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

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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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Review: ‘A body full of organs’ – Soap, Charlotte Guest

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‘A body full of organs’

 

Soap

Charlotte Guest

Recent Work Press, Canberra 2017

Review by Angela Gardner

I was intrigued by the title, thinking immediately of the Francis Ponge book of the same name (Le Savon, 1967). Ponge is known as the ‘poet of things’ believing that “a mind in search of ideas should first stock up on appearances”. Holding the book and thinking about Ponge and his attention to objects I admired the precise shade of pink chosen for the front cover and the perfectly placed title. Recent Works Press really are to be commended for making the physical aspect of the book’s design concordant with the themes and content of the collection. After reading and rereading Charlotte Guest’s Soap I concluded it was the thorough examination of a subject that both Ponge and Guest have in common. In the case of Ponge these are everyday objects whereas in the case of Guest they are as often mental objects encountered through everyday situations.

 

There is a self-conscious performativity to our lives, of which Guest is well aware. Early adulthood is a time of sexual awakening and of attention, some of it unwanted. But nevertheless there are choices available. In the first song-like poem, ‘Harvest’, about women’s cultivation of cassava, the dangers of incorrect (deliberate or otherwise) preparation act as a warning. It is as if in invitation of reading on we are being offered choice or hazard.

 

Guest’s subjects: the political charge of girl’s bodies, the possibilities of youth, and the wider project of all types of love is thoughtfully handled in a variety of modes. In ‘Egg Tempera’ [p.3] she establishes the continuity of the ‘period eye’, that is the male gaze, from Renaissance paintings into a contemporary bedroom. Some poems like ‘Hush, Memory’ [p.4] that opens “The lodgings at the end of girlhood/ are not as advertised”, read like cautionary tales, while the prose poem ‘Picnic at the Rock’ [p.7] return to the dreamlike state of Joan Lindsay’s novel, but are concatenated with her own childhood experience. Throughout the collection poems are presented in a variety of forms and include some prose poems and one untitled concrete poem.

 

The gender-politics of ‘Networking Drinks’, that well-known and awkward social situation attached to a working life, renders the conversation understandably and unavoidably clunky. A young woman appears to be being ‘hit on’ by either an old unreconstructed male or a self-satisfied youth. No description of the speaker is provided but the conversation is no meeting of minds. Unrecognised privilege, with its unwillingness to listen and therefore learn, is at the heart of the poem. While the male dismisses ‘race and gender’ while taking ‘a swig from his Old-Fashioned’ (a deft touch), the female responding makes no headway in her academic dialectic on intersectionality. Suddenly this level of incoherence and incomprehension between the speaker’s in their miscommunication is marvellously translated into the age-old problem it really is, in a surreal and dreamlike history lesson:

 

I open my mouth and

push bubbles out.

We are talking

underwater, sacks

over our heads, like

dipped witches.

(Networking Drinks, p2)

 

 

The fact that it is difficult for a woman to walk alone at night without attention is the subject of ‘Hey Sweetheart, Hey Love’. The tone is ‘fact-of life’. That there can be no doubt that half of the population has experienced this does not need to be said; if the reader is a woman she has. The poem is too subtle to address directly how this danger can be acceptable to the whole of the population, enumerating only strategies to deal with it:

 

I –

a look up walker, a lock up

walker, a parcel of soft

runnels – am gunning my way

home.

(‘Hey Sweetheart, Hey Love’ p9)

 

 

However, from both ‘Bivouac’ and ‘Goodfella’s’ it is obvious that thoughtful and meaningful interactions between men and women are what are sought; and it is only shallow interactions that demean both parties that depress. Instead in speaking intimately to a lover the poem Bivouac suggests they:

 

… act out

attentiveness to language, small acts

of understanding, setting all else aside

to erect a shelter under each other’s

smells, each other’s sounds.

(‘Bivouac’ p10)

 

But gender politics are not the collection’s only concern because the move into adulthood encompasses many facets. There is a lovely ambiguity in the opening stanza of ‘Things that have weight Must exist’ [p.27]:

 

Falling into a wide and glassy lake

she catches sight of her body

before smashing through its limits.

