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John Anderson
the forest set out like the night
the shadow’s keep

Poet of the Merri and the land
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Photo: Malcolm Cross
Painting: Jenni Mitchell (oil on canvass, 1992)

John Anderson's work was recently discussed in a rebroadcast of ABC Poetica. in June 2014

John Anderson was born in 1948 at Kyabram, Victoria, where he grew up on an orchard. The locality was once covered with thick forest and its name is thought to indicate this. That forest is the one he would have most liked to have seen. He lived in Melbourne after 1966 and after 1975 near the Merri Creek. He travelled in Europe, South-East Asia, Niugini and extensively around Australia. His first collection of poetry was the bluegum smokes a long cigar (Rigmarole Books, 1978), followed by the forest set out like the night and the shadow’s keep. John Anderson died of a sudden illness in 1997.

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John Anderson at Monsalvat

22 December 1996, Herald-Sun

Notices on John Anderson

Leaves from the Australian bush: the life and work of John Anderson
Gary Catalano
Ulitarra, No. 15, 1999

John Anderson wasn’t at all widely known when he died unexpectedly late in 1997 at the age of 49. He had published just three books of poetry during his life and hadn’t been included in any of the major anthologies. Indeed, if we put to one side 3 Blind Mice, a fugitive and somewhat eccentric compilation edited by Kris Hemensley, Walter Billeter and Robert Kenny for Rigmarole in 1977, Anderson failed to make it into any of those books which, over the past 25 or so years, have sought to take the pulse of contemporary Australian writing.

Yet it’s clear that Anderson had many admirers in the literary world. A large number of writers certainly came along to his memorial service at St Mary’s Anglican Church in North Melbourne on 5 November 1997, and already there are serious moves afoot to provide a lasting memorial to him in the form of a series of plaques (suitably inscribed with passages from his work) along the last 6 kilometres of the Merri Creek, the subject of one of his best poems. That interest in his work is steadily growing is indicated by the posthumous appearance of his poems in such journals as Heat and Jacket (John Tranter’s internet magazine) and the pending publication of some poems and a memoir in PN Review. His literary executors say that there is the distinct possibility of a selected edition of his work in the near future.

Anderson was born in 1948 and grew up in Kyabram, where his parents owned an orchard on which they grew pears, peaches and apricots. Everything suggests that he had a strong emotional attachment to both the orchard and the flat and seemingly monotonous landscape in which it was situated: his family, after all, had been in the area for some time (his paternal grandfather had been a soldier settler), and there were many things about farm life that he liked.

But he was far from being a typical farm-boy and had none of the interests which are often characteristic of country folk. Machines held no excitement for him (he never learnt to drive a car, for instance) and sport appeared to be beneath his notice. Even during his early childhood it was obvious to everyone who knew him that he was somehow different.

Anderson had a deep interest in the natural world and knew an enormous amount about it by the time he reached 17 and came to Melbourne to complete his schooling. Ned Johnson, who met him at this time and formed a friendship which would last until the end of his life, thinks that this interest in natural science was a wider family enthusiasm, for it was shared by both Anderson’s father and his sisters.

‘John and his sisters,’ Johnson observed in an interview on 1 August 1998, ‘yearned for what had been there originally and would get on their bikes and ride all over the countryside looking for ancient river redgums and box trees. They were great enthusiasts for the individual characteristics of the various boxes. The romance of the unspoiled Goulburn Valley was always strong with them.’ It is possible that the wonderful paean to the river redgum in the forest set out like the night was seeded on these bicycle rides about the countryside.

Johnson thinks that the other members of the Anderson family were also deeply interested in literature. ‘They loved conversation,’ he said in the same interview, ‘and literary discussion especially. They really enjoyed pithy descriptions of people and stories about who did what, and they all read and talked about their reading.’

Given such an environment, it is almost natural that Anderson should have begun to write at a very early age. The following lines, dated 1953, were among his papers on his death:

pretty   leaves
pretty   leaves
on the trees
on the trees
they are falling from the trees
pretty   leaves
pretty   leaves

If the date is correct, Anderson must have been four or five when this charming little poem was composed.

‘The Heron’, which he wrote when he was 10, is a yet more interesting piece of juvenilia, for it clearly lends support to the claim (which Anderson himself made) that the most important influence on his work was that of John Shaw Neilson:

By a clump of stringy grass
A tall bird stiffly stood
Not far from there a clear lake lies
But further on a wood
The bird it is a wading bird
And there it stays all day
But when darkness softly falls
It slowly flies away
The bird is flying homeward
To its shelter midst the reeds
And there it finds the quietness
And the haven that it needs
It watches the moon rising
And it glides from shadows deep
Then turning its head slowly
It goes quietly off to sleep

The sense of enchantment evoked by these slowly gliding lines puts me in mind of Shaw Neilson’s ‘Smoker Parrot’.

Anderson never questioned his vocation. Ned Johnson has said that right from the moment they met in 1966 there was never any doubt in Anderson’s mind that he was a poet and that ‘he never entertained any other idea’. He had, in short, a confidence in himself which no amount of rejection could shake.

In all likelihood, this confidence ensured that he would be very selective in what he gave himself to. Young writers - especially when they are beginning to write - tend to be somewhat indiscriminate in their enthusiasms and often like poetries which are basically incompatible with one another. Anderson wasn’t at all like this and looked askance at some of the things which were beginning to transform our literary culture during the late 1960s.

Ned Johnson is illuminating on this. Recalling their days at Melbourne University, where both of them studied English, he stressed that they associated only with their fellow students. ‘I remember only going once to listen to the La Mama poets - and they were only a hundred metres away! - and we felt they were revolting against the tradition we had been brought up on and admired. We felt the continuity was under threat and we weren’t that enthusiastic about that.’

Anderson was sceptical about some of the other defining enthusiasms of the time. He liked Bob Dylan, but never believed that what he wrote and sang was poetry. ‘Those of us who felt that we’d read Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Keats and Eliot and Yeats,’ Johnson observed, ‘felt [it] was insulting a great tradition that someone as inarticulate and incoherent [as Bob Dylan] should be regarded as a great poet!’ Anderson was in fact an ardent fan of the Rolling Stones.

Anderson eventually came to see something in what had gone on at La Mama, though this illumination only occurred after he met Robert Kenny, and found himself published alongside such writers as Kris Hemensley, John Jenkins, Robert Harris and John Tranter in the first issue of Kenny’s journal, Rigmarole of the Hours. Although Kenny is unable to recall just when and how he became aware of Anderson’s work, he has a vivid memory of their first meeting. ‘We spent the whole day in his room in Kerr Street, Fitzroy,’ he said in an interview on 19 June 1998, ‘talking about poetry.’ It was partly on the basis of, this meeting that Kenny invited Anderson to contribute to his projected magazine.

Kenny also put Anderson in touch with Ken Taylor, whose first full-length book, At Valentines, he was preparing for publication by Contempa Publications. He sensed that the two writers had much in common and felt that Anderson would benefit from meeting some of the writers with whom he was closely acquainted. ‘He really didn’t have much contact with people in Melbourne at the time.’

Kenny’s intuitions were right: although there was a difference of 18 years between them, Anderson and Taylor did have much to talk about and quickly formed a friendship that lasted until the end of Anderson’s life. But we shouldn’t conclude from this that Anderson was in any way Taylor’s acolyte or disciple. As Kenny recognised, there were considerable differences between the two.

These differences become apparent as soon as we compare the dry and even austere manner in which the title-poem of At Valentines begins:

At Valentine’s now
we potter with boxes,
(the smell of ants,
urine by the
corrugated iron,
dried gum leaves,
rain spattered bottles
show the dust of
drops of rain
near the shed)
still keep
small ends of wire
snipped and
scattered near the
base of poles...

with the first poem in the blue gum smokes a long cigar, the book of Anderson’s poems that Kenny published under the Rigmarole imprint in 1978. ‘The Brachychiton (Kurrajong)’, the poem in question, begins like this:

Study the leaves of the Brachychiton.
And you will be ready for any turn in the conversation

What holds true in a grove of Brachychitons
Holds true in wheatfields and oaks

The kind of thought that I aspire to
Would not disturb one leaf of Brachychiton

I am not self conscious in the Brachychiton
Some are afraid in the Brachychiton
Brachychiton Brachychiton
Enter the Brachychitons

Robert Kenny recalls that he was initially attracted by the quirkiness and individuality of Anderson’s poetry and by what he termed its ‘sense of bush Dada’. ‘The Brachychiton’ may not be Anderson’s most playful or Dadaist poem, but it is unquestionably individual in both its tone, which is simultaneously assertive and dreamy, and its communicative intent. In recommending that we school ourselves on nature and seek to merge with it in such a way that we leave it undisturbed, Anderson was giving the romantic imperatives of the 1970s their most intense literary expression. We have to look outside literature - to the neo-primitivist sculptures of John Davis, for example, or to the paintings of John Wolseley - to find something comparable.

‘The Brachychiton’ has a special significance for Ned Johnson. ‘I always used to talk,’ Johnson has said, ‘about that line ‘Enter the Brachychitons’ and the connotations it has of someone going on stage. But he was also announcing that he wanted the trees to be on show, so I think in a sense it was a commentary on a lot of the poetry of the time; that really the attention should be directed more on things.’

Johnson’s interpretation is correct. But if Anderson believed passionately in outwardness, in arriving at self-knowledge through a sustained scrutiny of the things of the world, the poetry he wrote was also fuelled by a determination to keep his readers guessing. Before anything else, the poems in the blue gum (or at least the first half of the bock, for the second half is composed of some prose poems and a couple of pieces of discursive prose) are distinguished by a consistent line-by-line surprise. There is perhaps no better example of this than the title-poem, which I quote in full:

The bluegum
smokes a long cigar.
A silver cloud is parked beside it.
The gravel is washed
and a Canberra diplomat
in a slim dinner suit
is idling his legs from the bonnet.

A beautiful sylph bursts from a grey cocoon
on the tree trunk
and wreathes him in grey silks
    She is a moth,
But she drinks champagne.

The full text of this poem is printed in white letters on the cover of the book. According to Robert Kenny, Anderson liked to refer to the blue ground of the lettering as a Gaulois blue.

Kenny also recalls that at their first meeting he and Anderson had spent a long time talking about Francis Ponge. Both of them owned copies of Things, Cid Corman’s marvellous selection and translation of Ponge’s work published by Grossman in 1971 (on his death, Anderson’s copy of this book was exceedingly well-thumbed and almost falling apart), and both of them had been greatly taken by what Kenny terms Ponge’s ‘sense of approach and re-approach’ and the exhaustive and somewhat scientific way in which he looks at things like pebbles and drops of water.

Ponge makes a statement in one of the poems in Things which must have impressed Anderson deeply. ‘If it is possible to found a science whose material would be aesthetic impressions,’ he says in La Mounine, ‘I would be a member of that science.’ Put simply, it is precisely such a science that we find adumbrated in a good number of the prose pieces which form the second half of the blue gum. The fineness of Anderson’s aesthetic response to the world is admirably conveyed in the penultimate prose piece, which has to be quoted at some length in order to make its full impact:

The idea that the Australian bush is drab and monotonous is well established in our literature. It has some truth, but even the greyest bush is sometimes relieved by a certain fragile glittery sub-theme, on the drier inland slopes more crystalline and unsoftened by climate.

The theme is picked up on the tips of things: gum leaf glitter, red gum-tips, twigs white sheened or enamelled in Chinese oxblood; and in the crevices: exposed quartz, an ant dragging its shiny abdomen over leaf litter, knobs of hardened gum sap (kino) fastened like rubies to trunks.

Movement is part of its quality and its keenest edge is animate. Insects and birds are its untrapped - its most unstable cells.

