Launch Speech of Dael Allison’s Fairweather’s Raft, Walleah Press

Tasmanian Poetry Festival, 7 October 2012


On the back of this book some bloke’s written a blurb.  I’ll read it.

"The life of the great wild artist, Ian Fairweather, was beach-blown, dangerous.  Dael Allison's poems writhe alike with tropical life.  Her imagery pulls you up; stops your breath. It is dangerous.  You read, and you are with the scents and stench of richly rotting fruit, with the twisted passions of beach-blown life, with the hazards of storm and calamitous passion.  The great wild artist has found the poet to sing his wild, mad life.  What a book of poetry!"


Tim Thorne

Good God! The bloke who wrote that needs to take a cold shower, get a grip and have a good hard look at himself, and not necessarily in that order. Now for those of you who don’t have a copy of the book in your hands – and if you are one of these people it is a deficiency that you should rectify forthwith – for those of you without a book in your hands, if you haven’t yet twigged to the bleeding obvious, the author of this piece of linguistical excess is, of course, me.

But - no. A pox on such talk. I stand by every word. I think Dael Allison is just about the most underrated talent in Australian poetry, and I think Fairweather’s Raft will merit, when it comes at last to its venerable days, the status of a poetic classic. Now of course it may not be afforded that status – it helps, in Australian literature, to be an effective self-promoter, and it helps to live in one of the major centres of cultural output. This is not compulsory, but it helps. And I can say this because I’m not an “Australian poet”, which frees me up to say things which wouldn’t be said from inside the tent. Anyway these two things help, and Dael Allison doesn’t tick either of these boxes. More shamelessness, more brazenness, more face is what Dael Allison needs in my view.


Pete Hay


What she doesn’t need is any augmentation of her poetic facilities. These are firmly in place. She has a talent for poetic achievement in spades. She has a verbal dexterity, a capacity for startling imagery, an eye into the human soul and the quick of the natural world that cuts through to the exposed heart of things.

Her subject is Australia’s most personally enigmatic visual artist, Ian Fairweather. This collection is a sort of an interior biography of a man, and his art, and his obsessions. But also of his times, and the worldly context of his life – a barren, stultifying, upper class boyhood in England, and bohemian eccentricity in various parts of Australia and Asia, but especially the socially and floristically unregulated beachfront of Darwin, when that part of the world was still raw, with many of the characteristics of the frontier.

In this inspired collection Dael takes us into the complex psychology of one of the great outsiders of Australian culture, a supreme individualist, beholden to no fashions in art or in life, and she takes us into the equally complex psychology of a place.



Chétif  1950, Ian Fairweather

Picture it
potentially an idyll:
the tide’s out at the edge of mirage,
the naked season stretches tight
across the bay.

Mangroves exploit the margins,
dinghies blister on mud,
clouds on the horizon are shells
exploding. The sky struggles to heft
an asbestos moon.

Oil and rust insinuate
between shipworm-ridden piers.

Under the next wharf’s misaligned awning
a cat licks lousy fur.
The croc-shooter slumps on the gutted seat
dragged from his International truck.
Varicosed legs splay, belly sweats beer.
Blowflies rejoice in the stench of skins
nailed out for tanning.  

Neighbours in malevolence, we glare.
Words are stones under my tongue—
there’ll be a demolition sometime.


It would have been easy for Dael to abstract Fairweather from life – he’s fascinating enough after all – but Dael doesn’t do this. We get Fairweather in human and ecological context. And so we meet the enigmatic Micky Bigfoot. He is tragedy, a dark shadow at the edge of the eye, and important to Fairweather and his story, but in ways that are appropriately enigmatic, teasing, and leave you with questions for which you yearn for answers.


Pete Hay


Earlier I said that this collection's a sort of interior biography of Fairweather. I hope in saying so I haven't left you with the impression that this is a work of history cut up into stanzas of poetry, because nothing could be farther from the truth. There is a sublime poetic imagination rioting through these pages. All the poetic liberties are taken, as they should be, not to muddy an extraordinary man's history, but to probe, as an incoming tide, the dark holes in his life, those untouched by any catalogue of facts ... those where the crabs and sea corals live.

And for this task Dael enlists the assistance of a couple of our craft’s heaviest hitters, here serving as Fairweather’s formidable interlocuters. I’m going to read a poem, and if you have the book it’s on page 12 and you can read along. I think this poem is an absolute masterpiece and in an outstanding collection this is my single standout favourite poem.


