Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria, a collaborative work by Diwurruwurru: the Booroloola Poetry Club with Phillip Hall. Eltham, VIC: Blank Rune Books, 2015.
R. D. Wood
Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria is a small offering (24 pages of poetry) but it is the concentration, I am sure, of many hours work. Collaboration takes time; work with remote communities takes time; poetry takes time. But in this case it has been time well spent. Diwurruwurru is enjoyable, eye-opening and powerful, and presents us with a possibility and a vision of contemporary life. This is not Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria in poetry, but more like a vernacular Aboriginal English re-presented. It is work to welcome not simply because it gives us an acutely non-dominant language but also because it does away with the conceit of liberal authorship by virtue of its method. If the animating energy and translation point is Phillip Hall, there is a strong sense of the communal here too. And that, in and of itself, is important. This is to say nothing of the aesthetic charms of the work, of the strong and appealing covering of new territory that takes place with insight, clarity, humour and strength. These poems are narrative poems of daily life that often talk about going bush, singing and family.
Consider, “Gudanji Gem”:
millad mob not saltwater mob
like dem yanyuwa mob
us gudanji mob, dis millad country
an you come drive in mudika long way
out bush an us show you dis lagoon
it long long way you know
dat devil devil dreaming
you don’t climb him or dance
da night dat ngabaya bin stay
an he chock you like tis
you drive long long way past him
past barramundi dreaming swallowed
in mine an you see high on ridge
where freshwater kangaroo bash
dat saltwater one dat where millad country is
us mob sing dat place wid ceremony
an lagoon big country full
taddle, long-nose, fish an bush turkey
water lily, makulu, bush plum, onion an yam
you bend roun’ unda massacre hill like dis
– dem cheeky whitefullas call him dat –
an up a track past dat skull creek
in da cave a baby blackfulla bone
tis sung to stone like crystal memory
dem poor old people do teach us to sing dat
A whole world is glimpsed here in a language all its own; a language that if not approaching Creole plays with historical registers of “blackness” – think of how people talk in Gone with the Wind (most recently re-packaged by Vanessa Place); think of Jamaican poet Louise Bennett; think of the London based Linton Kwesi Johnson, too. This is a transnational blackness from the US to the Caribbean to the UK. “Devil devil” is simply one word that has global frequent flyer points. The poem has internal reference also (to “Garrawa Gem” and “Yanyuwa Gem”, which are on the immediately preceding pages). But one notes the importance of us and them (the fundamentally different saltwater/freshwater epitomised by the fighting kangaroos); the dismissiveness towards “cheeky whitefullas”; the closing endnote of old people and singing which brings with it a self-deprecation of this inferior art; the laundry list of bushtucker. This is life in the Gulf, with story and wryness, power and uniqueness, too. And the other poems in the volume do not disappoint.
The reigning paradigm of deformed realism, seen most clearly in new offerings by Giramondo, from Beesley to Cassidy to Wakeling to Farrell, needs to be considered anew in light of Diwurruwurru. In other words, realism is contextual. If your reality is powdered milk, green can, goanna, then of course the poetic expression of that is going to differ from the halls of the academy where the latte is held in hand. If the daily life and the lineage of influence is an endogenous song, myth and story tradition rather than Ashbery and O’Hara then the context of intelligibility is going to differ. So in that sense Diwurruwurru reads as foreign to the person with a limited, if hegemonic and understandable, notion of what is “Australian poetry”.
It can be used then to destabilise our assumptions of the possible “here” now. When I visited the Gulf I remember meeting Murandoo Yanner and Alexis Wright, amongst many others, on country. I have spent time in remote places in Australia (Pilbara and Kimberely in the main) and consider a number of Aboriginal people my friends and family. However, the Gulf has a different texture. Diwurruwurru is located firmly even as we can draw similarities between it and a great many other places. It is as exceptional as it is representative and we need similar volumes from right across Aboriginal Australia.
If “Poetry” has a centre, has a dominant mode of being in Australia, it is still as pale, male, stale, sure of its place. In that way, the dominant mode shares a ground of certainty with Diwurruwurru. But the question here is of legitimacy and claim. This is not to deny the being of occupation, but to highlight the lineage and trajectory of sovereignty and recognition. Australia will always be contested, and not simply on account of race relations, but because there have always been competing group identities. The Western Pilbara, which is the country I am most familiar with, has seen enmity between Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi people far more intense and long standing than any more recent grafting. Think, too, of the freshwater and saltwater divide in the poem quoted above. And that should not be forgotten; Indigenous autonomy should not be forgotten; and to always view things through a lens of the nation is to some extent a colonising gesture that betrays a narcissistic whiteness. Diwurruwurru challenges such a perspective by being its own thing. Rather than fight in the way Ken Canning, Lionel Fogarty and Natalie Harkin do, Diwurruwurru focuses on its own set of practices, its own territory, its own way in the world, which suggests a centre of belonging that is capable of resisting, if not ignoring, “Australian” occupation.
R. D. Wood is the author of two books, most recently loam-words (Electio Editions, 2016). He is on the faculty of The School of Life and lives in Melbourne.