Native: A Poetry Playlist

Words by
Daisy Beattie
Images by
Georgina Reid
| June 16, 2014

As I gathered poems for this month’s poetry playlist, I also prepared to go abroad for a few months. I found myself hanging out of car windows, gazing at eucalyptus trees and thinking wistfully of how much I’ll miss them. Patrick White once described them as more of a state of mind than a tree, which I have found to be true. Iconic native plants are part of who I am. I am most at home in the bush, or when I can see the fluid, moon bark of a eucalyptus tree from a window, or smell the hot powder of winter wattle on my way home. Many Australian artists and poets still choose to draw inspiration from other places, always thinking of Australia as rugged and plain, which saddens me. So this collection of poems is all about native plants and landscapes, may we always admire them.

1. I came across a rather quaint book of wildflower poetry in my local library, discovering a few Australian poets who would otherwise have remained unknown to me. I loved this poem because dusk is my favorite time of day, especially in this country where there is so much colour to be found, even in the fading of light in the trees.

On Australian Hills
Ada Cambridge

Oh, to be there to-night!
To see that rose of sunset flame and fade
On ghostly mountain height,
The soft dusk gathering each leaf and blade
From the departing light,
Each tree-fern feather of the wildwood glade.
From arid streets to pass
Down those green aisles where golden wattles bloom,
Over the fragrant grass,
And smell the eucalyptus in a gloom
That is as clear as glass,
The dew-fresh scents of bracken and of broom . . .

(The rest of the poem can be read here)

2. There is an interesting history of botanical exploits in Australia. From the very beginning of colonization, botanists were collecting, pressing, drawing and naming our native plants with great interest. It is sad that so many of the local indigenous names were not recorded and are not used today. I like that this poem pokes fun at the way scientists interact with plants. I’ve always thought it rather crude to name such a perfect and beautiful thing as a plant after a person.

Botany Bay Flowers
Barron Field

GOD of this Planet! for that name best fits
The purblind view, which men of this “dim spot”
Can take of THEE, the GOD Of Suns and Spheres!
What desart forests, and what barren plains,
Lie unexplor’d by European eye,
In what our Fathers call’d the Great South Land!
Ev’n in those tracts, which we have visited,
Tho’ thousands of thy vegetable works
Have, by the hand of Science (as ’tis call’d)
Been gather’d and dissected, press’d and dried,
Till all their blood and beauty are extinct;
And nam’d in barb’rous Latin, men’s surnames,
With terminations of the Roman tongue;
Yet tens of thousands have escap’d the search,
The decimation, the alive-impaling,
Nick-naming of GOD’S creatures — ‘scap’d it all.
Still fewer (perhaps none) of all these
 have been by Poet sung. Poets are few,
And Botanists are many, and good cheap.

When first I landed on AUSTRALIA’S Shore,
(I neither Botanist nor Poet truly,
But less a Seeker after Facts than Truth),
A flower gladden’d me above the rest,
Shap’d trumpet-like, which from a palmy stalk
Hung clust’ring, hyacinthine, crimson red
Melting to white. Botanic Science calls
The plant epacris grandiflora, gives
Its class, description, habitat, then draws
A line.

(The rest of this poem can be read here).

3. This is one of my own poems. If you don’t know of scribbly gums, do look them up. Most Australians will remember their scrawled messages, but perhaps do not know what caused them.

Love Letters
Daisy Beattie   

I saw the pale bark with a new grey heart
enclosing our scraggled initials
the gum skin bled our names
amongst the other healing declarations
afterwards I felt you, knew you
as though you had carved it into me
writing inside me, your love letters
each word traveling
like scribbly moths in my skin

4. I just love how patriotic this poem is.

Waratah and Wattle
Henry Lawson

Though poor and in trouble I wander alone,
With rebel cockade in my hat,
Though friends may desert me, and kindred disown,
My country will never do that!
You may sing of the Shamrock, the Thistle, the rose,
Or the three in a bunch, if you will;
But I know of a country that gathered all those,
And I love the great land where the Waratah grows.
And the Wattle-bough blooms on the hill.

Australia! Australia! so fair to behold-
While the blue sky is arching above;
The stranger should never have need to be told,
That the Wattle-bloom means that her heart is of gold.
And the Waratah’s red with her love.

Australia! Australia! most beautiful name,
Most kindly and bountiful land;
I would die every death that might save her from shame,
If a black cloud should rise on the stand;
But whatever the quarrel, whoever her foes,
Let them come! Let them come when they will!
Though the struggle be grim, ’tis Australia that knows
That her children shall fight while the Waratah grows,
And the Wattle blooms out on the hill.

5. A sadder poem this time, but nonetheless beautiful.

Sturt’s Desert Pea
Kate Llewellyn 

Swainsona formosa

Blood, flower and tears
made one.
Red tears of the desert.
When Philippa knelt
at the prostrate plant on the sand
we’d joyfully found 
her silk scarf
 the black and red flowers
a thousand miles inland,
I remembered
she’d knelt on the pavement
beside her son
when he fell like a star
from the window.
How his blood bloomed.
Francesca his sister
recognised his big feet
sprawled still as flowers.

6. And lastly, another Judith Wright poem, again an ode to wattle. There is something so wonderful about the way Australia is never without flowers, even in the dead of winter, wattle lights up the landscape.

The Wattle Tree
Judith Wright  

The tree knows four truths –
earth, water, air and the fire of the sun.
The tree holds four truths in one.
Root, limb and leaf unfold
out of the seed and these rejoice
till the tree dreams it has a voice
to join four truths in one great world of gold.

-Oh that I knew that word!
I should cry loud, louder than any bird.
Oh let me live for ever, I would cry.
For that word makes immortal what would wordless die;
and perfectly, and passionately,
welds love and time into the seed,
till tree renews itself and is for ever tree –

Then upward from the earth
and from the water,
Then inward from the air
and the cascading light
poured gold, till the tree trembled with its flood.

Now from the world’s four elements I make
my immortality;  it shapes within the bud.
Yes, now I bud, and at last I break
into the truth I had no voice to speak:
into a million images of the Sun, my God.