Shipwrecks in Modern European Painting and Poetry: Radical Mobilisation of the Motif as Political Protest

By | 16 August 2019

Asylum seekers in boats: turning desperation to ‘terror’

And when my thought is caught in such an undertow, how not to think of the last decades’ shipwrecks: of the tens of thousands of refugees, whose lives do not appear either on any passenger list, whose smuggler-skippers have kept no logs, whose skulls accuse us from the plastic junk-defiled beds of the Mediterranean, and of those much closer to Australia, of the Timor Sea or the Indian Ocean? We have learned abstraction. We have seen the faces of the drowning erased. We have seen the faces of children whom the desperado refugees did not throw overboard erased. Our minds have filed the blank discs. We must not humanise them; we must not give them a name. There will be no more images of boat people, of people in camps. We have learned much from the Nazis who quickly learned to speak of the Jews and Romanies and gays they dragged off to camps and murdered as models or dolls rather than people, and who spoke of the Final Solution – while we speak of the Pacific Solution.

After all this compassion fatigue we give into paralysis before a succession of governments. Collectively our protest arm is dead. Like Mallarmé’s old dice-thrower we are cadavre par le bras. Perhaps it’s because we know that our claim to sovereignty is fragile indeed when we have never signed a Treaty with Australia’s First Nation, that we’ve managed not just to demonize, but to weaponise these overladen boats, as threats to us, branding their passengers as criminal queue-jumpers, as radical Others, moral vermin wearing the masks of asylum seekers, but really more often than not economic opportunists. If asylum seekers are educated like the architecture student Reza Barati, who died on the 17th February 2014 in detention camp violence on Manus, they are said to be driven by a sense of entitlement. Anyway, we are told, they all incubate the virus of terror in their veins.

Perhaps we have forgotten the death-stench of the convict boats that some of our miserable ancestors came out here on. What subsequent migrant isn’t here at least partly because of economic opportunism? Have we so loaded the shipwreck with phantasmagoria from our own ‘book of myths’, having witnessed all that ‘first world’ skippers and passengers alike are capable of, that now, much like Corréard and Savigny from the Medusa, we can project the sense of the horror, the horror (Conrad 2016 [1899-1902]) we are capable of onto these ‘Others’?

If Warsan Shire Somali-British poet in her twenties could deliver her vehement poetic testimony to our leaders and their acquiescent voters over the last two decades, would they still say ‘How good is [insert here: Australia/ Far North Queensland/ Manus Island / Our Border Patrol/ Creative Cartography]?’

no one leaves home unless home chases you

fire under feet

hot blood in your belly
it's not something you ever thought of doing

until the blade burnt threats into

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath
you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

no one burns their palms

under trains

beneath carriages

no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck

feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled 
means something more than journey.

no one crawls under fences

no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps

or strip searches where your

body is left aching

The traumatic aftermath of war and genocidal regimes is so pervasive that every site of intense affective connection becomes contaminated, as if in the backwash of a poisoned aquifer, the embrace of one’s mother, and even her lullaby, become shot through with the terror that severed that embrace.

The Women of Kurdistan

I will talk to you of Kurdistan, and mountains, of beautiful trees and rare flowers. I will talk of wild rivers, tall waterfalls and amazing music. I will talk of my father, the shepherd who was inseparable from nature. I will talk of my mother who worked too hard to find something for us to eat, and when there was none, lay our heads on her lap and sung us beautiful stories to make us sleep. I will talk to you of Kurdistan made a battlefield filled with war, of 50,000 Kurds killed at once by chemical weapons, of our soil soaked in. I will talk to you of Kurdistan and of the women I admire. The women of Kurdistan who fight, sing and dance. The women of Kurdistan who fight, sing and dance.
Behrouz Boochani 2016

So writes Behrouz Boochani (2016), awarded this year the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Prize for Non Fiction, yet still detained after six years on Manus and still pleading vehemently and desperately each day on behalf of the seriously ill and suicidally depressed on both Manus and Nauru. Even if one escapes the home site of trauma and survives long enough in criminally overpacked hulls without sanitation, in which the abject waste of terrified fellow travellers rises in a terrible swill, to arrive at some bleak coast, somewhere, and if, in this real game of the highest stakes, after long detention, when hope is virtually extinguished, and one is concreted up inside and turns a face as blank and numb as they have willed it, on hearing the ‘good news’, which is surely every refugee’s right, and one is freed to try against all odds, to begin all over again, there will always be the noose describing the unbearable hole, whether through the loss of children, friends, lovers, extended families, and always, inevitably, the open wound of cultural and physical exile from the initial, so often terror-driven uprooting. And our leaders call criminal, call economic opportunism, this risking heart-breaking severance from country, vulnerability to murderous piracy, shipwreck, followed by cruel years of shaming, spirit-atrophying detention – all in the quest for what is every human’s right, safe asylum, away from the regime of terror or the chronic violence of extreme poverty, and, so often, from both.


So much water with no land in it.
Terror doesn’t vanish

with the coastline.

Always an infant-shaped hole

and a son trailing rope

from the heart of his mother;

always a rope trailing over the deck

where the waves break the watery moon

into splinters. Always a rope

and the neck of things broken,

swinging from the date tree.

And always his mother

singing him to sleep

with the wet-eyed song of her grief.

More exposure to such poems as these by Warsan Shire, Behrouz Boochani, and Lisa Jacobson, might give compassionate pause to our ‘border protection’ policy-makers before they wreak further devastation on the deeply traumatised. Every refugee who risks escape by boat will be stalked by the spectre of the soul’s enduring shipwreck.

Always a rope/ and the neck of things broken

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