Monthly Archives: July 2019

Lisa Bellear, Aboriginal Country

Lisa Bellear, Aboriginal Country (UWA Publishing 2018)

Lisa Bellear was a Melbourne activist, photographer, broadcaster and poet who died aged just 45 in 2006. She had one book of poetry published in her lifetime (Dreaming In Urban Areas (UQP, 1996)). Aboriginal Country, a second book which a number of poems from the first, has been edited posthumously by Melbourne poet (among other things) Jen Jewel Brown, with an ‘About the Author’ by Susan K. Martin of La Trobe University. That and other introductory material sketches Bellear’s life story – her adoption as a baby by a white family after being virtually stolen by a hospital, her rediscovery of her true Aboriginal family in her twenties, and then her years as participant in Melbourne’s cultural life and Indigenous activism. So the book is framed as a kind of memorial to an inspiring individual.

I’m coming at the book from a different angle. I’ve read it in NAIDOC Week, as part of Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZLitLovers, so I want to talk a little about this year’s NAIDOC theme, and about recent Aboriginal poetry.

The theme is ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth.’ You probably already know that that’s shorthand for the recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which for a fleeting moment this week the Morrison government seemed to be taking seriously. Just as a reminder, here are the relevant paragraphs from the Statement:

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
       Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
       We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

(You can read the full Statement here.)

As NAIDOC Week theme, ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth.’ invites reflection and action at many levels besides those that involve government action. Among other things, they imply an invitation to non-Indigenous Australians to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, to be open to their truths.

And we’re living in a time when a rich variety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices can be heard by anyone who cares to listen – in the mainstream print and broadcast media, on social media (have a look at @IndigenousX), in brilliant films and novels – and in poetry. Here’s a brief (well, as brief as I could make it) rundown of some of the excellent poets that I’ve come across (and mostly blogged about: click on the links for my blog posts).

  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal (who like Lisa Bellair came from Minjerribah / Stradbroke Island) carried the burden of being first – the first Aboriginal person to have a book of poetry published in English, and she produced two – We Are Going (1964) and The Dawn Is at Hand (1966).
  • Kevin Gilbert, like Oodgeroo, was many things besides being a poet. His first book of poetry, End of Dream-time (1971), which also carries some of the burden of being ‘first’, the felt obligation to speak on behalf of all Aboriginal people, is a striking lesson in what can go wrong when well-meaning non-Indigenous people overstep. His second collection, People Are Legends, partly corrected the damage done by the first. He also wrote a charming book of poetry for children, Child’s Dreaming (1992).
  • Lionel Fogarty is described on the Australian Poetry Library (APL) website as ‘a poet who has opened up the new space of black Australian post-surrealist writing and done much to reformulate our understanding of poetic discourse and its roles in both black and white communities’. His concern is definitely not to put white readers at ease. ‘White man will never really fully interpret what a black man is thinking when he is writing.’ If you can live with that, I recommend his work.
  • Ali Colby Eckermann once said in an interview, ‘I want to use my poetry to educate Australians, to overcome their innate fear of Aboriginal people.’ If you think that implies didacticism or talking down, I recommend her slim verse novel Ruby Moonlight, which is just wonderful.
  • Samuel Wagan Watson is another excellent poet from south-east Queensland. I didn’t blog about his prize-winning Smoke Encrypted Whispers, but I remember feeling that I was meeting a new generation: his Aboriginality is no less significant, but a lot of the poetry is about life and relationships among those who had come of age in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Brisbane. (I don’t think SWW mentions Joh, but it’s a way of naming that cultural moment.)
  • Evelyn Araluen, as far as I know, doesn’t have a book out yet, but I’ve read poems by her and heard her read a couple of times. She does weird, vengeful mash-ups of May Gibbs. At a recent Sydney Poetry Lounge evening she read, among other things, a terrific piece lampooning awkward and/or perfunctory Acknowledgements of Country and a long, philosophical reflection on the effects of colonisation, which I look forward to seeing in print.

