A poet and critic, Martin Harrison lives in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales. He teaches poetry and poetics at University of Technology, Sydney. The recipient of numerous Australia Council Fellowships (including residencies in Italy and the USA), his most recent collection Summer was shortlisted for the 2002 New South Wales Premier’s Award for Poetry and won the 2002-3 Wesley Michel Wright Award. A collection of essays on writing, contemporary criticism and issues in recent Australian poetry, Who Wants To Create Australia? is due in 2004.
Harrison's poetry deals in moments, accesses and charts the spaces between seeing and knowing, hearing and understanding, feeling and experiencing, at each moment developing a complex but accessible engagement with the nature of perception and the intricacies and interstices language creates. Grounded in landscape, Harrison's poetry often develops through narrative or direct commentary on either poetry or politics into a close examination of how the speaker comes to understand the world, or perhaps more exactly, how the speaker comes to the world, not simply how he experiences land, poetry and politics, but how perception alters those experiences (perhaps, those 'facts'), and drives a far-reaching and finely tuned consciousness back upon itself, its own mechanisms, allowing a sense of the speaker to evolve as integrated within the world's flux and flow. It is often through this recognition (and it is within Harrison's poems that cognition is seen to begin again and deepen) that the speaker gains access to a deeper experience of being and the world, of the integration of the two and such integration's inverse, the spaces of separation that determine and delimit:
('Late Western Thought', from Summer)
You'll see none of this clearly till later.
(There was your own looking, walking to account for.)
The pigeons, the horse, the crickets, the swamp-gums were just there,
secretly communicative in
every direction like a place where paths, meandering, at last meet.
Harrison's lines often seem to follow the meandering trajectory of this last line. It's difficult to interrupt Harrison's speakers, to draw out a simple and single quote, as each line comes to form a path in a nexus of paths. Harrison's poetry is remarkable for the wholeness of its thought and expression, as though each line presented a neural pathway of a single system of thought, balanced and focused, able with ease and an at times deliciously fecund relation to the world, to cast off the shadows of both world and language, the negativity that inhabits each, and give it as an almost physical presence.
While closely attuned to the fluidity of temporality and perception, memory is a constant concern in Harrison's work, and traces a backbone to an otherwise shimmering world of creation in process and perception. Narratives from errant travelers or drawn from family history, lend a very human edge to a poetry often closely engaged with the difficult terrain of phenomenology and perception. Harrison's keen use of narratives, keeps his poetry from drifting too far into the abstract or conceptual, from becoming too much about language at the cost of experience. Take for example, the movement from narrative to the conception of narrative, from nostalgia to a dissection of nostalgia, from memory to cognition, where each point of departure cleanly defines and is defined by its point of return:
('Letter from America', in Summer)
In my mid-teens,
my father, bored with his business,
used to take me driving with him on his
rounds across the north of England: he was
drumming up trade for his imported
Spanish wines – Alellas, rich Riojas, and my
still favourite green ones, vino verde or
verdelho. In the glove compartment, there
were the poets he'd always liked – Eliot, bitter
Larkin and the Welshmen, Vernon Scannel
and Thomas (R.S.). He took them out at
roadside stops. Back home at night, he jotted screeds
of 'nature poetry.' He called it doing the accounts.
Sincerely, he hoped I'd do more, with more success:
but "study money, not poetry" was his long-lived, bleak
advice. In his 80s now, his steady observation:
"I've given up making sense of things. Work only
for yourself." A palimpsest is what's scraped away:
a scraping which reveals a trace, a 'beneath' that's covered
over with new scrawl. Are memories like that trace?
It could be so, but they are more like waves, a
patterning of dots, invasive, darting, spacious.
Like dominoes, they fit together, fall apart. Like
stories, too, you have to think them out, make them work.
This notion of work runs throughout Harrison's poetry. There is a sense that each poem is a hard-won moment of perception even while offering to the reader an enviable translucence, a clear vision of the world in its contingency and temporal flux. At the heart of these profound and ever-meticulously crafted poems, this long meditation into the mechanics of conception and perception, is the warmth and flesh of the complexity of life and being plainly spoken.
ODE IN APRIL
WALKING BACK FROM THE DAM
THE RED GUM
The Distribution of Voice (University of Queensland Press, 1993)
The Kangaroo Farm (Paper Bark Press, 1997)
Summer (Paper Bark Press, 2001)