Joel Scott Reviews Poetry of the Earth: Mapuche Trilingual Anthology

By | 4 November 2015


The other element that makes itself felt time and again in these poems is some notion of landscape. Almost all of these poems contain elements of landscape; valleys, mountains, rivers, all manner of birds, flora, plains and pampas. Again, were it not for indigenous poetics, we might be tempted to shoehorn these apparitions into genres such as the pastoral or nature poetry. It seems though, that what is being written here, is ‘Country’. There is no passive, imaged backdrop, waiting to be arranged artfully by the poet, but rather deep networks of interagency that sing with the voices of the dead, and in which everything is in constant conversation.

Curriao’s poem ‘Landscape’ is an illustrative example:

Every evening
The same tree
Waits in the path 
Of the same flock of thrushes

The inanimate awaits the animate. A closer reading of the Spanish reveals this more fully. ‘El mismo árbol/Espera en el camino/La misma bandada de tordos.’ The path is not subjugated to the thrushes in the Spanish. The path is simply where the tree stands, awaiting the same flock of thrushes, as if it were the thrushes that were predictable, reliable. This small shift, to my ear at least, reduces the agency of the tree, which is the element that sets this poem apart. In ‘Mangin’, María Isabel Lara Millapán states: ‘the rain says what I think’. In Omar Huneuqueo Haiquinao’s ‘Happiness’, the sun arrives at his window ‘in the pupil of a bird’. All is mediation and immediacy.

While these examples are somewhat serene, perhaps, to quote Rigney, depicting those ‘warm and beautiful cultural spaces where colonialism does not penetrate’, the Country that appears in many of the other poems has a darker tinge. Marked by dispossession and dislocation, for many of these poets, there does not seem to be a space beyond the reach of colonialism. As in Curriao’s ‘Our Songs Remained Behind’, where death is the ‘companion of our every day … stalking, clouding/the breath of my children’. And the forest becomes ‘no more than a memory/of an Eden that was never promised to us.’

Of course this situation of dislocation is nothing new. The reality of colonial dispossession means, as individuals, always already having been dislocated. The condition of contemporary indigeneity in colonial societies is inflected by this, and the ambivalence towards this is part of what makes this collection so contemporary. Often, there is a wry, sardonic acknowledgment of the situation. Paulo Huirimilla’s ‘Warrior Song’ is a great example. The poem begins:

I, urban hunter and collector with leather jacket 
Hair greased back, born of la Chingada  
Of Pedro Eriazo 
A harmonica between my teeth, 
I speak with a stutter for the deaths of my ancestors

In another of Huirimilla’s poems, ‘Wiñoi Tripantü’, ‘a Wepife (A wise man, scholar) from Maihue has arrived to talk/He says us Choiques have learned football/but have forgotten the trompe (A kind of mouth harp) and wiño (A curved pole made out of wood used to play a sport resembling hockey)’. As an aside, I would suggest that the translation of ‘cazador recolector urbano’ should be ‘urban hunter-gatherer’. The footnotes in the book explain that ‘chingar’ is a Mexicanism meaning to damage, protest or harm, but I would also add that la Chingada is a mythical figure in the Americas, the mother to the continent’s ‘mestizo’ (mixed race) children. Gloria Anzaldúa describes her as ‘the raped mother whom we have abandoned’ (52).

The echo in these poems of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s anthem ‘No More Boomerang’ is unmistakable. And Huirimilla’s leather-jacketed urban hunter-gatherer seems to be some sort of distant relation of Samuel Wagan Watson’s Frankenstein of the Dreamtime in his poem ‘Monster’, who can’t speak his grandmother’s tongue and has never been on his grandfather’s land. Of course its tone is entirely different to Noonuccal’s pitch-perfect critique of the civilising project, Christian theology and alienated labour, and it is more psychedelic than Wagan Watson’s loose, weird Indigenous gothic. Ultimately, Huirimilla’s poem is plugged into different traditions of practices of the word, both in terms of ül and in terms of contemporary Hispanic and Latin American poetry.

Any comparison, of course, remains partial. Poetry of the Earth continues to resist categorisation. The collection is not flawless. While some of the poems are startling and brutal, tender and still, in others, the image seems to degrade into sentimental images of perfection or nostalgia. But to use Curriao’s words, the book is filled with ‘the torment of lineages that fight ferociously against extinction.’

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