March 2021

Back to Issue 9

Fire Front: First Nations poetry and power today

By Alison Whittaker (ed.)

University of Queensland Press, 2020
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit

Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today is an anthology of poetry and essays edited by the Gomeroi poet and academic Alison Whittaker. It should prove an indispensable addition to the canon of First Nations poetry. This new anthology may take its cue from the seminal work edited by Kevin Gilbert, Inside Black Australia: An Anthology of Aboriginal Poetry. Gilbert’s anthology was published in 1988 – the year the country marked its bicentennial of colonial rule with colourful advertisements featuring the jingle, “Celebration of a nation.” One of the aims of the anthology was to disrupt the notion of celebration.

Fire Front also disrupts the idea of celebration of Australian nationalism and it serves as a timely reminder that sovereignty was never ceded, and that Australia is a country built on genocide, oppression, and slavery. In this way,Fire Front is confronting reading. Yet, as the full title suggests, there is a celebratory element to this anthology: one of pride in the power of the poetry created by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The anthology is divided into five sections, each introduced by an essay. The first section, “Ancestor, you are exploding the wheelie bin” takes its title from a line from the opening poem, “Hey Ancestor” (9-14) by the Waanyi poet Alexis Wright. She reminds us that the two hundred and thirty-two years of colonial rule is “A bit of split second in the space of time” (10). Her poem explodes the myth of ownership by repeatedly circling back to the motif of a piece of paper that claims the land as belonging to the colonists:

     I am talking about time immemorial experience – how to grow roots like that. Not like scrap
     of paper made yesterday – a second ago, flimsy, impermanence, that type of thing saying
     you got the title over blackfella country, you are on top. That’s nothing. You are not owner.
     Scrap of paper only painful in the heart, only cover the surface with poison. (10)

As the speaker reminds the reader, “Paper gets blown away” (10). Laws written on paper are a new phenomenon compared with the history of Aboriginal law, and a law only gains its power from force and compliance. For the speaker, the “proper deep law” (10) and “Permanence – ties unbroken, can’t be broken” (10) are contained in the land, the people, and “the ancestral realm” (13).

The second section, “Despite what Dorothea has said about the sun scorched land,” writes back to and against what Evelyn Araluen calls “Australian literature’s cultural dominance” (41) in her essay, “Too Little, Too Much” (39-45). In “The Grounding Sentence” (46-48), the Mununjali and Birri Gubba poet Samuel Wagan Watson uses the wind as an extended, polysemic metaphor. He writes:

For too long I have listened to the wind as it is spoken by passing semitrailers and luxury cars. 
For too long I have complacently existed on these killing fields and built a house of straw in 
the down-wind of the enemy. (46)

Here, the wind is “the wind of change” viewed as not a “breath of fresh air” but as a corrupting and destructive force. The poem therefore confronts the myth of progress, as so many other poems do in this collection. Also present is the idea of being “down-wind” (46) of an enemy – vulnerable to attack like prey that has been smelled out by the hunter’s hounds. The first section of the poem thus ends with the words “… for too long I have let the hunter inside of me become the hunted” (46). In this poem, he reclamation of power begins with the self.

The third section is entitled “I say rage and dreaming.” Some poems here are angry in tone, while others observe that the sheer extent of suffering and misery felt by so many First Nations people can be so overpowering that even anger is drowned out. This phenomenon is evident in Romaine Moreton’s “Are You Beautiful Today” (96-104)? Moreton is Goenpul Jagera and Bundjalung. For her, injustice is so ingrained, so commonplace, that:

     we sit around our lounge rooms,

     discussing jail and suicide as though asking

     one lump or two?

     And all of this makes me laugh,

     and I laugh

     till I am blue (100)

The poem’s voice circles back to the motif of laughter: “can you laugh at the crying / can you laugh and cry for more” (98)? The speaker calls out those who do not suffer from the same plight and who see others’ pain as somehow edifying for them: “and isn’t this inspirational” (98). There is no question mark as this is no question: the statement reflects the self-assuredness of the voyeur. She elaborates on the offensiveness of people who would engage in voluntourism or seek to gain enlightenment in so-called exotic places as symbolised by treks “to Tibet” (98), – “and I feel so smug / and I feel so small / for what they seek / I find / gathered ’round my door” (98). The poet repeats in varied linguistic patterns the notion of inspiration: “and isn’t this inspiring” (98); “are you inspired / by that which is gathered ’round your door” (102)? The poem ends:

     could all of these things


     the brilliance

     which you are sure


     inside of

     you. (104)

Again, as with so many poems in this collection, the tone and content make for unsettling reading. If to read a poem is so unnerving and disturbing, even distressing – what must it be to live it?

The fourth section, “Because we want it back, need it back, because they can” features the intricate and initially perplexing poem “Chocolate Wrappers” (131-132) by the Yorta Yorta and Kulin writer, actor, and director Pauline Whyman. This poem’s single stanza stretches across two pages. Its enjambed lines almost completely free of punctuation cause complex, dreamlike images to merge, some surfacing like shells from the mud at low tide. Lines that seem to protrude above others include: “Echoing songs and sins creeping” (131); “We gather a feathered bed of nurture” (131); “And hearts lampooned sideways” (131). Finally, the poem’s meaning coalesces in the lines: “Sugar is a killer of my people drenching / Its sweet sticky joyous tender kisses on your lips” (132). This visceral, multi-layered poem is about the introduced substance that has robbed so many people of limbs and lives due to diseases such as diabetes.

The fifth section, “This I would tell you,” takes its title from a line from Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s “Son of Mine.” A standout poem in this collection is “I run…” (150-151) by the Djapu writer and Australian Poetry Slam Champion of 2018, Melanie Mununggur-Williams. The poem’s cadences follow the rhythms of the runner. The poet writes: “When life attacks me from all angles like I’m a paper bag in a thunderstorm / I run” (150). The elements of wind and water clash in this poem, tormenting the runner: “I do fun runs and marathons to escape cyclonic turmoil, run through rivers in the hope my scent will get lost in the currents / But like a black tracker, my problems find me” (150). The speaker is beset with problems that “chase” her “down” like the “white authorities” who “chased down brown-skin babies” (150), but the poem ends with hope and self-affirmation. The rain is nourishing as well as disruptive: “I run to the hills and sing my praises to my inner child cos she reminds me of the beauty of a rainbow in the rain” (151). At the end, she runs “to the ocean” and observes: “And if I’m lucky / My salty sweat from all that I have run from / Will one day / Bathe me clean” (151). The imagery is deft and assured as the poet breathes new life into conventional metaphors.

It seems fitting to end the essay not with an assessment of the poems, but with one of the voices from the anthology. Too often white voices have ventriloquised for First Nations voices, and for a non-First Nations person to review such a collection as Fire Front is of course a fraught exercise. In her essay “Too Little, Too Much” (39-45), Evelyn Araluen writes:

     Aboriginal poetics always have, and always will be here – extending the land and waters into
     air. Our poetries will grow as we grow, as we remember and return. Our words bear with
     them more than scholars like myself know what to do with them. They speak to the kind of
     always that isn’t threatened by worlds spinning on around it. (45)