Ross Gibson’s 26 Views and my 14 lines (Sonnet #9)

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

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.

13 responses to “Ross Gibson’s 26 Views and my 14 lines (Sonnet #9)

  1. ‘these marks show some opposed that tide.’

    We need such reminders – that speaking up for justice – for the right and proper way – for Indigenous peoples – here in Australia – is part of our heritage – from earliest colonial times. Not to speak on behalf of – but in human fellow-feeling support of!


  2. Thanks, Jim. As is probably obvious, I wrestled with how to end the sonnet. My thought is not so much that Dawes spoke up for justice as that he did the work of building personal connections. He seems to have had genuine friendships with Patyegarang, Benelong and others.


  3. I wish Dawes had lived here from 1788 to 1991, he sounds like a really interesting guy, the sort we could do with.


  4. Oops! Imagine the birthday parties with all his great great great etc grandchildren. Fixed. Thanks.


  5. Many, many thanks:
    1. For the sonnets, which are wonderful, inspiring, and much fun in the bargain.
    2. For the shout-out
    3. For a wonderful treatment of a subject dear to my heart (I even loved Kate Grenville’s take on it)
    4. For the link to Library Thing, which led to Amazon, thence to the Kindle store, and now I own a copy of Gibson’s book, just minutes after learning of its existence. To keep in the poetic mode and marvel at the powers of the internets, let me murder Shakespeare to marvel at
    What a tangled web we weave
    When first we practice to transceive


    • Hi Will.
      1. I’m glad you’re enjoying them.
      2. Your review is a brilliant account of the book.
      3. I blush. Gibson talks about two Dawes-inspired novels, one of them The Lieutenant and says that the linearity of the well-made novel, and its traditional focus on a single life, isn’t suited to grappling with these notebooks. ‘With a good novel, you are almost always brought to the point where you can say of its characters, “I feel I know them now.” But with Dawes’ notebooks, again and again, I am brought up short, muttering, “I feel I don’t know myself any more.”‘ Like a lot of the book, that’s maybe a bit too clever, but it’s saying something true.
      4. I feel incredibly smug to have beaten you to a book on this subject!
      5. That’s clever!


  6. Re: intro para in Ross Gibson’s earlier post. No, not at all. Australia’s history is colorful and fascinating and progressive. It’s Canada’s that’s grey and static and boring beyond belief. Nothing significant has happened here for 350 years, other than a bit of mining. For God’s sake, we’re still loyal subjects of the the Queen of England! I mean she dresses like she’s still in the 1940’s or something…


  7. Hi Jonathan:
    Having never seen the Australian flag, I was surprised to learn that it contains an entire, unabbreviated Union Jack. Well then, you’re definitely a big step behind us on the protocol-abolishment front, and I’m afraid you’re going to have to go through what we went through in order to scrape that other country’s emblem off your flag. I can tell you, it was hell for us. Early on the brave fighters for a new Jack-free Canadian flag had to hide in the mines until the conservative flack died down. And that was just for suggesting it. But we progressives got the immigrants on our side, and we won in the end.

    Anyway, I’m sure you’ll make a great donnybrook out of the contest of wills, since you’re far more athletic and feisty than we are–except in hockey where we have the advantage with our year-round superabundance of cold and ice and ability to bleed at will. But maybe you should just let it be, and accept the fact that there’ll always be a little piece of somewhere else on your flag. For many years it worked for us.

    It was cold and it was snowing heavily when I got up this morning, so I wore my woollen underpants—necessary maybe, but not my favourites. When I came into the coffee shop later on, it was still snowing. Mercedes, coffee pot in hand, looked out the window and remarked on it. “Isn’t it lovely?” she asked. Then she said: “I love snow.” I remarked that I loved it too, because Mercedes is very pretty. And then, forcing my brain around to her way of thinking, I remarked on how lucky we were to have all this lovely snow coming down on us and a warm day to boot—just 20 below zero. ‘It’s weather made for frolicking,’ I thought. I then took the liberty of advancing a little further toward an improved harmony between us, saying that I felt sorry for those poor Australian blokes down under, suffering helplessly in the heat, being forced to spend their days lying on ocean beaches in skimpy underclothes. Mercedes looked out the window again and sighed. And so did I. We silently looked at it together for another moment—looked the snow. It was a precious moment, for it was about as close as we ever came in regard to our shared feelings. I was about to emit another sigh, but went back to the counter with the coffee pot before I could get it out. It was over. I knew all along it would end this way. With pretty girls it’s difficult get much beyond a weather agreement when you’re 76 and they’re approaching 19.

    “It’s pretty far away,” she said, striking up again from behind the counter. “That place with all the beaches, I mean… What is it?”.

    “Australia,” I said. “Yeah, it’s pretty far away. In fact, it’s at the bottom of the world.”

    For a second she looked perplexed. “Is it really?” she asked.

    I nodded sadly at her. “Yeah,” I said.

    “Then how come it doesn’t it fall off?” she asked with a frown.

    “It probably will some day,” I said. “And I hope the beaches go with it.”


  8. Well, Don, that is definitely a contender for the longest and funniest comment on this, or possibly any other blog. Our flag controversy has died down a little. One of my other regular commenters has put an excellent proposal up on his blog, which also explains the current flag and pays homage to the Canadian experience. It’s at


  9. Thanks for the link Jonathan. Very interesting. Regarding your flag, I think the blue background with the southern cross is very pretty, and I think the world would agree with me. It’s also pretty much internationally recognized as the heart of the Australian flag. See how it stands out during the Olympic march-ins!

    Yes, I would definitely retain that part of your current flag, if I were you. If you did, the decision would likely please (or appease) most Australians, I think, and it would thus reduce the scale of the inevitable controversy if you do decide to go for a new flag. If that’s done, then you’d only have to agree on something for the corner. (Notwithstanding the current occupant, I think a corner subtext is intrinsically interesting and should be retained.) Please not a Kangaroo. That’s so yesterday (and you may be obliged to shoot some of them from time to time, which might then be compared to tramping on your flag.)

    If it were up to me, I’d put Judy Davis up there. But that wouldn’t wash, I guess, so maybe there’s something pretty down there (or is it up there?) that would make everyone who’s halfway in touch with the world see Australia in it. Something majestic and stunning. A rock in the outback, perhaps?

    Cheers Don.


  10. Thanks Jonathan. I only live to help. Cheers, Don.


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