from the editor's desk

2022 Mid-Career Fellowship: Caitlin Maling

In 2022, with the support of the Copyright Agency‘s Cultural Fund, and in partnership with Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ CentreWesterly Magazine is proud to publish writing from the Mid-Career Fellowship program. Here, we present ‘The Poem in the Parrot, the Boy in the Bird’ from the second of our Fellows for 2022, Caitlin Maling. Work from our first Fellow for 2022, Scott-Patrick Mitchell, was published in Westerly 67.1 earlier this year.

The following work from Caitlin Maling is also available to read in our latest print issue, Westerly 67.2.

The Poem in the Parrot, the Boy in the Bird

My son’s first words are nearly all bird names. We give him a plastic duck when he lies on the change table, to try and distract him so he stays on his back, doesn’t roll. One day we don’t and he says, ‘Duck, duck, duck’. The next week we are at the zoo, it is thirty-six degrees at 4pm in the afternoon, we are regretting our choices until, walking through the wetland aviary, he points at the water: ‘Duck, duck, duck.’ From there, we get ‘coco’ for cockatoo, ‘gaga’ for galah, ‘bamingo’ for flamingo, then goose, budgie, emu and peacock. Owl is said as in howl, like a bird struggling freefrom the throat of a wolf.

Before the baby could speak words recognisable to us, I bought his father a copy of the Australian Bird Guide. It was our routine that, in the afternoon, after my husband had finished work, he would strap on the baby carrier and walk around the block, pointing out the birds. It was one of the few guaranteed activities to stop our son crying. My husband didn’t know the names for the birds on our block, but would tally up a total, tell me they saw nine including the big wattlebird, the little wattlebird, magpie, magpie lark, djitti djitti.

After his twelve-month vaccinations, beset by that achy almost-fever of fighting off an almost-virus, we get the bird guide out. He focuses on it, learns to point at birds in the index, waits for us to turn the pages to where there are more of them. The big wattlebird is the Red Wattlebird, while somehow the little wattlebird is in fact not the little wattlebird (endemic only to the east coast) but the Western Wattlebird. Most we have called wattlebirds are honeyeaters: tawny-crowned, white-fronted and New Holland. Now when we walk the blocks we have these new names, like deepening notes in a song.

A few months later, I am commissioned to interview John Kinsella on his new collection. Or at least I think I am, for what arrives is actually over eight hundred pages representing the first volume of his new collected (not collection) The Ascension of Sheep: Poems 1980–2005.

It’s no secret that Kinsella likes birds. Loves them. In the introductory matter, Tony Hughes D’Aeth calculates that there are ‘at least 123 bird species mentioned’ (xxxi) across the pages. He doesn’t name the extinction of some twenty species in the same quarter-century of the poems’ writing: Bachman’s warbler, Eskimo curlew, Mariana mallard, Alaotra grebe, Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō, Maui ‘akepa, Borreo’s cinnamon teal, hooded seedeater, ‘Ō‘ū, O‘ahu ‘alauahio, dusky seaside sparrow, Atitlán grebe, Maui nukupu‘u, Kaua‘i nukupu‘u, Siau scops owl, Hawaiian crow, Cape Verde kite, po‘o-uli, slender billed curlew, Pernambuco pygmy owl (Wikipedia ‘List of Bird Extinctions by Year’).

The birds of Kinsella’s poetry are the less exotic birds of my son’s Perth southern suburbs and streets. Kinsella and he share a fondness for parrots. Kinsella seems drawn to the twenty-eight—they are mentioned in at least sixteen poems where they ‘banter’ (62), ‘buzzing and cackling’ (183), flying in ‘lifts and dips’ (718). My son loves pink and grey galahs the most. When we walk him in the pram before bed, he spots them before we do—points to the top of a lamppost and says ‘gaga’. They move every evening from lawn to lawn, wherever the seed is ready for harvesting under the grass, and hop with their stiff-legged gait from patch to patch.

