Jane, Lady Franklin: Adrienne Eberhard
A remarkable and evocative book
she brings to mind past poets of great stature
Will we assume their speed
the shark’s coming
the squid’s mobilitiy
the flathead’s knowledge?
fostling in our bodies –
I could walk on my hands for sure.
When Adrienne Eberhard assumes the persona of Jane, Lady Franklin, wife of the colonial Governor Sir John Franklin, she releases herself as a poet of intimate engagements. In a suite of poems, linked together like a chain of ponds, she follows Jane Franklin's Tasmanian years. Water, rocks, fossils, step daughters, desire or guilt and betrayal, and love of the physical world seethe in her lines.
Eberhard looks long and deeply at well-loved landscapes and renders them with remarkable intensity and ingenuity of imagery... she has an unapologetic love for what language can do... a willingness to risk total immersion in it, even to the point of excess... she has a high degree of empathy with people and other living creatures. Eberhard is able to think her way deeply into their situations and create complex and lyrical accounts of her investigations... we are seeing the emergence of a truly substantial poetic talent.
Geoff Page, Island
A Touch of the Past - Jane, Lady Franklin
Mattoid, No. 55, 2006
In the list of things Jane Franklin must leave behind on her return from Hobarton to England in 1843, Adrienne Eberhard includes
in beginnings, paradise, god, ourselves
here I could have been anything
Eberhard, too, leaves belief behind, not as her own loss, but as the gift within her poems. Jane, Lady Franklin is a mosaic of one woman’s thoughts and experiences. Through this woman we gain access to a specific time in Tasmanian history. The book is persuasive as an intimate and imaginative recreation of this time and of Lady Jane herself.
The poems begin with Lady Jane’s arrival in Hobart as the wife of Sir John Franklin, Lieutenant-Governor of Van Dieman’s Land. The year is 1837. The poems appear more or less as abbreviated journal entries but are only loosely chronological and are openly concerned with the place and its people as much as with Jane. The front cover of the book displays a mid- to late-1800s drawing by Emily Stewart Bowring. This is not a portrait of Lady Franklin. Instead, waves and two small boats foreground Government House, perched on its hilltop, trees to one side, bare hills to the other. It is not quite the house the Franklins occupied, but the drawing does reasonably depict the time. The effect of the book is to animate this picture: Lady Jane (one might imagine) is on the foreshore, watching the ripples and the birds. The ornithologist, John Gould, and the botanist, Ronald Gunn, are nearby, preparing for their next expedition. Beneath the waves, there is debris from the wrecks of sunken convict ships. Further down the harbour are the Danish and French whaling boats. Out of sight, another child dies in the nursery at the female convict factory. John Montagu, the Colonial Secretary, is in an office somewhere drafting his formal complaint against Sir John and the excessive influence of his wife. And hidden in the hills, just maybe, there are one or two survivors from the decimated Aboriginal population.
Eberhard could not have hoped to find a better ‘tool’ than Lady Jane for her creative endeavours. The poems are always intimate, always the first-person impressions of a passionate, imaginative, and strong-willed individual, and yet, due to the intensity and variety of Jane’s interests, manage to also offer a broad-ranging historical account. Through Jane’s eyes, we are given general descriptions, intricate details, and immediate sensations that build an extensive picture of her location. We are invited, as well, to consider these experiences as they would have seemed to English eyes: ‘These birds bring back England,’ Jane tells us, referring to the black swans, ‘but turn it pale and ordinary - / their blackness astonishes / and this land looms / vivid, arresting; real.’ The settlements, the animal and bird life, the plants and waterways, the new foods - all are described in detail.
Eberhard is also able to offer a glimpse of nineteenth-century science and of the opportunities colonisation brought to it (with Sir John, Lady Jane established the first Royal Society for the Advancement of Science outside of Britain). She is able to acknowledge, too, the conditions of the prisons and the suffering of the Aboriginal people. In ‘West Coast / Port Davey’, Jane laments the reality she has entered: ‘I imagine fires. / This shore shaped with dark figures. / Can they all be gone?’ Lady Jane remains, Eberhard informs us, ‘fixedly Victorian’ in relation to her ideas about punishment and class. Eberhard emphasises, too, that while the Franklins do adopt an Aboriginal orphan, they do not take her with them when they return to England. The book does not judge Lady Jane, it does not set out to weigh her virtues against her faults. It sets out, rather, to fully enter the time in which she lived. The book’s greatest strength lies in the intimacy with which Eberhard offers Jane to us, and in the vitality this intimacy lends to life in Hobarton. There are several ways in which Eberhard secures her broad orientation.
In the poems, many names are mentioned that are not intended to be understood without reference to Eberhard’s ‘Notes to the poems’. Here, at the back of the book, historical details confirm that Jane was who Eberhard says she was, in outline at least. But the notes are not just reinforcements for Eberhard’s claims. They are also reminders of what it is we are entertaining: the intriguing woman we meet imaginatively and empathically in the poems is also a woman whose life and influence connects to a larger, recorded moment in history. Eberhard all but demands our involvement in this broader moment. When the name ‘Montagu’, for example, appears in ‘The Sitting-Room’ and ‘Frenchman’s Cap’, our choice is to learn his story (by reading, at least, Eberhard’s ‘Notes’) or to fail to understand the poems. The same ‘encouragement’ from Eberhard similarly lends animation to the names and deeds of other figures, Captain James Ross, Francis Crozier, and George Augustus Robinson among them.
The poems themselves, too, insist that more is on offer in Jane, Lady Franklin than one woman’s fancies. Written as if they come from Lady Jane’s personal diary, the poems are clearly not journal entries - they are poems, crafted and arranged for a particular purpose. One might argue that the purpose is to portray six years of Lady Jane’s life without printing six years worth of writing. But the poems achieve more than compression. The snippets from Lady Jane’s life are brief and the book’s chapters take us from one subject to another rather than through events as they happen. Even the chapter on Lady Jane’s use of ‘Laudanum’ recounts, as well, the drug’s history and application. (These poems, as an aside, are enthralling, the nervous condition Jane endures becoming almost contagious in.
I have clung
to a snow bridge, blue-black depths glinting
below, watched as icebergs crush my ship,
masts studded with cold crystals, felt
the fine flurry of snow filling my open mouth,
closing my eyes.
The laudanum is a ‘flower cure’ that ‘rings its music’.) There are many purely personal moments in Eberhard’s book. ‘Knock, and Enter’, for example, describes Jane’s regret at not having a child of her own. Yet the poems do not expressly privilege Lady Jane as their sole concern.
The poems, further, do not adopt a single style readers might recognise as the voice of Jane. Eberhard employs a variety of structures, couplets, quatrains, sonnets, and free verse among them, sometimes with and sometimes without formal rhythm and rhyme. These structures and their variety encourage, again, a broader outlook. We experience Lady Jane intimately, and yet there is space, a structural space, by which we gain some distance from her. In the space of poetry generally, particular details are able to be imbued with wider significance. In Jane, Lady Franklin, this enlarged perspective emphasises the context in which Jane’s experiences are set, and towards which we are accordingly and repeatedly directed. The effect is strong, though Eberhard’s poetic structures do also present some difficulties. Awkward rhymes and rhythms are not uncommon (rhymes especially), and there is occasionally the feeling that the task of satisfying a formal sound pattern has been allowed too great an influence over the content of a poem. The imagery in Eberhard’s more constrained poems can seem a little careless. In ‘Tides’, water is described as ‘a breathing heart’ as if the odd repetition of the similarly compounded ‘black flowers open small hearts like warm and silent mouths’, from two lines earlier, does not matter.
Jane, Lady Franklin is on the whole a pleasing and highly accessible publication. It contains much fine writing. In ‘The Overland Trek’, ‘The rain accompanies us, / an adagio playing in the brain.’ In ‘Wet Autumn’, fungi
sprawl in relaxed and beckoning poses,
legs apart, chins jutting, fingers crooked,
leering from their dour brows:
grotesques, fit to mount the ramparts of cathedrals,
grinning gargoyles pointing their fingers
at the secrets that lie buried, embedded
in the loamy pockets of the rain-washed mind.
Through Lady Jane, we are given experiences that equip us with the means and motivation to imaginatively explore the world with which Eberhard teases us. Eberhard’s book does not effect breathlessness or awe regarding its words, nor significant surprise or challenge regarding its content. What it does, and does extraordinarily well, is to open a space of involvement and vibrancy in which the Tasmania of the 1830s and 40s can be brought very much to life. For this, the book is easy to recommend.
The Latest Word - Jane, Lady Franklin
Wet Ink, Issue 2, Autumn 2006
Jane was the wife of Tasmanian colonial governor, Sir John Franklin. They arrived in Hobarton in 1837, and now poet Adrienne Eberhard provides a rich, well-researched sketch of Lady Franklin’s island life and activities.
Eberhard is a talented writer, reaching deeply into her character’s psyche and using Jane as the ‘voice through which to explore Tasmania’. Coming from England, Jane is enveloped and overwhelmed by her new ‘fecund and teeming’ environment. She makes sense of the landscape through the filter of Europe, and describes scenery in familiar similes - in the way that European names are superimposed upon natural landmarks: Lake St Clair, Mount King William, Frenchman’s Cap.
Although her response is rooted in her heritage, embodying the sensibility of the times, Jane is alive to nature:
... it is their noisy presence that pleases me most:
the crew of black cockatoos shredding banksias,
like men drunk on wine,
and the early morning hail of song
from the wattle bird
that wakes me every time.
The landscape is an active participant, and frequently galvanises the poetry. Jane attempts to fuse the language of her heritage and the world she is confronted with:
birds like royal barges,
Sleek, black, streaming,
their red beaks a slash
of unexpected colour, like rich
brocade crossed with satin.
Nature’s creepers intrude everywhere, and the words often succumb to piled-on adjectives and similes. Occasionally, it is hard to separate Jane straining to convey her experience from the poet failing to avoid cliche or didacticism (‘the broad sweep of river,’ ‘rivets the eye,’ ‘vivid, arresting, real,’ ‘Imagine, if you can...’). The bland rhetoric, however artful, can obscure character and deaden poetic effects.
At its best, Eberhard successfully reveals her character’s deep conflicts. ‘Daughters,’ a chapter about Jane’s attempt to adopt an Aboriginal girl, conveys the mindset and limitations of the poet’s nineteenth-century subject: ‘We thought to tame you / to mould your mind / make you curtsy, say please and thank you’ (‘Mathinna’). Successful, too, is the ‘Magic of stones’ section, in which the period’s intellectual conflicts are portrayed through scientific theories of the day.
There are less satisfying chapters, such as ‘The female factory’ and the strained sonnets of ‘George Augustus Robinson’. However, this is a highly appealing book. Such a conceit, sustained over the length of a full collection, might grow tedious in other hands - but Eberhard has produced intelligent poetry that is both engaging and historically enlightening.
