Bernard O’Dowd: rewriting the colonial wizard of Oz

What happens when you cross a rhyming sonnet (written on the eve of the federation of Australia) with a 21st-century, post-avant sensibility?

Earlier this year the State Library of Victoria published a blog post about the correspondence between Bernard O’Dowd and Walt Whitman. While the letters themselves have been stored away, they were transcribed and published in Overland in the 1960s. It was this version of the correspondence which inspired my poetry collection Leaves of Glass.

Bernard O’Dowd: [bad] poet?

Like a lot of literature published at the turn of the 20th century, Bernard O’Dowd’s work comes across as a little archaic today. Indeed, as Judith Wright observed:

[Christopher] Brennan’s contemporary, Bernard O’Dowd, espoused the cause of nationalism, and attained a far greater reputation in his day; but unlike Brennan’s, his work has dated badly.

—Judith Wright, A Book of Australian Verse (1968)

Pretty harsh call, but I tend to agree. This is O’Dowd’s most famous poem, ‘Australia’, first published in The Bulletin in 1900.

Last sea-thing dredged by sailor Time from Space,
Are you a drift Sargasso, where the West
In halcyon calm rebuilds her fatal nest?
Or Delos of a coming Sun-god’s race?
Are you for Light, and trimmed, with oil in place,
Or but a Will o’ Wisp on marshy quest?
A new demesne for Mammon to infest?
Or lurks millennial Eden ’neath your face?

The cenotaphs of species dead elsewhere
That in your limits leap and swim and fly,
Or trail uncanny harp-strings from your trees,
Mix omens with the auguries that dare
To plant the Cross upon your forehead sky,
A virgin helpmate Ocean at your knees.

—Bernard O’Dowd, ‘Australia’ (1900)

Now, there are some pretty cool phrases here: ‘dredged by sailor Time’ and ‘cenotaphs of dead species’ are choice examples. Plus it’s a sonnet, and they’re cool. Rhyming gets a pass—this was 1900, after all.

At the same time, not only is the diction of the poem archaic (‘demense’, anyone?) but it also features a number of classical and religious allusions that scream ‘proper poetry’. Importantly, the poem manages to defy common sense, and elude meaning.

Is this really a poem that deserves to be held up as an expression of ‘Australia’? Gawd knows there have been numerous attempts to write the definitive statement regarding ‘Oz’ but let’s be honest: this one’s even more baffling than the national anthem.

Bernard O'Dowd, in a 1924 etching by John Shirlow (detail) held by the National Gallery of Victoria. View the catalogue entry online.
Bernard O’Dowd, in a 1924 etching by John Shirlow (detail) held by the National Gallery of Victoria. View the catalogue entry online.

Rewriting O’Dowd for kicks

While writing the poems that would eventually form Leaves of Glass, it struck me that much of O’Dowd’s work, although ‘dated’, could easily be resurrected for a modern-day audience by means of a good old-fashioned rewrite.

The rewriting (or reprising) of literary texts is extremely common and has, of course, spawned its own field of critical study. Examples include James Joyce’s Ulysses (a rewrite of Homer’s Odysseus), Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote (a takedown of Cervantes’ novel of the same name) and, more recently, Margaret Atwood’s Hag Seed (a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest) but there are thousands more.

When it came to rewriting O’Dowd’s poems, I was simply having a bit of fun: trying to crack the code of his archaic diction for kicks. I ended up ‘translating’ several poems, including ‘Australia’ and ‘Dawnward’. In doing so, I was seeking to render the poems intelligible for a modern reader. However, I am not sure that I really succeeded in this!

I also translated a couple of Whitman’s poems—including ‘Oh Captain, My Captain’ and ‘To A Common Prostitute’—into LOLCats. Again, just for fun. But that’s the subject of another post.

Bernard O’Dowd’s ‘Australia’: a private act of translation?

I wrote the drafts of the majority of the poems in Leaves of Glass between March and June 2008 while living in Den Haag, the Netherlands.

I don’t remember the exact date on which I wrote ‘Oz’ but let’s just say the whole process didn’t take very long. At the risk of repeating myself, I was doing it for fun. Basically, I took each word in Bernard O’Dowd’s ‘Australia’ and replaced it with another word. For example:

Last sea-thing dredged by sailor Time from Space,

—Bernard O’Dowd, ‘Australia’ (1900)


final oceanic junk channel-deepened
by temporal bo’sun of the universe

David Prater, ‘Oz’ (2008)


Are you a drift Sargasso, where the West
In halcyon calm rebuilds her fatal nest?
Or Delos of a coming Sun-god’s race?

—Bernard O’Dowd, ‘Australia’ (1900)


are you some castaway floating sea
kelp island where dawning abendland
in elysian fields of restfulness recon-
structs her deadly breeding grounds?

or are you one of the gods sun ra
maybe following the comet kohoutek?

David Prater, ‘Oz’ (2008)

You can read the rest of ‘Oz’ for yourself. One thing you might notice is that, while ‘Australia’ is pretty opaque for a modern-day reader, ‘Oz’ is hardly any more accessible.

It’s certainly a more violent poem that ends with a creepy image of a continent eating flies. I’m pretty sure O’Dowd would have objected to that.

It also contains cross-references to a number of my own poems and chapbooks (e.g. Abendland, a chapbook from which a number of other poems in Leaves of Glass were taken). In this sense, ‘Oz’ was a private act of translation that ended up serving an obscured public purpose in Leaves of Glass.

Was it worth it?

‘Oz’, along with two other O’Dowd translations, ended up being published online in Jacket (2010) as part of a ‘Rewriting Australia’ feature edited by Pam Brown. It was also anthologised in Thirty Australian Poets (UQP 2011).

While I’m very pleased that ‘Oz’ made it into Leaves of Glass, and that the book received a number of positive reviews, I’m also aware of the limitations of the exercise in terms of rewriting both O’Dowd and Whitman.

As noted in one of the reviews, while O’Dowd’s work certainly has dated, the same could end up being true of some of the ‘translations’ published in Leaves of Glass.

That’s inevitable, I suppose, but I’ve now come to a point in my own writing ‘career’ where I value directness and ease of reading more than literary obtuseness.

No doubt that’s due to the fact that I spent the majority of the past 10 years editing other people’s work rather than writing and evaluating my own.

But now that I’ve ‘arrived’ at this odd place of calm, I can definitely say it was all worth it. Now, to (mis)quote another poem in Leaves of Glass, it’s time to rewrite some obscure colonial texts ‘that people can actually read’.

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