from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Aboriginal Country’ by Lisa Bellear, edited by Jen Jewel Brown

Bellear, Lisa. Aboriginal Country. Ed. Jen Jewel Brown. Perth: UWA Publishing, 2018. RRP: $22.99, 92pp, ISBN: 9781742589756.

Brenda Saunders

Lisa Bellear began writing poetry because she had a lot to say about the Aboriginal social and political conditions of her generation. In the foreword to this collection, Editor Jen Jewel Brown notes, ‘she could summon—with street smart realism—many personas and many stories’ (17). The essay ‘About the Author’ by Professor Susan K. Martin also provides background information on her difficult personal life and the major contemporary issues concerning this activist poet.

Published in 2018, the poems in this collection confront domestic violence, colonising history, politics and everyday racism. In fact, many of these strong poems first appeared in Bellear’s previous book Dreaming in Urban Areas in 1996 (UQP). Her words still speak out and resonate with Aboriginal people today. Sadly, many of the issues she addresses still remain unresolved.

As a talented photographer, Bellear could see the power of the visual image. She documented her community activities, the protest marches, sit-ins and rallies with humour and passion, always careful to acknowledge her source.

The poem ‘My sister’s apron’ was inspired by an archival photo from Lake Tyers Aboriginal Mission. These were commonly used for state records. As with many such photos taken at the time, the subject was objectified by the photographer, who had no interest in the identity of his sitters.

All us girls have to dress proper
We are representing our race […]
Stand in line! No touching! (59)

Aware of the ‘posed’ subject, the poet gives voice to this attitude, referencing perhaps those earlier 19th-century images, as above. In ‘Construct Me’ (44), she speaks back to the man behind the camera and to the reader, reminding us: 

Inside I will
always run free
Some day you may
come to know my name […]        
For our future and our
survival, we must be
remembered. (44)

Another poem, ‘Artist Unknown’ (41), lists the many anonymous works seen in the Indigenous Section at the Art Gallery of NSW. Considered as objects, all are marked ‘artist unknown’.

Several other poems chronicle the pain and anguish of her younger life as an Aboriginal child adopted into a white family. ‘A Suitcase Full of Mould’ brings memories and overwhelming grief.

I am wondering, searching, questioning
I don’t know why
A suitcase full of mould
contains those few precious memories
Of my years, without my people
The photos […] (48)

‘Never again’ (71) poses other questions:       

Torn from country
language and love […]
Who to blame?
Who to forgive? (71)

Bellear often used Aboriginal ‘lingo’, choosing short words for effect. Blunt and sparse, they bring the drama of everyday Aboriginal life to the page. In the poems about domestic violence such as ‘Break the Cycle’ (35), the language seems more terse, dry and incisive. Single words run down the page with menace. These striking evocative images often startle and shock. Others require a reread. ‘Time to leave’ (50) confronts this violence head-on.

Another bruise
Another swollen lie
Today was the start
of a new day dawn (50)

Here she appears to echo the memorable poem of hope ‘New Day Dawning’, by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, but with a sting in the tail! Defeated, another woman in ‘Alive, alone Dreamtime’:

Behind expensive sunglasses
hides eight years of pain […]
slinks into a shadowy
world of nothingness. (58)                             

‘Love’s Polished Floor’ (34), describes another victim as:

Scrumpled into an invisible
heap. Cornered on the recently
polished blak and white
linoleum (34)  

Humour often softens the irony, a weapon used to great effect when confronting racial discrimination. ‘Taxi’ (56) impresses with clever rhymes or half-rhymes.

There’s rules you see; […]
Can’t trust
Got no cash
we’re all nuisances (56)

As an Aboriginal activist, Lisa Bellear never held back from confronting ‘Blak’ politics. In June 1993, the poet writes a letter to Canberra, ‘Mr Prime Minister (of Australia)’ (36), wishing Paul Keating luck with ‘Mabo’ and signing off:

If you need support, like to talk.
Yours sincerely,
A. Citizen
(Noonuccal) (36)

Through her poetry, she challenges the politicians to act, to listen. Her words speak to truth and reconciliation but not at any price. Sadly, not much has changed in Australia since 2006. A treaty with First Nations people still seems a long way off.

In many of her poems, such as ‘Warriors without Treaties’ (85), the poet uses repetition for emphasis and rhythm; vibrant keywords echo as if through a tunnel to great effect.

We are Warriors, Warriors, Warriors
Warriors without treaties
We are here today, today, today
today, to fight as we travel […]
And we are here to stay. (85)

Her frustration is evident inReconciliation spins my head’ (69)

Forgive, forget, don’t
Cry […]
Reconciliation spins my head
picked up the gun
and now your dead (69)

Lisa Bellear died suddenly at the age of 42, in 2006. Her final poems, such as ‘Imagined reality’ (87), express a strong yearning for change and hope for a future.

Where the world seems safe
after one blue sky day
And another
And another
And another (87)

And end with a question in ‘Heart to Heart’ (90).

Could the dream of sovereignty
become a reality […]
Heart to Heart
Could be a start (90)

She leaves an important legacy in the canon of Indigenous literature. This book is essential reading for those seeking greater insight into the heady days of the Aboriginal struggle. Although a poet of the ‘90s, her voice still rings out loud and true. Sadly, she is not here to realise the impact, see the value of her words to other writers and activists now and in the future.                                                                          

Brenda is a Wiradjuri writer and artist living in Sydney. She holds an MA in Creative Arts (Wollongong University) and many of her poems and reviews have appeared in anthologies and journals, including Australian Poetry Journal, Overland, Southerly, Westerly, Cordite and Mascara. Her fourth poetry collection, Inland Sea, is due for release in 2021 (Ginninderra Press). Brenda won the 2014 Scanlon Book Prize (Australian Poetry Inc) and in 2018 the Oodgeroo Noonuccal Prize (Queensland Poetry) and the Joanne Burns Award (Spineless Wonders). She is a mentor for Black Cockatoo, the Emerging Indigenous Poets site at VerityLa.com.

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