a picture of a long road in the Australian outback

FEELING PLACE: SLOW-TIME ON COUNTRY. Jeanine Leane Reviews Phillip Hall’s Fume

Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

In 2011, Phillip Hall was, in his own words, ‘offered the opportunity of a lifetime, to work in remote Indigenous education’. His collection of non-fiction poetry Fume is an intricate and layered story of Country and people. As the poetry unfolds the teacher becomes the student when Hall enters Borroloola.

The poetry in Fume was written between 2011 and 2015 while Hall lived and worked as an outdoor education teacher in the Aboriginal community of Borroloola on the McArthur River, almost 1000 kilometres from Darwin, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Borroloola, as Hall points out, is located on Yanyuwa Country, but after a century and a half of colonial dispossession and massacre, the Marra, Gudanji and Garrwa peoples also share the town.

The collection is dedicated to Gundanji Elder Nana Miller who passed away in 2016:
And in loving memory of
Nana Miller (nee Raggatt)
proud Custodian of Gudjani Culture,
Traditional Owner of McArthur River Station
Jungkayi for Jayipa (Catfish Hole)
                      my teacher —  
there is so much Sorry Business.

the cover of the book FumeHall admits that he struggled with such humility and this culminated in an episode in 2013 that ‘made up’ Nana Miller’s mind to ‘formally adopt’ him into her family and into Gudanji Culture. Hall was extended the rare privilege of being taken to a site sacred to the family, Jayipa (Catfish Hole) to meet clan and Country. He was sung by Nana Miller as ‘jungkayi for Jayipa’ and given a skin name and a ‘bush name’. She became his Nana, or ‘Arwuju’ and given the circular nature of skin relationships, one of the students in Hall’s class became his ‘little Dad’ (20). This level of engagement, reciprocity and commitment by Hall, and the welcome and subsequent adoption by the community, makes a work such as Fume possible.    

Fume opens with an Acknowledgement of Country in the form of a poem that sees

 … the Savannah Way
a graded fence line vanishing into the rusted
landscape where a charged sphere percolates
                                                                                                     Indigenous space.

It is within this ‘charged sphere’ that the thirty-four poems of Fume were conceived and written. With the exception of the Acknowledgement, the poetry in Fume is bookended by two personalised essays: ‘Bad Debt’ and ‘The Stick’. These expositions are an integral part of the protocol that Hall has learned from the Boroloola community. In the opening essay, ‘Bad Debt’, Hall ‘grounds himself’ by acknowledging his positionality as a white Australian through charting his childhood as a settler, growing up with ‘no sense of the cruel barbs of colonialisms crooked paths’ despite his close friendship with three Aboriginal boys ‘adopted by a local family’ (13).

As the poetry between the two essays unfolds Hall paints a vivid wordscape of the Country he is privileged to enter. We see Borroloola as both ‘a bloom/ of asbestos and neglect’ (61) with ‘the river’s sacred/ rainbow serpent gouged/ in high-grade zinc’ (66), ‘a bridge built to span/ flooding waters and golden middens of XXXX cans’ (28), where ‘Yanyuwu youths ran amok/ on ganga throwing stones and chiaking at our padlocked gates’ (28). And, at the same time, ‘preened and chiselled country/ the Yanyuwu and Gudanji bind in spirit from’ (42) where ‘…to nana this strong one country’ (44) and the Elders continue their work ‘singing/ lifting his country/ making it good, making it listen’ (40).

Poems particularly worthy of note for me, as an Aboriginal reader are ‘Concourse’ where Hall is welcomed to Country with  

the kids behind me tracin
my whitefulla skin
and Malbu’s arm round my shoulder I lean
into country       (28)

I note also ‘Turtle Camp’ (48) for its powerful plea for ‘two-way’ education; ‘Build Up’ (52) for its capacity to collapse and juxtapose the shallow layers of colonial time into a deeper richer Country; ‘Fallen’ written in the form of a chilling ballad ‘with the liberal use of powder and ball/ Britannia dispatches after herding them all’ (54); and the bloodcurdling ‘Talking English’:

And so scared trees were cut
dead, bones gathered in caves and girls

stolen as pilot were hobbled and chained
as sex slaves in a waste land dragged

to heel by Martini-Henry carbines
that at this critical moment were talking
                                                                                  English  (57)

The concluding essay, ‘The Stick’, discusses the centrality of language to culture and education in Boroloola and the Northern Territory more broadly. This essay is valuable social commentary, and should be read by educational policy makers in the remote communities of Darwin and Canberra where decisions involving the Boroloola kids are made from afar with little or no first-hand knowledge of the communities involved. 

