A Poet’s Passionate Plea For Her People

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

OODGEROO NOONUCCAL (1920-1993)

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The book My People was published by Jacaranda Press in 1970 and was the first poetry book I bought with my own money! I attended university in Canberra in 1971 and I remember feeling overawed when I met Oodgeroo and Faith Bandler at a conference held at the Australian National University.

It is a book I treasure for content and memories!

Kath Walker is now better known by her Aboriginal name Oodgeroo Noonuccal and this was her third collection of poems and essays. I’ve chosen this book as another contribution to Lisa Hill’s celebration of Indigenous Literature for NAIDOC Week.

“In 1988, as a protest against continuing Aboriginal disadvantage during the Bicentennial Celebration of White Australia, Walker returned the MBE she had been awarded in 1970, and subsequently adopted the Noonuccal tribal name Oodgeroo (meaning paperbark).”

The book’s sub-title, A Kath Walker Collection apt because it is not just poems – there is what we would term flash fiction, and also speeches made by the author, a prominent political activist and fighter for social justice.

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 Judith Wright who was Jacaranda’s poetry reader in the 60s recommended the publication of  Oodgeroo’s first collection We Are Going, in 1964.

“The work was an immediate commercial success, selling more than ten thousand copies and making Walker the best selling Australian poet since CJ Dennis

The plain-speaking style of her poetry, and the strong element of protest in it, precluded literary acclaim for her work, but the role of a political ‘protest poet’ was one in which Walker would come to revel.

It was my passionate support for the rights of Aborigines  that led me to seek out Indigenous writers discovering Oodgeroo first, and then later many others.

I’ve already written about West Australian Jack Davis.

Like many white Australians who were immigrants and lived ‘in the suburbs down south’, initially knowledge of Aboriginal affairs came from school and mainstream media. At school, it was more colonial history and the less said about media coverage the better. (In the main, this still produces poor quality information!)

In the mid-60s, Harold Blair visited Croydon High School and was often in the news. My father who loved singing and had a wonderful tenor voice became very interested in everything Harold did or said. Around the dinner table, we often discussed politics including the plight of Aboriginal Australians.

Dad was genuinely shocked that the majority of Aborigines had only received voting rights in 1962 – a few months before we arrived in Australia.

On page 36-7 as well as a poem, Oodgeroo has written an historical document, prepared and presented to the 5th Annual General Meeting of the Federal Council Aboriginal Advancement, held at Adelaide, Easter 1962:

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“We want hope, not racialism, Brotherhood, not ostracism, Black advance,not white ascendance: Make us equals, not dependants…

Must we native Old Australians In our land rank as aliens? …”

Similar to Jack Davis,  her fellow writer/activist, Oodgeroo assumed a role of cultural guardian and educator for her people, establishing the Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Cultural Centre at Moongalba, near Amity Point on Stradbroke, her island home. A rich legacy includes Indigenous studies being embedded in Queensland University’s curriculum.

The poems and essays  in My People focus on conveying the point of view and plight of Aboriginal Australia to non-Aboriginal readers. The words are not strident but the message is strong. As a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s, because it was the only political party against the White Australia Policy at the time, a universal philosophy of the  ‘brotherhood of man’ influenced Oodgeroo’s work.

 All One Race (page 1)

Black tribe, yellow tribe, red, white or brown,
From where the sun jumps up to where it goes down,
Herrs and pukka-sahibs, demoiselles and squaws,
All one family, so why make wars?…
… I’m international, never mind place;
I’m for humanity, all one race.

Let us Not be Bitter (page 20)

Away with bitterness, my own dark people
Come stand with me, look forward, not back,
For a new time has come for us.
Now we must change, my people. For so long
Time for us stood still; now we know
Life is change, life is progress,
Life is learning things, life is onward.
White men had to learn civilised ways,
Now it is our turn…

An Appeal (page 3)

Statesmen, who make the nation’s laws,
With power to force unfriendly doors,
Give leadership in this our cause
That leaders owe.

Writers, who have the nation’s ear,
Your pen a sword opponents fear,
Speak of our evils loud and clear
That all may know…

And the poet continues to plea to Unions, Churches, The Press and ultimately All white well-wishers.

However, by the end of the book, there is a change of tone and readers can detect impatience and frustration at not only the slow, if any, change to a system of endemic injustice, but anger at the lack of land rights and respect for her people and country.

I am Proud (page 86)

I am black of skin among whites,
And I am proud,
Proud of race and proud of skin.
I am broken and poor,
Dressed in rags from white man’s back,
But do not think I am ashamed.
Spears could not contend against guns and we were mastered,
But there are things they could not plunder and destroy.
We were conquered but never subservient,
We were compelled but never servile.
Do not think I cringe as white men cringe to whites.
I am proud,
Though humble and poor and without a home…
So was Christ.

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Recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty,  Oodgeroo assumed would be a given once white people were educated and understood everyone’s responsibility towards the land and the rights of Native Title.

She believed enlightenment, and compassion would also lead to a material change and improvement in living conditions for Aboriginal Australians.

Oodgeroo’s mastery of English and her command of poetic techniques, coupled with deep-felt honesty and her lived experience of Aboriginal Australia has produced memorable verses of varying styles and a powerful snapshot of Australia in the late 60s.

Namatjira (page 64)

… What did their loud acclaim avail
Who gave you honour, then gave you jail?
Namatjira, they boomed your art,
They called you genius, then broke your heart.

The Dispossessed (page 65)

For Uncle Willie McKenzie

… The white man claimed your hunting grounds and you could not remain,
They made you work as menials for greedy private gain;
Your tribes are broken vagrants now wherever whites abide,
And justice of the white man means justice to you denied…

 

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Dreamstime.com

There are also personal poems where we see glimpses of the writer, activist, teacher, woman and mother. Poems about tribal ways, historical incidents, totems, unmarried mothers, the dreams of young women, family past and present, and always the longing and belonging to country:

 

Artist Son (page 54)

… Paint joy, not pain,
Paint beauty and happiness for men,
Paint the rare insight glimpses that express
What tongue cannot or pen: …

Son of Mine (page 55)

(To Denis)

My son, your troubled eyes search mine,
Puzzled and hurt by colour line.
Your black skin soft as velvet shine;
What can I tell you, son of mine?…

My Love (page 50)

Possess me? No, I cannot give
The love that others know,
For I am wedded to a cause:
The rest I must forgo…

The social part, the personal
I have renounced of old;
Mine is a dedicated life,
No man’s to have and hold…

For there are ancient wrongs to right,
Men’s malice to endure;
A long road and a lonely road,
But oh, the goal is sure.

 

I want to end on a positive note because NAIDOC 2016 has been a celebration of Aboriginal culture under the theme Songlines: the living narrative of our nation

I recommend My People to readers because of the quality of the writing and the narrative of a time past laced with the present and future. The poems, a way of understanding the historical struggle of Aboriginal Australia and the richness of its culture and traditions.

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The writer’s voice perceptive, strong, precise in detail, encapsulating a love for humanity and a vision for a peaceful, fairer future. Something we should all wish for!

A Song of Hope (page 40)

Look up, my people,
The dawn is breaking,
The world is waking
To a new bright day,
When none defame us,
No restriction tame us,
Nor colour shame us,
Nor sneer dismay…

To our fathers’ fathers
The pain, the sorrow;
To our children’s children
The glad tomorrow.

 

 

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.)

 

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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.

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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 sad 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