Review: Prithvi Varatharajanon Caitlin Maling

The Ash of Song after the Flame

Kate Rigby, founding director of the Australia-Pacific Forum on Religion and Ecology at Monash University, and co-founder of the journal Philosophy Activism Nature, plainly made her case in 2009:

The challenge for writing in the anthropocene, in the shadow of ecocide … is to find new ways of raising our voices from the level of ‘idle chatter’ to that of biting and stinging ecoprophetic witness.

She quotes Theodor Adorno, the same paragraph as his much-cited claim about the barbarism of writing poetry after Auschwitz. In approaching that claim, Adorno writes: ‘Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter’. Rigby’s article, while careful to distinguish the contexts of its subject from those of genocide, takes Adorno’s warning to heart.

Western Australian poet Caitlin Maling’s Fish Song (2019) is a response to Rigby’s call. The collection is Maling’s third with Fremantle Press; Border Crossing appeared in 2017, and her debut Conversations I’ve Never Had in 2015. Fish Song is essayistic in its purpose, returning to questions about human existence in the world, adding and taking away from its answers, shaping and reshaping a response. It contains 59 poems, including the longer sequences ‘Betelgeuse Star,’ ‘An Account of my Days’, and ‘Four Poems After Randolph Stow’. The poems are all set in Maling and Stow’s home state of Western Australia, particularly on the coast between Fremantle and Cervantes.

Since I’ve noted the collection’s essayistic quality, I’ll list its distinct concerns, before tracing lines of poetic inquiry. The poems cover the following subjects: climate change; environmental collapse; machismo, including through vernacular; violence; cruelty to nonhumans; relationships to kin; cancer; human fallibility or weakness; the strangeness or horror of our existence; belonging in the body, and to ‘place’; and Western Australia. Place is the overarching subject and concept: particularly how humans take up space in the places they inhabit. Consider these lines from one of the more minimal poems in the collection, ‘Fremantle, Summer’:

These are my streets,
family, kin
stuck like salt
against metal
rusting in the breeze.

And these, from the poem ‘The Mower’:

The one worker rides the one mower on Mondays
after the rubbish man has been by, truck growling
like a territorial raven. It’s not like the verge grows
but it might. Most of what’s in the world is no larger
than a small insect. Most of what’s alive could be in
the inch of yellow sticking up from the ground
under the man driving the mower,
his only intent to round the nearest corner.

These lines illustrate a few important, recurrent preoccupations. One is coastal stagnation. In ‘Fremantle, Summer’, people are ‘stuck’ like salt against rusting metal: the weather may be lovely, inducing a slow erosion that is not unpleasant to experience (‘“Why would you live anywhere else?”’ the poet records, in another poem about the gentrified beachside suburb of Cottesloe). In ‘The Mower’, we see one consequence of such willing complacency: the world is cut down without our even thinking about it. The collection probes this way of being in the world: complacent, comfortable, not always intending harm – but trapped in modes that inflict it, in subjectively unseen ways.

The most significant of these modes in Fish Song is machismo, passed from father to son over generations. Here the language and character of men shape how all of us inhabit the earth; as she writes in ‘This Song is our Homing,’ written after Stow’s poem ‘In Praise of Hillbillies’: ‘A man’s song is pain / and we are all men in this country // where history stretches back along the track, / bodies flying to either side of the road.’

‘This country’ is Western Australia, specifically the contemporary Western Australia the poet inhabits. Like all of Australia, the state was established through that whitewashed term ‘colonisation,’ which involved sustained violence towards, and murders of, Aboriginal peoples over centuries. Fish Song does not address colonial atrocity directly, but allusively, describing male violence that continues to shape our places of habitation. Here is the opening section of ‘Python’:

The boy kills the snake in the laundry.
A small thing. Black-banded.
Grows on average to only twenty cms. This one
wouldn’t leave and hence the axe.

Men protect their own, even from small things.
Even from the round head no thicker than a toe.
Even though no human deaths have been registered
in the time since we started recording.

There is judgment but also generosity in such representations. While the poems may express grief or suppressed anger, they also try to see people fully, weighing the poet’s knowledge against that of her subjects. The fourth stanza of ‘Python’ quotes a sign at a local lookout: ‘This country holds the python sacred … if you kill the carpet snake the waterhole will dry up.’ The poet then asks herself, ‘How could the boy know what striking the head would mean?’ In other poems, rough male comradery is in the same frame as cruelty to animals; the vernacular is evoked in a blackly humorous manner, one that manages to convey its appeal to its users. Poems like ‘Committee Meeting’, ‘Fisheries Raid’ and ‘Cervantes Colloquium’ show men trapped by social habit, failing to imagine other ways of being. And poems like ‘She’ll be Right, Mate’ offer more biting imitations of hard-edged masculinity:

