Nadia Rhook’s fine collection boots traverses many sites and lands, always with the heavy footsteps of a (mindful) settler. But I’d rather start with water, since Rhook’s collection crosses rivers several times, from the Yarra to the Swan to the Han river in Vietnam. The Swan River’s name and story have little to do with Black Swans in Noongar understanding, and I refer readers to Kaartdijin Noongar to learn more.
The poet’s journey, which (like mine) is a settler’s journey, is one of the kind of partial, but also respectful, patient engagement with the cultures whose Country she has traversed, from the Yarra to the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River). In the poem within boots that names Rhook’s current space of habitation, life, love and work: Perth, Wadjuk Noongar Country, “academics and jellyfish” play in that very river. The speaker juxtaposes an experience of settler profanity and banality, set within a thick prosaic stanza, with something more profound. The settler verse paragraph reads:
I walk, river to grass, bus stop to sea, ice age to iced latte. and the club, she hovers above the grass, thick walls, steep membership fee, full salad bar coleslaw potato all the condiments you ever dreamt of sweet chilli French balsamic Italian classic dressing sesame seeds pepitas not to forget the crispy crunchy croutons
This is punctuated before and after by the drift of the poem’s titular "jellyfish",
one of them , keeps swimming down to the sand , then rushing up to meet the surface as if , this is an urgent task
This is visionary, object-oriented poetry, accounting for the creature itself in the ekphrastic mode of the text. But it turns even more in lines evoking speech, like a child’s perhaps:
are you playing dear jellyfish are you paying for lunch, dear jellyfish , are you playing, jellyfish , in the Derbarl Yerrigan
If this childlike voice — or antiphony, perhaps a mother and child — articulates a sense of innocence. It also deliberately positions the speakers as unknowing of the sense of Turtle dreaming or the wider significance of the river. Yet the river’s power animates the poem nonetheless as it animates the voices and curiosities of the several voices in “academics and jellyfish by the Derbarl Yerrigan”.
Like this poem, with which I chose to begin, boots as a whole animates the political through the personal. This begins pointedly with the first crown or suite that hits early on in the collection: “empire”.
Rhook’s work as a professional historian engages in detail and great breadth with the history of empire, particular as it was experienced and relayed in Australia, an itinerary that engages the peoples of the Han river basin, the spectre of Viet the Kinh, Indigenous dispossession and its intersection with transcolonial comparison. Rivers such as Derbarl Yerrigan, when conceived of in Indigenous terms, decolonise the legacy of the Imperial and transcolonial with its mass incarceration, indenture and dispossession. But boots is frequently concerned with the personal as much as the political. So it is intriguing that the first poem in the crown “empire” ends:
but who cares what empire’s done I want to know what I have done, what the hell I’m doing.
The speaker of the poem “dream[s] of new ports, old road blocks” evoking a cathected sense of empire’s utopian artifice. But she also worries (as a historian might, so often wrapped up in both understanding and critiquing such a social formation): “what’s empire done to me?” The tone of this line is doubled, charged with at least two senses: “what’s empire done to me” as apologetic for empire—yes—but more profoundly, what has empire done to me: what are the scars that linger from this formation’s archive and its memory. As the poem has it, presenting the speaker’s attempt to cope: “(first comes breath, then comes violence, then comes . . . more breath).” As “empire III” informs us: “empire is a big secret to keep quiet” (17).
It is elegant the way Rhook offers her reader teases of the personal in a poem with so political a title as “empire”, and this paradigm iterates and develops through the collection. In “Once we were settlers”, a mother and daughter spend time together in a suburban backyard. Mark Rifkin, the north American scholar of settler and Indigenous literatures terms this “settler common sense”—a play on the Gramscian concept “critical common sense”. For Rifkin, “projects of elimination and replacement”, that define settler colonial societies do indeed, inhabit suburbs, far from massacre sites and locked cells, riven with death. For Rifkin these places “become geographies of everyday non-Native occupancy that do not understand themselves as predicated on colonial occupation or on a history of settler-Indigenous relation (even though they are)” (324). In Rhook’s poem, this is emphatically Aboriginal land—the mother and daughter “[r]ested a while, on shade on Wathauwarrung land”. But their awareness, along with the speaker of this fact is coupled with a critical sense that the banality of suburban life is also unsettling:
Gravity doesn’t work
in reverse, and settlers dream of pasture, we Pushed lemons up hill
Look here! Somewhere new to treat as home
The sense that the speaker gives to the experience—which could perhaps be the girl reflecting on the time in the yard with her mother, days or months hence—is critical: “When we finally leave your country / We will take our rubbish with us”.
Mark Rifkin, “Settler Common Sense”, Settler Colonial Studies 3, 3–4 (2013): 322–40.
Nadia Rhook, boots, Crawley, WA: UWAP, 2020. ISBN: 9781760801182