Know Your Country by Kerri Shying, Puncher & Wattmann, 2020, was launched by Keri Glastonbury at the Lass O’Gowrie Hotel, Newcastle on Saturday 28 November 2020. This is s slightly edited version of that speech.
I was stoked when Kerri Shying asked me to launch Know Your Country – beyond the symmetry of being a Keri with one ‘r’, launching a Kerri with two ‘r’s (I think this was originally Kerri or Trisha Pender’s joke?). I also now feel like a Kit Kelen impersonator, as I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed his Kerri Shying launches of yore, especially for her previous Puncher & Wattman chapbook Elevensies (2019).
Kerri Shying is a poet of Chinese and Wiradjuri heritage, and as I grew up in Wagga Wagga on Wiradjuri country, there’s another sense of symmetry, or asymmetry. Chinese Wiradjuri history makes me think of the Wagga of the 19th century—the Chinese market gardens (and the harrow in the Museum of the Riverina), goldfields up in the Snowy Mountains and the opium dens on Fitzmaurice St, which to this day remains a more cosmopolitan ‘hidden’ end of town. Further South of Fitzmaurice St is the Wiradjuri Reserve, a river crossing with a traditional Wiradjuri story, significant for fishing, camping and corroboree. The river flats were a ‘blacks’ camp’ during colonial dispossession and later in the 1930s to the 1950s during the depression, this riverbend became a mixed shanty town known as Tintown. In many ways I can’t know this country other than having played hockey there as kid, at a sports field built on top of the old garbage dump around from the sewerage works (now a rehabilitated wetlands with Indigenous healing pole). It is the place I return to now when I’m in town to listen to the wind in the Casuarinas, the cockatoos. I’ve now also learnt more about this place as a site of violence, both colonial, and more recently in my lifetime, but I have also been to a corroboree (the first since 1870s).
It’s these other kinds of knowings about Country that Kerri’s book makes me, a white reader, glean (beyond ‘settler’ poems and other dominant Australian poetic narratives). It’s a similar experience to reading John Mukky Burke’s Late Murrumbidgee Poems (Cordite, 2020), as I continually gain more understanding of the elisions in my worldview. I’m taking the book’s title as a form of imperative. When Kerri says she’s a poet of Chinese and Wiradjuri heritage, I think of this in the context of Australian history and the mixed marriages and exchanges between two marginalised cultures (and I can map this onto Wagga, a place I, at least contingently, know). I also think of the ‘your’ as a way of the poet suturing in the reader, inviting them to share a point of view even if the ways of knowing are going to remain incommensurable, uneasy: I may be (to use a poem title) at any moment ‘Shanghaied’, as a form of culturally restorative ‘poetic’ justice. (17)
The sumptuous cover painting by the late Mark Berryman, introduces a book which will deal with shadow and light, the domestic and the sublime, with the painter’s attention to brushstroke and blur, paralleling the poet’s attention to phrasing and fragment. Regional NSW is writ large in Know Your Country, though it’s the small things that populate it, such as snails, all part of Shying’s critical ecosystem:
snails play to the cheap seats
they need the cash
a lot of upkeep on the shells
global warming ..yes .. it is a snail issue
thank you very much ..snail-ist bitch
– ‘famous birds and snails’
As someone familiar with regional NSW I get some references in Know Your Country, like ‘Cootamundra tree’, a reference also to the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls’ Home, perhaps home to Kerri’s ‘distant cousins’, and my favourite ending of all the poems:
girl……………crunches at her lozenge
This is one of the collection’s main motifs I think: small ‘sticky’ things and these are poems also to be crunched, not sucked!
The riverbank as a site is prevalent, from the mouth of the Hunter River in Newcastle to other townships on rivers. The way Kerri writes about riverbanks, also reminds me of another Indigenous Australian poet, Ellen Van Neervan. For example, there’s a burlesque to ‘Gearing up for race day’:
you can only. ride .one small horse
with that small ……gold…… arse
unless you want to take it up the riverbank
make some real
race day money
this town turns on
– ‘gearing up for race day’
More pithy deflations of male delusion and the laying bare of sexual transaction are also found in poems like ‘At the Savoy’:
that light fitting
looks…like a busted arse’
In Shying’s Know Your Country, there’s a mix of cosmopolitanism and parochialism in all places, even literal fragments of different places, different cities—with ballast from Height Ashbury (San Francisco) dumped in Newcastle harbour (from the earthquake of 1906). The poems create out of the rubble, like Walter Benjamin writing after WW2.
Shying’s poetry often also evokes a more recent past, sitting on a cusp that has slipped away otherwise un-noticed—eg: before drug ‘dealing’ became drug ‘trafficking’:
time before importance…………..took a hold and
everybody..had to feel ……..so global…….or go home
– ‘crime lords #2’
Hers are the small lived details that don’t make it to Netflix shows, idiosyncratic and local: ‘packets of biscuits, caramel coffee’ while people leave
………………………………………………….their fits on
Like I said, it’s the small things! Perhaps Max (Shying’s chihuahua) is the collection’s mascot:
Don’t go large….. be small
I can imagine him barking that out!
Or from ‘curejoy’:
grow small.. grow
small.. .. in thrall
poverty of spirit
wealth a number
The ‘ballast grounds’ of Shying’s poems are a constant local buffering against bogus ideas of progress and grand historical narrative.
The absence of unnecessary punctuation and capitalisation in Know Your Country is reminiscent of joanne burns, another incisive Australian satirist, and this is a book full of questions without question marks:
can you just exist.………….to exist’
– ‘talented regardless”
It’s epistemological poetry at heart, performing what it’s otherwise about—and is very much a philosophical book, that word ‘know’ again.
I like what Judy Johson says on the book’s cover: “all of the big themes: belonging and exclusion, self realisation, racial politics and love in all its forms are grounded authentically in the particulars of detail” and as Kate Lilley writes, there’s a “live presence…. In these poems of immersion in the ‘sticky path’ of creaturely existence”. It’s a reminder that small things are none-the-less consequential, again from ‘famous birds and snails’:
fame must taste like methamphetamine
crack cocaine and the pink in Neapolitan ice cream
to want to keep it on the tongue
all the while hollowing to a corpse
In Know Your Country Shying invites the reader to follow the weft and weave of her impeccable silverly paths of poetry, a fitting crafty follow up to last year’s Flying Island Pocketbook Knitting Mangrove Roots (2019) and it’s fair to say, after imbibing all these amazing poems, I’m developing a raging Kerri Shying poetry addiction!
– Keri Glastonbury
Keri Glastonbury is an Associate Professor in English and Writing at The University of Newcastle and the author of Newcastle Sonnets (Giramondo, 2018) which was shortlisted in the 2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
Know Your Country is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/product/know-your-country/