* 1975, long before I even started to publish books I’d made my first great literary ‘blunder’, by having a poem published under the female pseudonym of ‘Eileen’ in Mother I’m Rooted, an Anthology of Female Verse. My friend John Carey knew journalist Ian Moffitt, and told him about this poem. Ian Moffitt rang me and published a piece in his Perspectives Column in the Australian, 20 March 1975, which in part read:
‘Please tell Kate Jennings’ (the editor of the Anthology) ‘that I just did it as a laugh [in the well-established and old Australian working-class tradition of ‘taking the piss’] – not maliciously’, he said. ‘I don’t hate women – [Warren Walker] a psychologist friend of mine suggested it when he saw an ad in the paper calling for submissions. We thought it was funny – a sort of reversal of the ‘Henry Handle Richardson’ pseudonym’ [what I had done had been part ‘experiment’, after the style of Henry Handle Richardson, whose stated aim in writing Maurice Guest was to see if critics could tell if it was written by a male or a female writer].
‘Laugh’ was probably not the most appropriate word I should have used. For the Feminists, now in the ascendancy, were not big on humour. Peter Cooley, a neighbour from Tweed Heads was in the Art Scene in Brisbane, and mentioned my name one day, and said the Feminists railed against my poetry and were ‘out to get me’. So I was sin-binned in some quarters coming up to 45 years (as long as Oliver Bainbridge lived on this earth), before I had even properly started my literary ‘career’.
In some respects I had been quite naive, not fully appreciating the passion of the nascent Feminist Movement. Let me put on record here that I totally agree in equal pay for equal work, and equality of opportunity for all (most probably best achieved with compulsory, free, and secular state education). Yet, because of a tough rural childhood, I had a strong philosophical dislike of quotas of any kind, as I don’t recall any help along the way for ‘social disadvantage’. The farm boy aspiring to be a poet had grown up in a house without electricity. My father had selected to ‘delete’ before I was even born. Then, at the age of eight my mother nearly died, when I ‘went fishing’ for a large chunk of middle primary school and generally ran feral. All quite debilitating, and making me realize I was very much alone in this world, and have had to struggle for anything I’d ever achieved in my life. To this time I’d had very few poems ever published, and felt that the rural urchin was more deserving of a ‘leg-up’ in the publishing stakes (read Culture Wars) than some middle-class suburban princess with two parents from Rose Bay and Roseville (or equivalent),who’d been chosen solely on the basis of her gender alone.
For had I declared (after the style of Jonathan Swift) that I was going to bring out a book of blue-eyed poets (and something that could have happened in Germany in the 1930s) there would have been screams of outrage. What was the difference? I’d studied genetics at university, and both gender and eye colour were phenotypic expressions of an inherited genotype. I suspect there are some without a scientific-type of mind who could not properly understand the logic of this argument (and others, who may not wish to countenance such an idea), when quotas, like trade tariffs, create winners and losers, and have always been so highly political.
The die however had been cast. The Australian Poetry Scene back then was rather small, back-biting and Oh so Politically Correct (check out Swift’s famous poem about ‘Big Fleas’ sometimes, which is actually about ‘poetic infighting’), and the ‘ghost of Eileen’ came back to bite me many times over the decades. There was even some teeth-grinding (in certain quarters) when my New Collected Poems came out (in 2012). But somehow I have persisted and prevailed, and have managed to produce the goods.
In 2019 I published my third book of poetic memoirs, Long-Distance Poet, a ‘book of all my books’, consisting of some 800 pages (including preliminaries), which I see as a primary-source document for future scholars who may wish to research the late 20-century Poetry Wars in Australia.
Anything that is not totally bland will inevitably divide opinion. Some of my better reviews are included below (I have left out the really horrible ones), in chronological order, starting with the more distant in time:
* * *
* 1983, my ‘Guide to the Gardens’ (published 1982, the first of its type since J.H. Maiden’s 1903 ‘Guide’), Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (the ‘Blue Book’), was positively reviewed by John Baxter in Your Garden, November 1983, in which he’d said, ‘Edited by Edwin Wilson … this is an excellent guide to Sydney’s beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens, which as shown in the photograph, are right on the fringe of the city. It is a very well designed publication, with well reproduced coloured photos as well as some in monochrome. The line drawings by Elizabeth McAlpine are a useful adjunct, and the historic illustrations add to the story of their establishment on what was the first farm in the new settlement nearly 200 years ago. A loose map is included in the guide showing the positions of beds mentioned in the text to locate the positions of the many specimens described. The history given at the beginning … tells of the development of the area … and those who had responsibility for their development … Throughout the guide the main plantings in the gardens have been grouped into recognisable categories for convenience … [instead of Maiden’s more cumbersome listing of plants in the various beds] … These sections are further sub-divided, making it reasonably simple after a glance through the pages, to locate the position of particular plants the visitor wishes to see by referring to the relevant number on the map. Naturally, because of the warmer climate than Melbourne, one would expect to see some sub-tropical plants listed, but it was interesting to see a number of rain forest species mentioned. The descriptions given are good, and the country, or in the case of Australian plants the district to which they are native, is given. The text is concluded with a description of the work being done in the way of scientific activities and the services available, followed by a description of plans for the future, particularly the development of a satellite garden in the Blue Mountains. There is an excellent index giving both botanical and common names of the plants in the guide, together with the numbers of the beds whee they are to be found with reference to the map’. This book had been quite popular, and went on to sell its full print run of 10,000 copies in the Gardens Shop (over the years).
* 1983, when my beautiful first book of poetry, Banyan, came out (printed with hot metal in 1982, at a time of far fewer books of poetry) it was mauled with a nasty, dismissive review by Michael Kindler in Education, 27 June, 1983, and an even more nasty mention in Australian Book Review by Melbourne-based Barbara Giles, who’d also been published in Mother I’m Rooted (and if they were able to savage me in print then by arguments of symmetry it’s OK I mention their names in this rather muted response). As I was going to a Conference in Canberra my Melbourne cousin, Lynette Thorburn, arranged for me to be interviewed on Canberra ABC Radio by a lady called Aggie, who was all smiles when I turned up that morning, and I was to come back in the afternoon at a certain time. They must have had a little list, for when I returned Aggie jumped from her desk with a blood curdling cry and ran towards me screaming, coalescing with me near the open door and forcing me back outside with her momentum. From some of her screams this had something to do with the ‘Eileen’ incident. My intense pain following on from such literary ‘maulings’, was eased to an extent by a warm-hearted letter from A.D. Hope (an Edwards & Shaw poet), inviting me to visit when I next came to Canberra. Unfortunately I was so pressed just then I was never able to take him up on his kind offer, and the opportunity was lost.
I was later to learn my review copy to the Sydney Morning Herald had been sent to a Sydney poet who’d sat on it. When I’d inadvertently turned up at his shop he’d declined to take the book I’d offered him, then curled a lip, baring a canine, and told me effectively to piss off. Welcome to literature. A less-resilient soul could have so easily been crushed, but I must have had some fortitude in my spine, for I persisted. Through a contact I managed to establish what had happened, so sent a replacement review copy to a new Literary Editor who’d just joined the paper.
* 1983, Jennifer Maiden’s one-sentence approving mention, in her review of a longish batch of poetry books, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 August 1983, made my heart sing:
The Poets are Biting … Edwin Wilson’s Banyan balances precariously but thrillingly between cynicism and sentiment, intellect and erudition (the poet is a public relations officer for the Botanic Gardens and the reader rarely forgets it).
Banyan picked up some not half bad and mixed reviews after that, and some strong support from Bettina Cummins, North Shore FAW. Years later I met up with Barbara Giles at a Poetry Conference at Macquarie University. She had been self-deprecating in her talk, and said she was sorry she’d been so tough on Banyan as it was a good book, and I said something to the effect it hadn’t helped me then or now. I sent my New Collected Poems to Michael Kindler when they came out, and both of us had softened over thirty years.
* 1984, my first novel, Liberty, Egality, Fraternity!, like Banyan, was met with a degree of pique from the more prissy middle-class city-based academics and Gender Warriors. Jennifer Somerville’s review (The Northern Star, 6 Jul 1985) had been encouraging, and this time John Broomhall had some positive things to say in his review in Education, 9 July 1985:
Wilson’s style at its best is poetic, crisp and fluent, while many of his observations are succinct and sensitive. He writes with wit and humour and has a gift for dialogue. The life he describes is closely and patiently observed. The turning point of the novel occurs with a brilliant portrait of Thompson, a Domain orator who most of us knew in the sixties as Webster.
* 1984, Dan Byrnes’ piece (with a book cover photograph) in the Northern Daily Leader, 6 November 1984, was a corker. With his working-class country origins Dan Byrnes had been the first reviewer to truly understand my book, and in doing so had made himself a friend for life:
Showcase: It just had to be written
If anyone ever wanted anyone else in the world to know what it might have been like for a country boy to grow up in NSW in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, then ‘Liberty, Egality, Fraternity!’ is the book to send them.
By poet Edwin Wilson the book vibrates as an honest rendition of a boy’s growth to mid-life ad useful manhood. On the cover, the French tricolor and references to the litany of the French Revolution sit oddly beside the Eureka flag. The design points straight to the novel’s theme, the nature of freedom as it can be experienced while the individual is in the clutches of the ‘cultural condition’ of Australia, such a young country.
As a shocking [we are talking after all about 1984], irreverent, witty, often funny, unsentimental, cynical-yet-loving look at average dreams dashed is a typical Australian way, the novel should become not a classic of literature as much as a touchstone of the memory. Someone, somewhere, just had to write that one – the one about freedom Vs NSW, its people and its history.
For many have seen boys like struggling protagonist Peter Christensen learn what they have to learn about life in Australia. Some of the book’s polarities are: love of the unspoiled environment Vs the ravages of sand mining and development; eccentricity Vs the search for balance; the stripling culture of Australia Vs the soul of old Europe; sensuality at different stages of life Vs a sense of loss as the capacity to measure experience grows deeper; the abidingness of the land itself as illusions of life lose their attractive power; and the way pain can sometimes be composed into contentment. Familiar settings – be it childhood, kinds of love, education systems, relationships, fear of death, fear of life – Wilson adopts an effective technique. He wraps cliche in poetry.
It is commonplace that a child might learn to keep his real opinions to himself. It is startling to see that decision jammed hard against a child’s penetrating observations of a parent’s emotional life, with brevity. And so Wilson proceeds, jamming cliches about pop music, callow youths and their attitudes towards callow girls, an alcoholic uncle, a broken marriage, university life, animosity between many Catholics and Protestants in that era into a poetry-packed vision of how wisdom might be achieved, flower and grow. The pace is rapid and Wilson, with his first novel, has the balance so the technique plays out its fullest potential.
