Recentring Water: Thinking with the Chain of Ponds


What might thinking with specific waters, and particular watery forms, bring to our understandings of how literature comes to mean? Taking cues from recent work in both the Blue Humanities – inspired by Pacific scholars – and the posthumanities, this article considers examples of recent writing in order to explore what is revealed when focus shifts to the aqueous. What ‘transversal alliances’ (Braidotti) and concomitant limitations are highlighted in writings and readings that take account of water? Thinking with a peculiarly Australian form of fluvial geomorphology – the chain of ponds – I consider four recent texts: John Kinsella’s 'Cellnight'; Natalie Harkin’s ‘Cultural Precinct’; Tony Birch’s The White Girl, and Christos Tsiolkas’s . Thinking with the chain of ponds reveals aspects of ‘hydrocolonialisms’ (Hofmeyr) and immersive ontologies. While all waters are revealed to be operating within the multiple restrictions of the nation state together with anthropogenic climate emergency, a focus on waters reveals possibilities of renewal as well as human and more-than-human connections. Taking this beyond the island continent to trans-Pacific links, I also consider the ways such connections are joyfully celebrated in Lisa Reihana’s indigifuturist video work Groundloop.

In Peramangk Country, now commonly known as the Adelaide Hills, an early British settlement was made in the 1840s, near a series of ponds. The town that grew up here was named Chain of Ponds after these pools, and chains of ponds, as a fluvial form, have come to recent interest in studies of fluvial behaviour. I draw attention to the chain of ponds aqueous form as a way of thinking about the aqueous poetics in four recent texts, in order to employ ‘thinking with’ as a posthuman methodology (Haraway). In all four texts recently published in Australia – John Kinsella’s Cellnight: A Verse Novel (2023), Natalie Harkin’s poem ‘Cultural Precinct’ from Archival Poetics (2019), Tony Birch’s novel The White Girl (2019) and Christos Tsiolkas’s novel (2021) – water is integral to both meaning and imagery, inviting readings that think with watery forms. Like the hydrological form of the chain of ponds (Mould and Fryirs 349), these texts have come from this continent, and all bear signs, some more extreme than others, of the colonising project of both empire and nation state; they are prime sites for an examination of what Isabel Hofmeyr has named ‘hydrocolonialism’. To think with a material form is to work with metaphor, and as David Carter notes of the archipelagic: ‘the archipelago is not simply an instance of geographical reimagining that shifts attention away from continentalism, but a challenge to think metaphorically’ (18). Thinking with the chain of ponds has similar aims to thinking with the archipelagic in that it offers, among other things, ways of going beyond the nation state, and of considering specificity of place and bodies of water, especially their position within colonial and imperial systems of power. I have taken Carter’s encouragement to think metaphorically with the chain of ponds, but thinking with also provides the chance to go beyond metaphor and into ‘Matterphorics’, ‘an aesthetics of thought’ that Karen Barad and Daniela Gandorfer suggest is material as much as figurative (14). In fact, to Barad and Gandorfer, there is no figurative: everything is matter and intra-active.

Chains of ponds

Described by fluvial geomorphologists Rory Williams and Kirsty Fryirs as ‘a unique and diverse Australian river type’, a ‘chain-of-ponds’ is a type of river system marked by its apparently discontinuous nature (529). Such systems have been described, paradoxically, as both ‘rare’ and ‘iconic’, consisting of ‘deep perennial ponds, with high water clarity’ (Hardwick et al. 33). A chain of ponds system may sometimes be a continually flowing stream, but at other drier times it reverts to a series of pools. Such pools should not be seen as separate entities; they are always linked by ground water and together both ponds and groundwater make up a complete system that interacts with the surrounding aquifer (Williams et al. 60). These water systems are found elsewhere across the continent, especially in the south east, but they do not have the same status as rivers, nor their legal protections (Williams and Fryirs).

Chains of ponds were once common, being mentioned frequently in accounts of exploration and European settlement in New South Wales and Victoria and were ‘almost ubiquitous along drainage lines’ around Canberra (Eyles 146). Thomas Mitchell uses the term often in the accounts of his 1830s Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, while a decade later Charles Sturt writes of them as ‘exhausted’ inland rivers with ‘feeble’ currents, complaining that ‘the traveller may run down their beds for miles, without finding a drop of water with which to slake his thirst’. Since those times, most chains of ponds across the country have been modified, either being replaced artificially by ‘incised channels’ to convert them into gullies (Eyles 146), or by erosion through land clearing which has had a similar result (Williams et al. 61). Some were seen as unproductive occasional swamplands in need of draining, rather than as wetlands that teemed with life. The chain of ponds on Peramangk Country, after which the town was named, was dammed during World War I to create the Millbrook Reservoir. Much later, in the 1970s, the town of Chain of Ponds was demolished and removed to prevent pollution of the reservoir. Dramatically, during recent renovations of the dam, the water level was dropped, revealing an old bridge that had been covered in the inundation. Not only was the reservoir created to give a constant supply of water to the eastern suburbs of Adelaide, but it also served to prevent flooding of the Karrawirra Pari (red gum forest river), the Torrens River, and its floodplain. Watercourses that run from the Mt Lofty Ranges across the Adelaide plains are constantly being interfered with, though currently there is some attempt to restore excised wetlands because of their now recognised flood mitigation role. I write all of this in the passive voice – the chains of ponds were dammed, dug out, or eroded into different forms – but these things did not just happen; they were done in the name of the state or through European farming methods that were entirely out of sympathy with the land and water systems they were applied to. Many of these original systems would now be regarded as forms of wetlands, particularly fecund environments in which many life forms thrive, and currently there are several restoration projects attempting to re-establish them across Australia.

