Talking to a Stranger: Decolonising the Australian “Landscape” Poem

Bonny  Cassidy

 

The slow decay of the remains of a lonely farmer’s house, its decline and disintegration, its decomposition and eventual, inevitable assimilation into the environment, appeared before me in a Dantean vision of a transformation of colonial culture, a ruinously fecund metamorphosis of its radical imposition into something new and unrecognisable.[i]

In his powerful editorial introduction to the August 2016 issue of Plumwood Mountain, Peter Minter addresses the shared process of creating “a decolonised geopoethics” in Australia. In such a field of poetry and poetics, writes Minter, “everyone needs to take responsibility for imagining their own unique kind of transformation. In poetry and poetics, we have to think about how non-Indigenous form, western form, romantic form, lyrical form, white form, have a responsibility to current and future cultural conditions.” This, he suggests, is how the non-Indigenous or settler imaginary can reach “an existential common ground” with colonised Indigenous lives and expression.

I recently explored how some of John Mateer’s “Australian poems” attempt to do so.[ii] Whilst my discussion focused upon the tension between cultural ownership and cross-cultural “common ground”, I concluded it by considering how the mixed success of Mateer’s efforts might illuminate the more recent attempts of settler poets to imagine and represent “a transformation of colonial culture” in Australia:

We might consider how such poets retreat from attempting to represent or “embody” Aboriginality except by acknowledging its sovereignty through poetic means of voice, image, narrative or allusion. We might also, by extension, look at how they declare their settler identities as anxious, that is, dwelling within Indigenous Country: subjecting their origins to its sovereignty, in order to legitimately “gain presence” (Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos, 105). Settlers might participate in writing a “new story of the nation”, but it firstly relies upon recognition of somebody else’s being … to advance ways of thinking through and representing belonging and shared history in the full presence of Indigenous sovereignty. To write about a place in such a way that is at once receptive and provisional.[iii]

In the following essay I want to I take up my own critical cue, to consider the ways some settler poets are attempting to transform Australian poetry’s representation of “the nature of nature, the character of habitus”.[iv] In these few examples, published within the past three years, poets experiment with ways of taking responsibility for that representation, that is, they try to acknowledge the continuity between the ground they refer to poetically and the actuality of un-ceded Indigenous ground. By drawing attention to the fact of colonised geography, the fact of living and writing upon it, they imaginatively represent a transformation of the settler’s body, identity and language. Whether or not the poets themselves are ethnically white, their poems interrogate what it is to participate in the condition of whiteness as non-Indigenous settlers. In doing so, these poems offer movements through a decentred concept and poetics of land, place and belonging – those haunted themes of so much settler Australian poetry, from the colonial era to the contemporary.

 

Called to Account

 

It is crucial to acknowledge that this discussion is made possible by the hard and painful personal, critical and creative work of Indigenous writers to mobilise against the ongoing impact of colonisation on cultural expression and representation. In his 1990 study of Aboriginal literature, Writing from the Fringe, Mudrooroo Narogin inverts the conditions of Indigenous cultural marginalisation, stressing that Aboriginal writing occupies an essential, critical position:

Aboriginal literature in Australia occupies a special place denied to the majority … This does not stop white writers from claiming that their writings have an authenticity even beyond those writers of the fringe … They become upset when their friendly Blacks deny their works any authenticity, when they turn their gaze upon them and call them to account.[v]

Mudrooroo’s contested Aboriginality may be seen to complicate his own “authenticity” here as a commentator. However, his view is echoed by Melissa Lucashenko’s address to settlers in “You Are the Fringes”.[vi] In that vision, settler writing must answer to the legacy and critical frameworks of Indigenous writing. Alison Whittaker, too, describes this as a shifting of Australian poetry’s supposed cultural reference point:

a self-sustaining, Indigenous-centric and culturally-reciprocal text is a way of taking literary space that’s not always conducive to the meanings that are put upon it by non-Indigenous people. I’ve coded levels of access, probably unconsciously, into my poems. The space should be there, I hope, for all Indigenous readers to take and understand meaning, and to introduce their own. I also hope that levels of the   text aren’t instantly accessible to non-Indigenous readers. I hope those readers have to ask, research, discuss and probe in a way that takes their space rather than them taking up the space.[vii]

These remarks illuminate a critical link between the settler poems featured here (and more too numerous to list): in its own ways, each poem imagines and represents a will to invert colonial power in its manifest forms of poetic landscaping. The poems’ shared imagining – a transformative practice of holding Australian poetics to account for its own role in constructing and repeating colonial paradigms – journeys toward what Minter calls “existential common ground” between Indigenous and settler cultures in Australia.

