The Dreamings are our ancestors, no matter if they are fish, birds, men, women, animals, wind or rain.
They watch us humans, and think about us.
They stare at that bitter
Bright world of men,
The sweat on the forehead,
The moving pen.
Possum, who are you?
Douglas Stewart, ‘The Possum’ (1952)
I curl up in my charcoal trunk of night
and dream a welling pictureless encouragement
that tides from far but is in arrival me
and my world, since nothing is apart enough for language.
His curly hair had that touch of red
always found upon a possum’s face.
His eyes as quiet and dark as those
of the one whose totem his mother chose
and so gave him at birth a secret name.
‘Moordjitj kelang’ she gently whispered.
‘You never have to know hurt or shame
if you carry this piece of me every place.’
Archie Weller, ‘Possum’ (c.1997/2007)
A hot summer’s night in Ngunnawal country, out by the Hill’s Hoist. I am being watched, whisker-detected, sniffed, thought about. I only slipped into the Canberra dark to take a T-shirt off the line but caught the young brush-tailed possum mid apple-tree. We stare at each other a while. Then I back away to the deck, sit on the steps and light a cigarette: that one can take his time with his thinking.
My sister’s place in Watson—named after the world’s first labour prime minister—is built on his land; suburb established 1960. Maybe that possum was born here, maybe he migrated to the city from the bush like so many of his ancestors and fellow countrymen.
His place is my birth place. I’m an hour or so’s walk from where Canberra Hospital once stood on the Acton Peninsula (presently the site of the National Museum). Canberra, Kambera, meeting place in Ngunnawal. Or maybe nganbra, nganbira or ngambri, ‘the hollow between women’s breasts’, the space between Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie. A nourishing terrain.
Forty-five years ago almost to the day I came into this world and refused to suck. I lived three weeks on the ward and came home for Christmas: to Hackett, at the foot of Mount Ainslie. Brush-tailed possums live a dozen years or so in the wild: this fellow is only little, maybe two year’s old. He may be a father already. Scores of generations might take you to the ancestor of his who was rustling apples in the vicinity when I was born.
How do you write a possum?
Douglas Stewart felt himself being watched through the window by one while he was writing (‘The Possum‘, 1952).
Stranger, who are you?
What do you want?
There at the window where the branches glint,
With your black-nailed claw
And your black round stare,
And your sharp wild face
And your silver fur.
For Stewart the possum is one of ‘our masters’ in ‘symbol and mask’, watching, thinking, perhaps judging. And being measured in return:
Possum, who are you?
Half beast and half ghost
With your great black eyes
In that body of mist—
Who would have thought
They would send out of space
So much of gentleness,
So much of grace?
I wonder who ‘they’ are at the end of this poem. It might be the ‘vast’ gum trees which first bother the poet from their vigil outside his window. Or creatures from outer space. A godhead? Trees, starlight, blackness abound. Are the ancestors trying to speak through Stewart’s moving hand? Is there possum-voice here?
Gentleness and grace are not words that spring to mind when contemplating animals in Dreaming stories. Ancestors are fierce, strong, conniving, tricksy, survivors. Yes, gentle at times, yes their work in continually making worlds can be figured through the Christian concept of grace. But I also fear the ancestors. Like the ‘super-ordinary beings’ in Indigenous cultures, as Deborah Bird Rose writes, they seem ‘powerful and unpredictable’. And I am on their land.
How to write a possum?
Perhaps better than any living poet Les Murray has tried to think-speak animals: see ‘Bats Ultrasound’ (1986) and ‘Pigs’ (1992) for some extraordinary results. The latter is from Murray’s Translations from the Natural World (1992), and there he ventures to Australian animals and a ‘Possum’s Nocturnal Day’. His possum is the ‘five-limbed Only One’ among other Only Ones, vocalizing with a ‘cough-scoff’, inhabiting an infinitude of perches, a ‘day’ which is ‘nickel’ night, the light-time spent ‘in my charcoal trunk of night’. (Coughs and grunts recur when Australian writers turn to the possum, making me also wonder, suddenly, if these are the creatures Australian city-dwellers most often hear mating?)
Murray knows language as a sign firstly of our fall from grace, from body-knowledge and nature-being: but also the most precious of gifts charged to the ‘glory of God’ (his recurring dedication) and able—when pushed to the limit—to indicate even possum-Creation. Possum-Creation is a world of absolute interbeing: ‘me-and-my-world’ where ‘nothing is apart enough’ to require ‘language’.
