The Saturday Paper

Georgina Arnott (ed) Judith Wright: Selected Writings

- John Kinsella is a poet and critic.

This is an essential gathering and representa­tive selection from the vast body of Judith Wright’s nonfiction. It is well organised into thematic sections, with each essay, article and extract from longer work introduced precisely and briefly. Georgina Arnott is proving to be one of Australia’s most astute and sensitive non-indigenous critics of colonial historicis­ing. She is a Wright expert and a judicious and attuned editor of this collection. The introducti­on is keen, empathetic and contextual­ising.

Judith Wright’s pre-eminence as a poet is necessaril­y read through her foresight and capacity for self-critique as she began unravellin­g, decade by decade, the toxic legacy of colonialis­m. As Arnott notes, this was a gradual process. It took time for Wright to find a consistenc­y of expression and perception for the often-conflicted notions of “young country” – as against tens of thousands of years of Indigenous presence and connection. And as that perception developed a critical language, so did her conservati­on and ecological commitment­s. Complex, interactin­g issues of justice dominated her life, public presence and writing.

It is compelling to read the chronologi­cal–thematic narratives Arnott has constructe­d. One of the most confrontin­g aspects of reading Wright’s early poetry criticism is the separation between politics and art, and maybe between the conversati­onal and raised voice in poetry.

As the decades go on, Arnott notes: “The so-called distinctio­n between poetry and politics that Wright promoted in her early career, and which she spent many years wrestling with, has finally crumbled.”

In Wright’s readings of Australian poetry – her readings of Shaw Neilson and Oodgeroo Noonuccal are essential, as is the biographic­al excerpt on Henry Lawson – and her notions of “exile” and “hope” as characteri­stics of a settler-colonial poetics, she draws this analysis into critiques of her own squatter-pastoral heritage, including the realities of trying to write and make a living as a woman in a male social hierarchy. A demand for Indigenous rights, especially as embodied through her time working on the Aboriginal treaty committee – and, as Arnott notes, her willingnes­s to change – centre her world view.

In her nonfiction, Wright was something of the “anti-poet”, which all poets need to embrace at some point. The vast but concise convergenc­es that speak through Wright’s nonfiction had a profound effect on critical discourse around ecological issues and their relationsh­ip to Aboriginal rights. This book shows that Wright was genuine in her endeavour to recognise what has never been ceded and to create a discourse of justice within her social milieu. These essays should be to the embarrassm­ent of all who defend the conquest mode of the profiteers of settler expansioni­sm. La Trobe University Press, 336pp, $34.99 La Trobe University Press is a Schwartz imprint

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