Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Judith Wright’s South of My Days

Note to readers: I normally re-run my Armidale Express columns with a week's lag. This post was meant to appear as a column in the Express on Wednesday 4 October 2010. Unfortunately, the Express lost the columns so that they will in fact appear later. Nevertheless, to maintain publishing schedules, I am repeating the columns here with a lag linked to the originally scheduled publication date. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010.

Jim Belshaw is on holidays. While he is away, Jim’s column is featuring some of his previous writing. This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on New England Australia in September 2007.

In his Friday Australian poetry series, Neil (Ninglun) featured Judith Wright's South of My Days. This is a magnificent poem that, like all good poetry, stands alone independent of context.

While the poem does stand alone, the language and content of the poem are also deeply imbued by the world in which Judith grew up. I know and love this world, so I thought that I might continue my irregular series on the poetry of Judith Wright by placing this poem and its language in a context.

The Wrights and the associated Wyndhams are one of the great New England pastoral dynasties whose story encompasses the rise and later decline of New England itself.

Our story begins in the Hunter Valley in 1830 when George and Margaret Wyndham purchased "Annandale", renaming the property "Dalwood”. From there the family spread, acquiring a chain of properties stretching along the eastern edge of the New England Tablelands into Queensland. Judith's book, Generations of Men, captures the early history of the family.

Wallamumbi, the home property for Judith's branch of the family, lies on Waterfall Way to the east of Armidale just before that road plunges into the rough country of New England's Snowy Mountains. Look north, and the rolling green hills are all Wallamumbi.

The poem begins: "South of my day's circle, part of my blood's country,"

Judith was then living to the north in Queensland. The spare elegance of these words captures location and love of country. Blood can be read in two ways, both her blood and that of her family. The poem goes on:

“rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees, blue leaved and olive, outcropping granite –“

This is high country. Snow is not uncommon, frost very common; a little later in the poem Judith uses the term "black-frost night" to capture the worst frosts, the black frosts. These crisp the ground so that it crunches under your feet as you walk.

Much of the New England Tablelands is granite country. Granite takes many forms from huge boulders to flat sheets. Granite outcrops are common.

The poem continues:

“clean, lean, hungry country. The creek's leaf-silenced,
willow choked, the slope a medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.”

“Clean lean, hungry country”. Granite makes for poor soils. Hungry country carries linked meanings: country that has to be fed to be productive; but it also means country that can suck the spirit, the life, from the settler.

There is a contrast built into these lines between the European willow and crabapple and the earlier reference to very the Australian "low trees, blue leaved and olive ".

The early European settlers planted to remind them of home. With time, these plantings run wild, became part of the landscape, creating a sometimes complicated link between past and present.

The old cottage that " lurches in for shelter" continues the theme of "wincing under winter." This continues in the next verse:

"O cold the black frost night. The walls draw in to the warmth
and the old roof cracks its joints: the sling kettle
hisses a leak on the fire ..."

In the early period, cooking was done over an open fire. There was often a bar over the fire on which hung kettles, pots and pans. People gathered in kitchens for warmth. At home in Armidale, my girl friends used to stand with their backs to the fuel stove, hitching their skirts up to capture the warmth.

The poem now changes direction, introducing old Dan with his "seventy years of stories".

Judith grew up in a village world. Tablelands' society was far more stratified than today. Yet properties then employed far more people, so Judith would have known and listened to the older hands.

In Judith's case, the stories would have resonated because of her own family past. So when Dan spoke of droving cattle from Charleville to the Hunter - "nineteen one it was, and the drought beginning" -she would have remembered stories from her own family experience.

The poem finishes.

“South of my days' circle
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of dark stories that still go walking in my sleep.”

As they do for me too.

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