Cracks in the Fray: Re-reading “The Man from Snowy River”
When I was eight years old my father took me to the Institute of Anatomy where, amongst the vast array of pickled foetuses and body parts – brains, stomachs, lungs, hands with six digits – preserved in jars with labels in immaculate copperplate, I found myself before a huge glass tank – at least, to an eight-year-old it was huge – staring at a pale, pasty lump about twice the size of an Australian Rules football. Obviously it was an object of importance since, instead of the copperplate description, this one (per my distant memory) had a large wooden plaque upon which, in golden letters, were the words “Phar Lap’s Heart”.
I had no idea who or what Phar Lap was. My father explained that Phar Lap had been a famous race horse. It was another six or seven years before I found myself at the Victorian Museum, again with my father, staring up at a scruffy and dilapidated Phar Lap himself, and I don’t know how many more years before I took in something of the story of how Phar Lap, a gelding (i.e. castrated so that he would not be distracted by other urges), had won the Melbourne Cup and so many other of his races, and how he had been poisoned by parties unknown after winning a major race in Mexico. And it would be a little time yet before I made the sad connection between Phar Lap – whose heart is in Canberra, whose skin is in Melbourne, and whose bones are in New Zealand – and Truganini (but it is there to be made). Phar Lap, it seems, was a much-loved horse, though one has to wonder whether it was the horse himself who was loved or the fact that he made money for so many. Australians have always loved their horses, or rather their horse races. Where else in the world does a horse-race stop the country? And so love a winner that they’ll happily claim some winners who are not exactly their own: Phar Lap (the name, part Zhuang, means “Lightning”) was in fact a New Zealander.
Andrew Barton Paterson (1864-1941) loved his horses, and loved horse racing (even his nickname, “Banjo”, came from a horse), and not just as a spectator. A rider from his earliest childhood, he not only wrote many poems about horses and horse-racing – one of them perhaps Australia’s best-loved poem – but was apparently a fine polo player and a successful steeplechase rider.
Australia, it is often said, is a land of immigrants. Mostly. It’s not often pointed out that a great many of these are animals, but of course animal immigrants were there from the first moments of the invasion. The First Fleet not only brought convicts and gaolers, but also pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, chickens, etc. (Norwegian rats, German cockroaches…) – and horses. And while none of these had in any official sense been convicted, it’s fair to presume that not many of them (we might have to except the rats and the cockroaches) came of their own free will. Indeed it can sometimes seem as if Paterson himself is quite consciously making this connection, giving as he does to some of the key horses in his poems names like “Pardon”, “Reprieve”, “Regret” (if that is indeed a horse) and “Manumission”, although I admit readily that this habit might instead be a sign of his times (he was four years old when transportation came to an end: i.e. it was still very much in the air), or of the fact that he was a lawyer, or (not so unlikely, for a gambler) an attempt to register some more philosophical reflections upon the nature of earthly existence.
Other animal immigrants (rabbits, foxes, Indian mynahs) came as the colonies established themselves and some of their more successful human animals endeavoured to reflect lifestyles of the lands from which they came. Still others (camels, cane toads) were brought in to work in agriculture or construction. And for many of these non-human immigrants, and probably before it was so for many of the humans, Australia turned out to be a land of plenty, particularly for those who were lucky enough to escape or to be turned loose. Two hundred and twenty years after the white invasion there are, in their various parts of the country, well-established tribes of rabbits, goats, pigs, camels, horses, foxes, toads. In most cases they are considered pests, a term reserved for creatures that the human population is unable or chooses not to commercially exploit (or needs an excuse to exploit), or that get in the way of their exploitation of others: sheep and cattle, for example, are not considered pests, although their hooves have destroyed so much of the oh so friable surface of the country. And it is reasonable to assume that some of these wild tribes established themselves quite early. Certainly the tribes of horses.
