A review of Ground by Martin Langford

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Martin Langford
Puncher & Wattmann
ISBN: 9781922186751, paperback, $25, September 16, 2015

It would be easy, on first reading, to think that Martin Langford’s Ground is about the earth, the land, and the natural world. Though there is much of the Australian bush in this work, it is more a poetic exploration of groundlessness, and the way in which meaning is developed in the connective space between moments, people, time and place. There’s a delightful flux that works through each of these poems, as they twist together in a helix that builds towards collective meaning.

The book is structured into twelve sections that move through time, space, and theme, all of which bisect. The first section, “Achronicas”, suggests, as the title indicates, timelessness. The dragonfly and crab give way to “progress” and an uncertain future, setting a tone that will continue throughout the book. This first sequence presents a conjunction of the seemingly ephemeral with the seemingly permanent: a dragonfly’s flight versus geological rock formation, the scuttling of a crab versus the ebb and flow of tides, and a single lifetime set against man’s motion through history:

The layers of rock to the southwest of Sydney
were tilted and raised in as long as it takes
for a dragonfly’s flight to change tack. (“I: Dragonfly”)

Though the language is controlled, we are reminded always of an underlying entropy:

While we wave goodbye,
like the infrequent scission and spiral
of leaves in the sun. (“III: Progress”)

Much of the book follows this conjunction of specific space or historical incident coupling with a broader sense of collective meaning. Though many of the poems are heavily rooted in time and place, the perspective is always modern, allowing the existential pain of not knowing to permeate the scene. Every moment captured is both triumph mingling with demise: a loss, a failure, a terror:

this green floor collapsing
these nowhere of spray:
this breasting-away
through the worlds
we had thought we had known. (“HMS Endeavour”)

The reader is placed into the work as character. We are old, culpable (our guilt already established), and out of time. This creates an ongoing tension between what is about to happen in the now of the poem, and how clearly we know it to be wrong:

A Captain Cook arrives.
He plants a flag.
After which, New Holland’s legal
because this insignia – anthemed
and cheered – snaps and flaps in the breeze. (“Original Fiction”)

There are layers of stories here, in the lies we tell, the laws we build, the diaspora, the way we forget, the way we enlarge, and the way we renegotiate our relationships with the earth, the Indigenous people we’ve displaced, the wars we’ve fought, the songs and dances we engage in, and the way we must make our way into the future through the frayed remains of the past:

that this is no artistic story –
where griefs are transformed
by the skill of the pen into grace. (“The Massacres”)

Langford doesn’t offer solace (or “grace”) in Ground. The damage has already been done, and we can’t out-talk the silence we’ve created through our brutality and ignorance, not even with poetry. What we can do is dance, moving through the beats: “One half-step. One. And now two…” (“A History of Australian Silences”)

Section V (“Beats”) does just that – taking us through a series of historical ‘beats’ that begins in 1830 and moves through time in Sydney. Right from the start of this section we are placed in the role of colonist, ready to begin making this brave new place a home:

It makes you uneasy, the way that this alien emptiness,
Weighted with miles, is the place you must live. (“I: c1830”)

From this point onward, the reader approaches the story from a fresh perspective, but we aren’t innocent. Already Pemulwuy, the “Earth and the Crow” warrior who rose up against the British settlers, has been killed, reminding us that this land we’re building our lives on was certainly not free or empty. By placing Pemulwuy’s death in the context of having been “solved”, we are already in a position of aggressor, morally compromised and therefore uncomfortable. The dance has begun, and the poems take us through the 1890s, the 1920s, the 1960s, and into the capitalist driven, circular pain of now — the meta-poetic present tense:

Now, no-one needs to remember the cost or the origin:
Only the price. Mouth-pleasures, skin-pleasures, vistas:
Everything here can be bought. (“V: In the New Millenium”)

Present day Sydney suburbs are layered in strata that might be invisible. Langford traces that history in segments where what’s interior and hidden are in play against the sunlight of the visible and external. The notion of ‘spaces’ is broad. They could be places, seasons or times. Each of these planes are contrasted against one another in a circular dance of binaries that is often dazzling:

It is frail as the shadows of ferns
on parched soil, the weaving of pea-vine and twig.
And tender, this rubble of instruments:
Naked as nodding red tips in the colourless sun. (“Seven Sydney Seasons: IV: The Season of the Sky”)

At times, even the paving stones and concrete of Sydney, or the interior of the mind comes across as pastoral:

Surely, you think, this is you. Never mind
that it does not exist: there is a home
in the texture of nothings – the way
the stairs hollowed with footsteps;
blue-sky days out on the harbor; woodsmoke-
and-lassitude days in the streets without trees …(“Belonging”)

The lessons that Langford presents through the poems in Ground are harsh, but the writing never becomes so. It is always lyrical, delicate, and ultimately affirmative. Though there is nothing didactic about Ground, these are poems that teach us how to go on in the face of our collective guilt, through language, dance, sorrow, attention and ultimately love:

Let us brush them
With the sheen of our attention –

This riffle of lustre, our sorrow –

This brief spill of water and light
which is where we begin. (“The Kingfisher’s Wings”)