by Judith Wright
Since I first read a collection of her poems at age 15, I have absolutely loved the poetry of Judith Wright, especially this poem: The Cycads. In the late 1990s I was planning a music and interpretive dance rendition of this exquisite work in which I envisaged the ageing and near-deaf poet herself seated in the middle of the performance space. I was inspired not only by the idea of antiquity and survival, portrayed in Judith’s poem, (and our implied smallness), but also by my own grandmother, Kathlene Millikan, with whom I often sat, listening to her speak of past friends and family and her own lingering mortality. I was seeing her as the antique cycad and hearing her speak of “Time’s forgotten promise”.
I was just working up the courage to approach Judith Wright when my 45 year-old dancer friend and collaborator, Sylvia Staehli, died of cancer. Then Judith Wright died at 75, and eventually, grandma died at 103.
I never did do that performance, and now I find the need to put her poem on my blog just to make sure my readers know her work. For as you may have noticed, I have hijacked the form and musical essence of her “Cycads”, making it the vehicle for my “(psycho) Cads”… This is not a parody, but a new poem dressed in the form of an older gem. The topic of (psycho) Cads is not so much about the one who finds their lingering mortality amidst the extinction of others, but rather the callous and actively accelerated annihilation of countless species.
I attended a talk last week by Elizabeth Kolbert, author of ‘The Sixth Extinction’ (which I am yet to read). Her graphs of the previous five mass extinctions, (the 5th being the end of the dinosaurs and the 6th being the edge over which we currently lean), made me think graphically of the “gulfs” in the fourth verse of Judith’s poem…
I hope you love Judith’s work too. Here is her Cycads:
Their smooth dark flames flicker at times own root.
Round them the rising forests of the years
alter the climates of forgotten earth
and silt with leaves the strata of first birth.
Only the antique cycads sullenly
keep the old bargain life has long since broken;
and, cursed by age, through each chill century
they watch the shrunken moon, but never die,
for time forgets the promise he once made,
and change forgets that they are left alone.
Among the complicated birds and flowers
they seem a generation carved in stone.
Leaning together, down those gulfs they stare
over whose darkness dance the brilliant birds
that cry in air one moment, and are gone;
and with their countless suns the years spin on.
Take their cold seed and set it in the mind,
and its slow root will lengthen deep and deep
till, following, you cling on the last ledge
over the unthinkable, unfathomed edge
beyond which man remembers only sleep.
The Cycads by Judith Wright, 1947Cycads vary in height from no trunk to several meters tall, with a crown of large, stiff, dark green leaves (looking a bit like a palm or fern). They grow very slowly and live to as much as 1,000 years old. Cycad fossil records date to 200 million years ago, and apparently they have changed little since the Jurassic period. Judith Wright lived in NSW and QLD where cycads grow. Cycads grow in many countries, however, there are none alive today in Victoria, except as fossil remains. This is a site on Australian cycads: http://anpsa.org.au/APOL2009/feb09-s3.html
. A curiosity: Cockroaches are similarly ancient survivors, and apparently play a role in the pollination of cycads. Cockroaches and cycads survived the last huge “gulf” of species annihilation, shown here at the end of the Cretaceous period. Elizabeth Kolbert predicts that up to half the world’s species will be extinct by 2050 if we continue with business as usual. That’s a big gulf! It reminds me of the lyrics of Tom Lehrer’s “We will all go together when we go…” So let us act with dignity and compassion and recognise our interconnectedness. We can have some influence, even at this late stage, because WE ARE THE ASTEROID hurtling towards this beautiful planet. Let us, at least, work towards a glancing blow, not a full impact event. We need to befriend uncertainty and own our fears. The death of our current culture of consumption and destruction is to be actively embraced. It is that, or the death of the planet as we know it (including us). We choose. .