Sci-Fi Twist on Reconciliation


Terra coverClaire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette Australia 2017
(304 pages)

$20 paper, $5 e-book

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Set in occupied Australia, Terra Nullius tells three inter-weaved stories: the first is a residential school for Natives run by Settler Nuns headed by a fearsome Mother Superior, Sister Bagra. In this school, Native children have been forcibly taken from their families and are given a basic education so that they will graduate to domestic service in Settler households.

The second story is the escape of Jacky from a similar place. Jacky is determined to find his birth family. He is told that they may be at the former town of Jerramungup, so proudly takes the name ‘Jacky Jerramungup’.

The third group of Natives live fearful lives in a series of squalid camps, always on the run and moving to a new location as the Settlers drive them into the desert. The only advantage of this is that the Settlers cannot live in the desert.

First-time novelist Claire Coleman, a West Australian Noongar, drops little hints that this is not the occupied Australia we know when the British Settlers occupied the land and treated the indigenous people with cruelty. About half-way through the book, she reveals that these Settlers come from a space-faring Empire, and these Natives are black and white survivors of their arrival.

The Settlers are nicknamed Toads by the Natives because they need moisture to survive. Because of the ever-present threat of Settler violence, the name ‘Toads’ is never used in their hearing.

The three main characters, Sister Bagra, Jacky and Esperance, the de facto leader of the ever-moving camp, are vividly drawn, as well as a big cast around them: Sergeant Rohan the indefatigable hunter of runaway Natives; Johnny Starr, the outlaw Settler whose little gang gathers up Jacky Jerramungup on their way to an eventual show-down with Settler power, and Father Grark the reluctant Inspector sent to Sister Bagra’s mission.

I liked Terra Nullius very much. An atmosphere of dread induced both by the Settlers and the difficulty of surviving in the desert pervades the book. The West Australian settings are familiar but changed. The characters are never reduced to caricatures: most Settlers genuinely believe that the Natives were not human; the Native characters are clear individuals.

The pacing is well-handled. Towards the end, I couldn’t put the book down I was so afraid for Jacky and Esperance, and with reason!

It is a didactic novel. I suspect that Australians sceptical of Aboriginal claims will not be convinced by its premise, and may even be annoyed by its ideas. However, it will appeal to people looking for reconciliation and deeper insights into our shared history, settler and native.

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Poems A Head


Head coverIvan Head, The Magpie Sermons: Poems 2005-2017, Sydney: St Paul’s College 2017.  

Hardcover. Available for $35 from 48header@gmail.com 

Reviewed by Ted Witham  

This collection of nearly 50 poems is the second for Ivan Head. Dr Head is a West Australian priest, former director of AIT and Canon of St George’s Cathedral, who has spent the last 27 years as Warden first of Christ’s College in Hobart and then of St Paul’s College within the University of Sydney. He and his wife Christine are now moving into retirement in Sydney. 

Many of the poems have been published in Quadrant (where Les Murray is the poetry editor), the West Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. Their presence in those publications suggests their high quality. 

Ivan is a poet who celebrates birds and flowers, trips by train and trips to London and the US. In some the words tumble just to celebrate language: 

Montezuma met a Puma going to the fair
Said Montezuma to the Puma let me taste your ware. 
Said the Puma
to Montezuma  
No I prefer my fare rare and so he ate him then and there.  

Many of the poems are complex with multiple levels of meanings. I enjoy recognising the double- or triple-meaning, but also knowing there may be more levels that I don’t get. In Swan River, Ivan reflects on boyhood memories of throwing a kylie, or thrusting a home-made gidgie towards a Cobbler.  And then: 

A boy knows that prawns rest beneath the sand by day. 
It is like knowledge of the Pleiades. 
Under the Narrows Bridge I stood for hours and left a line out all night just in case 
Something big went past.  

After the series of Noongar words and the reference to arcane knowing, the pleasure of ‘Something big’ might mean a fish to catch, or, it might mean deep knowledge of culture, Aboriginal and Western. And it might mean something even bigger.  

An undercurrent of Christian faith and theology, which on occasion rises to the surface level of the poems, holds them in a strong web of meaning.  

Ivan has a strong ear for the music of words, their sound and rhythm. All his poems are free-form and show the influence of modernist and Beat poetry.  

I found real pleasure in their Australianness. The poems are about the plants and animals of Cookernup (near Bunbury), Perth and Sydney. They are about our childhoods in the 1950s. Even when the subject is not directly Australian, Ivan’s attitude is. He punctures pomposity. Here he reduces the English Reformation to Henry VIII’s armour. 

…. And now he’s gone, 
the ghost isn’t in the machine. 
Just the carapace remains 

And what the commentator 
gawks at for the screen 
is the gigantic iron cod-piece 

With nothing in it.  

The Magpie Sermons is printed on quality high-gloss paper and bound simply in a hardcover embossed with gold leaf.  

Poetry lovers will enjoy reading, and re-reading, these poems of celebration, irony, contemplation and joy.  

 

 

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Narrows Bridge 1963

 

Psalm 96 for Australia


7 Ascribe to the Lord, Australians and West Australians,

ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!

8Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;

bring an offering, and come into his breathtaking gorges!

Worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness;

tremble before him, all Australia!

10 Say in W.A., “The Lord reigns!

Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;

he will judge the peoples with equity.”

11 Let the Milky Way be glad, and let the South West rejoice;

let the Indian Ocean roar, and all that fills it;

12 let the golden canola fields exult, and everything in them!

Then shall all the jarrah trees sing for joy

13 before the Lord, for he comes,

for he comes to judge our nation.

He will judge us Sandgropers in righteousness,

and all Australians in his faithfulness.

 

Based on the English Standard Version

http://www.esvbible.org/Psalm+96/

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Psalm 104 for Sandgropers


Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendour and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with an overcoat,
stretching out the heavens like a deep blue dome.
He lays cloud-streets as rafter beams for the sky;
he makes cumulus clouds his chariot;
he rides on the wings of the wind;
he makes his messengers winds,
he makes his ministers a flaming fire.

He set the earth on its foundations,
so that it should never be moved.
You covered it with the deep waters like a cloak;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they fled;
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.
The mountains rose, the valleys sank down
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.

You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills;
they give drink to every animal in the wild;
the wallabies quench their thirst.
Beside them live the magpies;
they sing carols among the branches.
From your lofty home  you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

You make grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for people to cultivate,
that they may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden people’s hearts,
olive oil to make their face shine
and bread to strengthen their hearts.

The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the great karri trees of the south-west that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests;
the wedgetail has her home in the great gum trees.
The high mountains are for the mygalomorph spiders;
the rocks are a refuge for the skinks.

He made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the wild animals creep about.
The dingoes howl for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they steal away
and lie down in their dens.

People go out to their work
and to their labour until the evening.

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Here is the sea, great and wide,
which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great.
There go the cruise ships,
and the blue whale, which you formed as your playmate.

These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works,
who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the Stirlings and the mist moves on the mountains!1
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!
Praise the Lord!

 

Translation ESV (http://www.esvbible.org/)

1 The Aboriginal (Noongar) name for the Stirling Ranges means “The mist moving on the mountains”.

 

 

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Wedgetail eagle nest – Photo courtesy Jill Sampson bimbleboxartproject.com

 

 

 

 

Isaiah 42 for Western Australia


Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:

6  “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,

7  to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

8  I am the Lord; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.

9  Behold, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
I tell you of them.”

10  Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from one side of Australia to the other,
you who go down to the Indian Ocean, and its leviathan surf,
you who explore the wave-carved gaps and blow-holes of Torndirrup National Park.

11  Let the Sandy Desert and places up north raise their voice,
the towns of the Great Western Woodlands cry out to God;
let the wild-flowers of the  south-west sing for joy,
let the climbers shout from the top of the Stirling Ranges.

12  Let us give glory to the Lord,
and declare his praise in Geographe Bay.

– Isaiah 42:5-12 based on ESV

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The Great Western Woodlands

 

Psalm 148 for Western Australia


Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from heaven:
praise him from the heights of Toolbrunup.

Praise him, all his angels:
O praise him all his hosts.

Praise him, sun and moon, rippling staircase across the sea:
praise him, all you stars of light.

Praise him you highest heaven:
and you Cross bright against the dark of night.

Let them praise the name of the Lord:
for he commanded and they were made.

He established them for ever and ever:
he made an ordinance which shall not pass away.

O praise the Lord from the earth:
praise him you golden super-pit and caves of glistening stalactites.

Bush-fire and hail, cyclone and heat:
and willy-willies fulfilling his command.

Mountains of iron and giant ant-hills:
gum-trees, and grass-trees, and grey-green plains of spinifex.

Dingoes and kangaroos:
creeping things and long loping emus.

Elders of tribes, and many nations:
refugees and boat-people, and all who’ve crossed the seas.

Young folk and children:
Seniors and toddlers together,

Let them praise the name of the Lord:
for his name alone is exalted.

His glory is above earth and heaven:
and he has lifted high the stocks of his people.

Therefore he is the praise of all his servants:
of the children of the West, a people that is near him. Praise the Lord.

(Acknowledging Professor David Frost’s version of Psalm 148 in A Prayer Book for Australia)

* Toolbrunup – second highest peak (1,052 metres above sea level) in the Stirling Range in the Great Southern region of WA

* Staircase of the Moon – in Broome and Meelup in February and March the rising full moon shines over the east-facing beach to create a spectacular light effect like a staircase.

* super-pit – open-cut gold mine near Kalgoorlie 3.5 x 1.5 km and 600 metres deep.

* willy-willy – local word for dust-storm or mini-tornado.

* spinifex – properly called Triodia, these arid grasses are endemic to outback Australia.

Willly-willy