Poetry Journal

Issues / Volume 5 Issue 2 , November 2015


The Raw and the Cooke

RD Wood

  Cold as myth.
  —Stuart Cooke, ‘Return’

Stuart Cooke is a well-travelled poet. Although he now resides in Brisbane, where he is a lecturer in creative writing at Griffith University, he draws upon the Kimberley and Chile in his writing. From this experience, his project as a poet, critic and editor could be said to be one of decentring Australian poetics, of taking it away from its power bases in Sydney and Melbourne and situating it in far less familiar spaces. In this essay, I will focus on three of his works: Departure Into Cloud, Bulu Line and Speaking the Earth’s Languages. While my essay is in three distinct parts, corresponding to the three books, I return to certain themes and questions throughout. In considering Cooke’s works together, I want to acknowledge his important contribution to poetry in Australia. But his works are simply a starting point, a place of departure, towards a different ecosystem than what we currently have.


Last time I went to Broome, I found myself at Krim Benterrak’s house. We were talking about painting and how he had found colour in the Kimberley to have a different, though reminiscent, hue to that of his birth country of Morocco. We were talking, in other words, about the spectrum that was immediately available to us. Benterrak is the other collaborator in Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe’s celebrated Reading the Country, and I was reminded of this conversation as I read the poem ‘Continental Loam’ from Stuart Cooke’s 2013 chapbook Departure Into Cloud. Loam, of course, has a resonance with the Kimberley. One immediately thinks of the rich red earth that is common there and the rammed earth homes that dot the new suburbs around Broome town. More specifically, I thought of Benterrak when I read the line

  makes shut and line, subsist vein: Billiton
  mines, fosforo, trails de fuego magnet smack.

The reference to ‘Billiton/mines’ recalls the great debates of land usage in Benterrak’s home. But more specifically, and referring back to the question of hue, the word ‘fosforo’ introduces us to Spanish within an English language poem. This introduction is followed by ‘de fuego’ in the same line and the words ‘espejos comiendose, opala y arbol’ in the following stanza. This use of colours, so to speak, other than those we are normally accustomed to in our everyday language is striking because it introduces us to new sounds and shapes and possibilities. It will be noted in the two lines quoted above there is musicality, internal rhyme, a soft sounding middle followed by the hard sounding ‘smack’. But to me, it is the Spanish that is most striking.

My first thought was: what does this Spanish word mean? And, subsequently, why is it here as a shape on the page and a sound when I read it aloud? What is to be gained from using ‘fosforo’ rather than ‘phosphorus’? There are, of course, other meanings to fosforo than phosphorous, including being a drink in Mexico, and so they are not equivalent, not a direct meaning for meaning exchange. We also get a different sound at the end of the word, which is important for how it works with ‘fuego’ later in the line. But it is also a question of how we signal to the reader a poetic device that has aesthetic and political implications. To ask it in another way, what if rather than using gouache to resemble the colours of the land, we used the raw material to paint with? What if Benterrak used ochre rather than reddish brown in tubes bought from art stores? How could we integrate found materials and what might this mean for Cooke’s poetry as expressed in Departure Into Cloud?

While to some extent all language used in poetry is found, especially rather than lost, the language found here in Spanish and English is indebted to ecopoetics as it currently stands within a transnational domain. To dwell first on Cooke’s use of Spanish, which is not altogether new in Australian poetry, we must consider what it is to use languages other than English. My issue is not with whether or not one should or should not, and I do not intend the following remarks to be prescriptive, but thinking through Cooke’s work can prompt discussion of certain issues in Australian letters that are somewhat submerged. As will be discussed at length later, Cooke has significant connections to the Kimberley as well as Chile. But to my knowledge, there are no Indigenous language words in Departure into Cloud. Some Indigenous words have been so profoundly assimilated as to be part of Australian English—‘kangaroo’, which Michael Farrell has discussed at length in his essay, ‘Affective and Transnational: the Bounding Kangaroo’ comes immediately to mind. There are plenty of others too, and we no longer think of them as Aboriginal. But what about words in languages that defamiliarise by their newness and which throw English back onto itself so we realise that we are, in fact, in a constructed system of signs that is implicated with a whole unsettled history?

