Ross Gibson, 26 Views of the Starburst World (UWAP 2012)
My formal education left me with a lingering sense that Australian history was boring: a drab procession of convicts, explorers, squatters, gold miners, politicians arguing about free trade and train gauges, soldiers, shearers, horsemen – and somewhere on the sidelines an undifferentiated, disappearing mass labelled ‘Aborigines’.
I began to see things differently in the theatre in the early 70s, with the irreverence and vigour of plays like The Legend of King O’Malley (Ellis and Boddy 1970), The Duke of Edinburgh Assassinated (Ellis and Hall 1972) and Flash Jim Vaux (Blair, Clark and Colman 1972), and exhumed splendours like Edward Geoghegan’s The Currency Lass (from the 1840s, published by Currency Press in 1976) and Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Brumby Innes (written 1927, first professional production at the Pram Factory in 1972). Skipping forward a couple of decades, Inga Clendinnen’s brilliant Dancing with Strangers (the link is to Will Owen’s review), by taking a probing scalpel to journal accounts of the first years of the settlement at Port Jackson, made me realise what an extraordinary moment that was, whose meaning is still a long way from being fully understood.
Ross Gibson’s 26 Views of the Starburst World is even more of a revelation, and has an even tighter focus than Dancing with Strangers. It looks at two notebooks, ninety pages in all, in which William Dawes recorded his notes on the ‘language of N. S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney (Native and English)’ in the late 18th century.
William Dawes was a marine lieutenant and astronomer who lived in Sydney from 1788 to 1791, years in which the world of the Eora changed catastrophically and in which that of the British invader–settlers likewise was transformed. These two notebooks were rediscovered in London in 1972. In compiling them, Dawes drew on his relationships with a small group of Eora, including most memorably a young woman named Patyegarang, who visited him at his tiny observatory on the edge of the settlement. They record snippets of conversation, and give sometimes enigmatic glimpses of tiny interactions.
Gibson describes the notebooks as ‘fragmented, unfinished, heuristic’, with ‘a prismatic quality’. And his book might be described in similar terms: it quotes, questions, analyses, peers closely at faint marks, speculates, extrapolates. It comes at the notebooks from, well, at least 26 angles: there’s biography, linguistics , psychology, anthropology, the history of colonisation, the history of science (1788 was a time of a high romantic approach to scientific enquiry in England), communication theory, the politics of Rugby League in 21st century Sydney. Apart from Dawes’ contemporaries Watkin Tench, David Collins and Arthur Phillip, it quotes Wordsworth, Emerson, Walden, Mallarmé, James Agee, Kenneth Slessor, the 2oth century haiku master Seichi, Robert Gray, Barry Hill – all of them pertinently … And sometimes it lets the notebooks speak for themselves. Gibson describes his approach as ’roundabout, relational, a tad restless and unruly’, and in a slightly less alliterative moment as ‘a little like history, a little like poetry, a little maddeningly like a séance’.
Possibly my favourite moment in the book is the facsimile of page 37 of Notebook A, on which there are just four words:
Gibson gives us a caption – and bear in mind that everywhere else he refrains from speculation about any sexual dimension to the relationship between Dawes and Patyegarang:
‘Yanga’ – a verb that Dawes records but does not translate. Other colonial word lists, not compiled by Dawes, suggest ‘yanga’ means ‘to copulate’.
The School of Oriental and African Studies (London) has put the complete notebooks are online, with transcriptions of their contents, at http://www.williamdawes.org/.
But I’m falling behind on my quota of November sonnets, so here goes:
Sonnet 9: William Dawes and Patyegarang
He lived apart to study stars
and drew dark students to his table –
students and ambassadors
who drank his tea so he was able
to write their words down, turn their breath
to marks on paper. War and death
were soon to dominate this story
but then there was a kind of glory:
she said, ‘You shade me from the sun.’
She said, ‘We’re angry, fear the gun –
Gulara, tyérun gu̇nın.’
The future loomed with genocide:
these marks show some opposed that tide.