Notably, for a term that is increasingly appearing in the work of geomorphologists, geographers and environmentalists, ‘chain of ponds’ does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) other than in a list of ‘pond’ quotations; it is in an obscure memoir about nineteenth-century life in Western Victoria. The Macquarie Dictionary (7th ed. 2017) records ‘chain of ponds’ simply as ‘a creek which in a dry season forms a sequence of ponds which are connected only during heavy rains’. It is specific to the island continent of Australia, and as already noted, it increasingly bears the impact of recent human interference. Despite the OED’s silence on the term, it has plenty to say about ponds and chains, much of it evocative of the poetics I address here. It records several definitions of ‘pond’, the first being ‘a small body of still water of artificial formation’, and the second referring to it being used in a figurative sense. It is in the third definition in the OED that ‘pond’ appears in its chain of ponds sense: ‘a pool in a river or stream’, specifying that it is ‘now Australian’ in this form of usage. The origins of all these usages capture an aspect of ‘pond’ I think with here. It is a term from Middle English, originally a variant of pound. Pound can be traced to the Old English punt, and its current range of meanings relate to enclosures for animals, with a second range of meanings relating to water, particularly to places where water is contained, for example above a dam or lock. What interests me about ‘thinking with’ pond in the chain of ponds configuration and name is this sense of containment. Water is enclosed, impounded, restrained. (The word ‘pond’ has also been used of the ocean, especially the Atlantic, of people crossing, rather as Australasians might use ‘the ditch’ to refer to the Tasman. I will return to this oceanic sense.)

The word ‘chain’ also comes from Middle English, the first definition in the OED being quite neutral: ‘A connected series of links (of metal or other material) passing through each other, or otherwise jointed together, so as to move on each other more or less freely, and thus form a strong but flexible ligament or string’. A chain suggests strength, flexibility and movement, all characteristics of the fluvial nature of a chain of ponds. In its second definition though, this neutrality shifts: ‘As employed to restrain or fetter; hence a bond or fetter generally; esp. in plural fetters, bonds; abstract confinement, imprisonment, captivity’.

These terms have both generative and restrictive, even oppressive aspects. If ponds are life-giving, restorative water sources, they also have hints of their alternative linked meaning, the pound, connoting containment, repression and entrapment. Waters and their literary representations on this archipelagic island continent have both the capacity to give life and to restrict it, to be abundant and in flood, or to be absent during the all-too-common phenomena of drought. Likewise, chains speak of connection and flexibility, but are also linked with carceral practices that one might argue are integral to the formation and maintenance of the nation state of Australia.

‘Australia’ has always been a carceral archipelago, its offshore islands, such as Norfolk, Palm, and Rottnest, linking with sites on the mainland, featuring imprisonment and stolen labour as key ingredients, its intrinsic components. The warfare between settlers and First Australians, destruction of country, food sources and waters, led to incarceration of Indigenous peoples in missions and reserves, and their exploitation as enforced labour, both agricultural and domestic. Stolen, coerced and manipulated labour taken primarily from Vanuatu and the Solomons, in the practice known as blackbirding, built the sugar industry, and was abandoned in the interests of establishing what could only be seen as an aspirational ‘white’ nation after Federation. This was not a sideline in national growth; CSR – the Colonial Sugar Refinery – was the largest company in Australia in 1930 (Ville and Merrett 25). Enforced use of First Nations labour extended from the nineteenth century through much of the twentieth. As a nation, we returned to the carceral model as a way of dealing with the worldwide refugee crisis, once again employing prison islands, Christmas, Manus and Nauru, as we continued to enforce Indigenous dispossession through the highest incarceration rates for any group of peoples in the world. Chains, both literal and metaphoric, have been integral to building the nation state. Every pond I will consider has chains running through it, chains around it.