It seems the spectrum poured itself in an almost pure prismatic form on the parrots, finches and wrens, which act as its agents, flitting through a leached backdrop distributing colours.

Later on in the same piece Anderson invites a comparison with Les Murray. Just as Murray at this time was attempting to suggest that ‘the synaesthetic signature note’ of the Australian landscape could be found in ‘the sharps and flats of midsummer blowflies’ (see ‘The Human Hair-thread’, Meanjin, No. 4, 1977), so Anderson’s scrutiny of the landscape results in him translating the visual into the aural:

In some, respects I think Balinese music provides a successful metaphor. Despite its origins Balinese music catches something in the Australian setting, and I think because it provides the same tinkling contrast to the bush as is suggested by its own metallic glints and shining surfaces.

It seems to pick its way in a series of disconnected points. It gives just the right amount of form without imposing too much. Its rhythms are hidden and natural. Subtle enough to catch and lend fluency to the songs of crickets, frogs, cicadas and bellbirds, sometimes disappearing like an invisible songbird behind a static screen of notes. And capable of exuberance, too. Gumleaf glitter in wind is the visual equivalent of a torrent of gamelan.

This meditation obviously meant a great deal to Anderson, for he incorporated it into his second book, the forest set out like the night, when it was published in 1995.

For a number of reasons, the full story behind the 17-year gap between Anderson’s first two books cannot be told here. Suffice it to say that Island Press, Paper Bark and Angus & Robertson all expressed interest in publishing the forest at some stage, but for various reasons all three publishers decided they could not proceed with such an unconventional manuscript. What could any of them really do with a collection of poems in which drawings formed an essential part of the text?

A & R probably came closest to taking the plunge. Kevin Pearson, who eventually published the book at Black Pepper, has told how John Forbes, during his tenure as A & R’s poetry editor, had edited the manuscript in order to make it more conventional and therefore more attractive to the publishing board at A & R. In an interview conducted on 19 August 1998, Pearson suggested that the length of the original manuscript was an issue. ‘From memory it comes to 118 pages now; and I think part of the editing had been to get it down to a more acceptable length, in commercial terms, of about 70 to 80 pages.’ Pearson recalls that Forbes had dispensed with Anderson’s drawings in the process.

It is fortunate that Pearson viewed them differently and didn’t have a board to deal with at Black Pepper. On comparing Anderson’s preferred manuscript with the shorter one, he quickly came to the conclusion; that he wanted to publish the former. ‘I also immediately thought that the illustrations were central to the text and, I suppose, the metaphysics behind the text.’ A couple of Anderson’s drawings are in fact reminiscent of the work of John Wolseley, the English-born landscape artist who was given the honour of launching the book.

At the launch, which was held at the amphitheatre near the Fairfield boathouse - and thus within sight of the Yarra, which figures in the book - Wolseley spoke from notes jotted on the back of an envelope. This envelope makes extremely interesting reading, as does the covering note Wolseley wrote in July 1998 when he forwarded it to the current author. The latter document plainly implies that he saw Anderson’s poetry as the perfect explication of his own work, for he openly acknowledged that his speech was about his own obsession with how we could learn to understand Australia. Anderson’s five-page prose poem about the Grampians in the book provided him with a ready quote: ‘it is in such places that one might expect to find clues to the continent’.

As anyone familiar with his work will no doubt know, John Wolseley is deeply indebted to William Blake and the English pastoral tradition in general. He actually mentioned Blake in his speech and quoted a number of passages from Anderson’s book which, in his view, exemplified the kind of particularity of detail that Blake insisted on throughout his life. Among them were these lines from ‘love, the cartographer’s way’, the second of the three sequences - or, rather, metapoems - which make up the book:

Oaks, elms, poplars, pines, all ruled in greater degree by the sun. Proceeding by a sort of euclidean logic, an assemblage of hierarchical forms, pyramids, domes, genealogies, exercises in three dimensional perspective. Favoured by the more apparent regularity of the solar calendar.
The gum opens out to the night, presents faces to the night sky which recede and advance like space itself.

It’s interesting that Wolseley should have singled out this passage, for one of its details helps us to see how much of Anderson’s second book is either implicit in, or foreshadowed by, his first. When the poet refers, for example, to the Euclidean logic of those four exotic trees, some readers will turn back to the blue gum, one of whose poems begins with these lines:

What puts the finishing touches to my sleep?
The Blue Swift. The non-Euclidean eucalypt.
What’s in a name?
Sailcloth and literary allusions.

It would not be a gross exaggeration to say that Anderson’s whole intent in the second book is to explain - both to himself and to the reader - just what he means by ‘the non-Euclidean eucalypt’.

Anderson begins by recounting a dream, which introduces a ten-page poem about the Merri Creek. Ned Johnson has said that this poem was written as early as 1983, for he remembers Anderson reading it to him in this year - after first having read it to Liz Connell, another long-standing friend. The poem, Johnson says, was quite simply ‘a discovery. I knew he had big poems in him and this was it. It overwhelmed me.’

But the poem Johnson recalls hearing in 1983 is not identical to that in the book. Anyone who reads the printed version will, I think, be conscious of certain similarities with Aboriginal song-cycles, and especially so on the first page of the poem, where Anderson describes the meeting of the Merri, that ‘wise wince in the landscape’, and the Yarra:

So the Yarra collected itself, grew and grew into a great
lake and laid down the flats of Ivanhoe and Heidelberg.
Laid them down.
Laid down those flats.
Bayrayrung the Yarra thought and thought. Thought out
how to cut around the lava tongue, through the softer
sandstone, making the Yarra cliffs.

These similarities were far more pronounced in the first version. Johnson believes that Anderson subsequently toned down ‘the sort of Aboriginal voice-pastiche’ in order not to give offence. In all probability this superseded draft was based on one of the texts in R.M. Berndt’s Love Songs of Arnhem Land, which Emma Lew has said was Anderson’s favourite book.