 

Unwriting ‘Land’

 

The Anglophone Australian settler toys with a poverty of adequate words for the context of their “habitus”. Nature, land, place, landscape and so on: they are unimaginative nouns that denote everything and nothing at once. This problem with basic units of representation is the focus of Anupama Pilbrow’s poem “homology”:[viii]

land rewrites itself, isn’t it

isn’t it

repastured

reconstituted: 2% fat homologized

 

[place a place content fat the milk

changes nation a nation

viscosity takes precedence

to pour the milk from jug a jug

someone has to redesign the curvature the spout

cream jug milk jug

to correct for nation specific pour

prevent drips spillages

group by absence &

money-making potential]

Pilbrow refuses the subject, “land”, which her poem introduces; she does not posit an alternative lexicon. Her refusal is immediately indicated by the ungrammatical line, “land rewrites itself, isn’t it”. The poem’s stammering, “isn’t it / isn’t it” suggests speechlessness in the face of something supposedly sublime – something so assumed that it hardly bears articulating in full. Or a breakdown of expected communication. The pastoral illusion that land rewrites – reforms or repurposes – itself is underscored by the words “repastured” and “reconstituted”, industrial processes that require human intervention.

The poem literally pushes aside a mimetic or aesthetic representation (scape-ing) of “land”. Through this industrialised formal strategy, Pilbrow un-writes “land” as a trope, disappointing conventions of “landscape” or “landscape poetry” by enacting a verbal and visual decentring of the concept. In this discourse, the statistic “2%” calls to mind the estimated 2.4% Indigenous population of Australia. In the poem this percentage is figured as “the fat” that is “homologized” by assimilation, like homogenised cream into milk. Pilbrow reminds us that the melting pot of Australian multiculturalism is a domestic “cream jug milk jug” specifically designed “for nation specific pour” to avoid “drips spillages”. Just like “land”, a poetic sense of “place” is “placed” – deliberately built, not organically formed: “someone has to redesign the curvature” for it to perform correctly. Here, both “land” and “place” are colonial concepts of “absence / and money-making potential”.

As I read this poem, I can hear the tonal and formal influences of Lionel Fogarty and Natalie Harkin. Pilbrow’s poem isn’t appropriative of those influences; it avoids representing any identity other than its discontinuous voice. It knows that to “think through the way mental categories have instantiated the space of dispossession is a very different act from giving form and expression to the experience of being dispossessed”.[ix] Pilbrow’s “homology” feeds back through the colonising language, transforming its tradition so that the problem of English – rather than “land” or “nation” – is a site of “common ground”. The poem focuses on conveying awareness of the Indigenous losses incurred by that language. As a result, the possibility of a centred poem is itself “lost” to the urgent importance of the aside. An economically conceptual poem, Pilbrow’s “homology” demonstrates that, in Australia, “every act of housing is coterminously an act of unhousing”. Jennifer Rutherford’s argument about the colonial inhabitation of space is useful here, because a poem occupies material as well as conceptual space. The settler poem is like the settler house:

The house never simply contains, nor is it simply present in the world of things … The production of space for white settler culture occurs always in a space of pre-existing spatial memory, imagination and invention.[x]

Pilbrow’s poem addresses the existing tradition of the landscape poem, its lack of innocence. Like Minter, Pilbrow watches the house of “nation” disintegrate – but she leaves others to imagine what metamorphosis follows the closing parenthesis.

 

In the Presence of Language

 

“The imaginative writer”, states Nicholas Birns, “cares about people in a way that is impossible currently to care through conventional socio-political means. Concern is what remains of a collective horizon once the state is no longer seen as a vehicle to bring us towards that horizon.”[xi] I admire Birns’ suggestion that construction is not always possible to offer or achieve, but that concern might sometimes be sufficient to partly extricate oneself from colonial foundations. A place of reflection, adjacent to the noise.

I, too, have busily engaged in the overuse of land, place and landscape, in the search for something more particular. I grew up in Cronulla, south of Sydney: adjacent to Botany Bay and Kurnell, where Captain James Cook’s landing point is marked; the site of anti-migrant race riots in 2005; and a steadily gentrifying oasis separated from the city’s sprawl by a broad river of marinas and mangroves. Apart from the Kurnell oil refinery, there is no primary industry; the district is built on what we might call family values, or sand dunes. My parents’ house formed a progressive island. From there I liked taking walks around the bays and beaches, though other kids seemed to know them in a different way – swim club, surf club, lifesavers. But perhaps nobody in Cronulla felt they belonged. Why else violently riot to defend it, except from anxiety about its loss to others?

