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
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "Judith Wright: Selected Writings, Georgina Arnott (ed) ".
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