Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

The Beach as Metaphor

I began writing ‘The Beach as Metaphor’ after I’d finished writing a series of poems about the shoreline and the lesser known world just offshore. This poem was about the shoreline too but I wanted it to be different from the others. Living on a peninsula you tend to find the coastline intruding on your writing often. The Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne, where I live, tapers down to a narrow point at the end. Where I am, it’s about twelve miles wide; Western Port Bay on one side, Port Phillip Bay on my side. You can’t drive or ride far without eventually reaching the sea.

What was different about the impulse for this poem began with the desire to make the metaphor apparent and visible in the title. Of course we’re always writing in metaphors but I wanted to write a poem that began with the metaphor as stated and apparent, obvious from the very title, so the reader couldn’t read it any other way. So this poem wasn’t going to try and pretend to be a neutral rendering of the beach in words, as if any poem could be neutral anyway, this was going to make its metaphoric movement obvious – sort of hit you over the head with it!

The central idea I suppose is that things don’t progress. I’ve always been interested in history and how the past impinges on the present. Australia has had so little European history that evidence of the colonial past is somewhat rare and unusual. You don’t dig up old coins in your gardens, farmers don’t turn over old statues with their ploughs. When you dig in your garden maybe you’re the first person to uncover that soil.

That used to matter a lot to me, I was delighted when the wind uncovered the remains of what looks like it was part on an old pier at Bird Rock Beach near my house, the broken stumps at the opening of the poem. That uncovered grey wood was hard physical evidence of the past and our progress. It was something we’d built and had fallen; our own authentic ruins. What I didn’t notice for a long time was the half-buried pile of mussel shells at the bottom of the path where older inhabitants, the Australian Aborigines, had left their mark much earlier. When I did see these things it lessened my desire for ruins and also my respect for them somehow.

What I wanted to do in the poem was mix up some of these images of the past with the debris of the present in a poem that devalued the belief in history and progress. Everything seems to have fallen and splintered and decayed, even that most timeless looking place, the beach, says so. I wanted to show how objects lose their purpose and become lost, how wood becomes solid and heavy and another substance, how quickly that clear smooth glass we see through becomes frosty and rough and altogether different. My children love collecting the green and gold and silver glass pieces that are washed up, all smooth edged and softened by the sea. I like the way the rough sheen disappears when you dip them in the water and some of the beauty is restored in their shining. I like the way they clink in your pocket when you walk. It doesn’t seem to take long for the beer bottles to become something else, and strangely beautiful too. So it’s that kind of beachcombing poem, a salvage job, picking up the litter and making something out of it or testing some connections. That the glass looks like little coins washed up made me think about the lack of real and solid artefacts we had to go on.

Everything seems to have aged or faded or fallen I thought, but it’s not just that, so in the last two sections I wanted, though not in these words and not in such a mechanistic way, to incorporate some more of the natural processes to all these images of decay. Here, the fact of the empty shells and the crabs, the fact of change and death, is supposed to cast a slightly different light on what’s been said so far. Maybe the processes of building and decaying, of historical rises and falls, are more natural processes than we might have first thought. Maybe we shouldn’t expect things to ‘get’ somewhere.

Which may not be all that depressing. I wanted, at the end of the poem, to emphasise the natural and the cyclical, the tides, the cold moon, the waves themselves. That all this human stuff was part of all that. I wanted to end with the image of something fresh, some new potential in this constant rising and falling so I used the image of the fresh ‘blank’ sand after the wave has washed over it, how it’s like a fresh sheet of paper ready to be impressed with an image or a word or a life. And I finished too, with the fact of the human ‘looking’ at this; that this is, after all, a viewpoint or a perspective and that no interpretation or theory can alter those natural and inevitable processes; that they go on with or without the human observer.

I guess in the end it’s a beach in winter poem, the kind of thing that’s more apparent on a clear, cold afternoon with the white moon in the sky and no-one around. Meanwhile, the collected glass mounts up in rattling little baskets. Maybe there’s a poem in that some day too.

Warrick Wynne – Thu, 9 Nov 1995

This article first appeared in PoetryInk (November 1995)

Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:13 pm

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