To re-phrase this, there are Spanish words in Cooke’s poetry, but what of words in Kimberley languages? The point might not be that Spanish is foreign, but that it is not foreign enough to defamiliarise. It shares after all a certain colonial axis with English, which Cooke, in his monograph, Speaking the Earth’s Languages, is aware of. In returning though to Cooke’s poetry through Benterrak’s painting, what might a Jindyworobak project for the 21st century look like? Notwithstanding the critique that asserts using Indigenous languages to be appropriation reminiscent of colonialism, we could imagine something might be different if non-indigenous Australians took a native bilingualism seriously. Poets can learn Walpiri, Ngoongar, Yolngu not only for the purposes of basic communication (‘where fish?’) but also aesthetic consideration (‘fish is nice’). For example, there is no fitting substitute to adequately translate ‘jalujulara’ from Ngarluma. For its sense of meaning read the introduction of AP Thomas and Carl von Brandenstein’s Taruru, but it could also be useful in a rhyme with ngurra meaning ‘country’ or any number of words in English.

To that end, the sonic resonance of many Pama Nyungan languages is very different from English—the twisty rs, the ‘ng-vowel’ combination, the subtly repetitive internal rhyme of words. All of which are sounds that poets could make available within a work in English, much as ‘fosforo’ is used instead of ‘phosphorus’. Using these is like using colours in a painting that one didn’t have available before—what might ochre be, say and do on a white canvas? Or what might neon enable on a bark painting? We could wish it were not a case of ochre on white canvas, given the power dynamic of this, but the brute material facts of Australian life suggest that this is more likely than vice versa. At the moment official verse culture in this country is almost all white canvas, and when it is colour, it is not often ochre, and when it is ochre, it is more often prose. Poetry and poetics need more ochre. Without it, we are missing shapes and sounds and combinations of letters that we didn’t even realise we had.

If we took bilingualism and Indigenous languages seriously we might see Ted Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia as part of a tradition rather than as exceptional and rare. That, I think, would be altogether a good thing. And it is Strehlow rather than Rex Ingamells to whom we should look for ‘Jindys’ now, given his ability in Arrernte rather than his projection of an idea of what indigeneity was. Cooke could come from a different place than Ingamells, or even the ideographic Ezra Pound with his Chinese characters, but it is not up to non-Indigenous people alone to decide on the shape of the poetry to come, not up to me to say he should use Nyigina or other words in his poems. Not only do I not want to be prescriptive to Cooke, but I also do not want to repeat colonial mistakes of telling Indigenous people how they should use language. It is, though, a conversation involving all kinds of people. To that end, we might not need ‘Jindys’ today, but we can scarcely stand to lose the words found in languages with a diminishing number of speakers. Poetry may be one way to help keep them vital.

Regardless of the presence of Spanish and the absence of Indigenous languages, Cooke’s work can be situated in the burgeoning field of ecopoetics. In ‘Return’, we read of ‘almost country’, ice, river, hill, pits, wormed. In ‘Departure into Cloud’, we read of rivers, reef, dogs, turtles, dogs, waves, dogs, barnacles, mountains, clouds. In ‘An Ecology’, we read of mountains, coasts, ocean, mangroves, crustacean, ocean, magpies, mammal, red gum. Each of them signposts and refers to the natural world and to other works for an ecopoetics reader. This is not nature as pure, idyllic, gentle, pastoral but compromised, threatening, worked over, powerful and mediated. Cooke writes on the inside flaps that these poems were written ‘with’ various natural places.

