at times agree and at times disagree about the stories they think should be told. J.D. Salinger and Vladimir Nabokov – the one, fastidious ...

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Susan Sheridan’s Nine Lives, a ‘group biography’, analyses the life stories and literary achievements of nine Australian women writers. The purpose, according to Sheridan, is not only to rediscover the life story of each, but also, by exploring their publishing and aesthetic context, to create a ‘fresh configuration’ of our literary history.

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Late in My Blood’s Country, Fiona Capp describes a dream that Meredith McKinney had after the death of her mother, Judith Wright, poet, activist, and the subject of Capp’s book. In the dream, McKinney is at Calanthe, the Queensland home where she lived with her mother and father, philosopher Jack McKinney. A literary festival is under way. In the front room of the house, the study where Wright wrote her poems, scholars are giving papers about her work. McKinney, aware that her reactions are being scrutinised, is careful to react generously. The group moves from room to room, into the more private spaces of the home, Meredith feeling compelled all the while to be gracious in the face of this invasion. An exhibition in her parents’ bedroom centres on a life-size wax dummy of Wright, said to be wearing her clothes, though actually wearing something McKinney recognises as part of an old curtain. As she notices more mistakes in the display, one of the dummy’s arms falls off, and it is suddenly clear that the dummy is in fact her mother’s corpse.

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With Love and Fury edited by Patricia Clarke and Meredith McKinney & Portrait of a Friendship edited by Bryony Cosgrove

by
July–August 2007, no. 293

Judith Wright and Barbara Patterson met at a gathering of the Barjai group, a Brisbane salon for young poets and artists, when Judith was almost twice Barbara’s age. Judith had not yet published her first collection, The Moving Image (1946). She read some poems and Barbara was magnetised.

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Veronica Brady is a highly respected critic with long and distinguished experience in the academic and literary worlds. She understands as well as anyone, I am sure, the mysterious workings of the imagination – how a feeling, an image or an impression may strike a spark capable of igniting a flame that fuses often contradictory thoughts and experiences into the ‘little room’ of a memorable poem. So it must have been a deliberate, though to my mind regrettable, decision that made her concentrate on Judith Wright’s life as a conservationist and campaigner for Aboriginal land rights almost to the exclusion of everything else – poetry included – in this ample and painstaking biography.

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In 1956, A Book of Australian Verse, edited by Judith Wright, was published by Oxford University Press. Her choice of her own poems included ‘Bullocky’ and a couple of others, the over-anthologising of which, at the expense of her other work, was later understandably to provoke her exasperation.

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Anyone who has had the experience of trying to translate a poem across even a fairly low-density language barrier (say German or French into English) will have tasted the near despair of finding oneself in danger of killing that in the creature that one most wanted to save. Sometimes it feels like cutting down the tree and whittling from the wood a mere mock replica of it  – the sap goes, the leaves in all their lively beauty disappear, and at best there’s an artifact which cleverly reproduces the mere outlines of what was once brimming with life.

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Perusing the Australia Day honours list, I was disappointed to see that Judith Wright had not been honoured with a major award. She is one of our greatest living poets, a pioneer environmentalist, and a tireless champion of Aboriginal rights. In this year, when the nation is still coming to terms with the momentous implications of the Mabo decision, it is worth remembering that Wright has been a key supporter of and advocate for the Murray Islanders land case since its inception in 1981. Wright is one white Australian who does not need an International Year of the Indigenous People to draw her attention to the outstanding worth of people such as Eddie Mabo and Mandawuy Yunupingu.

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In his Canberra 1913–1950 Jim Gibbney summarises the indecisions which accompanied the establishment of a site for Canberra around the turn of the century. When finally, in De­cember 1908, Yass-Canberra was decreed the Seat of Government, it brought to a close nearly two decades of hesitation – at least Australia knew where the Federal Capital was to be situated, if not what kind of city it was to be.

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It is 116 years since Charles Harpur, Australia’s first poet of real eminence, died with his own collection of his works unpublished. Except for a couple of small selections – the most recent of which, made by Adrian Mitchell in 1973 and containing only about 120 pages of the poetry, was the most comprehensive – and the infamously corrupt 1883 ‘collection’, it has remained so. This has been a blot on the reputation of Australian critical and academic workers and a loss not only to Australian literature but to Australian history. Now Elizabeth Perkins, of the English Department of James Cook University, has handsomely remedied a long injustice.

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