A novel full of Aussie eccentrics, landscape, sensuality, prejudices, hopes, and disasters, ‘Liberty, Egality, Fraternity!’ will probably be far more enjoyed than ‘discussed’, (it sits well, though, beside David Malouf’s ‘Johnno’). As the trend towards regionalism in Australian writing firms before it passes to something else, the novel will remain for many a genuine touch-stone about rites of passage. Or, ‘been there, done that’, as the Aussies say.
A lively novel that wets the appetite for Wilson’s second, third, and forth novels. Proof reading errors, at least 10, but Woodbine Press make books to last, as they should, for decades.
If only I’d achieved such a good first review of my first novel in the mainstream press.
* 1985, Denis Kevans, in his review of The Dragon Tree (Education 2 December 1985), was so much kinder than Michael Kindler, and said in part:
Edwin Wilson has produced a beautifully illustrated book of poems searching for his roots deep in the soil of northern New South Wales. He uses beautiful flowers, shrubs and trees of rainforest and coastal valley to express his feelings, and to show the range of deep emotions he has for his country and personal memories … [and] … reminds the reader, in a Shelley-like commentary at the back of the book of his struggle to ‘write just two eternal lines’…
The drawings of Elizabeth McAlpine [then living at Wentworth Falls] are an added beauty … who sits in the spray of waterfalls … capturing the twin sculpturing of tree-root and stone, moss and branch, giant fungus and log, in the half-light of the rainforest.
* 1986, Dan Byrnes’ review of ‘Liberty’ was then almost eclipsed by the ‘home town’ piece by Professor John Ryan (University of New England, with a connection to the ‘Eileen’ poem) in The Armidale Express, 18 April 1986, under the banner ‘A Modern James Joyce or Henry Lawson for New England’:
While the claim may seem a sweeping one [I could easily associate with the Lawson reference, but the Joyce comparison, apart from an Irish heritage, was a potential albatross], and the identity does not yet neatly fit Edwin James Wilson, born October 1942 at the far North Coast township of Wardell, the title is already warranted by virtue of many points of valid parallel.
This new middle-aged poet is a rebel [at this point John Ryan quotes from a false lead in my earlier family history research, since clarified] …three generations down from a Danish whalerman who jumped ship at Sydney, tried his luck at the diggings, and then settled on the Richmond. Their surname was anglicized to Wilson and the present writer is the third generation of the free thinking family to have a James as forename [as later revisited in my poem ‘Song of James’, to Karl Onslow’s boy James Wilson Onslow].
Edwin Wilson has been producing his tautly phrased experiences for a quarter of a century, poems botanical prose, sketches, and more recently the novel ‘Liberty Equality [sic, I had coined the word in English of ‘Egality’, with echoes of the French, from egalitarian’] Fraternity’. This volume, like his two poetry collections, ‘Banyan’ (1982) and ‘The Dragon Tree’ (1985), comes from the Woodbine Press in Lane Cove in elegant format, in both hard and soft covers, the poetry collections being illustraed by attractive pencil drawings by Elizabeth McAlpine.
Echo of Lawson
The echo of Lawson in the title is warranted in many ways – Scandinavian seaman antecedents [gold rush connection and anglicized surname], a passionate concern for freedom, a feeling with the emotions of simple people in the bush. Since many of Edwin’s Australian ancestors could not write, they left no letters or journals, and, consequently, their descendant has felt the need to muse over their probable emotions in his reflective passages.
For reasons not unconnected with this, he literally launched his first book of poetry on the waters of Sydney at Mrs Macquaries Chair and his novel at Sydney Heads. For they were, and he is still, ‘stranger to the land’.
But the main purpose of this review is to explore the novel itself, as its characters traverse and retraverse (coastal) northern New South Wales, visit Armidale and study at its Teachers’ College, and love,and live and work in Sydney, Experience the Domain, Hyde Park, the ferries, Centrepoint, and, for a poor boy, ‘the money business’ there.
I some of the fine simple prose pieces in ‘The Dragon Tree’, Wilson tells us that his themes are ever ‘time, destiny, memory, and death’. As he adds ‘The young have an innate sense of destiny. The old are overwhelmed by circumstance, as the living walk over the dead’. He knows well ‘time and death wait for us on the road’ and that ”never can never go back’, yet that is what is done by the novel’s protagonist, Peter Christensen at the works’ end.
In structure the story develops around a pilgrimage by Peter, in the process of being divorced, to his spawning ground, where, in the mid 1960s, he makes disturbing contact with his roots (after university, sexual experiences, friendship, marriage and work in the big city). Then the story returns to his childhood; experience of: timee and familial deaths; the widening world of post-school experience and his great love affair with Sydney itself; his attempts at teaching, tensions at work, and more mature personal relationships.
Although country places and towns are not given their real names in the novel (unlike in the verse), there is no problem with identification of tableland sequences. After the Richmond Valley high school, Peter goes to University (of NSW?) to study natural and physical science, has his first sexual affairs, and then does a science Diploma of Education in Glen Garra (ie Armidale).
The rural centre had appeared earlier as the place of residence and bumbling career, as University psychology lecturer, of Peter’s old student friend and shadow, Chris, who himself grimly describes his (mid 1960s) work as ‘just another sordid little bloody power game’ with its torrid ‘in-fighting’, dubious research and ineffectual examiners who ‘wouldn’t have the nous to balance the milk money for the tea club’. The students themselves are maimed by ‘over-aspiration’ [and] second hand parental ambitions foisted on children’.
The city of Glen Garra is one of great beauty, seen at night from the eastern approach, ‘like an international airport’, and even more haunting in the autumn. The narrator is even more haunted by the colours as ‘whole regiments of trees cast off their summer leaves …[and] …the grass went brown and the country died’ as ‘rabbits entrenched themselves in the blackberries and dog-rose thickets’.
Yet the most haunting local passages are those about the city and its College where Peter does his Dip Ed (and Edwin had both studied and been a science lecturer), and of the city’s cold and frosts. After Sydney the College is ‘almost Gothic’ with its columns, arches, and slate symmetry. ‘Inside with its polished parquet floor and picture gallery it was a time capsule of the 1930s’. His attempts at theory of education are ‘immature and illogical’, neither well ordered or reasoned. All of this is particularly interesting when put against his Professor’s account of him as a fine lad, ‘a scientist with a soul’.
Another recurring and imperative theme is the land and how it is to be treated, rather than the distraction and trifling deceptions of city work and the dubious culture there. The aborigines ‘had hunted in these hills within the memory of a lifetime’, heeding its ‘ancient tongues unknown to European man’. The protagonist is kept in contact with the land by reason of its plants, as well as with orchids and other exotics to be found in the Sydney Domain.
Ultimately ‘the compromises of middle life’ and ‘all the little regrets’ begin to crowd him, and after a series of family deaths, Peter realises that he must return to his home ground, even though a necessary preliminary is to burn down the inherited old house ‘to drive out the demons’.
And that is where we leave him, decarinated mid 20the century New England boy, resolved to return to his yesterdays. It is certainly the case that Edwin Wilson is one of the most satisfying New England writers of today. Like his almost exact contemporary, poet-novelist Geoffrey Page, Grafton born but Canberra domiciled – Edwin writes best of New England when sundered from it. His pages are evocative of so many aspects of its collective experience.
Edwin Wilson has been called ‘shocking, irreverent, cynical-yet-loving’, and these epithets fit certain aspects of is novel. Yet he is rather an explorer: of dreams; of Australian democracy; of light and the life of trees and flowers; of literature and sexuality; of perspective upon your short history and maladroit fumblings with the problems of our times.
Yet central to all of this is benign resolution of suffering and ‘aspects of truth’, the more profound for their hard attainment. In short, the novel, with its Eureka flag symbol, is. like the poetry, deeply satisfying, possessed of folk wisdom and deep poignancy, as each generation comes to its perception of universal truth in settings fresh yet hauntingly typical of New England.
This rave review, plus John Ryan’s Introduction to my Anthology (2002), was one of the greatest thrills in my early literary life, to have a professor of literature lauding a book that others had dismissed.
* 1986, Dan Byrnes, Northern Magazine, 18 May 1986, sensed The Dragon Tree was less ‘serene’ than Banyan and pointed out some poorer poems (like ‘Australia’, and I certainly agree with him on that call), then went on to say [that] ‘Wilson is memorable, because committed, because sincere, because of a sense of danger, as he struggles [so] forcefully with words, with art… [with] … seriousness, humour, bitterness, and some admirable lines’.
* 1986, Discovering the Domain received essentially polite reviews in various quarters.
* 1986, Keith Russell, writing about The Dragon Tree (in Quadrant, January/February 1986) had said:
Ancestry and place are his main themes. The garden of his childhood, his spiritual home, is the semi-magical and verdant region of northern New South Wales. Mullumbimby is both Mother and Father to his poetry and the symbolic acts required by such natural parents are ones that Wilson celebrates and performs.
* 1987, John Ryan, writing in the UNE Convocation Bulletin and Alumni News, August 1987, had noted Wild Tamarind was:
… both ‘morality tale’ and parable, as well as being a thriller about colonization, artificial intelligence, evolution [and looming ecological collapse]. It is also distinctive as a book in that it may be read from each end – 159 pages being concerned with the ‘winners’, with a paltry seven being devoted to the perspective of the ‘losers’ [us]. The novel is set in contemporary Sydney at the time of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the European settlement/invasion of this country. The reflections contained in it have relevance to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, the new technologies and the changing lifestyles already upon us…
The book is difficult to summarize – but it may be said it contains scathing satire, much morality, sensitivity to nature and some awful warnings of the likely future fate of Australians, as well as – by complex analogy – many luminous and disturbing insights into what the Aboriginal Australians must have suffered at our hands. The result is a horrible indictment of our value systems, primitive behaviour, dishonesty of language and savage and aggressive customs. The text is in the tradition of the great ironists – Swift, Butler, Huxley and those contemporary writers of what we dismiss as science fiction.
The book deserves to be read carefully – for its nature descriptions, perspectives on colonisation and on modern morality, as well as the failure of our society to understand its spiritual inheritance. Higher intelligence is assumed to be computer based [written before I had heard of the term, the ‘singularity’], and the many sufferings of our people, the present Australians, are assumed to be ‘parallels with the colonization of the rest of the world by European powers last century’ [the century before last].
In those early days my two most serious reviewers were still John Ryan and Dan Byrnes.
* 1987, Dan Byrnes , in his review in Education, 14 September 1987, was enthusiastic about Wild Tamarind:
Zany, bizarre, funny-yet-deeply-thoughtful, oddball as hell, Edwin Wilson’s second novel, ‘Wild Tamarind’, is a Bincentennial offering with two beginnings. Rare enough for novels to have two beginnings. This one, set on the northern NSW coast, and Sydney, around Mrs Macquaries Chair, the Opera House, and even Darlinghurst Police Station, involves a total disruption of life in Australia as we know it. Great start for a Bicentennial?
