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Silvery river curving through green hills.

Murrumbidgee River from Shepherds Lookout, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

  • Words in the Air and the Water: Australian First Nations Philosophy in Poetry

    This spring and summer, I’m staying in Australia with my son, catching up on lost time after a long pandemic separation. My son and his family live in Sydney, which is acknowledged as land of the Gadigal Peoples of the Eora Nation.

    At Easter, we drove to the border of Queensland and stayed at a farm owned by my daughter-in-law’s sister and her husband. Riding through the valley filled with pecan trees and clambering up rocks to a waterfall on their property which is perhaps 150 feet high, I was moved by the beauty and age of the landscape and by its sacred quality. Everything around me was Kambuwal Country.

    On a recent bookshop visit, I had picked up a few titles by First Nation poets, having always wanted to acquaint myself with the deeper Australia, the one that goes back 120,000 years, the Australia which underlies settler culture.

    Jeanine Leane, a Wiradjuri writer, poet, and academic from southwestern New South Wales, agreed to be my guide. We caught up on Zoom. I was in Sydney, and she was in Melbourne where she teaches. She’s an animated, fine-boned woman in her sixties with heavy dark hair tied in a scarf, and she gestures expressively with her hands as she speaks.

    I asked her what had drawn her to poetry. “One of my aunts said you grow into what you’re meant to become,” she told me. “I always loved voices, words, stories, and books.” As a schoolgirl, she said, she sometimes used to hide in libraries.

    But when explaining Australian First Nations poetry to outsiders, she likes to use the analogy of a suitcase. “You have packed your wrong suitcase to come to our space if it’s packed with this Western enlightenment agenda,” she said. “You’re welcome to our stories, but unpack your cultural suitcase. Let us tell you what to bring.”

    It turns out I must leave a lot behind, including some notions fundamental to my Western way of thinking, having grown up in England and now living in the United States. They include my concepts of land, time, death, and dreams.

    She takes issue with the idea that her language is dead and her culture lost.

    “We have trauma, but we’re not made of trauma,” she urged. “People will say, ‘sorry you’ve lost your culture,’ and I’ll say, ‘hang on.’ Loss? No, no! You lose a handbag, or you lose a phone or something because you’re careless perhaps, or sometimes tragically you lose a person to death. We didn’t lose our culture and put it down and forget it. Our language went to sleep, but that’s not because we lost our culture. That’s because people wouldn’t let us practice our culture. We didn’t lose it.”

    A woman with black hair and red, black, and yellow sweater poses under a roadside sign that reads Welcome to Nangus, Part of the Cootamundra-Gundagai Region, Wiradjuri Country.
    Jeanine Leane
    Photo courtesy of Jeanine Leane

    The repercussions of the British government using Australia as a penal colony haven’t, in her view, been fully appreciated.

    “Australia was originally founded as this jail,” she explained. “People underestimate that. First of all, it meant how disrespectfully people came to this country of ours, which is so beautiful and so sacred, and then that quick transition from ‘this is a cesspit’ to ‘we can have kingdoms here which we could never have back home.’ That first hard convict class which was so downtrodden got this opportunity to suddenly rise. They are the squatocrasy, and they proved to be far more ruthless than any of that English aristocracy back home.

    “My grandmother was born in 1887, after contact was a long time ago and she had older people who remembered the time on the river before the explorers came. Australian rivers are quite curvaceous, but eventually, the early settlers followed the river and the Blue Mountains were crossed.”

    Leane grew up in the small town of Gundagai on the Murrumbidgee River, about fifty miles west of Canberra, Australia’s capital city. “Sometimes people will ask what does Gundagai mean,” she reflected. “It means this. This place is Gundagai.” Each name describes the place itself. Similarly, her language has no generic term for “river.” To call it the Murrumbidgee River, as it’s marked on modern maps, is redundant.

    She talked about the creek where she played as a child and the pink flowers growing in profusion there. “They had seeds which were really hard, and you can make beans out of them,” she said. “They can grow out of nothing in the most extraordinary conditions, but if you try to make them grow in a garden, it won’t work.”

    It sounded to me like a powerful metaphor for First Nations people. She agreed.

    “A fundamental difference between the West and First Nations people is Western people think land is dormant until somebody does something on it. Build something on it. Grow something on it. Put sheep on it. Put seeds in it. It’s dead before you do that. But we don’t believe that.”

    An elder woman with white hair and wearing an apron holds a baby dressed in white dress and bonnet, standing outside a house. Old black-and-white family photo.
    Young Jeanine with Granny Lilian, 1962
    Photo courtesy of Jeanine Leane
    A woman sits on the ground outsider, holding a human baby in one arm and a kangaroo baby in the other.
    Aunty Betty with baby Jeanine and baby kangaroo
    Photo courtesy of Jeanine Leane
    Two young girls sit in the grass, each holding one or two white lambs. Old family photo.
    Young Jeanine and Aileen play with lambs, Wiradjuri Country.
    Photo courtesy of Jeanine Leane

    “When white people decimated a lot of the Aboriginal men or took them into labor, the women were exploited and had children in nonconsensual relationships with settlers, leading to people like my grandmother who had an unknown white father. That’s the story of my whole line and the story of a lot of Aboriginal. The stories she would pass on are gems of wisdom rather than a whole story. A few of us have written story cycles drawing on anecdotes,” Leane said, such as those in her episodic novel from 2011, Purple Threads.

