Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Leni Shilton’s Walking with Camels: The Story of Bertha Strehlowis as packed with meaning as the desert landscapes she depicts are teeming with life. This beautifully-realised verse novel tells the story of Strehlow’s life, from meeting and marrying her husband, an explorer and amateur anthropologist and linguist, to their trek through central Australia, to her later life as a teacher.
One theme of these poems is the pain of loneliness, discord, and division in relationships. The Strehlow who speaks in these poems (some of which are found poems in the explorer’s real voice) seems to relate more closely to the arid landscapes of the interior than she does to her new husband, Ted, who is too preoccupied with his work to notice the danger signs that she is miscarrying on their trek. Ted Strehlow was a self-centred and egotistical figure in life and he draws very little of the reader’s sympathy in this collection. He eventually left Bertha for his secretary, after Bertha had supported him unwaveringly through suffering four miscarriages and raising three of his children. He paid no maintenance nor child support and left not a cent to his children with Bertha in his will. These details are recorded in meticulous notes located at the back of this verse novel.
Bertha Strehlow’s almost instant love of the landscapes of central Australia is a surprising and delightful perspective for any reader cognizant of the prevailing white settler attitudes of the early twentieth century towards the outback. At first, she fears the unknown and leaving “the green hills of Adelaide” and “the pale stone of churches, / reminders of Empire,” believing “there is / nothing I will recognise / in the desert” (“Adelaide: December 1935” 15). However, she is proved wrong as the land accepts her, and she sees herself in the desert and the vast vault of the night sky. Thus, in “Speaking Country,” she observes “The way the country speaks to you;” how it has a way “of making the rest of the world drift away, / until it is only here, / that matters” (47). In “Ancient Light,” she glories in the stunning stars: “The sky poured with milk, / a crowd of stars / silken crowd held in / blue black at the horizon” (42). The short blazes of imagery in this collection are like spinifex that bursts out of the flat terrain in surprising sprays of foliage, and Shilton clearly delights in the verse form that so suits this work.
Even as she finds affinity with the land, Bertha feels growing estrangement from her husband. In “Poetry Reading” (34-35), the newly-weds read poems to one another, and Bertha “want[s] to read words of love,” but her husband favours T.S. Eliot’s poetry of “the destruction of the world” and so “his poetry fills the air / with its threats of hollow men / marching through death dreams” (34). Bertha cannot understand her husband’s empty anger and bitterness, allowing the reader to draw a parallel between him and Eliot’s Hollow Men, so consumed with their work that they fail to live. Thus, in “Rage,” Bertha says: “The mind of man is a mystery to me,” and “it is the solitary fight / against the universe / I don’t understand” (44). It is “the rage against God and man / that separates my husband / from the rest of us” (44).
Under the cover of night, Ted can be human, compassionate, and earnest: he and Bertha spend the night praying for her recovery before the baby is delivered, dead. However, Ted’s reaction to her miscarriage the next morning, in the stark dawn light, is characterised as “sad, but sensible, / We’ll have more” (“At the Waterhole: 8thSeptember 1936” 63). It seems callous and inadequate in the face of her immense suffering. By comparison, three Aboriginal women steal up to them one night and, frightened of the camels, quickly retreat, leaving special medicinal herbs for Bertha, who is still bleeding. The loving kindness and practicality of strangers is tellingly juxtaposed with the awkward demeanour of Bertha’s most intimate companion, her husband.
This verse novel is masterfully constructed and meticulously researched. The standout poem is “If I Speak from Under the Earth” (65): a sprawling prose poem that tells of the moment when Bertha, apparently delirious just after the miscarriage, sees a truth that she is one with the land. The poem is replete with imagery that joyously celebrates the land even as Bertha mourns the loss of her child: “The night a black blanket I can’t find the edge of,” and “The stars save me / their distant glowing buzz a thick light like white paint splitting the sky” (65) are supreme examples of the poet’s craft.
Shilton has created a spirited tribute to Strehlow in this verse novel, and the soul she embodies in these lines is immensely attractive and empathetic, even loveable. This is the kind of poetry that should win fans; Bertha Strehlow is the kind of character who will win hearts.