More on contemporary Aboriginal poetry: two great publications

Charmaine Papertalk-Green’s “Just like that and other poems” (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2007) is a gruelling little book of poems that packs a punch on all manner of topics from Aboriginal identity, racism and land rights to womanhood, being a single mother, domestic violence, family and love.

“Young One – You Don’t Understand” is a poem structured like a dialogue between a young Aboriginal person asking an elder questions (why so sad? the whites give you all you want, don’t they?) and the elder’s response (you don’t understand, we’re not free, we don’t have our land and our pride).  It’s not only a good way to discuss the importance of land to Aboriginal people but also the differences in opinions and life experiences between people of different generations.  Perhaps the ‘young one’ in this poem has grown up wadjella way (white way, using the Western Australian Noongar word for white), and doesn’t have any memory of a different way of life.  Perhaps the ‘young ones’ in Aboriginal communities do not understand the struggles their forebears have faced to maintain culture and language within the context of colonisation.  There are many issues you could tease out in the classroom with this poem.

“My English” is a great piece which lists some examples of Aboriginal English: “That becomes dat, Apple becomes happle”.  It speaks to me because some of the examples reflect the way some of my family members speak, and I have a way of slipping into this vernacular when I go home to Dubbo.  The poem highlights the bilingualism many Aboriginal people negotiate – we speak “white” or “black” depending on the context, and this also applies to urban Aborigines who may not have their traditional language but speak some form of Aboriginal English when among their community.

In his introduction to this collection of poems, poet John Kinsella compares Papertalk-Green’s writing to Queensland Aboriginal poet Lionel Fogarty’s in the way in which they use and adapt English, the language of the coloniser, to assert Aboriginal culture and heritage.  Fogarty’s work can be seen at

Ngarla songs” by Alexander Brown and Brian Geytenbeek (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2004) is an important publication put together with the Wangka Waya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre which showcases anecdotal songs passed down through the generations of the Ngarla people from the top of WA (whose country stretches from Port Hedland on the Indian Ocean 150km east and 50km inland along the De Grey River).  The book is set out with the Aboriginal language song on the left and the English translation on the right side of the page.  The songs document aspects of traditional culture and daily life as well as contact with colonisers and other seafarers (e.g. “Japanese Pearling Fleet”, a poem composed before World War Two).  It gives a fascinating insight into the history of the Pilbara region, infused with the Ngarla peoples’ extensive knowledge of country.