Phillip Hall Reviews Maggie Walsh

By | 22 August 2016

In her poem, ‘Instant’, Walsh continues to reference the night sky as she uses pun and humour to subtlety critique contemporary society. This poem concludes:

The world is full of instant stars
Not those in the sky
The ones that rose to instant fame
The ones that had stars in their eyes

Talent shows are full of them
Chasing instant glory
Dreaming and hoping their day will come
When we’ll all know their story

Instant this and instant that
Instant everywhere
Instant information
And instant overshare

I can make cake in a pan
In five minutes flat
It used to take me forty minutes
Just to do that

I can have my cake in an instant 
And I can eat it too
And with instant coffee
Well I don’t mind the brew

But life on Palm Island is not all cake and instant brew. At the age of two, Walsh was separated from her mother and sent to live in the Dormitory. In ‘Christmas Time’ she tells us:

I was getting flogged
At the age of eight
A strap across the legs
For not standing straight

Where was my mummy?
Where was my mob?
Through teary eyes
I would sob

And with much irony Walsh confronts the values of the dominant settler-colonial society that was responsible for this separation:

And now before we eat
We must say Grace
We must also mind our manners
Before taking our place

It would be nine years before Walsh was reunited with her mother (and mob), and during this time in the Dormitory, she would ‘try to sleep in my bed / thoughts of mummy / go through my head’. ‘Christmas Time’ concludes with the following unforgettable evocation of separation’s ache, made more acute by the season of Christmas:

Through the window
I see the moon
Mummy will come get me
She will be here soon

Christmas morning, with no wrapping
And with no name
Each and every one of our gifts
Were perfectly the same

I had never had such a gift
The smell of something new
Over time, the longer I was there
Thoughts of mummy were becoming just a few

My only comfort was my precious doll
Which was exactly the same as all the others
All here like me
All here without our Mothers

If Walsh’s use of humour and rhyme so often serve to reassure the reader amidst the overcrowding of racism, disadvantage and hardship, in ‘Christmas Time’ they highlight the unrelenting and all-encompassing reach of colonial control and disruption into the lives of First Nations people. Here the arrival of each rhyme is as predictable and heavy-handed as the discriminatory and destructive policies of government.

In 2004 Palm Island was again in the news for the bonfire of failed government policy. Mulrunji (Cameron Doomadgee), a Bwcolgamon man, was arrested for public drunkenness and swearing at a police officer. Forty-five minutes later he would be found dead of an intra-abdominal haemorrhage caused by a ruptured liver and portal vein. The Coronial Inquest into Mulrunji’s death found that a police officer had assaulted him and that police had contaminated the evidence of the crime scene immediately afterwards. After a trial, in 2007, where police were found to be not guilty in less than four hours, there was a huge public backlash and protest – but no justice. This chapter in the tragedy of First Nations ‘Deaths in Custody’ became the subject of a prize-winning book by Chloe Hooper called, Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island which also inspired a television documentary by director Tony Krawitz called, Tall Man: Life in Paradise, Death in Custody. Maggie Walsh knows what it is to be a ‘downtrodden black’ and how ‘they all looked down on me / cos of the colour of my skin’. She also knows the shocking reality of the over-representation of Indigenous people in the prison system. With her typically understated and plainly written words, which ironically appropriate the innocence of a child’s Sunday school song, she captures the devastation of imprisonment in ‘Warden’s Keys’:

Here I sit in this cell

            Staring at four walls and ceiling

                        Put my head in my hands

                                    Overcome with the loneliest of feeling

                        I can’t just get up and go

            The jangling of the Warden’s keys

Tells me so

Amidst all this disadvantage, volatility and violence, and despite the discriminatory and abusive policies and actions of settler-colonial government, Maggie Walsh remains assertive of the resiliency of First Nations people:

A lazy Sunday is on the cards
A relaxing and sunny day

So long as the sun is shining
I hope it stays that way

Sunset is a remarkable debut collection that is as surprising as it is achingly a hymn of celebration to First Nations familial pride and Custodianship of Culture and Country. This book is a campfire that crackles through the night, collecting cheer, and releasing plumes of rising heat.

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