1. A Love-Drunk Sultan and Canberra’s King
Hard to imagine more contrasting cities than stately, expansive, rule-obsessed Canberra, where I reside most the year, and the raucous, smog-choked, densely populated Hyderabad, from where I’m writing now.
To cross a street in Canberra is to politely wait through a long routine of traffic signals performed to an often empty intersection. The same maneuver, in Hyderabad, is like that river-crossing video game with lanes of passing alligators and logs; step and wait and step and wait; and only one precarious life. Pity the poor Hyderabadi traveler; the existential horror upon arriving in Australia’s capital and finding but a few hundred souls per square kilometer (mostly public servants and their mercantile minions) when back home there are over 18000 people competing for, occupying, defiling the same amount of space.
But even so, there are commonalities, links, shared ancestries (as I will show). The hilly, rocky, red-gold terrain, the venomous snakes and insects, the fact that both cities are built on plateaus, each roughly 550 meters above sea level. Both cities were also born out of statecraft, grandiosity, carefully planned declarations of control; and both would become city states, islands and outcasts in the territories that surround them.
Hyderabad, the story goes, was born of love and poetry. In 1592 the scholar and poet-sultan, Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah, inspired by the passion he felt for his beautiful wife, Bhagmati, commissioned his brilliant Iranian minister to design “a city that replicates heaven on earth.” The result was poetically precise, quatrain-like, with the famous Charminar (four-towered monument) at its center, each of its four arched gates opening to avenues stretching toward the four cardinal points of the earth. There were palaces and gardens and exactly 76 meters up the northern avenue was an octagonal fountain, with four channels running from it “to represent the heavenly channels of water, milk, honey and wine.”(1)
“Fill up my city with people, my God,” sang the Sultan upon the city’s inauguration, “just as you have filled the river with fish.”(2)
Canberra, too, was born of symbolic grandeur, but without the sort of singular poetic passion that rouses a love-drunk Sultan. Conventions, committees, negotiations, referendums, a competition — the city’s incubation was kept as poetically sterile as possible. Beauty thrives on moonlit balconies; and dies in brightly lit committee rooms.
In 1912 Australia’s Minister of Home Affairs, King O’Malley (an American fraud, his pompous name being perhaps his best and only qualification) declared himself the supreme adjudicator — like Bush’s “I’m the decider” — in the international competition to design the federal capital. Canberra, in other words, was crowd-sourced. (And is a reminder of why poetry must never be). Even worse, this bearded buffoon at one point had the gall to suggest he’d be justified in using all 137 of the submitted designs. “A park might be taken from one,” the Melbourne Argus reported him saying. “A boulevard from another, a public square for a third.”(3)
A model of Canberra with the Parliamentary Triangle shown by the green lasers.
Finally it was the American husband and wife team of Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin who laid out the oxymoron that is Canberra’s “natural garden,” a native landscape of purposeful geometry. Octagons and hexagons; a central axis, which, similar to Hyderabad, crosses a water axis; and in 1970 Canberra would force a mighty fountain, too.
Just as the heart of Hyderabad points to the four corners of the earth, the right-angled ventricles of Canberra aligns with the four local mountains, or more like very large hills, or buttes, with a triangular core that links Australia’s parliament, its defense forces and its civilians in a kind of national holy trinity, as if the landscape were branded with the hot iron of imperial decree.
2. City on a Little Rocky Hill
Acutely aware of Canberra’s poetic deficiency, the poet P.S. Cottier can write scathingly of the city’s development. In her “Houses of Gungahlin,” the grand designs of petty ambition become the foolish stuff of antiquity and fairy tale:
What space for expansive thought or emerald memory
in these distorted castles, hunchbacked yet grown giant,
perched on desecrated hills, cubist shrines to ugly Gods?
With their whole rooms for vividly flat screen projection,
but no space for gardens, no crevice to hide imagination?
Miniature Gormenghasts, ghastly in their smug blockpiled
dreams. Space is impressed like a soldier, rifled to last metre,
extra empty rooms exist to power an ozone hole of mind.
They say, like Ozymandias, look on me…and despair, these
Aussie mansions. And I do, at the slanted, squeezing brains
of goons that hatched these dread creatures of spewed bricks,
and rendered into angled hell a once elegant, scant rock hill.
Distorted castles, ancient shrines, grotesque kings and kingdoms from poems and novels, soldiers pressed into service, “rifled to last metre.” It takes a poet of Cottier’s sensibility to tease out this universal wick from the thick wax of Australia’s colonial history. The name “Gungahlin,” she points out, comes from the Aboriginal word “goongarline,” meaning ‘little rocky hill’, although some claim that the word also means “white man’s house.”(4) In other words, the ridiculous fantasies which drive Gungahlin’s ghastly suburbia (Canberra is often described as “suburbs looking for a city”) are the timeless stuff of colonial invasion.
