McCarthy, Teena. Bush Mary. Carlton South: Cordite, 2021. RRP: $20.00, 61pp, ISBN: 9780648917625.
The relationship between word and image in Teena McCarthy’s first photo-poetry book Bush Mary pivots around the name ‘Mary’. The cover image features a red veil hallowing a figure of religious anonymity. This figure becomes a mantra that sanctifies moments in McCarthy’s own life: from her beloved Nanna Kathleen Mary McCarthy, who ‘always cared for unloved and unwanted orphans, dogs and cats of the area’ (xi), to Mary Dixon the Arrernte Elder who offered her the skin name ‘Napaltjarri 7 Sisters Dreaming’, to the day Mary MacKillop was canonised—an agonising day where Teena McCarthy was raped and bashed by her boyfriend. She hobbled to Saint Mary’s church in Erskineville and after sitting through mass she went on to start painting the 7 Marys series of self-portraits. McCarthy explains: ‘A Kamilaroi woman saw those Mary paintings and spoke to me about a legend of colonial station men who asked: “When are the Bush Marys coming?”’ It was then that she understood her Nanna was a Bush Mary (xi).
In Bush Mary, McCarthy presents faceless, shapeless, voiceless and emotionless figures, shrouded in the habits of Catholic nuns, as a way to explore the Bush Mary legend. Her 2018 and 2019 black-and-white photographic self-portraits partner with the poems and illuminate her in bush backdrops or against stained-glass windows. There is just a bare minimum of props: a baby and a crucifixion of Jesus.
The title poem of the first section, ‘When Are the Bush Marys Coming?’, leads us back into the generations past, and the life experiences of Blak women in this country:
Bush Mary scrubs and cleans until
Fingers Cracked and Bled Mary,
she wanted almost not for nothing
a good feed, blanket.
Mary, hearing the sound of it
a Whiteman’s bugling
as Mary scrubs and clones.
Trying Not to Bristle Mary
has been called to stop her work.
Clocked off Mary
cleans and scrubs until her shine outdoes
The Sun is Setting Mary,
and prayers to Mother Mary,
get me through another night? (3)
Through the prayer to Mother Mary and in the guise of religious indoctrination dedicated to service and the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, McCarthy’s words emerge from the nun-like figures and the darkness behind the veil to reveal women’s experiences that have long been ignored, denied or kept secret. What we learn is that the colonisers’ religion is sanctimonious and oppressive, and that their God is merciful—but only if you’re a white man. As McCarthy writes:
We can no longer escape
into the truth of Bush Mary,
used by carnal.
She is every body.
Bush Mary blood.
She has no voice.
She comes out the bush.
Bush Mary arrives from dark,
she slides out the light,
returns to the meat.
She is a single mother
with a bush,
she is the fucking Holy Ghost. (13)
In the centre of the book is a series of poems, ‘Ode to Brett Whitely’: ‘Suffocated by your genius / I love you Gold Dust’ (25). Energised with adoration and talk of art-world heroes, this is a male-only place where the inclusion of ‘Warhol’, who marketed rape films as art, is jarring. The photographic images that accompany these poems are two 2020 extreme close-up black-and-white self-portraits of McCarthy. Her unveiled face is heavily painted with ochre: in ‘Laugh’ she leans backward, with her eyes closed, to revel in light pouring over her from above (30), and in ‘Sorrow’, her eyes are hollowed black and her head bends downward into darkness (31).
McCarthy’s final series, ‘A Study of Mary’, builds from black cockatoos and willie wagtails ‘basking in the warmth of sun’ (41) who speak Mary’s name, to the haunting words of ‘flies and beasts of men / another run salivating’:
When are they coming?
Dunno, best be soon
Nothing like them Bush Marys,
long as they don’t bring the son.
3 shillings is a lot for us.
They’re lucky to get 1,
mate! Better do their duty…
cook a stew and bend
over, give me job.
Done. Let’s face it, mate
we doing them a favour! (43)
And what world does this become? McCarthy moves to the Commonwealth shame in ‘Spit Hood’: ‘Oh, such a pretty, pretty picture / this Kingdom of the Crown’ (47); and finally ‘I Love You, Darling’, which unites the found voice of the Mary poems with the pace and extroversion of the Whitely poems. A wonderful ode to a matriarch: ‘Arrivederci, Mamma’ (55).
Monique Grbec is a writer, critic and text-based multidisciplinary artist. They have written for Blak & Bright, IndigenousX, Koorie Heritage Trust, The Saturday Paper, Witness Performance, Yirramboi Festival, and Kill Your Darlings. They are currently working on ‘The Wall Remix’ a First Nations reinterpretation of Pink Floyd’s 1979 rock opera ‘The Wall’. Monique Grbec is a child of the Stolen Generations and a producer at Blak & Bright First Nations Literary Festival.