THIS BIG SOVEREIGN RENAISSANCE — FIRE FRONT: First Nations Poetry & Power Today (ed. Alison Whittaker)

Edited by Robyn Cadwallader 

Whittaker tells us in her introduction to this anthology of First Australians poetry that ‘it’s a cliché to say that Indigenous poetry is powerful’. What is necessary, she continues, is to ask: ‘from where does that power come?’ Whittaker reveals some of the sources of this ‘power’ as being located in the way First Nations poetry ‘challenges and subverts’ settler culture, the way it ‘thinks and rethinks’ settler idioms and power structures, and in the way it ‘nurtures’ its own. There are a multitude of poetic strategies, Whittaker explains, but ‘what they all have in common is why they do it: for the emancipation of First Nations’.

This anthology is selected from a vast storehouse of First Australian empowerment, but it does not pretend to be a crude ‘First Eleven’ for, as Whittaker concedes, this is a ‘necessarily incomplete’ project. Fire Front is a ‘reference point and not an authority’, and it is cleverly representative in the way it coalesces around five different ways of writing this ‘big sovereign renaissance happening right now’. As Whittaker explains: ‘the collection … has fallen into five different kinds of firepower, articulated by muscular and nurturing figures in their respective fields of Indigenous poetics’. Each section is titled with a (dare I say) powerfully evocative provocation: ‘Ancestor, you are exploding the wheelie bin’; ‘Despite what Dorothea has said about the sun scorched land’; ‘I say rage and dreaming’; ‘Because we want it back, need it back, because they can’; and ‘This I would tell you’. And each of these sections is introduced by a leading writer and thinker (Chelsea Bond, Evelyn Araluen, Bruce Pascoe, Steven Oliver and Ali Cobby Eckermann) before sampling around a dozen poems. If there is a criticism of this book, it is that UQP should have been more ambitious to find more space for more poetry, but what is included is masterful. There are poems by deceased writers (now ‘ancestors’) like Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Jack Davis, Ruby Langford Ginibi, Kevin Gilbert and Kerry Reed-Gilbert; there are highlights by such established voices as Jeanine Leane, Lionel Fogarty, Alexis Wright, Sam Wagan Watson, Ellen van Neerven, Tony Birch, Natalie Harkin, Paul Collis and Claire G. Coleman; there are emerging voices too like Dylan Voller (and then, of course, there is Archie Roach’s majestic and heartbreaking, ‘Took the Children Away’).

I have previously reviewed several of the poets included in this anthology: Lionel Fogarty and Alexis Wright in Plumwood Mountain; Maggie Walsh in Cordite Poetry Review; Samuel Wagan Watson in Rabbit; and Kerry Reed Gilbert in Verity La so, it was timely to rediscover these significant voices in this anthology. Fogarty was championed many years ago by Dorothy Porter and, of course, has now established himself as one of Australia’s most combative and dramatically interrogative of voices. Wagan Watson probably has a more lyrical bent than Fogarty (does anyone write more evocatively of Queensland mangroves?), but he is equally forthright and subversive. Of all the books that I have been asked to review, the one that took me the most by surprise was Maggie Walsh’s Sunset. And the causes of this wonder are well illustrated in the poem chosen for inclusion in this anthology, ‘Better Put the Billy On’. This is a beautifully evoked narrative that makes use of rhyme and humour to celebrate a moment of First Nations familial love around a camp fire. Walsh is from Palm Island, a tropical ‘paradise’ once turned Indigenous penal colony that has such a disrupted and devastating history of colonial violence. So, when reading her it is easy to anticipate a strongly interrogative and proudly clashing Murri voice (like Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Fogarty, or Wagan Watson) whereas, what you discover is a style more reminiscent of the popular English poet, broadcaster and entertainer, Pam Ayres. Walsh does not shy away from the political and socio-economic realities of life on Palm Island but her techniques are an exuberant use of narrative, humour and pun all tuned to an amusing ear for rhyme. As Whittaker reminds us, there are many strategies for writing, but First Nations poetry especially ‘burns, for all its diversity, with great deliberateness, purpose, and precision’.

One technique that is featured in much of the writing found in this anthology is the use of highly dramatic and richly evocative language. ‘Old Clever Woman’ by Ken Canning/Burraga Gutya and ‘Got Ya’ by Kerry Reed Gilbert are good examples of this. Canning begins his poem:

Old woman sitting by the road
waiting long time this one. 
Tree keep hot sun out,
thinkin’ hummin’ old songs. 
Leave hand mark in dust, 
for big one wind take away 
to her place of secret 
she knows but not tellin’. 
Slow dronin’ noise comin’ 
along a road like one big firefly.

Canning’s poem is a ‘powerful’ piece about the violence and cultural dislocation / misunderstandings encountered by those during Invasion Day. His poem concludes:

No more picture then,
they want alla people, 
alla land – they take away. 
Bring grog make wongi dance, 
she bin waitin’ before road, 
just dirt track for horse. 
Bus – horse same bad things. 
She wait all same – go, 
she keepin’ pink demon movin’ on.

I also love the way Canning prioritises and honours the place held by older women in many First Australian communities. The nannas preside over Culture and family, and are the source of so much direction and nurture. This poem makes my heart ache for my time in Borroloola (in the Gulf of Carpentaria) where I lived and worked for five years between 2011 and 2015.

In ‘Got Ya’, Aunty Kerry displays all the clever humour and defiant strength that she is so loved and remembered for. Waiting in ambush for a racist’s barb, Aunty Kerry begins her poem:

Got ya

I knew he was mine 
frothing at the mouth 
(literally speaking)
I was waiting for him
my body ready to strike

And she concludes her poem with a dramatic crash:

I knew the moment was at hand
the spirits played around him 
I watched him fight for courage 
to utter the words for me
to slash at his heart 
my claws willing to impale him 
with a death blow.

Abos – why say sorry to the Abos
we had to teach them to use the knife and fork
they would have been lost without us
Abos – why say sorry to the Abos   
I got him, he never knew what hit him,
he will never utter those words again.

Ahh, that army of cloned robot WASPs! Aunty Kerry would have had so much to teach them if they’d only had a little of that Christian humility that they spend so much time preaching about. And this is a thought that takes me back to this book’s beginning.

In her introduction, Whittaker observes:

Fire Front also acknowledges that the fire of poetry is fundamentally relational. There is someone who is spoken to, and someone who is the speaker, sure — but there is also someone who is made responsible to the work and someone who is made responsible by the work, and an ecological sense that all this poetry relates to and enables the other.

This idea about ‘relationality’ is such a perfect way to encounter this anthology. First Australian writers, First Australian and settler readers can all be empowered, changed, held to account and wisened, by the act of reading and sharing. This book is a blaze of hope as it spotlights, yet again, the essential need for a Treaty, Reconciliation and Amends.

Fire Front
, ed. Alison Whittaker
Queensland University Press, 2020. RRP $24.99                        

Phillip Hall lives in Melbourne, where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. His publications include Sweetened in Coals (Ginninderra Press, 2014), Borroloola Class (IPSI, 2018), Fume (UWAP, 2018) and (as editor) Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Blank Rune Press, 2015). He also publishes the e-journal Burrow.