Unbidden: Settler Poetry in the Presence of Indigenous Sovereignty

By | 1 August 2016

Please be warned that this essay contains descriptions of deceased Aboriginal persons. It is developed from a paper delivered at Active Aesthetics: Innovation and Aesthetics in Contemporary Australian Poetry and Poetics, hosted by University of California, Berkeley in April 2016. I thank the convenors for the opportunity to present these ideas; and the many poets and readers who offered responses to the writing, presentation and further development of the paper.

Influenced and shaped by some fifty years of Indigenous poetry in English, the last couple of decades of Australian settler poetry have advanced prolific attempts to ‘write (oneself) into the country’ (Van Teeseling 209): producing varied and sometimes radical poetries of regionality, topography, climate, and the histories, narratives and landmarks running through and over them. I contend that such contemporary work by settler poets presents a continuum – varyingly compelling attempts to write in the presence not only of Indigenous poetry, but also colonisation’s ongoing effects and of un-ceded Indigenous sovereignty.

Examples of such poetry may be postcolonial – and may indeed envision decolonisation – when they seek to ‘annul, defuse, displace and negate the intractable conditions of the foundation event’ of Australia’s colonial history (Hodge and Mishra 26). Attempts to do so, following the retrieval and dissemination of Indigenous poetry and poetics, creates ‘a much more robust idea of the past from which Australians need not shrink in denial, but which, if wrestled with honestly, lays the foundations for a new story of the nation’ (Langton 80).

To me, John Mateer’s ‘Australian poems’ of the 1990s and 2000s offer some of the most powerful expressions of this intention1. They are also some of the most vexed. This essay focuses upon the localised impact and critique of one poem by Mateer, with the intention of opening the questions raised to a wider discussion of postcolonial Australian poetics. If the main concern of this period of Mateer’s work is with ‘the ontological predicament of being in Australia’ (Mateer, ‘Nativism and the Interlocutor’), then its preoccupation is not only shared with, but implicates numerous contemporary poets, including myself. What is particularly provocative about his approach to this concern, is how he has constructed a settler’s understanding of place:

To write a poetry that imagines the trauma of this place, to be a poet who could express mourning and the resistance of language in a landscape so populated with irony that it hardly seems connected to the earth … in wanting to imagine … the spirit of place (Mateer, ‘Nativism and the Interlocutor’).

Mateer’s desire to resist irony pushes against a local tradition, entrenched in literature, cinema and other cultural media, of ‘self-denigration that portrays (Australian settlers) as morally or spiritually deficient’ (Read 3). In his moving study, Belonging: Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership, Peter Read argues for settlers to ‘reassess’ this tradition, in order to move beyond colonial narratives of occupation. Mateer’s poetry seeks to undertake this work of reassessment, by imagining ‘the spirit of place’. Australian eco-philosophers such as David Tacey, Val Plumwood and Veronica Brady have explored the meaning of ‘spirit’ to non-Indigenous encounters with place2. But what does this term mean within Mateer’s Australian poems? How does his sense of ‘the spirit of place’ approach and represent a history of trauma, mourning and resistance?

One example is ‘A Coastal Walk Up from Augusta’, a short poem in Mateer’s 2002 collection, Loanwords. Its speaker walks with a knowledge of the past and a consciousness of the present, and this intersection allows them to imagine a place beyond subjective ontology. Set at Augusta, on the south-west coast of Western Australia, the poem dwells within Noongar country:

Trudging across an inlet with the winter tide rushing in
my boots slurping the sand
the water detonating then foaming and fanning over the hump of beach
over my boots the cold surface bubbling forever and an instant
like trillions of equidistant molecules between which this
was annihilated (Mateer, Loanwords 25)

The verbs ‘detonating’ and ‘annihilated’ ring out as allusions to militaristic and genocidal violence such as that committed against the Noongar. Their referent, the whitewater metaphorically links the violence to the speaker’s body and its moment in time: as the foam fans over beach and boots, the ocean treats the speaker as continuous with the ground – ‘connected to the earth’. Made aware of this physical continuity, Mateer’s speaker observes the destruction of the subjective present – ‘this’ – into an ‘equidistant’ relationship with more-than-himself. The poem’s annihilation of the self is influenced by Mateer’s Zen practice (Mateer, Personal email); but it also illuminates an imperfect condition of recognising colonised Country and its kin. Tidal and temporary, this moment of an ontological shift is gone almost as soon as it is imagined.

I would argue that this fleeting, detached consciousness constitutes what Mateer names a ‘spirit of place’. In this sense of the term, spirit of place may be distinguished from spiritual identification with place (Read 3): his poem shows it to be more like an imaginary current across time and being. Moreover, it springs from a historicised perception of the Augusta locality; one that seems hyperaware of how the priority of Noongar sovereignty might be recognised in the poetic space.

