Image: Leigh Rigozzi, commissioned by The Red Room Company for The Disappearing.

Berndt Sellheim reflects on his creative process for his suite of poems commissioned for The Disappearing. The poems will be available on The Red Room Company's website in March.

I took a few trips through Gloucester and the Upper Hunter with my wife through 2015. It’s stunning country, full of craggy, forested mountains. I had originally planned to write these poems about the Gloucester caravan park – one of my favourites in NSW, and the Tops themselves. But when I came to write the works, my thought processes were in a different place: what marks this country more than anything for me is that, up until his death in September 2014, one of Australia’s most significant poets and thinkers, Martin Harrison, lived in the Hunter Valley town of Wollombi. I suppose what makes this most interesting from the perspective of creative practice, is not the unsurprising fact that he was there, floating about in my psyche. I feel like a good many of the poems published locally in 2015 had some level of Martin Harrison flowing through them – he was loved by so many people. It’s more the fact that the interplay of his presence/absence determined how I saw the land, determined the things I looked at and what I found to write about.

The first two poems in the series, ‘Routes off the Putty Road’, and ‘Terra’, are about the experience of driving past two enormous open cut mines at Mt Thorley, on the Putty Road, heading north to Gloucester. The pits are adjacent to each other, and driving through them, there is this overwhelming sense of desolation. Not just environmental, but cultural, ideological – I couldn’t escape the sense that when we destroy the earth like this, we dig not only the landscape, but dig at some part of ourselves; and that to dig is also to construct something. That the pit is a construction of its own, built entirely of loss, a kind of man-made valley, yet nothing like a valley. As well as stemming from it, such excavation also builds a mentality in which country is commoditised: to build such a thing is also to build something within ourselves, but a thing that is made of hardness, of absence and void. How do we live, if we are not in touch with the biosphere that sustains us? Mt Thorley gives some of an answer this question.

As we are quickly learning, the earth is a finite thing. Ideas are not. Language is not. They open out onto that vast, that endless, universe of the possible. But the earth is different. As we dig, the holes that are there are physical, concrete. And so the poem is also subject to a kind of excavation. Letters disappear, to leave only space. This metaphor is an obvious one, but I think it works in this poem. It’s a disappearing, damaged earth, and my sense of this has rarely been stronger than when driving through that enormous mine in forty degree heat. Mining trucks lugging out the fill. Dust everywhere. The end of the world, or a version of it.

That dust disappears when we get to Wollombi. Although it has passed through its share of droughts, my overwhelming sense of the place is of a lush, green, fertile valley. The final three poems in this suite are, in some way at least, about driving to that town, about its history and Harrison’s place there, and about his passing. The town of Wollombi was settled relatively quickly in the colonial history of NSW, and this, and its settlement for grazing pasture, means that its indigenous population was dispossessed early in the piece. The Great North Road was largely constructed by convicts, and in the poem ‘Wollombi’ I attempt to write from inside that history. The poor, desperate ignorant men, chained together to build this road, and the ancient civilisation that was killed and driven off so that the land could be cleared for grazing.

Although any attempt to write such a history is doomed to failure, I think the result remains of value, gives us something else, a kind of rear glance through history, looking through a warped mirror perhaps, although the claim this makes, between poem and historical past, is still too literal. Not long after Harrison’s death, I was chatting with the indigenous poet Sam Wagan Watson, and he referred to Martin as ‘Uncle M’. This really stuck with me, this idea of kinship, and I borrowed Sam’s term in my poem. On a formal note, the poem’s rhythm structure seemed to fit such a backward glance, both as a nod to poetic history, and for what repetitive rhythms say about the passage of time.

One other thing to mention is that these poems didn’t start with all this figured out. I had to write my way into them, to learn what they were going to be. It’s probably equally easy to kill a poem with literalness as it is with abstraction, and by and large I’ve been dissatisfied with my travel poems when I’ve written them. They are dull, overly predictable. I know what they are before I’ve got them down. With these poems, though, I think the relationship between what is there and what is absent makes them feel vital.


Berndt Sellheim is a poet engaged with Red Room Poetic Learning.

Berndt Sellheim is a poet, novelist and academic. He has taught creative writing and poetics at UTS, and lectured in philosophy at Macquarie University, where he completed a doctorate in phenomenology in 2008. His academic research includes a year at the Husserl Archive and Paris4 Sorbonne. For six years Berndt curated The Loft Readings... read more »