Selected Poems 1980-2017
Philip Morrissey and Tyne Daile Sumner, eds
re.press Publishing, 2017
To begin this review, I would like to make the most important of declarations and acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which this review was written; and would like to thank Narungga scholar, writer and poet Natalie Harkin for having assisted in the editorial process. I would also like to acknowledge and pay respects to Lionel Fogarty, the Yoogum language group from South Brisbane, and the Kidjela people of North Queensland, whose inestimable linguistic, cultural and spiritual legacy is clear in Lionel Fogarty Selected Poems 1980-2017.
The publication of this collection marks a retrospective moment for the Australian literary landscape. Lionel Fogarty, born in South Burnett in Southern Queensland, is a poet praised by John Kinsella as ‘the greatest living “Australian” poet’ (2013, 190). The controversial writer, Colin Johnston, also described Fogarty in 1990 as ‘Australia’s strongest poet of Aboriginality’ (26). (Colin Johnston is also known by the name of Mudrooroo, or Mudrooroo Narogin, an act that is seen by many as a misappropriation of the Nyoongar language.) I mention Johnston’s voice above many more fitting critics in this review to juxtapose Johnston’s and Fogarty’s fortunes in the last two decades as somewhat of a tragicomic mirror of the Australian literary landscape and our need to seek out an ‘authentic’ indigenous Australian voice. I write in heed of the deeply tenuous position Johnston occupies in Australian literature as explored by Anita Heiss in her book, Dhuuluu-Yala: To Talk Straight (2003). Heiss posits that from the time of Johnson publishing of Writing from the Fringe: A Study of Modern Aboriginal Literature in the early 1990s, ‘he was regarded as the authority on Aboriginal writing, and anything associated with it’ (4). When Johnston’s authority to speak on Indigenous Australian issues came under question in the years to come, the fallout regarding his lack of consultation and misappropriation caused an indelible impression upon our conception of indigeneity. Such debates over identity politics and cultural authenticity have changed how we read the work of Indigenous Australian writers – creating an obsessively objective distance that misleads us from the real conditions of writing, as well as obscuring the literary production of unabashedly indigenous voices. I would argue that this is certainly the case with regards to Lionel Fogarty, one of the most unrewarded and unrecognised figures in Australian and World Literature.
In Fogarty’s poem, ‘Finalist Unnamed’, a previously unpublished work included in this collection, he writes satirically of his omission from the ‘honour-roll’ of literary prizes: ‘My name is now the finalists unnamed? Ha’. The irony in these lines speaks to Fogarty’s imagined opposition to white Australian society, as well as his management of the distance between himself as an Indigenous Australian activist from the literary community. These seeming tensions reflect many of the frailties of the Australian literary landscape; the inability for indigeneity to be properly conceived of and read adequately in mainstream literary landscapes and markets, the literary-suicide of labelling oneself an ‘activist and poet’ to a wider Australian readership, and further, a lack of proper close engagement with Fogarty’s poems themselves. This review intends to grapple with these incongruities and signal, perhaps ambitiously, a trail that leads in to Fogarty’s nebulous, and yet, capacious collection.
The editors, Philip Morrissey and Tyne Daile Sumner, have collated both published and previously unpublished poems. The latter have been edited and published with close involvement from Fogarty himself. In this manner, Fogarty’s involvement as a co-editor and poet answers Peter Minter’s call for ‘a renewed ethical and aesthetic architecture’ (2013, 157). The poems are ordered in distinct periods where Fogarty was said to be particularly prolific: 1980-1995, 2004-2012 and 2013-2017. While this periodisation of Fogarty’s works may run the risk of emphasising perpetually relevant concepts (such as deaths of Indigenous Australians while in police custody or political representation) within discrete periods of production (many of the themes, phrasings and poetic rhythms are returned to, after decades), this structure offers a chance of seeing Fogarty’s images and turns-of-phrase evolve. This is particularly true of the 1980-1995 poems, a period described as a ‘high point’ for Fogarty while working alongside one-time partner, co-editor and publisher, Cheryl Buchanan, of the Kooma Nation in South Queensland.