In Kinsella’s poems, the twenty-eights are also shot (213), trapped in netting (373), and poisoned so they ‘choke on tongues’ (699). In ‘The Crest’ a ‘twenty-eight wanders about the crushed / body of another twenty-eight, you’d guess / a partner’ (609). It’s cliché to speak of love and death, Eros and Thanatos, as the flipsides of a coin. Kinsella himself confesses to having shot the birds when a young person on a farm. Perhaps the poems are him as the parrot left circling the body? Cliché also to speak of being born into sin. When you breastfeed a child, you can imagine they are taking nothing from the world by existing—but you are; there is no neutrality in life, only the movement between poles, life and death.

When people die, if they have lived a great life, we are able to tell those left ‘there’s nothing you could’ve done’, as though they have exhausted all avenues of living. We may say it of pets, but we do not say it of lost species because they are not ‘lost’; they have not been misplaced, but killed or ended by our actions and inaction alike—there’s so much we could have done yet didn’t. The Wikipedia page for ‘Bird Extinction’ conveys as much, beginning with the statement that:

There is a general consensus among scientists who study these trends that if human impact on the environment continues as it has, one-third of all bird species and an even greater proportion of bird populations will be gone by the end of this century. (np)

It is no great stretch to say that potentially the greatest impact on the environment that a person can have, is to have a child.

Recently, my son has taken to the kookaburra. He brings us the portable Bluetooth speaker, says ‘more Kooka’, and we listen to ‘A Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’ on repeat. Kinsella writes that to this day he makes no distinction between ‘the “nursery rhyme” and “the poem”—they are one and the same’ (794). The poem comes then, from our first songs, our first speech. There is also the persistent idea of the lyric poem as being sourced from bird song, pitched high, aimed beyond sense. The kookaburra, it turns out, is not native to Perth but introduced by settlers in 1897 in an attempt to control the snake population, where it thrived at the expense of other species (Veness np). The kookaburra has no sense of its song and sings regardless of whether it is out of place. But the slippage of their songs from sense, marks them as not quite poets—similarly our poems graze their music but not their words. It is as Kinsella has written of the parrot:

Because parrots are not made (yet) by humans, because they are seemingly no more than poetically receptive to mimesis and reproduction or recounting in the text (they don’t answer back despite their ability to ‘mimic’ human speech), they are beyond sympathy. They mimic aspects of the human but cannot be appreciated as participating in the poem-text. (‘Parrotology’ 24)

Throughout the pages of this first volume of his collected, Kinsella returns to birds and to poetry. Three-quarters of the way in, he writes, ‘That the poem is an act of implication / justifies the recalcitrant bird / or the birth that won’t happen on time, resisting / inducements like political freedoms’ (604). In his afterword he writes the primary focus of his poetry has been on ‘the reality of occupying Noongar Boodjar […]. [To] acknowledge isn’t enough […]. [Poetry] must be part of the restitution and return. Poetry is potentially a negotiation and a conflict resolution’ (797). When I interview Kinsella about the collected, I ask him if he still believes poetry can do this, and he does. I paraphrase to him something from one of his many collections of essays:

We create art to make comment, and possibly to bring change, as well as to reflect a ‘truth’, or from an aesthetic point of view, capture a ‘beauty’. The processes of writing or painting or composing music necessitate something that is positive, even if the content is pessimistic. It is this apparent contradiction that interests me. (Contrary Rhetoric 133)

I chose to have a child for similar reasons: because I thought it would help me love the world better, love the world more, even as it offered up the unexpected possibility of grieving the world in real time. Parenting, as anyone that has done it will know, is unbearably focused on the minutiae of the day: you account for time in its smallest increments even as you mourn in advance the years passing. It’s interesting to me then, that it is the ‘processes of writing’ that Kinsella singles out as necessitating something that is positive, not the product but its labour. Since receiving his book, I have wanted to ask Kinsella something about how prolific he is, the why of writing so much. It’s a question which occupies the collected itself: ‘I have written / about this in a variety of ways. I keep / rewriting the same poem’ (687). He has said that, in light of his early years shooting parrots on farms, ‘writing about parrots becomes an act of atonement’ (‘Parrotology’ 26). Perhaps writing more broadly is active in this way, a daily process of negotiating between words and occupied space, a brief moment of ethical rest. It is writing as a push outward into the world to find connection, rather than a withdrawal.