This resonates with Bird Rose’s description of ‘healthy’ country in Nourishing Terrains:
A ‘healthy’ or ‘good’ country, is one in which all the elements do their work. They all nourish each other because there is no site, no position, from which the interest of one can be disengaged from the interests of others in the long term. Self-interest and the interest of all of the other living components of country (the self-interest of kangaroos, barramundi, eels and so on), cannot exist independently of each other in the long term. (10)
How do humans belong in healthy possum country? One way is to sing out to them. ‘My father used to do it’, Rembarrnga man Paddy Fordham Wainburranga tells us. ‘We used to get up early in the morning and he’d sing out and talk. […] The law about singing out was made like that to make you notice that all the trees here are your countrymen, your relations. All the trees and the birds are your relations.’ (Paddy Fordham Wainburranga, ‘Talking History’, Land Rights News, 2.9 (1988): 46; quoted in Bird Rose, pp. 14-15.)
This, my own singing out to the possum is somewhat belated. I don’t have the language: or rather I only have this language, academic blog speak.
How do you write a possum?
Let me look at you. Let me look at your ‘sharp wild face’ and try and purge it of cuteness. Can I find in you again that lordly otherness which D. H. Lawrence lent his animals, vis-à-vis ‘Snake’ from Birds, Beasts, and Flowers (1923)? In that collection his ‘Kangaroo’ mother is rooted to the earth, ‘belly-plumbed to the earth’s mid-navel’, contrasting most animals of the global north that ‘leap at the air’ or ‘charge at the sky’s horizon’. She is a ‘liquid drop’, a ‘down-urge’, like an elemental sack of blood, all womb and gravity, leaping only to ‘come down on the line that draws to the earth’s deep, heavy centre’.
There are hints here of the Law working through Lawrence’s hyper-sensitivity, though he may have mistaken the direction of that energy’s flow. As Mudbura man Hobbles Danaiyarri reminds us, ‘Everything come up out of the ground—language, people, emu, kangaroo, grass. That’s law’ (quoted in Bird Rose, p. 9). This kangaroo does not so much bear constantly down to the ground as emerge from it: that might be what Lawrence was sensing and trying to say. And she is thinking about him, watching even while reduced to eating ‘peppermint drops’ proffered by the poet.
But there is also an insufficiently considered aligning of the kangaroo, human Indigeneity, evolutionary time and racial doom.
How full her eyes are, like the full, fathomless, shining eyes of an Australian black-boy
Who has been lost so many centuries on the margins of existence!
She watches with insatiable wistfulness.
Untold centuries of watching for something to come,
For a new signal from life, in that silent lost land of the South.
The human element of Stewart’s ‘blackness’ is made explicit here. And there is the classic modernist manoeuvre of rendering the individual ‘black-boy’ not only representative of a race, but a race in ancient time, as if he were a projection in modernity of the original ‘savage’.
Lawrence is touching on what we might call the ‘phylogenetic sublime’, a sudden sense of standing on the precipice of aeons, the horror of evolutionary time. The awe-struck feeling may direct you to the gods—as with the ‘classic’ sublime—or it may gather to itself the horror, also, of the chanciness of Darwin’s universe. (It would be worth considering the relationship between this and the otherwise distinct concept of the ‘horizonal [sic] sublime’ that, for Bill Ashcroft, governs so much settler Australian art and writing; see his chapter in Patrick White Centenary: The Legacy of a Prodigal Son (2014) and the co-authored Intimate Horizons: The Post–Colonial Sacred in Australian Literature (2009).) It lends greatness to animals, washes away cuteness, makes of them successors to a lordly line.
But it’s a manoeuvre which, in Australian culture, all-too-easily slips between species and across discourses, between evolutionary theory and social Darwinism. We are to look at the young Jedda in Charles Chauvel’s 1955 film in this way—as a projection into the present of a ‘savage’ original—while her white foster-father intones about the ancientness of her people and the immovability of her ‘primitive’ instincts. By way of contrast, when the mother of the persona in Archie Weller’s ‘Possum’ (c.1997) confers on him the totemic name of ‘Moordjitj kelang’ (‘good strong male possum’) she emphatically looks to the future. He isn’t frightened by the ancient name; it rather familiarizes him to country.
Superficially, then, the phylogenetic sublime’s linking Aboriginal men and women and Australian animals looks like the Law’s seamless transition from ancestral creatures to the human: but the distinction is the one relegates contemporary Indigenous peoples to a mythical past, ghosts of ‘fathomless’ centuries, and the other empowers their operation—and the Law’s unremitting energy—in modernity.
Dawns are at stake here. Murray captures his possum at the turning point of ‘nickel’ night to ‘bleaching’ daylight. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, ‘Her full antipodal eyes, so dark, / So big and quiet and remote, have watched so many empty dawns in silent Australia’. This is the ‘Dawn of Man’ memorably depicted with empty horizons at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), the cinematic apotheosis of a phylogenetic sublime. But it’s as if ‘the full, fathomless, shining eyes of [any] Australian black-boy’ are locked on this screen, denied a go-ahead to participate in the famous match-cut between bone and spacecraft. And again, the post-colonial mantra which reminds us of Aboriginal peoples’ continuous occupation of the place we call Australia over 60,000 years risks placing ‘them’ ‘back there’… unless we really do pay attention to that word ‘continuous’. Aboriginal Australians, after all, are as close to the future’s space odyssey as any of us.
2001: A Space Odyssey (match cut)
But if tropes of Australian writing regularly associate evolutionary aeons with Aboriginal peoples and Australian fauna, settler characterizations of animals also tend to derive them from a more proximate dawn: in Eden. Few of us really subscribe to the specifications of Creation set out in Genesis but the cuteness of animals in settler anthropomorphism are their legacy, derived from dreams of nature as a garden in which ‘the fish of the sea’, ‘the fowl of the air’, and ‘every living thing that moveth upon the earth’ are ‘good’.
Murray’s skill is his poem’s ambivalence in this regard: his possumology can be read as a melding of indigenous and Christian knowledges. The possum’s diurnal dream, ‘a welling pictureless encouragement / that tides from far’, can be read as ‘born of the one light Eden saw play’ (Morning Has Broken, 1931). But it is also an instinctive, recurring affirmation of being-in-the-world, of belonging to country.
There is something more here, then, than the inadvertent registering of the force of the ancestors (‘They?’) in Stewart’s poem; the poet is not just a standing on the sidelines, feeling watched. At best he is intuiting the ancestral possum’s worldview through an extraordinarily gifted inhabitation of language; and a way, one suspects, with silence. But as the language is English—albeit English in extremis—the possum’s world-view can only ever appear in translation from its true meaning in Law. Yet I cannot help but feel this possum knows the Law, inhabits it, even if that knowledge cannot be truly expressed for him in such a language, such a form. (This makes Murray’s possum ‘horizonal’ in Ashcroft’s sense.)
How do you write a possum?
Hush, Australian literature’s most famous baby possum, began life as a mouse. The author of Possum Magic (1983), Mem Fox, writes that after nine rejections ‘Omnibus Books in Adelaide, accepted it but asked me to cut the story by two thirds, re-write it more lyrically, make it even more Australian and change the mice to a cuddly Australian animal. I chose possums. (Australian possums are very soft and cute.)’ (Mem Fox, ‘Possum Magic [the gossip]’, memfox.com/gossip-behind-mems-books/possum-magic-illustrated-by-julie-vivas/). While Hush is species-swappable, the beloved children’s picture book in which she features dramatizes the disappearance of her meaning in Law, and re-appearance as a ‘soft and cute’ icon of settler nationalism.
(Don’t get me wrong here: I love this story as much as anyone, not least for having read it to numerous under-threes during my time working in Child Care in the early 1990s. But you don’t need to be a card-carrying postcolonialist to spot the problematic ideology.)
Grandma Poss and Hush, sculpture at the State Library of Victoria
Revelations come at dawn (again). Grandma Poss, who performs ‘bush magic’ has made Hush disappear, mainly to protect her from snakes. Now Hush wants to be visible again, but Grandma can’t remember how, and turns to book, not bush, learning to rediscover the trick.
All night long Grandma Poss thought and thought. The next morning just before breakfast she shouted: ‘It’s something to do with food! People food, not possum food. But I can’t remember what! We’ll just have to try and find it.’ So, later that day, they left the bush where they’d always been, to find what it was that would make Hush seen.