The bumbling bureaucrat, King O’Malley.
In declaring our power, in building the monuments of our future, it seems the ghosts of antiquity invade our imaginations. Canberra’s mighty fountain squirts into the sky, and four hundred years ago a Sultan looked to the Koran for his paradise on earth. In fact, the Persian conquerors of India’s Deccan plateau built Hyderabad on a place the indigenous Telugu people called “Galla Konda,” or “the hillock of graziers.”
The similarity in sound and meaning between the words “Gangahlin” and “Galla Konda” is not only striking (as is their colonial association, and Cottier’s specific use of the word “grazier” in another poem, “Vistaville,” as we’ll see), but the indigenous people of both places, though 10,000 kilometers apart, share similarities in the way they look and speak. Which is perhaps less a coincidence than it seems. DNA tests hint at a shared ancestry. Many aboriginal features, tools and linguistic patterns — not to mention the dingo — are thought to have come from South India.(5) In any case, there’s one thing both places have certainly shared: Conquerors who sought to control “the rocky hill;” the higher ground, the higher authority.
And so it was, while reading Cottier’s Canberra poems (I had requested her to send me some samples), that I was struck by how the verses of one language, one place, can speak across continents, through epochs of history.
3. Breast We Forget
Standing in the middle of Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle — that hot-iron branding of colonial federation — near the Patrick White lawns, looking across Lake Burley Griffin and toward the Australian War Memorial, the narrator of P.S. Cottier’s poem, “Vistaville,” has this to say:
From careful tiles laid outside Library
(near lawns named after a grazier writer)
one can imagine oneself
(OK, I can imagine myself)
a grazier of views; of vista.
Nestling among trees, St John’s spire
needles a blue vein sky,
and sheepish hills crowd —
khaki lambs around breasty curve
of War Memorial.
(Breast we forget.)
Parliament’s bigger pole smirks
down at that soft building;
enthusiasm for filling it unflagging.
Vistas make us all statesmen.
The “Breast we forget” is a startling bit of wordplay, and there’s so much more to it than the sort of anti-war sneering that likes to mangle a well-known patriotic phrase. (By the way, the reference to Kipling, who immortalized the words “lest we forget” in his “Recessional,” once again links us directly to India’s colonial history). There is, of course, the irony of flag-waving passions, and how, weaned from their mothers’ breasts, the country’s young become the succor of a breast-shaped war memorial (“khaki lambs” to the slaughter, you might say).
The poet P.S. Cottier.
But “Breast we forget” also reminds us of the oft-neglected female in any imperial endeavor — the motherly breasts that nurture such nation builders as Sultan Quli and King O’Malley; or the “breasty curve” and “blue vein sky” (needled by the St John’s spire) that allow the vista-viewing writer to suckle from whatever poetic sweetness exists in Australia’s capital. Indeed, for all its male bureaucratic banality, Canberra — like Hyderabad — can never escape the debt it owes to the female form. Its very name is said to come from the Ngunnawal term for “woman’s breasts,” referring to the buxom beauties of Ainslie and Black Mountains.(6)
The comparison between building a city and building a poem runs throughout Cottier’s Canberra poems. Not just King O’Malley or Mr. and Mrs. Griffin; not just the Persian Sultan in India drunk with poetry and standing on his palace balcony beside his moonlit beloved; not just Kublai Khan suckling his milk of paradise (breast we forget) and gazing out across his gardens bright with sinuous rills; not just Ozymandias or Gatsby or Citizen Kane and his castle; but Coleridge, Shelley, Fitzgerald, Orson Welles, Patrick White, P.S. Cottier and everyone else with an imagination and the means to create.
Vistas make us all statesmen.
A gavel-slam of truth in that line.
4. The Gecko King
Apart from their vast visionary scope, the Canberra poems of P.S. Cottier are also personal, autobiographical. Cottier grew up in Melbourne and moved to Canberra in the early 1990s. In her poem “Transferred to the Head Office” she describes a species of migrant — “Young chameleons adapt / quite emerald in their ambition” — who arrive in Canberra because the…
Letters after their names
brought them to the suburban
Babel of BAs, this civil, knowall
The “Babel of BAs” once again hurls the Canberran project back in time, to biblical Babylonia and cities of lore. But Cottier is also concerned with the shaping of vistas in her personal pleasure dome. Whether or not any letters after her name brought her to Canberra, she cannot shake the cloak of “emerald memory” that once cocooned her childhood in Melbourne, held her comfortably in a “green cradling loneliness,” as she writes in “Houses of Gungahlin.” And it’s this adaptability, this moving between past and present, that forces the poet to contrast Canberra’s carefully drawn dimensions with the more organically grown Melbourne of her memory.
Here are the opening lines of “Missing Melbourne:”
Alleys don’t exist here. Canberra has no use
for backways streets, for furtive tales.