I’ve done my lot
with the missus I put
my foot down
her throat
the throttle
and would ya feel
the grunt on that
she’s purring
on the pedal
she’s got a sweet spot

Fish Song’s treatment of this subject comes into sharper relief in light of the work of Val Plumwood. In Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993), Plumwood delineated a thriving Western intellectual tradition of idealising reason, of habitually setting it in opposition to a subordinated ‘nature’: a flexible category of unreason including not just the nonhuman world, but also women and non-white others. Plumwood argues that this attitude has facilitated Western cultures’ insistent exploitation of peoples and environments:

To be defined as ‘nature’ in this context is to be defined as passive, as non-agent and non-subject, as the ‘environment’ or invisible background conditions against which the ‘foreground’ achievements of reason or culture (provided typically by the white, western, male expert or entrepreneur) take place. It is to be defined as a terra nullius, a resource empty of its own purposes or meanings, and hence available to be annexed for the purposes of those supposedly identified with reason or intellect, and to be conceived and moulded in relation to these purposes. It means being seen as part of a sharply separate, even alien lower realm, whose domination is simply ‘natural’, flowing from nature itself and the nature(s) of things.

In this ontology, domination of the world is cause for celebration. For Plumwood, it is this performance of superiority through domination that has led to where we are, in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event – though that knowledge was not available to her in the early 1990s. She wrote then that: ‘The master culture must now make its long-overdue homecoming to the earth. This is no longer simply a matter of justice, but now also a matter of survival’. It is this attitude and this problem that is represented and pursued at a granular level, in respect to everyday human relationships, in many of the poems in Fish Song.

Maling is clearly engaged by the field of ecopoetics, to which she is a notable contributor. Her 2013 essay ‘Planting Roots: A Survey of Introductions to Ecopoetry and Ecocriticism’ is a comprehensive review of Anglophone ecopoetic/ecocritical texts then available: a landmark American ecopoetry anthology (2013), three previous works of American (2002 and 1999) and Australian (2007) ecocriticism, and Jonathan Skinner’s ecopoetics journal (2001-2009). Fish Song responds to key discussions in the field. These centre on ecopoetry’s (lack of) engagement with Indigenous knowledge of the environment; the capacity of human language to say or do anything meaningful in response to the world, particularly during or after ecological crises; and humans’ intimate or distant relationships with their environments.

There is also the recurrent question of how inclusive the genres of ecopoetry and ecopoetics should be. Everything – including ecopoetry – is inextricably part of an ecology, in constant relation with other things in the world. In ‘Planting Roots,’ Maling argues that ecopoetry should be a porous category that includes much more than ‘environmental’ verse, or verse that has the more-than-human world as its obvious subject. Worth noting here is the general insistence of ecocritics on the term ‘more-than-human’ rather than ‘nonhuman,’ to subvert our tendency to separate ourselves from the world; more-than-human encourages ecological instead of hierarchical thought and experience.

How then is the more-than-human world represented in Fish Song? Wildlife is a quiet presence in its human places, which are consumed by our activities. And the poems do not represent transcendental feeling in response to picturesque environments, as pastoral poems have been known to do: beauty is troubled from the beginning.

The second and third poems, ‘South Beach’ and ‘Where There’s Smoke,’ mention the ozone hole above Perth, and climate change, alongside a cancer which has tragically afflicted the poet’s father. Both kinds of affliction – anthropogenic climate change, and malignant cancer – recur in the collection as subjects equally worthy of our attention (they’re often compared), telling us something of the poet’s ethos. Human suffering does not override other kinds of experiences or existences, which in fact offer a way of understanding the former, as in the excellent sequence ‘Betelgeuse Star’. These are excerpts from two poems within that sequence:

It’s possible that somewhere deep in a star
something we’ve never seen spins
beneath the bottom layer of what we’ve measured.

Before a star dies it burns
itself down to metal
and explodes or implodes depending on weight


Tumours grow
splitting and splitting
until what supports
the person
the way a sun
grows too heavy
with carbon
or iron
to keep
pushing out

‘Betelgeuse Star’ uses wonder at the universe to process corporeal trauma; astrophysics and cancer form a double-helix of problem and response. The sequence exemplifies the poet’s ecological perspective, in looking to the more-than-human world to understand human life. The world here is an antidote to human solipsism, even in the midst of grief.

You can often sense in the first pages of a poetry collection what the voice will be, and it’s likely you’re stuck with that for the rest of the book. Readers who are less interested in subjective experience may anticipate disappointment on seeing the first person point of view in Fish Song, in the first few poems. But Maling’s perspective undulates: the light it receives from the world is refracted through the different frames she puts on it, as I’ve shown here. The poems are also varied in their personas, often adapting male vernaculars in different locales, or collaging them, while consistently probing our relationships to each other and to the land we live on.