Buchanan’s work as an editor and publisher is significant for this section. A leader in her own right, Buchanan almost single-handedly published Fogarty’s first volume of poetry, Kargun, in 1980, stating in the official launch of the Yoogum Yoogum collection in 1982, that no publisher wanted to touch such ‘heavy political material’ (n.p.). It was her belief in Fogarty’s revolutionary style of writing as speaking rather than writing that moulded these poems, laying the foundation for his future work. In the foreword to the Nguti collection published two years later (1984), Buchanan would state: ‘Lionel regards himself as “a speaker, not a writer”, and does not like to be categorised as a “poet”’ (n.p). This sense of frustration against the identity of a ‘writer’ pervades Fogarty’s earlier poems. That is not to say that Fogarty’s poems can be read as discrete, singular entities. For instance, the demands of activism that pervade his earlier work transform into renewed decolonial thinking in the areas of education, Trans-indigenous solidarity and the historicising of Indigenous Australian activism. In this way, Fogarty performs a metaphorical encircling of his own position, what the Martinican theorist Edouard Glissant described as a reconstituted echo or a spiral retelling’ (1997, 16) regarding his own returns to earlier works. Morrissey himself notes that in revising each of the poems into English for publication, ‘the selection process has been complicated by Fogarty’s habit of revising and recycling sections of poems’ (Morrissey 19). As readers, then, we are privy to the forming up of Fogarty’s oeuvre in real-time. Such a re-processing, a spiral retelling of language-events, makes this collection of poems doubly worthwhile.
A reader might perceive, for instance, that the metaphorical implication of ‘death’ in the early poems – for instance in ‘Do Yourself a Favour, Educate Your Mind’ – differs greatly to the later poem, ‘Signing My Death Lionel and Hell’ (another example might be his variance in using the word ‘academic’ as the collection draws on.) In the former, ‘death’ acts as a metaphorical removal of Anglicised Australian identity imposed upon Fogarty in his being brought up in Cherbourg Mission: ‘(I) wrote my death in/George the Third’. In the latter, Fogarty imagines himself as a dying lion, Lionel literally translated to ‘Lion and Hell’ in order to convey his cyclical rebirth in the natural world, dying as a physically embodied writer, but eternalising himself through the potentially infinite re-readings of his works:
With my thousand words the dead woods are white dreams.
Whistle the dead calls at morning night and depart away my spirit.
Starless days are able to shine death, as rouse is use for me to die
Listen it’s time for me as a writer to die.
Another way of perceiving the poems in the structure the editors have placed them is by transposing Fogarty’s poems alongside the political events that helped to shape them. For example, often the themes and motifs of his poems are direct references to news articles and current events, as a metaphorical (and at times literal) pastiche of contemporaneous jargon. This is evocatively evident in the composition of the unpublished poem, ‘Academic Great Boundaries’, which reflects on the water policy in the Murray Darling Basin and the dams that stop the water flow. In the poem itself, Fogarty metaphorically conjures up a dam wall through juxtaposing a self-authorising scientific vernacular divorced from feeling with his own intuitive writing:
Governments and nunnery highlands lie
49,000 bores lowering the table pastoral
Non-flowing rate of 3% per annum.
In contrast, Fogarty alludes to the lack of benefits locals receive from the dam itself, remembering the incongruity of earlier colonial excavation of the land that eliminated native Australian flora and fauna. He questions the reader:
Are departmental shrubs destroying the remade reports?
Is every central country plain without pains?
Eliminate all inappropriate species
The fallacy of the first dugouts
Sunk in marbled stone.
It is also worth recounting the poet’s formative experiences, as they are at times presented, disfigured, in Fogarty’s poetry. For example, it is impossible to read his works without knowing of his politics. After growing up in Cherbourg Mission and becoming involved with the Brisbane Chapter of the Australian Black Panther Party, Fogarty was charged and arrested for demanding money with menaces and was detained in an adult prison while still legally a juvenile. Despite being acquitted for a lack of evidence, the experience remained with Fogarty and was recorded in a provocative account of his arrest in the poem entitled, ‘Related: Charged’:
Welcome here, you son of a cunt,
This pig said to me.
