Saturday, May 1, 2021

Review of Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear

    by John Kinsella


Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear contains what I consider one of the best stanzas in ‘Australian poetry’:


Because to hold him is to hold the tree

  that holds these birds I cannot name,

                          and a word spoken here

           might almost sound like home


This is from ‘Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal’, and Araluen is a descendant of the Bundjalung Nation. What makes this stanza so potent is the language-searching of the poem that holds it — learning names, knowing words that come out of a totemic relationship with country means knowing bird or plant in essential and consequential ways. Earlier in the poem we read:


It is hard to unlearn a language:

             to unspeak the empire,

             to teach my voice to rise and fall like landscape,

a topographic intonation


Dropbear is a book-work of incredible depth and complexity — complex in its structure, and also, as Derrida thought things need to be when under pressure, complex in its thinking. It meticulously excoriates colonial storytelling in which allegory is trauma operating insensitively and with disturbed and cruel irony. A poem such as ‘Mrs Kookaburra Addresses the Natives’ satirises such story-making while gaining intensity through modulating tone from adult telling to children’s reception, and exposing many levels of patronising crypto-mythmaking. We read later in ‘Appendix Australis’ of ‘atavistically charged Banksia Men with their skinny black legs and wide black mouths’. Araluen’s poetry ridicules and exposes the Gibbs story’s inversion of who the threat to children’s lives actually was (official white government policy). Dropbear is a book of agency and recuperation.


The ash of fire is a reality on so many levels; the spectre of death is traumatically visceral and also an elusive but familial presence. Ghosts are throughout this collection, but we are not all capable of perceiving them. There is no simple formula to unravel this book. Fire, so imbued in the language and function of country, becomes disorientating across the colonialism of climate change (and geographical displacement), and the poet suffers across the distance — visiting England, then Ireland, disturbed by the pains of being at colonial centring.


In a deeply affecting and quite revealing prose-poem ‘essay’ piece, ‘To the Parents’, we read, apropos of the undoing of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in ‘Mrs Kookaburra Addresses the Natives’: ‘My siblings and I consumed those stories, we were/ never taught to settle for them. My parents never pretended/ these books could truly know country or culture or/ me — but they had both come from circumstances in which/ literacy and the access it affords was never a given. They just/ wanted me to be able to read.’ And so effective was the mediation between the coloniality of available reading, and its recontextualising in how and why it was read, that their daughter has created a language of lyrical-critical skill that might be part of the new language of redress.


The beautiful poem of familiarity, ‘See You Tonight’, presents what is possibly, in the light of the book, a resolvable paradox: ‘You play bunyip, I’ll be dropbear’. The cryptomyth of the killer carnivorous koala — the dropbear — becomes the vector for the misrepresentations and lies about Aboriginality in colonialist historicising, society and narrative.


Araluen’s language-flow is even mesmeric when it is most confronting, and trauma is almost lulled into consciousness, making a shock of realisation (‘Inland sea’ is an example of this). This is a work of such ‘lyrical’ intensity that it undoes the colonial lyric by showing what song can be. Araluen works in a language that is its own and of its own cultural belongings — not English as it would appear, but a shifting language that tells more truths of history than the erasures official English has built into it, whether we know it or not.


Brilliant Indigenous writers have excoriated the colonial nature of literary text-making in Australia so that the white gatekeeping of Australian literature has been shown up for what it is. Books of poetry such as Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear enact remembrance and confrontation with methodical purpose. A new poetics is revealed in a poetry that contests the shape of received form come about through colonial imposition, but is also delivered through the commitment to learning, reading, and comprehending what empowers colonial story-telling to impose in obvious and subtle ways. Araluen plays back these conventional devices and tropes, and undoes them so effectively that no colonial shibboleth is left unchallenged or undecoded.


This book of resistance won’t allow for the specious arguments about ‘some versions of pastoral’ being more sensitised to the theft of country, dispossession and  destruction of families and communities. It calls out literature, especially poets and poetry, for culpability. As Araluen writes pointedly and loudly at the end of ‘Fern Up Your Own Gully: ‘RIGHT   WHERE   YOU   WROTE   US’.


Araluen’s Dropbear is a deeply nuanced, sophisticated and self-aware book of poetry that in challenging colonial persistence also provides an array of entry points into understanding and perception for non-Aboriginal as well as Aboriginal readers. The use of the prose-poem essay as exemplar of not only ‘telling’, but also hearing oneself speak, is remarkable, and such works act as interludes for pause and reflection within the poem and protagonist, and within the book’s arguments.


In poem after poem, literary manners are undone and hypocrisy confronted — ‘The Last Endeavour’ (the first thing I thought of was Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Visions of Captain Cook’, and checking the thorough back notes, we indeed find it is one of the intertexts as well as anti-models for this remarkable undoing of voyages of exploration and invasion). ‘Acknowledgement to Cuntery’, ‘The Trope Speaks’ and ‘Appendix Australis’ with its anti-axioms of enquiry (‘23. no permissions were granted by community for this usage’) are examples.


It is easy to say an activist book is full of ‘fury’ or ‘anger’, but to my mind, that is too easy and even reductive. This book is intense in many different ways. It’s also a book of love and respect — of ancestors, family, community, a partner, and the power of language and country. But love and respect are contingent on mutuality, and understanding the reality of ongoing wrongs. ‘To the Poets’ finishes: ‘But no-one’s ever asked how we are both colonised by and inheritors of these words. J asks — what is a world, and what does it mean to end it? I want to know what it means to lose the world you’re still standing in?’ And this from a poet who takes nothing for granted, but knows what should be able to be taken for granted.


Dropbear can teach us all if we are willing to learn how to read, to listen, to comprehend.

[Note: this is a longer version of a review that appeared on 1/5/2021 in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers]