Considering that the whole affair might have gone differently
As my 20-year working life at the University of Melbourne was coming to its natural end by teaching for the last time an introductory subject on modern poetry during the first half of 2018, Andrea and I were planning to spend the following four months travelling in the far north of Australia, first crossing the Great Sandy Desert on the Tanami Track up from Alice Springs to revisit a community in that desert where we had lived for most of the past two years, and then crossing and recrossing the area of Western Australia known as the Kimberley, a craggy region of spinifex, boab trees and laterite still sparsely populated and still unforgiving to the unprepared. This is the country of the Bunuba, Warrwa, Ungummi, Ungarinyin, Ngarnawu and Munumburra, Walmajarri, Kija and other Indigenous peoples.
Before we left, an invitation came to deliver the inaugural Peter Steele Oration at the 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival. It would mark six years since Peter had died. I had known Peter since the 1970s as a teacher, then a mentor, a fellow poet and finally as a colleague, but had not known him as closely as many others. I was told that this oration was a chance for a poet to speak on behalf of another poet. Poets don’t often get to speak to large general audiences in Australia about poetry or its place in the life of the nation, so the University of Melbourne was hoping, for this occasion, to have a poet speak. After explaining that I would be away in a virtually inaccessible outback region at the time of the festival, there came a further offer to fly me back to give the talk, from wherever I was at the time.
This arrangement set me thinking about what a poet might say not only in the luminous shadow of Peter Steele’s poetry, but also in the aftermath of spending two years in a semi-arid desert community of Western Australia, volunteering at its small school (where my partner was a specialist literacy teacher), watching the community’s artists produce their paintings of local flora, sacred sites and significant creatures (and sometimes selling these on Facebook to friends), going out onto the country for visits to important rocks, archeological sites, for ceremonies, and to the vast and yet shrinking Lake Paraku (pronounced Baragoo—‘Lake Gregory’ on most maps), witnessing land rights meetings, funerals, cars bogging or falling to pieces around the place, the illnesses of poverty, and local social crises of comic and of shameful proportions. It had been an intense and isolated environment for all of us visitors there—and whitefellas are always visitors—with increasing dependence on the acceptance and tolerance of the local people.
I thought I would prepare a talk about this place, these people, and what living in this isolated desert community had meant for me, but as it happened the journey further north into the Kimberley took hold. It took hold of me because I could see that the small desert community we had lived in for those two years was one consequence and one recourse in response to a larger history of economic, genocidal, environmental and cultural destruction that began more than two hundred years ago and continues now—though with some surprising possibilities for the future.
How was I to connect this history and my recent experiences to the project of a poet speaking in public at an oration in honour of the poetry of a Jesuit priest who spent much of his life in Melbourne’s leafy privileged Parkville teaching modern and classical literature to the best humanities students the country could muster? For a time in my early twenties I thought that I too would become a Jesuit, and had spent two years in a semi-monastic Jesuit novitiate on the outer edge of Melbourne. Gerard Manley Hopkins was an inspiration for me as he was for Peter, though in my case there was to be no happy marriage between priesthood and poetry.
Andrea and I set out on our journey north from Melbourne at the beginning of June 2018. We are still on that journey. I have been slowly writing what I hope to say as we go. I make disjointed notes in one journal, while also copying out passages into it from the books I am reading, and recording the occasional dream. In another journal I put together from this chancy patchwork a text that might be something like a coherent talk. The final step is to transfer this handwritten text to my mostly idle computer when it has enough charge. We are camping out in country that’s beyond social media and electrical power points.
As we go, and we are more than five thousand kilometres along now, Andrea usually drives while I read aloud to her. We read history, short stories, some philosophy and sometimes poetry. I have a small library of books with me; enough to have had to buy a canvas bag in Kununurra to contain them on the back seat of the car. Alexis Wright’s Tracker is too large to fit in the bag with the other books. It floats around among the boxes in the back of the car.
As we go I read several books of Peter Steele’s poetry, and there is a late poem, ‘Maze’, its title caught in a phonic echo with ‘amaze’, a title tilting at the truth that if we are alive to the world around us we will be both found and lost, or in Peter Steele’s phrase, ‘bested by wonder’ (BtV, p. 299; see References). For me this poem carries something essential about his poet’s voice, and something meaningful to me as I travel through the north of Australia. The poem reminds me how much Peter was immersed in a world that braided the natural with the cultural, the present with history, nonsense with literature, and the body with the soul. Another way of saying this is that Peter’s poetry is acutely aware that the human project is, blessedly, unfinished. The chaotic landscapes of the Kimberley and its wild unfinished history have become strongly present to me as we travel, along with my desire to find meaning in it.
