Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Poetry of Judith Wright - Bora Ring

Judith Wright is probably New England's best known poet.

Her poetry, especially her earlier writing, has always resonated with me because it says something to me about the world in which I grew up, a world still deeply imprinted on my soul. I thought therefore that it might be fun to take some of her poems and use them as a window to look at different aspects of New England.

I suspect that many Australians still think of Australia's traditional Aborigines as simple hunter gatherers living in an ancient and unchanging landscape, although there is growing recognition of the complexity of their social and spiritual life. In fact, within the limits set by their tools and available food supplies they were also sophisticated builders.

The Bora Rings of New England and south-eastern Queensland are examples. As Sandra Bowdler pointed out, these earthen rings of eastern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland are significant ritual structures and are probably unique in the world as hunter gatherer constructions of known function which constitute notable monuments in the landscape.

Sandra goes on to describe them:


The earthen rings known as “Bora” are usually part of a complex of two or three rings, linked by a path or paths. They were used in what Sutton calls “man-making ceremonies”, that is, male initiation ceremonies. In the literature, we find that the large ring in the complex was usually part of a relatively public ceremony, with women looking on; the smaller ring was the site of the major initiation rites, for initiated men and initiates only. The purpose of the third ring is not as well documented in the literature. It has been suggested that these are women’s rings, but it is not clear to me that this was always the case. Bora sites were often (always?) associated with carved trees.
The average size of a large ring is about 25 - 30 m across, and a small ring 10-12 m. There is a wide range of variation however. The earth is mounded up to a height of c.25-50 cms. Usually there is a path, often to the south-west from the large ring, connecting to smaller ring.

Judith's poem starts by painting a picture of a Bora Ring now alone in the landscape:


The song is gone, the dance
is secret with the dancers in the earth,
the ritual useless, and the tribal story
lost in an alien tale.

Only the grass stands up
to mark the dancing-ring, the apple gums
posture and mime a past corroboree,
murmurs a broken chant

The hunter is gone, the spear
is splintered underground, the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still

The rider halts, feeling that the ghosts are still present.


Only the rider's heart
halts at sightless shadow, an unsaid word
that fastens in the blood the ancient curse,
the fear as old as Cain.

It is a wonderfully evocative poem. But it is also a very European perspective with its emphasis on the vanished Aboriginal past. In fact, that past was still present.

I am not sure when Judith wrote this poem, but at the time there were almost certainly New England Aborigines alive who had passed through traditional initiation at one of the Bora sites. Further, the knowledge of the sites and their significance has continued to be passed on.

Here we can compare Judith's words with the much later 1996/1997 Aboriginal description of a site near Bellbrook quoted by Sandra:

“This site is known as the passing out ground for initiates of the Thungetti tribe. It is one of several initiation Grounds in the Bellbrook area where different stages of the Bora ceremony took place. As such, it is still highly sacred to the Aboriginal elders residing at Bellbrook Mission, and is considered to be one of the most important of the initiation sites in the area”

Entry Page for Posts about Judith Wright's poetry

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

A very well thought out analysis. Well done.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you, Anon. It is a lovely poem, so its nice to provide a partial context.

Anonymous said...

Judith Wright, writes about nothing, she created pictures not poems, and as a painter she seems to be rather shitty. I was googling for a school project, i ovbiously have my own opinions on her but this is just a load of bullshit, you think u can relate with her? she creates PICTURES of LANDSCAPE. you relate with a landscape? your a rock? or a fucking tree? or a wave, congrats.

Jim Belshaw said...

City boy are we anon?

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon,
we most certainly relate to the landscape, especially as Australians. I'd go so far as to say that we are the landscape and that the landscape is a part of us: an intrinsic connection exists between humans, and the landscape which we eat and breathe. How can you deny this? It seems you are living under a rock (pardon the pun)

Anonymous said...

I do not understand this poem. In fact, I do not understand any of her poems... Help?

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Anon and sorry not to get back to you yesterday. I have been having computer problems. First of all, if you click on the bottom of the post you will find analysis on a number of her poems.

Now I'm not a teacher. I can only describe the way that I approach poems.

Firs, I read it aloud, sometimes several times, looking for the flow of the words.

Then I look at the purpose of the poem, it is a message, just a description, even a bit of a moan.

Then I look at the way the language was used. Does it get it across? If not, why not? How did I react in a personal sense to the poem? Would I want to read it again?

Judith Wright's South of her days captures her love of country. Its brilliantly descriptive even for those who do not know the area. For those who do, it becomes more so. The poem is almost the national poem of the New England Tablelands.

Bora Ring is more message poetry. It's again about the area that she grew up in, but now she is trying to present a picture of people past. Does she succeed?

Over Judith's life her views and approaches changed several time. There was, to my mind, a growing feeling of negativity. The fresh joy of South of May Days had gone. If you look at my posts as a whole you might get a feel as to why that happened.