mark o'connor - australian poet


Reviews of Planting the Dunk Botanic Gardens

Mark O'Connor's poem "Planting the Dunk Botanic Gardens" is simply a great yarn of paradise lost and then found, with a real message of hope for the future. It will capture your imagination and take you on a journey through a tropical paradise as diverse as the species and colours this production brings to life through the poetry, artwork, music and the muscle of David's masterful delivery.

Cameron Marshall
ABC Radio Australia
August, 2007

Three gardeners and an island: Planting the Dunk Botanic Gardens at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
   The Quaker Meeting House is traditionally a Fringe venue (number 40) that it pays to keeps tabs on. It started off this year in style, with an enthralling one-man show. David Malikoff creates wonderful diversity on the tiny stage as he tells the story of three gardeners and a tropical Queensland island.  The first is the resilient Pommie journalist and beachcomber, Ted Banfield, who survived for thirty years on this remote tropical island, rather than the six months the doctors gave him. He became “the serene prose-singer of Coonanglebah’s [the island’s Aboriginal name] sands”, in the words of Mark O’Connor. Mark was the poet - and the second gardener - who came half a century later to work as a barman but was hired by an inspired resort manager to apply his botanical knowledge to creating a shared dream: to transform Dunk Island into a paradise.
    Malikoff’s mobile features bring to life the looks - a “broad lard face on which sweat showed like water-drops on butter” - voice, and presence of the manager who “inhabited the swimming pool like a giant frog”; but who lets Mark get on with chasing the rare plants.  What he also does - which is truly magical - is to set Mark’s narrative verse about one summer job in the context of how climate change now threatens to bulldoze the work of the third gardener - God.  This is done with the lightest of touches, the lesé-majesté of playing God with second thoughts ordering the affable archangel Raphael to make Eden more complex - “ten thousand mixed chains of predation” - and turn the original garden into a coral cay in the centre.
    Apart from a single chair, the show has only one visual prop - but a rich one. The back of the stage becomes a screen for botanical artist Linda Martin’s interpretations of Dunk Island’s tropical fruits and flowers and the butterfly tunnel that Mark created to attract two giant butterflies, the Cairns Birdwing and Papilio Ulysses, “blue as a flake of heaven”.
  The director, Emil Wolk, has brought us a rare treat. Get along to Venue 40!

The Australian Times
15 August, 2007

Review of This Tired Brown Land

Published by Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney
Distributed by Pan Macmillan, $16.95

This is a book that, if it receives media attention, promises to free the population 'debate' from its iron cage and restore trust between new and old Australians. It also shows how the fat cats of the Housing and Construction Industry are driving ordinary Australians before them like a huge flock of geese to market.

Introduced by Tim Flannery, the book courageously fulfils its promise to answer the question of 'How Australia's booming population is destroying our environment and why discussion of this has been stifled." The first third is filled with ecological and environmental data on Australia, expressed in highly readable form. There is also quite a lot on immigration quotas, policies etc, which normally would send me to sleep, however O'Connor manages to make this readable as well as educational too.

It is also the first book on the subject that I have seen include the Aboriginal point of view using material written by Kooris. This is the kind of book you might consider giving to a teenager to help them understand why the population 'debate' has become so fraught. It is enlightening, kind, often funny and hard to put down. This kind of honest, unsensational debate requires stimulus.

Sheila Newman
NSW Greens Newsletter

Review of Firestick Farming

What I find most pleasing in this book is the voice of the poet himself. . .It is the voice of a man who can create people, and create them in memorable words. . .It is the voice of a man who is singing to those who have ears to hear, a hymn in praise to life.

Manning Clark

General Reviews of Mark O'Connor's Poetry

There has been a push among contemporary poets to write more out of city experience in Australia, but the best work by White poets still comes from their engagement with nature, as in Mark O'Connor's rainforest poem The Sun Hunters...

John Barnie
Planet, UK
Review of New Oxford Book of Australian Verse

His voice is his own and his success has been confirmed---the selection has a starting print-run of 5,000. ...a writer of considerable power and sensitivity, matching myth to personal event, with a sovereign command of the language.

Michael Hulse
PN Review, UK

O'Connor has restored poetry to the public domain.

John McLaren
Australian Book Review
June 1983

He is that rare thing, a genuinely popular poet of real power and complexity.

