TEXT review

Speaking country as self: Indigenous poetry

review by Josie Arnold


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Rabbit. a journal for nonfiction poetry
No 21 Indigenous
Jessica Wilkinson (ed)
Rabbit poetry journal, Melbourne 2017
ISBN 9780995390133
Pb 152pp AUD17.00


Indigenous non-fiction poetry brings forward questions of readers’ expectations that most often are thoroughly formed and bound by Euro-western genre expectations. It is probably a bit late to challenge the nomenclature and the claim that this is ‘a journal for nonfiction poetry’, but I do find it an oxymoron – since poetry, however diverse, often offers a personal narrative that is clearly non-fiction.

This ‘Indigenous’ volume of Rabbit acknowledges that its name is a result of colonisation: of initially bringing rabbits to Australia, largely for fox hunting. Although the editorial by Jessica Wilkinson admits this, it is a rather shame-faced and unconvincing apologia.The contents of the book reveal so much more. The illustrations throughout are arresting and relevant as poetic texts in themselves, reminding us of the visual power of sixty thousand years of Indigenous painting in what is now Australia. Quite properly, in her editorial Alison Whittaker warns readers to ‘brace for everything’ (6). The images – often stark, always visually and spiritually engaging – demand our understanding as works of art but also because they are being positioned vis a vis word poetry. The visuals are a dynamic contribution to non-fiction poetry reminding us that what we see that is not in words is important, particularly in such painterly societies as First Nations.

Like painting, music is as central a concern as dance and storytelling in First Nations. Rap is increasingly a modality that Indigenous singers and poets use to express their word music and Phillip Hall’s ‘Millad Mob da Best!’ (8) does not disappoint. It is a terrific poem that tells a horse riding story with humour and impact. It covers so much story that we are there at the rodeo and singing in our heads as we read.

The powerful oppression that has endeavoured to silence the oldest living culture in the world lead Oodgeroo Noonuccal in 1988 to abandon the Anglo-Australian assignation, Kath Walker, and reclaim her Indigenous name. In this tradition, Evelyn Araluen’s ‘gangguy’ (12) builds upon Noonuccal’s powerful body of work as she too rediscovers herself. The poem sits on the page with blank spaces and an individual layout that emphasises its form and reflects the content. It confronts me as an interloper as does her ‘bury your own’ (14). It confronts readers with the growth of Indigenous peoples today, as does Samuel Wagan Watson’s ‘My alphabet of terrors’ (18). To the poet in me that loves the over one million words of English that give so much poetry to the world in so many forms, this is a very chilling loss. So many Indigenous languages have gone from the people.

Attuned as I am to Australian First Nations people, it is a surprise to go from ‘My alphabet terrors’ to the sophisticated form and content of Jose Trejo Maya’s declaration about the Spanish invasion (20) still impactful today. In a similar vein I found the long half-empty pages of ‘A Native American Poet to a Palestinian One’ (62) by David Groulx distracting and calling for political insights into arguments about non-Indigenous matters. The parallel was not convincing to me. However, I was able to read in ‘Over the River Memory’ (113) by Jeanine Leane something all Australians should know about our history that also makes a timeless contribution to all displaced First Nation peoples whether Aboriginal or not. The big question they bring forward applies to non-Aboriginal people as well as Indigenous Australians: we are bonded by a sense of loss and displacement, so who are we today when the invaders are in control and we are the invaders facing the invaded in this book? Jack Sheppard’s ‘Fisherman’s Bay’ (24) is less successful as it seems to try too hard to confront capitalism, shopping centres and the lack of country for the traditional owners today. Jessica Hart’s ‘Gumba Thalun’ (58)speaks to us all as we remember our own matrilineal lines and the power of the grandmother. In a similar vein the interview of Jeanine Leane by Matthew Hall presents a view of colonisation as destructive. She does warn not to ‘lump all people of oppression together’ (109) and this book would be stronger if this abjuration had been followed.

Janet Roger’s ‘Change’ (26) is strong and speaks to loss whereas her ‘My Niagara’(28) battles with metaphoric comparisons that don’t really ring true to the subject of protecting history and also meeting fate, a theme that is at the heart of this story. Country is central to Indigenous existence and its loss has been a grievous scarring for over two hundred years. In her ‘Pictures of Country’ (32), Susie Anderson speaks to us of ‘grief embedded into landscape’ (33). She notes that Sydney Nolan’s years in the Wimmera have redoubled the loss of land as they record a different light, farming land and a new edge that she longs to inhabit.

