Review: to sing the song back to our land, Fume, Phillip Hall

by

to sing the song back to our land

 

Fume by Phillip Hall

UWA Publishing, 104pp

 

Review by Angela Gardner

 

 

 

“A patriot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country

as she wrestles for her own being”

(Adrienne Rich ‘An Atlas of the Difficult World’ 1981)

 

Fume is a deeply important work that uses essays and poems to chart the depth of trauma and love of Country and of First Australians. It is a devastating love poem, a manifesto, aware of the political and personal tragedy of colonisation and post-colonialism. His discussion[i], during a recent workshop, of the differences between his first and second books and his move to a more eco-critical stance seemed to underline the distance the author himself had travelled in the crucible of his own and others’ trauma to discover our own implication and culpability in the colonial enterprise.

Phillip Hall is the author of a previous book, Sweetened in Coals (Ginninderra Press, 2014), and a chapbook, Borroloola Class (IPSI University of Canberra, 2017); the latter’s poems are now included in Fume. The poetry in Fume was written between 2011 and 2015 while Hall lived and worked, as a sports instructor and outdoor educator in the remote Indigenous community of Borroloola on the McArthur river, almost 1,000 kilometres from Darwin, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. In the opening essay Hall writes, “I reject the idea of ‘wilderness’, as racism – yet another version of terra nullius – and challenge those with whom I walk to cherish the custodianship of First Australians.” Hall is well aware of the consequences on remote Indigenous communities of colonisation and dispossession and his personal engagement has resulted in a more politically aware collection than his first book.

Fume opens with an Acknowledgment of Country in the form of a poem and a note regarding cultural sensitivity. The rest of the poems (a full sixty pages) are sandwiched between two substantial essays ‘Bad Debt’ that charts Hall’s childhood relationships to Indigenous friends and to ‘country’, and ‘The Stick’ which discusses language, culture, and education in the Northern Territory. With his first-hand experience this essay alone should be an important resource for education administrators. It also includes six poems from the First Nations storytelling group, Diwurruwurru, which he facilitated in Borroloola. The book concludes with a useful (though not complete) Glossary of Language and Kriol words used in the text.

From the start Hall is keen to prevent any further acts of colonisation or cultural appropriation stating in his biography, presented between the title and half-title pages, that he “does not identify as a First Australian though Nana Miller has adopted him into Gudanji family.” The author and UWA Publishing are to be commended for giving room to this scrupulous and necessary documenting of the author’s relationship to Borroloola and its Yanyuwa, Marra, Guganji and Garrwa people.

In Fume he sets out to show us how cultural activities impact upon Country and how Country shapes its inhabitants. For example, the annual rodeo week in Borroloola, arising from the introduction of the cattle industry into Yanyuwa Country, has become a distinctly Indigenous cultural event – a type of reverse cultural appropriation. Through the poems we learn there is an altogether more complex, more multi-valent relationship between the wet season, Law[ii] (author’s word usage) and the Rodeo. Note: where an Indigenous or other voice is used, or a poem is collaborative this is acknowledged by Hall through the use of italics.

an if you come modaka out bush wid millad mob

                                           us dance dat storm like kardu buckin’ bullocky –

 

a screwed-up muscle-sprung bellowed barrel

like a didged rodeo’s cheerin’ mental-as-anything king

(Borroloola Class for Noela Anderson p31)

 

It is clear that the storm in the poem has Law attached to it, communicated through dance (among other means of transmission) that is also interpreted in modern life through the bullock ride at the annual rodeo. This is made clearer in the following poem (a collaborative work with Diwurruwurru). In the poem Elders have come

an dey bin singin us mob bullocky dreamin song

                                                          dey bin learnin us mob

                                           for to sing im an everyone deadly safe

                                           we like learn for singin us mob song

                                           for ceremony, culture, land an law

                             millad mob strong in dat rodeo an in dreamin us proud

(Millad Mob da Best! For Patsy Shadforth & Borroloola’s kids P32)

So that by the time we read ‘The Wet Season’s first rain/is a buckjumper’s cock-a-hoop eight second rattle’ (Waterlily Light Well p42) with its implication of a fast and furious ride or “that frog stones/ the coolamon gushing/ open all the sweet/ shared streaming waters of a land…’ [The Gudanji’s Dry Stone Country p46) the reader is better able to understand the close observance, respect and interconnectedness that powers the wet season for Indigenous people of the Northern Territory.

