Possession, Landscape, the Unheimlich and Lionel Fogarty’s ‘Weather Comes’

1 August 2017

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.

II

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.

  1. Aboriginal poet and activist, born 1958 on Wakka Wakka land at Barambah (now known as Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve) in the South Burnett region of southern Queensland.
  2. John Shaw Neilson (1872-1942), Australian lyric poet.
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