1. I am walking Wurundjeri country. Country that does not belong to me.
Although the cats are nice enough.
2. The suburb is Brunswick. But it could be Fitzroy.
3. I am not familiar with the area, but am becoming so.
4. You realise you’re getting better acquainted once the small geographies begin to register.
The appearance of the houses: almost comically safe and warm. The approach of the intersections: wide, but not country-wide. The way the intersections combine to produce infinite street vistas your eye can never reach the end of. The number of trees that are introduced and the number that are native.
5. (Play this last game and you will find you have more luck barracking for the former team.)
6. You think to yourself: some parts of Brunswick are just so studiously comfortable, ay? Ivy cladding every aspect of every home.
7. An introduced species, ivy. Like cats and plane trees.
8. How many of the settlers back on Wongatha country were always complaining about the cats while accepting the plane trees?
9. I have begun reading Ellen van Neerven’s latest poetry collection, Throat.
10. Halfway through they ask me a question.
‘Are you willing to enter an agreement that is incomplete and subject to change?’1
11. In other words: will I enter a Treaty with Ellen? An agreement of shared power between them and their readers?
I don’t share country with Ellen.
And I am reading their work and writing this essay on country that is not mine.
So I sign up.
12. Ellen has a conversational approach. Like walking in on someone talking in the next room.
in South-East Asia, my appearance
allows queers to feel comfortable
to speak to me openly
about what is not open in their country2
But appearances, as the cliché eagerly reminds us, can be deceiving.
13. Take ‘Animal Crossing’.
14. In ‘Animal Crossing’, land does not belong to anyone. (And there is irony here, given how much of my partner’s mental landscape the game is swiftly colonising.) Race and class do not exist either.
15. Only this is naive, because of course they do. ‘Animal Crossing’ is a contemporary product of a contemporary capitalist society—so of course they do.
16. One thing that is openly acknowledged in the game is linear time. A clock lies at the bottom of the screen, constantly counting down the minutes.
17. 8:54. 8:55. 8:56.
18. My Twitter feed informs me that the Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong has been building monuments to Hong Kong’s independence on the game.
19. Days later, screenshots surface on social media of Chinese government supporters erecting monuments to the status quo: one country, two systems.
20. Gramsci was right. Culture is a political battlefront.
21. In ‘Invisible Spears’, Ellen writes:
you don’t want us protecting
our land like the Maori
that means it was our land to protect
we don’t need
a haka of whitefullas
just let us resist3
22. I’ve always loved that one.
23. Even if I often wish that the final, overly permissive line, were different. Who needs a whitefulla’s blessing to resist?
We have a right.
24. But I think maybe Ellen has grown, too. Because in Throat they now say:
sovereignty was never ceded. why do we need to reference the invasion, we are continuing our ancestors’ talk. I can close my eyes and you are gone—that’s the power of Country.4
25. There are so many perfect poems we catch ourselves rewriting in our heads. Hoping the outcome will be different this time. Wanting, fingers crossed, for things to be otherwise.
Wishing Frost would head off down that other bloody road.
26. In ‘Questions of Love’, Ellen writes:
we speak about gender before colonisation
we speak about love before colonisation5
Only how do we catch up with this before? How does the future meet up with the present? Is it the ships approaching the shore? Or the people on the shore?
27. According to Ellen, ‘created communities are a way to design our futures’.6
I’m not sure what that means. But I think I could learn.
28. I think it is the shore itself. That solid demarcation of land. Particularly when the strength of loneliness that comes from living on unfamiliar country can no longer sustain you.
I’m a long way from Mununjali land
gum leaves under my pillow
smuggled interstate by mouth
they are crinkled and
get smaller each day7
29. Who is doing the creating for communities? Who’s doing the design? Do we construct our future like Timmah Ball, the Ballardong Noongar urban planner? Or do we do it like Lisa Bellear, like Destiny Deacon?
Maybe we do it like Becca Hatch does in her song ‘2560’: the pulse of the bass, bouncy and coiled; the way the modular Afro-jazz scales of the guitar follow her voice and ascend as she rhythms
brown girl from the suburbs
cropped shirt with the sneakers
reminiscing about growing up in the Campbelltown postcode the song takes its name from.
like you don’t understand
like where’d you get that xanax
and chain around your neck
you can’t afford
Best kind of postcode justice I’ve ever heard.
