Tag Archives: poetry

A poem for my Grandmother




Rest in Peace Bing, my paternal Grandmother, who passed away peacefully on Saturday just gone. I will always remember her at her happiest on the farm in the early morning. The gentle quiet and the birds. All my love. Continue reading


Filed under Poetry turnstile

Dhuŋgur’-yun-nha: a short poem and comment on stuff


Yes, I know I'm always on about social order as affect. This is an image from the British Museum.

Yes, I know I’m always on about social order as affect. This is an image from the British Museum.


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


like today,


when one word


mak yurru




(set everything)


warpam –





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 ŋoydhuŋgur’-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.



Filed under Poetry turnstile, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

A tiny little fieldnote in an otherwise ellipsis.


Jörg Schmeisser. Mangrove and Notes, Etching, 2010.

Jörg Schmeisser, Mangrove and Notes, Etching, 2010.



Warrnyu mala



yukurra butthun




out of



[the] mangroves.





Leave a comment

February 20, 2014 · 11:01 pm

Vladimir Nabokov: In Paradise





A poem particularly lovely because I’m almost certain that Nabokov must have noted such thoughts, in his journal about someone he loved, well before they became a poem.


In Paradise


My soul, beyond distant death

your image I see like this:

a provincial naturalist,

an eccentric lost in paradise.


There, in a glade, a wild angel slumbers,

a semi-pavonian creature.

Poke at it curiously

with your green umbrella,


speculating how, first of all,

you will write a paper on it

then — But there are no learned journals,

nor any readers in paradise!


And there you stand, not yet believing

your wordless woe.

About that blue somnolent animal

whom will you tell, whom?


Where is the world and the labeled roses,

the museum and the stuffed birds?

And you look and look through your tears

at those unnamable wings.




– Vladimir Nabokov, from Collected Poems (2012), translated by Dmitri Nabokov, published by Penguin Classics, London.







Filed under Poetry turnstile

Toward an Impure Poetry




It’s been a little quiet on here of late. Apologies. I hope to submit my dissertation next month, so I have been rather busy. Anyhow, I was enjoying an evening off just now when I just came across the following. It’s both strong and beautiful, and by Pablo Neruda.


Toward An Impure Poetry


It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all troubled lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things – all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.


In them one sees the confused impurity of the human condition, the massing of things, the use and disuse of substances, footprints and fingerprints, the abiding presence of the human engulfing all artifacts, inside and out.


Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand’s obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it.


A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denials and doubts, affirmations and taxes.


The holy canons of madrigal, the mandates of touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, the passion for justice, sexual desire, the sea sounding – willfully rejecting and accepting nothing: the deep penetration of things in the transports of love, a consummate poetry soiled by the pigeon’s claw, ice-marked and tooth-marked, bitten delicately with our sweatdrops and usage, perhaps. Till the instrument so restlessly played yields us the comfort of its surfaces, and the woods show the knottiest suavities shaped by the pride of the tool. Blossom and water and wheal kernel share one precious consistency: the sumptuous appeal of the tactile.


Let no one forget them. Melancholy, old mawkishness impure and unflawed, fruits of a fabulous species lost to the memory, cast away in a frenzy’s abandonment-moonlight, the swan in the gathering darkness, all hackneyed endearments: surely that is the poet’s concern, essential and absolute.


Those who shun the “bad taste” of things will fall flat on the ice.




from Five Decades: A Selection (Poems 1925 – 1970), edited and translated by Ben Nelitt, Grove Press, New York, pp. xxi-xxii





Filed under Poetry turnstile

‘My name is earth though I’m named Miguel’




Miguel Hernández Gilabert (1910 – 1942) was born in the town of Orihuela, near Murcia, in south-eastern Spain. His father, who he worked alongside from a very young age, was a herdsman and dealer in sheep and goats. This early relationship with soil and husbandry can be found in many of his works, including the poem reproduced below.

I suspect many come to Miguel Hernández through his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. This is, in a roundabout way, how I was introduced to his poetry by Alex Pademelon Johnson and Martin Hodgson – thank you very much both’ly. The following is the loveliest of his poems I’ve read thus far:



My name is earth, though I’m named Miguel


My name is earth, though I’m named Miguel.

Earth is my craft and my destiny

and stains what it licks with its tongue.


