Hobart Bookshop, 18th August 2016. Video: Daniela Brozek
Book launches traditionally do two things. They celebrate the author who has been locked away in a place of solitary madness and needs to be welcomed back into the world with a big hug in order to receive reassurance that, if not sane, they are at least loved.
The second purpose of a launch is of course to honour the product of their insanity, ‘The Book’.
Today, I am going to focus on the second of these functions. There are two reasons for this presumption. The first is that almost all of us here already know what an extra-ordinary fellow Pete Hay is. If you don’t know Pete yet, chat to your neighbour later, for they are likely to have a story as good as any I can tell. Suffice for me to say that Pete is our most important public intellectual not because he has a comment to make on every development in the news cycle but because he doesn’t.
Pete asks his own questions and rejects the chaining of knowledge to the small-minded and specialised expert. No other scholar has had such an influence in changing ideas about Tasmania. For four decades he has been resourcing, coaxing into being, an intelligent, compassionate, imaginative reflection of what it means to make home on this island, AND what it has meant in the past and what it might mean in the future.
He has had a distinguished academic career in environmental studies, publishing widely and supervising record-breaking numbers of graduate students from almost every discipline imaginable. But the campus has never confined him. The backblocks have always beckoned and whether it be in a lecture hall or from some place even lifelong Tasmanians may never have heard of, he has reflected, warned, encouraged, mentored, critiqued, raged, written essays, poems, academic articles and books and sometimes, most importantly of all, just gone quiet.
From a memorable and much lamented office that deserved national heritage listing overlooking the university cricket oval, and the shore of Rat Bay, came the ideas and the spirit that have sourced so much of the creative endeavour of others. So many writers, historians, artists, policy makers, politicians and ordinary Tasmanians chatting about their home draw on Haysian thought, sometimes with no idea of the fact. And literally hundreds of writers, poets, artists, activists and wandering seekers of no fixed identity have been, like me, direct beneficiaries of his guidance, supervision, friendship and support.
So deeply earthed is this man that when spotted walking his cute little terriers in St David’s Park you can choose to see either the venerable academic, the good bloke you had a beer with and who gave you some ideas for your latest project, or a Van Diemonian emancipist bushman out with his kangaroo dogs to get dinner and ensure that the celebrated elite finally get to know what it is liked to be pissed on if only by a dog. All these images contain a truth but none come close to describing the fellow. Suffice to say that Pete Hay, though he won’t like the description, may be the closest thing we have to a true elder, a bloke who knows stuff, not just in his head but in his heart.
But as I said earlier, today we are taking all that for granted. For I have something very important to talk about that needs the rest of the time I have. The book.
Physick has been the most important book on Tasmania I have ever read. I am no judge of poetry, nor fiction nor even history after 1856. I don’t make this judgement as an expert but as an honest statement of my experience of reading it. In turn, this relates to my experience of reading the recent outpouring of words on this island. Let me explain.
I am sure I am not alone in harbouring a fantasy that Pete would some day write a Tasmanian magnus opus that would draw on his unique breadth of knowledge of the past, current challenges and future possibilities. Dr Hay’s ‘Tasmania’ would be island studies on steroids, providing all we need to build the longed for sustainable society in a compassionate and grounded way that celebrates ancestry, community and land. THE BOOK would be a final and stunning retort to the rich and the petty who derive money and power from destroying land and people.
And ludicrous as it sounds when said out loud, isn’t that what our collective outpouring on everything from the Black War to Bass Strait ferry subsidies and the challenges of a population who do annoying things like grow old, get sick and dropping out of school after their Year 10 party is at least partly about. Finding ‘the’ answer to ‘the problem’ of being Tasmanian?
Well sometimes we get what we dream for in a totally unexpected form.
It is perfectly Haysian that Physick is writing from the fringe, not just of geography, but of spirit and of language. There is no material for a new marketing slogan here, nothing to inform Brand Tasmania , no guidance for policy makers, little even for environmental activists unless they are prepared to sit down and listen to silence.
Physick did for me what I thought no book could do, overcome the sickness being caused by a surfeit of words.
Western culture is being smothered by words. Tasmania is no exception and some of the most expensive of these are the most silly. I am sure it was as much a relief to you as to me when we were finally informed that after all the consultant reports and inquiries, all Tasmanians needed to do to find our way in the new capitalist order was to be ‘authentic’. So having stood to attention politely and listened to the likes of KPMG and the Tourism Council, it is, I have been relieved to hear, ‘as you were’.
More seriously, there have been many fine books, articles and reports written on Tasmanian history and society this millennium that have done much to overcome the silence associated with shame and submission. There is something of a cultural renaissance underway of which these publications are one part. But I have a problem – I find it increasingly difficult to read any of them. This is not a criticism of the quality or worth of the work because it is as true of my own output as anyone else’s. I am fully part of the problem if problem is what it is.
More and more I suspect that that this extra output, words piled on words, might be leading us astray.
The perfectly sensible, rational and necessary premise of the project is that we have the capacity to understand, that the gaps in knowledge can be filled, problems be answered. But when this premise is taken for granted, even the most illuminating and instructive literature can deceive.
