TEXT review

Inhaling trauma

review by Kit MacFarlane


Phillip Hall
UWA Publishing, Perth WA 6009
ISBN: 9781742589695
Pb 104pp AUD $22.99


In his introduction to Fume, a collection of poetry primarily written on Country in Borroloola, Phillip Hall describes his struggle to accept the challenge of Gudanji elder Nana Miller ‘to embrace enough humility to accept that not all complications were easily navigable’ (18). Hall presents himself as having been at times ‘a missionary and a misfit’ (16) and an idealist (15); ‘interactions with spirits and magic’ offer ‘a potent challenge to my secular humanism’ (96), and his poem ‘Discharge’ seems to bluntly lay out some (old) underlying drives:

            craving worth I believed
            my trade was sport
            and camps to reengage and disrupt
            through reward, but a partnership
            of mine trust and office-bound leaders wanted
            another cheeky dog:

            prejudiced, I wanted
            much from vocation, transgressing
            boundaries, rubbing
            myself out: (74)

Whether or not Hall himself meets Nana Miller’s challenge of humility is not for this reviewer to say, but Fume’s collection of poems (with some accompanying commentary) clearly demonstrates the poet’s determined attempt to respect and create with and alongside the First Australians he lived and worked with, and later joined as family, seeking and being granted permission for much of the language he uses and the stories he tells. The poems are peppered with dedications and a poem like ‘hand (pay) back (out)’ (64), a gutting poem of colonial slaughter and ‘Native Title crows’ (65), was written after a request by Nana Miller. Indeed, some of Fume’s strongest content comes from the group poems of Diwurruwurru (Yanyuwa/Garrwa for “message stick” (98), a name Hall uses with permission), a First Australians storytelling group begun in 2012, which appears along with Hall’s commentary at the end of the volume.

Hall’s focus on respect throughout Fume, and his anger at the racism that exists so bluntly in and around the community, places him a long way from the young boy he describes as living in the Blue Mountains of NSW, fantasising of being ‘a lost Aboriginal, defiant, living in Eden … with almost no sense of the cruel barbs of colonialism’s crooked paths’ (13). While Fume shows a poet seeking ‘to honour the First Australians and the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria and to interrogate colonialism’s twisted and violent paths’ (20), it’s also a personal journey: ‘I also try to write myself back to health’ (20).

The trauma of colonialism underlies much of Hall’s work:the ‘eyewitness accounts of massacres’ show a ‘trauma, like seismic tremors, repressed still’ (16). Hall’s work presents trauma as ever-present and near-tangible – finding ‘living amongst so much remote and repressed trauma a dangerous thing’ (17) – and as unavoidable as Australia’s air: ‘I just couldn’t help breathing in trauma’ (20). ‘Discharge’ seems to reflect on his early role as ‘a perfect / fool for trauma’s inhalation’ (74). Hall’s writing may be part of writing himself ‘back to health’ (20), but it’s far from self-focused, taking aim at the ongoing impacts of colonialism as in ‘Talking English’:

            The Gulf’s ancient tongues are hobbled
            by inherited trauma, gene-crackers

            sadistically scabrous and burgeoning
            in the remembered fluency of wire-tipped

            stockwhips and all those manhandled
            civilisers of a splendid frontier’s orders. (57)

Evocations of people and community are vividly summoned but often feel inevitably disrupted by the cruelty of ongoing colonial trauma, as in the shattered nights in ‘Borroloola Blue’ (26) and ‘Lullaby’ (36-37), and the gutting final lines of ‘Royalty’, that disrupt the beautiful portrayal of a gathering at ‘...Jayipa / a catfish hole lined / with paperbark and river gum / and those gleaming quartzite outcrops’ (68).

Not only a general presence, the immediacy of racism is firmly targeted, with Hall addressing the Intervention as ‘a bipartisan policy of disempowering our First Nations’ (90) and mining companies’ and government’s ‘cynical abuse of native title law’ (95). As the colonial slaughter in ‘hand (pay) back (out)’ concludes: ‘and hey presto, justice now – a shitfaced palimpset / over their / bottom lines.’ (65). Some of this trauma flows out bluntly in ‘Fizzer’:

            ...too many young ones passing away
            by suicide, the bashing
            on grog an ice an sniffing, the boils
            needing lancing, the stresses of shit-box
            never enough housing, the racist barbs
            and indifference of too many remote
            incentive miscarriages. It’s all ambush-
            hinged me undone... (76)

A poem like ‘Build-up’ also highlights the political voice of the First Australians Hall knew, addressing the hypocrisy of Australia’s Stop the Boats asylum seeker policy by summoning First Australians’ long history of intercultural communication and exchange:

            The bardibardi call time
            on mununga slogans of ‘stop the boats’;
            for centuries these boat people cultivated
                        tamarind trees in a highlight
                                    of northern fruits spoilt
                        in another latecomer’s scorched earth:

            so, with the bardibardi, we integrated
                        secondary programs: mapping
            Macassan heritage sites and Australian detention centres,
                        writing petitions and emails, researching
                                    and tabulating figures
            on massacres and stolen land, resistance,
                                    Eddie Mabo and ‘Land Rights Now’: (52)

This idea reappears in the ‘bush ballad ‘Fallen’, noting that ‘For centuries exotic trade flourished / Out where the slain would lie’ (54).

Hall’s interest in language sees it also linked to ongoing colonial trauma that is yet to be addressed, as in ‘Talking English’:


            to heel by Martini-Henry carbines
            that at this crucial moment were talking
                                                                        English. (57)

But language also offers an opportunity in Fume, with ‘Aboriginal English’ described as ‘a consequence of colonialism’ but also ‘a glorious linguistic invention that testifies, powerfully, to cultural resilience and pride’ (88). It is this resilience and pride that Hall hopes to highlight in the storytelling group Diwurruwurru, and he excitedly describes the process of working as a group to ‘pronounce and spell Aboriginal English and Language words’, which are not standardised here (88). In ‘Concourse’ he writes, ‘true god, we really are an arterial kaleidoscope / of silt-laden language’ (30).

As Fume progresses and the impact of Hall’s own trauma becomes clear, it’s important to note that Hall never equates his own personal trauma with that of First Australians. Hall’s clear positioning of himself in relation to the First Australians he writes with, and about, makes it obvious that he has no interest in taking the place of Aboriginal voices; but it’s important to note that Fume’s concerns are, of course, not unique and that numerous First Australian poets have addressed these issues through their work. Hall’s writing captures the personal perspective of someone who doesn’t identify as a First Australian in a specific time, place and circumstance, but that shouldn’t divert attention – and nor does it intend to – from the range and diversity of poetry produced by First Australians.

Hall does not present us with the ‘Eden’ he fantasised about as a child but, along with its political anger and its encounters with a near-tangible trauma, Fume nevertheless rewards its reader with vivid character portraits and evocative glimpses of Country in and around Borroloola.




Kit MacFarlane is a lecturer in Creative Writing and Literature in UniSA’s School of Creative Industries.


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Vol 22 No 2 October 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker