REMEMBERING A DISREMEMBERED PAST: Brenda Saunders reviews Jeanine Leane’s Walk Back Over

Edited by Robyn Cadwalader

In this consistently strong collection Janine Leane takes us on a journey. The title, Walk Back Over asks us to step back, take another look at Australian history. These poems work through raw image and metaphor, the language terse and confronting at times. They work to open our eyes to the real, hidden story of Aboriginal people, surviving forever on this ancient continent.

In the first section ‘Walk back over’, Leane writes of the injustice and false claims recorded in ‘white’ history archives.  As an academic and researcher, it is likely she would have open access to boxes storing the personal details of Aboriginal people, their lives summed up on small filing cards. Here, the box becomes a metaphor for the hidden crimes suffered under the colonial system, as expressed in the opening poem ‘Cardboard incarceration’:

This cardboard prison they call an archive
is cold, airless and silent as death
Floor to ceiling boxes contain voices
no longer heard yet wailing within (5)

The cover of the book Walk Back Over, featuring wooden filing cabinetIn this powerful series the poet cries out against white attitudes to Black history; the general denial and social amnesia in the community. In the poem ‘Colour of Massacre’ we are confronted with visceral images of ‘those other syllables in time / full of sound, fury, punctuation of blows, blood and screams’ (8). As Leane explains, ‘my work explores the body where memories are stored as an archive; anchored and etched’ (Preface pp xi).

This is poignantly expressed in the poem ‘Don’t let ‘em tell you’, a cry from the heart from a Black woman in the white archive. Using italics strengthens the impact and brings urgency to the voice of this mother calling to her Sisters in real time:

Listen to my memory etched in you… and later
Hear what you heard in secret — not these
words scratched in ink (5)

The questions of race and skin colour are confronted head-on in ‘Unassimilated’. With the pages divided in two, words fly, the voices cry out across the racial divide. Leanne writes from personal experience, from family stories of suffering and humiliation. The language bristles with raw Aussie slang, used here to great dramatic effect.

What’s some kid with blue eyes,
blond hair doin’ callin’ themselves
an Abo? Kid’s as fair as

my white arse!
Must be a scam! (13)

This style of presentation is used to dramatic effect in many poems in this collection. Dividing the page, using two print styles, augments the divide between the two voices, black and white.

In section 2, ‘Country’, Leane takes us back to her childhood in Gundagai NSW. The bridge is a metaphor for the journey to the past, as she ‘walks back over’. It is also a symbol for her life moving on. She now ‘walks back over’ as an adult, recalling her early life and school years in this country town. In the poem ‘River Memory’, the poet questions the words of our national anthem, ‘Advance Australia Fair’, asking are we really ‘young and free’?

This continent Australia,
is a young country,  

  they told us.  

The history of this place
short — the shortest in the world (24)

‘Tracks Wind Back ‘(23) is a woman’s cry for the loss and disregard of Wiradjuri culture and history as white settlers take over her Country. 

They arrived in wagons of wire, tin,
steel, guns and disease — poured out concrete
over tracks that wound
back to the dawn.

They couldn’t see our memories,
or hear the stories, our
Dreamings. They wrote their own histories —
songs of lovers, larrikins, sheep, profits…                                                                                                                                                                                      

Finally, she echoes a popular folk song, about Gundagai.

They couldn’t read the history they built over.
Deeper tracks wind back (to an old fashioned shack)
to Gundagai — a long way east of Eden. (23)

Leane also includes poems loosely grouped under the section heading ‘The Montego — Yangshuo Express’. As suggested, these poems spring from travel experience and other encounters. They differ widely in style and mood from the main theme of this book. Written in a narrative lyrical style, the images are keenly observed. Yet, however diverse in subject range (from heroes such as Hannibal and Guinevere to the cultural icon Sylvia Plath), Leane scans all with her poet’s critical and cynical eye. On the tourist trail in ’Jamaican Pastiche’ she looks outside her own culture, presenting images of white exploitation of another black colonised culture:

Beaches abound with tourists
lying on their plains of topaz
sand. Umbrellas mushroom, jaws ruminate
ravenously and bikinis bulge. (33)

In the last section, the poet returns to the theme of ‘Walk Back Over’. In ‘Whitefellas’, Leane takes on the subject of race relations in the urban context, scrutinising ignorance and misconceptions about contemporary Indigenous culture. Repetition and sharp observations move the rhythm along. Insights are skillfully displayed through repetition and satire. Any criticism from academia, street culture or sporting fans are challenged. She suggests that —

Maybe they need to
build a bridge or a road to traverse
that chasm. They like building things —
whitefellas! When they’ve built the span
they should walk back over it again…

                                     — not just tell us it is so.

And later                    

                         Advice is a one-way street
in colonial Australia. Whitefellas never seem
to tire of that well- worn track. (55)

This image of the bridge recalls the historic Sydney Harbour ‘Bridge Walk for Reconciliation’ in 2000, a gesture that was full of optimism and the promise of change. As Leanne concludes in her ‘Preface’ (pp xi), ‘there are many other spans in Australia that must be walked: not just once, walked back over’. She sees ‘writing as an act of remembering a dismembered past’. ’This is hauntingly expressed in Walk Back Over with its spirited and rigorous call to action, demanding mainstream Australia to listen to Black voices, to look again at Black history. We are left with the echo of the poet’s strong clear voice resonating with an honesty and directness which cannot be ignored. She has moved on from the young girl ‘crossing the bridge to the convent on the hill’, to a confident writer and advocate for change.

Walk back over
Jeanine Leane
Cordite Books, 2018

60 pages, RRP $20

Brenda Saunders is a descendant and Elder from the Stolen Generations. Her mob are Wiradjuri from the Capertee Valley near Bathurst NSW, but she now lives in Sydney. She has published three collections of poetry and her work has appeared in major anthologies and journals, including Australian Poetry JournalOverlandSoutherly, and Best Australian Poems in 2013 and 2015 (Black Inc). She has received numerous prizes including the Mick Dark Varuna Environmental Writers’ Fellowship, the Banjo Patterson Poetry Prize, and was a finalist in the prestigious Aesthetica Prize (UK) and the International Vice-Chancellors Poetry Prize (University of Canberra). For many years Brenda was an activist for Aboriginal Heritage and Native Title reform. Her next book addresses new threats and challenges to Country and culture since Colonisation.