'Animals that must eat or die': Gwen Harwood's centenary and censorship
Updated: Jul 20
This strange new world grinds on: I sit on the sofa looking out the window and watch people walk by. Oddly and unnaturally separated from each other; a few wearing masks. No one is touching. On my screen America is convulsing with rage, despair – and perhaps some kind of reckoning with the truth? In Australia a similar reckoning would entail coming to terms with the hundreds of indigenous men, women and children who have died in police custody, not to mention the thousands of indigenous teenagers criminalized and incarcerated when they should have been nurtured and educated. Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians have worked tirelessly to illuminate this truth, and push us towards action. Meanwhile Hong Kong comes a step closer to experiencing annexation or, in the words of my brilliant friend, the Australian writer Laura Bloom, the Anschluss anyone whose eyes have been open has seen coming for the past fifteen years. No one has a right to be shocked. Taiwan will be next.
Yeow Kai Chai has written movingly in this series about the treatment of migrant workers in Singapore during the pandemic. The class and geopolitical fault lines run deep and the pandemic has only exacerbated inequality. In every economy that exploits migrant workers we can be sure their situation is worsening. In Russia their plight is desperate. Just last week I transited through Doha and was struck, again, by how the entire machinery of that hub is run by migrant workers with zero access to any kind of labour or human rights. Both migrant workers and refugees are experiencing the grim reality of borders being closed and eyes averted. In Australia there are currently 1300 people locked in immigration detention, sleeping in bunk beds in overcrowded dorms, with no control over any aspect of their lives, let alone any chance of enacting social distancing.
And while the geopolitical plates continue to shift, nuance is lost and action seems increasingly reactive and performative. In this context, I want to talk about two current issues on the level of the policing of speech, censorship and the creation of meaning.
The first is about the silencing of women and women’s experience of the world. I’ve been reading disturbing articles about the curtailment of women’s access to abortion in the pandemic. I read about a nineteen-year-old woman from Poland making a mad dash across Europe with her best friend in an old Renault loaded with pot noodles to get a safe abortion in The Netherlands before the borders closed. Even in Germany, the government didn’t label abortion as an essential and time-sensitive procedure, and that has had horrific consequences for many women. For the avoidance of doubt I am using the term ‘women’ deliberately/advisedly. Women die every day because of the accident of being born into our biological sex. Nothing whatsoever about that sentence discounts the rights of trans people to safety, dignity and equality under the law. But to declare biological sex obsolete is as ignorant and annihilating as it is to pretend that we live in a post-racial world, and the pandemic has performed the miserable service of making this clearer than ever.
The second act of censorship I want to address is the cancellation of Chris Lilley. Australia is deluded if it thinks it has so deep a pool of talent that it can delete a talent like Lilley’s so casually: I love some of his work, but I don’t like it all. As with all true artists, some of his work is brilliant and some misses its mark completely. But I would argue that with real talent you can’t have one without the other. Every act of imagination is an act of pure risk and reach. Sometimes the result is transcendent, and sometimes it’s a gigantic, messy fail. And Chris Lilley’s failures are as monumental as his successes. S.mouse belongs in the monumental failure category. It isn’t funny, and all I see is blackface: offensive and stupid. But early Jonah (from Summer Heights High) is in a different category. Jonah’s story has haunted me for years. I’ve not seen a depiction of a young Tongan boy growing up in Australia as affectionate, nuanced and political as Jonah: the way Jonah gives voice to an alienated, brash young male persona, so vulnerable and so awkward. As the mother of a thirteen-year-old Asian boy, I still watch Jonah today with a flash of recognition, love and humour.
It’s one thing to reassess and reinterpret, and put art in context, educating ourselves and changing our assessment of it. It’s one thing to punish appropriately and proportionately and ask that Lilley pay for some of his grievous missteps. But increasingly, cancellation culture is just a tedious and performative way that white people deal with their own guilt, and their need to look like they are prepared to do something about it. In this way it serves as just another iteration of the cultural revolution and it makes me angry and frightened.
It’s Gwen Harwood’s centenary. Her poems are precise, intellectual, romantic, wild and free. I agree with Peter Porter that Harwood is “the outstanding Australian poet of the twentieth century” and I wish she was better known to the generations that have come after. She died in 1995, and her poems feel too infrequently read. Respect for our elders and lineage is a quality the world of poetry is losing, at the risk of our own cultural and intellectual impoverishment. I don’t want to sound like an old person saying stuff like this! I’m not even all that old! But I see the past disappearing in the amnesiac insanity of the shortening news cycle and the obsession with immediate reckoning and change it insists on. And I realise I care a lot more about Australian poetry and its legacy than I like to admit.
Gwen Harwood left her home in Brisbane for a sort of exile in Tasmania when she married. The sort of compromise women make all the time, mostly unnoticed. She wrote about that ordinary exile. About home. Belonging. Loss. Sex, friendship, intellectual honesty. What motherhood takes away from a woman. About how compromised the whole notion of home is for a woman. ‘Home as haven’ is an often much easier metaphor for a man to live within, to carry and celebrate. Home is frequently more ambivalent for women. (Oh, just incidentally, if you’d like to see a really disturbing film on this theme, try Darren Aronofsky’s mother! – super disturbing lockdown fare.)
This is one of my favourite Gwen Harwood poems:
The Sea Anemones
Grey mountains, sea and sky. Even the misty
seawind is grey. I walked on lichened rock
in a kind of late assessment, call it peace.
Then the anemones, scarlet, gouts of blood.
There is a word I need, and the earth was speaking.
I cannot hear. These seaflowers are too bright.
Kneeling on rock, I touch them through cold water.
My fingers meet some hungering gentleness.
A newborn child's lips moved so at my breast.
I woke, once, with my palm across your mouth.
The word is: ever. Why add salt to salt?
Blood drop by drop among the rocks they shine.
Anemos, wind. The spirit, where it will.
Not flowers, no, animals that must eat or die.
The Lion’s Bride, 1981