In Reports from a Wild Country, Deborah Bird Rose proposes that “the dismantling of the warlike theory of self is a necessary step in moving towards decolonization”. She encourages the philosophy that in “settler societies … ethics become primary”:

Ethics involve relations between self and others, and thus actively abjure homogenisation, appropriation, objectification, and manipulation. “Self” and “other” matter in the here and now of their life and their difference. In our societies ethics includes relationships between Indigenous and settler-descended peoples, and relationships between our knowledge systems. It includes our moral engagements with our past and future, and with our ecosystems.[xii]

Perhaps belonging is a distracting and somewhat “warlike” notion with which to approach a decolonised geopoethics. How do I, as a settler poet, take responsibility for imagining an alternative?

Littoral geography and ecology has shaped a lot of my life, travel and poetry – not the suburb called Cronulla, but the topographic patterns and landmarks of coastal south-eastern Australia: from the beaches of northern New South Wales, to the Illawarra escarpment, to Tasmania. It is a partial and ongoing relationship that I have with these locations and ecologies; physically both connected and discontinuous. In one part of my long-poem Final Theory, I try to represent this through an encounter with language. In Final Theory, the image of the mutton-bird first appears within a setting that alludes to New Zealand, and under its commonly used (even for a tourist such as myself) Te Reo name, titi. When it reappears later on in the poem, however, the setting describes eastern Tasmania and the bird’s name is less certain:[xiii]

First we see

the starry flags tilted:

 

the birds that exist always elsewhere –

in name and abandoned hole, on the wing, after hours –

having traded off a final, pencil descent

for the return

to buried darkness

and rest.

 

You ask me their name;

I say one quickly, invented;

it sits on the wind,

no less alive than another, no more

than the birds at our feet.

 

First we see the first birds in years.

Our tyres blur into sand.

 

Shearwater is a species name that I have never used verbally; mutton-bird is a colonial moniker, which I’ve inherited from another cultural moment; and the Palawa word, which I first read on a sign near the Bruny Island isthmus, felt out of my reach – imported from a complex cultural history without knowledge or permission:[xiv]

Then in the red loam, a web of burrows

gaping open and feathered by the wind.

And a sign here names the bird, as you wanted;

 

not as I named it, but rounded and agile,

the language still warm. We roll it

into our sentences, but it hardly makes a sound.

 

I take it out of the poem and put it back on the ground.

Influenced by reflections on Mateer’s poem, “In the Presence”, I decided not to name the bird at all in this section of the book, but to write around its name. The Palawa word isn’t absent within the poem – like the evidence of fire that the speaker finds later, it is “still warm”, alive. But I decided to prise a gap between the poem’s authorial persona, who can describe the ecology but lacks a legitimate language for the bird, and the characters who unsuccessfully put the Palawa word to use. My poem’s act of representation is incomplete – a space is left open as a dialogic gesture. Stuart Cooke states that: “By listening, the settler is drawn into the possibilities of a connection; her subsequent response is the actualization of that connection.”[xv] Like the long strands of beach pocked with storm-blown birds, a windblown coast with its networks of burrows through volcanic soil, the poem is exposed to an awareness of inhabited sovereign ground.

My attempt at a decolonised geopoethics also draws on Cooke’s work around the theory of “nomad poetics”. It helps me grasp that a settler’s relationship with stolen Indigenous land can only ever be coming-into-being: a “search for a closer, more sensitive relationship between words and the ever‐changing terrain of which they speak”.[xvi] In Final Theory, the Palawa word is not mine to use, but I know of it and it sits alongside the metaphorical meaning that I make of the bird. In putting the word “back on the ground” the poem seeks to acknowledge the Palawa language as the one that holds un-ceded sovereignty; my speaker’s identity hovers alongside it. I see this as a nomad poetics that attempts to respond to changing observations and changing ground, that is, its task is to keep up with an unsettled sensory, ecological and psycho-emotional terrain.[xvii]

