Today I was reflecting on the fact that I don’t write poetry as often as I used to, and when I do it tends to ‘come out’ half in English, half in Yolŋu-matha. This makes it quite a different task to write-up and share – to make it sound right in translation (or at least do justice to the way that it sounds in my head). This is true of even short and comparatively ‘literal’ pieces. And as with any translation work it is difficult to know how much contextual information the reader needs to understand it as you’d like them to.
Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about all this because a) there quite a few little poems in my notebook that I’ve neglected over the last many few months, and; b) it’s almost time for me to start writing a serious post-doctoral project proposal and the project that I have in mind is a collaborative project (with my Yolŋu family), collecting, collating, translating – and hopefully publishing – a contemporary, bilingual volume of Yolŋu song-poetry.
Yurru more on that later; for now I thought I should start by revisiting my own little neglected pieces, of which the following is one. (This was the shortest and most simple to translate.)
On a day
when one word
I noted this poem down only a few weeks ago. It was hot and dry and I was sitting on the back step with a cup of tea. I’m not sure exactly why it came to mind but the following may offer some context or sense:
The idea of setting one’s surrounding environment alight is not as one might expect on the Homelands (which is the immediate association or context for my use of term dhuŋgur’-yun). Rather than the ‘arsonist’ or ‘firebug’ type connotations people have a responsibility to manage their Country with fire. It is not only a responsibility, in fact, but a loving and nurturing act in many ways; not to do so is neglectful and ‘not looking after Country’ if that makes more sense. One of my favourite, early memories of foot-walking Country was with my close, older sister. We were walking back from our Mother’s Country at dusk and as we walked she started to set the tall, dry grass on fire on one side of the track (with a lighter from her skirt pocket.) I was not only nervous but a bit terrified. She laughed at my balanda (white person, European) concern and handed me a lighter. “Dhuŋgur’-yun-nha!” (set [it] alight!) she said, pointing to the grass on the other side of the track. “Yuwalk!?” (Truly?! [or more like ‘Are you fucking serious!?’ in this case]). She laughed and instructed me to ‘get on with it’. By the time the sun had set we were leading a huge corridor of fire, burning in our wake. I kept turning back to check on it nervously and yapa kept catching my eye with a knowing and amused smile.
This responsibility to set Country alight is in dramatic contrast to the [human] social environment, ‘words,’ and ŋayaŋu (state or sense of feeling [among and between people]). People are hyper-aware of the power of words and are very careful with how they use or deploy them. It is the norm and etiquette to speak in an indirect manner as possible, for example, to avoid excluding or upsetting others or ‘putting them on the spot’ (for want of a better description) – such that Ian Keen refers to a ‘pervasive obliquity’ in Yolŋu languages and language use.
In closing, I should also note that there are idioms or expressions in Yolŋu-matha that bring these two things together – such as ŋoy–dhuŋgur’-yun (literally ‘seat of emotions-set alight’), which is the transitive verb ‘to make someone angry, irate’. Perhaps I was thinking about the importance of being careful with words? Dhuŋa ŋarra (I don’t know).
Ahh-men anyway, and happy new yearra-whatever.
† this is not a literal or ‘direct’ translation. Warpam, for example, means ‘everything, all’ but I’ve placed the translation of the term elsewhere because this structure or flow is more ‘true’ to the original.