I’ve also read terrific poems by Peter Minter, Steven Oliver, Lorna Munro, Ellen van Neerven, Maya Hodge, Anita Heiss and probably others. If you know of any that I’ve missed, please add them in the comments.

Aboriginal Country is part of that extraordinarily rich conversation. My main response in reading it is to wish I could have seen her read them live, each one in its moment – as for instance ‘Dear Mr Prime Minister (of Australia)’, written in June 1993, wishing Paul Keating luck with ‘Mabo’, and signing off:

If you need support, like to talk.
Yours sincerely,
A. Citizen
(Noonuccal)

Or the ten starkly confronting poems that were performed by Lisa Bellear as part of a multimedia event as part of Melbourne’s Centenary of Federation celebrations. Here’s the opening of ‘Federation Statement’:

In 1901 the new Federation of Australia deliberately excluded
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – why?

Always was, always will be Aboriginal country.

That’s necessary speech, words that needed to be said then, need to be repeated, and still need to be heard. A lot of the poetry here is of that sort – what Jen Jewel Brown’s Editor’s Note calls ‘straight-talking, sparse yet dramatically alive words’: poems dealing with domestic violence, colonising history, war in the former Yugoslavia, everyday racism, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, almost always in a way that feels public, even if not for actual performance. There are moments of humour, as in the brief ‘Home’ which celebrates, if that’s the word, the greyness of Melbourne; and of domesticity, as in ‘Writer’s Block’.

The poems that stand out for me are dramatic monologues in the mouths of historical figures, some based on photographs. As my regular readers know, I generally choose one poem to quote and discuss in some detail. So here’s ‘Construct Me’ (click to enlarge):

This makes me think of Vernon Ah Kee’s drawings of his ancestors. Beginning from photos taken with and for a coloniser’s gaze, he creates lovingly detailed, large-scale drawings of formidable people, no longer objects but challenging subjects. Here, the speaker in the first section is an Aboriginal woman being posed for a studio photograph. As Lisa Bellear was a photographer, I think it’s safe to assume these lines are underpinned by deep consideration of the relationship between photographer and subject. The woman addresses the photographer (who I’ll assume is male):

This is your language your culture
This is your naming your ideals
of who I am supposed to
be, represent.

She is aware that she is being objectified, cast in the photographer’s narrative without regard for who she actually is. But she doesn’t submit:

Am I allowed to
mourn.
I am still able to feel the
kangaroo and possum skin
Inside I will always run free.

The next ten lines deal directly with the details of the shoot. She expresses a completely rational failure to understand the studio. And then the photographer speaks, giving her instructions, warning her of the flash, and then reprimanding her for not following his instructions.

And in the last seven lines the woman speaks again, this time transcending the detail of her situation. Now she addresses not just the photographer but us, in the future. She now takes on a representative role, not as a specimen, but now as a spokesperson – a Voice. We may never come to know her individual name, but her ”lations’, who are ‘a big mob’ have made themselves more clearly known to the colonisers.

For our future and our
survival, we must be
remembered.

This lays out, so plainly and simply, the ambivalence in those photos: whatever the motive for taking them – as novelty, as anthropological record, perhaps as Victorian erotica – they can now function as a record of the people who were here at the time, they can be a means to ensuring that the people are remembered.

For this poem to have its full impact, it needs to be read aloud, in two voices, paying attention to the line breaks – over and again, there is a break just before a key word (‘to / be’, ‘to / mourn’, ‘the / kangaroo’, ‘the / trees’, all the way down to ‘we must be / remembered’.

Like many of the poems in this book, this one doesn’t invite the reader to enjoy it for clever rhymes or striking images. It’s in very plain language, ‘straight-talking’, as Jen Jewel Brown puts it. It challenges us to join the poet in doing the work of changing the way we look at those photos, and by extension the way we imagine the history of this country.

Aboriginal Country is the 26th book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve read it this week as part of Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZLitLovers.