Of course, so many Indigenous peoples have been lost to their homes through diasporas caused by terror or hope: maybe a combination of both? Craig Santos Perez in ‘Off-Island Chamorros’ (36) urges himself (and the reader) to uphold the belief that Chamorros exist today wherever they now live and he mourns at the fact that the Pacific island ‘will continue to change until it becomes unfamiliar to us’ (8). His final impactful line speaks to the land that has been lost by almost all Indigenous peoples: ‘home is an archipelago of belonging’ (38) and is resonant with loss and longing. His ‘During Your Lifetime’ (40) echoes this. The Aboriginal poems are very convincing but I am not so sure about placing them alongside other poets from different Indigeneity. The short poem by Anwer Ghani on ‘Saba Breeze’ (56) evokes a similar sense of loving the land, but is rather evanescent in the context of this production despite similar revelations of pain, yearning and exclusion.

‘Skin’ (42) by Mitch Tomas Cave also resounds with a deep sense of loss. As I read the poems in this book I become more and more sad. I feel the burden of the convict colonisers in my family who contributed to this, the burden of my own life as owning land, the burden of the past, present and future of broken dreams. I remind myself of the growing power of representatives of the Aboriginal Australians who are struggling with their people coming from so many lost or ignored nations. As Ellen O’Brien records in ‘Birds’ (44), this has a personal family impact and is terrible. Kate Daglas also speaks to this describing how the invasion meant judgements and rejections even when they conformed: judgements she continues to fight against. In her poem about ‘Black Ducks’ (72) Hannah Donelly continues to express the dreadful truth about the displacement and massacre of so many Aboriginals and to show this is not an historic act: it is not over.

Indigenous Australians have many songlines and stories, and long narratives were, and still are sometimes chanted by their nominated owners to record these and other stories that are precious to the people. Because early European ethnographers were male, most women’s stories remained untold, unrecorded by diligent scholars, but not forgotten. In her ‘Out ofChoice’ (46), Kristine Ellis reminds us that the child at the campfire who had so many aunty-mothers is placed by the invaders’ practices in an unsympathetic unmarried mother’s home in ‘the big city’ (47) for shame.

There is the ongoing fight to be, to exist and be seen and Paul Collis records his anger and fighting spirit in ‘Dirty Me, Bloody You: The Fight Back’(48) and leads into Makayla-May Brinkley’s account of being crushed again and again by the way her beliefs are scoffed at and derided. The sounds of the sticks, of stamping feet and the didgeridoo are in this land, and this musicality is evident in the story in Raelee Lancaster’s poem ‘I grew up’ which records how her child-self wanted to ‘change the public opinion’ (76) in response to the deep hurt caused by the taunt of being one of the indigenous ‘golliwogs’. Indiah Money’s ‘Mimicking the Other’ (78) is a plaintive cry that echoes ‘can the subaltern speak?’, whilst Nyein Way’s ‘Grassland’ (81) fails to convince this reader despite its adventurous layout: it is too self-consciously clever.

The narrative of self is a significant element of these poems throughout and the talking circle is enhanced by the story of – and interview with – Natalie Harkin. I’m quite comfortable with both being described as Indigenous poetry describing her installations. When she opens the archive box of what happened to Australia’s First Nations I am blown away by the revelation that it is still happening. The challenge to go forward is hard to accept given the past. As I read Evelyn Araluen’s ‘Shame and Contemporary Australian Poetics’ (117) I realise again the importance of language and the great losses that have occurred and are only recently being clawed back. Brianna Bullen quite rightly discusses multiplicity (128) without placing Aborigines as a mere strand within it, whilst Phillip Hall’s review of Samuel Wagan Watson’s ‘Monster’sInk’ (134) indicates the impact of prose poetry without delegating it to a sub-genre.

Altogether this book offers a great deal: maybe too much?



Josie Arnold is the inaugural Professor of Writing Swinburne University of Technology, she has published over forty-five books including poetry, drama, novels, textbooks, e-games and memoirs. She established Swinburne online journal Bukker Tillibul; the Master of Arts (Writing); and the PhD by artefact and exegesis for which she has won National and University Teaching Awards. Josie has supervised twenty PhD students to a successful completion and currently supervises another ten in the artefact and exegesis model and two in the traditional model. She is currently researching the decolonisation of knowledge and making biofilms with two Wurundjeri Auntys.


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Vol 21 No 2 October 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews editor: Linda Weste