To depict the ‘beauty’ of ‘nature,’ or of a ‘landscape’ – while airbrushing human activities out of the picture in the process – is false, and the poet knows this. One of our activities most impactful on the land is mining, with its effect not just on more-than-human ecologies, but also on the human cultural past – as Tony Birch has argued:

Successful mining applications in Western Australia have been dependent on the deregistration of sacred sites… a situation that cannot occur without legislative support from government. An expert in Human Geography at Curtin University in Western Australia, Todd Jones, estimates that ‘more than 3,000 Aboriginal sites have lost registration status’ in recent years…, including many sites deemed necessary for protection against mining under the Aboriginal Heritage Act, first legislated in 1972.

Such destruction is ongoing, and includes Rio Tinto’s recent detonation of Juukan Gorge cave in the western Pilbara, an Aboriginal sacred site that has been continuously inhabited for 46,000 years.

Fish Song would be wrenching for a Noongar reader, with its allusions to ongoing violence to ecosystems and peoples in the south-west of the state. ‘Recommendations for a Western Australian Coastal Pastoral’ conjures the violence inflicted on First Nations in the early to mid-colonial period: the poem refers to the whipping of Aboriginal people for not recognising fences and ‘trespassing’, even after the punishment was outlawed in WA in the 1870s.

This poem is both analytically incisive and linguistically vivid. Maling also shifts her rhythmic gear noticeably here (for the second time – the earlier ‘Aubade’ is similarly distinct, in couplets comprised of very short, staccato sentences). The poem contains nineteen points in its list of recommendations, and thinks what it means to write about Western Australia, taking in and responding to (local) clichés of place:

3. In WA the beach is our playground, where our children grow.
          a. A playground is a fenced space.
          b. Putting a fence around the yard strikes us as being the easiest
              way of achieving order out of chaos, says Wallace Stevens.
          c. When we grow into our consciousness we find our own
               limits and no longer need the playground.
          d. But Stevens is, of course, talking about America.
4. In the language of early settler Australians, there was no way to describe
       the landscape. Even the colours were limited.
          a. To paraphrase early accounts, yellow, yellow, yellow, desert,
               death, where is the green?
          b. Unsurprisingly, the fields in the WA wheatbelt are many
               shades of yellow, none of them green.
          c. The most obviously green thing in WA is the ocean.
          d. So it rolls like fields and is most fertile.
5. Flaubert says that thing about being ordered in our dailyness to be
       violent in our art.
          a. He is also not Australian.

‘Recommendations’ is both laconic and scathing of ongoing (Western) Australian failings. Its playful-yet-earnest response to, and adaptation of, the pastoral mode, and its considered derision of localised forms of banal nationalism (dependent, of course, on policing borders), make it the finest poem in the collection. This is true despite the poem’s reproduction of an historical myth: ‘After failure to assimilate they [Aboriginal people] became subject to the Flora and Fauna Act’. This Act was said to have been in force until the 1967 referendum, which has been proven false. Nevertheless, the line describes the way Aboriginal people were treated by settlers – as part of the ‘nature’ they considered ripe for exploitation.

Readers unversed in ecopoetry, who imagine it to be obviously about the environment, may be surprised to see Fish Song positioned within this field. But if more-than-human life seems a subtle presence in the collection, it’s because the loud complacency of our presence, and our malicious or ignorant sabotaging of the environments that sustain us, are impossible for the poet to ignore.


Prithvi Varatharajan is a recipient of a 2020 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the first of three essays by Prithvi that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients Cher Tan, Bryan Andy, Katie Dobbs and Keyvan Allahyari.

Works Cited

Theodor Adorno, Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ‘Fact Check: Were Indigenous Australians classified under a flora and fauna act until the 1967 referendum?’, 20 March 2018.

Tony Birch, ‘Climate Change, Mining and Traditional Indigenous Knowledge in Australia,’ Social Inclusion 4.1, 2016: 92-101.

Caitlin Maling, ‘Planting Roots: A Survey of Introductions to Ecopoetry and Ecocriticism’. Cordite Poetry Review, 2013.

Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, London: Routledge, 1993.

Kate Rigby, ‘Writing in the Anthropocene: Idle Chatter or Ecoprophetic Witness?’ Australian Humanities Review 47, 2009.

Calla Wahlquist, ‘Rio Tinto blasts 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site to expand iron ore mine’, The Guardian, 26 May 2020.

Published June 30, 2020
Part of Emerging Critics 2020: Essays by the 2020 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Keyvan Allahyari, Bryan Andy, Katie Dobbs, Cher Tan and Prithvi Varatharajan. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2020 essays →
Prithvi Varatharajan

Prithvi Varatharajan is a poet, essayist, and occasional literary audio producer. His work has...

Essays by Prithvi Varatharajan →