Image courtesy of Ellen van Neerven, black&write! @ QPF
I: A note on Indigenous Australians
A great many Australian poets are in an interesting and ironic state of dispossession, although perhaps only a small proportion of them actually feels that way – that proportion, let’s say, whose subjects and predispositions draw them towards the landscape, its flora and fauna, and their human experience thereof and thereupon. And perhaps we are speaking only of a proportion of this proportion – although even as we contemplate this we cannot exclude the possibility that some proportion of those great many who turn their backs upon such subject matter do so themselves out of some unacknowledged sense of impropriety or dispossession.
I speak of non-indigenous Australian poets. ‘Invader’ poets, some may prefer to call them (or us, since I am one of them). And ‘dispossession’ might not be quite the right term. Let’s say, instead, a being held back from a place or state they (/ we) might wish to reach, as if they were looking, from a ridge or a fence-line, at the field they want to go to, just over there, but find they have to travel a very long way round, or perhaps not go there at all, but instead to find somewhere else, to translate or re-site their desire. Nor am I suggesting that this is in any way like the dispossession indigenous Australians have themselves experienced. Some non-indigenous Australians, it is true, have experienced something very like it, in the homelands from which they have come as refugees, but this is not the case for most of those to whom I refer – though there are some minor yet tantalising points of comparison. We might see it, this new dispossession, as a kind of poetic justice.
Living all one’s life in a country, a landscape or set of landscapes, camping in them, walking through them, growing up with their sounds, their smells, having no other place so intimately available to one, no other place where one wants so much to be, knowing this as ‘home’, and yet knowing also – accepting, intellectually, as one must – that it is also an invaded place, and that one is descendent of those invaders, or that one has been invited, accepted, hosted and made complicit by their descendants, one is already dispossessed, or, since one did not possess, by right, in the first place, then in a state of not possessing. But I mean something other or more specific than that. I am thinking about writing or in other ways representing this state of being – or rather, since that state itself is not so difficult to represent, of representing one’s feeling about, one’s relationship to, that place, that landscape, which one loves, which has shaped one, and which one wants to – has no choice but to – call home, and yet which one cannot claim.
Even here I have not quite got it right. Claiming is not what it’s about. Nor, really, is possession. Each of those concepts is something we should probably be trying to overcome – why do we need to ‘possess’? – and we might eventually be grateful for this chastening spur. Let’s approach it yet another way. (This diffidence, this two-steps-forward-one-step-back, after all, is part of the poetics of this predicament.) Let’s say that the place, the landscape, does shape one, that it impacts upon one – that, if one has spent all of one’s life there (/ here), or even only a part of that life, and found oneself deeply drawn, then it has somehow in-formed one, taught one how to feel and think about it, how to structure one’s feelings within it. One’s writing – one’s representing – may very well become, then, an attempt to express this place and these feelings, the things which one perceives in this place, which this place has taught one to perceive within it, as best one can. One might even say that some part of one’s writing – some part of one’s poetics – might seem to have grown from this place. And yet, of course, one has brought – has been brought – an alien language, alien forms, with which to perform the task, and one cannot expect that here will be a ready match between these things (the language of the place itself, and the language one has brought to it): even when one has overcome all or most of the other cultural barriers and inappropriate behaviours and assumptions, the patterns and habits of other places that blinker and preoccupy an immigrant culture for so many generations – even when the living here has generated something of its own idiom, to make up for the insufficiencies of the imported languages and forms – there will not be a ready match, since it is not just a matter of terms and idiom, but of the deep grammars which deploy them.
There is always a path. Let us call it the Indigenous Path, though it is in truth a path of appropriation of the indigenous. We stare at it. It seems to stare at us. Some writers go down it with no qualms. Others may itch to follow it but, conscious of the manifold signs, actual and conceptual, tacit or vociferous, warning them against doing so – or perhaps simply from their own senses of respect, difference and mis/appropriation – choose not to, no matter how much it might ease their way.