Poetry - Jane, Lady Franklin
Island, No. 102, Spring 2005
Tasmanian colonial history has had many visitations and in recent years women’s history has found its place among the bones recovered. Adrienne Eberhard’s poetry collection Jane, Lady Franklin speaks in the voice of Jane Franklin, wife of Governor Sir John Franklin. The poems are collated into nine thematic sets with some familiar subjects for Tasmanian readers: ‘Hobarton’, ‘Port Arthur’, ‘Daughters’, ‘George Augustus Robertson’, ‘The Female Factory’, ‘The Magic of Stones’, ‘The Overland Trek’, ‘Laudanum’ and ‘Recall/Return’.
Speaking subject Jane
Franklin shares dreams of hope and disappointment in the journey to Van
Dieman’s Land: ‘I tasted air in my dreams, faint hills, mounds of
whales; the beginnings of
things’ (in ‘Snakes’). The monologue
continues, recounting the personal through a conflation of fact and fiction, and
‘Snakes’ signifies the dig
for ‘truth’ that informs this book,
because Lady Jane had a desperate fear of snakes and tried to eradicate them from
an essay clarifying reasons for her interest and research on Jane
want to pay tribute to Jane Franklin, the
woman’, she says, because she was ‘written out of
history, seen as a meddling
adjunct to the ‘real’ Franklin, her husband Sir
dedicated research and poetic
re-creations stand up well to serve the spirit and feminism of this
Jane, Lady Franklin by Adrienne Eberhard
Cordite (online), No. 22, 1 July 2005
Eberhard’s collection Jane,
Lady Franklin can almost be
described as a poetic novel. It contains a clear storyline, based
partly on the
real life voyage of Lady Jane Franklin, who traveled with her husband,
Lieutenant-Governor John Franklin, from
The work is divided into nine sections which comprise poems about Lady Jane’s initial impressions of Hobart through a visit to Port Arthur; her adoption of an Aboriginal girl, Mathinna; her interaction with George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector of the Aborigines; her attempts to reform the prison system for female convicts; her exploration of the geological and natural world around her; her difficult overland trek with her husband from Lake St Clair to Macquarie Harbour; her use of Laudanum for her headaches; and her return to England in 1843. The poems are each footnoted and the book includes an extensive list of sources. However, while history certainly lends depth and interest to this work, Eberhard’s greatest achievement is in creating her own, very real Jane, a protagonist who draws the reader directly into her world, and away from the his-story on which her narrative is based.
The poetry in this volume is direct, and even simple in terms of the single intention of each individual piece. The meaning is very clear, without any kind of overt experimentation or form for form’s sake. For example, by using the power of extended metaphor – something that Eberhard does very well – the author provides the reader with an insider’s feel rather than an onlooker’s perspective on the weather in Hobarton:
Here it is a torrent of knocking;
angry wasps, Pandora’s spirits
hitting their small bodies against the box,
the Furies wrapped in wet garments,
dragged from the sea like a trawl of netted weed.
The poetry is not without humour. One immediately feels the almost silly exuberance of a stranger-in-a-strange-land comic scenario with ‘Victuals’:
Quail pie for breakfast, whole wallaby for dinner
Kangaroo soup -
those furred creatures with their great tails
and dark-lashed eyes.
Will we assume their speed
the shark’s cunning
the squid’s mobility
the flathead’s knowledge?
jostling in our bodies -
I could walk on my hands for sure.
come to empathise with Jane as
she discovers both the harsh and beautiful in her adopted country,
along the water, looking up at the moon, or standing at the black
Although Jane struggles with the limitations of her class and her desire to understand the women of the Female Factory, or the convicts and the badly oppressed Aborigines of the strange world of Van Diemen’s Land which she explores, she begins to form a kind of makeshift bond with its inhabitants, sensing and collaborating with the stitchwork of the convicts or the longing that they might have felt on their trip:
I wonder, when she mends her new mistress’s garments
Will she remember the lithe stitches of the quilt,
Colours that rioted like the sunset on the sea,
Seams that gathered together the patches:
Small pockets of love and hope.
Jane has her own personal longings which tie her more concretely to the land than her observations. Her debilitating headaches become writhing tiger snakes, her understanding of the land’s loss – both the aborigines and the Tasmanian Tigers – as a silence that etches the country. Her personal longing for a child is also a ‘shadow and absence’ which reaches its apex as a young Aboriginal child, Mathinna, enters her life:
you are all spirit
dispersed in the wind
your heart is wild.
You were never really mine.
The poetry here is exquisite, beautifully taut, clarified to instant meanings that bypass the need for conjunctions and adverbs. Eberhard’s work demonstrates how powerful a medium for storytelling poetry can be, and yet none of the poetic force of each piece or its particular intensity is sacrificed. The character of Lady Jane is deeply and intensely drawn, both in terms of what she sees, and what she feels, using powerful imagery which heaps metaphor on metaphor until they reveal that which lurks under the rocks of the land, and under the petticoats in the parlour. Minor characters like Sir John, Mathinna, George Augustus Robinson, and Ornithologist John Gould are also revealed in a few deft strokes through Lady Jane’s perspective. This is a dramatic work, and the quiet voice through which it is told, serves to heighten the drama. Lady Jane is a character history refers to only in the periphery, but Eberhard succeeds beautifully in giving her center-stage. The perspective and sense is a deeply female one, full of pathos, loneliness, loss, hunger, and empathy. While each poem is strong enough to stand on its own, and many in this collection have indeed been published on their own, together they form a most intimate and powerful portrait – a history, but also a story of what it means to be alive in any time: to experience, to fight for justice, and to be fully conscious of one’s own limitations.