Around the state capitals they go, consuming iconic items of settler food (stuff, I should add, all Australians—not only ‘white’ settlers—might eat at some point or other): ‘ANZAC biscuits in Adelaide’, ‘mornay and Minties in Melbourne’, ‘pumpkin scones in Brisbane’. The solution will be found in Darwin, the Never Never (‘the far north of Australia’), a vague concession to Indigeneity; in a youtube reading, this is where the didgeridoo heard briefly before the telling re-apppears on the soundtrack. The secret? A Vegemite sandwich, followed by pavlova (Perth) and a lamington (the casino in Hobart). It all works: Hush re-appears, but such re-location is fragile (Appadurai reminds us locality must be constantly re-made to be sustained). She must ritually eat settler food every birthday to ensure she doesn’t re-disappear. Put this baldly it reads like a threat.
But I cannot, and should not, forget Hush in the contemplation of this fellow on the apple branch. She is one of the many things I bring to our mutual watch. Nor might those Indigenous children to whom I read Possum Magic all those years ago forego a possum of the Christian dawn at this meeting place…if the food be nourishing.
All of this makes of that fellow an entangled object. But as an interconnected subject, creature of country, what is he thinking?
What am I thinking? Why does it concern me?
These are questions prompted by the Menzies Centre’s recent celebration of the publication of ANU Press’s Ngapartji Ngapartji: In Turn, In Turn: Ego-histoire, Europe and Indigenous Australia (2014); you can download this marvellous volume from the website. Three of its editors (Vanessa Castejon, Anna Cole and Oliver Haag; Karen Hughes could not attend) spoke eloquently of their bringing the French methodology of Ego-Histoire into dialogue with Australian Indigenous Studies. MCAS’s own Helen Idle also read from her contribution to the book.
As the editors write in the introduction:
‘Ego-histoire’ is a term introduced by French historian Pierre Nora in his collection Essais d’Ego Histoire (Nora et al 1987). Nora’s intention was that ego-histoire would be a combination of a personal history, a broader social history and historiographical reflection. (5)
As Nora put it:
The exercise was to clearly set down one’s own story [histoire] as one would write someone else’s; to try to apply to oneself, each with his or her own particular style and methods, the same cool, encompassing and explanatory gaze that one so often directs towards others. To explain, as an historian, the link between the history you have made and the history that has made you. (Nora et al 1987, p. 7) (quoted p. 6)
Helen Idle, Oliver Haag, Anna Cole, Vanessa Castejon at MCAS 4 Feb 2015
While many in the volume dispute the cool objectivity Nora advocated, the method resonates with Indigenous Studies, firstly in its making belatedly and unintentionally a place for the life-writing underpinnings of so much work by Indigenous scholars and activists. Secondly it places the onus on non-Indigenous researchers to declare themselves in ways more usually demanded of Aboriginal Australians.
Ego-histoire, in an Australian context, goes some way to rectifying the imbalance identified by Aileen Moreton-Robinson: ‘the writer-knower as subject is racially invisible, while the Aboriginal as object is visible’ (Moreton-Robinson 2004, p. 81). (8)
Finally it confronts the non-Indigenous researcher with the motivations for her/his forays into Indigenous histories and knowledges. Am I harbouring anything other than a gleaming vision of myself as some Great White Hope (as Gillian Cowlishaw discusses in her chapter, see particularly pp. 228-9)?
The History Wars, the Stolen Generations, the lack of apology, deaths in custody these are powerful social motivations for engaging with Indigenous cultures for anyone, let alone the soi-disant specialist in Australian Studies. But there remains another motivation which I hope to have hinted at here, in this blog and in others, where my own writing comes closest—though not as richly as that of others in Ngapartji Ngapartji—to an Austral-Ego Histoire.
It is the sheer intellectual complexity of Australian modernity as it emerges through the ongoing collision of ancestral knowledges in ‘our’ space. And the depth—to the very core of the planet—of what there is to learn here, even out by the Hill’s Hoist. It is bringing something exciting and new to human culture, which I state without foreclosing the devastation it has also incurred: the destruction and death of thousands of Aboriginal men, women and children, the laying waste of a bush economy, trade, and culture. All of it wants knowing, wants more knowledge-making. Without it we cannot even begin to write a possum. Or make of our country a re-nourishing terrain.
He knows this better than I do.
And I’m trying to work out what he is watching me for.