On Australian Aboriginal poetry
'The last evening glow above the horizon'
I met Robbie Wood in the fall of 2006, when we were coparticipants in a seminar at the University of Pennsylvania. Both from Commonwealth countries, and from quite remote areas, we bonded over our shared experiences of the oddities of living in a big city in the USA. Our senses of being at home within the American version of the English language and comfortable within our new cultural milieu were complicated by our distinct but related experiences of more overt and obvious forms of settler colonialism. That is to say, Robbie and I both grew up in areas with large Aboriginal populations; we shared a sense of difference from but relationship to these Indigenous cultures. We spoke frequently about how it was impossible within the context of the northeastern US to explain or express the nuances of these experiences, to clearly render the distinctions and the continuities among the lives that were possible in our home regions and those that were possible the city in which we were living and studying.
Robbie and I often spoke about our interest in and frustration with formations such as ethnopoetics, which we were encountering in our seminar and in our own reading. Projects such as Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred or the journal Alcheringa seemed absolutely crucial to us for their willingness to take seriously the cultural forms innovated by Indigenous peoples. We thrilled at the possibility that careful engagement with these forms had expanded, and might continue to expand the horizons of poetry, of what might count as writing. However, we also discussed whether “poetry” or “poetics” were accurate terms for these cultural productions. What transformations — what colonizations — does a label like “poetry” enforce? How might the designation “poetry” strip a given text of its social purpose? Could a label like “poetry” actually conceal, or even destroy the cultural knowledge that a text might otherwise convey? We wondered about the effects of this aesthetic designation. We wondered what possibilities it might enable and foreclose.
It is in the spirit of these conversations that Robbie and I wanted to prepare a feature on Australian Aboriginal poetry for Jacket2. Robbie suggested that we focus on tabis, the individual songs composed by young men from the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Related to corroboree, or group songs, which are communal and are sung publicly, tabis are composed and sung individually. As A. P. Thomas explains in the introduction to Taruru: Aboriginal Song Poetry from the Pilbara (1974), tabis use ordinary words, smeared over with triple meanings, at once environmental, bodily, and emotional:
In the Pilbara the word “julajulara” means a washed-out cloud formation, but in a tabi it could also mean being close to tears and possibly having something to do with the sadness of life and death. The word “taruru,” which was chosen for the title of this book, means “the last evening glow above the horizon,” and can also serve for “dying down,” and “peace of mind.”
Composed by young men during their initiation, tabis are set to a three- or five-tone melody with a strong rhythm. This “stripped back poetry” is characterized by a verse structure based on parallelism and repetition, and tabis typically describe physical and spiritual feelings and experiences. While some song poems constitute sacred, secret knowledge, known and sung only by certain men, tabis can be heard publicly, they are a “creative kind of passing-the-time form of poetry and song.”
This feature incorporates poems selected from Taruru, an important collection of song poetry compiled by the anthropologists Carl von Brandenstein and A. P. Thomas, within an interview between Robbie and Andrew Dowding, a Ngarluma man from Australia’s northwest who works as an ethnomusicologist and an anthropologist. In his present capacity at Anthropos Australis, Andrew writes reports on behalf of Indigenous landowners, expressing their needs with regard to mining leases. A mediator between traditional knowledge systems and multinational corporations, Andrew is also the grandson of Robert Churnside, an important traditional lawman/loreman who worked extensively as Carl von Brandenstein’s local informant in the 1960s; von Brandenstein transcribed and recorded many of Robert Churnside’s song poems, and these survive as archival audio recordings, in Taruru, and elsewhere. As Andrew explains in the interview, his grandfather and von Brandenstein shared an excitement about their relationship that is largely absent from present-day anthropology; their naïve and well-intentioned collaboration suggests a depth of mutual respect in which, perhaps, too much was shared.
Although initially published alongside spiritual or ceremonial poetry, the poems reprinted here are public songs concerning daily life and Western development. As Robbie explains, these tabis are “working-class, poor reflections” on day-to-day living; they take up mundane topics such as gambling or “sex in the bushes.” The tabis that Robbie has selected from Taruru record experiences such as driving in a truck, seeing an airplane for the first time, being chased by a policeman, a World War II Japanese air raid on the town of Roebourne, manual labor, and crude jokes. Taken from the mid-twentieth century, these tabis record the events of the time. Provocatively, Robbie and Andrew wonder what a contemporary tabi might record, given the dramatic changes that the region has undergone in the past forty years: a second mining boom, a dramatic increase in incomes, a new and far more cautious relationship to anthropology, a more thorough penetration by international pop culture.
As Robbie states, “this poetry is at a crossroads, at the decline of these traditional languages in daily life, and their movement [in]to religious language. In that sense it’s a real crossroads that’s historically very, very important and stylistically quite important, too.”