A triumph of empathy as Lady Jane is brought to life
Geoff Page (poet)
The Canberra Times, 11/6/2005
In her new book, Jane, Lady Franklin, Adrienne Eberhard assumes the view-point of the wife of the Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land from 1837 to 1843. Here again we can see many of the virtues she displayed in her first volume, Agamemnon’s Poppies. There is the same feeling for other people’s situations, the same verbal energy.
The present book comprises nine sections which cover almost all the main elements of Lady Jane’s six-year stay in Van Diemen’s Land. The only exception, perhaps, is the controversy and back-biting that surrounded her husband’s tenure of office and his eventual recall. Eberhard, in several sections, gives us Jane’s intensely felt awareness of landscape, flora and fauna - again, a preoccupation not unlike what we saw of Eberhard herself in her first book.
There are also poems about the Female Factory, a short (slightly sanitised) section about Port Arthur, an account of her overland trip with her husband across the island to Macquarie Harbour and a section about her adopted Aboriginal daughter, Mathinna, and the frustrations of her own childlessness. ‘I would have liked to feel my belly burgeon beneath my hands / too late - / instead I withdraw, my head aching / like a plague of wasps beating in my brain // I would the knocking was in my womb instead.’
Jane, Lady Franklin is obviously based on extensive research, including a thorough reading of her diaries, still mainly unpublished. The book’s afterword is comprehensive, almost scholarly - and easily answers the considerable number of factual questions raised by the poems. The book is not, however, a web of quotation. Eberhard has done her reading and then put the books aside. She has thought her way into her subject’s personality, with all of its complexities, its enjoyments and frustrations. Of the swans, for instance, she says: ‘These birds bring back England / but turn it pale and ordinary - // their blackness astonishes / and this land looms / vivid, arresting; real.’
In addition to this, Eberhard has used a considerable variety of poetic forms to embody her perceptions - mainly free verse but also a range of others, including iambic pentameter quatrains, and modern sonnets. She thus joins an increasing number of poets these days who think themselves into characters and situations from earlier periods but do so using thoroughly contemporary poetic forms.
If Lady Jane herself had written poetry, the chances are she would have been a ‘poetaster’ or a ‘poetess’, a minor re-cycler of outmoded diction. Her diaries, it seems, transcend these expectations and Eberhard appears to have done full justice to their close observation and forward-thinking qualities. There are a few words like ‘babes’ and ‘gruel’ which do have a 19th-century ring but mostly the poems are made up of either contemporary or timeless description. Jane, Lady Franklin, is certainly no exercise in nostalgia, either in content or manner.
The book does, however, convey a strong sense of Tasmania’s lost potential, of how a seemingly Edenic landscape is doomed to be degraded, and, particularly in four successive sonnets about G.A. Robinson and Trugernanna, of how its original inhabitants were harassed, lied to and pretty much left to die on Flinders Island. Yet, paradoxically, for all this, Jane, Lady Franklin is as much lyrical as it is historical or a contribution to the ‘history wars’. Ultimately, it is a triumph of empathy.
Jane, Lady Franklin - Adrienne Eberhard
Famous Reporter, No. 31, June 2005
It requires a certain maturity for a poet to move outside themselves and write from another’s perspective and it is even more difficult to shift back almost two centuries (as Eberhard has here) with its sometimes radically different points of view and beliefs. Karen Knight has recently done it very successfully with Under the One Granite Roof, her poems about and through the eyes of Walt Whitman and Jordie Albiston had earlier achieved it with both Botany Bay Document and The Hanging of Jean Lee. By chance, I lived within metres of the house in which Lee and her accomplices tortured and murdered the old bookmaker; I would read a few pages and go out and look at the house; being able to do this was both valuable and eerie. I mention this only because something similar is possible for readers of Eberhard’s book, if they live in Tasmania, perhaps specifically Hobart, however such proximity cannot of course be necessary and the poet must manufacture the world in question in such detail that we are transported, both to the place and time. In the case of Eberhard, I think this is achieved to a remarkable degree; dividing the collection into ‘Hobarton’, ‘Port Arthur’ and ‘The Female Factory’ helps. If there was one criticism I had of Lee it was that times and places were mixed up; that might be OK for the video clip generation but I prefer Eberhard’s approach. Eberhard’s language at times is a delight; sometimes she brings to mind past poets of great stature. I can hear Plath in this for example:
their eyes tight with malice.
‘Snakes’, pg. 3
but the image is her own, along with dozens of others. I will give just a couple of examples of her command of the arresting metaphor and image:
a palmful of freedom.
‘Patchwork’, pg. 59
We are encamped; detained like petty thieves.
(Due to constant, heavy rain.)
‘The Overland Trek’, pg. 80
The beaches are white as piano keys.
‘The Overland Trek’, pg. 85
Eberhard does a great job of making a ‘telling’ summation too, when she wants to, when the story calls for it.
...another chance/at life; this dishonest, tragic dance.
‘George Augustus Robinson’, pg. 53
and my favourite, Jane’s thoughts on Tasmania/Australia near the end of the collection, upon her recall/return to England:
This country offers no sanctuary:/anything unusual is forced to run;...
