A sense of place pervades Margaret Bradstock’s most recent collection, Coast. It’s a presence felt from the opening poem’s account of Cook’s navigation of the southern continental coastline, through to the collection’s closing piece recording the poet’s return home from a visit overseas. Between these parameters, Bradstock’s title ‘Coast’ serves as metaphor for the range of - predominantly maritime - experiences and events the poems appraise.
Given it’s the city she calls home, the scattering of Sydney references throughout the first four of the book’s five sections comes as no surprise. They evince childhood reminiscences of ‘my cousin’s gang’ on its beaches (Chelsea, Bonbeach; Lady Jane, Coogee, Mona Vale); of Slessor’s harbour with its bridge ‘like a Ken Done original’; of the city’s characters, (the ‘gentleman huckster’ urban pelican cadging leftovers outside Peter’s Seafoods); and its history as a settlement bought for the bride-price of red baize and beads.
It’s the last ferries moving wearily
out from the Quay,
the Opera House hunched
on Bennelong Point, wings beating at darkness,
moon caught in its folds
like a rice-paper lantern,
& your heart ferris-wheeling
out over the Harbour.
(from ‘Sydney 2000’)
The last section of the book draws on Bradstock’s Sinese experiences during an Asialink residency in Beijing in 2003. The depiction of life in modern-day China follows on from her Wesley Michel Wright Prize-winning collection The Pomelo Tree in 2001 exploring the history of the Chinese presence in Australia.
Tone varies throughout the collection. Bradstock’s political poetry is powerfully persuasive, "pays homage to the yearning that keeps us fighting against the odds, against failing social and political situations" as Judith Beveridge commends on the book’s back cover. But other pieces hint at a spiritual dimension not readily reconciled with the blunt rhetoric of the more politically overt of the poems. Sydney may well be home, but ‘home’ for Bradstock isn’t necessarily place-specific. ‘Heading North’ voices affinity with what Pete Hay might refer to as ‘a spirit in the land’. ‘Sometimes you camp in rainforest clearings \ beyond winding roads and paddocks, \ gates shuttered by brambles, \\ listening to the sound of the forests, \ ritual flight of cockatoos at morning, \ the pistol-whip of birdsong. \ Homeless everywhere, \ you’re at home here.
‘Stations of the Cross’ plumbs similar territory. Certainly Bradstock’s sense of cynicism is given full sway, cloaked on the one hand in biblical lament [For indeed the days are coming which they will say / "Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore, / and the breasts which never nursed!’], possessed elsewhere of a thoroughly contemporary voice: [‘Hanging on the wave of their success, / the PM’s geared up / for another election. Trust me, / you change your position / on something, that’s not a lie.’]. But exposure and vulnerability are evident too, the question raised: how may we live an ethical life?
- You meant to join the Greens,
- the dune reclaimers, but find
- you're flat out anyway
- checking the phone's still connected,
- PVA'ing curtain hems, avoiding
- the excesses of alcohol
- in a kind of self-imposed rehab,
- sour wine mingled with gall.
- Bills and tax statements follow you,
- arriving like landmines
- beside the letter-box frog.
- And what about the water pipes?
- Here's a knocking indeed.
- Have you fallen far enough
- or is it time
- to write another poem?
[from ‘Stations of the Cross’]
Elsewhere, Bradstock’s poems assume an exquisite poignancy and tenderness.
- How shall I balance these things
- against our allocation of years,
- the earth’s curfew?
[from ‘Such transience’]
- Eggs laid in woody tissues,
- the newly hatched nymphs burrow
- under the ground, sucking juices
- from the roots of perennials,
- seventeen yearsto reach maturity.
- Grief has no meaning yet,
- their song no less lovely
- because it ends.
[from ‘Cicada drum song’]
Contrast this with Bradstock’s political poetry: ascerbic and incisive - within her arsenal of weapons, a devastating riposte. Poetically, she insists on political expression as the natural function and innate right of the poet. Politically, she adheres to a set of values that run counter to the trend in post-Tampa Australia. (In March, 2003, Bradstock was one of 119 Australian ‘Poets Against War’ to deliver their poems to Prime Minister Howard: her choice of the poems ‘Jack Sue Wong – Australian-born Chinese’ and ‘The Last Monk of Puu Jih’ attesting again to her deep interest in the Chinese experience).
An interest in history - in the interpretation and re-interpretation of history in an effort to make sense of the past - is manifest in poems such as ‘Continent’
- Cook wields the practicalities
- of latitude and longitude,
- his sextant measuring the angles,
- the now familiar southern constellations,
- finding the land masses,
- naming them: Cape Dromedary,
- Point Danger, Mount Warning,
- Magnetic Island,
- re-creating a continent.
- Rosella parrots, named after Rosehill
- where the bird was first found,
- each act of language
- a possessing
and ‘The Flower Net’
- and isn’t the bronzed soldier
- just another icon, anyway
- (superimposed, the past rewritten)?
- I stare at old maps
- trying to figure the changes.
In ‘First Contact’, narrative jumps seamlessly between past and present where the poetic account of Cook’s expeditioners setting ashore ‘in the shadow of spears, / the moment when black / looked on white, averted / in the business of dreaming.’ has its corollary in suburban Redfern’s embattled streets.
- Had they plumbed the future,
- riots in Eveleigh street, fires
- drug busts, a boy falling
- to his death, pursued by police,
- the script might have been different.
There’s no doubting the tough-minded emphasis of Margaret Bradstock’s writing. But it’s also a poetry of balance; she doesn’t lose sight of the humanity she shares with her political opponents. Her brief, on the whole, is more concerned with addressing issues than it is with cornering ideological adversaries from where there’s no escape without loss of dignity. To quote British poet Douglas Oliver, "The better political poem of today seeks to impose no solution, but just to use as fresh an eye as possible. It makes us see things unexpectedly."
I admire the sense of vulnerability that seeps through this collection, the humanising effect of its lack of certainty … along with the passion, balance and strength of commitment Bradstock brings to the table. It’s a fine balancing act to attempt to voice one’s deeply held convictions while at the same time resisting the outright coercion of others. Bradstock makes her points - "I see things this way!" - but declines certainty. Admits to vulnerability. Contests the middle ground because she’s far too intelligent to admit to only one way of seeing, that of her own.
- I'd rather die for speaking out,
- than to live and be silent.
-Fan Zhongyan, 988-1052