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Launch speeches for Dropbear
Posted 22.03.2021

Launch speeches for Dropbear

Dropbear by Evelyn Araluen was officially launched in Melbourne on 12th March, in partnership with The Wheeler Centre and MPavilion. Associate Professor Jeanine Leane launched the collection alongside poet Melody Paloma and Jonathan Dunk, co-editor of Overland. Here, Jonathan shares his powerful speech:

I wish to acknowledge the Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nations upon whose country we gather tonight.

In a different sense it’s also appropriate to think of the Wiradjuri people of central New South Wales, whose knowledge we will witness, and of the Bundjalung people of northern New South Wales and Southern Queensland, the transformative power of whom it is in so many ways what we are here to honour and celebrate:

I open my book and say, wayan,
Here is a word which means road, but also root
And in it I am rooted, earthed,
Singing between two lands

So wrote Evelyn Araluen in her first published poem ‘Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal’, which was runner up for the Nakata Brophy prize, and published by Overland in 2016. And from those first liminal notes we now witness the cadence of full-throated and mighty song which reverberates, as she writes now in its opening poem ‘Gather’:

Always to all ways

Like its crypto-mythological namesake, Dropbear is protean, subtle, playful, spectral and, perhaps when heedlessly approached, somewhat threatening. This book’s most important offerings are to Country and its people, but one vein of its hybridity forms a poignant essay in immanent critique, a Dunciad of settler folly which I will elucidate briefly.

And it was from each to each that ghosts grew boats: tree specte stacked sliced for belief and buoyancy to break waves against the encroachable unknown… let us break wave so bold the sea shall not remember the path, let us make these heavens learn.

Evelyn writes that in ‘The Last Endeavour’, a title which epitomises its subject and its critique of settlement, as an act of classical hubris.

In 1642 Abel Tasman weighed anchor off the Eastern coast of Tasmania at a place he would call Blackman’s Bay – I wonder why – he and his navigator witnessed intervals notched at considerable distances in the trees and deduced that the inhabitants were giants. This sound reasoning eventually led Jonathan Swift to situate the land of the Houyhnhnms in the general same general vicinity of the far continent that Lieutenant Cook would consider new and generally speaking south of Wales.

And what more might a king want than the light of heaven for their own keeping? The marines who had been tasked with the ballast watch, believed it was to find the deepest sea cavern from which they might recover the dead. You each and all are fools, said the surgeon. We go in search of the great southern land, of the lost Eden, of the darkest abyss where we might release the ghosts. We are on a journey with no return so they will not find theirs back.

Marcia Langton said what’s probably one of truest things that’s been said about settlement when she wrote that the ‘most dense’ relation in Australian politics is not ‘between actual people, but between white Australians and the symbols created by their predecessors’.

Jeanine Leane extends this point when she describes the cognitive structure of White Australia as ‘a mythscape’. This is the place Watkin Tench surveys like Milton’s wary fiend on the brink of hell pondering his voyage in the abyss. This is Marcus Clarke’s weird melancholy, Patrick White’s torturous country of the mind, the carte blanche of the inland desert luridly stained with fourth-hand Freudian projections by a recent expatriate bildungsroman. This is the opalescent sliver of blue sky in the rictus of Ned Kelly’s casket: an orientalising vision splendid of mirage with one foot planted on the edge of modernity, and the other tantalizingly teetering to and fro.

Many of the accomplishments of Dropbear are those of rampant and lapidary originality but it’s also a syncretic feat of crypto-mythology; a mock-epic of white mythology which concentrates its fatal contradictions and lacunae into a sinewy deconstructive drama.

From ‘The Last Bush Ballad’:

The Way Is Won! The Way Is Won! There is better country further out and the mountains shall watch us march by! Weaving out and about the creeks and gullies they remind themselves in the national rings and chimes – we shall reach the sea and drown the Banksia Men if we survive the Bunyip! We shall reach the sea and drown the Bunyip if we escape the Dropbear! For since the haunting of the axe to strike the gum what built the boats to bear the breed they have always known the breath it was that woke the silence they first not to hear: that this land had no poets but it had thirst and rage and dreaming.

Most of this book is for Indigenous readers. But I’ll contend that it does contain a pearl of great worth for we settlers: a piercing truth about the mythos we dragged here, what Gaagadju man Bill Neidjie so eloquently calls ‘the long chain in the leg.’ In, rather than ‘on,’ of it, rather than upon it. Specifically, a sharper recognition that so much of it is gammon; a word which Aboriginal English preserves from the thieves cant of the convicts, meaning smoke and mirrors, a card trick, a distraction to palliate a theft. Or to paraphrase Jeanine’s poem ‘Of Cannibals’: bullshit.

Dropbear is a refusal and rejection of Settler literary history, a rejection of an exhausted, benighted and becalmed tradition with no more light to shed. Michael Griffiths writes in The Distribution of Settlement that the refusal to play a rigged game can also be an invitation to play a better one, an invitation to a more ethical and equitable conversation. Such that, in the words of Barry Corr’s, that is Evie’s father’s, favourite line from what turns out to be a comparatively youthful book:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

A refusal, and an invitation, so long as we remember that Langton’s point about dense relations, and that Esoptrou, the Greek word for glass here, more properly means mirror, and the chain is within.

Associate Professor Jeanine Leane, who was the official launcher, gave a wonderful speech, which began:

It’s an honour to have been asked by Evelyn to launch this stunning and ground-breaking collection. In form and content every poem, every word in this book is a seamless affront to the colonial mythscape. The form that weaves and threads through both poetry and prose defies introduced constraining and restraining northern hemisphere genre rules and constrictions of what is poetry or what is prose.

Associate Professor Leane has a forthcoming essay in Sydney Review of Books that elucidates further on some of the themes she discussed in her launch speech.

Launch photographs courtesy of Tiffany Garvie.