thomas m wilson

Judith Wright’s Old Cry of Praise

September 21st, 2008

I recently wrote a review of The Littoral Zone: Australian Contexts and their Writers for an American journal called Organization and Environment. While reading the book – I wasn’t that impressed by the way – I came upon a poem by Judith Wright, and it sparked the following thoughts…

Often the state of the world gets me down. With habitat being cleared and pollution being belched from so many quarters one searches for a light at the end of the tunnel. This is where the Australian poet Judith Wright and her poem ‘Flame-tree in a Quarry’ come to the rescue. The flame tree is endemic to the rainforests of south-east Queensland (around half way up the east coast of the Australian continent). When a flame tree is in bloom it literally looks like it is aflame: its holds up a profusion of bright red flowers up into the sky. The flowers have an especial vividness of colour and density of coral-like petals. In Wright’s poem we are introduced to a flame tree growing in the middle of an abandoned quarry. But as we read the poem we see more than a tree in a quarry. In the eyes of the poet we see ‘the old cry of praise’ coming out of ‘the torn earth’s mouth’. Wright:

Out of the very wound
springs up this scarlet breath –
this fountain of hot joy,
the living ghost of death.
(1971: 62) (p.190)

In the midst of human-caused destruction of the planet, right in the earth’s ‘torn mouth’, up comes life. The key line of the whole poem is the last one from the above quotation: nature’s triumph is to be ‘the living ghost of death’. That is to say, nature’s triumph is to be the presence that taunts death with its return. While there might be much destruction of nature in the twenty-first century, with this image of the red flowers of the flame-tree standing boldly in a quarry, making themselves a ‘living ghost of death’, I am reminded of the regenerative power of the natural world. And with such an image planted boldly in my mind, I forget woeful introspections and am heartened by nature’s victorious beauty in the living present.