REVIEW by KIERAN FINNANE
“Dew and broken glass” – the title immediately suggests a collection that will explore the poles of experience.
Left: Penny Drysdale with Amelia Turner who helped launch her book. Photo courtesy Christabella Baranay.
The cover photograph situates us. We are not just in the desert, we are inside a rusting car wreck in the desert. It frames a perspective. It is the carapace that will sit on the writer’s shoulders as she sets out. The broken glass belongs to the wreck, the dew to the moments of redemption she will find as she struggles free of it.
Through the poems Penny Drysdale steadily builds a more complex understanding of how she sees that wreckage, adding image upon image, moment upon moment.
It is both personal and political. It is a strength of this collection that she does not separate the two.
We “newcomers” – as Drysdale identifies herself from her very first poem – do not arrive in this country as innocents. We come inside our own skins, the layers of our individual histories and the layers of our privilege as inheritors of colonial dispossession.
All this has to peel away, like a tree shedding its bark – to use an image that Drysdale offers more than once – to get to a place where things can be experienced with more immediacy, more openness.
The heat helps, but not gently, and Drysdale does this well, prostrate on a couch, feeling “old skin coming loose”. But this is no easy liberation. She’s there “too heavy to boil” and her prostration leaves her unable to write.
Some of that heaviness comes from the writer’s acutely developed social conscience and her refusal to detach herself personally from a sense of responsibility.
We are there in the third poem, “rock”. She sketches in the lines of what she can know about what she sees all around her – her focus is on Aboriginal people, “how it was” for them before any newcomers came, their losses at the hands of the newcomers, and then her own hapless place in that lineage, as a fixer who doesn’t know how to even begin, and who doesn’t want to recognise her own position as a kind of “conqueror” – “imposing words into that silent/ open space/ that is/ not mine”.
Some might see this as too simple, too much dew in the pre-colonial sketch, and only broken glass coming afterwards, but what Drysdale is doing here is setting up the movement forward for the whole collection, which traces the difficult thinking through of who she is in this context, why she is here, what kind of relationship she can have with this country and with its First People. Necessarily the thinking starts in somewhat simplistic terms. There is not enough experience for it to be otherwise.
What follows is about that steady accumulation of experience. She is hungry for it and for knowledge and understanding, at each step of the way, keeping an eye on herself – for much of the book a rather unforgiving eye.
At the seventh poem, “Along the river”, we find the image that gives the collection its title, the “dew and broken glass” that she encounters as she walks “along the river”. There is not much dew, just the drops on “a spider web as small as a baby’s fist”. Overwhelmingly, in the poem, the river is a site of wreckage, the broken glass and all the other detritus of drinking, setting the stage for the ultimate act of wreckage, the killing of a black man by five white men.
We learn in Drysdale’s Afterword that this was actually the first poem she wrote after arriving in Alice Springs in 2010. So it was written after the tragic event to which it refers but under the heavy weight of its apparent articulation of “what’s wrong” in this country. This, we also learn in the Afterword, was a preoccupation for Drysdale right from the beginning, when she heard in a fledgling butcher bird’s two-note call that repeated question, “what’s wrong? what’s wrong?”
The poem is fed by her acute sense of the black man’s mother’s bereavement – a stark truth that can have no qualification. However the poem does draw that truth into a broader framework, historically and politically, and, in poetic terms, does it skilfully by marshalling all the detritus into a bitter white symphony:
“… all these plastic bags are white | ghosts flapping | glass broken | dew drying | a white plastic spoon twisted | a white milk bottle drained | a white ballon so small / deflated | still tied to a white cord frayed with fear | and fear rising // like a white fence paling …”
Above: Drysdale reading at the launch.
I have written at some length in my book (Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia) about the core event of this poem and the emphases of my account fall differently, guided as they are by a completely different process. Drysdale’s poem is a deeply affecting lamentation of its tragedy and of all the ways in which we, white and black, newcomers and ancient country, remain strangers to one another.
There are ways in which we are not, though. Many of the poems which follow are the evidence of this. Of this woman, this writer, and others alongside her – she often writes of “us” and “we” – reaching across the divisions, actively and imaginatively, and being met, at least to some extent, by the country and by its First People.
On that side of the divide, two figures are particularly important: one, in “little gifts”, is the small boy with chubby fingers and unsteady on his feet, who brings things to her, one after the other, in the way that small children can so touchingly do. Between each gift she returns to her circling of the woundedness and estrangement she sees all around her but eventually he brings her into the present and the gifts do their work – “the way a smile // expands / on one face / then another”
The second figure is Aboriginal poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, whom Drysdale quotes in her epigraph to the poem, “a song cycle of palinodes”:
“Things will never change for Aboriginal people in this country unless whitefellas forgive yourselves for what you have done and open the doors to a shared sense of belonging. It is not up to us to forgive you …”
Drysdale wrestles with this through a ten-step cycle; the last two steps go like this:
“ix // never / forgive / yourself //
“x // always / keep / trying / to forgive / yourself”
That’s what a palinode is, proposition and counter-proposition, but that’s also the truth of the process, a long drawn out backwards and forwards of coming into consciousness so that you know what it is that you must forgive yourself for.
This is now getting towards the end of the collection – at page 75 of 91 – and there have been many intervening poems that are the steps along the way: the weight is heavily towards “torn flesh” and “the sound of howling” but there is also the dawning realisation that “we too / are milk” (in “Flesh and milk”).
The milk is in human resilience – personified as the two sisters, in the poem of that title, still standing in the baked-dry claypan, torn up by “dark hungry shapes”. The milk is also in our capacity to reach out to one another – personified by the old lady (Margaret Kemarre Turner) of the final poem who sings up the sun and then jokes with it and equally by, it must be said, the poet who lies there in her swag and tunes in to this song.
Note: This is a slightly expanded version of Kieran Finnane’s launch speech.
Dew and Broken Glass
Recent Work Press