Towards the end of his poem about the Merri, Anderson uses the phrase ‘that complex crosshatch of overlaid / impressions’ - apparently in reference to the surface of a pool at the base of two small cliffs. In some ways this phrase adequately describes the whole poems itself, for the thoroughly lyrical sensibility behind it is continually being sidetracked by a new perception, a new impression. Anderson’s responsiveness is such that virtually everything he apprehends is capable of triggering a renewed meditation on place:

down in the stream bed


rounded rocks in shoals

a Zen stone garden effect

like shoals of thinkers these \
stony domes

thinking that the stone collectedly thinks
we collect ourselves in the stones

the Merri Creek saying the right things
over and over

When the memorial plaques are put in place the last six lines of this quotation will be inscribed on the fifth plaque, which will be located on the footbridge across the Merri directly behind Rushall Station.

It should be observed that the footbridge in question figures in the poem:

All around some excitement, some enchantment
in the old brick houses, with their towers
and palms, standing like churches over the
sacred spots... The pine tree and the Japanese
footbridge waiting for Hokusai

The fact that those readers who know the Merri will recognize it instantly says a great deal about the accuracy of Anderson’s ‘crosshatched impressions’. His poem about the creek would be an essential part of any comprehensive literary guide to Melbourne.

The metapoem which it inaugurates proceeds through the logic of association. A reference, for example, to blackberries (Francis Ponge has a wonderful poem about blackberries in Things) in ‘The Merri Creek’ stimulates the poet to recall a dream in which blackberries figure as ‘the tears shed by black women / for their men who lie murdered’, and that in turn soon triggers a passage about the black duck. The black duck then becomes the subject of the following poem, which points out that it is interbreeding with the European mallard and thereby losing its ‘distinctive wise eye’. Another form, Anderson goes on to observe, is passing away.

the forest set out like the night is above all a metapoem about form. At times the form is zoological in character, as in the above-mentioned poem on the black duck. At other times it is botanical, as in the paired homages to the river redgum and the red flowering gum or his somewhat more lyrical effusion about the casuarina, parts of which demonstrate an exceptional visual acuity:

they do not cast deep shade
they are themselves floatings of shade
light pencilled shadings over the landscape

And at yet other times it is geological in character, and notably so in that long central prose poem about the Grampians which I alluded to earlier.

But in all of these cases we intuitively understand that Anderson is also writing about aesthetic form. The great virtue of the forest set out like the night - both the book and, more specifically, the metapoem of that title - is that it demonstrates that a curiosity about the world and an aesthetic response to it can be one and the same thing.

It is fortunate that he found a publisher who was prepared to print it in its entirety. Kevin Pearson (Anderson’s ‘saviour’, Ned Johnson insists) drew the right conclusion when he decided that the drawings were central to the text, though at that stage he was not to know that their inclusion would tax the skills of his production staff. ‘When we originally had them,’ Pearson has related, ‘the book was unpaged to book format, so we had a fair amount of juggling to get them to sit by their most appropriate text.’

Pearson remembers that the delicacy of Anderson’s drawn lines also caused a few problems. Sometimes the production staff had to ‘lift the very faint pencil drawing in order to stop it being submerged by the depth of the text. That was a delicate operation because we didn’t want to make them hard-edged; the integrity of them depended on them being lightly touched onto the drawing surface.’ The drawings in short, should be like a casuarina.

Pearson’s one disagreement with his author was over the cover design. Gail Hannah, the co-publisher at Black Pepper and the designer of all its books, had initially wanted to use an image by the Aboriginal artist, Donna Leslie, on the cover of the forest set out like the night. Anderson would have none of that. Even though he quite liked Leslie’s painting and admitted that it had some relevance to the second of the book’s three sections, he insisted that one of his own paintings be used in its place. He argued his case in a long letter to his publishers, parts of which are particularly revealing about the intent of his writing.

Here he is writing about the significance and role of his preferred cover image:

I see the cover as the first page of the text. I also see the text as a painting of this land. My writing is very visual.

Because the writing is so visual, the choosing of the cover is a particularly delicate matter. It is a window into the writing. This cover is the most effective because it rises - from the same vision, as though the text was seeping through and saturating the jacket.

My line is here.

Immediately after making this statement he quotes six passages from his work which, he believes, ‘are of a body with the image I have painted.’ Interestingly, the second of these passages is actually a short poem in the blue gum:

I would like to build a house without conversation
as though I were building a nest
No monument to the Tidiwaki tribe
Just a smooth passage through everybody’s mind
in the manner of the Thames.

Anderson renders that quotation exactly in his letter. But in quoting the last of his six passages of significance, he changes the first of the following four lines:

I think everything has been told
I like to hear the ripples of the telling
the croon of the gums
the violet magpie songs

and uses ‘believe’ in place of ‘think’. These lines, which are very nearly the last of his metapoem, will be inscribed on the third memorial plaque.

Towards the end of his letter Anderson acknowledges that the whole book should be seen as a single thing. ‘More than most collections of poetry consisting of individual self contained poems,’ he observes, ‘this book is the sum of its parts, a sequence forming a metabolic whole. It is a special case.’ He doesn’t use the term metapoem, but this is obviously what he means.

I think it can be argued that Anderson’s last book, which was launched shortly after his death, has an even more obvious unity to it. Whereas the second book has a surface untidiness which is essential to its aesthetic effect, the shadows keep has a somewhat programmatic quality and is actually set out like a scientific paper: first we have ‘the shadow’s keep’, a 38 page-section consisting of single lines which came to Anderson in his dreams; then we have ‘the beginning tincture of what I wrote’, an 8 page essay on the manner in which those lines were received and on what Anderson has done with them in ‘a zephyric alphabet’, the final section in the book. That section - the results of the experiment, so to speak - contains 8 pantoums wholly composed of dreamlines listed in the first section.

Originally the book was going to consist simply of the dreamlines which Anderson had been recording during the years in which he had suffered from sleep apnoea. Anderson believed that these lines shared some of the qualities of poetry and that some could stand as individual poems. ‘They have an aptness of language,’ he wrote in the central essay, ‘a decided tone, a distinct rhythm and vibration, surprise and resolution. They have the power to awaken, as poetry can.’

