Claiming Ground in the Imagination of Place: Martin Langford’s Ground
Ground is Martin Langford’s latest book and it features on its cover a black-and-white photograph of cloud. In choosing this clever image, Puncher & Wattmann’s cover designer Matthew Holt is echoing many of the issues raised in Langford’s poetry: that in our multifarious approaches to ‘ground’ we think we are imagining and possessing something that is solid when really our notions and desires are as nebulous as fog. As Langford has said himself:
Landscape art is … subject to the charge that ‘we can only bring who we are to the subject’. Therefore, so the claim goes, it is invalid, a mistaken focus, where people think they are seeing landscape, but are only seeing themselves … Landscape art, moreover, is accused of being the complacent and pious expression of an identification with the status quo … Ultimately, landscape art is vilified because landscapes are insentient, because they carry in them more that is irredeemably alien than we are comfortable with. (2005, pp 70-71)
Langford’s own ‘landscape art’ is keenly aware of these issues as it develops a poetics of place attuned to the progressive ethical orientations of both ecocriticism and postcolonialism.
Langford knows that all ‘pastorals perch on delusions’ (p 116) and that:
The land was a miniature clearing of prayer for our barley.
An acre of scratched dust watched closely by silences.
Knots in the stomach. Was this all there was to the land? (p 111)
Colonialism, and its values of reducing ecosystems to a value of human possession, stomp on this ‘ground’ at a terrible cost:
What you do
with a turpentine forest
is level it flat –
for the piles, for the cash –
then roll in the homes, and their sets. (p 75)
Of dozer drivers clearing the land, Langford writes a sympathetic portrait of two workers who ‘nod/when they meet … but don’t say much’ and as they ‘climb on board’:
they have to be careful – round uneven ground.
mostly, it’s straightforward: Annersley patient,
but elsewhere; Eric as distant as ever from light
on her neck – the small birds around them panic;
the wreckage of torn root and dust mounting up as they go. (p 115)
Langford’s ecocriticism, and affinity with the natural world, is also informed by the living sciences. So he writes with great care, and attention to the details, the following description of a native eucalypt forest:
On these ridges, trees lose their bark,
not their leaves. The new year begins
with a forest-wide casting of skin: nude pinks
and salmons that cross-hatch the fabric
of burnt ones. Splayed trunks lean out
into sunlight – composts of heaped rind
and scroll. They harden and crack
to shed last year’s corruption. (p 101)
In reviewing Eric Rolls’ A Million Wild Acres, John Cameron, the great Australian academic of place, argues that the best environmental writing:
Informs the reader about the bird and tree species and their surprising interrelationships; it provokes the reader to question received wisdom about the history of the Scrub, to wonder how humans beings and animals can possibly cohabit; it inspires the reader to pay closer attention to his or her own place. (2004, p 35)
So the best writing about the natural world is place-based and it informs, provokes and inspires: it compels the reader to consider the social justice and ecological implications of their lives; to connect with their environment by feeling wonder, but also respect and care. Martin Langford, like Eric Rolls, fulfills these lofty ideals; but Martin Langford’s eyes are not only focused on ecocriticism and natural history: he is equally concerned with values of postcolonialism.
As you might expect in a book dealing with the colonial project of dispossession/possession, there are many references to such historical figures as Captain Cook and Governor Phillip, and to their participation in the colonial project. In ‘Human’ Langford has Cook advised before his Pacific voyages:
Remember, wrote Morton , RS, to the collier’s master,
No European Nation has a right to conquer
any of their country. Conquest can give no just title. (p 41)
In response to this warning Langford imagines:
But how could Cook take that to heart? With so much
to gain? All that courage, that skill, pissed away?
So he hauled up the colours at each watchful landing,
sang the King’s praises, and cheered. (p 41)
As Cook sets sail on his first Pacific voyage, Langford writes, with great imagist beauty, of the ‘explorers’ in their hulls:
this green floor collapsing,
these nowheres of spray:
through the worlds
we had thought we had known. (p 13)
In ‘The Detectives of Light’, Langford recreates, with brilliant lyrical irony, the moment that the navigators return home to their colonial offices:
For years at a time
they had breasted the cloud-dreams of shorelines –
the sky-bleed, the storms –
and now they were home, the detectives of light,
shuffling, in rooms thick with interests:
boxes of artefacts, orchids;
charts dense with patronage;
moonrise distilled into ink –
the great seas just salt on their fingers –
the captains drawn close with their theories,
their sad, earnest talk. (p 19)
This is a stunning piece of historical recreation, and while the poem may have been stronger by omitting the final stanza, thus concluding the poem with that brilliant image of ‘the great seas just salt on their fingers’, this poem is an important moment in the Australian project of interrogating its colonial maritime past.
