An old poem I wrote in Yolŋu Matha

This is a translation of a poem I wrote in Yolngu matha some time after I had arrived back in Canberra after fieldwork.

I was watching the bedsheets blow about on the hills-hoist clothes-line, here in the backyard, missing camp and kin so dearly. The translation is conceptual (not literal) and done so with the sentiment of original poem in mind.

I have actually posted this poem on the blog before but am (this fine Saturday morning) in the process of revisiting all the poems I have ever written in Yolngu Matha. I’m also listening back through song-poetry that I recorded in camp, which I haven’t yet translated into English. Perché? I am thinking about about applying for postdoctoral funding for a potential bilingual poetry project of some kind.


Today is Sunday

and the bed-sheets,

fitted-sheets and over-sheets

on my line out the back

are sails.


Cream like galiku’,
Cream like calico¹

ŋayi yukurra buŋgulwaŋa,
they flutter and beat²

ga ŋuruŋi ŋarra mulkurr-nha
and with this my mind


Toward [my] kin,

toward [our] Homeland,

([toward] that which is beloved [to me]).

¹The term galiku’ is a loan word derived from precolonial trade relations between Yolngu and ‘Manggatharra’ – people from Sulawesi and other parts of Indonesia who visited the shores of NE Arnhem Land every year, for around 200 years).

In addition to ‘calico’, the Yolngu matha term galiku’ can be used more generally to refer to ‘cloth’. It can also refer to ‘flags’, as in ceremonial flags (which Manggatharra gifted to certain coastal clan groups). Coloured flags fly-atop thin wooden flagpoles in every camp and flutter in their tens and twenties at ceremony (near or around the ceremonial ground or the mortuary shed if it is a funeral). At any moment of my time in camp I was within earshot of a flag fluttering or flapping in the wind.

Flags are also spoken and sung about as ‘sails’. This is an association derived from the calico sails of the Indonesian prau that Manggatharra sailed between Sulawesi and the coast in Arnhem Land. Flags, wind and sails – these are recurring, pervasive motifs of travel, journeying and movement (over distance), which people draw upon in everyday talk and which saturate socio-ceremonial imagery and song.

²The term ‘buŋgulwaŋa’ can literally be broken down into ‘buŋgul’, meaning ‘ceremony or ceremonial’ and ‘waŋa’, which means ‘speak’ or ‘talk’.

³ This is a common turn of phrase that one hears all the time in Yolngu matha- ‘mulkurr roŋiyin-marama’, literally ‘to returning  one’s head’ or take it back’. It is most often used with reference to ceremonial songs when it is used to describe the strong sense of yearning a person feels when they hear their own clan songs (about their Country and/or Homeland), when residing elsewhere. For example, someone might say ‘yaaaaa – my head is being returned toward my Homeland by this, here song’.

The emotion or ‘feeling’  most often associated with this experience is that denoted by the term ‘warwuyun‘, which is something like ‘worry, grief, sorrow, yearning, mourning’. This is not necessarily seen or felt as a negative emotion, however. It is an expression of estrangement – the feeling of longing or yearning that a person feels – when they are separated from their close kin and/or country.


Filed under General personal writings, Poetry turnstile, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

4 responses to “An old poem I wrote in Yolŋu Matha

  1. Thank you. I tell you writing poems in YM is a lot easier than trying to translate them back! Glad to have a YM eye read over it. I have quite a few in notebooks around the place but the thought of trying to translate them to post is a bit much most of the time. x

  2. Naw, thank you. Gumatj is a beautiful language. It lends itself to poetry well.

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