By the time Paterson was born, in 1864 on Narrambla station near Orange, NSW, “brumbies”, his “wild bush horses”, were a significant “problem” in the area. Although the particular nature of this problem – whether it was a matter of competition for feed, a fear that bloodlines would be contaminated by wild intruders, or a difficulty in maintaining one’s fences – is not quite so clear (particularly as, captured and broken in, or simply slaughtered for meat and skins, they represented what one might have thought of as a valuable resource), there were at this time earnest enough attempts to eradicate them. That is where, arguably, “The Man from Snowy River” begins.
I’ve said that Paterson was a lover of horses and of horse racing, but, and although in one sense I don’t doubt it at all, I was merely relaying a cliché. In truth Paterson’s own poetry demonstrates most eloquently how hard it is to see how someone could love horses and horse-racing at the same time (and even though there can be no doubt that this oxymoronic state of emotion – one struggles to find a word for the depth of its paradox – is and always has been something like the life-blood of the racing industry). Paterson may “love” horses but, in the interests of a good horse-race, he seems most ready to see them treated with nothing less than savagery by their owners and riders, and indeed to celebrate the fact.
See, for example, “The Amateur Rider”, where a young man (in a scenario very similar to that of “The Man from Snowy River”) who fails quite utterly to impress with his attire –
Ride. Don’t tell me he can ride. With his pants just as loose as balloons,
How can he sit on his horse? And his spurs like a pair of harpoons
– very quickly changes the speaker’s tune when it comes to the ride itself:
Sit down and ride for your life now! Oh, good, that’s the style – come away!
Rataplan’s certain to beat you, unless you can give him the slip;
Sit down and rub in the whalebone now – give him the spurs and the whip!
Or “Old Pardon the Son of Reprieve”, which tells the story of outsiders taking their horse to the Menindee races and being tricked by the locals who endeavour, the night before, to ensure that the horse cannot run:
They got to his stall – it is sinful
To think what such villains would do –
And they gave him a regular skinful
Of barley – green barley – to chew.
He munched it all night, and we found him
Next morning as full as a hog –
The girths wouldn’t nearly meet round him;
He looked like an overfed frog.
We saw we were done like a dinner –
The odds were a thousand to one
Against Pardon turning up a winner,
‘Twas cruel to ask him to run.
But of course they “ask” him nonetheless, and although (these were “heat” races: best results out of three) “all lathered and dripping with sweat” and clearly very ill after the first, he comes good in the second (“under the whip”) and romps home in the third.
Or see this, from “The Open Steeplechase” (wherein “clout” refers to the horses’ hooves and/or fetlocks striking the top of the barrier they are attempting to jump across):
But the pace was so terrific that they soon ran out their tether –
They were rolling in their gallop, they were fairly blown and beat –
But they were both as game as pebbles –neither one would show the feather.
As we rushed them at the fences, and they cleared them both together,
Nearly every time they clouted, but they somehow kept their feet.
Then the last jump rose before us, and they faced it game as ever –
We were both at spur and whipcord, fetching blood at every bound –
And above the people’s cheering and the cries of “Ace” and “Quiver”,
I could hear the trainer shouting, “One more run for Snowy River”.
Then we struck the jump together and came crashing to the ground.
Seemingly Paterson is unaware of the paradox here – so clear that it could be described as an immediate contradiction – that, if it were true (and how could it be?) that “neither one” of these horses “would show the feather” (itself an intriguing metaphor to explore), then it would be most unlikely that they would have to be so spurred and whipped that they were literally spattering blood as they galloped. But this is sound- – and gallop – above-sense, and sentiment-above-consciousness. One notes that it is precisely at such points of crisis – moments of clash between orders of thought and sentiment that threaten (to use a more contemporary metaphor) to crash the system of the poem – that, as if to try to slip out sideways, the horses are most emphatically personified, if only so that they can then be claimed to share that strange human propensity to see blood and injury in the interest of sport as badges of honour and of courage (this happens, as we shall see, most poignantly in the conclusion to the “The Man from Snowy River”).