‘Recall/Return’, pg. 99
I believe that, almost overwhelmingly, Eberhard has convincingly taken up the appropriate, believable views and beliefs of the characters (it is a story, and a wonderful reminder of the power of poetry to tell stories; the novel being a comparatively recent invention), the only stage at which I doubted this was in ‘The River’ where Jane says, ‘...how long until/there are only bones, bleaching?’ (pg. 11) where the views of the 21st Century seemed to be intruding. Another criticism, which can probably be made against even The Odyssey (if not The Iliad) is that some sections are not as strong as others (‘The Magic of Stones’ seemed to lack power, and, well, magic) but overall it is an excellent book and the publishers (Black Pepper) are to be congratulated, including on the production; the cover drawing by Emily Stewart Bowring, ‘Derwent River & Government House’ circa 1858 is above its usual, sometimes muddy offerings. (And how apt that the drawing is by a woman!) I believe that, with this collection, Eberhard has shown herself to be prepared to take risks, an essential quality in a poet who is, as Geoff Page says on the back cover, ‘...(an emerging) truly substantial poetic talent’. She also has the ability to write as if she (and we) are there and she does this with her considerable compassion (as in the achingly sad ‘White Rocks [Suicide Rocks])’ onto which boys jumped to their deaths) and by eschewing the use of the all-too-common Teflon images and language of much of today’s Australian poetry.
Lady Jane discovered in poetry
Christopher Bantick (Tassiebooks)
Sunday Tasmanian, 24 October 2004
Sir John Franklin was Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land from 1837 to 1843 and, together with his wife, Lady Jane, presided over a period of rigorous growth.
But where the historical record documents John Franklin’s contribution to early Tasmanian society, his wife’s impressions are less well known.
Local poet, Adrienne Eberhard, has set out to change this.
Her new and rewarding book of poems, simply titled Jane, Lady Franklin, is a book of imaginings.
Beyond Eberhard’s effortless recreation of 19th century society, Lady Franklin’s first person characterisation adds a personal dimension often denied by history.
In her detailed afterword, Eberhard says the book emerged out of a wider Tasmanian preoccupation.
‘I was particularly driven to convey, as well reach, a greater understanding of the sense of place I feel in Tasmania and to explore the relationship between place and people/character,’ she said.
Helped by a chronology of the events of the Franklins’ life in Tasmania, the collection of poems has a strong narrative thread.
‘I wanted to pay tribute to Jane Franklin, the woman. In many ways, she had been written out of history, seen as a meddling adjunct to the “real” Franklin, her husband,’ she said.
‘I wanted to give her a voice through my poetry, to explore the emotional, psychological, social and physical Jane, as well as my responses to her as a female observer of mid-19th century Tasmania.’
Eberhard has fulfilled her aims superbly. In the poem ‘The River,’ her verse gives us Lady Franklin’s early impressions of Hobart.
‘We are in a sea-town complete with sailing ships, schooners, rowboats, hulks and whalers, and the heavy settling of salt air.’
Then there is her measured assessment of Port Arthur. In the series of poems titled ‘Port Arthur,’ we sense in ‘The Crossing’ the isolation and menace of punitive administrative practices.
‘At this narrow isthmus separating our worlds as surely as the River Styx, a line of dogs anchored to kennels, their teeth a white hunger.’
It is a point sharpened in ‘Victuals.’ Here Eberhard underscores the very foreignness of Tasmania to the newly arrived Franklins.
‘This really is the Antipodes - The underworld of England - one’s palate touched with oddities of beast, fowl, fish.’
Eberhard’s capturing of Lady Franklin, this woman who longs for ‘breeches and shirt, instead of petticoats and stockings,’ is wholly successful. We hear her and know her. A remarkable and evocative book.
Books and Writing
Presented by Ramona Koval, featuring Geoff Page
ABC Radio National - Broadcast 27/3/2005
Now to the work of poet Adrienne Eberhard and her latest collection, Jane, Lady Franklin. Here’s our poetry reviewer Geoff Page reading one of the poems titled ‘Shadow of Death’.
from: ‘Gould goes to
That poem, ‘Shadow of Death’, is from Adrienne Eberhard’s new book Jane, Lady Franklin, a livre composé in which Eberhard assumes the viewpoint of the wife of the lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land from 1837 to 1843. It’s a poem in which we can see many of the virtues Eberhard displayed in her first volume, Agamemnon’s Poppies. There is the same feeling for other people’s situations, and the same verbal energies, though toned down in this instance to match the subject matter.
In ‘Shadow of Death’, Lady Jane is rather haplessly trying to follow the injunctions of her friend, Elizabeth Fry, the 19th century English prison reformer. Jane is sympathetic to the plight of these so-called ‘fallen women’, but she can’t transcend her class background enough to understand them fully. She senses, though, from her own childlessness perhaps, the extent of their suffering, the significance of those tiny coffins.
As we learn from the book’s extensive notes, Lady Jane was hoping to abolish the assigning of convict women to landholders, which so often led to their being preyed upon and returned to the female factory pregnant. Her list of possible solutions is pathetically inadequate, of course. Yet Eberhard is far from criticising or satirising Lady Jane’s limitations.
In another poem, ‘Patchwork’, Jane notices how, almost illicitly, the female convicts have managed to decorate their underwear, but here they are simply ‘drab apparitions in their white caps’, wearing what she sees as their ‘accusing aprons’. Eberhard catches perfectly in this poem the huge gap experienced by 19th century aristocratic women who felt a charitable impulse but who, for many reasons including their own patriarchy, were unable to do much that was useful to address the problem.
divided into nine sections which cover almost all the main elements of
Jane’s six-year stay in
Jane, Lady Franklin is obviously based on extensive research, including a thorough reading of her diaries, mainly still unpublished. The book’s afterword is comprehensive, almost scholarly, and easily answers the considerable numbers of factual questions raised by the poems. The book is not, however, a web of quotation. Eberhard has done her reading and then put the books aside. She has thought her way into the subject’s personality with all its complexities, its enjoyments and frustrations. In addition to this, Eberhard has used a considerable variety of poetic forms to embody her perceptions, mainly free verse but also a range of others including iambic pentameter, quatrains and modern sonnets. Eberhard thus joins an increasing number of poets these days who think themselves into characters and situations from an earlier period, but do so using thoroughly contemporary poetic forms.
