First Fleet: Michael Crowley, Smokestack Books

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The history of the first fleet bringing the European settlers to Australia is the stuff of a potent “origin story”. Eleven boats arrived from England in 1788, packed with 800 men, women and children, mostly convicted of crimes such as theft. Many had been condemned to death, but their sentence commuted to transportation.

‘In modern terms, what happened … was the equivalent of sending a shoplifter to some biosphere on another planet,” Tom Keneally says in The Commonwealth of Thieves. Much of the Australian coast was unknown. Reports brought back by Captain Cook and Joseph Banks mistook and overstated the fertility of the ground, while the new colony brought with it food for one year. The power structure placed marines and sailors separately under the overall governorship of Captain Arthur Phillip. He had no previous claim to fame but brought intelligence and conscientiousness to the role, including curiosity and sensitivity towards “first contact” with the Eora – the Aboriginal inhabitants of the Botany Bay area.

This history underlies Michael Crowley’s collection First Fleet, giving him full scope for the “interest … in poetry with a strong narrative” expressed on this website in his Write Out Loud profile. In the first half of the book he gives voices to some of the real people arriving in Botany Bay and then moving a short distance up the coast to found Sydney.

James Ruse, the Cornish farmhand who learned to produce a good crop from the land, is one of these. In ‘Crop Failure’ Ruse tells the governor: “Sir, nature dislikes us here. / Six months louster on eight acres/ grubbing up roots, hacking at gums, felling trees … “.  Ruse is heard again in ‘Home’, two years on. He is homesick but “work is my only master / and the fields don’t have an end.” We last hear him a year later in ‘Redemption’, when he is “now of Parramatta/ ten miles up-river of the famine”. He has “harvested two hundred bushels from thirty acres,/ have served my sentence”, and now has his “eyes on the Hawkesbury River,/ on horses and dogs”.

Other voices include Bennelong, one of the Eora people who survived a smallpox epidemic to go with Governor Phillip to London in 1794, and Jane Fitzgerald. In ‘Making Mortar’ Jane works collecting shells because there is no other source of lime. In ‘Healing’ she is flogged for disobedience. She is sent to Norfolk island where the small settlement is saved from starvation by migrating mutton birds (pterodroma melanopus), described in ‘Plenty’ as “stupid tame with  us,/ I threw one up to fly but it came back to be my meat.”

Michael Crowley gives full credit to Robert Hughes’ history The Fatal Shore and Keneally’s  The Commonwealth of Thieves, quoted above. He has also drawn on primary sources, where they exist. In his introduction, Crowley writes: “What follows will not add to the history of the First Fleet. I would dearly love to do that, but poetry can’t help. The [First Fleet] sequence was born from the impossible desire to enter history, to get closer to the dead and the silent to whom we are indebted, whether we know it or whether we like it, or not.”

This attempt to meet an “impossible desire” kept me reading the poems and hearing the voices as authentic, but not self-sufficient. At first it was as if the stories could not take root in my imagination because the soil was too thin. The settlement of Australia has not gathered the weight of myth around it that attaches to the US from the Mayflower to the Wild West; recently I can only remember Jimmy McGovern’s 2015 BBC TV drama series Banished making much of an impact. My review for Write Out Loud has been an unduly long time in the writing because I found that before I could read these intriguing poems in enough depth to say anything about them, I had to get Hughes’ and Keneally’s books. Then I was hooked.  

It’s not that Michael Crowley’s poems were stepping stones to something better. The history books, brilliantly written as they are, do something different. When I came back to his sequence of poems, the voices Crowley gave his people had context, and what they described gained meaning and resonance. I’m not suggesting that it’s essential to read Hughes and Keneally for these poems to work well. It’s more that the poetic form can be limiting, and “intertexuality” needs to come into effective play here, as different works, possibly from different genres, deepen and support each other.

With a story of such intrinsic drama and historical importance, why isn’t there a greater mass of narrative gathered around it? Why are the names Arthur Phillip, James Ruse, and Bennelong so much less famous than Benjamin Franklin, John Smith, and Pocahontas?

I started from a low knowledge base, but anyone who already has a taste for what could be called the matter of Australia should enjoy the second section of First Fleet, ‘Time Signature’. Poems such as ‘The Pitch’ and ‘Confession’ draw on Crowley’s experience working with young offenders in England who could be seen as todays equivalents of the convicts, as he enters into the narrative of another person’s life. Other poems are directly about Australia now, and split family relationships. ‘The Fatal Shore’ references Robert Hughes’ history, but we are in the present as “She says It is better here, younger and better by far/ You could move here,/ move away from all of that ...”. The response in the poem is “I don’t want ‘no worries’ … / and I’d never make the journey”.

I hope the poet is speaking through a persona here. First Fleet finishes in British landscapes, finally declining into old age with ‘The last Room’. Please, Michael Crowley, make the journey and keep giving us stories.

Diana Reed


Michael Crowley, First Fleet, Smokestack Books, £7.95



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