Sign your death warrant, you son of a fucken moll.
released on bail
The crucially formative event of Fogarty’s adult activist life was the tragic death of his brother, Daniel Alfred Yock, a talented painter and dancer murdered under police custody in Redfern. This prompted some of Fogarty’s finest elegiac works, as well as some of his more charged political statements. Side by side, the 1995 poems ‘For Him I Died – Bupu Ngunda I love’ and ‘Murra Murra Gulandanilli- Waterhen’ can be read as a most profound expression of grief.
The form of the poems themselves also bears some critical thinking. The unusual phrasing and misplacing of verbs and adjectives tend to frustrate many readers. Things are rarely in place as we would like them to be, written in a-grammatical structures that are closer to a verbal Aboriginal speech pattern or sentence structure than an iambic pentameter. For this reason, many of the poems are intended to be spoken aloud. Fogarty is a remarkable spoken word poet and has been celebrated as such in literary festivals and functions around the world. He continues to forge new forms of verbal and poetic expression for the benefit of all readers and audiences as an entrance into a collaborative place of understanding – simultaneously undoing a language of colonialism, an Imperial English. Readers of this collection should attempt to read these poems alongside their oral form. The reading of the poem, ‘Mad Souls’, derived from the Jagera collection edited and published by Buchanan in 1990, for instance, would be ably supplemented by a listen to the several spoken versions of the poem available online through such viral formats as YouTube. In these, the verbal aspects of the work are profoundly clear, as well as the incorporation of the particular mode of Aboriginal English Fogarty expresses:
I am a moody Murri
My temper as black as me.
I am a moody Murri
drink and smoke,
Sail me Away to Africa.
It is this rendering of linguistic forms of expression and contemporary realities that is at the core of Fogarty’s work. So many of his poetic images are representations of an uncanny landscape, a thing made strange against its previous form. Morrissey describes the way in which Fogarty transforms a ‘political reality’:
A “constitutive tension” is apt when considering some of Fogarty’s best poetry which often starts with a political reality, social or intellectual, and then, echoing the words of Robert Frost, like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poems ride on their own melting. (Morrissey 21)
In this manner of ‘melting’, Fogarty creates an uncanny, subterranean, spiritual geography peopled by indigenous people and communities, short-sighted academics, politicians wandering blind, and everywhere the voice of the poet, Fogarty, teasing the reader on. The poem, ‘Abstract Salt Pans’, previously considered as a draft for the collection, Broken Mosaic (2012), but never before published, is an able example of the way Fogarty transforms his subject material. The poem refers to sacred bore grounds, one can imagine Lake Eyre in comparison. Fogarty reassembles the receding salt plain far across the horizon by placing it into a metaphorical pastiche made up of spiritual, ecological and aesthetic forms. Personifying the appearance of the bore grounds, Fogarty writes:
I am the river before the sky rain fell from the ground
I am wombat ready to fight the plains roads every day
I am the pop art reassembled
Fogarty takes great pleasure in abstracting the ‘real’ world onto the page, intimating that as readers, we must forfeit our given way of thinking in order to follow him. It is as if he intends to confuse a non-Aboriginal reader in order that we may be littered along the way behind him in this subterranean geography. This refusal of rationality or grammatical structure becomes a political reality, a refusal of the manner in which Fogarty might be subdued, or suppressed by writing in an imperial tongue. As Kevin Gilbert famously put it:
Coming from a tradition of oral poetry, having been forced by assimilationist policy of the government to forego traditional language and to adopt the European tongue, Lionel used the written English like a dervish wields a club (1988, 156).
