Friday, April 27, 2012

I Wish I'd Written This

We have just had Anzac Day in Australia, when we remember those of our people who fell in wars, and celebrate those who returned. Leading up to it, there has been a 10-minute segment on national TV every night, about indigenous people who served in our armed forces. One was a young woman called Kathleen Ruska. When she married, she became Kath Walker, a name she made famous; later she rejected a name which came from white colonialism, to embrace the tribal name by which she became even more famous: Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920 –1993). 

She wrote several poems I’d like to have written, this one most of all (which I once had the pleasure of hearing her read):

We Are Going 
For Grannie Coolwell

They came into the little town
A semi-naked band subdued and silent,
All that remained of their tribe.
They came here to the place of their old bora ground
Where now the many white men hurry about like ants.
Notice of estate agent reads: 'Rubbish May Be Tipped Here'.
Now it half covers the traces of the old bora ring.
They sit and are confused, they cannot say their thoughts:
'We are as strangers here now, but the white tribe are the strangers.
We belong here, we are of the old ways.
We are the corroboree and the bora ground,
We are the old sacred ceremonies, the laws of the elders.
We are the wonder tales of Dream Time, the tribal legends told.
We are the past, the hunts and the laughing games, the wandering camp fires.
We are the lightning bolt over Gaphembah Hill
Quick and terrible,
And the Thunder after him, that loud fellow.
We are the quiet daybreak paling the dark lagoon.
We are the shadow-ghosts creeping back as the camp fires burn low.
We are nature and the past, all the old ways
Gone now and scattered.
The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.
The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place.
The bora ring is gone.
The corroboree is gone.
And we are going.'

The first (but by no means the last) Australian Aboriginal poet to be published, she described her own work as ‘pure propaganda’ and ‘not the best but the best selling‘. I think she sold herself short. When this particular piece was first published, some critics said it wasn’t poetic enough! It was a kind of poetry we weren’t used to then, but has stood the test of time.

She was also known as an activist for her people. The back cover blurb of one of her books, My People, says: ‘... when her poetry was first published in the sixties, it began a new phase in the communication between peoples in Australia. For the first time a Black Australian had analysed and judged white Australians as well as her own people.’ 

She wrote powerfully for Reconciliation too, but many of her dreams of justice and harmony have yet to be realised. 

You can read many of her poems here, where you can also find details of her life. A few poems are available for download here, and there is also a video clip.  I like the brief account of her life here, because it speaks of her relationship to her birth country.

Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).


Further to last week’s non-post, things in my personal life are almost resolved — for the best in practical if not emotional terms. You can find some anguished poems about it at my Passionate Crone blog, and a prose account here.


  1. Rosemary, thank you so much for bringing this wonderful poet activist to our attention. She makes me think of two films I love about Autralian history, and the old ways. One is Rabbit Proof Fence, about the removal of aborigine children from their families, and how two sisters ran away and walked the thousand miles home - twice! I'm sure you know it, but other readers might not. True story. The other is Julian Lennon's Whaledreaming, about aboriginal elders from around the world invited to sing the whales into the bay, as in old times, at a special spot in Australia. Absolutely glorious.

    I was worrying about you all week and am now going to read your posts about what you have been through. Am glad things are improved, but imagine the emotions are rattled. Take good care of yourself, kiddo.

  2. Oh and of course Whale Rider is another great film about the old ways.

    1. Yes, Sherry, Rabbit Proof Fence is wonderful, and I love Whale Rider (which is New Zealand). Haven't seen Whaledreaming; will look out for it.

  3. Rosemary, this was a most interesting post. She sounds like a poet of passion, and I enjoyed reading her poem and reading your thoughts. Glad things are better for you at home now. (And I must say I have seen Rabbit Proof Fence as well.)

  4. Thank you, for this, I really enjoy being introduced to poets that I might not ever cross paths with here!

  5. I like the way the title resonates throughout the whole poem, but we need to wait for that final, devastating line for the clinch. I also like the discord between the implied past tense of "going" - as in gone, and the present of "are".

  6. Thank you Rosemary! Wow, the ending really said so much! I am in awe of her gift~


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