I would like to acknowledge the Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and pay respect to their Elders, past and present, and extend that respect to other Aboriginal people here today.
I acknowledge that sovereignty has never been ceded and send a plea to you to continue to work within your communities to decolonise our political and educational systems, the media, the arts and our society at large. I urge you to move together towards establishing recognition, treaty, self-determination and rightful representation in the governance of this land.
I also wish to thank everybody for being here this evening.
Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. 85% of the Australian population live within fifty kilometres of the coastal fringes, Tony Messenger’s book of poems sees him, an urbanite, head into the interior, to discover the lands considered desolate, the places that are deemed unproductive, the deserts. He interrogates Australianness by looking inwards, rather than outwards, for inspiration.
A writer with a colonial heritage Tony undertook a journey into the centre of Australia, to write the text that we are launching this evening and to understand why 15% of the population live in the sparse regions, areas that take up approximately 70% of the country’s total land mass.
You will notice that behind me are images of Arrernte lands, more specifically the West MacDonnell Ranges, throughout my launch speech a couple of photos will be shown so you can visualise the area where Tony’s text was conceived.
The collection opens with the poem “longifolius” (the scientific name for the spiky spinifex grass that is abundant in the central deserts). The poem can be viewed as a metaphor for Australia itself. The grass grows in a circular clump, and as it ages its shape becomes nest like, with the centre dying off as the grass uses all the available nutrients in the soil, the newer stems sprouting on the outside forming concentric patterns. The inner “dead zone” is a haven for ants, who feed on the seeds, and reptiles and birds, who feed off the ants. Hence the circular shape of the poem. Something that may appear barren is in fact teeming with life. Maybe the poem would have been better placed at the centre of the collection?
This leads me to the overall theme of the first section of the collection. Early explorers to the central regions viewed the lands as unproductive, whereas the land supported the First Nations people for tens of thousands of years. Tony’s poems interrogate the colonial lens, seeking to understand the depth of resources that are available in such a harsh landscape. He has used copies of the early explorer’s journals and notes and conducted a redaction, an erasure of their texts to present a world that is swarming with opportunities.
In the controversial court case of 1971, Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, popularly known as the Gove land rights case, Justice Richard Blackburn ruled that Australia had been considered “desert and uncultivated”, Tony challenges this assumption in the second section of poems, several densely populated prose examinations. This is a place where ancient rocks can be spongy when you step on them, where trees compose symphonies when you hug them, river sands melt like meringues and waterholes weep body odour. Whilst surreal these poems challenge your ingrained bias and beliefs, forcing you to succumb to the understandings of all of your senses, not just your sight.
The second section of the collections uses various translated literary texts as either prompts or for remix content. Initially I wondered why the poet, who is “discovering” Australianness, uses works from countries such as Hungary, Scotland or Argentina, but upon reflection I realise that this is a subtle reference to the cultures and beliefs of other nations seeping into the life-blood of Australia, whereas the culture of the First Nations peoples is blindly ignored.
The central Australian desert is vast, hundreds of thousands of square kilometres, a region where only a handful of humans can be found at any one time. Harsh, unrelenting, it is a place that swarming with traditional stories, a region where the untrained European colonial eye simply takes in the “stunning views”. Tony’s poems are a questioning of this ignorance, read them, reflect on your lives on the coastal fringes, be exposed to the ochres and hues of an area that holds a special mystical place in the spirits of the Arrernte peoples. Contemplate the ignorance of living in a nation where the rightful custodians are silenced and oppressed.
Tony’s collection is a measured meditation, from a colonial perspective, on the plight of the indigenous people of this nation.
The book’s epigraph is an excerpt from the short story “The Immortal” by Jorge Luis Borges (translated by James E. Irby) and reads “Novelty and the desert are so abhorred by man that I was glad one of the troglodytes had followed me to the last.” Don’t be a troglodyte, make it part of your mission to make the 21stcentury a place inclusive and understanding for the original inhabitants of this land. Embrace their stories and their plight and be proud that you live in a nation that has the world’s oldest surviving culture.
NOTE: This is a fictional launch speech for a fictional book of poems and continues the piece published by Burning House Press in August “Notes for poems to be found in the desert” written for the theme non-nonfiction.
Tony Messenger is an Australian writer, critic and interviewer who has had works published in Overland Literary Journal, Southerly Journal and Mascara Literary Review. He blogs about translated fiction and interviews Australian poets at Messenger’s Booker and can be found on Twitter @messy_tony
Photos taken by Sydney based photographer Tania Verbeeck and are reproduced with her permission.