Love of horses and love of horse racing? If one loved one’s children in such a way one would end up in prison. It might be noted that the steeplechase is in more contemporary parlance called “jumps racing” and that, even as this essay is being written, the State of Victoria, heartland of Australian horse racing, is being pressured to ban jumps racing after a few too many images have reached the wider public of horses killed directly on the track or being “put down” after being injured (most often through “clouting”) during a race.
But Paterson is a man lost amongst his contradictions, just as a nation which idolises his poetry – and there is no doubt whatsoever of his consummate skill as a balladeer – might be thought to be a little lost amongst its own. To look at this from a different angle, and approach another contradiction, consider “Only a Jockey”, in which Paterson treats, rather unconvincingly (“Ere the first gleam of the sungod’s returning light”?), the sad death of a fourteen-year-old jockey at training, and castigates, as a flagrant example of human greed and concern for one’s pocket, the newspaper report of the incident for having said “The horse is luckily uninjured” … failing quite utterly to confront the fact that it is not some vague inhumanity (the “they” we so like to blame things on) that has brought about this death, but the industry he so loves and is so much a part of.
But let’s to “The Man from Snowy River”. Jonathan Swift famously, in Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels, turned the tables on horse/human relations and made the horses the masters. I’m going to try something similar: not to make them the masters, by any means, and tempting as that might be, but to return to them, Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-are-Dead-like, something of the narrative presence and agency that the poem itself has denied them.
The poem is about brumbies. Although it’s possible that the word wasn’t in such wide currency at the time, and although Paterson doesn’t, here, call them that, the term repays some attention. It refers, of course, to horses, and to the wild descendants of horses, who have run wild: one could say horses who, either because they have managed to free themselves or because they have been turned loose by people who can no longer afford to keep them, have escaped human servitude and are fending for themselves, are organising their own tribes, their own nomadic communities.
No-one really knows where the term “brumby” comes from. The most likely source would seem to be a Sergeant James Brumby who, in 1804, left some horses to fend for themselves when he left his property at Mulgrave Place, on the Hawkesbury River, NSW, to move to Tasmania, but there is also a suggestion that the term has come from the Pitjara of Southern Queensland, in whose language “baroomby” means “wild”. A group of brumbies, it is also worth noting, is called a “mob”.
Of course, there are many who would say that the poem isn’t about brumbies really (and we would probably find almost unanimous agreement that it is not in any way about indigenous Australia!), but about a man from the Snowy River country, and his ride, albeit a ride on a remarkable horse. Numerous critics and commentators have assembled a dramatis personae for the poem – there is Clancy of the Overflow, there is Harrison (“who made his pile when Pardon won the cup”), there is an “old man” who in the one instance may be that Harrison and in another the owner of the runaway horse, and there is the “stripling” (“stripling” in the poem, “man” in the title) whose remarkable riding becomes the centrepiece – but for my purposes it would be more useful to assemble a dramatis equi. The poem in fact features a number of horses, present or alluded to, and it pays to give them some thought (at least, it would pay, if compassion and awareness of past cruelty were of greater general concern than they are).
There is, most immediately, “the colt” whose escape has occasioned the chase and so the poem. We don’t know how or why he has escaped – whether, say, someone has left the stall unbarred, or whether he has broken his way out – but clearly he has not wanted to stay at “the station”, and desires to join the relatively free company of his own kind. Perhaps he has sensed the presence nearby of his wild brethren (we might once have referred to this, pace Jack London, as “the call of the wild”); perhaps it is just that he has found them once he has found himself free. In either case he is too valuable to be allowed to get away with this.
Next there is “old Regret”, most likely his sire, though there is a possibility (it is customary, when giving a horse’s pedigree, to say “out of” rather than “from”, though “out of” would not scan nearly so smoothly) that “Regret” is a location – a station – rather than a horse’s name. More than one student has come to me in recent years with the “discovery” that Regret was indeed a famous racehorse – winner, amongst other events, of the 1915 Kentucky Derby – but although she did in fact have several foals (eleven! though probably not voluntarily), and although these foals would have been very valuable, the dates are wrong: the latest that Paterson’s Regret, if it had raced at all, could have done so (the poem was first published in 1890) would have been in the mid 1880s.