I know there will be those at the Melbourne Writers Festival talk (I cannot bring myself easily to call it an oration, a word that seems to elevate the occasion beyond something I could comfortably be a part of) who knew Peter for longer and more familiarly than I did: his Jesuit compatriots, his family, academic colleagues, other fellow poets, students and friends from Newman College, the University of Melbourne, and from across the world. My aim, I tell myself, will be to celebrate his poetry and bring my voice to an ongoing exchange that, for Peter Steele, was true to the spirit of poetry and the life of literature. It will have to be something of a maze as I move forwards, backwards and sideways through what I hope to find to say.
Before copying out Peter’s poem here, a few preparatory remarks. First, anyone who spent time with Peter Steele or with his writing must know he had a formidable acquaintance with European and classical literature. He was a natural reader, teacher and talker. Adopting the Irish brogue quoted by Mary Durack in her epic Irish-Australian family saga, Peter Steele was one who ‘knew Latin and something of Greek, and all the writers you could lay tongue to’ (Durack, p. 155).
The poem ‘Maze’ begins with an epigraph from James Richardson, an American poet who perfected the ten-second essay, and has penned a good number of aphorisms, among them ‘Reason is the lesser faith that steers us when we have already lost a greater one’ and ‘God help my neighbours if I loved them as I love myself.’
Peter has chosen a James Richardson epigraph for, I am sure, more than several reasons, but I take it that he chose this poet partly in order to introduce him to me, the reader.
I remember attending Peter’s inaugural professorial lecture in the Elizabeth Murdoch Theatre at the University of Melbourne, and for me the lecture was a series of personal turning points. In that lecture he introduced me to the poets Billy Collins and Charles Simic, and, if my memory is good, he brought Elizabeth Bishop into focus for me. These three poets then guided me through a brace of decades of writing. Peter, thankfully, could not help sharing his enthusiasms as a reader. You might say that this was his life’s priestly work.
To continue the preparatory notes: the first line of his poem begins with a common phrase from late-night television infomercials: ‘But wait, there’s more’!—a breathless, crass, and always exploitative promise turns itself as the opening of a poem upon its own head to remind us who would despair that there is always more to marvel at, laugh with, bemoan, shake our heads over and wonder about in the world of human perception. It is a call not just to the despairing, but a late, hopeful cry against hovering death as well.
Finally, before you read the poem I am about to copy out, a note on a theme braided into it, one that I want to follow up—though perhaps it’s not so formal as a theme but more accurately it’s a preoccupation to which Peter lends imaginative play. Aeschylus and Melvin Purvis make appearances in the poem. They share not only the fellowship of near-rhyming each other’s names, but both were the victims of embarrassing, slapstick catastrophes. Aeschylus, as legend has it, died from injuries sustained when a passing eagle, unimpressed by his importance as a tragedian, dropped a tortoise on his head. Melvin Purvis became famous twice over in his life. First for being the FBI agent who brought down Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger and other high-profile gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s. Then in 1935, while being interviewed about his exploits, he was said to have let loose the first full-blown belch on national radio. J. Edgar Hoover, envious of his agent’s fame, and unimpressed with his radio performance, had him removed from the agency within the year. In 1960 Melvin Purvis was said to have committed suicide, though the rifle that shot him belonged to a hitman, and there was no note. These two undignified downfalls haunt the poem.
Alongside Peter’s attention to wavering divisions between fame and tomfoolery, high and low life, tragedy and farce is a sliding aside on the fact that Apollo, mighty god of plagues, war and the arts, was often, in classical statuary, enigmatically accompanied by an image of a mouse below his foot or on his palm or somewhere near him. What the connection was between these two (or what the joke was) can now only be a matter of speculation or poetic association.
The theme I identify here is that commitment Peter shows to how necessary folly is to wisdom, how farce can be the other face of tragedy, how fate and chance are strangely braided, how the great can only be understood in the presence of the small, and how the last, blessed and undignified resource we have is the doubtful gift of words. Like the restless flycatcher of the Kimberley, Peter could sing several songs at the same time.
