LAUNCHING SPEECH FOR THE BARRIER RANGE BY RAY LIVERSIDGE, 30/7/06
Readers of Ray Liversidge's The Barrier Range are in for a merry ride.
Reading the book-poem & the poems in the book over the past month has provided me with a kind of nostalgia for a time in my own literary life, the 1970s, when the poets I spent time with, Robert Kenny, Walter Billeter, John Jenkins, Finola Moorhead, John Anderson, Clive Faust, Bernie O'Regan, others, like Ken Taylor, around the edges, mischievously named the Rushall Crescent Avant-Garde, also disported with history, or the idea of history, in various writing --poetry, prose-fiction...
A small poem such as B is for Burke, from the section, The Aussie Oregon Trail, reminds me of the way poets extract from document those language elements which engage us as poets on the level of very serious play. Thus :
B is for Burke
"Have any of you blokes seen my cup?
(--and can I interject here : "Have any of you blokes seen my cup?" could so easily substitute for the major questions at the heart of the multi-faceted book's expedition--)
"Have any of you blokes seen my cup?
It's white with a black B on it."
(--which immediately throws up another Australian narrative --"white with a black B on it" --but that'll have to be someone else's paper!)
Becker : "No."
Beckler : "No."
Brahe : "No."
Bowman : "No."
Belooch : "No."
Boocha : "Phhhhtt."
Whose cup hasnt got a B on it?!
Recall James McAulay's Terra Australis, the opening verse (before the poem becomes an extension of sentimental description) :
"Voyage within you, on the fabled ocean,
And you will find that Southern Continent,
Quiros' vision -- his hidalgo heart
And mythical Australia, where reside
All things in their imagined counterpart."
Australian poetry has always looked for the cup with B on it!
At the beginning of my reading of the book another B occurred to me --it belongs to Richard Brautigan in The Confederate General from Big Sur, another fantastical play with history or elements thereof, where civil-war guns are lined up & trained upon the advancing enemy and the bullets pierce the dear human flesh and proceed to chip the statues which, in the apparently concurrent future, memorialize this terrible event.
Although Ray Liverside's book contains history it isnt straight --so though it might sit alongside Jordie Albiston's or Susan Kruss's documentaries, e.g., The Barrier Range is something else again.
Here's another B for you --John Barth in his rolicking 17thCentury frolic, The Sot-Weed Factor : "Lest it be objected by a certain stodgy variety of squint-minded antiquarians that he has in this lengthy history played fast & loose(....) the Author here posits in advance(....)we all invent our pasts, more or less, as we go, at the dictates of Whim & Interest; the happenings of former times are a clay in the present moment that, will-we, nill-we, the lot of us must sculpt..."
Preceding The Barrier Range is Ray's first published collection, Obeying the Call. The Barrier Range is a project, a whole book, a novel if you like, whose many headed narrative proceeds in verse & prose more or less cohesively, whereas Obeying the Call is the proverbial slim collection whose thematic segments dont discourage its miscellaneous feel.
The title, however, is a significant lead for the reading of The Barrier Range. (I say the reading and not necessarily the composition, because the order in which books are published doesnt always reflect their chronology.)
In the first book's title poem, the call is found in "a ritual forged / By four generations of men // and borne by every father's son." It's a genetic call --farming, in the detail of the poem, is almost by the by. Forming is what's essential. For Ray Liversidge, this forming, this shaping is all bound up with the will of men. In The Barrier Range, the external journeying leads to nowhere & nothing, no inland sea, no Edenic prosperity --but it bequeaths a language, a psychology, a culture, a myth.
An adjacent poem, in Obeying the Call, actually invokes "Sturt's inland sea" and has a mother figure "defying myth" / "she turns and looks out to sea, desert at her back." As benevolent recipient of male correspondence and, in an incredible sequence in his book, as malevolent counterpoint, she exists, but She is neither the issue nor the tissue of The Barrier Range.