The strength of Hall’s poetry is in bringing his own close observance and respect to each poem and so show the reader the essential interconnectedness of life and Culture. From the description of ‘raucous rocket frogs’ ratchet-like croaking’ (Borraloola Blue p26) to ‘the river’s sacred/ rainbow serpent gouged/ in high grade zinc…’ (Welcome to McArthur River Mine p66) Hall paints Country in vivid word-pictures. Yet Borraloola is also ‘a bloom/ of asbestos and neglect’ (From on a Cloud Looking Down p61) and the landscape/mindscape of its inhabitants (for the two are intertwined) is one of incongruity from ‘a bridge built to span/ flooding waters and golden middens of XXXX cans…’ (Concourse p28) to the author drinking ‘chardonnay on ice,’ [while] ‘Yanyuwa youths ran amok/ on ganga, throwing stones and chiaking at our padlocked gates.’ (Borroloola Blue p.26).

Of course, there are many positive events that the poetry responds to, from the rodeo to the two-way learning of the Turtle Camp that has participants recording scientific observations then singing the turtle mothers back into the sea. Footy also plays an important part in the life of the poet and the community and so it is hardly surprising that it is reflected joyously in some of the poems, from the discipline of training to the excitement of the game:

…a drop

punt and the perfect hooting

screamer.

(Walk up Tank Hill, for my lil-dad, Dwight Raggett, Gudanji man’ p22)

 

But as the opening dedications to both of Hall’s families, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, attest “There is so much Sorry Business”. The title of the book itself, Fume, could refer to the author’s anger, petrol sniffing or the results of various resource extraction processes. There are poems about the difficult and stressful lives that Borroloola’s inhabitants live; lullabies that are nightmares, poems that describe knots and guns (a Bush Ballad of the Frontier Wars), and names that are omitted due to Sorry Business [sorry name]. These are deeply sad poems often filled with an understandable outrage. Following the bush ballad another poem, ‘Talking English’ (p57), makes the connection between people ‘dragged/ to heel by Martini-Henry carbines’ and the enforcement of English-speaking and the proscription and neglect of Indigenous languages. Only four of the dozen Indigenous languages of the Gulf now remain. The guns really were talking English and the damage to culture through loss of language continues because of the recent loss of bilingual education programs. [Note: as a reviewer I speak here as someone born in Wales whose family were Welsh-speaking two generations ago. There is a strong correlation between language and culture and suppression of language is often colonial tool].

Hall’s response is as fierce and intense as it is crafted. Fume is by turns the terrifying and sublime result of someone willing to put themselves at risk. But what he describes is the contemporary lived experience of people still suffering from the colonial enterprise. When I started listing to myself the major trauma that Indigenous people have lived through: the Frontier Wars, The Act, the Stolen Generations, the disappointing limitations of Native Title, the NT Intervention, it was difficult to see any period of let-up. And yet Indigenous people remain resilient and strong. The elders continue their work

…singing

lifting his country: making it good, making it listen’.

(Dawn Song, p40)

 

Australians use over 400 Indigenous language words from kangaroo to yakka[iii]. In the same way Aboriginal English is distinct, inventive and lively and, in some cases (Gammon and humbug for example) preserves a rich history of Victorian era usage lost to the wider population. The vibrancy of Aboriginal English and the ‘deadly’ humour of First Australians enriches the language of Phillip Hall’s poetry. In ‘Icy Pole Trade’ where a nuwalinya (mermaid) story is being spun at a waterhole ending with the teasing “dey bin lovely when dey grow quiet an who knows/ an inside-out coconut might sweeten in dat lovin-up/ drowning” apart from the teasing humour the consonance of the ‘dey’ and ‘dat’ sounds form their own sonic rhythm to the lines.