In this, the sci-fi part of the novel, is involved a complex, well-worked out theory on artificial intelligence that is quite impressive, in a way frightening. Beware,here is a world gone mad! But as a Bicentennial offering, there is in the novel an enormous anger on behalf of Aboriginal people, and the way European nations, since 1760 have colonised not just Australia but most land south of the Equator. So here, Australia, says the novelist, is what colonisation is like.
Sydney is never the same again. I all happens before the eyes of Jim Freemantle, science reporter for Channel 5. Things are so crazy in the novel, he ends up forbidden by a worried Prime Minister from talking to the media. One way to lose a job. Moving from unimaginal time dimensions of non-human experience to botany, from Lord Howe Island to a giant aircraft carrier, from Bob Hawke to Captain Bligh, this novel has satire enough to inspire a TV mini-series. Maybe even a maxi-series, depending on how they treat the slow parts.
Wilson’s rage reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut,but Vonnegut isn’t Australian. The cool sci-fi approach is reminiscent in places of the attitude of the best trans-galactic sci-fi short stories. But the satire, booming as a grenade dropped down a mine shaft, is all Wilson’s own, and purely Australian. There’s a marvelous sense of history and location in the writing, but behind the laughs, snickers and smirks is the threat of artificial intelligence.
That threat allows Wilson to make startling comments on the linkages we don’t wish to examine between truth, religion, moral and political power, heresy and deviance, social order and chaos. Not to speak of race relations. I just wish the artificial intelligence had gotten about six times more space to speak its mind. But we’re not allowed ask novelists to put in more of the bits we like. And maybe the urge to get this one out [in time for the Bicentennial] meant it was a bit rushed. But I will say, give this book to your more open-minded friends. It will make them both smile and think. Great mix.
(By the way, I suspect the Victorian RSL will try to ban this book. Am I right Bruce?)
This is Wilson’s sixth book in six years [on top of a young family and a full-time and demanding job which had taken a serious toll on my health]. Reviewing his first novel, Liberty, Egality, Fraternity, I wanted to read the second. Now I want the third.
* 1987, Denis Kevans, also writing in Education (26 December 1987), said ‘Wild Tamarind is and interesting book, cleverly devised, and thought provoking’.
* 1990, John Ryan’s enthusiastic review for Falling Up Into Verse, as published in Education, 12 February 1990, came under the banner of ‘The Survival of a Poet from ‘Down Under”:
Edwin Wilson’s Falling Up Into Verse (A Poetic Treatise of Handbook (Survival Manual) for Live Poets, Aspiring Poets, and Students of Poetry Down Under) … is an excellent manual … dedicated to Dick Edwards – of that distinguished firm of poetry publishers, the long-flourishing Edwards & Shaw (it should be recalled that that group has published A.D. Hope, Ray Mathew, Grace Perry, David Campbell, Peter Skrzynechi and Edwin Wilson too). The present work is ordered in their style and was inspired by the mentor’s press.
Unlike some of Wilson’s earlier writings, the current text is not excessively biographical, except in the 9th of 10 chapters, where it is more than relevant for the manual is desperately honest, quietly dignified, both unassuming and hauntingly wise for short, while sui generis, it is a courageous, modest and eminently sane account of one man’s path to poetry for it has elements of the quest of all sensitive men to write about their own perceptions of the human dilemma, no less universal for being passionately personal.
In 1988, at the UNE Seminar, ‘Poets of the New England Landscape’, there was a paper on the work of Ed Wilson, who has chosen to style himself ‘the peasant poet’ of the Far North Coast. In the 9th chapter of this present book, Wilson fills in for us a very satisfying pedigree – illiterate Danish/Irish/English/convict stock [the Dane was not a convict but jumped ship in Sydney during the Gold Rushes] – as well as having one ancestor who claimed descent from Horatio Nelson himself. These seeming asides, like the personal details (pp. 106 – 116), makes it very clear that Wilson’s work consists of discovery – about himself, about our culture, particularly from 1960, about human relationships and as to the nature of suffering, and ‘darker undercurrents of human vanities and frailties’. The text also shows us how a poor boy can flower physically, socially, emotionally, and intellectually in the education sector for which he is ready.
While none of this may seem like practical advice for the aspiring poet, the text itself teems with aphorisms and with incidents/situations of quietly distilled experience. Indeed, like Olaf Ruhen’s manual on prose writing, this text bids fair to become the practical guidebook for a generation of would-be published poets [and it was certainly used for several years by the TAFE system]. It is clear and forceful on such topics as: ‘impulse and motivation’, of ‘flow, form and polish’, of the ‘Tiger Ride’ of heroic struggle to stay with and control, somehow, Lawrence’s ‘passion but no breeding’, or the even stronger and violent emotions unleashed by society’s indifference to the talented and their suffering.
Those familiar with Wilson’s poetry and novels will be aware of his passion for ancient (subtropical) trees, of his ability to take his reader hauntingly across the tableland landscape, and of his feeling for the science-poetry interface. His stance as a poet is unique, the romantic visionary cum botanist, cum metaphysician of our late 20th century angsts. Like Aristotle or Horace before him in their treatises on poetry and on ‘making’ Wilson’s lines are full of apercus, which are not trite in their reflective contexts: [that] art may sometimes anticipate social change before society is ready to accept the new currency (p. 99); or if you want to have a less anxious, less angry, less insecure, less cantankerous life, then give up trying to make your mark right now – and go to the beach, [and] admire the arts from a safe distance (p. 104)…
Perhaps in conclusion to this helter-skelter report, it should be said this is a work to savour, to dip into, and to return to for fruitful reflection. It is one of the very few Australian non-reference books produced in the 80’s that a writer – of almost any sort – can return to continually for both profit and shamed acknowledgement that he has not given of his best. By quiet and unassuming modesty, Wilson has produced a reflective guide that can be savoured, railed against [as indeed it was, see following comments] and returned to. In his later forties, he is coming into his own in a way which all his friends and fellow-writers had hoped that he would. Like all great lovers and sufferers he is now ‘letting out what is inside’ and we are the richer for both his suffering and his noble and generous spirit.
Some rap. On the ‘railing’ side John Millet (of Poetry Australia) told me he’d sent this same book out for review, and had not published the result as it was so nasty and he hadn’t agreed with it (as he’d liked the book).
* 1990, when Hale & Iremonger finally published Songs of the Forest in 1990 it was an important breakthrough. The Introduction had been published in Australian Orchid Review (Summer 1988), and the time the book had been originally scheduled to come out. The book had been dedicated to my orchid-growing mentor Kathleen McIllrath (or ‘Mac’), as recorded with a photograph and a mention in the Tweed Gold Coast Daily, 21 February, 1990, when I went to Murwillumbah to give her a copy in the nursing home she was then living in.
* 1990, Michael McDonald gave Songs of the Forest (with reference to my other books) a reasonable mention in the Byron Shire Echo (March 1990), in which he said:
Wilson’s style is mostly simple and unaffected, containing apt metaphors and the skilful use of assonance… At best Wilson recalls the Chinese ‘nature poets’, Tu Fu, with occasionally an added satirical bite. At his worst the meaning of the poem is lost in the bountiful footnotes, and artform perfected by the 19th century English hack … Felicia Hemans … whose afterthoughts stunned her stanzas. Wilson’s work is far above hackdom, however, and the longer poem ‘Paradise Lost’ earns him a niche in the pantheon of modern Australian poets worth reading. The satire which tinges this piece also touches his ‘Bryon Bay’ poem published last year in the Echo – it would be a treat to see more in this venomos vein.
Academic Peter Pierce, in a photocopied article entitled ‘Wide-ranging themes in our recent poetry’ (of unknown source), had thought my ‘lament to a bullet-ridden kangaroo [shot on the old dirt road to Cooktown in the early 60s for food, with only two shots, the first one having missed; the other went straight through] pathetic’. He had at least liked ‘Maiden-hair’ and ‘Nepenthes’, as ‘moving from botanical specificity … to arresting images’. Someone in Adelaide (Adelaide Botanic Garden Friends, April-May 1991, Vol 14, No 2) however, had considered ‘some … readers might find the sexual imagery [of such poems as ‘Maiden-hair’ that Pierce liked] a little too intrusive at times’, and Tony Scanlon (Northern Perspective, Vol 14 No 1, 1991, p. 122), had been underwhelmed.
*1990, lucky for me Roland Robinson (another Edwards & Shaw) poet, referring to me as a ‘rainforest poet’ in his review of Songs of the Forest (Newcastle Herald, 21 April 1990, not long before he died), with extensive quoting from individual poems, specifically singled out my ‘Kangaroo’ poem as one he liked, because ‘Wilson can fracture his verse and give it the sound of the experience’. The best of this very positive review was saved to last, when Roland Robinson finished of with the observation that:
Mr Wilson’s verse has that quality, often so sadly lacking in modern verse, the music of the sense and the sound of the meaning. Accompanying the poems and the prose-poems are the lush, generous drawings by Elizabeth McAlpine, of the orchids, vines, flowers and trees of the ‘green mansions’ of this delightful book.
* 1990, Dan Byrnes’ review of Songs of the Forest, as published in Education (24 October 1990), was most generous:
Edwin Wilson is a Sydney poet who since 1982 has gone his own way, using Woodbine Press (Sydney) to present his work. Now, Hale & Iremonger have taken him up. His first poetry book, Banyan, was followed in 1985 with The Dragon Tree. He also has two novels: Liberty, Egality, Fraternity, an evocation of growing up after WWII on the NSW north coast, and his passionate science fiction novel, Wild Tamarind (1987). Wild Tamarind shows that Wilson has a wonderful grasp of matters scientific – including the computer-driven hope some people have of ‘artificial intelligence’. Few Australian poets have ever expressed such an appreciation of science as Wilson draws on when he reacts to inspiration.
This volume with new work recapitulates the best from his earlier poetry books, and serves as an excellent introduction to his themes, his work and his deep commitments to our coastal environments. Elizabeth McAlpine’s drawings help immeasurably. Wilson begins ‘Songs’ with an autobiographical account allowing the reader an intimate access to his loves: botany, poetry, literature and life. In days when ‘environment’ is such a buzz word that a (rather suspiciously articulate?) school-boy has written to a major newspaper to complain that students are being literally brainwashed about environmentalism, Wilson’s is a responsible voice. ‘Environmentalists’ would be pressed hard to match the kind of deeply informed love Wilson has for the natural world.