Skinner’s argument on poiesis—the making of the poem—as illuminating ‘the irreducible presence of the body in the world’ (Hume 760). What Kinsella does is refuse the poem as a site of singular human presence. As he puts it, ‘the parrot in the poem is no less valuable than the person in the poem’ (‘Parrotology’ 26). What I want for my son, is what Kinsella argues for the parrot: to always ‘distort’ themselves ‘against nation, against settler culture, against bigotry’ (‘Parrotology’ 26). I do not know how to teach him this, so I settle for giving him what he asks from me, which is always the names of things, or gentleness, for me to be there whether he wakes at 1am or 11am. I try to offer poems when I can, such as Kinsella’s ‘Eclogue of the Birds’, so he may learn from the twenty-eight ‘bold as brass’ (702) and from the magpie to question ‘Who speaks / for the speared insect, the locusts / pierced through’ (703). The birds caution against becoming overly familiar with their names, of assuming: ‘“Port Lincolns” they’d have us / just wandering a little North / of the Stirlings, walking the line, / night-flying when we should be settled’ (704). My son will grow amongst the men that would ‘nationalise / their fear. Proprietary, / they compensate with clear felling, / nest-fall in the clipped tongue / of progress’ (704). His early poems in the collected make clear why Kinsella shot the parrots—it was easy and it was what was done. What’s less clear is why he stopped.

When I was the age Kinsella was at the beginning of these poems, when he was moving away from the ways of the farming men around him, I went to Cambridge to study criminological research. My focus was on the history of policing in Australia, the impacts of colonialism and whiteness.

Reintegrative shaming was in vogue at the time, the idea that shame could be marshalled to reconnect the offender with those they had wronged, to thread a person back into the loom like a dropped stitch. Crucially this shaming had to be participatory and to happen—like all deterrent measures—within a fast, firm, time frame around the offence. There was always a distinction drawn between guilt and shame, guilt as a legal pronouncement falls upon a person like a shroud, as an emotion it has the same register of inescapability, of fault.

Several years post Cambridge, one of my poetry mentors would tell me I needed to stop writing guilty poems, that they were boring—one note—and did nothing for the reader but make them listen to me talk about myself. On Mumblogs, there is the #Mumguilt: for sugar, for television, for small cuts on eyebrows, for hugs refused or ended too soon. The #Mumguilt I find myself wanting to write in the white space between each line of this essay—to apologise for the extinction of the birds, the history of this country my son will inherit—is similarly one note, in that it does nothing. But shame is inaccessible temporally for these particular violences which have happened for centuries and project out into the future like a smoky horizon. I cannot write, reckon, sing them or be excused from them but I can see glimmers of the ways in which poets like Kinsella have traversed the same terrain. When I send this essay as a draft to a friend, also a poet, they write that ‘there is no such thing as an emotion or felt experience that “does nothing”’. An old psychologist of mine used to say the same thing; whenever I would complain of useless emotions, they would direct me to the evolutionary role an emotion plays. But we never covered the distinction between guilt and shame, nor how such a model holds implicit within it a celebration of the human faculties over and above any other creature.

