Nicholas Jose Reviews Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean Postcolonial Poetics

1 February 2014

The case against Neruda’s Canto General, embedded in a discussion of the poet’s career path to an ever more exalted position in the world of letters, may be stronger. Octavio Paz observed that Neruda was among those bardic contemporaries who sought to recover ‘the people’ as their ‘lost audience’, to bridge ‘the barrier of emptiness that the modern world puts before them’. Canto General (‘general song’) thus becomes a totalising work, ‘exemplary of Chilean modernity’s denial of its relationship to local … indigeneity’, in Cooke’s critique. The omniscient vantage point atop Machu Picchu produces ‘an uneasy mixture of Neruda’s desire to sing about Latin America and his desire to sing of himself’. What was problematic for Wright becomes a springboard to transcendence for Neruda.

That leads Cooke back to country, to the West Kimberley in particular. In ‘Reading Complexity’ and later chapters on Roe, Lienlaf, Huirimilla and Fogarty, an alternative nomad poetics (after Pierre Joris) of immanence (after Deleuze and Guattari, and Brian Massumi) and mētis or first-hand knowledge (after James C. Scott) is developed. Ray Keogh’s grounding doctoral work on the ‘Nurlu Songs of the West Kimberleys’ opens into an extended discussion of Aboriginal song-poetry, from which the theory ramifies. Things get complicated as we go on foot through this dense scrub, but the rich and strange rewards make the walking worthwhile. Author and reader are not unlike The Two Men in song cycle of the same name. If, according to the Western myth, Orpheus with his lute singly made trees, and poetry (Rilke: ‘song is reality’), here the creative power comes in a conversational exchange between two, ‘inseparable from the larger fabric of the country in which [the Two Men] sing’.

And ‘multiple interpretations’ of song-poetry are possible as it moves from participant to participant. ‘There is … no clear line to the horizon in an Aboriginal song poetics’, the author writes, which is also true of much Aboriginal (and other non-Western, e.g. Chinese) visual art. Cooke addresses the question of how we read song-poems transcribed into English: ‘as performances in themselves … in which both settler and indigenous peoples have played crucial roles’. This is a potent insight which resists any attempt to re-create ‘remnants of authentic Aboriginality’ and values ‘opacity’ as a way of keeping a story moving.

The chapters on the Mapuche poets are detailed and informative for readers who may not know the work. The Mapuche language, Mapuzugun, means literally ‘the language of the earth’. The one who speaks it well, known as a weupin, is ‘one who conserves the language of the earth’. The oral and embodied is important. A weupin ‘I’ speaks only what the earth has spoken before ‘in the compost of the past’. Lionel Lienlaf (b.1969) writes in Mapuzugun and Spanish together, with a lineage in traditional song-poetry. His sounds make a transfer from earth to breath and back, ‘defined by a fragility of the voice’, and thereby sustainable. Paolo Huirimilla (b.1973) conversely foregrounds displacement and disruption. His poetry generates hybrid identities within a cultural mixture that combines postcolonial and transnational with ever-present ancestral elements. In this he is close to Lionel Fogarty whose ‘great ambition’, Philip Mead tells us, is ‘to reconfigure English, one of the primary weapons of settlement used against Aboriginal people, into a language of Aboriginal culture and spirituality’. To understand such a claim it is necessary to look at the ecology in which poetry arises in the broadest possible frame. In Cooke’s summary, ‘the linguistic act … is a translation of an environment’s pre-linguistic expression’, as exemplified by the work of the poets on whom he focuses. That is the quality of immanence in the poetics he advocates.

The concluding chapter ‘Imagining Syntheses’ is Cooke’s manifesto. In an important article, ‘Composition, Law and Indigenous Ecopoetics’ (2012), Peter Minter noted that ‘very little recent work has been done to adequately theorise Australian Aboriginal poetics and its various modernist and postmodernist conditions and contexts’. Speaking the Earth’s Languages comes along as a kind of answer and makes a substantial contribution. While Cooke is careful not to overgeneralise or agglomerate, his roundabout trajectory allows for a fascinating oscillation between fine-grained, recuperative reading and utopian speculation. The result is the Australian-Chilean postcolonial poetics promised at the outset, but also suggestions of its wider applicability, even as a way of identifying and condemning the poetry that fails the test of immanence. The Romantic egotistical sublime and the hegemonic modernist optic are superceded by a poetics to which Deleuze, Guattari, Massumi and other distant philosophers stick as part of its value. To what extent is that an imposition, another wrapping, a white sheet?

Speaking the Earth’s Languages comes to rest on a poem by Minter called ‘is it is’ that ends with the phrase ‘echo & cohere’, on which Cooke riffs. As the voice goes out, a remnant ‘co’ of ‘echo’ returns to ‘here’ and becomes ‘co+here’, an echological coherence that is ‘an expression of country in language’.

Then, in a book that is full of surprises, like a grace note, the best surprise is saved for last. Appendix B gives us ‘Rios de cisnes’/Rivers of Swans by Paolo Huirimilla in Stuart Cooke’s own strong translation. Here we have Australian-Chilean Postcolonial Poetics in practice, as a clincher of so many of the ideas the book has advanced. Huirimilla wrote the poem after visiting Australia in 2008:

The black swan of red crest appears to me on another island
On a page
But its colour is more luminous than rebellion… 
In pairs the black necks walk on the ocean
And the bodies swim between the black page and the sargassos …
myself I call them from the beach of the petrified cypress
and they follow us and launch into flight
through the air choked with fumes and ash. (VIII, X)

This can be glossed in terms of particular cultural knowledge and histories of dislocation and alien imposition, yet the language evokes a larger creative doubling, in the here and now, however fractured, that joins: the black and the red, an island that is also a page (a place for luminous writing as opposed to blood-shed), coupled pronouns as ‘they follow us’ through air. These are miraculous lines, as the Mapuche poet, moving easily through sedimented layers, finds that icon of Antipodean poetry, Ern Malley’s ‘black swan of trespass’ and, trespassing himself, and into translation, glimpses the flight into absence of W.B. Yeats’s ‘wild swans’. He opens the way for Alexis Wright’s swans in The Swan Book (2013), where the stories of the swans of all the world are carried by Aunty Bella Donna to her daughter Oblivia, a young outcast Leda who can sense the touch of the old gods: ‘The swans … had become nomads … following the rainwaters of cyclones deeper and deeper into the continent … forging into territory that had been previously unknown to these southern birds except perhaps for their ancestors of long ago, when great flocks might have travelled their law stories over the land …’

In this new poetry they come, speaking earth’s truths, lifting us through a choking world.

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About Nicholas Jose

Nicholas Jose writes fiction and essays. His publications include, as general editor, the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide.

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