Cooke has pointed out that this poetics is distinct from a settler desire for “becoming native”, to use Freya Mathews’ phrase.[xviii] I would add that this poetics is also distinct from the culture of settler “belonging” that has been explored by Peter Read.[xix] Cooke advances the radical question to fellow settlers: “Why … do we want to become ‘fully native’ at all?”[xx] As Aileen Moreton-Robinson points out, settler nativism is problematic because it is so often “figured as personal“. A sense of “place” based on “personal sentiment” denies the “structural power relations” of dispossession that permit this sentiment to take place.[xxi] Irene Watson takes this point further, to show that such a concept of nativism may itself be a “colonising process of us becoming white and white becoming Indigenous, [as] white settlement deems itself as coming into its own legitimacy, as whites come into the space of our freedom to roam as Aboriginal peoples”.[xxii] When we turn this problem to the poems discussed here, we find that they try to offer a different way to move through sovereign space. They try to avoid the gaze of ownership or of romantic interpretation; they try to enact what Cooke theorises as “light‐footed travel”.[xxiii] This poetics invokes a suspension of permanent or continuous, place-based identity; it imagines the settler habitus with a community of others. Or, as Lucashenko puts it, at “the fringes”.

 

Walking light

 

Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos contend that, since white Australian history has relied so fundamentally on the exclusion of otherness, a progressive passage towards a proper understanding of settler identity can only be carried out philosophically, not historically: “For only a philosophical engagement has the potential to reveal the very meaning of unconditional surrender and with this meaning and value of listening.”[xxiv] I like to think that poetry is one form of such philosophical engagement, which can imagine a different ontology. I’m reassured by Cooke’s belief that poetry is “the most accommodating, unsettling and evocative kind of discourse we can summon”.[xxv] It “must elude the state’s optical ‘macroface’, even confuse it, taunt it”.[xxvi]

Ouyang Yu’s poem, “The evening walk”, moves through a physical space that is neither personal nor communal. For whom, and to whom, does the poem speak? It begins in the second-person, implicating the reader yet also narrating an exploration of deeply localised sensation:[xxvii]

The trees are louder at this time

of the day when the eyes follow

the feet in search of a pretty leaf

or fallen bark

The air is strong with horse shit, so strong

you put your nose to the naked

tree to smell the nothingness

of the bark

This “you” could be read as a pun on “Yu”, but the poem makes a turn that is signalled by the third-person singular – a distance that implies both speaker and reader, as well as something broader:

One will never be

great in this

land lying quiet and

domesticated nor will one

ever be that

violent and bloody

Living overrides all

concerns and creates

them as well here everyone

is a leaf or fallen bark, writable

with little admirable

but everything one

deserves

a smallness that matches

the land’s sky

vastness

Framed as an evening walk, the poem might be strolling through the closing hours of colonial settlement. The poem signs “Australia” through symbolic, even kitsch images: “fallen bark” and sublime “vastness”. If we didn’t already pick up the hint of “horse shit”, Yu explicitly redirects those familiar, romantic “optics” of settlement. Speaking as “one”, the poem constructs a philosophical origin story for “everyone” “in this land”: tension between the scale of the continent’s habitus and the “smallness” of the colonies produces mediocrity that “creates” its own concerns. Adjacent to the “macroface” of the state, Yu’s poem gently taunts the idea of a national narrative by comparing it with this “writable” construction.

The poem’s description of mediocrity is a covert critique of whiteness. As Richard Dyer discusses, whilst whiteness allows empowered invisibility it concomitantly carries associations (particularly in postcolonial societies) with cultural lack:

whiteness is nothing in particular … white culture and identity have, as it were, no content … culture, distinctive identity, one might say colour, tended to be felt as add-ons to an identity that is not itself distinctive or coloured, that lacks “flavour”.[xxviii]

Yu satirises this lack of flavour in the “domesticated” colonial condition, yet he sets the poem’s you/Yu amongst it. The poem’s tone is neutral and the speaker seeks “nothingness”. And while “The evening walk” doesn’t make an explicit acknowledgement of Indigeneity, the conspicuous qualified – “that / violent and bloody” suggests something unimaginable. Colonial Australia can imagine neither its own bloody violence nor what could be “admirable”; the speaker and the poem dwell in this eternal twilight. In partnership with Yu’s poem “Digging”, “This evening walk” imagines a reversal of the Romantic mode – in which there is no central, lyric “I” to isolate the poem from its culture.