In The Ascension of Sheep, shame is mentioned three times, but guilt is everywhere. Interestingly, two of the times shame appears it is capitalised as Shame. In ‘End of the Century Idyll’, ‘a Landscape of Shame flourishes’ (476), while in the very early poem ‘The Three Faces of Lilith’ shame is paired with ‘Inclination and Appetite, / Frailty and Honour’ (91). In these brief mentions, shame is treated in a monolithic way as something archetypal, almost personified. Guilt, however, is multifaceted but nearly always tied to ecological devastation. In ‘Wheatbelt Gothic of Discovering a Wyeth’, a well in cleared land is described ‘as much a receptacle of guilt / as the cathedral’s font’ (98). Similarly, in ‘Why They Stripped the Last Trees from the Banks of the Creek’, ‘The old man / couldn’t stand the thought / of bare paddocks with a creek / covered by trees slap bang / in the middle of them. / A kind of guilt I guess’ (222). While in ‘Beyond W. Eugene Smith’s Photographic Essay Life Without Germs’, scientists experimenting on rats are described as wearing ‘creases of guilt sculpted from rubber’ (453). You sense with guilt, rather than shame, that Kinsella is poking around the idea of sin which is distinctly human (the only time we encounter something ‘guiltless’ it is a ‘dragonfly / cutting waters, understudied’ (‘fragment 6 (bright light)’ 518). Sin leads to the ‘hell’ depicted in ‘Forest Poem’, where ‘the waste from sawmills burns / in furnaces that are as hell: as discrete and ugly, / and who’ll challenge this from the inside of their heads, / where darkness and light confuse themselves / as guilt or fear or recrimination’ (762). Across The Ascension of Sheep, we also become aware of guilt as something settler children are educated into, as in ‘Watching the Storm Approach Canning Bridge’ the speaker ‘as guilty as the next kid— / stranding blowies in heaps on the deck’ (312). As we have seen Kinsella make clear in his critical writings, the systems of environmental destruction that the subjects these poems are inculcated into, are the same systems of ongoing colonialism.

The friend I send this essay to also comments:

I would also like to know why you feel that shame is ‘inaccessible’ for ‘these particular violences which have happened for centuries and project out into the future’. That timeline includes the entirety of the past and breezes over the present. Which you are in. (personal correspondence, emphasis added)

Here again, I turn for answers to how guilt appears in Kinsella’s poetry. In the long sequence poem ‘Skeleton weed/generative grammar’, when the speaker is asked whether they feel guilt for missing a seed of a pest plant caught on the wool of a sheep, the poem answers ‘I’ve included in my lexicon of guilt / the following: what I feel today / will I feel tomorrow?’ (262–3). The day-to-day of parenting means accepting the guilt on a day-to-day basis, as something neither inaccessible and of the past, nor cast out into the future.

Writing on Palyku writer Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Living on Stolen Land, Wiradjuri academic Jeanine Leane states that linear time is ‘something settlers brought here’, that linear time ‘fosters inactivity as things that “happened a long time ago” are, as far as Gregorian time is concerned, over and done with’ (np). Differentiating again between shame and guilt, in ‘Shame and Contemporary Australian Poetics’ Bundjalung author Evelyn Araluen locates guilt in the past while shame is ongoing. She writes ‘[w]hile settler descendants might reject guilt for the theft of Aboriginal land, it is harder to reject the shame of continuing profit over this dispossession’. In the conclusion of her essay, Araluen argues:

Settlers must be prepared to confront this trauma if they wish to participate in our healing; they must create space for our voices and languages, before they seek to fill their own mouths with them. This cannot take place through easy metaphor. [… This] process begins with shame.

In a separate conversation, on her award-winning poetry collection DROPBEAR, Araluen says:

I could say a million times, in a million ways […] invasion was bad… Readers these days would be like, ‘Yeah, they shouldn’t have done that.’ Where it’s more interesting to push that— and more importantly—is beyond this guilty acceptance that doesn’t produce anything. It doesn’t produce advocacy. It doesn’t produce justice. It just produces guilt. What happens if we push that into a more creative and conceptual territory? (Ewen np)

What I find in Kinsella’s poems (like Araluen’s own), is a willingness to stay in the shame, or guilt, and to recognise the ongoingness of the violences of colonisation. To not treat the poem as a confessional, in order to find absolution for wrongdoings and in doing so confine them to the past, but as an innovative space where present shame is understood in the contexts of the past.