John Leonard
ASAL 1986

Retriving Our Remotest Past - Review of The Forever Lands

by Patrick Morgan

The Forever Lands Australia's Northern Territory in word and images by Mark O'Connor and John Kirk; Beyond Images, PO Box 1457 Camberwell East, 3126, 2000, $49.95

Our physical experience of being Australian isn't complete until we have gone beyond mountains and bush to the remotest regions of the country the deserts, red centre and tropical north. In his Foreword to this latest book of Mark O'Connor's poems, Les Murray describes this vast region as the 'three-quarters of our continent which nature has set aside for mystical poetry'. Each poem is accompanied by atmospheric photographs taken by John Kirk which relate to the subject matter and enhance it. With its high class design the whole forms a handsome package.

I read these poems after being in Alice Springs, Broome and Darwin and their environs for the first time. The poem 'Flying over the Top End' crystallizes the image in your mind as you fly in

Dawn is a curve of primal light
so distant it seems straight,
ruled by a continent-sized protractor.
The black land, saucer of chaos,
waits for creating light, for the fire-glow
lit by a screaming torch of parrots.

The poems in this book are based on two distinct parts of the Northern Territory. One region is the red centre - Alice Springs, the Macdonnell Ranges, the Todd and Finke Rivers, Uluru, and the Olgas. This is dry country 'The Finke waits, a river in dry storage,/each ripple and shoalbank preserved/with its foam-chewing boulders'. The other area is the Top End around Darwin and Kakadu which, in contrast, is lush wet tropical country. But O'Connor undercuts our expectations of this neat division between wet and dry

Australia shams dry,
turning outward its reptile surface;
blues and greens reflect
fluid everywhere under.

As though the land swirled and flowed
from certain sites of Increase;
soaks and shapes and shallow holes in rock
are the timeless Dreaming spirals
from which fresh litters flowed and flow
as milk weeps from an echidna's ductless udder
richly among the spines.

The simile of the echidna's udders is able to convey this strange feature of the continent. In general these poems gently dissolve our preconceptions and make us see the world in a different light. They are minimalist, stripped-down-to-the-bone poems, deceptively simple, patiently building up the world anew from rudimentary objects. They work by cataloguing the distinctive features of the terrain in a series of definitive statements, which are connected as much by atmosphere as by grammar.

I've always had a high regard for O'Connor's poetry. With his blend of modernist technique and clarity of perception, he has been in the forefront of Australian writing for decades now. He specializes in capturing the particular feel of regions, as in his books on the Barrier Reef, the Blue Mountains and Australian Alps. He is at present on a Literature Board Fellowship as the Olympic poet; his selected poems, The Olive Tree, were published just before this book.

Each wild life species has a distinct feel. Capturing this helps create the sense of place in these poems. One example among many

The brolgas take off,
down their bush airstrip,
hopping and bumping,
gain speed, till a hop-leap-hop
stalls them into the air,
a slow, graceful semaphore
wing-beats not blurred.

They rise, revealing graceful extension legs,
giant cranes clambering massively into the sunset,
their day's business done, and safe
as an updraft floats them back
two kilometres over our heads.

This is a silent world, without much friction. We feel the air on our skin 'Sun bright, air so thin/ you scarcely know if you are hot or cold'. It is both unnerving and calm. Our intrusion don't disturb the silence - we don't affect this terrain, it stays the same. Yet it registers on our pulses and winds us down 'A sea like after loving, so warm/and flat each wave/exhausts it for minutes'.

Kenneth Slessor produced a striking image in his poem 'South Country'

And over the flat earth of empty farms
The monstrous continent of air floats back
Air arched, enormous, pounding the bony ridge.

O'Connor constructs his world from three continents - those of air, water and land. (In this case land often equals sand.) These three vast realms interact, and are described in terms of each other 'cold ocean of air', 'oceans of land-killing salt', Alice Springs 'the sea city, sleeps under its cliffs/ in its dry bay, glimpsed through dunes'. Small animals (fish, lizards, birds) survive in this extended domain of gently pulsating matter. The great agent of change is water, 'that subtle and terrible fluid'. The longest and most profound poem in this collection is called 'The Viscosity of Water'. The action is not just in the present. In poems like 'Dinosaur Dreaming' O'Connor recreates the great primal forces - molten rocks and boiling lakes which formed this landscape. Then over millennia 'the mild air, the sliding rivers/turned them to stone' and gave the land its shape today. In 'Moon over Mindil Beach' the moon and earth continue to feel the endless tug of each other's gravitational presence. Ranging over vast periods of time, these poems telescope it in the Aboriginal way so that past and present coalesce 'Everything finished and happened once, back in the Dreamtime./We live in Eternity now'.

