Reconciliation is sought in the wilds of the Australian bush
By Jen Crawford
The West: Australian Poems 1989-2009
The longest poem in John Mateer's The West: Australian Poems 1989-2009 is 'Fifteen Songs', a cycle addressed to the 19th-century Aboriginal warrior Yagan. The story of Yagan is an apposite one for reflecting on Western consciousness about Aboriginal Australia Yagan was shot for a bounty, having figured in the narrative of the colonisers as a thief and murderer, and in the narrative of the colonised as a defender of ancestral lands and tribal law.
After his execution, Yagan's decapitated head was sent to England, where it passed through various private and institutional hands as a curiosity before ending up buried deep in Everton Cemetery, layered over with griefs more recent and comprehensible to the landowners. Yagan's tribe, the Nyoongar, lobbied for years for exhumation and repatriation of the head, so that it might be reunited with Yagan's body and his spirit might rest. However, because a local hospital had buried the remains of more than 20 stillborn infants directly above the head, this was not achieved until 1997, when radar and engineering technology offered a route out, sideways, without disturbance to the English infants' reinforced grave. Once consensus in Australia was achieved, at length, on the likely site of the rest of Yagan's remains and the appropriate burial, the head was finally reburied in Western Australia in July 2010.
Mateer's book voices a personal address to Yagan, approaching again and again the apparent incommensurability of Aboriginal and white Australian narratives that Yagan's story exemplifies. The breach between understandings is represented both in history and in the book's observational vignettes as forced silence, the refusal of speech, deafness, linguistic impossibility and misinterpretation. One familiar move for the Australian poet in this impasse is to find reconciliation in a personal encounter with landscape: in a poet like Les Murray, according to Ross Gibson in South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia, "this sense of subjective immersion in place, this ability to place and to think oneself in systems of settlement other than the acquisitive process of conquistadorial survey might be a reason for optimism."
Accordingly, Mateer's poet-self seeks solace and understanding in the bush. But he also inhabits the Australian landscape in the figure of the colonial ghost, restlessly seeking dialogue with Aboriginal experience. Though Mateer's landscape writing has its gorgeous moments, he is too canny, too willing to think to the limits of the available conversation to write landscape as resolution in itself. Nor is his engagement of Aboriginal tropes a comfortable conceit to carry a passing moment of Western self-abasement or homage to indigeneity. "You have your own culture," he hears Nyoongar playwright Jack Davis say. "Go back to the Greeks" and he has, he does.
The whole book, selected from new works and five previous Australian collections (Mateer has also published in South Africa, Indonesia, Japan, Macau and Portugal some of which are collected in the volume Elsewhere), maps a discontinuous pilgrimage into these very present wilds, away from the post-war cities of the West. These cities are all sharded impenetrabilities, lined with (atomic) clouds and mirrors that at times distort and vanish meaningful subjectivity, and at others create a transport to classical antiquity. "Hermes is to blame", concludes one poem, finding both exemplar and culprit in the Greek messenger god, the god of both trade and interpretation, of commerce between the lands of the living and the dead. Hermes and Yagan, then, are the book's two totems, inflecting the self, both godly and ghostly, through which Mateer encounters both the social and the natural world.
It is the landscape poems which show Mateer at his most fully alert, affording him an unusually subtle freedom and manoeuvrability through the inter-penetrabilities of language, embodiment and environment. Received syntax, the conventional ordering of subject and object, is not agitated, but subtly stirred. We see perception form its objects "around green sight our eyes slide / to sculpt flowers" and subjectivity slip through the boundaries of the body, as in these excerpts from 'Splitter Falls, Lorne':
Often in this landscape work, the animation of the environment approaches mythopoesis via a mobile consciousness. Detail registers not in a 'system of settlement', but in an inhabitation that cannot settle, because it is constantly moving. This movement seems to seek not resolution, but a greater challenge in the Australian context an unhalting conversational current of social and environmental perception.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 1 Jan 2011