Nathan Sentance Reviews Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today Edited by Alison Whittaker

By | 11 August 2020

The events of this year have also been a catalyst for discussions of the violence caused by the historical and continued use of police and prisons against First Nations people. Colonial institutions like the ‘justice’ system need to be dismantled for any better collective future to exist. Their role in colonial violence is powerfully identified in ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ by Provocalz and Ancestress:

Where we’re prisoners of war
The system at its core
Is a child on the floor getting kicked in the jaw
Stripped of culture, saw that black cockatoo
Flying over the yard, that’s freedom he never knew
Buried in them walls with sadistic screws
Who couldn’t give two fucks, so they torture and abuse
Rehabilitation of a future that’s sacred
Never happens in the lockup, brah, that shit breeds hatred

The words below, from the opening essay by Chelsea Bond, remind us that it’s our responsibility to dismantle colonial institutions, not collaborate with them:

We were made to be good Ancestors.
Good Ancestors sustain the forest that they cannot clear. Good Aborigines, meanwhile, only ever sustain the institutions that insist upon our demise.

Integral to dismantling is the reinforcement and resurgence of First Nations worldviews. That is why it is so heartening to see so much First Nations language in Fire Front, as language is so integral to understanding our worldviews and knowledges. The use, incorporation and privileging of First Nations languages throughout the collection is also an act of defiance in the face of the colony’s ongoing attempts to destroy our languages.

Part of our resistance to ongoing invasion is a refusal to be small, even though the colony demands it. We can see this refusal embodied in the poem ‘Say My Name’ by Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi, where the poem’s narrator does not allow colonisers disrespect their inherited legacy:

So, excuse me as I roll my eyes or sigh as you
Mispronounce my name
                over and over again
Or when you give me another
                that dishonours my mothers and fathers
That doesn’t acknowledge my lineage to my island home
Or the scents of rainforest and ocean foam
You will not stand here on stolen land
                and whitewash my name

The poem points to how naming, or in this case, misnaming, is an act of colonial erasure, as told through a first-person account, and directly addressing a colonial, settler other ‘you’.

If we are to imagine a better collective future, we need to understand our collective past. This is one of the ways Fire Front radiates power. It is a text that will not allow history to be whitewashed. It points out colonial hypocrisy, like in Jeanine Leane’s ‘The Colour of Massacre’, and asks what you are celebrating (see ‘Invasion Day’ by Elizabeth Jarrett). It is a space where each poet speaks their own truth, such as Declan Furber Gillick’s ‘Nanna Emily’s Poem (Mount Isa Cemetery 2014)’, of whose pages you can still see the tear stains on the page on my copy from when I read it aloud.

Fire Front is an accomplished collection because it fuelled by Blak love. This love is evident in many of the poems. It can be found in the Kerry Reed-Gilbert’s ‘Got Ya’, which makes you laugh out loud with its twist ending. It is found in the pride that you feel when reading Baker Boy’s (ft. Dallas Woods) ‘Black Magic’. ‘You are now witnessing the power of Black Magic’ is a joyous celebration of Black excellence. Blak love is why you are devastated when you read the lyrics to Archie Roach’s iconic song ‘Took the Children Away’, or when you encounter the this passage from Romaine Moreton’s ‘Are You Beautiful Today?’:

could you take
conversations about jail and suicide
and make it as though
you were saying
one lump

Blak love is evident in the essays by Chelsea Bond, Evelyn Araluen, Bruce Pascoe, Steven Oliver and Ali Cobby Eckermann. Each writer generously shares their reflections on the poetry that follows their respective essays, providing a gentle frame and context for the reader as they move through the book . I am incredibly grateful to all the writers in Fire Front and to Alison for curating it.

The individual poems and essays in Fire Front are diverse in style, form and theme. There is no monolithic expression of First Nations poetry, and the range of writing in this collection makes that demonstrably clear. Like much of First Nations writing before, it should not be ignored, as that would mean ignoring some of the best poetry coming from these lands. And the incredible thing is this is just a minuscule sample of the fire that is First Nations poetics and storytelling.

This is fire that all should pay attention to if we want to reimagine the world. Like all fire, it has the power to rejuvenate, restore and enlighten.

Fire Front reignited anger and sadness within me. It reminded me that we, First Nations people are the flames the colony fears. And that we are responsible to care for the fire we inherited from our Ancestors. As Ancestress has previously stated, white Australia has a Blak future, which is a sentiment I felt reading these words by Alice Eather from ‘Yúya Karrabúrra (Fire Is Burning)’:

Cause tomorrow when the sun rises
And our fires have gone quiet
They will be the ones to reignite it

Yúya Karrabúrra
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