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Corrosive Littoral: On the Beach with Kenneth Slessor

The modernity of colonial nations has often seemed belated, but in Australia it has been especially troubled by ongoing doubts about the authenticity of the nation itself. According to Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra in Dark Side of the Dream: “Legitimacy is a raw and buried issue in the contemporary Australian consciousness for good reasons. The current system of government, law and property derives from a chain of judicial acts which leads inexorably back to the founding event itself: an act of invasion by which the Aboriginal owners of the land were dispossessed with some cruelty and without compensation.”[1] The same might be said of other colonial cultures, but Hodge and Mishra highlight the way in which “bastard” became a characteristic term of affection in Australia, arguing that “the basis of identity that it constructs is a shared sense of illegitimacy,” one related to a more deep-seated “bastard complex” (Dark Side of the Dream, 23). For this reason, “white Australians have had a continuous need to generate new forms of the foundation myth, which exists to annul, defuse, displace and negate the intractable conditions of the foundation event” (26). That Australia is a nation of bastards is perhaps echoed by the country’s lack of an unambivalent foundation moment, a proper “birthday”; for when might modern Australia be said to have begun? Debates about the suitability of January 26 as Australia Day have lately come to prominence again, since it marks the date in 1788 when Governor Phillip raised the British flag at what is now Sydney, and many Indigenous people rightly feel that “Invasion Day” hardly merits general celebration. Besides, outside the eastern states, South and Western Australia also mark their own dates of colonial takeover.[2] The anniversary of Australian Federation on January 1, 1901 was widely commemorated only on its centenary in 2001, and with little public enthusiasm compared to the solemn annual response to Anzac Day on April 25. Invested with forging a popular version of white male Australian identity, Anzac Day has traditionally had a stronger claim as a truly national foundation moment, but it is shared with New Zealand—which has Waitangi Day, marking the 1840 treaty with the Māori people, as its national day. Anzac Day also celebrates another seaborne invasion, when in 1915 Australasian troops were part of a failed Allied assault on the Ottoman Empire. Will Australia finally come into its own if and when it becomes a republic? “Where is Australia, singer, do you know?” asked the poet Bernard O’Dowd in his 1912 visionary poem The Bush, only to answer himself, “She is a prophecy to be fulfilled!”[3] Implicit in the where of O’Dowd’s question is when will the “real” nation come into being?

The status of modernism in Australia has been similarly fraught, even when narrowed to the field of poetry, since here too there has been a sense of inauthenticity, belatedness, or deferral. For example, the relative absence of a strong local avant-garde heritage meant that, as late as the 1970s, the diffuse grouping of baby boomer poets that John Tranter dubbed “the Generation of ’68” were apt to see themselves as the first true moderns, impelled as they were by sixties youth culture and recent experimental American poetics.[4] In influential late twentieth-century monographs, both Andrew Taylor and Paul Kane have argued—for somewhat different reasons—that Australian poetic modernism was stalled by the failure of a romantic tradition to take hold. Yet, leaving aside the ever-porous relationship between romanticism and modernism, Taylor and Kane each reflected an older canonical sense of modernist poetics strongly inflected by Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence and a concern with poetic patrimony. Kane’s account is more nuanced, and more invested in problems of romantic identity and self-authorization, and yet he seems to concur with Taylor’s view that Kenneth Slessor is “Australia’s first strong poet,” and therefore a founding father of local modernism.[5]

This judgment reinforced a critical consensus going back to the 1960s. New Critics emphasized Slessor’s alleged pessimism as the sign of his modernity, but that view was challenged even before the revisionist essays in a 1997 collection edited by Philip Mead. Mead’s own account of the impact of cinema on Slessor’s poetry in his 2008 book Networked Language has since moved the discussion into contemporary modernism studies.[6] This essay is also concerned to relocate the poet within a global modernist field through what Susan Stanford Friedman calls “the geohistory of modernity,” the where and the when of Slessor’s complex geographies. As she says, “How might attention to [modernity’s] here-and-there revise its then-and-now? How, in short, can we reconfigure the narrative chronotopes of modernity—the relational mediations of time and space in stories of modernity—so as to avoid the privileging of time over space?”[7]

While it is a critical truism that he was a poet of the city and what he called “metropolitan fascinations,” Slessor’s verse is mostly positioned not in the built environment—which appears variously in transformed and abstract shapes, or else flickers past in cinematic snippets—but on shorelines of one kind or another.[8] Slessor’s poetic geography is full of strange coasts and enclosed waters: beaches, harbors, coves, inlets, even the occasional river. For this reason his poetry can seem positively waterlogged: a “drowned world,” in Jeffrey Poacher’s phrase, and one expressed in what Meg Brayshaw, in an adjacent context, has called an “aqueous poetics.”[9] I wish to consider the meaning of these shores, and especially beaches, in Slessor’s oeuvre, not only as objective correlatives of time and tide in the abstract—plenty of critics have already done that—but as sites that speak to history, or geohistory, and to what might be called the colonial unconscious of Australian modernity. For Slessor’s coasts uncannily recall foundation moments of white settlement, projecting them into the present in a way that implies a profound unease about Australian nationhood, and indeed the triumphalist nationalism of Smith’s Weekly where he worked as a senior journalist in the late 1920s and through the 1930s. The beach is only ever an idyllic place in his light verse; elsewhere, it is the setting for elegiac reflection and the return of lost things. It might therefore be said to represent a troubled “corrosive littoral” between the nation and its origins.

I have taken this phrase from We Inhabit the Corrosive Littoral of Habit, the title of a 1940 painting by the Australian surrealist and sometime poet, James Gleeson (fig. 1).

Surrealist image of man and woman in sandy expanse
Fig. 1. James Gleeson (1915-2008), We Inhabit the Corrosive Littoral of Habit, 1940, oil on canvas. Courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, copyright The Gleeson O’Keefe Foundation.

According to one critic: “The male face’s vacant stare is confrontational and unsettling; an eviscerating decay of human spirit seems to have infected both it and its connected wasting female torso to the right. The visual link between them, much like a winding sheet, conveys attention across the canvas as if to double the effect of desolation.”[10] The debt to Salvador Dali is obvious, as Gleeson himself acknowledged; but read in terms of the argument offered here it might be said to descend from E. Phillips Fox’s 1902 historical painting, Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, an early post-Federation image once commonly reproduced in school textbooks (fig. 2).[11]

British colonial officers landing on beach
Fig. 2. E. Phillips Fox (1865-1915), Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, 1902, oil on canvas. Courtesy National Gallery of Victoria.

Fox inevitably places Cook’s party center stage, with the defending Aborigines in the distance to the right as a mere sideshow. The placement of Gleeson’s two figures is more balanced, although the woman is further away and situated before a wilder rocky outcrop, also to the right: another sideshow to the main event. Both images imply violence of some kind; literally, in Fox’s picture, as the two sailors and the marine get ready to fire on the Aborigines. With its haunted, hollowed-out figures, We Inhabit the Corrosive Littoral of Habit may seem like a modernist riposte to such imperial triumphalism. But surely Gleeson’s surreal figures might just as easily be in the process of formation rather than dissolution, of arriving rather than departing, coming rather than going? Maybe they are about to morph into the solid, sun-bronzed demigods of Charles Meere’s Australian Beach Pattern, which was also completed in 1940 (fig. 3). After all, Gleeson’s recursive, punning title implies inhabitation as habitat as well as habit, and even habitus. With Meere’s painting in mind, it might almost be renamed The Habitual Littoral.

Stylized painting of people playing on a beach
Fig. 3. Charles Meere (1890-1961), Australian Beach Pattern, 1940, oil on canvas. Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, copyright Charles Meere/Copyright Agency Ltd.

