No objective observer could fail to notice how inadequately we are closing the gaps we have created between Indigenous and other Australians. Part of the difficulty could be that 250 years of European occupation have damaged the language on which oral cultural transmission depends.
In her confronting book of verse Drop Bear, Evelyn Araluen raises issues which have hitherto been hidden by the demands of English literacy. While her writing does include phonetic renditions of some Indigenous words, Araluen shows that mainstream poetry is ultimately a gubba (White people) imposition which suppresses Indigenous orality. Although dominant cultures might claim otherwise, language is never a-political.
Use of written English has been mandated in colonised lands as the gateway through which the power and resources of the state can be accessed. The policy is an essential element of neo-colonialism – imperialism beyond military invasion. The poems of Drop Bear are presented in three sections: ‘Gather’, ‘Spectre’ and ‘Debris’. Some of Araluen’s poetry is set on the page as the reader might expect of verse. Others might better be described as prose poems. The ballerina Pavlova famously declined to describe her performance in a few words because if that were possible she would not have spent hours dancing it! It is always difficult to do justice to a poem which loses some of its integrity when dissected and analysed, let alone an entire collection of over 40 works spread over 100 pages.
Responses to poems can also be highly personal. It is also risky to make critical judgments when criticism itself has a neo-colonial bias. On the other hand, some highlights leap off the page as Araluen expresses her sharp insights. “Watch below for blue-tongues and red-bellies, watch above for black kites and golden orb weavers. I’m not worried about you finding all this, I’m worried about how you’re gonna speak it”. Araluen describes how the land is “developed” but “they’ll never come for the scrub. They need this scrub to keep the ghosts in”. There are numerous references to European myths used to create fear of the bush. Language is central to Araluen’s concerns. “It is hard to unlearn a language: to unspeak the empire, to teach my voice to rise and fall like landscape, a topographic intonation”. Elsewhere “i dress in translation” (lower case in original) and “I know the poem and it lied … the poem doesn’t admit they forgot politics after the vote”.
Indigenous Australians by their very existence engage in politics, resistance and survival. In ‘Drop Bear Poetics’ Araluen says “we aren’t here to hear you poem you do wrong you get wrong you get gobbled up”. In ‘The Last Endeavour’ the colonial project expands “We have cartographied historic what we have broken free from language, we have named you in our tongue” but “the land refused”.
The importance of restoring the names of places such as ‘Wahlu’ and ‘Wambool’ near me is undeniable. The English Mount Panorama and Macquarie River resist the spiritual dimension intrinsic to Indigenous land, lore and spirituality. Araluen observes the link: “I would like to say sovereignty and reconciliation I would like sovereignty and reconciliation”. In ‘The Trope Speaks’ Araluen notes the connection between words and actions. She lists many examples of how the trope operates such as “The trope offers an aesthetic hybridisation of Eurocentric and Aboriginal culture wherein all that is fundamentally alienating to the white settler gaze is translated into jargon and misappropriated cryptomythology”. Her parents continued to tell stories although they also gave their children books to read but “My parents never pretended these books.”