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