Ruby Reads (13)

When I started writing about books I’ve met thanks to my granddaughter Ruby, I hesitated to include more than one book by a given author. But there are authors who turn up again and again, so here are a couple of Julia Donaldsons and Doctor Seusses we’ve regularly been asked to read. But first, some read-alouds from Rhyme Time at the library.

Allie Busby, Feeding Time (Just Like Me!) (Childs Play Intl Ltd 2018)

This is a very simple book, with very simple illustrations, and flaps. It worked beautifully with under-twos at the library. The ‘just like me’ of the title evidently indicates a series it belongs to, and it’s also a refrain, as one lifted flap after another reveals the food an animal eats, and that food is also one that humans eat. The illustrations aren’t in the same class as Jim Arnosky’s Man Gave Names to All the Animals but the book’s sweet, unstrained assertion of human commonality with other animals is much more the kind of thing I’d want small children to hear.

Penny Dale, Ten in the bed (Walker Books 1990)

While Rhyme Time is primarily an event for small children, it’s also, something rare these days, a place where adults can enjoy singing together. One old thespian attends irregularly and behaves as I would like to – joining in the songs with unembarrassed pleasure and beaming appreciation of the librarian’s performance and of the children’s sometimes disruptive enthusiasm. This book lifted most of us to his level. The richly coloured illustrations are full of little jokes, and the text rings changes on the familiar song (each ‘one’ who rolls out is a different toy).

Doctor Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go (1990)

I blogged about The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham in pre-grandfatherdom days (the blog post is here). Both of them are still going strong as far as our family is concerned.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go is the last Dr Seuss book published in his lifetime. It’s weirdly abstract both in its geometric illustrations and its non-specific text, but it’s got the characteristic verbal energy and visual quirkiness that keep his books interesting (for me at least).

Doctor Seuss (text) and George Booth (illustrator), Wacky Wednesday (1974)

Originally written over the name Theo LeSieg, this has clearly been welcomed into the general Dr Seuss canon. It’s meant for readers older that 18 and a two-thirds months, but Ruby requests it regularly. It’s essentially a series of spreads in which the reader is invited to find out what’s wrong with the illustrations. The text provides a slender narrative thread and tells the reader how many wacky things they can find on each spread. It has no appeal for me at all, and I can’t tell what Ruby enjoys in it, given that her sense of what’s ‘normal’ is (I believe) still developing – why is it odd that one of the girls on the cover image has no legs but not odd that three identical girls, identically clothed, are walking and gesturing in unison? Such questions are purely academic.

Julia Donaldson (text) and Rebecca Cobb (illustrator), The Paper Dolls (Macmillan Children’s Books 2012)

I’m please to say that Ruby’s tastes and mine sometimes coincide. This book is an example, though I don’t know what Ruby finds interesting in it. A little girl has a chain of five paper dolls – Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie and Jim with two noses and Jo with the bow – who have a string of adventures. Happily, the adventures involve a gigantic crocodile, thereby meetong one of our current preoccupations. If only they’d met a kookaburra it would have been a perfect book.

There are more books, and there will be more blog posts about them.

Journal Blitz 2

I still have nearly a year’s worth of subscribed journals on my TBR shelf. Here some gleanings from a second catch-up binge.

Andrew Galan and David Stavanger (guest editors) plus Toby Fitch (Big Bent editor), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 8 Number 2: Spoken

This issue of APJ is in two parts: ‘Spoken’ comprises 42 poems intended primarily for performance – ‘Spoken Word’ creations; and ‘Big Bent Poetry’ is 19 poems commissioned to be read at a series of LGBTQIA+ events at literary festivals in 2018. Sound recordings of both sections are accessible at the Australian Poetry home page, australianpoetry.org.

The Big Bent poems may have been commissioned for performance, but they are mostly ‘page poems’, compressed, elegant, needing to be taken slowly; the Spoken poems are definitely ‘stage poems’, with declamatory rhythms and big gestures, one of them actually including stage directions.