There’s a risk that trying to ameliorate shame or guilt associated with being a settler amongst land and peoples subject to ongoing occupation could function as a ‘settler moves to innocence’, which Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang—following Janet Mahwinney (17)—define as ‘strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all’ (10). Speaking on a recent podcast on her experiences of pregnancy and motherhood as a settler on Indigenous lands, non-Indigenous historian and poet Nadia Rhook proposes that key is to acknowledge—but not attempt to remove—the ‘cringe’ associated with privilege and to never ‘naturalise’ that privilege. Specifically the privilege of how her body was coded and received as it moved through settler spaces. An extra layer then, to Skinner’s understanding of poiesis as the irreducible body, is to be aware of exactly what body you have in making the poem. I’m also reminded of the end of Gomeroi poet Alison Whittaker’s burning ‘So White. So What.’: ‘It’s worth wondering, then, on the role of shame in fronting up to whiteness and whether the role of antiracist whites is to let that shame be, rather than be speakable’. Shame is not mine to remove by speaking, nor mine to pass to my son, but is mine to sit with, part of the day-by-day of moving my body through colonised land as I write poems, as I parent. Yet this sitting with shame is simply that, more is needed for activism, for change.

I leave my son to write this essay, go to the Perth Hills still on Noongar boodja, stay on the Old York Road halfway from my house towards Kinsella’s place in the beginning of the wheatbelt. In the guidebook for the residency is a list of birds to spot: rainbow lorikeet, corella, Carnaby’s cockatoo, magpie, twenty-eight parrot, galah, kookaburra, wattlebird, common bronzewing pigeon, crow, silvereyes, weebills, rosella, raven. Under the list is a quote from Ric Throssell’s biography of his mother Katharine Susannah Prichard (on whose property I am staying):

Katharine knew all the bird songs in the garden at Greenmount: the chestnut-breasted warbler, the yellow-rump tit-warbler, the melancholy heart-cry of the pallid cuckoo in spring. She delighted in the brief, flirting visits of the blue wrens, and the redbreast’s tiny, crimson flag flaunted from a fence post in defiance of the winter rain; the daredevil willy-wagtail chasing a marauding magpie from his nest with a machine-gun volley of scolding profanity. (83)

He is writing of how his mother loved the birds, but really all I see is how he loved his mother, to list in exactness what she noticed and what she would miss. Reading this, I’m also reminded of a line in Kinsella’s ‘On the Rejection of the Term “Property” for This Place’, where he writes on learning the scientific name for a threatened flower as an ‘approbation of guilt’ (625). That approbation exists alongside love here, as it does whenever I pick up the bird book to learn the name of another species disappearing. Its shaded area on the map diminishing. The map itself, another labelled diagram of colonisation.

From where I am sitting, I hear no birds but the road trains on Great Eastern Highway, heading north-east up the scarp before they turn towards Kalgoorlie. There’s a helicopter circling somewhere and a rose-quartz sunset in the far distance towards the coast, where smoke is hanging in the autumn stillness from a burn-off. I ring my husband, and at the faint echo of my voice my son starts to cry ‘Mummy, Mummy’. I see him, pixelated over the camera, pick up the bird guide and ask to see the ‘camels’ (cormorants), the swans, ducks, penguins. He nods to each after the page has been thumbed to its entry, greeting each image with gravitas and recognition. I read to him the first poem of the collected, ‘Cormorants’: ‘those perennial / apparations / of the backwaters—their shadows / the faded sails of anchored boats’ (1). On the walk we would normally take now, if we pushed down towards the river, we would see the cormorants with their scythe necks tucked below their oiled wings. My son would point and ask again for us to tell him its name, so he may speak with it. On our nightly walks he often starts to sing tunes we almost recognise as songs, but not quite yet, shifts from twinkle twinkle into the caw of a cockatoo. A poem reaches for both communication and to still time, sets them against each other, tries to snapshot the here and now but to move from one person to the next without anything being lost. These are impossible aims, but the poet keeps reaching.