30. Outside my apartment window plants crinkle through fence lines, artfully coiling and navigating their way between the slats.
In my mind their green—that kind of thicklush green—says city city city.
Where I grew up in Kalgoorlie and Laverton, Wongatha country, everything was red and black and pink. The closest shade to green was the burnished brown emerald of eucalyptus.
31. I was born in Kalgoorlie in August 1988. Year of the Dragon.
Two months earlier, Uncle Doug Nicholls passed away.
Same time as Hawke took up the Barunga Statement.
And one hundred years earlier—to the month—Cummeragunja was born.
Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television.
This land was never given up.
Ellen was born in the Year of the Horse.
Must be roughly two years younger than me.
Growing older you realise: there is never enough time.
Only so many days in a month.
You know how it is.
30. In 1968, the American poet AR Ammons wrote something that has haunted me ever since I first read it.
I dreamed my father flicked
in his grave
then like a fish in water
wrestled with the ground
surfaced and wandered:
I could not find him
through woods, roots, mires
in his bad shape: and
when I found him he was
dead again and had to be
re-entered in the ground:
I said to my mother I still
have you: but out of the
dream I know she died
sixteen years before his
as I become a child again
a longing that will go away
only with my going grows.8
29. I am becoming a child again on Wurundjeri country, alive with longing and endless unease. Anxiety that is probably born of the sense of not belonging.
Nangarna mulana yenbena Kulin.
Nangarna mulana Kulin woka.
Or maybe it’s just the ache of watching the days slip through your fingers and feeling like you’re not home and maybe you never will be.
What does it mean to be held
I wanted to speak to you in our language
and tell you I love you
when they heard you died
dust fell at our feet
why you keep me awake
is it to teach me I am not alone
why you keep me awake
is the night like day to you
why you keep me awake
what am I still to do
take the feather
over the bird
dream in song
sing in dreams
it sounds like a child wrote it.
Yes, I’m still a child,
I was eleven when Nanny passed.
I do not have adult words.9
28. Ellen writes about finding a language for experiences you’ve never known how to voice. Sometimes they’ll even tell you as much. ‘I used to have a name (for this)’, they’ll say:
I used to have a name
I want to relax again
‘our places’ are nothing flash
QV and the kebab shop on Sydney Rd
I’m drawn there as if memory
can save me
as if all I need is
one deep sniff
of you and it’ll all be good
tonight my friend called my heart
a marathon runner
and me a chain-smoker who refuses
to quit even when their organs shut
think she meant it
as a compliment?
paths are printed in my blood
when my heart breaks
I’ll have the river10
And you want to have the river. Its continuous flow intermingling with the current of what comes after. The surprise of the earth and the salt filling your mouth.
27. I step into the river and I am back in Laverton. Wongatha country.
The future has not happened yet.
Only I know that this is a lie.
Because sometimes while the future is happening you start to realise that even if you were there when it occurred, you’d probably be too late to catch up with it.
26. Ellen says that they were the only Blak queer in the world. That they ‘hadn’t yet read Lisa Bellear. And cried sitting on the carpet in the library over sharply written work that spoke to me and my experience.’11
It’s true: Bellear changed the game. Shifted people’s gaze to places it’d never been.
Like Destiny Deacon out in Brunswick, remapping our geographies with her art.
thanks Sis for dropping the ‘c’
for us urban blaks you gave us a way to break
free from their expectations define our identity
on our own terms
thanks Sis for taking the white people’s invention
putting your blak eye behind the lens
you know also feel when I’m sitting on the
couch am always feeling too much
telling stories sometimes is the only way out
Brunswick Sista wherever you are
lounge living room Island
darkroom gallery lecture hall classroom
Sis too deadly12
25. Since high school in Boorloo, on Whadjuk country, I have been haunted and often in love with the Flaming Lips song ‘Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell’.
I was waiting on a moment
But the moment never came
All the billion other moments
Were just slipping all away
Including the moment when I never had the chance to meet Lisa Bellear because it was 2006 and I was in Boorloo and just starting university and everything was in its right place except now when I catch myself wondering was it, really?
24. Western thought conceives of time as linear.
That’s one way of seeing it.
Another is to understand that everything has already happened.
Including the moment when all this is over—this essay, this life. Everything that this is.