If Lady Jane herself had written poetry, the chances are she would have been a poetaster or a poetess, a minor recycler of received diction and ideas. Her diaries, it seems, transcend such predictions, and Eberhard seems to have done full justice to their close observation and forward-thinking qualities. In the poem I’ve just read, we have a few words like ‘babes’ and ‘gruel’ which have a 19th century ring, but mostly the poem is made up of either contemporary or timeless description in phrases such as ‘for she is round with child’, ‘hungry bodies and thin mouths’, and so on. Jane, Lady Franklin is certainly no exercise in nostalgia, either in content or manner. The book does, however, have a strong sense of Tasmania’s lost potential, of how a seemingly paradisaical landscape is doomed to be degraded, and of (particularly in four successive sonnets about G.A. Robinson and Truganini) how it’s original inhabitants have been harassed, lied to and pretty much left to die on Flinders Island. Yet paradoxically, for all this, Eberhard’s book is as much lyrical as it is historical or a contribution to the history book. Ultimately it’s, above all, a triumph of empathy.
Ramona Koval: Geoff Page, with his thoughts on the latest collection from poet Adrienne Eberhard titled Jane, Lady Franklin, published by Black Pepper Press. And that’s all from Books and Writing this week, which is produced by me, Ramona Koval, and Michael Shirrefs.
Jane, Lady Franklin by Adrienne Eberhard
PoeticA, Radio National
Broadcast 3pm, 27/11/ 2004
Tasmanian poet Adrienne Eberhard’s new book Jane, Lady Franklin is a celebration in poetry of Jane Franklin’s fascinating life.
Jane Franklin and her husband Sir John Franklin, Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land arrived in Hobart in 1837. She went on to participate in or observe many of the events that helped to shape Tasmania today.
She met many people such as John Gould, George Frankland and George Augustus. Jane had a phobia about snakes and planned to rid the Island of them by placing a bounty on their heads but was eventually persuaded to abandon this particular project. She was interested in everything: exploration, the Assignment system for convicts, the prisoners, the cultural offerings of Hobart society; and she refused the role of conventional governor’s wife.
Readers: Sally Cooper and Adrienne Eberhard
Produced by Krystyna Kubiak
The Politics of Poetry
Blue Dog, Vol. 6, No. 11, 2007
I’m sitting at the Duckpond in Barnes Bay, watching Rolan row away to set the net in the hope of another escaped salmon, two small boys fast asleep in the forepeak, and I’m watching the turbulence of clouds as they mass and surge and drift apart. It’s sheltered here from the south-west wind, although I can see it blowing out in the main part of the bay. I’ve been trying to write a poem about the astonishing phosphorescence we saw last night, but I keep getting distracted by the clouds, the local activity on the water, and by Anne Michaels’ poetry. Is ‘Phosphorescence’ a poem about place? I suppose it is - it’s generated by a particular happening in a very specific place, but if you didn’t know, it could be about phosphorescence anywhere. Maybe that doesn’t matter - if it makes a reader stop and think, see it in his/her mind’s eye, witness the miraculousness of nature at second hand, then perhaps that’s enough. But because this is ‘my’ place - Oberon, the Channel, Tasmania - it’s doubly important to me, the happening magical, the writing about it a deep need:
When I pull the rope, a bucket
of drowned stars appears, as if the night-
sky’s fallen into the sea, all the constellations
scattered into a million parts, these white-hot
pinpoints of light surging to the surface, a last attempt
to reach the heavens and reform: Pleiades, Orion...
This is how Narcissus drowned, the same rapt
wonder at the world reduced to a single sphere
of water: self, ego, rim of mountain, all
the empty space of mind and sky pouring in
behind his eyes, until diving in is nothing more
than sweet surrender to dark and silence.
Tonight we are flying through a galaxy,
each glowing ember a star to wish on
before it bursts into flame, an underwater
fireworks display where Catherine wheels
flare for a brief instant, then disappear, mercurial
brothers and sisters racing upwards in rapture,
then gone, like the breaking of a wave
or a body awash with the ecstasy
of another’s lips and fingers;
that moment when we spin
out of orbit, in our skin
the birth of stars.
Reading Anne Michaels’ poetry sends a shiver down my spine. Her poems are anchored in specific places and landscapes, fiercely loved/owned by the writer, but transformed into universal landscapes of the heart. Michaels, to me, is a ‘place writer’ but her poetic territory is a human one:
to a marram field roaring under two thousand
Atlantic miles of moonlight, scent scoured
in the salt, as if an invisible woman
embraced us in the dark; the clover’s
trace in cow’s breath, in sweet milk,
woven by wind into the tall grass,
roots binding the sand. Arable islands
of porous lava, and islands so rigid the rain
bruises into peat, parietal
thumbprints in the gneiss
like the soft lakes
in an infant’s skull
(‘Fontanelles’ in Skindivers).
I believe this is what the very best place writing does; it ‘sings’ a place, but in so doing defines something about human nature, human needs. Is this what ‘real’ connections with a particular place do for us? Make us richer human beings in our capacity to love and to be loved? Do special places, and our connections to them, tap into the spiritual in us, and make us more vulnerable (to loss and change), more appreciative, more aware, capable of a deep joy at being? By extension, writing about these places and our relationship with them is a way of clarifying it and understanding it, as well as passing on to others, at an almost unconscious level, the need to connect. I think what Michaels does is emphasise how implicit our connections with the natural world are; the language, the metaphors, the philosophical leaps she employs are always to do with geology, time, geomorphic processes, and the inventions, changes and transformations humans have undergone to arrive where we are today. Her focus on love and memory forces the understanding that we are not just of the land but in the land, and the land is in us. If ‘singing a place’ can be aligned with activism, then her poetry insists that if we care about ourselves, then we care about the past and the world in all its forms (cultural, historical, physical, sentient and non-sentient) that we have inherited.
