Saturday, May 24, 2008

Queenstown Awaits

Sarah Island --2 and More

La Professora calls me from the early stages of her return journey from the small Basque town in the Pyrenees; I am coming, darling. But a long grueling passage awaits her, economy class to economy class, no bed in sight for over 45 hours--to Bilbao, then Madrid, then London, then Hong Kong, then Melbourne. How many more of these trips she has left in her we do not know, but this is what it means to leave from or arrive to this continent--when Europe beckons. Journeys are on my mind as I resume my writing of our passage up the Lyell Highway, the map of Tasmania at my elbow--the yellow of towns giving way to the green of the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, our destination. I have been reading "The Sarah Island Conspiracies: Being An Account of Twelve Voyages to MacQuarie Harbor and Sarah Island, 1822-1838," based on the archival account of a clerk known only as G.K. There we sat in our cosy rented car, transversing the heart of Tasmania, riding the ridge of all those other journeys, the unwanted ones forced upon desolate people and those who would be their prison masters. Van Diemen's Land where the punished were sent for deeper despair, where nations of indigenous peoples were massacred to make room for new suffering. Surely the huge monoliths of race and class are the bedrock of this nation.

Tired and stiff after four hours of driving, we were anxious to reach our destination, an accommodation in Strahan, fronting the Macquarie Harbor, but another terrain awaited us, another circle of Hell is how I think of it now--Queenstown, a town set in a valley of mining-stripped hills. Smoke drifted up the valley from the old corrugated iron worker's homes, the poverty that remains when wealth is stripped out of a land and sent elsewhere and to others. We descended through the mountain's brutal vacancies to the town itself, trying to transform its ugliness into tough quaintness--with a pastel painted abandoned train station serving as a cafe and tourist center for the stream engine ride from Queenstown to Strahan and back again. I realize I am a foreigner in this land, a land whose booming economy today rests on what can be hauled up from its depths--the iron ore, the copper, the tin, the uranium--the booming jobs and driving house-size wheels of the Kimberley region, plunging deeper and deeper into the interior that is our earth, to feed the hungers of development--too easy to say China and India--for such takings from the land have fueled us all, the seizing of minerals and the seizing of human flesh. Queenstown is a land of old wounds, of tree covered mountains turned inside out so stone greets the day. I have no ingrained appreciation for the mighty human feat of mateship that brought about this inversion, a feat that brings national pride to many--the conquering of the earth's privacy. I keep thinking of the Aboriginals' belief that the land is sacred, like so many indigenous peoples, that as it suffers so do we all and so for the most part, they live in poverty while this land that they tended for thousands of years is turned into a wealth that never reaches their townships and leaves the hills bare.

What I want to tell you about is the deep dark waters of the Gordon River, its impenetrable bush growing down to its shores, the river of platypuses and Huon Pine, the indestructible tree that called to the shipbuilders to bring their convict labor through Hells Gates. And I will but first I must leave this narrative for another. As we were waiting in the Hobart airport for our return flight, I checked my e-mail and found the New York Times announcement that R. R. Knudson had died. Zan, of the golden hair and lithe body, of the restless spirit and total dedication to her poet partner of so many years, May Swenson, had left this earth. How could this be, the poet and the tiger now both lost. The tiger was to be the care taker of the poet's work and she had done such a good job already, editing collections of May's work, always seeking out new venues for the poet's voice. I thought of my own tiger, Lee, who had introduced me to May's work and then to Zan in the flesh. Zan coming in the silence of early dawn in her red ramshackle van to get us up out of our warm Catskill mountain beds to take us bird watching, whether we so desired it or not, her fist pounding on the door, come on, come on. She and Lee sitting in the front of the moving cabin, their mutual physicality a laughing bond while I rolled around in the back trying to stay on the make shift bed, the only seat possible. Like a teenage boy, I thought but this "boy" was the muse of the poet and her own as well, having written over 40 books for adolescent girls, mostly about sports. At one point after hours of driving along meadows and jumping out to catch a glimpse of the singer of some subtle song, Lee and Zan fell into a deep discussion of whether road kill could count on the life list of a dedicated bird watcher. I had never met the poet but I had met the tiger and when Lee read to me in her Texas-Kansas twang, May's poem "Poet to Tiger," the words caught at my heart, this butch-fem ode of appreciation from such a great height such domestic encounters of desire and play.
"...Tiger don't scold me
don't make me comb my hair outdoors.
Cuff me careful. Lick don't
crunch. Make last what's yours." (May Swenson, "New and Selected Things Taking Place," 1954)

"Make last what's yours," and we could not. How can it be that the tiger slipped away, in her furtive and yet energetic way, she who kept so alive the word of her poet for the rest of us--perhaps I have been alone too much these days, but this loss cuts so close, for this bond to be broken, for play to turn into disappearance, for such a promise one to the other made with living words and bounding flesh to be so broken--there in the cold newsprint of the so worldly NY Times in an airport on the other side of the world--but I can still smell the tiger and hear the poet laugh. The poems--read the poems-- and all will come alive again.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Surprising Moment on the Way to Hells Gate; Boats in Strahan's Harbor

Sarah Island--Part 1

Here I always have new terrain, both physical and historical. For my 68th birthday and before her departure for 12 days in the Basque country of Spain, La Professora and two friends arranged a three day journey to the Macquarie Harbor region of Tasmania. We dropped Cello off the night before at Jane and Ann's where his skippergee family lives and at 5 the next morning were making our way to the airport for the hour flight to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, Australia's island state. Departures and arrivals always seem to happen in the dark of night or the softer darkness of early morning here, whether one is leaving for an hour or twenty-one hour flight. Adventure in mere movement marks this continent.

Tasmania or Van Diemens Land as it was known in the penal colony history of this land is a place of dark stories --violence marks its early days--whether the victims be Aboriginal peoples or the men, women and children of London's overcrowded ship prisons shipped as raw colonial material to the Southern hemisphere. Steal a handkerchief and Van Diemens Land becomes your prison. I knew this island was the best and worst of Australia's complex past--with the Mainlanders speaking of its inhabitants the way Manhattanites often spoke of New Jersey. If my 1999 journey to the center of Australia, to the red sacred monolith of Uluru, and the dry river bed of Alice Springs, had let me touch for a brief instant, the Aboriginal homelands of the interior desert, this journey through Hells Gates of Macquarie Harbor and our visit to the stone remnants of the penal colony of Sarah Island was to bring home to me the charged national stories of a country built on the lives of social outcasts, so harshly punished for small acts of thievery and in some instances, political resistances.

Unlike the mainland, Tasmania is a land marked by internal waterways. Our plane flies low over the mouth of the Derwent River into the bay where Hobart sits, with its pretty little bay side cottages and cleaned up fishing docks. Mitch and Rose drive us up and down the narrow streets that all seem to lead to a view of the harbor and I am reminded of small New England fishing towns, that I visited with other lovers in the 70s and 80s. Like for them, tourism now understands the appeal of the 19th century preserved housing and the need for small warm coffee shops and stores selling homegrown wool and watercolors of the Tasmanian river scapes. Then it is on our way, along the Derwent river valley highway, the sunlight beaming off the river, gold reflecting gold as the autumnal colors are mirrored in the parallel waterway. The coastal town of Strahan is our destination, but first, three hours later, we must pass through the mining moonscape of Queenstown. This is a place that scorned prettiness.