I’m not sure that all of these claims are justified. It’s easy to find lines which have a genuinely surreal quality, as I think the following do:

* chaos is the last labour of salt

* dust is your conjuror

* words that would feather us

It’s easy to find lines which are funny:

* Why stage an Aristotle of significance?

* tomatoes, potatoes, my rapscallion heart

And it’s also easy to find lines which (as one would expect of an admirer of Mary Gilmore’s prose writings) suggest the eye and imagination of a social historian:

* the jam-tin with the glory off it

* tearing off the cardboard and singing to the crockery

* The Aborigines. They weren’t fishing on the same surface

* ‘Australia’ was an old weathered rooming cottage in 1924

But even at their very best these lines suffer in comparison with the single-line poems of the great Objectivist, Charles Reznikoff. Here are three such poems from his Poems 1918-1975 (Black Sparrow, 1989):

* The ceaseless weaving of the uneven water

* The trees in the windless field like a herd asleep

* The cold wind and the black fog and the noise of the sea.

Reznikoff’s one-liners are more audacious than Anderson’s and provide the reader with more aural pleasure. Anderson appeared not to understand that the content of one’s dreams is not automatically interesting to other people.

Maybe it was this realization that led Anderson’s publisher to suggest that he change his conception somewhat. ‘I felt that the one-line, standing singly as a unit,’ Pearson has explained, ‘was unconventional enough to require some sort of explication. I’d been speaking to John over the years about poetry and the origin of poetry, so I felt that he had things to say and that this was an opportunity.’ It was while he was following up this suggestion that Anderson became aware of the pantoum as a form.

Anderson was introduced to it by his fellow-poet, Emma Lew, with whom he lived for the last two years of his life. Lew says she discovered it in a book by the American poet, John Yau, who apparently refers to it as a ‘Chinese villanelle’, though the form is in fact Malayan in origin. In some ways it’s fitting that this flowering of Anderson’s art should have been indebted to Asia, for the countries, cultures and religions of Asia had attracted him for much of his adult life and obviously affected the way in which he thought about Australia.

Of the eight pantoums grouped together in the final section, the best is probably ‘I am a thistle with open arms’, which appeared in The Age shortly after Anderson’s death. As its first stanza. suggests, it’s a strange and genuinely eerie poem:

I am a thistle with open arms
I caught fire in the valley
The mountains took a long roll outwards
They were a fan in my heart

and surely part of its eeriness is due to the fact that in it the author appears to have sensed his own imminent death and imagined his dispersal into the wider natural world. Anderson knew what it was like to be a thistle with open arms!

Anderson was clearly changing a great deal towards the end. Emma Lew says that he’d begun to read both Francis Webb and Emily Dickinson with real pleasure and admiration, so we can scarcely guess at what kind of poetry he may have written when his imagination had taken stock of such material. Robert Kenny, who had observed his work for a long time and had published his first book, thought he was on the verge of creating ‘an Australian epic persona’ and thinks that the pantoums indicated that he’d begun to acquire the ‘structural tenacity’ such a task required.

Kenny’s contention might well meet with support from Les Murray, who had been sufficiently impressed by the forest set out like the night to suggest that its author would prove to be influential. When he learned of Anderson’s death, he felt he had to write to Kevin Pearson. Anderson, he said, ‘did good poetic architecture and he owned his own mind.’


I would like to thank Ned Johnson, Robert Kenny, Emma Lew, Jenni Mitchell, Kevin Pearson, Hugh Tolhurst and John Wolseley, all of whom shared their memories of John Anderson with me and in some cases provided me with documents and manuscripts. This essay could not have been written without their assistance.

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ArtStreams, December 1997/January 1988

John Douglas Anderson grew up on his family’s orchard in Kyabram. Victoria, where he was born on 20 March, 1948.

Throughout his relatively short life he retained his closeness to the land. He travelled extensively in Europe. South-East Asia and New Guinea, but he also travelled throughout Australia and the secrets of the landscape found their way into his work, whether they were to be found in great deserts and forests or the rocks, water, fauna and flora of the Merri Creek.

His literary sources were wide and varied but they had one thing in common. Anderson was at one with any poet who shared his love of nature. But that poet would be one who took the inspiration of nature into the inner recesses of the mind and spoke of something more universal than its starting point.

Published in many magazines, Anderson produced three volumes of poetry during his 25 years of writing: the blue gum smokes a long cigar (1978), the forest set out like the night (1995) and the shadow’s keep, published by Black Pepper.

John Anderson, who was well known in this region for his regular readings at Montsalvat and where ever poets gathered, died of leukaemia in the Alfred Hospital after a short illness in October. He fell ill suddenly while returning from West Australia where he had been engaged in research for his next collection.

He will be sadly missed by the literary fraternity in this region and throughout Australia.

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John Anderson (1948-1997)
Kris Hemensley
Heat, No. 7, 1998

At the end of the year or so in which the forest set out like the night and something like its coda, the shadow’s keep, were published by Black Pepper, reversing years of frustration at other editors’ hands, and on top of the world as he seemed to be, in health, life and work, John Anderson is suddenly dead. In my contribution to the Thanksgiving Service, at St Mary’s in North Melbourne on 5th November, I offered the obvious, that for poets the words are almost all-important. Never more so than at a poet’s death, was my unspoken corollary. It might have continued: At the poet’s death so begins the poem’s life, when only the poem can speak for the poet, when the poet returns to the little bit of earth that poetry makes its own in owning up to its share of the life of the earth, that long life in which human being is but one of its integers.

This beckoning of a certain kind of poetry from the edge of extinction is responsible for the peculiar regard surviving poets reserve for their dead. Far from having lost the poet to oblivion, which is the normal truth of it, most painfully apparent to family and friends, the poets in their asociality are challenged to receive the poet more deeply and dearly than ever before. Poetry, one is reminded, is a challenge to extinction or it is nothing.

