Gregory Day’s Words Are Eagles

Gregory Day, Words Are Eagles (Upswell 2022)

Decolonising is a very personal business. It cuts in close to our sense of self. … It will take new emotional skills our parents, and their parents, were unable to teach us.

(‘Serving up colonisation instead of care‘, Overland 247, page 24)

That’s Caitlin Prince, an occupational therapist who has spent most of her adult life living and working in remote Aboriginal communities. She argues that non-Indigenous individuals have intimately personal work to do; we must face and acknowledge intense emotional discomfort, and create safety for each other to do that, so as to make headway against our received and ingrained racism and colonialism.

The processes of personal decolonisation her article describes may seem worlds apart from anything in this collection of highly literary essays, but Gregory Day is engaged in a similar project.

In a brief foreword, ‘Where the Songs Are Made’, Day explains the collection’s title. In British writer Alan Garner’s novel Strandloper, an 18th century English castaway demonstrates writing to an Aboriginal elder, Nullamboin. The fictional Nullamboin recoils in horror: ‘”Then all will see without knowledge,” he cries, “without teaching, without dying into life! Weak men will sing! Boys will have eagles! All shall be mad!”‘ Day glosses this as referring to ‘the violent chaos that ensues from a carelessness caused by the lack of connection to the memorial contours and emotional topographies of place’. Written words ripped from their rightful places are eagles and must be treated warily.

So as the book opens it comes close to questioning whether it ought even to exist. (It comes even closer if you understand Garner/ Nullamboin to mean that the ‘violent chaos’ has a more radical cause: it comes from language being divorced from direct, embodied human contact: the written word is in itself dangerous.)

Approaching this dilemma from a number of angles in these essays is Day’s version of Prince’s personal decolonising.

Day has a deep, insistent commitment to place, specifically the part of south-west Victoria where he has lived all his life. He is best known for his Mangowak trilogy; ‘Mangowak’ is the Wadawurrung name for Airey’s Inlet on the Great Ocean Road, into which the Painkalac Creek flows. Two thirds of this collection of essays relate to that place in some way, many of them to its Wadawurrung heritage. In extremely productive tension with that commitment, the essays also evince a profound commitment to the English language, the written word, the literary traditions of his ancestral countries – England, Sicily and Ireland. (‘Evince’, incidentally, is a word he spends some time pondering. He uses it differently from me.) In what follows, I’ve included links to articles where I can find them online, sometimes as PDFs – sorry!

The collection proper kicks off with ‘The Watergaw‘. Winner of the 2021 Nature Conservancy Australia Nature Writing Prize, it’s a virtuoso piece. Starting from the sighting of a broken rainbow in rural Victoria, it goes to Scottish poet’s Hugh Macdiarmid’s ‘The watergaw‘ which relates to the same phenomenon. The broken rainbow takes on complex metaphorical meanings, and there follows meditation on place, colonisation, Celtic and Sicilian ancestry, the deaths of fathers, Day’s study of Wadawurrung language parallelling Macdiarmid’s writing in a version of Scots. Starting the collection with this essay throws the reader in at the deep end – it may strike you (as it did me on first reading) as convoluted and self-consciously, even self-indulgently, ‘literary’, but it’s a beautifully compressed weave of the themes that are developed more expansively in the essays that follow.

There’s a leisurely swim with a friend around the river bends at Airey’s Inlet / Mangowak, an exultant respite from the world dominated by smart phones (‘Summer on the Painkalac‘); a piece on the difficulty of naming the colour of soil turned up by roadworks near Anglesea (‘The Colours of the Ground’); a lyrical account of how Day’s ancestors came to the area (‘The Ocean Last Night‘); a reflection on what it means that colonial and more recent writings record 133 different spellings of ‘Wadawurrung’ (‘One True Note?‘); an engrossing account of the elements that went into the making of his novels (‘Otway Taenarum‘); reflections prompted by his experience teaching Wadawurrung language to schoolchildren, with the approval of local Elders (‘Being Here‘).

