Gillian Telford reviews Fairweather’s Raft by Dael Allison
by Dael Allison
Walleah Press, 2012
Reviewed by GILLIAN TELFORD
On the cover of Fairweather’s Raft a toy-like sailing vessel is adrift on a glassy ocean, its sail reflected as a shadow beneath the surface – and beneath the surface is where the reader is led by Dael Allison in this fine collection. Based on extensive research and a strongly empathic response to her subject Allison guides with skilful passion through a key period in the obsessive, turbulent and estranged life of Ian Fairweather (1891-1974) ‘one of Australia’s most iconic and enigmatic artists.’ (i)
Allison’s poems centre around the trope of a perilous journey, specifically the perilous journey made by a sixty year old Fairweather between Darwin and Timor in 1952 on a flimsy, self-made raft. Given up for dead by searchers, he made landfall after sixteen days on Roti, Timor’s most western island. He was then deported to England but made his way back to Australia – Bribie Island, Queensland – where he finally abandoned his peripatetic existence and spent his last two decades, ‘the most stable and productive period of his life.’ (p. 80)
Allison provides a summary of Fairweather’s biography and development as an artist at the end of the collection. This essay warrants inclusion and is likely to be of interest to both informed readers and others not familiar with Fairweather’s life or work. We learn of his abandonment by family during the first ten years of his life, his troubled years in UK, his time as a prisoner of war, and his determination to pursue his art despite family opposition. We are introduced to his years of wandering through Asia, the strong influences of his time in China and of his arrival in Melbourne in the 1930s. After this time he spent increasing periods in Australia ‘but he remained a loner, living rough between Melbourne and far north Queensland. Escape became a primary motif whenever dissatisfaction manifested:’ (p.78) Allison also outlines information about her research which, in addition to the written sources and personal contacts listed, took her to Bribie Island, to Darwin, and to Kettle’s Yard at Cambridge University, UK in her ‘quest to understand his work and his life’ (p.82)
The first half of Allison’s book portrays Fairweather’s life in Darwin – the two years preceding his raft journey, while the second half relates to the voyage itself. Fairweather’s Raft opens with a poem in three parts, ‘Three paintings found discarded in the mud’ This is a powerful introduction to place, to the artist and his driven, isolated existence. The imagery is vivid, always congruent, and leads to the artwork, to colour and subjects:
2. ‘(No title)’ ….
the painter’s rough marks/ draw black ink into muscle/ trapped faces/ opaque eyes/ storm-edge of a shoulder/ conch of a thigh’
Part 3 is again entitled ‘(No title)’ This untitled convention was a common feature of Fairweather’s paintings. The poems’s line ‘one body two heads/ hauling away from each other’ also rehearses a favourite subject of Fairweather’s – the body with two heads. Here the reader is alerted to the enduring Fairweather trope of the conflicted inner life of the artist
The immersion in the physical world continues as Allison portrays fruitful images of where and how the artist lived ‘Each step into the light’- ‘Frances Bay’s stink of mangroves,// the build-up air viscid as green mud./ Above him nimbus thugs shoulder-butt the sun’ His home, the half-demolished supply boat ‘The Kuru’ is starkly outlined, ‘Stars thrash through the fraying nets/that drape its severed deck.// In the chart room the painter fumbles for a match, lights and pumps the Tilley. Gas flares, darkness scuttles to the vault. …’
We learn of Fairweather’s struggle for artist’s materials in ‘Fugitive colours’ ‘and i need red./ what does this place want of me,/ my blood?’ We learn of how he felt increasingly marginalised by local society in ‘The Rear Admiral’. ‘In the parlance of 1952, wit is trickier/ than bum-man, queer or pansy./Darwin locals snicker,/ “Not in front of the ladies … eh Nancy!”’