Outside of the poets’ world, self-delusion or superstition; within it, indistinguishable from the poet’s awareness of the conjuring that phenomena deal to one’s senses. Thus Bonnefoy, ‘I am haunted by this memory, that the wind / All at once is swirling over the closed up houses. / There is a mighty sound of flapping sail throughout the world, / As if the stuff that color is made of / Had just been rent to the depth of things.’ Or Ponge, perhaps John’s first exotic master, ‘Now that I know my destiny I can perfectly well throw these pages to the winds and this very one, the last of them, can be their plaything. // Since my principles are now hereby revealed, and since, after hearing them spoken in my own voice, you my readers, have nonetheless READ them as inscribed - so well // That they are now as deeply engraved in your memory as on a stele, unaffected by future gusts of wind.’ (Yves Bonnefoy, In the Shadow’s Light (Chicago, 1991); Francis Ponge, Selected Poems (Wake Forest, 1994)).

Poets that we are, the terms of death loop about our words like air, inextricable from the terms of love and the eternal. I once told John of the American poet Lew Welch’s disappearance and presumed suicide, near Gary Snyder’s property in 1971. We talked about Welch’s ‘Song of the Turkey Buzzard’, one of his last poems, in which appears a ‘Last Will & Testament’ proposing ‘Let no one grieve. / I shall have used it all up / used up every bit of it’. The poet requires compliance with his instructions to lay him upon a rock and avoid frightening ‘the natives of this / barbarous land, who / will not let us die, even, / as we wish’. Welch orders, ‘With proper ceremony disembowel / what I / no longer need, that it might more quickly / rot and tempt/ my new form’ - and signs his warrant off, ‘NOT THE BRONZE CASKET BUT THE BRAZEN WING / SOARING FOREVER ABOUT THEE O PERFECT / O SWEETEST WATER O GLORIOUS / WHEELING / BIRD’. (Lew Welch, Ring of Bone: Collected Poetry, 1950-71 (Greywolf, 4th pr., 1978); John Anderson, the blue gum smokes a long cigar (Rigmarole, 1978)).

John considered that if one was able to choose the manner of one’s death, something like Welch’s ceremony would be acceptable. Had John been prescient of his tragic end, he may well have preferred the desert to the hospital, and the brazen wing to the bronze casket.

John Anderson’s the forest set out like the night represents this exquisite moment when the panoply of idiosyncracy, all of that private hoarding which is a bulwark against the incoherence ever threatening a phantastical poet’s life and work, transformed into a cosmology. All that had been divulged in his first collection, the blue gum smokes a long cigar (Rigmarole, 1978) and more recently, as fleeting evocations of landscape, gathered from encounters he reported like dreams, tonally indistinguishable from fantasy and dream, and as keenly recounted as the naturalist in him would record the fauna and flora experienced on his habitual walks, now became substantial, legible, public.

Reading this book, his three books as a continuum, remembering it across twenty-odd years as shards, half-shapes begging unity, I feel as relieved and delighted as he must have been when he’d finally constructed his manuscript and realised his long cherished project. Reading it I hear him as audibly as if he were once again reciting it before me, speaking his poems as statements of self-evident truth, of which, at his most assured, he was convinced. Many other times he needed reassurance, reinspiration. In 1980, two years after the publication of the blue gum smokes a long cigar, John confided that he might now have sufficient material for a second, small collection of landscapes, dreams and humorous pieces. In our continuous conversation I would oppose his concession to the miscellaneous, insisting that he heed the design of his vision, urging the larger work, the whole project as antidote to the dilettantism of the age.

Some years ago, I compared John Anderson and the American poet Charles Stein under the rubric ‘self made cosmologies’. ‘I’m persuaded to read John Anderson’s work-in-progress (which probably includes the collection the blue gum smokes a long cigar: for what may have seemed to be a book of occasional pieces then, registers now as part and parcel of a life work, and, in the manner of Leaves of Grass, that kind of life-poem), his criss-crossing of the symbolic and the actual, the generally observable and the intensely personally perceivable, as a cosmology, a cosmology what is more, that satisfies what empires of realism have yet to announce, a palpable representation of place (in this case, ‘Australia’). The complex reality of Australia that Anderson seeks to reveal can exist only as a poetic construction. Only in the poem can his ‘dream-lines’, for example, find their correspondence in particulars of geology or botany or mythology. His ornate map of Australia is also a self-portrait, a statement in which he finds himself reflected. It’s one of the very few contemporary poems (albeit in a thousand pieces, unfinished) in which ‘Australia’ can be taken seriously. Curiously, though it can be associated with the design of certain English (Allen Fisher, Chris Torrence, Iain Sinclair), American (Olson, Snyder, Irby, McCord et al), Canadian (Daphne Marlatt, Brian Fawcett) and New Zealand (Alan Loney) poets who have been intent on placing names, as it were, in a sense of history that includes body and psyche, Anderson’s ‘Australian’ poetry benefits from the same eccentricity as serves Charles Stein’s assemblages. The things, images, references they have assembled comprise a personal repertoire... The oracle is discounted by the subjectivity of the narrator (‘The writer is a stone in the Merri Creek’). It’s Robinson Crusoe’s enterprise: self-preservation via the reinvention of the world...’ (Published in HEAR/t, Melbourne, 1983-84; see Charles Stein, Parts and Other Parts (Station Hill, 1982))

At the very least, Anderson is an integrator. To quote the worlds of E.L. Grant Watson, the scientist and poet/novelist, friend of W.H. Hudson and Edward Thomas, who spent some crucial time in Australia and seems to me a soul-mate for John, ‘Of reality itself, we know nothing, and are not likely to know more than its reflection in the symbols that are mysteriously presented to our senses... At the vanishing periphery of sense-perception we touch the noumenal, from which instinctive actions proceed. Instinct guides the sea-slug and the fig-wasps; it appears to flow non-causally, and has so far defied the meticulous investigation of bio-genetics. We see it as something unselfconscious, as though it slept - and dreamed. Our task is to enter into the dream of Nature and interpret the symbols.’ (E.L. Grant Watson, Descent of the Spirit: Writing of E.L. Grant Watson, edited by Dorothy Green (Primavera, 1990)) John Anderson was that kind of dreamer.

