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.(You can read the full Statement here.)
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.