Monday, January 5, 2009

Skinks or goannas?

By John

A few years ago, after the publication of my book The New Arcadia, I wrote an article entitled “By Any Other Name” (it originally appeared in the Australian Poets’ Union journal and somewhere else I don’t recall as well). This article considered the poetic dynamics of local namings for plants and animals. I am fascinated by how one species of, say, a tree, can be given alternative names within a region, how throughout one’s life a “misnaming” from childhood can stick and become a reality.

In my book Divine Comedy: Journeys Through A Regional Geography (also here), this is particularly true when it comes to the name for Tiliqua rugosa. Most commonly named the “bobtail”, this skink is found throughout Australia and is known in the suburbs as much as the country. Around where we live in the wheatbelt, it goes by a variety of names: yourin (the Nyungar name), bobtail, bobtail goanna, bobtail lizard, blue-tongue lizard, blue-tongue goanna, and shingleback.

I have heard all these names used many times. I read that they are also known as “sleepy lizard” in the region, but I have not heard that name used by locals. Our family usually call them “bobbies”, “bobtails”, “blue-tongues”, or “blue-tongue goannas”. Of course, Tiliqua rugosa (and I only use the Latin name as a “constant” for convenience, not as a recognition that it is a standard that cuts across, say, the constant of the Nyungar name, “yourin”), is not a goanna but a skink. So already in a number of the namings there is a taxonomical error. From a poetic point of view, in terms of what they say about locality and issues of belonging, I find such misnomers generative and deconstructive of hierarchies of classification. The reptile scientifically called “Tiliqua rugosa” is what it is to those who live with it for an endless variety of reasons. The naming grants agency (as it should) and distinguishes an individual relationship.

In the book Reptiles and Frogs of the Perth Region (though we are further out than that, there’s still a lot of crossover, which makes this a useful book for identification purposes — it’s interesting to think about such processes of standardised identification and putting a scientific name to your own, personalised or familiarised “common” name), we read: “The large number of different common names around the country indicates the familiarity Australians have with the species.” Thus a “misnaming” sticks: it becomes (here, right now), the “blue-tongued goanna” — a misnaming, in truth.

So when I come to write a poem, the process of naming becomes all-important. It changes the geography of the poem’s language itself. What’s more, there is also another species of the genus Tiliqua — the Western bluetongue (Tiliqua occipitalis) a different lizard entirely (it is somewhat similar to look at, though without the thick scales and with a more tapered tail). Both the bobtail and the Western bluetongue have a distinct blue tongue they project with mouth agape when threatened. When I write a poem, I take this knowledge to the process of naming.

Also, a lot of my poetry is “in-situ” poetry, with notes for poems taken within the space they describe, and a specific observation or occurrence behind their writing. I am there, in the poem, with the action. “Look, there is a blue-tongued goanna” may be technically wrong, and I know it, but that’s what was said at the time, so it sticks, and the poem evolves out of the process of engagement and naming.

As an activist, I see my poems as forms of affirmation and resistance at once. I always take the side of animals and plants. What I resist is this kind of thing, noted in the previously mentioned reptile guide, and witnessed by myself numerous times over my life — leaving me angry and determined to resist people’s violences in all ways possible:

“During the warmer months many bobtails fall victim to vehicles on roads; unfortunately some motorists intentionally hit these placid animals”.

And one might add to this list snakes, rabbits, foxes, and numerous others — I regularly see drivers swerve to the other side of the road in order to hit creatures.

And speaking of reptiles, we saw a Western granite worm lizard a few days ago and I wrote the following poem (a 64 plus 4 poem!):

Western Granite Worm Lizard

Springs out of the fossorial
so tightly wound about the loop
of scale and flesh, its shovel nose
— foot of compass — lifts, distracts;
squeaking high above slenderness,
vocal cord that knots in dashes,
mesmerised in its magic box,
a binary of ones and noughts:
eyes are lidless.

John Kinsella

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