I’m a long way from being a Spoken Word aficionado, but I love Bankstown Poetry Slam and was pleased to recognise a number of its stars here. Sara Saleh’s ‘InshAllah’ offers a multitude of meanings for that expression, of which my favourite is, ‘InshaAllah is the answer / when there are still questions but no answers to give.’ Ahmad Al Rady has a group of three short, tantalisingly oblique poems (on rain: ‘wet bullets crave the warmth of flesh’). In Omar Musa’s ‘Christchurch’, that earthquake-ravaged city is a setting for a break-up poem (‘I don’t believe in miracles any more, just bridges – some you walk across, some you jump from’).

There are strong Aboriginal voices, including Lorna Munro, whose ‘cop it sweet’ evokes the ravages of time on her inner city Aboriginal community, and Steven Oliver of Black Comedy fame, with a brilliant list poem, ‘Diversified Identity’.

Other poems that stand out for me are Emilie Zoey Baker’s ‘Hey, Mary Shelley’, in which the speaker imagines herself inhabiting Shelley’s body ‘like a flexible ghost’; Emily Crocker’s ‘the refrigerator technician’, a breakup, or near-breakup, poem full of sharp domestic metaphors; Tim Evans’s ‘Poem Interrupted by’, in which the speaker answers a phone call from the Abyss (this is the one with stage directions); and the anthem-like ‘Forget’ by the late and much-missed Candy Royale. The section ends with a photograph of a splendid graffiti mural at the Newtown hub featuring Candy Royale with a halo made up of the words, loving instead of hating, living instead of waiting.

Coming to this issue late means that I’ve actually read a couple of the Big Bent poems in books published in the meantime. It was a pleasure to re-encounter Tricia Dearborn’s ‘Petting’ and Kate Lilley’s ‘Pastoral’. Of the others, I particularly warmed to joanne burns’s shit-stirring in ‘a query or two’, which includes:

is there a point to getting grumpy
if you're addressed as 'sir' by
a sushi seller or a supermarketeer –
better than being addressed as nothing
or no one service is better for the sirs
of this world.

There’s also ‘(weevils)’ by Pam Brown (I don’t understand the title, but it’s a terrific poem); ‘my human’ by Quinn Eades (he’s the poet who appears in both sections – ‘my human’ is spoken by a dog); ‘A Song of Love’ by Omar Sakr; and ‘Bathers’ by Zenobia Frost (a longish prose poem that takes a Rupert Bunny painting as its starting point). There’s a lot of excellence to choose from.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 232 (Spring 2018)

First thing you notice about this Overland is the stunning collages by guest artist Bella Li, especially the front and back covers – a great waterfall among skyscrapers, and oceanside apartment blocks bursting into flower. Bella Li’s artist’s statement can be read on the journal’s website, here. (Most of the contents of this issue can be read on the website. The titles here link to them.)

As always there are excellent columns by Alison Croggon (‘On memory‘ – ‘The human capacity for delusion isn’t so much a bug as a feature’), Giovanni Tiso (‘On remembering to back-up grandpa‘ – a touch of dystopian technofuture) and Tony Birch (‘On Kes‘ – the role of books and an imagined falcon in his childhood, plus a sweet present-day harking back).

Overland always includes the results of at least one literary competition. This time it’s the VU Short Story Prize and the PEN Mildura Indigenous Writers Award. The winner and runners-up for the former are all terrific: in How to disappear into yourself (in 8 steps) by Katerina Gibson the narrator juggles an internship, a paid job, motherhood, a possible new relationship, and cultural complexity, and the story stays lucid; in Dear Ophelia by Erik Garkain a trans man who works in a morgue speaks to a trans woman whose corpse he tends – it’s a little teachy, but I just now many of us need teaching; Nothing in the night by Ashleigh Synnott is a short, gripping, surreal piece which Bella Li’s collage illo suggests is set in a dystopian future, though I’m agnostic about that. Her eyes by Maya Hodge, winner of the PEN Mildura prize, takes that moment when you look into a baby’s eyes and understand something profound.

