To a reviewer notorious for his reluctance to embark on a walk that doesn't involve a good coffee, Yuiquimbiang, based on journals kept from extended bushwalks across the Monaro, the Snowy River valley and East Gippsland, may not seem an ideal book. The plants for which I know the Latin name could be numbered on two hands, perhaps one. And yet, paradoxically, I am more than grateful to have read Louise Crisp's outstanding example of ecopoetry.
In her detailed walks across these three regions, Crisp describes in scrupulous (and erudite) detail the plants that still remain from pre-European times (and not a few interlopers). Simultaneously, she intercuts these with descriptions by early explorers and squatters who often left memorable accounts of the much more diverse flora and fauna they encountered. It's a sorry tale but Crisp is not without hope. Instead she rejoices in the (relative) richness of what remains and goes on to describe it in lyrical, even obsessive, detail.
The aesthetics here not only reference what Crisp has learned about Aboriginal use of the regions' plants (and animals) but also, arguably, the poetics of American poets such as Gary Snyder and even the more urban world view of William Carlos Williams. "No ideas but in things", as Williams said.
Crisp's argument is in the detail and its seemingly inherent eloquence. The Latin names for so much flora and fauna may pass by readers like me but the fact that she has discovered them, learnt them and can deploy them effortlessly, is persuasive in itself. The poet also uses the colloquial names given by settlers who must have shown a comparable attention to detail at some point and were not only interested in what their sheep and cattle would consume (and trample on). It's an extra level of poignancy that so many of the Indigenous names for the plants and animals for which she uses the Latin name have been lost.
Yuiquimbiang is a difficult book to sample since so much of its effect is cumulative. For some readers the poetry, with so much naming and listing, may be prosaic but the overall effect is lyrical - as are quite a few of its components. Take. for instance, the haiku-like opening of "11 May": Walk toward the heron / Ancient red gums reflected / in a deep still pond." Or perhaps the more political: "The old Field Naturalist weeps / over the last four / gaping leek orchids in existence" ("11 November").
The last lines of Crisp's book lift her argument to an almost cosmic level: "and elsewhere / in the isolated fragments of remnant grassland / rare sites like exquisite stars / flaring intensely / before they are extinguished / one by one / and the darkening sky of the red gum plains / is / emptied."
- Geoff Page is a Canberra poet.
- Yuiquimbiang, by Louise Crisp. Cordite Books, $25.