23. So: I step into the river.
And I am back on Wongatha country.
A farmer holds a bird in his hand. ‘Damn cats keep killing them,’ he says.
As far as this farmer was concerned, the local cats were not nice enough.
22. I guess I should tell you that my partner and I have begun an important project—a scientific enquiry. I envisage that our work will be of some value to future generations. It involves cataloguing all of the cats of Brunswick.
21. Like the stout one with the galvanic tail that traipsed down the curb, inspecting each rain gutter along the way.
The avid orange number that kept trying to apply her soft paws to scale my shoulders.
20. There is joy in the ridiculous. In letting go. Moments that feel like the end of a 1990s US sitcom where all the family and pets gather together and smile with perfect American teeth and we zoom out from the lounge to the nice landscaped suburbs, knowing that this is a fantasy but that it is also perfect in the insistent way that fantasies cannot help being.
19. Life is a river. Jump into it. Begin to play. Every joy and tragedy intermingled.
bounce in my hand
following my mother
my child following me
we have the same hurts
join that song
when we were small
when we were old
tap sticks by the fire
feel like coming home13
18. We have one side of the table to tip tap on the laptop and the other to tap sticks
17. On Yorta Yorta country I experience something strange—the sense of being on Wongatha country.
16. It is greener than Kalgoorlie or Laverton here. No denying that. But sometimes the woka feels like Wongatha woka.
15. Or maybe not the country itself. Maybe just the colonial parts. The wide, rangy aspect of the roads. The Springsteenesque sense of heavy industry permeating everything.
The urban architecture of Kalgoorlie informs Shepparton’s. I have no idea why.
I don’t think the folk in Shep do, either.
14. But in other ways the woka does feel different. Memories of Kalgoorlie are marked by width. Red gravel expanse.
The earth smoulders, even at night.
Burning with sun.
13. Yorta Yorta country feels more wooded, nestled.
Nangarna mulana yenbena Yorta Yorta.
Nangarna mulana Yorta Yorta woka.
It feels like the shed where Allara, a Yorta Yorta musician, is singing.
After the rain
The river flows
And the kookaburras sing
Or like the cello that she plays. Hushed woody vibration of bass strings.
12. She dedicates her song to Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network. The other day they streamed a documentary: Water is Life.
11. Grass punctuates the soil as the gums rise and gather. They stand slightly apart and lopsided. Scrawls of bark trail from their trunks. Grey and gritted.
Throughout the landscape water intervenes in ways it never does on the drier soil of Wongatha.
Wala is life
Wala falls from the sky
Rain beginning of life
Like our kinship ties
10. They walk with you, those waterways. Gently traversing the country.
Like fingers reaching out to form chords.
Galnya mulana yanyubak. Good spirit paths.
And I took the one less …
9. The fires on Yorta Yorta country remind me of pu’er tea. The taste of it.
People during the Qing dynasty stored and traded its fermented black leaves. Their value increased over time.
It is the taste of smoke and shadows and earth.
8. Yorta Yorta gums are spindly thin. The sun glances them easily. Trips through the leaves into the water. Washes across the water like paint.
Wala is Blood
Wala gives flood
Wala is life
Gotta get lore right
fleeing the canvas
illuminating other landscapes
just out of sight
7. In the first, untitled, poem of their collection, Ellen writes:
Memories sometimes come backwards. They haunt-walk in. My therapist—in our last session together before she left—asked me to describe the creative process. I said a voice to throw belief at. How I sit at one side of the table to tip tap on the laptop and the other to write in my notebook. This morning I faced an identity crisis organising my wardrobe. It is mid-spring and I’m not yet warm. In my home, my Country—now several hundred kilometres north-east from here—the sun sits on my shoulders. Every breath is a loss or gain of water. Here my legs curl to my knees and my throat is always dry.14
6. Growing up I never really knew water, apart from when we went to visit Laverton’s one swimming pool or when we travelled from Kalgoorlie to Boorloo, to the coast down on Whadjuk country. Like Ellen (but a lot less often) we were
driving to the sea
once a week
toeing in with caution and curiosity15
5. At sunset the water on Yorta Yorta country vanishes to rust and rainbow. Occasional leaves eddy downstream, dancing the waters.
Cod swim beneath. Burnanga. Whirlpools fuss their tails.
