Pelicans – Judith Wright – Analysis

Seen at the NSW south coast

Pelicans
Funnel-web spider, snake and octopus,
pitcher-plant and vampire-bat and shark–
these are cold water on an easy faith.
Look at them, but don’t linger.
If we stare too long, something looks back at us;
something gazes through from underneath;
something crooks a very dreadful finger
down there in an unforgotten dark.
Turn away then, and look up at the sky.
There sails that old clever Noah’s Ark,
the well-turned, well-carved pelican
with his wise comic eye;
he turns and wheels down, kind as an ambulance-driver,
to join his fleet. Pelicans rock together,
solemn as clowns in white on a circus-river,
meaning: this world holds every sort of weather.
Judith Wright (1915 – 2000)

The first sentence of the first stanza covers some of those creatures, insects and plants that have known to be of some concern to human inhabitants. And in some cases humans have died due to their venomous nature. The intent is perhaps to promote fear in their name. It is worth noting that snake, octopus and pitcher-plant can be harmless but quite beautiful. But what I think JW is trying to emphasise is that nature can be a dangerous place if you look beyond the surface.

An easy faith would be a superficial faith believing in the positive side of all life; perhaps giving little consideration to the negative. The first stanza ends telling us up not to ponder on this darker side of nature. Don’t look too much on this because it is dangerous; and something will look back at us. The implications here are that we should not dwell on the negative aspects of nature, and indeed life; dwelling on the negative is dangerous in itself. And this proclamation flows into the first sentence of the second stanza.

Look up to the sky and consider the pelican. The pelican is used as a contrast to give a positive to nature. But JW would not have known how brutally murderous pelican siblings are to each other.

But apparently a 16th century Christian would consider a Pelican as a symbol of the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. Using this knowledge gives a more meaningful perspective on this poem. And it is nice to know that the Pelican is well tuned, well-carved and wise; clearly attributes that are associated with Christ.

And of course the Pelican is a water bird so presumably escaping God’s anger and the need to enter Noah’s Arch by the fact of flight. There is another side to the Pelican mentioned above so kindness is a bit of an oversight. But Christ is somewhat of an ambulance driver in the provision of healing to the world.

The poem ends with the closing proclamation that the world is inflicted with great variety of weather. Whether we know how to deal with such climatic conditions is another matter; and also whether we believe God is involved in anyway to help.

This poem is in Judith Wright’s Birds publication. Her daughter, Meredith Mckinney, commented on this collection … ‘Despite the joy reflected in the poems, however, they also acknowledge the experiences of cruelty, pain and death that are inseparable from the lives of birds as of humans’.

Judith Wright on Wikipedia

 The Company of Lovers – Judith Wright – ANZAC Day

 The Company of Lovers

We meet and part now over all the world;
we, the lost company,
take hands together in the night, forget
the night in our brief happiness, silently.
We, who sought many things, throw all away
for this one thing, one only,
remembering that in the narrow grave
we shall be lonely.

Death marshals up his armies round us now.
Their footsteps crowd too near.
Lock your warm hand above the chilling heart
and for a time I live without my fear.
Grope in the night to find me and embrace,
for the dark preludes of the drums begin,
and round us round the company of lovers,
death draws his cordons in.

Judith Wright (1915 -2000)

This poem was written during World War II which brought much separation especially for those travelling from Australia to the various battlefields.

A precious pre-leaving meet between lovers … with no thought of tomorrow … forget the night … for some the long unending night … and those that never returned leave the grave narrow and lonely for any surviving lovers. Today we remember.

There is that foreboding and anticipation of the worst … death draws his cordons in

Another of my favourite Judith Wright poems, again with a cerrtain sense of foreboding, is … ‘Trains’  – Judith Wright

 

Birds – Judith Wright – Analysis

Birds

Whatever the bird is, is perfect in the bird.
Weapon kestrel, hard as a blade’s curve,
thrush round as a mother or full drop of water,
fruit-green parrot wise in his shrieking swerve-
all are what bird is and do not reach beyond bird.

Whatever the bird does is right for the bird to do-
Cruel kestrel dividing in his hunger the sky,
thrush in the trembling dew beginning to sing,
parrot clinging and quarrelling and veiling his queer eye-
all these are as birds are and good for birds to do.

But I am torn and beleaguered by my own people.
The blood that feeds my heart is the blood they gave me,
and my heart is the house where they gather and fight for dominion-
all different, all with a wish and a will to save me,
to turn me into the ways of other people.

If I could leave their battleground for the forest of a bird
I could melt the past, the present and the future in one
and find the words that lie behind all these languages.
Then I could fuse my passions into one clear stone
and be simple to myself as the bird is to the bird.

Judith Wright (1915-2000) – from ‘The Gateway’ 1953

The stanzas have a rhyming scheme ‘abcba’. The first two stanzas deal with the nature of certain birds balanced by the next two which are a reflection on the shortcoming nature of humanity in comparison. This poem opens JW’s book of bird poems which contains many detailed and beautifully presented bird illustrations adjacent to the poem text. Clearly JW had a knowledge and respect for birds.

Considering her lamentation, and to put it poetically, we don’t find an eagle trying to convert a sparrow – except where an eagle is not an eagle. But although birds have evolved over many years to adapt to a changing environment they are not always nice to one another. A prime example is the cuckoo. And many birds are protective of their own space. But on the main I think JW is quite right in regarding a certain harmony in the life patterns of different bird varieties.

