Tag Archives: Natalie Harkin

Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics

Natalie Harkin, Archival-Poetics (Vagabond Press 2019)

This is an extraordinary book. To quote from the eloquent and accurate cover blurb:

Archival-Poetics is an embodied reckoning with the State’s colonial archive and those traumatic, contested and buried episodes of history that inevitably return to haunt … Family records at the heart of this work highlight policy measures targeting Aboriginal girls from removal into indentured domestic labour

I like that word ’embodied’. There have been many books that are based on archival research, and more than a few that describe the process of archival research, including research into the history of the stolen generations and stolen wages. This book – actually three very slim books in a slipcase – takes the reader into the experience. The titles of the three books – ‘Colonial Archive’, Haunting’ and ‘Blood Memory’ – indicate the process of increasing immersion into the poet’s family history: first there are narratives to be read and decoded, then as the imagination engages further it is as if those young women are returning like ghosts from the past, and finally, a realisation that there is a deeper richer connection, a sense of belonging.

Archival-Poetics is categorised as poetry, and has deservedly won or been shortlisted for a number of poetry prizes. But, like African-American Claudia Rankine’s Pulitzer-winning Citizen, it pushes well past the generally understood boundaries of that category. There’s a lot of straightforward prose. Natalie Harkin writes of ‘an unassuming warehouse holding the State’s Aboriginal Records archives’ – the State, in this case, being South Australia, in Kaurna country. She reflects on the nature of memory, official records and oral history. There are excerpts from government documents, Aboriginal people’s personal letters, newspapers and women’s magazines. There are brilliantly apposite quotes from other Aboriginal artists (Julie Gough, Judy Watson, Vernon Ah Kee). French theory is invoked – and for what it’s worth, this is the first time I’ve read a Jacques Derrida quote that makes me want to read its source. And there are images of artworks, including the three cover photographs of a basket woven from torn up photocopies of letters from the archives.

A lot of the poetry lies in the juxtaposition of these elements. For example, page 28 of the second book, gives two would-be amusing anecdotes from The Australian Woman’s Mirror in the 1920s: vile, condescending references to Aboriginal girl servants. At the top of page 29, there’s a brief quote from the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association from the same time beginning ‘… girls of tender age and years are torn away from their parents’, and beneath that, this poem, as if a song is wrung from the archive reader’s heart:

APRON SORROW
apron-folds and pockets --- keep secrets
--pinned--- tucked-- hidden
------they whisper into linen-shadows-- that flicker-float with the sun 
------------– hung -
--------- limp on the breeze they sway
------------------------------------- a rhythmic sorrow.

There are ‘odes’ – rhyming poems, but laid out without line breaks, so that the reader is invited to slow down and unearth the verse form, in a process analogous to the way a researcher has to unearth information from impersonal bureaucratic language. Three austerely modern sonnets in ‘Hauntings’ tell three girls’ stories.

A series of prose poems, ‘Memory Lessons’, form a kind of philosophical backbone, with almost Proustian reflections on the nature of memory. The third book ends with a letter that begins, ‘Dear Nana’.

I hope that gives you some idea of this book. It contains hard truths about Australia’s history, and the conveys pain of unearthing them in their particularity. The form isn’t always easy for people not at ease with contemporary poetics, but it’s not difficult for its own cryptic-crossword-like sake. And it’s physically gorgeous – hats off to Michael Brennan of Vagabond Books for a brilliant design.

Archival-Poetics is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Australian Poetry Journal 7:1, Skin

Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven (editors),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 7, Issue 1: Skin (2016)

apj71The cover of this issue of Australian Poetry Journal features a brilliantly eye-grabbing Destiny Deacon photograph, Escape from the Whacking Spoon (2007). As the first issue covered by the new policy of having different guest editors for each issue, this one is edited by two leading Aboriginal poets, which ensures that it follows through on the cover’s promise.

There are three sections:

  • Skin 1: 34 poems by 25 Indigenous writers
  • Skin 2: 16 poems by 13 non-Indigenous writers
  • Transforming My Country (edited by Toby Fitch): 12 poems responding to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’,

The selection is very rich, for many of the individual poems and for the extraordinarily valuable dialogue created by placing them between one set of covers. I dog-eared the pages with these poems from the first two sections in my copy (your mileage will very – I recommend you get hold of your own copy via Australian Poetry Pty Ltd’s web site):

  • Claire G Coleman, ‘Strawberry Juice’: starting from the image of spots of strawberry juice staining her writing paper, the poet plays with the notion that directions for colonial killings and records of them were written on paper. Ink stains, like blood stains, can’t be removed, and the lines that bring it home:
    _
    __Notice how paper covers rock
    __Covers
    __My country, my people are one
    __Notice how easily paper tears
    _
  • Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert, ‘Love comes in many colours’ The poet greets her granddaughter:
    _
    Her blonde hair cool against my black skin her whiteness grabs my heart a new day dawning for this land Australia as we dance to the sounds of the oldest culture in the world. Love comes in many colours.
    _
  • Kate Adler, ‘Sorry’. A non-Indigenous person at a Sorry Camp:
    _
     __Hard to witness wounds like these
    __but love is deeper than skin.