My chain of ponds begins in the west, in and around Walyalup Fremantle Harbour, with John Kinsella’s Cellnight (2023), set in the 1980s. It is a place of chains. The first building built in the Swan River Colony, at what is now Walyalup Fremantle, was a gaol, constructed in 1831. It was soon used as a lock-up for resistant Aboriginal prisoners being brought from across the colony to be sent to Wadjemup Rottnest Island, a practice that continued for almost one hundred years. Kurin Minang woman, Hannah McGlade, reports that ‘more than 3,600 Aboriginal men … lived in shocking conditions, working in chain gangs,’ and that ‘[m]ore than 371’ of them died, the cemetery being the ‘largest deaths in custody burial site in Western Australia’ (McGlade). The Fremantle Roundhouse – ‘Horror/of the Roundhouse’ the poet tells us (Cellnight, 21) – as staging point for its dreadful end point, Rottnest, stands literally and metaphorically over Cellnight. Kinsella has written elsewhere: ‘It should be removed, or turned into a memorial to those who suffered within its walls, the land dedicated to the indigenous spirits that are present’ (Disclosed Poetics 45).

This verse novel is immersed in the anti-nuclear protests of the early 1980s, when a number of activist organisations and individuals collaborated in what was known as Project Iceberg, a protest against the presence of nuclear-powered warships of the US 7th fleet (Worth 50–65). A homeless man who joins in the protest lives in a limestone cave ‘under the colonial gaol and place of infernal suffering, The Roundhouse, but alienated from the day-to-day happenings around him’ (‘Cellnight’). He is the protagonist of a tale told in second person, in which the narrator and his central character blend, merge and separate in ways not always clear. Kinsella has recorded earlier that he himself was homeless and ‘came to live in the limestone cave behind Bathers Beach in Fremantle’ at a time when he was ‘struggling for self-respect, as much as anything else’ (Disclosed Poetics 43); this was also during the time of these protests, in which Kinsella took part (44). The conflation and separation of voices complicates narrative points of view, and gestures to the different personas Kinsella projects into the novel.

The harbour, the pond of this tale, is the focus of the events recounted, its active players ‘gulls/ of course, and/ a Caspian tern, and/ a dolphin/ bottled/ at the mouth’ (Cellnight 15) amongst other bird and sea life. The work is a call to remember, not just the events of one night – though all else spills out from there – but also the ‘transversal alliances’ that cross the harbour (Braidotti 51), forming between osprey and eagle (26), bronze whaler shark and ‘shoals of King George/ whiting’ (Cellnight 20, 24), and also between various groups and individuals: ‘anarchists’, ‘anti-racists’, ‘anti-militarists’, ‘so many anti-nuclear/ protesters’ (13). Intruding into the harbour and its surrounding sea, land and air life and provoking the protests is the 7th fleet, empowered by ‘Ronald Reagan’s new nuclear war-fighting strategy called “counterforce”’ (Worth 50), which saw a marked increase in the visits of the US navy to Fremantle:

the destroyers,
the frigates,
nor denying
nuclear weapons,
the reactor
of the aircraft
off Gage Roads?
Who will
remember? (Cellnight 11–12)

The call to remember – not uncommon in the canon of verse – is not just about human incidents, but is also seen in repeated questions about ‘the weather’, ‘if the sea/ was choppy,/ if white horses/ were breaking/ in the harbour?’ (11) The novel is elegiac about a single day and night encompassing the nature-culture continuum, time lost but significant for its more-than-human players and agential forces. The verse novel involves all of these, but the single initiating incident is a death in custody of a young Noongar man, brutalised by constables, ‘abused/ and kicked/ and thrown/ until he is limp/ around a circle’ (18). This incident, at which the narrator protests and receives a corresponding ‘thumping’ (18), becomes the recurring ‘cellnight’ of the title, another form of the ‘seagrass-/undercurrents’ that flow through the tale (133). The violence of this single night is emblematic of the threat of the fleet, of the militarisation of the planet, and what might happen to all this entangled life were there to be a nuclear incident. It also signals that this violence is being done across all life forms present in and around the harbour.

The form of the novel, made up of fourteen-line stanzas that gesture towards the sonnet form, are described in the text as ‘spindly/ sonnets’ (68) that Kinsella also names as ‘stanza/paragraphs’ he hopes will ‘interweave’ with ‘birds, fish and people … always finding the military machines an incursion, and the nuclear a threat to all life’ (‘Cellnight’). Sentences flow across stanzas, the short lines, sometimes made up of a single word, becoming a relentless accumulation of images that make up ‘the chronology/ of toxicity/ which is termed/ “anthropocene”’ (Cellnight 150). This is enhanced by repetition, such as in chapter 7 of Part Two, in which ‘all’ is repeated at the start of lines in stanza after stanza, to reverberate the presence of multiple interconnected life-forms:

All the coast
all the marshes
all the wetlands
all the estuarial
conversations (154)

and so on. This relentlessness, of both the tale and its mode of telling, makes it a breathless read, as well as a forceful and confronting one.