Whatever the case, the littoral has clearly provided the stage for a suite of myths about Australian history and identity. In the words of Robert Zeller and C. A. Cranston, “It was in the littoral zone that the first contact between white and indigenous people occurred and where the white explorers or invaders had to begin to come to terms with an almost totally alien environment.”[12] More critically, Anja Schwarz has read the beach has having usurped the bush as a national metonymy during the twentieth century, “stand[ing] for a new, postcolonial, Australian identity” that, like Meere’s painting, aspires to be singular, monocultural, and only superficially egalitarian. Challenging such a trope, Schwarz “offer[s] an investigation into ways of speaking about this landscape that do not participate in the segregatory and silencing project” of settler nationalism.[13]

Most of Slessor’s poetry was written in the interwar years when modern Australian beach culture and its associated myths were still in formation; indeed, he played his own small part in helping form them, as we shall see. This was also a period in which Australia’s “colonial” status remained ambiguous, with Britain still overseeing its foreign affairs. The 1931 Statute of Westminster had granted legislative autonomy to the British dominions, but concerns over military separation from the UK meant that Australia only ratified it in 1942 when, amid the uncertainties of the Second World War, an American alliance now seemed desirable. If, in Slessor’s work, the littoral zone is littered with the paraphernalia of earlier exploration and invasion, the rejectamenta of colonialism also washes up there, including dead sailors from that later imperial conflict in his best-known littoral poem, “Beach Burial.”

Renée Free has written of Gleeson’s painting that “[t]he title word littoral has life-long significance for [the artist] as the borderline between conscious and unconscious where rational and irrational meet,” and the zone between the tidemarks may be said to function in this way in Slessor’s verse as well.[14] Consider “Five Bells” where the poet, gazing at Sydney Harbour from the shore, sets out to recollect (or to re-collect) the figure of Joe Lynch, whose being is dissolved in the Harbour’s waters, and who is now “only part of an Idea” linked to the poet’s memories, to “the flukes of thought / Anchored in Time,” and to Bergsonian durée.[15] “Sleep,” in the poem of that title, promises to “[c]arry you and ferry you” along its “estuary,” from the shores of wakefulness to a mysterious and erotic “burial” in a quasi-uterine space (Collected Poems, 124). And, far away from the coast, in the Monaro high plains of “South Country,” “You walk on the sky’s beach” across an infinitude of air into which the hills are “pushed up” like human skulls in a forgotten massacre site, “rebellious, buried, pitiful” (132).

It is this last sense of the littoral as the site of uncanny, repressed historical memories—“rebellious, buried, pitiful”—that most interests me about Slessor and the colonial unconscious. Such revenant images are expressions of what Paul Giles has named “backgazing” in modernist culture, an “aesthetics of time” engendered by forms of “spatiotemporal transposition” that he associates with antipodean modes of being and thought.[16] Gleeson’s ambiguous corrosive littoral offers a case in point, presenting an image of psychological and cultural dissolution—read as national allegory, the decay of settler Australia—while chiastically permitting a temporal reversal which can also read these white bodies in terms of their potential (re)formation. Walter Benjamin’s historiography of the dreamwork of urban life, encapsulated in his dialectical image, suggests another figure for reading time backwards, somewhat in the manner of his famous Angel of History, whose “face is turned towards the past” while being blown relentlessly forward by the storm of progress.[17] In an analogous way, one might read Slessor’s poetry in terms of a backward-lookingness that is similarly disengaged from the journalist’s progressive view of history, and which stages a confrontation between past and present through images of historical unsettlement: an unsettlement focused in the space between land and sea, and figured through chiasmus.

In the wake of the recent oceanic turn in literary studies, Kerry Bystrom and Isabel Hofmeyr have coined the geohistorical term hydrocolonial in order to reimagine the dynamics of empires and colonies as these have been mediated by seas, rivers, estuaries, and harbors, rather than by land-based invasion and conquest. As Hofmeyr writes: “Just as the term postcolonial aims to understand a world shaped by European empires and their aftermaths, so hydrocolonialism signals a commitment to understanding a world indelibly shaped by imperial uses of water.”[18] Slessor’s unsettling corrosive littoral offers an excellent case study in the Australian context. Let me begin, then, with the hydrocolonial theme of exploration in a couple of longer poems about maps and the sea.

Footprints Over a Lithograph

Many of Slessor’s coastlines are a legacy from the age of heroic exploration, which is also, of course, the time of modernity and of mapping. As D. K. Smith writes in The Cartographic Imagination, “even when the cartographic references are purely imaginative, metaphoric, or vague, the modern world cannot be separated from a sense of spatial organization that is fundamentally cartographic.”[19] Exploration would appear to be celebrated in “Five Visions of Captain Cook,” Slessor’s most obviously “national” poem, which I will come back to by way of conclusion, but it is also thematic in “Captain Dobbin,” about a figure loosely based on Francis Bayldon, an uncle of the poet’s first wife Noela.[20] In the poem, Dobbin is an old sea dog who pores over his library of maps and mementos, “a chest of mummied waves,” as Slessor calls it, that he holds

Closer to him than a dead, lovely woman,

For he keeps bits of it, like old letters,

Salt tied up in bundles

Or pressed flat,

What you might call a lock of the sea’s hair. (Collected Poems, 78, 77)

I described him as a sea dog but, really, as his name implies, Dobbin is a sea horse: a draught animal who ploughed the waves first opened up for Westerners by Cook. Retired as an active sailor, he maintains his connection to seafaring through his books and charts, the study of which brings alive for him those lands and oceans where once he traveled. As the above quote implies, it is an erotic connection, kept close to Dobbin’s heart like the keepsakes from “a dead, lovely woman,” perhaps a native woman encountered on one of his voyages.

It is significant, then, that apart from his map-scanning eye, “[t]hat eye of wild and wispy scudding blue / Voluptuously prying,” Dobbin himself is never described but is instead only represented through the contents of his library (Collected Poems, 79). In fact, his adventures have become purely textual:

Over the flat and painted atlas-leaves

His reading-glass would tremble,

Over the fathoms, pricked in tiny rows,

Water shelving to the coast.

Quietly the bone-rimmed lens would float

Till, through the glass, he felt the barbèd rush

Of bubbles foaming, spied the albicores,

The blue-finned admirals, heard the wind-swallowed cries

Of planters running on the beach

Who filched their swags of yams and ambergris,

Birds’ nests and sandalwood, from pastures numbed

By the sun’s yellow, too meek for honest theft. (78)

As Smith says: “despite its emphasis on visual representation, a map’s most important function is to show what cannot actually be seen” (The Cartographic Imagination, 1). A map is thus an ideal space, resting upon nothing more substantial than a cartographer’s lines marking distinctions between elements or elevations, “the fathoms, pricked in tiny rows, / Water shelving to the coast.” In the passage above, we move rapidly from the textuality of “flat and painted atlas-leaves” to a narrative of colonization involving “planters . . . too meek for honest theft.” Slessor took the word planter and some later details from Herman Melville’s Omoo, playing on the double meaning of planter as a colonist but also, as the OED indicates, “one who hides stolen property.”[21] Across the contour lines of such a bookish beach the chiastic imagination may travel in both directions, for in framing his poem Slessor transposes land and sea, in effect reading the map backwards:

Captain Dobbin, having retired from the South Seas

In the dumb tides of 1900 [. . .]