Though there are occasional mentions of a named Elder who has been Day’s mentor, the only First Nations person to be quoted directly in these essays is the fictional Nullamboin, the invention of a British writer. Even in the reprinted review articles that make up the final third of the book, no First Nations poets or novelists are addressed. This might seem to undermine, or at least make paradoxical, my reading of the essays as embodying a personal decolonising project. Maybe. But I’m sticking to my guns. As I read them, they take on the challenge without appropriating First Nations voices or forms, and without leaning on the writer’s relationships with First Nations people, but find their own way forward as part of what’s sometimes called place writing within the western tradition. As they used to say on Twitter, he’s doing his own research, not expecting First Nations people to do his emotional and intellectual labour for him.

For instance, the essay ‘Mere Scenery and Poles of Light’ (pp 69–94) enters imaginatively into the minds of four people who walked a lot: Paul Cézanne, J S Bach, William Buckley and David Unaipon. Of Cézanne:

The painter’s walks were not artist’s escapes or spiritual retreats but confrontations … It was while walking, while looking at giant cubes of stone spilt on cypressed ledges and the green moisture of gullies in the sea’s brisk shadow, that he best understood how to overcome our now dangerously attenuated sense of time and sylvan space.

Of Bach, who as a young man walked 250 mile to hear his hero Buxtehude play the organ:

With only the orchestra of bird, rain and tree in his ear, surely those walks, conducted for the twin catharses of music and freedom, were intrinsic to the sound that was slowly building within him, even at such a young and truant age.

Of Buckley, the Englishman who lived for decades with the Wadawurrung people:

Here was a European man honoured as a native, a man of fact not fiction, but fated through an almost sci-fi style misunderstanding to survive in sympathy with nature; a man who’d been taught, as we say now, to walk in both action and reflection, to both hunt and to sacralise the hunt, to live sustainably within the behests and laws of his adopted habitat. And how did it end for him? Where did walking take him to? Just to despair? Or also to that secret place where the author of all the songs resides?

Of David Unaipon:

Unaipon moved through the land as a divining rod, and he came with a forked message, one contained within the yarns of the bound and official Bible he held in his hand and the other a message in danger of being cauterised to silence by the white invasion: the knowledge of the spirit realm, where the song still dwelt, the pity and sympathy, the knowledge and laughter still flowing through the land.

And of himself:

I can see myself, the walker, as assemblage, with Buckley’s tattoo on my tongue, with the score of Bach’s English Suites written onto my skin, with a vision of the sea at Cézanne’s l’Estaque lifting me to the top of the climb. My whole body is transformed by the journey into a condition resembling the circular breathing of the didgeridoo player, or David Unaipon’s perpetual motion machine.

It’s a world away from the kind of cultural confrontations that meet a whitefella occupational therapist working in a remote Yolngu community. Maybe it’s more fanciful, more vulnerable to self-deception but maybe, also, it’s important work that makes a valuable contribution to our moment in history.

A note on Upswell, publisher of Words Are Eagles. It’s a not-for-profit publishing house established in 2021 by Terri-ann White who previously was responsible for a brilliant line-up of nooks at UWA Publishing. As she says on the Upswell website:

I’ll publish a small number of distinctive books each year in, broadly, the areas of narrative nonfiction, fiction and poetry. I am interested in books that elude easy categorising and work somewhat against the grain of current trends. They are books that may have trouble finding a home in the contemporary Australian publishing sector.

This is the first Upswell title I’ve read, a gift from a friend who lives on the edge of Painkalac Creek. Long may Terri-ann White prosper, and the Painkalac flow.

8 responses to “Gregory Day’s Words Are Eagles

  1. Persuaded by you – your always amazing reviews – to purchase Words are Eagles by Gregory Day. Thanks, JS…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am reading this now, but between other books. Am greatly enjoying his ideas and his prose about place, but it deserves time to consider and digest I think which are in short supply for me at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoy Gregory day’s novels, and have just received another one for review, The Bell of the World.
    I can see why he references Alan Garner, because I suspect that there’s no one else other than Garner who is quite like Day for producing writing that’s embedded in place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read any of his novels, Lisa. I expect this book will be a richer experience for people who have.
      I read a review by, I think, a Scot (sorry, I can’t find it again), that said he is greatly influenced by British writer Robert Macfarlane as well. Macfarlane is another practitioner of place writing, and may be the person who coined the term


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