The physicality of the harbour is ever present, along with the acknowledgement that it now has an ‘Engineered/ rivermouth’ (135) in its function as a port. The repetition of ‘Port city’, a place overlaid with all the works, machinery and ‘interplay/ of cultures’ emphasises that this is a place marked by Euro-American human intervention and industry (82–85), now exemplified by ‘the 7th Fleet’ (85). Yet an American literary giant, Walt Whitman, is endorsed, because he sees all life in ‘“a spear/ of summer grass”’, ‘which is where/ ideologies/ of respect/ for all that’s/ living/ begin’ (121). This return to all living forms, the multitude inhabiting the novel, reiterates the enmeshment of nature and culture, the ways in which the particular threat of the nuclear fleet intrudes on all life, is registered by all life:

When garfish
were vanes
for eddies
and cross-
hatched currents,
Geiger counter
needle pointers (111).

Despite this, the overlaid land still holds ‘ancient stories/ of limestone, of fresh/ water trickling’ (83). Water trickling through limestone brings me to my next text, but I want to finish this necessarily cursory look at Cellnight by noting that it ends with references to ‘ghostships’ and ‘Ghostshipping’ (194, 192), those literally rotting on the seabed of the harbour, others conveying ‘things’ required by ‘the state/ and ships/ that serve it’ (192, 194), the machinery of late capitalism. Cellnight is not just haunted by ghost ships, but also by the injustices of the British empire, and the nation state it established. Eve Tuck and C. Ree assert that ‘Haunting is the cost of subjugation. It is the price paid for violence, for genocide’ (643). That haunting is always present in the literature produced on this land, whether it is acknowledged or not. The next text plunges headlong into one such haunted space, the archive.

Archival Poetics

I follow the Leeuwin Current, across the Bight, to Tarntanya, red kangaroo place, on Kaurna Country, in the heart of Adelaide, a location Natalie Harkin addresses in her poem ‘Cultural Precinct’ in the chapbook collection Archival Poetics (1, 24–25). The collection relates Harkin’s engagement with the archival boxes of the Aboriginal Records office, maintained by the ‘State “archons” of power’ to ‘gather/unify/identify/classify, who legitimise knowledge through hierarchy and order’ (1, 11), especially in relation to the lives of her grandmother and great-grandmother, Narungga women who were stolen from their families and forced into domestic labour. An overwhelming apprehension of the sheer amount of surveillance over their lives invokes, for Derrida, a kind of ‘archive fever’, an ‘irrepressible desire to return to the origin’ that stands in the space of the enforced separations demanded by the state (qtd. in Harkin 1, 10). Harkin engages with the ‘treasured evidence’ (‘Weaving’ 163) of the handwritten letters her grandmother and great grandmother wrote to the state regarding their children by weaving them into baskets, in the style taught by ‘Aunty Ellen Trevorrow and other Ngarrindjeri elders at Camp Coorong’ (157). While the collection concentrates on a particular and later technology of invasion and dispossession – stolen children, enforced labour and assimilation – it also homes in on resonant places, such as in ‘Cultural Precinct’.

The ‘Cultural Precinct’ in question is an area of Adelaide City that contains my institution, the University of Adelaide. It also encompasses the Art Gallery of South Australia, the South Australian Museum, the State Library, and the Migration Museum, among other cultural institutions. Most of these, including my own, are deeply implicated in the imperial project and the truth-telling around this is only just beginning. Like many poems in the collection, ‘Cultural Precinct’ is preceded by a quotation, in this instance a blunt one from Aboriginal artist Vernon Ah Kee: ‘I’m expanding the idea of what it means to be Aboriginal and what it means to be human. A lot of the problem this country has with Aboriginal people is that it struggles to see Aboriginal people as fully human’ (qtd. in Harkin 1, 24). The ways in which early colonisers demonstrated their failure to see Aboriginal people as human took particular forms in this area of Adelaide. The poem repeats the phrase ‘these limestone walls’ that mark many of the buildings, and notes that the stone came from the first quarry, now dug out ‘from this old / Kaurna campsite Red-Kangaroo stories ripped from / the ground’ (‘Cultural Precinct’ 24). Kaurna are red kangaroo people (O’Brien and Paul), and this is a place of military occupation, which is clear from the uses buildings have been put to since the colony began in 1836: the mounted police barracks, the Armoury building, the ammunitions store, the military Parade Ground, all of which ‘“pacified” our warriors’ Harkin tells us (24). This is ground zero of colonisation and dispossession, the transformation from Kaurna campsite to centre of occupying power rapidly accomplished. The list of military and police sites in the poem builds up a growing sense of diminution and threat, echoing the constraints that are swiftly put in place around Kaurna life, evoking the enclosed nature of ponds, and also literally, the carceral function of chains. Under the eye of the military is ‘the Rations Depot’, the ‘Old Protector’s Office’, ‘the first Kaurna school’, the ‘storage- / place      for Aboriginal Records’ (25).