Now sails the street in a brick villa, “Laburnum Villa,”

In whose blank windows the harbour hangs

Like a fog against glass,

Golden and smoky, or stoned with a white glitter,

And boats go by, suspended in the pane,

Blue Funnel, Red Funnel, Messageries Maritimes,

Lugged down the port like sea-beasts taken alive

That scrape their bellies on sharp sands. (Collected Poems, 77)

The textual oceans in Dobbin’s library as it “sails” the suburban street offer the primary mode of passage and exploration, whereas Sydney Harbour “hangs” in the window of Laburnum Villa like a landscape painting or magic lantern slide. The Captain’s relationship to the sea as now mediated by his library echoes Slessor’s relationship with the library itself and its exotic pleasures, as mediated by the focalizing consciousness of Dobbin, who represents a lost, vital masculinity, not least through his readerly connection to the old explorers: “Magellan, Bougainville and Cook, / Who found no greater a memorial / Than footprints over a lithograph” (Collected Poems, 81).[22]

In Allegories of Reading Paul de Man famously employed chiasmus as what Robert Hariman calls a “figure of thought.”[23] De Man showed how, through “the crossing that reverses the attributes of words and things,” in Rilke’s poetry the referential is transposed, as if through a mirror, into the figural, which is then released into a new freedom: “The poems are composed of entities, objects and subjects, who themselves behave like words, which ‘play’ at language according to the rules of rhetoric as one plays ball according to the rules of the game.”[24] Something akin to this might be said to take place in Slessor’s early verse, much of it written under the late romantic influence of the artist Norman Lindsay, but there “play” tends to become fixed as ornament and mannerism. This factitious tendency is still present in “Captain Dobbin” in the examples already cited—the Captain himself is more a string of colorful metonymies than a man—but his library is ultimately anchored in time, the twentieth century (after “the dumb tides of 1900”), and Laburnum Villa itself anchored in a nonfigurative place, suburban Sydney. Dobbin’s maps maintain their connection to a racialized history of colonization—“[f]or Cook he worshipped, that captain with the sad / And fine white face”—and his “ledger sticky with ink” keeps up with the present-day movements of the Harbour (Collected Poems, 81, 77). At the end of the poem, immediately after paying tribute to Cook, white settlement itself seems about to flow seawards with the tide:

Coldly in the window,

Like a fog rubbed up and down the glass

The harbour, bony with mist

And ropes of water, glittered; and the blind tide

That crawls it knows not where, nor for what gain,

Pushed its drowned shoulders against the wheel,

Against the wheel of the mill.

Flowers rocked far down

And white, dead bodies that were anchored there

In marshes of spent light.

Blue Funnel, Red Funnel,

The ships went over them, and bells in engine-rooms

Cried to their bowels of flaring oil,

And stokers groaned and sweated with burnt skins,

Clawed to their shovels.

But quietly in his room,

In his little cemetery of sweet essences

With fond memorial-stones and lines of grace,

Captain Dobbin went on reading about the sea. (Collected Poems, 81–82)

Though the last lines find Dobbin once more engrossed in his library, this passage makes for a strangely anxious conclusion to a poem that otherwise celebrates the nautical legacy of Sydney Harbour. Hofmeyr has noted that port cities constitute a “hydroborder” at which “the nervous condition” of colonial power is heightened, and where for settlers “the ‘normal’ anxieties of the boundary [are] exacerbated by ecological uncertainty, health hazards of ships arriving in port, and paranoia about ‘undesirable aliens’ arriving by sea” (“Provisional Notes on Hydrocolonialism,” 13). Beyond Dobbin’s “little cemetery of sweet essences” steam, not sail, now rules and “stokers . . . with burnt skins” make for strange new shipmates.

“Captain Dobbin” was completed in April 1929, “Five Visions” in May that year. Slessor’s next middle-range poem was the sequence “The Atlas,” finished in December 1930, which rounded off his great maritime trilogy with a series of meditations on maps as a late colonial version of the “cartographic imagination.” In “The Atlas” Slessor employs his maps very self-consciously to poetic ends. The resulting five-part sequence retains a debt to the aesthetic of the journal Vision (1923–24) and to the historical fantasies of Lindsay, but at the end of each poem the decoration tends to fall away as the poet brings his cartographic musings into the present. Indeed, the rich ornament in the fourth poem, “Mermaids,” serves to highlight how the language of maps shapes our understanding of the world, and how that language has altered post-Enlightenment. John Speed’s 1675 map which inspires it offers another textual ocean, but one that features sea monsters and other wonders. In the modern era, however, those mermaids with their “fish-dark, difficult hips” who used to disport themselves alongside the firedrakes and jinn of antique charts no longer “tumble in the sponges of the moon / For the benefit of tourists in the First Saloon” (Collected Poems, 74–75).

“Dutch Seacoast,” the third and central poem of “The Atlas,” shows how a map may be read in visionary ways even without the presence of fantastic creatures. Joan Blaeu’s seventeenth-century map of Amsterdam, as described in the poem, presents a landscape made into art in which time has been stilled. As Adele J. Haft has observed, “for the first time in the sequence, Slessor has us imagine that he is actually looking at the map described by his poem”:[25]

No wind of Life may strike within

This little country’s crystal bin,

Nor calendar compute the days

Tubed in their capsule of soft glaze.

Naked and rinsed, the bubble-clear

Canals of Amsterdam appear,

The blue-tiled turrets, china clocks

And glittering beaks of weathercocks. (Collected Poems, 73)

This imagery is not wholly unrelated to that in an earlier poem, “Nuremburg,” about the artist Albrecht Dürer, which is also fascinated with the art of engraving and ornate skylines. But in this later poem the perspective cuts loose from the referential world and drifts into more indeterminate figurative space:

A gulf of sweet and winking hoops

Whereon there ride 500 poops

With flying mouths and fleeting hair

Of saints hung up like candles there—


Fox-coloured mansions, lean and tall,

That burst in air but never fall,

Whose bolted shadows, row by row,

Float changeless on the stones below—


Sky full of ships, bay full of town,

A port of waters jellied brown:

Such is the world no tide may stir,

Sealed by the great cartographer. (Collected Poems, 73–74)

A glance at Blaeu’s maps suggests that a degree of poetic license has been taken, but the language of cartography, like any language, is subject to interpretation. In this hermetically “sealed” world, then, another order begins to appear, in which ships seem to hang in the air like their “saintly” figureheads, mansions to “burst” like flowers or fireworks, and their shadows—contiguously “bolted” like a ship’s plates—to float. Various elements are thus transposed, and the map rendered into a magical, chiastic “Sky full of ships, bay full of town” (74).

“Dutch Seacoast” is hardly unusual in this. As shown in “Captain Dobbin,” Slessor continually reorients the elements in his poetry, dissolving their distinctions by transposing their features. This chiastic predisposition is evident as early as “Pan at Lane Cove” from 1920, where the poet calls upon the faun statue to “blow your stone-lipped flute” because a transformation scene is unfolding in the sky:

Cold stars are bubbling round the moon,

Which, like some golden Indiaman

Disgorged by waterspouts and blown

Through heaven’s archipelago,

Drives orange bows by clouds of stone. (Collected Poems, 17–18)

In the third poem of Slessor’s 1926 sequence “Music” the night air and the shoreline are engulfed in one another:

O, silent night, dark beach,

Drowning like lovers, each in each,

Uncharge thy musky boughs, unbend

Thy mouths of air, and give them speech. (Collected Poems, 50)

Then in “Five Bells”: “Night and water / Pour to one rip of darkness” in which “the Harbour floats / In air” (Collected Poems, 120). Following “the slow damp” of Melbourne, with its “sodden ecstasies of rectitude,” Sydney eventually becomes almost wholly terraqueous in this poem as Joe starts “living backward,” and the medium in which he drowned begins to overwhelm the imagery; from the “spent aquarium-flare / Of penny gaslight on pink wallpaper,” to the graves associated with Joe’s stonemason father, which are transformed into “private berths of dissolution” (122–23).

