Fire: A collection of stories, poems and visual images

Margaret River Press has made a name for itself since it entered the Australian literary landscape so recently. Its director Caroline Wood has been applying herself consistently and diligently, creating a small list of intriguing books with an emphasis on Western Australia but with an interest that extends across the nation and even internationally. I have been to the launch of their first short story collection in Sydney, and have watched with interest how Lynne Leonhardt, the first author to publish a novel with the Press, has made her presence felt at places such as the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne.

The Press is not afraid to produce the quirky and offbeat books that small presses are famous for, and in this tradition comes Fire, a glossy and exceedingly diverse collection of stories, poems and visual images based around the theme of fire. Fire is, of course, one of the great Australian literary tropes, and I was fascinated to see here just what creative types have done with it. These are more intimate items, too, many being personal responses to an experience of fire in the Margaret River, a firsthand recollection in poetry, prose and photography of a primal fear.

 I was most surprised to see the work of Christian Waller, a Theosophical artist working in the 1930s, and her exquisite art-deco print depicting the 'Lords of the Fire'. That an obscurity such as this should find its way into the collection proved to me its worth as a truly original Australian literary artefact.

If you were a foreign visitor and opened up the book to the page, say, that contained Paul Hetherington’s beautifully impressionistic poem bushfire, you would be immersed instantly into a landscape ravaged some time ago by fire, and renewing now, suddenly and beautifully, though still anchored down by the remnants of its previous destruction. Anyone who has spent any time in the Australian bush would recognise the landscape, and absorb Hetherington’s poetic power.

The temporary death of a forest is recorded vividly in Janet Jackson’s exquisitely simple poem The Alkali Cleansing, thrilling in its anthropomorphised concepts grafted onto the landscape, along with its strange absences. And sitting amongst all this poetry I was struck by the simple but heartbreaking accounts of interviews with residents and victims of fires provided by the Margaret River & Districts Historical Society. There is poetry, too, in its parsed back and unadorned testimony. These are presented in the perfect place in the collection, and they made me wonder why such practical simplicity is not more often a part of literary collections.

When we read collections of this sort (and I confess I rarely do) our attention sometimes drift and we put them aside, conscious that the idea and execution are good, but the whole production insufficient to retain our attention. This is not the case with Fire. Under Delys Bird’s fine editorial hand it is almost a thrilling read, and its delightful diversity bring wonder after wonder with each selection.

This is an important book for anyone interested in how the Australian landscape (and yes, I am aware that this is a contested and problematic word) is negotiated and depicted in various creative media. From Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s arresting painting 'Bush Fire Dreaming', with its carefully precise catalogue description, to Peter Hill’s poetic diary entry about walking through a fire-ravaged Australian wilderness, Fire provokes and surprises and provides rich pickings for any student of Australian literature.

I am glad it has been produced, and it is one that shall forever remain on my “Auslit” shelf. I am certain I will be returning to it again.


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