I’m always grateful for Overland‘s poetry section, currently edited by Toby Fitch. This issue has nine poems, of which the two that speak most directly to me are Peripheral drift by Zenobia Frost (who also got a guernsey in Big Bent Poetry, above), which begins:

Turns out you can still pash in a graveyard
at 28, though by now my fear of spooks
has faded into a more realistic fear of people

and Patternicity by Shey Marque, a terrific evocation of a tiny sandstorm that includes the wonderful word ‘apoidean’.

Of the articles, the ones I have been talking about compulsively are The bird you are holding by Ashleigh Synnott (who also appears as one of the VU Prize runners-up) and Against apologies by Joanna Horton. Each of them makes a case for keeping in mind our common humanity, or at least our common struggles. Among other things, Synnott provides brief literature survey of the concept of ‘precarity’, and Horton, while agreeing that talk of ‘privilege’ is useful, argues that apologising for one’s privilege is actually buying into neoliberal individualism:

We desperately need a politics that frames a comfortable, stable life, one as free from oppression as possible, as a right to be fought for, not a privilege to be denounced.

‘Making the desert bloom’ by Barbara Bloch is a trenchant criticism of the Jewish National Fund’s activities in the Negev/Naqab desert. Like Chris Graham’s ‘So much like home‘ in the previous issue, she draws parallels between the treatment of the Palestinians and colonialism in Australia, which chimes with my sense that Israel is not a special rogue case, but part of a planet-wide pattern.

I’ll just mention finally that I was delighted to read ‘Everything that is courageous & beautiful‘ in which Nell Butler argues that Paul Gallico should be brought back from obscurity – ‘from the dead’, she says. The Snow Goose, the book and the record of Herbert Marshall’s reading, was one of the joys of my childhood.


David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Michelle Hamadache (guest editor), Southerly Vol 77 No 3 2017: Mixed Messages

Southerly is a literary journal. I expect culture warriors of the right would say it was infected by the Gay-Marxist-feminist agenda, but it’s a broad church, with no avowed political leanings like Overland (or for that matter Quadrant, which I rarely read). David Brooks, retiring co-editor, has come out as seriously vegan, as has John Kinsella, who has a poem and a story i this issue. Yet Debra Adelaide’s story, ‘Festive Cooking for the Whole Family’, makes a cheerful mockery of vegans, among others, as her Christmas hostess wrestles with the complex dietary and other demands of a large family gathering.

David Brooks’s article ‘Seven Gazes’ (for which I broke my rule not to read anything that mentions Derrida in the first sentence) wrestles with the challenge of moving outside the human bubble to understand what is happening in the Gaze (his capitalisation) of ‘non-human animals’, and if he is aware that there’s something potentially risible in leaving the door of his house open so the sheep can drop in, he gives no sign of it; John Kinsella’s ‘Roaming the Campsite’, a sharp short story told from the perspective of a neglected child, doesn’t push any belief system, and his poem ‘Graphology Soulaplexus 36: loss’, despite its hi-falutin title, is a straightforward and beautiful elegy.

One pleasant surprise is ‘Poetic Fire’, an article written by Thea Astley when she was a school student, reproduced here because Cheryl Taylor has an article about Astley’s novels that refers to it, and the editors have kindly made it immediately accessible. In these days when schoolchildren are playing a major role in fighting for action on climate change, it’s good to have another reminder not to patronise the young. (I broke another rule, not to read Eng Lit scholarly articles about books I haven’t read, and read Charyl Taylor’s article: her use of the school-student essay is deeply respectful.)

Among other excellent things are ‘Fresh Food People’ a short story by Nazrin Mahoutchi about a small, diverse group of migrants in a food preparation business. I broke another rule (not to read excerpts) and read Peter Boyle’s ‘Excerpts from Enfolded in the wings of a Great Darkness‘, a tantalising seven pages from a long poem in progress:

who picks among
the clothes left
by those stripped bare
for mourning

Who rinses their hands in
water that can no longer
cleanse

Who goes to hear
the hymns of forgiveness
but clutches in one hand
the prayer beads of vengeance

S K Kelen’s ‘More Words: Uses for a Father’, a joyous list poem that does what the title says, speaks to my condition as a new grandfather, though ‘cricket bat whack kick / box new fun’ isn’t on our agenda just yet.