Mateer has remarked that: ‘I am not Aboriginal so I can’t claim to know that experience from the inside. Nevertheless I believe other, non-Aboriginal, people can experience something of the realities of Aboriginal presence in the land’ (‘Poetry Month Interview’). As a deliberate act of ‘imagining’, Mateer’s poem enacts its ‘connection to the earth’ of Augusta without irony, yet clearly distinguishes that connection from one that pretends to Aboriginality. Marcia Langton clarifies this distinction as:

a distinctive Australian settler voice that speaks of a deepening attachment to place and locality as the core of identity … Aboriginal attachment to places inherited from many generations of ancestors and shaped by kinship, descent, culture and religion, does not preclude settlers from engaging with the land they love.

In this brief poem, Mateer intimates an imaginary continuity with the topography of Augusta and, in doing so, with both Noongar sovereignty and suffering. And yet it represents no more than a moment’s realisation: this brevity shows humility and sensitivity, but also, I think, the challenge of its ontological predicament.

‘A Coastal Walk Up from Augusta’ seems to rest lightly upon its location, acknowledging resistance and trauma as a part of knowing the place. By momentarily effacing the speaker’s subjectivity, the poem eschews a claim of ownership to the land it inhabits. This reflects Read’s suggestion to Australian settlers, that, ‘we have to stop thinking in terms of the self-justificatory discourse of the coloniser, who seems to have refined the principle of individual ownership of land in order to sidestep indigenous people who did not so limit themselves’ (195). In this sense, I think the poem also offers a compelling realisation of Stuart Cooke’s challenge to postcolonial poetics:

We are not rooted in a location, relentlessly sucking up groundwater; we are, rather, speakers of matter, always communicating the transformation of energies across multiple subjectivities … It’s time to place a limit on the first-person voice, to stop pretending that the best way to experience the world is by wandering through it alone (294-295).

Interestingly, while many of Mateer’s Australian poems are carried by the solitary speaking subject, ‘A Coastal Walk Up from Augusta’ demonstrates how he has innovated this subjectivity precisely to complicate and thus resist its colonising tradition.

The poem is an example of what Nicholas Birns calls the affect of concern in twenty-first century Australian writing: ‘political altruism ramified by the acknowledgement of affect. It is an awakening not just to political inequality but to interpersonal feeling’ (124). Many more of Mateer’s Australian poems explore this use of voice and image. In their hyperawareness of the poet’s whiteness, they may be thought of as practising effects of what Michael Farrell has called ‘unsettlement’: the way a text’s construction may be seen to destabilise normative expressions of settlement, making a ‘material negation or resistance’ to those (7).

But what are the limits to ‘interpersonal’ destabilisation of the settler subject? After all, as Read reminds the settler: ‘We cannot share the land with Aboriginals until they have their land to share with us … We cannot fully belong in our own culturally specific fashion if that fashion excludes others from belonging within their own cultures’ (223). To what extent may the settler poet occupy their own spirit of place? In John Kinsella’s words, ‘What is and is not available to the poet in creating a poetic language that carries its own intactness and its own implications for reading?’ (16).

A much longer poem from Loanwords, titled ‘In the Presence of a Severed Head’, is a significant example of a settler poet as they approach that impasse. A year after its publication in the book, in 2003:

John Mateer and Indigenous Australian writer Kim Scott met at the Fremantle Arts Centre for a public reading. Mateer’s contribution to the evening was his poetry-cycle ‘In the Presence of a Severed Head’, in which he addresses Yagan, a Noongar warrior who was killed in 1833, after which his head was cut off, smoked in a tree stump and taken to England to be exhibited. Scott, according to Mateer, was ‘visibly agitated’ … after listening to the reading and ‘explained that he felt there should be a moratorium on non-Aboriginal people writing on blackfella culture’ … In his 2005 book Kayang and Me, Scott himself wrote about the incident, calling Mateer ‘a stranger’ and ‘a recent arrival’ … who had no right to address Scott’s Noongar heritage (Van Teeseling 186).

In his memoir, Kayang and Me, Scott tempered his immediate response to the 2003 reading by praising some elements of Mateer’s poem, but did not withdraw his original criticisms. Scott writes there that he found the poem discomforting, ‘mainly because of its Noongar language and concepts as recorded by various colonial authorities’, particularly its notion of Noongar ‘reincarnation’ (229; 232).

Mateer listened, and amended the sequence for republication in his selected Australian poems, The West. Retitling it ‘In the Presence: Fifteen Songs’, he made structurally small but conceptually significant changes, including removal of its Noongar subtitles and placement of the word ‘reincarnation’ in inverted commas – highlighting the doubly borrowed concept. But a lack of further critical engagement with the ambition of this work had led to a deliberate withdrawal from writing further Australian poems (Personal email). In 2012 he reflected on this decision in an essay for Cordite Poetry Review, describing how since the 2003 encounter with Scott he had:

… completely effaced that work from his memory. That this erasure, this forgetting, had been so successful filled him with an anxiety … his own moratorium (‘Nativism and the Interlocutor’)

  1. See: John Mateer, The West: Australian Poems 1989-2009, Fremantle Press, 2010.
  2. For example, see: Veronica Brady. ‘Sacred Ground: An Exploration.’ Journal of Australian Studies 86 (2006): 91-101; David Tacey. Re-enchantment: The New Australian
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