Unbidden: Settler Poetry in the Presence of Indigenous Sovereignty

By | 1 August 2016

As he now reflects on the poem, Mateer describes the impossibility of its ambition; that the ‘ontological reality’ of postcolonial representation is too complex to be carried within a poem. He highlights the very different political situations of a revolutionary post-Apartheid South Africa, from which he emigrated, and the continuing struggle for lawfulness undertaken by Indigenous movements in Australia. Whereas his poem at one point offers itself in place of an Apology, Mateer now sets the ambition of ‘In the Presence’ against the urgency of that struggle being undertaken in policy and law (personal email).

Nevertheless, we find ourselves amidst an active culture of postcolonial Australian poetics, in which a political, social and economic state of decolonisation is in fact being imagined, especially by Indigenous poets. Stuart Cooke describes the potential of this poetics:

… enriched, stimulating metaphors, in which the elements of physical matter and their manifestation as speech produce, via the imagination, startling works of art. We might see the emergence of radical new articulations of Australian locales, replete with new sounds and grammars, and new linkages made between previously discrete parts, including a process of integrating the speaker’s own biology into a hitherto strange or illusive environment and history (52).

How might the successes and failures of “In the Presence” stimulate our reading of current settler poetics? How might the complex problems of that poem inform others’ attempts to destabilise colonial concepts of ownership and its relationship to identity? At a glance, partial by nature, the work of some Australian settler poets including Michael Farrell, Stuart Cooke, Laurie Duggan, Jill Jones, Nick Whittock, Martin Harrison, Ouyang Yu, Duncan Hose, Tim Wright, Phillip Hall, Louise Crisp, Joan Fleming, Matthew Hall and Amanda Joy unsettles normative and centralised narratives of place. We might consider how such poets retreat from attempting to represent or ‘embody’ Aboriginality except by acknowledging its sovereignty through poetic means of voice, image, narrative or allusion. We might also, by extension, look at how they declare their settler identities as anxious, that is, dwelling within Indigenous Country: subjecting their origins to its sovereignty, in order to legitimately ‘gain presence’ (Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos, 105). Settlers might participate in writing a ‘new story of the nation’, but it firstly relies upon recognition of somebody else’s being:

Precisely because Australian history happens on the collective body of the Indigenous peoples as a primordial and ongoing event of occupation, to locate ourselves within the history of this place is primordially to become involved in an ontological transformation. Such a transformation must involve a process that recognises the resisting being of the occupied, unconditionally (Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos, 21).

For me, Mateer’s ‘In the Presence’ remains an important example in both its voice of concern and its troubled vision. It seeks to express a poetic response to an urgent ontological problem; to advance ways of thinking through and representing belonging and shared history in the full presence of Indigenous sovereignty. To write about a place in such a way that is at once receptive and provisional. To hang above the ground.

Fiona Probyn asserts that, ‘We need to develop conceptual tools to write privilege while holding ourselves accountable for it’ (‘Playing Chicken’). To this conceptual end, settler poetry might indeed have a cultural role to play, in parallel to the historiographical, political and legal acknowledgement of Indigenous sovereignty. It might take part in ‘an ontological transformation’ of the Australian settler by acknowledging the immoveable, resistant sovereignty in which she dwells. For the settler poet, to anxiously remain in the presence of one’s privilege and one’s illegitimacy is to find a fundamental critical position for postcolonial poetics, and perhaps a vision of decolonisation.

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