And of course there are no conversion attempts akin to humanity. And humanity has a mind of its own far beyond the predicable actions associated with bird life. She may have been talking about herself not being able to be herself – others from many different directions wanting her to walk their ways, as well as on the international scale of different countries and religions seeking prominence over one another with little tolerance.

But what she is saying in this poem was very applicable to the white response of her day in trying to change the life pattern of the aboriginal population. This is an ongoing issue when trying to progress economic advancement at the same time marrying an ancient culture into the ways of a dominant European existence.

Judith Wright was an Australian environmentalist as well as a poet and very much an advocate for the rights of the aborigine. Here is a link to her on Wikipedia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Wright

The Flame Tree – Judith Wright – Comments

Flame Tree

How to live, I said, as the flame tree lives?
– to know what the flame tree knows: to be
prodigal of my life as that wild tree
and wear my passion so.
That lover’s knot of water and earth and sun,
that easy answer to the question baffling reason,
branches out of my heart, this sudden season.
I know what I would know.

How shall I thank you, who teach me how to wait
in quietness for the hour to ask or give:
to take and in taking bestow, in bestowing live:
in the loss of myself, to find?
This is the flame-tree; look how gloriously
That careless blossomer scatters, and more, and more.
What the earth takes of her, it will restore.
These are the thanks of lovers who share one mind.

Judith Wright

This year is the centenary of the birth of Judith Wright.

In Sydney at Circular Quay there are commemorative circular plaques of famous Australian literary people embedded in the walkway to the Opera House. Below is Judith Wright’s – it needs updating as Judith died in 2000. The words featured are in relation to her work as an activist in establishing aboriginal rights.

JudithWrightPlaque

… and here is a link to the sculpture of Judith Wright in Garema Place Canberra where the ‘Flame Tree’ poem is featured. It was taken at the official opening of ‘Poets Corner’ on 30 January 2012 – http://richard-outoftheblue.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/poets-corner-official-opening-canberra.html.

The above poem is typical JW personification with nature. Here she advocates throwing everything into life. Follow your heart and be prodigal (reckless) compared to a more controlled approach. I know the flame-tree is very profuse in its flowering. Perhaps ‘we’worry too much about our own flowering without just letting it just happen. If we give in abundance perhaps that which is taken will be given back in greater measure – you will have to be the judge of that of course. JW says ‘I know what I would know’ – expressing confidence that this prodigal approach would promote knowledge.

A link to the Illawarra Flame Tree … http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brachychiton_acerifolius

Judith Wright on Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Wright

Summer – Judith Wright : Analysis

Summer is here again and already we have had a few very hot days in Canberra. This poem by Judith Wright relates to Edge, her former home in Braidwood, and to the Australian summer and how nature must accommodate the disturbance by man and the effect of bush fire. It was written towards the end of her life.

Summer

This place’s quality is not its former nature
but a struggle to heal itself from many wounds.
Upheaved ironstone, mudstone, quartz and clay
drank dark blood once, heard cries and the running of feet.
Now that the miners’ huts are a tumble of chimney-stones
shafts near the river shelter a city of wombats.
Scabs of growth form slowly over the rocks.
Lichens, algae, wind-bent saplings grow.
I’ll never now it’s inhabitants. Evening torchlight
catches the moonstone eyes of big wolf-spiders.
All day the jenny-lizard dug hard ground
watching for shadows of hawk or kookaburra.
At evening, her pearl-eggs hidden, she raked back earth
over the tunnel, wearing a wide grey smile.
In a burned-out summer, I try to see without words
as they do. But I live through a web of language.

from Judith Wright Collected Poems – The Shadow of Fire (Ghazals)

JW shows strong identity to the land commenting on the effects of man  … a land which drank dark blood once … the killing of Aborigines … and a land once  subject to mining … her words describe the attempted recovery by nature  … the attempt to revert to previous conditions – which of course can never happen.

JW also shows strong empathy with the natural environment … with knowledge of local animals and insects seen at Edge. The environment adjusts to the disturbance by man … shafts near the river shelter a city of wombats … and the environment must adjust to the destruction of nature by bush fire … suggesting this is a greater problem …  trying to see without words … … creating words always detracts … many survivors of bush fires would identify with the intensity of thought conveyed by such words.

… it is fascinating to see how diversity manifests through continual evolution … species adapting to changes to environment and the resultant changes to other species … the total connectivity of life as it creates a future by the process of the survival of the fittest … or put another way survival by those best able to adapt to change.

… now this may be Ok when evolution is gradual, although of course some species become extinct, but what happens to this evolutionary process under sudden dramatic disturbances, humanity-made or not … and more important how can humanity act to ‘better the evolutionary process’ … humanity being the prime custodian of the world … having the key role in the very determination of the nature of existence. Global warming is of course one consideration for attention.

… there may of course be other influences at play in the evolutionary process such as spiritual connectivity … but a little foolish and quite a cop-out to think that God will protect the world from destruction … however this could become an indirect truth … if humanity allows God to work through humanity … by humanity listening and responding as appropriate.

… I really love the first two lines … This place’s quality is not its former nature / but a struggle to heal itself from many wounds … the quality of nature is in its resilience and ability to adapt to change and to heal … I am an an optimist of course.

Here is a link to the ‘Braidwood property Edge’ where Judith Wright lived.

and a link  to Judith Wright on Wikipedia