The 2020 Spirit of Self Expression poetry reading took place on 27 September at Manly Art Gallery & Museum. The event featured 22 works by a broad and exciting range of poets responding to the Gallery’s Portraits Project exhibition.
A self-portrait — in poetry or painting — not only captures a likeness, but offers a vivid and deeply intimate encounter with its creator. This year’s poems included revelatory works speaking from multifaceted perspectives of various ages, cultures, genders, sexual orientations and states of mental and physical health and disability.
Please enjoy 6 of the Spirit of Self Expression poems below, plus a video of all 22 poets reading live at the event. (Apologies for the first few moments of muffled sound — like everyone else adapting to COVID restrictions, we are learning!)
Thoorgine (Fraser Island)
Djon Mundine OAM
Which way does the blood-red river and tide flow?
Which way does the blood-red river and tide flow?
Flows straight from my heart, my soul.
Like blood pulsing away into the void.
Salty sting, sharp as a quick slick cut
From an oyster shucker’s knife.
I wander with my dog.
Two meandering sets of steps,
Step by step.
Twining and untwining,
Weaving the ribbon of life;
Marks across the sand
A path of debris, of punctuated pauses
To engage the eye.
Of memory, of rules, of counsel, of humour and hilarity,
Of feast and famine.
A script I write and play across,
Am acted on and act out;
Sad, happy, wonderment, pleasure, pain and sorrow;
Verse by verse, chapter by chapter, forever and ever.
My rightful record, my repository,
My rightful resting place, my home, my grave.
From here to there
Through shallow water, inside to the deeper shade womb.
To shout, hello!
To tall standing friends.
To rest inside the diamond; deeper and deeper.
To the endless sparkling sea shore, and stare into the wide split sky; blue on blue.
A wide patch of black presence appears momentarily.
A welcoming vision.
I came to the fire.
I joined my mob.
I sang my song.
I danced my dance.
I left my mark, my mark of memory.
A harmony with the rolling sand,
Before it moves over and on.
Oh, that such a special day would ever be enjoyed again?
I am become the sand, am become the water, become the air.
When the wattle tree blooms
When the mullet fish run
Will I leave this world and go with that mob?
From A Small Hairy Man, 2003
Djon Mundine OAM
I saw a hairy man under the sacred fig tree.
A rare feared sight in the dark,
A fleeting outlined shadow,
Covered in string tassels,
Silent and smelly,
Graceful but clumsy,
He wanders the thickest rain forest and peers out
To watch the outside world,
At home but homeless,
Warm but cold,
Wanting but afraid,
Alone and alone,
I saw a hairy man today under the sacred fig tree —
I think I saw me.
Self-Portrait With Boys and Men
I contain multitudes
— Walt Whitman
There is a man occupying my body.
He bears some resemblance
to the history of boys and men
who have come and gone before him
like so many occupying powers,
iterations of himself,
similar, but not the same.
He likes to think he can remember them all,
but they are shadowy, elusive, fragmented,
their edges blurred,
He evokes the memory of one or another when he speaks,
sometimes with fondness,
sometimes with regret.
He is stuck with the tangled skeins of their passage,
foundering in the quicksand
of their accumulated pasts.
He cannot penetrate time’s membrane
to commune with or invoke them:
ghosts do not proffer counsel.
They occupy and preoccupy him
more than he would like,
making him question himself: what would that man
have done in this situation, and that one?
He knows that it is only a matter of time
before he joins them and another man takes his place,
and then another, for so long as my body permits.
My body whispers to him.
It is tired of all these men,
this long parade of selves cast from the same forge.
It chafes against limitation, craves difference,
an owl’s swivelling gaze,
a gazelle’s grace,
a fox’s light tread,
a German Shepherd’s devotion,
a woman’s fire and insight,
the world remade,
a new love filling its still blazing heart.
They will only believe my story if it’s beautiful, I was told,
if it’s not too bad to be true.
Because denial has always followed an ugly truth,
a choice to suit conscience.
I am tired of these worn out stories.
People, lost, water.
People, found, detention.
And despair, pacing in between.
I wonder if these stories are still mine
or bad dreams from a past life?
There are more important things in the world, I was told,
what I went through wasn’t the absolute worst for sure,
I should be grateful for everything I have now,
it’s more than what many people could ask for.
But somehow it doesn’t heal my wounds.
I see myself in a cage.
I scream but
even I can’t hear my own voice.
I see their bodies float around,
Those lucky ones,
they are so dead and free.
Echoing in my head,
I hear the radio transmitters too.
I hear my name,
U L A Zero Two Two.
I see the guards.
I still fight with them.
I can’t hold my tongue,
even though I know
I will be punished for it later.
I keep fighting and they grow taller,
looking down at me with
their always-indifferent faces.
They laugh so loud and anger paralyses me.
Trapped inside these walls,
only one of us is getting paid
thousands of dollars for being here,
and that’s not me.
It’s a job to them.
It’s my breath, my heartbeat, my life.
Anger consumes my existence.
It exhausts me
I never wanted to taste the bitterness of life.
They laugh and push me around,
those security guards in green uniforms.
I keep so much rage inside of me for this world.
And anger is the worst chain,
like an anchor you put around your own neck,
weighting you down,
tightening around your throat.
They laughed when people died too
and I watched with resentment.
Their job is to keep us alive
for as long as we are in their custody.
It’s not us they are worried about,
it’s the blame they don’t want to take for any death.
It’s not their conscience that might bother them,
in their eyes, we deserve it.
It’s not the killing they have a problem with.
They tell us proud stories of
how many people they have killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They are soldiers,
and this is their battlefield.
For them nothing has changed.
We are still the enemies.
But in this cage,
the game is
to drive us into enough despair
in the hope that we might kill ourselves.