I’m a sad component of pathways.

I’m a sweetly infamous tongue,

worshipping feet that I love.


Like a nocturnal ox of floods and fallows

that yearns to be a creature worshipped,

I fawn on your shoes, and all around them,

and, made for covering, and made for kisses,

I kiss your heel that wounds me, strew it with flowers.


I set a remembrance of my being

on your biting heel, under your tread,

and at your step I advance

lest your indifferent foot despise

all the love I’ve raised towards it.


Moister than my face with its tears,

when the glass bleats frozen wool,

when winter closes your window

I fall at your feet, the tip of a wing,

a soiled wing, and heart of earth.

I fall at your feet a molten branch

of lowly honey, trampled, alone,

a heart despised and a heart fallen,

formed like seaweed, ocean’s aspect.


Earth, in vain, I’m clothed with poppies,

earth, in vain, emptied I see my arms,

earth, in vain I bite at your heels,

dealing maleficent wing-blows

foul words like convulsed hearts.


You hurt me in treading, printing

the track of your going upon me,

it tears, it ruptures the armour,

of honeyed duality circling my mouth

in the pure and living flesh,

ever begging to be crushed to pieces

by your free and madcap hare’s foot.


Its taciturn cream curdles,

a sobbing shakes its tree

of cerebral wool at your tread.

And you pass, and it remains

burning its winter wax before the sunset,

martyr, jewel and grass to the wheel.


Weary of yielding to the whirling

daggers of wagons and hooves,

fear, from the earth, a spawn of creatures

with corrosive skin and vengeful claws.


Fear the earth reborn in an instant,

fear lest it rise and grow and cover,

tenderly and jealously

your reed-like ankle, my torment,

fear lest it drowns the nard of your legs

and rising ascends to your brow.


Fear lest it raises a hurricane

from the bland territory of winter

and bursts in thunder and falls in rain

into your blood harsh and tender.


Fear an assault of offended foam

and fear an amorous cataclysm.


Before the drought consumes it

earth must turn to earth again.



– Miguel Hernández, from Further Selected Poems, translated by A. S. Kline.





1 Comment

Filed under Poetry turnstile

open your window, wider, wider (Nabokov)




I read this poem a number of times over before I realised just how gentle and lovely it is. It reminds me now vividly of opening the shutter windows of a most homely home in Sardinia and, overlooking the early rural morning below, I heard the sound of waves of tinkling bells. (The shepherds were herding their sheep.)



Soft Sound


When in some coastal townlet, on a night

of low clouds and ennui, you open

the window – from afar

whispering sounds spill over.


Now listen closely and discern

the sound of seawaves breathing upon land,

protecting in the night

the soul that harkens unto them.


Daylong the murmur of the sea is muted,

but the unbidden day now passes

(tinkling as does an empty

tumbler on a glass shelf);


and once again amidst the sleepless hush

open your window, wider, wider,

and with the sea you are alone

in the enormous and calm world.


Not the sea’s sound . . . In the still night

I hear a different reverberation:

the soft sound of my native land,

her respiration and pulsation.


Therein blend all the shades of voices

so dear, so quickly interrupted

and melodies of Pushkin’s verse

and sighs of a remembered pine wood.


Repose and happiness are there,

a blessing upon exile;

yet the soft sound cannot be heard by day

drowned by the scurrying and rattling.


But in the compensating night,

in sleepless silence, one keeps listening

to one’s own country, to her murmuring,

her deathless deep.





– from ‘Collected Poems: Vladmir Nabokov’ (2012), translated by Dmitri Nabokov, edited by Thomas Karshan aa-and published by Penguin Classics, London, pp. 86-87!







1 Comment

Filed under Poetry turnstile

One of my favourite Jammes poems





All the leaves are turning and it’s autumn already and it makes me think of Jammes. I so love this poem.



I want no other joy


I want no other joy when the summer

returns, than that of the year gone by.

Under dozing muscats I shall sit.

Deep in the woods, where fresh waters sing,

I will hear and feel and see everything

the forest fears, feels and sees.


I want no other joy when the autumn

returns, than that of the yellow leaves

raking the hills when it thunders,

than the dull sound of new wine barrels,

than heavy skies and cowbells ringing,

and beggars asking for alms.


