Friday, August 17, 2018

Thought Provokers

time in a pelican's wing

lake george's

as elders or royal relatives

by an absence of light

stand formal

like knives & forks
stuck upright
in mud for the night

day will have them up
using themselves

spooning mud
water vegetables
& fish

so what

if they've been having
the flavours of the
lakes they fished in changed

as the nameless
brands of water

were formed and disappeared

on this continent

for 30 or 40 million years

they have followed water
scooping fish frogs crabs to live
to here–

today lake george
     is the clearest of soups–


as the tide's pollutants move
     on the shore-crabs
as the effluent flows
     down the rivers & creeks
as the agricultural chemicals
     wash    off the land
into streams

what time is left
     in the flight of their wings–

unlike humans or sun
    they are not
big drinkers of lakes

they will dribble back the water
    keep the fish

we are joined to them by ignorance
what time is left in anyone's drink

– J.S. Harry (1939-2015)
from A Dandelion For Van Gogh (Sydney, Island Press, 2000)

I could almost as well have included this poem in the 'I Wish I'd Written This' series – except that I would rather wish there was no occasion to write such a poem. Given that there is, she writes it well.

But surely we know all this stuff already? What's so thought-provoking about it?

Well perhaps just that Рthat we have become blas̩ about all the small-but-not-so-small environmental disasters, because there are so many and Governments act so slowly and we feel so helpless....

Or perhaps what is thought-provoking is the fact that this poem was published in 2000, and quite possibly written even earlier. Has there been much change since?

In the case of Lake George it might be hard to tell, as it is unusual – what is known as an endorheic lake. According to Wikipedia, it is 'long, largely flat and extremely shallow, with a very small catchment.' It can easily dry up from evaporation and may stay dry a long time, from days to years, before filling again. But regardless of the idiosyncrasies of this particular lake, the point she is making remains. Everyone is now more aware, yet there are still many places where pollution is not addressed.

I could place this poem in 'The Living Dead' too, as J.S. (Jann) Harry is no longer with us. It's a little shocking to me to note we were born in the same year. She was a well-known Australian poet, author of eight books of poetry and recipient of various prizes and awards for her writing, and also worked as an editor and academic. I never met her personally but have admired her poetry for decades.

She was born in South Australia, but spent most of her life in Sydney. She began writing and successfully submitting poems and stories when she was a child. When she began being read and appreciated as an adult poet, her style was innovative and she was credited with paving the way for other poets seeking new ways of expressing an Australian sensibility.

In 2007 Peter Porter, himself a distinguished poet, described her as 'the most arresting poet working in Australia today'. Dorothy Hewett, another wonderful poet, called her 'a skylarker with language – stylish, intense and original.'

In a long and tender obituary, Professor Ivor Indyk calls her 'our first and foremost ecological poet' because of her 'attentiveness to the life of animals'.

I could keep on quoting accolades, but after all the poem's the thing. I love that she's such a visual poet in her highly original yet accurate descriptions!

J. S. Harry was known as an intensely private person, and the few photos I can find of her online are subject to stringent copyright – but if you are curious, I like the photo used by The Sydney Morning Herald in its obituary – an obituary which has some interesting reading in its focus on an alter ego she often used in her poems, a philosphical rabbit!

Material shared in “Thought Provokers’ is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings remain the property of the copyright owners, usually their authors. The Pelican image is in the Public Domain, licence CC0.


  1. Australia has certainly been gifted with some great poets and J.S. Harry is one of them. Sadly the way we treat our water and other resources is pretty pathetic and that of the abundant seas surrounding us even worse. What do the politicians and developers expect to happen except disaster. We encourage pollution by supporting coal mining, allow precious fish, whales and sea creatures risk danger from abuse in the seas around us including the unique Great Barrier Reef and yet the government seems to ignore the fact that so much harm will happen including climate change from their stupid quest for more investment. Thank you Rosemary for putting this article on J.S. Harry together. Hopefully the penny will drop eventually.

  2. Replies
    1. She is a poet like you I think, in that you both make your subject matter highly visible.

  3. This is the kind of poet i love! She used her work to spread awareness of the need for change. I love poetry about the environment best of all, so i am thrilled to read of this one. I will track down some of her work. I love this poem very much and adore its title. And liked the obituary as well, especially the photo. I love her hair, and now feel better about my own unfortunate tresses, lol.

    1. I think your hair's wonderful! And yes, you are certainly in good company – not only for that reason but because you too are such a poet, writing on the natural world and our need to care for it, and lamenting the ways we have failed.

  4. It's got me thinking--no one knows how much time we have. I love how at first it is the pelicans stuck like eating utensils, and then the entire lake becomes the meal/soup and the spoon becomes both a move (to spoon) and a thing. I get so frustrated by ignorance--we are connected, but it isn't the pelican who pollutes.

    1. Is it ignorance, I wonder, or greed? Wilful ignorance, perhaps.

  5. The poem proves that poets are seers. They warn in the canvas of beauty. Yet the ignorant lot are unaware and the know-all intentionally ignores. No wonder the world is in such a mess.I want to repeat the final line: "what time is left in anyone's drink". Sigh. Thanks for the post Rosemary.

    1. Yes, I fear it will take a lot more warnings yet before we are heeded.

  6. "Ah, what time is left in anyone's drink" indeed! Amazing that the poem was written a while ago...and things have gotten worse since then. Powerful and thought provoking work!

    1. A poem that doesn't date – yet how good it would be if it did!

  7. An impactful piece, powerfully rendered … an important poem! And, once again, I find your narrative to be very interesting and edifying. Thanks for this, Rosemary.

    1. I'm really glad to have brought her to some wider attention.

  8. Thank you Rosemary for this poem and your informative notes. The discovery of a new poet is a great joy, especially with your guidance :)

    1. Oh my goodness, you've only just discovered her? Well she was, as I've said, very private, and it often seemed to me that she dropped poems into literary magazines occasionally without stopping to see the response but vanishing into hiding again! (But Sydney poets may have been more aware of her between poems/books.) Yes indeed. what treats you have in store!

  9. environmental issue poems are very much in our conscious lately, eh?
    thanks, Rosemary , for sharing this poem & the writer (Australia seems to have so many talented poets). this is a lovely poem, and it's hard to see that it was written almost two decades ago, and she was so clear how pollution will devolve.
    reading her obituary, i could not help but smiled at the part describing how "she had a strong nicotine stain on her fingers", something i had too when i was much younger. :)

    1. Oh yes, I too had one of those stains when much younger. A pernicious addiction; I'm glad I kicked it.

      Australia does have, and has had, some very wonderful poets, yes. I enjoy bringing them to wider attention – as Sherry is now doing for Canadian poets, at my suggestion. I don't only feature Australians, of course but as I am amongst them, they are often the ones who come to mind.


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