I never knew how broken I am until they set us free.
I thought the day they let me go I will run far and fast.
But I looked down when I was freed —
so much had changed inside the cage.
They had left us with scars,
cuts on the skin,
My legs were too numb to run,
as if they weren’t mine.
Free in reality but
in truth, like a cloak I still wear the cage.
They have broken my dreams.
It wasn’t the work of one or two people,
and not a week or a month,
but years and many of them.
I left the cage leaving some parts of me behind.
I left as a different person with so much anger,
but not enough to burn my memories of the past.
The wired fences are carved on my skin,
a keepsake from those times.
I left the cage but,
it never left me.
where am i
when winds blow shadows
that shift shape across a wall
disjoint the stems of plants
their succulent leaves sway
where am i
when what’s left of river water
creases the insomniac blues
of a cloudless sky
where am i
when microbiota invade
bacteria merge with skin mouth vagina
retroviruses become endogenous
tangled fungal cells occupy
a composite being my spine
curves a row of dark trees
the lining of my stomach
atrophies thin as air
hair greys carried by breeze
limbs float fatigued downstream
porous i live
Making the most of your self
Reflection on the work of Artemisia Gentileschi: ‘Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting’.
In the studio, a circle of seventeen easels
Spaced so evenly they conjure connection
To the sacred, the centuries and the unlit self.
The sky breaks through each pane of glass
Baring the unspoken and colouring time.
Confronted with the blank canvas
Which I am not
I think how other light has fallen
On faces leaning towards an idea
That may brush past restraint and tradition
To appear in its own form
Gespenst-like with a rumour of veritas
That state of perception too often reliant
On the varnishing effects of politics
Ignoring the shaft of brilliance that lifts the eye
From the flat repetition of reason
Wanting every slap of the knife to contain
A murderous intent worthy of conviction.
To create the wrong impression is easily done
Observers draw conclusions from a few rough lines
Whispered around town, smudging the air
Behind your back, like marks on paper
That embed themselves indelibly
Breaking the fibres of an already tense surface
The burnt umber background so obscura
No one interprets the invisible without referring
To failure, or that Spring and your furious burn
Like willow in a small clearing north of dignity
A charcoaling act so long ago some say now
You prefer not to recall the pressure applied
To your thumbs to extract truth
As if realism in art and law meant the same thing
Caravaggio would understand — his body and work
A mottled palette of devotion and derision
Twinning golden focus and menacing shadow
Until light left his eye by the side of an uncertain road
You remember, of that I’m certain.
In your studio, you learned to draw attention
To yourself as a circle of light
Breaking through pain and glass ceilings
In a century not known to favour bright women
Some say not much has changed
But your lean to the left, held forward in gaze
Illuminates the spell of capturing sight in both hands
And making the most of your self.
Thanks to Manly Art Gallery and Northern Beaches Council for hosting and sponsoring Spirit of Self Expression. The Portraits Project is open at MAG&M until 29 November, or you can view the artworks in their online catalogue.
Feature image: Kathrin Longhurst, ‘The artist as a young girl’, 2020, oil on canvas, 120 x 120cm. Image courtesy the artist and MAG&M.
Djon Mundine OAM is a proud Bandjalung man from the Northern Rivers of New South Wales. He is a curator, writer, artist and activist & is celebrated as a foundational figure in the criticism & exhibition of contemporary Aboriginal art. Djon has held many senior curatorial positions in both national and international institutions, some of which include the National Museum of Australia, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales. In 1993, Djon received the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the promotion and development of Aboriginal arts, crafts and culture. In 2020, Djon won The Australia Council’s Red Ochre Award for Lifetime Achievement and is currently an independent curator of contemporary Indigenous art and a cultural mentor. Find more on Djon’s website.
David Adès is a widely published poet and short story writer. He is the author of Mapping the World, Afloat in Light and the chapbook Only the Questions Are Eternal. David has won the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize, been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and shortlisted for several other prizes in Australia, the U.S. and Israel. He is Convenor of the Poets’ Corner monthly poetry reading and now podcast series produced by WestWords. In association with Mascara Literary Review, David is one of four writers sharing the Don Bank Writers in Residence this year.
Yasaman Bagheri is a 21-year-old writer. In 2013, she fled Iran due to religious and political persecution and sought asylum in Australia. Since the age of 16 she was incarcerated in Australia’s offshore detention regime. She was detained on Christmas Island detention centre, the Australian-run Nauru offshore detention centre, and Darwin detention centre for a total of five years. In 2018, Yasaman was medevacked to Australia and is currently living in Queensland in community detention. Yasaman is not allowed to study or work but this hasn’t stopped her from writing.
Gaele Sobott lives in Sydney, Australia. Her published works include Colour Me Blue (Heinemann), My Longest Round (Magabala Books) and recent short stories in Hecate, Verity La, Meanjin, Prometheus Dreaming, New Contrast and the anthology Botswana Women Write (University of Kwazulu-Natal Press). She is the founding director of Outlandish Arts; a disabled-led, not-for-profit arts organisation. Gaele has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Hull, England. www.gaelesobott.com
Cecilia White is an award-winning interdisciplinary artist, poet and researcher who received her PhD from UNSW Art & Design in 2017. Cecilia’s multi-lingual poetry, site-specific performance, drawing and installation practice directs a focus on the sense of self and the urgent need for a radical social remapping. Along with her chapbook book, Nothing is Set in Stone, Cecilia has won the International Cricket Poetry Prize, received special mention in the Victorian Cancer Council Prize, is published in numerous Poetry at the Pub anthologies, and in magazines such as Paris Lit Up, Vlak, Five Bells, and Famous Reporter. Cecilia tutors in Fine Art at UNSW Nura Gili and in German at the University of Newcastle.