Songs of the Forest is timely, as it could entice the proponents of the greening of the economy, our outlook. our world, and their enemies, to look more closely not just at obvious questions, but to examine far more deeply the ambiguities of human responses. Obviously there is nature. Also obviously, there are cities. Wilson achieves a witty apposition when he writes in ‘Strangler Fig’;
The city’s wards are just as rigged/with parasitic mortgages and loans…
A humorist also, he jibs Melbourne dwellers on their coastal holidays who misname those wonderful eat-anything plants, staghorns, as cabbages. An all-round nature lover … he writes in ‘Nepenthes’:
In the close under arm of a tropic house…
The Nepenthes, or pitcher plant, augments a nitrogen deficient soil by digesting insects. Such information Wilson tucks into footnotes, and anyone could broaden their approach to matters environmental – or poetic – by noting how Wilson so enjoyably unites quite disparate elements in his poetic response to the much wider, objective, world. That is, each poem (about a plant) is located as much in the whole of life – air, water, earth, the urbia – as any tree by Sydney Harbour (where Wilson works, at botanical gardens) … where Wilson writes not from mere conviction, or post-60s sentimentalism, but from a deep knowledge of nature.
Wilson is an accessible exemplar of the doctrines on ‘seeking poetic correspondence’ as practiced by T.S. Eliot and Rilke. In this, and given his knowledge of NSW history, he could be commented to English teachers working in a school system so committed to environmentalism as it is a present. This book is not just pitched to those with current concerns about the environment – or poetry. All proper poets have a sense of the frailty and vulnerability of our lives – and of our environment – and send messages for the great, the powerful. Wilson’s message in this vein (from [his poem] ‘Banyan’) perhaps is:
Time will erase your memory/without enmity of scar,/without so much as bending/a light beam from a star.
Edwin Wilson is a proper poet, under-rated to date, and it is welcome to see him now appreciated by publishers committed to poetry.
* 1991, sadly my next book of poetry, The Rose Garden, sank almost without trace. Jennifer Somerville (The Northern Star, 29 June 1991) gave it a mention, as did David Kelly (OzMuze Vol 1 No 13, October 1991), and Martin Langford (Muse News, October 1991), and Kathleen Wall’s review (The Australian Garden Journal, December 1992), was encouraging. It was left to John Ryan (New England Review, 1992), to sing the praises of this book:
Here Wilson, professionally the (historical) botanist, waxes lyrical as he responds to rose legends and associations from early in the third millennium BC in China and the Middle East, through Greek and Roman, Christian and Mediaeval times, while personally identifying with the W.B.Yeats’ The Rose (1893). Yet other of the poems are concerned with plants, love, memory and death – compelling themes in this middle period – as Wilson collects his instincts and compulsions into the volumes, now become ‘museums of memory’. As in all his writings – his books now number nine – he is concerned to retrieve fragments from the past in order to ‘reconstruct and re-interpret the present’ (p.11).
Perhaps even more than his earlier volumes, The Rose Garden is beautiful in appearance, elegantly illustrated and possessed of a remarkable and distinctive charm. Ed Wilson’s work is sui generis, wholly authentic and muted by the experiences of life… Fastidiousness, strength, the botanist’s eye for colour and tine, and a wry yet gentle self-mockery – all these make Wilson a poet of his own, trim, wise, reflective and above all engaging as he shares with his reader the musings of a watcher, contemplatively observing all the folly of our transient ways.
1992, Gary Frances of Bexley (12 October 1992), in a letter the the Sydney Morning Herald, (in the context of minimalist paintings done on some grant)had indicated he was approaching writing a ‘perfect’ poem, consisting of nothing. Having already done this in 1974, I was very anxious this significant event in literary history be recorded and acknowledged. Luckily for me my reply letter was published in the Sydney Morning Herald (22 October 1992): 1974 Precedent. Sir: Regarding the letter of Gary Frances of Bexley (October 12),I need to set the record straight. I am sorry to inform him that one of my poems, entitled ‘Blank Verse’, reached the ‘perfection’ he thought he was approaching as far back as 1974. This poem, written without a Creative Fellowship, was subsequently published on page 87 of Banyan (Woodbine Press, 1982) with an explanatory footnote, and an accompanying ‘blank’ illustration, like a Tristam Shandy in reverse, along the lines of ‘a polar bear [with its eyes closed] in a snowstorm’,as painted at primary school. At the time I was very pleased to have this work published, so no one else could claim it as their own. Edwin Wilson, Longueville
* 1992, The Wishing Tree (Kangaroo Press), received excellent coverage, starting off with a Geraldine O’Brien featured article and photograph (with Satyr, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 December 1992).’ The Satyr Statue, with exposed genitals, had been created by the sculptor Frank Lynch… The cheeky grinning face of the half-man, half-goat figure had been modeled on the sculptor’s brother, the cartoonist Joe Lynch. Joe was drowned in 1927, when his pockets weighed with bottles of beer, fell [or jumped] off a ferry [not far from the Opera House] on his way to a party [on the North Shore]’. And in a literary vein, this event had been the inspiration for Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’ poem.
‘Wising Tree Walks in the Gardens’ were offered in conjunction with the launch of this book over several weeks, and were promoted by the following: Shirley Stackhouse, Northern Herald (12 November 1992), ‘Parklands of Sydney bristle with History’; Valerie Swane, Sunday Telegraph (22 November 1992), ‘The politics of gardening’; Pamela Polglase, The Manly Daily (26 November 1992), ‘Garden Style’; Telegraph Mirror (4 December 1992), ‘Events’.
The Wishing Tree was also mentioned in ‘Leo [Schofield] at Large’, Sydney Morning Herald (5 December 1992); Pamela Jane, Sun-Herald, ‘Home’ (6 December 1992), ‘Books to suit the festive season’; Susan Parsons, The Canberra Times (13 December 1992), ‘Gardener’s Gallery, An Old Wishing Tree Remembered’; John Collins, Wentworth Courier (20 January 1993), ‘In a jungle, hard by Quay’; with very positive reviews by Robert Boden, The Canberra Times (30 December 1992), ‘ACT’s botanic links with Sydney’; Chris Betteridge, Australian Garden History Journal Vol 5 No 1, (July/August 1993); and Evan Jones, The Australian Garden Journal, August/September 1993.
The Wishing Tree was not reviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald, but turned up as a feature article (5 March 1993) entitled ‘Gardens’ forgotten statues find a place to rest in pieces’, and was referred to in another feature on some of Sydney’s favourite trees, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 November 2000.
* 1993, The Botanic Verses, were a ‘breakthrough’ book, resulting in a Guest Reading at the Gardens Restaurant with Mark O’Connor, 26 September (Sydney Morning Herald, Metro, 24 September 1993), and the ‘Writers in the Park’, 5 October 1993 with David Malouf and Rhyl McMaster (Sydney Morning Herald, Metro, 1 October 1993), and a talk/reading to the Friends of the Gardens (15 July 1997). They were launched with poetic walks in the Gardens, and featured in Sydney Morning Herald, Arts, 26 July 1993, and mentioned by Pamela Jane in her gardening column, Sun-Herald, 29 August 1993, with a follow-up piece by Graham Crocker in Uniken (University of New South Wales) 4 November 1994.
Writing of The Botanic Verses in New England Review No 2 1993/4, John Ryan said ‘the selection is particularly unified by reason of all its items being of sonnet form’, and that Wilson ‘uses his ‘botanic’ verse as a metaphor for man’s and his own earthly life – first beautiful and strong, next aware of (seasonal) change and the death of insects and the elderly, and then remarkably sober and reflective, in the poet’s fifth decade. A different tone is struck with the new and more self-mocking pieces – … often pivoted on proper names from mythology and geography and history, and with climactic discordant thoughts ending the sextet… The last pages set up tensions which haunt – commercialized packaging, shallow emotions, the falsity of ‘business’, with man ‘dwarfed by the rambling tree’. The Botanic Verses (along with The Mullumbimby Kid) were belatedly mentioned in a mixed review by Mark O’Connor in The Canberra Times, 17 February 2001.
* 1995, article by Meg Stewart, ‘Where Magic is Carved in stone’ (Sydney Morning Herald, Summer Arts, 29 December 1995), a feature article of statues in the Gardens, with reference to The Wishing Tree and The Botanic Verses, and a photograph of the destroyed statue of Summer.
* 1997, article about Chaos Theory, ‘A theory crops up with words’, by Cathy Bajeus (North Shore Times, 11 April 1997), with a photograph.
Joe Weston, in his review of Chaos Theory(Education, 21 April 1997), entitled ‘Poetry in motion’, said: ‘[Wilson] presents a challenging set of chemical, physical, biological, anthropological and metaphysical ideas. These idea blend romantically with myths, preconceptions and prejudices in a potpourri of experiences, reactions, impressions, insights and confessions that charm and maybe shock, as they inform, disconnect, intrigue and titillate… Looking to … the future his thoughts will appeal to all who find the information highway baffling, when he admits ‘I fear the anarchy of electronic words/ that slip and flicker on the screen,/ and feel that mixing process with the flux/ may goose the spark in me’. His writing is vibrant with an essential atomistic energy which pledges assurance the human spirit will meet all these challenges successfully.
Chaos Theory was also mentioned by David Kelly on The Book Page (Five Bells, July 1997, with a reproduction of my three-dimensional poem ‘No-Yes Crystallography’), and reviewed by Bettina Cummins in FreeXpresSion, October 1997, by Linda Conn in Biblionews December 1997, and by Bruce Copping (The Newcastle Herald, 30 January 1999, referring back to an earlier review of unknown date) in which he re-quoted what he’d said of Chaos Theory, that ‘there are poems that illuminate, like moon-shafts slivering a forest night, their musical rhythms, tightly held by their structure, lighting up hidden pathways’.
* 1998, Cosmos Seven was dedicated to Dick Edwards, ‘Pig-farmer, philosopher, printer,/ publisher, poet, mentor and friend,/ and silent partner/Woodbine Press/ before the electronic age’, and he held a copy in his hand not long before he died. Vale my old literary mate. This elegant hardcover book, printed on high-quality paper and graced with the best selection of pencil drawings by Elizabeth McAlpine to date, was launched by Shirley Colless, Deputy Lord Mayor, North Sydney Council, at Live Poets, Don Bank, North Sydney 24 June 1998 (as mentioned in Five Bells, June 1998, and Sydney Morning Herald, Bibliofile, 20 June 1998), with the biggest turn-up to date for a poetry event of mine.
Cosmos Seven was featured in an extensive article by Sue Hicks (The Mosman Daily, 13 August 1998), entitled ‘Getting in touch with the nature of things’, with a photograph of me sitting under the large Moreton Bay Fig tree in the Lower Garden, Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (miss-titled Lord Howe Island Banyan Tree (adjacent tree in the Gardens) in the paper) and an insert of the Elizabeth McAlpine illustration of two lotus flowers and Sarah Gornall’s translation of my poem ‘Ancient Bouquet’ into hieroglyphics.
My (unacknowledged) obituary to Dick Edwards was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 August 1998. My follow-up remembrance to Dick was published in Five Bells, September 1998. My earlier, longer commemorative piece, ‘From the Barn on the Hill to Edwards & Shaw’, written when Dick was still alive, had appeared in Biblionews, 313th Issue, Vol 22, No 1, March 1997. Biblionews, 319th Issue, Vol 23, No 3, September 1998, as almost an ‘Edwin Wilson’ Issue, featuring my commissioned article ‘A Passion for the Epiphyte Transferred: The Genesis of Woodbine Press’, my obituary to Eric (Dick) Edwards OAM, 1916 – 1998, and Linda Conn’s review of Cosmos Seven.