Even more sinisterly, the poem recalls the alliances, mostly illegal, set up between leading scientific men, who traded in the bodies of Aboriginal peoples well into the twentieth century: ‘our bodies / stolen de-fleshed and preserved / these limestone walls / these limestone walls’ (24). Men such as Edward Stirling, ‘Adelaide Hospital surgeon, professor of physiology at Adelaide University and director of the South Australian Museum for 28 years until 1912’ was aided and abetted by others, including Professor of Anatomy Archibald Watson, who had been implicated in a blackbirding massacre on the brig Carl, and Dr William Ramsay Smith the Inspector of Anatomy, the coroner of the time, in accumulating ‘the museum’s collection of dead Aboriginal people’ (Daley). They also passed on Aboriginal human remains to institutions in Europe (Daley):

their racialized hierarchy   our human
remains      these limestone walls these limestone walls (1, 25).

These ‘scientific’ practices are part of a regime that takes away worthiness as a method of ‘making-killable’ and thereby justifying it (Haraway qtd. in Tuck and Rees 649); in Tuck and Ree’s words ‘Making-killable turns people and animals into always already objects ready for violence, genocide, and slavery’ (649).

The poetry in this collection tends to eschew the aesthetic. It is more interested in facts, the overwhelming evidence of the archive, in apprehending and remembering the lives that archival sources, however vast, cannot contain. It is rare to encounter aesthetic and emotional relief in the work, demonstrating just how difficult it is for the speaker to find it. That relief is perhaps to be found in Harkin’s weaving rather than in many of the poems themselves, but ‘Cultural Precinct’ is an exception to this. It has a volta, a turn, in which the poem breaks from the relentlessness of imperial technologies of domination undertaken in this concentrated area of Kaurna Country. This is where we encounter our second pond in the chain, the moment when water irrupts to assert memory, truth, survival, and the country that lies beneath:

                        strive to
navigate     this violent place     be still and listen     there are
waterholes here    /       these fresh water springs     flow a limestone-
memory     erode and expose      our truth will appear. (‘Cultural Precinct’ 1, 25)

Despite all the ways in which it is contained, this water is irrepressible, and the history of camping around waterholes endures despite colonial predation. It both persists into the present time, as life-giving force, but also haunts the sites of violence with its ‘limestone- / memory’, just as water is always a haunting presence in limestone.

The White Girl

The chain of ponds takes me east, with the weakening Leeuwin Current, but my destination is not clear. Tony Birch’s The White Girl is not specifically located. At times one might be in northern Victoria, at other times east of the ranges in New South Wales or Queensland: ‘a fictional town somewhere in south-eastern Australia’ as Birch tells us (Edwards). This allows the story to stand for many places, many stories, many waters and for First Nations peoples from many nations. The freshwater springs in the centre of Adelaide’s cultural precinct are constrained and bounded, impounded by concrete and bitumen as well as by the stone cut from nearby, but they are also resurgent, life-giving, irrepressible. What I take to be the ponds in The White Girl are even more limited and enclosed, but also sustaining in their own way.

The White Girl tells the story of the titular character, Sissy, who is twelve years old when the novel begins, though much of it is told from the perspective of her grandmother, Odette Brown, her sole carer since her teenage mother left when she was a year old. The novel begins in the early sixties – 1963 to be exact (Edwards) – in the time leading up to the 1967 referendum, and Aboriginal activism becomes more apparent once the action moves to the city later in the text. If characters’ names connote the US South and African-American women (Dale 202), then the restrictions experienced by Aboriginal characters are reflective of the Jim Crow laws of the South. Odette and Sissy live beyond ‘Deane’s Line’, more often referred to simply as ‘The Line’ (Birch 2), the town boundary outside of which all Aboriginal people must live. We learn that the pioneer Deane ‘carried the blood of so many Aboriginal people on his hands it could never be scrubbed away, not from the man himself or the town that carried his name’ (Birch 2).