I write this poem for Kinsella as I am reading his book:

Each time he writes a poem
he puts a bird into it
so he prays, the prayer
is only partly for the bird,
he knows they pray themselves
into flight, into tipping colour
over the sky, he prays
he forgets their names
even as he writes them, that he’ll
put the pen down
and there will be song

What I like is the poet’s ability
to zoom out and back in again
so I imagine always my son
ageing. His limbs extending
himself the stalk in the children’s book
sprouting up; and yet he takes
his injuries with him, the graze
on his lip becomes a withered branch
the bruise on his cheek, a plum
attached, ripe. Inside his
organs grow mutinous, stretch
and intertwine, heart and longing
breath and blood.

I do not pray, but I have poems which I have titled ‘prayer’. I do not sing, but every morning I am launched into a round of ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’. I have never known the names for the species of birds I grew up with outside every window, but now I can sort the honeyeaters apart visually by density of plumage. These are very small things, they sit inside my body, nestled alongside the unnameable shame and guilt of living and parenting on stolen land. Now outside my body, my son who was once the size of a piece of fruit, grows and grows.

Works Cited

Araluen, Evelyn. ‘Shame and Contemporary Australian Poetics’, Rabbit: Indigenous 21
(2017): 117–127. Sourced at: https://www.academia.edu/34410310/Shame_and_Contemporary_Australian_Poetics.

‘Bird Extinction’. Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, February 20 (2022), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bird_extinction.

‘Bron Bateman Presents: Nadia Rhook on poetry, history, motherhood and privilege’, The Fremantle Press Podcast, August 3 (2022), https://fremantlepress.com.au/podcast/bron-bateman-interviews-nadia-rhook/.

Ewen, Erin. ‘A conversation with Evelyn Araluen’, Vertigo, July 2 (2021). Sourced at: https://utsvertigo.com.au/discover/a-conversation-with-evelyn-araluen.

Hughes D’Aeth, Tony. ‘Introduction’ to John Kinsella’s The Ascension of Sheep: Collected Poems Volume One (1980–2005). Perth: UWAP, 2022: xxxi–xxxvi.

Hume, Angela. ‘Imagining Ecopoetics: an interview with Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Evelyn Reilly and Jonathan Skinner’, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment19.4 (2012): 751–66.

Kinsella, John. The Ascension of Sheep: Collected Poems Volume One (1980–2005). Perth: UWAP, 2022.

——. ‘Parrotology (On the Necessity of Parrots in Poetry)’, Disclosed Poetics: beyond landscape and lyricism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007. 16–30.

——. Contrary Rhetoric. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2008. Leane, Jeanine. ‘Living on Stolen Land: deconstructing the settler mythscape’, Sydney Review of Books, November 6 (2020). Sourced at: https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/kwaymullina-living-on-stolen-land/.

‘List of Bird Extinctions by Year’. Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, February 20 (2022), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_bird_extinctions_by_year.

Mawhinney, Janet. Giving Up the Ghost: disrupting the (re)production of white privilege in anti-racist pedagogy and organizational change.1998. Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, Masters thesis, https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk2/tape15/PQDD_0008/MQ33991.pdf.

Menkhorst, Peter, et al. The Australian Bird Guide. Canberra: CSIRO, 2019.

Throssel, Ric. Wild Weeds and Windflowers. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1975.

Tuck, Eve and Yang, K. Wayne. ‘Decolonization is not a Metaphor’, Decolonization: Indigineity, Education and Society,1.1 (2012):1–40.

Veness, Katherine. ‘Birds Under Threat in Our South West’, Katherine Veness’ Blog, Western Australian Museum, https://museum.wa.gov.au/explore/blogs/katherine-veness/birds-under-threat-our-south-west.

Whittaker, Alison. ‘So White. So What’, Meanjin, Autumn (2020), https://meanjin.com.au/essays/so-white-so-what/.

Caitlin Maling is a WA author with four books of poetry, the most recent of which is Fish Work out with UWAP. A fifth book Spore or Seed is due out July 2023 with Fremantle Press. She lectures in creative writing at Curtin University.

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