A celebrated example of Fogarty’s formal deconstruction and innovation is the poem, ‘Weather Comes’, which appeared in New and Selected Poems: Munadljali, Muteurjaraera (1995) and is also included in this collection. The poem’s opening infers the disjunctive split of temporal space, mixing present and past tense:
The weather is wearily
The winds are webbing
blowing voices of help
To take the words at their surface value, the weather is wearily, it ebbs and succumbs as if it were a personified character. Here, Fogarty’s breakage of language structures is anchored with that of his subject matter: the breakage and disruption of the ecological landscape. In choosing to write and subvert English, he refers to the traumatic way in which the land is also subverted, irrevocably changed by human actions:
The sky turns strangler and
clouds hide behind smoked
Pollutions walking the bush
slips feet unfound, and seeks
Here, as a result of a pop-art of human destruction, the sky is not only personified as a ‘strangler’, but the repercussions of pollution are also literally ‘walking the bush’ without sound, and it ‘slips’ its feet in around us. Equally as interrogative to the form of the Anglophone poem, the unpublished ‘Reviving Forms or Statics’ conveys a bilingual pun on ‘country’ as opposed to ‘western’, while also referencing the music genre, ‘country and western’, and thus the movement between indigenous and Western ways of knowing, as the poem’s speaker asks the reader to:
Tell us country and western
views on sanction on
contemporary aboriginal songs.
Fogarty describes here the way in which language is policed and ordered through colonial politics and cultural relations; understanding that a sanction on contemporary Aboriginal songs, while intending to mark its freedom, also acts as an authorial stamp on the culture of a people and a fundamental part of assimilation policy, to which Fogarty responds. The effect of these types of gestures is to reflect the fact that often one’s choice of a language is determined by the asymmetry of power relations in a colonial world-system. As celebrated Latin American scholar, Walter Mignolo writes, to make bilingual connections as Fogarty does is not to visit balances in which languages are maintained in purity, untouched, but to critique a colonial apparatus in visiting the way in which power relations are manifest in the asymmetry of language:
Bilanguaging … is not a grammatical but a political concern as far as the focus of bilanguaging itself is redressing the asymmetry of languages and denouncing the coloniality of power and knowledge. (2012, 231)
Given Fogarty’s commitment to avoiding compromise to a non-indigenous reader, his poetics are irreconcilable when read apart from their intention. While the editors are correct in suggesting that in certain political poems (such as ‘Condemn King Peanut Picking Joh’, which refers to the corrupt ex-Premier of Queensland, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen), the ‘intensity of political anger transmutes into a classic “curse poem” … driven on by the poet’s faith in what Robert Graves would describe as the “magical potency” of words’ (20), readers should be wary of applying a Western epistemological practice to Fogarty’s work. I would equally suggest that the political reality Fogarty envisages is located as a continuation of a cultural position built from the Yugembeh and Kudjela peoples – as well as being built off collaborative orality. In this way, to interpret it as a ‘curse poem’ rather than as a situated poetics might mislead a reader. For example, consider these lines of the poem:
Now Joh, you’ll blow
Winds are coming
Violence as it is
Pains you gave
Pains we’ll give
Cruel as capitalism Is
Murderous as they are.
The poem is relatively prosaic as a written poem and suggests Fogarty’s ironic usage of full-rhyme in his poems, ‘Joh’ / ‘blow’ being one among many examples of his seeming disdain for traditional English rhyming structures. However, as a spoken word poem, the lines take the form of a cumulative chant that is meant in a collaborative manner; the common homonyms of ‘winds’ / ‘is’ / ’give’, ‘are’ / ’gave’ and ‘Joh’ / ‘blow’ / ‘coming’ are written as part of a long tradition of Indigenous Australian political orality. Gilbert writes on this subject, as part of the introduction to his anthology of Aboriginal poetry, Inside Black Australia:
Black poets sing, not in odes to Euripides or Dionysus, not Keats, nor Browning, nor Shakespeare; neither do they sing a pastoral lay to a “sunburnt country” for they know that that russet stain that Dorothea Mackellar spoke of is actually the stain of blood, our blood, covering the surface of our land so the white man could steal our land. (1988, xxiv)
And yet they do sing. In recognition of this, I would simply suggest that readers be wary of thinking of the politics of Fogarty’s poems without taking into account the manner in which they were written, or performed. As the well-known Indigenous Australian activist, Gary Foley stated at the launch of Yoogum Yoogum in 1982:
You can’t divorce what Lionel has written from what is going on in the streets of Brisbane today and tomorrow and the day after. It is part of our struggle; an important part of our struggle, as any book that is written – as Kevin Gilbert’s … – as any book that is written by Aboriginal people … We make no apologies for being overtly political; we see more clearly than anyone else in this country what is wrong with this country. (n.p.)