The environment around the town, especially its waters, has also suffered under the hands of the invaders. Odette crosses a river ‘that could no longer quench its own thirst’, having had ‘its life-force’ taken by upstream irrigation made possible with ‘handouts’ to ‘corrupt politicians’ (5). Later Odette tells Sissy how when she was young ‘the water here was once the clearest you would ever see’, ‘The fish and the eels would be swimming with us’ and the river ‘had run free’ (54, 55). When Sissy inquires as to why this had changed, Odette explains that ‘White people got even greedier than we thought possible’, covering wetland and billabongs with ‘screenings from the mine’ and then selling them (55). There has been a chain of ponds on this site, but it has been covered over. Odette links the health of the waters with that of her people, telling Sissy ‘the river, all the rivers, we need them. And they need us. This river underneath us, she’s not quite dead but if she gets any more sickness she will be gone soon’ (55). This link between human and waterways is obvious and fundamental to Odette; it is the colonisers who fail to see the interconnectedness of all life. Not only is the river dying but the covered over billabong was ‘slowly devouring the house’ of Odette’s friend Millie Khan, a feisty and resistive Aboriginal woman, Birch says was inspired by ‘older Aunties’ who were prepared to be ‘confrontational’ with the police (Edwards). When the alcoholic policeman Bill Shea, at the end of his tether, takes his own life after being found to have issued Odette a travel permit against his superior’s wishes, it seems entirely appropriate that he chooses the dry riverbed as the site in which to do it (212–13). It is already the site of an environmental crime.

The suppression of rivers and billabongs (which become chains of ponds when flow is low) are constantly stressed in the novel, seeming to reflect the continual surveillance and threat over Odette and Sissy. Yet, one other site of water is redemptive. With the rivers and billabongs cut off from nourishing Odette and Sissy, they are able to form a special bond around their bath. The cast-iron bath had been bought by Odette’s father, and despite its massive weight had been moved onto a dray for transport by means of ‘pulleys, ropes and a wooden frame’, using knowledge gained by Aboriginal men working in the mine (31). It is a symbol of outwitting the whites, who had not been able to determine how to move it. The bath is set on ‘blocks of stone’ out the back of the little house and filled by hand, with a fire built next to it (31); once there was a bed of coals, they were spread underneath to heat the water. When it was drained the bathwater went into the vegetable garden, making that productive all year round. The bath is a site of simple and nurturing intimacy. As part of the weekly bath routine, Odette washes Sissy’s hair, massaging her scalp and rinsing it off:

Sissy sighed with pleasure. “I love this, Nanna. It’s the best part of the week.’

‘I’m happy you do.’ Odette smiled. ‘I love it too’. (33)

A magpie sings in the tree above and Odette teaches Sissy that birds ‘would become the truest friends she could have’ (33). This scene is the emotional heart of the novel, with the bathtub ‘a central motif, a physical object that signifies a profound connection between Odette and Sissy’ (Dale 203). It is repeated once again, when Odette, feeling poorly, slips while preparing the bath, prompting Sissy to take over the job. The key moment of the reciprocity of intimacy is when Sissy begins to wash Odette’s hair:

‘Will you let me wash your hair for a change, Nan?’

‘I wouldn’t say no to that,’ Odette smiled, feeling calmer. (72)

This is all that is said, but it completes the circle of care between grandmother and granddaughter, the bond which sustains them both, enabling their survival. Odette’s vigilance against the threat that Sissy will be removed, a threat explicitly raised by the new more authoritarian policeman, Lowe, is countered by their love, seen in the ritual of the bath.

Years later, in 1980, with Sissy grown and her grandmother already dead for five years, Sissy returns to the town to scatter Odette’s ashes on the graves of her great-grandparents in the mission graveyard. She stops by the ruins of their old ‘one-bedroom hut’, and catching sight of the bathtub, she cleans it out and gets in. The novel concludes:

She lay down and closed her eyes. Sissy could hear the birds of old, the birds that spoke to her grandmother. She rested the back of her head against the edge of the bath and felt the warm water caress her young skin. She could feel Odette’s fingertips massaging the back of her neck.

Odette and Sissy Brown had come home together. (260–61)

The function of water in this deceptively simple tale is significant. Notably, there is very little of it, indicating the limited zone in which these lives can function, enchained by the panopticon of state surveillance. Yet despite this, there is life in the pond, the bath a redemptive space that makes possible Indigenous ‘survivance’ (Vizenor).

Moving from a story that could have played out in many inland places in south-eastern Australia, I turn now to one that engages very specifically with the largest pond on earth, the great Te Moana nui a Kiwa (in Māori), Wansolwara (in the creole pidgin, pijin, of the Solomon Islands and tok pisin, Papua New Guinea), Oceania, the Pacific Ocean, making up around a third of the planet’s surface. Here we are subject to the warm East Australian Current as it rakes down the coast of New South Wales, to a town unnamed but sounding very similar to Narooma, on Yuin Country, where unsurprisingly the author of this text, Christos Tsiolkas, has a home. The story concerns a writer retreating from the city and from online and social media to give himself space and time to explore a story that has stayed with him for years. The three narratives that emerge blend into each other: the story of Paul, the ex-porn star, returning to the United States from northern New South Wales to turn one last trick over a single weekend for an unrefusable fee; the author’s memoir of sexual awakening and sense of beauty; and the account of the days and nights spent by the narrator in the town and especially, in the ocean that forms its eastern boundary.