Then (passing over, for the moment, “the wild bush horses”) there is Pardon, who appears to have come directly from Paterson’s own childhood, though Paterson himself seems to have been in two minds about the details. In the Sydney Morning Herald in 1938, in a series entitled “‘Banjo’ Paterson Tells His Own Story”, he writes of having been taken, at the age of eight, by the station roustabout, to the Bogolong Town Races. While there, he sees “a Murrumbidgee mountaineer about seven feet high” making off with the undersized saddle from his pony and putting it on a racehorse:
Running over to him, I managed to gasp out: “That’s my saddle.”
“Right-oh, son,” he said. I won’t hurt it. It’s just the very thing the doctor ordered. It’s ketch weights, and this is the lightest saddle here, so I took it before anybody else got it. This is Pardon,” he went on, “and after he wins his heat you come to me an I’ll stand you a bottle of ginger beer.”
Pardon won the race – not a “Cup”, but the Bogolong Town Plate – and the eight-year-old got his reward. In the Sydney Mail of later the same year (1938) the story has changed somewhat, though not in a way that cannot be reconciled with the former version: Pardon is now owned by Paterson’s uncle, and (as in “Pardon Son of Reprieve”) breaks out of his stall into a bale of lucerne the night before the race.
And the fourth mentioned, of course, is the stripling’s horse, in the description of whom there is a measure of tension, since Paterson is at pains to establish at once his unpromising and unlikely appearance and his remarkable character. He is, that is, “a small and weedy beast”, but also
something like a racehorse undersized,
With a touch of Timor pony – three parts thoroughbred at least –
And such as are by mountain horsemen prized.
He was hard and tough and wiry – just the sort that won’t say die –
There was courage in his quick impatient tread;
And he bore the badge of gameness in his bright and fiery eye,
And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.
– although, a slight tension here also, the “old man” (no matter whether Harrison or the owner of the colt: each, surely, should know his horses better) doesn’t see it:
But still so slight and weedy, one would doubt his power to stay,
And the old man said, “That horse will never do
For a long and tiring gallop – lad, you’d better stop away,
Those Hills are far too rough for such as you.”
But perhaps it’s the stripling, not so much the horse, whom they’re concerned about, trying to protect him, or just get rid of him, by suggesting that his horse – not he – isn’t up to it. There’s a subtle but interesting eliding of the species barrier here, just as there is more evidently in the coming parallel between the stripling and the colt. (The stripling tries, very successfully, to prove himself a rider among riders by in effect riding down himself.)
And, of course, there are the “wild bush horses”. If the overt plot-line in the poem is the courageous and extraordinary feat of the stripling’s ride, and another, supposedly, the recapture of the valuable colt (just broken out), the covert plot-line, just as strong, is the dragging into captivity – Kubrick’s Spartacus comes to mind – of a whole tribe, made up of escapees and emancipists and descendents of the same, that has for a long time roamed free, now to be either broken in or (but at this point in time this is thankfully less likely) slaughtered. They are remarkable horses – the poem has told us that – hardy, almost impossible to catch, perhaps themselves with a touch of thoroughbred and Timor pony, yet the stripling proves their match:
And he ran them single-handed till their sides were white with foam,
He followed like a bloodhound on their track,
Till they halted cowed and beaten, then he turned their heads for home,
And alone and unassisted brought them back.
From a non-anthropocentric perspective that last line is an outright lie. The stripling alone and on foot could have done nothing except stand and stare at the disappearing mob. The wild bush horses have been ridden down, not just by the stripling, but also and principally by his horse, albeit under considerable duress, and it might pay to consider the latter’s predicament. The next lines, which turn to him, are some of the most troubling in Paterson’s oeuvre:
But his hardy mountain pony he could scarcely raise a trot,
He was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur;
But his pluck was still undaunted, and his courage fiery hot,
For never yet was mountain horse a cur.
