A deep archive: the docupoetry of Jeanine Leane & Natalie Harkin: Mark Prendergast reviews ‘Walk Back Over’ by Jeanine Leane and ‘Archival-Poetics’ by Natalie Harkin.

Walk Back Over by Jeanine Leane. Cordite Publishing, 2018. Archival-Poetics by Natalie Harkin. Vagabond, 2019.

A rigorist insists upon the strictest enforcement of laws and standards. Marianne Moore was a sort of rigorist. And ‘Rigorists’, one of her documentary poems, memorializes another: the Presbyterian minister, missionary, ethnographer and educator Sheldon Jackson. In her own note to the poem Moore’s belief in self-reliance is apparent: “Dr. Jackson felt that to feed the Esquimo at government expense was not advisable, that whales having been almost exterminated, the ocean could not be restocked as a river can be with fish”. The poem lauds the self-sufficiency and adaptability of reindeers, observing: “One looked at us/ with its face part brown, part white”, before concluding:

this candelabrum-headed ornament
for a place where ornaments are scarce, sent

…………. to Alaska,

was a gift preventing the extinction
of the Eskimo. The battle was won

…………. by a quiet man,

Sheldon Jackson, evangel to that race
whose reprieve he read in the reindeer’s face.

You don’t need me to point out the racist assumptions that underpin this poem, but I am drawn to it as an instance of docupoetry. Faced with the multiple shocks of modernism, one response from poets was to bring primary sources into their poetry, drawing on the artistic practice of collage. In Moore’s efforts to excise herself from her work and approach a more objectivist poetic, she filed all sorts of non-poetry into her extraordinarily crafted works. ‘Rigorists’ is a fascinating poem. Sheldon Jackson, one of Moore’s “real toads”, was not only a public figure but also her mother’s lover’s uncle: more or less family. In ‘Rigorists’ she regards him as a forgotten man of history, a cultural warrior worthy of restoration. The poem draws on Moore’s affection for Jackson and his family to transform the historical archive, but her inquiry only serves to reinscribe colonialism’s grand narrative: she deconstructs poetry as she reconstructs history.

Wiradjuri poet Jeanine Leane’s docupoetry operates much more critically in relation to the historical record. In the preface to her collection Walk Back Over, Leane outlines her embodied poetics premised on: “listening to the past and walking back over it, step after step, to see what you missed the first time. It speaks to what has been left out of official records, recordings and documents – the emotions, the other sides of paper – and what is not said” (xi). She works with both what’s on the public record, and the snippets of stories that family members tell each other. Leane’s poem ‘Other Side of History’ is a miniature manifesto, against history writing as actively exclusionary. For her the question is always what, and who, is outside of history:

Who lives, labours, dies
and loves in grey countries beyond
these black and white pages where nameless,
the placeless and the timeless,
historyless people dwell
unwriting history
on the Other. (29)

Leane’s reaching back to history’s others is comprehensive in its ambition. In her poem ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Lioness’, the Virgin Queen contemplates the life and death in captivity of one member of the royal menagerie. The narrative never entirely alleviates an anxiety about the dream-life of the domesticated lioness, despite the opining of various court officials:

I wondered what she dreamed

…………. She won’t remember

the Royal Physician said of my cub,

…………. Not her mother or her country – she’ll open

…………. her eyes to a new world and

…………. be a British Lion now. (38)

This not so straightforward poem imagines the life of a stolen child, through to adulthood and old age, bounded by the cooing assurances of Expertise. In ‘Lady Mungo Speaks’ Leane calls out the colonial urge to catalogue and collect, the resultant acts of desecration contrasting with the grace note of Walk Back Over: listen. Leane’s gift for satire is given free rein in ‘Whitefellas’, where she painfully, laughably, portrays the many varieties of lazy thinking still found in a decidedly not decolonised Australia: “If we go to university we should take courses/ in Aboriginal studies because whitefellas know that/ with their guidance we’ll be good at it – maybe/ we can help other Aborigines” (55).

