Anne Collett

Building on the Strata of the Dead: A (Very) Brief History of Coral Reef Ecologies 

Building on the work I have been doing on the relationship between poetry and destructive/creative tropical storm in Australia (cyclone) and the Caribbean (hurricane), I want to think about the complex biological and cultural ecologies of coral reefs as understood by two influential postcolonial poets of the 20th century – Judith Wright and Kamau Brathwaite. In the poem, ‘The Builders’, published in her popular 1949 volume Woman to Man, Wright speaks of ‘life’s promise and accomplishment’ as ‘a fraction foothold taken’ where ‘dark eroding seas had broken, the quick, the sensitive’. This is a poem about resilience – of coral, of poetry, of love and of life on this planet. The poem asserts a claim on the future - ‘love rises on the crumbling shells it shed./ The strata of the dead/ bursts with the plumes and passions of the earth.’ But that future was precarious then, and is even more so, now. We - coral and human societies - are threatened by a potential inability to maintain the precarious balance of the living and the dead. Some thirty years after Wright published ‘The Builders’, Brathwaite was claiming the potential restoration of a submerged culture that he likened to an ancient watercourse trickling slowly through the coral limestone of his island, Barbados. Mother Poem ends with the embrace of this stream by the vital force of the ocean – a ‘widening outwards into the sunlight’; and in an earlier poem, ‘Coral’, published in Islands in 1969, he begins with the assertion of the value that can be derived from pain: ‘A yellow mote of sand dreams in the polyp’s eye,/ the coral needs this pain’. The bones of the dead heroes of rebellion are the limestone from which new life, new energy to fight the fight is born, and ‘slowly slowly/ uncurling embryo/ leaf’s sucking grain’s armour/ my yellow pain swims into the polyp’s eye.’ But how much is too much – too much violence, too much destruction, too much pain – too much for the viability of these natural and cultural ecologies? We live on a threshold, a reef raft rocked by increasingly violent storms. We are like to drown. Can poetry save us? Wight did not give up on the power of activist word, but after forty years of publishing, she did give up on poetic word. At the age of eighty-five Brathwaite still rages poetic but to what effect? Are we reaching the tipping point at which trauma is too great, too overwhelming, too destructive to re-right/write the life of coral or human ecologies?