The Cracks in the Spinning Cross

Giles sees what he calls this “‘upside-side down’ impulse” as “permeat[ing] Slessor’s poems more generally,” describing it as “a system of ontological burlesque, where abstract ideals are brought tumbling down to earth” (Backgazing, 117). I would argue, however, that this is less ironic inversion for its own sake—a burlesque indeed, ontological or otherwise—but is keyed more profoundly and thematically: a chiastic urge to restage existence in uncanny ways via transpositions that work to undermine, to deconstruct, the categories under which they operate. As “Dutch Seacoast” implied, imperial maps can figuratively be read backwards. Given his penchant for striking, even histrionic imagery, such chiasmus in Slessor operates expressionistically rather than as a mode of bathos or satire.[26]

That chiasmus might be a commanding trope for the poet is further suggested by several striking cruciform images in his verse. In “Serenade”— a minor poem from 1926—a rare religious simile, “Thou moon, like a white Christus hanging / At the sky’s cross-roads,” sets up rejection of the romantic image of moonlight as a sacramental “viand sucked by the world’s lovers” (Collected Poems, 98). Slessor’s eventual departure from this kind of rococo mannerism was prefigured as early as 1924 by “Stars,” which more forcefully renounces idealizing visions of the night sky. Here it is only “the passionate poet” with his “great, romantic guitar” who invokes the stars as “the link-boys of Queen Venus, running out of the sky, / Spilling their friendly radiance on all her ways of love”; instead, “I was beating off the stars, gazing, not rhyming,” and “could not escape those tunnels of nothingness / The cracks in the spinning Cross” (Collected Poems, 66–67). (Thematic inversion is echoed by reverse rhyming in the first and last stanzas: abbacdcd//efef//ghh//ijijkllk.) The constellation Crux—which features on the Australian flag, of course—reappears in “Five Bells” when “the Cross hangs upside-down in water” as a chiastic reflection, further implying how much time is out of joint in that poem (120). Then in Slessor’s last major work, “Beach Burial,” each rough crucifix, “the driven stake of tidewood,” upon the littoral at El Alamein marks the body of a dead sailor for whom national distinctions of enemy, friend or neutral no longer matter, for they have all crossed over, “Enlisted on the other front” (144).

Much less well known is “Waters” from 1927, whose two ten-line stanzas have an unusual rhyme scheme (abcbcadeed), as if they may have begun life as an experiment in sonnet form. The waters of the title snag on anachronistic allusions that push against their progressive symbolism, offering not so much a directing image than a vehicle for surreal metamorphosis.

This Water, like a sky that no one uses,

Air turned to stone, ridden by stars and birds

No longer, but with clouds of crystal swimming,

I’ll not forget, nor men can lose, though words

Dissolve with music, gradually dimming.

So let them die; whatever the mind loses,

Water remains, cables and bells remain,

Night comes, the sailors burn their riding-lamps,

And strangers, pitching on our graves their camps,

Will break through branches to the surf again.

Darkness comes down. The Harbour shakes its mane,

Glazed with a leaf of amber; lights appear

Like thieves too early, dropping their swag by night,

Red, gold and green, down trap-doors glassy-clear,

And lanterns over Pinchgut float with light

Where they so long have lain.

All this will last, but I who gaze must go

On water stranger and less clear, and melt

With flesh away; and stars that I have felt,

And loved, shall shine for eyes I do not know. (Collected Poems, 100)

Here Sydney Harbour at dusk is like the sky, but one “that no-one uses” and so available to aesthetic transformation. At this time of day it contains no stars or birds, but rather “clouds of crystal swimming”: presumably the shifting light on its surface rather than cumulus reflections from above. As we have seen, Slessor has played this chiastic trick of reversing sky and sea elsewhere, and also air and earth (“Air turned to stone”). By becoming, so to speak, “petrified” the Harbour water itself becomes the unstable site of settlement: in Hofmeyr’s terminology, a chiastic hydroborder. Sailors, we are told, “burn their riding-lamps,” which are at once ship’s lamps when “riding” at anchor, but also lamps attached to stirrups, an idea that connects with the image in the second stanza of the Harbour “shak[ing] its mane.” The sailors seem connected to the “strangers” who will “[pitch] on our graves their camps” once history has rolled over the colony, as part of the course of Empire. Just as Joe Lynch can be imagined “living backward” as he approaches the moment of his death, so too can Sydney in its moment of transformation from daylight into dark: “This Water” moves in both directions with time and tide. The image of the navigation lights appearing “Like thieves too early” may seem merely ornamental but, like the sailors, it is associated with the “strangers” in the previous stanza. All these references to sailors, strangers, and thieves suggest the first white inhabitants. Mention of “Pinchgut,” the old convict name for the rocky island that became Fort Denison, further connects the Harbour with its early white history.

The poem’s focus on transience thus has a geohistorical as well as an existential implication, suggesting not only the fragility of life itself but of colonization. Water, for Slessor, images land, and it is also the medium by which European conquest of Terra Australis took place. The relationship between the coast and nationality figures prominently in Suvendrini Perera’s 2009 book, Australia and the Insular Imagination. “The beach and island coastline are often represented as sites of untrammeled freedom and pleasure,” she writes, “signifying all that is best about the Australian way of life;” but their very openness is double-edged, a complex hydroborder:

As the historical scene of invasion, they [also] invoke fears of other invasions. To arrive in Australia by sea, whether on convict ships, migrant carriers, or asylum seekers’ boats, is to face death, literally and symbolically. But the anxieties represented by the beach and the coast do more as well. . . . The beach and ocean coastline are reminders of the limits of the island-continent. Anxieties about the edges and extremities of the geo-body, of the finite territoriality of the nation and its uncertain location in a wider spatial order, accrue at these sites; as do the myths and fantasies that assuage and contain the anxieties they generate.[27]

Sydney sits literally, as well as littorally, on water, so that in “Waters” conquest can be reversed. The image of the trapdoor suggests a theatrical disappearing act—here one minute, gone the next—and recalls “Infinity’s trap-door, eternal and merciless” from “Stars.” The modernism of the poem’s language, hinged upon a powerful sense of the passing of time, sweeps up the colonial project itself as subject to the logic of progress and change.

Land and water are also transposed in “Passenger by Greycliffe,” an occasional verse from Smith’s Weekly which memorializes the forty people, including six schoolchildren, who perished in Sydney Harbour when the steamer Tahiti ran into the ferry Greycliffe on November 3, 1927:

Who sits beside you in the empty seat,

Staring, most strange of passengers?

Who reads your paper, moves his bony feet?

Who bends across your shoulder? Who is there?

Who stirs?


Sometimes he lights a lantern far below;

The cloudy waters melt, the shadows pass,

Foam turns to crystal; down a tunnel of glass,

We gaze at things forgotten long ago.


The Harbour opens like a sepulchre

Its golden trap-door, air and birds one side,

And on the other, sea-flowers in the tide

And white, dead bodies; and the Passenger.


Who is it rides beside you in still air?

Who sits between your fellow-travellers?

Who blows his frozen breath? Who’s there?

Who’s there?

Who stirs? (Collected Poems, 273–74)

The “sea-flowers” will reappear as “[f]lowers rocked far down” in “Captain Dobbin” and as “sea-pinks” in “Five Bells,” but the Grim Reaper in the framing verses, “most strange of passengers,” is a conventional anthropomorphism for what in “Captain Dobbin” becomes embodied in the Harbour itself, “bony with mist / And ropes of water,” the tide “[p]ush[ing] its drowned shoulders against the wheel” (81, 123, 81). In each case, the actions of the deathly figure serve to reveal “white, dead bodies,” perhaps blanched by their watery graves, but just as likely racialized. Again, a hydroborder invites chiasmus as “things forgotten long ago” become visible and “The Harbour opens like a sepulchre.”

But why “long ago,” when the poem was published only nine days after the disaster, on November 12? Slessor seems to infer a larger calamity. The “golden trap-door” here echoes the “trap-doors glassy-clear” from “Waters.” In each case, the image is theatrical: trapdoors were conventionally used for the entry of supernatural figures—ghosts and demons—so they mark the kind of magical effects that once characterized many nineteenth-century stage entertainments, notably pantomimes. Just so, the mysterious passenger of the title appears to have crossed over from the depths below, arriving on the Harbour as a death-dealing, undesirable alien: a Davy Jones who can summon a telescopic “tunnel of glass” that reveals the Harbour as an underworld, a land of the dead. Discussing the curious recurrence of ferry wrecks in Australian literary modernism, Brigid Rooney has written, in part about this poem: “The watery abyss encircled by land is only apparently tamed and domesticated, and belies the security of settlement. [. . .] The city’s proximity to its abyssal vault of time and memory defamiliarises human time and inverts the order of things.”[28]

Some Seignior of Colonial Fame

“Five Bells” famously explores the phenomenology of subjective memory, but a deeper historical memory impinges throughout the poem, as it does in “Captain Dobbin,” in the imagery of ships, recalling the maritime origins of Sydney. In “Five Bells” this is initiated in the prologue by “the dark warship riding there below,” and maintained by images of anchors, portholes, berths, and indeed the ship’s bell that punctuates the speaker’s reverie and gives the poem its title (Collected Poems, 120).