Returning to Leane’s preface, in it her first words to the reader are: “Aboriginal women are the great gatherers of many things – food, of course, but also stories and inner strength. The women who raised me had vast reserves of inner strength, and to pass that on was a powerful act of activism” (xi). Leane has also spoken about how this everyday gathering has, in turn, sustained and enabled public and collective activism: that the act of gathering bridges the separate spheres. In her poem ‘Don’t let ‘em tell you’, Leane’s narrator calls on her reader to take back control of the story, to disavow the white archive’s record on Aboriginal women:

Remember how you knew me – remember what
I remembered with you
when you read I was wanton, wild, despicable.

Hear what you heard in secret – not these
words scratched in ink.
Listen to my memory etched in you. (5)

‘Kumbilor, hill in my Country’ is a very beautiful and touching poem, dedicated by Leane to her Aunty Betty, in which, eyes shut tight, the narrator returns to a place where the past is present:

There’s my Aunty on the creek flats
walking through parched grass
towards the hill. She calls us, time
to come home. We start to run
arms open to meet. (22)

Uncannily, in poems like ‘Kumbilor, hill in my Country’, Leane transforms the act of reading on the page into one of listening to a story.

 In an interview with Matthew Hall, Leane has argued for poetry as a narrative form: indeed, she states that in all her writing, including her academic work, she is trying to reduce the distance between writer and reader by shifting away from objective language to focus on story. Leane sees story as something holding especial value for Aboriginal people, and positions her work alongside that of the many other Indigenous writers who, over the last few decades, have written Country back into the imagined settler Nation. For Leane, her poems are acts of sovereignty, and ‘River Memory’ exemplifies this. In this poem the narrator walks back over the Prince Alfred Bridge at Gundagai, and recalls her childhood educators, the nuns who had travelled the world to spread their word. The narrator’s grandmother’s certitude about how old the place was that she had grown up in contrasts with these teachers, who drum into their students the message of Australia as a young country with a short history. The poem includes this snapshot of how colonialism’s compulsions were played out on the child’s body, countered by more a more abiding knowledge:

On a bad day you could be beaten
for asking wrong questions about
the short history and the long bridge.

Water under the bridge ripples over
my memory now. The bend
of the Murrumbidgee – a deep archive – flows
steady and slow. I walk on” (25).

The river the archive: a metaphor that courses through the reader’s mind. The nuns have come and gone, the convent is now a B & B. The well-travelled, more broadly educated narrator knows now more than ever: “I hear my Grandmother again./ The bridge is shorter now./ This history of place – still/ long and deep” (25). Bridge, river, gather: Leane’s complex of recurring metaphors knit together a memorial of the many presences of Black history.

Narungga poet Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics is, materially, unlike any other poetry collection I have ever read. It presents as three chapbooks in a slipcase, each chapbook’s cover featuring stills from Harkin’s installation-performance Archive-Fever-Paradox, detailing aspects of the basket Harkin wove from family letters kept in South Australia’s Aboriginal Records archive, lit from within. Stills from the installation are interspersed throughout the collection, which also includes quotes from primary and secondary sources, as well as collaborative responses to the work of other Aboriginal artists. Each chapbook (Colonial Archive, Haunting, Blood Memory) begins with an abstract of the volume’s contents that, in lieu of conventional contents pages, sets out the field, inviting the reader to read each of the chapbooks, and, by extension, the overall collection as a whole. So, this is a collection that has been rigorously constructed in its own way. Leane has described the process of Aboriginal women’s memory-writing, in its use of boundary-defying methods, as a “mishmash”. Harkin’s text is a composite iteration of such a mishmash, and Vagabond are to be commended for realising her project in book form.

 At the heart of Harkin’s investigation into the archive are the letters written by her grandmother, as well as the dossier kept on her grandmother, in the state archive. However, this is not a poetic biography or family memoir. Referencing Derrida’s Archive Fever, in ‘Memory Lesson 2: Feeding the Fever’, Harkin describes diving into the anything-but-casual racism of the colonial archive: “… there is violence here, nothing neutral or innocent in sites that function on paradox-logic – recover and preserve / protect and patrol / discard and conserve / revere and demonise / impress and suppress / regulate and repress / remember and forget / alive and dead” (Colonial Archive: 13). In poems like this Harkin anatomises colonial surveillance regimes and begins to write a counter-narrative, but this beginning is messy and provisional. Harkin does not clear a passage through the colonial archive for the reader; she re-enacts the experience of confronting the record, with its heart-stopping shocks of finding her loved one negated as:

state child
true to type
of her kind
nice type
on probation
(Colonial Archive: 16)

Harkin’s poems ‘A Basket to Haunt’ and ‘I Weave back to You’ reflect on both her art practice and her poetics, noting the multiple utilities of baskets, as well as their haunting persistence as cultural artefacts. And this underlines Harkin’s overall project as being, partly, a sustained reflection on Aboriginal women’s work: “I weave their word their words from these records/ this shredding of words I tear out for you.// I weave your words your words from these records/ this basket of words I weave back to you” (Colonial Archive: 29).

Both Leane and Harkin have written and spoken about their being at ease living with diachronic whispers from the past. In the interview referred to above, Leane states: “I was raised that way – not to fear the spirits of those past but to listen to them. My Aunty and Nanna said restless spirits from the past should be listened to as they can guide you in the present”. In a parallel sense, Harkin’s abstract to the second chapbook in Archival-Poetics, ‘Haunting’, describes a way of being that is: “open to uncanny recognition in unanticipated places where the spectres of colonialism are acutely felt and known/ alive and troubling/ repeating-unending: this unfinished business conjured to investigate history’s gaps/ silences / absences/ and active erasures” (Haunting: 5). In a more incantatory mode, ‘Spectres of Colonialism’ gives expression to this unknowing sense of familiar spirits that can find no rest:

everywhere shadows
uncanny lament
carry on song-line
flicker imagining
backyard and street (Haunting: 32)

That colonial phantasm, the Aboriginal Problem, was (and is) written in blood, obsessed with blood. In the third chapbook of Archival-Poetics, Blood Memory, Harkin draws on a counter-concept that has been developed in Native American literature. In an interview with Corey Wakeling, Harkin described blood memory as:

a blend of oral history, individual and communal memory, archival research, and literary imagination. This locally and culturally situated writing is one way to respond and make sense of lives lived through landscapes of deep colonialism. A way of tracing our stories back to where we’ve come from, through literary, genealogical storytelling. I can hear the voices of my family and ancestors in these records, and feel them beside me as I sift through my roots and legacies.

‘Whitewash/ Brainwash’, a poem fuelled by loving anger, is blood memory in practice, a re-membering of the lived experience of assimilation. It reads as one of the touchstone poems in Archival-Poetics, as it follows a protagonist who has gained exemption from the exigencies of the South Australia Aborigines Act. Access to various civil rights comes at the cost of denying blood and culture, with the fear of losing exemption never far removed. One way or another the poem’s subject learns family lessons on how to negotiate this monitory regime and stay strong:

like where to hide stories…………..through a fabric threaded and woven with invisible places………..where no-other can see………….or would know where to look………….like how to receive messages………..that keep her heart open…………..and beating strong…………messages whispering on winds…………flying on feathers………… and singing through seasons…………….where no-other can hear…………or would think…………to listen
(Blood Memory: 26)

In this and other poems in Archival-Poetics, Harkin writes with precious, refined urgency.

While docupoetry is long-established poetic practice, it is enjoying a sort of revivalist moment. Contemporary docupoetry is typically investigatory and interrogative in relation to the archive. Aboriginal poets who repurpose the archive can be read as being, to some extent, in tandem with what Catherine E. Walsh has described as the variety of decolonial praxes in global Indigenous literatures:

Indigenous writers and texts question the hegemonies of national literatures, and theoretically and politically challenge the conceptual bases and still colonial frames of literature, letters, and literary studies. But it is also manifest in the way these literatures reconfigure Indigenous subjectivities; reconceptualise modes of interpretation and reading, seeing, and being in and with the world; and negotiate, construct, and advance possibilities and prospects that are intercultural and decolonial in effort, project, and orientation.

In rewriting the colonial archive, neither Leane nor Harkin is averse to moving the reader, but this is only the beginning of their intent. What they are asking of the reader is not to settle on being moved, but to listen, reflect, share and reimagine.

 – Mark Prendergast


Mark Prendergast is a poet and writer living in Preston. His reviews have been published in PN Review (UK), foam:e and Tears in the Fence (UK).

Walk Back Over by Jeanine Leane is available from https://corditebooks.org.au/products/walk-back-over

Archival-Poetics by Natalie Harkin is available from https://vagabondpress.net/products/natalie-harkin-archival-poetics


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