Poetry – Personal, Political, Playful And Always A Sense Of Place

(Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.)

 

jack davis poetry cover.jpg

Friend, and mentor in all things literary, Lisa Hill of AnzLit fame hosts an Indigenous Literature Week in conjunction with NAIDOC and despite best intentions, I have never participated.

However, this year, I promised myself I’d participate!

I wouldn’t classify myself as a poet but I love poetry and I want to promote three Aboriginal writers whose poems, other writings and artistic endeavours have made a profound impression on me and on the creative and literary landscape of Australia: Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert and Oodgeroo Noonuccal.

The words of all of these writers are accessible to everyone, not just because their published works are held in libraries (much of it available online), but because their use of the English language, including the nuances that often trip writers, is impeccable.

Today, I focus on Jack Davis

“Jack always had a fascination with words and when he was 10 he preferred a dictionary to a story book…

He worked as  an itinerant labourer, windmill man, horse breaker, boundary rider, drover and stockman…

At 14, outraged and indignant at the treatment of Aboriginal people by white landowners, Jack began to write poetry as a means of expression. He was influenced by Worru… who came from the same area as Jack’s father, and Jack loved to listen to Worru’s stories and songs. He began to write Aboriginal words and learned the Bibbulmun language…

A humanitarian, Jack will always be remembered for his writing about Aboriginal history and culture and for his relentless fight for justice for his people…

He was of the Aboriginal Noongar people, and much of his work dealt with the Australian Aboriginal experience. He has been referred to as the 20th Century’s Aborignal poet laureate, and many of his plays are on Australian school syllabuses.”

http://www.PoemHunter.com

All three poets write poems that fit the title of the post: their deep attachment to country, their heritage, and culture, lived experience of heartbreaking poignancy, righteous anger, deadly and accurate observations of life expressed with humour when appropriate.

They have no need of obscure references or showing off academic knowledge, and apply a range of identifiable poetic techniques to satisfy lovers of verse.

I’ve taken the third book of poetry by Jack Davis (pictured above) published in 1988 by Dent Australia, to quote from and reference the themes of his work.

The blurb from the back of this edition explains:

Whether describing a bush creature with gentle irony and a twinkle in his pen, observing the mysteries of human behaviour, evoking with lyrical grace the Aboriginal love of land, or reaching out for mutual understanding across barriers of prejudice and ignorance, these poems speak simply and openly…

1988, a significant year because White Australia celebrated their bi-centenary while Black Australia held a mourning ceremony in commemoration of the Aboriginal tribes wiped out by the atrocities of early white settlers.

Aboriginal descendants conducted a silent protest on the opposite side of the continent to Jack’s birthplace of Western Australia. They stood by the Bay at La Perouse, displaying the names of dead tribes and casting wreaths into the water.

LP_1970_SMH
From the SMH at the time -elders wore red headbands symbolising bloodshed and carried signs displaying the names of tribes wiped out.

Jack Davis had already written about the tragedy of invasion and the selective memory of invaders and ‘winners’ writing history with their own spin.

His poem, One Hundred And Fifty Years, written in protest at the non-inclusion of Aborigines in the celebration of 150 years of European settlement in Western Australia, 1829-1979, tells the story from an Aboriginal perspective:

One Hundred and Fifty Years

I walked slowly along the river.
Old iron, broken concrete, rusted cans
scattered stark along the shore,
plastic strewn by man and tide
littered loudly mute on sparse growth
struggling to survive.
A flock of gulls quarrelled over debris,
a lone shag looked hopefully down at turgid water
and juggernauts of steel and stone made jigsaw
patterns against the city sky.

So now that the banners have fluttered,
the eulogies ended and the tattoos have rendered
the rattle of spears,
look back and remember the end of December
and one hundred and fifty years.

Three boys crackled past on trailbikes
long blond hair waving in the wind,
speedboats erupted power
while lesser craft surged along behind.
The breeze rustled a patch of bull-oak
reminding me of swan, bittern, wild duck winging-
now all alien to the river.
Sir John Forrest stood tall in stone
in St. George`s Terrace,
gun across shoulder,
symbolic of what had removed
the river’s first children.

And that other river, the Murray,
where Western Australia`s
first mass murderer Captain Stirling,
trappings flashing, rode gaily
at the head of twenty-four men.
For an hour they fired
and bodies black, mutilated,
floated down the blood-stained stream.
So now that the banners have fluttered,
the eulogies ended and the tattoos have rendered,
the rattle of spears,
look back and remember the end of December
and one hundred and fifty years.

This year NAIDOC celebrates Songlines: The living narrative of our nation and at last there is some progress as government bodies facilitate not only the sharing but celebrating of the stories from Aboriginal Australia.

Kingston Council has the important message of INTEGRITY, LOYALTY, RESPECT projected onto their clock tower by Aboriginal artist, Josh Muir.

 

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I chose this book of poetry by Jack Davis deliberately because of the title and many of the issues raised in the poems – issues still unresolved. The book is ‘Dedicated to Maisie Pat, and to all mothers who have suffered similar loss.’

JOHN PAT

John Pat was a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy who died of head injuries alleged to have been caused in a disturbance between police and Aborigines in Roebourne, WA, in 1983. Four police were charged with manslaughter over the incident. They were acquitted.

