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Can poetry stop a highway? Wielding words in the battle over Roe 8

Protesters holding signs next to North Lake Road at Bibra Lake in Perth last month. Richard Wainwright/AAP

Can poetry stop a highway? Wielding words in the battle over Roe 8

Can poetry stop a highway?

On the face of it you wouldn’t think so. But this idea is being put to the test in Perth’s southern suburbs in the protest movement that has sprung up suddenly and forcefully against “Roe 8”. The West Australian government has long planned to extend the Roe Highway in stages, ultimately reaching the port of Fremantle, and facilitating heavy haulage to and from the harbour. The “Roe 8” section is particularly contentious because it traverses through the sensitive Beeliar wetlands and involves substantial clearing of remnant urban bushland.

Police cars lined up on the disputed road. Author provided

The protest began in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The government announced plans to begin clearing bush after lengthy delays caused by legal difficulties in regard to environmental approval. The delays meant that work was commencing just 13 weeks before a state election that is expected to be a very difficult one for the WA government, with the resources boom well and truly over and the state’s finances in deep trouble.

In the heat and flies of a hot Perth December, protesters began assembling in tents and organising through social media. Police also appeared in anticipation of conflict. It was initially unclear where the clearing would begin in the 5km stretch of bushland, but the protesters noticed machinery beginning to assemble on North Lake Road and this became the “front line” of the action.

A protester. Author provided

On December 6, about 30 protesters, and as many police, faced off at temporary fencing designed to keep out the public during the planned works. One Perth poet, James Quinton, who arrived to voice his opposition, found himself increasingly drawn into the struggle to save the bushland. His blog has provided a series of updates widely followed by the protesters as the movement began to evolve.

On December 8, Quinton wrote a prose poem, Roe8#1, the first of a series of poems documenting the protest and asking questions that go to the heart of the issues the road has raised. It begins:

To stand in the way of the Roe 8 highway feels wrong. To take a day off work to hold a banner feels wrong. You’ll be called a bum. They’ll say you’re unemployed, have nothing better to do. The “mainstream” will tell you the “development” is going ahead, the “plans” have been in the “works” for years, that clearing native bushland is necessary for “progress”, that the correct environmental protection measures have been taken, don’t worry friend.

Quinton’s poetry rolls uneasily through the non-sequiturs and surreal juxtapositions that happen as the protesters find themselves in heated confrontation with police and earth-moving contractors.

In Marginata shade, with the depleted ozone
at Malvolio Road, the sandy verge is compacted
by sandals and sneakers, citizens sing
get up stand up, stand up for your rights
and a mum tells her son off for breaking black boy fronds,
and the patrolling police ask us to stay off the street
and the Federal Member for Fremantle stands with us, getting grey sand in his shoes
with his Ray Bans in his back pocket.

Quinton’s poem, Hope Road (after Garcia Lorca) was written about a young woman, Barbara, who halted clearing works for four hours by locking herself beneath a survey truck.

In grey sand on Hope Road, is where she laid, she was not asleep,
the earth was no longer flat.
A dragonfly sniffed the truck fumes, she was not asleep.
And a comb eared skink bit through the bedsheets
of the men who do not dream.
Inside the red festoon, trespassing was a kind of parallel.
Here the surveyors’ spirit was broken
and the unbelievable turtle was quiet beneath the tender mud of protest.

It is unusual to have art transpire in the real time of political action, but when it does, it carries a particular charge. The British War Poets who wrote in the trenches and hospitals of the Western Front, or Picasso’s Guernica (1937) depicting the aerial bombing of a Basque village in the Spanish Civil War, carry an aura that comes from both the moral outrage of the event and the terrible beauty of the art that is depicting it.

James Quinton. Author provided
Quinton’s poem Hope Road pastiches Federico Garcia Lorca’s famous surrealist poem City that Does not Sleep (Ciudad sin sueño) written in 1930. Garcia Lorca’s poem takes the form of an incantatory warning — “Be careful! Be careful Be careful!” —that repeatedly insists that no one ever sleeps, and someone always watches. It is not a poem of paranoid surveillance, but an urgent plea for the sanctity of witnessing horror:

Let there be a landscape of open eyes
and bitter wounds on fire.
No one is sleeping in this world. No one, no one.
I have said it before.

The conceit in Garcia Lorca’s poem that links the “open eyes” with “bitter wounds” is taken up in Quinton’s poem. Here it is the “wounds” to the land created by the bulldozers, linked to the eyes of the protesters determined to witness an event that the road builders would prefer to have kept hidden. Quinton writes:

those who stood in front of the bulldozers kept everyone awake
and those who closed their eyes
allowed the landscape of cameras;
and there the bitter wounds began.

As the bulldozers began their work, Quinton was joined on the front line by fellow poets John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan. Kinsella is a long-time advocate of activist poetics. His poems testifying to the ecological cost of WA’s wheatbelt defiantly deconstruct the pastoral mythology of south-western Australia. His poems abandon the historical safety of reminiscence and instead strike their reader with jagged immediacy.

On three separate occasions on 19 December, Kinsella read his Bulldozer Poem, written for the Roe 8 protest, with the bulldozers in action behind him.

The debate surrounding Roe 8 reached a significant turning point on January 4 when the state Labor opposition announced, following legal advice, that it would tear up the contracts and stop the highway extension. Roe 8 is now a major election issue.

It may seem that poetry is but a small sideshow to a protest that is being fought in the mainstream and social media, the High Court, and the highest echelons of state and federal politics. But poetry draws its power from its ability to thrust language out of the gridlock of everyday discourse.

Protesters hold placards in Perth on Monday after losing a Federal Court bid to stop work on the road. Gregory Roberts/AAP

Poetry speaks to something else and, even though it is written by real people like Quinton and Kinsella, it also speaks from somewhere else. It is this otherness of poetry that the philosopher Heidegger sought to emphasise when he announced that “poetically man dwells”.

This reminds us that radical protest poetry — whether it be from the Vietnam War, Apartheid South Africa, or from dissident writers behind the Iron Curtain — is not simply a mantra to be chanted at picket lines, but an invocation of the power of language to speak to a higher law, to a judgement that has no official courts, but nevertheless holds each of us accountable.

Australia’s most famous modern poet, Judith Wright, was also one of the founders of the contemporary environmental movement and helped halt the sand-mining of Fraser Island in 1977. Her good friend, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (know then as Kath Walker), was the first Indigenous poet to publish her writing in English.

Her poetry, sometimes bitter, often wry, was initially dismissed by critics as mere “protest poetry”, but poems like No More Boomerang (1966) now stand as stark reminders that perhaps the single most significant achievement of Western civilisation was to create machines capable of annihilating the planet.

Oodgeroo’s poems destabilised a contemporary readership that was not used to finding themselves viewed from the position of the other. This is what poetry can do.