And that’s all from me. Thanks for persisting to the end. I expect to do a ‘Journal Blitz 3’ post, but not for a little while.

Nadia Wheatley, Her Mother’s Daughter

Nadia Wheatley, Her Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir (Text 2018)

When Raimond Gaita wrote about his parents in Romulus My Father (1998), he brought his finely honed philosophical mind to the task. In Biff Ward’s long experience as a feminist activist permeates her exploration of her parents’ story, In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin 2014). The parts of Rozanna Lilley’s Do Oysters Get Bored? (UWA Publishing 2018) that deal with her famously tell-all parents can focus on her own experience, with their lives pretty much reduced to back story. Lee Whitmore, filmmaker, told the story of her grandmother in a sweeping visual drama, the comic Ada Louise: A life imagined (Susan Lane Studio 2016).

Nadia Wheatley is a historian: her The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (HarperCollins Australia 2002) has been described as ‘one of the greatest Australian biographies’. She is also a children’s writer: her collaboration with Donna Rawlins, My Place (Walker Books 1988) was an instant classic. Her Mother’s Daughter is a work of history, and some of its key moments are told from a child’s point of view.

Neen Wheatley, nee Watkin, died in October 1958, when her only daughter Nadia was nine years old. Nadia had clear memories of her as a loving mother who became unhappy and sick, caught for too long in a painful relationship with her husband John. Though Nadia loved her mother and feared her father, she grew up being told she was like her father, and was told once, when she took a political stand that her mother’s relatives disapproved of, that her mother would have hated her. The book, as its title suggests, is an act of reclaiming her allegiance to her mother, and her deep affinity with her.

It’s a work of history. At any given moment, the reader knows the source of the story that’s being told: Nadia’s own childhood memories of her parents; things that were said about them by their family members and the family Nadia lived with after her mother’s death; interviews with women who were Neen’s friends before she married (‘the Girls’); interviews with Neen’s family, including her much loved youngest brother, whom Nadia didn’t meet until he was 89; interviews with John’s surviving relatives; Neen’s wartime correspondence, and a detailed journal of her time working for the UNRRA after the war; official records of the displaced persons camps in Germany where John and Neen had positions of great responsibility, and where they met and fell in love; Neen’s medical records from her final years.

This historical discipline is at the service of a passionate quest to reclaim her mother from oblivion, and put the narrative from. When Wheatley discovers that Neen, whom she had been told was bitterly anti-Communist, used to go to shows at the left-wing New Theatre when young, her joy at the discovery is only partly that of a historian finding evidence of a counter-narrative; it’s also the joy of getting her mother back. Likewise, when she finds evidence that her father behaved unethically during his early years as a doctor in England, it comes as confirmation of what she knows of him from the domestic experience.

The book is in four sections with self-explanatory titles.: ‘Neen’, ‘Nina and John’, ‘Nina, John and Nadia’, and ‘Nadia’. Wheatley’s craft as a writer for children shines in the third part and in a brief prologue. In both of these the young Nadia has conversations with both her parents separately, and is used as a pawn in her father’s relentless undermining of her mother. The little girl’s passionate attachment to her mother, her helpless yielding to her father’s manipulations, her bewilderment at her mother’s death are all captured with great poignancy. The father’s repeated question when he is showing her hideous images of human suffering, ‘Do you understand, Nadia?’ is as horrific as any fairytale witch’s incantation.

I found this book deeply affecting. I learned a lot about the role Australians played in post-war Europe. I was reminded how resistant to evidence sexist assumptions can be – in this case in the medical profession. I remembered my own enjoyment of the Tintookies, a puppet show that I saw in North Queensland and Nadia in Sydney. I had my eyes opened to just how inexplicably vile adults can be to small children. I am in awe of the discipline that could wrangle such pain and loss and love into such an effective narrative.

Her Mother’s Daughter is the twenty-fifth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.