How might we read this poem now, several years after its amendment? What is its ‘culture’; whose is its ‘heritage’? And how does it represent the settler’s spirit of place? Are borrowed language and concepts the only aspects of the poem that influence responses to these questions?
‘In the Presence: Fifteen Songs’ opens in a suspended time and place, carried by its voice rather than its location. Each canto incanting the name of ‘Yagan’, the poem reiterates its theme of a struggle between presence and absence:
Yagan, Even if I stab a bloody gumtree you will not speak. ~ Yagan, The tree doesn't say, Once I married the earth to the sky. And its branches don't say, Once we sang with the wind. The ghosts of the spoken are this huge tree on which every leaf is a silenced language. The leaves don't mutter in passing, falling, We are not regret. We are nutrients, slowly releasing ... Nor does the bark respond; the strips are scarified, flayed, a shredded document (The West 97).
The incantation calls up the warrior – who we might take to represent both the determined resistance as well as the violent colonisation of Noongar culture – but the first lines also negate the potential of the poem to posit redemption (‘The tree doesn’t say … Its branches don’t say … The leaves don’t mutter’). Yagan seems to be embodied by the gumtree, which is a ghost of the colonised language and culture that give it meaning. In the original version, Mateer wrote ‘wilting language’ (Loanwords 69) rather than ‘silenced language’; the change makes a stronger admission of oppression, and yet the ‘shredded document’ of that culture is being replaced by the poem, using the coloniser’s language.
The poem wants to invoke the warrior as a source of energy and healing for ‘locals’ – the Noongar, but also, perhaps, the community of south-west Australia, and the nation. The gruesomeness of this imagery is challenging to read:
Yagan, Won’t your syrupy blood, instead of sap, ooze out globules on the scabby trunk, sensitive as small tumours, malleable and dark as molten glass (The West 98).
Mateer seems to be attempting to provoke an affect of bodily pain and sympathy in the reader, though it is difficult to say who that reader is intended to be at this stage of the poem. In the original version, ‘locals will lick that new sticky flow onto their open wounds’ (Loanwords 69), an image reminiscent of hurt animals; but in The West this troubling connotation is avoided, with ‘locals smearing that new sticky flow onto their weeping wounds’ – a more desperate but slightly less grotesque phrase.
The speaker’s address becomes increasingly intimate, to the point where Yagan’s form is indeterminate; ‘malleable and dark as molten glass’, his body in the poem seems no longer representational, but more like a spirit:
Yagan, Avatar, you are that moment of déja vu when in the early days of settlement your people embraced, not the invaders but the ancestors returning in their ghostly skin. ~ Yagan, Even you were 'reincarnated'—a whiteman!—once (The West 98-99).
Against this disembodied plane, the poem begins to take on a more specific historical context. It links the colonial event of Yagan’s death to the moment of the poem’s composition following Britain’s 1997 repatriation of Yagan’s head, which ‘brought out into Westralian glare / provoked an alien to hymn you in 1999’ (The West 99). Interestingly, Mateer’s reference to himself as ‘alien’ anticipates Kim Scott’s remarks – as though the poet can sense his trespass but chooses to ignore it.
In his absence, Yagan is an ideal symbolic void: ‘more intimate than prayer, closer than my own flesh’ (The West 103). And yet the poet places himself in a similar position of absence, removing himself from the narrative’s action, as well. It might seem that in doing so, the poet’s persona is moving himself away implication in scenes of destructive agency:
Yagan, He who is scribing these words abandoned your country, the bushland that awoke his senses. He who is singing this sentence fled while archeologists were probing the riverbank for your discarded body. He shot through when the day was alive with a calm blindness. vanished when the airport was the site where a few of your mob, before they flew off to retrieve your shrinking head, had disputed genealogies and rights and verged on a punch-up (The West 100).
In this revised section, however, Mateer uses the words ‘abandoned’, ‘fled’, ‘shot through’ and ‘vanished’ to replace the milder term of the earlier version, ‘left’ (Loanwords 74). The new word choices suggest cowardice or knowing withdrawal. This change complicates the speaker’s agency and responsibility to Yagan’s legacy, once again showing Mateer raising a self-aware question about his rights to representation.
In some sections the poem marks itself as a specific artefact of the pre-Intervention, pre-Apology, Howard era:
Yagan, Without you the city is a ruin of broken glass, like bottlenecks cemented along a decaying wall. Without you the river at night is an opencast mine where dreams are pornographic and Reconciliation is fire. Without you the bankrupt are heroes and news-crew historians because even your elders are suffering aphasia. Without you this voice fears too few will notice that poems, memorials and new constitutions are our sorrybooks unsigned (The West 102).