Here is a poetry not possessed by categories, as prepared to suspend lyrical authority for mantraic sublimation as to beg questions of the art’s protocols. Not possessed by categories - except that he was awfully susceptible to that agent-provocateur, literary success, in whose name literature is the sum of such accomplishment as forever compromises the poet’s reality and priorities. Not possessed by categories - given the prose poem’s legacy of Rimbaud and Baudelaire and the linear and stanzaic flexibility of Anglo-American modernism, Anderson, like so many of our generation, was free to concentrate upon the poetic utterance per se and the particular expression of his insistent subject-matter, the demonstrably complex ecological figuring of Australia.

Not possessed by categories - to the extent that on many occasions he’d question the efficacy of poetry to tell his story. Why the poem as such? Why not prose or doggerel? His dilemma was exacerbated by his perception of the magnitude of the environmental crisis. If apocalypse was imminent, should one write the poem or join the resistance? Through the years John often spoke as if hamstrung between witness and activism. The status of witness changes with context, is demoted by politics, raised by poetry and religion, but such was his perturbation, regarding responsibility accomplished as politics, that I believe he invested more in the message than the medium. Of course, his opinions and intentions are less conclusive than his history, which included an early taste for Romanticism, Symbolism, Surrealism and forays in a variety of magic and mysticism - or, indeed, than his work’s effects.

Though he may have striven for direct, even transparent statement, the art of his poetry invites appreciation along the lines of its ‘open form’ or ‘protective’ poetics, in which he found himself at his most eloquent and with which he was happy to experiment. Only recently, and probably under the influence of his friend Emma Lew, a poet of an entirely different cast, did literary forms as things in themselves interest him (thus his pantoum exercises). Which isn’t to say that he was a stranger to poetry’s normal grammar; but like so many of the Sixties’ generation he had eschewed almost everything of verse for the apparently infinite liberation of whatever’s ‘beyond poetry’.

Regarding affinity and influence, John Anderson retained a life-long commitment to John Shaw Neilson and, moreover, in mid-century canonical terms, to the poet ‘who created his own world of delicate and elusive loveliness by a vision that retained the joy and wonder of childhood and a fresh simplicity akin to that of the Blake he [Neilson] had never read’ (T. Inglis Moore, Poetry in Australia, Vol. 1, 1964). When I showed him Robert Gray’s selection and revisionary account of Nielson’s poetics, John was intrigued but not deflected from what Les Murray would call the ‘pre-academic’ view. Amongst his contemporaries, Ken Taylor is a major reference tor the seriousness of his project if not also some of its tone. Taylor’s ‘secret Australia’ is visited poignantly in Anderson’s evocation of the Twenties’ Anglo-Australian bush tennis-court - ‘The square was a sublime abstraction. The first clearing ever anywhere. A European picturing of the bush. Exactly balancing the bush’s picturing of the European. The equation was then so neat it was easy to assume that such an equilibrium would last forever’ (Ken Taylor’s poem ‘Maurie Speaks About a Secret Australia while in Iceland’ is the source of the title of his selected poems, A Secret Australia (Rigmarole, 1985), and is also theme and title of Robert Kenny’s notable essay on Taylor’s work in the same book). I can easily imagine John’s compatibility with other La Mama poets for whom ‘place’ was the same kind of issue that it was for younger generation poets in England and North America at the same time. I know of his regard for Charles Buckmaster and Terry Gillmore, and wonder if he ever investigated Allison Hill, Bill Beard, Ian Robertson and others. John was candid about the snobbish opinion he’d formed of the La Mama poets from across the road at the University of Melbourne, and how it had been shattered by what he’d since read and learned of our work and life. The story of the interaction that might have been could equally apply to such poets as David Miller, Pete Spence, Walter Billeter, Robert Kenny, Alex Selenitsch, and the so-called Monash School poets, Alan Wearne, John Scott and Laurie Duggan. Given John’s prolific generosity one could discover some level of affinity with practically every poet he was happy to share a stage with. The likelier members of his poetical community were, however, Alexandra Seddon, Anna Couani, Ania Walwicz and berni janssen—all intersected John’s work strongly at various times. They appear to me to share that experimentalist ability to fashion a writing surface whilst representing the subject, which John admired.

Laurie Duggan’s The Ash Range gave him renewed hope for his own book-length map and history project. Likewise Mark O’Connor’s forest and reef poems and photographs, Liam Davidson’s topographical prose, and Philip Hodgins’ rural themes. Geoff Eggleston’s albeit truthful depiction of Anderson as a ‘nature poet’ seemed to belong to the superseded dichotomy of a previous era’s discussion, as naturalist subjects, nature-advocacy and Australian topography were renewed in poetry and prose in the 1980s and ’90s, and John’s writing moved from an avant-garde and non-mainstream periphery to the rejuvenated centre of Australian poetry. Robert Gray, Judith Beveridge, Anthony Lawrence, Coral Hull, John Kinsella, Craig Sherbourne - they all appeared contemporaries now. Furthermore, the enthusiasm for Anderson’s project during its round of submissions from such readers as Gray, Adamson, Forbes and Wearne not to mention eventual publisher Kevin Pearson, and its endorsement from readers like Les Murray, Alex Miller and the painter John Volseley, says something of this new perspective in respect of both John’s work and the contemporary prospect.

The late and sadly missed John Anderson at least had the satisfaction of knowing he’d set out a substantial part of his vision and that his insights, borne by accessible structure and hauntingly beautiful imagery were actually being studied by an ever increasing circle of his peers, poets and readers alike. What to the poet were sometimes problems of ‘appropriation’ (his identification of Aboriginal story-telling in idiom and mythos), of sentimentality and eccentricity, are to the reader the proper form of his mellifluous lucidity. Like his beloved naturalists (Chisholm and Banfield and the rest) and so-called naive painters (of whose company only the extraordinary Bastin is named in his poetry), Anderson construes homecoming from his research, wherein ‘each creature [including every manner of Australian, old and new]... was fondly known as part of the bib and bub, the closer social and anecdotal river of it all’.

