by BONNY CASSIDY
This poem was commissioned by Red Room Poetry in Sydney for the exhibition project: Art and Herbarium - creative ecological investigations 01.
'grounds' was begun in the town of Bright, which sits on Taungurung country under the peaks of the Australian Alps. In autumn, fungal fruit sends itself up from the wet roots of this region's considerable plantation and native forests. While staying there briefly in 2016, my husband Tim, dog Crumpet and I found typically extraordinary examples of mycorrhizal fungi on our daily walks. In the morning mists they would be waiting, sometime decaying, sometimes emerging:
A walk in the Victorian bush in Autumn after rain.
In roots of the ribbon gum
metaphor moves like spores
or crumbs ambling uphill.
The colour of its rough speech bubbles/paradise, trouble. The colour of infected nymphs.
During that visit to Bright I received a commission to make a new poem in response to the University of Melbourne Herbarium (MELU). I knew at once that fungi could be the motif, but I was bored by certain modes of 'landscape' poetry. The aesthetics of landscape are imperial, as summarised by Timothy Morton: 'the idea of landscape as a picture in a frame ... It's less about land, then, and more about scape. We talk about the mood of a landscape, the feeling it evokes in us.'1 This is a limitation of vision to which many Indigenous and settler Australian poets seek to write alternatives.2
The more I read about the kingdom of fungi, too, the more I was discouraged from fraudulently aping mycological descriptions, or besting its folkloric capital with new mythos. If fungi were to be a poetic figure, they had to be one of ambiguity: a suggestive tissue of connections between kingdoms and 'grounds' or fields, but not available to my ownership. The discourse of the fungal 'colony' was impossible to ignore at Bright, so near the bogong feasting grounds yet with so little acknowledgement of Country in public spaces:
Ice thrashes in the river, we read the pale history on its banks.
Books say native bread doesn't rise in such a volatile climate.
Yet the metaphor of mycorrhizal colony could mean continuity and resistance as well as invasive settlement. Similarly, I understood that fungi stood for a whole paradigm of local horror; an extension of the gothic bush narrative. In that genre, native Australian ecologies possess an alien nature that represents the settler's fear of submitting to an Indigenous reality. The source of this fear relies on a colonial conflation of Indigenous people and organisms, but it also imports signs from European myth and narrative.
When I entered the MELU collection, I found a rarified, specialist site. Its specimens are housed in necessarily obscure conditions, such that a guide like the terrific curator, Jo Birch, is required for access as well as understanding. She had laid out for me a specimen from the Banks and Solander expedition of 1768. Although it wasn't fungal, the spectre of this ominous, pre-colonial souvenir was meaningful. The space in which I was to formally encounter fungi was framed by the Linnean system of identification and by the name of Joseph Banks, who advocated for British colonial settlement in Botany Bay. Like the fungi I was to see at MELU, this specimen collected in far north Queensland was bright yet dislocated:
fragile metaphors tremble and reach
in custom-made boxes
forever 21 degrees.
But my research into the MELU collection also yielded the watercolours of Malcolm Howie, a distinguished botanical illustrator of Victorian fungi. Learning about Howie's disabling condition - and his death at an age not far from mine - I started to think about another way to read fungi, that is, as an extension of the artist:
Malcolm Howie, painter of fungi bound his watercolours and died, aged 36.
From age 16 he was unable to walk, and towards the end of his life
only able to paint with movements of his wrist.
I consider making a crude analogy out of his demise.
Mushrooms spring up with autumn rain, expand, shed
their spores, and decay; all in a matter of weeks.
In this analogy the body of the artist might be a vulnerable tissue, or a reviving presence. Here, the figure of fungi helps the reader to make connections between spheres, but exceeds being simply a poetic or theoretical vehicle.
'grounds' could never have been expressed as a lyrical or descriptive expression of a human eye gazing upon the more-than-human world. Thematically, 'grounds' is on a continuum with all of my poetry and poetics, but in form it distinguishes itself. Given its proliferating and coincident motifs of settlement, horror, and empathy, I decided to allow the text to yield a series of attempts upon the theme. I was thinking of influences from the Australian long poem tradition, like Laurie Duggan's The Ash Range and John Anderson's the forest set out like the night.3 In these temporal and spatial explorations of geography, toponymy and memory, the descriptive landscape mode is troubled and attenuated. I realised that the rhizomic structure of 'grounds' also reflected the way that fungal colonies move underground as strands of hyphae, spreading and waiting for opportunities to surface. This half-visible form seemed to suit the concerns and attempts of 'grounds'. It allowed me to set aside conclusiveness or accuracy - scientific motivations - and focus on how the poetic medium could handle, unfold and interpret fungi with ambiguity.
'grounds', therefore, contains a number of voices. It creates a hybrid of verse and prose formats, using an essayistic voice when research is useful, and a lyrical one when imagination steps in. The first-person voice performs my own poetic navigations of the theme; the second person voice implicates the reader in a collective, cultural problem; and the third person voice applies a critical perspective. It also liberally collages from research materials, which are quoted in italics. The quoted voices suggest the crowd of possible sources that might inform the concerns of the poem. There is a sense of excess to this multiplicity of voices, as there is to the serial form. The citations reveal the underside of the text, a product of serendipity and confluence. They also intend to point out the provisionality of its response to the questions it raises.
Commissioned for the exhibition, Art and Herbarium at Lab 14, Melbourne, in March 2017, 'grounds' had to be first conceptualised as a textual object. In this context, it had to compete with visual and aural works, and as a fairly dense piece of language it would benefit from reading outside of the exhibition space. These requirements led me to a presentation that organically extended the poem's form and structure. I printed the text as a set of loose, double-sided and unnumbered pages, and made copies of these freely available for the audience to take. Conceptually, this textual 'event' allowed a decentralised reading experience that favoured chance sequencing and, therefore, porous and proliferative affects. I decided that a risograph print would convey some earthiness of style, and that A5 pages would be a convenient takeaway size. These were made by Room Press based in Hobart, because I admire printer Sarah McNeil's work for the Melbourne graphic writer Chris Gooch. For 'grounds' Sarah used a natural, heavy card with ultramarine ink.
I have extensively revised the original text for its next lives, including for vocal performance at Melbourne's Botanical Gardens for the New Shoots event, Melbourne Writers' Festival 2017, and podcast by The Red Room Company; plus publication in Australian Poetry Journal. For its republication in Unlikely I have also decided to make the page-based text dynamic using the digital medium. Appropriately, 'grounds' has become a formal prototype for a longer work I am now researching and writing.
This work was made on Taungurung and Wurundjeri lands never ceded. I respectfully acknowledge permission granted by Natalie Harkin and Loraine Padgham to use their words in the text. I would also like to thank my reviewers, who offered thoughtful remarks towards the refinement of this text for Unlikely.
- Morton, Timothy, 'Zero Landscapes in the Time of Hyperobjects', Graz Architectural Magazine 7 (2011), p80. ↩
- Cassidy, Bonny, 'Talking To A Stranger: Decolonising the Australian "Landscape" Poem', Plumwood Mountain 4.1 (2017). Web ↩
- Duggan, Laurie, The Ash Range, Shearsman Books, 2005; Anderson, John, the forest set out like the night, Black Pepper Publishing, 1995. ↩