The Garden of Earth : Homer Rieth
Cover photograph: Tim J Keegan, Aerial view of The Darling River from 15000ft
$49.00 - Australia
$65.00 - International
Mystic of the West
When I spit, he says, I leave more moisture on the ground than the rain
out here could ever do,
the likes of which are getting more seldom, more uncertain, more remote,
and not to say
thinner on the ground than ever—sometimes no more than a cover slip
of cloud brocade,
stretching from Charlotte Pass to Three Peaks—and some days you’d think
that what’s left of the world is blowing about Mount Victory,
as a kind of aimless cloud of debris,
and Mount Victory itself seems so far away as to drive the compass points
it’s then that you realise how much Fish Falls means, and Wallaby Rocks
and Rose Creek Road, where time passes like child’s play—
and it does so, compared to geological ages, but not to the ice island, ‘Cold Edge’,
where the Svalbard Seed Vault is a store of thousands of seed lines,
ten thousand coming at a time—at a speed inversely proportional to the sound
that time makes, when it’s running out—
and you call me a dreamer, he says, because I remind you of beatific things,
like these once well-watered slopes, or the scarps and half-hidden skews
heading down to Asses Ears, crossing in no time the fragile kidney-bean grassland
of Victoria Valley, piping the last post of spring—
you resent my reminding you of such things, he says, so be it—I in turn resent
your callow digital complacency, your fatuous twenty-first century supine acceptance
of everything that they (a category of unmistakable implication) that they, let me say,
tell you, for the benefit of themselves, of course, and for your assured destruction—
consider it done, he says, and meanwhile go on warbling the praises
of genetics, the new theology—go seek the unholy grail of ‘genetic material’,
prepare your march-pasts
and ticker tapes for the future utopian breeders—then come the day
you’ll bask in the gloom of your own ignorance, naming by rote (as if that makes
it all sound more sincere, more true, more sacred!)
each seed box—brassicas, tropical crop wild relatives, oats, lupins, oilseeds,
each in a state of impermeable and virgin perfection!—ah yes, at last,
at last! the virtual as sacrosanct—and such horrors as disease or vermin or frost,
even the grotesqueries of old—drought, plague, flood—
all of them soon to be if not already, things of the past—
let us praise the Lord of Uncreation, of New Creation, of Creation by Artificial Means,
the Lord is our fortress, our collateral undamaged—and his Doomsday
is our strength and our salvation—we are one, though poles apart—
a consummation all-consuming, all-consumed—
well (I should tell you) in the end he gradually began to calm down, or seemed to,
when the talk turned to the buglers’ picnic at Zumstein’s pisť cottages—
listen, he did, to the last post of spring.
Photo: Victorian author Homer Rieth has penned a 600-page epic about the Murray Darling Basin. (Danielle Grindlay)
In what would have to be one of the most unusual publications on the Murray Darling Basin, a Victorian author has penned a 600-page poem about the river system.Audio: Victorian author Homer Rieth has penned a 600-page epic about the Murray Darling Basin. (ABC Rural)
The epic feat, titled The Garden of Earth, comes after seven years of research and hand-written ponderings by Minyip-based poet Homer Rieth.
From a young age Dr Rieth carried a burden to live up to his namesake and honour the ancient Greek poet behind epics the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Dr Rieth's first attempt to reinvent the epic — a long, single poem — paid tribute to Victoria's Wimmera grain belt, where he settled down to write 17 years ago.
But The Garden of Earth comes with a strong message about the future of the Murray Darling Basin.
"The poem is addressing very real and vital, contemporary, concerns … which might come under the more broadly framed heading of climate change," he said.
"It's a real place that, unless we look after it, will be something that will be lost."
When I spit, he says, I leave more moisture on the ground than the rain out here could ever do,
the likes of which are getting more seldom, more uncertain, more remote, and not to say
thinner on the ground than ever — sometimes no more than a cover slip of cloud brocade
— extract from 'The Garden of Earth'
"It is political because, unfortunately, mere hymns of praise are no longer enough," he said.