Michael Farrell remarks on how reversals of type “are necessary to avoid the cliché of ‘settled usages’, and not to take the ground of the past for granted”.[xxix] If we consider this strategy in light of a decolonised geopoethics then its effect might be that “the reader’s position is not allowed to rest comfortably with any one of the speaker’s”.[xxx] Yu’s poem continues its walk into the sunset, open-ended.

 

Reverse Dive

 

Whilst coastal ocean is often part of Indigenous Country – known, storied, accessed and cared for as a continuum of kinship with land – the subjects in Stuart Cooke’s “Deep Dive” struggle to find comfort in “canyons / filled with Pacific belly”. Colonial Australia has assumed a “settled usage” of the ocean as a cultural signifier; Cooke isn’t the first to displace its association with nativised whiteness, however, like Pilbrow he uses the poem’s form to further a conceptual decentring of speaker and image.

The divers’ descent into the water parodies poems of colonial land exploration, as they ignore the environment’s resistance and construct loud metaphors of their “boldness”:

like lumpy wads of kelp descending

 

into the mirrors of our own codes

 

like a bold stripe of ink

slashed down a page

the mooring rope

cleaves the ocean in two

|

surf swallows us  |  with fierce suck

|                       we jostle

we’re thrown  |  we escape

 

The divers are comfortable, and not: they observe beauty, as when “damsel fish leap from rock sockets / like cut pockets / of pigment”; yet they are cloven “in two”. “Deep Dive” suggests that language is helping to ease their tense process of descent, as, “full of our lungs”, the words continue downwards, knocked by pressure and tide across the page. The white space is struck with vertical slashes like “trails of cognition”. These seem to be alternative margins for the poem, projected over the page’s limits. In this state of floating discomfort, one diver’s mind becomes “blubbery loam” of “bubble  | thrust / and frantic gorg | ing”. In this mode of dwelling there is “pumped hope”: a revelling in the place that feels as unselfconscious as “utero”, as “poly | p thought” – it is “all speech“. With the removal of the mask underwater, there are just a few moments of estrangement – a “cave blazing” where “memory’s charred” – before the edge of a “cone shell’s  |  spine” interrupts. In pain, the diver is shucked out of their settled state:[xxxi]

|             no turtle gliding off

|             into the invisible next

|            no confident eel winding    |

|                                amongst coral      |

|

| only depth, compressed                                                         |

to horizon                                             |

|

young time’s

shed  | like a skin

|   as the pale, wounded snake |

|                        bullets skyward |

The poem gives no literal indication that the diver is non-Indigenous; rather, it is Cooke’s reimagining of physical occupation as a poetic trope, which suggests this reading. Ultimately, the diver’s “young time” is set in contrast to the depth of the environment. As a “pale, wounded snake” moving back to the surface, they have undertaken a metamorphosis. Rather than emerging triumphant from the ocean’s surface, “one” with the element, we imagine the creature wincing and thrashing inelegantly. The first-person voice shifts to third-person description: out of their depth, the diver loses the matey, secure primacy of “we” and its anthropocentric association. It is an unusual settler poem about the “nature” of ocean: neither epic nor lyric, “Deep Dive” dissolves the colonial exploration narrative into a hybrid, mythic mode that leaves the reader suspended under the water, watching the subject “bullet” from view.

Like the other poems mentioned here, “Deep Dive” takes a performative approach to the representation of settler identity and its relationship to Australian environments. These poems attempt to point to their own construction, dislodged from a tradition of landscape poetry. The manner of form and voice, and the way this guides the reading of image and narrative, is provisional or demountable. It is an un-housing of the settler self.

 

Movement and evaporation

 

This structure “acknowledges the flow of matter and energy between places … how the existence of one place depends necessarily on that of others”.[xxxii] I’m focusing on how that quality engages with the terms of decolonisation rather than those of ecopoetics – however, it is hard to say where each begins and ends, especially in discussion of inhabitation, terrain and the poetics of space. In the context of Indigenous sovereignty, Cooke’s poem takes responsibility for deconstructing whiteness as it has become solidified within poetic conventions. Not all of the above poems speak from the privilege of whiteness, but they all speak about it as a condition. Each plays with how the image of whiteness “has been constructed, its complexities and contradictions”.[xxxiii] In this way, it enacts Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra’s notion of the “schizoid consciousness” of Australian settlement, exploring the communally formed nature of its voices, identities and images, and dislodging them from a rightful, inevitable relationship with the continent.[xxxiv]

