Winter chills and Canberra poetry

In there is snow on the hills around Canberra.


Often we have quite cold nights, followed by chilly clear days with fine sunshine. On other days, it is typical winter gloom. Winter chill reminds me of a verse by Judith Wright set in Canberra called “Going outside”

I stepped out
into the day without thinking.
It rushed at me
took me by the throat
turned me back
and slammed the door after me.
—Blast you
can’t you ever remember your coat and gloves?

The verse is part of a larger poem, “Brief notes on Canberra.” Wright’s sharp, whimsical, observations of our city are very fine, though now a bit dated as Canberra has become much more diverse than when these verses were published in 1976, a year after I first came to Canberra as a student. Here’s the whole poem.

“Brief notes on Canberra” by Judith Wright, from Fourth Quarter, Angus and Robertson, 1976, pp. 15-21.

i. City and mirage

The tawny basin in the ring of hills
held nothing but the sunlight’s glaze,
a blue-blank opaline mirage,
sheep cropping, flies, the magpies’ warble.
Burley Griffin brimmed it with his gaze.

Cloud-architecture in reflected image:
arena, amphitheatre, gallery
on gallery of quivering marble,
rose from his mind – great circles, radials . . .
Over the clear-strung air his fingers played
conjuring a rhetorical opera-city
for that bald eagle, King O’Malley.

Fantasies of power. The grey sheep nibble,
dogs snap at flies. Shoddy officials
argue his job away, confuse his plan.
Mirages, changed to lakes, lap sewage.
Cities are made of man.

ii. Sculptures

Canberra’s sculptures are mostly
with cold metal claws –
waiting for handouts?

The one I like
has curves and no edges.
One sweeping closed line
describes that naiad.

Between the Reserve Bank
the Law Courts
the Police
and the insurance offices
she’s cleared a space for herself;

she has a small fountain
and never stops watching it.
Maybe she daren’t look up.

iii. Military aircraft

This basin in the hills
holds a lens of clear air.
Day looks down through it
like a blue-eyed jeweller.

Tiny invisible midges
draw over it
of glistening snot.

why don’t you wipe your eye?

iv. Nobody looks up

specializes in clouds –
great haughty ones
small frisky ones
marble acropolises
whiteheaded eagles
tableaux, processions,
galloping cavalry,
cottonwool snowscenes
with snowmen by Thurber.

They act so extravagantly
swirling their cloaks
and striking great poses –
Look at me. Look at me.

Canberra residents
don’t seem to find them strange, but
maybe the newspapers
ought to review them.

v. Oaks, etc.

It isn’t that I don’t like
European trees. Why, my great-grandfather came from . . .
Some of my best friends are . . .

But huddles together
in clumps and plantations
or lining the roads
like an official welcome
they look a bit lonely
slightly on guard, rather formal,
wishing the visit was over;

like the staff of an Embassy
at a party they don’t really trust.

vi. Going outside

I stepped out
into the day without thinking.

It rushed at me
took me by the throat
turned me back
and slammed the door after me.

– Blast you
can’t you ever remember your coat and gloves?

vii. Ecological comment

Considered as an ecosystem
Canberra is impossible.
No balance between input and output;
a monoculture community
whose energy goes entirely into organization.
Too little diversity
means instability
the scientists say.
No fooling.

Too many predators.
Too few producers.
Too little feedback
and very few refuges for prey species.

Somehow it continues to exist
as an ecological miracle.

Much as I love Judith Wright’s poetry, I think she was a bit hard on our city! A different take on the so-called ‘artificiality’ comes from poet and long-respected Canberra resident Michael Thwaites.

“Psalm for an Artificial City” by Michael Thwaites, Part V of “A place of meeting: glimpses of a national capital”, from The Honey man and other poems, 2d edn, Canberr Trendsetting ,1993, p. 26.

When enemies cry against you
with vipers’ tongues shooting malicious darts
sneering “unreal, alien, artificial”,
rejoice, be glad
grapple their empty slanders to your soul
and glory, glory in being artificial
as are those Aboriginal artefacts
strewn in your valleys, shaped by human hands
aeons before such things as cities were.
Rejoice, yours is a noble sisterhood
as artificial as the brick and marble
on Tiber’s seven hills, the Acropolis
wearing its Attic crown, Hangchou, the lake
man-made, the scholars’ garden, Xanadu,
or Arnold’s dreaming spires
where oxen found a place to ford the Thames.
Rejoice in man’s and nature’s partnership.
Be glad that from contending tongues of Babel
at length clear voices and wise choice prevailed,
that some, where others wavered, held their hope,
prophets of a wilderness that yet should flower.
Be glad that Burley Griffin,
before surveyor’s pegs, huts, buildings, highways,
long before fountain, lake that bears his name,
stood on this ground
lifted his eyes to the hills, sun, mist, and cloud,
the singing light, the beckoning Brindabellas
and willed his plan the servant not the master
of a chosen place.