Write of life
the pious said
forget the past
the past is dead.
But all I see
in front of me
is a concrete floor
a cell door
and John Pat

Agh! tear out the page
forget his age
thin skull they cried
that’s why he died!
But I can’t forget
the silhouette
of a concrete floor
a cell door and John Pat

The end product
of Guddia law
is a viaduct
for fang and claw,
and a place to dwell
like Roebourne’s hell
of a concrete floor
a cell door
and John Pat

He’s there- where?
there in their minds now
deep within,
there to prance
a sidelong glance
a silly grin
to remind them all
of a Guddia wall
a cell door
and John Pat

Guddia: Kimberley term for white man

I didn’t realise how sadly it would resonate today as recent tragic events in the United States unfold. The Black Lives Matter Campaign in America covered by our media and the situation overseas probably well-known.

However, for generations, Aboriginal people have been dying in police custody in our own country. Where is the outrage in mainstream media to echo in our parliaments, and determination by Federal Ministers to oversee radical change?

Since the Royal Commission in 1991, indigenous incarceration and police custody rates have actually increased  and the rate of suicide among Aboriginal youth in remote Australia is also at an all-time high

Regrettably, the voices of poets and other creative people are not listened to more often and those with the power to act not energised to do so!

The foreword by Colin Johnson in John Pat And Other Poems states:

Jack Davis is one of the most important writers in Australia, and has helped to establish Aboriginal writing in English as a school within Australian literature. Prolific and energetic, he does not restrict his pen to any one genre, but has written poetry, drama, short stories and polemical pieces.

As an Aboriginal writer he is conscious that the writer has an important role to play within  his community and in the wider Australian society. He has not hesitated to use his pen in aid of a cause, stressing the need for greater understanding and a growth of tolerance. His writings are not restricted to his own community, but extend beyond into universal themes of compassion and a common humanity uniting all without regard to creed or colour.

Jack’s work is marked by his humanity, although his life has given cause enough for bitterness to find expression…

A number of strands have thus come together to produce Jack Davis the man and the writer. They are all equally important and are reflected in his work. As a dedicated writer, he has also been anxious that his craft be passed on. For five years he served as the editor of the now defunct Aboriginal periodical Identity, and successfully furthered the cause of Aboriginal writing in English by promoting such voices as that of the novelist and short-story writer Archie Weller.

Jack’s wisdom again:

THE ENDING OF POVERTY

If we were constantly to remind ourselves
of the unbelievable immensity
of the universe,
the intricate pattern of our being;
recognise the fragility of our intelligence;
listen to our own heart beat;
remember that crosses like our own
are being borne by others,
that the core of our very existence
is the birth of pain…
Then we will have
mastered the art of living
and begun to remove
poverty from its pedestal.

In the title of the post, I also promised playful and from someone who loved words as much as Jack he is at his playful best observing native animals:

EMU (p34)… the last thing I saw, you were rounding the hill  And as far as I know you are travelling still.

SWANS (p33)… Where are you going, majestic swan? I saw you and your flock fly over.

PELICAN (p36)…As she attempts to run for take-off she’s a total wipe-out when she takes her brake off.

KOOKABURRA (p28)… if we laughed away our anger, helped others in distress; then our path would be a smoother one, a walk to happiness.

CICADA (12)… Cicada, cicada, you sing the whole day long, and you have my memories within your summer song.

Another amusing verse within this collection that I loved was First Flight – a great ‘memoir’ poem. If you are working through a popular prompt topic ‘Write about your first experiences’ think of your first trip on an aeroplane.

I’m old enough to remember when flying was an expensive and rare way to travel, and children rushed outside to marvel as planes flew overhead.

FIRST FLIGHT

Yawning prodigiously I disconnected my lifeline.
While destiny voiced safety instructions
(- as we will be flying over water -)
I recollected clearly
the diving board at the old swimming pool.
Now at nine hundred and ninety k’s an hour
I counted heads in front of me,
blonds baldies brunettes blue rinses,
all targets of vulnerability.
A red eye winked
and spelt out terms for my survival,
so I re-strapped myself
into my last probable contact with synthetics.
I heard a dry choked-off scream,
not mine but
rubber protesting against bitumen,
a cool feminine voice
(- I hope you have enjoyed -)
and as we taxied in
I realised I was no longer a novice
but a calm suave veteran of the air.
Especially so
now that I was safe upon the ground.

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The last poem in the book emphasises not only Jack’s connection to the land but also a plea that those who came to rule try to understand the spiritual as well as the temporal importance of his country.

If more people read and listen to the stories and voices of Aboriginal people the future may give him his wish.

CURLEW

Weerlo, weerlo,
Some liken you to loneliness
And distances apart
But your dirge of spirit things
Twines around my heart.

You are my people crying
Bereft without their land.
Oh God!
Reach out and teach the white man
How to understand.

 

NAIDOC image 2016

 

 

 

 

 

12 thoughts on “Poetry – Personal, Political, Playful And Always A Sense Of Place

  1. So poignant and so true, Mairi. This afternoon I will also try to post a blog about a book, written by an aboriginal woman who inspired me to write my own family story. Thanks Lisa, for encouraging us to contribute to Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2016 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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    1. Thanks for reading the post, Glenice and yes – we need a bit of a push sometimes to achieve – well with me I seem to need a push all the time lately! I’ll blame winter… or maybe it’s just I’m too easily distracted.

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