We are familiar with the myths, legends and folktales of peoples like the ancient Greeks, the Celts and Vikings - our thinking has been formed by their ways of thinking. O'Connor occasionally draws on this store of legend by way of analogy

This place of rocks and heroic herbs
has a serpenty feel, like Greece
in the rubble beside broken columns
where you crunch on vanished empires
among prickles and scorpions of today.

But usually he starts off from scratch. There is an unduly pessimistic view abroad that we whites can't understand Aboriginal legends because they are outside our culture and moreover we shouldn't attempt to, and that the Aborigines themselves have lost their connection with them, so it's hopeless on all sides. O'Connor doesn't lapse into this convenient fatalism. He reconstructs indigenous life (both past and present) as he images it, and in addition tries to decipher Aboriginal legends to extricate what residual meanings he can.

One analogy to our culture is the phrase 'dune gazette'. In the poem 'Aboriginal Literacy' it refers to the marks small creatures make in the sand, where we read the day's events as in a newspaper

Between spinifex archipelagoes
a snake sails furtively
half drowning in flat heat.
Nature's so sparse
the sand's her logbook
to prove things happen

This is the poet's own imagery. But Aboriginal legends have to be reconstructed in their own terms. O'Connnor is aware of the immense difficulties of retrieval. Of the rock paintings at Katherine Gorge he writes

These figures once hid such truth
boys would take circumcision with stone
to enter their world.
And nobody knows what they mean.

He provides his own readings and recreates those of past Aborigines, imaging their life, as in his two poems on the myth of Nermagon, the Lightning Man, as depicted in paintings in a rock shelter at Kakadu. The constituents of this myth include sparks struck from an axe causing new life, and lightning in the sky which forms the image of a long-legged grasshopper, the messenger of the god. John Kirk's photographs capture the millisecond flash of lightning in the sky, as well as the drawings of the Lightning god and his wife in the cave

Antenna'd, sometimes breasted,
he grinds the stone axe on his knees
till shivers of lightning leap
from clashed genitals
Barginj his wife, the Lightning Woman,
sprawls beside, in a birth pose
In the Wet, cool season for birth,
the open cave trembles, walled
by blue electric sheets.
A spidery hand reaches out in white
to touch her electric husband.

Ultimately it's the intense attention to detail in these poems that gives them their impressive spiritual quality.

Patrick Morgan
Patrick Morgan is Chair of the Australia Council's Regional Arts Panel.
Quadrant, June-July 2001


REVIEW   of Mark O'Connor's Selected Poems (1986)

Mark O'Connor's Selected Poems (Hale & Iremonger, 1986, 176 pp.) brings together the production of a dozen years spent in travel no less than in writing poetry. From the caves of Malaysia to the tomb of Homer, from Wordsworth's house to Clingendael Park in the Hague, from Rome to Stromboli the places vary, and this is without counting the Australian settings: Wentworth Falls, the Barrier Reef, or Queensland --each of them inspiring a mind full of sensitivity and passion to new probings or to sometimes disenchanted narrations (contatations).

As well as the undeniable beauty of the rhythm, of the choice of words and echoes, one of the interests of this collection lies in (re-)discovering, from a new viewpoint, places to which our Greco-Latin culture would attach a supposedly precise and limited connotation. 

Under the regard of O'Connor, for example, the icons of St Titus's church in Heraklion become for us as much "strangers" as the rock-carvings of the Aborigines. He excels in revealing, even while involving himself in its external details, the multi-facetedness (and perhaps the non-existence) of the significance that received opinion or doxa attaches to an object. Using language itself, he questions our relationship to the "referent", and also the assumptions that lie behind human communication. All this with discretion, unobtrusively.  Though he uses the modes of possibility rather than of assertion, he lays claim for us all to the wholeness of a global culture.

Professor Michel Fabre of the Sorbonne
in AFRAM, Paris 6/'87, p. 57

The Poetry of Mark O'Connor - detailed explanations of six poems
A Study Guide by Rachel Turner
Compiled for NSW Secondary Schools

Complete text available - see pdf version

See also extracts below:

Extract 1

Today most of us are aware, thanks in part to the film documentaries of David Attenborough and others, that the world of living things is stunningly complex. Every creature, from lyrebird to sequoia to Aids virus, seems to have its own special structure and life history. As well, humans are no longer automatically the summit or centre of the biological world, any more than the earth is necessarily the centre of the universe.

