Saturday, October 31, 2015

'This last wild place': Michael Dransfield on heritage, race, technology and landscape

Some years ago I was on a Michael Dransfield mission, having heard a poem of his that I was sure referred to Woomera. I found it eventually after trawling through many volumes of his work. Here it is, from his Collected Poems, published in 1987.

Dransfield dug deep into ideas around heritage, race, technology and landscape. Readers may be struck by his use of a term, once common enough, that is fortunately no longer acceptable in referring to Aboriginal people in Australia. There would be nothing in this poem that is left to chance, and I presume to read this as a comment on the deep legacy of colonialist racism, as well as the impacts of alienation from country. The Army weapons range referred to must, of course, be Woomera

Little has changed, you might think, in the thirty years or so since this was published.


When your skin is worn away
by wind, by time, like the MacDonnell Ranges,
what will emerge
what will be left to face the sun?
Worthless quartz stripped back
may reveal an opal. But you are an island,
your shores are fences built by foreign cash,
you are ripped into beef roads and investments;
the abos move to the cites, their homesickness
cauterised by cheap wine and promises of jobs.
Speculators will ruin this last wild place,
few will protest, for profit eases consciences.
In thirty years
there will be nothing to distinguish this
from mined and gutted countries anywhere.
Our leaders will betray us, sell our heritage,
what remains is not worth stealing,
and so becomes an Army weapons range.

As always, I could write a lot about these images from a historical and landscape perspective, but I will leave their interpretation to you, dear reader. 

Albert Namatjira, Mount Sonder, MacDonnell Ranges c.1957-59
Watercolour and pencil on paper. National Gallery of Australia

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