Bridie McCarthy reviews Speaking the Earth’s Languages

Stuart Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean Postcolonial Poetics. Cross/Cultures, 159. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013. ISBN 978-90-420-3648-2.

Bridie McCarthy

Stuart Cooke’s Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean Postcolonial Poetics is a unique and memorable book. Like the “nomadic poetics” it traces, it is similarly “concerned with … articulating complications” (275) and shares a commitment to movement, listening, becoming. It has a sometimes-restless energy running through it, and seems as manifold as the poetics it describes, with its focus shifting from country, to poetry, to theory, to politics, and from the local to the transnational and back again. In many ways, this approaches the “lateral flows of ideas that can take place in a heterogeneous mixture”, which Cooke suggests are the consequences of a necessarily nomadic discussion that starts from “ground level” (19).

The book compares poetry and poetic texts from Australia and Chile on the basis of histories and legacies of colonialism and postcolonialism, according to the logic of a “nomadic poetics” (after Pierre Joris, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and with influences from a number of other thinkers). It draws connections between the work of Aboriginal and Mapuche poets and builds an argument for the relevance of such connections with regard to the politics of postcoloniality and the potency and sustainability of poetry that is intrinsically tied to “local ecologies” (54) and that is concerned with and affected by “the intersection of colonization, ecological destruction and dispossession” (181).

As Cooke describes:

This book critiques dominant examples of non-Indigenous postcolonial poetics before turning to ask, “What would constitute an Indigenous postcolonial poetics?” The aim is to give primacy to the poetics of the nation’s first peoples in the formulation of a contemporary literary ethic. (24)

The two sections of the book outlined above, though not equal in length and not delineated into sections as such, are separated by virtue of a comparison between “high-modernist” poetry and “indigenous poetic responses to high-modernist thought” (24). The former is represented in the book by the poetry of Judith Wright and Pablo Neruda, whose work Cooke reads as dominated by axioms, affected by a poetics of transcendence, individualism and universalism, and directed through the gaze of the “high-modernist optic”. For Cooke, both of these poets are unable to fully engage language as a function of place—instead, according to Cooke, Wright’s poetry departs from country via traditional poetic forms and biblical mythology (41, 46), and Neruda’s poetry increasingly becomes usurped by “the omniscient Nerudian gaze” (93). By contrast, song-poems are “local, itinerant propositions” (137) which are intrinsically connected to country—a point that Cooke makes in the fourth chapter, which sets up the basis for the continuing discussion of the oral dimension of nomadic poetics in Aboriginal and Mapuche texts.

The latter of the two parts, constituting the bulk of this book, concerns the poetry and poetic texts of Mapuche poets Leonel Lienlaf and Paulo Huirimilla, and of Aboriginal storyteller Paddy Roe and poet Lionel Fogarty. These are the “nomad poets”, whose texts Cooke reads as “mobile meeting grounds” (265)—productive and flexible examples of the “virtual becoming-actual”(163) and the past operating through the present; “multilingual ecologies”(23) existing on the “plane of immanence” (113), involving intersubjective realms that are inclusive and communal. This poetry, Cooke argues, is “ecological” in the sense that it is “communally created … developed by virtue of an interaction with human and non-human things” (29) and is therefore strongly located in country. To further demonstrate this, Cooke briefly examines one poem each from Ali Cobby Eckermann, Roxana Carolina Miranda Rupailaf and Peter Minter in the concluding chapter, arguing that “a nomadic ecopoetics needs to be based on the capacity of the poet’s voice to cohere with what surrounds her” (291).

In Speaking the Earth’s Languages, this connection of poetry and country—a “poetics of immanence in which everything—language, spirit and law—is to be found in the ground beneath our feet” (115)—is dependent on a notion of ecopoetics that is based on a kind of ecological intelligence, wherein one thinks in ecosystems. Following this logic, language is situated “within a wider ecology” of contexts (197), as part of the biosphere (225), and is “but one of a variety of processes acting upon the environment” (130). The poem, as a “product of the environment” (272), speaks from the land and allows the human to synthesise with the world (159). It is no surprise, therefore, that Cooke uses the metaphor of the waterfall to illustrate the prominence of voice as expressed in the structure of Huirimilla’s poetry:

Frequent justification to the left margin ensures that each line emerges from the same place, albeit at different points in time, like ribbons of water tumbling from a waterfall. […] Waterfalls are sacred spaces for the Mapuche. […] When standing before Huirimilla’s waterfall, we hear a “sonic mesh”, as a boiling multiplicity of sounds collide with and overrun one another. (255–56)

To think in ecosystems means “we must think nomadically” (28). As Cooke argues throughout the book, this involves not only the imbrication of poet and world—and the attendant understanding of the ways in which language, culture, environment and experience are drawn together ecologically—but also the “errant” and necessary movement between the individual and the communal, and between the local and the transnational. Using Aboriginal and Mapuche poetry as case studies of a postcolonial nomadic ecopoetics, Cooke articulates the emergence of a kind of zeitgeist driving “a more than personal expressive energy that is abroad throughout the world” which exists because “[e]xpression moves laterally across ecologies” (262). One of the great successes of this book is how it convinces the reader that Aboriginal and Mapuche poetic texts can be illustrative of this poetics.