This essay also charts the birth of Diwurruwurru, the First Nations Storytelling group that the Borroloola kids and Hall founded in 2012. The creative process that took place within Diwurruwurru — of sharing a meal, along with a lot of excited stories and ideas; gathering these together as a group on a whiteboard; drafting and editing as a group process with ‘much discussion and debate’ combined with hilarity as the teacher tries to learn Aboriginal languages — is a model for a method of a much needed and sadly lacking pedagogy for Aboriginal students and non-Aboriginal teachers, and an outstanding example of two-way learning. But as Hall points out ‘two-way learning is no longer deemed valuable. So, while the First Australian community is not empowered to express its aspirations for what a school might look like, ever more government data is collected’ (90). Ironically two-way learning is abolished in the hope of improving literacy results by concentrating on Standard English.

A poem from this essay called ‘dance strong, dat country move en you’, written by Diwurruwurru, is a manifesto to the power and potential of this method and should be read by those sceptical about the success and empowerment that two-way education can achieve for Aboriginals students. The poem is a testimony to the pride the younger generations of the community hold in the continuance of culture and language:

an den all us line up an start movin swingin
our arms an stompin our feet to kick dust
it dance for country swingin stompin
lit by ochre as dem singers breathe
da language only dem old people know
us mob just too deadly steppin singin
                                                                                   up dat storm

The spelling and grammar is not standardised to acknowledge the vibrancy, legitimacy and cultural significance of Aboriginal English in this and many other Aboriginal communities.

It is in ‘The Stick’ that, for me as an Aboriginal reader, Hall makes the single most important point of the work in acknowledging that: ‘Community engagement requires “slow time” and permission to begin work and to experience and share culture must be sought from as many people as possible’ (92, my emphasis). This protocol should underpin all representations of Aboriginal cultures, experiences and peoples penned by those who come from ‘outside of Country’. Sadly though, this important protocol, does not underpin, many, if not most representations authored by non-Aboriginal writers.

Continuance of cultural protocols, investment, respect and reciprocity are the bedrock of Aboriginal societies. The amount of protocol, investment and reciprocity culminating in this work is substantial and essential. Very few non-Aboriginal people could produce a work such as this.

I approached this book with the scepticism of an Aboriginal reader who is not only conscious of, but has felt — like most if not all Aboriginal people — the legacy of misappropriation and misrepresentation of our people in the literary landscape. This is not such a book, as the author has shared a lived experience with the Yanyuwa, Marra, Guganji and Garrwa peoples; has walked on Country with its Custodians and become the learner and the listener. Most importantly, the author has ‘felt’ with the Community some of its history, tragedy and resilience and in doing so, earned the respect of community Elders and was extended the privileged of being adopted and accepted as a member of the Gudanji Community. A privilege, as the author acknowledges, that is not available to most Australians. It is this level of deep engagement, immersion and investment, and only this, that makes a work such as this possible.

Phillip Hall
UWA Press, 2018

104 pages

A Portrait of Jeanine LeaneJeanine Leane is a Wiradjuri writer, poet and academic from southwest New South Wales. Her first volume of poetry, Dark Secrets After Dreaming: A.D. 1887-1961 won the Scanlon Prize for Indigenous Poetry, 2010 and her first novel, Purple Threads, won the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished Indigenous writer (2010) and was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Award for Indigenous Writing. Jeanine has published widely in the area of Aboriginal literature, writing otherness and creative non-fiction. In 2017, she received the Oodgeroo Noonucal Poetry Prize and the University of Canberra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Poetry Prize. Jeanine teaches Creative Writing and Aboriginal Literature at the University of Melbourne. The manuscript for her second volume of poetry, Walk Back Over was released in 2018 by Cordite Press.