Cosmos Seven also featured in a talk to the ‘National Women’s’ Register Group’ in the Maiden Theatre, 24 October 1998, was mentioned (14 August 1998, with a reference to Oliver Bainbridge) in The Daily Examiner (Grafton), as ‘The perfect read for a rainy day’, reviewed (with three other books) by Hamesh Wyatt in the Otago Daily Times, 4 November 1998, under the general heading of ‘Wry, haunting, amusing: poems with plenty of grit’, by Wayne Crawford in the Sunday Mercury (Tasmania) 6 December, 1998, as an ‘Ideal chance to feast of quality poetry’, and by Bruce Copping in The Newcastle Herald (30 January 1999) as ‘Illuminations of ourselves’, and was reviewed in Brisbane Botanic, Vol 2, No 1, March 1999.
Cosmos Seven was also reviewed (26 August1998) by Hetty Cislowski in Inform (New South Wales Department of Education), in which she suggested that ‘Mons Oak’ would sit nicely with the well-known war poets in contemporary English. Joe Weston’s review in Education (31 August 1998), under the banner of ‘Radiant, harmonic verse’, said ‘Like alchemists of old, [Wilson] attempts through his poetry to transmute what we mortals in our daily haste tend to class as humdrum trivia, as we pass with unseeing eyes into radiant, harmonic order…which trails clouds of glory accompanied by streaks of ignominy … into a concept acceptable to all, including himself, as an ordered, inspiring whole’, in a feature with photograph of myself on my Harley-Davidson with a book in my hand and ‘saddlebags full of books’, The Northern Star (Lismore, 1 September 1998), and a review by Wendy Wilkins in Muse (the Journal of the Australian Museum Society, April/May 1999), in which she said that ‘at their best the poems have an emotional delicacy and an intense numinous quality, and the simplicity and the amplitude of the writing recall Pound’s dictum that the natural object is always the adequate symbol’.
On the strength of the two ‘educational’ reviews I was invited to read at Mullumbimby High School (The Northern Star article, 1 September 1998), and elected as the Fifth Member of ‘The Mullumbimby High School Hall of Fame’, as reported (with a photograph of my old English teacher from Mullumbimby, Wal Wardman and the new school captains) in the Saturday Star, 22 February 1999, as ‘Poet latest addition to school’s wall of fame’ (when most of the others had achieved their recognition for doing something ‘fast’).
In her last review (Writers Voice, June-July 1999, No 164, p. 17, my long-term supporter Bettina Cummins had died soon after this), and talking of Cosmos Seven Bettina had said, ‘I found this book completely satisfactory. Not only the poetry – comprised of images depicted with wit and keen observation and most of all, sincerity; but the layout of the poem, complemented by Elizabeth McAlpine’s delightful pencil drawings. ‘A book should open like a flower’ observed Australian typographer, Ben Fryer [and something that Dick Edwards had adhered to]. This one does. Regrettably as the old crafts die it is becoming rarer to find books of this quality. The buyer of this book should not be disappointed on any count’. Thank you Bettina.
* 2000, The Mullumbimby Kid: A Portrait of the Poet as a child received a full-page review by Jennifer Somerville in Saturday Review, The Northern Star (Lismore) , 23 September 2000, with a larger version of the photo of myself on my Harley-Davidson holding Cosmos Seven and an insert of the cover of The Mullumbimby Kid, under the heading ‘Edwin’s poetic journey’. The Mullumbimby Kid also featured in the Royal Botanic Gardens News, 27 September 2000, with positive mentions by Elvira Sproggis in The Newcastle Herald, 21 October 2000, by Michael McDonald in the Byron Shire Echo, 24 October 2000, by Joe Weston in Education, 11 December 2000 (under the title of ‘Memories of Armidale last century’), by Mark O’Connor in The Canberra Times, 17 February 2001, Outback Magazine, Issue 17, June/July 2001, the Richmond River Historical Society, September 2001 (with a follow-up mention in their 2002 issue, with reference to the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Lismore), as a give-away feature in the Daily Examiner (Grafton), 13 November 2000, and mentioned in the Nikki Barrowclough article, the ‘two of us, Edwin Wilson and ‘Jim’ Onslow’, article, Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 August 2006, a piece by Christine McNeil, Byron Shire News, 13 March 2006 (with a photograph with Percy and June Sheaffe, following a talk to the Byron District Orchid Society (of which I chad been a child member in the 1950s) on the ‘Latouria’ breeding project), and in a story in The Northern Star (28 February 2009), ‘Star story led to a brother’ (published when My Brother Jim came out).
As a flow-on from this I had an essay ‘Mullumbimby Dreaming: Life if a Yong Poet’ (with photographs) posted by Coral Hull on her Webpage ‘Thlazine’ (spelt with a ‘z’), now apparently discontinued, which formed the basis for the essay in the front of my 2014 ”Art” book of Mullumbimby paintings and poems, entitled Mullumbimby Dreaming.
* 2001, Cedar House by comparison, my Gothic novel, Australian ‘Wuthering Heights’ and river story (touching on environmental themes and the aboriginal wars from the aboriginal perspective, with extensive research and life experience listed in the back of the book, that came out before The Secret River), about almost sunk without trace (being mentioned in RBG News, 15 February 2002, with a feature article in The Byron Shire Echo, 8 January 2002), except for two notable exceptions. Joe Weston came good with a review, ‘Poetic prose sparkles in this yarn’ (Education, 2 September 2002), and Susan Mason and J.S. Ryan published a very positive five-page review article (Australian Folklore, No 17, 2002), entitled ‘If You Were a Carpenter and I Were a Lady’: ”[Wilson] has now produced a Gothic novel, a story about environment and Aboriginality and reconciliation, set in subtropical north-eastern New South Wales from the time of European settlement to the present day. ‘Cedar House’ is a pioneer mansion built on Cedar Island by Peter Woodburn, the founder of the Woodburn dynasty … [perhaps after the style of other ‘founding’ fathers like] … the Ogilvies at Yulgilbar… and much of it is sad and even savage … [a] … work that was unexpected in both content and its literary style … [a ]… haunting homily… Perhaps so many of the … features come from the tendency of the writer – a lifetime poet working in prose – to make use of a pulsating syntax with selective imagery, thus creating a remarkably effective and evocative style, this making the text less of a novel and more of a musing, a dream, a plea for harmony amongst men and for the regaining of the paradisaical in the landscape’. Oh for such a mention in the mainstream press.
* 2002, Asteroid Belt was lost to the world of letters, except a brief mention by Sue Hicks (printed under my poem ‘Cats’, one of my Baudelaire ‘Imitations’ found in this book) in The Mosman Daily, 11 July 2002, for which Cheryl and I received a voucher for breakfast at Caffe Prego, Mosman Square. Some bad vibrations had been picked up when this book came out, in part to do with my ‘productivity’, and a requested essay on ‘poetry in the seventies and eighties’ for a projected issue of Five Bells (Journal of the Sydney-based Poets Union) on ‘Senior Australian Poets’ had been mysteriously ‘disappeared’, but by now my focus was on Anthology.
* 2002, sales of Anthology, at its launch (on my 60th birthday) by Anne Deverson in the Charles Moore Room at the Gardens in the lead-up to my retirement, exceeded $1,000 in the one afternoon, which was as good as it had ever been for poetry, and a high-water mark in a writing life (after which I refrained from inviting long-suffering friends to any more book launches). As part of the on-going promotion for this book Donna Olsand (from the Gardens) had organised a ‘Lunch on the Grass’, of poetry and gourmet catering and wine at Lion Gate Lodge on 16 November 2002. This event was mentioned in the The Gardens, Friends of the Gardens, Spring 2002, the North Shore Times (with photograph in my back yard), 1 November 2002, Daily Telegraph, ‘Homes, What’s on this Week’, 9 November 2002, and Sydney Morning Herald, Domain Events, 14 November 2002, with a really good turn-up of paying guests (where the cost covered catering and a copy of Anthology).
Anthology was also mentioned (with cover of the book) in the Byron Shire Echo, 5 November 2002, and the RBG News, 25 November 2002, with a warm-hearted review by Joe Weston appearing in Education, 17 February, 2003, under the heading ‘Wide ranging poetry collection’. The same could not be said for the API (The Australian Public Intellectual) Network electronic review of Anthology by Adelaide poet of thin volumes, Steve Evans, who baulked at my ‘brick of a book, and emphasised the worst and not the best of all I’d done. This seemingly middle-class academic (with no apparent idea of cultural deprivation) had objected to my ‘air of independent pride’ relating to my humble origins, when achievement in any life should be measured from its starting point. He’d also objected to the inclusion of Juvenilia in the collection as they were the weakest poems (which was fair enough). And then he’d not responded positively to my ‘Binary Poem’ (very much a ‘page poem’ and not something to be read out), failing to grasp that this was a much more subtle, complex, and dare I say intellectual exercise (the title of the poem should have given it away), with words hidden beneath the numbers (as long as nothing had been lost in transliteration).
After some more ‘literary-speak’, and praising with damn feint he finished with a killer put-down line that said my poetry was ‘not bad …[but] … simply ordinary’, which really hurt. For considering my mostly illiterate emancipist farming stock origins (in part), my posthumous birth, and my dyslexia, then what I had done in life was not effing ‘ordinary’, but almost remarkable.
And now with the option of an electronic posting device, for the first time in my life I was able to strike back at a critic in real time. and belted out my reply in a white heat. Perhaps I should have slept on it, but I hit ‘send’ instead. The deed was done, with my stinging coda to a bad review now winging off in cyberspace: ‘to Steve Evans. Pooh to you and what have you done to date so I can rip into it too? I am proud of what I’ve done,especially not having come from a middle-class arty-farty [and certainly non-convict Adelaide] type background … and the less literary-inclined may have already deduced the little ditty behind the numbers of the binary poem. That is the point – of the words actually hidden inside/within the numbers – and this is an original idea for a poem in my book, and I am sorry I has had to be explained to you. Edwin Wilson’.
The pain of this review was to be appeased in part by New York-based critic Sharon Olinka’s (March 2004) very positive electronic review of Anthology (posted in Australian Poetry Book Reviews, somehow linked to Thylazine, in July of 2004, now apparently taken down). Not that she liked everything (once again, fair enough), but the good stuff made it hard to imagine she was talking about the same book that Steve Evans had just dismissed.
