Personal Choice 61
The Old Prison
The rows of cells are unroofed,
a flute for the wind's mouth,
who comes with a breath of ice
from the blue caves of the south.
O dark and fierce day:
the wind like an angry bee
hunts for the black honey
in the pits of the hollow sea.
Waves of shadow wash
the empty shell bone-bare,
and like a bone it sings
a bitter song of air.
Who built and laboured here?
The wind and the sea say
-Their cold nest is broken
and they are blown away-
They did not breed nor love,
each in his cell alone
cried as the wind now cries
through this flute of stone.
With a lot of poetry lovers and those who have felt the enormous influence of Judith Wright on their own work as I have - why she was never considered for the Nobel Prize for literature will always remain a literary tragedy. The Old Prison is just a magnificent poem and example of her work.
Many years ago, I made a sentimental journey to Wollomombi in New England, NSW. Wollomombi was the home of Judith Wright whose origins go back to the first settlement in the Hunter Valley in the 1820s. I called in to the tourist information centre in Armidale to try and get the exact directions to her farm and where the home might have been. The tourist officer was able to direct me to Wollomombi but had no idea (and nor did anyone else in the office) who Judith Wright was! That morning I found the place and the first eight exquisite lines of her poem.
South Of My Days
South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite-
clean, lean, hungry country. The creek's leaf-silenced,
willow choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crab-apple
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.
O cold the black-frost night. The walls draw in to the warmth
and the old roof cracks its joints; the slung kettle
hisses a leak on the fire. Hardly to be believed that summer
will turn up again some day in a wave of rambler-roses,
thrust it's hot face in here to tell another yarn-
a story old Dan can spin into a blanket against the winter.
Seventy years of stories he clutches round his bones.
Seventy years are hived in him like old honey.
Droving that year, Charleville to the Hunter,
nineteen-one it was, and the drought beginning;
sixty head left at the McIntyre, the mud round them
hardened like iron; and the yellow boy died
in the sulky ahead with the gear, but the horse went on,
stopped at Sandy Camp and waited in the evening.
It was the flies we seen first, swarming like bees.
Came to the Hunter, three hundred head of a thousand-
cruel to keep them alive - and the river was dust.
Or mustering up in the Bogongs in the autumn
when the blizzards came early. Brought them down; we
brought them down, what aren't there yet. Or driving for Cobb's
on the run up from Tamworth-Thunderbolt at the top of Hungry Hill,
and I give him a wink. I wouldn't wait long, Fred,
not if I was you. The troopers are just behind,
coming for that job at the Hillgrove.
He went like a luny, him on his big black horse.
Oh, they slide and they vanish
as he shuffles the years like a pack of conjuror's cards.
True or not, it's all the same; and the frost on the roof
cracks like a whip, and the back-log break into ash.
Wake, old man. This is winter, and the yarns are over.
No-one is listening
South of my days' circle
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.
Judith Wright (1915 - 2000) was a prolific Australian poet, critic, and short-story writer, who published more than 50 books. Wright was also an uncompromising environmentalist and social activist campaigning for Aboriginal land rights. She believed that the poet should be concerned with national and social problems. At the age of 85, just before her death, she attended in Canberra at a march for reconciliation with Aboriginal people.