Even in “Pan at Lane Cove” history slyly intrudes among all the special effects. The stone faun has been “planted” in the garden by “Some seignior of colonial fame”—a planter, presumably—who is an exotic, possibly non-Anglo figure lost in time (from the OED, “seignior” is a now obscure variant of the French seigneur or lord) (17).[29] But he and his formal garden are probably imaginary, and a blind for the fact that the Lane Cove River was rather more low-rent in 1920 than it is today, and also far less wild. Lane Cove National Park was not opened until 1938, and before this the area had been used for logging, orchards, and market gardens. It also included an extensive pleasure ground called, of all things, Fairyland, that survived until the 1970s.[30] That Slessor may have been thinking of pleasure grounds when writing his garden is further hinted by the otherwise casual reference to Clontarf in the fourth stanza, seemingly chosen merely for the rhyme: “The night has looped a smoky scarf / Round campanili in the town, / And thrown a cloak about Clontarf” (Collected Poems, 18). Clontarf is now an expensive Middle Harbour suburb, but in the late nineteenth century, its waterside park and the former hotel which stood there offered a lively weekend resort for Sydney’s larrikin subculture, one well suited to what Slessor calls “[b]arbaric ways and Paynim rout” (18).

Like his topsy-turvy reversals of land of water, transpositions of the present and the past recur in Slessor. They are implicit in the very title of “Pan at Lane Cove” which, like the art of Norman Lindsay, maintains the primacy of a figurative past in the face of local history and present existence. As de Man wrote of Rilke: “From the perspective of the language of figuration, this loss of substance appears as a liberation. It triggers the play of rhetorical reversals and allows them the freedom of their play without being hampered by the referential constraints of meaning” (“Tropes (Rilke),” 47). And so the moon above Lane Cove becomes a square-rigged merchant vessel blown off course “[t]hrough heaven’s archipelago” (Collected Poems, 17). Yet Slessor never wholly surrenders to the figural. As indicated, fragments of a quotidian suburban past still intrude when one looks more closely. The image of the moon as an East India Company ship itself recalls early trade between New South Wales and Asia, perhaps conducted by that “seignior of colonial fame” whose faun statue also invites the Olympian gods to “dance a while in Paradise / Like men of fire” above the suburb (18).

Elsewhere in his early work the poet reluctantly brings down his glorious pageants in the face of the everyday. So in “Marco Polo,” also written in 1920, the vanishing of the “unforgotten splendours” of Kublai Khan’s palace leads him to declare that, “tired of life’s new-fashioned plan, / I long to be barbarian” (24). In “Captain Dobbin” nine years later, the protagonist’s seafaring past is similarly evoked in phantasmagoric terms but has an empirical touchstone in the house and library of Francis Bayldon. The contents of Laburnum Villa where Dobbin now lives have become “his little cemetery of sweet essences,” but from within this “dwarfed memento” the Captain obsessively takes down the details of ships coming and going in the Harbour in his private gazette:

Entries of time and weather, state of the moon,

Nature of cargo and captain’s name,

For some mysterious and awful purpose

Never divulged. (82, 78, 77)

No apparent meaning is to be gleaned from this detailed record of modern voyaging, any more than from the fragments of Joe Lynch’s life recalled in “Five Bells,” which are initially discounted by the speaker himself as merely “looks and words / And slops of beer” (121). Instead, the reader is left to consider the juxtaposition of a life once richly lived with a diminished present. Less insistently, each of the component poems of “The Atlas” also turn back to modernity from the visionary landscapes of their maps. Giles sees this as “a process of deflation through which abstract ideals are turned imaginatively on their head,” and as a “rhetoric of desublimation,” a function of the burlesque “aesthetics of subversion and despoilment” he finds “integral” to Slessor’s poetics (Backgazing, 118, 124). Yet in the examples just cited the effect is not quite one of bathos. Rather, the present is used less to devalue or burlesque the past than to beg questions of it, and vice versa; in Dobbin’s case, “[f]or some mysterious and awful purpose” (Collected Poems, 77). Similarly, final recognition of Joe’s absence at the end of “Five Bells” does not empty the moment of “look[ing] out of my window in the dark” so much as interrogate it, so full as it is of Sydney Harbour’s nocturnal glamor as a trace of Lynch’s former being (123).

A number of the light verses that Slessor wrote for Smith’s Weekly also transpose the past and present. “Good-bye Iceman!,” for example, mourns the replacement of the strapping delivery man by domestic refrigerators and a world of “[w]hirligigs in cylinders, and gases in gasometers” (Collected Poems, 168). The instrument in the punning title of “The Road to Mandolin,” has been replaced by jazz and “the cheap ukulele,” and is now junk: “Lot 34 in a furniture store” (190–91). Unlike historical bric-a-brac elsewhere in the poet’s work, the detritus of the past is comical in these poems because it is depicted in popular terms as dated and absurd, for objects of forgotten fashion are deployed as a backhanded—or, as Giles might say, burlesque—celebration of the modern. “The Ballad of the Knee” laments the flapper style of “flaunting patellas,” and mock pleads:

Oh, come back to parrots and peignoirs,

     And petticoats buried from view,

When men in Dundrearies were tortured with queries

     At seeing a little pink shoe. (198)

Walter Benjamin’s contested notion of the “dialectical image,” a concept intended to underpin his Arcades Project, might be compared to the way in which such historical echoes play out in Slessor’s verse. Benjamin was the most idiosyncratic of Marxists, and this formulation has proven, as Susan Buck-Morss asserts, “overdetermined,” being difficult both coherently to theorize and to project in instrumental ways outside his own work.[31] The uncompleted Arcades Project which underlies it is a vast assemblage of archival fragments of nineteenth-century Paris arranged in conjunction with Benjamin’s own commentaries, in which kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of the assorted elements is designed to awaken historical memory in a dynamic, dialectical manner. In Max Pensky’s words: “Benjamin was convinced that behind the façade of the present, these otherwise forgotten moments could be recovered from oblivion and reintroduced, shoved in the face of the present, as it were, with devastating force.”[32] The Parisian arcades, outmoded and under threat when Benjamin was writing, themselves form a substratum, or “fossil,” of an earlier mode of capitalism. “Human aquariums,” the surrealist poet Louis Aragon called them, whose Paris Peasant (1926) explored Le Passage de l’Opéra on the eve of its destruction, and provided Benjamin with a major source of inspiration.[33] As both historical trace and symbol, the arcades offered a suitably anachronistic site—composite junk shop and museum—for a project in which the past is radically recovered to consciousness like a forgotten, or repressed, dream. In their book Dreams and Modernity, Helen Groth and Natalya Lusty highlight the influence of surrealism on Benjamin’s thought:

The latent but charged “atmosphere” that Benjamin finds in the Surrealists’ world of objects and places mirrors the structure of the Freudian dream in disclosing the desires of the collective in the ordinary everyday world of things and the relation of those things to recuperative transformation. [. . .] Benjamin thus finds in Surrealism’s attention to uncanny material forms, whereby the city is scoured as though an archive, the flash of recognition that will bring the repressed moments of the past into collision with a critical awakening in the present.[34]

In Slessor’s verse Sydney, too, is like an archive full of “uncanny material forms” (Dreams and Modernity, 139). In his day job at the highly sensational Smith’s Weekly Slessor was no doubt implicated in a progressive view of journalism as the first draft of history yet, right from the beginning in his poetry, objects and images from the past often loom into consciousness in surprising ways. In the earlier poems of the 1920s he is nostalgic for an ideal, aestheticized history that is available only through books and art but, as his poetry develops alongside his journalistic career, these versions of the past increasingly become a kind of false memory, and a different quality of historical consciousness emerges. As an arcade-like capsule of old and forgotten things in which the movements of the tide are still actively gazetted, Captain Dobbin’s library might be said to represent a turning point in this regard. Thereafter, like the “fossilized” objects of an earlier era of consumerism that so fascinated Benjamin, certain images in Slessor’s verse begin to register lost historical moments that have, in a sense, broken free of progressive time and now haunt the present in dreamlike ways. To quote Benjamin, “while the relation of the present to the past is purely temporal, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: not temporal in nature but figural.”[35] Is it in fact chiastic, looking both forwards and backwards at the same time? For Slessor the statue in “Pan at Lane Cove” is the projection of an imaginary and enchanted past onto a suburban present—“skies where no Immortals hide”—like the chinoiserie of “Marco Polo,” but the maps in “Captain Dobbin” and “The Atlas” are not fantasies; nor are the “looks and words / And slops of beer” in “Five Bells”; and neither is the Herbarium in “Elegy in a Botanic Garden” (Collected Poems, 17, 121).