Towards the end of the poem we come to the word ‘rue’, one of Peter’s go-to words, a word that carries among its makings both contrition and compassion. How intertwined these apparent opposites must be if each one of them is to work. Like silence and talk, one cannot work without the other.
Birds are amazing, newspapers, stoves, friends.
But wait, there’s more—as when the hummingbird
flies backwards for the hell of it, or
the odd flamingo’s pinkened up by snacking
on blue-green algae. Aeschylus, potted
by a dropped tortoise, was one unlucky Greek—
from the same stable as Melvin Purvis,
who pioneered belching on national radio.
Were you an ant you’d start the day by stretching,
and, at a pinch, have a big yawn;
were you a cricket you’d listen through the slits
of your forelegs: were you, alas,
a white shark, you’d never take sick but always
be hungry: and if a caterpillar,
you’d boast to the end a couple of thousand muscles.
The ermine in white is the weasel in brown, and the chow
the only dog with a black tongue:
mice were sacred to Apollo: a camel-hair
may be a squirrel’s tail: the mosquito’s
wings are thrashing a thousand times a second.
If you look for the only crying creature—
or laughing come to that—consult a mirror
and find, your mind bested by wonder, your eyes
lit up again at the starry torch,
rue and its makings, something of jubilee,
the shot-silk of the hours. Better,
as the man said, to keep on dreaming small,
than see given to dissipation
the friends, the stoves, the newspapers, the birds.
(Braiding the Voices, pp. 298–9)
The poem makes provision for ‘the luminous and the shadows’, as Peter wrote of Antonello’s St Jerome in His Study in the National Gallery in London, a gallery that provided him with a large cache of poems.
It is no surprise that a poet drawn to the abundantly connected strangeness of the natural and cultural worlds is also drawn to the playful and contingent subjunctive mood: were you an ant, a cricket, a white pointer, a caterpillar, or for that matter, were you to find yourself listening like a finch, for a wary moment, to the sound of a camera shutter going off somewhere in the wilderness by a roadside puddle …
Better, as the man said, to keep dreaming small. It is our dreams, small and always world-like, that dissipate each morning as we turn from one way of seeing to another. And dreams make poets of us all, for it is in dreams we give ourselves to images.
In June 2018 in Alice Springs, where we were staying over with a school teacher and a doctor, I woke from a small dream caught before it dissipated: some clever people, university types, found some sheets of my writing on a table and they mocked me for what I had written. I told them I had to have those sheets of paper back, that this was the only record I had of that writing. Shortly after this embarrassment, I found myself pants-less in public, the dreaming mind’s preferred image for shame—but an image of shame with intimations of defiance towards conventions and nostalgia for a more innocent self. This was my Aeschylus–Purvis moment. I believe the dream was preparing me for the talk to come. It came so soon after the shock of the invitation to speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival in honour of a poet far more skilled and deeply knowledgeable than I could ever hope to be.
The dream also followed upon a small discovery revealed by an Arrernte woman leading a group of us visitors through the kangaroo enclosure at the Alice Springs Desert Wildlife Park. As we approached the alpha male of a small mob of kangaroos, our guide pointed at a raw red mark extending from the kangaroo’s neck to its chest. She asked us to be quiet and to keep our distance because the kangaroo was blushing.
Among kangaroos this physical display carries a social message, which our guide interpreted as a warning: ‘I’m watching you,’ the message goes, ‘so don’t come any closer or there might be trouble.’ The blush, experienced in human consciousness as embarrassment or shame at possible exposure, also carries a social warning to others that they might be about to cross a line related to psychic distress. Do not come any closer, is the warning. With this mix of vulnerability and aggression attached to the involuntary act of blushing, the associated word ‘shame’ takes on a paradoxical strangeness.
I am reminded that when Peter Steele makes a point it is nearly always at least twofold, and somehow formed to contain a paradox. His poems as we know are replete with birds, and when he observes for instance that each bird is blessed, he writes that it is blessed for being chosen to sing God’s presence, even if sometimes in a blues key (WKwB, p. 85). Peter Steele was unashamed enough of his humanity to remind his reader that only a divinity tempered by the likes of Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash was the kind of divinity he could lend his ears and eyes and mouth to.
