My elders, I hear them speak loud and strong
with messages of culture and belonging.
The essence of me. Who I am and who I’ll always be.
Proud. Strong. Aboriginal. Me.
These are the assertively affirming words of Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert.[i] She is the vision, and hard work, behind FNAWN (First Nations Australia Writers’ Network) and UMW (Us Mob Writing), a mission that she has inherited from her father, that trailblazing First Australian poet, Kevin Gilbert. Aunty Kerry also writes that ‘First Nations Australia leadership has “always been” and will continue to “always be” living on country’.[ii] And it is this dynamic relationship with Country/Culture, against the context of colonialism’s devastation, which is the theme of so much of her work.
Too Deadly: Our Voice, Our Way, Our Business is a collection of First Australian (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) prose and narrative poetry, flash fiction and life writing that continues this process of celebrating the leadership and dynamism of First Australians through their discovery of voice. This publication collects work by (in order of appearance): Lisa Fuller, Michelle Bedford, Yullara Reed, Chella Goldwin, Samia Goudie, Brenda Gifford, Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Barrina South, Marissa McDowell, Joyce Graham and Samantha Faulkner. The book’s cover features a vibrant artwork by Edward Duff. And he explains: ‘Indigenous art tells a story and shares a journey, through this design I wanted to show how the Storytellers in this book share their journey of past, present and future with you from where they are now in contemporary ACT’.[iii]
Lisa Fuller (the 2017 David Unaipon Award winner) opens Too Deadly with a series of short poems that use humour and anecdote to investigate issues around gender and self-criticism. With aching honesty, Fuller admits that ‘I can treat myself more kindly / I can cut myself some slack / I can love me more than I do’ (p 5). And she concludes her offering with the prose poem, ‘Floating’, where she evocatively celebrates her intimate connection to Country while referencing First Nations cosmology:
The night sky stretches out above me, filled to the brim with the
Milky Way. The sisters smile down at me. The chilly old wind
rustles the ghost gums all along the river bank. Even shielded by
water my ears swallow the sounds of home. (p 9)
Michelle Bedford continues this expression of love for Country when she writes:
Silver grey boab trees
River water and smooth oval rocks
Mossy crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks
Barramundi and mangrove jacks
Glistening underwater like morning dew (p 15)
All in all
The young and old
The women and the men
Straight up and back with a certain native pride (p 18)
Unfortunately, colonialism’s crooked and violent paths, too often ravage love for Country and pride in Culture. So Bedford also writes:
Things have changed
The goals have moved
Have mercy dear Lord
A loving girl
Now a woman
Challenges in sight
I promise you — she is worthy (p 21)
Here, Bedford cleverly employs the rhetoric of the church in order to interrogate the violent and exploitative sexist values of colonialism.
Chella Goodwin also writes lyrically of her love for community, juxtaposing the abundance to be enjoyed in Culture and Country with the sorrow and legacy of colonialism. In ‘Morning Dreaming’ she opens with such imagist richness:
awakened from a vivid dream
no twinkle in the eyes
mouth full of moths
And this poems concludes with the following aching lines:
messy hair, four wheel drive, muddy monsoons,
makes my heart swoon
freedom on toast for breakfast
waving at locals passing by
shopping from the remote ocean stores
what else could I ask for?
… more … (p 33)
Samia Goudie also juxtaposes these emotions, with even more dramatic effect. In ‘Ntaria’ (a tribute to Albert Namatjira) she opens with:
wind worn by time
timeless cracked river bed
And this poem concludes:
and I remember
that just like you Uncle
I am too
A lover of trees (p 43)
But in ‘Dirt Child’ Goudie recalls the devastation of self-harming in a young First Australian girl:
She looks in the mirror as she traces lines;
Like unshed tears along the contour of her face;
Towards her heart.
Pathways of bubbling red rivers.
She winces at the sting (p 49)
And this poem continues:
She wants ‘them’ to uncover the truth.
Instead, the child is in trouble;
The trouble maker,
The bad child seed. (p 50)
‘Dirt Child’ concludes with unforgettable pathos:
She cuts her arm;
The blood is red.
She wonders at the brilliant colour;
She is chasing down the ghosts.
Dirt child. (p 51)
This devastation of self-harming is one more consequence of colonialism. As Kerry Reed-Gilbert writes:
There’s a place
in the paddock
covered with tears
A country invaded
a nightmare of fear
outbreak of war
the land mourns (p 75)
In ‘Ghost Gum’, Barrina South continues to locate in the natural world the imagery she needs to explore the psychic and physical wounds wrought by colonialism. With such marvelously evocative symbolism, South writes:
Upon the once creamy, pink-tinged skin
Pooled blood appears on the surface, caused by previous
Contusions, leaving her discoloured
Recent lesions continue hemorrhaging, old sores still weeping
The disfigured and swollen skin now tight, shiny, ready to split
Her veins draw the healing sap, to surface, to medicate all wounds
The seasonally white, powdery, bark scales are shed
Stolen by the hot wind (p 101)
Yullara Reed, Brenda Gifford, Marissa McDowell, Joyce Graham and Samantha Faulkner write equally well juxtaposing their love of Country and community with the realities of contemporary First Australian living. There is, rightly, much anger in this book. There is strong interrogation of the values of colonialism. But there is also so much joy. And amidst the harrowing recounts of self-harming and loss there is so much surprise. Faulkner, for example, writes a story that celebrates a moment of exquisite intimacy shared between a young girl and her grandmother, while Graham offers this snap of dawn:
Wren’s daily visit
Bright morning bath crisp splashing
Song chirped gleefully (p 122)
This beautiful book, brimful of sadness and wonder, is so aptly titled, Too Deadly. It is a collection that would enrich every library, and should be especially prized in every school bookroom. As Bruce Pascoe so evocatively writes for the blurb: ‘In this book Aboriginal writers gather around the same campfire in Canberra’s winter. Their words blaze’.
[i] Reed-Gilbert , Kerry (ed) 2017, A Pocketful of Leadership in First Australian Communities, Canberra: KLaS.
[ii] Reed-Gilbert, A Pocketful of Leadership, p x.
[iii] Reed-Gilbert, A Pocketful of Leadership, inside cover.
Too Deadly: Our Voice, Our Way, Our Business
Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Samantha Faulkner & Barrina South (eds)
Canberra: Us Mob Writing, 2017. RRP $20
For enquiries and purchases email Kerry Reed-Gilbert on firstname.lastname@example.org
Phillip Hall is a poet, reviewer and essayist working as an editor with Verity La’s Emerging Indigenous Writers Project and as a poetry reader at Overland. From 2011 to 2015 he lived in the Gulf of Carpentaria where he ran sport and camp programs designed to re-engage and foster emotional resilience, cooperative group learning and safe decision-making. He has been adopted into the Gudanji family, where he is also known by the skin name of Jabala and the traditional or bush name of Gijindarraji (given to him because it was the bush name of his nana’s pop); he is a member of the Rrumburriya clan; and is a Jungkayi (custodian) for Jayipa (Catfish Hole). His Mother is the emu and goanna though his nana jokes that his real Dreaming is the curlew or ‘Worry Bird’. In 2012 Phillip established Diwurruwurru (The Borroloola Poetry Club). Diwurruwurru means message stick and is used by permission of the Traditional Owners. In 2014 he published Sweetened in Coals (Ginninderra Press) and in 2015 he published Diwurruwurru (Blank Rune Press), a book of his collaborations with the Borroloola Poetry Club. His latest publication is Fume (UWA Publishing), a collection which celebrates First Australians in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria. Phillip now lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine, where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club.