The Barrier Range is where Ray Liversidge will do his duty --the most primitive of all for a male poet --he'll tell the originary story --it will be his story --it will be an originary Australian story --it will be a founding myth --(in this case, Burke & Wills with Sturt's expedition thrown in for good measure)... He will inscribe himself there, a living ghost, a time-traveller. He will situate his family there, especially the uncle to whom the book is dedicated --the uncle of mystery as the poet is the son of history. This history, the poet will contend, is my story --so history & mystery, my-story & his-story, will meld in this poetry, this experimental autobiography, The Barrier Range.
As may be obvious from my accent, I was never a school-child in Australia! I didnt, therefore, grow up with Burke & Wills! But I might be the only person in this room to have stood beside the statue raised in honour of Tom Wills in Totnes, South Devon --a son of Devon who perished on the famous Australian expedition... Bethatasitmay, Ray Liversidge's book is the only history I've read of Burke & Wills --Ray of course --and a quick glance at the bibliography will confirm it --has read everything ever written on Burke & Wills and Sturt & co!
So, what do we have to consider? Poetry & history?
Charles Olson, whose Maximus Poems revolves about the history, backwards & forwards, of Gloucester, Massachusetts, famously said "It is a difficult thing to both poet & historian"... Olson taught his students & fellow poets to begin with what they knew, where they were, to place themselves at the centre of knowledge --of which the poem was an investigation. Of course this human subject was a spiritual & imaginative proposition and not simply the weight of a particular proportion of skin & bones!
But --whoahhhhh! --let me put the brakes on here! --pull this history wagon up to a grinding halt! Burke & Wills & co, Sturt & etc & etc... Yes -- but to quote Little Britain, yes but/no but...
For all the historical documentation --the quotes from Burke & Wills, from Becker & Beckler, from Sturt, from Ernest Giles & so on, for all of that primary material there is another strand of documentation, a parallel text as it were --drawn from the poets & writers, Australian & otherwise --and so impressive is this text that the notion of The Barrier Range as a journey through a literary idea and not only an historical one, begins to grow upon one. Burke & Wills, Becker & all the heroic dramatis personae, are joined, mirrored perhaps, in the world of this book, in the world made by this book, this literary construction. They are joined by an equally heroic company --and I'm happy to call them and to obey their call :
There is Patrick White & Voss, of course;
Gerald Murnane & The Plains --"I've spent my life trying to see my own place as the end of a journey I never made."
There's Ron Simpson;
T.S.Eliot several times, e.g., "the river is within us / the sea is all about us";
John Shaw Neilson, that "Mallarme of the Mallee";
Martin Johnston --and what a line from The Blood Aquarium does Liversidge enroll : "even your compassion stinks of libraries"...
(It's a paradox, which that precocious book-worm knew very well, --do poets really want to pretend that books arent part of the matter they dig daily?)
There's Coleridge's "water, water, everywhere / nor any drop to drink";
Peter Porter courting sun,
Philip Salom courting sky.
There's Howard Nemerov on landscape & language;
C. J. Dennis;
Ian McBryde courting desert;
and Philip Hodgins from The Dispossessed in a quote that could be both epigraph & epitath,
"The sun was almost sitting on the road
ahead of them, like some apocalypse
they'd soon be coming to";
though it's Eliot, again, who probably takes the laurel :
"we shall not cease from explorations
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time"
So, let me try to make something of this structural & thematic juxtaposition...
Ray Liversidge has a family story to tell --he's an ancestral poet, a poet of historical time & place. He is a poet who reads, who is inspired by literature, for whom literature is a fund of ideas as much as it is of imagery. He is a poet on a mission, and I dont want to describe what should keep for your reading as an intriguing & perhaps black sheep mystery, but it is this poet's mission to memorialise the uncle just as his book adds a sheen to Australian myth's existing statuary.
I give you, then, Ray Liversidge's The Barrier Range, wonderfully published by Flat Chat Press through Fee Sievers' excellent eye for unique & deserving poetry projects... I've said nothing of John Olsen & his image for the cover, but that's another tale...
I have great pleasure in declaring this book launched!
[Launching held at the Artery, Fitzroy; Sunday, July 30th, 2006.]