In part she says: ‘One comes away from this massive volume [not ‘brick’ of a book] with the impression that Wilson carefully observes the world as it is, and not from an emptiness withing, a desire merely to catalogue and define it. He is knowledgeable about botany and history, but more importantly, he knows about the human heart. The dark night of the soul, often a sumject in poetry, an in a lesser poet’s hands appear mawkish and strained. Wilson never makes crucial misstep in this regard. There’s a positive dislike in his work for New Age rhapsoidies, a too facile harmony. His is a flawed wisdom; raw and thoroughly earned. A voice one can trust. The poetic tensions in his work stem, from one hand, in a refined sensibility that seeks balance, and an opposing, very different turmoil that rages against mediocrity and political oppression. The refined voice in his poetry takes delight in the structure of cells, leaf formation … the beauty of a woman’s breast, or an orchid. Images in his poems have the clarity of jewels … the rage is explosive, and propels the best poems … like a speedboat in water … nothing is prettied-up here … yet the anger does not diminish the poem[s] in any way. It only makes it stronger’.
Olinka goes on to discuss some of the erotic poems, and refers to ‘the mixture of tenderness and cynicism (in ‘Alfresco Lunch’)’, and ‘the heady personal myth-making in ‘The Orchid Boy’, which manages to evoke sensual pleasures and nostalgic sadness in each of its stanzas’, then talks of some poems that she doesn’t like, then goes on to say that ‘when Wilson soars in a poem he’s eagle-sharp … [and gives some examples]. Wilson is truly at his best in ‘Return to Sydney from London, Spring/Summer 1994’. It has the urgency characteristic of his work, and the vivid imagery, from ‘the cannas flash their crimson tongues’ to ‘the diamond light flocs walls of glass’. There’s an enduring love for his native land.
And that love shapes, without question, all of his poems. More than any other poet I’ve read, he resembles the great American poet Thomas McGrath … [and is] … unashamedly political, against hypocrisies and reactionaries of all kinds – technological robots, yuppies lulled by rhetoric, aristocrats and their toadies, and closet bigots. Wilson’s poem ‘The Wanderer’ is very much like the long poems of McGrath; narrative, elegiac, and full of history’s residue…
In any case, the poem of Wilson’s in this book that I’d consider a masterpiece in ‘Poor Man’s Chair’. Universal in its scope, but set in 1830’s Sydney, it’s about a transported convict named Charles ‘Bony’ Anderson. Imagining the young man’s pain, Wilson gives the graphic details of how his spine was exposed from the brutal punishment of ‘1,000 cuts or more’… [and she finished her review] … with the last stanza of the poem, remarkable for the line ‘amnesties of shame’.
At long last I appeared to have broken free of the constricting ‘loops’ of the Australian poetry scene, and walked above the ground for several days (but no ‘victory’ or no ‘defeat’ is ever ‘permanent’).
After a lot of ‘obstruction’ a truncated version of John Millet’s review of Anthology was belatedly published in Five Bells, Vol 11, No 4, Spring 2004, in which he notes that ‘Wilson is passionately Australian … [and finished up with the hope that] …his poetry , his own astute observations and comments on other lives (both human and botanical), will find a place in our literature, so that future readers may enjoy his reflections’.
* 2003, Missouri-based botanist, Dr Peter Bernhardt (of St Louis University, Missouri) had an article on my poetry published in ‘The Last Word’, in the London-based Plant Talk No 31, January 2003, in which he concluded, ‘Wilson’s best work proves, again and again, that flora unknown to English meadows has the power to invoke both powerful allusions and uncork powerful emotions’. Five years later I was thrilled when Peter Bernhardt used my ‘Nepenthes’ poem as his poetry quotation at the beginning of Chapter 7 (p. 169) of his book Gods and Goddesses in the Garden (Rutgers University Press, 2008), along with other quotations form Ovid (Chapter 1), Oscar Wilde (Chapter 2), Hesiod (Chapters 3 & 4), Andrew Marvell (Chapter 5 & Epilogue), and Shakespeare (Chapter 6).
* 2004, Poetry of Place (a substantially updated and revised second edition of The Wishing Tree), sold out in the Gardens shop and was mentioned in a substantial feature article, ‘The prickly problems growing in our parks’, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 February 2005.
* 2006, The Melancholy Dane: A Portrait of the Poet as a Young Man, my second book of poetic memoirs, and a powerful book in many respects, was conspicuously ignored by the Literati, except for an expansive review by John Ryan in Australian Folklore No 23, 2008, entitled ‘Poems, Plants and Post-modern Australian Men and Women: or ‘The Boy from the Bush’ in Sydney Town’.
* 2009, My Brother Jim, was covered in a feature article by Fay Knight in the ‘Weekender’, The Northern Star (18 February 2009) entitled ‘Star story led to a brother’. My Brother Jim (along with Banyan and The Botanic Verses) was reviewed by Daan Spijer in The Australian Writer, March- May 2009,in which he said, ‘My Brother Jim is a fresh as they come … the poems have an immediacy in their writing. Ed Wilson is sparing in his use of words and makes each … carry more than its fair burden. This is poetry at its very best, its densest and most lyrical. There is music in it,especially if read aloud … In these three books we see a master craftsman at work. Ed Wilson must have worked and reworked these poems to make them sing so faultlessly, to have them speak so eloquently and come off the page fresh, and. seemingly, unwrought’.
* 2010, New Selected Poems – a Collection of Flowers 1967 – 2009 (printed in the ‘Faber’ style). In this book, emboldened somewhat by the Olinka review, I’d chosen to publish a modified version of my essay on the Australian poetry scene in the seventies and eighties (the one that had been ‘requested’ and then not been published in Five Bells), in the form of an ‘Open Letter’, under the much longer sub-heading of ‘An Open Letter to Live Poets, Literary Editors, Reviewers, Academics, Students, Ministers for the Arts type staff, Literature Board Funding Committee Wallahs, Publisher’s Assistants, and Organisers of Literary Festivals’, my second great literary ‘blunder’. For this exercise in ‘truth-telling’ (from my own perspective of course, and something for scholars to ponder on 50 years hence), may not have been such a wise move being still so (relatively) close to the action, as I’d soon picked up on the gnashing of teeth in certain quarters, as various gatekeepers ‘piqued in their rush to ignore’, to deprive this book of the oxygen of publicity. As a result of this my ‘Open Letter’ was not included in the electronic posted version of this book (but my essay at the back, ‘Poetry and Art: An Evolutionary Biologist’s take on Selection Pressure in the Arts’ (as previously published in Five Bells, Vol 16, Nos 2&3, Autumn/Winter 2009) was retained).
Only Martin Stevenson, with his mention in The Examiner (Launceston), 15 January 2011, p. 37 (and later syndicated in some Victorian regional papers), appears not to have toed the party line. Once more, an ‘outsider’, New Zealand-born poet Caroline Glen, was the only person to seriously review this book. In her electronic review (26 November 2010) of New Selected Poems for the Gold Coast Writers’ Association she had said ‘Edwin’s 11th book of poetry is a rewarding read. It is obvious he has done his homework, studying the craft and developing a mastery of structure, syntax, form and rhythm. From this study, he shows a comfortable ego and confidence. His mixture of rhyming and free verse displays a natural feeling for words. He portrays an enviable ability for the sound of wards, so assonance resonates with the reader throughout. They are stand-alone poems; complete from thee beginning to end. No poem is over-spoken and all are written with a strong sense of rhythm. To make the meat tastier, he sometimes rubs in, the flavour of cynicism . His poems are mainly of page length. He writes clearly and moves the words along concisely. One is aware there is a quick, intelligent mind behind them. His subjects are various but many poems relate to nature and his path from a Mullumbimby childhood…’
* 2011, on the strength of the Glenn review (and the far north coast associations) I was invited to take part in the 2011 Byron Bay Writers Festival, with two more general festival feature article by Jennie Dell (‘Passionate poetry to peaceful prose’ and ‘Poetry fills the air as festival takes flight’) in The Norther Star ( 23 August 2011).
* 2012, the second edition of The Mullumbimby Kid was mentioned in the Byron Shire Echo (5 April 2012), Education (28 May 2012, with Webpage references), with a really sniffy review, ‘In short Non-fiction’, Sydney Morning Herald (19/20 May 2012).
* 2012, The literary review ’embargo’ appeared to be still ‘on’ when New Collected Poems came out (with bad vibrations picked up in certain quarters, as poetry is very much a ‘jealous craft’). It really was a beautiful and heartfelt book (of over 700 pages (including preliminaries), with an Introduction and Epilogue by Professor John Ryan, University of New England), the result of sixty years of application to the craft, my Diamond Jubilee of verse). It was so painful to have a life’s work so conspicuously ignored by the Literati (and paradoxically to be ignored is even worse than being mauled). So much sweat, energy, hope, ego and aspiration goes into one slim volume of verse. Imagine how much worse this must be for a Collected Works?
Kate Crawford liked the book and gave it a mention in the Mosman Daily (13 September 2012, with a file photograph left over from my exhibition at Artarmon Galleries), and a follow-up mention of the Don Bank launch (Mosman Daily, 18 December 2012), a more subdued affair this time as I’d really refrained from inviting my friends. New Collected Poems generated a degree of interest at the Lavender Bay Gallery (Royal Art Society of New South Wales). and was mentioned in Education, 29 October 2012, The Gardens (Foundation & Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens), Issue 95(Summer 2012 – 2013), and The Northern Star (8 December 2012), and that appeared to be the end of it.
And then I received a belated rave review from Alicia Bee in The Australian Writer, Issue 382, December 2013 – February 2014, in which, amongst other things she said, ‘In his most refined poetry [Wilson] draws plants and creates flowers with words that may be treasured for centuries, hopefully not by just collectors of his work. Combined with pencil drawings by now deceased friend Elizabeth McAlpine those poems made opening New Collected Poems one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever been given as a reviewer of poetry.
New Collected Poems by Edwin Wilson locks down sixty years of poetry from a prolific writer of 23 books. The works are collected in a stunning hardcover tome 4.5 cm deep [no ‘brick’ of a book mentioned here you may well note] and will sit proud on the shelf of Australian poetry books for anyone lucky enough to get a copy. Using poetry as a record Edwin Wilson creates a biography of time periods and places in Australia over the years. During the exploration, the aging writer laments changes to the craft of writing … [and]… developments in computer usage and the Internet during … the 80s and 90s …
If poets can teach a genre name and give meaning to their terms then they have achieved something in a lifetime and though this may not have been intended, Edwin Wilson has educated on humorous styles of poetry… [his] …love of ‘doggerel’, satirical and parody works is also collected here in chapter form and may just show poets that it is okay to protect their love of novelty poetry … [something that some academic poets have objected to] … and shows us that poetry does not have to be locked to higher intelligence appreciators, when it can have resonance in a public speech… Selfish is size, range of poetry, content and style, New Collected Poems includes extensive notes and summaries of the years in the life of Edwin Wilson [a record my father had never left for me]. Look out for the bike, epitaphs and the girl with red hair’.
Oh to have had such a mention in the Sydney Morning Herald or The Age.