The third section includes work by some heavy hitters of Australian poetry, including brilliant poems by the editors of this issue, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven. Eileen Chong (‘My music is wrong – nothing / has been written down right’) and Hani Abdile (‘Opal-hearted country / I’m now one of your unwanted beings / I’ve come to love you sunburnt’) write from immigrant and refugee perspectives. The poem is deconstructed, thesaurised and anagrammatised. Toby Fitch’s introduction describes Lisa Gorton’s conceptually and concretely thrilling poem as an ‘almost-epic’ that ‘explores in microscopic detail the history of the grounds of Royal Park, Melbourne’. I’ll end with some lines from each of the Indigenous takes on the Mackellar poem:

Alison Whittaker (‘A love like Dorothea’s’):

I’m sorry, sweet Mackellar, that it famished all your cows,
y’paddock’s yellow-thirsty-sudden-green; no telling how.
That the gold-hush-rainy-drum hard to your violence and your plow.

Natalie Harkin (‘Heart’s Core Lament’, which is hard to represent accurately here, as it depends on justifying the text on the page, and includes quotes from colonisers’ texts in the margin, but here goes):

harkins.jpeg

Ellen van Neerven (‘My Country’):

my country
is between two rivers

two ribs
two hip bones

Ali Cobby Eckermann (‘Transforming My Country’, which plays with Mackellar’s words to produce radically different meanings):

Who pays back to Earth?

Not she and soft-hearted love
What a hush of her heart, and her
I have her share, her jewel
Though not her land
Your love of my land is tragic

——-

(I won’t repeat my own favourite anecdote about ‘My Country’ and Dame Mary Gilmore, If you’re interested you can read it here.)

 

 

Overland 222

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 222 (Spring 2015)

overland222.jpgLike most issues of Overland this one includes:

the results of at least one literary competition: Peter Minter asks in his judge’s report on the 2015 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize, ‘Isn’t nurturing the penniless avant-garde something we should all embrace?’ As well as the poetry prize, this issue announces the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize.

the regular columnists: I always enjoy Alison Croggon, who here takes issue with the idea of art as therapy, and Giovanni Tiso, who airs his ambivalence about his preference for old books. Natalie Harkin, a Narungga woman, poet and academic, makes her debut, reflecting on the importance of sharing personal narratives.

at least one intelligently provocative article: Stephanie Convery in Get your hands off my sister sounds a forceful warning against ‘activism centred on an unshakeable faith in women’s accusations of sexual assault’. The whole essay is worth reading, but I was struck by her point that harsher penalties for sexual assault don’t prevent it, but move it to a different location, ie, especially in the USA, to prisons.

• an excerpt from a work in progress: This is usually my least favourite thing in a magazine, especially when not clearly labelled, because the reader tends to be left hanging. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The current inhabitants of the island is an exception. It’s a sharp stand-alone story of encountering racism in her childhood that make me look forward to her memoir, The Hate Race, later this year.

high level journalism: Antony Loewenstein’s After independence throws light on the state of South Sudan four years after gaining its independence. Loewenstein had been living in Juba, the capital, for most of the year before the anniversary, and what he reports isn’t pretty.

• a literature report: Ben Brooker’s article on vegetarianism and the left cites sources from Marx to Anna Krien, including books with titles like Brutal: Manhood and the Exploitation of Animals and The Sexual Politics of Meat, on the links between vegetarianism and progressive social movements (Marx wasn’t convinced). I met the term ‘carnism’ here for the first time, and learned that vegetarian scholarship is a thing. Incidentally, he mentions Hitler, but not that Hitler was vegetarian.

cultural studies. Dean Brandum and Andrew Nette give a workmanlike account of the Crawfords dramas HomicideDivision 4 and Matlock Police, with emphasis on their function as at times ‘a kind of entertainment auxiliary in the fight against crime’. It’s oddly comforting to see the TV shows one deliberately didn’t watch in one’s 20s become the stuff of cultural history.

debate: Well, not exactly a debate this issue, but Four perspectives on race & racism in Australian poetry by AJ Carruthers, Lia Incognita, Samuel Wagan Watson and Elena Gomez presents four strikingly different takes on their given subject and they do strike some sparks off each other. Racism and neo-orientalism run deep in Australian culture in general and Australian poetry in particular, but it depends where you look. Spoken word, conceptual poetry, radically experimental writing are thriving sites for non-white poets. The ‘narrowly expressive “I-poem”‘ may or may not be part of the problem. Sam Wagan Watson has the best single sentence: ‘There is no clinical evidence to suggest that racism is a by-product of mental illness, although I’ve heard many try to argue the fact.’

fiction: five short stories in this issue, including the Neilma Sidney Prize winner. It’s a grim lot, featuring anti-Muslim nastiness in the suburbs (the prize-winner, by Lauren Foley), a refugee school teacher who (not really a spoiler) kills himself (Ashleigh Synnott), a young, possibly Aboriginal woman entering a situation of sexual exploitation (Jack Latimore), a dystopian future where birds and insects are mechanical (Elizabeth Tan), and a woman who remains painfully silent when her boyfriend jokes about violence against women (Jo Langdon). All good stories, but not a lot of laughs and no real twists in the tail.

poetry: Toby Fitch takes over from Peter Minter as poetry editor with this issue. They judged the poetry prize together, and the three place-getters are the full poetry content, making this in effect a hand-over issue. Apart from writing his own poetry, Toby runs the poetry nights at Sappho’s in Glebe and is poetry reviews editor on Southerly. I look forward to his Overland regime.

Always a good read, usually cover-to-cover.