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This land was his inspiration
John Douglas Anderson
Ned Johnson
The Age, 6 November 1997

Born: Kyabram, 20 March 1948.
Died: Melbourne, 28 October 1997, aged 49.

In a writing career spanning 25 years, John Anderson published poems in many magazines and produced three slim volumes: the blue gum smokes a long cigar (1978), the forest set out like the night (1995) and the shadow’s keep (1997). He died of leukaemia in the Alfred Hospital. Anderson’s parents kindled his two interests of poetry and the natural world on the family orchard at Kyabram, Victoria, where he grew up.

The Australian landscape became the subject of Anderson’s poetry and he examined it closely: the stones, the soil, the water and the living things, both large and small. He reclaimed the neglected places of this continent as well as the well-known ones, and from them he forged a new account of it.

His literary sources ranged from Wordsworth to John Shaw Neilson to Charles Olson, and he made common cause with all poets who celebrate nature. He wrote slowly and carefully ,and published only when the words sang; he didn’t flirt with popular styles or attitudes but found his own voice through his chosen subject. Anderson was published in the ’70s by Robert Kenny (of the Rigmarole Press) and Kris Hemensley, with whom he maintained a lively conversation for many years. He performed frequently at poetry readings around Melbourne and became a regular reader at the Montsalvat Poetry .Festival. Gradually he attracted an audience as, falteringly at first but with increasing confidence, he described the world he saw.

Though he travelled in Europe, South-East Asia and New Guinea, Anderson’s real inspiration came from his native land. From his Melbourne base he explored the continent, seeking out the secrets of desert landscapes, of roadsides and forests and waterways, looking for the heart of the country that isn’t stilled. In the centre of Melbourne he found the stream that inspired one of his finest poems, ‘The Merri Creek’, which reflects on the rock formations, the water, the blackberries and black ducks, telling us their story, and our story. Anderson knew the seasons of the gums, the grasses and the insects. He described the interconnectedness of things, of stars drawing toward the earth and reaching down to the trees and stones, the leaf-forms and the landforms.

His acclaimed second book, the forest set out like the night, published by Black Pepper, brought his understandings to the forefront of contemporary Australian poetry. Most recently his third volume, also published by Black Pepper, of ‘one-liners’ and pantoums, presents lines retrieved from dreams and challenges our concept of ‘the poem’.

John Anderson’s sudden death is a great loss to Australian poetry. He was a gentle man who quietly, insistently gave voice to the unrecorded rhythms that he sensed in our relationship with the world. He is mourned by his partner, the poet Emma Lew, his family, his friends, and all poetry lovers.

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Journal Notes

Journal Entry
John Anderson
Ulitarra, Issue 17/18, July 2000

Taxi driver says his father remembers two species of gum no longer growing round the township. The yellow box and the dida gum. The latter remarkable for its beauty.

Suddenly we see one growing by a dam by the main irrigation channel, just before the entrance to the town. It is surrounded by distinctive vegetation. All its original trappings.

I experience a sense of elation coupled with a sadness that such beauty has departed the district.

Because the tree is growing out of a mound of disturbed earth (its own grave?) and is quite young its origin is open to dispute. The townspeople will not believe that such beauty was once native to their area. Perhaps this reflects their pride in the district as it now appears. It is not a pride I share.


I am being driven too fast for comfort by a member of a Christian spiritual group along Old Echuca Road, the road to my parent’s home, my childhood home. Our destination is an old house a little beyond theirs and on the opposite side of the road. The car is a new white station wagon.

We flash past an old gum tree, one of the few remaining original trees along this part of the road. My sisters and I sometimes stopped in its shade on the walk home from school.

The tree stands bereft, true, ethereal and grey amongst lush irrigated pastures and poisoned soils. A beloved remnant. Aboriginal, Fretilin, free.

I dishonour it speeding past. It tugs at my vision. I turn around and glimpse three S.E.C. linesmen, aloft on mechanical ladders, faces blackened, equipped with chain saws, just across the intersection from the tree, not yet actually attacking it. We arrive at the old house. I remember it from early childhood but the house I remember was unpainted. I eagerly look for an illuminated text inscribed on an inside wall but the whole house is smothered in white gloss. The text has blended with the grain of the unpainted weatherboard.

Now to all appearances this is just another neat and respectable farmhouse.

the dream is about a previous order being covered up. This order is represented by the old script, Old Echuca Road, the old house, the old tree, greys and browns and unpainted surfaces.

This order is opposed to, covered over, extinguished by glossy white paint, on the house and on the fast car; by electricity, now the house is connected; by the irrigation pasture covering the original landscape; and by the ash covering the linesmen’s faces. The dream takes place some time after the Black Wednesday fires, after which the S.E.C. push legislation to lop trees. The ash on the faces of the men is like a signature of the S.E.C.’s guilt, although it is the tree that is on Death Row. The black is the hangman’s cape. The S.E.C. is covering itself.


It seems the new world whose interests are identified with the S.E.C.’s must have the death of the old, and that in my mind the new spiritual group has also identified its interests with this world, new, white and antiseptic. Too clean. A cleanliness founded on the denial of the natural.

The black on the faces of the S.E.C. men is the denied shadow aspect of this white world, one which is violent and destructive of the ecosphere. And I have compromised myself by my allegiance with this group.
the writing is on the wall
meaning, the meaning is clear, time is up
the writing is on the wall for the tree
for the natural world
for us all
but the writing has been obscured, as if the tree asks me to perform the writing that has been lost.

the message of the tree had been written on the untreated wood, the authentic surface of its presentation corresponds with an ancient religious sense, a childhood sense, a sense I found enshrined in the trees, an illumination.

as if the tree asks me to return to an earlier vision.

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