So then he began travelling. On his return to the city where all this had happened and where his family continued to live, it occurred to him that, were he to attempt to make a life there, he would have to rethink the situation and should confront his inarticulacy. Maybe, he reasoned, the Aboriginal writer would be more accommodating than he had imagined. Maybe the writer could now find a way of responding to his attempts at opening a dialogue. Maybe the sort of place he’d once imagined for himself in South Africa, a native place, could still be possible in Australia. Even if it might mean abandoning the poems he had written over the course of a decade, the poet was willing to risk it.
Having been told during his travels that the writer had recounted the event of their encounter in his latest book, the poet looked it up. In the reference section of the university library he read the two or three relevant pages and found himself trembling. The writer made a point of calling him “a stranger”, “a recent arrival”, “a white South African”. In another context those appellations would have been simply descriptive, but in that book they struck him as a condemnation, an exclusion. He wrote a long letter to the writer describing his feelings and thoughts, attempting to convey his sense that anyone living in Australia must respond to the trauma of its past. On being shown a copy of the letter, a friend of his, someone who had been a mentor to him and who knew the Aboriginal writer, said that he had gone too far in accepting the validity of the position of the writer. “You don’t need to apologize to him,” he thought he remembered her saying. He answered: “I don’t think of it as an apology for writing those poems. It’s an attempt to make a space for a reply.” He didn’t receive a reply.
In the year or two that followed, he sent the poems to a wide range of poets and academics. Mostly the response was what he expected, either a statement of a belief in the freedom of artistic expression over politics or a more conservative – perhaps humanist – reticence, the suggestion that one should be reluctant to publish such work. None of the Aboriginal writers he approached responded. A prominent editor said: “These poems are not nearly as controversial as you think they are.” A famous novelist simply wrote: “I don’t want to be drawn into taking sides.” A younger academic and poet who teaches Aboriginal Studies stated: “If I were you I wouldn’t publish them.” Then he went on to explain how the poet “needed to do a lot more thinking about the issues.” The unintentionally patronising tone of that the poet recognized as the one he would occasionally hear when he, as an un-Australian, was being informed about the nuances of the culture here. But he remembered it, much more clearly, from his childhood in apartheid South Africa: the unjustifiably intimate tone of a voice telling him how best to ‘fit in’.
He decided not to publish the poems. He sent a short letter to that effect to the writer, expecting the writer to at least acknowledge his struggle with the questions and his eventual acquiescence. Again, no response.
The poet and his twin, or the twin and his poet, returned to reading the poem sequence that had prompted him to dig out – Was the body of his poetry a corpse? – that nearly-lost work. He was sure he was right. That last section of the poem must have been influenced by the Lorca poem. Its refrain he also heard as a cry. It was a cry, a calling out, a meaningful scream. It was also, of course, the local Aboriginal name for his favourite bird, a black cockatoo.
Whenever he saw a flock of black cockatoos in the sky over the city, usually foretelling rain, in his heart he would feel a joy he couldn’t articulate. Those birds were the joy itself; their broad muscular wingspan, their coal-blackness, their voicing like a series of proto-screams, an invocation of non-human spirit deeper than what humans know – that lyricism. Had he not been fearful of how he might appear, he might have told a confidant that he could imagine those birds as his totem, as his Soul. The irony of that caused him to smile. The Aboriginal word for those cockatoos, spelt variously in the books he’d used for his research, and variously and purposefully misspelt in his poem, was the only foreign word he had retained in this book of his Australian Dream.
At the writer’s indirect but pointed suggestion that he use no Aboriginal words, that he enact his own moratorium, he had erased and forgotten all the others, just as he was once again on the verge of forgetting this, the unpublished collection of his ‘native’ poems.
Thanks to Sue Ballyn in the Department of English and German at the University of Barcelona, at whose invitation an earlier version of this text was first presented.
Crawford, Jen. ‘Healing Landscapes’. Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. Vol. 10 No. 1. January 2011. Online
Heald, Michael. ‘Talking with Yagan’s Head: The Poetry of John Mateer’. Australian Literary Studies. Vol. 19. No. 4. October 2000. 387-399
Kinsella, John. ‘Groups and Mavericks’. The Cambridge History of Australian Literature. Ed. Peter Pierce. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 478-9
Mateer, John. The West: Australian Poems 1989-2009. North Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2010.
Maurer Christopher (Trans.). Frederico Garcia Lorca: Selected Poems. London: Penguin Classics, 2001. 305
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Scott and Brown. Kayang and Me. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2005. 229-231