A part of the communal or mob life of this emotion of shame or embarrassment, or more mutedly, rue, is expressed by a slang phrase used among Indigenous children in the schools of Alice Springs: ‘shame-job’. In Alice Springs two girls who played roles in Warwick Thornton’s recent film Sweet Country were singled out for praise at their school assembly. Afterwards one of the girls asked a teacher why the school did this. He told her the school was proud of them. ‘Yes, but it was such a shame-job,’ she replied. For all its instinctive impulsiveness, shame can, in a community’s hold, attach in complex and considered ways even to public achievements. In Peter’s words, ‘like any decent paradox, this tells a truth’ (BtV, p. 90). Shame is never far from us social creatures, and it is not possible to feel it if we do not value dignity.
In 1942, Adolf Hitler’s lawyer, Hans Frank, was appointed governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland (Sands, p. 228). When he entertained important visitors in Warsaw he would insist that the Jewish ghetto had no walls, that the Jews lived there in open squalor because that was their natural habitat, and it was a statement of fact that they did not know how to look after their children. The implication was that they knew no shame.
We know that in Australia today Aboriginal people located in isolated communities can be living in relative squalor created by overcrowded housing, broken buildings, lack of maintenance, infrastructure, communication and services. We know that shorter life expectancy, family breakdowns, mental health problems, poor education opportunities and third world diseases such as trachoma and heart conditions brought on by chronic ulcer infections follow from this neglect and powerlessness and isolation. People of different language groups, from very different parts of the country, find themselves thrown together in isolated townships such as Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing, far from their traditional roots. This is shaming for those who suffer these conditions. They carry, in turn, the burden of the consequences of a shameful history of white invasion.
This is not the end of a history, however, and if Peter Steele’s work carries any kind of talismanic message through to us it is, ‘But wait, there’s more …’
Peter Steele’s last book of essays, Braiding the Voices, is titled to chime with Abram Tertzi’s Russian book of prison writing, A Voice from the Chorus. Tertzi’s work is a long letter written to his wife from a Russian labour camp during the 1960s. Peter calls Tertzi ‘a teller of unpleasing truths’ (BtV, introduction). And even in this phrase our ears are pricked to the attentiveness Peter offers to every phrase he composes. It is not the possible pomposity of ‘unpleasant truths’, but the active and communally shaming experience of ‘unpleasing truths’ that Peter admired in Tertzi’s writing. Writing that unpleases was in his sights, as much as writing that remains bested by wonder. The restless bowerbird gatherings of Peter’s poetry seem to be always aimed at any complacency he might find in himself or in the world around him.
Reading his poetry as we travel, and trying to make sense of this country and its history, I find myself grateful to Peter Steele for his conviction that the best questions remain unanswered, that in our lived flesh we might encounter if we’re lucky many unpleasing truths and experience minds bested by wonder. Peter was one for talk. Because for him, only in talk might we work out ‘what the devil is going on’ (BtV, p. 7).
And talk is always an insertion into silence, sometimes against that larger silence awaiting us all. In Mark Moran’s remarkable 2016 book Serious Whitefella Stuff, he quotes the Queensland Kowanyama community elder Maycheltrrakvliy saying more or less what Peter Steele said, ‘Always talk to people and they stop—only way to stop ’em from taking suicide’ (p. 17).
In the poem ‘As They Say’, Peter Steele writes for a friend, the literary scholar Neil Courtney on the occasion of him turning 70:
The sages hold that if the owl is mourning,
rain will come: that a friend’s eye
is a good mirror: that it’s the quiet pig
that eats the meal: that a silent mouth
is melodious: that the work praises the man:
that long sleep makes hot rowing
Glooming, they say that evil enters like a needle
and spreads like an oak: that a bandy dancer
will always blame the piper: that law is a flag
and gold the wind: that every straw
is a thorn at night: that fetching wisdom home
is like bailing the sea with a creel.
Peace to the crew and their saws—the
hidalgo in feathers: the sandpiper
great in his own swamp: the bad hen
that won’t scratch. ‘If heaven made him,
earth can find a use for him’, and has—
a man to love, and no fools we.
(BtV, p. 306)
The owl and the rain, the pig and its meal, sleep and straw, legs and music, wind and sea, law as flag, creels and crews, sandpipers and feathers, hens and swamps, heaven and earth, lovers, fools and sages: this intimate poem, less than a page long, set out in nine five-beat lines, each one glossed by a shorter line between, teems with what is the world and how it keeps meaning more for as long as we can speak, always offering in his poem an unfinished human project as its gift back to us. The peacock as a Spanish gentleman-fop, a straw basket that won’t hold the sea, from a needle the possible oak tree of evil within, a friend’s eye as one’s personal mirror: the restless inventiveness, the nimble and sometimes bandy leaping of associations and the surprising mirror this poem holds up to the world convince us that in Peter Steele Neil Courtney had the most entertaining and edgy of friends, and in Peter’s poetry the reader has a world bested by wonder. The poem moves with esprit, a word that encompasses mind and spirit. Esprit energises the poem as it moves often jokily towards, it seems to me, possibly unpleasing contradictions.
