Judith Bishop Reviews Phillip Hall’s Fume

By | 11 February 2019

Several of the poems in this book describe the local rodeo scene and its importance to the mobs at Borroloola. A sense of the metaphoric power of this event became apparent as I read. Trauma is like a rodeo horse or bull that’s ridden every single day in Borroloola life. Trauma can explode into life at any moment – a gun fired screwed up muscle ngabaya (the word ngabaya means spirit) – and it takes lives with it. When the poem ‘Inheritance’ ends –

this year
                when dawn breaks
the bull rider’s eight second rattle
                                is our only breathless
                                                                                yield

– the sense of relief is palpable. The ritual of pent-up violence and release, this time, is only spectacle. The carefully stepping lineation of that stanza conveys the wary wait for what this deliberate encounter with the force of the bull’s anger may ‘yield’. But that anger is also a metaphor for the violent, destructive, unpredictable effects of trauma. The relief of the ‘yield’, in this instance, is counter-pointed by one of the most searing poems in the book, ‘Borroloola Blue’, in which there is no such grace in the final fall.

Fume treads the most challenging line between experience and its representation. How to make the reader feel the force of such experience – the poet’s own, but most importantly here, the experience of his Indigenous kin, which he was, as the book states, invited to address? Hall uses the tools of poetry with care to bring this world to the attention of our eyes, ears and bodies. Listen again to the force of that phrase: gun fired screwed up muscle ngabaya. The volley of strong stresses that we hear and feel in reading it – gun, fi-, screwed, mu-, nga- – carry the power of this moment from those muscles to our own.

Hearing in this embodied way may give rise to understanding: that must be the poet’s hope. But listening may also be a key to healing. Recent science addressing post-traumatic stress disorder has shown how the invitation to re-visit an original trauma in a safe and supportive context can allow the re-writing of paths in the brain that are otherwise directed to ignite the bad experience again and again. This re-ignition leads, of course, to further harm – to the self and others who are affected by the resulting irruptions of fear, anger and pain. The difficult question is how to stop the cycle of trauma leading to more trauma – how to break the circuit, when everyday Indigenous life remains plagued by severe issues of health and education, caused and exacerbated by entrenched and systematic racism stemming from long-standing colonial structures. Could non-Indigenous Australians avoid creating more negative ‘strong places’ if we had a keener hearing for how trauma keeps re-emerging for generations, in human bodies and the landscapes where they live? Trauma is caused by systemic racism – but individuals perceive, or fail to perceive, the systems that perpetuate trauma. They act, or fail to act, to break down those systems. Understanding the severity and longevity of the suffering caused might begin to sensitise us to the urgent need for change.

The racist ‘barbs of colonialism’s crooked paths’ are the causes of Hall’s anger. But there is also a more gentle strain to be heard throughout this book. In these lines, which are often profound and beautiful, Hall brings the local natural world, with its Indigenous relationships, to our attention. Hall shifts from memory to memory, voice to voice, listening to his guides (‘you were my map, amplifying / a lore’s perspective’), working to take it all in:

                      Malbu assures me
jigga, dis bush tucker make millad blackfulla mob shiny
               an strong but do it proper law way
                      everythin’ in da song:

later downstream from cast nets and hand lines
I’m watching flows at the rivers’ confluence (‘Concourse’)


it was all
                red-hot and heady
                as wilderness grew
into country and you were my map, amplifying
                                a lore’s perspective:

                            soon we discovered
             the knoll’s summit and it was broken
                                           gaze through scrub: (‘Walk up Tank Hill’)

The American poet A R Ammons, whose ecological concerns resonate with Hall’s, used the colon in a similar manner, as described in Steven P Schneider’s book A R Ammons and the Poetics of Widening Scope:

… the colons … create a gap, or silence, before the next image is registered. These gaps become part of the message of the poem, for the silences between perceptions, and the silences underlying perceptions, are part of the vision the reader is asked to accept.

In Hall’s poems, time moves on in the gaps, and the gulf between lives and cultures hangs in silence between stanzas. But the author, the poems, and the book, are a precious bridge between. Their bridge is the act of listening to what Indigenous people can hear:

The worry-bird’s drawn out wailing weeer-eearr turned

and it was dawn. The wind picking up, leaves
rustling and ashes blowing

across the ground, familial chatter, turtles cooking
and gangu cupping his hands in percussion and quietly singing,

lifting his country: making it good, making it listen. (‘Dawn Song’)
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