Phillip Hall. sweetened in coals. Port Adelaide, SA: Ginninderra Press, 2014. ISBN 978 1 74027 858 4
Philip Hall’s debut collection may well have been called “parcelled in paperbark”. The two phrases “parcelled in paperbark / sweetened in coals” appear as a sequential pair in the opening poem “Carpentaria Running the Flag” (7) which forms a prelude to the book. At the outset the reader finds the speaker casting bait and “luring barra / on bloodied lines” and “those caught thrash / on sand before being parcelled in paperbark / and sweetened in coals”. In the lush experience of heat, shimmer and “verdancy”, the speaker is wrapped (and perhaps also rapt) in place, identified at the poem’s end as “Indigenous space”, a space where the marks of colonisation and Indigenous interdependence with country are entangled, for example, in “gouged cattle plains / and salt flats”.
As the poem unfolds, it seems that not only are the barra “caught”, “parcelled” and “sweetened” but the speaker also is caught and parcelled in the complex uncanny lushness of “a back country driven bony / even as floods flush north to the Gulf”, and in the “charged sphere” of country, with its “golden beard grass and cathedral mounds”. Reference to “crocs” indicates that this is not country to be sentimentalised, and to “cattle”, that this so-called remote country (from a coastal cities’ perspective) is not pristine “wilderness”.
With the word “charged”, multiple political and cultural echoes sound in the poem. “Charged” suggests a kind of electric frisson of sacred space, into which intrudes an alien justice system that charges and condemns the Indigenous man or woman or child. The context of Hall’s collection is encapsulated in this opening poem, a participatory openness to Indigenous community and country that has aspects of witness, and which recognises that, working in a genre of decolonising ecopoetics, a writer writes “on bloodied lines”.
At their best, Hall’s poems carry through this complex engagement with community and country, with the book’s themes given as section headings “Dwelling”, “Praise”, and “Home”. “Dwelling” opens to “With Cicadas in Nitmiluk National Park” (and the bracketed note “formerly Katherine Gorge”). This is a fine free verse evocation of place where the colonial and the customary intersect in complex interrelationship “in Native Title Law / and Nitmiluk [cicadas] Cruises” (12). The reader is reminded earlier in the poem that the speaker is aware of that this place and season belong in “Jawoyn calendar lore”, the poem ends with Nitmiluk “cicadas jazzed-up on sap / and singing / the wet” (12), a reminder, too, of humans “jazzed-up” on other nutrients, stimulants, and excess.
“Palimpsest” shifts the reader geographically to the Budawang Ranges in New South Wales. The poem lays out simply the kinds of overlays – geological, Indigenous, and colonial – that make of the range a palimpsest (13). Taking the reader to the Blue Mountains and Erskine Gorge, “Promised Land” adds complexity to the colonial story with the Warrigals, a late nineteenth-century non-Indigenous walking group adopting an Indigenous name, coming into the Dharug area in the wake of the timbers-getters (14).
Then speaker and reader are returned to the Gulf Country with the understated and effective “Booroloola Blue”, a lament for the death of a young Yanyuwa man, which juxtaposes the speaker and companions drinking “chardonnay on ice” as “Yanyuwa youths ran amok / on ganja” (15). The first stanzas describe the “oasis”– constructed by and for what seems the non-Indigenous “we” of the poem – and its contrast with the raucous “build-up to the Wet”, at the end of which there is a kind of drug-fuelled excess (chardonnay for some, ganja for others) that comes to a tragic end:
It only ended when [sorry name] leapt on our fence
screaming at stars, before lightly climbing
a power pole like a cabbage tree palm –
an anabashed athleticism electrified
in the fall. (15)
Set apart as it is, the phrase “in the fall” seems to implicate the whole colonial-biblical tradition, as the youth’s fall from the pole is situated in the attempts of the poem’s “we” to seed their paradise on another’s country.
