Phillip Hall Reviews Maggie Walsh

22 August 2016

Sunset by Maggie Walsh
Vagabond Press, 2016


Maggie Walsh is a Bwcolgamon woman from the First Nations community of Palm Island, a tropical paradise located in the Great Barrier Reef only sixty-four kilometres northwest of Townsville. But this is a paradise with a troubled history since European settlement – with a lack of jobs and housing, and a tragic reputation for violence and disadvantage. In 1999, for example, the Guinness Book of Records named Palm Island as the most violent place on earth outside of a combat zone.

This shocking impact of colonialism reminds me of Borroloola, in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria, where I have strong connections to Indigenous people and Culture. Borroloola has been home to four surviving language groups, since around 1900, by which time massacre and dispossession had severely disrupted First Nations life. I have often heard non-Indigenous ‘commentators’ criticise Borroloola for its ‘loss’ of Traditional Culture and Languages. Borroloola is often compared unfavourably with the more ‘functional’ and ‘traditional’ Indigenous communities found in Arnhem Land. This is as though First Nations people are to be blamed for their own devastating colonial contacts that, in the case of Borroloola, date back to the 1860s when the Gulf country became a thoroughfare for the cattle industry.

Like Borroloola, isolation did not spare Palm Island from the devastation of colonialism. In 1770 Captain Cook estimated the number of people on the island to be around two hundred. This population was decimated through the nineteenth century, by the pearling and trepang (sea cucumber) industries, to around fifty people by 1900. And from 1920 through to the 1960s, as with the Queensland community of Yarrabah, the island was used by the Government as a penal settlement for Indigenous people considered guilty of being disruptive. During this time more than one thousand people, from more than fifty-seven language groups, were relocated to Palm Island, so that the population today is around five thousand.

Maggie Walsh does not identify with the Manbarra people (the Traditional Owners) of Palm Island; but she does identify as a Bwcolgamon woman (Bwcolgamon is the Manbarra name for Palm Island). Writing from a place with such a disrupted and devastating history of colonial contact is obviously going to be a highly fraught and difficult proposition. One might, quite reasonably, anticipate the combative and proud Murri voice of a Lionel Fogarty, or the lyrically interrogative voice of an Oodgeroo Noonuccal or Samuel Wagan Watson. Instead, Maggie Walsh surprises us all. She writes in a style reminiscent of the popular English poet, broadcaster and entertainer, Pam Ayres. Maggie Walsh does not shy away from the political and socio-economic realities of life on Palm Island but her techniques are an exuberant use of narrative, humour and pun all tuned to an amusing ear for rhyme.

In ‘A Tapestry of Words’, Walsh tells us:

The words seem to flow more freely
Like the rivers and the streams

Like a cascading waterfall
They enter my dreams

A tapestry of words 
Filled with meaning and feeling

Keeps my soul company
On my journey of healing

Stories filled with sorrow
Emptiness and sadness

Others overflowing
With happiness and gladness

In creating these ‘stories’ so ‘overflowing with happiness and gladness’ Walsh sings many hymns of praise to Palm Island. In ‘Jetty’ she writes:

The jetty is the place to be

On a nice summer’s day

High is the tide and the air is hot

Time for a swim and play

We’ll take some food and some drinks

Let’s make a day

Enjoy the water on our skin

And laze the day away

The spacing of these lines, that gives so much air between each run of words, is a beautiful image of the exuberance of bodies flying through the air as they backflip off the jetty into tropical waters – into ‘memories of my beloved home’.

There are many poems here that express this sense of love for Country; a poetics of belonging to place that is so sympathetically attuned to natural rhythms and seasons as people camp, hunt, recreate and confirm those familial bonds both with each other and with country.

‘Better Put The Billy On’ is a wonderfully intimate portrait of a couple easing their way into an evening spent round a campfire:

The stars are shining above
In the blue black sky
The glowing of a silver moon
Looking down from up high

The flicking of the campfire
It lights up the trees
With an eerily orange glow
The leaves rustle in the breeze

A campfire is the focus of so much familial gathering for cultural performance and practice. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are many references, in Indigenous stories, to the phases of the moon, and to celestial constellations. Maggie Walsh concludes, ‘Better Put The Billy On’, with her own subtle reference to this rich tradition:

Her voice – 

Under the embers and dirt
The damper bakes away
My belly starts to grumble
Trying to keep hunger at bay

It must be nearly ready
It’s been in there a while
As I begin to uncover our feed
I smell the aroma and smile

At my well-cooked damper
Brown ‘n’ char all round
I tap it lightly with a stick
And keep it warm on ground

His voice –

Yeah time to have a good old feed
Billy tea and damper tonight
Just let that butter melt into it
Then spread with vegemite

And now to wile away our evening
Here’s another tune
On my trusty old harmonica
For you and the listening moon

While in, ‘A Stroll On The Beach’, she writes:

As the sun sets for the day
It leaves a beautiful scene
Then appears the evening star
Making it more serene

The water starts coming in
Reflections appear on the tide
Of the stars from up above
Shimmering far and wide

The silhouette of people enjoying
The setting of a sun
Enjoying a beautiful paradise
Enjoyment for everyone
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