I have also been reading an anthology of world poetry: poetry for the most part written in languages other than English, by poets from Africa, Asia, the Carribean and Europe. Reading many of these poems begs the question of whether we can ever consider ourselves ‘political’ when our poetry does not address directly the political and social issues of a place and time. Dennis Brutus, for instance, is a South African poet who because of his anti-apartheid activities was forbidden to write, consequently imprisoned, then shot and tortured after escaping. His poetry addresses the circumstances and events of apartheid-South Africa head-on: unflinching, challenging, confrontational to both the regime and the reader, who like me, perhaps too readily thinks he/she is doing something by ‘singing of place’. How can this ever be enough when in our own country people are imprisoned because they seek a new life, where the indigenous population has such a high percentage of deaths in custody, suicide, alcohol/drug use, domestic violence, ill-health? Is it enough to write in celebration, even if this develops others’ respect for /love of/connection with a place? Is this as valid a role as that of the political poet like Brutus and Wole Soyinka and Mahmoud Darwish? Do we need to be political, or simply moral? We live in a time of exile and alienation, when home/place either assumes symbolic and powerful resonance or it means very little at all. How do people ever recover from being exiled from a place, to be denied it through war, lack of citizenship, colonial oppression... At the same time, how does a new generation brought up with videos, computers and virtual reality ever begin to build connections with the natural world? How do we gain that balance? And can poetry help?
Being an optimist and holding to a kind of naive faith, I suppose I hope that poems that aren’t driven by politics, but by a morality that grows out of a sense of wonder at the world, can affect people, can begin to change lives. But it’s not as simple, surely, as just writing the poems. They need to be published, and much more fundamentally, read, shared, talked about, memorised, so that the intimations of a place that those poems contain, are absorbed by the mind, and the body.
Poetry needs to be read, and increasingly, people don’t read poetry. Poetry should be everywhere; it should definitely be in our schools so that kids who’ve never seen the greenness of a rainforest, or a cobbled west coast beach, or ever given thought to the fact that Aboriginal people once lived in their backyards, have the chance to make that imaginative leap, and grow, if not a political conscience, a moral one.
I’ve always held the belief that activism and poetry don’t really mix (until reading the afore-mentioned anthology!); that big messages need loudspeakers and rallies and newspaper articles, not poems tucked away in the quiet pages of a book. I believe that it requires a different kind of language, that poetry’s not made to bang drums. Yet at the same time, I’ve believed it can make a difference; I suppose I think this is true still. Poems aren’t going to make a premier change his mind about old-growth logging; huge rallies and lots of public condemnation might. But increasingly I think there’s a moral imperative to deal head on with the ills that beset our world. That to remain silent is intolerable and amoral. So it’s about finding the right kind of language that deals with, but transcends, the political, transforming message or edict into a poem of possibility.
Messages and edicts alienate as well as influence; perhaps poetry has the best chance of planting the seeds of change, at a metaphorical as well as a rational level. The lines of a poem can be persistent as a melody; you are never able to get them out of your head, and they work like music, making associations and connections subconsciously, like the rings made from a pebble thrown into water. Reading ‘place writing’ is a mediating force allowing ideas to percolate and permeate, and then to bubble away quietly. Two examples come to mind: (i) Friends of my parents who hold traditional-right values, staunchly pro-dam, pro-forestry, pro-development, came to the launch of my first collection of poetry and bought a copy. I like to think that in reading the poems some of those long-held beliefs might have been challenged, even changed, that my way of seeing Tasmania, and being ‘active’ about it, might influence, in some small way, theirs, in a way that protests and rallies would only alienate.
(ii) In 1997 I taught in a private boys’ school in Canberra. The Year 10 class was a very mixed group and I could well envisage Golding’s The Lord of the Flies being played out if they were ever marooned on an island. I remember, in particular, two poems we discussed and the responses they illicited: Gwen Harwood’s ‘Barn Owl’ and Nicholas Christopher’s ‘Terminus’ about the rape of a Bosnian girl. The discussion was rich and quite challenging to some of the students’ beliefs. And where the mention of ‘rape’ in a different context might have provoked giggles from some, the poem enabled the full horror of such an experience (and the horror of war and its atrocities, and the never-ending repetition of them) to sink in. An article, a forum, a protest march, a debate, would not have had anywhere near the same effect.
Being moral is not just about how we treat people, but all creatures and non-sentient beings too. And of course, the best way we have of being kind to ourselves is by being kind to the world we live in. I think people do have a deep need to hear these things being expressed, and to know that there are not just people advocating actively, but that there are people writing about this, exploring the ways in which we connect with places and how we can preserve these places too. Think of the popularity of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels, and the big readership Peter Matthiesson and Barry Lopez have. I remember sitting in a packed Peacock Theatre in Hobart in 1996, listening to Barry Lopez reading one of his stories (not talking, not advocating, but reading) and hearing people sobbing all around me. I will never forget that experience, and nor will those others I suspect. What human beings need more than anything, I think, is hope. And that’s what Lopez’s writing provides. That’s what poetry can provide. And the will to change.
