Essay: Bruce Pascoeon First Nations Poetry

Bleat Beneath a Blanket

I often think of the vision of the Old People in constructing our culture on such egalitarian and environmentally loving principles – but that then leads to being overwhelmed by the devastation of soul they must have experienced when the Invaders so wilfully destroyed that social design.

Imagine living in a world where people in colder climates built substantial houses in which they could stand upright and draw on the walls and ceiling. Houses were found all over the country, some accommodating over fifty people; one was used as a mess hall for the sailors of a ship. How did the owners feel watching others carouse beneath their civil roof. All the houses reflected the taste of the owners. It was an aesthetic world. 

Imagine eating the harvest of vegetables and grains which were domesticated by your ancestors. Your people invented aquaculture, art, bread and … society. We will soon be allowed to talk about Australia having the oldest villages on earth and therefore having invented society.

Does it rankle that we have to wait so that a white university allows that information to be released? Does it gnaw at your spirit that we can’t comment on an incredible example of plant cultivation until Nature has published it first? 

This is still a colonised world.

That is a burr in the britches compared to how the Old People must have felt when they saw sheep eating their crops, cattle shitting on the sacred lagoon, men being shot, women being raped, and the subtle fabric of the lore being unravelled bit by bit over the long agonising days of the rest of their lives. The pain, the indignity, the sorrow, the humiliation, the frustration that white people were deaf and blind to the beautiful planning of a culture over 120,000 years old. 

I believe that sentiment is expressed in Joel Davison’s poem ‘Ngayrayagal Didjurigur (Soon Enough)’.

Wiribay Dagura
Worn out and cold
Gadi wari
Under and away
Ngarrawan biyal
Distant and no where

Gunamabami ngyini
You will set yourself alight again
Manabami ngyini
You will collect yourself again
Nabami ngyini
You will see yourself again
You must

The desolation felt by those old philosophers must have been inexpressible. The awful pain of their distress made the earth quake and that quaking reverberates with us still – we shudder and moan – and, unable to unseat the conqueror, our anger sometimes turns on our own, the impotent striking of frustration and hurt.

How can we honour the Old People’s grand strategy for lasting peace if we turn on each other?


Is that archaic form of expression enough? Are there enough readers left to make it more than a bleat beneath a blanket? Do we use it to hurt those who have hurt us or can we use it to sew up the old possum skin of restraint and civility? 

Perhaps Charmaine Papertalk Green has an answer in ‘Honey to Lips Bottlebrush’.

Dance ground feet sand reunite connect
Still wind still ancestors come to visit
Gentle kiss giving to young spirits
Reassuring for the onward journey
Right here on this land right here

I admire the spirit because plenty of times my words have been acid-etched steel. I feel the pain and anger of Evelyn Araluen Corr in ‘Dropbear Poetics’.

Waagan says use heart
but I am rage and dreaming
at the gloss green palm fronds
of this gentry aestheantique
          all this potplanting in our sovereignty
          a garden for you to swallow speak our blood

I know that anger. I have used it and mostly hurt myself.

Romaine Morton says it best in ‘Are you beautiful today?’

could you take
conversations about jail and suicide
and make it as though
you were saying
one lump

Australia is comfortable in its ignorance of the Aboriginal past and present – at best a kindly patronage, allowing illness, unemployment and incarceration as if they are the dying fish in rivers robbed of water by billionaire cotton farmers, a maths too difficult for an Australian to compute. Will our words be enough to battle the tea-cosy nature of Australian comfort?

Well, our people have always sung in verse: we named a bend in the river Kardinia after the first rays of the morning sun; we named a hill Bellawein which may mean either a view from where the water sparkles like fire or perhaps leaning on our elbow by the fire or a more subtle blend of the two, but whoever created the expression was a poet and perhaps a poet long before Europe had chanced upon the idea of aesthetic language. 

We are the wordsmiths of the world; we spoke seven to ten languages and used long and complex words in all of them to explain long and complex philosophical statements. We should not apologise for being good with words and their use – it is our heritage.

The Boorong clan of the Wergaia at Lake Tyrell used the flat surface of the lake as a mirror to view and fathom the stars and the universe. Think of that image: a people gathered about a lake and looking down to contemplate the night sky. It is the instinct of the poet, the habit of a philosophical spirit. A million Chinese visitors go there every year because they are interested in philosophy, but Australians couldn’t point to it on a map. 

See how easily I slipped into spleen? Where was my calm, where was my generosity?

Eroded and crippled by indifference – that’s where. And yet the ancestors urge us toward patience and peace, for both were the bedrock of the lore. I try – and I see my brothers and sisters try – to overcome the deepest bruise to the brain. 

I admire them their energy but wonder if our words will be enough?

The ancestors of course would keep wording, even to the deaf.

This essay by Bruce Pascoe is extracted from Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today edited by Alison Whittaker, published on 31 March 2020 by UQP.