Paul’s story is a mise-en-abyme – a miniature of the outer narrative – in that the choices made by its protagonist are essentially the same as those made by the narrator, Christo, for much of the novel (and by Christos Tsiolkas as he signs himself in the final pages) (227, 334). Tsiolkas literalises the mirroring effect of this story within a story when his narrator speaks of reaching through the mirror to find his characters. The mirror is also a border, ‘the mirror between the worlds’ (246), that allows the development of themes and images from Dante’s Inferno together with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, especially Cocteau’s film version, Orphée, from which the narrator literalises a guide in his creative process. This guide endorses the narrator’s aesthetic goal, stated early in the text, telling him: ‘Pursue beauty’, with the reminder that ‘There is beauty in cruelty as much as there is beauty in tenderness’ (249). This precedes a descent into the underworld of sorts for his protagonist Paul, when he returns to his origins of poverty and addiction in a bleak suburb of Sacramento, a horrifying episode of immersion in abject pleasures which serves to drive him back to his partner, son and significantly, his home by the sea. This descent seems necessary for both Paul and for his narrator as the confirmation of beauty and love.

The novel, or so it declares itself to be in the subtitle, is ostensibly a rejection of capital ‘P’ politics, issues that have previously preoccupied Tsiolkas: ‘sexuality, race, history, gender, morality, religion, the future – all of them now bore me’ (4). Is this a turn to political quietism, a retreat from the pressing issues of our age, a sign of acquiescence? To some degree, the answer would have to be ‘yes’, though I would note that focusing on the grim, the negative, the troubling, can also be simplistic. Tsiolkas is going for something else here: beauty. There are two other main elements affirmed in all three of the text’s narratives. One is the value of domestic life with a long-term lover, with whom support and care are mutual. The other is the ocean, especially the bodily experience of immersion in it. The narrator literalises the turn to beauty in an early conversation with a friend who tells him ‘You can’t write about beauty … You don’t have the talent’ (81). Later she adds, ‘Leave beauty to the poets’ (82). Yet, in returning to the ocean, the narrator can let this criticism slide: ‘The eternal motion of the waves mocks the petty fragility of my ego’ (85). Late in the book, when asked to comment on world events in two public forums, the narrator makes the same reply to both: ‘I am not a journalist, I am a poet’, making clear once again his purpose in pursuing beauty, not politics, while also asserting his capacity to write about beauty, as a poet, despite his friend’s opinion (334).

It is notable that of the three narratives, interwoven as they are, the most compelling is the simple account of days and nights spent walking, swimming and writing, together with reflections about the writing process. In all of this, the presence of the ocean is paramount, together with ‘the specific and the local’ (5), so it is the local beaches and inlets, the particulars of this shore of the Pacific that is celebrated here. Again and again the sight and experience of the ocean brings joy: ‘The surface of the water is alive, all dazzling play and wavering light flashing silver and sapphire producing an almost absurd rush of joy in me’ (18). The ocean by turns produces ecstasy or calm (29). There is never any neutral response from the narrator to the ocean he describes as ‘the verdant Eden of the temperate Pacific’ (41).

The novel is not unaware of threats to this environment – signs of the summer of fires (2019–2020) are noted – but it is renewal that is emphasised, not threat, and replenishment is an indication of the character Paul’s restoration to home, to love and to the ocean. It is a counter to negativity, to the narrator’s assertion that ‘Some writers wish to howl’; instead, we read, ‘I offer you this image of the trees, vital and vigorous in their rebirth’ (309). The account of each day comes with multiple descriptions of the effect of, and affect produced by, the ocean: ‘Yet as soon as I dive into the cold, invigorating water, I am released. My body returns me to myself; also shed are shame and timidity, as if they are only surface afflictions, an irksome epidermal reaction that is staunched, conquered, as soon as the bracing salt water scours my skin’ (286). This insistence on a primal human/sea relation is repeated throughout. The text never departs from the determination that this is the main game, all else, except love, a distraction.

The novel notes that which it ignores, referring, somewhat obliquely, both to the need for Indigenous justice and to imminent environmental collapse, but it suggests that we cannot live there. Instead, it offers the still present beauty of the natural world, especially that offered by the ocean, along with the calming reassurance of enduring domestic love. Many of us travel a fine line between despair at ongoing injustice together with current and impending environmental ruin and ongoing joy in both beauty and love; inspired by the giant pond of the ocean, the narrator chooses joy.


