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19 December 2016 @ 03:44 pm
Review of Disappearing Tracks, A Story in Verse, by Geraldine Paine, pub. Lapwing Publications 2016  


Rarely has a poet been in a better position to answer the hackneyed question "Where do you get your ideas from?" Suppose for a moment that your great-grandfather had been James Fraser, official artist at 24 to the Austin Expedition which explored the Murchison region of Western Australia in 1854 and very nearly came to grief in the hostile terrain. Suppose further that quite apart from the watercolours he painted, you also had the journal of the expedition's leader, and that while on the expedition, your ancestor had been constantly thinking of  Helena, a young Irish immigrant girl in service in Fremantle with whom he'd fallen in love and who would become your great-grandmother.

This material would be a gift to any poet, but it still needs an interpreter who can handle it well. Geraldine Paine has already shown, in her first collection The Go-Away Bird, how sympathetically she can put flesh on the bones of historical texts, with her sequence "Tokens", based on the messages left behind for families by semi-literate convicts on their way to transportation. She does it again here, bringing alive both the English gentleman and the Irish housemaid in their own voices. Both are out of their comfort zone, partly because their unexpected feelings for each other are liable to meet family opposition given that he is Protestant and she Catholic, and partly because of the new environment they are in.

This brings us to the third character in the drama; the pitiless, demanding Murchison landscape itself. The poet researched this via travel as well as via books, and we see James, in his diaries, progress from making the sort of notes any tourist might jot down, "the view of the lake most attractive", through observing it properly and in detail,
Hopping mice and porcupines
burrow in sand under our feet, feral cattle

disappear into scrub
to, finally, feeling it from inside, becoming a part of it as he very nearly literally does:

With each day now, I'm quick to notice signs,
the woven wattle boughs –

a trap laid above a dried-up stream,
figures scored on gum trees, a stony grave

disturbed by dogs, the bones of horses
left to die. The land speaks.

I shudder, knowing men such as we
have passed this place before.

Tracks disappear in the soupy red loam.
Will we too become part of this land,

our dying marked by rocks
James's voice is that of an educated man becoming aware of how much he does not know; it is characterised by wonder, fear, intense curiosity. Helena, who has had less education and more hardship to cope with, is in some ways tougher and more worldly-wise, but she is made vulnerable both by how little control she has over her situation, as a domestic servant, and by the strength of her feelings for James, her only possible way out of it, who may not return from the interior and if he does, may still be beyond her reach. When her consumptive fellow-servant is turned off, we can sense, as she does, how easily this could be her fate:
Going, and no more than a week's wages paid to her.
Sure, she'll not survive, knows nothing but skivvying –
plenty off the ships will fight for that, and not be coughing.
The subtitle of this collection is "A Story in Verse", and that it is; we become attached to these characters and involved with their narrative, but it is the poet's eye that brings both them and the beautiful, forbidding landscape alive. The best material in the world won't help without that, and we may be glad that this little goldmine of a story came into the right hands.