“Dystopian Empire” stays in Borroloola and describes an intense fight between two old women that no one can break up. The poem raises questions about the voyeurism of tourists and miners, the role of the police, munanga’s (whitefullas’) ignorance of country, intersecting with alcohol, drugs, and the possibility of a “numinous” mischief, ending poignantly:
Who will tearfully sing him, big business, with millad mob
in the dirt, pressing forwards, hoping for peace? (16)
The reader is reminded that the colonial lie of terra nullius is continually pierced by “women’s business” (“In the car park overlooking the grave of John Flynn, Alice Springs”, 17). A series of poems discussing the uses and usefulness of indigenous species – black boy, cabbage tree, burrawong palm, she-oak, red cedar – mimic and mock a colonial voice and eye (“colonial heads”, 18-22). Logging disturbs and leaves its trace as the speaker nonetheless encounters living country (“Fitzroy Fairway”, 23, and “Habitation”, 26). The density of language reflects the entwined narratives of place: “with lianas wreathing canopies, / like carpet pythons, festooning the way” (26). Awareness of ecological impacts and resistances recur (“Save Behana Gorge”, 27), nuanced by the speaker’s ambivalent recognition that in the past nearly 230 years, there have sometimes been multiple displacements, of Indigenous and later farming communities (“Griffin’s Farm, Kangaroo Valley”, 25). The final poem of “Dwelling” takes the reader into the shared other-than-human and human space of the suburbs (“Suburban Bush Thicknees”, 28).
The second section “Praise” has the poet walking as if in Darwin’s footsteps (“At Wentworth Falls”, 31-32), praising flying foxes “those black / leathered angels seeding / a Daintree, gallantly reclaiming / the Garden” (“This Creation”, 33), and celebrating the engineering of the Australian Labyrinth Spider (Corasoides australis) (“Creative Tension”, 34). Poems in this section demonstrate Hall’s capacity to write also in a spare haiku-like style focusing for example on weather (“Pressure Points”, 35-36) or galahs escaping a predatory wedge-tailed eagle (“galahs rising”, 39). “Praise” closes with a homily performed by geckos and their “squeaky mischief” (“Homily”, 47).
The final section “Home” opens with a pleasing interweaving of more-than-human sexuality and the speaker’s relationship with his partner within this broader context:
One day two great coastal taipans blocked
our path, they were mating, coiling and uncoiling
in ritualised wrestling by necessity brief.
We were on the edge of a sugar plantation
and whatever we feared rose up into the plovers’
plaintive cries. Sometimes aggression when nesting
reminds us of what we share. Fruit bat lovers
enveloped in wings – hanging –
we’re a hair’s breadth from contentment, a field of sugar
in exuberant, humid and suffocating air.
(“Bridal Falls”, 51)
“Home” is a place of situated narrative, where students gently mock and share knowledge with their teacher (“Borroloola Class”, 58), while “Trauma is their epidemic (well one of them)”, and the speaker yearns to find solace in “nature” and sometimes does (“Raising the Colours”, 59-61).
The genre of walking poem that takes the speaker and reader through country and revisits the challenges and unfolding vistas of the hike is strong in this section, both in the shorter poems “Sparklers” (63) and “Toasting Marshmallows” (64) and the longer “Learning on the Line” (65-70). This, the book’s penultimate poem, successfully conveys the movement of the long hike through country as a pedagogic interrelationship between students and teacher, with an irony that leaves us with the group preparing “a billy of tea” while forecasting “the luxury of their next fast-food” (70). The final poem “Concourse” (71-73) has the poet setting out with a group led by Malbu taking “them young ones bush“. On route the lyric I enters the poem “I know they want the music changed / as Malbu growls you mob, calm down there / this blackfulla William Barton is didjin’ / you mob listen there” and later “I lean / into Country”. The narrative of the poem is situated in the dialogue between the young ones, Malbu and the reflective “I” of the speaker, who has to put aside his “eco spiel” and come to “the rivers’ confluence” – “look here mista, twobula river runnin’ one” – so that the poem and the book conclude with the evocation of “silt-laden language” (73).
While there are places I felt some poems in sweetened in coals could have been sharpened with editing, the collection is strong and significant. Hall’s poetics situates itself in an inter-cultural story-building for community and country. He offers an ecologically-tuned white perspective but one few whitefullas share in practice: a way of seeing and writing that opens to being schooled not only by place but more particularly by the Indigenous communities, their elders and young ones, for whom place is always country. This is principled, explorative, lyric poetry that contributes to a transcultural ecological poetics. It is two years now since the publication of sweetened in coals. I look forward to Hall’s next collection.
Anne Elvey is managing editor of Plumwood Mountain journal. Her most recent collections of poetry are This flesh that you know (Leaf Press, 2015) and Kin (Five Islands Press, 2014).