The driving rhythm and the general sound-over-sense sentimentality might have us coast over the top of these lines, but if we resist, and instead draw into the mind’s eye the scene presented, we have a horse that has been so gouged by the spurs of his rider that he is – the lines say it – covered with blood, from shoulder to hip. We might say that this is merely expression, epic exaggeration as befits the general quasi-Homeric frame of the poem, but the accuracy of the detail here – the actual experience (Paterson’s) reflected in the lines – should give us pause. The spurs would dig in to the horse’s hips as he was ridden up-hill, and into the shoulders as he was ridden down. The extent of his injuries – of his deliberately inflicted wounds, for they are that – is quite in accord with the task he has been forced to perform. Paterson, in this one sense, is quite well aware of the likely wounds inflicted upon a horse by a ride of this kind. Blood-drenched, barely able to raise a trot, the poet’s too-obvious bench-press attempt to lift the moment back into the heroic (“But his pluck was still undaunted, and his courage fiery hot”) is as impressive as it is ludicrous (pluck? courage? at spur-point? what choice did he have? I suppose he could have resisted, thrown his rider, joined the wild horses himself, but then where would the poem be?), and the line which follows, while one is inclined to think it quite true on the evidence so far, also brings about one of the poem’s more blatant contradictions, for haven’t we been told just five lines earlier that the “wild mountain horses” are “cowed and beaten”? (An animal-centred reading of the poem [and this reading is only partly so, a gesture] would find one of those words particularly indicative.)
But this is to speak of only a part of this horse’s predicament, which from a certain perspective – his own? but we must not pretend to that – would seem to be even more troublesome. He is a creature going out – albeit forced under the pain of corporal punishment (what other words are there?) – as a principal agent in the bringing into slavery, if not to their death, other creatures of his own kind. I will readily admit that we cannot know what a horse thinks. So let us instead place a human in this predicament. Within Australian terms, would it be permissible to remind one’s reader of the use of aboriginal trackers, say, to “bring to justice” other aboriginals wanted for “crimes” against white persons or their property? Would it be permissible to wonder how they felt about what they were doing? And about how other aboriginals might see it? Or should we think instead of a slave – or a worker in a concentration camp? – who advances his/her own concerns by assisting the slave owner in the oppression or slaughter of others? Should we think, say, of collaborators, during the second world war, working with the enemy, and against their own, to save their own skins? Some would see this as grotesque overstatement, perhaps even read it as some sort of disrespect to Australia’s indigenous population, or to those who have suffered in concentration camps, or to coerced populations anywhere in the long history of slavery, but that would be a very wrong reading indeed, and possible only to or by those who will not decentre the human from its position of absolute – and lethal – privilege, and who therefore still see the animal as an order apart, and below. But – and setting aside the point, which of course “crashes” a number of those I have just made, that the horse concerned was not at any point given any such choice – perhaps the idea has already come across. “The Man from Snowy River” may be an iconic Australian poem but it has, as do most iconic Australian things, its dark other side. One might even – if to do so weren’t at the same time to return it to the overweening solipsism of the human – go just the one step further and suggest that, at its core, this poem is a kind of re-enactment (utterly unconscious, as the most eloquent re-enactments are), of something which it might be best to leave the reader to figure out for themselves.