The indigenous peoples have been in this country, on this land, within these landscapes, many thousands of years – whether this period be of forty, sixty or one hundred thousand years seems scarcely to matter when one is comparing it with the barely more than two hundred years of non-indigenous occupation. And if, as indigenous culture asserts emphatically, the land moulds the lives, ideas, languages and dreams of those who live upon it, then indigenous culture will be much more deeply steeped in these ways, will have been taught things by the place that it might take non indigenous culture many thousands of years yet to learn. It is almost a ludicrous understatement to say that indigenous culture has a great deal to teach the non-indigene who would express his or her feelings and experience of that place truly. And, as already foreshadowed, there have long been non-indigenous writers and artists who intuited or understood this, and attempted to learn, from indigenous culture, habits of thought and feeling more appropriate to the place they were finding themselves loving and wanting to express. At least one school of Australian writing, that of the Jindyworobaks, was dedicated to following this path – one of its tenets, naïve and presumptuous, was the substitution, wherever plausible, of terms and concepts from indigenous culture for English images and concepts. And, as it happened, this school suffered the ridicule of its own white culture for so doing – ‘Jindyworobaksheesh’, ‘Jindyworobakwardness’, ‘the boy scout school of Australian poetry’ (terms from James McAuley, R H Morrison and A D Hope respectively1). But as indigenous culture becomes more and more articulate, and articulated – better to say as its articulation is better and better understood – in the contemporary Australian and international environment, and better and more successful at asserting its rights, it becomes more and more clear that this path cannot morally be taken, or that earning one’s right to take it can take a long, long time.
And for non-indigenous poets this is a dilemma. If it is true, as indigenous culture asserts, that the land teaches, then those non-indigenous who are open and willing enough to be taught, by the land itself, without recourse to indigenous culture, will find themselves learning – find themselves inhabited by – things that, if they give them expression, will appear to have been appropriated from indigenous culture anyway. From a certain perspective, in other words, those who would learn and bear into their work the lessons of the place itself are damned if they do appropriate indigenous concepts, and just as likely to be damned if they scrupulously avoid doing so.
But already this discussion has begun to take on a freight of assumptions and misconception. There are numerous under-examined issues here and we should take a little time to note some of them.
There is, perhaps first and foremost, the issue of landscape itself – not exactly the field that the aforementioned dispossessed or, to put it more accurately, as-yet-unpossessing poets look at from over their fence, since that field, as we shall see, is a combination of actuality and concept, physicality and affect, thing inside and thing outside, but a large part of that field nonetheless.
The very term ‘landscape’ is a difficulty, as much a way of not seeing as it is of seeing, a way of preventing our understanding as it is a way of enabling it. A collective noun, a version of ‘Asia’, say, that one term which at once attempts to designate and obscures that huge panoply of nations, ‘landscapes’ and peoples that comprise it, each with their own specificities. Or of ‘the Animal’, a term which, as Derrida so clearly and simply explains , not only performs in actuality an act of considerable intellectual violence in reducing to the abstract One, and so enabling us to hold at bay, the countless differences of a vast array of distinct species, but also, since it bears so little relation to those to whom it is supposed to relate, says more about us and the way we wish to construct ourselves than about anything outside or beyond us.
From such a perspective there is no landscape. There are only landscapes, in the plural, in a multiple that becomes only the more so the more closely we approach it. Identify a landscape and you will find, as you look at it more closely, landscapes within it. Look at any one of these more closely and you will find landscapes within that. And no, it cannot be claimed that this is a problem unique to the way we relate to our particular environment. It is of course a problem inherent in language itself. Nor (at the risk of introducing a measure of paradox) need it necessarily mean that, cautiously, under erasure, we cannot use the term. The ‘landscape’, after all, as ‘nature’ outstretched, has been and remains the greatest symbol and metaphor we have for that which is beyond us, outside and obscured by the systems that comprise our knowing. We can talk, as we have been doing, about a mode of writing that brings us closer to the landscape, is somehow more appropriate or faithful to it, but surely all that any new mode of writing can ever be faithful to is our own sense of a replica or simulacrum of our own current understanding of the landscape – the body of ideas and beliefs and intellectual / conceptual fashions and frameworks that make up that understanding. To think that we are somehow getting closer to some actual ‘fact’ of the landscape is a little troubling, if not actually paradoxical or absurd, and flies in the face of so much we have come to believe about the impossibility, given the nature of language and all other systems which compose our modes of apprehending anything, of our apprehending anything directly, of any actual, immediate and unmediated seeing or knowing. From this perspective, all is – can never be anything other than – gesture.
- ‘Jindyworobaksheesh’ is a poem in McAuley’s first collection, Under Aldebaran (1946); Morrison’s term appears in ‘The Verse Anthologies: For and Against’ (Southerly 1/1948); Hope’s description is from ‘Brought to Book: Culture Corroboree’ (Southerly 3/1942). ↩