Review – From you to me / To you from me / It’s a start / Heart to heart, Aboriginal Country by Lisa Bellear

by

 

Lisa Bellear, Aboriginal Country, edited by Jen Jewel Brown

UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA, 2018, 96pp,  $22.99

 

Reviewed by Estelle Castro-Koshy

 

Lisa Marie Bellear (1961-2006) was an ambassador of change during her life time. Her new collection of poetry, Aboriginal Country, edited by Jen Jewel Brown and published posthumously (UWA Publishing, 2018), is an ambassador of change for the future.

 

Lisa Bellear was a writer, photographer, performer, lecturer, researcher, radio broadcaster, and community activist. She was a Goernpil woman of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island), a much-loved member of the Aboriginal and wider community, a visual memorialist, a game changer, and a visionary. In 2016, a decade after her sudden death, an exhibition was curated at the Koorie Heritage Trust by her close friends, Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser, and her cousin, Kim Kruger, to pay tribute to her work by showing 500 of the 20,000 photographs that she took at community events and which are held at the Koorie Heritage Trust.[i] Jen Jewel Brown’s admirable work has now brought together a powerful collection of poems that had been previously published in anthologies, journals, in Lisa Bellear’s first collection of poetry, Dreaming in Urban Areas (UQP, 1996), or which had been performed but were unpublished. The paratext “About the author”, written by Professor Susan K. Martin, who was Lisa Bellear’s PhD supervisor, and “An Adoptee’s Black Story” also provide insightful and poignant information that many readers, scholars, and students would not have known before the publication of this collection. With Aboriginal Country, Bellear’s words, wit, social and political commentaries, humour, and heartfelt or heart-wrenching stories are given a new opportunity to “be a start / Heart to heart” (p. 90), travel in Australia and internationally, and “fly above / the clouds” (p. 54), a wish that the poet expressed for herself in “A Peaceable Existence”.

 

The dates of the 49 poems range from 1989 (“A Suitcase Full of Mould”) to 2006 (“Time to leave”, “Never again”, “A Bridge to Reconcile”, “Imagined Reality”, “Heart to Heart”). The poems are not chronologically ordered but are carefully sequenced to acknowledge Indigenous Australian people’s history, sovereignty, presence, and life experiences, and to convey an invitation, expressed throughout the collection, to revision our ways of thinking and conducting ourselves, both personally and collectively.

 

The collection opens with the eponymous poem, “Aboriginal Country” (p. 25). Written a year after the Mabo decision, it reminds the readers that Aboriginal sovereignty was never ceded and that anyone setting foot on Australian soil walks and breathes “on Aboriginal Country”. Contrasting with two hundred years of colonisation and re-naming (“Waterfalls named / after princesses / and queens”), this acknowledgement echoes throughout the book, in particular in “Warriors without Treaties” (pp. 85-86), a poem dedicated to Uncle Kevin Buzzacott and Robbie Thorpe, two well-known Aboriginal activists.

 

We are Warriors, Warriors, Warriors

Warriors without treaties

 

We are here today, today, today

today, to fight as we travel

travel, travel within our

ancestors’ spirits, spirits, spirits

 

Alive today in the twenty-first

Century, just as was predicted.

 

Warriors, Warriors, Warriors

Warriors without treaties

And we are here to stay

 

We are  We Are  We Are

Proud artistic angry warriors

Warriors, Warriors, Warriors

without treaties

we’re here  here  still here still

here today, again.

 

As is often the case in Bellear’s poetry, the intentional repetition commands attention with assured intensity. The poem asserts that Aboriginal people have never been defeated and subtly shows that the Aboriginal long-lasting view of history is nowadays considered accurate outside the Aboriginal community, since “just as was predicted / [Aboriginal Warriors] are here to stay”, “here  here  still here still”. Jen Jewel Brown astutely positioned “Warriors without Treaties” after another poem entitled “Wailing and Listing of Clans, Language Groups, Nations” (pp. 83-84), in which Bellear lists 59 names of Clans, Language Groups, and Nations of which the people she has photographed are living descendants. “Wailing and Listing of Clans, Language Groups, Nations” teaches or reminds the reader of the many Indigenous groups and nations that made up and still make up Indigenous Australia. Linguists estimate that about 300 to 350 languages were spoken in Australia prior to British colonisation; it is estimated that 150 to 200 Indigenous languages are still spoken in Australia today by a small number of people, and 20 languages are spoken by whole communities or groups. The education and memorial value and intent of “Wailing and Listing of Clans, Language Groups, Nations” are reinforced by its positioning in the collection, which highlights that all the named groups and clans should have been interlocutors to sign treaties and been recognised as sovereign. “Warrior without Treaties”, “Wailing and Listing”, and the whole collection celebrate the resistance and resilience of Indigenous Australian people, clans, poets, and foregrounds that it is by naming that we remember, a concern that was central to Bellear’s research work, and that Goenpul Jagara and Bundjulung filmmaker, poet, and scholar Romaine Moreton addresses visually in her short film The Farm (2009). The list of 59 names also offers a glimpse into work that Bellear dedicated a great part of her time to: finding the names of Aboriginal people who appeared in photographs on which their names were not recorded.

