Dashiell Moore Reviews Lionel Fogarty

By | 19 March 2018

Given Fogarty’s commitment to avoiding compromise to a non-indigenous reader, his poetics are irreconcilable when read apart from their intention. While the editors are correct in suggesting that in certain political poems (such as ‘Condemn King Peanut Picking Joh’, which refers to the corrupt ex-Premier of Queensland, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen), the ‘intensity of political anger transmutes into a classic “curse poem” … driven on by the poet’s faith in what Robert Graves would describe as the “magical potency” of words’ (20), readers should be wary of applying a Western epistemological practice to Fogarty’s work. I would equally suggest that the political reality Fogarty envisages is located as a continuation of a cultural position built from the Yugembeh and Kudjela peoples – as well as being built off collaborative orality. In this way, to interpret it as a ‘curse poem’ rather than as a situated poetics might mislead a reader. For example, consider these lines of the poem:

Now Joh, you’ll blow
Winds are coming
Violence as it is
Pains you gave
Pains we’ll give 
Cruel as capitalism Is
Murderous as they are.

The poem is relatively prosaic as a written poem and suggests Fogarty’s ironic usage of full-rhyme in his poems, ‘Joh’ / ‘blow’ being one among many examples of his seeming disdain for traditional English rhyming structures. However, as a spoken word poem, the lines take the form of a cumulative chant that is meant in a collaborative manner; the common homonyms of ‘winds’ / ‘is’ / ’give’, ‘are’ / ’gave’ and ‘Joh’ / ‘blow’ / ‘coming’ are written as part of a long tradition of Indigenous Australian political orality. Gilbert writes on this subject, as part of the introduction to his anthology of Aboriginal poetry, Inside Black Australia:

Black poets sing, not in odes to Euripides or Dionysus, not Keats, nor Browning, nor Shakespeare; neither do they sing a pastoral lay to a “sunburnt country” for they know that that russet stain that Dorothea Mackellar spoke of is actually the stain of blood, our blood, covering the surface of our land so the white man could steal our land. (1988, xxiv)

And yet they do sing. In recognition of this, I would simply suggest that readers be wary of thinking of the politics of Fogarty’s poems without taking into account the manner in which they were written, or performed. As the well-known Indigenous Australian activist, Gary Foley stated at the launch of Yoogum Yoogum in 1982:

You can’t divorce what Lionel has written from what is going on in the streets of Brisbane today and tomorrow and the day after. It is part of our struggle; an important part of our struggle, as any book that is written – as Kevin Gilbert’s … – as any book that is written by Aboriginal people … We make no apologies for being overtly political; we see more clearly than anyone else in this country what is wrong with this country. (n.p.)

To be political is an unfortunate condition of writing for an indigenous writer in Australia. It is, however, in the wake of Fogarty’s politics that we have come to know the influence of politics before the purposes of his poetics. As the editors themselves write, Fogarty’s poems are ‘to an extent overdetermined by the interpretive frames of resistance, activism, anger and protest’ (19). Perhaps we are too fast in reading within the all-too-familiar, essentialist framework provided for us when Johnston claimed Fogarty as Australia’s ‘Guerrilla Poet’:

Here was no ersatz Bourgeois black in white face, but an Aboriginal man, a poet guerilla using the language of the invader in an effort to smash open its shell and spill it open for poetic expression (49).

Johnston’s writing reveals much of the attitudes of the time Fogarty was immersed in as a political writer indebted to the rhetoric of ‘the fighting phase’ borne of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Fogarty’s manipulation of the English language then, has been interpreted predominantly as an act of resistance, leading to increasing characterisations of Fogarty as a ‘Guerrilla Poet’ or an ‘activist poet’. As Kinsella writes:

His is the most revolutionary of languages being used in Australian poetry. Freedom doesn’t come solely by marking territory and occupying a conceptual space, a space linguistic in nature. One must reterritorialise lost ground. (2013)

I am reminded of the necessity by which a writer of a minor literature must engage within majoritarian structures, and to what purpose, not to ‘use the master’s tools’ as African-American poet, scholar, feminist and activist Audrey Lorde aptly stated, but to create new, intermediated linguistic surfaces that are simultaneously sites of narrating trauma, rewriting history and memory, but also giving rise to future writers. Indigenous writers in Australia are forced to come to deal with the means of abrogation and their own ‘situatedness’ within such structures, to use the colonialist’s language and apprehend it in such a way as that it cannot be recognisable. The view underlying Lorde’s immortal address, ‘you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools’, has proved instrumental in developing the necessity of an oppositional discourse to combat forms of continued oppression, whereas the counter-view implies that the master’s house is, as post-colonial theorist Bill Ashcroft suggests, ‘always adaptable’. This review acts with a cohort of other recent scholarship working to develop a methodology suitable enough to evaluate Fogarty beyond the character of political action typified by Johnston (Corey Wakeling, Ali Alizadeh and David Brooks, to name a few), an action that the editors of this collection also signify in their segmentation of his poems.

Fogarty intervenes in our expectations and reading of a minor-literature by not only choosing to write in a muddied, bastardised English, but by contributing to an intercultural poetics which can be equally read as culturally fluid and politically opaque. His transformation of the English language to reflect an uncanny, nightmarish contemporary landscape demonstrates such an approach – a writing towards the borderlands, an intercultural interstice. The rhetorical questions raised in the first poem of the collection, ‘Insane Go Away, Sane Come Again’, written for the 1980 collection, Kargun, speak to the incongruity of the contemporary ecological landscape, as well as the lack of sense in English language structures to indigenous people:

Rock you belong to?
Sand we want you?
Land you know now
Words we are afraid of.

Here language becomes an experiential device, as in the poem, ‘Remember Something Like This’, whereby Fogarty comes into memories and histories first hand – words become images, beings, embodied on the page. Through this forming of language, this self-questioning mode gives way to a plurality of seeing and being at intercultural borderlands. At the close of ‘Insane Go Away, Sane Come Again’, Fogarty proposes that against a backdrop of centuries of betrayal of ‘animals, skies, clouds, seas’ by white settler Australians, there might be unity among the residual metaphoric force of a post-colony imaginary:

You          we          me
Earth shouts now
Four ways
oppressed people
in rushing four winds.
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