walleah press




Review: 'Silently on the Tide', Pete Hay

Walleah Press, Tasmania — 2005

Silently on the Tide is Pete Hay’s second poetry collection. Containing a number of favourite poems already encountered in journals and anthologies – ‘Night Rain, with Owl,’ ‘Dove Lake Tanka,’ ‘Remembering Murphy,’ amongst others – the volume is a welcome addition to his list of published works.

The title comes from Hay’s poem ‘On the Gordon River Cruise,’ and the cover artwork is a detail of Tim Burns’ painting, ‘Silently on the Tide,’ named from the same poem. This interchange incorporates the spirit of Ekphrasis, a transcription from one medium to another, here a circular process of creativity. Other examples are ‘Ironman’ (after Peter Stephenson, ‘Ironman’ 1 & 2), ‘White Words’ (after Peter Stephenson, ‘White Words’ 1, 2 & 7), and Desirée Fitzgibbon’s painting ‘The Smirr of Gull’s Down on the Breeze’ ( inspired by Hay’s description, ‘a smirr of gull-down on the breeze,’ p.27). The colour plates enrich our reception of the poems, and vice versa.

‘White Words’ sets the tone of the collection, a plea for conservation and social concern in ‘an age of data and dead hills’ (p.13). We are bombarded with words from the media:

This is a time of words for the killing.
            Friendly fire. Collateral damage.
            Icons of a chameleon language,
                       smog-thick and sly.


Words.         Words            Walled within words.

In a time when all trespass
            who seek the blistered hills

we die in a white chamber of words.

could feel the weakness ofwas the next targeted
to give us no hope                                                          (pp.13-14)

The poem, like the painting, is framed with media jargon, powerfully making its point, and fleshed out with images such as ‘the hourly extinction’ of natural resources, (‘But not on the Moody’s rated, deficit-funded news,’ pp.13-14).

‘Ironman’ celebrates the ‘unmythed’ life of the outback, man pitted against the encroaching forest and ‘the racketting rain driving hard and without cease’:

Who would know the wall of beckoning green
     shuffling toward his iron fence,
     his iron walls, thin and running red?                  (p.10)

Hay calls us back to the present:

You can see his land from here.
     It is safe here for this is a city gallery,
     and here is his land safely panelled…                   (p.10)

While his focus is the indomitable will of this man of iron, it is underscored by a knowledge of the land triumphant:

Here in ridged and dinted iron
            this man gets through a life.
            He has wrestled with the land the way he knows,
            and he will lose, the way he knows.               (p.12)

Perhaps, for us, there is the further implication that this is no longer the case today – ‘the green embrace’ will not continue to self-renew.

Hay writes about the interconnectedness of all existence, as in ‘Sheoaks’ (p.4), where the persona experiences ‘the bones of a time/ when the penal station worked its farm here.’ He reminds us of the importance of rivers and mountains, and the devastation posed by man-made attempts to shackle them. ‘Nailing Pooranateré’ (an Aboriginal naming of the Mountain) addresses the most recent of continued schemes and proposals to erect a cable car on its slopes:

This mountain now. Assume it rich and slippery
of mood. Let it nudge the morning talk abroad.
Let it slip within the old town’s skirt.

From the steps of the House of Blah I see
a fret of green life reaching forward
from the upturned shield of rock and dirt.

Then hear the edict of the oddly wise.
This beloved thing of stars and snow and thunder
has to go. We will tread it under.
Clap it in irons. Put out its wildering eyes.                    (p.7)

The outcome of such interference is beautifully summarised in lines from ‘In Memory of William Paterson,’ a poem otherwise about Tasmania’s ancestors:

            We have rendered the land incomplete
            and it is not to be redeemed.
It is the very land that grieves, perhaps,
            gathering us up.                                                (p.45)

Another strand of Hay’s writing thus takes in the history of the island’s people. ‘On the Gordon River Cruise’ records the story of the last Vandiemonian bushrangers, and of Reg Morrison, descendant of the West Coast piners, who ‘opposed the proposed Gordon-below-Franklin dam’ (p.83), equally putting paid to the success of his own personal ventures:

The ghosts of old piners drift silently on the tide;
in the wall of forest the bones of convict bolters
with moss, fern, root are twined.                                  (p.19)

Arthur River Suite’ invokes the last days of Truganini. Intertwined is the story of the Aboriginal family driven into the bush after refusing to surrender to the mission Aborigines, but ultimately giving themselves up. Modern-day landscape and politics are poignantly connected with the spiritual desecration of these last tribes:

There are days
encased within banality,
the urgent
despatching the unimportant,
mark of a life
grinding on
through the small meanings
of Carping John’s country.

I am saved
on such days
by the machinery of dreams.
I ship upon a westing stream,
on a blustering morning north by west.
There is salt-smoke off the sea,
a smirr of gull-down on the breeze –
and the Black Bull Scrub astir
in expectation.

It is not mine to know –
not mine to know why the last free people,
William Lanney’s family,
chose a social death
to the solitary sorrow
of the ghost-fled scrub.
The tracks of the people blur for want of feet,
the ghosts retreat
to still places
in the distant heart of trees,
in the mat of sunken scrubroot.                            (pp.27-8)

A concern for the land and the history of its people is the hallmark of Pete Hay’s poetry. Stylistically, he favours strong colloquial beginnings (as on p.7, ‘This mountain now.’ or p.10, ‘Travel to this cantilevered land.’), followed through with stanzas of compelling lyricism. Hay is, however, a master of experimental diversity. A number of his poems are written in the vernacular of the diarist or speaker (e.g. ‘Home to Williamsford,’ ‘In Memory of William Paterson,’ ‘Back Town Dying’), and ‘William Paterson Adds a Coda to a Poem’ goes beyond ‘sub-history’ to create a personality as well as a voice challenging the poet:

The poet stays busy
            and I become the town.
                        I am metaphor.

I will not have it, this spurious life
            of a literary artifice.
                        I spurn a false posterity.

I will plague the poet. Snag his every turn.
            I was wag/prude           quick/slow           easy/hard
                        strong/weak           short/tall           fair/dark.             (p.51)

Such a stance goes to the core of the creative process.

Hay also glances at other poetic forms in ‘Caucasian Haiku’ and ‘Vladivostok Tanka.’ Without the explanation (in ‘Some Ruminatory Afterthoughts,’ p.85) of its quotation from Richard Flanagan ("Give me the music/ Of the lost folk of Europe."), ‘Caucasian Haiku’ might not have come off. But it does, and is haunting in its complexity:

We are forgetting.
Sunken holes in the forest.
All that grows in blood.

Grievances tended.
Turnips in kitchen gardens.
Streets of boiled sausage.

Wolves, or rumours of.
You die young, or you should have.
The old fled children.

Which brings us full-circle to the significance of the opening stanza:

In any village
Massacres in muddy fields.
Sorrow-ridden lands.                                                  (p.58)

I first came across Pete Hay’s poetry back in 1996, when co-editing Midday Horizon, and am struck afresh by his talent and empathy for the things that matter each time I renew the acquaintance. In a world of dwindling horizons, his is a voice we cannot afford to ignore.