"That's why my poem, at many points, tries to demand of the reader that he address the future of the planet as well as simply wanting to find some poetic hymn to it."
As well as travelling along parts of the 2,520 kilometre Murray River and 1,472 km Darling River, Dr Rieth consumed as many books and reports about the river system he could find.
"I believe, without any doubt, that the poem is as valid and as comprehensive a submission that might be put to authorities who run the river systems or even political parties," he said.
"It's deeply considered, over a very long period of time, and strongly argued evocation of the river systems, the landscape, the environment [and] the continent, which it lies in our power to do something about."
It has taken about 14 years for Dr Rieth to complete Wimmera and The Garden of Earth and the author is very clear that a third epic is off the table.
"I've said most, if not all of what I wanted to say," he said.
"I think two is about right — my namesake wrote two and (ancient Roman poet) Vergil only wrote one."
Ken Smeaton, Dec 10, 2016
Dr. Homer Rieth talks about his epic poem 'The Garden of Earth'.
A defence of his own epic
18 September 2017
I remind myself that it's just good the book is at all reviewed regardless, poetry books especially are sorely neglected in this matter. And also at least it was a lengthy review, and canvassed a broad range of possible responses to the poem.
However the claim that the book ignores indigenous Australia is laughable as well as inaccurate, as there are many references and allusions to the dream time, to Aboriginal history, customs, traditions, and of course art. For example, no less than four of the Cantos (No. 22, 103, 110 and 111) pay homage to and explore the vision articulated in the paintings of Albert Namatjira! Indeed the paintings are actually named, e.g. 'Ghost Gum, Glen Helen', 'Sand-Drift', 'Ullambaura Haas Bluff'. But I suppose Namatjira is old school, not cool like the dot painters of the Kimberley today, whose works sell for a fortune, whereas Namatjira's recognition was slow in coming and he died poor.
And then, to top it all, there's a turning point, where the mood and the tone of the whole poem changes, Canto 66, which is pivotal and deeply indigenous.
I doubt whether reviewers ever do read the whole of the books they review, and one this size is probably far too much for them!
Anyway, I'm not really complaining, only grouching! I just wish reviews were constructed with more diligence! For instance, calling the poem "The Garden of Eden" is a real howler, even though this clanger taps (unconsciously?!) into the work as being in some sense a religious poem, or perhaps to put it another way, a poem evoking the spirituality of the Australian landscape! That was truly a Freudian slip! And frankly I'm flattered!
Anyway, Mr Wood has put the book in good company, where if I may say so it belongs, with Walt Whitman, Milton, Kalidasa, Olsen's 'Maximus', Walcot's 'Omeros', Jose Hernandez's 'Martin Fierro' and of course the Australians, Pi O and John Kinsella, among others.
Review Short: Homer Rieth’s The Garden of Earth
Cordite Poetry Review
26 June 2017
You could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Australia’ was simply this place, rather than an imagined community. It is of course not only a phantasm or a figment that is whole, but also real and divisible. In poetics, it is not a stretch to suggest that there is a heuristic, ascendant, paradigmatic separation between those in a transnational sphere sipping turmeric lattes and those authentic patriots tilling the soil. This fault line, which is, of course, anachronistic and dialectical, exists in the selected texts and influences as well as the paratextual selling points that tell us something is ‘traditional’ or ‘experimental’, ‘Romantic or ‘modern’, ‘country’ or ‘city’; in what claim ‘this is Australian’.
Homer Rieth’s The Garden of Earth is packaged as an Australian epic, and yet, it might be better to suggest that it is a located and regional long poem that is speaking to nation and nature. This is not the same ‘Australia’ as Pi O’s beloved Fitzroy in his 24 Hours, nor is it similar to the Wheatlands of John Kinsella’s Divine Comedy. It takes as its own location the whole of the Murray-Darling, building from Rieth’s home in Minyip in the Wimmera region in regional Victoria on the East Coast, where he has lived for several years.