* 2013, Oliver Bainbridge – Lord Nelson Great Grandson? was reviewed in the electronic Journal of the Grafton River Historical Society, No 132.
* 2014, Mullumbimby Dreaming, that doubled as a catalogue for a projected exhibition at the Tweed River (Regional) Gallery in August 2014, was reviewed by Michael McDonald in the Byron Shire Echo, 29 April 2014, who said I was ‘one of the more prolific sons of Mullumbimby’. Given that European settlement of the Mullumbimby area only happened after the building of the railway line in the 1980s, some 50 years before I was born, then there was indeed some truth in that. McDonald went on to say ‘That Wilson is prolific is attested by the inside cover images of the artist’s 25 books. And fortunately the contents of the book prove that Wilson is talented as well as prolific. It is an excellent summary of the development of his poetry and art over the decades. Not only poetry and art, but also botany and history. In his artist’s statement Wilson covers some of the history associated with his memoir The Mullumbimby Kid, and the mystery associated with his half-brother, also christened Edwin James, who he only made contact with at the age of 61′.
And then Mullumbimby Dreaming received a very positive review by Fiona Capp in ‘In Short Non’Fiction’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 2014, syndicated to The Age on the same day. For one who tended to read the Saturday Spectrum (Sydney Morning Herald) almost religiously, for some inexplicable reason I missed this one, until my Wilson cousin in Melbourne, Lynette Thorburn, emailed me a copy of The Age review. Fiona Capp, quoting from my introductory essay in the book, had said that ‘D.H. Lawrence chose the name ‘Mullumbimby’ for his town in Kangaroo, Edwin Wilson speculates, ‘for its sense of euphony’, not because the fictional town bore any relationship to the real one in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. It is the real Mullumbimby, of his childhood, that Wilson celebrates in the paintings documented in this exhibition catalogue. The imposing Mount Chincogan that looms over Mullumbimby also looms large in Wilson’s colourful, Fauvist-inspired paintings of the town, the local flora and fauna, and his self-portraits. Wilson took up painting after his retirement in 2003, having spent much of his working life in community relations at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. The catalogue also includes Wilson’s Mullumbimby poetry illustrated by finely wrought botanical drawings by artist Elizabeth McAlpine’.
It had been a long time coming, to get a mention of this caliber in the Sydney and Melbourne quality press, given their constraints of budgets of space.It would have been nice to have more space and a larger photograph of my signature painting, but it was certainly well worth the wait, and would hopefully give my art a push along.
This was followed by a ‘ripper review’ (with a photo of the book cover) by Janine Kitson in Education, 2 June 2014. This review, after a mention of the upcoming exhibition and the ‘beautiful black and white drawings of the late Elizabeth McAlpine’, and aimed at a teacher audience went on to say ‘Poet and artist Edwin Wilson began his career as a science teacher at Forest High School, lectured at Armidale Teachers’ College and spent the rest of his working life as an education officer for The Australian Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens. Born in 1942, he is a prolific author … This is a wonderful resource for students studying contemporary Australian poetry and art. Art and English teachers, both secondary and primary, will love this beautifully presented catalogue. History teachers will find it an insightful resource to describe life growing up in an isolated, parochial rural community post World War II, gripped by bitter sectarian divide and pressure to conform. Wilson’s poetry includes the memories of frontier violence and the dispossession of the Bundjalung people, the clearing of the great cedar forests by the timber-getters with their bullocks, and a time when boats travelled up the Northern rivers. His poet ‘Australian Gothic’ (p. 34) describes how the far north coast was transformed into hippy communities in the early 1970s and then later subsequent over-development in the 1980s’.
She then went on to talk about awakenings in ‘conservation’ mindsets, and refers to the importance of my attending a lecture by Judith Wright at the University of New England (c. 1968), then outlined the three main painting themes, then went on to say ‘This book is a testimony to public education … [his teachers at] … Mullumbimby and Murwillumbah High Schools … and Armidale Teachers’ College … [and contributions of Bill Bouveret, John Pearce, Wal Wardman, Wal Placing, Paul Lamb and many more] … The art celebrates Edwin Wilson’s connections to growing up in Mullumbimby where, barefooted and poor, he lived a rich childhood life of bike-riding, fishing, orchid-hunting and climbing trees and mountains, in a home surrounded by [the remnants of] tall, sub-tropical rainforests … [where] … poems respect the mystical relationship between forest and the inorganic world of rocks and soil’.
After referring to family tragedies she concludes her review by saying ‘The poems and artwork are supported by excellent notes. The book is a testimony to a young man making a lifetime commitment to fulfilling his artistic and poetic talent [with a reference to New Collected Poems: 1952 – 2012]’.
* 2014, north coast poet, writer and musician Barnaby Smith (who published ‘Flowering Trunk’ in Verandah Magazine (Byron Bay and Beyond), Spring 2014, along with a mention of my Tweed River exhibition), said ‘Edwin Wilson, now 71, stands as one of the most notable poets to emerge from the Northern Rivers’.
* 2016, had been sweating on the John McDonald review of Retrospective Painting Exhibition, ‘Stardust Painter Poet’, and Art Catalogue of the same name, after he had emailed me to say it was a ‘goer’. The electronic version (posted 11 April, under the heading ‘Art Reviews: Retrospectives by Edwin Wilson and William Yaxley reveal Visionary Works’, both shows of ‘two [naive] artists who stand on the edges of the art scene, partly because of the untutored nature of their work and partly through an unwillingness to put art before other occupations’), quickened my pulse. The published sub-heading, ‘Visions of Spirit and Place’, was still very positive, and the electronic version of all copy had been retained. At the opening McDonald had referred to me as a naive artist (something I had acknowledged in my Artist’s Statement of Stardust Painter-Poet, p. x), and had singled out my Mullumbimby and Murwillumbah Landscapes, and ‘Circular Quay III’, with specific references to my dot paintings, and had finished up by saying the exhibition could be read as one large ‘self-portrait’ [to make up for the lack of record of my father’s life], and that mine had been a lifetime of creative endeavour, and that the overall impact of the show was ‘inspirational’. In the printed format McDonald went on to say that ‘judging by the flatness of his pictures, Wilson seems to have little interest in the third dimension. He is eager thought, to explore the forth – whether this means by leaping about in time or distorting a landscape with surrealistic intent … He long ago became accustomed to his marginality as an artist … and only in retirement … has been able to indulge his art habit, with a corresponding increase in productivity.
One thing that suggests Wilson is far from ‘naive’ is his life-long dedication to poetry [I had met up with John McDonald many years before through the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, and had given him a copy of my ‘Anthology’, to which he had replied they [the poems] ‘were much better than I thought they would be’, which coming from John McDonald was praise indeed!]. This has resulted in a succession of books, the latest being a weighty words-and-pictures compendium called Stardust Painter-Poet (Woodbine Press). His verse is formal, elegant and slightly old-fashioned [which given the important nurturing influence of my Wilson grandfather, b. c. 1870, as a father substitute when I was growing up, this is perhaps understandable], with an immaculate sense of structure. When he hasn’t been writing poetry he has been compiling guidebooks, novels,memoirs, or helping to grow new varieties of orchid … [and] … has never stopped swimming in a sea of words.
Wilson’s best, most fastidious pictures are probably the landscapes of Mullumbimby, town of his childhood, but for sheer bravura it’s hard to go past a piece such as ‘Circular Quay III’ [an image of this painting was indeed published in the Sydney Morning Herald review, Spectrum, April 16/17, 2016, along with a (cropped) image of ‘Murwillumbah Townscape’ (wrongly labelled in earlier elecgtronic versions of this piece)] … another pointillist extravaganza, in which the role of the Harbour Bridge* is played by a red stegosaurus, and the Opera House by a dish rack’ [with the adjacent ‘Toaster’ building, and some rather largish Sydney cockroaches]
[* I had first drawn a Stegosaurus in my history book at school in 1955, Stardust Painter-Poet p. 5, from an old science book printed in Scotland that had belonged to my stepfather’s father. As part of the very successful Dinosaur Appeal at the Australian Museum in the 1970s (to sell 10,000 dinosaur shares to children at one dollar a share to purchase a replica skeletons of Stegosaurus (and Dilophosaurus) from America), I coordinated the Art Event of constructing a ‘Stegomobile’ (Stegosaurus ‘Mobile’) in the Museum Gallery (see Stardust Painter-Poet, pp. 66,67). So when I moved the the Gardens to work in the early 1980s I still had ‘Stegosaurus on the brain’. In my Creative Journal of 2 November 1983 (Stardust Painter-Poet p. 147), I have my first concept sketch of what became my my Circular Quay series of paintings. I was coming to work by ferry from Longueville, and approaching the Harbour Bridge from the western side, when the the bridge arch suggested a Stegosaurus to me, with the pylons as legs. This image of the Stegosaurus bridge is mine alone. I am less emphatic now that I had not seen the 1972 Eric Thake picture of the Opera House as a dish rack, but given I was working in the city and artistically ‘aware’ I probably must have done, as I was aware of the Martin Sharpe pop images of Sydney. The image of the ‘Toaster’ (a much-maligned building closest to the Opera House at East Circular Quay) was a later inclusion to this painting, and exclusively my idea].
During his talk McDonald had said my Retrospective was like ‘one vast self-portrait’, and that I was a better poet than the (English) painter Turner (which got a good laugh). He concluded his review by saying ‘one could see the entire RAS show as a personal celebration by an artist who has waited many years to get the products of a restlessly creative imagination out of the storeroom and on to the wretched wall’. Indeed!
And it was indeed a thrill to have a ‘Retrospective’ art show while still alive, and to have been able to enjoy the party and hear the eulogies and read the obituaries, and something I don’t think I will ever top.
*2017, was very sick in France, after all the effort to bring out the considerably expanded biography of my tearaway writer great-great-uncle, Frank Nelson (aka ‘Oliver Bainbridge’), entitled Lord Nelson, Uncle Oliver and I.
A very positive review of this book by Lt Col Ray Aldis, Vice-Chairman, The Nelson Society (UK), as published in The Nelson Dispatch (Autumn (Northern Hemisphere) 2017), has been posted under the category of ‘Publications, Book Launches, Readings, Exhibitions, Reviews and References’ (for January 2018), has given me a much greater licence to be a ‘pretender’ to Nelson heritage/bloodline:
Whilst not widely known in this country, Edwin Wilson is a prolific and much published writer in his native Australia; his work ranging from poetry and fiction to biography, history and travel. This book, however, documents the extraordinary life of his great uncle Oliver Bainbridge (born as Frank Nelson but changed his name after falling out with his father). Bainbridge was one of that genre of Victorian/Edwardian travellers who made the world their oyster. The difference with Bainbridge, however, was that he didn’t come from a privileged background such as a Lady Jane Digby or a Sir Richard Burton. He was the son of a lowly colonial schoolmaster, yet his travels led him around the world and into the company of European royalty and American Presidents. A story wonderfully documented in this book and supported by plentiful maps, photographs and illustrations. After a life of travel and excitement Bainbridge, a strong advocate of Britannia and her empire died, it is believed by the author, at the hands of the IRA, an organization whose aims he vehemently opposed.