I want no other joy when the winter

returns, than that of the iron sky,

than the smoke of the grinding cranes,

than embers singing like the sea,

than the lamp behind green panes

in the shop where the bread is bitter.


I want no other joy when the spring

returns, than that of the biting winds,

than peach trees, leafless, blooming,

than muddy paths turning green,

than the violet, than the bird singing

like a stream that gorges the storm.




~ from Under the Azure: Poems of Francis Jammes (2010), translated by Janine Canane and published by Littlefox Press, Victoria.




Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry turnstile

The Moths, by anthropologist Michael Jackson




I often carry a thin poetry volume around with me, tucked in between draft chapters I am currently editing. I’ve been carrying Michael Jackson’s, Duty Free: Selected Poems 1965-1988, around for a while now. He is quite a beautiful poet and I enjoy re-reading his poems, looking for the anthropology or ethnographer. The latter is not far away in the following.




Our house had filled with moths,

a slow silting of lintel and architrave

a cupboard dust,

until I looked much closer

and found the wood-grain one,

the white quill paperbark, the blotched

shadow of a patch of bush,

an elbowing riverbank that had gone deep blue.


The soft perimeter of forests

had entered our house

fluttering around the moon.


Then for five days they drowned

in sinks and pools or seemed to wane

into sanded wood or ash on windowsills

until they became

what they were when I first noticed them:

fragments of a dull interior.




from – Michael Jackson 1989, Duty Free: Selected Poems 1965-1988, John McIndoe, Dunedin NZ,  p. 43.




The second and eighth lines – ‘a slow silting of lintel and architrave’ and ‘an elbowing riverbank that had gone deep blue’ – are exceptional and beautifully crafted. But I think the poem, as a whole, is a little too clever. I would have resisted ‘fragments of a dull interior’ at least, I think. (She says sitting on a pedestal in front of her computer . . .)





Filed under Poetry turnstile

Poetry Turnstile: Seamus Heaney




The secondhand bookstall man was not on campus today as he usually is because it has been raining consistently for days. I was naughty, anyhow, and went to the shiny, new bookstore instead. I wonder if it is an Australian thing – the phenomenon of the ever shrinking poetry section. It is almost a touch saddening.

What makes it really and truly almost saddening is the fact that the volumes of poetry that do remain on the shelves are, for the most part, ‘collections’ of poetry chosen by an editor (as fitting or tailored to a particular topic). Surely the more gracious (and optimistic) thing to do, would be to stock a volume of each included poet’s work (instead stocking one cobbled collection of different works by different poets)? One of the most handsomely lovely things about a new book of poetry is the prospect of gradually getting to know the poet – their outlook, mood and style. This is all lost in edited ‘collected’ works. Am I being conservative? Perhaps.

Anyhow, I was saved the minor trauma of the shrinking poetry section today, as I’ve been meaning to read Seamus Heaney for some time and being quite popular – there he was on the shelf. And how lovely he is.

This poem is entitled ‘Canopy’ and it is included in Seamus’ Human Chain (2010), published by Faber and Faber, London. One of the things I found particularly delightful about this poem is the thought of the poet himself, standing alone watching and waiting for the fairy lights to come on, thinking these quiet young-green whispering thoughts.




It was the month of May.

Trees in Harvard Yard

Were turning a young green.

There was whispering everywhere.


David Ward had installed

Voice-boxes in the branches,

Speakers wrapped in sacking

Looking like old wasps’ nests


Or bat-fruit in the gloaming –

Shadow Adam’s apples

That made sibilant ebb and flow,

Speech-gutterings, desultory


Hush and backwash and echo.

It was like a recording

Of antiphonal responses

In the congregation of leaves.


Or a wood that talked in its sleep.

Reeds on a riverbank

Going over and over their secret.

People were cocking their ears,


Gathering, quietening,

Stepping on to the grass,

Stopping and holding hands.

Earth was replaying its tapes,


Words being given new airs:

Dante’s whispering wood –

The wood of the suicides –

Had been magicked to lover’s lane.


If a twig had been broken off there

It would have curled itself like a finger

Around the fingers that broke it

And then refused to let go


As if it were mistletoe

Taking tightening hold.

Or so I thought as the fairy

Lights in the boughs came on.






Filed under Poetry turnstile