Recently, my husband Rolan became concerned about the levels of metals in the Derwent, as we had been catching flathead with the boys in Storm Bay. He brought home a copy of the State Of the Derwent Report; and at much the same time I read a newspaper article about the fish, in a Canadian River, whose biology has been altered by the run-off from surrounding cattle ranches. If I was a different kind of person I’d write letters, I suppose, demanding answers and change. Instead I wrote a poem:
‘The Natural Order’
Twelve years old, this girl, with cables
of wind hauling the length of her calves
and arms, whistling her into her future,
the past caught like petals in the straight
bones of her pelvis. Every day the wind blows
stronger, whips her blood into a pulse
she cannot keep pace with; what she desires
is to be the wind, limbs cartwheeling flight,
scattering the sun. Now it blows her
in all directions like poplar leaves torn
from their branches, bowled over
the bleached grass, caught in piles
against the fence’s taut wire.
There is the same unbearable tightness
in her chest, breasts swelling, pushing
her t-shirt into hills and valleys
even when her shoulders sag.
She is lost, navigating new terrain;
this seismic world.
Looking back is like staring
through a tunnel to the kaleidoscopic
twists of cell on cell; she remembers
when the wind slowed, allowing her
a semblance of calm, when the shifting
tectonic plates of her body
reached an equilibrium, electricity
stilling in her limbs, it was then
her body’s reverie began to equate cool air
with another’s touch, and the blood
blossoming in her skin promised love.
It seems the driving force was love
all along, impelled from the moment
the first cells divided, biology cancelling
out everything else. She thinks of the fish
in the Elkhorn River, their chance
at metamorphosis dwindling by the day
as hormones leach from land to water,
cattle reproducing blindly as gods,
their growth fast-tracked, more cataclysmic
than seismic. Male fish surrender
masculinity, females become more male,
and the dance she witnessed in her own body
- lightning leap, volcanic spit and tug,
upheaval of blood and heart -
becomes just a dream that others chase.
The beckoning world began when he was tiny,
beetles, their wings a rush of water and bright metal, filled
his pockets, lizards leant curious heads from between his fingers,
their lithe bodies beating a pulse into his palm, bird
wings were the flight of his heart. Later came the gait
of different creatures, the thump of rabbit feet sending
a blood-shiver deep as tree-roots, the warmth of fox pups
sinking soft, fleet shadows in his skin. Doves, love birds,
ducks, dingoes, wombats, cats, horses, snakes; a bestiary
as disparate as the Arc. In adolescence he haunted
the sea, its salt-lure as strong as Circe’s, the animals
extraordinary in their self-containment and coldness,
their names turning them from fish to friend,
Blenny, Goby, Cowfish, Weedfish, Stargazer,
Grubfish, Kelpfish, Damselfish, Bullseye,
Silverbelly, Velvetfish, Spinyfin, Sandpaperfish,
Crusthead, Hardyhead, Wearyfish, Whiptail
and most endearing of all, the Handfish, crawling
with its pectoral fins along the bottom, just the size
to cup in his own hand. The river teemed, running
with its own music, separate to the world of air,
the fur-filled, warm-blooded world. Now it is his sons
who catch skinks and bluetongues, pocket beetles,
snails, slugs, worms, keep soft-furred rabbits in a hutch
in the garden and tadpoles completing miracles
in a green bucket. Walking the rocks, their fingers
anemone-like in his own, they spot eel, skate,
octopus, dolphin, seal, but he knows the handfish
are endangered and crayfish, once richly abundant
as their colour, are hard to find. It is a different song
he hears now, the refrain, slow but inexorable:
Northern Pacific Seastar, Japanese Seaweed,
Pacific Oyster, raw sewage spillage, atrazine,
cadmium, mercury, zinc, lead.
He reads the latest report, insists they only fish
in waters swept by Southern Ocean currents,
while, each day, his sons salvage bones and fossils,
shells and starfish to line their bedroom window sill,
pulling the river one wave closer each time
until at night it laps at their ears, and they sleep,
their world too small yet for pollution, poison, extinction,
knowing only renewal, their trust huge in his hands.
I think, more than anything, it’s being the mother of two small boys that will tip me over into activism. It’s not enough anymore to watch things happening and to talk about them. I have to write about it and make other people see too. But will they? Who will read this poem? Friends now. Later, a wider audience when it’s in a book. But won’t this be too late? Those fish in the Canadian river are like that now; the Derwent is polluted and has been for years. I have a friend who has just read Margaret Atwood’s Onyx and Crake. It terrified her, but she couldn’t put it down. Everything in the novel she can imagine happening here; and she feels powerless. I told her how, increasingly, I feel impelled to write about ‘issues’, moral imperatives; that the ‘singing’ isn’t necessarily enough anymore; that what we do to the world is horrifying and disturbing, and that the poems are becoming more disturbing too.
I wonder, sometimes, if it is the essay that is the best way to reach people, to find a wider audience for the most moral of necessities. The problem is that essays and poems reach the already converted, not the ones who don’t know or don’t care. A love of place comes from a hands-on immersion in the world: Peter Conrad describes the world beyond Mt Wellington as a fearful place of dragons, but he’d never experienced those places first-hand.
Children need to play outside, they deserve to be given the world in their hands, to explore it as though it is a part of them. Increasingly this doesn’t happen. Schools ought to be much more indoor/outdoor places with access to parks and forests and streams and beaches, and the play that takes place there should be part of the curriculum. What better way to learn about yourself and the world as an adolescent than to be part of a crew on a boat that is your classroom. Learning to sail, to navigate by the stars, to catch fish to feed yourselves, to be self-sufficient within the world. I suppose that’s partly why we are here, on Oberon, at the Duckpond, with two small boys asleep, our world turned to water, waves, clouds and starlight. We have to start somewhere.