For Michael Farrell, this must include building upon Black activism and poetics; a necessary tool in critiquing whiteness.[xxxv] In his poem “Order”, Farrell directly addresses how the concept of geopoethics intersects with Australia’s history of settlement.[xxxvi] If “Settlement is an order” and “The sacred is an order”, the poem asks, what kind of shape do we want our community to make? What orders the common ground? Farrell compares the “rectangle” of a written poem and the “prism” of a room with the forms of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poems “Bora Ring” and “Rainbow Snake”. The ring and the snake reflect the way that human beings move and order themselves as groups:

To reverse Stevens: humans are earth

(Soil stone sand and sea)

They’re not walking maps

From above they are points

(Pyramid points become blobs)

Numbers of people make blobs too

And sometimes rings, snakes

To be ordered, rather than order oneself or one’s group, is to lose identity. Farrell’s poem seems to riff on Cooke’s assertion that:

When the poet and the poem are a part of his or her territory, order will emerge in this territory as a function of the resources available in that place. Order will not be imposed from without and, although outside influences may certainly enter the system (and other elements will leave it), they will do so on the same plane.[xxxvii]

For Farrell, the imposition of order is not simply an historical problem:[xxxviii]

In the “Native Settlements” like Moore River

(Featured in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence)

Young Aboriginal students read the Bible

(Just as they do in juvenile detention now)

 

At times they were allowed into the bush

And learned from the elders

This apparent contradiction allowed an extension

Of control

As did trivial permissions and underfeeding

 

The effect of the Stolen Generations is not only

One of history, the story of Gladys Gilligan

For example

Late of Moore River Native Settlement

 

When I read the language of Aboriginal friends

on Facebook, I see the influence of African America

A marker that they “own”

 

Just as Christianity differentiates country people

From the faithless urban “arm”

Farrell’s poem looks to an example of common ground: “the Aboriginal petitions of the 1920s-30s / The letters to newspapers / (1940s, 60s) / I’m struck by the theme of friendship / The black hand offered to the white.” Taking this anecdote as a model for decolonised geopoethics, Farrell considers how his poem is a product of shared, overlapping settlements:

It’s not just Cook that makes this poem possible

But the Wurundjeri Council

Their office at Abbotsford Convent

A short bike ride away

From where I write this in my prism

(Seen as a rectangle from above)

 

Yet I remember the earthquake when

This building moved (relatively) like a snake

“Order” uses the form of allusive assemblage to advance, like John Mateer’s Australian poems, a way through “forced silence, the refusal of speech, deafness, linguistic impossibility and misinterpretation”.[xxxix] Farrell’s poem twists up, around and across a number of optical positions. It also occupies a discursive, atemporal space in which memory and the present moment of reading can happen together. Its lyricism (such as the internal rhyme of “earthquake / snake”) and imagism (“Numbers of people make blobs”) are used subtly. In the tradition of Australian poetry, such modes have often been used as a way of touching and caressing the place in question; a sort of erotic animation of static language. Farrell’s immersion in the place he describes, on the other hand, is refracted through neutral tones and simple diction: an assemblage from which the subject evaporates.

 

How to be here

 

This essay suggests just a handful of ways in which Australian settler poetry is listening and responding to the highly active field of contemporary Indigenous writing. By acknowledging “Complicity as a shared language and as a condition of dialogue”, these poems look for ways to remain in the presence of Indigenous dispossession, disrupting the comfortable invisibility of whiteness.[xl] But they need to be interrogated by many readers. These poems are remarkably and sometimes pointedly Anglophone and literary. I have not looked here at the possibilities of non-Indigenous poetry being written in or translated from languages other than English, including oral forms of text. To pretend that my chosen examples were representative of Australian settler poetry would be preposterous. They are reflective of my linguistic limitations as a reader, not to mention my taste as a poet; and the inclusion of my own work here is partly an enactment of Ahmed’s observation that, “the ‘critical’ often functions as a place where we deposit our anxieties”.[xli]

Therefore, these poems need to be seen within a context of attempts, of varying levels of technical or conceptual success, to perform an existential and historical condition – the illegitimacy of Australian settlement. In doing this, we might notice that the discourse of settler identity becomes focused on difference instead of hierarchy. These poems dismiss the possibility of one settler being “more at home” than another. Rather, they imagine common ground whilst avoiding claims upon it, echoing Katrina Schlunke’s question of sovereignty: “Who are strangers?”