“Elegy” is set in another pleasure ground, but one established under the rational gaze of botanical science. It too sits close by the Harbour, whose nearby presence as a symbol of time is marked by the “thousands of white circles drifting past, / Cold suns in water” (96). For now in autumn, “Where spring had used me better,” what had been a trysting place has become a “dead grove” (96). Fittingly, Slessor subdues and modernizes his language—by 1929 he had begun to settle in to his mature style—but he allows himself one rococo outburst when he remembers the contents of an imaginary “Georgian Headlong Hall,” “Stuffed with French horns, globes, air-pumps, telescopes / And Cupid in a wig, playing the flute.” In the disenchanted present, though, this has resumed its status as “truly, and without escape, / THE NATIONAL HERBARIUM”; the Roman capitals that announce its public function evacuating any last skerrick of private romance (97). In their edition of the Collected Poems, Dennis Haskell and Geoffrey Dutton claim that “[t]he details in the poem do not fit” the Sydney Gardens, and that Slessor was probably making up “a fictional gardens;” but this is not quite true.[36]

The old Herbarium building dates from the 1890s (there is a new building nearby from the 1980s). It is only “national” in the pre-Federation sense in which colonial New South Wales was a proto–nation state. Like the National Gallery of Victoria, its name is an historical hangover. The balanced two-story design with portico is described as “Italian modified” in style, so “Georgian” is perhaps not so great an imaginative leap.[37] Giving it an eighteenth-century makeover also transposes it back to first settlement, when the Royal Botanic Gardens were part of the Government Domain, and “national” in quite an another, British imperial sense. Reconfigured as a cabinet of curiosities, the Herbarium further invokes the gentlemanly world of Sir Joseph Banks, that scientific founding father whose research led Cook to give Botany Bay its name—a name which became a longstanding metonym for New South Wales, the convict system, and, for a time, Sydney itself. The globes and telescopes link it with heroic exploration, but science has long since become institutionalized, and even in Banks’s day was at the service of imperialism. The weight of progressive national history now presses down upon cyclical natural history in the speaker’s private life. That the wonder of a wholly new flora should be reduced to a dull taxonomy of dry specimens is foreshadowed in the poem by the lovers’ Tristania tree, of which “only the leaves remain, / Gaunt paddles ribbed with herringbones / Of watermelon-pink” (Collected Poems, 96).  Still, the romantic possibilities of Sydney’s Georgian origins—of a more genial, dream-like version of history—continue to haunt the site in the shape of the Herbarium itself which is doubly coded as both Wunderkammer and rational scientific institution.


We Have Been Scattered by the Sea-Captains of Ships



Where “Pan at Lane Cove” sought to “conjure” the gods of classical mythology, “Five Visions of Captain Cook” offers an historical figure who was himself godlike, for Cook, we’re told, “was a captain of the powder-days / When captains . . . Were more like warlocks than a humble man” (Collected Poems, 87). Whether or not Cook was indeed a god to the Hawaiians who killed him became a matter of debate within anthropology in the late twentieth century. In The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (1992) Gananath Obeyesekere argued that “the myth of Cook as the god Lono is fundamentally based on the Western idea of the redoubtable European who is a god to savage peoples”; in other words, it is a condescending and implicitly racist projection.[39] Three years later, in How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example (1995), Marshall Sahlins rebutted Obeyesekere in no uncertain terms by insisting that different societies operate under different cultural logics, and that to suggest that the Hawaiians saw Cook’s arrival as the return of their fertility god was not a function of European mythmaking, but could be proven by a closer examination of the facts. Of interest to the tropes explored in this essay is the fact that the locals quickly dismembered Cook’s body according to their religious rites. His bones were cleaned and set aside for ritual purposes; as Sahlins states, “[t]he British learned that his skull had gone to the leading warrior of [the village of] Ka’awaloa, Kekuhaupi’o, and his mandible to the king.” Two priests returned “a piece of the captain’s ‘upper thigh’” to the Europeans for burial at sea.[40]

Slessor’s last vision is of the death of Cook focalized through that blind ancient mariner Alexander Home, whose “body move[s] / In Scotland but his eyes [are] dazzle-full / Of skies and water farther round the world” (Collected Poems, 92). If Cook is a god, for the Hawaiians as much as for his crew, his death scene is imbued with supernatural import. In its earlier sections the poem has built up a portrait of Cook as a magician; here, at last, the grand mariner’s transformative powers are returned to him in base currency: “a knife of English iron, / Forged aboard ship, that had been changed for pigs, / Given back to Cook between the shoulder-blades” (93). It turns out that Cook was only ever a stage magician after all, a master illusionist. Home’s memory theatrically casts the locals as subhuman Calibans somewhere between Mozart’s Papageno and satyrs à la Lindsay: “puzzled animals, killing they knew not what / Or why, but killing . . . the surge of goatish flanks / Armoured in feathers, like cruel birds” (93). Yet another chiastic reversal occurs, both of time and place, when Home, landlocked in a Berwickshire pub, suddenly imagines himself on the shore in Hawaii once more reliving the death of Cook. The poem ends with Home “putting out one hand / Tremulously in the direction of the beach” as if groping towards the dying Cook in an echo of the gesture that Fox’s painting ascribes to the explorer himself (94).

“Five Visions” has reappeared on school syllabuses over time as a de facto national poem, one that celebrates the arrival of the Great White Man. According to Brian H. Fletcher, a key theme in Australian historiography in the fifty years following the centenary of British settlement in 1888 was the celebration of those “founding fathers,” Cook, Banks, and Arthur Phillip.[41] Cook, in particular, “aroused a strong regard that was heightened by his other great exploits and by the tragic circumstances of his death” (Fletcher, Australian History in New South Wales, 119): aspects of the explorer’s career that gave it a mythic dimension, and made him in many ways an obvious symbolic choice for Slessor. Yet the poet’s anxiety about this is marked by the way that Cook’s death plays out as a primal scene: like Gleeson’s unpeeling shapes, his is another body in the process of dissolution—quite literally, from the events that followed. Cook dies in Hawaii, but in a sense he dies in and for Australia on the corrosive littoral of colonization. “So Cook made choice, so Cook sailed westabout, / So men write poems in Australia” (Collected Poems, 88); but so too was Cook destroyed by his discovery, and Slessor soon afterwards stopped writing poems in Australia.

“Five Visions” was completed in May 1929, by which time Slessor was writing his Darlinghurst Nights light verses for Smith’s Weekly, illustrated by Virgil Reilly. “Backless Betty from Bondi” was written in 1932 and, for all her backlessness, the supple shape of Reilly’s surfing flapper is not about to unpeel and disappear.[42] Modernity has taken over, “HER EYES ARE FULL / OF WIRELESS,” and historical memory can go hang (Collected Poems, 244). In fact, her arrival on the beach obliterates time and tide, as Slessor announces his own version of Revelation 21:1, “and there was no more sea”:

Oh, make the great Pacific dry,

And drive the council speechless,

Remove the breakers from Bondi—

The beach, and leave us beachless.

