By Michelle Cahill
Our brothers and sisters came before Captain Cook put his foot on this earth and came here to control our people and be ignorant of our people in Botany Bay
~ Percy Mumbler
The sign reads “140 Steven’s Rd”, at the turn off to Archer’s.
I scramble across fallen trees, dazed by the extent of their burns,
these mangled amputees and contrappostos filtering the Tasman.
The same sea that brought whalers, sealers and the pestilence of smallpox.
The same sea that in 1812 carried four hundred sacred cedars
from Shoalhaven to Port Jackson.
Is the wind cursing the violence of language, the names of white men?
Like Ben Boyd, who trafficked slaves, islanders from the New Hebrides?
Or the Imlay brothers whose stationhand set bloodhounds on Yuin?
Like the stockmen who laced milk with strychnine and poisoned flour?
Or Alexander Berry who evicted people from Coolangatta Mountain
to Roseby Park Reserve; and who captured the warrior, Arawarra,
transporting his head to Edinburgh Museum for scientific ‘research’?
Like D’Arcy Wentworth, superintendent of police, and chief surgeon
who let massacres happen, but managed to secure for himself
500 hectares of Wodi Wodi land?
What my dark skin has taught me is not to trust white words.
Their truth is tidal, like a thin veneer. It causes inexorable harm
to our kin, it bundles our stories, our brown bodies taxed with duty,
like horses to cart their stocks, like bullocks to transport their fuel,
their books; their calculations limit our value, their archives erase us.
I am burnt out, like this sacred forest, my branches broken,
once felled, my mouth full of ash.
Who dares not question the validity of words that ignore such violence?
Layers upon layers of erasures pile up. White pulp, white poetry
works to dispossess; to exhaust us, until we are so deprived of ourselves
as fringe-dwellers, speaking their past, we forget how to remember
who we are.
On ordinary days this disquiet finds me, a strange, brutal light
as when the font of reason incrementally withers, and I am bare.
It’s like being cowed, a minor; the shadowline of their story.
To unlearn is not to recite or react but to exhume; it is to mine
with a tongue that pushes and probes our history’s darkest cavities.
Where are the middens at Kiah? I tell you, Plato’s cave is a dry
socket, axons shoot across the mandible of the colonising canon.
Touch this pain and dendrites spark, but the gap could be a salve,
like the crack I run my tongue along, to whistle, or whine,
to write a verse, handle a vowel, a diphthong, tease a consonant,
type a clause, a page that flouts their authority, their versions.
Only one black wallaby, and a kangaroo bound away at dusk.
Before the fires, animals watched me through the black wattle.
But as the hills and dim gorges burned, I heard Henry Lawson’s
bellbirds screaming in the scarred cedars, the sycamore silent.
Now, there’s no sedge, tumbleweeds, ghost fungus, the soil is dry,
the dust ashen, coating the fenders and taillights of my car.
I’ll take this dust back to the city, as memory and archive
May it stain my hands like the congealed blood of this forest —
So many were hanged, shot, massacred, mauled by dogs,
outnumbered by cattle. A ‘boisterous climate’ boasted Matthew
Flinders, in 1798. He was the first white bird to name this cove,
“a voyage, expressly undertaken for discovery, in an open boat,”
Maritime annals and Native Title were broken with his curse.
- Flinders, Matthew. A Voyage to Terra Australis, undertaken for the purpose of completing the discovery of that vast country, and prosecuted in the years 1801, 1802 and 1803. London: Bulmer and Co, 1814
- Mumbler, Percy, evidence given at the NSW Legislative Select Committee on Aborigines at Wallaga Lake, 1979 cited in A History of Aboriginal Illawarra Vol. 2 by Mike Donaldson, Les Bursill, Mary Jacobs
"As a poet, my process embodies scrutiny over invasion" – Reflection – Michelle Cahill