Poverty, discomfort, overwhelming memories, tumultuous weather – the pressures build up. ‘In his mind he sails an ocean’ creates ironically indelible pictures of the artist in the wet season, struggling to save his paintings from destruction ‘He stacks them on the table// and climbs up, roosting/ like a broody hen to save them// from the flow. i have to go,/ before this damn town drowns me.// Horizons tremble/ in tin cans and bamboo cups.’ Allison’s research is used with strong effect throughout. Specific details of Fairweather’s early life and alienation from family are woven into reflections and memories that not only add to the biological narrative but take us into dark and brooding mindscapes. Of these, four powerful poems are included in the prelude to the raft journey, ‘Remembering the grey house’, ‘Family’, ‘Schoolboys’, ‘Demobbed’.
Similarly, lighter memories of previous travels and some highly imaginative pieces by Allison are used effectively for mood and pace changes and further increase the drama of the narrative. One that particularly appealed to this writer is the prose poem ‘Dreaming poets dreaming’ which presents a fabulous scenario, written with enormous energy and skill: ‘what if a raft were to loom from the dark with an old/ man at the bow, his hand firm on the helm? what if they/ stepped on, the two poets from another world?’
Preparations for the journey continue until the poem ‘Cast away’ is reached: ‘silver cracks my eyes apart, empty days—/ the painter and his raft have gone.’
Also interspersed through the book are ekphrastic poems where specific paintings, works and quotations by Fairweather are named and dated beneath poem titles. These dates range from 1936 to 1965, but Fairweather was an artist who painted from memory, revisiting incidents or earlier paintings many years later. With little recorded in writing, it is mainly through his later paintings that the personal experience of the raft journey can be envisaged. It takes artistic knowledge as well as courage to explore these works and Allison has achieved an outstanding success in her role as an explorative poet. One such painting is ‘Lights, Darwin Harbour 1957’ considered by Allison in a finely nuanced prose poem ‘Nightburst’. Here she assumes the defiant, triumphant and somewhat apprehensive voice of the artist as he leaves Darwin Harbour in the raft, at night. Like the painting’s bold, tight strokes, Allison’s words evoke the colour and drama of this night, the lights and shadows, the brimming marine life, the mounting tension ‘released from land’s tether into rising weather.’ Similarly, the poem ‘Monsoon on four panels’ relates to Fairweather’s major work Monsoon 1961-2. Written as a prose poem in four parts, which mimic the size ratio of the four panels of the painting, it is a compelling meditation. Another poem ‘Lacuna’ from the work Roti, 1957 celebrates the exhausted arrival of Fairweather as he is rescued from the beach on the island bearing the same name. He has survived. And we feel we have accompanied him, survived with him through the images Allison has created of the mountainous seas, the physical ordeals, the hallucinations, the accompanying seabirds, the always present sharks.
The raft journey was an epiphany in Fairweather’s life – it ‘made Fairweather famous’ and it ‘also transformed Fairweather as an artist….after 1952 his paintings became more reflective and profound’ (p.80). Some subjects were revisited over many years and the poem ‘Roi Soleil’ after the painting ‘Roi Soleil 1956-7’ reflects the artists’s blissful memories of Bali – a theme often explored.
In this collection, for the most part, the sequencing of poems works well, particularly once the function of memory processes is grasped. The one poem that draws undue attention to itself is ‘Crocodylus’. Whilst clever and enjoyable to read, it didn’t seem to belong to this collection in time or mood.
Allison has crafted her poems, she knows and revels in the language of the wild places she takes us to and the poems are full of musicality, adept sound play and good doses of humour. Free verse is the most common form used but she has added some diverting variations, such as snatches of familiar song or verse, interspersed with dialogue or quoted texts – an effective ploy in presenting the wandering, hallucinating mind of the artist. There is also the final poem in the Coda ‘Raftbedraft’ Lit Bateau 1957 which is one of two written as adapted pantoums and takes the work to a powerful conclusion ‘Sleep collaborates with motion/ and the moon’s a lemon mockery,/ your bed drifts on the swelling lung of water—/ this ocean is not the last ocean.’
In Fairweather’s Raft Allison has created a complex, multi-layered work that reveals new depths on every reading. and will have you returning, as I did, to stand before a Fairweather painting and be fascinated by how much more I could see beneath the surface.
(i) Handout Ian Fairweather, Dael Allison – Panel Discussion, salt on the tongue, Goolwa Poetry Festival, April 2010
GILLIAN TELFORD is a Central Coast, NSW poet.