Speaking the Earth’s Languages is a welcome contribution to the quiet space of comparative discussions of Australian and Latin American poetry and to the louder space of South-South dialogues. The book covers much distance and is clearly the result of sustained fieldwork and research, and also of deep and conscientious engagement with individual writers, their cultures, histories, literatures and communities. There is evidence of much learning here, as well as the generous sharing of knowledge. The role of “postcolonial translator” that Cooke adopts, his multilingualism and careful attention to the vital linguistic and cultural dimensions of the politics and history of (post)coloniality should be recognised. Indeed, Cooke’s published commitment to multilingualism[1] needs to be especially commended in light of the place where he speaks from (to adopt his language): postcolonial Australia of the 21st century, a place with a recent history blighted by the loss of indigenous languages (amongst many other outcomes of colonial violence), where ideals of “multiculturalism” might be celebrated, but which can be so profoundly monolingual and exclusively monocultural.

For all its strengths, the book runs a number of risks (which might very well be an intentional part of its design). For instance, one reading of this text might be that this is very much a book concerned with its own terminology. The risk that it takes is that this terminology will weigh it down. In this sense, it shares an affinity with critical theory of various kinds. The weight of terminology is, however, offset by the close attention to the poetry (and surrounding politics) and the evocative language used to analyse its features and effects. Nonetheless, it is difficult to keep track of the multiple kinds of poetics charted in this book, and of where these cross over, coalesce or cohabitate. Whilst it would be incorrect (and a misreading of the ethics and structuring of the text, as much as of its central arguments) to suggest that Cooke writes taxonomically in this book, there still exist a myriad of mostly original—and hence mostly unfamiliar—terms to describe poetics, politics and poetry, such as the following: “[t]ranspacific indigenous poetics”, “multilingual ecologies”, “an Australian ecological poetics”, “a poetics of immanence”, “nomadic poetics”, “after-modern” poetry, “a poetics of becoming-actual”, “a poetics of the relation”, “a poetics of the interstitial”, a “trans-Pacific postcolonial poetics”, “a poetics that is never at rest”, a “more-than-local indigenous poetics”, “country-reflexivity”, and so on.[2] Although the proliferative terminology might displease some readers, others will no doubt find this a very attractive feature of the book. Indeed, it is perhaps this shifting network of terms that best encapsulates Cooke’s nomadic aim for the book’s chapters to be “zone[s] of distinct intensity” such that “lines of communication race between them before dissipating into other zones” (36).

The selective use of critical debate in Speaking the Earth’s Languages also seems risky. Although there is careful justification of the central argument and rigorous defense of the approach throughout (as well as valuable acknowledgements of the limits of theoretical concepts in relation to the poetry), there is a lack of comprehensive discussion—sometimes even a lack of acknowledgement—of key critical debates pertinent to the text, such as those from postcolonial and anti-colonial theory and those concerning Australian poetry. This is not to say that Cooke doesn’t engage with key critical texts—rather, that the texts included don’t represent the breadth of debates. The absence of attention to such critical debates could be interpreted as running counter to the ethos of the book, which champions an inclusive poetics of postcolonial nomadic thought and action. Though this absence might be regrettable, it also invites responses to the book within these critical forums, which would provide valuable “lines of communication” to add to those amongst the book’s chapters. Bringing Cooke’s arguments about the poetry into direct conversation with other critiques of these texts, for instance, would be interesting.[3]

The often-persuasive readings of poetic texts in Speaking the Earth’s Languages certainly give a clear picture of what a postcolonial and trans-Pacific nomadic poetics looks like. The book will likely also introduce new readers to these texts and to other poetry from Mapuche and Aboriginal communities and writers. The challenge now is to continue to test Cooke’s “theory for Australian-Chilean postcolonial poetics” by applying it to more of the poetry produced out of these places. If, as Cooke argues, “a proper postcolonial poetics in Australia or Chile needs to be an imagination of diversity”(287) and “a nomadic poetics might structure a dialogue with which indigenous and settler poets can begin to re-imagine the terms of use for Australian and Chilean ecologies” (292), then the project must necessarily continue its momentum. Important questions will emerge from this process, such as “How will this dialogue take place?” and “How will it affect the reading and production of poetry in the future?”


Cooke, Stuart. “Singing up Country in the Poetry of Judith Wright and Pablo Neruda”. Australian Literary Studies, 23.4 (2008): 408–21.

—. Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean Poetics. Cross/Cultures 159. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013.


Bridie McCarthy works as a Research Fellow at Deakin University, Melbourne. Her chief research interests relate to contemporary Australian poetry and its publishing and reception history, and contemporary Latin American critical thought. She is co-Managing Editor of New Scholar: An International Journal of the Humanities, Creative Arts and Social Sciences.


[1] In his “Notes on the Translations”, Cooke laments the fact that Leonel Lienlaf’s work is not reproduced in Mapuzugun in this book. He also affirms his commitment to an ethic of multilingualism in stating: “I want non-English terms and concepts to be incorporated into the larger discussion, rather than to be typographically exoticised”. (Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages, xii).

[2] Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages, Foreword, 26, 28, 32–33, 35, 161, 199, 221, 231, 245, 262, 266.

[3] I note that this process has begun in one form, with Cooke’s “Singing up Country in the Poetry of Judith Wright and Pablo Neruda”, Australian Literary Studies 23, no. 4 (2008): 408–21. It may also be underway elsewhere.

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