 

“Warriors without Treaties” not only overthrows the colonisers’ and colonial perspectives, it also posits poets as “proud artistic angry warriors” at the forefront of the battle for a treaty, against colonialism, and in resisting all forms of oppression. Like other poems, such as “A Significant Life” (p. 76), “Warriors without Treaties” reflects Bellear’s belief that poetry could empower future generations.[ii] In 2005, before we recorded “A Significant Life”, Lisa Bellear allowed me to develop a new reading of her poem when she explained that it was inspired by her research into historical photos of Aboriginal people taken in Melbourne and that the poem basically said “what rights do I have to look at these early historical photos and what responsibility do I have when I do look at them”.[iii]

 

A poetics of responsibility is at play throughout the collection. Aboriginal Country is characterised by its attention to the cries and suffering of the abandoned, the misunderstood, those who are never heard, “the kidnapped, black birded, stolen” (p. 40), those who are not given the opportunity to be remembered in history and records according to their own version of what their life has been, in poems such as “To no-one: And Mary did time” (pp. 27-28), “Ruby was never seen again” (p. 29), “Poor Pretty Polly” (p. 30), “Tanna Man” (p. 40), “Artist Unknown” (p. 41). Many poems vehemently expose the history of and continuation of racism and colonialism in Australia, a legacy that led Aileen Moreton-Robinson to suggest conceptualising it as a “postcolonising nation”.[iv] They make visible not only the “government / sanctioned cruelty” (p. 29) but how that cruelty was enacted at different levels of society by “the Bullyman, welfare, local school teacher – informant” (p. 29). Several poems give flesh and bone to an analysis by historian Patrick Wolfe, who was also a friend of Bellear, and explained that “colonised populations continue to be racialised in specific ways that mark out and reproduce the unequal relationships into which Europeans have co-opted these populations.”[v]

 

The collection also offers reflections upon the unfairness and atrocities of war and racial oppression in other countries, in Bosnia, Croatia (p. 51), South Africa (p. 60), and the United States (p. 45). Several poems also address issues such as the violence against women (“Break the Cycle”), including what Bellear called “black on black violence” (“The Rapist”),[vi] structural inequality, the consequences that arise when hatred is justified, or the failures of a so-called justice system to be just to the poor and vulnerable. In the world that Bellear inhabited, the lonely, the “wounded desperate soul that never / seems to heal” (p. 29), the “broken again” (p. 30) are heard; they call out to the readers; individually, uniquely, they are made visible, audible.

 

Particularly affecting are the poems on the multi-generational and societal impact of the policies that led to the forced removal of babies and children from their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers, such as “Ruby was never seen again”, which evokes the impact on a mother of her baby, Ruby, being stolen from her.

 

Three longs years of hiding from the

tentacles of institutionalised racism,

till a moment’s lapse and then she’s gone

Ruby’s gone, like she never existed,

nor was ever loved. Rocking to and fro,

she still dreams of little Ruby

and of that fateful day and wonders

what their life could’ve been

like without this government

sanctioned cruelty (p.29)

 

This third stanza can be read like a heart thumping, each line carrying the weight of trauma experienced by the mother and the child, just as each line in “Alive, alone Dreamtime” seems to carry the trauma and the devastating feeling of void caused in children when they become orphans and no one is there to care for them. In 21 lines, “Alive, alone Dreamtime” poignantly evokes an unbearable sense of loss and the cycles of pain and cycle of deaths that can be triggered by the passing of an adult who has been holding a family together. Most of Lisa Bellear’s poems are characterised by an intensity of emotion which can explain why some readers might find her poetry confronting or eye-opening and deeply engaging.

 

In all cases, many poems seem to recurrently make visible or present an absence. We are called to wonder, where are the other adults who should step up for these children in pain. As I read the collection, I was reminded of a talk given by United Statian* author, Josh Shipp, in which he observes that “every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story”. The collection is varied and can be read in multiple ways. It certainly stands out as an encouragement to step up and to stand up against racism, colonialism, violence against women, structural inequality, various justifications of hatred, and to create spaces where people can live safely and with dignity. Lisa Bellear’s Aboriginal Country is an invitation to care sent by the poet and by all those who were involved in bringing this book to the world.