Lies are a different matter, but those
architectural commas, those cobbled
nightcart ways have no place amongst
paradise refined into
quintessence of tedium.
A house in Canberra’s suburb of Gangahlin: “Miniature Gormenghasts, ghastly in their smug blockpiled / dreams.”
Once again, with the “architectural comma,” Cottier superimposes the making of cities against the making of poems. Clearly she prefers the “cobbled / nightcart” pauses, breaks, second thoughts to the much broader, overconfident, almost biblical expressions of grandeur found in Mohommad Quli’s “paradise on earth” or the tedious “refined paradises” of Home Minister O’Malley (a park here, a boulevard there).
The “comma” occurs again in Cottier’s poem, “A Gecko in Canberra,” in which she admires a creature — like the chameleon of “Transferred to the Head Office” — more associated with tropical climes than with a place like “icy Canberra.” The gecko has positioned itself between the glass louvres of her window:
He presses between hard leaves of glass,
a ghostly stroke of grey content.
Mere comma, but so persistent,
this frosted smudge upon my pane.
This is a beautiful quatrain, itself louvred with perfect iambs, as the poet — identifying with the gecko — comes to terms with feeling out of place in Canberra. She starts to appreciate the new, vista-building possibilities around her, and imagines the gecko as as fellow “refugee.” But rather than feeling nostalgic for Melbourne’s nightcart alleys and emerald memories, the gecko dreams of Queensland’s “royal mantle of heat.” Note the “royal mantle,” because here again we encounter the stuff of statecraft, of royalty, of power. Vistas make us all statesmen; and even the gecko has its ambitions.
“It’s a bit like we’re all mini-Ozymandiases,” Cottier once commented on a post of mine, “sure that somehow our creations (or re-creations, our memories) will last where others have fallen,”
There’s no doubt that Cottier’s vision of Canberra is going to last, if only because of her penetrating eye; as demonstrated by the “leaves of glass” on which her gecko is perched. It took three-quarters of a century for America to find its poetic voice in the thrusting grass blades of Walt Whitman. Canberra is a different matter, rockier, less fertile, more dominating in its imposed nationalism; and yet it’s crying out for poetry. It needs its breasty hills, its blue vein sky.
By confronting the glassiness of Canberra, Cottier provides the poetry it requires. “Ghosts rustle like dead glass leaves,” she concludes in the last line of her “Transferred to the Head Office.” And yet later in “Gecko” she embraces the glass, her mind clinging “to a new idea / as his spreading toes to louvres.” This is what Canberra is, after all — a place where the cockatoos are “crestfully yellow” (another royal motif), their “soundbeakers of heavy metal / poured into pure blue air.” Leaves of glass, and a city whose shrieking voice is turned to metal.
To say there’s a “lively” poetry scene in Canberra is to refer more to the number of readings, the size of the mailing list, the official recognition of its poets (and there are some excellent poets) than to the vitality of the art. But Cottier has found an enduring voice in her Canberra poems — a voice which acknowledges both the imperial side of Canberra and the side that, as she concludes her poem, “Vistaville”…
The 42-year-old Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of Canberra’s Old Parliament House.
just to the edge of the preferred view.
These last lines refer to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy that’s remained in front of the old parliament building for the last 42 years, smack in the middle of the Parliamentary Triangle. No matter how big its monuments, Canberra will never escape its “Gungahlins,” its geckos and cockatoos, its breasty hills. Colonial history, global migration, poetry and passion — they’re in its blood, whether it knows it or not.
(1) The story of Hyderabad’s founding is taken from Narendra Luther’s Hyderabad, A Biography, Oxford University Press, 2006.
(2) Mera shehar logan soon mamoor kar
Rakhya joon toon darya mein min ya Sami
(3) See “An Ideal City: A Capital Competition” for more information about how Canberra was designed.
(4) The source for the name Gangahlin comes from the ACT Department of Environment and Sustainable Development.
(5) Sources for the link between Australian Aborigines and South Indians include an article in Nature, Science Daily, this Campaign Projects blog, and personal impressions.
(6) For an in-depth discussion of the etymology of the name Canberra, see Patrick Frei’s article here.
All poems and excerpts were reprinted here with permission from the author.
- “Transferred to Head Office” published ACT Writers’ Centre anthology, Capital Letters, edited by Susan Hampton and John Stokes in Boris Books, June 2008.
- “Missing Melbourne” published in Eureka Street, November 2009
- “A Gecko in Canberra” included in “Selection criteria for death,” one-third of Triptych Poets Issue Three (Blemish Books, 2012).
- “Vistaville” published in Burley, Issue 3, March 2013.
- “April Mornings” published on an ACTION bus, as part of the Poetry in ACTION scheme, June 2013.
- “Houses of Gungahlin” published for the first time in this review.
P.S. Cottier is also a member of the Tuesday Poets, a New Zealand-based blog featuring poets from around the world.