It is fraught territory. And, perhaps exasperatingly for those readers who have followed me this far, I am not going to push these notes – for they are nothing more – towards some sort of rhetorical conclusion. To get some of the questions right – or, rather, since the concept of rightness in this way is also part of the problem – to arrive at questions that make more sense of our predicament, may be far more important at this stage than to answer them. To appear to do so, to attempt to do so, would bring a specious and dismissive frame to what are in fact entrenched and serious challenges. Instead I would move to an example. It would be nice to be able to say of what this example is, but anyone who has been truly following so far will realise that this, too, would be pre-emptive and premature. It is a poem, ‘Weather Comes’, by an indigenous poet, Lionel Fogarty, and – since it seems to me that any other kind of reading would be ludicrous and very counterproductive – I would like to attempt a close reading.
Weather Comes The weather is wearily The winds are webbing blowing voices of help Sun is lowering its light moon is darking its face stars is fallen its flight rain has rained non stop sea waters raised higher rivers swallower and banks fall apart. Trees grow old no more Fruits grow wilder no more Raw uncleaned smelling air goes in the plants soils. Ochres shows colours unseen. Sand dirt mud soot all look different, touch different, smell funny. We can’t hardly believe this was once our dreamtime home The sky turns strangler and clouds hide behind smoked pollutions. Pollutions walking the bush slips feet unfound, and seeks sound unheard. Sleeping never rests in our human minds, for fear terror follows about day and night. The weather is a changed by man’s interfering Our respects for seasons for hunting and gathering is untogether mixed up. Feelings of heat rushes sweat all over bodies hurting Feelings of cold shivers blood veins frozen. The weather is changed.
Once, to a group of students, I described Lionel Fogarty’s use of language as occasionally – not always – ‘Shakespearean’. I exaggerated, perhaps, and even then only partly believed the gist of what I was saying, a thing I admit now not out of any reduction in respect for Fogarty1 but out of a sense of the irrelevance of Shakespeare to almost all that I have been writing about for years now, and a consequent reluctance to cite him. Still, the point had shock value, and did get some students to think about his language more carefully. In invoking Shakespeare in this manner I had in mind a freshness and almost-gothic intensity and unpredictability of language, and a prodigious inventiveness. I could have invoked other writers, but, thanks to the New South Wales secondary education system, Shakespeare I could be pretty sure they knew.
One of the most significant factors contributing to Fogarty’s distinctive verbal texture is what we might call his agrammaticality, a departure from normative usage that can seem a lexical version of what in painting might be called naïf and which can be misapprehended as grammatical ignorance or failure, but which is as deceptive as John Shaw Neilson’s apparent simplicity2. Indeed the comparison with Neilson is interesting in a further direction, in that one of the effects of Fogarty’s agrammaticality could be seen as a variety of Neilsonian negative suggestion, the words on the page – their agrammatical structure – bringing to mind a ‘correct’ or ‘normative’ usage even as they defy it, so that we find ourselves working with both – the normative and its disruption – in mind. This happens several times in the opening lines of ‘Weather Comes’:
The weather is wearily The winds are webbing blowing voices of help Sun is lowering its light moon is darking its face stars is fallen its flight rain has rained non stop sea waters raised higher rivers swallower and banks fall apart.
I don’t think I’d be alone in having expected, upon first reading that opening line – as I read it – a further verb or adjective to follow the adverb ‘wearily’, and to find myself momentarily asking what it is that the weather is doing wearily, and at once pleased (the ‘surprise’ that some would argue has to make a frequent appearance as we move line-by-line through a poem: that is part of the currency of the poem) and yet not fully satisfied (although this too, this finding something – and so oneself – unfulfilled, can itself be a mode of surprise) by the realization that, if it had to qualify something, it would have to be the ‘is’: that the weather was being wearily. But that dissatisfaction is there too, or rather that open-endedness, for another way of seeing this opening line is as gesture, a vector, an arrow pointing, an opening within an opening, an opening not just of the poem but out, into something else. Whether or not it is so in intention, in effect it’s also a kind of declaration, a notice that the rules are destabilized. It’s language being opened, grammar being opened. So that when we come to the next lines, although the mind might wish to supply a comma at the end of the second, or take the caesura naturally created by the end of the line as having the effect of a comma, there might also be a more ready preparedness to enjamb the lines and the separate sense units, so that it’s not only ‘The winds are webbing, blowing voices of help’ that we read – that is, not that the winds are ‘webbing’ and ‘blowing’ – but also that the ‘blowing voices’ are being ‘webbed’ by the wind.