postcolonial literature-For over half a century the poetry of Judith Wright provided Australians with words to explore the spiritual dimension of their land, its people and history. In this she was no sentimentalist. In her poem, At Cooloobah (1955), she speaks for all European peoples who have inhabited Australia: "I'm a stranger come of a conquering people." This sense of Australian alienation from the land and victimization of its first peoples is dominant throughout her writing and actions. Writing for the Tasmanian Wildnerness Calendar (1981) she states: "the love of the land we have invaded and the guilt of the invasion have become a part of me." In her last public act, only weeks before her death, she led the reconciliation march in Canberra.
Yes, Judith Wright was a political poet. She mixed words with deeds. She saw the poet as a public figure with responsibility for challenging negative social forces and inhumane attitudes that demean human life and the environment. She was an outspoken and passionate critic of nuclear power, environmental devastation, injustice towards Aboriginal peoples and the excessive materialism that she judged to be bleeding the Australian soul of spiritual power.
In the sixties, Wright was among the first and foremost campaigners for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef. Equally, her voice was loud and clear in protest against sand-mining on Fraser Island. In the wake of environmental destruction of the rainforest, she co-founded the Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society. In the mid-seventies, Wright left her home at Mount Tamborine partly in protest against governmental collusion with big business and conservation-insensitive development. Subsequently, in a final act of condemnation of a government whose social and environmental agenda she deplored, she returned her honorary doctorate to the University of Queensland on learning that a similar award was being made to Joh Bjelke-Petersen!
Wright's first book of poems, The Moving Image (1946) celebrated the New England tableland of her childhood, her "blood's country . . . full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep" (South of My Days). This mystical quality of her relationship with the land never leaves her. Ever mindful of the European world "we have lost and left behind," this new but ancient land is full of questions and tricks: "Where do the roads lead? It is not where we expected" (Country Town). Land and story are woven together: the remittance man, bullock driver, stockman, bushranger, returned soldier, idler, half-caste girl, metho drinker, and old Dan whose "seventy years of stories he clutches round his bones."
In the opinion of her biographer, Veronica Brady, Wright's way of writing about the landscape transformed the tradition of Australian writing (The Australian, 27th June). Another poet and critic, Kevin Hart, says that her poems taught him how to see the country for what it is and its people for who they are. He adds, "whether we know it or not, we all live inside her poems" (Sydney Morning Herald, 29th June). Her landscapes are not those of green, fertile England. Nor is this land to be tamed. The tree-frog and dingo, rainforest and seacoast, stark cliffs and eroded hills, bushfire and flood, dust and drought, wind and rain, flame-tree and cicadas, gum tree and cyclone all exhibit a peculiarly Australian sense of mystery and power quite at odds with the presuppositions of European settlers. It is a different kind of beauty--and a different kind of terror.
Judith Wright's second anthology Woman to Man (1949) is better known for the freshness of her approach in examining until-then taboo subjects of sexual desire and especially women's sexuality. Such economical though passionate poems as Woman to Child and Woman to Man, apart from confounding thousands of adolescents in their final school-year examination papers, provided a new language for exploring the sacredness of sexual union, pregnancy and birth. Even these poems, considered by many among the best of modern Australian poetry, demonstrate an earthiness at once sparse and tender: "I am the earth, I am the root, / I am the stem that fed the fruit, / the link that joins you to the night." The ambiguities of pleasure and solemnity in physical love-making climax in the conclusion to the other of these two poems: "Oh hold me, for I am afraid."
Love and fear often come together in Wright's poetry. So too do love and guilt. This is especially evident