One example of this is the 1820s fighting between Aboriginal people and the British. So much has been written in the past decade that have aided our understanding. The unique collection in the Tasmanian Archives has never been so scrutinized and I am thankful for this labour. It has been an essential task. Yet it is also important to remember that the well documented public fighting only began about 1827 by which time almost all the Aboriginal people outside the most remote regions were already dead - even though 10 years before there was ample evidence of a still intact society and no sign of a disease epidemic.
What sort of violence happened before the well documented period of fighting– on which our words necessarily concentrate - even began? Can this likely slaughter also be rationally explained? Can it even be called ‘war’?
The risk is that we emerge from the archives, from a social research survey, from the well-lit library or lab, into the night with eyes so blinded by intense light that we can no longer see our way. To find a path in the moonlight we must let our eyes get used to the dark. It is in this half-light, where truth is as much sensed as seen, that Physick can help us. Once you have read the poems which deals with past conflict and the continued presence of Aboriginal people in the land in a way that transcends the dangers I allude to, you will have a better idea of what I mean.
The danger when discussing past events or present problems is that we fall into the same hole as those who debated about God for so many centuries did. Their sophisticated eloquence became a substitute for living creatively with mystery.
Which brings me by another roundabout route back to Physick as this book is actually a trinity, one book in three. Part one explores the physique, the history of our people, part two, the physical world, physis, and the final section, metaphysics. The millennia-long debate about how three can be one and one can be three, is answered.
Pete sets it all out in his short preface so succinctly that you might wonder what the theological fuss was ever about. It is a perfect few paragraphs. Don’t start the book without full immersion in them. They will become your companion throughout.
All I would add is to emphasise that while the book is in three parts, the fact that it is also ONE is critical. This is a BOOK, not just a poetry collection or a body of work. There is interplay across the pages as much as across time and space . We take the people of the past, the narkie on the road verge, the cockle shell and chinaman’s fingernail washed up on the tide with us into the poems on meaning.
I do disagree with the preface on one matter. Pete says the third part of the trinity, ‘privileges the reasoning mind’. If that is true, it is only to the extent that this is inevitable. But the mind too is part of the body, part of nature, part of this earth - Pete’s mind particularly so. Some of these poems in this section are the most challenging for poetry novices like me, but they are earthed not least by all that has come before. Moreover, they are infused with what is to come.
The last three extraordinary poems, nominally also in this section, defy any attempt to classify. I am not going to quote from them let alone read them. Not only is this the poet’s right, but they are wrung from such a depth of engagement with the human experience of mortality, of limit, of pain and loss, that to add even a single word seems wrong. They are the most generous of offerings from a very courageous man.
After I finished reading the book on Tuesday evening, I needed a walk and I was fortunate enough to be able to do it on the beach as such boundary places are a recurring theme in Physick and there seemed to be no better place to absorb all reading this book had meant to me.
It was a unseasonably warm evening, and when I got near the end of the beach, still in a Physick-induced openness to portals of existence, was a small eucalypt that was somehow surviving below the king tide, roots exposed and sticking out above the sand while clinging resolutely, at least for now, to dry earth - a sapling that seemed to embody the spirit of the book.
Then scampering down from this little tree, Goethe by sea as one of Pete’s poems and some song I can’t remember now, calls it, I saw an albino possum.
Now it was dark, moonlight does not make for clarity or certainty, and I am still don’t know for sure if what I saw was an albino possum or even if such animals exist.
But it seemed to me at that moment, that not only had I encountered my first such possum but that I had, for the first time, been open to seeing one. It seemed then as if there had always been such creatures but that my narrow categorization of the animal, which Physick persuasively suggests are even pictured in Ireland’s most precious artefact, the Book of Kells, had blinded me to a whole dimension of being.
That moment I felt a little more connected to the land, to its people, to the fullness of the past, to our transitory, brief, muddled but wondrous existence shared with so many equally transitory wondrous beings.
And I also felt from the depth of my being, gratitude.
Which brings me back to the main point of this evening.
On behalf of us all, I want to say ‘thank you’ to this gutsy intelligent compassionate man for his extraordinary gift. Physick is a magnus opus – it is a Pete Hay masterpiece wrung from life that points to the place beyond words.
I am immensely proud to have the honour to launch this book of poetry into our world. So - if you've got a glass, raise it, otherwise a metaphorical glass - fellow Tasmanians, to Pete Hay and to Physick.
James Boyce is the author of Born Bad (2014), 1835 (2011) and Van Diemen's Land (2008). Van Diemen’s Land, won the Tasmania Book Prize and the Colin Roderick Award and was shortlisted for the NSW, Victorian and Queensland premiers’ literary awards, as well as the Prime Minister’s award. Tim Flannery described it as “a brilliant book and a must-read for anyone interested in how land shapes people.” 1835, won the Age Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Award, the Western Australian Premier's Book Award, the Adelaide Festival Award for Literature and the Victorian Premier's Literary Award. The Sunday Age described it as “A first-class piece of historical writing”. James Boyce wrote the Tasmania chapter for First Australians, the companion book to the acclaimed SBS TV series. He has a PhD from the University of Tasmania, where he is an honorary research associate of the School of Geography and Environmental Studies.