 

It would remain a simple word picture yet her piercing of the reflection of the sky expands so that this breakthrough now shifts the position of objects in the sky. With the hills and valleys below forming a cup, and we can, with her, believe this world is all that exists at this moment. This poem comes after ‘Summer Doors’ that contemplates the change that comes upon us on lengthy holidays. The door being an invitation to move through and explore what is on the other side. The sequence that the poems in the collection appear is also deeply thought-through.

 

The poem ‘From Everything to Air’ [p18] makes a list of people subsuming their identity into their work-day roles, with lengthy descriptive worries and inattentiveness to actual reality, that ends with the deft simplicity of “The children toss their hoops” that cuts through in content and in metre, emphasising without belabouring her point.

 

The poignant and aphoristic final poem in the collection ‘Notes on the Disappearance of a Friend’ p37 has some beautiful moments not least its opening “In time, it becomes bearable:/this is the most unbearable part.” The open layout of the poem, with all its white-space quiet is the perfect way to bring out the best of the poem. Again, congratulations to Recent Works Press for giving the poem room to breathe.

 

The epigraph that Charlotte Guest chooses to preface her collection, Soap, comes from Fay Zwicky, the acclaimed Western Australian poet: “Is anyone ever ready for exactly who they are?” It is particularly apposite a question for it is difficult to remember when reading such mature and thought-through poems that this is first collection from a poet herself is still a young adult. In Soap she connects us to a reality of her cohort of young women approaching adulthood through her own ‘examined life’. I am with Lucy Dougan in believing that Charlotte Guest is “one to watch” and hope this is just the start of a career in poetry.

 

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Review: Of its gilt edges and evident fanfare – Glass, Rose Hunter

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Of its gilt edges and evident fanfare

 

Glass

Rose Hunter

Five Islands Press, 2017

Review by Angela Gardner

Although Rose Hunter is the author of three previous poetry books and a chapbook published in the U.S.A. this is her first book to be published in her home country of Australia. Glass, published by Five Islands Press, is the result of their highly competitive annual manuscript call-out.

 

That Hunter has spent many years overseas is immediately obvious from the subject matter of many of the poems and the well-placed use of Spanish language words and phrases inside the English-language text (Hunter has lived in Canada and now in Mexico). This multilingual aspect of her poetry, in the words of Jennifer K. Dick (Of Tradition and Experiment XIII Notes on Newness & the Radical, tears in the fence 66 Summer 2017) is frequently used “to shred the unicultural, monolingual nature of a poem” and “can reveal a new awareness of each of our inherent language’s limits and limitlessness at once.” Edward Hirsch suggests that the “fusion of languages speaks to complex modern identities.”

 

The book is divided into three sections, all derived from place names: mexico city, jalisco and brisbane. In her words Glass “slides between and beyond two events: the death of a close friend of mine in an accident in Mismaloya, Mexico, and the mysterious illness that came over me the year after, which left me unable to walk well for much of that year.” But Glass is also a descriptive evocation of place: in the physical infrastructure of the city, but more-so in the soft architecture of its people and the manifestations of culture.

 

In the death of her friend, we return to the central subject of a previous well-received chapbook descansos, a book of memory, grief and elegy that is named for the wayside memorials that mark the site of an automobile accident. In these new poems, ‘sean’ accompanies her, as a continuing presence and sounding board over new territory.

 

The poems are noticeable for their use of caesura, their enjambment (even across sections of a poem on different pages), description that is vivid, use of non-English phrases, lack of capital letters and sentences that are left hanging as in the final line of ‘plaza garibaldi’ [p.21] “with the fade of things past dated stamped, partially” There is not even a full stop, the poem starts in media res and we do not leave it. This isn’t the only use of punctuation to further the feeling that we are in a constant unstable present:

 

he handed me a coat fit for a swan, i took it

then mistook it    for a sort of suffocation or strangulation

 

?            device.

