Some excerpts from ‘Salt’, Richard Harms’ enigmatic sea-faring poem sequence:
To our journey’s end and what
we left only reluctantly
stays with me
just as all the salt in the air
somehow taints the very skin.
Let it be. Like
those great seabirds
wheel and arc, ranging
over the far reaches;
each to each,
in our boat and mystery.
We are complex art.
But for in the blindness of my eyes
this were just not much more than fancy.
I am all action and unstill. I shall not
here be long and you have
the essence of the thing elsewhere;
I have my coast.
The rest is history.
Many thanks to Richard Harms for allowing us to republish the above extract, and for answering the following questions about George Bass, his protagonist, and the process of making poetry out of real life…
1. ‘Salt’ is about George Bass. He was a real person – can you tell us something about him?
George Bass was born in England in 1771, and arrived in Port Jackson (Sydney) in 1795. Mentor and friend to Matthew Flinders, he’s a key figure in the early coastal exploration of Australia following European settlement in 1788.
In late 1797, in an open whaleboat with a crew of six, Bass sailed to what is now the coast of the Gippsland region of Victoria, to Western Port, almost as far as the site of present-day Melbourne. His belief that a strait separated the mainland from Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) was backed up by his observation of the rapid tides and the long south-western swell at Wilsons Promontory.
The following year Bass and Flinders set off in the Norfolk to sail around Van Diemen’s Land, thus proving Van Diemen’s Land was indeed an island. Flinders later named the strait after Bass. The discovery of this strait meant that ships could save many days when sailing to England, by sailing straight along the south coast, rather than right around the bottom of Tasmania. It also made for a less hazardous voyage to the new colony, though over a thousand ships are estimated to have been wrecked since in Bass Strait.
Bass sailed from Port Jackson in 1803 to travel to South America. The purpose of this voyage has never been conclusively established though it is speculated to be a private venture, possibly involving contraband. The ship, the Venus disappeared with all on board.
2. Adventurers and explorers have a certain aura about them. What was it about Bass that attracted you?
My first and last stab at acting. I was aged nine. A school play. Cast as Bass and standing in a cardboard box of a boat. I peered at an imagined horizon and delivered my lone line “there’s Wilsons Promontory”. He’s stayed with me since. An inescapable presence. I’ve spent much of my life living by and on – and staring at – the aforementioned Bass Strait. The coastline here also bears his name. Bass Coast.
Typical of his ilk and age, George Bass was enlightened and adventurous. An appealing combination. He was both a brilliant seaman and navigator. His surviving letters reveal a sharp intelligence. Bass took with him on his voyages the works of Mary Wollstonecraft.
3. There’s also a certain pathos attached to those who die whilst voyaging ‘into the unknown’. You didn’t choose to retell that part of his story, although you did bring it to our attention in the form of a footnote. Can you tell us about your choices?
The Whaleboat voyage is the key. It’s the integral element in Bass’ story for me. His Journal is the first recorded European discovery and recording of this coastline – my ‘own edge’. Hence the personal significance. Bass made other journeys and explorations, including that mysterious, final one. But with the Whaleboat voyage to Western Port he left us his legacy. His name stays on.
4. What is it like re-telling a ‘true’ story? You mention a ‘log’ and a ‘journal’ in the poems. Did Bass keep a journal, and if so, did you read it?
Salt is one twelfth of the larger work, Edge. The whole is conceived as a sequence of interconnected pieces. A polyphony of real and imagined lives. People and their histories. Poets and historians must make out of the same matter having only words. A case in point: George Bass’ account as re-imagined in Salt.
Bass did keep such a record; the ‘Journey of a Voyage in a Whaleboat etc’. I’ve read it many times over. It’s not an expansive document and survived in a fair copy only. I’m spellbound by its freshly direct style. He was the first to leave words behind describing these parts. I’m also fascinated by what the Journal omits. Its lacunae. Let me give an example.
Bass and the crew reached their journey’s end at Western Port and spent almost two weeks there. They camped by the modest river that now bears Bass’s name. Doing what, Bass doesn’t say. But he does say they left ‘only reluctantly’.
5. This is a sea voyage, but the narrator’s eye is fixed very much inwards, on the coast itself. Were such expeditions common, do you know, and what is it about the coast that attracts you?
Bass was documenting the coast as he went south. These were uncharted waters and unknown lands. They literally did not know what they were going to. He was a skilled cartographer. His surviving ‘eye sketch’ of Western Port still rings very true.
Today, the Bass Coast is my world. The coastline from Bass River through to Cape Paterson. The nub is Kilcunda. A small township hunched on the cliffs above the surf. It is where I live. A place I’ve grown up on and into. Forty years and more. A place I love deeply. Several years back I realised the poetry I was writing was being increasingly anchored here. Wanting to give voice to the locale, I set about creating a vehicle for a series of personas to speak ‘of here’. One such ‘voice’ is Bass’s as ‘re-spoken’ here in Salt.
Salt appears in Reliquiae Volume One, the new annual journal published by Corbel Stone Press.