Review - Anne Morgan's 'Echoes from the Firetrails' (2004)

Former Tasmanian Anne Morgan, now resident in Perth, has published a chapbook through Tom Collins House Press, Western Australia, entitled Echoes from the Firetrails. Reading these poems, for me at least, brings to mind Christine Anu's pop single 'My Island Home': though Perth may nominally be home for Morgan these days, one becomes aware of a heart still firmly fixed in her native Tasmania, sustained by landscapes of forests, mountains, lakes and beaches, and island relationships she's forged.

I dunk my floral spray
in a carafe of lucid water
and call this Spring,
                                           and call this being home.

'Home' for Morgan encompasses the unique natural environment of Mt Wellington's 'otherworld' forming a backdrop to the city of Hobart - with its frosted branches and moss-sponged mounds, wattle blossoms and rainwooded shadows, bracken and fish-back ferns; its hidden world of furry shadows and brush-tail claws, mountain cockatoos and eagles, swamp rats and jenny wrens.... I'm tempted to suggest a Wordsworthian romanticism underlines Morgan's poems, and to an extent it's so; but it's not nature that's fully the focus of her attention. The poems have individual themes to play out, are just as vitally centred in individual lives and episodic events. The bush, too, isn't always the wild tangled mass it seems. In Hobart it encroaches on the city, in many cases to the front door. The poet drinks in untrampled silence - where there's 'No mechanical cacophonies,/ no Babel of smells and meanings,/ just the verdant taste of space,/ the slow rust of Depression history/ decked with necklaces of magpie calls' - in South Hobart's Old Farm Road, just two or three kilometres from the GPO.

Morgan's delight in nature is both incidental and insistent. It's in evidence in all but one or two of the pieces in this collection, and provides an added dimension to her writing - as in the poem 'Reflection', where the past extends forward into the lives of the poet's grandchildren's grandchildren through the agency of a moss-bearded apple tree.

but still its lichen-scabbed trunk
sluices sap to its branches,
seasoned with snow or blossom, or summer-leaf green,
raucous with parrots and wattlebirds,
then gravid with apples and children,
yet still the tree scrabbles, swollen jointed,
to survive my grandchildren's grandchildren.
[from 'Reflection']

The past is equally alive in the poem 'Hermitage', a reflection on the lifestyle of a hermit adrift on the mountain whose 'fountain pen floods out a frenzy of meanings/ gleaned from old newspaper stacks/ where swamp rats nest', where the Furies amass in the treetops. (And how typical of Morgan to invoke the Furies, those mythological daughters of Mother Earth personifying conscience). Simpson's donkey, a century adrift, also rates a passing mention, invoking memories of the past. And yet it's a collection whose terms of reference remain anchored in the present. 'Aeroplane Awakenings', the final poem in the collection, recalls the unwelcome intrusion of a fellow plane passenger into one's reveries at dawn, when the mind is lost in settings of colours and shapes 'of crevasses and mounds and waves/ that might have been Sastrugi ice'.

The present has a political edge for environmentally-sensitive Tasmanians ... and what are Morgan's poems if not sensitive to the environment? Her first book The Glow Worm Cave (Aboriginal Studies Press) was short-listed for the Wilderness Society's Children's Environment 'Book of the Year Award' in 2000. She's sympathetic to the concerns of local environmentalists and well acquainted with the perception common to mainstream conservationists that a sense of crisis exists, the sense (to quote Pete Hay) 'that there is a very short time in which the fundamentals of social existence must be turned around if lasting ecological damage is not the unavoidable consequence'. That she's written a collection set within the landscape she holds dear is indicative of a strong attachment to the natural world. That she's declined to point accusatory fingers at the social forces threatening to encroach upon it is testament to a gentle and sensitive soul. To forego political censure cannot have been an easy decision for Anne to reach, particularly within a Tasmanian context where conservation issues are on everyone's tongues. But in depicting Mt Wellington's resonant beauty bleeding inexorably onto the page, one's left in little doubt of Morgan's political commitment and primary concern. 'These are words and images of celebration,' I imagine her saying, 'this is what I hold dear'. From such affirmation, political movements take root.

I found the gallery one lost autumn
when wattles were tipping purple,
by tackling the switchback track,
where sassafras and dogwood
stood sentinel to a gallery of fungi -

I stooped towards miniature umbrellas,
shrunken and bleached by the ridgetop sun,
skull caps questioned by bullet-hole riddles,
sun-dried installations underbellied in saffron,
orange crinolines turning petticoat high
to the leering sun,
while ink dripped
regret on white-gilled claret tops.

And past yellowing hands of sponge coral,
and livers shrinking into shadows and liverworts,
I sat amidst staghorns rearing
over tables set for faerie feastings
by the straddling falls
of a time-slipped stream.