Langford continues to use irony as he unpicks colonialism’s threads in ‘Phillip’:
traditional hunting grounds
could, without friction,
accommodate soldiers and convicts,
a whole fledgling town.
and everything calm and polite!
Until, it would seem,
understandings could not be avoided. (p 24)
Langford does not resort to obscurity to keep a poem afloat; the juxtapositions and word plays are stunning adornments to clear communication; opening opportunities for the interrogation of colonialism’s crooked paths.
As Langford writes in ‘A Marvel’:
And if, now, it can seem a puzzle –
the way we inhabit a country which others once owned –
I like to say it’s a marvel – like sonar in bats. (p 40)
Langford has many poems that also confront the reality of massacre of First Nations people in the act of dispossession. So ‘The Dispersals of the Native Police’ begins with such understated yet unforgettably evocative violence:
The first thing dispersed
was the skin
of the shoulder or neck –
this in a spray of bright red
over seedheads and grasses. (p 29)
And concludes with:
Still the dispersals continued:
memory, mindfulness, frayed into blanks
in the choices and shifts of white stories –
so new owners, taking the view,
might walk with a spring to their step –
might breathe deep – as if this land came free. (p 29)
But the inheritors of colonialism’s violent land-conquest carry with them a sense of guilt as they write to the Gallipoli dead:
We weren’t fair dinkum
we were authorised
by your deaths. (p 98)
This is because:
the need to tell tales:
about Cain, and Cain’s sons,
or the rights of a non-farming people. (pp 98-99)
Later this poem observes:
There had to be bloodshed
a hot scree of carnage (p 99)
The poetry in Ground is a major contribution to the continued development of an Australian postcolonial poetics because it is not only charged with its interrogations of colonialism but is also so richly evocative in its lyricism, imagery, juxtapositions and word plays. The book is not perfect. There are one or two moments of unfortunate banality, such as in the micro-poem ‘A Need’ (p 12); and some carelessness in word choices. In ‘Achronicas’ the Nepean River is described as ‘gouging its way through the strata’ (p 3). In a poem that is referencing the science of geology, otherwise so effectively, surely that word ‘gouging’ would be more apt in describing the process of glacial action in grading those deep ‘U-shaped’ valleys, not the fluid movement of water running or cutting or slicing through the landscape. But apart from these moments Ground is a most startling poetry of place highlighting our many approaches and actions in controlling, possessing and imagining our land.
Langford, Martin (2005) Microtexts, Island Press, Woodford.
Cameron, John (2004) ‘Sandstone Stories: Place Writing and Education’, Southerly, vol 64, no 2, pp 33-38.
Puncher & Wattmann, 2015
Phillip Hall is a poet and essayist working as an editor with Verity La’s ‘Emerging Indigenous Writers Project’ and as a poetry reader at Overland. In 2014 he published Sweetened in Coals. In 2015 he published Diwurruwurru, a book of his collaborations with the Borroloola Poetry Club. He is currently working on a collection of place-based poetry called Fume. This project celebrates Indigenous people & culture in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria. Contact email@example.com
Martin Langford has published seven books of poetry, including The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (P&W, 2009), and, most recently, Ground (P&W, 2015). He is interested in the way we try to imagine ourselves beyond our biological inheritance, and in the way we project our social and imaginative spaces. He lives on the northern outskirts of Sydney, and the landscape of that area often features in his work.
In Microtexts (Island 2005), a book of poetics, he argued for poetry’s engagement with the other, and against the enlargement obsessions of our standard narratives. He is the editor of Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1788-2008 (P&W, 2009).
He has had a long-term involvement in the organization of poetry events, has directed the Australian Poetry Festival three times, and is the Deputy Chair of Australian Poetry Ltd. He is the poetry reviewer for Meanjin, and reviews and contributes articles about poetry for a wide range of journals.
His work has been translated into French, Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Arabic.