Wrestling with the ground.
Such a sad sight: a ship-shaped hole in the forest
still recovering from the fright of colonisation
the straightest pine cuts into masts
elm into keel and stern post
white oak into hull, floors and futtocks
for the farms: streams of straw and cattle
grazing on the deforested floor.
While the ship sails in southern seas
the ship-shaped hole
thousands of years deep
aches and aches
the people burn their furniture to stay warm
try to regenerate with new trees
left with commercial forests
No consent was asked from the materials of ‘discovery’
in Yugambeh our names for boat and
tree that makes the boat are the same
material handled with care
in the same name
so do I call you tree or mast
as I walk through the wood
full of so many ship-shaped holes?16
4. Small tides agitate the shore, whispering
maloga maloga maloga
Canoe trees turning grey
sand sand sand
Creak of the river percussive
clap, clap, clap
3. Allara picks up her clapsticks.
Rhythm trees. Canoe trees. Scar trees.
Bunjil looks on behind her.
Steely eagle eyes.
And Ellen is speaking outside
like a bird
walk to water
speak in footprints
on sacred land17
Clapsticks tapping a rhythmic staccato. Clicking beak echoes.
clapsticks ring syllables of song
the song lives in the eagle flying overhead
watch for the glint of light from its wing
as it turns in tune with the sun
do not flinch away from angels
they come to appraise the song
in the amphitheatre of our mouths
and the inflation of our hearts
the rightful season is now
sing your love toward the sky
play them clapsticks my sister
the song exists in your heart18
That’s Ali Cobby Eckermann, by the way.
Sometimes you need to let a few other songs in.
2. Before Ellen goes, they tell me:
We sat up singing. Covering our feet from the cold.
The sand I carry in my heart is hot. The
shadows are wet.
My heritage is to honour those in my
blood. We will not tire now. The song
will keep going in us.19
1. I am walking on Wurundjeri country. Country that does not belong to me. Although the cats are nice enough.
Declan Fry is an essayist, critic and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta. Born on Wongatha country in Kalgoorlie, he received the Tom Collins Prize in Australian Literature in 2009 and was a joint winner of the Todhunter Literary Award in 2013. He lives and writes on the land of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung peoples of the Kulin Nation.
Note: The transcription of Yorta Yorta language in this text is based on the work of Aunty Sharon Atkinson. Thank you for everything. If there are any errors, they rest solely with my interpretation.
Excerpts reproduced with kind permission of Ellen van Neerven and Ali Cobby Eckermann.
I also wish to acknowledge the support and guidance of Elders, past and present, in maintaining Yorta Yorta language and culture. •
1 Ellen van Neerven, ‘Four truths and a treaty’, Throat, UQP, 2020, p. 62.
2 Ellen van Neerven, ‘Questions of Love’, Throat, UQP, 2020, p. 83.
3 Ellen van Neerven, Comfort Food, UQP, 2016, p. 63.
4 Ellen van Neerven, ‘18Cs’ Throat, p. 5.
5 Ellen van Neerven, ‘Questions of Love’, Throat, p. 83.
6 Ellen van Neerven, ‘18Cs’, Throat, p. 6.
7 Ellen van Neerven, ‘I used to have a name (for this)’, Throat, p. 111.
8 AR Ammons, ‘Father’, in Briefings: Poems Small and Easy, W.W. Norton, 1971.
9 Ellen van Neerven, ‘Crushed’, Throat, pp. 99–103.
10 Ellen van Neerven, ‘I used to have a name (for this)’, Throat, pp. 111–112.
11 Ellen van Neerven, ‘The Only Blak Queer in the World’, Throat, p. 20.
12 Ellen van Neerven, ‘Portrait of Destiny’, Throat, pp. 54–55.
13 Ellen van Neerven, ‘Tap’, Throat, p. 95.
14 Ellen van Neerven, Throat, p. 3.
15 Ellen van Neerven, ‘Acts of protection’, Throat, p. 24.
16 Ellen van Neerven, ‘A ship-shaped hole in the forest’, Throat, p. 35.
17 Ellen van Neerven, Throat, p. 89.
18 Ali Cobby Eckermann, ‘Clapsticks’, Inside My Mother, Giramondo, 2015, p. 31.
19 Ellen van Neerven, ‘Sand’, Throat, p. 131.