The segueing of “nature writing” with a modernist synthesis of creativity and material expressions is strongly present even when, say, reviewing Eleanor Clayton’s recent biography of Barbara Hepworth (“lifelong absorption in the dialogue between spirit and matter”) and Christopher Neve’s Unquiet Landscape: Place and Ideas in 20th-Century British Painting. In reviewing poetry (and I get a look in here), Day privileges the poet’s intent rather than imposing his program on the poet. Analysing poetry – always an engaged and generous process for Day – is enacting certain ways of seeing place (and he is imbued with Berger), and tracing their repetitions as they become mantras. Lowell’s “a poem is an event” is core to this.
And poetry is omnipresent across the book; the first essay, The Watergaw, for which he won the Nature Conservancy Australia’s Nature Writing Prize, takes Scots nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid into alternating spaces of “broken rainbows” and his “fatherless fatherful poem” and the passing of Day’s own father, and questions around belonging. Elsewhere, the great Orkney poet George Mackay Brown resonates, and even when he’s not being directly mentioned. Day revels in the littoral.
One of the more overtly aphoristic essays Whoo-hoo thinking is a cumulative “prose-poem” that works as an ode to the powerful owl and “allows” Day to meditate on cause and effect across many modes of being in place, so often centred around sound, around the song.
Day has created an interactive matrix of place, space and language that constantly seeks to understand paths walked and paths to be walked, air breathed and air that will be breathed, and the water (especially the ocean) that is part of our being. In this, he works towards a personal understanding of his positioning on Wadawurrung country, and the colonial manifesting of life.
His desire to connect with the language of the place and its people is not an exercise in self-assurance brought about by linguistic annexing, but rather an attempt at a recuperative act of respect. I was deeply affected by Day’s approach to restitution and justice for traditional owners in the region where he lives and where his family first arrived in 1841.
Until recently, Day taught Wadawurrung language at the local primary school, with the approval of an Indigenous elder. I wrote to him and asked about this. His response was: “I was initially encouraged to work in concert with Uncle David Tournier in getting the language stuff happening at the Aireys Inlet school here when my kids got to primary school age … The Wadawurrung cultural landscape is complex but Uncle David was at that time the main language man in Geelong.”
Day believes in being a singer of place, and we travel with him to see how he negotiates his presence. As he notes in the introduction, the title of his book comes from a moment of language slippage between the oral and the written, and such a motif moves through this book and is implicated in the shapes of its sounds and meaning.
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