To be political is an unfortunate condition of writing for an indigenous writer in Australia. It is, however, in the wake of Fogarty’s politics that we have come to know the influence of politics before the purposes of his poetics. As the editors themselves write, Fogarty’s poems are ‘to an extent overdetermined by the interpretive frames of resistance, activism, anger and protest’ (19). Perhaps we are too fast in reading within the all-too-familiar, essentialist framework provided for us when Johnston claimed Fogarty as Australia’s ‘Guerrilla Poet’:
Here was no ersatz Bourgeois black in white face, but an Aboriginal man, a poet guerilla using the language of the invader in an effort to smash open its shell and spill it open for poetic expression (49).
Johnston’s writing reveals much of the attitudes of the time Fogarty was immersed in as a political writer indebted to the rhetoric of ‘the fighting phase’ borne of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Fogarty’s manipulation of the English language then, has been interpreted predominantly as an act of resistance, leading to increasing characterisations of Fogarty as a ‘Guerrilla Poet’ or an ‘activist poet’. As Kinsella writes:
His is the most revolutionary of languages being used in Australian poetry. Freedom doesn’t come solely by marking territory and occupying a conceptual space, a space linguistic in nature. One must reterritorialise lost ground. (2013)
I am reminded of the necessity by which a writer of a minor literature must engage within majoritarian structures, and to what purpose, not to ‘use the master’s tools’ as African-American poet, scholar, feminist and activist Audrey Lorde aptly stated, but to create new, intermediated linguistic surfaces that are simultaneously sites of narrating trauma, rewriting history and memory, but also giving rise to future writers. Indigenous writers in Australia are forced to come to deal with the means of abrogation and their own ‘situatedness’ within such structures, to use the colonialist’s language and apprehend it in such a way as that it cannot be recognisable. The view underlying Lorde’s immortal address, ‘you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools’, has proved instrumental in developing the necessity of an oppositional discourse to combat forms of continued oppression, whereas the counter-view implies that the master’s house is, as post-colonial theorist Bill Ashcroft suggests, ‘always adaptable’. This review acts with a cohort of other recent scholarship working to develop a methodology suitable enough to evaluate Fogarty beyond the character of political action typified by Johnston (Corey Wakeling, Ali Alizadeh and David Brooks, to name a few), an action that the editors of this collection also signify in their segmentation of his poems.
Fogarty intervenes in our expectations and reading of a minor-literature by not only choosing to write in a muddied, bastardised English, but by contributing to an intercultural poetics which can be equally read as culturally fluid and politically opaque. His transformation of the English language to reflect an uncanny, nightmarish contemporary landscape demonstrates such an approach – a writing towards the borderlands, an intercultural interstice. The rhetorical questions raised in the first poem of the collection, ‘Insane Go Away, Sane Come Again’, written for the 1980 collection, Kargun, speak to the incongruity of the contemporary ecological landscape, as well as the lack of sense in English language structures to indigenous people:
Rock you belong to?
Sand we want you?
Land you know now
Words we are afraid of.
Here language becomes an experiential device, as in the poem, ‘Remember Something Like This’, whereby Fogarty comes into memories and histories first hand – words become images, beings, embodied on the page. Through this forming of language, this self-questioning mode gives way to a plurality of seeing and being at intercultural borderlands. At the close of ‘Insane Go Away, Sane Come Again’, Fogarty proposes that against a backdrop of centuries of betrayal of ‘animals, skies, clouds, seas’ by white settler Australians, there might be unity among the residual metaphoric force of a post-colony imaginary:
You we me
Earth shouts now
in rushing four winds.
I would like to end this review by thinking about the implications of Fogarty’s writing as a transportive, communicatory poetics. Fogarty is a well-versed traveller, having occasioned visits to Asia, America and India to perform his poetry. At a 2011 poetry festival in Columbia he presented a then-unpublished poem, ‘Assume Unbelievers’, which was translated into Spanish for his live audience. Written in a rhythmical, chant-like manner that takes as its starting point the repetition of the word, ‘Don’t’, the poem centres on the importance of the opacity of indigenous knowledge, and the consolidation of strictly Aboriginal space:
Don’t believe in flamboyant blacks
Don’t believe in novels for adaption for white societies
Don’t believe cultural dancers
Dancing for scum false show cases.
