Dashiell Moore Reviews Lionel Fogarty

By | 19 March 2018

The form of the poems themselves also bears some critical thinking. The unusual phrasing and misplacing of verbs and adjectives tend to frustrate many readers. Things are rarely in place as we would like them to be, written in a-grammatical structures that are closer to a verbal Aboriginal speech pattern or sentence structure than an iambic pentameter. For this reason, many of the poems are intended to be spoken aloud. Fogarty is a remarkable spoken word poet and has been celebrated as such in literary festivals and functions around the world. He continues to forge new forms of verbal and poetic expression for the benefit of all readers and audiences as an entrance into a collaborative place of understanding – simultaneously undoing a language of colonialism, an Imperial English. Readers of this collection should attempt to read these poems alongside their oral form. The reading of the poem, ‘Mad Souls’, derived from the Jagera collection edited and published by Buchanan in 1990, for instance, would be ably supplemented by a listen to the several spoken versions of the poem available online through such viral formats as YouTube. In these, the verbal aspects of the work are profoundly clear, as well as the incorporation of the particular mode of Aboriginal English Fogarty expresses:

I am a moody Murri
My temper as black as me. 
I am a moody Murri
drink and smoke, 
Sail me Away to Africa.

It is this rendering of linguistic forms of expression and contemporary realities that is at the core of Fogarty’s work. So many of his poetic images are representations of an uncanny landscape, a thing made strange against its previous form. Morrissey describes the way in which Fogarty transforms a ‘political reality’:

A “constitutive tension” is apt when considering some of Fogarty’s best poetry which often starts with a political reality, social or intellectual, and then, echoing the words of Robert Frost, like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poems ride on their own melting. (Morrissey 21)

In this manner of ‘melting’, Fogarty creates an uncanny, subterranean, spiritual geography peopled by indigenous people and communities, short-sighted academics, politicians wandering blind, and everywhere the voice of the poet, Fogarty, teasing the reader on. The poem, ‘Abstract Salt Pans’, previously considered as a draft for the collection, Broken Mosaic (2012), but never before published, is an able example of the way Fogarty transforms his subject material. The poem refers to sacred bore grounds, one can imagine Lake Eyre in comparison. Fogarty reassembles the receding salt plain far across the horizon by placing it into a metaphorical pastiche made up of spiritual, ecological and aesthetic forms. Personifying the appearance of the bore grounds, Fogarty writes:

I am the river before the sky rain fell from the ground
I am wombat ready to fight the plains roads every day
I am the pop art reassembled

Fogarty takes great pleasure in abstracting the ‘real’ world onto the page, intimating that as readers, we must forfeit our given way of thinking in order to follow him. It is as if he intends to confuse a non-Aboriginal reader in order that we may be littered along the way behind him in this subterranean geography. This refusal of rationality or grammatical structure becomes a political reality, a refusal of the manner in which Fogarty might be subdued, or suppressed by writing in an imperial tongue. As Kevin Gilbert famously put it:

Coming from a tradition of oral poetry, having been forced by assimilationist policy of the government to forego traditional language and to adopt the European tongue, Lionel used the written English like a dervish wields a club (1988, 156).

A celebrated example of Fogarty’s formal deconstruction and innovation is the poem, ‘Weather Comes’, which appeared in New and Selected Poems: Munadljali, Muteurjaraera (1995) and is also included in this collection. The poem’s opening infers the disjunctive split of temporal space, mixing present and past tense:

The weather is wearily
The winds are webbing
blowing voices of help

To take the words at their surface value, the weather is wearily, it ebbs and succumbs as if it were a personified character. Here, Fogarty’s breakage of language structures is anchored with that of his subject matter: the breakage and disruption of the ecological landscape. In choosing to write and subvert English, he refers to the traumatic way in which the land is also subverted, irrevocably changed by human actions:

The sky turns strangler and
clouds hide behind smoked
Pollutions walking the bush
slips feet unfound, and seeks
sound unheard.

Here, as a result of a pop-art of human destruction, the sky is not only personified as a ‘strangler’, but the repercussions of pollution are also literally ‘walking the bush’ without sound, and it ‘slips’ its feet in around us. Equally as interrogative to the form of the Anglophone poem, the unpublished ‘Reviving Forms or Statics’ conveys a bilingual pun on ‘country’ as opposed to ‘western’, while also referencing the music genre, ‘country and western’, and thus the movement between indigenous and Western ways of knowing, as the poem’s speaker asks the reader to:

Tell us country and western
views on sanction on
contemporary aboriginal songs.

Fogarty describes here the way in which language is policed and ordered through colonial politics and cultural relations; understanding that a sanction on contemporary Aboriginal songs, while intending to mark its freedom, also acts as an authorial stamp on the culture of a people and a fundamental part of assimilation policy, to which Fogarty responds. The effect of these types of gestures is to reflect the fact that often one’s choice of a language is determined by the asymmetry of power relations in a colonial world-system. As celebrated Latin American scholar, Walter Mignolo writes, to make bilingual connections as Fogarty does is not to visit balances in which languages are maintained in purity, untouched, but to critique a colonial apparatus in visiting the way in which power relations are manifest in the asymmetry of language:

Bilanguaging … is not a grammatical but a political concern as far as the focus of bilanguaging itself is redressing the asymmetry of languages and denouncing the coloniality of power and knowledge. (2012, 231)

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