Araluen, Evelyn. Dropbear. University of Queensland Press, 2021. RRP: $24.99, 104pp, ISBN: 9780702264924.
Dropbear: Fermentations of Poetry and of (Hi)story.
Blinky Bill is a 1930s children’s story that has never been out of print in Australia. The lead character, Blinky, is an anthropomorphic koala and conservationist created by author and illustrator Dorothy Wall, who first appeared in Brooke Nicholls’ 1933 book, Jacko—the Broadcasting Kookaburra: His Life and Adventures. Blinky Bill is today widely celebrated as a ‘classic piece of Australian History’, with a series viewable on Netflix, yet it doesn’t take much reading to stumble on ways this adventuring ‘hero’ and his close relationship with the bush has been put to racist symbolic use. Blinky has in recent decades been a poster boy of non-Indigenous republican and environmental movements, and in 2005 members of the Patriotic Youth League—a group closely associated with the Cronulla race riots—marched carrying Blinky’s image.
In Dropbear, Evelyn Araluen—poet, editor and descendant of the Bundjalung nation, asks readers to listen closer to the stories that underwrite the project of settler colonialism in the place many call ‘Australia’. She does so through unravelling the racism coded in such enduringly settler-treasured childhood ‘Australiana’ classics as Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918) and Blinky Bill (1933), as well as by holding to account such histrionic literary figures as soldier Watkin Tench and poet Banjo Patterson.
In a key and personal essay, ‘To the Parents’, Araluen writes about how as a child she heard stories in which she could find no good or true reflection of herself. Her parents told her:
they never chose them [settler-penned stories] to hurt us, and I never thought they did. History is a narrative and they did everything they could to write a new one for us with whatever tools they could find. (58 – 59)
Reminding me of Larissa Behrendt’s study of the power of narratives in Finding Eliza (2016), Araluen shows that the ‘history’ reflected in such children’s stories has colonising effects and is in urgent need of interrogation. Dropbear is also circulating through bookshops, libraries and readers’ minds contemporary with a growing body of work by First Nations poets and writers who are intervening in the ongoing white dominance of history-writing through poetry that defies scholarly conventions of historical knowledge, including Natalie Harkin, Allison Whitaker, Charmaine Papertalk-Green, Tony Birch, Elfie Shiosaki and more. As a white settler historian and poet, living on stolen Whadjuk land and amongst the flourishing of these sovereign Aboriginal ways of relating to the past, I found myself listening for Araluen’s intermittent and startling evocations of ‘history’. The historical work the collection undertakes is eventually revealed to be pointed. Araluen writes in the acknowledgements: ‘Many lives and stories have been erased, exploited or violated in the short but haunted history of Australian literature’ (104).
In ‘To the Poets’, Araluen suggests settlers have granted ourselves history through nativist attempts to ‘ferment’ Country with our stories; an observation that resounds through her analyses of settler literature. ‘You ferment myth into the bush and the billabong to give yourself history, and there’s enough there to make a man and call him native born’ (36). ‘History’ is known in these poems to be violence, and, like other settler things, needs to be removed from the landscape in order for Country to thrive.
‘The Ghost Gum Sequence’ observes how ‘squabbles over heritage’ distract from the way the landscape—the meeting grounds of Araluen’s loved ancestors—is ‘drenched in a history of settler violence’ (6). While poems work to heal the gunshots of the past, they offer no cosy reconciliation with history. Of course, and devastatingly, settler colonialism hasn’t finished yet. In ‘FOR POWER FOR PRAYER FOR PROMISE FOR PEACE’, we face:
too much of history to forgive […]
THE POEM SAYS, SPEAK THE AFTERMATH OF HISTORY//
THE WALL SAYS, FUCK THE POLICE// (92 – 93)
Araluen knows settlers better than many know ourselves, observing how a possessive settler spirit is incarnated through myths as much as through material means. From ‘THE INLAND SEA’: ‘So turn your gaze then; take the map from the wall and the ash from the archive, from your mouth spit the pages you mistook for law and see if they cartograph a ghost’ (70). Is ‘the map’ a metaphor for the fantasy of colonial possession, or the very dog-eared map drawn by a land-hungry imperial cartographer now blu-tacked to a wall above the poet’s desk? Is ‘the archive’—officious repository of colonial bureaucracy—really littered with something as organic as ash? If so, is this the ash of burnt evidence, or a light rain of grief? Here and elsewhere, Araluen plays, joyfully it seems, on the line between fact and fiction, making literature and parodying it.
In her recent review of Palyku writer Ambelin Kwaymullina’s handbook Living on Stolen Land, Wiradjuri writer and academic Jeanine Leane talks about the dangers of genre as a colonial practice of border-making;
From a non-western position, genre appears to be a self-imposed border; a boundary that continues to contain and impound western critics […] who debate form before they can proceed to the message of the work itself. Trying to pin one or other western-defined label on a work such as this is an example of a pernicious settler practice that Kwaymullina critiques in this work—of naming to claim, and to tame. (par. 3)
In the spiritual expanse of Dropbear, there is no separation of poetry from history from renting from eating ‘four’n twenty pies / with artisan magpies’ (22) from arrogant facial expressions assumed during academic conferences from scary Aboriginal people thinly disguised as anthropomorphic banksia heads, from bird song, from love. We are taken deep into the ferments of poetry and of history, asked to listen to: ‘The tangled echo of children and gulls laughing in the university’s stone square that rattles like a magpie, sung through a lyrebird’ (42). This writing channels energy by dissolving borders—between violence and healing, history and fiction, cuteness and danger. As Araluen has written in relation to Aboriginal womens’ work with archives; ‘truth and fiction are relative concepts deeply embedded within structures of power and discourse, and it is in the act of reading and revealing that these structures are put to question’ (496). From ‘Index Australis’: ‘But darl, this is a drama, not a document’ (13).
In the poem titled ‘Secret River’, settler time—and its perpetually-thirsty relation to water—is peeled away from Country through the ‘haunting back’ of those who seek rest among bodies that remain traumatised by colonisation. Lines such as ‘No secrets given by a sovereign river’ (84) suggest the limitations of the 2005 best-selling historical fiction The Secret River by non-Indigenous writer Kate Grenville. Here, the peace that settlers might hope to gain through our own stories of the colonial past is—by the agency of Country and of Indigenous sovereignty—withheld from us. ‘Water carries immemorial, a river without peace will not let you pray’ (84). It felt an astonishing privilege to be invited into an alchemic process where, as toxic (hi)stories are evaporated by the heat of this collection, the abundance of sovereign Country eddies and grows.
Araluen Corr, Evelyn. ‘Silence and resistance: Aboriginal women working within and against the archive.’ Continuum, vol. 32, no. 4, 2018, pp 487-502.
Huxley, John. ‘Who’d Have Thought it—Blinky Bill the face of race hatred.’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 December 2005, https://www.smh.com.au/national/whod-have-thought-it-blinky-bill-the-face-of-race-hatred-20051213-gdmmg9.html.
Leane, Jeanine. ‘Living on Stolen Land: Deconstructing the settler mythscape.’ Sydney Review of Books, 6 November 2020, https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/kwaymullina-living-on-stolen-land/.
Nadia Rhook is a non-Indigenous historian, educator and poet, who lectures in History and Indigenous Studies on Whadjuk Noongar boodja. Her debut poetry collection is boots (UWA Publishing, 2020).