Pete Hay


Dreaming poets dreaming

what if a raft were to loom from the dark with an old man at the bow, his hand firm on the helm? what if they stepped on, the two poets from another world?

life could be like this, real but another dimension, darwin rising from a blackout like a blazing fish in beagle bay, the air a flux of water, ondaatje and neruda adrift on a tropic river. the silent helmsman steers past up-lit cyclone ruins, emerald palms and the edifice to government the locals call the wedding cake, nudging through the flotsam of unconscious men, the raft a smudge on a rippled mirror.

what if neruda asks, why make this building voiceless when stars are shouting. the raft, caught in an answerless current, turns and surges into the brazen gorge of mitchell street where the waters churn with roach butts and mcdonalds styrofoam, pods of slick-sheathed girls, men tattooed like coral trout, where backpackers spew beer from balconies and bouncers circle like sharks.

the ferryman steers past throb, ducks nuts, shenanigans, neruda enigmatic at the prow, ondaatje, silver eyes alight, lurching from side to side yelling giddaymatehowyagoin. a black taxi cruises past, frangipani swilling in its wake, someone shouts getofftheroadyafuckwits. apparitions loom blank-eyed and screaming, blood streams from glassing’s jagged cuts. the poets cling grimly as they drift past the cocktail luxe of hanumans, the smokers clotted on the entertainment centre steps.

the flood ebbs, the raft eddies in a backwash of public housing, bottle shops, cheap car rentals, sudden quiet. clapsticks sound, ancient twig men sing the dark. waters whisper into sand, sand whispers into silence, a curlew cries. the doors to dreaming open. the poets walk into the desert, deafened by the stars.


So, here we are, in Darwin with Fairweather, but also with Neruda and Ondaatje. Who can resist such a cocktail? I think the poem I’ve just read is simply superb and I’ll tell you why – and to do this I again have to descend into the murkiness of “controversy” – sorry for any susceptibilities I offend here but Dael did describe me as a rabble rouser on facebook the other day, and I feel obliged to live up to my billing. This means of course that I have to be rousing, and that you are a rabble. But that’s apropos of nothing at all.

I love that poem for the very exuberance of its language. In my view, too much Australian poetry lacks exuberance. Perhaps I've been reading Neruda and Lorca and the Spanish language poets for too long, but what I love about them is that they run huge risks in the way they deploy words and images. And we mostly don't. I once asked one of Australia’s most venerated poets (via an anonymous question from the floor) whether he agreed with such a characterisation. I didn't expect him to agree with it but to my surprise he did. But then he went on to defend it, arguing that we live in a spare, desiccated, cut-down land, and that it's therefore appropriate that we write a spare, desiccated, cut-down poetry.


Pete Hay


Well, look outside. This is not a spare, desiccated, cut-down land. It's dramatic, it's topographically complex, it's green, it's wet, it's springing with intricate life. If you go to the northern tropics it's the same. If we must take our Australian writing touchstones from the Australian landscape - and of course we should - we need a much more nuanced and variegated sense of what that means. Even the dry, desiccated deserts of the interior are, I suspect, somewhat more robust and more emotionally extravagant – more vital – than my poetic informant gave credit for. So, more blood in our poetry please, more spring in its step, more consequences-be-damned passion. And here it is. Dael Allison writes as I would want Australian poets to write – well, not exactly like Dael Allison because I want Dael’s poetic voice to remain gloriously unique, but you know what I mean here.

Fairweather is out on his raft, adrift on the Timor Sea, on the mad ocean voyage that should have killed him.



can no man be an island?
each day your burnished feathers
sweep through mirrored silence,

black feet splay
and you thump-down on my deck.
my unmoored heart is yours

for every random landing.
your blue eye is cold.
your snake head and swivel neck

draw a sinuous line,
all pouter chest and wry knowledge.
don’t talk to me of question marks.

a flick and the flailing fish
has vanished, gulped past the place
where chinese fishermen

would knot the noose.
you watch, wary, but i
don’t want your catch: another

man, another raft, another world.
black soul adrift, defying distance,
proximity is comfort—the blood

pulsing warm in your veins
pulses warm through mine.
what reflects us makes us real.

watch me. when the wind comes
my veins will fill with light,
black wings stretch, feet lift off.


If I’ve read any poems that Dael herself was going to read I do apologise, but life’s tough in the jungles of Australian poetry. And who can resist? This book is fantastic – it’s literally fantastic. I congratulate Dael. I congratulate my dear friend Ralph for bringing out such a physically impressive artefact. And now I urge you to do yourself a favour and buy this book.

I’m going to get Dael up here to read. Thank you.