Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mark's book on the Pilbara highly praised

Though this blog is mainly my comments on the sustainable population debate, I have written a dozen books of poetry about a great range of subjects. I have just been sent the URL of a website that contains an article by the talented poet Petra White about my recent book Pilbara.

You'll find it at

Here is part of it:

In Australia, Mark O’Connor has been consciously and explicitly writing what is now known as ecopoetry since the mid-seventies. O’Connor’s poetry, about the ecology of a number of Australia’s natural regions including the Great Barrier Reef, the top end, various forests, and most recently the Pilbara, has always had a distinctive multi-faceted approach to the natural world, going beyond mere ‘nature poetry’ and taking in science, philosophy, history and semiotics. He has always been concerned with ethics.
Sometimes I find him hard to read. There’s his ego-challenging tendency to focus on an insect or a flower, with little or no reference to Me or My Wretched Soul That Seeks A Mirror. Perhaps for this reason, O’Connor has always had a mixed reception in Australia. This is unfortunate: he is one of the best – and most radical – poets we have.
Pilbara is a book-length poem of a certain epic grandeur. The Pilbara, in northern Western Australia, has some of the world’s most ancient natural landscapes, dating back two billion years, and covering over 400,000 square kilometres. When O’Connor visited the Pilbara, he was accompanied by the geologist Andrew Glikson - a kind of Virgil, if you will, guiding him through the geological layers of the region, which at times expand to represent layers of human history, at other times not. Though Glikson, I should add, is hardly ever present as a character in this poem.
When I glanced at page 8, I thought I read ‘deep euphoric greens’ - and was quite excited by that description. It said, on second reading, ‘eutrophic greens’, meaning rich in nutrients. Such linguistic double-takes are not uncommon when reading O’Connor. On the same page, we have the ‘maria of the moon’ – referring to lava flows, not the madonna, but equally a source.
The poetry is highly visual: and there is often a sense of drama here that will be immediately familiar to us all from the many documentaries that prance across our 50-inch plasma screens. O’Connor is visually as vivid, and then some. And there is none of the voyeurism of the BBC camera. What is made in words is made for the first time. Early in the book, a Sturt Desert Rose is born and dies with intense drama.
Tough and refined,
of the watery family of hibiscus,
named ‘Rose’ in days
when folks still grew a single rose.
The cup’s petals, rigid but slanted aswirl,
syncopated flamingo
Ice-lavender, silk-laced thinness,
are this desert lady’s dowry;
her bridegroom, death, comes in the night;
no space for coyness.
She’s the ice-maiden who keeps
open as long as life lasts
to the hive’s brawling pandars,
the night’s hairy hucksters.
Her downward-tilted
cup of petalled crinoline
demurely skirts a deep, selective quest
too major to conceal.
Boldly the petal-struts shiver in boisterous breeze
that tests them to destruction.
The organs within must trust
their craft of moisture-stiffened veins
to sail that desert air.
Lavender ice-mantles, edge-on, can-can in the breeze.
Delicate veins and folded tissues
fence the inner purse and pollen trap.
If ever a bloom played semiotic games
this signals in human.
Fire, hoof and heat ensure
this beauty’s print is fugitive
as cudded fibre
on a camel’s tongue;
and soon must come the seeds.
So human brides make argosies of outlay.
Their cloth pavilions point and do not point
at ‘what they would have hit’, a trick
the cross-dressed, red-petalled bullfighter adores;
and her whirling petals semaphore
to where a single whorish thrust and quiver
gifts her the bee-borne gametes that will seed
the future’s dust.
As the last worker withdraws
her compound eye still points
to the nanoworld within:
a slow, bandaid-ish unpeeling
of spiral gene-bands that rebuild, re-join
to grasp the future in a heat-struck second
the carpel’s carpe diem.
One day old, job done,
all that butterfly frippery wilts;
the desert roses droop, dry-crumpled
litter underneath their bush;
the umbrella’s papery ribs,
that fought the desert’s trade-wind
blobs and wads of crinkled tissue
The flower here is being carefully constructed in language, which at the same time it throws off, and is allowed to throw off. While its petals may resemble ‘bridal silks’, it is the flower who is being compared to the bride, not the other way round. And the near awkwardness of such a comparison here, with a flower that seems almost monstrous, is surprisingly haunting.
This book has a classical sense of fate, an awe and respect for harshness and fragility. It is a book about time, survival, chance, beauty, the sublime, death, unintentional human cruelty, human indifference, limitation and folly. Much contemporary poetry tends to be more aware, or rather, more seeking of, our small place in the world. O’Connor assumes no such place. This is a world that is indifferent to us, yet vulnerable to being damaged by us. And at the same time we are part of it. Human influence on the land is described as something intricately caught up among all of the other possible environmental influences that this land has to make sense of.
‘Trucked Cattle’ has a kind of Greek chorus sung by cattle waiting in a truck by a campsite. The truck is being repaired and the cattle have no water, and will have none. The ‘motif’ of ‘Earth’ as a character, or source of primal music, ‘Earth creaking like an old ship’s timbers’, pops up throughout the book, and here, the cattle’s cry is an ‘earth-shudder’. Like the earth/landscape/geology that forms a backdrop that is imperfectly noticed if at all, the cries of the cattle are on a register that isn’t experienced by the campers. The pack mentality of the cattle is mirrored in the pack mentality of the surrounding humans, who are all going about their business. There are so many ways in which the reader of this poem can hear the cattles’ cry: not just a cry of ‘bad human’, or a cry to become a vegetarian. The cry is on many levels other than this. It reverberates throughout this magnificent book.

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