By KIERAN FINNANE
Updated 6 March 2018, 3.52pm
If Bertha James had not married a famous man she would probably not be remembered other than by her family and friends, despite her many qualities and achievements. A series of photographs, taken by that same famous man in 1936, have helped assert her presence. They were Leni Shilton’s starting point for her recently-released verse novel, written in the course of doctoral studies in creative writing at Southern Cross University.
It was one photo in particular, reproduced above (courtesy Strehlow Research Centre), that drew her attention, showing Bertha in a stretcher strapped to the side of a camel. She was obviously not well but smiling nonetheless, in warm, trusting exchange with the man behind the camera. He was Ted (TGH) Strehlow, on his way to being the famous (and finally controversial) man – as linguist, translator, author, public intellectual, collector.
At the time Shilton knew little of his work; her response to the photo and her questions about it arose from her own sensibilities and life experience – as a woman living in Central Australia, as a mother, having her children and raising them in The Centre, as a nurse and educator who has worked and continues to work with Aboriginal people and in remote Aboriginal communities, and as a poet whose concerns have often focussed on domestic life, whether around a campfire or in and around her home of many years in Alice Springs. Her poems have been most frequently peopled by mothers and children, their lives in rhythm with the desert, its gifts, its exactions seen at an intimate scale.
Walking with Camels – the Story of Bertha Strehlow is in this territory, though for the greater part children are the object of longing and their loss through miscarriage the source of Bertha’s anguish. Shilton’s attention to these events (four miscarriages in the first four years of Bertha’s marriage with Ted) works against the epic scale of the TGH Strehlow story and reins in the vast sweep of their honeymoon trip in the desert to the walking pace of their camel string, the walls of their tent at night, their camps.
Right: Leni Shilton at the launch of her book. She is standing in front of one of the camel boxes made by TGH for the honeymoon journey.
The cold of the desert winter nights, the coming and going of light, the tasks of domestic life like hair-cutting, washing, cooking, packing and unpacking, make their appearance again and again, as do the billy, basin, kettle, swag. These are the markers of the journey, alongside changes in the landscape, occasional exchanges with their Aboriginal travelling companions (notable for Bertha’s placid reception of them, e.g. “Reading the sand”, “Kungkaarrangkalpa”) and a growing awareness of her husband’s work and temperament – which take him a long way from her even as she follows: “I see him in my mind’s eye at his happiest / as a dot in the landscape by a small fire; / note book in one hand, and pen in the other.” (“Rage”.) This image comes after her perplexity at his “rage against God and man” separating him “from the rest of us”.
Although Shilton is venturing inside this marriage, we are mostly held back, at the edge of the camp as it were. Though the verse novel is a work of imagination, this reticence seems to be out of fidelity to her source material. Apart from the literature on TGH Strehlow and the materials held in the vast Strehlow Research Centre archive, Shilton had access to Bertha’s letters, through her son John, and the Notes to the poems reveal that Bertha was silent on the subject of her miscarriages – he husband’s journals were more direct. This is in keeping with the mores of the time which Shilton only gently prods. Bertha’s first pregnancy is a “condition”: “I hadn’t told him / but he knows when my breakfast / comes up morning after morning” (“Morning sick”). The threat of miscarriage is described as being “unwell” (“Mt McCulloch”); her body “drains/ life away” (“Camping East of Mt Philips”), she is “bleeding life” (“Nothing”). She is stoic all the while, remarkably so. At the same time, as she loses this baby she becomes more aware of the country and life around her and of its hold over her husband, something she can never fully share (“Camping East of Mt Philips”).
This distance shifts after the miscarriage: “Beauty” attests to a newfound closeness between them, as they grieve their lost baby, confess old sins, realise how utterly dependent they are on one another, and as Ted tends to her, washing her blood-stained towels in the waterhole – “There is no one else.” There is a disparity here between the poem and the Notes, which reveal that the couple thought Bertha was dying, on top of which their food supplies were running low; the whole situation was looking grim. The only hint of this in the poem is that they “pray / that God will save us”, but this is a a permanent state of affairs in Christian prayer. Shilton stays with the external calmness that Bertha displayed in her letters.
This continues into the next poem, four days later, “At the waterhole”, when Bertha continues to bleed, explicit in the poem but matched by her determination to get well and her affirmation of Ted’s “sensible” belief that they will have other babies. There’s no fear, although the Notes refer to the “very real” threat of death for Bertha, the absence of options to get her to medical help, the statistics on the rate of maternal death in the Northern Territory, then twice as high as in the rest of the country. What does make itself felt strongly is her grief over the lost baby and the loneliness of it, as Ted stays busy making the stretcher that will carry her back.