It is, however, the author’s (and Uncle Frank’s) ancestry that perhaps will be of most interest to members of The Nelson Society, for his family claims that their roots go back to the great Admiral himself. Most of the readers of this august journal will be aware of the hypothesis that Nelson’s daughter Horatia was one of a pair of twins (see ‘Horatia Nelson’ by Winifred Gerin) and that the second child had been given to the Foundling Hospital by its mother and Nelson’s mistress, Emma Hamilton [and ‘fake fathers’ had been established for Horatia Nelson, and this child as well]. It is author Edwin Wilson’s claim that this twin child not only existed, but survived and went on to grow up, marry and produce the family from which he is descended. The book contains photographs of the author and present relatives who, it cannot be denied, bear an uncanny resemblance to the Admiral, his daughter Horatia and even his brother William. (It is understood that post publication DNA tests have proved inconclusive, but it still makes for a fascinating tale.)
Whether this book is read for its contribution to the history of the family of Admiral Lord Nelson or for its remarkable account of an adventurer in a world now lost, it is a more than worthwhile undertaking and highly recommended.
Profile of younger self with Nelson Life Mask
Profile of younger self with Nelson Portrait (please note that the iris in eye of the painting should be less circular)
*2018, a review by Caroline Anne Butt of Lord Nelson, Uncle Oliver and I, as published in Writers’ Voice 261 (Fellowship of Australian Writers NSW Inc), September 2018:
Once a country lad, Edwin Wilson stood in the State Library of New South Wales overwhelmed. He was searching for a particular author, Oliver Bainbridge, a great-uncle on his mother’s side. On that fateful day he actually got more than he expected. As he held one of Bainbridge’s books he determined that he too would become a poet. He was excited to discover that this part of the family lore was real. He needed to know more and so began a fifty year journey as Edwin followed this captivating character around the world.
Another part of family lore was that Bainbridge … was a direct descendant of Lord Nelson. If this was so then Wilson would be, too. Fortunately Wilson had his Aunt Nina’s stories on which to rely, and some years later he met a cousin, Patricia Wightley, who was also investigating the Nelson story.
Nelson’s mistress, Emma Hamilton, was said to have given birth to twins, sired by Nelson … [and] … one twin was ‘fostered’ [out with a wet nurse, the other placed in St Pancras Foundling Hospital], and neither Nelson nor Hamilton ever publicly acknowledged either child as Nelson’s offspring. And therein lies the sting.
It’s at this point that you will need to pull up a comfy chair and relax as Wilson shares with you assumptions and makes educated guesses interwoven with historical facts. His use of sub-headings assists because, at times, Bainbridge’s conflicting behaviour and extensive travels gives the impression that one’s watching a prima donna, in overdrive, who’s writing his life’s script in grand operatic style. His extreme travels, his presence in the courts of Kings and Queens, entertained by ambassadors and sought after for expertise, served him well, indeed, as family folklore said he was a spy for the British Empire.
Wilson and Wightley’s research and scientific approach are strengths of Lord Nelson, Uncle Oliver and I. Formidable research, combined with keen artistic eye, that of a painter and poet, serve to reliably map the ancestry and bring balance to probabilities.
Are Bainbridge, Wilson and Wightley direct descendants of Lord Nelson? Was Bainbridge a spy for the British Empire? You can be certain, though, after reading between the lines that Bainbridge, of all people, would be positively chuffed to discover he’s now a significant, unforgettable character in a chapter of Australian Folklore.
* 2019, reasonable review/mention of Long-Distance Poet by Dr Ivan Head in Quadrant, Vol 63, Issue 9, September 2019, in which he said:
Edwin Wilson’s memoir Long-Distance Poet: A Portrait of the Poet as an Old Fart is heavy enough at 790 pages to hold open the door of life in a strong gale. It is the third volume of an autobiographical trilogy. Wilson’s long book contains some engaging reproductions of his artwork and the elegant covers from his long list of publications, but is mostly an account of his life i full detail. It’s a big gesture to publish a book this size and a bid decision to put micro detain before the reader. There are deeply personal dimensions to the book including accounts of deaths, bust-ups and declarations of forgiveness. The whole book is confessional [after the style of The Confessions of William Chidley (read in the 1980s) without the sex].
After reading, it the American science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick came to my mind, perhaps because he also wrote one monumentally long tract at a critical juncture in his life when his matrix of normality was unsettled. In it her wrote:
There exists for everyone, a sentence – a series of words – that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you [in my case the dream/vision of the luminous angel that descended (at a time of great turbulence in my life with palms projected) onto our back patio at Longueville, and uttered the one word ‘forbearance’]. If you are lucky you will get the second but you can be sure of getting the first.
Wilson concludes that one of the book’s major purposes is therapeutic, and best wishes to him in the venture.
2021, very positive review of ‘Mullumbimby Revisited’ by John McDonald, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March 2021.
Published (electronically) March 9, 2021
Image, Edwin Wilson, ‘The Stilt Walker’ (detail)
If you’ve spied a For Sale sign outside of 479 Old Pacific Highway, Artarmon recently, you’ve not only seen a real estate opportunity but a piece of Australian art history. For 65 years Artarmon Galleries has showed the work of leading Australian artists such as George Lambert, Norman Lindsay, William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Lloyd Rees, Albert Namatjira, Adelaide Perry, Margaret Olley… need I go on?
Originally called The Artlovers’ Gallery, the business was founded by artist, John Brackenreg (1905-86) in 1955, and continued by his offspring, Philip and Julie Brackenreg. Lloyd Rees recalled in an obituary that Brackenreg senior found the gallery life so much to his taste that when quizzed on some urgent political issue, the reply was: “I am only interested in art.”
Photo, Last days, Edwin Wilson, Julie & Philip Brackenreg at Artarmon Galleries
Artarmon was never exactly the centre of the Sydney art world but as Paddington became the favoured location for the city’s commercial galleries every other suburb was rendered peripheral. While dealers have established new footholds in Redfern and Surry Hills, the North Shore remains something of an outstation, complete with artists and collectors that rarely cross the bridge.
None of this seems to have worried the Brackenregs, who have continued in their own serene way, showing notable artists such as Clem Millward, Glen Preece, Tom Thompson and Patrick Carroll. It’s only now, after the grind of the pandemic year, that brother and sister have decided it’s time to close the doors – although Julie intends to continue working with some of the gallery’s best artists, holding occasional exhibitions in rented spaces.
Image, Edwin Wilson, ‘Wollumbin’
So when Edwin Wilson asked if I’d open his Artarmon Galleries show, and said this would be the venue’s final solo exhibition, I experienced a twinge of guilt over having paid so few visits in the past. As I very rarely agree to open shows Wilson’s other decisive argument was his state of health. He’s battling cancer and is fairly certain this will be his swansong.
Wilson is an unusual artist – the apotheosis of the enthusiastic amateur willing to explore a bewildering range of styles and subjects. He’s also talented poet who has published his own collected works, and a horticulturalist with a longterm passion for orchids. He wrote a much-admired guidebook for the Royal Botanic Gardens, where he once worked, and has recorded the details his own life in two lengthy memoirs.
This relentless creativity has never earned him much time in the limelight. Wilson enters the Archibald Prize every year and is rejected every year. His books will never be bestsellers, and the museums are not queuing up to buy his paintings. Naturally he’d like to be more successful, but it’s the pleasure of the work itself that keeps him engaged. Too sophisticated to be a ‘naïve’ artist and too eccentric to be fashionable, Wilson is a study in perseverance who has never lost hope that maybe one day he’ll be recognised for his efforts. Maybe today’s the day!
Image, Edwin Wilson, ‘The Mullumbimby Kid’
Mullumbimby Revisited is Wilson’s tongue-in-cheek homage to the town of his formative years. The whole story is told in his autobiography, The Mullumbimby Kid (2000/12), in which he displays a prodigious memory for the small but significant incidents of childhood and youth.
The exhibition contains landscapes, portraits, nudes and figure studies, genre scenes, surreal fantasies, and cover versions of famous pictures by Modigliani, Manet and Gauguin, but pride of place is given to the Mullumbimby paintings in which the artist takes a sweeping overview of the town from an elevated position. We see ‘Mullum’ not as it is today, but as it was during Wilson’s schooldays in the 1950s. This veil of nostalgia seems to hang over many of the paintings in this show. Although Wilson has an uninhibited approach to colour his palette is generally muted, with many works taking on pastel-like tones. He’s not fond of shadows, and this contributes to the slightly ‘naïve’ appearance of some of his pictures – darkness always acting as a badge of seriousness. Like Dr. Johnson, if Wilson had thought to be a philosopher he has been undone by his own cheerfulness.
When he does use shadows, notably in his nude studies, Wilson turns them into solid bands of colour. There’s a habitual flatness in the way he applies the paint, interrupted by excursions into a homegrown brand of pointillism in which an image is constructed from thousands of tiny dots of oil paint.
Image, Edwin Wilson, ‘Roche Mouton’
One of Wilson’s idiosyncracies is a brand of self-promotion so unsubtle it’s almost charming. In his self-portrait, Stardust-Painter Poet – which provides the cover image and the title for a new edition of his most broad-ranging publication – Wilson stares out at us, his head held between his hands, alongside a stack of his own books arranged spine-outward so we can read the titles. In the Mullumbimby painting, The Stilt Walker, he slips the cover of his autobiography into the left-hand corner. It’s one of a series of emblems that float across the surface of the picture.
The Stilt Walker is probably the major work in this show, both in scale and the level of invention, but Wilson reveals a lyrical touch in landscapes such as Wollumbin or Roche Mouton, in which variegated blues and purples are offset by sharp dashes of pink and yellow. In other paintings in this vast, sprawling exhibition, his colours seem to be chosen to clash rather than harmonise.
In introducing this show, I fell back instinctively on Socrates’s maxim that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I can hardly think of another artist who has drawn so much from his own life, in terms of both images and words. That life has been more interesting than most but not specially adventurous. Until his retirement Wilson worked at various full-time jobs, writing or painting in his spare time. He gave up art for many years but returned to it with a vengeance in later life. Now he believes his poetic muse has deserted him.
What we see in this show is a summa and testament of a man who has been forever burning with curiosity about art, literature and science. Not content to be a passive consumer he has made his own contributions to each of these fields. He has never seen art as simply a search for entertainment or distraction, but as a meaningful activity that feeds back into all aspects of life. Even back in the days when he was the Mullumbimby Kid I suspect that Edwin Wilson was secretly dreaming of being [a] Renaissance Man.
Edwin Wilson: Mullumbimby Revisited
Artarmon Galleries, 20 February – 13 March, 2021 (extended 20 March)
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March, 2021