Unbidden: Settler Poetry in the Presence of Indigenous Sovereignty

By | 1 August 2016

In an affect of concern, Mateer wants to make the poem itself a space in which the state’s rhetoric of reconciliation can be made true, not symbolic. Mateer himself describes the poem’s redemptive hope, that his poetics ‘could be answered with the beginning of a real dialogue … the only way of creating poetics in Australia’ (‘Nativism and the Interlocutor’). This suggests that the poem is a plea or a provocation to ‘be answered’, though it is not the answer itself. It is comparable to the fragile moment of self-suspension within ‘A Coastal Walk up from Augusta’. Critic Michael Heald explains:

To resist and transform the world-view and language of the oppressor and mutilator; to be ‘put back together’, in a bodily and spiritual sense; to achieve a public hearing which makes a difference; to restore a comprehensive historical perspective: it is such a nexus of aspiration and frustration that we find … as the complex and highly-charged act of ‘talking with Yagan’s head’ (387; 399).

The ‘complex’ tone of the poem’s speaker is ambiguous and shifting; it can turn from deflated, to resentful, to rapturous. Mateer calls his ‘song’ ‘muted’ (that is, itself silenced), but then describes ‘the next thieves’ of Yagan’s remains (my italics, The West 103). Thus the poem moves between irony and an authentic range of affective concern. Jen Crawford has written that the poem ‘seeks not resolution, but a greater challenge in the Australian context – an unhalting conversational current of social and environmental perception’ (‘Healing Landscapes’). And yet, contrary to the implication of its previous cantos, the conclusion of ‘In the Presence’ offers itself as a replacement for a government apology to Stolen Generations:


Though the past is as anxious as native vegetation in the suburbs
and as intoxicating as a carton of petrol held under a child’s nose,
you, your mythical head synonymous with space,
your abandoned body identical to time,
are the blackhole of words for which the Prime Minister
may apologise with these poems. (The West 104)

As though to latterly resolve this confusion, Mateer adds a final revision to the earlier version: an envoi, since Yagan’s head had now been given a traditional burial ceremony:

(In the dusk, in Kings Park, I'm running)

            The hero's remains will be returned tomorrow.

(seeing ahead of me, through the silent bushland of skin)

(that severed head glowing,

lighting this path) (The West 105)

The ‘path’, of course, is not simply in the locale of Kings Park, but also the poem itself – the poetic way through the settler’s impasse. Yagan’s head is a beacon that directs the poet: his ‘avatar’ of redemption. Yagan is present all around, in the living ‘skin’ of the bushland; there is ‘tomorrow’.

Despite its historical allusions the poem is wildly mythical; and as Birns explains, the literary affect of concern ‘is a myth rather than a doctrine. It is speculative more than it is polemical … fostering a hope for something not currently true but which (the writer) hope(s) to make true; this is precisely why the imagination is needed’ (124). In adopting this mode, however, poem doesn’t so much navigate through or around the impasse of how and why the settler might address Noongar culture and heritage: it overflows it. Heald notes of Mateer’s poetics more broadly:

This is not the poetry of the silent communion with the page. It is actual speech trying to make a place for itself in the public domain … episodes which we might ordinarily consider private, or even taboo (387; 399).

Mateer didn’t see himself as a ‘stranger’ to his place of settlement, or to knowledge of Noongar sovereignty and its colonisation; but nor, it would seem, could his poem contain the complexities he intended. With this poem, the poet’s desire to ‘unsettle’ his own presence achieved the opposite effect. ‘In the Presence’ contains slippages between poetic access to the body of Yagan, part of a shared history and heritage of place – a spirit of place – and a voice of ownership, even paternalism.

In his memoir Scott expresses that he felt isolated and disenfranchised by the poem. Scott himself had only recently, as an adult, found access to learning his language and retrieving his Noongar heritage. In Mateer’s accounts of the event, Scott called out the illegitimacy of the poet’s access to Noongar belief and language:

(Scott) recounted the story of a woman who, in burying her father, felt she wished to destroy all the documents that he’d been gathering on their culture, so that … ‘The white bastards wouldn’t get that too’ (Mateer, ‘Nativism and the Interlocutor’)

Mateer addressed the poem’s original inclusion of Noongar language, but the use of a colonised language by a non-speaker is one of the more clear-cut issues of cultural appropriation, and specifically resonant of colonial language theft and erasure. Less clear in terms of lawfulness, is the extension of imagining a spirit of place. John Kinsella, who sympathises with Mateer’s ‘maverick’ poetics, contrasts ‘In the Presence’ with the ‘overtly appropriative’ or worse tendencies of a movement like the Jindyworobaks. Whereas the latter practiced an Aboriginalism that asserted ‘rights of ownership in the intellectual and cultural sphere to match power in the political and economic spheres’, Kinsella argues that Mateer does not try to eclipse Aboriginal expressions of identity:

Mateer is, both poetically and in terms of self-identity, as much a part of ‘Western Australia’ as of his land of birth. Mateer, in Loanwords, utilizes borrowings and usages from a number of languages in order to reconstitute their original implications, while also building in the agency of new meaning in the language in which they are being deployed. This transnationality is the main driver of his work (16).

Mateer added a warning to Indigenous readers, signalling that he understood the possible distress inherent in violent linguistic treatment of the warrior’s body. However, for some readers – and not only Indigenous ones – the image of Yagan’s head and corpse (addressed more abstractedly in another poem, ‘Talking with Yagan’s Head’) is too painful to work as a poetic metaphor. The poem’s crude analogy of Yagan to Orpheus, and to the poet as continuing the orphic legacy of lyrical redemption, feels to be an inappropriately aestheticised vehicle for its political images and references. For others, the poem’s description of a disintegrated and splintered Noongar community might feel paternalistic – reinscribing a white historical voice. In these ways ‘In the Presence’ risks the annihilation of the Indigenous sovereign subject for the sake of the settler’s inhabitation of place.

In her essay, ‘Settled and unsettled spaces: are we free to roam?’, Irene Watson, Professor of Law and Tanganekald-Meintangk woman, reflects this poetic problem. She asks: ‘Can we move from places where whitefellas feel truly uncomfortable, into what I call a ‘meditation on discomfort’ – to places where the settler society is made to answer these questions: what brings them to a state of lawfulness? Or how lawful is their sovereign status?’ (30). This suggests to me the need for a careful and honest practice of creating a poetic space in which the settler voice is present yet suspended; speaking about Country with a sense of unlawful time and place. In ‘A Coastal Walk Up from Augusta’, the settler experience of place dwells between self-doubt and legitimacy. This speaking position reveals how Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra have highlighted ‘legitimacy as crucial in the Australian definition of identity’ yet constituted by ‘a sense of shared illegitimacy’ (23). Parts of ‘In the Presence’ also achieve this meditation through motifs of negation and self-reflexive irony, set against its anaphoric energy and the proud tone of its envoi. However, its ‘taboo’ nature is the disturbingly comfortable, lawful way in which Mateer’s poem goes about its intention; the boldness of how its poetic voice and vision inhabit Noongar heritage and country. This issue reiterates Watson’s question: ‘what happens to the Aborigine? Do we become cannibalised, digested and absorbed by a white, settled Australia that is to become embodied in our black Aboriginal being?’(18).

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