The fair, the bare, the naked-backed,

The beer, the pier, the jetty—





Like the happy Aryans in Meere’s Australian Beach Pattern, Betty is a marker of white triumphalism. She enjoys the surf and remains untroubled by its anxious hydroborder, a jazzy modern version of one of Lindsay’s emergent Venuses posed seductively with hand on hip, looking away from the viewer and along her left shoulder in a stance diametrically opposite to that of Fox’s Cook.

“Five Visions” concludes with a primal scene that suggests what might be at stake on the beach in such late colonial poetry, where the imperial—and the imaginative—project stalls with the death of Cook. When the colony ultimately succeeds, as it did in Sydney, there is still for Slessor a historical anxiety about arrival, evident in a persistent death drive in his poetry that has too often been read simply as a concern with the relativity of time. As Kate Lilley and others have noted, Slessor is characteristically elegiac, but I would extend this to the manner in which the colonial unconscious of his verse haunts its geohistorical scope. “Dutch Seacoast” concludes with an invidious comparison between the orderly beauty of Joan Blaeu’s map and the disorder of modern Sydney:

O, could he but clap up like this

My decomposed metropolis,

Those other countries of the mind,

So tousled, dark and undefined. (74)

The artist-cartographer can, like a stage magician, potentially “clap up” a better version of Sydney—but then “clap” has other implications, carrying with it to clap in irons, as well as clapboard or weatherboard, gonorrhea, and the tongue (as in hold your clap). Sydney is here imagined as “decomposed,” as unsettled as the poet’s own consciousness. European possession of this continent has never been a wholly done deal, with many failed colonizing enterprises, from Port Essington to Boydtown, from the soldier settlement schemes of the interwar years to any number of attempts to farm and graze the semi-deserts of the remote inland.

To take an image from “Out of Time,” the sense of the Australian nation as itself a failed settlement might be construed as the “golden undertow” against which so many of Slessor’s poems “lean” (130). Even the future survival of Backless Betty may comically depend on the wholesale removal of the beach on which she stands, along with “[t]he beer, the pier, the jetty” (245). And that is because the beach, as well as other littoral spaces, offer the most appropriate stages where this silent melodrama can play out, as in the final sonnet of “Out of Time”:

The moment’s world, it was; and I was part,

Fleshless and ageless, changeless and made free.

“Fool, would you leave this country?” cried my heart,

But I was taken by the suck of sea. (130)

Perera’s Australia and the Insular Imagination begins with the question, “What if the ground beneath our feet turns out to be the sea?” It is a question that is wholly congruent with the colonial unconscious in Slessor’s poetry, ranged as it is along a hydroborder across which spaces and times can be chiastically transposed. Calling for a refiguring of the nation as Terra Australis Infirma, Perera writes: “Against the order and regulation of the land, the ocean evokes terror and sublimity, freedom and anarchy, chaos and limitless possibility. This ungrounded, ungovernable oceanic defines the borders of the sociopolitical and historical as it delineates the outermost reaches of the state” (Australia and the Insular Imagination, 1, 33). Slessor’s hydrocolonial “drowned world” offers just such a shifting and unstable vision of possession.

What Beaches of the Mind You Trod

As well as imaging a more subjective existential angst, Gleeson’s We Inhabit the Corrosive Littoral of Habit may be said to interrogate the Australian beach as a colonial hydroborder, a place of both arrival and departure poised between beginnings and endings. Taking Gleeson as a cue, this essay has outlined a tropology of Slessor’s shorelines. His maritime poems assume a spatial organization of the world brought about by the cartographic imagination, whose technologies of geographical representation enabled Western modernity to project itself across the globe. As a “figure of thought,” chiasmus provides the recurring trope for Slessor’s beaches and coastlines, along with the ambivalences of the littoral state: that shifting border between the tide marks which constitutes the nation state itself, Australia being, as the present national anthem would have it, “girt by sea.”

Starting with “Captain Dobbin,” I have shown how the poet is wont to read maps in reverse by transposing their elements, to the extent that Dobbin in his seafaring career may, like his old shipmates, be said to have “labour[ed] in a country of water” but “Now sails the street in a brick villa” (Collected Poems, 80, 77). To read a map backwards may poetically free it as a chiastic, figurative space, but it is thereby disabled it as a tool of conquest and trade, and can serve to mark anxieties about a colonial project that may now be in a process of retreat rather than progress. Related to the reversal of spatial features in Slessor’s work, progressive time is also overturned. It may briefly be fixed in “[t]he moment’s world,” but time can also run in reverse under the weight of an anachronistic drive that seeks to confound the debased present with fragments of a more vivid past, striving to reclaim or repossess modernity in a revenant manner (130). Dobbin is thereby almost entirely overwritten by his library’s weight of maritime history to the extent that, like Joe Lynch in “Five Bells,” he is effectively “living backward” (122).

To “live backward” is to engage in a form of what Giles has called “backgazing,” and a great many lost and uncanny past objects float to the surface or wash ashore in Slessor’s verse, the detritus of a colonial unconscious. They are comparable to Benjamin’s dialectical images to the extent that their meaning is oneiric rather than nostalgic, for they trouble the present with their estranged materiality in phantasmagoric ways. Dobbin’s library, for example (to invoke that masterly poem one last time), with its “[c]rags of varnished leather, / Pimply with gilt” and “hanging-gardens of old charts,” is refigured into a dreamlike geography every bit as exotic as that depicted in “Marco Polo” (78).

Like Norman Lindsay before him, Slessor regarded Hugh McCrae as the true founding father of Australian poetry.[43] Appropriately enough, in “To the Poetry of Hugh McCrae” the commanding metaphor is of the poet as an explorer or wandering mariner who has emerged from the corrosive littoral of the unconscious:

So from the baleful Kimberleys of thought,

From the mad continent of dreams, you wander,

Spending your trophies at our bloodless feet,

Mocking our fortunes with more desperate plunder;


So with your boomerangs of rhyme you come,

With blossoms wrenched from sweet and deadly branches,

And we, pale Crusoes of the moment’s tomb,

Watch, turn aside, and touch again those riches,


Nor ask what beaches of the mind you trod,

What skies endured, and unimagined rivers,

Or whiteness trenched by what mysterious tide,

And aching silence of the Never-Nevers. (Collected Poems, 125)

Significantly, Slessor describes a series of arrivals from other places, and begins by comparing McCrae in a familial way to “[u]ncles who burst on childhood, from the East / Blown like air, like bearded ghosts arriving” (125). Like Dobbin, the poet bears enchanted, “desperate plunder” with him from the colonial past, thrusting it into the face of the shipwrecked present in which “we” have become “pale Crusoes of the moment’s tomb” (125). The poem ends:

We live by these, your masks and images,

We breathe in this, your quick and borrowed body;

But you take passage on the ruffian seas,

And you are vanished in the dark already. (126)

For all his stolen treasures, it seems that the only material trace left by the poet is a leftover disguise, an empty skin for others to inhabit—rather like James Gleeson’s hollow figures. For, in lieu of a substantive identity, such a “borrowed body” is only the rind of prior existence, as the poet himself has already disappeared like a restless seafarer, or maybe a clever magician. One does not have to look very far in the annals of Australian literature to find different versions of this disappearing act. There is the ghost of A. B. Paterson’s drowned swagman calling, “Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?” There is also Patrick White’s lost German explorer, Johan Ulrich Voss, of whose fate “[t]he air will tell us.”[44] And, of course, there is Slessor’s own Joe Lynch, who joins other “white, dead bodies” in Sydney Harbour and who is now “only part of an Idea” (Collected Poems, 274, 123). In these and other instances such vanished white people might be said to stake a claim to becoming an abiding genius loci. But not the poet in Slessor’s tribute to his forerunner McCrae, for the beaches of the mind are only ever home or heimlich in Freud’s sense, which is to say unheimlich. On that corrosive littoral it is as if arrival always signals departure, and the poet has never truly known if he was coming or going.


