Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945
It is an interesting endeavour to destabilise early Australian literary history through an interrogation of colonial texts not usually read for their poetics but for their cultural signification.
In this approach, texts like ‘notorious bushranger’ Ned Kelly’s The Jerilderie Letter and ‘Indigenous traveller’ Bennelong’s ‘Letter to Mr Phillips, Lord Sydney’s Steward’ exist at the boundaries of Australian poetry. But so does the text of another Indigenous writer that of Gladys Gilligan’s ‘The Settlement’ which A.O. Neville, Protector of Aborigines, requested she compose. Yet at the edges of Australian poetry also exists ‘an extraordinary text’ by the Chinese gold-miner Jong Ah Sing that represents ‘outsider writing’ long before the notion figured in the Australian literary imaginary both because the term did not yet exist in the nineteenth century and because ‘arguably there was no inside in Australian letters at this time’. And there are diaries by settler women, drover texts on trees and water tanks, drawings, etc. Nor in this assemblage of texts do documents by Charles Harper, Dorothea Mackellar, and Christopher Brennan go astray.
Through the analysis of punctuation and other textual elements, and paying homage to Philip Mead’s work in Networked Language (2008), poet-critic Michael Farrell engenders new possibilities of interpretation through the increasingly important notion of unsettlement. As Farrell argues:
Australian literature ... is not and never was, settled. From its beginning it was being made and remade by writers of different cultures, whether Indigenous, Chinese, convict Irish, or working or middle-class English settlers. These writers invented new material practices of lettering style, syntax, and punctuation usage, as well as new and networked affects, tones and ironies. (195)
The implication is that it is writing that has given settled readings of Australian literary history and it is writing that can unsettle those readings.
Farrell invites us to treat his readings as the outcome of his own reading engagement—an unsettled poetics of reading perhaps. Yet his is also a project of enlargement since he desires to open up what Australian writing can be. At a purely scholarly level, he wishes to increase interest in the colonial era, break the city-bush dyad, render Indigenous writing present from the beginning of European colonisation and settlement, open up the study of canonical writers such as Dorothea Mackellar or Christopher Brennan, contribute to the history of Australian visual poetics, and suggest new ways of engaging with texts whose meaning seems already known.
Given Australian literature’s late arrival on the world literary landscape, the boldness of Farrell’s project of unsettlement is to advocate for the experimental early in Australian literary history. While his assemblage ‘of exemplary unsettled texts from what might be called the long colonial era’ could well have appeared less than literary when composed, Farrell argues that they also seem ‘to supply the deficiency of Australian literature in providing’ a possible ‘experimental poetics, pre-empting the modern, conventionally described as beginning with Kenneth Slessor in the 1930s, or a little later with the fictional poet Ern Malley in 1943’ (4). The reality of settlement itself engenders this alternative poetics through a need to invent words to describe the different landscape, fauna, and flora. But so do the ‘new literacies’ of convicts and little-educated British settlers. In this mix also exist other settlers and sojourners such as the Chinese learning to write in English. And ‘the beginning of writing in English by Indigenous people' also contributes to this experimentalism (4). The conclusion is that ‘new forms and new uses of forms were inevitable’ (4).
The point throughout is whether Farrell unsettles inherited significations to open up meanings. Through experimental textual investigations, he demonstrates how others can seek the interstices of culture and literature to enrich Australian literary and cultural significations.
Michael Farrell. Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015. 234 pp. ISBN: 9781137485717 (Hardback)