But I have foreshadowed, in my title, some discussion of “cracks” in this poem. Elsewhere (Southerly 67.1/2: “Strange Happenings at ‘The Creek of the Four Graves'”) I have written of the “Warp”. The two are not unrelated. Indeed, I think it is clear that the “cracks” I see in this poem – since they are cracks only, not yawning fissures – are a version of the Warp. The Warp, as I have presented it, is a strain between the form of a text and its circumstance, such as we find when a northern hemisphere, Anglo-Celtic or Euro-centric literary form attempts to deal with very different (e.g. Australian) landscape and circumstance: a postcolonial phenomenon, if you will. But here, while the cracks are doubtless in some part this, they are also as doubtlessly in some part something else. I would like to say that what we witness is some deeper, unconscious consciousness – if I may be permitted the oxymoron – of the cruelty and inhumanity entailed in this kind of crime against kind, but, things being as they are, I cannot plausibly claim it as anything more than some combination of evidence of an absence or failure of thought – the linguistic invisibility of the animal – and just bad writing.
The cracks begin with the “cracks” themselves, though they are perhaps the least of it. Their triple- or quadruple-ness, as attested by the OED: “cracks” as in “crack horsemen”, most obviously, and also, sympathetically, as in cracks of the whip, but also as in boasters, people who talk themselves up, and then as in fissures in the skins and schemes of things. But this is just word-play, would mean little or nothing unless it were part of a pattern. We have seen stronger cracks, in any case, in the initial, self-contradictory description of the stripling’s horse, and later in the tension between his fiery-hot courage and the description of the brumbies after his chase. And there is that later problem of positioning (that the stripling, at the height of his ride, is both with and following the horses he is trying to capture) in “he was right among them still, / As he raced across the clearing in pursuit“, and the sudden and momentary shift of tense, for the rhyme’s sake, in the next two lines, which ironically allows the poem to glimpse its own legend:
Then they lost him for a moment, where two mountain gullies met
In the ranges, but a final glimpse reveals
On a dim and distant hillside the wild horses racing yet,
With the man from Snowy River at their heels.
There is also something in the description of the stripling himself – a touch of confusion, as he is introduced (a matter of the stripped, telegraphic grammar often necessary to fit content into form), as to whether the second line refers to the horse or to the youth:
And one was there, a stripling on a small and weedy beast,
He was something like a racehorse undersized.
Technically, the referent of “He” should be the boy. By the time we get to “racehorse” the confusion is arguably gone, although just as arguably “the small and weedy beast” is now ghosted with the boy and vice versa. Paterson could have avoided this confusion by using “That” instead of “He”. Whether he avoids this solution deliberately, to ensure the confusion, can’t be known, although, just two lines later, the last four lines of this verse paragraph, presented as an independent semantic unit, seem to bear the same subtle ambivalence (i.e. could refer as readily to the stripling as to his horse). I’ve quoted them once already but a second time won’t hurt:
He was hard and tough and wiry – just the sort that won’t say die –
There was courage in his quick impatient tread;
And he bore the badge of gameness in his bright and fiery eye,
And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.
There is a likelihood that this is deliberate, of course, since at so many points in the poem – this one central to them – the stripling and his horse are doubled, seem almost to osmose through the species barrier, and since it is not just the stripling and his horse that are subject to such slippage. What happened to the colt? He begins the poem – his escape/disappearance is the cause of its coming into being, and his value would surely make him the principal object of the pursuit (indeed the poem tells us that quite directly) – but then, quite literally, he disappears once more, is never again mentioned after this initial appearance (if we can call an absence an appearance). Instead there is a kind of elision. Attention shifts to those other colts – the stripling and his pony – as if they, the latter in particular, become his avatars, pursuing him and being him at the same time, emphasising all the more the matter and problem of kind that haunts this poem. As if the poet were somehow nosing at the species barrier or, more likely, the species barrier nosing at the poet.
Elsewhere it is matter of particular words themselves. (Can words, individual words, have cracks? But we saw it in the word “crack” itself, that shaling of the signified, its splitting into its various layers.) Take “weedy”, for example, or that interesting oscillation between – better, since it has tentacles that reach far into the poem, call it a complex in part comprised by – “bloodhound” and “cur”.
