SHORT REVIEW: Miriel Lenore’s drums & bonnets and Susan Kruss’ The Women of Eureka

The Eureka Stockade Rebellion figures strongly in Australian history. Its memory conjures images of Peter Lalor alongside the blue-drenched flag of the Southern Cross, an historical episode regarded by many as a definitive moment in time for Australian democracy. At least two poetry collections with an interest in this aspect of Australia's history have found their way into print in the past couple of years, Miriel Lenore’s drums & bonnets (Wakefield Press, 2003) and Susan Kruss’ The Women of Eureka (Five Islands Press, February 2005). Lenore arrives at Eureka indirectly - her genealogical interest in the life of great-grandmother Lizzie begins in Ireland and deposits her in Ballarat sometime in the mid-1800s - while Kruss' strongly researched poems (as her five pages of endnotes, bibliographies and list of illustrations attest) present the stories of the women of Eureka in fine, imaginative detail.

Both books are aesthetically pleasing objects, Lenore’s cover graced by a Katherine Stafford painting while Kruss' polished effort extends to 106 pages which places it firmly in the larger-than-normal class of Five Islands Press productions. Kruss' manuscript covers territory not normally the domain of a poetry collection (though not outside its realms by any means: consider Jordie Albiston's The Hanging of Jean Lee, Karen Knight's Under the One Granite Roof, Adrienne Eberhard's Jane, Lady Franklin - and another Albiston collection and Kruss' inspiration, Botany Bay Document). The back cover notes to the book describe Kruss' writing as resonating 'beyond the known historical facts and myriad myths of Eureka' ... 'a testament to the potent combination of imagination, empathy and history'. The poems are commonly preceded by a few introductory words - 'The following poem is based on details given by Jeremiah Foster in his claim for compensation of 129 pounds and 4 shillings', for example - or, more commonly, a paragraph or two of background detail. 'Green was associated with promiscuity - green stains from rolling in the grass!' (pg 10). Lending emphasis to the poems are photographs and illustrations, documents and copies of personal correspondence.

Ever the genealogical detective, Lenore's focus varies from the personal and political (in contemporary parlance, both one and the same?) to the mildly sensual, as in ‘Art and Life’ with its hint of tension in the relationship between a parent and child. Whether it's of the skylark calling to mind memories of the cornfields and orchids of Armagh, or the lightly sardonic riposte to claims that in the town's gardens rich and poor together meet ('the cemetery has a better claim'), Lenore writes with deft and elegant ease.

If there's a point of intersection between these collections, its the experience of Eureka. Kruss' collection includes a 'Eureka Timetable' outlining events between 1851 and 1855. Her women are generally miners' wives and partners, though there are exceptions. 'Lady Hotham's visit to the Gravel Pits' speaks of the experiences of the Governor's wife while 'Government Camp' is written from the perspective of an officer's wife and presents an insider's account of the soldiers' and policemen's camp. The poem 'Trooper's Wife' offers an imaginative account of the fate of the Eureka flag after falling into the hands of troopers. Kruss' poems also include accounts of women such as Bridget Hynes, who prevents her husband from taking part in events at the stockade.

she hid her husband's pike and pants

before the gunfire broke their sleep
left him naked and swearing
enraged but alive

                                 (from 'Bridget's secrets', pg 52)

In the poem 'Eureka', Miriel Lenore documents an experience comparable to that of Hynes and her husband. Lizzie's husband John is not at the stockade at the time of the uprising and in her reconstruction of events, Lenore makes a stab at explaining why. Again, it's the husband's pants that go missing.

John must have been at the meeting
the family story is clear:
though he planned to go to the stockade
                                 he was not at Eureka -
his young wife hid his trousers

easy to sympathise with her
                                 so far from home
married a mere eight months
she didn't need to be a martyr's widow
but could there be another reason?

did this daughter of Ulster protestants
take the Government side
                                 against the miners' Irish leaders?

all we know is that John stayed home

The collections drums & bonnets and The Women of Eureka succeed in etching the lives that, though separated by time and circumstance, are not unlike our own in their essentiality. In these poems, elements of the creative and historical are woven in ways that bring to mind the words of Henry Reynolds to describe his role as a historian: as someone who lets his imagination fly but nevertheless remains holding on to the string of the kite, holding on to the truth.