Samuel Wagan Watson’s poetry can be described as extremely complex through both the way in which he expresses his ideas and the representations and symbols he creates from this writing. Through this, particularly in the writing of his anthology, Smoke Encrypted Whispers, Wagan Watson conveys ideas such as that of race and racial tensions, maturation, teenager-hood, Australia and Australian identity, and nature and its importance – however, one idea that standAs out is his strong, negative opinion of the city and its opportunities exhausting country towns and destroying the small societies created there.
Two of his poems published in Smoke Encrypted Whispers, ‘Night Racing’ and ‘Cold Storage’ can be read to reflect these ideals and challenge the new-found importance of the city. Therefore, Wagan Watson’s ‘Cold Storage’ can be read in conjunction with his poem ‘Night Racing,’ along with other poems in his anthology, to demonstrate specific ideas about the city’s takeover of the country and more traditional lifestyles, such as the idea that the city and its industries, which act as incentives due to increasing opportunities, is the cause for the destroying country towns.
In this, Wagan Watson demonizes the city and the associated ideas of suburbia and material consumerism, whilst highlighting the importance of the land. Wagan Watson can be said to reflect a bitter tone towards the concept of the city in both ‘Cold Storage and ‘Night Racing,’ blaming it for ‘… a country town [losing] another generation of its young/to the lust of the city’ through the use of symbols such as that of the beast.
‘Night Racing,’ for example, describes ‘the menacing glow of the city’s tainted body (being) behind us. ‘ The description of the city as having a ‘menacing glow’ provides a negative connotation in itself, which could be said to display his bitterness towards the civilisation towards the city; examples of this include, ‘…
haunted by the silhouettes of urban myth,’ ‘the city’s tainted body,’ ‘the dying heartbeat of this captured landscape,’ the last of which could be interpreted as the city being built on stolen, from both nature and natives (who he may view valued the land more than the settlers do), or ‘captured’ landscape, the heartbeat representing the death of this natural land into industrialization, which will be discussed later. The city’s demonization is also represented in the poem ‘Cold Storage’ through descriptions such as ‘the Beast just keeps taking…
taking… taking… ‘ ‘The Beast’ could be read to symbolise the city and how it takes away the country’s people through incentives such as increasing job opportunities, thus creating the event that ‘… a country town loses another generation of its young/to the lust of the city. ‘ The ‘taking’ of the beast could also reflect how the influx of young people moving to the city from the country never ends (through the use of repetition and emphasis in italics), thus leaving a country town’s ‘main street void/of the laughter of its children.
‘ By acknowledging that the city is ‘taking’ as opposed to the people moving by choice, Wagan Watson reveals his true thoughts of the idea of the city and the amount of control the ‘menacing glow of the city’s tainted body’ has over society, as it is now, and how the land is being destroyed by this. Through the negation of the city, Watson therefore emphasizes the importance of keeping rural towns alive because of the value of the land to him and the long-standing communities developed in these country towns.
‘Cold Storage’ can also be seen to reveal ideas about the city and its popularity over the country, even to the extent that its associated consumerism is ‘taking over’ the importance of the country that used to exist within Australian Culture. For example, ‘the spirits are being sucked away into this gas-pipeline’ can be read to demonstrate ideas of the souls of future generations that are falling into the trap of industrialization, forgetting what Wagan Watson sees that is really important, such as the land and its association with spirits.
The word ‘spirits’ can be used to indicate different types of spirits, such as oil spirits (which are used in the production process of consumer goods), the spirits of souls, and Aboriginal spirits, such as that of the land, which are now being drained to make material items used in the ‘gas-pipeline’ which are then sold to make profits because of the new industrialization. This could demonstrate possible ideas about how what used to be sacred Aboriginal land is being destroyed by the city and its associated industries for the production of what Watson sees unimportant, material goods, due to the new-found importance of the city.
In addition to this, further references can be made in ‘Cold Storage’ to this message through ‘a rainbow-serpent dormant on cryogenic dreams. ‘ Wagan Watson makes reference to the ‘rainbow-serpent,’ which, through research, is the basis of many Aboriginal dreamtime stories, which mainly relate to the land. This being described as being ‘dormant’ on ‘cryogenic dreams’ can also be read to be a reference racial tensions, in the coldness of the settlers’ culture and people’s aspirations to be like them, especially within the city, which is a product of white settlement.
The rainbow-serpent can be said to be dormant, because, although it still is there, it is being ignored or forgotten, which could act as a representation of Aboriginal culture being ignored or forgotten because of the industrialization and new-found importance of the city. This can be linked to the idea that the city has made Aboriginal culture and beliefs less prominent in everyday life, and therefore can be read to be demonized by Watson.
In addition to this, ‘Night Racing’, which is about the city and suburbia can also be read as a representation of the city as place of oppression, thus further reinforcing the demonization of the city and the idealization of the country, which does not consist of a suburban state. Suburbia, or the suburbs, can be defined as being a residential district which is, to some degree, remote from the city, but still enjoys its own facilities, such as schools and shopping centres.
Watson describes suburbia as a ‘bitumen labyrinth,’ communicating ideas about suburbia being unsafe and unprotected, especially with the use of the word labyrinth, which can be read as claustrophobic or trapping, in that it is difficult to find an exit to. This could reveal ideas about the city, such as that reflected in ‘Cold Storage,’ in that country people are attracted to the city because of its incentives, for example job opportunities and adventure, but they neglect their origins and spirituality and eventually become trapped within the ‘labyrinth,’ such as that of suburbia.
The use of the word ‘labyrinth’ conveys that it is extremely hard to get out of, which could demonstrate further ideas of suburbia, since people often fall into the trap of wanting to move into a suburban home because it is part of the so called ‘Australian Dream,’ however, it is not what they expected; however, it is not as easy to get out due to the (ac)customization of the lifestyle.
This can be contrasted to his previous views of suburbia, for example, in his previous poem, ‘White Stucco Dreaming,’ he describes suburbia as a ‘white stucco umbilical of a working class tribe’ showing the closeness of the suburban community as well as the security of being connected through these various ‘white stucco’ links.
This, in comparison to ‘Night Racing’ can be said to produce an image of the change in attitudes over time after one has gotten accustomed to the suburban lifestyle and realised how entrapping it is, representing his ideas about suburbia and how, over time, suburbia can be seen as a place which is suffocating due to the city’s pressures.
This, in turn, can be linked to express the ideology that the city’s affect on both the community and the land is greater than the benefits of industrialization, thus reinforcing the negation of the city. Smoke Encrypted Whispers, as a collective text, can be seen to produce ideas about the tensions between the city, including its suburban state, and the average country town, specifically through the writings of ‘Cold Storage’ and ‘Night Racing.
‘ Through his use of specific, thought-provoking phrases and various poetic techniques (such as repetition), Wagan Watson’s poetry can be read to create negative links to the city and the related concepts of industrialization and suburbia, and has been able to actively convey the city’s filth, as both an industrial state and its taking away of something so pure, such as country towns, among other ideas.
Despite the limitations of being of a non-indigenous background and therefore not being able to fully comprehend the complex mixture of emotions and messages evoked through Wagan Watson’s writing, my reading of this, as a suburb-dweller, his works make me reflect upon my own understanding of my surroundings and the reasons behind the over-crowdedness of the city, creating new ideas about the cities I have grown up in and enhancing my perspective of the city environment.