In the vein of this kind of thinking Peter offers the following aside in a cuttingly imaginative, not entirely ironic tone worthy of George Eliot, during a passage on the glad wedding of philosophy and poetry in Dante:
I would like to make a point which I have never seen developed elsewhere, which is that just as there is no a priori reason why Christ should not have been a Neanderthaler or an Inuit or a New Yorker in ten thousand AD or someone checking you out tomorrow at the local supermarket, so there is no particular reason to suppose that the reading off of God’s word to humanity had to take the form which in the western world it largely did—namely via philosophically-based theology. The whole affair might have gone differently, so that for instance, the figures in highest institutional esteem in the Christian communities would be artists, who got things as straight for us as we wished, but who also, for our good kept in those tensions and crinklings to which we did not so easily give welcome. (BtV, p. 33)
When the Kimberley pastoralist Charlie Telford relocated his isolated Mount Hart homestead during the 1960s from a flood plain to higher ground, he had to use his donkeys to move the building piece by piece. It was an Aboriginal poet who got things as straight as they needed to be when he dubbed these odd creatures ‘taxi-belong-Jesus’.
Elsewhere Peter does offer us a glimpse of a world where poets have been invited into the centre of the citadels of power: he transcribes a passage from a medieval Irish chronicle recording a ‘rapacious throng’ of poets (and there is the perfect collective noun and its perfect qualifier for poets!) descending upon a royal court with, of course, a list of demands. Among them was the demand that each poet should have a bed, and beside each bed at a lower level another bed, ‘for fear they might fall out in their sleep’ (BtV, p. 16).
It is not so much the idea of putting artists in charge of the whole affair that interests me in Peter’s aside, but rather that his comment is a return to one of his central and perhaps most unpleasing and shaming themes, namely that the whole affair might have gone differently.
He remarked that when he would write a poem, he wrote to see how things would turn out—this time round. Considering how many precise decisions go into the writing of a poem, he is not suggesting that we live in a world of chance, but that the affair (we call the world) is so complex we must be on our game at all times to come out of it with anything like a truth, let alone an unpleasing truth.
Peter Steele worked best, perhaps, by making asides. Like Freud, who recorded many of his most interesting insights in his footnotes, Peter’s digressions were where he made some of his most brilliant observations. I remember him being like this as the supervisor of my PhD thesis. I would dutifully take my chapters to him, month by month, and he would nod and say, yes, that’s good, keep going, Kevin. The only time he responded with something more personal and possibly rueful was when I brought to him a chapter on the remarkable consumption of alcohol among some modernist writers. So the delivery of chapters continued until I saw him in passing one day on the campus and mentioned I was just about ready to submit the thesis. ‘Kevin,’ he said, ‘you do realise that a thesis must have an argument?’ His brief aside set me to rewriting the whole thesis, and probably rescuing it from being an embarrassment to me. But for bumping into him on campus that day the whole affair of my thesis might have gone very differently.
As we travel through the Kimberley, Andrea and I read aloud Banjo Woorunmurra’s account of Jandamarra, the Bunuba man who led a brief war of armed resistance against pastoralists, police, cattle and sheep in the mid 1890s. We read this history alongside Mary Durack’s epic of her family’s occupation of millions of hectares on Australia’s northern frontiers during the same period.
We read that in the 1880s Perth newspapers were alive with reports of a ‘war’ going on in the north of their state. Joining the debates was a Bishop Gibney, who from this distance seems to me to have been a man convinced that the whole affair might have gone differently. In one of his letters to the papers, after reports of massacres near Wyndham in 1888, he wrote:
[Our blackfellows’] misfortune is that they stand in the way of unchecked spreads of flocks and herds. Insatiable earth hunger and monstrous unscrupulousness are the main factors in the process of ‘removal’ of which they are the victims. They disappear rapidly on the outskirts of civilisation because in such a situation the white man is practically beyond the cognisance of the law, shoots straight and shoots often … (Durack, p. 312)
In 1894 when the Kimberley police under an inspector Drewry of Derby shot and killed, by his count, 23 Aboriginal people in their camp at dawn in reprisal for the spearing of a Constable Collins, the Bishop’s vivid eloquence depicting Aboriginal slaughter as a modern version of Calvary was on display again in the Perth Catholic Record: ‘A pile of dead victims sacrificed to the ruthless Moloch of Australian civilization, at this moment lies rotting under the tropical sun of Kimberley. And surely every gaping wound in their bodies calls incessantly to the Creator for justice’ (Durack, pp. 349–50). Would that the Catholic Church in our time had more such bishops with imagination and shame enough to see how un-set the next moments of history might be.
One respondent to the papers, a writer from the Kimberley frontier, accused Bishop Gibney of being an armchair city critic, ignorant that Gibney had lived and worked among Aboriginal communities of the Bardi, Nyulnyul and Jarrbirjabbirr on Cape Leveque not many years before. Gibney was also apparently present at Glenrowan during Kelly’s last stand, and had entered the burning hotel to administer the last rites to the dying outlaws.
In 1895, during the worst of the Kimberley massacres when settlers and police killed by their own count 85 Bunuba, Gooniyandi and Waruwa people, the bishop wrote that many of these people ‘had lain down their lives to repel what they must have considered an unjust invasion’ (Woorunmurra and Howard, p. 156).
But this is not the end of a story, or even the beginning, for there is more, always more. Many of these Indigenous communities have now regained some degree of entitlement to their land and are buying back some of the still-failing, 400,000-hectare cattle stations; and, in the dry season, in increasingly larger numbers pilgrimages of Australians leave the south to go north to stand in front of ancient spirit drawings on cliff faces, on rock outcrops, under waterfalls and in the gorges of the Kimberley in recognition that this land remains an uncanny cathedral to an ancient way of life, and a unique home to wildlife now almost extinguished.
To drive into the pastoral stations and witness the destruction wrought by cattle to the soil, the vegetation and the waterways is to understand that there was no feeling for this place as anything more than a source of wealth among investors who purchased these huge Kimberley properties. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy group is now partnering with some Aboriginal communities to fence off the most fragile ecosystems from cattle, and institute managed early dry season spot-burns that, for millennia, the Aboriginal people had employed to husband this wild and fragile environment.
These gains do not erase, however, a frightful and shameful history of barbarism against the Indigenous peoples, though they point to outcomes we might not have predicted, and to the importance of a figure such as Bishop Gibney.
The Catholic spiritual writer Michael Casey wrote in his book Fully Human Fully Divine, ‘We who have unknowingly profited from the injustices of our ancestors are not totally powerless to undo the harm. We can own the evil. We can apologise. We can make amends. We can try to minimize the ongoing pain caused by reprehensible action’ (Casey, ebook location 577 of 5102). These are words from deep within contemporary Catholic spirituality, which might have been read around the time of their composition to the Sydney Archdiocese as it prepared its infamous ‘Ellis defence’, and with some irony. Nevertheless, this statement offers powerful guidance to the church, and to those still profiting from or denying or minimising the harmful consequences of reprehensible actions of the past.
None can be complacent or step away from being rueful over the history of the past 250 years. As Andrea and I read on through the story of Jandamarra and the Bunuba people’s resistance, we asked out loud what we would have done, as white people, out in that uncompromising land, faced with the questions a frontier throws up; and as I asked this of myself, I turned a page to read:
In October 1893, a heavily armed police expedition of four white and four black troopers left Wyndham led by Sergeant Brophy. The police were instructed to ‘disperse’ the Aborigines along the Ord, Osmond and other rivers to avenge Collins’ death. The word ‘disperse’ in Australian colonial language meant randomly shooting Aboriginal people with intent to terrorise and kill. The party returned to Wyndham a month later and by its own report had killed a total of thirty Aboriginal people. Nowhere in his report did Brophy connect any of the dead with Collins’ killing. (Woorunmurra and Howard, p. 120)
We navigate a passage through a jagged archipelago of partly submerged questions upon the raft of language. Dispersal, reprisal, settlement, property rights, rule of law, powers of discretion, limits of responsibility: we can’t help hoisting these flags of law as if they will give our raft safe passage into the future.
On 12 July 2018, the Western Australian Police Commissioner, Chris Dawson, made a public apology for mistreatment of the state’s Aboriginal people at the hands of police. He spoke of police contributions to a traumatic history of Australia’s Aboriginal people, and of police ‘participation in past wrongful actions that have caused immeasurable pain and suffering’ (<thenewdaily.com.au>, 13 July 2018). Though we cannot change the past, we can learn from it, he said. In his speech he pointed to the Kimberley township of Wyndham as a location where relations between police and the local Aboriginal people have been recently repaired to the point where local elders report that children now refer to the police as their protectors and friends. That this apology extends to the slaughter conducted on these people 120 years ago was made clear when the chief executive of the Kununurra Waringarri Corporation welcomed the statement, and commented that ‘when you look at the history and the massacres … it’s still in people’s minds’.
In The Gossip and the Wine, Peter’s last collection of poetry, his long and personal lyric ‘Reverie in Lygon Street’ goes in part:
hangs at times between hope and despair, language
bringing its wounded self before us
to say that words are mummery in the face
of the sword and the drone: and yet, and yet
we know and they do not. (p. 18)
Mummery is those medievally inspired extravagant and ridiculous masked plays that pandered to clichés and complacent fantasies: these lines deliver a harsh judgement upon language, and a bare statement too on the presence of violence and suffering. It is a stanza ending, however, as always with Peter Steele on a complication: we have only words (and more pointedly the words of poets) to bring knowledge to bear against swords and drones. This is not the rhetoric of public outrage and despair a Bishop Gibney would rise to, but it is the broad theme of Peter Steele’s poetry, a theme that asks us to encompass in our hearts and in our reading and in our perceptions what Peter calls the world’s ‘blessing of creatures’; and in his hands this word blessing is a collective noun. If Peter were to find himself a witness at the nativity—and he often did as he responded to pictorial versions of the nativity in his poetry—we know he would be mightily distracted by the reek of sheep dung and the slobber of ox (cf. WK&B, p. 273, G&W, p. 6) because he was always alive to what fizzes at our nerve ends.
Peter seems to me at times to be writing alongside that determinedly human mystic of philosophers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who might have been writing in anticipation of Peter’s poetry when he suggested that ‘in order to see the world and grasp it as paradoxical, we must break with our familiar acceptance of it and, also, from the fact of this break we can learn nothing but the unmotivated upsurge of the world’ (Merleau-Ponty, p. xv).
From here I come to a final Peter Steele poem I want to place before you, a relatively early one, one of his most spare, most personal and iconic poems. All poetry is written against silence, and Peter refers to this fact often. The poem is titled ‘The Keeper of Silence’. Such a title stands in opposition and contrast to the attitude of ‘But wait, there’s more’, though it hovers over the same preoccupation.
Before reading it, a few preparatory comments. The poem seems to work like a painting hung on a wall within us, but one that is strangely animated and only partially takes shape as a possible event rather than as an image. The man and the woman in the poem are ripe for interpretation, but they are best taken, I suspect, in wonder.
The paradoxical impulse in the poem is contained in its commitment to a languorous and tortuous syntax even while it doubts the meaning, use and authority of that inveterate habit of language. In the first stanza there are three simple sentences, in the second two sentences, while the last threads one increasingly uncertain sentence through its whole eight lines. It seems to me that the poem does want our minds to glaze over, with no more than an impression of meaning remaining, for this is the way a dream dissipates.
There is an axe in this poem (and it could be from the same maker as Kafka’s axe brought to break the ice within us); it might be worth remarking that elsewhere Peter wrote ‘thoughts might be a case of knives’ (G&W, p. 3). It is the handle of the axe—the way its curve for a moment echoes the shadowed shape of a human lip—that interests Peter.
Most nights, a mile inside the dream, you find
The keeper of silence. Sometimes it’s a woman
Whose blue-grey eyes confound your rising questions
And leave you stilled if not yet satisfied.
Sometimes a man comes into a glade and stands there,
Axe in hand, its helve the shape of your lip,
And whatever you might have said becomes a shadow.
Whether they know each other you could not say.
Deeper into the dream, inveterate habits
Resume authority, as you suppose,
And the long skein of talk runs out and over
Whoever’s presented, as though you couldn’t allow
Their going as God had made them into the world,
But had to lick them into shape with language.
Tyrannical Sirens never told you that
The silent mouth can be melodious.
As for the time of your reversion into
Terrains of artifice and obligation,
One of the early couple sees you off,
Glad, you might guess, that in their company
You bore no witness against yourself, but implied,
‘Out of this silence, yet I picked a welcome’,
who now, elated at the morning’s challenge,
shadow the eyes and lips of all about you.
(White Knight with Beebox, p. 162)
The keeper of silence, the woman who prompts questions and refuses answers, or sometimes the axe-wielding man who might register survival or destruction, ushers us back into the day’s reversion to artifice and obligation, to that world where, as Peter has written, ‘we keep saying things lest silence should say its terrible word to us’ (BtV p 8).
We are left both satisfied and not, pleased and unpleased, to be shown again at the end of this poem that a poet must be shameless in order to write at all, for only poetry acutely attuned to shame can have anything to say. Our foolishness can be the stuff of our most memorable images. As Peter records in his poem ‘The Knowledge’, ‘but what does a frog / in a well know of the waiting ocean?’ (tG&tW, p. 57).
I remain unsure how all this will make a talk, though the reading of Peter’s poetry, as we go, has in some way shaded and coloured our journey through the desert and through the Kimberley’s smashed cliff-scapes, its scattered, twisted boabs and wide dust-and-spinifex plains.
As we travelled we shared fires, campgrounds, tables and tree shade with other travellers, sometimes swapping versions of our life stories. Almost always, when we said we had spent two years living in the community of Mulan in the Great Sandy Desert, or I confessed to being an academic, we would become the audience to the wisdom of those who had stories that encompassed world views. At the small town of Perenjori in Western Australia’s wildflower country, at the end of a day, in the caravan park there, a fellow camper who turned out to be an ex-policeman with experience on his side told us the story of the German archeology doctoral student whose car broke down, and foolishly she left the car and even left the road and became hopelessly lost.
It was only the tracking skills of the young local men who stopped to see what was wrong that saved her life. So much for the so-called knowledge of academics. Then he told the connected story of finding young men stripping a car left out on a remote road. He and the car owner managed to get the young men into their boot and drove them to the nearest town where the sergeant took his time to take statements and drink a cup of tea with the two white men before tumbling the young car-strippers from the car boot into the lock-up. This fellow camper said he too had been to Mulan, chasing some ‘very bad men’. Nearly everyone had a story and every story was meant to point the way to some inevitable truth—as though things could never have gone any differently.
When Andrea and I returned to that small desert community late in June on our way north, the teachers had just been flown out to Broome after a local crisis (you only have to read Kim Mahood’s ‘Kartiya are like Toyota’ to understand how common it is for visitors to find they’ve reached their personal limit or exposed the inadequacies of their motives in these environments); the children were playing around the shop, dogs were everywhere as usual, in 12 months no progress had been made on plans to partner with a pastoralist to bring work to the people and income to the community through a reversion of parts of the land to cattle running, the lake was still loved and we camped by it among the budgerigars under the coolibah there, with the ants too, so busy at the business of the desert beneath our feet. In the community, sitting with people we had come close to and become fond of, all of us (it seemed to me) bewildered by the brutal history that has brought us to this moment, but all of us also bested by the wonder of being alive in such a place with a future to be taken step by step and word by word.
Kevin Brophy’s latest book is Look at the Lake (Puncher & Wattmann, 2018), a record in poetry of his time spent in the community of Mulan.
Michael Casey, Fully Human Fully Divine (ebook), Liguori/Triumph, Missouri, 2004.
Mary Durack, Kings in Grass Castles, Vintage, Sydney, 2008 .
Kim Mahood, ‘Kartiya are like Toyotas’, Griffith Review, 2012, <https://griffithreview.com/articles/kartiya-are-like-toyotas/>, accessed 31 July 2018.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge, New York, 2010 .
Mark Moran, Serious Whitefella Stuff: When Solutions Became the Problems in Indigenous Affairs, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2016.
Philippe Sands, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York, 2016.
Peter Steele, Braiding the Voices: Essays in Poetry (BtV), John Leonard Press, Melbourne, 2012.
Peter Steele, The Gossip and the Wine (tG&tW), John Leonard Press, Melbourne, 2010.
Peter Steele, White Knight with Beebox: New and Selected Poems (WKwB), John Leonard Press, Melbourne, 2008.
Banjo Woorunmurra and Pedersen Howard, Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance, Magabala Books, Broome, 1995.
<thenewdaily.com.au>, 12 July 2018, accessed 13 July 2018.