And yet, one cannot help but notice that The Garden of Earth, like respective works by O and Kinsella, is a poetic idea of ‘Australia’ that takes as its root and routes a direction from ‘the West’, a Greco-Romanic understanding of where epic comes from. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given all these authors have European heritage, but it is striking given the demographic realities of a decolonising Australia, which brings with it Indigenous and CALD spectres, materials and discourses. There are, of course, epic traditions in each and we do not have to rely only on Odyssey and Iliad like good colonial boys might, but could suggest the Ramayana, Martin Fierro, Omeros or any other such non-Western undertaking. What though can we learn from Rieth’s vision about the epic in the here and now? And how might this presentist perspective be projectively useful?
Rieth’s book is a big one. Coming in at 584 pages, it must approximate some 15 thousand lines – bigger than Milton’s Paradise Lost, bigger than Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa, bigger than Berndt’s Three Faces of Love. But then again, the Murray-Darling is a big river, placing fifteenth in length worldwide, between the Niger and Tocantins. Rieth’s work in the basic proportions would seem appropriate.
Although the epigraph of the work is taken from a translation of Hafiz, The Garden of Eden emerges from a transatlantic milieu. The preponderance for rhyme and the long sentence lends a Whitmanian cadence – expansive, regular, encompassing – which is buttressed by the familiar expression ‘I sing’ (on page 58 particularly). There are also references to Walt’s contemporaries Longfellow and Kendall. The work is not ‘difficult’ then in terms of message, pagination, rhythm, line-break, form or style. This project does not come after Charles Olson (Maximus poems) or Basil Bunting (Briggflatts) let alone Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Drafts) or The Grand Piano. While Ezra Pound is referenced (11) and Robert Lowell is quoted (488), it is not a stretch to say it pre-Modernist, hence the signposts of the late nineteenth century.
At the level of content The Garden of Eden is firmly focused on nature with occasional painterly references (Delacroix, Leonardo, Lorenzo Lippi) and some more popular culture (beer, cricket, footy in Canto 7; and ‘Barbeque Shapes’ (25) [one of my favourite flavours]). These references often come from a different location and generation to mine (I only know ‘California poppy’ because that is what my grandfather put in his hair) but that does not mean they are inaccessible. What does distinguish the work is that the land is often idyllic, pure, silent, often Romantically so, suggesting a lack of eco-critical co-ordinates and some sediment of the idea of terra nullius, which is confirmed by the lack of Indigenous references, the absence of living characters and the anachronistic (mis)spelling of Arrente as Arunta (56). This is a work of landscape with landscape punctuated by high culture from Europe or poetic expression that pre-dates federation on this continent. There are unnamed interlocutors, whom Rieth quotes, but not characters; and, given the evenness of tone this implies a work that is not ‘polyphonic’ (in Bahktin’s sense) or ‘dramatic’ (in Hegel’s). The world is brought into the subject, the speaking ‘I’ of a poet and then sent back out whole and resolute. This central I expresses itself in a high voice (see the use of ‘O’ to begin sentences and to pre-figure ownership for example in ‘O my Murray, /my Campapse, /my Ovens, /my Goulbourn, my Murrumbidgee’, (11); ‘O tamed continent’ (109); ‘O keep me safe’ (249)). This is a work of grand liberalism that is curious and idiosyncratic.
Rieth is a starting point as good as any, from which we can suggest that Australia is continental, that it can become a republic with several countries, countries that are demarcated by cultural and geographic realities and ideas that are nevertheless a utopian kind of treaty. The Murray-Darling is not a singular place. It is a part of a regionalism that is not simply somewhere away from the urban or buffeted by the suburban, but has as much to do with the mind in the sky as boots on the ground. Rieth begins to show us the poetic way with rhythm, scale and possibility. If The Garden of Earth is firmly located in a traditional and Romantic context, it might nevertheless show us what might yet be Australia’s poetic tomorrow if we labour to read it slant.
A response to the review by Jillian Fryer:
16 September 2017
I'm writing in response to the Cordite magazine
review by Robert Woods you published in June of Homer Reith's Garden of Earth.
It might help.