Blind and Dumb: Temporal Reverberations in Australian Geopoethic

“Walking along this track, I am placing my feet on the path of thousands of generations Aboriginal peoples’ histories, languages and culture. As a descendant of the invading peoples, I feel blind and dumb, and I’m trying to get used to the giddiness of the space left open when I attempt to remain quiet and listen.”

Northern Territory, Australia. Image via Shutterstock, ID: 506188588

Can I ask you to close your eyes? Better still tie a blindfold over your eyes to block out the light. Then close your mouth and resist the urge to speak. Forget the language you normally resort to. Forget the language you have learned since you were a child.  Now that you cannot see, and the language you know has become irrelevant, you may begin to grasp wildly at both of these things, and all that will remain is doubt in its most radical form. You may wonder if you can trust your body, your sensations, your perceptions?

When I moved from the Southwest of Western Australia up to Fitzroy Crossing in the remote north-west of the state, my first forays into Bunuba, Gooniyandi, Nyikina, Walmajarri and Wangkatjungka countries felt as bewildering as if I had been gagged and blindfolded. I felt as though I had left Australia, and all of my familiar languages and strategies as an artist and writer. In reality the opposite was true. I had arrived in Australia; into some of the ancient, original and evolving cultures and countries that make up this place now known as Australia. I was born in the colonised south, and despite the courageous efforts of Aboriginal peoples all over the nation, the colonising culture has done its best to cover up the original place in which I was born. I was born into, and grew up in an English style suburb with introduced grasses, plants and trees, and into English language and culture, with little idea as a child, that I was living on the country of the Kaurnapeople with its own distinct language and culture, and ways of interpreting the world in which it was situated.

I was out on Country with Walmajarri elders and families when I first heard fellow a newcomer articulate the kind of disorientation I had been feeling since moving to the Kimberley. Joe* is an Aboriginal man from the Alice Springs region. I was listening to him talking to one of the senior Walmajarri men. “I can’t see in this country”, he said. “At home I can see where the animals are, and where they’ve been. Up here it’s like I’m blind, I have to begin again, I’m learning to see. When I come up here (the Kimberley), I can’t speak, I’ve gotta wait.” The Elder replied, “when we go somewhere we wait. If someone asks us to speak, then we speak. If not, we say nothing”.

Listening to this conversation, I think learned something of what it what it might mean to be a visitor in someone else’s country. And I think I understood something of what it might take for the Kartiya (newcomers/white people) world to just step back, to shut up for a minute and listen, which is something that seems hard for us to do. As westerners growing up in the western system we seem to predicate our identity upon what we can say, not how well we can listen. It’s uncomfortable to remain silent. When I walk out through spinifex and termite mounds into the massive plain, I walk towards mountains that don’t seem get any closer. The distances are so vast I feel as if I could walk all day and still not reach the foot of the ranges. I am ignorant of the names, the interrelationships, the histories and reciprocities. In my own silence, I feel the country shouting back at me. All of my confusion, my failures, my achievements, decisions I have and have not made, the bewildering tangle of language, self-judgement, confusion and uncertainty that I carry within myself rises up, explodes in the silence and loneliness of being a stranger in a country I do not know, and that does not know me.

In the vast spinifex plains of the east Kimberley, the Linnean Systema Naturae (The System of Nature), of classification of living things into Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species, seems to alienate rather than offer clarity. The Latin and common Anglophone names of those living things are an uncomfortable fit when you try to lay it over the multiplicity of countries and languages you have arrived in. As Kim Mahood so succinctly articulates, the position of Kartiyas’ (newcomers/white people) in the Kimberley is doubtful, even to ourselves.1

Walking out in the mornings, the story of the night is carved in the red sand; the slash of the snake, the slide of the lizard, and the imprint of its toes laid elegantly either side, plus a myriad of footprints of beings unknown to me, criss-crossing through the imprints of Toyota wheels and human shoes. This bewildering riddle of impressions seems to point to my own complicated position as a settler writer and artist living and working in a colonised country. Art making is an ethical act, which requires the artist to rupture and disturb enervated narratives. Walking along this track, I am placing my feet on the path of thousands of generations Aboriginal peoples’ histories, languages and culture. As a descendant of the invading peoples, I feel blind and dumb, and I’m trying to get used to the giddiness of the space left open when I attempt to remain quiet and listen.

My previous creative work has been place-based; poetry generated by walking and trying to remain open to encounters with air, water, weather, terrain, and the voices and habits of other species. As I see it the question of my responsibility as an artist working in a colonised country, relates to finding a mode of representation that is outside of ideas of ‘belonging’ and its opposite, ‘alienation’, working in the space that  poet and curator John Mateer calls the ‘Ontological Predicament of being in Australia’.2

Perhaps one aspect of this responsibility is learning how to sit with the layers and complexity of colonisation and bracket them off, to then experience the alienation (feeling dumbstruck) and the separation (from the corpus of the rational). This allows an apprehension of the knowledges and phenomena that have sustained this continent for over fifty thousand years to reverberate. As Kim Mahood writes in Position Doubtful, “the horizon shifts in and out of focus – now near, now far, a mirage in the blue air. A moment of inattention and you’re falling, into the gap between ways of being and knowing, into someone you don’t recognise”.3

In his introduction to “Decolonisation and Geopoethics”, Peter Minter asserts that “decolonisation can be shared by everyone, not least the hegemony, for everyone needs to take responsibility for imagining their own unique kind of transformation. In poetry and poetics, we have to think about how non-Indigenous form, western form, romantic form, lyrical form, white form, have a responsibility to current and future cultural conditions”.4

What all this means for writing, for my own settler poetics, I’m still not sure. I’m still in a place of uncertainty. In place of poetry I am making lists, of things I see and hear, of questions I have about my own voice. Perhaps new forms and structures, cross cultural collaborations, and conversations are also needed in order to address geo/eco poetics in this Australian context.

1. Mahood, K, (2016), Position Doubtful, Mapping Landscapes and Memories, Scribe, Brunswick, Victoria
2. Mateer. J, (2012), Nativism and the Interlocutor, (Cordite Poetry Review,1 November 2012, http://cordite.org.au/essays/nativism-and-the-interlocutor/
3. Mahood, K, (2016), Position Doubtful, Mapping Landscapes and Memories, Scribe, Brunswick, Victoria, Page 44.
4. Minter. P, (2016), Decolonisation and Geopoethics, Plumwood Mountain; An Australian Journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics, volume 6, No 1, https://plumwoodmountain.com/decolonisation-and-geopoethics/

Nandi Chinna works as a Research Consultant and Community Arts Facilitator. Nandi uses mindfulness and meditation, slow walking and immersion in nature to facilitate creative writing. Nandi’s poetry publications include: Swamp; walking the wetlands of the Swan Coastal Plain (Fremantle Press, 2014); Alluvium, (with illustrator Andrea Smith, Lethologica Press, 2012); How to Measure Land, (Picaro Press, Byron Bay Writers Festival Poetry Prize winner, 2010); and Our Only Guide is Our Homesickness (Five Islands Press, 2007). Her latest poetry collection is The Future Keepers, (Fremantle Press 2019).