Architecture, Poetry and Impressions of a Bendigo Chinese Doctor, James Lamsey

1 August 2017

Poetry, architecture and possession

Overall, in ‘signs of impression’ I have tried to address the links between the material practices and the aesthetic performances of possession. The four poems follow processes – design, entrance, collection, adoration – that parallel Lamsey’s story – the process of designing a house, of entering it, of collecting things to put inside and on it, and, after all this work – the practice of adoring the end product and thereby becoming all the more attached to it. All of these are affective processes with aesthetic as well as functional purposes. And all of these processes, I would suggest, are shaped by one’s personal relationships to the history of the (dis)possession of land and of buildings. Fundamentally, it is in thinking about the nexus between the aesthetic and material structures of settler colonialism that I believe a discourse at the nexus of architecture and poetry may be fruitful.

Architecture has long been a bedfellow of possession. It emerged from the age of empires as a way of impressing the attraction and authority of imperialism on colonised people; a form of readable possession. Lamsey’s story, though, reminds us that the nexus between architecture and possession has settler colonial inflections, for, in this country, to purchase a house can indicate one’s intention to permanently occupy Indigenous land.1 As historians Tracey Banivanua Mar and Penny Edmonds have described in the introduction to Making Settler Colonial Space, ‘to see (property) ownership is to believe it’.2 And as Brenda Banna points out in her broader study of property and settler colonialism, possession of territory is manifest in occupation:

The on-going structure of settler colonialism requires that possession – both as an intention to control territory and in its actual manifestation in the form of occupation – continue to operate both through legal techniques of dispossession and as the primary mode of nation-building in settler colonies.3

In this spatial regime, the apparent permanence of a building can impress ownership of space upon a viewer. And so in the opening line of ‘design’ I observe signs that are designed to suggest a colonial sense of permanency and stability in the Villa’s shape and materials;

I see iron, wrapped, to posts

Historians have also shown that the maintenance of a garden has been a performance of one’s right to own land.4 English-style Australian gardens have their historical origins in the Lockean property philosophy where ownership required a mixture of land and labour.5 In this lineage, a garden is a way of performing one’s entitlement to own land in virtue of using it productively:

the verandah … keeps bricks-from-climbing grass

We might here also recall the persistent critiques Indigenous poets have made of such discourses, including powerfully by Tony Birch, who have observed that settlers have been wont to claim connection to Indigenous places via poetry (and many other material and grossly violent means too); connections that may on the surface appear respectful but are, in effect if not intention, a recolonisation of Aboriginal land.6 Nothing less powerful than sovereignty might be, and has been, performed and claimed via both architecture and poetry.

But if poetry and architecture deploy the power of impression, so are they suggestive. Like Lamsey’s concreted lion, they leave room for interpretation, ambivalence, and ambiguity. Encountering Lamsey’s places is making me confront my unconscious racial mappings of faces to façades. I am by no means the first poet to observe such a connection. In Ouyang Yu’s 2015 poem ‘Bendigo Bent’ he maps a connection between faces and the city’s built environment. Having entered Bendigo – a city that Yu decries as failing to smile despite its gold riches – he finds himself surrounded by Chinese features.

Here everyone I meet bears some Chinese features
One guy who told me where the court was had a face
Like Chinese clay mixed with Aussie pumpkin
A young man at the restaurant invited my eyes into his
To explore some sort of buried province whose language has yet to be
Rediscovered.7

The faces Yu sees in Bendigo reflect the city’s entwined Chinese and European history. The guy’s face is a blend of pottery materials – clay – representing Chinese-ness, and food – pumpkin – representing (unmarked white) Australian-ness. Here, then, the face reads as a façade of Bendigo’s social history, a blend of Chinese and Australian symbols that hint at what lies beneath the surface, that which has come before. When Yu looks into a young man’s eyes he finds there the hint of a ‘buried province’; as if, perhaps, the villages of Chinese Bendigonians’ forebears have residence in his eyes, though not in his speech. Just as a building speaks while silent, so, in Yu’s poem, is Bendigo’s Chinese history is present and daily visible.

  1. For more on architecture and settler colonial migrancy see Stephen Cairns, Drifting: Architecture and Migrancy, Routledge: London and New York, 2004, 19-20.
  2. Tracey Banivanua Mar and Penelope Edmonds, ‘Introduction’, Making Settler Colonial Space: settler-colonial perspectives on land, place and identity, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 2-3.
  3. Brenna Bhandar, ‘Possession, occupation, and registration: recombinant ownership in the settler colony’, Settler Colonial Studies, 6(2), 2016, 122.
  4. Patrica Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492- 1640, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995; Katie Holmes, Susan Martin and Kylie Mirhommadi, Reading the Garden: The Settlement of Australia, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2004; Tom Lynch, ‘Nothing but land”: Women’s Narratives, Gardens, and the Settler-Colonial Imaginary in the US West and Australian Outback’, Western American Literature, 48(4), 2014, 379-399.
  5. Mark Harris, ‘Mapping Australian Postcolonial Landscapes: From Resistance to Reconciliation?’, Law Text Culture, Vol. 7, 2003, 72.
  6. Tony Birch, ‘Things Gotta Go Both Ways’, Victoria University, online. See also Tony Birch,, building-scapel award in power play in the arts’rty system, and who rm of territoriality and of unsettling place in ‘Nothing has changed: The Making and Unmaking of Koorie Culture’, Meanjin, 5(2), 1992, pp. 107–18.
  7. Ouyang Yu, ‘Bendigo Bent’, Peril: Asian Australian Arts and Culture Magazine, November 2009, online
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