In regard to formal inventiveness, Cooke’s work is somewhat in the middle, being neither conservative nor radical. It is not sonnets nor concrete nor conceptual, and while these poems would not be out of place in Corey Wakeling and Jeremy Balius’ Outcrop, they are not as daring as, say, Astrid Lorange’s work from the same volume. Care though has been taken in the visual arrangement of the words on the page, especially the final, page long stanza of the final poem, ‘Nephology’. From this, one could imagine a more fully developed ecopoetics of the concrete—prints of the lines from tree rings and word lines arranged to resemble them for example; or an ecopoetics of the conceptual—for example, a list poem of common plants found in the poet’s backyard written in various font sizes to convey what the seasons are rather than a lyric recounting the feeling evoked by chickweed in summer. One could also imagine an ecopoetics that paid attention to the material of the book—handmade work on recycled paper made on recycled presses, vegetable inks. My point is that while Cooke is an able hand within a given set of constraints, we need to see what happens when we push those constraints far more. What happens when we say the chapbook as part of an English dominated official verse culture itself needs to be redefined? Cooke gestures toward a different orientation in his poetry, but I think the inventive elements can go quite a bit further. Benterrak, in his painting, is not invested in realism, and his colours represent those of the Kimberley, but they are somewhat weighed down by Impressionism. If we integrate not so much the Indigenous forms of the Kimberley (body painting, rock art) but the material of it, we might find an altogether different craft. That is where Cooke’s Bulu Line is important.


  becoming rai
                  racing through sky
  flying toward us
                  from far away
  (‘Verse 2’, Bulu Line)

There is an apocryphal story, often told, about Rover Thomas that recounts him standing before a Mark Rothko canvas and stating, ‘who’s the fella that paints like me?’ This story suggests not only an inversion of assumed time and influence (i.e., not ‘who’s the fella I paint like?’) but also a relationship between Indigenous and Western contemporary art that visual art critics and curators have unpacked over and over. But, if Brion Gysin is right that ‘poetry is fifty years behind painting’, what are we to do, as poetry readers, when we see Rover and Rothko next to each other? Or, as the case may be, what are we to do when we read George Dyungayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberly Song Cycle next to Ron Silliman or any other paradigmatic metropolitan writer?

There certainly seems to be something to suggest that poetry lags behind painting in regards to the criticism of Aboriginal writers working with a more traditional solute than others. Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra are correct to highlight that there is a continuum between ‘contemporary’ and ‘traditional’ writing, but when we read Samuel Wagan Watson or Ali Coby Eckermann, we are in a different field than the songpoetry found more commonly in anthropological journals. It is as if we are watching Charlie’s Country rather than Ten Canoes or maybe even A Walbiri Fire Ceremony: Ngatjakula. But there has been no corresponding boom in traditional poetry or poetics compared to painting or art criticism, something pointed out by Stephen Muecke in his introduction to this volume. Leaving aside whether this is a good or bad thing and whether the economies and ecosystems of poetry and painting are actually comparable, the absence of this work is noteworthy precisely because of the proliferation of writing by Indigenous authors and notwithstanding the success of poets as part of this too. Where are, we might ask, the poetry books that go with the bark paintings? This is an especially apt question to ask given the huge ‘library’ of oral songlines and songpoetry that exists in Indigenous languages all around Australia and which remains a vital part of communities’ lives. Moreover, criticism, as has been noted by Philip Mead, often does not keep pace with poetry. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in the songlines and songpoetry domain. The question remains then: what are we to make of Bulu Line in a way that speaks back to the dominant mode of poetics in Australia?

I think it’s valuable, in the first instance, to consider the work itself—its formal qualities, its content—rather than the identity context and the social relations of its production. There are seventeen poems/verses in the cycle, split into two parts. The first part numbers eight verses and the second nine. The length of them changes, but Cooke’s translations/interpretations are approximately half to three quarters of a page, with variations in the size of font throughout. The first part is essentially a road trip, or a journey story, that begins with leaving country and ends with a return home. The second part focuses on the weather and dancing, being in part a meta-comment on the poems themselves and their open/public status. There are four main voices in the writing: Ray Keogh, Paddy Roe, George Dyungayan and Stuart Cooke and two appearances by Butcher Joe Nangan and one by Nellie Nadyuway. The poems appear in the local language (Nyigina), with explanations and commentary (a sort of ‘ordinary criticism’ in Broome Aboriginal English), narrative clarifications (by Ray Keogh) and finally Cooke’s translations/interpretations.

Focusing on Cooke’s contributions, rhyme, with varying degrees of trueness, is a dominant device (see: Verse 1: out/about; Verse 2: snipe/collide; Verse 3: making/travelling). There are variations on repetition, with slight changes to the way something is narrated within each verse. Its lack of true repetition may appeal to some, but I found its absence notable. Soren Kierkegaard’s dictum that ‘repetition is the reality and seriousness of life’ seems apt in much Indigenous song. To jettison this does not test the reader’s limit, which is a disservice. The lines are short—often no more than a few words—giving the reader a sense of disjointedness and constant pausing. Consider ‘Verse 2’:

  guwararrirarri yinanydina
  dyidi yarrabanydyina
  nanbalinblai yinanydina


  a flock of snipes
                                  flying toward us
  wait! they’re rai
                                     fast approaching
  we nearly collide
                                        their bellies like birds’
  wait their flying
  becoming rai
                          racing through sky
  flying towards us
                          from far away
  birds becoming rai
                                  no more distance
  nearly on top of us
                                  watch out!
  the snipes are
                          flying toward us
  we watch snipe become rai
                                          flying belly up…

What is previously a compact three-line, six-word, rhyming stanza becomes a twenty- line, sixty-word poem, with varying fonts, which is a major innovation in songpoetry/songcycle transcription. Cooke discusses at length in the introductory remarks the issue of translation and highlights how he is not trying to articulate an essence behind the words. Instead, using contemporary translation studies, he emphasises that the translation must deal with a surface and a surfeit of meaning on its own terms. It is not simply saying this word means ‘snipe’ in an essential and referential way, but articulating what the snipe as word is doing, in a different voice, with a different formal quality. The debate then, as a translator, is not about essence, or even meaning versus sense approaches that recall Cicero, but about the artifice of language itself.

We could talk at further length about the poetics of these poems, but in highlighting these few aspects (rhyme, repetition) I wanted to approach these poems in a different way to the editors and publishers of Bulu Line. In contrast to starting with the poems, the book begins with a full thirty-six pages of acknowledgement, preface, explanation, situation, citation and synopsis. We get to the poems only halfway through the book, and then they are over far too soon. What would this work be like if there were more poetry? Or, perhaps thinking through the constraints of publishing and working with what we have before us, what if, quite simply, the poems came first and the analysis second? What if the readers were able to make their own minds up about the poems rather than being told what they are and how to read them? All the labour of informing and framing the work means we are being encouraged to read the poems in a particular way and situate Cooke as a privileged mediator. We all have frames that we bring to the reading of any particular poems, and, of course, the editor has a certain closeness to and expertise of this material. But, what of being left to decide our own view of the poem? Why should I not get George Dyungayan’s words first rather than Stephen Muecke’s and Stuart Cooke’s? It is as if the paternal relations of the colonial situation have been translated to the writer-reader dynamic—we need to be told how important this work is. All of which prompts the question: is there a latent fear that the poems are actually, after all this, not that powerful?

I do think the poems have a certain power precisely for their formal, stylistic and content contributions, which I discussed earlier. But how does one justify such a subjective claim? Speaking in an undeleted, or personal, manner, I came to Aboriginal songpoetry, including songlines, through Ngarluma family members of mine. Carl von Brandenstein’s Taruru was the entry point even after I had an initial encounter with Jerome Rothenberg, compiler of the anthology Technicians of the Sacred (University of California 1968), which contains songpoetry amid a whole host of other ‘world’ poetries. My involvement in songlines rather than songpoetry—and there is, I think, a rather important distinction to be made, a distinction that is somewhat glossed in Bulu Line—has been peripheral. But I have heard live the personally authored song forms of junba in the Kimberley and tabi in the Pilbara and attended male initiation ceremonies, including my brother-in-law’s, in Roebourne. But, for the most part, my involvement with songlines has been mediated—homemade recordings from lawmen, archival tapes, AIATSIS publications. Songlines are for the most part held in trust and are often closed in contrast to many public songs. In any case, Bulu Line, if it is a songline (as Deborah Bird Rose suggests on the back cover) or a nurlu (as suggested in the introduction) or inhabits some space within/besides these ‘ideal types’ of categorisation, would seem to have a different set of relations to that of liberal Western authorship and ownership, the precise calibrations of which depend on its form. The author is dead then, but not as we know it. That George Dyungayan and Stuart Cooke’s names appear on the cover suggests a different process than older published songlines, which involve an attributed, usually non-Indigenous author and an unnamed primary interlocutor. When one reads further, it is apparent Bulu Line is a work of collaboration between many people, reminiscent of Reading the Country. It would be incorrect and vulgar to point out, Mudrooroo Narrogin-like, that it is compromised because its predominantly non-Aboriginal editorial, publishing and readership exploit ‘blackfellas’. There is a set of important social relations here and this is, perhaps, an exciting contribution Bulu Line makes to official verse culture without us necessarily worrying about the process of shifting commodities from periphery to metropole. I do hope though that it sells well in its West Kimberley heartland and that Cooke’s essay at the front changes the discourse of reflection in the book’s home country. What is gestured towards, however, and what to me seems to be the most thrilling aspect of talking with Indigenous people in my own experience of songs and an area of great potential, is the sort of ‘ordinary criticism’ that accompanies these texts. Everyone has a critical eye, everyone has an opinion, and people do not simply sing and forget to interpret the poetics of the verse. Roe and Nangan have their own poetics in this (particularly Verse 9, 13, 14). Drawing on this to critique what official criticism is in Australia would be is a major contribution of Bulu Line.

Read alongside ethnopoetics, particularly Rothenberg’s work, Bulu Line has a certain, focused, close-in power and definiteness. But read alongside anthropological archives or ethnomusicological studies, both of which offer substantial and involved variations on songline and songpoetry transcription, it seems less revelatory. Berndt and Strehlow both offer substantial work, and there is that of Alan Marett and Sally Treloyn more recently. But these have rarely been read as poetry. Re-reading their texts as poetry opens up new possibilities—not only for thinking of where Bulu Line fits but also through poetics itself, particularly in its Zukofskian upper register where it approaches ‘music’. What songlines or songpoetry as poetry might do is recalibrate the limits of repetition, the range of sounds that count as rhyme, the importance of sequencing as well as our concepts of nature poetry, ecopoetics and surrealism at the very least. If, as Les Murray has said, we must pay deference to the senior culture, there are worse places to start than Bulu Line. But in the archives and in communities, there are far more places too.


In Chilean-Australian artist Juan Davila’s painting ‘Sentimental History of Australian Art’ from 1982 and acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1995, prominent painters’ names are written, their iconography is appropriated, and the colours are garish and bright. The politics is complicated but displayed clearly as a white man stitches the leg of an Aboriginal man in traditional body paint wearing a Ned Kelly helmet. Sentimental painting in Australia is the object of scorn and colonial relations contemplated. The point might not only be that sentimentality is to be mocked, but that the form the mocking takes needs to matter as well. If Departure Into Cloud engages with an ecopoetic register that plays with some parts of form and a morsel of bilingualism, the form of the academic monograph is unchallenged in Speaking the Earth’s Languages even as it is thoroughly bilingual in content. Monographs, particularly on poetics as it exists in institutions of higher education, have been for the most part formally conservative. Speaking the Earth’s Languages has no excessive and deconstructive use of footnotes à la David Foster Wallace or elliptical structural devices à la Charles Bernstein. Despite its formal stagnation, the content is potentially revelatory in the context of Australian official verse culture.

Judging by the reigning paradigm of published poetry reviews, official verse culture in Australia is still in thrall to the UK, Ireland and the US. The world in this configuration is decidedly hegemonic, and this observation holds, for the most part, for those from Quadrant to Overland. Australian readers are very rarely assumed to engage in a sustained manner with those in our region or the Caribbean or even Russia for that matter. Reviewers do not suggest that John Kinsella’s latest work recalls Caesar Vallejo for example, let alone more contemporary poets in India or Madagascar. Even Bonny Cassidy, in her response to Andrew Riemer, argues that

if criticism ignores the relationship between poetry written in Australia and correlative literary traditions in the modern English-speaking world, it has little hope of properly considering how contemporary local poetry comprises its own multifaceted tradition, ancient and modern, streaming in through various linguistic, political and cultural forces. 

As true as Cassidy’s statement is, we need to think of traditions in translation. What of all the languages other than English that matter for poetry written in Australia? This Anglophonic hegemony is not aided by the structural barriers to ‘world’ poetry here—educational regimens that teach Shakespeare and the Romantics in high school, and Australian greats and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in university, a lack of bilingualism and funding for Asian and Indigenous languages in particular and a self-perpetuating myth of isolation from our roots in Europe that lingers in the dustier corners. Speaking the Earth’s Languages is a sharp and subtle rebuke to this, and to my mind, Cooke’s strongest contribution out of the three considered here. Given his position at a university, there is no reason that his innovations cannot, or indeed have not, been disseminated in a more structural manner than this book alone, which is something I would personally welcome.

Although each of the chapters on individual poets is strong, there are problems, particularly of frame, with Speaking the Earth’s Languages. It is interesting to me that Cooke chooses to start his work with the theory rather than the poetry. Analogous to Bulu Line, we are being taught how to read from the beginning rather than being left to encounter the material ourselves. I understand that this is one point of criticism—of being taught how to read a poem—but by having an epigraph from Maurice Blanchot, we are, paradoxically, very far from Indigenous poetry itself. The second epigraph, taken from Rothenberg, is the same as Stephen Muecke’s in ‘The Great Tradition’ (published in Cross/Cultures a year later in 2014) and also directs us away from the poetry regardless of Rothenberg’s status as ethnopoetic authority. Of course we need critical distance. But we also need to foreground Indigenous voices as a type of poetics itself.

Cooke argues that

The central argument of this book is that a nomadic poetics is essential for a genuinely postcolonial form of habitation, or a habitation of colonised landscapes that doesn’t continue to replicate colonialist ideologies involving indigenous dispossession and environmental exploitation. (5)

It is doubtful who would agree with ‘indigenous dispossession’ and ‘environmental exploitation’, but nomadic poetics might not be the most appropriate form of engagement for people from, say, Ngarluma country, given the different experiences of life there. It remains unclear, for example, how long is too long to stay in a place to be considered a nomad or what sort of mining agreement is amenable to an aspirational life for an Australian Indigenous community. While there may be a first order sociological connection between nomads and hunter/gatherer societies, and hence account for the deployment of Pierre Joris’s nomadics, I am interested both in what the zeitgeist is at a broader level and how a specific type of poetics can change material conditions. Poetry’s claim must be as a way of creating critical consciousness that refuses binarism as well as easy foundationalism. If ‘it is crucial that the nomad poet never sit still’ (32) why must we ‘rest’ at camp at the end of a day’s walk? The question, as I signposted before, is one of time. This is where Indigenous connection to country is paramount—there is authority to long connection—and while I do not want to set up an ill-conceived counterpoint to nomadism here, nomadism as Cooke reads it might not be an adequate discursive tool for categorising a multiplicity of Indigenous experiences.

Speaking the Earth’s Languages is also an application of Gilles Deleuze, and to a lesser extent Felix Guttari. There is, if not a hegemony, at least an influential presence of Deleuze in Australian poetics from Muecke to Mead to Clemens, as well as in other disciplines—in the work of Ian Buchanan and Ian Cook, for example. But here, I felt that Cooke’s reading sans Deleuze was more impressive. His chapter on Judith Wright is engaging, nuanced and generative, and though not without some reservations, I was for the most part convinced. It is telling that this is the chapter when he performs close reading rather than invoking a metropolitan vocabulary as a method of explanation. Readers with an interest in Australian poetry will want to seek Speaking the Earth’s Languages out for this chapter on Judith Wright alone, but in re-framing Australian poetry, we should also turn to the very good chapters on Paddy Roe and the Kimberley, and Lionel Fogarty. Finally, one small but noticeable problem was the overzealous copyediting that had changed Krim’s name to Kim throughout.

