The Garden of Earth : Homer Rieth



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 - Jillan Fryer responds



B
ook Description

Out on the river you’ll see there are swifts and babblers and other assorted thieves
all of whom have their own bush telegraphy, a kind of Morse passing quietly
from one landmark to the next, disappearing and reappearing with wild insouciance
     at the waterline—some, in fact, say that’s where

 
another life begins, more secret than you know, to do with the keeping alive
of memory, all those residual mysteries that tend to hang around towns,
theirs are stories the river dwells on the longest, which it passes on surreptitiously
     to creeks, dams and waterholes—

 

The Garden of Earth  is told in Thirty Five Books. Each canto is a long-breathed sentence that takes you in its flow. They gather all the hues of nature, history, culture and philosophy like  metaphorical rivers gathering majestic detritus. It invites us to consider the plenitude of the world, but also how precious and precarious a thing this is.
 
Homer Rieth’s first epic Wimmera gave voice to the history, legend and folklore of the Wimmera region of north western Victoria, and to ideas of 'place' and 'country' not only as cultural markers, but as ciphers of an enduring mythos. In his new companion epic, he turns his gaze to the larger arena of the Murray Darling, to this oldest of continents more broadly. He offers a vision of the natural environment and the human world as bound together on a global scale.
 
The Garden of Earth is a hymn to and argument in defence of the future of the planet. It is the poet's final assay of our age-old dream vision of the world, only here it is as something at once luminous and exceptionally Australian.


Cover photograph: 
Tim J Keegan, Aerial view of The Darling River from 15000ft


ISBN   9781876044893
2016
600 pgs
$49.00 - Australia
$65.00 - International


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B
ook Sample


BOOK SIXTEEN


Mystic of the West

Canto 76

‘Cold Edge’



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
     to distraction—

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.



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Epic work on Murray Darling Basin urges authorities to preserve The Garden of Earth

ABC Rural By Danielle Grindlay

Wimmera-based author Homer Rieth sits by his fire in Minyip, western Victoria.
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'


Dr Rieth hopes his book, and a complementary 120-minute piece of piano music, will influence discourse around water policy.

"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.

"The poem is not some far-fetched, pastel, afternoon indulgence, in the way that say a weekend painter might paint a landscape."

"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."



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RealPoetryMovie
Ken Smeaton, Dec 10, 2016



Dr. Homer Rieth talks about his epic poem 'The Garden of Earth'.


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Reviews


Review Short: Homer Rieth’s The Garden of Earth

Robert Wood
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.

It is, as Woods says a couple of times, a big book.  Mr Woods has my sympathy, it could be too much to take in over a short time as between when Garden Of Earth was published last year and June this year when the review was published.  I was luckier in that Homer Reith sent me various drafts of Garden of Earth from 2013. Some of my initial responses were not totally unlike Woods but I had the luxury of time to mull over it (no puns intended, please) and other senses percolated up through to my brain, though very much more slowly than my coffee maker makes me an espresso.

Woods states that  he 'could not help but notice' Reith's work 'takes route and direction from the West' and implies this is not a good thing.  To me it only seems that you'd have to be not looking, deliberately even, not to notice this.  Reith makes it abundantly clear with his references to the European world: history, literature, film, philosophy, botany, astronomy: in general - 'culture' (where's that revolver?) that's where he came from.  He does not try to hide it or pretend to be an expert on that which he is not.  He even makes mistakes and gets peoples' names wrong, sometimes.  I do too. Don't you?  Did no one else notice that it was not Aeneas Gunn but Mrs Aeneas Gunn who wrote 'We of the Never Never'? and 'The Little Black Princess'?  And of course the mistake about the Arunta not Arrente should have been seized upon by diligent proofreaders and editors.  Reith is quite a modest fellow really, fallible even, but tries awfully hard to learn.

Woods asks (disingenuously, I suspect) "what can we learn...from Reith?"  Then he tells us what he knows.  Firstly, it's a big book, longer than Paradise Lost and two other works which even many readers of poetry reviews may not be familiar with.  Do a quick straw poll at your most literary local coffee house.  However the man who thinks that "O" is the surname of PiO has a deep knowledge of the "other" cultures these works come from and he wants us to know it.