As suggested at the start of this essay, my model of the chain of ponds owes much to archipelagic thinking in the humanities over the past decade or so, particularly that which has occurred in Australian studies. Paul Giles notes (in relation to American Studies) that the archipelagic expresses ‘a sense of the archipelagic environment as inherently different from more abstract continental designs’ (427). While the nation state of ‘Australia’ tends to the insular, thinking about its archipelagic aspects, also ‘has the capacity to enable an imaginative inversion of domestic premises that have traditionally underpinned the field,’ turning it ‘inside out’ (434). As Elizabeth McMahon tells us, the ‘the archipelago offers a mode of thinking, through a long history, of a form of relation that is dynamic, interdependent and interconnected within the material experience of space’ (202). Similarly, as a poetic model the chain of ponds is connective and flexible, yet also restricted, reflecting the literal constraints of environmental collapse. Such collapse exposes the ongoing effects of Western modernity, caught as it is in models of division between nature and culture, and still enforcing dominant relations of imperialism with their accompanying fixed notions of gender, sexuality and race. While offering posthuman critique of these, thinking with the chain of ponds also offers a poetics of place, especially of waters, that is specific, flexible and regenerative. In the pond that is Fremantle Harbour, Kinsella’s Cellnight makes clear the ontological entanglement of all human and non-human actors, especially the way a range of injustices play out, inextricably linked in a chain. Harkin’s ‘Cultural Precinct’ tracks a freshwater spring that flows amid genocidal institutions, materialising, in fluvial form, Indigenous survivance. Similarly, Birch’s The White Girl asserts the strength of familial intimacy in the ritual of suds in the pond of the bathtub, circumscribed and constrained by panoptical state surveillance though it is. Finally, Tsiolkas’s glories in the sensuality of oceanic immersion, choosing the greatest pond on earth, the Pacific Ocean, in which to transcend, large ‘P’ politics (arguably a privileged move), in favour of the simplicity of beauty and domestic love.

Thinking with the chain of ponds allows us, as does archipelagic thinking, to escape the bounds of the nation state, and to explore relations and regions that follow other trajectories, including traversing bodies of water. As an example of this, I note a utopian futurist vision of relations stretching across another pond, the Tasman Sea – ‘the ditch’ – waters linking the island continent known as Australia with the islands known as Aotearoa New Zealand, a link fulfilling Tongan writer and thinker Epeli Hau‘ofa’s vision of Oceania as ‘our sea of islands’ (27–40). In Māori artist Lisa Reihana’s video work Groundloop, a smoke signal goes up from the site of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (it was commissioned for Naala Badu) on Gadigal land. This signal travels the ocean, underwater, to arrive in Hokianga Harbour, Reihana’s home, from whence a group of Māori, Pasifika and Indigenous Australians set out in a high tech waka hourua, a double-hulled canoe, arriving back at the source of the signal, where they do ceremony, dance and celebrate in ‘banksia-pod architecture’ (Reihana). Set ‘in an indeterminate future’, the work optimistically celebrates a vision of indigifuturism, in which custom and artefact are present but in a yet to be realised form and connections are enabled by culture and ocean (Reihana).1 This work enthusiastically throws off many of the chains I have traced across this continent and points to the liberatory promise of thinking and living with watery forms.


I wrote this article on the traditional lands of the Peramangk people, land that has never been ceded, and I extend my respect to all Peramangk peoples, past and present. I extend my respect to all First Nations people, and particularly acknowledge Country referred to directly in the works under discussion here.

An earlier version of this article was presented as the Dorothy Green Memorial Lecture at Recentring the Region, the Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature and also of the Association for the Study of Literature, Environment, and Culture – Australia and New Zealand, held at RMIT in July 2023. I thank Emily Potter, Brigid Magner and D’Arcy Molan for their kind invitation to speak, and for their stimulating theme.

My thanks to Jana Norman, Meg Samuelson, Verity Oswin and Sam Cox for useful feedback and suggestions on an earlier version of this article.

Research for this article was supported by an Australia Research Council grant.


  1. ‘Indigifuturism’ is an adaption of the term ‘Indigenous futurisms’ coined by Anishinaabe scholar and writer Grace L. Dillon in 2003, which draws inspiration from Afrofuturism. For Dillon, it involves ‘discovering how personally one is affected by colonization, discarding the emotional and psychological baggage carried from its impact, and recovering ancestral traditions in order to adapt in our post–Native Apocalypse world’ (qtd. in Vowel).

Published 25 May 2024 in Volume 39 No. 1. Subjects: Natural environment, Natural environment - Literary portrayal, Tony Birch, Christos Tsiolkas, John Kinsella, Humanities Research, Natalie Harkin, Indigenous Knowledges.

Cite as: Treagus, Mandy. ‘Recentring Water: Thinking with the Chain of Ponds.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, 2024, doi: 10.20314/als.95d4ac9cc5.

  • Mandy Treagus — Mandy Treagus is Associate Professor in English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide, where she teaches literature, culture, and visual studies.