[bellas artes p.19]

 

These are highly polished and controlled poems wielded with great skill and a consequent audacity that comes from getting it right. The first poem ‘mixquic’ addresses the absent ‘sean’, speaking to him conversationally with few full stops, but slowed down from a break-neck rhythm by the use of caesura to a more processional pace as if they walk together. His still vivid presence means that it does not feel like a monologue but rather he (and us the reader) are given sight through her description. There is something magical about her word choices:

 

in this carnival     river crowd steam and he says historical

(‘mixquic ii’ p. 12)

 

Descriptions are disoriented then stitched together seamlessly from places, dreams, memories and thoughts. In the poems, life is lived with only a semi-permeable barrier between conscious and unconscious modes. Yet Hunter deprecates her skill:

 

how much more beautiful to mix paint pour wax

or chip away at a block than to tap on keys

(‘mixquic ii’ p. 12)

 

Mexico appears the ideal location to find the strangely surreal and the location, both geographic and in language, imbues the collection with a dream-like logic but it is Hunter’s sure-footed lexical choices and dynamic metre that are key:

 

we will be like the children we never were.                show me

your pony gait your ice cream cone fur and jester ears

show me your sugar knuckles and sign above your head, it says

(look santa claus is not coming) remember don’t forget forget.

(‘alebrijes’ p14)

 

Although the streets of Mexico are peopled with crowds, a distinctive character enters in ‘bajÍo’ of a “sky-teller”, a modern kenning, possibly an astronomer or Native American storyteller. The poems are enigmatic, seemingly full of particulars, where meaning is subsumed by the lyric and becomes elusive. As reader I am unsure if the sky-teller is ‘sean’ or someone new yet I cannot be sure this isn’t deliberate destabilising, after all her handling of description is masterful, as in this conjuring up of a panda in a zoo:

 

wide back squash against reinforced plastic, stubby legs splayed

floppy trout shouldered and flute-like munching.

(‘bajÍo’ ii p.18)

 

Incremental repetition is also a feature of Rose Hunter’s poetry “i was crying/over some spilling i was spilling out more of the same” [‘yellow’ p.36] or “to think/ not of the pictures but the pictures of him taking pictures” [alebrijes p.14] or in the form of consonance of “riding in reaper robes” [mixquic p.12]

 

In ‘balloons’ Hunter acknowledges her desire (i wanted/       you or wanted to be you?) emphasised by the line-break but also the complex relationship we have with the dead where we carry them with us inside the self; “sean” in life a real person now functions as a guide reminiscent to me of the way Beatrice existed for Dante both as memory and with a literary existence so complete it goes beyond mere device.

 

Her poetry has something of the complicated, delicate tracery of the cover photograph, reflected and split by kaleidoscope. When I read Rose Hunter’s poetry I am immersed in the flow of her music, as if the conscious world is an intensely coloured envelope of experience: wonder mixed with something dark and unpredictable. Anyone who can say “a cantaloupe is the fruit equivalent of a lobster” has my full attention.

 

a cantaloupe

is the fruit equivalent of a lobster and not just because it is orange

if you call it a rock melon this is far less true.

Bajio ii p.18

 

There is a moment in ‘pretas’ [p.40] which functioned for me as a minor example of what “prithee

undo this button” does in King Lear, as tension and release (though less universal in its tragedy):

 

…villa not much by the sea

where we lay, how to forget what we’ve done to each other

but open the window

[‘pretas’, p40]

 

An image that carries over into the title poem ‘glass’ where the windows won’t open and turn out to be

of “looking-only glass”. Glass and mirrors are constant conscious metaphors for external points of view and

of internal states “we/ are seeing people only as our dirtier or cleaner mirrors…” [hotelito de los sueños

p.60] a poem near the end of the collection set in dreams and memories during Hunter’s return to Brisbane

for medical treatment.

 

In the final section we move from Mexico back to Brisbane, from technicolour into black and white or more

literally to grey:

 

the grey plastic rim under the grey bottle cap, until grey disgust

covered my grey concrete floor grey shards of grey orange rind

like grey confetti

[Compostela, p.49]

 

The use of Spanish language in the poems diminishes but not the power of language “of course I made you

up, partially, so /what.” [coconut, p.54].

 

In ‘bellas artes’ she says “ten years in the circus taught me that/how to do something different?” Her poetry

does feel different from other Australian poets, her use of language with its long lines and pitch-perfect

word choices and rhythms, is complex in a way that is both satisfying and puzzling. Although you may

“… become irrelevant/ to the place you’re leaving right before you leave it.” [‘central camionera’ p.41] as a

reader this demanding combination requires relationship with the text, requires return.

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