The context of Fogarty’s performances frames the poem in an intriguing way. He could not be more opaque as an Indigenous Australian activist and poet translated into Spanish, delivering a poem on the importance of Land Rights to Indigenous Australians, and yet he also, is an effortless cultural dancer in promoting kinship between his international audience and his community. The poem’s end consolidates such a reading, as he writes:
Don’t believe in land rights
Believe in pubs. Believe in noting.
Who are you telling me what believe is?
On this note – dubious of false, academic promises, or political niceties – Fogarty prioritises a ‘real’ kinship based on shared communication and open relation created by a secure cultural narrator. His openness on his own terms reflects his worth to comparative scholarship, especially regarding his emphasis on inter-indigenous communication. For instance, the poem ‘The Slaves Are Her People’ might be the finest of the collection. The poem is dedicated to Lionel’s mother in the ‘Notes to Selected Poems’ section at the conclusion of the collection, where it states that she experienced a profound connection with the South Sea Islanders who were brought to northern Australia as indentured labourers in the late settler period. Fogarty interrogates the rigidity of cultural identity at stake here; prioritising his mother’s acceptance of like-individuals within Aboriginal communities over cultural exclusivity in the wake of a shared cultural genocide. He writes:
we know you don’t know the legends, traditions
even beliefs of those poor slave kanakees
but what you have is a murri look into things
and speak bits of that lingo, sure long silence have been here.
As with relating his position as a member of the Yugembah and Kudjela communities in Southern Queensland, Fogarty intimates that this intercultural relationship requires a poetic understanding. For future considerations of Fogarty’s work, scholarship would do well to pay attention to these fragile moments; attuned to the necessity of surviving an extensive history of genocide and oppression, whilst also reaching out on the basis of mutuality and traumatic approximation. Trans-indigenous connections are implicit throughout Fogarty’s works, and frame his recognition of the intercultural interstice Indigenous Australian writers operate in. As scholars engaging in transcultural work, the editors have had to prepare a text that is by all accounts, ‘non-normative’, but all the more textually complex. The completed collection frames the act of translation as akin to cross-cultural communication, emphasising with Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay, The Task of the Translator, that ‘Translation is a form’ whereby the completed text, rather than being a secondary issue, is in effect a new linguistic art form. With reflection upon this essay and the significance of the collection itself, it is worth asserting that both the editors, and especially Fogarty himself, enervate such a statement in bringing to light an edition of poems that cannot, and should not, seek to communicate the meaning of the original text, but the purpose of ‘expressing the innermost relationship of languages to one another’ (Benjamin 255). That is not to say that such languages are being anthropologically placed for scrutiny within an Anglophone place of study, but to argue that Fogarty’s work actualises a mode of communication that translates itself in its own terms, leaving a legacy that we as readers will have to deal with.
As Fogarty states in a quintessential poem, ‘Like Pieces of Paper to a Fire’, written specifically for the collection: ‘Being a 40 years works feels / 40 more 40 thousand fire’. Here, Fogarty seems to metaphorically denote each singular poem he has written over the course of forty years as the sum of a larger project, itself political, sociocultural and spiritual. Each poem must be read therefore, in collection with others. Each poem is subsumed and burnt to a crisp within a larger immemorial bonfire, a bonfire that leaves its material rejuvenated, cleansed, and new in its smoke.
*Dashiell Moore is a second year Ph.D. student and tutor at the University of Sydney. The title of his thesis is A Relational Poetics: Rethinking Pluralities in Indigenous Poetry, and concerns a rethinking of contemporary indigenous poetics through the utopic model provided by Edouard Glissant in his work, Poetics of Relation. Moore wishes to prioritise the bilingual aspects of such poetics in order to dispel the illusion that political poetry is not itself transcultural and to foster a cross-cultural kinship that does not obscure or homogenize cultural difference. He recently delivered a conference paper based on this thesis in Brighton, UK.
**Taken from Cordite Poetry Review at http://cordite.org.au/reviews/moore-fogarty/