Then he tells us that the Murray-Darling (if you join them both together) is the 15th biggest river in the world.  So, does this mean he thinks 'Garden of Earth' is good or bad, a winner or a loser, long or short or not quite enough of either?  Nothing so crass.  Woods concludes, after these trivial pursuit pot shots, that  "Reith's work in the basic proportions would seem appropriate."  I hope Reith is grateful for that placing, he better be.

Then Woods tells us, plaintively, that there is "a preponderance of rhyme".  This brought me up short for a week.  I wondered if I was losing my mind, senses all gone awry.  Over four years of reading the damn thing rhyme and its preponderance had not come to my attention.  Finally I got the courage to check.  Couldn't find any over a quick flip but I'm sure there must be some lurking some where.

When I began reading Garden of Earth, like Woods I questioned the use of "the unnamed interlocutors".  In time I got to like it, prefer it that way.  Think about this:  in this age of surveillance and obsession with the trivial pursuits of celebrities with names and faces aplenty, names dropping every chance they get, Reith "answers with his thumb."  Good for him.  He could have sprayed names around to imply 'appropriate' connections and credentials but he forbears.  Yet the unnamed ones speak with their own voices, different, many, more individual than all the named scholars, experts and celebrities. 

On a very personal note I want to say that the thing that attracted me to Reith's work when I first read 'Wimmera' was the way I heard the voices of my parents' relatives and friends, country people and people from industrial regions, but not voices of jolly Dad and Dave parody or Sentimental Blokes or even Banjo; but voices of people who were thoughtful, sensitive, keen to learn, always.  Nameless people.  Sometimes unregistered people because sometimes they owned nothing much to tote up.

Also, like Woods, at first I found the note of "O my Murray...etc" to jar with possessiveness.  But after more readings and time, it became, to me, rather a cry of love.  Not "prefiguring ownership" but heart breaking love.  Reith is stronger than me; my heart would probably break forever if I'd worked so long and hard to tell this epic tale and got a response of quietly insulting, facetious incomprehension.

Reith is also criticised or admonished for his egotism in using the phrase "I sing..."    Yes, its true the "echoes of Whitman" are obvious.  It seems to me they could not be anything but intentional.  Also I wonder if there are any epics, sagas, performances in any culture that do not make use of that or similar phrases to open the show:  'Be quiet you all now, our songman has something for us tonight.'  Perhaps.

I don't understand what the phrase "if we labour to read it slant" means.  Can anyone please explain?  It sounds like hard work that might do your back in.

Woods writes of a work where "the land is often idyllic, pure, silent"...and which is infected with "the sediment of terra nullius...confirmed by the lack of indigenous references."  That's not the work I read. The only land close to that description Reith refers to is the land lost, stolen, destroyed, abandoned to its own devices until some industrial/commercial/ financial use can be made of it.  Reith makes this clear and makes it clear that making these points is his primary reason for writing it.

I never noticed "there was no reference to indigenous people", and like with the issue of rhyme I thought I must be going mad.  Eventually I opened at random, hit canto 174 and the eye lights on: "the abraded hand of the unremembered bard, in the songlines of the ancestral rivers, in the steady gaze of masters of clay and ochre, long before Drysdale, Nolan, Tucker...'here we are he (that unnamed interlocutor again) says, at Bethanga Bridge, where the river corrugates the light flashing on steel struts, over a gantry of ghost gum shade, sending a solar charge through loops, as if to triangulate all the tributaries, Cotter, Strike-a-Light, Tumut, Pady's River, you name 'em, he says, all belong to Big Water.'"  Still not a rhyme in sight.

Maybe Woods would have been happier if Reith had opened each canto with an acknowledgement of traditional owners and elders spiel, like everyone saying anything much in public these days feels obliged to do whether they mean it or have much clue what it means or not.  That much is clear from the way they rattle it off, but stumbling on the hard words.   Never mind there are public programs in the works now to fix that up.

I hope my response here has not been too bad tempered.  With luck it may even amuse.  Feel free to do what you like with it.


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