Features

On Australian Aboriginal poetry

'The last evening glow above the horizon'

Left: early colonial “Australian Aboriginal” map displayed at Imperial Archive, Queen’s University, Belfast; right: October 1885 map of Western Australia from the Perry-Castañeda Library at University of Texas at Austin inscribed: “Physical Sketch Map of Northwest Australia showing the surface characteristics of the country and discoveries of the most recent explorers.”

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.”

Poet with a steady job

An introduction to Lawrence Joseph

I first met Lawrence Joseph nearly thirty years ago. I was a sophomore in high school, with verses in hand and trouble in mind. He was a young professor at the University of Detroit School of Law, where my father served as dean. A serious poet with a steady job, Joseph struck my father as a good role model for his freshly literary son, so he sent us out for lunch at a diner near campus. Two memories stick with me from that afternoon. The first is a line of mine about “sun-burnished ice,” from which Joseph diagnosed a chronic inflammation of my diction, to be brought down by exercises in the American Idiom. The second? The dazzle of names, mostly modernist and European, that lit up his voice as the lunch went on. Brecht, Baudelaire, Alberti, Montale, Celan: my health and growth as a poet, he felt, would depend as much on lessons from such international masters as it would on acquiring a taste for the Coney dogs and ice-cold Vernors of Detroit vernacular.

Since the publication of his first book, Shouting at No One (1983), Joseph has been introduced to readers as an poet of working-class Detroit, an Arab American poet, a Catholic poet, and most of all as a “lawyer-poet” — “the most important lawyer-poet of our era,” according to Legal Affairs. Although his work has been widely reviewed and acclaimed, it has not received the kind of sustained, detailed attention that its international scope and aesthetic ambition both deserve and demand. No American poet knows the linguistic “codes” of money, power, and the law as intimately as Joseph; none brings these into such deft, intricate dialogue with the languages of beauty and terror, violence and the sacred. As for identity poetics, we do well to keep in mind this poet’s repeated assertion, against journalistic oversimplifications of his work, that the “I” in his poems is a fictive, modernist construct, shifting from poem to poem and volume to volume as his work evolves. “Poet of heaven,” son of Detroit, lawyer, prophet, flaneur: each “I” we encounter in Joseph is, at least in part, Rimbaud’s “I is another,” composed and refracted through a remarkable array of lyric and juxtapositional techniques.

On February 29, 2008, the complexity of Joseph’s art took center stage at the University of Cincinnati Law School symposium “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am: Narration and the Poetry of Lawrence Joseph.” The focus on narration was strategic, linking Joseph’s work to issues that have shaped the field of “law and literature” for nearly thirty years; the papers presented, however, also explored the poet’s relationships to modernism and trauma, to urban history, to arguments over lyric and Language writing in the 1980s, and to other issues of interest to readers, scholars, and fellow poets with no ties to law. The following year, the University of Cincinnati Law Review published those conference papers, along with some additional contributions. As one of those published, I was delighted to see the pieces in print, but I also immediately hankered to get the best of them out to a wider readership, and to use the opportunity that this symposium had opened to bring new voices into the critical conversation.

This feature in Jacket2 gathers the most widely useful and provocative of the University of Cincinnati symposium papers, including the poet’s own commonplace book, “Notions of Poetry and Narration.” Some of these essays have been revised or remixed: Frank D. Rashid, for example, has taken material from his 2008 PMLA essay on Joseph’s internationalism, published in a special section on “Writing While Arab,” and set it in conversation with his Law Review piece on Joseph’s Detroit. In addition, the feature offers two groundbreaking essays by poet-critics: Norman Finkelstein’s “Ground Zero Baudelaire,” which explores the “poetics of shock” behind Into It, Joseph’s first collection after 9/11; and “Before the Laws,” Tyrone Williams’ expansive account of the secular, sacred, and aesthetic modes that cut across the poet’s career. Offering a host of new readings of, contexts for, and approaches to Lawrence Joseph, this feature lays the foundation for future study — and future reading, simply for pleasure — of a still-serious poet, still with a steady job chronicling his and our time.

Fifty-one contemporary poets from Australia: Part 2

Two pieces by Pete Spence.

The second installment of Pam Brown’s feature “Fifty-one contemporary poets from Australia” (ordered, “[i]n the interest of objectivity” by “a recently invented ‘downunder’ method — the reverse alphabet”) includes work from Pete Spence, Jaya Savige, Tracy Ryan, Gig Ryan, David Prater, Peter Minter, Geraldine McKenzie, David McCooey, John Mateer, and Cameron Lowe, along with artwork by Spence. You can read Brown’s introduction here, and the first installment can be found here. — Michael S. Hennessey