Review: Dropbear by Evelyn Araluen

Dropbear, the startling debut collection of Bundjalung descendent Evelyn Araluen, starts with the fragmentary poem Gather. The morning light gathers; the poet gathers words and story. To gather is also to pause and calm oneself, and much of this collection of poetry, prose-poetry and prose takes place during and after the twin 2020 catastrophes of the Black Summer bushfires and the pandemic. In PYRO, the country is on fire, and the poem punches in allcaps. She walks her dog “WHO AT THREE MONTHS OF LIVING IS YET TO KNOW RAIN” while “A VIDEO ON TWITTER PLAYS THE HOWLS OF A BILLION RELATIONS ALIGHT”. She teases the proliferation of COVID-19 writing in The Inevitable Pandemic Poem: “It’s April and everyone is at home/but the city left its lights on”; the “warm sour smell of the starter I couldn’t get to rise”. But both events pale in the face of the ongoing disaster of colonisation. Later in the same poem she writes:

It’s April and my job is to pack poems for the

flameproof bunker, to write one that will sit

on top like the ancestral prologue for the nation

that carried on and did what it wanted anyway

Throughout this collection Araluen wrestles with what these events mean and her “entanglement” (the word is repeated throughout) in them. Do they signify the end of history, the slate being wiped clean, nature’s final play? What is her role as inheritor to thousands of years of custodianship for the land, to be related to the land and its inhabitants that are suffering so? And how do you keep on living, loving, making art and family?

Centring these questions is Araluen’s inquiry into the Australian pastoral, “a series of modes which assimilate natural and human worlds into objects of white Endeavour” (Playing in the Pastoral). Her target in particular is those childhood stories that have taken root in many an Australian kid’s subconscious – the gumnut babies Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Blinky Bill, Tiddalik the frog. “I’ve started a book,” she writes in the short essay Breath, which takes place on a trip to Europe while Australia is on fire, “which seeks to tease the icons of Australiana that have been so volatile to this country”. In explanatory notes she defines her engagement with this idea:

the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous peoples inherit is also a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.

Dropbear is an effective demonstration of this resistance. Throughout she remixes and appropriates all sorts of Australiana, from Captain Cook’s voyage (The Last Endeavour), to Wake In Fright (In Fright), Fern Gully (Fern Up Your Own Gully). In Acknowledgment of Cuntery she amusingly and painfully skewers the stumbling and petulant inability of white Australians to deal with the country’s past:

I would like r e s p e c t and

a c k n o w l e d g e m e n t

For all this respect and acknowledgement

The characters of children’s books appear in Dropbear Poetics, but they have escaped the pages and poetry of settlers, and they’re pissed off:

we aren’t here

to hear you poem

you do wrong you get wrong

you get

gobbled up

These are rigorous, playful poems that expose the deadly serious contradictions of the colonisers who so badly wanted to make the country theirs but failed to acknowledge that it was somebody else’s. “truegod,” the poet writes in Dropbear Poetics, “you don’t know how wild I’m gonna be/to every fucking postmod blinky bill/tryna crack open my country/mining in metaphors/for that place you felt felt you”. In To the Poets she addresses these writers directly: “our bones mortar your buildings, your poems”; “do you know what lores I have had to learn while you play in everything they protect?”. “Your body is not the ghost gum”, Araluen snarls in Appendix Australis, “your fingers not sea reeds, your eyes not shining like the brushtail curled against the tree – your body is invasive and these are not your relations to claim.” Prepare to feel unsettled as a non-Indigenous reader; these poems and essays are as biting and uncomfortable as I’m sure Araluen intends them to be. But Araluen is also entangled in these stories, “I was raised on these books too,” she writes in To the Parent, as she struggles to write her own story.

The poems that struck me most were those that bring a mythic chill to recent events, locating them in deep time. In Decolonial poetics (avant gubba) the land is “cauterised” by “healing” flame. “I will be/where I am for,” Araluen writes. Later it is not fire that cleans the land, but flood. “A river without peace will not let you pray,” she writes in Secret River, a chilling flip of Kate Grenville’s novel. She dreams a ghost story in Unreckoning, of “the water that gathers and makes green the living”. “I don’t know if we’re the nightmares,” she confesses. It is a grim vision of the future that nonetheless leaves hope for what comes after. In the long view of time, the “all times … capable of being” (The Ghost Gum Sequence), we’re just a blip.

Words and phrases recur throughout these poems and essays. Perhaps most striking are ghosts, symbolising not just those of dead ancestors and relations haunting the landscape, but the settler that “thinks every tree is a ghost gum” (The Trope Speaks), an image that becomes increasingly absurd until the poet explodes in Appendix Australis: “not a fucking ghost gum”. For all their picturesque fame, Ghost Gums are restricted to central Australia, and certainly would not have been encountered by settlers around Sydney.

There is plenty of anger, anxiety and grief here, but there are also more sentimental poems, tributes to lovers and family, to the light that browns her skin. “If all we get from history is each other,” Araluen writes in the lovely See You Tonight, “Isn’t that enough?” Aching through the collections is the love Araluen feels for her country and the Boorooberongal country she lives in western Sydney. These poems bring it all home and make it personal.

Gay rating: not gay

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