In juxtaposing Fogarty and Paulo Huirimilla, Cooke makes the identity of the writer important in a functional way—it is important to connect two Indigenous experiences for a political imperative. But also, in negation, we can see the resilience of nationalism as a category. We can consider Australian poets together because we all vote, we are all concerned with a shared polis. That is not to say there is not a transnational public space, say ‘the West’ or ‘former colonies’ or ‘settler societies’, but that in invoking this we might not have a political capacity that is immediately useful. It may be a question of responding to, say, multinational corporations via the mechanisms of the nation state, including taxation and legislation, rather than the transnational, ineffectual resolutions of the United Nations. Either way, categorisation glosses some important aspects of lived experience—in Australia we all vote, but we don’t all vote in the seat of Curtin, which is to say perhaps you and I are less connected than Melbourne and Copenhagen, that we can do more travelling within the nation than beyond it. In other words, there is less distance to go between Kings Cross and Charing Cross than Kings Cross and Fitzroy Crossing. This is essentially a cultural observation rather than an economic or political one. And it is with politics that poetry and poetics must concern itself if it is to matter. This is not so much a question of politicians writing poetry, of reviewing Clive Palmer or Bob Brown, but of thinking through the affiliations, organisations, structures that have been assumed as natural, of thinking then of a critique of legislation as the unacknowledged poetry of history. This is where Cooke’s criticism is important, of poetics as a critique of nationalism without necessarily relying on the substitution of Western, bourgeois liberalism, petulant anarchism or self-indulgent and myopic libertarianism. Speaking the Earth’s Languages relies on categories that re-impose, or cannot escape from, the colonial typologies, but it resists and changes them in an exciting and structural way.

Before we go any further, it is important to note the resilience and capriciousness of the nation. The nation has always engaged with trade, and so we should study the interstitial spaces a la Paul Gilroy. The nation has always been porous and so we should study the liminal borderlands à la Gloria Anzaldua, someone whose absence from Cooke’s work is felt keenly. But at the level of representation, this has not always been the case. Poetry, and poetics, as the helpmate of nationalism is long past. But in everyday life and important rituals, people are remarkably nationally bound, and poetry and poetics is grounded by this fact. I am not an apologist for the nation, but I think the work of poetry, as the research and development wing of language, is about critique rather than authentic, heartfelt, beautiful self-expression that is blind to social reality. ‘Indigenous’ might not be a term from which we can study together Mapuche and Kimberley, but in studying them together, we get towards an Indigenous poetics that takes nomadism as a precursor and burnishes the kind of critique Cooke has been motioning towards.


It might not so much be a question of needing the publication of more Indigenous poets, more George Dyungayans, though I would encourage that precisely because it would change the discourse. It might be about reframing certain language acts to be poetry. Hence, we might talk about writing in anthropological journals as poetry. For example, we might find embedded in Oceania songpoems that were recorded as folklore or just plain data, which may in turn defamiliarise our current concepts of the history of indigenous writing. Secondly, it may also be about resituating existing poetry in a different field. Hence, we might put Oodgeroo Noonuccal in a global context of decolonisation as Ben Etherington has suggested, which may alter our reading of her and of postcolonial studies in general. This is where Speaking the Earth’s Languages becomes important. The aim then is twofold—to redefine what poetry is and what we read Australian poetry as. Connected to the second imperative might be attempts to continue decentring transnationalism away from the UK and North American sphere in order to create a diverse and dynamic poesis that opens up and productively redefines our own work. Cooke has started us on that path—with Bulu Line, we have new poetry; with Speaking, we have a new field. And that is a worthwhile and productive endeavour, which hopefully will bring new and old work into the light, and which will continue to inform Cooke’s own poetry, which already has a careful consideration of form and the vast power of potential.

Works cited

AJ Bartlett, Justin Clemens and Jon Roffe, Lacan, Deleuze, Badiou. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Krim Benterrak, Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe, Reading the Country: Introduction to Nomadology, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1984.

RM Berndt, Love Songs of Arnhem Land, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1978.

Bonny Cassidy, ‘How Soon is Now?’, 24 Dec. 2013,

Justin Clemens, ‘Haranguing the Nation’, Dec. 2006.

Stuart Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean Postcolonial Poetics. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013.

Stuart Cooke, Departure into Cloud. Sydney: Vagabond, 2013.

Stuart Cooke (ed. & trans.), George Dyuŋgayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle. Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann, 2014.

Allan Marett, Songs, Dreaming and Ghosts: the Wangga of North Australia, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2005.

Philip Mead, Networked Language: Culture and History in Australian Poetry. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008.

Nyangumarta Massacre Songline. Port Headland: Wangka Maya, 2005.

Jerome Rothenberg, Technicians of the Sacred. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

TGH Strehlow, Songs of Central Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1971.

AP Thomas, and Carl von Brandenstein. Taruru: Aboriginal Song Poetry from the Pilbara. Adelaide: Rigby, 1974.