Decisions about who belongs and who doesn’t are very complicated ones to make in a settler nation whose nonAboriginal population has no treaty with the owners of the land and who depend upon our beinghereness to continue to be here. Without any formal engagement with Aboriginal sovereignty the importance of following form, of joining the queue, of following the law, who’s law? becomes all.[xlii]

A poem can draw acute attention to the colonial act of “beinghereness”, and in doing so, exceed the colonial necessity to “follow form”. In other words, the decolonised settler poem is a kind of statelessness, a space of readiness to rewrite oneself as a stranger.

 

 

Notes

[i] Peter Minter, “Introduction”, Plumwood Mountain 3.2 (September 2016): https://plumwoodmountain.com/decolonisation-and-geopoethics/

[ii] See Bonny Cassidy, “Unbidden: Settler Poetry in the Presence of Indigenous Sovereignty”, Cordite Poetry Review 55 (August 2016): http://cordite.org.au/essays/unbidden-settler-poetry/

[iii] Cassidy, “Unbidden”, np.

[iv] Minter, “Introduction”, np.

[v] Mudrooroo Narogin, Writing from the Fringe: A Study of Modern Aboriginal Literature, Hyland House, 1990, p165.

[vi] Melissa Lucashenko, “You Are the Fringes”, in Josie Douglas, ed. Untreated: Poems by Black Writers, Jukurrpa Books, 2001, p34.

[vii] Alison Whittaker, “How I Write”, The Suburban Review, April 28, 2016: http://thesuburbanreview.com/2016/04/28/how-i-write-alison-whittaker/

[viii] Anupama Pilbrow, “homology”, Cordite Poetry Review 48 (1 November 2014): https://cordite.org.au/poetry/constraint/homology/

[ix] Jennifer Rutherford, “Introduction: Kairos for a Wounded Country”, in Jennifer Rutherford and Barbara Holloway, eds. Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Spaces, UWAP, 2010, p6.

[x] Jennifer Rutherford, “Undwelling; Or Reading Bachelard in Australia”, in Rutherford and Holloway, eds. Halfway House, pp114-115.

[xi] Nicholas Birns, Contemporary Australian Literature, University of Sydney Press, 2015, p123.

[xii] Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation, UNSW Press, 2004, p189.

[xiii] Bonny Cassidy, Final Theory, Giramondo Publishing, 2014, p44.

[xiv] Cassidy, Final Theory, p53.

[xv] Stuart Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean Postcolonial Poetics, Rodopi, 2013, p187.

[xvi] Stuart Cooke, “Echo-Coherence: Moving on from Dwelling”, Cultural Studies Review 17.1 (March 2011), pp243-4.

[xvii] Cooke, “Echo-Coherence”, pp243-4.

[xviii] See Cooke, “Echo-Coherence”, p235; Freya Mathews, “Becoming Native: An Ethos of Countermodernity II”, Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion 3.3 (1999), p261.

[xix] Peter Read, Belonging: Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[xx] Cooke, “Echo-Coherence”, p235.

[xxi] Aileen Moreton-Robinson, “I Still Call Australia Home: Indigenous Belonging and Place in a White Postcolonizing Society”, in Sara Ahmed, ed. Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration, Berg Publishing, 2003, p27.

[xxii] Irene Watson, “Settled and Unsettled Spaces: Are We Free to Roam?’, in Aileen Moreton-Robinson, ed. Sovereign Subjects, Allen & Unwin, 2007, p18.

[xxiii] Cooke, “Echo-Coherence”, p231.

[xxiv] Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos, Indigenous Sovereignty and the Being of the Occupier: Manifesto for a White Australian Philosophy of Origins, re.press, 2014, p24.

[xxv] Stuart Cooke, ed. and trans., The Bulu Line, Puncher & Wattmann, 2015, p26.

[xxvi] Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages, p32.

[xxvii] Ouyang Yu, Fainting with Freedom, Five Islands Press, 2015, p37.

[xxviii] Richard Dyer, White, Routledge, 1997, p9.

[xxix] Michael Farrell, Writing Australian Unsettlement, Palgrave, 2015, p25.

[xxx] Cooke, The Bulu Line, p19.

[xxxi] Stuart Cooke, “Deep Dive”, Bareknuckle Poet, accessed 4 January 2016: http://bareknucklepoet.com/stuart-cooke-four-poems/

[xxxii] Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages, p32.

[xxxiii] Dyer, White, p11.

[xxxiv] Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra, Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Mind, Allen & Unwin, 1991, vxi.

