Monday, September 10, 2012

Judith Wright and the champing jaws of mining companies

And therefore, when land dies?
opened by whips of greed
these plains lie torn and scarred.
Then I erode; my blood
reddens the stream in flood.
Judith Wright
As the  campaign against Woodside's industrialization of the Kimberley region at James Price Point intensifies it is worth remembering the prophetic warnings of Judith Wright, Australia's finest ever poet and distinguished political and environmental activist.

 In late 1968 the Australian poet and activist Judith Wright flew north from Perth to Port Hedland. The Pilbara region was undergoing unprecedented development and industrialization as a result of the region's massive iron ore resources.

At the time Judith Wright was actively involved in environmental and political struggles against mining companies, for example to save the Great Barrier Reef from mining.

As Veronica Brady points out in her biography of Judith Wright, Wright was roused by the sight of the land below her and produced one of her finest poems. Like many of her poems, Jet Flight over Derby warns against exploitation and destruction caused by mining and resource companies.

As I have written here  Judith Wright was without doubt one of the finest and most prescient intellectual minds this country has seen. So much of what she predicted and wrote about has come to pass. Jet Flight over Derby is one such example.
Jet Flight over Derby
by Judith Wright

Crossing this ravelled shore
fern-patterns of the tides
frayed like my branching nerves;
the last strung islands frayed.
And what is I? I said.

Rose-red a thousand miles
my country passed beneath.
Curved symmetry of dunes
echo my ribs and hands.
I am those worn red lands.

Stepped contours print my palms,
times sandstorms wear me down,
wind labours in my breast.
I lost my foreign words
and spoke in tongues like birds.

Then past this ravelled shore
I meet the blues of sea.
Sky's nothing entered in,
erased and altered me
till I said, What is I?

A speck of moving flesh
I cross the bird-tracked air
and it's no plce for me.
What's between sea and sky?
A travelling eye? A sigh?

This body knows its place, 
and longs to stand on land
where bone, a while upright, 
walks on an earth it knows, 
a droughty desert rose,
bearing the things it built;
difficult flower, tree, bird,
lizard and sandstone ridge.
I  am what land has made
and land's myself, I said.

And therefore, when land dies?
opened by whips of greed
these plains lie torn and scarred.
Then I erode; my blood
reddens the stream in flood.

I cross this ravelled shore
and sigh; there's man no more.
Only a rage, a fear,
smokes up to darken air.
"Destroy the earth! Destroy.
There shall be no more joy." 
Here is Gerard Hall writing about  Judith Wright:

Although strong in her denunciation of economic rationalist principles that were undermining the social fabric of Australian life in the eighties and nineties, she remained committed to a world of other possibilities--to see "what the human eye was meant to see /. . . knowing the human ends in the divine" (Vision). Integral to this vision is a profound respect for the sacred dimensions of ordinary life and ordinary Australians: "Living is a dailiness, a simple bread / that's worth the eating" (Grace). The ethical and gracious sense of human dignity is integral to her worldview.
Artist and activist, poet and prophet, Judith Wright's images have become part of the fabric of our nation. She is the political poet dancing between the mystical experience and the demands of justice. She leads us to shed our too-European eyes to see and not despoil the strange beauty of the Australian landscape. Equally, she leads us to name the fear and guilt that go hand-in-hand with a colonizing people. She invites us to the experience of justice and reconciliation in which the splendour and the terror of our nation's history and all its peoples are acknowledged, celebrated, redeemed. The mystical and the political are intertwined in Wright's poetry and life. Deaf in her final years, she continues to challenge Australians to hear the spirit of their land and its first peoples if they are to traverse the path to a more just and humane future. "For earth is spirit."


Anonymous said...

Colin, I have just stumbled upon your January 2011 post:

and would very much appreciate a reference to the source of that beautiful poem.

Back in 2008 I made contact with Dr Brady, and her advice at that time was that this poem was unknown. I see you mention her in this current post, so I will contact her again. The poem has particular personal resonance for me, and I am hoping you can provide me with any further history, publication information you might have.

Thank you in advance. Sorry to use your blog post; couldn't find an email address listed here for more private contact with you.

David Spence

Colin Penter said...

Hello David,

Thanks for your interest and comments. Great to have contact with another Judith Wright fan. She is my favourite poet of all time and in my view a truly great Australian. The poem you mention Some Words is in the book Judith Wright: Collected Poems in the 1994 edition of the book published by Angus Robertson. It is on page 309 of the edition I have. The Collected Poems indicates that the poem was published in her 1973 book Alive. Hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much Colin - you have sort of resolved a mystery for me which began back in 2008 when I purchased a small watercolour done by John Olsen, on the back of which was this poem (but excluding the first verse) written in his hand, and attributed to JW.

I am very much a fan, and I agree with your view that she was a truly great Australian.

If you can somehow point me to an email address I'd be happy to send you front and back images of the watercolour I have. It continues to give me great pleasure, and you might be interested in the 'setting' in which I found her words.

In the meantime, many thanks for the prompt reply.

David Spence