Hall, Phillip. Fume. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2018. RRP: $22.99. 104 pp. ISBN: 9781742589695
Phillip Hall’s Fume is a book of history, story, country, law, family, health and self. Set and written in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and in and around Borroloola more specifically, Hall is an able and evocative guide to the community and his personal experience there. He is acutely aware of the traumas that come with colonisation at ‘the frontier’ and his voice is, by turns, elegiac, resilient, angry, nostalgic and humorous. As dark, sad, vexing as the content gets, Hall’s direct yet lyrical style allows him to articulate important truths about life in this place, encouraging the reader to keep turning the pages and look anew at pandanus and the half-forward pocket, schooling in modern and traditional senses, and the interior life of those under pressure from structures and inheritances that touch us all.
Hall self-consciously builds on his prior work sweetened in coals, with his opening ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ using that specific phrase explicitly (12). Readers familiar with his previous work will recognise Hall’s Carpentaria and the keen eye for naturalistic detail, the rhythmic turn of phrase, and the strong imagery. With regards to nature, Hall is often suggestive, which is seen when he writes, in ‘Concourse’:
but we’re soon bumping along savannah plains
past starkly skeletal eucalypts
and the diamond-tessellated trunks
of cycads and pandanus with their crowns (28)
Here the landscape is haunted (‘skeletal’) but also precious and royal (‘diamond’ and ‘crown’). This ability to depict nature with apt metaphor and a sense of imagery is there in other poems too, including ‘Waterlily Light Well’ (42) and ‘Walk Up Tank Hill’ (22) most especially. In that second poem, Hall writes:
then one afternoon, after
all that dreaming on a white lined
and dusty oval, with a swim in a pool,
it was the foot-pad, a singles
track up Tank Hill:
The emphatic use of ‘i’, especially at the end of a line—white, lined, swim, singles, Hill, stifling, climb—creates an accord between the rhythm and sound with the action of ascent, a layer upon layer that goes upward. It is a careful choice of poetic expression that orients itself around a vowel that has contested meanings in Anglophonic poetics. In this poem, the ‘i’ is a thread, and, in the collection as a whole, ‘I’ is used to comment on place and experience with honesty and thoughtfulness.
Elsewhere, Hall has the ability to create strong images in precise and brief expression, including the example of ‘mushrooming of camps’ (38) which describes the arrival of people for the Borroloola Rodeo. When read with the rest of the poem, the phrase can also be seen as the announcement of the post-war era when one considers both the mushroom cloud and the concentration camp. ‘Mushrooming’ itself can be read as contronymic—at once it is the rise of the camp and the bombing of that way of life. When one thinks of the history of pastoralism in Australia, especially with consideration of its Indigenous workers, the phrase reads as conscious of the 1946 Pilbara Strike, the fight for fair wages and the desire for Native Title. And so, many years later in Hall’s poem, the Rodeo is fun and welcome but it is also an act of displacement. And that brings us to the complexity in Fume as a whole, namely is ability to articulate the paradoxes and dialectics of Hall’s personal experiences in Carpentaria, and the way this matters for rights, belonging, and health.
Hall is especially conscious of the trauma and burdens experienced by young people and the community at large. ‘Lullaby’ (36) is affecting with its references to the djunnas that cause the suicide of others, but Hall is strongest when he talks about his own experiences of mental ill health in ‘Discharge’ (74), ‘Fizzer’ (76) and ‘Professional Conduct’ (78). It is this last poem where Hall’s poetics truly comes together. It has an honest poetic persona (‘I bark’), raw emotion (‘a calling to be needed’), evocative natural imagery (‘outcrop of quartzite eroding to rubble’) and a liberal politics that responds to the colonial:
on my chest I emblazon
the racist’s taunting
as a king plate (77).
It also references other poems in this collection by the use of specific phrases (‘tessellated trunks’, ‘skeletal eucalypts’, ‘ochre body paint’) suggesting some sort of echo, a return and inflection of what has already happened considered anew. And although Fume is bookended by an essayistic introduction and conclusion, which map out Hall’s project in prose, it becomes clear that there is a circular sense coupled with a linear progression. It feels like we are still here, still battling against the tide of indifference, misunderstanding, hate, darkness, alcoholism. How do we respond to that? How might we solve problems, alleviate suffering, teach?
Hall’s answer is in daily life, searing into the reader a poetics of the quotidian that manages to be resilient in the face of attack. The lesson we must heed from Fume then is to value attentive observation, to sing of the love of country recently met, and to acknowledge a community that is aware of tradition. As Hall himself says of his ‘recovery road’ in ‘New Moon’:
is cheeky history breaching
the efficacy of our bardibardi’s junkayi bush brew –
and in the spent aftermath
we are left reading leaves for traces
of blind worry-bird’s shared resurrection
in the slender crescent of a new moon. (85)
In the bush brews of our own countries and by the light of the moon in all its phases, maybe we can find a little bit of peace to call our own, a poetry that knows who it is and what it is to come home.
Robert Wood is the author of History & the Poet and Concerning A Farm. He has been an Endeavour Research Fellow at Columbia University and is currently based in Western Australia. To find out more please visit: www.robertdwood.net