The next poem though, “If I speak from under the earth” does venture into death’s domain. It’s a prose-poem, the only one of this volume, and seems to invite more delving than Shilton’s pared back verse style. Bertha imagines “the desert a red beast over me”, but she doesn’t stay there long, drawn back to life by the country itself, not only its sensations and forms but by what she has learnt during the journey, that the desert is “owned; spoken for”, shaped by “the ancestors walking, making stories”, that the country is “crying” for its people. She dwells also in her own body, aware that the shape of it “lying in the sand makes valleys for the colonies of ants. Mica specks shine on my skin: this is the moment I love, the desert warm on me; the day slow, I sleep.” But with the cold and dark of night, dread returns: “The desert is its own animal, alone and desperate. Enough it snarls, barely glancing at me as it performs its night ritual.”
From here to the end of the chapter the poems maintain this movement between the threat of death and the country’s life-giving experiences, including its people’s knowledge: “The women … give me herbs, / and it is from / their land that I am saved.” It is also driven home to the reader just how adventurous Bertha was to undertake this journey, when Shilton reminds us that she was the first white woman to see Ayers Rock (Uluru).
Left: Bertha at Jay Creek. Courtesy Strehlow Research Centre.
This was far from the end of the hardiness of body and mind demanded of Bertha by her marriage with Ted. The next chapter treats the years she spent alongside him at Jay Creek mission, initially living in tents under a bough shelter. Ted’s preoccupation with his work and disregard for Bertha’s needs are increasingly felt, foreshadowing the eventual end of their marriage. From this perspective, inside the strained marriage, Shilton identifies the personal cost to his wife of the great man’s work with a poem audaciously titled “Songs of Central Australia”. This, of course, is also the title of TGH Strehlow’s magnum opus on Arrernte sacred poetry, a landmark work of Australian literature. Shilton is not staking any kind of literary claim here, but uses the title to propel into the foreground the life of the wife, the nature of this partnership. The songs Bertha hears are those of the daily life around her, the wailing of mourning, the mournfulness of Lutheran hymns, the German missionaries’ exhortations, her own solitary voice in what is probably a rare private moment, the song of birds.
Again, with this poem, there is a disparity between what is on the page and what the Notes say about its intention, which is to acknowledge the work done by Bertha in support of TGH’s Songs – the typing and editing she did while at Jay Creek and later in Adelaide, for which she was never acknowledged. It does point to the importance of reading the Notes, as well as the chronology, to gain the complete picture that Shilton is offering us of Bertha’s story.
The final chapter covers a span of 45 years, 1942-1987, actually going beyond Bertha’s death in 1984, although it’s not clear from the poems why, as they end with Ted’s death in 1978, Bertha’s sadness at the news, and grief for her own losses in their failed marriage. Even as the distance becomes irrevocable between them, Shilton’s Bertha holds onto their time in the desert and particularly that momentous journey with camels when “love was our food and shelter” (“Camel memories”). The desert is also present in her dreams and felt in her body, as distinct from its association with her marriage – she wonders if she’ll ever be able to wash it away (“Traces”).
However, given the attention Shilton pays to Bertha’s miscarriages and her longing for children, it is a surprising that the three who lived, born between 1942 and 1946, and Bertha’s mothering of them are not more distinctly evoked. This final chapter, relatively brief, is instead pervaded by yearning for what might have been in her marriage. It is kind by omission towards Ted, whose behaviour in reality was cruel and treacherous, including by disinheriting Bertha and their children, as we learn to a degree in the Notes (and more fully in Barry Hill’s Broken Song). Shilton’s Bertha speaks of Ted becoming “even hateful” (“Camel memories”) but she expresses scarcely any anger; she allows some harshness to surface, thinking of Ted’s new young wife, but immediately tempers it with tenderness and a sense of herself as one of the women in his life, alongside presumably this second wife and pointedly Ted’s mother. A terrible sense of shame is evoked in the poem “Separation”, but the lasting impression is of Bertha’s enduring painful regret.
The final poem, “The gramophone II”, reaches back to “The gramophone” of the first chapter, when in May, 1936 the newly-wed couple are still at Hermannsburg Mission ahead of setting out to walk with camels, and they dance. Then it was the desert that loomed for Bertha as a world she couldn’t imagine; ultimately though, in Shilton’s poignant telling, it was the man she married who remained unknowable to her, unreachable.
Walking with Camels – the Story of Bertha Strehlow by Leni Shilton is published by UWA Publishing as part of its poetry series. UWAP’s Terri-ann White expressed her interest in the work after hearing Shilton read from it at last year’s NT Writers Festival in Alice Springs. The book was launched at The Residency on 24 February.