    Her interlocking tales concern three generations of women—Nan, Petal, Star, and two beloved aunties—and are very much taken from Leane’s own childhood. Although she changed names, “the anecdotes are lived,” she said.

    In an essay entitled “Another Story,” published in 2019, she writes about their composition. “I thought of the circular and entangled way that I first heard the stories and the way I heard bits and pieces of the same story from different family members at different times. The circularity, interweave, incompleteness, and the movements of the stories were integral to the telling.”

    The novel she’s currently working on opens with an anecdote that challenges the Western notion of time. “The old ones told me the Wiradjuri language didn’t split time. Past, present, and future all happen at once.”

    Book cover with red triangle pattern on white background with title: Guwayu – For All Times. A Collection of First Nations Poems. Commissioned by Red Room Poetry. Edited by Jeanine Leane.

    The Wiradjuri word guwayu expresses this concept—meaning “still and yet and for all times.” It’s the title of a collection of First Nations poems commissioned by Red Room Poetry Collective and edited by Leane. “In all cultures, there’s a corresponding word that means all times happen simultaneously,” she said, underscoring the sense of perpetuity and timelessness intrinsic to all First Nations perspectives.

    “A lot of our writing is written in what I call a fourth-person perspective, which is a collective perspective. People say, ‘well, isn’t that a third-person omniscient?’ There’s a relationship, but the fourth-person perspective is a large sweeping geographical mass but also has the capacity to be intimate too.”

    She cites Waanyi writer Alexis Wright’s 2006 work Carpentaria about a First Nations man on an epic sea voyage. “A lot of Western critics read that, and they go, ‘oh, it’s beautifully written, but it’s all fantasy,’” she said. “No, hang on! Is that the limits of your imagination? Is that the limits of Western rationalism? Don’t put the limits of Western rationalism onto First Nations capacity. Do you know that this man can’t make this journey that seems incredible to you? Because his ancestors have been doing it with the stars! It’s not a fantasy at all.

    “It has that inside/outsider perspective which operates simultaneously and is very much the psychic enmeshment of time we are talking about.” To read it, she explained, Westerners must put aside compartmentalized ways of thinking and enmesh ourselves in cyclic ways of thinking. “And cycles can move forward or backwards,” she reminded.

    Book cover psychedelic illustration of abstract swirling shapes, animals, and a handprint over pink, purple, and black mountainous landscape, with title: This All Come Back Now. An Anthology of First Nations Speculative Fiction. Edited by Mykaela Saunders.

    She spoke with animation about Koori writer Mykaela Saunders’ new anthology of First Nations futurist speculative fiction, This All Come Back Now, which presents a very different look at the future than Western readers might expect.

    Its prologue hypothesizes that “time travel isn’t such a big deal when you belong to a culture that experiences all times simultaneously…. And talk to any aboriginal kids from any community anywhere on the continent about gussies or ghosts and you will find a captive audience of experts who will tell you about all the ones they know.”

    There’s another fundamental notion I must leave behind in reading First Nations poetry: the distinction I make between myself and external objects. First Nations Yuin and Thunhutti poet Adrian Webster puts it like this in his poem “Baladjarang”:

    I look at the trees, I see myself
    I look at the rocks, I see myself
    I look at the water, I see myself
    I look at the birds, I see myself
    I look at the country, I see myself
    I look at myself, I see my old people

    The poem, written in Gumae Dharawal, is interpreted here by Jacob Morris and Joel Deaves and anthologized in the Red Room Poetry collection Guwayu.

    I ask Leane about dreams, so fundamental to First Nations culture. “There’s a lot of cultural misunderstanding when people want to hear about our stories,” she said. “They will say, ‘please tell me one of your Dreaming stories. But Dreaming stories have a very special place.” (In fact, she and her community capitalize the D as a sign of reverence.) “It’s not always my place to tell them firsthand.

    “Often in Western literary context, dreams are dismissed,” she continued. “They might be cute, you know? A safe dream or a pipe dream. But that has been a common way of dismissing Aboriginal writing. It’s an element of consciousness that has been unlearned in Western culture.”

    I shared with Leane an observation by Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha poet Ali Cobby Eckermann from his essay in Fire Front, a First Nations collection edited by Alison Whittaker. At an Aboriginal Writers Retreat in 2009, some of the best poems he heard were thrown into a campfire. “The campfire is a vessel that holds many of our stories,” he writes.

    “That’s right,” Leane replied. “They were put into the air—released to the air. They’re still in the air, not dissipating. First Nation literature goes into the campfire and into the air and into the song and into the water.”  

    As we finished our conversation, I pictured Eckermann’s verses going out into the universe, expanding and purifying the silence between our words.

    A river with tan sandy bank in the foreground and dense green trees on the far side of the water.
    Gundagai, New South Wales, Australia
    Photo by brebybun, Flickr Creative Commons

    Amanda Holmes Duffy is a columnist and book reviewer for Washington Independent Review of Books and the voice of Read Me a Poem, a weekly podcast produced by The American Scholar. 

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