For improvements to this article I am indebted to Meg Brayshaw and Robert Dixon, and also to the editors and anonymous reviewers of Modernism/modernity.

[1] Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra, Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Mind (North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991), 24.

[2] In South Australia it’s Proclamation Day (December 26), and in Western Australia Foundation Day (first Monday in June), renamed Western Australia Day in 2012 to be more inclusive.

[3] Bernard O’Dowd, The Bush (Melbourne: Lothian, 1912), 66.

[4] John Tranter, “Introduction,” in The New Australian Poetry, ed. John Tranter (St Lucia: Makar, 1979), xv.

[5] Andrew Taylor, “Kenneth Slessor’s Approach to Modernism,” Reading Australian Poetry (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1987), 53–69, 55; Taylor, cited in Paul Kane, “Nihilism in Kenneth Slessor,” Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 96–118, 96. For a longer, more considered discussion of Australian poetic modernism, see my entry “Australian Poetry, 1940s–1960s,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, May 24, 2017,

[6] Philip Mead, ed., Kenneth Slessor: Critical Readings (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1997); Philip Mead, “Ut cinema poesis,” in Networked Language: Culture and History in Australian Poetry (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008), 30–86.

[7] Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 84.

[8] Kenneth Slessor, “Five Bells and Other Poems,” Selected Poems (Pymble: Angus & Robertson, 1993), 138.

[9] Jeffrey Poacher, “The Drowned World of Kenneth Slessor,” Australian Literary Studies 20, no. 1 (2001): 5–19; Meg Brayshaw, “Reflectant Tides: The Aqueous Poetics of Sydney in Women’s Fiction, 1934–1947” (PhD diss., Western Sydney University, 2018); also see the published version of Brayshaw’s thesis, Sydney and Its Waterway in Australian Literary Modernism (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).

[10] Ken Wach, “James Gleeson and Surrealism: The Inexhaustible Murmur,” in James Gleeson: Beyond the Screen of Sight, ed. Lou Klepac (Roseville: Beagle Press/National Gallery of Victoria, 2004), 24–50, 34.

[11] James Gleeson, Corroded Head, ca. 1939, drawing in pen and ink, brush and ink and scratching back, 36.2 x 26.6 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Parkes,

[12] Robert Zeller and C. A. Cranston, “Setting the Scene: Littoral and Critical Contexts,” in Littoral Zone: Australian Contexts and Their Writers, ed. Zeller and Cranston (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2007), 7–30, 7.

[13] Anja Schwarz, “Beached Identities: Inclusion and Exclusion of Histories in the Formation of the Beach as an Australian Spatial Icon,” in Australia: Making Space Meaningful, ed. Gerd Dose and Britta Kuhlenbeck (Tübingen: Stauffenberg Verlag, 2007), 125–38, 130, 134.

[14] Renée Free, “James Gleeson: Ideas from the Shadows,” in James Gleeson: Beyond the Screen of Sight, ed. Lou Keplac, 52–61, 56.

[15] Kenneth Slessor, “Five Bells,” Kenneth Slessor: Collected Poems, ed. Dennis Haskell and Geoffrey Dutton (Pymble: Angus & Robertson, 1994), 123, 120.

[16] Paul Giles, Backgazing: Reverse Time in Modernist Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 11, 2.

[17] Walter Benjamin, trans. Harry Zohn, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Shocken Books, 1968), 253–64, 257–58.

[18] Isabel Hofmeyr, “Provisional Notes on Hydrocolonialism,” English Language Notes 57, no. 1 (2019): 11–12, 13. The term was introduced by Kerry Bystrom and Isabel Hofmeyr in “Oceanic Routes: (Post-It) Notes on Hydro-Colonialism,” Comparative Literature 69, no. 1 (2017). I am indebted to Meg Brayshaw for these references.

[19] D. K. Smith, The Cartographic Imagination in Early Modern England: Re-Writing the World in Marlowe, Spenser, Raleigh and Marlowe (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 6.

[20] Haskell and Dutton, note to “Captain Dobbin,” Collected Poems, 362. Otherwise unacknowledged information about Slessor’s verse, including dates, has been taken from Haskell and Dutton’s notes.

[21] OED Online, s.v. “planter, n.”

[22] Kate Lilley has drawn attention to the way Slessor is given to mourning modernity’s impact on an imagined “sovereign or deposed masculinity”: “‘Living Backward’: Slessor and Masculine Elegy,” in Kenneth Slessor: Critical Readings, 246–64, 249.

[23] Robert Hariman, “What is a Chiasmus? Or, Why the Abyss Stares Back,” in Chiasmus and Culture, ed. Boris Wiseman and Anthony Paul (New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2014), 45–68, 49.

[24] Paul de Man, “Tropes (Rilke),” in Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 20–56, 38.

[25] Adele J. Haft, “Imagining Space and Time in Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Dutch Seacoast’ and Joan Blaeu’s Atlas of the Netherlands: Maps and Mapping in Kenneth Slessor’s Poetic Sequence The Atlas, Part Three,” Cartographic Perspectives 73 (2014),

[26] T. L. Sturm has observed that “Slessor’s obsessive interest in what one might call expressionist effects of language—in particular, in effects of sound and rhythm and ‘colour’—has a great deal of Lindsay’s thinking behind it”: “Kenneth Slessor’s Poetry and Norman Lindsay,” Southerly: A Review of Australian Literature 31, no. 4 (1971): 281–306, 292.

[27] Suvendrini Perera, Australia and the Insular Imagination: Beaches, Borders, Boats and Bodies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 34.

[28] Brigid Rooney, “Time’s Abyss: Australian Literary Modernism and the Scene of Ferry Wreck,” in Scenes of Reading: Is Australian Literature a World Literature?, ed. Robert Dixon and Brigid Rooney (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Press, 2013), 101–14, 106.

[29] OED Online, s.v. “seignior, n.”

[30] ‘Fairyland, Lane Cove River,’ Wikipedia, March 1, 2021,,_Lane_Cove_River.

[31] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 67.

[32] Max Pensky, “Method and Time: Benjamin’s Dialectical Images,” The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin, ed. David Ferris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 177–98, 181.

[33] Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: Exact Change, 1994), 14.

[34] Helen Groth and Natalya Lusty, Dreams and Modernity: A Cultural History (New York: Routledge, 2013), 139–40.

[35] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 463.

[36] Haskell and Dutton, note to “Elegy in a Botanic Garden,” in Collected Poems, 379.

[37] Edwin Wilson, The Wishing Tree: A Guide to Memorial Trees, Statues, Fountains, etc. in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Domain, and Centennial Park, Sydney (Kenthurst: Kangaroo Press/Royal Botanic Gardens, 1992), 71.

[38] A line from “The Old Play: VII”: “On and on, driven by flabby whips, / To the Nine Lands, to the world’s end, / We have been scattered by the sea-captains of ships” (Collected Poems, 114).

[39] Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific: With a New Afterword by the Author, 1992 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 177.

[40] Marshall Sahlins, How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 85.

[41] Brian H. Fletcher, Australian History in New South Wales 1888-1938 (Kensington: New South Wales University Press, 1993), 119.

[42] The illustrated poem appeared on page 1 of Smith’s Weekly, 19 November 1932, and can be viewed via the National Library of Australia’s Trove site here:

[43] In his 1954 lectures on Australian poetry Slessor wrote that it was only with the publication of McCrae’s Satyrs and Sunlight in 1909 “that poetry can be considered to have begun any consistent growth in Australia.” Slessor, “Kendall and Gordon,” Bread and Wine: Selected Prose (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1970), 74–91, 74. Though McCrae’s star has fallen considerably since this time, it is fair to say that Slessor’s valuation of him was, like Lindsay’s, idiosyncratic.

[44] Patrick White, Voss, (1957, rpt., London: Vintage, 1994), 448.