 

It is an invitation by Bellear to see the world and Australia through her eyes, through the eyes of Indigenous Australian people, and through the eyes of specific individuals. It is an invitation to become more lucid, to question our own attitudes and the particular domains in our lives where we might have allowed ourselves to accept the status quo and be “shrouded in silence” (p. 73). “Freedom Mandela” (60-61) for example cautions us: “Remember your own backyard / Is where it really counts.” Just as the poet asks us to get personally involved for the betterment of other people’s lives, to take action and not be complicit, the poems in the collection sometimes also reveal a very personal voice. In the poignant “A Suitcase Full of Mould” (pp. 46-49), we are transported into the poet’s early years and led to feel her sorrow, partly through her evocative reminiscence of what she was not able to experience, as even the simplest of joys were denied to her as she was growing up:

 

They say flowers grow for beauty

No, not for me

Flowers grow to hide

The inability to cope

Too much, too much, too much

 

Forget forget forget

As much as I try

I cannot, there must be

some reason, some reason

Why so many, so many

Kooris, Noongahs, Murris, Nungas,

Go through

The nightmare (p. 47).

 

The collection, however, eschews neither humour nor hope. Bellear’s dry humour in “Hear Yea, Hear Yea, Hear Yea” (p. 82) and “Conversations (aka unfinished business)” (p. 89) bring to mind another great poem, “Souled Out”, published in Dreaming in Urban Areas, while hope permeates “A Peaceable Existence” (p. 53), “Tears of hope” (p. 79), “Imagined Reality” (p. 87), and “Heart to Heart” (p. 90). This final poem warm-heartedly expresses what a sorrowful voice articulates in “Never again” (p.71):

 

Identity fragmented

Identity forlorn

A shallow shattered

saddened shadow

 

Who to blame?

Who to forgive?

 

Reaching towards

a new tomorrow

 

Crying lying slowly

dying to grieve

To leave

Create an imagined happy past

But the lies and the cries

beg for justice

 

When will we dream in colour?

 

The last lines of “Heart to Heart” end the collection with a more hopeful, almost whispering voice.

 

You and me

understanding sovereignty

Heart to heart

 

Listen

Could be a start

Heart to heart

 

In this whisper, in the act of listening that we are witnessing and are also invited to partake in, words, dreams, and understanding here again “map out another possibility”.[vii] As we discussed her poem “Grief” in 2005, Lisa Bellear said: “Sometimes, when the voice that comes across is personal, I would like to think that people can think it could be them and it could be someone else they know. It might be the little message. Somebody out there might care.”[viii] I believe that this inspiring, lucid, confronting, anticolonial, and at times humorous collection of poetry will speak to the hearts and minds of a myriad of readers with a yearning to be heard, to be recognised in their suffering, or a desire to know, and to work towards justice on Aboriginal country.

 

*Editor’s Note the term United Statian is used to denote someone from the United States as a distinction between the varied inhabitants of the Americas.

 

End Notes

[i] For a presentation of the exhibition, see http://artguide.com.au/close-to-you-the-lisa-bellear-picture-show or http://koorieheritagetrust.com.au/exhibitions/old-exhibition/?epage=1. At the time of the interview I conducted with Lisa Bellear in November 2005, she believed she held about 40,000 photographs. For the interview, see Estelle Castro-Koshy, “An Interview with Lisa Bellear”, AustLit, https://www.austlit.edu.au/interviewLisaBellear.

[ii] I am using an analysis of “A Significant Life” I conducted in Estelle Castro, “Making Memory, Making Poetry: Mind and Imagination in Contemporary Indigenous Australian Poetry”, in Indigeneity: Culture and Interpretation, Eds. Devy, G. N., Geoffrey V. Davis and K. K. Chakravarty, Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, p. 274.

[iii] In Castro-Koshy, “An Interview with Lisa Bellear”, op. cit., https://www.austlit.edu.au/interviewLisaBellear.

[iv] Aileen Moreton-Robinson,“I Still Call Australia Home: Indigenous Belonging and Place in a White Postcolonising Society”, in Uprootings/Regroundings : Questions of Home and Migration, Ed. Sara Ahmed, New York: Berg Publishers, 2003.

[v] Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (Kindle Locations 67-68), Verso Books, Kindle Edition, 2016.

[vi] In Castro-Koshy, “An Interview with Lisa Bellear”, op. cit., https://www.austlit.edu.au/interviewLisaBellear.

[vii] I am taking up words by Lyn McCredden in her introduction to Lisa Bellear, Dreaming in Urban Areas, St Lucia: UQP, 1996, p. xi.

[viii] In Castro-Koshy, “An Interview with Lisa Bellear”, op. cit., https://www.austlit.edu.au/interviewLisaBellear.

 

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