The Indigenous Elders of the community Hall worked in are well aware of the long history of their place in the world and call out the differences between earlier mutual trade links and the later European ‘scorched earth’ mindset that led to a history of egregious acts from massacres to detention centres for refugees:

The bardibardi call time

on mununga slogans of ‘stop the boats’

shaping-up and giggling

their Macassan memories…

(Build-up p52)

 

This collection is consciously eco-poetic in its interrogation of the human and non-human worlds, with a clear eye for post-colonialism in all its manifestations. The poems are less confessional than they are protest poetry: personal, political, and powerful. These are poems that inform, provoke and inspire, fulfilling, in addition, Hall’s own demand that his writing have a clear narrative and that the poems themselves really ‘work’.[iv]

Hall draws upon his own experience of privileged access to extraordinary people and places. This book is a love song to his adopted family and their ongoing custodianship of Country. There is a generosity from his Indigenous family that is extended to us as reader through Hall but also directly through the poems, in the essays, and from the Diwurruwurru / Message Stick poetry writing group: sharing their culture and allowing it to be published. (Phillip explained when I met him at the State Library of Queensland that he had permission to use and print some words but that others, although printed, must not be said out loud and songs must not be sung off-Country).

As Adrienne Rich suggests, in the epigraph to this review, the true patriot will “wrestle for her [or his] own being” but through this “wrestles for the soul of her [or, in this case, our] country”. In the writing of Fume Phillip Hall has done just that. I pay my respects to Phillip Hall for the difficult journey he took to bring this collection to the reader, to the Yanyuwa, Marra, Guganji and Garrwa people who are trying to maintain the songlines of their Country, and I wish, with Phillip, that “Diwurruwurru is a feast…more Australians shared” as we will all be enriched if this is so.

The author now lives in Melbourne. With such an embedded piece of writing as Fume it will be interesting to see how this will affect his eco-poetics in the future.

 

 

[i] Ecopoetics Workshop run by Phillip Hall, State Library of Queensland, 28 Feb 2018, that I attended.

[ii] In the absence of specific work on Law/Lore I have been able to find as it pertains to Yanyuwa I refer to Meggitt, M.J. (1962). Desert People: A Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press to unpick the meaning of the word Law. In 1962 Meggitt published his study of Walbiri society, which had had minimal European contact. He produced a summary of the rules of customary law, which categorised a number of offences which the Walbiri recognised as unlawful. The Law covered ritual, economic, residential and kinship rules and conventions. It also covered the care of sacred objects, the division of labour by gender, the avoidance of mothers-in-law and even the rising of the sun. Meggitt believed that in pre-contact times rules of law and norms of politically appropriate behaviour were probably not distinguished. The Australian Government’s ‘Australian Law Reform Commission’ Report into this illustrates just how problematic for governments definitions are when it requires recognising Indigenous Law’s existence in conflicts with the concept of ‘Terra Nullius’ and the subsequent rights over land such as title and mining and other usage that relies on the absence of Law prior to and continuing since British settlement. See Definition of Aboriginal Customary Laws

[iii] Australian Aboriginal Words in English, Dixon Moore Ramson and Thomas, OUP Melbourne, 1990: Kangaroo first recorded Captain Cook’s journal 23 July 1770, Yakka from the Yugara language of Brisbane meaning work, first recorded 1840s. Quoted from SLQ guide accessed 2 March 2018:

[iv] at the Ecopoetics Workshop held at the State Library of Queensland 28 Feb 2018 Phillip Hall discussed his criteria for an ecopoem.

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