The literary world has been slow to catch up with this change in world view. Just as it took centuries for our culture to absorb the fact that the Earth is not the centre of the world, many people still do not accept that the 5 million other species on this planet have any importance or value in themselves.

Until the 20th Century many readers and critics felt that if the natural world was the work of God, and if God's omnipotent power was beyond human understanding, then there was no point in a writer's looking in too much detail at other species. An educated person would be interested to know only enough about them to get a general understanding of God's purposes ("metaphysics") and a proper awe for His power. The 18th Century English poet Alexander Pope contemputously remarked of persons interested in biology that "The mind in metaphysics at a loss / May wander in a wilderness of moss." The famous critic Samuel Johnson was even more trenchant. It is not the purpose of the poet, he said, "to count the streaks on the tulip" but to offer "just representations [i.e. correct images] of gnneral nature."

By contrast O'Connor argues in a poem called Wordsworth's House at Rydal that without the modern understanding of nature's details it is impossible to think usefully about larger or more metaphysical questions. O'Connor depicts the great 19th Century nature poet Wordsworth as "an eighty year-old / starving for information". He suggests that Wordsworth spent his old age endlessly revising his earlier poems about nature and marking time, because it was difficult for him to make any further progress without the more detailed understandings of nature that Charles Darwin and others would one day bring. Even today some people whose education has been narrowly humanities-based will wonder why O'Connor is so interested in the details of the natural world; and some may jump to the conclusion that it can only be because he is "not interested in people".

In fact, of course, each of his poems, even when emphasizing the complexity of nature, offers only a relatively small group of natural details that are carefully selected for literary impact.

Extract 2---Discussion of the poem Pozieres Cemetery

Pozieres is a battlefield of the First World War. It is a town in flat country in Northern France near the Somme. The British and Australians set themselves to take it and did in fact take it with appalling casualties. It was a great pyrrhic victory. The poet's own notes on this poem, as well as a short essay by him on Australian war poetry, can be found in the anthology Two Centuries of Australian Poetry which he edited for Oxford university Press (see pages 131-141).

In 1977, O'Connor first went to Europe, travelling at the time with two other poets, Alan Gould and Kevin Hart. Both of whom wrote poems titled "Pozieres". Gould's poem contains the lines "For several months much iron fell here. Nowhere was safe." He offers a terse Icelandic saga-style account of what went on. Hart characteristically produces a largely internal poem, with little reference to the realities of the battle field. O'Connor shows a detailed interest in the nature of the battles here, which were so horrendous that it was recorded that people in the trenches peering out could see bodies lying in No Man's Land where the whole ground was turned over and over by the shells. Hence in a day or two a body might be buried, then unburied, then buried and then unburied again by successive shells. There were in fact no trenches for much of the battle. You simply fought from the last shell hole, hoping that another shell would not soon land on it.

The horror of the First World War is, in everyone's imagination, bound up with the mud. It was a war in a sense fought as much against the weather as against the murder ous machine guns and the enemy. Hence the lines "Like Caesar's men / these knew that all wars worth the game / are won in lousy weather." It was on these battlefields that Australian soldiers learnt the futility of military glory. They seemed simply statistics, numbers, cannon fodder to exhaust the enemy's supply of shells or machine gun bullets in the hope of making a breakthrough. The poem lingers a little on the details of the mud---an ironic enemy for soldiers from a dry country who had expected a little dust but not this clogging mud on their glory.

The poem begins with what the poet actually saw in 1977: the well-kept cemeteries in which the thin grass over the muddy surface had been cropped as short "as a mis-shaved skull on a winter's day". Hammered into this soft, muddy turf are the endless small headstones with the names of the dead. O'Connor begins by noting that we take comfort in creating these organised cemeteries for the dead in which rotting bodies are hidden by green lawn. Nature is given a role, and grass and live flowers like roses are used, perhaps because of a distant memory of ancient resurrection myths in which bodies would be transmut ed back into vegetation and life. (see for instance Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, especially re the Cult of Tammuz).

The poet also mentions a slightly more macabre detail: how "The earth for centuries will show dark greasiness" in the spot where a body decayed. He visualises the skeletons, which he refers to as the "grinners under-ground", and how they dance in a horizontal frieze two feet below ground water. The saying "Dust to dust" is hardly appropriate in these wet climates---burial is more a case of "mud to mud". The poem uses quotations in italics from the various headstones and memorials there. The quotation "Rest on lads!" interested the poet with its mix of the colloquial and monumental styles. . .

The Study Guide is also available from
Rachel Turner
9 Arinya Street
NSW 2340
Phone (02) 6762 7278