[xxxv] Sara Ahmed, “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism”, Borderlands 3.2 (2004): http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations.htm

[xxxvi] An illuminating context to the poem’s allusions and understanding of “order” can be found in Farrell, Writing Australian Unsettlement, pp153-174.

[xxxvii] Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages, p113.

[xxxviii] Michael Farrell, Cocky’s Joy, Giramondo, 2015, pp76-78.

[xxxix] Jen Crawford, “Healing Landscapes”, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 10.1 (January 2011): http://www.qlrs.com/critique.asp?id=826

[xl] Fiona Probyn, “Playing Chicken at the Intersection: The White Critic of Whiteness”, Borderlands 3.2 (2004): http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/probyn_playing.htm

[xli] Ahmed, “Declarations of Whiteness”, np.

[xlii] Katrina Schlunke, “Sovereign Hospitalities?”, Borderlands 1.2 (2002): http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol1no2_2002/schlunke_hospitalities.html

 

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara, “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism”, Borderlands 3.2 (2004): http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations.htm

Birns, Nicholas, Contemporary Australian Literature, University of Sydney Press, 2015.

Cassidy, Bonny, “Unbidden: Settler Poetry in the Presence of Indigenous Sovereignty”, Cordite Poetry Review 55 (August 2016): http://cordite.org.au/essays/unbidden-settler-poetry/

—- . Final Theory, Giramondo Publishing, 2014.

Cooke, Stuart, “Deep Dive”, Bareknuckle Poet, accessed 4 January 2016: http://bareknucklepoet.com/stuart-cooke-four-poems/

—-. ed. and trans., The Bulu Line, Puncher & Wattmann, 2015.

—-. Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean Postcolonial Poetics, Rodopi, 2013.

—-. “Echo-Coherence: Moving on from Dwelling”, Cultural Studies Review 17.1 (March 2011)

Crawford, Jen, “Healing Landscapes”, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 10.1 (January 2011): http://www.qlrs.com/critique.asp?id=826

Dyer, Richard, White, Routledge, 1997.

Farrell, Michael, Writing Australian Unsettlement, Palgrave, 2015.

—-. Cocky’s Joy, Giramondo, 2015.

Hodge, Bob and Vijay Mishra, Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Mind, Allen & Unwin, 1991.

Lucashenko, Melissa, “You Are the Fringes”, in Josie Douglas, ed. Untreated: Poems by Black Writers, Jukurrpa Books, 2001.

Mathews, Freya, “Becoming Native: An Ethos of Countermodernity II”, Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion, 3.3 (1999).

Minter, Peter, “Introduction”, Plumwood Mountain 3.2 (September 2016): https://plumwoodmountain.com/decolonisation-and-geopoethics/

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen, “I Still Call Australia Home: Indigenous Belonging and Place in a White Postcolonizing Society”, in Sarah Ahmed, ed. Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration, Berg Publishing, 2003.

Narogin, Mudrooroo, Writing from the Fringe: A Study of Modern Aboriginal Literature, Hyland House, 1990.

Nicolacopoulos Toula and George Vassilacopoulos, Indigenous Sovereignty and the Being of the Occupier: Manifesto for a White Australian Philosophy of Origins, re.press, 2014.

Pilbrow, Anupama, “Homology”, Cordite Poetry Review 48 (1 November 2014): https://cordite.org.au/poetry/constraint/homology/

Probyn, Fiona, “Playing Chicken at the Intersection: The White Critic of Whiteness”, Borderlands 3.2 (2004): http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/probyn_playing.htm

Read, Peter, Belonging: Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Rose, Deborah Bird, Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation, UNSW Press, 2004.

Rutherford, Jennifer and Barbara Holloway, eds. Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Spaces, UWAP, 2010.

Schlunke, Katrina, “Sovereign Hospitalities?”, Borderlands 1.2 (2002): http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol1no2_2002/schlunke_hospitalities.html

Watson, Irene, “Settled and Unsettled Spaces: Are We Free to Roam?”, in Aileen Moreton-Robinson, ed. Sovereign Subjects, Allen & Unwin, 2007.

Whittaker, Alison, “How I Write”, The Suburban Review (April 28, 2016): http://thesuburbanreview.com/2016/04/28/how-i-write-alison-whittaker/

Yu, Ouyang, Fainting with Freedom, Five Islands Press, 2015.

 

Bonny Cassidy’s most recent book of poetry is Final Theory (Giramondo, 2014). She is feature reviews editor for Cordite Poetry Review and lectures in Creative Writing at RMIT University.

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