From a certain angle, to be described as “weedy”, as the stripling’s pony is described, may not be quite the insult or criticism it might be intended to be. Weeds can be tenacious, very hard to get rid of, and the actual problem they represent has far less to do with any inherent weakness than the manner in which they contaminate the cultured space of the garden, in which they are, as it were, some combination of unwanted immigrant and threat to the breed-stock, if only in the sense of competition for resources. In effect it is not their weakness but their strength that is the problem, a strength that is hard to separate from their wildness. But of course we don’t see this, galloping as we do through the poem, and the use of “weedy” to designate weakness – thinness, fragility, underfedness – is after all quite established.
And then “cur”, in the penultimate stanza of the poem. It is only recently, in language-time, that the term has become so unequivocally derogatory. Earlier in its history it has been simply a term for a dog, and in some places more specifically for a shepherd’s or a goat-herd’s dog. There is, too, in its more contemporary form, a strong connotation of the mongrel, albeit strongly in the negative, as if the mixture of bloodlines were somehow a weakening or contamination – something which, as it happens, this poem is very much in two minds about. The stripling’s horse has “a touch of Timor pony” but is “three parts thoroughbred at least”, “And such as are by mountain horsemen prized”: good to be pure-bred (“three parts thoroughbred” is its strongest feature?); good to be a mixture (the “touch of Timor pony” is good); great if the mixture has a lot of purity in it.
But I was speaking of “cur”. The mountain-horse has just been defined as hybrid. To say that “never yet was mountain horse a cur” is therefore contradictory in this second sense (we have seen, a good way above, that it is contradictory in its primary, ostended sense). And surely the word “bloodhound”, just a few lines before it, means that it is contradictory in a third, the sense of “cur” as dog. Obviously a horse is not a dog – we have to extend some poetic latitude here – and in fact in this sense Paterson has merely stated the obvious. But in another sense he has just contaminated it. (One of the problems of poetry: grab at any passing metaphor and you might find you’ve invited in more than you can handle: “Bloodhound”, for example, is problematic in another sense also, in that, while it may bring in the relentlessness – the doggedness – of pursuit, it also brings in a matter of scent, of trace, of tracking that is, on the one hand, quite inappropriate to the particular action here [where the stripling never seems to lose sight of – is frequently in amongst – his quarry], and on the other come close to pointing up one of the guiltier secrets, the represseds, of the poem.)
But enough. There are others, but perhaps these three words are sufficient to establish the pattern, by which word after word in the poem has a momentary force that destabilises when, reading against the driving rhythm and the deceptive pleasures of the rhyme, we pause to examine it further. Of course it could be argued – I argue it to myself – that a great many texts can be read in this resistant way, and even that it is in the nature of close reading in the first place to expose the kinds of contradictions and inherent tensions that this reading has exposed. The patent anxiety over blood-lines, purity, contamination and authenticity in the cracks just examined, however, seems of a particular kind – we might call it physio-ontological – and would seem to articulate, deepen and extend the kind of contradictions and tensions we have found more crudely and far more obviously in Paterson’s poetry elsewhere. Their extensions into and re-enactments of invader relations with indigenous Australia are, I think, fairly obvious. That these occur so extensively through the vehicle of the animal suggests that the species barrier, albeit almost utterly unconsciously, is just as much a matter of unadmitted concern.
We are animals. We are language. Human abuse of the Animal, universal and almost universally accepted as it might be, is always, since it entails so much denial, so much repression of kind within the self, so much deep contradiction, so consistently accompanied by psychic distress that we might argue this distress as a constant of the human mind and even a part of the definition of the human. When a text turns consciously toward the Animal – turns, as does “The Man from Snowy River”, and tries to hunt it down – it can’t much surprise us that this psychic pressure begins to manifest linguistically. And if, as anticipated above, it is objected that all texts have cracks in them, and that all texts can be treated like this, then what does that say?
[i] First published in Jacket magazine, issue 39 (early 2010): http://jacketmagazine.com/39/ra-brooks-david-snowy.shtml